At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Matthew, Ipswich

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


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a familiar Ipswich scene

oh dear - from the north-east

gorgeous 19th century elaboration of the parapets

the amazing font

looking east

Pennings en famille


St Matthew: pastoral

In the 1960s, Ipswich went mad. Town planners devised a scheme whereby the population would rise towards half a million, and the existing town centre woud be encircled and crossed by urban motorways. They didn't get very far before the men in white coats came and took them away, releasing them into the wild somewhere like Croydon or Coventry; but the towering Civic Centre, the brutalist police station and courts buildings survive as evidence of their ambitions, and the four lane Civic Drive cuts across what was the Mount residential area, the little terraces all demolished to make way for the 20th century.

Now, the Civic centre, the courts and police station are all themselves to be demolished. The new Ipswich plan designates this whole area for residential use, and the civil servants have all moved down to the river. This new plan, if it emerges, can only serve St Matthew well, sitting beside Civic Drive as it does, and cut off from the town centre by it.

St Matthew is, perhaps, less well-known than the other working town centre churches. Partly, this is because it is the only one of them which is kept locked, but also because it is such an effort to get to if you are a visitor. Because of this, many people don't realise that it contains a treasure of national importance. It is the font, which is quite unlike any other in Suffolk.

Before we come to it, the church building itself is worth examining. This must once have been quite a small church, but is now a big one. Its core is 15th century, including the lower part of the tower. Nothing else is. Its 19th century expansion can be explained by the proximity of the Ipswich Barracks, for this became the Garrison church. This resulted in the huge aisles, as wide as the nave. The chancel was also rebuilt, but retaining its medieval roof.

Until 1970, the church was hemmed in to the east, but the construction of Civic Drive opened up this view, which isn't a particularly good one, particularly from the north east. It somes as a surprise to find the west end on Portman Road quite so pastoral, but the hidden graveyard surrounding the tower is quite beautiful, and would once have been the familiar view. Ancestor hunters will be horrified to learn that the greater part of the graveyard was built over in the 1960s, with the construction of a church school to the south. All those graves are under the playground now. The part of the graveyard to the east fell foul of the road, and those immediately beyond the chancel were turned into a garden, now the preserve of homeless drinkers. A footpath runs along the north side, which will take you through to the main entrance, the west door, under the tower. You step into a broadly Victorian interior, and find the font in the north aisle.

East Anglia is famous for its Seven Sacrament fonts, 13 of which are in Suffolk. These show the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, and are rare survivals; so much Catholic iconography was destroyed by the Protestant reformers of the 16th century, and the Puritans of the 17th century.

Here at St Matthew, we find an even rarer survival of England's Catholic past; a series of images of events associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Before describing it, I have to make the point that this really is one of the dozen most important and significant medieval art survivals in Suffolk, and one of the finest 15th century fonts in England. There is nothing as good as this in the Victorian and Albert Museum, or in the British Museum. I make this point simply because the lovely lady who showed us around did not seem to realise quite how important the font was, and gave the impression that the parish, though they care for it lovingly, also did not realise what a treasure, what a jewel, they had on the premises.

Of the eight panels, two bear elaborate fleurons, but five of them depict events in the story of Mary, mother of Jesus. These five reliefs, and a sixth of the Baptism of Christ, are amazing art objects. They show the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin, The Adoration of the Magi, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, the Coronation of the Queen of Heaven, and the Mother of God Enthroned.

Baptism of Christ (note fleuron on panel to left) Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Adoration of the Magi
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin The Mother of God enthroned

The guide books all describe these as the five Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. In fact, this is technically not the case.

It should be explained for those who do not know that the rosary is a sequence of meditative prayers common to most Christian traditions. The meditations reflect on events in the lives of Christ and his mother. A string of beads is used to keep count of the prayers said during each meditation. Pictures are often used, like these on the font, to focus the meditation. That is one of the reasons why this font was made.

In the western tradition, the rosary consists of three sequences of five meditations each. These meditations are known as 'mysteries', in the old sense of the word meaning a divine revelation. The first sequence is of the Joyful Mysteries relating to the life of Christ, the second is of the Sorrowful Mysteries relating to the Passion of Christ, and the third is of the Glorious Mysteries, relating to the Resurrection and events of the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse.

The Annunciation certainly is one of the Joyful Mysteries, but the Assumption and the Coronation are Glorious Mysteries, and the other two events aren't in any of the three Mystery series. However, at the time this font was produced, the rosary meditation was not as formulaic as it would become in the 18th and 19th centuries. We know that the rosary was a hugely popular devotion in medieval England, and that a persons 'bedes' were their most valued possession. They played a major part in personal devotion, but were also important as a way of participating in the liturgy, and an expression of communal piety.

Most pre-Reformation memorials show people holding their rosary beads. However, what we now think of as the Rosary sequence only dates from the 14th century or so, and was only one among many - the so-called Dominican Rosary, which is now the predominant meditation. The rosary was greatly popularised in England by St Thomas of Canterbury in the 12th century, who devised a series of seven joyful mysteries, including the Adoration of the Magi and the Assumption. Most sequences were of five meditations, and we must presume that this is what we find here. In time, the Joyful Mysteries would come to be Mary's earthly experiences, and the Glorious Mysteries her heavenly ones.

Because personal devotion was considered a diversion from congregational worship, and Marian devotion was thought superstitious, the rosary was completely anathematised by the 16th century Protestant reformers, and attempts were made to write it out of history, by destroying images of it. Within eighty years of this font being produced, possession of rosary beads was punishable by death in England.

So we need to take pause for a moment here, to consider why this font is so special; to realise that we are in the presence of a major medieval folk art survival of great importance.

The survival of an image of the Assumption is particularly interesting. We still have much surviving evidence of religious life in England before the Church of England came along, but it does not really reveal to us the relative significance of different devotions, simply because some of the major cults and their images - St Thomas of Canterbury, for instance - were ruthlessly rooted out and destroyed. The Assumption is another case in point. 15th and early 16th century wills and bequests reveal a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin, particularly to the feast of the Assumption, which is celebrated on August 15th.

This is at the height of the harvest, of course, and it is not difficult to see the connection between this feast and the culmination of the farming year, or the importance to farmworkers of a festival at this time. More than 200 Suffolk parish churches were dedicated to the Assumption. When the dedications of Anglican churches were restored in the 19th century, after several centuries of disuse, these generally became 'St Mary', although some have been restored correctly since, notably Ufford. The Church of England, of course, does not recognise the doctrine of the Assumption.

And yet, very little material evidence survives of this great and popular devotion. The most common survivals are inscriptions and Marian symbols on towers; for example, at Hinderclay, Helmingham and Stonham Parva. Actual images of the Assumption are much rarer.

The conventional iconography of the Assumption had been established by the 15th century, and can be seen on roof bosses at several Cathedrals; Norwich, York and Canterbury, for instance. It is rarer in parish churches, and this is the only survival I know of in the whole of Suffolk.

Of equal significance are the other images, of course; extraordinary survivals. And why the Baptism of Christ? In fact, this is the most common 'odd panel out' on the Seven Sacrament fonts, and shows us the significance of 'anointing to serve' in the medieval church. It is here that Christ gets his commission; as we do too, at our own Baptism.

The medieval church didn't see Baptism as a mere naming ceremony, or welcoming ceremony, as so many people seem to do today. To stand in the presence of this document of lost Catholic England is a moving experience. We are lucky here that the parish is such a good custodian, for this is a neat, bright, and well-kept church, with pride obviously taken in its care.

guild of erasmus screen 15th century parishioners

The north aisle also retains panels from the rood screen, built into a 19th century screen.You might miss these, because chairs are stacked against them. Three of the panels show bishops, and the other two show cheering crowds of seven and nine people respectively. I do not think that these can be in their original configuration. Roy Tricker thought that the crowds were portraits of parishioners, but I have seen elsewhere a suggestion that this may have been the screen to the chantry altar of the guild of Erasmus, which was established here.

There is clear evidence of the location of at least one nave altar, since a fine squint kicks in from the north aisle. There are two good 17th century wall memorials in the chancel, the best being to Anthony Penning and his wife, depicting their childre weeping, some holding skulls to show that they pre-deceased their parents.

Much of the 19th century woodwork is from the workshops of two major 19th century Ipswich carpenters, Henry Ringham and John Corder. Ringham's work can be found in several Suffolk churches, most notably St Mary le Tower and Great Bealings, while Corder was an architect responsible for several restorations, including Swilland. Both have Ipswich roads named after them.

There is a frankly functional modern screen, with a curious Anglo-catholic style rood, which looks most out of place, for St Matthew is very much in the evangelical tradition. Their lively services are famous in Ipswich, and although this is a large, populous parish, people travel from all over to attend. In the 1960s, the church adopted the slogan 'The Church at the Centre' to go with the newly exposed position. It has successfully planted itself into the challenging Triangle housing estate, where the Triangle Church is also central to estate life.


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