St Matthew, Ipswich
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|In the 1960s, Ipswich went mad.
Town planners foresaw a rise in the town's population
towards half a million people, and so with natural
excitement they decided to cross and encircle the
existing town centre with a network of dual carriageways
lined with office blocks. They didn't get very far with
their plans before the men in white coats came and took
them away, releasing them into the wild somewhere like
Croydon or Wolverhampton, but the towering Civic Centre,
the brutalist police station and the Civic Drive road
system were left as evidence of their ambitions. The
Civic Centre and the police station, both which stood
directly opposite this church, have since been
demolished, but the four lane Civic Drive still cuts
across what was the Mount residential area, the little
terraces all demolished to make way for the 20th century,
and separates St Matthew from the rest of the town
Today, the Ipswich plan designates this whole area for residential use, and the modern civil servants have moved down to the river. This new plan, if it emerges, can only serve the church well, sitting beside Civic Drive as it does. The church 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 requires an effort to find it and get across to it if you are a visitor. Because of this, many people don't realise that the church contains a treasure of national importance. This is the early 16th Century font, which is quite unlike any other in Suffolk, and is perhaps unique in England.
must once have been quite a small building, but events
over the centuries have enlarged into the church we see
today. The core is 15th Century, including the lower part
of the tower. The 19th Century expansion was substantial,
made necessary by the proximity of the Ipswich Barracks,
for this became the Garrison church. This explains the
size of the aisles which are as wide as the nave, and
were intended to increase capacity as much as to allow
for the revival of processions. The chancel was also
rebuilt, but retained its medieval roof.
The late Dr John Blatchly thought that this last panel of the Mother of God enthroned was intended as a representation of Catherine of Aragon and her husband Henry VIII. The evidence for this is circumstantial, but there is no doubt that this font is an artifact of the ongoing early 16th Century drama which would eventually result in the English Reformation. John Blatchly's research showed that this font was paid for and installed by the rector of St Matthew, one John Bailey, to celebrate the Miracle of the Maid of Ipswich, which occured in this very parish in 1516 and was held in renown all over England in the few short years left before the Reformation intervened. The popularity of the Miracle, in which Joan, a young Ipswich girl, has a near-death encounter and experiences visions of the Virgin Mary, was widely used by the Catholic Church as a buttress against the murmurings of reformers.
In their book The Miracles of Lady Lane, John Blatchly and Diarmaid MacCulloch give a fascinating and often convoluted account of the battles between Bailey and a much more significant local figure, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Ipswich was Wolsey's power base, and he attempted to consolidate his power by taking control of the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace of Ipswich which just happened to be in the parish of St Matthew, a hundred yards or so to the east of this church. The shrine was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in England. Bailey's celebration of the Miracle was partly a way of competing with Wolsey for fame and influence in the town, but also of increasing his own hold on control of the Shrine. Those who visited the shrine would also come to St Matthew and tell their bedes around the panels of the font. The devotion to Our Lady of Grace and the celebration of the Miracle of the Maid of Ipswich would become intertwined. Church and shrine would become inseparable parts of the same pilgrim experience. Between 1517 and 1522, both Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon made journeys to the shrine, set beside the Westgate in the parish of St Matthew. They probably visited the church as well. Other visitors included the the future saint Thomas More, and of course Wolsey himself. But in 1525 Bailey died and left the way open for the Cardinal, who in his turn would completely over-reach himself and fall in his own way just five years later. Henry's divorce from Catherine would entail a break with Rome and over the next thirty years the birth of a new Church of England. It is the kind of thing Trollope would have written about if he had been around in the 16th Century.
Blatchly and MacCulloch's book is memorable as a picture of the incredible religious fervour in Ipswich in the early years of the 16th Century, a tale of near-hysterical enthusiasms that would spill over into passion and violence. Blatchly notes that the sequence of at least some of the Marian images on the font was replicated by a sequence of inns down the mile of Ipswich's main street, now the line of Carr Street, Tavern Street and Westgate Street, which led to the shrine. One of the inns, the Salutation (ie, Annunciation) at the start of Carr Street survives in business under the same name to this day. But in time of course Ipswich would become well-known as the most puritan of towns in the most puritan of England's regions.
Remarkably, two of the four figures around the base are probably intended as Joan, the Maid of Ipswich, and John Bailey the Rector himself.
Most guide books describe the
panels of the font as the five Joyful Mysteries of the
Rosary. In fact, this is technically not the case,
although certainly the font was intended for use in
rosary meditations. 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 as an
expression of communal piety. Many 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 one among
several in common usage. Praying with the rosary had been
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 of the Blessed Virgin. Most sequences were of
five meditations. In time, the Joyful Mysteries would
come to be Mary's earthly experiences, and the Glorious
Mysteries her heavenly ones.
Within thirty years of this font being installed here, injunctions against images proscribed its panels. Most likely it was plastered over, for the parish would still need a font. The bowl still shows traces of plaster today.
The font is not quite the only
medieval survival here, for the north aisle also retains
panels from the rood screen, built into a 19th century
screen. You might miss these, because ordinarily 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,
which may be so, in which case these may besurviving
panels of the screen to the chantry altar of the guild of
Erasmus, which was established here.
Simon Knott, August 2020
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