At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Ixworth

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


Hover to read captions, click to see enlarged images:

The grand east window. I rather like it.

1980 meeting room beneath the tower

The north door, with the heavy memorials above.

The curious and noteworthy Coddington memorial

The modern lady chapel, once the chapel of St James

The font, with carvings of Thome Vyal's tools



Ixworth is one of those small towns, or large villages, that Suffolk seems to do so well. Especially since the bypass took the A1088 Stowmarket to Thetford road away from the village high street, it has the pleasant air of a relatively self-sufficient place, with a shop, a post-office, a decent pub, and that pre-requisite of modern rural civilisation, a ladies' hairdresser. There's a super little water mill on the road to Pakenham. Ixworth is not to be confused with Ixworth Thorpe, a tiny hamlet a mile or two to the north, with a stunning little thatched church; or, indeed, with Ickworth, home of the Marquis of Bristol, some ten miles to the south-west.

In my opinion, any decent large village or small town should also have a second-hand bookshop. Ixworth doesn't, but St Mary has gone some way to solving this, as we shall see.

The church is immediately beside the High Street, but concealed from it by a row of shops and houses, so that you might easily drive past without noticing. A short driveway leads into a small churchyard, out of which rises a pretty big church, apparently all built on the eve of the Reformation.

This is pretty much the case, since the late 15th and early 16th century replaced everything except the porch and the chancel; there are even dates for the completion of the tower. That other great age of faith, the late 19th century, replaced the chancel. All pieces of the ensemble are pretty typical of their ages.

Look west of the church, and you can see the site of the former Ixworth Priory. Most of this has now gone, but the vaulted undercroft has been retained as part of the current house on the site. There are more ruins visible from the High Street further west.

You step into the feel of a thoroughly urban church, as at Yoxford. This is partly a result of the rather mediocre 1855 restoration, with its sombre benches, but is also to do with the size of St Mary, and its serious east window. With the aisles, the nave feels as wide as it is long. Towards the west, the space beneath the tower has been converted into a meeting room, all finished rather well in the early 1980s manner. I was glad that I had Mortlock with me, because he told me about something rather fascinating I'd find inside the meeting room, if I had been able to get in (it was locked). Several of the dedicatory tiles that were set in the buttresses of the newly-finished tower in the 16th century have been reset here.

One of them is to a local man called Thome Vyal. I could just make it out through the glass door. Mortlock tells us that his will was proved in 1472, and he gave four pounds to the steeple. The interesting thing about it is that we know Vyal was a carpenter, so he probably worked in this church, where no woodwork of the period survives; but perhaps also at nearby Ixworth Thorpe, where much does. Additionally, many of the churches round about here are famous for their bench ends. Even more fascinating is the fact that the font here clearly includes carpentry tools among the symbols on the shields. Perhaps this suggests that Ixworth was once a centre of excellence for woodcarving, and one wonders what we might have found here before the Victorian restoration.

Beside the meeting room is one of the reasons I like this church so much, and by default, Ixworth itself. It is the biggest second-hand book stall you'll find in any Suffolk church. How delightful, to pick out the treasures, and then pay a donation! In the back of the car, we had several boxes of children's books on their way to a charity shop, and we were happy to drop them off here instead. I hope the parish makes some money out of them.

The sombreness of the nave is barely enlightened by the clerestory, and isn't helped by several heavy memorials around the north doorway. But the lady chapel at the end of the north aisle is rather sweet. In medieval times, it was the chapel of the guild of St James, says Mortlock. In any case, there is plenty of evidence of the busy life of the parish, so the gloom doesn't weigh you down too much.

The base of the roodscreen survives, and you step up through it into the 19th century chancel. Now, this is really serious - the great east window positively frowns on you. Up in the sanctuary, the Victorians reset the perky tomb of Richard Coddington. Brasses of Coddington and his wife are set within a semi-circular relief, and the tomb chest beneath glows with heraldry. You can see an image of it by clicking the fourth picture on the left. Once again, Mortlock was invaluable, because there is a rather good story behind it.

Coddington was not from Suffolk at all, and could never have expected to end up buried here. However, when the monasteries were supressed in the 1530s, Henry VIII offered the estate and lands of Ixworth Priory to Coddington in exchange for the village he owned near Ewell in Surrey. This was good business for Coddington, but unfortunate for the villagers of the little settlement of Cuddington, because Henry had their houses and church erased from the map. In their place, he built the massive pile of Nonesuch Palace, the largest, grandest and most highly decorated single construction in England during the course of the 16th century. It was furnished with all the great riches that continental Europe had to offer. It was surrounded by amazing parklands, woodlands and rides. I suppose that it is good to know that the irreplaceable treasures of the English medieval church weren't all frittered away on pointless and fruitless sieges of French coastal towns.

Nonesuch Palace no longer exists; when the English royal family could no longer keep itself in the manner to which it had become accustomed, the house was demolished for building materials. This seems to have taken a considerable time; destruction began in the 1680s, but at least one of the towers was still standing in the early 18th century. Oliver Cromwell himself had overseen the selling off of the contents during the Commonwealth, and his parliament had ordered the cutting down of most of the trees for shipbuilding. Hardly a memory survives today.

But Richard Coddington lies here, probably still feeling quietly pleased with himself.




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