At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, Laxfield

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


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Suffolk's most unusual 15th century tower.

Cut short: the upper storey now lost.

Curious 'carpenter gothic' east end.

Looking west - the font in its setting.

Looking east.

The 1820s chancel.


East window by Frances Skeat.

Plaster royal arms of Queen Anne.

Scholars' pews in the north-west corner.

Curious reading desk.


A village carpenter, 17th century. In Italy, they had a renaissance.


Big city setting, Suffolk values.

This village church has a surprisingly urban setting, with its railings onto the wide main street, the shop on one side, the pub on the other, and the former guildhall opposite. This could easily be a quiet part of a former medieval city; Norwich or Bristol, perhaps. That Laxfield is very much off the beaten track makes it doubly surprising.

I first arrived here on a day in mid-Summer about five years ago. I had already cycled 40 miles, with the prospect of another 30 ahead before home, and happily collapsed in the graveyard with a bottle of water from the shop. Jackdaws wheeled above me, putting me in mind of Alnwick, or Warkworth. It was a muggy day, and their sound was all I could hear.

I cycled through the village several times over the next few years, usually without stopping, but when I came to the end of my journey through all of Suffolk's churches at the close of 2003 I made a list of priorities for revisits. Laxfield was a high priority, largely because of a single wonderful art object it contains, which I'll come to in a moment. I came back on a freezing day in mid-February 2004, quite a contrast with my first proper visit.

The tower is a little unusual for Suffolk, in that it is faced in stone; knapped flint has been used only sparingly. Otherwise, it is very reminiscent of Eye, and Mortlock suggests this might be because Eye priory held the living here; although, as Simon Cotton has pointed out, this tower is a little older than Eye's. Shields of the Wingfields bear witness to the involvement of that most influential of families in this part of Suffolk. The nave is perhaps the work of a century earlier than the tower, and the curious porch is a result of the removal of the upper storey some time after the Reformation.

As if the stonework of the tower were not singular enough, the rebuilding of the east end of the nave and of the entire chancel was carried out in white brick in the 1820s. This is too early for the influence of the Oxford Movement to have returned the chancel to a fully sacramental purpose, so this may explain the functional feel. However, in these days of quiet spirituality and plain liturgy, it is rather fitting.

Suffolk legend has it that William Dowsing, the great iconoclast, is buried in this church. There is no evidence for this; he was born here, but spent most of his life at Coddenham and Stratford St Mary in the south of the county. However, he was definitely here on one occasion; it was Wednesday, 17 July 1644, almost exactly 355 years to the day before my first visit. Curiously, his visit was in complete isolation from the rest of his tour around Suffolk and Cambrideshire. Perhaps he was in the area for other reasons, connected with land he owned in the parish.

He found rather more at Laxfield to remove than he had elsewhere: angels and crosses on the roof and porch, images in stained glass, possibly a stone carving or two, possibly two bench ends of evangelistic symbols, and brass inscriptions indicative of Catholic practice. He also ordered the chancel steps to be levelled. These had been recently uplifted as part of the Laudian reforms, which the Puritans thought suspiciously Catholic. They had Laud beheaded, six months after Dowsing's visit here, although these two facts are, presumably, unconnected. Parliamentary visitor William Dowsing entrusted the work here to his nephew William Dowsing of the village, one of the numerous Dowsings in Laxfield (there is still a Dowsing Farm in the neighbourhood). This may be where the legend of his burial here was born; there are several Dowsing graves in the church, including one to this nephew.

Dowsing is often accused of being solely responsible for the wrecking of Suffolk's churches, which, quite plainly, he wasn't. The great holocaust of Suffolk church interiors had been carried out a century earlier, by Anglican vandals in the last years of Henry VIII, and under the thankfully brief fundamentalist regime of the boy-king Edward VI. This was when altars and statues were smashed, rood-lofts and images torn down, vestments and mass-books thrown on to bonfires, gold and silver plate looted and melted down. Much of this seems to have happened in a drunken frenzy.

Dowsing's was a mopping-up operation, checking for 'that which was not formerly removed'. His hit-list was images in stained glass (these had survived the Anglican reformers, because of the sheer inconvenience of replacing them), angels on the roof beams, crosses and statues in inaccessible places, and brass inscriptions referring to the cult of the dead. Occasionally, he circumscribed a font, as at Hacheston.

This is interesting, because in three of the Suffolk churches he visited, Badingham, Cratfield and here, at Laxfield, there survive three of the finest seven sacrament fonts in the kingdom. These fonts are the height of Catholic imagery, and were produced at the highest moment of Catholic popularity and practice in the middle of the 15th century. Why did Dowsing not destroy them? Perhaps he felt that simply mutilating them was enough, although he does not mention doing this, and there is some evidence that this had occured 100 years before. Perhaps he did not think them superstitious, in the sense that worship was unlikely to be offered to them. This was probably how the font cover at Ufford survived, presuming the statuettes had been removed before he got there. Most likely of all, they were hammered flush, and plastered over, a century before Dowsing's visit.

But let us not delay any longer, let us enter this great church. The first impression will be of its sheer interior size; considering that there is no clerestory, this is a mighty space. The roof spans 36 feet, one of the widest in Suffolk.

Before us is the Seven Sacraments font. What is there to say about it? It is a breath-taking object. As I often say, if this was in the V&A you would travel to see it. It is set at the centre of a mighty cross, and the gaps between the arms of the cross are intended for priest and baptismal party. The bowl has no shaft; it is set directly on the base.

The seven sacraments are set in arcades; the north-east panel shows the baptism of Christ, and then the others, in clockwise order, are matrimony, baptism, ordination, confirmation, mass, confession and last rites. It is common for the odd-panel-out to face east or west, so this bowl may have been moved at some point. You can see all the faces below; hover to read, and then click on them to enlarge them.

That font in full.
Baptism Baptism of Christ Confirmation Last Rites
Mass Matrimony Ordination Penance

The reliefs are not as intricate as at Cratfield, as characterful as Badingham, Great Glemham or Denston, as mysterious as Westhall; but they are very fine, and probably have more in common with Westhall than the others. Simon Cotton tells me that will evidence dates this font to the 1460s.

The font may distract you from the rest of the building, but there is much here of interest. Another unusual feature of the church is the banked sets of box seats in the north-west and south-west corners of the nave. You can see something similar on the other side of Suffolk at Kedington. They were intended for school children, and you can still make out the labels on them.

There are good benches from a century or so either side of the Reformation, although not much survives of medieval evidence. Traces of paint at the east end of the mighty roof suggest that there was once a canopy of honour to the rood here; unlike nearby Metfield, it was painted directly onto the beams. Above the west door there is an unusual plaster royal arms of Queen Anne. There is also a good 20th century east window; Mortlock tells us it is by Frances Skeat.

Don't leave without examining the extraordinary reading desk in front of the pulpit. It must date from the late 17th or early 18th centuries, but the two supporting figures are exotic in the extreme. It is tempting to think of them as pagan, but perhaps they are the work of a local carver who had visited the south seas on a trading ship in his youth, and had never forgotten it.

This is a grand church, if slightly spartan, and the good people of the parish do not trade off the name of William Dowsing. But then, who would?

Don't forget to visit the fine museum in the Guildhall if you are here in Summer. Otherwise, you'll have to make do with the Royal Oak, which has a rather majestic oak of its own standing outside. Railway trivia fans might also note that this village was the final stop on the 'Middy', the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway line, which connected to the rest of the world at Haughley, near Stowmarket. Civilisation, however, has not disturbed Laxfield much since the 1950s.


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