At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Lawrence, Little Waldingfield

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Little Waldingfield

north porch west doorway south porch


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The deep south of Suffolk is one of East Anglia's loveliest areas. The hills and valleys ripple above the valley of the Stour, and in them hide the county's most beautiful villages. Boxford and Kersey are world-famous, but there are others in the area between Sudbury and Hadleigh that are nearly as lovely but little-known. Little Waldingfield is one such place, a quiet, self-contained place on the Sudbury to Lavenham road, not far from its larger neighbour. Curiously, the churches of both villages are dedicated to St Lawrence, a confusion, perhaps, of the 18th century antiquarians who in the main restored the medieval dedications which had fallen from use by reference to old documents.

The classic Suffolk parish church is one rebuilt on a grand scale in the 15th century with aisles and a clerestory. The biggest and best of Suffolk's churches are like this. And so is Little Waldingfield, except that here the rebuilding was on a smaller, more intimate scale. On the face of it, the church bears similarities to the great ship of St Peter and St Paul at Clare, especially with the tall roodstair turrets at the east end of the nave. The proportions of nave windows to clerestory windows recall Long Melford, but the odd thing at Little Waldingfield is that the chancel was never rebuilt, and looks rather domestic next to the late medieval glories of the rest of the building. Its steeply pitched roof is tiled in red, making it look as if a house were attached to the east end of the church. A gorgeous, ramshackle old porch fronts the south entrance. Around the back is the exotic surprise of a spired Tudor red brick porch, now blocked off to form a vestry. All in all, the building has an air of faded beauty, a building which has quietly seen out the centuries.

You step into an interior which fulfils the promise of the exterior delights. It is as if St Lawrence, in its quiet backwater, was forgotten by the restorers who scoured nearby Lavenham, Long Melford and Great Waldingfield. Here, there is a smell of age and damp, the old stonework of the arcades and floors a lingering memory of the days when they were new, as is the font, probably a bit earlier than the church around it, perhaps contemporary with the tower in the 14th century. Four of its panels depict monks sitting at benches and going about their business.

font: seated cleric with an open book on a clothed stand (15th Century) font: seated cleric with a lectern and open book (15th Century)
font: seated cleric with an open book (15th Century) font: seated cleric with a lectern and open book (15th Century)

Up in the roof of the south aisle, a green man watches you carefully. Turning east, you can see that the nave of Little Waldingfield church is a text book example of a late medieval structure, with aisles and clerestories on both sides, the eyes drawn upwards in the intention of Perpendicular architecture. The quiet simplicity of the chancel with its clear-glassed five-light window enhances this impression. This simplicity extends into the nave, and you feel that there is nothing unnecessary, nothing superfluous, no clutter to inhibit the ghosts of medieval and early modern Little Waldingfield. This is still their church as much as ours.

You can meet some of them in the north aisle. Here are brass figures of early 16th century Waldingfielders. They would have seen this church when it was complete, as it is now, albeit without the later furnishings. Robert and Mary Appleton died in 1526. This was the year that the artist Hans Holbein arrived in England. His portrait of Henry VIII that year shows a grand patriarch at the height of his powers, but also, perhaps, one can detect a thoughtfulness, a troubled brow. The following year, 1527, Henry would apply for the annulment of his marriage, a struggle leading ultimately to the break with Rome and the establishment of triumphal protestantism in England. By 1544, when the brass to John Wyncoll in his doublet was installed, this process was already well under way. The violence of the ensuing years means that only tiny fragments survive of the stained glass that once filled these windows - two quarters of a tonsured Saint, a crowned woman, another tonsured man.

fragments, 15th Century: a tonsured saintly cleric fragments, 15th Century: crowned woman and bald man

A reminder of happier and less turbulent times in the parish is the grandest brass of all, the clothier John Colman in 1506, whose family may well have paid for the rebuilding of the church. Beneath him, his six sons and seven daughters stand in pious grief. What would the next half century mean to them, I wonder?

The medieval churches of England are, above all else, a communion, a touchstone down the long generations of the people who were born, lived and died in their parishes. Some of them were rich and important like the Appletons, Wyncolls and Colmans. Future generations would leave their mark behind in the form of charity, recorded on the benefaction boards in the north aisle, or in the memorials around the walls. But most are lost to us, with not even headstones in the graveyard recording their brief lives. To stand in a church like St Lawrence is to sense them briefly, a resonance in the air perhaps, a movement out of sight, an echo almost heard. As the Church of England fades from public sight, how much more important it becomes that these buildings survive to remind us of who we are, and where we have come from. Our medieval churches were always more than mere worship spaces.

Simon Knott, July 2019

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looking east

looking east chancel south aisle chapel font
John Wyncoll, clothier, 1543 hic jacet Johannes Wyncoll, clothier John Wyncoll, clothier, 1543
John Colman, 1506 St Stephen, St James and St Laurence (Clayton & Bell, 1895) Stanley Leech Wade as St George (died from wounds at Rouen, June 1917) Stanley Leech Wade as St George (died from wounds at Rouen, June 1917) flanked by Jonathan and David
south aisle roof: green man south aisle roof: beast with its tongue out

the Little Waldingfield dead

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