At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Mendlesham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Mendlesham Mendlesham north porch

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It was a delight to come back to Mendlesham in the spring of 2022, a church I had known well back at the start of the century, but I was surprised to note that it was my first visit for more than ten years. The village once had the status of a market town, and it is still a relatively large place set just off of the main road between Ipswich and Norwich. This splendid medieval statement church sits at its centre. As Pevsner observes, the dominant impression on approaching is Perpendicular, which is to say the end of the medieval period. This impression is largely due to the tower, the imposing west side of which is flush against the road, but in fact much here is of the 13th Century, as the arcades inside will show. A good number of later bequests survive that tell us something of the story of the church, the earliest of which, in 1375, saw Thomas de Wyrlyngwoorth leaving money to the building of the tower. It would appear that this did not happen, for although there followed a considerable number of bequests for furnishings, it was not until 1489 that Thomas Maungere left money to the new steeple (steeple in this context meaning a tower rather than a spire). This time work seems to have begun, for there followed a succession of further bequests transcribed by Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton. In 1490 Robert Goodwyn left money to the new steple, in 1491 John Donkin bequeathed an ox to the new tower, and so on. By 1515 and 1516 money was being left to the glassinge of the steple and for making the roof, suggesting that the tower and church as we see them today were relatively complete.

The view from the south is perhaps more typical of a Suffolk country church, but for most people their first view will be the approach from the north and the remarkably fortress-like two-storey north porch with its wild man pinnacles. The upper storey houses Mendlesham's famous armoury, established here in 1593 and a survival of the days when church porches and towers were often used to store such things. Some of the arms here date back to the 16th Century, but more interesting perhaps are those of the Civil War. Some of these were carried at the famous muster on Mellis Common which resulted in Suffolk’s only two Civil War deaths, when a musket went off by accident. Mendlesham church is open every day, but you'll need to make arrangements to visit the armoury.

In any case, many people will have come here because they know that Mendlesham is one of the very last of Suffolk's Anglo-Catholic hotspots. That the tradition is maintained here is due in no small way to the remarkable Father Philip Gray, who has been parish priest at Mendlesham for almost half a century. The first sign of this enthusiasm is the font in the north porch which serves as a holy water stoup. Various claims have been made for its age, including one of 1599 which seems a little unlikely, although as James Bettley observes in his revision of the Buildings of England volume for West Suffolk, it would be an interestingly early case of medievalism. It came from nearby Rishangles church and is just one of several furnishings here that have been acquired from nearby redundant churches.

If you are expecting an interior full of tacky continental statues, it may come as a surprise to step into a wide interior that is utterly English in character, and full of light. And yet, from the corners there are glimpses of icons and images, and the occasional flicker of a candle. The 1860 restoration was at the hands of Ewan Christian, and was broadly sympathetic, although there was one notable exception. The west end is dominated by the 15th Century font with its splendid font cover made in 1630 by John Turner. The font cover clearly didn't meet with Christian's approval, because it spent nearly fifty years exiled in the clock chamber of the choir before being returned to use in 1908. However, he sensitively restored the 15th Century benches at the back of the church. They have bench ends including a cockerel and a wyvern, and a woman at a prayer desk which might once have been part of an Annunciation pair. Among them are some slightly later benches, probably early 17th century, that also came from Rishangles. The fragmentary 15th Century glass in the north aisle came from Southolt. Among the composite figures you can spot fragments of angels and saints. One figure, holding a lance and so perhaps it is St Thomas, has been given the head of a lion.

The pulpit was also the work of John Turner, installed here in 1630 at the same time as the font cover. The commission also included a reading desk, but that has now gone. The large early 15th Century figure brass of John Knyvet in full armour lies in the nave. The 1580s brass figure of Margaret Armiger on the wall of the south aisle came from Southolt. Facing east, you can see that this church has more altars in use than any other parish church in Suffolk. There are five of them. Beyond the nave altar at the other end of the long chancel is a simple, rural high altar, dignified only by six big candlesticks. At the east end of the south aisle is an an altar made of fragments of medieval mensas. A reliquary is set in the front, and is perhaps the only one of its kind in an Anglican church anywhere in Suffolk. The Stuart holy table is now an altar at the east end of the north aisle. This was originally restored as a memorial chapel to the First World War as you can tell by the 1920s glass by Ward & Hughes above the altar, which uses as its central panel a version of James Clark's The Great Sacrifice, the window tracery encompassing an image niche with a statue of the Blessed Virgin. Finally, in the converted south porch, there is the Holy Cross chapel, dating from the 1970s. The wall paintings of 1980 by Cyril Fraden are extraordinary. One of them is of St Helen finding the true cross while in another Lazarus is raised from the dead.

I mentioned earlier that a large number of late medieval bequests have survived for this church. Several of them give a fascinating insight into the life of this busy, prosperous parish. In 1463 Thomas Frawnceys left twenty shillings for a chirche wey from the ston crosse to the churche style on the south of the church, and in 1489 William Barrett left instructions that he was to be buried in the churchyard near le belhous next to the grave of my wife. In 1520, Rose Folcard of Earl Stonham instructed that I will have one to go on pilgrimage for me unto our Lady of Grace (a shrine in Ipswich) and to St Huncumbyr of Mendilsham soon after my decease. Pilgrimages and saintly devotions seem to have reached a fever pitch as the Reformation approached, but within a few short decades it would all be over.

Simon Knott, May 2022

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looking east chancel
font and font cover north aisle chapel south aisle chapel south porch chapel
pulpit Rishangles font (now a holy water stoup) 15th Century poppyhead recut in 17th Century Our Lady of Walsingham
The Great Sacrifice c1920 St Helen with the true cross Raising of Lazarus in lasting memory
fragments (15th Century) a richly bridled horse (15th Century)
fragments (15th Century) fragments (15th Century) fragments (15th Century) fragments (15th Century)
curly-tailed monster o salutaris hostia adoremus IHS aumbry
cockatrice? here lieth interred the bodie of John Barker (1629)


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