At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Monk Soham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Monk Soham

Monk Soham Monk Soham Monk Soham

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      Monk Soham is a scattered parish of rolling fields and copses, feeling perhaps more remote than it is thanks to the narrow jinking lanes that connect its small settlements. The streams that run off the high lands contribute to the infant River Deben which rises not far off, and which will become a sprawling, majestic sight as it reaches the sea. The church sits on a rise beside Monk Soham Hall, reached either from the Hall farm or by a footpath which is just about cyclable, and which runs for about a quarter of a mile alongside a field.

Monk Soham church as it is today is largely of its 14th Century rebuilding, a venerable Decorated structure that suffered little change afterwards. The nave windows were replaced towards the end of the medieval period, a time which also brought the flushworked south porch. As Pevsner notes, the church was restored unobtrusively in 1860. A number of bequests of the early 16th Century that Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton recorded give an interesting, even a moving picture of the church as the Reformation approached. In 1504, Margaret Nycoll left 13s 4d for a pyx, for the high altar, a cloth to cover the rood Mary and John. The cloth was most likely a Lenten veil. The same year, John Smyth left 6s 8d to the reparation of the bells in Monk Soham. Here we see the late medieval parishioners being remembered in prayer by beautifying their building and making it fitting for the liturgy and devotions of the Catholic church.

However, fast forward three decades and Katerine Wymonde's will of 1531 concerned itself with the welfare of her soul after death, and perhaps we can begin to see the first hints of anxiety about the future. She asked that I will also have an honest priest to syng in Soham Monachorum cherch by the space of oon hooll yere to pray for my soul, Robert Weymond soules, all our friends soulys and all cristen soulys. Three years later, John Mayeure left 6s 8d to the mending of the steeple of Soham Monachorum what time soever they go in hand withal, thus expressing an uncertainty about whether or not the tower would be rebuilt. He was right to be doubtful, because it never was.

You enter through the south porch into a bright, wide interior, full of charm and interest. There are no aisles, but the nave is wide and focuses towards the great five-light east window with its intersecting tracery, surely one of the most beautiful of its kind in Suffolk. Pevsner points out the curiosity that although the nave roof has hammerbeams they are not used, it being an arch-braced roof instead. At the west end of the nave stands Monk Soham's lovely seven sacrament font. There are thirteen of these fonts in Suffolk, although three of them are completely effaced of all imagery, and there are only another twenty-odd across the border in Norfolk, so it's an unusual thing and a lovely one.

There are similarities with the font at Westhall. The Crucifixion forms the odd-panel-out, and faces the south doorway through which you enter. Clockwise from there are Matrimony (south-west), Last Rites (west), Confirmation (north-west), Ordination (north), Baptism (north-east), Mass (east) and Confession (south-east).Around the stem, the evangelistic symbols alternate with seated clerics, perhaps the monks of Bury Abbey for whom this parish was a retreat centre. All eight figures have been decapitated, even the eagle of St John, presumably by the Anglican reformers of the 1530s and 1540s.The panels above would have been knocked flush to be plastered over.

Seven Sacrament font Seven Sacrament font: beheaded seated cleric
Crucifixion (S) Confirmation (SW) Last Rites (W)
Matrimony (NW) Ordination (N) Baptism (NE)
Mass (E) Confession (SE)

Monk Soham has a number of other medieval survivals. Beside the font is the parish chest, a long iron-bound box presumably of the early 14th Century, and not far short of ten feet long. Looking east, a long beam runs across the chancel arch, above the level of the rood loft stairs exit. It probably once supported the rood. There is a matching one towards the west end of the nave, and it is tempting to suppose that this was once used in conjunction with a pulley to lift a towering font cover as at Salle in Norfolk. If so, the font has been moved slightly westwards. And did a hook in the apex of the chancel arch once hold the rope that lifted Margaret Nycoll's Lenten veil during the Easter liturgy? There is a pretty image niche in one of the nave window splays, similar to those not far off at Occold, and up in the sanctuary there are the remains of what must have been a very big piscina, but the canopy has been hacked off.

Mortlock recalls a fearsome dispute here in the 1630s. This was the time that Archbishop Laud was engaged in his ill-fated attempt to restore the sacramentalism of Communion, by returning it to an altar in the chancel. Members of the puritan Wheymond family of the parish, who a century earlier had paid for an honest priest to syng in Soham Monachorum cherch for their souls, violently objected, and blocked the Vicar from approaching the Communion rails. The iconoclast William Dowsing, who visited several hundred churches in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk in 1644, saw no reason to come here although he did visit neighbouring parishes, suggesting that he knew his intervention was not required at Monk Soham. Francis Veedon, one of his deputies, came from this parish.

At the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, when many rural populations were reaching a peak, there were just under four hundred and fifty people living in this parish. There must be fewer than that today. Robert Hinds Groome, the rector of Monk Soham at the time, recorded an attendance of eighty people along with the scholars at morning service that day, and a hundred and twenty for the afternoon sermon. These were respectable figures for north Suffolk, but Groome, who was relatively new in the parish, tried to talk them up, claiming average attendances for the two regular Sunday services of a hundred and two hundred respectively. I beg to remark that the weather was very rough, he added, and our church stands apart from the houses. Groome was the best friend of the poet Edward Fitzgerald of Boulge, and wrote a memoir of him. He would remain rector here until 1892, and there are memorials to his children in the chancel. Also in the chancel is the memorial to his successor, Evelyn Bazalgette, who would die at the age of just 38 seven years later. Bazalgette was the youngest son of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the energetic Victorian engineer who designed the London sewage system as a way of preventing cholera outbreaks. Evelyn Bazalgette's eldest son was named Joseph in a tribute to his remarkable grandfather, but he was also to die young. His memorial below that of his father records that he was accidentally drowned at sea from the SS Port Jackson whilst performing his duty in 1912. He was 18 years old.

Bazalgettes Ronald Creasy

A local character remembered in the churchyard was a notable Suffolk eccentric of the 20th Century, Ronald Creasy, who died in 2004. My friend the late Peter Stephens, a relative by marriage of Creasy's, remembered him as a very odd person, and yet perhaps his story deserves to be told. In the 1930s Creasy had been a prominent Suffolk fascist. It seems a world ago now and it is extraordinary that someone who took part in it should have survived into the 21st Century, but in the years before the Second World War the British Union of Fascists, or Blackshirts as they were usually known, became involved in the campaign by non-conformist farmers in north Suffolk against the Church of England's demands for parish tithes. Famously the Blackshirts defended the writer Doreen Wallace's farm at Wortham from the bailiffs who had been sent in to recover goods in lieu of tithe, and there was a pitched battle with the police outside of Wortham rectory. Hard to imagine now, especially in these quietly remote north Suffolk fields.

By 1939 the wearing of uniforms by political groups in Britain was illegal, and the BUF had truncated its name to British Union. Creasy, who farmed near Denham almost until he died at the age of 94, remained a member till the end. He was a district councillor for the party, and he was even selected as the British Union candidate for the Eye parliamentary constituency. However, World War II intervened. Any sympathies that the fascists may have received in north Suffolk rapidly diminished as the horror of total war was unleashed in Europe, and many party members were briefly interned. After the war, British Union evolved into Union Movement under its leader Sir Oswald Mosley, campaigning for a united European nation-state, but memories of the dark past of the movement meant that it did not garner much support at the polls or in the country at large.

Peter told me that even to the end of his life Creasy would wear a black shirt under his jacket for special occasions. His memorial in Monk Soham churchyard mentions his British Union activities and tells us that he was an individual thinker, pantheist and man of spirit. In later life it was not unknown for Creasy to climb up onto a bench on Ipswich's Cornhill, preaching his message to passers-by. Among other things he was a great supporter of the European Union and of the ecology movement, and he was a declared enemy of the Church of England in particular and organised religion in general. Creasy claimed to see God in all things, especially in the cycle of the seasons, the crops, wild nature and the turning of the year. On one occasion, in conversation with another acquaintance of mine, he reached down, picked a shoot of young barley, and said 'There! That's your God!' Towards the end of his life he occupied himself industriously with writing letters to newspapers, and he was often the first person in Suffolk each year to hear the cuckoo.


Simon Knott, March 2023

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looking east five light east window
Seven Sacrament font looking west Roll of Honour


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