At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Preston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Preston: click to enlarge

Preston south porch  gargoyle

Madonna and child   I love this part of Suffolk. It is intensely agricultural, and the narrow lanes seem to meander lazily, although they are no doubt reacting to long lost field and settlement patterns. Preston is a pretty village, with the same feeling of remoteness as its neighbours Thorpe Morieux and Kettlebaston. Preston Hall Farm had its fifteen minutes of fame a few years back when an archaeological dig there featured on Channel Four's Time Team programme, but otherwise the modern world doesn't pay a huge amount of attention to this backwater.

The church is neat and tidy, presenting its tower to the village street, but needing to peep over a splendid tree to do so. It is one of Arthur Blomfield's; the church was struck by lightning in 1868, and only the porch and nave walls survive from before this date. The detailing is similar to that of Blomfield's other rebuilding of the 1860s at Alderton, although he did actually get around to replacing the tower here. In general, no expense seems to have been spared.

The porch is the star of the exterior, a confection of late 15th century flushwork. Stepping through it, and the curiously narrow north doorway beyond, you enter a church which, despite its late Victorian timbre, has a great deal of interest. The first sight is of the font, which, although typically square Norman, has pretty little designs, as though its maker was already infected with ideas of Decoration to come. It is tucked into the west end of the north aisle, and above it is the famous Preston decalogue board.

This is difficult to date exactly. Obviously, it is post-Reformation, and bears the Commandments with other Biblical texts about keeping the Commandments and observing the Sabbath. Textual analysis suggests that it may date from the reign of Edward VI, which would make it the earliest of its kind in England. Of course, it may be later, and further east along the north aisle is a matching royal arms for Elizabeth I. These are more common in Norfolk, but this is the only one in Suffolk. It is believed to have been erected at the behest of the antiquarian Robert Ryece, who was Rector here in the later years of the 16th century. It is a most curious thing, the arms including a whole mixture of genealogical symbolism, much of it mythical, including the SPQR of Ancient Rome. The legend along the bottom reads Elizabetha Magna, Regina Angliae, 'Elizabeth the Great, Queen of the English'. Unlike us, early modern England was spared its government pontificating about the dubious virtues of 'Britishness'.

Curiously, it appears that the arms are painted over an earlier set, and the letters ER are plainly visible. This might just mean that there is a simpler Elizabethan arms underneath. More excitingly, it might be that the whole structure dates from the 1540s, and the reign of Edward VI. This would make them the earliest decalogue board and arms in England. Further, the outer doors bear warnings against idoloatry, suggesting an Edwardian origin.

royal arms of Elizabeth I Queen of the English Elizabeth the Great dragon
decalogue the tenne commaundements ye shall keep my sabbathes lion on top
the Lord will smyte you thou shalt do no murther lion and moon dragon and sun

Blomfield designed the new St Mary to be in the highest rank of Tractarianism, and the grand chancel is a little out of place in this intensely rural setting, matching his masterpieces at the churches of St John the Baptist in Ipswich and Felixstowe. The glass in the nave by Ward & Hughes is good of its kind, I think, and another mark of the amount of money spent here.

There are a couple of brasses, but more interesting are all the shields in the clerestory and south aisle windows. Many are pre-Reformation, and were collected by Robert Ryece, from all over England. This, only part of his collection, glorifies this little country church. But, obviously enough, it diminishes those elsewhere that lost them.

Simon Knott, 2000, revised 2008

inside the south porch look east look west font
shepherd shepherds Madonna and child magi adoration the good shepherd
Joseph Mary Christ mother and son
shepherds crook and satchel Ward & Hughes mage country life
agnus dei tiles tiles pelican in her piety


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