At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Giles, Risby

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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    Risby is a pretty village not far from the expanding sprawl of Bury St Edmunds, but to stand on the village green you would not know that you were close. The church is set along the road to Bury in a tight sleeve of a churchyard. It is a long church, the nave and chancel mostly of the late 13th and early 14th Century, so at the very height of the English Decorated period. There are no aisles, but it seems to have been considered sufficient for the needs of the parish, for the only 15th Century bequest that appears to survive was in 1436 for the solari crucifixi, which is to say the crucifixion above the rood screen. By way of contrast, the tower is a rugged Norman affair, the solid arcading at the top quite different from that of elegant Little Saxham a couple of miles across the A14.

You step into a building which is full of interest, for Risby church has a little of everything. Fortunately, this does not seem to have been a wealthy or populous place in the 19th Century either, for the Victorians also saw no need to add aisles of their own. Because of their restraint, Risby church has a surviving expanse of wall paintings along the north side of the narrow nave. A couple of features stand out, including Mary Magdalene kneeling to anoint the feet of Christ, and a sombre cleric who is probably St Thomas of Canterbury. An axe head pokes from what might have been a martyrdom scene. A sequence of the life of Christ has faded within living memory.

wall painting: Mary Magdalene anoints the feet of Christ (15th Century) wall painting: St Thomas of Canterbury? wall painting: head of an axe decorated window splay

The font is set opposite the south entrance, and is a good place to stand to take in the vistas in each direction. The view westwards is memorable, the creamy light from the mostly clear glass falling softly over late medieval and early modern benches, one with a fragment of a 15th Century lady kneeling on its bench end, perhaps a survival of an Annunciation scene. The tower arch is lower than that at Little Saxham but, as there, another opening sits above it, and was probably the original entrance to the tower, with a ladder which could be removed.

The Victorian bench ends further east are tall and proud, carved in rich profusions of fruit, flowers and foliage, each one different. Mortlock tells us that they were the work of the rector, Samuel Alderson, and it was his successor, Thomas Abraham who oversaw the thankfully restrained restoration in the 1880s. Beyond them, the narrow chancel arch is striking, filled as it is by an exquisitely lovely rood screen, tall and also narrow, with just three lights each side of the entrance. There are eagles and dragons in the spandrels of the panels. It is flanked by image niches backed with gold gessowork in one of which a statue of the church's patron saint is set.

The font you stand by is late 15th Century, presumably part of a general refurnishing project of the time of which the rood was just an element. As with many fonts in the middle of the 16th Century, Risby's was plastered over to hide idolatrous imagery. When the plaster was removed in the 1890s, a beautiful Annunciation scene was revealed, as well as a striking Pelican in her Piety.

Font: Mary at the Annunciation font: pelican in her piety Font: Gabriel at the Annunciation

The medieval glass at Risby survived into the 17th Century, because we have the fascinating detail of a receipt given in May 1644 by the iconoclast John Crow to the Risby churchwardens for the forty shillings fine they had paid for not destroying it as required by the parliamentary ordinance. It seems to have been smashed soon after, but in the 19th Century the wife of the rector, Samuel Alderson, recovered fragments from the churchyard, and these were used in 1850 to create composite figures in the east and south chancel windows. The plaque beside them refers to their restoration in the 1920s. It's not the kind of thing we would do nowadays, but it is very effective.

The male figure in the south window has an arrow, so was probably intended as St Edmund, although he is flanked by two As and has part of a banner of St Andrew. The female figure is flanked by two Ms, typical of a Blessed Virgin scene, but she has part of a wheel and was probably intended to look like St Catherine. Both figures have 20th Century heads. In the east window, one figure is made to look like a king and the other a bishop with a 14th Century head. The figure of St John is almost wholly 19th Century apart from the hands, but the angels either side are made up of 15th Century fragments. Perhaps best of all is the Pelican in her Piety towards the bottom, reflecting back the one on the font. She is flanked by a censing angel and an agnus dei.

composite figures of a male and female saint (14th, 15th and 19th Century glass Composite figure of a male Saint (14th, 15th and 19th Century glass) Composite figure of a female Saint (14th, 15th and 19th Century glass) east window: composite figures of 14th, 15th and 19th Century glass
composite figure of an angel (14th, 15th and 19th Century glass) composite figure of a king (14th, 15th and 19th Century glass) St John the Evangelist (1850, with one 14th Century hand and one 15th Century hand!) composite figure of a bishop (14th, 15th and 19th Century glass) composite figure of an angel (14th, 15th and 19th Century glass)
Pelican in her Piety flanked by a censing angel and an agnus dei (English, 15th century) grinning lion

On the south side of the nave, one window contains four panels of collected continental glass. The two lower pieces depict Christ healing a lame man and a blind man. The ovals above, although faded, are more interesting. One shows St Hubert's vision of the crucifixion between the antlers of the stag he is hunting, and the other shows the young Christ teaching in the Temple.

The Young Christ teaching in the Temple Christ heals a lame man Christ heals a blind man St Hubert's vision of the crucifixion between a stag's antlers

Having paid for the 1880s restoration, Thomas Abraham not unreasonably had the chancel glass dedicated to earlier members of his family. The best is probably by Clayton & Bell, depicting Miriam and St Cecilia and dedicated to Ellen Abraham who died at Florence in 1880. The Baptism of Christ is a typical work of Kempe & Co. The third, a curious and interesting little panel set in the low side window and depicting the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, seems older, but is possibly by Kempe & Co as well. The firm came back in the 1890s to produce another typical piece depicting St Peter and St Paul for the Wastell family in the nave.

In the 18th Century the church at neighbouring Fornham St Genevieve burned down, and the two parishes were combined, giving them a total population of 488 at the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, 57 of whom lived in Fornham St Genevieve, mostly on the Manners Estate. There were 97 parishioners and 71 scholars in attendance at morning worship on the day of the census, pretty good going for this part of Suffolk, although perhaps the proximity of Lord Manners, a staunch Anglican who had paid for a Church school in neighbouring Fornham St Martin, had something to do with it.


Simon Knott, December 2021

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looking east font and tower arch screen wall paintings
rood screen detail: two eagles and two roses rood screen detail: eagles in the spandrels rood screen detail: bird eating berries
Christ at Gethsemane (Kempe & Co? 1880) Discipes asleep at Gethsemane (Kempe & Co? 1880) for the greater adornment of this church
image niches St Giles bench end bench end and 'FBA March 1863' graffiti
fell at Houthulst Forest the four men of this village who did not return 1939-1945
gave their lives in our defence 1914-1919 G III R



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