At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Rougham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Rougham Rougham south porch
cover your ears crowned lion gargoyle crowned lion gargoyle
St John the Baptist's head Rougham across spring fields imp? lion?

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This grand late medieval church sits a good half mile from its village with just the school and an incongruous 1950s rectory for company. The wide churchyard is a perfect foil for its massive bulk. Graves sprawl in all directions, and you might easily imagine that all mid-Suffolk comes here to be buried. Above them, St Mary raises its head gloriously to heaven, a riot of medieval aisles, clerestory and flushwork. The inscriptions in the flushwork beneath the battlements are dedicatory inscriptions, asking for prayers for the souls of Robert Drury and John Tillot. Also clear is the Marian imagery, her lily and her monograms. Simon Cotton tells me that it was a big bequest of 50 marks, and as much more as is possible, in 1458 from Roger Tyllot of Rougham, that launched the campaign to build the tower. This guaranteed Tyllot/Tillot the inscription asking us to pray for his soul.

The south aisle is castellated with pierced tracery. One of them has a head in a dish on it, similar to the same thing on the font at Irstead and the screen at Trimingham, both in Norfolk, and so it is probably intended as St John the Baptist. The south aisle predates the tower, but after the tower, and before the Reformation of course, came the north aisle. It can be precisely dated to 1514, because it still bears that date, reading We pray you to remember us that causyde ye yle to be made thus.The fortress-like 19th Century vestry and organ chamber inserted at the east end of the south aisle seem absurd and intrusive.

The main entrance today is into this north aisle, but the south porch is worth a look, a fine piece of the early 14th Century, rather mutilated when it was reroofed in the 17th Century, the inscription 1632 JT giving the precise date. You step into a large, fine church, perhaps telling us a bit more than we would like about the extent of its 19th Century restoration. Above the nave is a good example of a late medieval hammerbeam roof, splendidly uncluttered, and in reasonable condition. The angels on the hammerbeams have lost their heads and wings, and the figures in the niches of the wall posts are also damaged. But perhaps that merely serves to show how little restored this roof is. It was made safe as part of the mid-19th century restoration. It is interesting to compare it with the much richer and glorious roof of the church at nearby Woolpit.

Indeed, Woolpit church is quite a useful comparison with Rougham. One of Suffolk's most famous churches, and along with Mildenhall the county's most glorious medieval angel roof. What else does Woolpit have? It has carved bench ends in abundance. And here at Rougham is also as fine a set of medieval benches as you could hope to see - about half the entire range in this huge church are early 16th century, arguable the high point of English carpentry, and contemporary with the roof. But they are entirely mutilated. Every single bench end figure has been sawn off at the base. So what happened here? Our knee-jerk reaction, obviously enough, is that St Mary suffered from the depredations of the 17th century puritans, and that awful William Dowsing, who saw off all the medieval art treasures that the parish had carefully accumulated over the previous centuries.

Unfortunately for anyone who likes easy answers, this is nonsense. Dowsing did not come to Rougham. But he did go to Woolpit, with its amazing angel roof and beautiful medieval carved bench ends. So before we start blaming Dowsing, it is as well to look at the evidence.

At Woolpit, William Dowsing recorded that his Deputy found 80 superstitious pictures. Some he brake down himself, and the rest he gave orders to take down; and 3 crosses to be taken down in 20 days. The superstitious pictures, of course, were in stained glass, not wall paintings. The three crosses were outside, on the gables. But Dowsing doesn't mention the angel roof (a feature that he concerns himself with often elsewhere) and he doesn't mention the bench ends. Why not?

Well, the bench ends problem is solved simply enough. The surviving figures are all animals or mythical beasts. The same survive at neighbouring Tostock, which Dowsing also visited. The reason they survived is perhaps simply that the authorities considered them decorative, and let them be. Despite the portrait that is often painted of him, Dowsing was a conservative soul, and theologically very articulate. He was in the business of rooting out superstitious imagery - that is to say, objects and images that might be used in Catholic liturgical practices. He was also keen to destroy images that he thought blasphemous, for example symbols of the Trinity, and especially angels. Dowsing would know very well that Catholics didn't worship animals.

So why doesn't Dowsing mention Woolpit's angel roof? I would contend that this is for the very same reason that Rougham didn't need a visit - it had already been defaced. The next obvious question is to answer is when did this destruction occur? There are two possibilities. One is that it had been done by other puritans during the furious theological debate over sacramental practice during the 1630s. Far more likely, and the right answer in my opinion, is that the destruction at Rougham was wrought a full hundred years before Dowsing began his progress through the county.

During the later years of Henry VIII, and the entire reign of the boy-King Edward VI, roughly 1538 to 1553, order after order went out from the Protestant reformers at Whitehall and Lambeth Palace demanding the destruction of church imagery. Roods came toppling down, and not a single one survives in all England. Many roodlofts and roodscreens were put to the hatchet and the bonfire. Any wall paintings that remained were whitewashed. Fonts were plastered over, because this was easier than chiselling off the stone carved imagery, and statues were hauled out of their niches. Wooden ones were burnt, those made of stone and alabaster were broken up. Some were sold abroad, we know. It was a holocaust of church furnishings. Much evidence of it survives in Suffolk, and it is almost always blamed on the puritans of a century later. Unlike Dowsing, who had a precise remit, and carefully recorded every visit, the 16th century reformers were not much short of vandals. Of course Cranmer and his cronies had a theological basis for their orders, but by the time these orders reached the parishes they became a licence to destroy.

Eammon Duffy records gangs of drunken youths stumbling around London, breaking into churches and smashing them up, and it is not unlikely that the same thing sometimes happened out in the countryside. In late 1547 in particular, it is as if the gloves came off, and people were able to get away with awful acts with impunity. Duffy records several instances of local landed families fleecing the church of silverware and vestments, and selling them for the proceeds. I think that Rougham's bench ends were sawn off during this holocaust. It would have been a major job, taking several days. What were they? Could they have been representations of the sacraments, virtues and vices, as we find at Tannington, Wilby and Blythburgh? Were they fabulous animals as at Woolpit and Stowlangtoft? Were they images of local people going about their daily business, as at Ixworth Thorpe? Mortlock thought they might have been angels, and that the surviving cushions were clouds.

Of course, we will never know. Two things fascinate me in particular. Firstly, you can find exactly the same thing across the A14 at Elmswell, where the medieval bench ends have been sawn off of cushions in the same way. Secondly, when the Victorians carried out their major restoration here, the new benches they installed are exact replicas of the old ones, even down to the sawn-off scars on the cushions!

And yet, Rougham is not without its medieval survivals. Tucked away in a rather undignified manner in the north aisle are fine brasses of Sir Roger Drury and his wife, which survive from 1405. They are so similar to the pair to the Burgate family at Burgate in north Suffolk that it suggests that this was an all-purpose, off-the-peg design. The 14th Century font at the west end of the nave has surviving traces of colour, its traceried panels echoing the great east window at the far end of the building. The glass on the north side of the chancel dates from 1904 and is by Burlison & Grylls.

And there is one other survival, intriguing and delightful. This is the small collection of mostly 15th Century English glass in the upper lights. Among them is an exquisite and rare virgo lactans, the Blessed Virgin offering her breast to feed the infant Christ, intensely intimate and human. For a moment in time, the centuries fall away.

Simon Knott, August 2019

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looking east chancel looking west font
virgo lactans (15th Century) Sir Roger Drury, 1405 Sir Roger and Lady Drury, 1405 Annunciation (Burlison & Grylls, 1904) Nativity (Hardman & Co, 1880s)
arma christi and heraldic shields (15th Century) virgo lactans and fragments (15th Century) fragments including a king (15th Century English and later continental)
St John the Baptist (Burlison & Grylls, 1904) Blessed Virgin and child (Burlison & Grylls, 1904) St John the Evangelist (Burlison & Grylls, 1904) Blessed Virgin and child flanked by St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist (Burlison & Grylls, 1904) Lamb of God (Burlison & Grylls, 1904)
cloud of glory ball flower and trinity Bridget Houghton, 1670 crucified
killed in enemy air attack on his ship HMS Bideford whilst assisting at the evacuation of the BEF Dunkirk

faithful lion

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