St Nicholas, Rushbrooke
|If you like something a little out of
the ordinary, then come to Rushbrooke. Lost in the
rolling hills to the east of Bury, this little settlement
is quite unlike any other. Rushbrooke Hall, home to
generations of the Jermyn family, was Suffolk's largest
and finest moated Tudor mansion. Used for housing troops
during the war, it suffered a mysterious fire, and was
demolished without permission in 1961. Pevsner calls it
"a capital loss", a tragic disruption of the
post-war Suffolk landscape.
St Nicholas, looking fairly normal. Don't be fooled.
No trace survives of the Hall, although it is easy to see where it once was. You climb a hidden lane from Bury, winding through hedgerows and fruit fields, passing the occasional farmhouse. It's a narrow way, but traffic is almost non-existent. After a couple of miles, a cluster of buildings appears on the hillside ahead, the round knoll bereft of its former crown.
The first time you realise that something decidedly odd has taken place is when you step from the porch into what you believe to be the south aisle. Instead, you find yourself in a most unusual vestibule; to the east, your right, is a solid partition wall. A few feet ahead of you is another partition, less substantial, and not going all the way up to the ceiling.
As you pull aside the curtain and step in, you may be unbalanced slightly for a moment by the sheer lack of familiarity. Rushbrooke, inspired perhaps by happy memories of his youth, recreated here a college chapel quire, along the lines of Peterhouse, Cambridge. Banked dark seats face inwards, awaiting choral scholars. Turn, and above your head is the vast array of organ pipes. They are an elaborate fantasy, connected to no instrument, purely for decoration.
Looking east through the quire to the sanctuary.
Ahead, the tympanum is still in place, and on it is something even more remarkable, which we'll return to in a moment.
Beyond, the chancel is full of light, a balance to the serious gloom of the quire. Medeival glass is offset by blue surrounding panes, and the banners of Jermyns and Rushbrookes hang down in front.
Looking west, the utterly decorative organ pipes at the far end.
If you turn southwards, you see that the rest of the aisle is divided into two. The middle part is now a vestry, but the eastern range is a funerary chapel to the Jermyns Of several monuments, the best is to Thomas, the last of the Jermyns. He died in 1692, in a boating accident on the River Thames. He was just 15 years old. A mast collapsed, and landed on his head; and so, after centuries, a great landed family became extinct.
Also destroyed were Edward VI arms, although in practice these must have been few and far between, if all churches obeyed the order to install them in the previous reign (and we may assume that those which didn't would hardly have been disposed to install them as an act of submission to the lunatic policies of Henry's 10 year old son's advisors). In fact, Suffolk's only Elizabeth I coat of arms, at Preston, may be painted over an Edwardian set.
So, where did this coat of arms come from? Is it possible that, despite its removal from a church in 1553, it survived the 290 years in storage somewhere before Colonel Rushbrooke found it, bought it, and installed it here? Is it even possible that it came originally from this church, and was stored at Rushbrooke Hall?
Possibly England's oldest royal arms in a church. Or possibly not.
Or is it possible that the arms are something wholly different, and were never designed for a church? The arms of Henry VIII are also those of Henry VII. Many were produced in the late 15th century to further the hegemony of the Tudor cause. Rushbrooke was an enthusiastic collector, and might have tracked them down in a public building. He was enough of an antiquarian to know that a Henrician set in a church would be unique.
Or perhaps this is all complete speculation, and he had them made specially. Cautley hedged his bets, although his posthumous editors scoffed. Mortlock was rather more tongue-in-cheek in his analysis. I don't suppose that we will ever really know.
Last of the Jermyns.
St Nicholas, Rushbrooke, is about three miles along a narrow lane leading off the sliproad near the Bury East interchange of the A14. I found it open.