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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.

Aove: 14th century cowelled head.

Below, 14th century heads, getting medieval.

  There is a brick well house at a turn in the lane, with some extraordinarily good farmworkers' cottages beyond. They were built in the early 1960s, by Llewelyn-Davies and Weekes.

St Nicholas is just beyond, looking reassuringly familiar, its 14th century tower and 15th century everything else all plastered.

Mortlock tells us that, beneath this skin, the tower is flint, but the rest brick. Indeed, brick surrounds are evident on several windows. There are fine headstops on the west window, and on the windows of the south aisle.

If I tell you that this church was extensively restored in the 19th century, you might imagine a well-polished but anonymous interior, all Minton tiles and deal benches. You'd expect recut stonework and a garish reredos.

It would all be pleasantly ordered for late 19th century sacramentalist worship, rather out of date now but obviously cared for, as at hundreds of other Suffolk village churches.

You are in for a mighty surprise. For here, we have perhaps the most extraordinary of all Suffolk church interiors. It is the work of, and a testimony to, one of the great Suffolk eccentrics.

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.

The intention seems to be a baptistery, and there are two fonts, a recut stone medieval one and a wooden Victorian one.

I'm not sure where the stone one came from; it was brought here in the 1980s, and has only just been reunited with its column. It may even have been the original font, removed in the 19th century and returned here.

But the wooden font is more interesting; an ideosyncratic design, the work of Colonel Rushbrooke, who lived at the Hall in the early 19th century. It is his monument low down on the south wall here.

If we have already visited Nowton, we have seen there the 84 roundels of Flemish glass plundered by the Rushbrookes from Belgian monasteries. Here, Colonel Rushbrooke recycled panelling from the Hall and other sources to create what can only be described as a Gothick Fantasy. For the best first impression, ignore the entrance into the main part of the church ahead of you, turn left, go past the fonts and enter it from the west.


Recut stone and Victorian wooden fonts. Note the memorial low down behind.

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.

Medieval and later glass in the east window.

  As ludicrous as Colonel Rushbrooke's vision may seem when you read about it here, it undoubtedly works; this is a most splendid interior. He must have been dead proud of it.

And yet, it wasn't quite triumphalist enough, and did not articulate sufficiently the established church. And so, on the tympanum at the east end of the nave, he put in place the great royal arms of Henry VIII, the only Henrician coat of arms in all England.

Before we scoff too loudly, a brief examination of the facts is in order. The coat of arms was not here in 1840. Its placing in the church coincided with Colonel Rushbrooke's reordering. Thus far, simple enough; and yet, the coat of arms is a rather more primitive piece of work than the furnishings of the chapel below. Simply, it looks older. Painted below it on the former rood beam is the motto Dieu et mon Droict.

We know that Henrician coats of arms were put into churches. At the time of the Marian restoration in 1553, they were removed and destroyed. It simply is beyond all theological and political credibility that one could have survived in situ. No symbol of loyalty to the crown could be used to express disloyalty to the crown. They were all replaced by crucifixes - or, at least, that was the intention.

At Ludham in Norfolk, the tympanum was retained, and the rood painted on it. Elsewhere, roods seem to have been reconstructed enthusiastically, but Mary died before her counter-reformation was solidly in place.

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.