At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Somerleyton

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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      Suffolk's Lothingland peninsula drives a wedge up between Norfolk and the coast, and contains five parishes which are otherwise cut off from the rest of Suffolk by the town of Lowestoft to the south of them. To the north there were once half a dozen more, but they were taken into Norfolk by various boundary changes between the 1890s and 1974. To this day the Lothingland parishes are in the Diocese of Norwich, not the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, and Somerleyton is one of them.

The 1844 edition of White's Directory for Suffolk described Somerleyton as a pleasant scattered village, and indicated that the parish was best known for its Hall, built by Sir John Jernigan in the reign of Elizabeth, (which) stands in a beautiful park finely clothed with trees and evergreens. The directory goes on to quote the antiquarian Thomas Fuller, who thought that it well deserves the name of Summerley, for it was always summer there. The parish church of St Mary sits on the edge of the Somerleyton estate, which was a busy one, for at the 1851 census Somerleyton had a population of 627. It had quite outgrown its little church, which was recorded as having sittings of just free 60, others 100. Samuel Brame, the registrar who filled in the return for the Census of Religious Worship here, pointed out that Mr Peto's chapel reduces church attendants, and furthermore that there were a large number of Baptists.

'Mr Peto' was Samuel Morton Peto, the millionaire entrepreneur and industrialist, who in 1844 had bought Somerleyton Hall, demolished it and had it completely rebuilt. Peto had made (and would lose) his fortune from railways, and at one point he was described as the largest employer of labour in the whole world. Peto was a Baptist, and his Somerleyton Hall Baptist Chapel had been erected three years earlier in 1848 as part of the rebuilding of the Hall. Non-conformism was strong in this part of East Anglia, but in fact Mr Peto's Chapel doesn't seem to have had a huge effect on the parish church, for the attendances for morning worship at both church and chapel were roughly the same, about 70. Rural East Anglians tended to be 'independents', which is to say congregationalists, or else they were Methodists of various hues, so perhaps the urban Baptist tradition of the new chapel was still a little exotic for them. William Treen, the minister who filled in the return for the Chapel, recorded that the congregation was apparently composed of Baptists and Independents, and we may assume that if the chapel had not been there then they would have headed off to the chapels of Lowestoft rather than to their parish church. Almost 150 people were at the chapel in the afternoon, for typically in rural East Anglia the locals preferred a sermon to worship of any kind.

This then, is the background to the events at Somerleyton in the middle years of the 19th Century. Pevsner described the rebuilt Somerleyton Hall as one of the most flamboyant and best-preserved Victorian country houses in England. The architect was John Thomas, who had worked with Pugin and Barry on the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, and in 1854 Peto directed Thomas to turn his attention to the church. The nave and chancel were entirely rebuilt on a larger scale, while the lower part of the square tower was retained but the upper third was rebuilt. What remains of the old tower appears to be from the very end of the medieval period, a date which is supported by records of bequests at this time, including one of 1503 by John Bassett who left a noble to the making of the Somerleyton steeple (steeple in this context meaning a tower rather than a spire).

The church that John Thomas rebuilt sits set back from the Blundeston to Somerleyton road. As you approach it you can see that the exterior has that crisp, almost urban feel that you get with churches of this age, but Peto insisted on the very best materials for his projects. However, as Pevsner pointed out, it is surprisingly self-effacing considering what they had dome to the Hall. The style is entirely in the rural East Anglian style, with no aisles or clerestories, and it is so successfully done that for a moment it is easy to forget that this is, in fact, a Victorian church. The square tower seems unusual in this area, for just about all the neighbouring churches have round ones, and it may be that the late medieval rebuilding of the tower here replaced an earlier round tower. Peto must have been proud of his new estate, and in 1855 he was made a baronet as a reward for his quickly built supply-line railways between Sevastapol and Balaklava during the Crimean War. But the end was coming. The railway bubble was bursting, and in 1863 he sold Somerleyton Hall as a result of the decline in his fortunes. By 1866 he was bankrupt. The loss of his non-conformist steadying hand here allowed the chancel to be extended for the fashionable High Church liturgy of the day in 1871.

The churchyard baked under the hot sun on the day I revisited in July 2022, but the headstones have not been reset by lawnmower enthusiasts, and pleasingly there were sheep lazing beneath the trees in the south-east corner. You enter the church through John Thomas's simple south porch, and step into a wide nave under a single span roof, the roof in the chancel replicating that in the nave. The proportions are broadly similar to those of the church at neighbouring Blundeston, although the chancel arch here is wider. Within it is one of the survivals from the church's predecessor, one of Suffolk's more memorable late medieval rood screens. The dado is painted with sixteen saints in eight pairs of panels, four each side. On the north side they are St Michael, St Edmund, St Apollonia, St Laurence, St Faith, St Thomas of Canterbury, St Anne and St Andrew. On the south side they are St John, St Mary Magdalene, St Felix, St Petronilla, St Stephen, St Dorothy, St Edward the Confessor and St George.

Somerleyton screen (north): St Michael, St Edmund, St Apollonia, St Lawrence, St Faith, St Thomas of Canterbury, St Anne and the young Blessed Virgin, St Andrew Somerleyton screen (south): St John, St Mary Magdalene, St Felix, St Petronilla, St Stephen, St Dorothy, St Edward the Confessor, St George
Somerleyton screen: St Michael and St Edmund Somerleyton screen: St Apollonia and St Lawrence Somerleyton screen: St Faith and St Thomas of Canterbury Somerleyton screen: St Anne with the young Blessed Virgin and St Andrew
Somerleyton screen: St John and St Mary Magdalene Somerleyton screen: St Felix and St Petronilla Somerleyton screen: St Stephen and St Dorothy Somerleyton screen: St Edward the Confessor and St George

The saints here are roughly paired across the north and south sides of the screen. The two outer saints are St Michael on the north side and St George on the south side, both of them dragon killers The next two in, St Edmund and St Edward the Confessor, are the two traditional patron saints of England. Another pairing is that of the two deacon martyrs, St Lawrence and St Stephen, and there are two familiar pairings of female saints, St Apollonia with St Dorothy and St Faith with St Petronilla. These four are all virgin martyrs, and were often asked for their intercessions for familiar domestic problems, St Apollonia against toothache, St Petronilla against fevers, and so on.

The other major survival from the old church is a bulky 15th Century font wearing a characterful 17th Century font cover. It feels a bit crammed in, because in 1967 an organ gallery was added at the west end of the church. This is an unusual date and it was an unusual thing to add to a church at any time after the 1830s, but presumably an organ was acquired and it had to go somewhere. Intriguingly, this gallery now partially obscures what appears to be a medieval stone reredos reset above the south doorway. James Bettley, revising the Buildings of England volume for East Suffolk, records that it was discovered during the 1854 rebuilding, and intriguingly notes that it seems to be of the same date, and perhaps by the same hand, as the font. The glass in the nave is mostly good of various dates. The most interesting is a pair of exquisite panels of 14th Century Flemish glass depicting St Catherine with her wheel and the Blessed Virgin and Christchild. She stands on a crescent moon wearing a crown as Queen of Heaven.

St Catherine St Catherine (Flemish, 14th Century) Mary, Queen of Heaven (Flemish, 14th Century)

These two panels are said to have come from the nearby St Olave's Priory, which at the Reformation was bought by the same Thomas Jernegan who had built the original Somerleyton Hall, explaining their removal to the Hall and then after the 19th Century rebuilding to the church. Two modern panels beside them commemorate more recent owners of the Hall. The 1960 panel of St Francis is by Maile & Son, its 1985 partner of St Clare by Paul Quail in 1985. The rest of the glass in the nave is by the then-fashionable Munich workshop of Mayer & Co, and it was installed in the 1890s.

The chancel is dominated by a large black and white monument on the north wall, another survival from the earlier church. It is to John and Anna Wentworth, who are represented by conventional busts, but is of interest because it was commissioned in the 1650s, during the Commonwealth. The Wentworths must have been people of some influence, but the Latin inscription is carefully worded to ensure that this great edifice could be manufactured and erected under the suspicious eyes of the local puritans. There are a number of other noteworthy memorials, but it is hard to forget General Sir HP de Bathe, and not only because his memorial comes complete with a sword and a plumed hat. De Bathe not only served in an official capacity at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838, he did so again at her funeral, 63 years later.


Simon Knott, September 2022

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looking east chancel
font looking west John and Anne Wentworth, 1651 Somerleyton and Ashby Mothers' Union
St Clare (Maille & Co, 1985) Presentation in the Temple (Mayer & Co, 1890s) Suffer the children to come unto me (Mayer & Co, 1890s) He is not here, he is risen  (Mayer & Co, 1890s) St Francis (Maille & Co, 1960)


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