At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Nicolas, Stanningfield

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Stanningfield Stanningfield north doorway

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      The main road between Bury and Sudbury is fairly busy, but you don't have to go far off the road to find yourself in an idyllic landscape of glades and hedgerows. Ancient farmhouses nestle the lanes squarely, shadows play across the lanes from the overbowering trees, and there is St Nicolas, as lovely in spring as any church possibly has the right to be. The placename Stanningfield probably derives from 'stony field', and it is a fascinating parish. Curiously, the spelling of the dedication is in the French Catholic manner, perhaps the enthusiasm of a High Church 19th Century incumbent, but in fact it may have another reason further back in the past. The proximity of the Rokewoods, later Rookwoods, at Coldham Hall gave this village one of the strongest Catholic presences in all East Anglia. Throughout the penal years the Catholic liturgy was celebrated in this parish, although not in this church of course. As recently as the early 20th Century perhaps half this parish and that of neighbouring Lawshall were nominally Catholic, and there was a Catholic village school until 1949. That the old religion survived here was to both the credit and cost of the Rookwood family, who were heavily penalised. One of them, Ambrose Rookwood, was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and lost his life.

Like many Big House Catholics after the Reformation, they celebrated their faith in their private chapel but chose to be buried at the parish church. They eventually intermarried with the recusant Gages of Hengrave, and by the late 19th Century the Hall had been sold out of the family. The last heir to the Coldham Hall estate fell in the First World War. Today, there is no secret that it is the home of the former supermodel Claudia Schiffer.

Photographs of the church before the 1880s show a tall tower, which dated from the early part of the 15th Century. Simon Cotton notes a bequest by John Rokewood of 1415 of 20 marks to the new tower with the new bells, to be made of stone and mortar in the churchyard. However, by 1540 the will of one John Fuler offered 6s 8d to the mending of the steeple if they mend it within 5 years after the present date. This time clause is interesting, because 1540 is right on the very eve of the Reformation, and it was already clear that things were going to be different from now on. Whether or not the tower was ever mended we don't know, but in the 1880s it was reckoned unsafe and was largely taken down. In truth, the remaining stump is attractive. There were three bells in the tower, and one has been returned to a wooden bell frame just below the cap. The other two, with inscriptions from the 16th and 17th Centuries, stood on the nave floor until as recently as 1967, when they were sold and melted down.

You enter the church through the small porch with its 12th Century doorway, and there is another even more impressive, but now blocked, on the north side. The interior can be a bit gloomy on a dull day, but as your eyes become accustomed to the light one the medieval treasures of Suffolk, the Stanningfield Doom, comes into view above the chancel arch. This late 15th Century extravaganza is a folk art representation of the Last Judgement. Christ sits on a rainbow at the top flanked by saints and angels. Two angels blow long trumpets, and the dead rise from their graves. Not long after it was painted the Doom was covered with whitewash, probably by Protestant reformers in the late 1540s, and rediscovered during the 19th Century restoration.

The Stanningfield Doom Stanningfield Doom: Christ in Majesty
Stanningfield Doom: the dead rise from their graves Stanningfield Doom: the dead rise from their graves Stanningfield Doom: the dead rise from their graves
the dead rise from their graves woman rising from her coffin the dead rise from their graves Stanningfield Doom: Christ in Majesty watches the dead rise as the trunpet sounds
Stanningfield Doom: Stanningfield Doom: the dead rise from their graves Stanningfield Doom: an angel sounds the last trump

Seeing it today is a reminder of that medieval wall paintings are fairly volatile. Diocesan surveyor Munro Cautley took a photograph of the Doom in the 1930s which is on display at the back of the church. Some details stand out, but when Sam Mortlock visited in the 1980s he found little more than a grey shadow, although this was before a major restoration of the 1990s that removed 19th Century varnish. What will remain in a hundred years time? I remembered a story the late Norman Scarfe had told me about Cautley's visit here. Wearing his official hat as diocesan surveyor, he had tutted and shaken his head as he looked up at the Doom. "I think we'd better have some scaffolding put up and have a closer look at that", he'd muttered. The churchwardens arranged for the scaffolding, Cautley climbed up with his camera, and took the photo for his book. I'm sure he conscientiously checked for movement and decay as well.

Among the characters in the Doom are a man above the point of the arch who is still wearing his shroud, and a pious woman preserving her modesty with praying hands. Most memorable of all perhaps is the naked man to the north of the chancel arch, hurrying out of his coffin. His bare bottom must have been a source of grateful distraction for children from dull sermons over the years.

The 15th century font carries familiar tracery patterns, but also the shield of the Rookwoods on the east side. At the other end of the church, the chancel had been rebuilt at their expense in the 14th Century , and it is home to an Easter sepulchre. Indeed, you might almost think the chancel was made for it, but it postdates the chancel by a good 200 years. It served as a tomb for the Thomas Rookwood of the day, although the angel finials are 19th Century additions. The glass in the east window is Pippa Blackall's pleasingly restrained design for the Millennium. You can see more of her work on a more exuberant canvas not far off at Alpheton.

There is a curious quatrefoil low side window. The sill above on the inside extends eastwards, perhaps as a seat for the server whose job it was to open the window and ring the sacring bell at the consecration of the Mass (also, incidentally, allowing an updraft to the rood to make the candles flicker). The easterly windows in the nave are dropped to accommodate sedilia, suggesting altar shrines. So much to see. And then, as you head back through the village and on to Bradfield Combust, you pass a beautiful old Methodist chapel, alone with its hall in the oilseed rape fields. It has a little graveyard in front where you might stop for a potter, reflecting that religion must have been a matter of some lively debate in 19th Century Stanningfield.


Simon Knott, March 2023

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looking east chancel
font Easter Sepulchre piscina reset by the south door war memorial
font graffiti Cross (Pippa Blackall) St Nicolas Church Stanningfield
looking west from the chancel decorative glass


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