At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Nicholas, Stanningfield

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


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From the south east in winter...

...and late spring.

The tower was lowered in the 1880s.

The font...

Detail of a shield.

Looking east.

Through the roodscreen into the chancel.

The heavily restored Easter sepulchre.

The new east window, installed for the Millennium.

Piscina to the south-east of the nave.

Low side window from inside...

...and out.

Bradfield Methodist Chapel, to the north of the village.


St Nicolas on the hill

Stanningfield is a fairly busy village between Bury and Sudbury, but you don't have to go far off the main road to find yourself in an idyllic valley of glades and hedgerows. Ancient farmhouses nestle the lanes squarely, and here is St Nicholas, as lovely in Spring as any church possibly has the right to be. Curiously, the local parish insist on spelling their church dedication St Nicolas, in the French manner.

Stanningfield, the name probably derived from stony field, is a fascinating place. The proximity of the 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 St Nicholas, of course. As recently as the early 20th century, perhaps half this village and that of neighbouring Lawshall were nominally Catholic, and there was a Catholic village school until 1949.

That the old religion survived here is 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 in the Parish church - an act of faith in itself, perhaps. They eventually intermarried with the recusant Gages of Hengrave, and by the late 19th century the Hall had been sold to another family. The last heir to the Coldham Hall estate fell in the First World War, which I suppose is symbolic of the effects that conflict had on the English countryside. Today, it is the home of the former supermodel Claudia Schiffer.

Pictures of the church before the 1880s show a fine 14th century tower; but it was reckoned unsafe, and brought down. In truth, the remaining stump is rather 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 shamefully melted down for scrap.

The glory of the exterior is the superb Decorated chancel, the result of a bequest by the Rookwoods in the 14th century. The design and craftsmanship of the window tracery are outstanding. It was common for chancels to be bequeathed by rich families; another excellent example is nearby at Glemsford.

The arch to the south door is splendid, and there is another fine Norman doorway, now blocked, on the north side. There is a key readily available across the road from the nice lady who lives in the old rectory, and the three churchwardens are keen on visitors, but I could see no reason at all for this church being locked.

And you really do need to go in, for this church contains one of the great medieval treasures of East Anglia, the Stanningfield Doom. This late 15th century extravaganza was covered with whitewash, probably by Protestant reformers in the late 1540s, and discovered during the 19th century restoration. Like all Doom paintings, it is a folk art representation of the last judgement, and is chiefly remarkable for the red pigment used in its colouring. This makes it quite different in its effect to, say, Cowlinge, North Cove, Stoke by Clare or Wenhaston.

It was restored in the 1990s. The Victorians had enthusiastically covered it with varnish, and of course the moisture built up behind it. The churchwarden explained that it had all been lifted off of the wall, cleaned, and stuck back on.

I was struck by how volatile an art object like this is. The black and white photograph taken by Cautley in the 1930s shows far more details, and Mortlock in the 1980s found little more than a grey shadow - well, it is certainly more impressive than that today, but what will remain in a hundred years time? Incidentally, a man from the Boydell press told me a funny story about Cautley's photo, which you can see a photocopy of at the back of the church. Apparently, Cautley, wearing his other hat as Diocesan architect, had tutted and shaken his head as he looked up at the doom. "I think we'd better have some scaffolding put up and take a closer look at that", he muttered. The churchwardens put up the scaffolding, Cautley climbed up with his camera, and hey presto! a photo for his book.

Among my favourite characters in the doom are the man above the point of the arch who is still wearing his shroud, and the pious woman preserving her modesty with praying hands low down on the northern side. But best of all 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 from dull sermons over the years. The whole doom is below, with selected highlights below that. Hover to read captions and click to see an enlarged image.

The Stannington Doom.
Pious woman (low north side) Risen man in shroud (low central) Saints on the right hand of Christ (high north side)
Christ in majesty (high central) Angel sounding last trump (middle south side) - there is another on middle north side. The saved in the heavenly city (middle north side) The dead rising (low central) Man rising from tomb (low north side)

There are two other items of great interest in the church. The splendid 15th century font carries familiar tracery patterns, but also the shield of the Rookwoods on the east side. And there is a good, if over-restored, Easter sepulchre up in the chancel; one might almost think the chancel made for it, but it postdates the chancel by a good 200 years, being installed on the eve of the Reformation. It served as a tomb for the Thomas Rookwood of the day, although I am afraid that the angels are Victorian additions.

Also of interest in the chancel is the restrained glass of the Millennium east window, and a curious quatrefoil low side window that is also visible from the outside. 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), although I did wonder if it was a later addition. Note also that the easterly windows in the nave are dropped to accomodate sedilia, suggesting altar shrines. All in all, this is a splendid church, full of the memory of the past.

And so, I headed on, back through the village and on to Bradfield Combust. On the way, I passed a beautiful old Methodist chapel, alone with its hall in the rape fields. It has a little graveyard in front, where I stopped for a quick potter, and reflected that religion must have been a matter of some lively debate in 19th century Stanningfield.

St Nicholas, Stanningfield, is just to the west of the A134 Bury to Sudbury road, near Bradfield Combust. Take the turning to Bradfield Methodist Church, and then the next turn on the left. I found it locked with four keyholders listed; the key was most readily available across the road at the Old Rectory.

With grateful reference to the fine book A Stanningfield Century, published by the Stanningfield Village Society.

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