At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary le Tower, Ipswich

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


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rising above the shopping streets

attention to detail

the original entrance arch reset

international gothic

excellent font

Millennium project

18th century pulpit

corporation mace holder

corporation pew

choir stalls

gorgeous sanctuary

John Robinson

Sarah Cobbold

Robinson memorial detail I

Robinson memorial detail I


part of Jacobean chancel arch

Charles II royal arms


the great Victorian spire

before the rebuilding

Familiar to residents and visitors alike, the great Victorian spire of St Mary-le-Tower rises above the shopping streets of central Ipswich, the nearest thing the town will ever have to a cathedral. This is Suffolk's Victorian church par excellence. It is full of the spirit of its age, from the Suffolk flushwork to the international gothic of the spire itself. One could no more imagine Ipswich without 'the Tower' than without the Orwell Bridge.

There were six town centre churches dedicated to St Mary in the Middle Ages; four survive, picturesquely differentiated as St Mary le Tower ('the Tower'), St Mary at Elms ('the Elms'), St Mary at Quay and St Mary at Stoke.

There was a church here in 1200, when the Borough of Ipswich was declared in the churchyard by the granting of a charter. When the Diocese of Norwich restored it in the mid-nineteenth century, they decided on a complete rebuild in stone on the same site. The Diocesan Architect R.M. Phipson was chosen for the job, and the old church was effectively demolished in the 1860s, and a new one built in its place. The old foundations were used, with an extension towards Northgate Street, which is why the northern part of the churchyard is so severely cut off.

There never was a north door, and the west door is beautiful but rather useless, since it is below street level and the path merely leads round to the south. The only parts of the medieval church retained were a doorway, the nave arcades, and a few fixtures and fittings. From the outside it is virtually all Phipson's work, all of a piece, and quite magnificent. The flushwork is exuberant; being a flint-knapper must have been a good living in the 1860s.

The entrance is in the style of the area's south-west tower porches, although on a much grander scale. The actual entrance arch seems to have been retained, as it appears to be the same in the photograph of the 1850s (above), albeit with the tablets now removed. If so, then it is 15th century. There is a fine 19th century Madonna and child in the niche above by Richard Pfeiffer, full of Victorian Anglo-catholic sentiment. Away to the east, the same sculptor produced St John the Evangelist and St Mary of Magdala on the end of the chancel.

The spire is about 60m tall. The chequerboard pattern of the lower tower is rather alarming in comparison with the subtlety of some Suffolk churches, but must have been the very thing in the late 19th century (see the same at Butterfield's south porch of St Mary at Stoke), or at least until the confection of St Lawrence across the road was finished 20 years later. The spire is heartier than Phipson's other more feminine Suffolk spires at Great Finborough and Woolpit,.

The porch inside is grand, stone and marble rising to a painted wooden ceilure. St Peter and St Paul, in the windows either side, look on. A little door to the north-east leads up to the belfry, with a ring of thirteen bells. Their renewal was completed in 1999; I am told that it is actually a ring of twelve, and the thirteenth is a sharp 2nd for use when fewer than twelve are rung. The doorway into the church has been given lovely stops representing the Annunciation, with the angel to the west, and Mary at her prayer desk to the east. As part of the Millenium project, all of this has been guilded, and it is all absolutely gorgeous.

Inside, the vastness swallows all sound. Everywhere there is the gleam of polished wood and tile. Sadly, it was fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s to remove tiles from walls, but you can still make out where these would have been. Also removed was the chancel screen. The old memorials crowd uncomfortably at the west end - Phipson was having no truck with them - but the majestic view to the east is testimony to Phipson's competency. Everything is done to the letter, with the finest attention paid to detail.

looking east the great west window the south aisle, looking west west end of the nave

The demolished church was very dark and serious inside, so it must have made quite a contrast when the town saw inside its new church. There is a drawing of the inside of this in the north aisle, along with part of the Jacobean chancel arch. Now, the great Perpendicular-style west window fills the nave with coloured light in the afternoons, a perfect foil for evening prayer. A fine Charles II royal arms hangs above.

The font is an excellent example of the typical 15th century East Anglian style, and deserves to be better known. It is in very good condition indeed, probably because this was a town that embraced protestantism whole-heartedly, and it was plastered over in the mid-16th century to make it plain and simple. The lions around the pillar stand on human heads, and there are more heads beneath the bowl. On the bowl itself are more lions, in a curious echo of the font of St Peter, albeit some four hundred years later. There are fine brasses from the original church in the chancel. The early 18th century pulpit, contemporary with and similar to the one in the Unitarian chapel, is a bit sombre, but an excellent example of Grinling Gibbons-style carving. The screen moved from the chancel arch can now be found at the east end of the north aisle, where it softens the metal organ pipes. It is slightly older than its near-twin that separates off the Lady Chapel.

The Decorated-style east window has a certain delicacy, and the otherwise windowless and heavy-wooded chancel was clearly designed for dark, shadowy, incense-led worship. The best feature of the chancel, and perhaps of the whole church, is the grand reredos, piscina and sedilia in the sanctuary, all of about 1900. A lush Arts and Crafts crucifixion surmounts the altar, done in gesso work on wood. East Anglian Saints flank the walls. This sanctuary is the ultimate expression of late 19th century Tractarianism in Suffolk. To think that this was only a few decades after the events at Claydon! You really feel as if you might be in a 19th century colonial Cathedral.

high altar reredos detail high altar lady chapel detail

The Lady Chapel is also a delightful piece, full of Victorian and Edwardian sentiment. The reredos shows the transfiguation, but I like best the early 20th century paintings on the south wall, especially the touching infant Christ, as he plays at the feet of St Joseph.

The excellent set of twelve apostles and twelve angels on the choir stalls (still in use for their original purpose) are by Pfeiffer, who did the external statues. You can see his signature on the back of St Luke's icon of the Blessed Virgin.

The Victorian stained glass windows in the nave are of variable quality. The woodwork is much better; it is also largely 19th century, much the work of Pfeiffer and the always excellent Henry Ringham; more of his work can be seen at Great Bealings. The front pews are the so-called 'Corporation pews'; the Tower styles itself the civic church of Ipswich, and one can see the same attempt to merge the municipal with the sacramental as at Phipson's other major work for the diocese, the internal restoration of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich. The bench ends show the Ipswich symbols of a seahorse, and a lion carrying a ship.

If you look carefully at the back of the church, however, you will see that the churchwardens pews still retain their medieval bench ends.

medieval bench end to churchwardens' pew medieval bench end to churchwardens' pew medieval bench end to churchwardens' pew

The arcades are from the medieval church, and must have had a slender grace rather lost now - they yearn for white light to enfold them.

The famous Cobbold family provided ministers for this church for many years in the 18th and 19th centuries, and their tombs can be seen in the north chancel aisle, beyond the organ. The family embraced Tractarianism wholeheartedly, being largely responsible for the building of St Bartholomew near their home at Holywells Park. They probably had an influence over the Bacon family, whose wealth went towards the rebuilding, and whose symbol of a boar may be found in the floor tiles.

One memorial you must not miss is that to William Smart, MP for Ipswich, which you can find on the wall in the north west corner of the nave. It is painted on wood, and features a panoramic view of the Ipswich townscape as it was in 1599, when he died.

This parish is unusual in having virtually no resident population, and the congregation is of people drawn from a wide area attracted by the liberal teaching, musical tradition and peculiar cathedral-style high churchmanship of the church. It may not be the biggest congregation in Ipswich, but it is a friendly one.

You can also visit the St Mary le Tower website.

lady chapel detail lady chapel detail lady chapel detail

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