St Mary le Tower, Ipswich
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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 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 twelve bells. Their renewal was completed in 1999. 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.
The Victorian stained glass in the nave windows is of variable quality, but worth exploring because it forms the largest expanse of 19th Century glass in Suffolk. It is interesting in that it provides a catalogue of some of the major 19th Century workshops over a fairly short period, from the 1860s to the 1880s. Much of it is by Clayton & Bell, who probably received the commission for east and west windows and south aisle as part of Phipson's rebuilding contract. A small amount of 1840s glass in the north aisle was reset here from the previous church.
The nave woodwork is also largely 19th century, much the work of Pfeiffer and the always excellent Henry Ringham, more of whose work can be seen at Great Bealings and Woolpit. The front pews are the so-called 'Corporation pews', for the Tower styles itself the civic church of Ipswich, and you 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. 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 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. There are 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 19th Century 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 which 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.
Simon Knott, August 2017
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