At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary le Tower, Ipswich

At the sign of the Barking lion...

home index e-mail what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk

St Mary le Tower

Palm Sunday 2020: St Mary le Tower St Mary le Tower from St Lawrence Church Lane St Mary le Tower queen's head
south porch beneath the tower south doorway

before the rebuilding

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

    Ipswich is the county town of Suffolk, and is also probably the longest continuously occupied town in England. Here on the River Gipping, in the south of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, a number of 7th Century industrial villages grew together, and since then Ipswich has always been an industrial and commercial town, processing the produce of the land round about, and exporting it up the River Orwell to other parts of England and the continent. It was wealthy in the late medieval period, but it suffered from being cut off from its European markets by the outfall from the Reformation. A strongly puritan town in the 17th Century, a quiet backwater in the 18th Century, it was not until the Industrial Revolution that it rose to commercial prominence again, with heavy industry producing agricultural machinery, vehicles and other ironwork. It would continue to be important industrially until the 1980s, but then most of the factories closed, and the town has not yet recovered.

The townscape is punctuated by church towers and spires, for Ipswich has twelve surviving medieval churches. Remarkably, six of them are still in use, and of these St Mary le Tower is the biggest and most prominent. Its spire rises sixty metres above the rooftops, making it the second tallest building in the town after the Mill apartment block on the Waterfront. There was a church here in 1200, when the Borough of Ipswich came into being in the churchyard by the declaration of the granting of a charter. The medieval church had a spire until it came down in the hurricane of 1661. When the Diocese of Norwich oversaw the restoration of the church in the mid-19th Century the decision was taken for a complete rebuild in stone on the same site. It is almost entirely the work of diocesan surveyor Richard Phipson, who worked on it over a period of twenty years in the 1850s and 1860s, including replacing the spire, and so this is East Anglia's urban Victorian church par excellence. The rebuilding was bankrolled by the wealthy local Bacon banking family. It is a large church, built more or less on the plan of its predecessor, full of the spirit of its age. One could no more imagine Ipswich without the Tower than without the Orwell Bridge.

The length of the church splits the churchyard into two quite separate parts, the south side a public space, the walled north side atmospheric and secretive. The large cross to the south-west of the tower is not a war memorial. It remembers John Patteson, Bishop of Melanesia, murdered by some of his flock in the 1870s. Treated as a martyr by the press of the day, Patteson appears to have had no local connection, but the Pattesons had intermarried with the Cobbolds, an important local family, and Patteson Road by Ipswich docks also remembers him. There never was a north door, and the west doors are beautiful and liturgically correct but perhaps not useful, since they are below street level and the path merely leads round to the south, allowing processions but no access from Tower Street. The flushwork is exuberant, and makes you think that being a flint-knapper must have been a good living in the 1860s. As with the medieval predecessor, the entrance is through the tower which forms a porch on the south side, in common with about thirty other East Anglian churches. Until the 1860s there was a further castellated porch on the south side of the tower, something in the style of the Hadleigh Deanery tower, but this was removed. You can see it in as photograph at the top of this page. And looking at this photograph, it is hard not to think that Phipson retained at least part of the lower stage of the tower.

There is a small statue of the church's patron saint in the niche above the entrance, by the sculptor Richard Pfeiffer. Away to the east, the same sculptor produced St John the Evangelist and St Mary of Magdala on the end of the chancel, and there is more of his work inside. You step into the tower porch under vaulting. A small door in the north-east corner leads up into the ringing chamber and beyond that the belfry, with a ring of twelve bells. The south doorway into the church has stops representing the Annunciation, with the angel to the west, and Mary at her prayer desk to the east. As part of a Millennium project this doorway was painted and gilded. It leads through into the south aisle, beyond which the wide nave seems to swallow all sound, a powerful transition from the outside. Polished wood and tile gleam under coloured light from large windows filled with 19th Century glass. At one time the walls were stencilled, but this was removed in the 1960s. The former church was dark and serious inside, as a drawing in the north aisle shows, so it must have made quite a contrast when the townspeople first entered their new church.

The font by the doorway is the first of a number of significant survivals from the old church. It's one of the 15th Century East Anglian series of which several hundred survive, all slightly different. It is in good condition, and you can't help thinking that this is ironically because Ipswich was a town which embraced protestantism whole-heartedly after the Reformation, and it is likely that the font 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. The next survival that comes into view is the pair of 15th Century benches at the west end of the nave. The bench ends are clerics holding books, and above them memorable finials depicting two lions, a dragon and what might be a cat or a dog. 

dog? cat? (15th Century) dragon (15th Century) lion (15th Century) lion (15th Century)
cleric holding a book cleric holding a book cleric holding a book

The box pews were removed as part of Phipson's restoration and replaced with high quality benches. The front row are the Borough Corporation seats, a mace rest and a sword rest in front of them. The carvings on the ends of the benches are seahorses, the creatures that hold the shield on the Ipswich Borough arms, and on the finials in front are lions holding ships, the crest of the Borough. As you might expect in Ipswich these are by Henry Ringham, whose church carving was always of a high quality, and is perhaps best known at Woolpit and Combs. His workshop on St John's Road employed fifty people at the time of the 1861 census, but by the following year he was bankrupt, and so the work here is likely some of the last that he produced. He died in 1866, and Ringham Road in East Ipswich remembers him.

lion holding a ship  (19th Century) sea horse (19th Century) sea horse (19th Century) lion holding a ship  (19th Century)

Moving into the chancel, the other major survival is a collection of late 15th and early 16th Century brasses. Altogether there are ten large figures, but in fact some of them represent the same person more than once. The most memorable is probably that of Alys Baldry, who died in 1507. She lies between her two husbands. The first, Robert Wimbill, is on the right. He died in about 1477. He was a notary, and his ink pot and pen case hang from his belt. Her second husband, Thomas Baldry, is on the left. He died in 1525. He was a merchant, and his merchant mark is set beneath his feet next to Alys's five daughters and four sons.

Alys Baldry, Robert Wimbill and Thomas Baldry are all depicted in further brasses here. The best of these is that to Robert. It was commissioned by his will in the 1470s. He lies on his own with a Latin inscription which translates as 'My hope lies in my heart. Holy Trinity, one God, have mercy on me.' His ink pot and pen case hang from his belt again, and between his feet are a skull and scattered bones, an early memento mori. Thomas Baldry's own brass memorial shows him lying between his two wives, Alys who we have already met, and his second wife Christian. The other group of three figures depicts Thomas Drayll, a merchant, with his wives Margaret and Agnes. Thomas died in 1512. The arms of the Cinque Ports are set above him, and a large merchant mark is beneath his feet. Several inscriptions are missing, and we know that when the iconoclast William Dowsing visited the church on 29th Janary 1644 he ordered the removal of six brass inscriptions with Ora pro nobis ('pray for us') and Ora pro animabus ('pray for our souls'), and Cujus animae propitietur deus ('on whose soul may God have mercy') and pray for the soul in English.

ten figure basses Thomas Baldry (1525) Alys Baldry (1506) Robert Wimbill (1477)
four daughters of Alys Baldry Alys Baldry (1506) with her second husband Thomas Baldry (1525) and her first husband Robert Wimbill (1477) four sons of Alys Baldry
Robert Wimbill, 1477 ‘My hope lies in my bosom; Holy Trinity, one God, have mercy on me’ Robert Wimbill, 1479 Thomas Baldry with wives Alys and Christian (1525) Thomas Drayll with wives Margaret and Agnes (1512)
three daughters of Thomas Baldry (1525) two sons of Thomas Baldry (1525) Cinque Ports arms on brass of Thomas Drayll (1512)
Thomas Baldry with wives Alys and Christian (1525) skull and scattered bones at the feet of Robert Wimbill (1470s)
merchant mark on brass of Thomas Drayll (1512)

The spectacular sanctuary with its imposing reredos, piscina and sedilia was clearly designed for shadowy, incense-led worship. A lush Arts and Crafts crucifixion surmounts the altar. East Anglian saints flank the walls. James Bettley, revising the Buildings of England volume for East Suffolk, records that it was the work of Somers, Clarke & Micklethwaite in the 1880s. The chancel is only lit from the east window, emphasising the focus from the rest of the church. The set of twelve apostles and twelve angels on the choir stalls are also by Pfeiffer. You can see his signature on the back of St Luke's icon of the Blessed Virgin. This sanctuary is the ultimate expression of late 19th Century Tractarianism in Suffolk. Back in the nave, the early 18th Century pulpit speaks of a different liturgical age, when this church was a preaching house rather than a sacramental space. James Bettley credits its carving to James Hubbard, and notes its similarity to that in the Unitarian Meeting House a few hundred yards off. The 19th Century screen that stood in the chancel arch and separated these two liturgical ages was moved to the east end of the north aisle as an organ screen some time in the 20th Century.

Another screen separates off the Lady Chapel from the south aisle and the chancel. The chapel is a pleasing period piece, furnished sentimentally. The reredos, by Arthur Wallace in 1907, depicts the Supper at Emmaus flanked by Moses and Elijah in an echo of the Transfiguration. The early 20th Century paintings on the south wall are lovely, especially the infant Christ as he plays at the feet of St Joseph. But the overwhelming atmosphere of this church comes from its extensive range of 19th Century glass, the largest collection in Suffolk. It provides a catalogue of some of the major 19th Century workshops over a fairly short period, from the 1850s 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. Other major workshops include those of William Wailes, the O'Connors and Lavers, Barraud & Westlake. A small amount of 1840s glass in the north aisle was reset here from the previous church. There are photographs of the glass at the bottom of this page.

As was common in major 19th Century restorations, the memorials that once flanked the walls were collected together and reset at the west end of the nave. At St Mary le Tower this was a major task, for there are a lot of them. The most famous is that to William Smart, MP for Ipswich in the late 16th Century. It is painted on boards. His inscription is a long acrostic, and he kneels at the bottom opposite his wife. between them is a panoramic view of the Ipswich townscape as it was in 1599, the year that he died, a remarkable snapshot of the past. Other memorials include those of the 17th Century when Ipswich was the heartland of firebrand protestant East Anglia. Matthew Lawrence, who died in 1653, was the publike preacher of this towne. There are more memorials in the north chancel aisle, now divided up as vestries. The best of these is to John and Elizabeth Robinson. He died in 1666. They kneel at their prayer desks, and below them are their children Thomas, John, Mary and Elizabeth, who all predeceased their mother. Also here are memorials to a number of the Cobbold family, who were not only important locally but even provided ministers for this church.

John and Elizabeth Robinson and their children (1666) William Smart, 1599 William Frederick Arthur Montague Hill, third Marquis of Downshire, 'was killed whilst riding in Bramford Park', 1844
Matthew Lawrence, 'publike preacher of this towne', 1653 John Chapman, 1657 Forth Tonnyn fifth son John and Mary Ann Denny, 1835/1853
Robert and Priscilla Beaumont, 1737/1749 Sarah Wallis and Emerson Cornwell, 1819 Joseph Curlove, minister of this parish and Susan his wife, 1707/1727
Nathaniel Fromanteel Cobbold and Thomas Clement Cobbold, 1886/1883 Robert Sparrowe, 1594 (twice)
Elizabeth Cobbold of Holywells, 1824 John Patteson Cobbold MP, 1875

There are more Cobbold memorials in the nave, including one in glass at the west end of the north aisle. It is dedicated to Lucy Chevallier Cobbold, and depicts her with her daughter at the Presentation in the Temple. The Cobbold 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 can be seen in the floor tiles. A good set of Stuart royal arms hangs above the west doorway.

I can't imagine what the 17th Century parishioners would make of this church if they could come back and see it now. Trevor Cooper, in his edition of The Journals of William Dowsing, recalls that the atmosphere in the town was so strongly puritan that in the 1630s the churchwardens were excommunicated for refusing to carry out the sacramentalist reforms of Archbishop Laud. The reforms demanded that the altar be returned to the chancel and railed in, but this was considered idolatrous by the parishioners. When the visitation commissioners of the Bishop of Norwich came to the church in April 1636 to see if the commands had been carried out, the churchwardens refused to give up the keys... verbally assaulting them and and confronting them with 'musketts charged, swords, staves and other weapons'.

Frank Grace, in his 'Schismaticall and Factious Humours': Opposition in Ipswich to Laudian Church Government, records a number of other incidents both here and in other Ipswich churches in the late 1630s, including an attack on 'a conformable minister' (that is to say one faithful to the Bishop) by a mob as well as a stranger who was invited by the town bailiffs to preach a very factious and seditious sermon in Tower church to a large congregation against the authority of the incumbent, who no doubt was held at bay while the ranting went on. As with all the Ipswich churches, the iconoclast William Dowsing was welcomed with open arms by the churchwardens here on his visit of January 1644. Looking around at Phipson's sacramental glory, it is hard to imagine now.


Simon Knott, December 2022

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

looking east chancel
East Anglian saints sanctuary sanctuary sedilia and piscina
tabernacle lady chapel reredos (Arthur Wallace, 1907) the angel at the empty  tomb/noli me tangere (Arthur Wallace, 1907)
font looking east in the south aisle looking west looking west in the south aisle
pulpit mace rest sword rest Hamilton Anne Douglas Hamilton, priest, 1929
heating grill Stuart royal arms Bacon crest
Pentecost The Transfiguration The Miracle at Cana
east window Peter heals a lame man in the name of Christ the believers share their possessions The Stoning of Stephen and Christ in Majesty The Conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus Tree of Jesse
Pentecost and angels St Peter baptises an Ethiopian eunuch and healing scenes Adoration of the Magi and Shepherds with Annunciation, Visitation and Nativity Christ and the children, Christ gathering lilies Christ in Majesty flanked by the Baptism of Christ and the summoning of the Disciples Transfiguration of Christ and Good Shepherd scenes
two angels with Sanctus scrolls The Miracle at Cana and scenes with Martha and Mary Mary and Joseph find the young Christ preaching in the Temple Lucy Chevallier Cobbold at the Presentation in the Temple two angels with Alleluia scrolls
Lucy Chevallier Cobbold at the Presentation in the Temple Baptism of Christ two angels standing on wheels Christ in Majesty Adoration of the Magi Christ in the carpenter's workshop
Annunciation Visitation Nativity Christ in Majesty The Stoning of Stephen 'Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?'
Crowd listening to St Peter preach St Peter Peter baptises an Ethiopian eunuch Christ heals a blind man Christ heals the lame and the sick Christ raises Jairus's daughter from the dead
Adoration of the Magi (detail) Adoration of the Magi (detail) Adoration of the Magi (detail) Adoration of the Shepherds (detail) Adoration of the Shepherds (detail)
whither has thy beloved gone I believe in the resurrection of the dead the life of the world to come Angels sound the Last Trump
Mary Magdalene anoints Christ's feet Mary and Martha await the resurrection of Lazarus Christ with Mary and Martha at Bethany The Miracle at Cana Christ summons the Disciples St John the Baptist indicates the Lamb of God
Joseph with two doves and a candle at the Presentation in the Temple Simeon and the Christ Child at the Presentation in the Temple Lucy Chevallier Cobbold at the Presentation in the Temple A Greek woman asks for Christ to drive out a demon Christ with Martha and Mary at Bethany
the believers share their possessions Peter baptises an Ethiopian eunuch for of such is the Kingdom of God Mary and Joseph find the young Christ preaching in the temple
angels on wheels and angel musicians Lamb of God
Thomas, John, Mary and Elizabeth Robinson (1666)


The Churches of East Anglia websites are non-profit-making. But if you enjoy using them and find them useful, a small contribution towards the costs of web space, train fares and the like would be most gratefully received. You can donate via Paypal.