At the sign of the Barking lion...

St John the Baptist, Stoke-by-Clare

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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    The large, pleasant villages of the upper Stour Valley, with their half-timbered houses, village greens and grand churches, are strikingly lovely. Stoke-by-Clare, Clare and Cavendish lie all in a row on the Haverhill to Sudbury road, with Long Melford, Glemsford and Hundon not far off. John Appleby's book Suffolk Summer tells his story of being an American serviceman in what were then busy working villages in the year the Second World War ended. Appleby spent these quiet months before he was repatriated cycling around Suffolk villages and visiting their churches, often starting or finishing his journey at stations on the old Cambridge to Colchester railway line which ran along the Stour Valley and within a hundred yards of this church. The railway has gone now, and prosperity has made these villages quaint.

The church sits in the grounds of Stoke College, a building of 15th Century origins. It was the College of St John the Baptist, effectively a community of priests. If Appleby found these villages busy in the 1940s, think what they must have been like in the 1540s! The Stour Valley villages were then hives of industry, turning the wool of the sheep farmed in the hills around into cloth. At that time, the last Dean of the College was Matthew Parker, later Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the pivotal figures in the English Reformation. He played an important role in the story of Stoke-by-Clare's parish church too, as we shall see. The oldest part of the church is the tower, which as Pevsner noted is that of an earlier church, probably early 14th Century, which was successively rebuilt over the course of the 15th Century. A number of bequests to the church, recorded by Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton, were made in the middle years of that century to the fixtures and fittings of the church, suggesting that the rebuilt church was largely complete by that time. However, in 1510 Thomas Elys left money to the new aisle of the church, and indeed the external appearance of Stoke-by-Clare's church seems to be one on the very eve of the Reformation and perhaps even a little bit later, probably thanks to Parker's enthusiasm for creating a fitting space for congregational worship.

Like many industrial places, Stoke by Clare was a hotbed of Protestantism by the early years of the 16th Century. Parker's influence fell heavily on St John the Baptist, and it was one of the flagship preaching houses of the reformers. The exterior is grand and austere, the castellated aisles stretching beyond the high clerestory to the chancel east wall, as if this were a ship, and the nave roof the bridge. To complete the illusion, the rood turret on the north side has a little door leading out onto the aisle roof. You enter the church through the castellated north porch into a powerful, wide interior full of light. The brick floors and white walls seem to emphasise this simplicity. There is little coloured glass, and what there is in the nave eschews the frequent sentimentality of 19th Century figurative glass for texts and a simple memorial to Parker. The wineglass pulpit he knew is still in situ, the result of a bequest of the 1490s. It is richly carved but barely twenty inches wide inside, and generally held to be the smallest medieval pulpit surviving in England.

The glass in the east window is of poor quality, its paintwork eroding. Elsewhere however there are some continental and medieval fragments surviving in the south transept. These include a post-mill, a stag caught in a thicket, and the arms of The Clothworkers' Company, who must have been very busy around these parts in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

windmill stag in a thicket heraldic roundel

The war memorial glass depicting a busy if rather jolly St George in the south chancel chapel is interesting, because it is to the design of Thomas Derrick. Derrick was best known as a cartoonist. He worked for Punch magazine, and also designed some World War Two propaganda posters.

Stepping back out of the chancel and facing west you can see that the filled-in tower arch is out of alignment, the south arcade finishing more or less in the middle of it. What has clearly happened is that the south aisle wall is the original south wall of an aisleless nave, retained for a new use when the new south arcade was built in the 15th Century. This may mean that the south chapel predates this and it is possible that the church was originally cruciform. As the whole church was rebuilt northwards of the retained south wall, so the tower was left behind towards the south.

To complicate matters further, we need to remember that some parts of the building were intended for use by the College of Priests, and some for the people of the parish. This may explain the unusual position of a Doom painting at the eastern end of the north aisle behind the organ. It is likely to be late 15th or early 16th Century, although claims are made for it being even later, perhaps at the time of a Marian revival. it was only uncovered from behind whitewash in the 1940s. If you didn't know it was there, you might easily miss it. A later Elizabethan inscription has been painted below it as as Wenhaston, and as there it probably coincided with the Doom being whitewashed.

Stoke-by-Clare doom St Michael weighing souls

Its subject matter is conventional, but the colour scheme is unusual, with a pale green background. Christ sits in Majesty on a rainbow at the top, and below him stands St Michael weighing souls against their sins in a balance. Around St Michael's feet the dead rise from their graves as at Stanningfield. The heavenly city is off to the left, while the fires of Hell burn merrily on the right. Another curiosity in this corner of the church is hidden away on a north side window sill. It is a primitively carved inscription on Latin to a Priest, William Dickons, dated 1567. This is fully twenty years after the Reformation, but the bottom of the inscription appears to have been obliterated. Was he one of the old college that had remained here, and died here? Was it placed here unofficially? Did the lost inscription ask us to pray for his soul?

As you'd expect in a place of such late medieval and early modern wealth, St John the Baptist has a number of brasses, mostly at the eastern end of the nave. The best-known are to Edward and Alice Talkerne. He died in 1597, she in 1605, her inscription declaring not only that she was a widdow, that she was buried by her husband. In this case of course the word 'by' has the same meaning as 'beside'. William Butcher was buried near to them in 1611, and his inscription tells us that he gave ye poore of Stoke at his buriall V & more XX to remayne in stocke for them forever: allso to ye poore of Sibly Hiningham 40 at his buryall & X to remayne in stocke for them for ever.

Edward Talkarne, 1597 'Here lyeth buried (by her husband Edward Talkarne Esq:) Alice Talkarne widdow' (1605) 'Alice Talkarne widdow' (1605)
'He gave ye poore of Stoke at his buriall V & more XX to remayne in stocke for them forever: allso to ye poore of Sibly Hiningham 40 at his buryall & X to remayne in stocke for them for ever'

There is a sense of course in which this building is a shell, stripped of the medieval purposes which dictated its construction. Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton transcribed the 1477 will in Latin of Agnes Dyke, which makes interesting reading and gives a flavour not only of the way in which the church was used, its furnishings and its liturgy, but also an insight into the religious beliefs and ferment of those extraordinary decades before the Reformation. She left 26s 8d to the purchase of a canopy for the pyx to hang in over the high altar of the church where the Lord's body may rest and a new and precious container to be prepared for placing the body of Our Lord Jesus Christ in, for carrying from the church into the town there when necessary. The will continues with three further bequests: to the making of a new solar in the same church called 'le rodlofte' to be newly made, 13s 4d, to the provision of new stools in the same church 13s 4d, and to the paving of the same church 6s 8d. Almost thirty years later in 1506 Florence Aisshefeld, widow of Stanton, was concerned for the welfare of her immortal soul, and left money to the gilde of Stow Seynt John aforsaid 6s 8d there to be remembered and praied for as a suster of the same.

But the prayers for Florence Aisshefeld's soul had but a half century to run, and Agnes Dyke's canopy, pyx and solar were soon to come tumbling down. Matthew Parker's muscular theology on the other hand is reflected in the 16th Century clock bell, for which he was probably responsible. Unusually for late medieval bells, it doesn't bear an invocation to a saint, but the motto Surge Mane Servire Deo ('Rise in the Morning to Serve God'). The old world was coming to an end, and the movers and shakers of the new world were coming out of places like Stoke-by-Clare. These people went about their business with enthusiasm, and early-modern England was forged in their preaching.


Simon Knott, September 2021

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looking east lady chapel font
England's smallest medieval pulpit south nave transept chapel roundels and fragments bench end
St George (Thomas Derrick, 1940s) In Memory of all in this Village who served the cause of freedom and in commemoration of its triumph by God's Great Mercy' killed in action at Tafelkop, Frankfort, South Africa, 1901
here lies the body of William Dickons, cleric, 1567


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