At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Stoke by Nayland

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Stoke by Nayland

wings across the Stour tower top

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In all Suffolk perhaps only St Peter and St Paul at Lavenham has a grander exterior than this mighty ship. But Lavenham's setting is thoroughly domesticated. Here, in the wild hills above the Dedham Vale, St Mary lifts its great red tower to heaven, and nothing can compare with it.

John Constable loved this tower, and it appears several times in his paintings, not always in the right place. Simon Jenkins, in England's 1000 Best Churches, says that when the bells of Stoke-by-Nayland ring, all Suffolk stops to listen. All Essex too, perhaps, since this church is right on the border between the two counties.

St Mary is pretty much all of a piece, late in the 15th century, although there are some older bits, and a great deal of rather undistinguished 19th century work. But the glory of the church is the red brick and dressed stone tower, completed about 1470 and surmounted by stone spires, reminiscent of Bungay St Mary, away on Suffolk's northern borderland. There are fine views of this from many places, and from many miles away. Close to, it is immense. Stoke by Nayland is, after all, a small village rather than a town, and the setting of cottages only enhances the sense that this tower is enormous. The buttresses are laced with canopied image niches - how amazing it must have looked before the 16th century reformers removed all the statues! Tendring and Howard shields flag up the dead people we'll meet inside.

On the north side there is a dinky little Tudor porch (although it would be rather more imposing against a smaller church), but the south porch, which is the main entrance, is rather more of a curiosity. It was entirely refaced by the Victorians, and at first sight you might even think it 19th century, but the windows and bosses in the vaulting reveal to be one of the earliest parts of the church, an early 14th century addition to the building that was then replaced in the late 15th century. There are two storeys, and the parish library is still kept in the upper one. The bosses include an Annunciation scene. Moses descending fromn the clouds of Mount Sinai and a grinning devil. It may be that the bosdses are contemporary with the rebuilding, though I suspect that the Moses boss is original.

south porch boss: Moses south porch boss: grinning devil
south porch boss: Annunciation south porch corbel: angel with heraldic shield south porch boss: Christ in Majesty flanked by angels

But a serious distraction from the vaulting is straight ahead. St Mary has the best set of medieval doors in Suffolk. The figures are remarkable. They stand proud of Gothic turrets and arches. Mortlock thought they might represent a Tree of Jesse, effectively Christ's family tree, with the Blessed Virgin Mary at the top and ancestors back into Old Testament times beneath. However, the figure of the Blessed Virgin is actually a depiction of the Assumption, and the figures in the border appear tp be disciples and apostles. An angel holding a cockerel is surely an Instrument of the Passion, and an eagle presumably the symbol of St John the Evangelist. Medieval doors haven't survived at all widely in East Anglia, and it is exciting to see them at such close quarters.

C15 south door: Assumption of the Blessed Virgin south porch doorway 15th Century king (possibly St Edward)
C15 south door: St Peter? C15 south door: Eagle of St John C15 south door: Instruments of the Passion, angel holding a cockerel

A wicket door lets you into a space that widens and rises up around you, as if you were stepping into a larger space than you had left outside. To the west, the tower arch is a soaring void lifting to roof level. This is quality work, on a cathedral scale. This vastness swallows all sound. The font stands in tiny isolation, although it is actually on a massive Maltese cross pedestal and would dwarf furnishings in many smaller churches. It is a curious font, to say the least. Four of the panels show conventional evangelistic symbols, but three of the other four are unfamiliar. One is an angel, but the others are a woman in a cowl carrying a scroll beside a tree, a man with a sack pointing to a book open on a shelf, and a man with a scroll at a lectern.

font: a cleric carrying a sack points to an open book on a book case (15th Century) font: a hooded cleric reads a scroll draped over a lectern (15th Century) font: cowled figure with a scroll

Looking up, several 15th century corbels survived the Victorian restoration. One on the north side shows a ram caught in a thicket from the Abraham and Isaac story, and opposite it is a pelican in her piety. The splendid glass in the west window is by the O'Connors, and it may detain you for a moment, but eventually you must turn eastwards into the full drama of the long arcades stretching away like an avenue in a forest. Of course, from here you can see that St Mary is all pretty much all fully restored, but it is done well, it is well-kept and well-used. Still, you can't help thinking that the minister has a better view than the congregation. The north aisle chapel, now set out for weekday services and private prayer, was an early 14th century chantry chapel for the Peyton family, predating the rest of the church. A little ikon sits above the simple altar.

You step into a chancel which is full of colour in contrast with the high white light of the nave. Most of the glass is by JB Capronnier of Brussels, not something you'd wish on every church but it adds some particular character here. This end of the church is home to two large memorials, one in the south chancel chapel and the other in the north chancel chapel. The one to the south is to Lady Anne Windsor, originally one of the Waldegraves who we have met at Bures, who died in 1615. Her alabaster effigy lies between her two daughters who kneel at her head and her son at her feet. Across the chancel lies Sir Francis Mannock, 1634. The Mannocks were a recusant family of Giffords Hall, who were responsible for the survival of the old faith throughout the penal years at Withermarsh Green, where a small and remote Catholic church still survives.

Sir Francis Mattock, 1634 Sir Francis Mannock, 1634 Sir Francis Mannock, 1634
Anne, Lady Windsor, 1615 son of Anne, Lady Windsor, 1615 Anne, Lady Windsor with her kneeling daughter, 1615

Curiously, Sir Francis's wife Dorothea does not lie with him, but under a brass set in the floor not far away. It is offset by an architectural niche. There are several other brasses, including a substantial one near the priest door to Sir William Tendring, one of the donors of the 15th century rebuilding, a jolly little lion at his feet. A chrysom child is incised on a nearby ledger stone. Tendring's grim-faced wife Katherine lies nearby, and Mortlock points out how remarkable it is to see a figure of this period wearing rings.

lady in a mantle, possibly Katherine wife of Sir William Tendring, 1402 Lady Catherine Moleyns, wife of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, died 1452, brass made 1530s Dorothea Sanders Mannock, 1632
daughters and sons of Sir Francis Mannock, 1590 Dorothea Sanders Mattock, 1632

And so, of course, the full drama of St Mary is best appreciated from a distance. But there is so much here of interest, apparently understated survivals which no doubt would shout in our faces in a smaller church. It is almost a surprise to step outside and find ourselves not in the heart of a great town after all, but in the quiet rolling hills above the Dedham Vale, and, if you are lucky as I was on one occasion, the sound of a village football match immediately to the north of the graveyard as if I had been transported into a poem by A E Houseman.

Simon Knott, October 2019

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looking east looking west
font (15th Century) Four Evangelists with Faith, Hope, Mercy and Charity (O'Connors, 1876) sanctuary St John the Baptist meets the infant Christ at the Adoration of the Angels (JB Capronnier, 1860s) font and tower arch
Three Marys at the Foot of the Cross by JB Capronnier of Brussels Three Marys at the foot of the cross by JB Capronnier of Brussels Raising of Lazarus by JB Capronnier of Brussels Nativity with the young St John the Baptist (JB Capronnier of Brussels) angels by JB Capronnier of Brussels
angels by JB Capronnier of Brussels two sacrificial doves a thief crucified with Jesus by JB Capronnier of Brussels Annunciation


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