At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Stoke by Nayland

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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wings across the Stour

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 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 and a grinning devil.

Annunciation grinning devil

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. They seem to represent a Tree of Jesse, effectively Christ's family tree, with Mary at the top and ancestors back into Old Testament times beneath. I think the figures in the border are disciples and apostles - in which case I could identify St Paul with his sword (although it might be St Bartholomew with his flencing knife) and 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.
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: robed figure pointing to a book cowled monk (15th Century) font: cowled figure with a scroll

Looking up, several 15th century corbels survived the Victorian restoration. One on the northside 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. His memorial is believed to be by Nicholas Stone. 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.

hand on heart attendants at the death showing his knee

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. Mortlock thought Stone may have been responsible for this as well, and it certainly suggests that the Renaissance did not entirely bypass protestant England. 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.
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 quietl 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, September 2018


Stoke by Nayland Stoke by Nayland Stoke by Nayland
15th Century king (possibly St Edward) Stoke by Nayland war memorial surprised by death
Annunciation son and five daughters son and three daughters
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 a thief crucified with Jesus by JB Capronnier of Brussels Raising of Lazarus by JB Capronnier of Brussels
Nativity by JB Capronnier of Brussels angels by JB Capronnier of Brussels Mary and John at the foot of the cross by JB Capronnier of Brussels A Thief Crucified with Christ by JB Capronnier of Brussels
angels by JB Capronnier of Brussels two sacrificial doves

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