St Mary, Stoke by Nayland
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of 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 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.
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
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.
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.
Simon Knott, September 2018
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