At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Stoke by Nayland

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


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Stoke calling Suffolk. That mighty tower.

The porch - apparently Victorian, but there's more going on than meets the eye.

The hidden north side, with a Tudor porch.

Stoke Sentinel.

The Peyton chantry.

Looking east.

The reordered sanctuary.

In the chancel.

East window.

Looking west.

The tower arch.

West window.

The Mannock tomb.

Sir Francis Mannock.

Chrysom child on a ledger stone.

Corbel: ram caught in a thicket.

Corbel: Pelican in her piety.

In Memory of our Children.

On the edge of the graveyard, a village football match. Very A E Houseman.


Stoke by Nayland. I had to chop down a tree to take this photo.

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, 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 corbels 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 corbels include an Annunciation, and what may be Moses. There are images below; hover to read captions, and click on them to see enlarged.

Angel. Angel. A king with two sons?
Moses? The Annunciation?

A serious distraction from all this is straight ahead of you. St Mary has the best late 15th century doors in Suffolk, eclipsing even Otley. 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.

The Blessed Virgin. St John?
St Paul? St Bartholomew? Ancestors of the Messiah.

Preserve the illusion of the medieval one moment longer. Step through the doorway, and turn immediately to the west. The tower arch is superb, a soaring void that lifts to roof level. The fine font on its huge pedestal seems tiny in such an open setting. The parish has done well in removing all the furnishings from the west end. 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.

The font is curious, 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. The iconography is unfamiliar; I wondered if they might be representations of Doctors of the Church. Click on the images to enlarge them.

The font.
Angel Man with a scroll beside a lectern.
Man with a sack pointing at an open book. Woman beside a tree.

Looking up, you'll see that 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. Images are in the left hand column. 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 and realise that, from here, St Mary is all pretty much all Victorian inside. It is done well, it is well-kept and well-used, but it is all a bit dull I am afraid. You can't help thinking that the minister has a much better view than the congregation.

A couple of points of interest in the nave are an unusual memorial board for dead children - In Memory of Our Children Now With Jesus it says - which I liked very much, and a north chapel, now set out for weekday services and private prayer, that was an early 14th century chantry chapel for the Peyton family. A little ikon sits above the simple altar.

The church has 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. You can see images of it below.

Lady Anne Windsor and children.
Lady Anne at rest. Her son... ...and daughters.

Across the chancel lies Sir Francis Mannock, 1634. It 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. There is an image of him in the column on the left.

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. I do like the jolly lion at his feet. Don't miss the chrysom child engraved on a nearby ledger stone. His grim-faced wife Katherine lies nearby, and Mortlock points out how remarkable it is to see a figure of this period wearing rings. Once again, hover to read the captions and click to enlarge them.

Sir William Tendring, donor of the church. Sir William at close quarters... Sir WIlliam's jolly lion.
Lady Katherine Tendring. Lady Katherine close up. Scary. Lady Dorothea Mannock - a brief renaissance moment. Lady Dorothea close up.

The full drama of St Mary is best appreciated from a distance. But there is much here that makes a visit worthwhile, many of them apparently understated survivals that would shout in your face in a smaller church. I decided I liked St Mary a lot after all, and silently commended the parish for not installing one of those awful craft shops familiar from other large Suffolk churches. I stepped outside to the sound of a village football match immediately to the north of the graveyard. Very A E Houseman.

Cottages to the west of the great tower.

St Mary, Stoke by Nayland, is located to the north of Nayland near the Sudbury to Colchester road. It is also signposted from the A12 at East Bergholt. I have never found it locked.

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