St Mary, Stonham Parva
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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|Stonham Parva, also known as
Little Stonham, and once known as Stonham Jernigan from
the family who owned the manor after the Conquest, will
be best known for its setting on the A140 Ipswich to
Norwich road. Here are the notorious speed cameras which
regularly catch inattentive drivers who haven't spotted
that the speed limit drops to 30mph here. However, unless
they are really inattentive they will have noticed the
sign for the Magpie pub, which stretches right across the
road. What they won't have seen is this lovely little
church, for it sits half a mile to the west of A140, at
the end of a narrow lane at the side of the fields. The
great East Anglian churches are mostly large-scale
Perpendicular in style, but there are smaller examples as
well, the most exquisite of which is probably St Mary at
Quay by the Ipswich waterfront, but also here at Stonham
Parva. The chancel went up in the 14th Century, with
money being left towards it in the 1370s, but in the
1390s a major rebuilding campaign got under way. John
Goodwyn, the rector of Stonham Parva, left 20s to the
emendation of the church, meaning the rebuilding of
the nave, and then in 1416 Gilbert Blomwile, a citizen
and clothmaker of London, left a fodder of lead
towards the new roof of the church of Stonham Gernygan
where I was born, suggesting that by then the nave
was pretty much complete.
Next came the tower, and it is the tower which is memorable. The 15th century flintwork rises up its sides, and then opens out on three faces into Marian monograms, with the initials of Ave Maria, Gratia Plena, Hail Mary, Full of Grace. The bell in the tower is inscribed with VIRGO CORONATA DUC NOS AD REGNA BEATA: 'Lead us, Crowned Virgin, to the Holy Kingdom.' This refers to the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin, the fifth Glorious Mystery of the rosary. What at first appears to be a truncated south aisle forms a chapel transept, and was probably tucked into the space soon after the porch was built. The castellation of the nave roof turns to become a stepped gable to the east, and then this is echoed further east on the chancel. This is an unusual effect, and as James Bettley observes in the revised Buildings of England volumes for Suffolk, it is supposed to be original and not part of the restoration of the chancel by EF Bishopp, 1886. Given that Bishopp replaced the east window tracery, perhaps the nave stepped gable is more likely to be original than that of the chancel.
The church is redundant, and in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. For the last few years it has been closed to the public as emergency roof repairs have taken place, and although it is now open to the public again the chancel was still cordoned off when I visited in June 2023. But what a roof it is! You step into an intimate space with no coloured glass, and look up to the delight of a 15th Century double hammerbeam construction. These splendid structures were designed to allow a roof to cross a wider space, and there can have been no reason for it here other than the glamour of it. Seated saints sit in the wall posts with angels along the wall plates. It was presumably built by the Bacton workshop which was responsible for a number of other roofs in this area. The roof in the chancel is the work of EF Bishopp, a sympathetic counterpoint.
The late 15th Century font must have been provided for the new church, and the fact that it has a Tudor rose on one of its bowl panels suggests it was not installed until 1485 or later. Other panels include a crowned Marian monogram, a crucifixion group, and Instruments of the Passion. It sits under a compact 18th Century west gallery supported on cast iron pillars. The furnishings below are the work of Munro Cautley who was diocesan surveyor and architect for the Diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich. They replaced 18th Century box pews which must have been quite in keeping with the gallery, and it seems a shame that they were lost. On the afternoon of March 30th 1851, the day of the national Census of Religious Worship, they would have been sat in by no fewer than 176 people who had come to hear the Sunday sermon, or so officiating minister Charles Rawlins claimed in his return to the Census. This seems a remarkably high number for a parish with barely four hundred inhabitants, especially as James Boast at the village Baptist chapel claimed an attendance of 120 at exactly the same time. Surely both ministers were bigging up their numbers in a spirit of denominational competition, or perhaps they really were an unusually religious lot in mid-19th Century Stonham Parva.
An imposing early 17th Century memorial to Gilbert Mouse is set on the north wall. The large alabaster surround is carved with memento mori, a skull and an hourglass taking their place at the top and a cherub at the bottom. The National Heritage listing for the church records that the central panel is made of brass, but surely it is marble or even slate? The inscription on it tells us that Mouse was borne in this parish and after he had lived many yeares neare this place he went on to become servant of two Lord Chancellors and one Lord Privy Seal. It seems to have been a lucrative calling, for he was so blest by God in his good endeavours as his bountie made shewe thereof by many lardge sommes of monye given by him in his life time as also many lardge legacies given by him at his death to many of his kindred and freinds. He also gave 10l to this parish for the mending of high wayes and 20l to be imployed by the churchwardens yearely & ye benefitt thereof to be distributd to viii poore people of this parish on St Thomas's Day and Good Fryday per annum for ever. Mouse died at the age of 86 in 1622, and he was buried in the church of St Margaret, Westminster. On the wall opposite his memorial here is a good canvas set of royal arms for Charles I, which, given that he came to the throne in 1625, must have been installed at about the same time as Mouse's memorial. Curiously, the National Heritage listing attributes the set to Queen Anne.
The Churches Conservation Trust does a good job of looking after this place, but it seems to me that all redundant churches have an air of sadness about them, as if the life had long gone out of them. Back in the 15th Century the parishioners must have been very proud of their splendid new building. As we've seen, the Tudor rose on the new font suggests this may not have been until after 1485, but by 1491 the church was obviously complete, for John Bele's bequest of eight marks that year was not to the rebuilding but for a priest to sing for my soul for a year. It is these bequests that give us a real insight into the liturgical and devotional life of a small East Anglian parish in the late medieval period. In his will of 1530, Thomas Blomefelde left 14 marks and if it need 10s more to buy a pair of silver censers and a silver ship, a priest that be named of good conversation to sing for good friends and all Christian souls in the church of Stoneham aforesaid for a whole year, he to have for two whole yearly service £6. The 'ship' would have been a container for incense, and the censers would be swung with the incense burning inside. The priest 'of good conversation' would have said requiem masses for the dead, probably in the transept chapel. How extraordinary it is to stand inside Stonham Parva church now and imagine that happening.
Simon Knott, July 2023
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