At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter and St Mary, Stowmarket

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Stowmarket fleche south porch

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          The crisp, simple 1994 spirelet of this church is a landmark from the busy A14 and the railway line out of Ipswich to Norwich and Cambridge. Suffolk doesn't have many spires, and so with those of neighbouring Woolpit and Great Finborough it creates an illusion of some more distant part of the country, especially when seen through an autumn mist from the hills on the far side of the Gipping Valley. Coming closer, the surprise of a substantial country market town gathers to surround the church, and St Peter and St Mary sits right beside the busy high street of the sixth largest urban area in Suffolk.

The north-west corner sticks out into the main crossroads, and there are three curious windows at the west end of the north aisle that face onto this junction. But the church is cut off from the main shopping street by a barrier of buildings, its attractive tower peeping up behind a row of substantial 19th Century banks. If you go up the passage to the church you find that the graveyard has become a small, quiet park, with buildings on all sides. Most of the headstone have been removed or reset nearer to the church, apart from a few low tombchests covered in moss and ivy.

St Peter and St Mary is clearly not a possible medieval dedication. Churches were dedicated according to feast days in the ordo of the Catholic Church, and there is no feast shared by St Peter and the Blessed Virgin. The original dedication was to St Peter and St Paul. The modern dedication is a result of the dedications of two churches being combined. At Domesday in 1086, the church on this site (of which nothing survives) was the church for the vill of Thorney, which included Stowupland, Gipping, Old Newton and Dagworth within its boundaries. In the south east corner of this grassed area there once stood another church, a smaller one dedicated to a Marian feast, probably the Assumption. This was the town church for Stowmarket. The modern dedication takes on board that of both churches, then, for the town church was demolished in the 16th Century during the trauma of the Reformation.

This is a big church, very much in the Decorated style of the 14th Century. A large number of 15th Century bequests survive to furnishings for the inside, suggesting that the body of the church was pretty much complete by then. The spirelet has St Peter's keys in gold upon it, which we will come back to in a moment. It replaced an 18th Century spirelet of similar proportions which was taken down as unsafe in 1975. There is a processional way through the base of the tower as at Ipswich St Lawrence and nearby Combs. There is a grand two-storey 15th Century south porch, rather battered now by urban usage over the centuries but similar in size to the one at Woolpit.

After the grandness of the exterior, stepping inside is at first a bit of a disappointment. Stowmarket was a significant industrial town in the 19th Century, and had a strong tradition of protestant ministry. Because of this, very little that was medieval survived the Victorian restoration, which was by Diocesan architect Richard Phipson. It is interesting to compare this interior with that of Ipswich St Mary le Tower, another civic church reconstructed by Phipson. There, he was creating a liturgical space for the new Anglo-catholic theology of the Oxford Movement, but here, the intention was more for a preaching space, although the usual Victorian sentimentalisms couldn't be escaped. Because of the tradition of this church, it might be that there wasn't much medieval for Phipson to destroy, although Sam Mortlock decried the restoration because of the loss of its fine 18th Century furnishings, which were well documented.

However, in recent years there have been energetic efforts to transform the once-dour interior. The dull Victorian quarries in the south windows have been removed, and the four most easterly windows filled with excellent glass by the York-based stained glass artist Helen Whittaker. They depict the Four Seasons as four figures surrounded by a swirl of seasonal images, and verses from the Psalms, which are at once beautiful and appropriate for the Low Church tradition of Stowmarket.

Autumn (Helen Whittaker, 2004) Winter (Helen Whittaker, 2004) Spring (Helen Whittaker, 2004) Summer (Helen Whittaker, 2004)

The rest of the glass is all of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, by Camm Brothers, Clayton & Bell and AL Moore. The font is a curious thing, a utilitarian recutting of something that might once have been 13th Century now standing forlornly in the south-west corner of the nave. But turning to the east, the view is already a fine one, the altar brought forward into the nave and the chancel beyond full of space. The gloomy massed ranks of Victorian benches will also go, to be replaced by modern wooden chairs. This should create a delicious, light-filled nave which will be a pleasure to sit in. The pulpit is also a curiosity, put together using a frame of parts of the old roodscreen. The south aisle chapel now contains the war memorial, a sweet reredos of 1921 by Eleanor Gribble, with gold and pastel shades. Phipson had kitted this out as a Lady Chapel, but his parclose screen was removed in the 1920s when the chapel was remodelled by Munro Cautley. Some of the benches at the east end of the nave have medieval bench ends. Up in the chancel, Munro Cautley's ponderous altar looks on forbiddingly.

Stowmarket was a solidly reforming parish from the start. Most of the internal devotional art was destroyed in the 1540s, and a hundred years later William Dowsing came this way to deal with anything that had been missed. On Monday February 5th 1644, on the last day of his first tour of Suffolk, he arrived at about lunchtime. We gave order to break down about 70 superstitious pictures, his journal records, and to levell the chancel, to Mr Manning, that promised it; and to take down 2 crosses, one on the steeple, and the other on the church as it is called; and took off an inscription, of 'ora pro anima'.

William Manning was the churchwarden. In the 2002 edition of Dowsing's Journal, Dr John Blatchly records that he was a leading citizen of the town. The Vicar at the time was Thomas Young, the arch-protestant tutor of the young poet John Milton. Young, unsurprisingly, kept his incumbency into the Commonwealth period until his death in 1655. The seventy superstitious pictures would have been in stained glass, and it seems about the right number to have filled the east window. Thus, a great medieval treasure was lost to us.

The chancel needed levelling because, in common with many churches, it had been raised above the level of the nave under the influence of Archbishop Laud, a decade earlier. Laud's intention was to recreate a sacramental space in the medieval manner, at a time when most churches were celebrating communion around a table in the nave. A few months after Dowsing's visit, Laud would go to the scaffold.

The crosses were outside of course, and Dowsing frequently took issue with them. By steeple he meant the tower, and by the church as it is called he meant the nave. Interestingly, David Davy's sketch of the church in 1842, made before Phipson got his hands on the building, shows the stumps of two crosses on the gable ends of the nave and chancel. Maybe Dowsing is a little confused. He wrote his journal up at the end of a busy day, during which he visited seven other churches. But the churchwarden's accounts go further, and state that, in fact, it was crosse keys, the symbol of St Peter, that were taken down from the tower. As John Blatchly pointed out, Dowsing would be displeased to see that they are now back there.

The main family associated with this church were the Tyrrells. They lived at Gipping but were buried here in the east end of the north aisle, which was their chantry chapel. There are several Tyrrell memorials of the 17th and 18th Centuries, but perhaps the grandest is the great tomb cover set in the eastern bay of the arcade, with its carvings facing into the nave. The sweetest is the brass to eight year old Ann Tyrell, who died in 1638. There are benches at Gipping decorated with the Tyrrell knot that are said to come from this church originally.

tomb opera box Chrysom babe Penellope
mournful cherubs sleeping babe died in a deep decline

The inscription ora pro anima means 'pray for the soul of', and was often found in pre-Reformation inscriptions. It is a sign of Catholic theology, and as such was anathema to the Puritans. William Dowsing, a cautious, conservative man, usually only removed the part of the inscription that offended, rather than the whole thing, and rarely removed figure brasses. All the former Tyrrell brasses are missing from under the large tomb canopy, but they might just as easily have been stolen in later years. Curiously though, part of the inscription on the 1641 memorial to William and Dorothy Tyrrell has been obliterated. Now, this is a full century after the Reformation, and the paint on it can hardly have been dry by the time Dowsing visited, but the Tyrrells were notorious recusants, and that would have offended Dowsing greatly. Perhaps there was something in the inscription that did too. The role of the Tyrrells in trying to re-establish English Catholicism in the 1550s would perhaps not have been forgotten locally.

Curiously, Dowsing did not visit Gipping itself, where the Tyrrells lived, and had their private chapel. Perhaps they were too powerful, but this doesn't seem right, for the glass there was also destroyed. Maybe Dowsing simply knew it had already been dealt with. Any glass that survived Dowsing here would, in any case, not have survived the great Stowmarket factory explosion of 11th August 1871, which destroyed so much of the town, and killed so many.

A number of memorials testify to the busy life of the town over the centuries, and also to those who went out from this place to Empire and War. A ledger stone of 1720 remembers Mr John Victoryn son of Mr Peter Victoryn a Durtch Merchant in London. Samuel Hollingsworth died at Grouville in Jersey in 1843 aged 86. Unusually, his memorial includes his last words which were apparently I am in the full prospect of a glorious immortality thro' the merits of my redeemer. Half a century later, a little brass plaque from the Boer War remembers No 3983 Sergt Hayward 1st King's Dragoon Guards killed in South Africa 23rd May 1901. The plaque was, the inscription tells us, Erected by his Officers and Comrades. a few years later Lieutenant Frank Balls, of the 3rd Battalion Suffolk Regiment attached to the Royal Air Force... died at Alexandria, Egypt on July 1st 1918 in the twenty-fifth year of his age of mortal disease contracted on a long distance flight into the desert whilst on special service.


Simon Knott, January 2021

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Christ flanked by the four Evangelists (Camm Brothers, 1875) south aisle chapel reredos (Eleanor Gribble, 1921) font
and the dead shall be raised incorruptible (AL Moore, 1909) Lamb of God Charity angel sounding the last trump (AL Moore, 1909)
horse chestnut leaf, conker, A a Dutch Merchant in London, 1662 Christ arraigned before Pilate
died at Grouville in the Island of Jersey (last words) Killed in South Africa Died at Alexandria, Egypt... of mortal disease contracted on a long distance flight into the desert


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