At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Sudbury

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Sudbury St Peter

a market place church

traders in the temple   Sudbury is my wife's hometown, so I visit it often. It is very noticable how the place has smartened itself up over the last ten years or so - in the final decade of the 20th Century it had become run down. Increasingly, you see visitors exploring the streets. Perhaps they are using the town as a base for trips to Long Melford, Lavenham and the like, but there is much here of interest as well, and the town increasingly courts tourism. There are excellent surviving buildings from the medieval period onwards, and Saturday's market is still one of the busiest in the county. Towering over it is the town's most prominent building, St Peter's church.

St Peter is one of three medieval churches in the town centre. In fact, it was not built as a parish church, but as a chapel of ease to St Gregory, a few hundred yards off beside the river. It assumed parish status after the Reformation, but the two parishes were later again combined, and St Peter was declared redundant in 1972. Outside, there stands a statue of Sudbury's most famous son, Thomas Gainsborough, although the Gainsboroughs themselves worshipped at Sudbury's third medieval church, All Saints, where you'll find their mausoleum.

The outside of St Peter is rather curious, the aisles tapering towards the east, a reminder that this church was severely hemmed in by houses and shops until the 20th century. This is one of those churches that presents us with a complete rebuilding of the 15th Century, as at near neighbours Lavenham and Long Melford. Although not as grand as either of those, it is evidence of the wealth of the cloth industry in this area. St Gregory and All Saints were also rebuilt, but evidence of earlier churches survives there. Not so here. The aisles extend westwards, creating the familiar frontage to the Market Hill. St Peter is a stately ship of a building, and I think this is as fine a setting as that of any urban church in the county. The Churches Conservation Trust does an excellent job in maintaining it in all its glory.

There was an important 19th century restoration here at the hands of William Butterfield, one of his last works before the triumph of All Saints Margaret Street. His is the chancel and with its splendid reredos, as well as the interior of the south aisle chapel. The font was moved into the south aisle to create a grand processional vista from the west door. This was one of Suffolk's Anglo-catholic shrines, and the ghosts of Butterfield and his kind are never far away. The font has a grand cover, with a lantern top. There is a story that the font was removed during the Puritan era to be used as a feeding bowl for pigs.

Butterfield used the surviving medieval evidence at St Gregory to design an elaborate canopy of honour, although perhaps he was overwriting medieval evidence himself. Along the eastern edge of the modern ceilure is written Bread of Life, Cup of Blessing, Precious Blood, poured for man, upon the Rood, Alleluia Alleluia. Towards the west end of the nave, fine 18th century portraits of Moses and Aaron survive, from the former decalogue sequence. This would have been at the east end before Butterfield got to work.

Having congratulated the Churches Conservation Trust for their oversight of St Peter, I must also say that this is one of the hardest CCT churches to visit, which is pretty scandalous given the prominence of its location. The church is kept locked, and there is no longer a keyholder notice. The building is only accessible when it is in use for concerts, craft sales and the like. Butterfield's chancel and chancel aisle are both now cordoned off by heavy curtains, the chapel almost inaccessible because of stacked chairs. I often say on this site that alternative uses need to be found for our historic buildings, so I suppose that I can hardly complain about the sometimes ignominious uses to which St Peter is put. But given Sudbury's increasing emphasis on itself as a tourist destination, surely more might be made of St Peter?

The joint parish of St Gregory and St Peter had a school about halfway between the two churches, on North Street. It was demolished in the early 1990s, and is now a car park. But the elaborate gateway survives, as well as the grooves dug with coins into the bricks by generations of bored schoolchildren. Ghosts too, of a kind.

  Circumcision of Christ

Simon Knott, January 2013


Moses Adoration of the Magi archangels stern Christ the young Christ teaching in the temple Aaron
Presentation in the Temple Bodley's Crucifixion Circumcision of Christ 

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