At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Gregory, Sudbury

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Sudbury St Gregory

Sudbury St Gregory Sudbury St Gregory St Gregory (and St Peter)

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Sudbury is an attractive little town close to the border with Essex, with which county the town shares a boundary to the west and the south. Until well into the 19th Century, Sudbury was the third largest town in Suffolk after Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds. It has fallen down the rankings since then, but it did mean that during the medieval period the town was large enough to be divided up into separate parishes, leaving it today with three substantial medieval churches, All Saints, St Peter and St Gegory, the largest of the three. All Saints lies to the south of the town centre and its parish includes Ballingdon, south of the Stour, which was in Essex until 1888. St Peter sitsin an imposing position on the market place, and until the Reformation it acted as a chapel of ease to St Gregory, which is away from the immediate town centre down by the river. After the Reformation, St Peter became a separate parish in its own right, but the church was declared redundant in the 1970s. After years of neglect it has recently been converted into an arts centre.

All Saints and St Peter both have wholly urban settings, hemmed in by shops and housing. But St Gregory's aspect has been opened up by the construction of the adjacent ring road, which necessitated the demolition of many of the houses of Gregory Street and Croft Street. With the Croft, a large grassed area leading down to the River Stour, and Leonard Stokes's jewel-like 1890 Catholic church of Our Lady and St John beside it, St Gregory has the loveliest setting of the three. When Sudbury is seen from across the meadows, it is the tower of St Gregory that dominates.

The late medieval rebuilding of the church was achieved in what seems to have been one long campaign lasting about a century, which unrolled more or less from west to east. A bequestr in 1384 by Peter Bory left 6s 8d towards the making of the tower there, suggesting that work was already underway. The north aisle came as the gift of Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1375 to 1381, who met an unusual death for an Archbishop and we will meet him again inside. Then came the nave, clerestories and the south aisle, the widening of the church necessitating a new south porch which we will come to in a moment. By the 1450 and 1460s, attention was being paid to the nave furnishings. In 1457, William Herward left 20 shillings (about a thousand pounds in today's money) for the painting of the image on the candlebeam of the said church. Nine years later, Richard Herward left another 20 shillings to the same work.Last of all, the great chancel was built right at the end of the 15th Century. As Pevsner observed it is quite as long as the nave, and all the more imposing for this. It was designed to accommodate a college of priests.

The most memorable approach to the church is from the south, along the former line of Gregory Street. You enter the churchyard through an avenue leading to the great south porch. The unfamiliar width and shape of the porch is because it also contains a chapel to the east of the entrance which is entered from inside the church. They were clearly built together, although they are structurally separate wihin the shell of the porch. There is something similar not far off at Clare. A 1464 bequest made by Henry Sythyng left forty shillings for a window to be made in the chapel to have a better light, so this may be around the time of its completion. The chapel formerly contained the shrine of Our Lady of Sudbury, although in later years it was used as the last resting place of the Carter family. Be that as it may, this is as grand an entrance to any Suffolk church as you'll find, and you step into an interior where the patina of age survives, as well as a sense of the continuity of its use.

The 19th Century restoration here was the work of William Butterfield, fresh from All Saints Margaret Street in the early 1860s. He would provide familiar echoes of that glorious London temple at a number of East Anglian churches, but not here. This is a pity in a way, for he might have brought Alexander Gibbs or the Bell & Beckham workshop along for the ride, but in fact the glass here came twenty years or more after Butterfield, the tamer work of Lavers, Barraud & Westlake and of Heaton, Butler & Bayne, and their sequence of 19th Century glass saints in the nave windows is imposing without being overwhelming. The benches that came with Butterfield's restoration were curious affairs, freestanding open structures. A minister I met here once compared them to garden furniture, and you could see why. Nevertheless they lasted into the 21st Century, but they have now gone to be replaced with modern chairs. The blue uphostery of the new seating was perhaps intended to fit in with the blue of Butterfield's restored canopy of honour and chancel roof, though I'm told that some people think them garish. They are certainly better than Butterfield's benches, although perhaps simple cane chairs would have looked better, but of course they would not have been so comfortable. It is hard to know what to do for the best in such a situation, I suppose.

The west end of the nave is dominated by a magnificent and carefully restored 15th Century font cover. It towers into space and is reminiscent of those at Ufford and Worlingworth. The font beneath it is unusual for East Anglia, for although early Perpendicular in style (and so probably at least half a century before its cover) it is shallow-bowled and with simple tracery patterns. It is probably contemporary with the rebuilding of the north aisle, the font cover coming when the body of the nave was completed and roughly contemporary with the south porch. Perhaps it was calculated to impress the pilgrims visiting the shrine in the south porch chapel.

You step through the chancel arch into the chancel, the size of which is accentuated by its emptiness. The windows are high in the late medieval fashion, although oddly outside the tracery continues downwards to create the more familiar shapes of fifty years earlier. Among St Gregory's medieval survivals are two curiosities. The first is a single unrestored panel from the rood screen, now hanging on the chancel wall. It depicts Sir John Schorne, who, legend has it, conjured the devil into a boot - or, because he was invoked in prayers by those suffering from gout, perhaps out of a boot. At some point the panel seems to have fallen into the hands of a private collector, possibly because it was removed to safety at the time of the Reformation by a member of the congregation with a special devotion to Sir John. It later found its way to Sudbury museum, who in more recent years returned it to the church.

The other relic is the mummified head of the aforementioned Archbishop of Canterbury Simon of Sudbury. The architect of the Poll Tax when he was made Lord Chancellor in 1380, his scheme led to the Peasants Revolt the following year. He took refuge in the Tower of London, where he was messily beheaded by a lynch mob. It is said that he was so unpopular that the guards simply waived the protesters through. The head is kept in a glass case in the vestry, but they'll show it to you if you ask nicely.

Simon of Sudbury had founded a secular College of Canons here in 1365. There was always plenty of work to do in the English Catholic church - one wonders how many large urban churches survived without a college! - and it is little wonder that the Reformation, and the switch to Anglican congregational worship, put an end to them. Nothing now remains. You might notice that there is a statue of a bishop on the adjacent Croft, and this might lead you to wonder if Sudbury was proud of its wayward son Simon. In fact, this statue is Aelfhun, an 8th Century Bishop of Dunwich who died in Sudbury in about 798. He is of significance here because the mention of this death in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the first time that the placename Sudbury is recorded.


Simon Knott, February 2024

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looking east chancel looking west
font and font cover Sudbury St Gregory looking west
misericord misericord misericord
winged beast chancel roof consecration cross
Sir John Schorn St Andrew (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1921) St Patrick (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1921) St George (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1921) font and font cover
former Our Lady of Sudbury chapel St Augustine, St Gregory and the Venerable Bede (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1900) St Patrick, St George and St Andrew (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1921) St Luke and St Peter flank the Good Samaritan (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1900) St Gregory and St Peter Sudbury


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