At the sign of the Barking lion...

The churches of Suffolk

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

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The churches of Ipswich

The churches of Lowestoft

The churches of Bury St Edmunds

The churches of Felixstowe

The churches of the Saints

St Peter, Nowton, an island in the rape fields

1. Holy Suffolk

Suffolk, in the middle ages, was Seely Suffolk, or Holy Suffolk. Suffolk and Norfolk between them have more than 1200 medieval churches, one in eight of all in the British Isles. Suffolk, the smaller county, has 500 of these, giving it something like one medieval church per thousand population. Norfolk has about one per eight hundred people. East Anglia was Northern Europe's holy land.

The population was much smaller in medieval times, of course, and it has been observed that there can never have been a time when all these churches were full. But this is to miss the point, since they were not built for the congregational Anglican worship they are mostly used for today. Before the Reformation, these were all Catholic churches, and were built for Catholic worship. Not just for the celebration of Mass, but for private devotions, the sacraments and prayers for the dead. The naves were designed to contain altars and chapels, not box-pews and children's corners. We need to remind ourselves of this if we are to appreciate fully what our ancestors have left behind.

A popular image of a rural parish church is the Harvest Festival, providing a thread of continuity since time immemorial. But Harvest Festivals were only invented in the 1840s. We think of the Christmas Eve service of lessons and carols, with the candles flickering on the altar. But altar candles had been banned in Anglican churches since the Reformation until the end of the 19th century, and the first festival of nine lessons and carols was only held in the early part of the 20th century. There are threads of continuity. But we need to look for them.

2. The Suffolk church - an invented tradition?

I am going to suggest that the typical Suffolk village church is essentially a 19th century invention. This is generally true, even where the bulk of the church building is medieval. There are few Suffolk churches that the 19th century left untouched. Even when the Victorians did not make structural alterations, the liturgical plan of virtually every Suffolk church is that asserted by the Cambridge Camden Society and Oxford Movement Tractarians in the second half of that century. There are even fewer Suffolk churches where that 19th century liturgical integrity has been altered since.

Between about 1840 and 1890, almost every Suffolk church went from being a preaching house, to being a space in which Holy Communion might be celebrated in a fitting manner. Chancels, in many cases closed since the Reformation and used as offices and vestries, were opened up. At Bramford, Little Bealings, Wickhambrook and elsewhere, the benches were turned to face the Holy Table in the east after several hundred years facing a pulpit in the west. Medieval fixtures and furnishings, forgotten, ignored or neglected for hundreds of years, were uncovered during restorations and enthusiastically pressed back into service.

The plan was to restore the Catholicity of the Church of England, and by the beginning of the 20th Century the Anglo-catholic movement was fully in the ascendant. Churches restored at this time show the vision of the reformers - witness the triumphalism of Lound and Kettlebaston, for instance.

Part of this 19th century vision, born of both the Romantic Movement and the Anglo-catholics, was a restoration of tradition. Until that point, the Church of England had been proud of the break that had happened at the Reformation in the mid-16th century. It defined the nature of the church. Now, the Reformation was presented as a necessary evolution from the medieval church to a modern church stripped of corruption and Papist excesses. It became an evolution which was at once smooth and popular, bolstered by triumphalist national history. Thus, it was necessary to heal the fracture by restoring churches to their pre-Reformation integrity.

This affects our reading of any medieval church, since the past has been tinkered with. The world we see is not as we had believed it to be. The completeness of this revision, from the idea of a fracturing Reformation, to one of a smooth transition, has become so firm that we will find no shortage of church guidebooks decrying the Victorian restorers. The problem is, it is easy to imagine that the Victorians were altering perfectly good medieval interiors. This is simply not the case. Churches had undergone traumatic and radical alterations inside throught the period from 1540 to about 1800. In many cases, especially in the middle years of the 19th century, real attempts were made to restore something like the original architectural and liturgical integrity of the church. Even when this was not the case, a large minority (perhaps, in Suffolk, a small majority) of English parish churches had, by the early years of the 19th century, fallen into a terrible state of repair, a problem made worse by the moribund state of the Church of England. The Oxford Movement not only brought new life to the churches, it revived the Church of England itself.

We need to be wary of accepting an invented tradition. We need to remember that the 16th century Reformation in England (and particularly in East Anglia) was a violent, traumatic and destructive event, far moreso than the excesses of Dowsing and the puritans 100 years later. The churches as they are today would have been anathema to a CofE member of the 17th and 18th centuries. Very often, we are seeing in a medieval church a Victorian vision, a Romantic Movement image, of the medieval world. Even where this work continued into the 20th century, as at Lound and Southwold, it was the impetus of the 19th century vision that has powered it.

It is only by looking more closely that we can begin to tease out the real strands of continuity. This is important, because these strands are our history.

3. The Golden Age.

The great period of prosperity in Suffolk was the 15th century, which is when the grandest Suffolk churches were built. Because of this, Suffolk's finest churches are perpendicular in style. In the south of Suffolk are the great wool churches, although more properly these should be called cloth churches, since it was the manufacture of cloth that created the wealth to pay for them. The wool came mostly from the Cotswolds. There are also the great churches of the coast, built on the wealth of the ports that exported Suffolk cloth

To drive up the River Brett from Hadleigh through Kersey and Lindsey to Lavenham, or up the River Stour from Sudbury through Long Melford and Cavendish to Clare, is to drive through the industrial heartland of medieval Suffolk. The churches along the way reflect the great wealth generated at that time. Similarly, you can diverge right off the main Ipswich to Lowestoft road every few miles, and end up at a spectacular perpendicular church, none more so than Holy Trinity at Blythburgh, which is bang on the A12. No church admirer would want to miss Framlingham, Lavenham, Long Melford, Eye, Southwold, Stoke by Nayland, Orford, and all the other famous Suffolk churches. But there are many more less famous churches that are equally fine and equally rewarding.

4. The age-old heart of the community.

We have already said that the churches were built primarily for the Catholic Church to do the work of Christ in administering word and sacrament to the people of the parish. What else were the churches used for? It doesn't take a great deal of thought to see that they were virtually the only substantial buildings outside the main towns, and they were spacious inside. So, they were used for meetings and entertainments, for celebrations, and for the regular business of the village. They were also used for storage, and perhaps as defence in times of danger, although by the time Suffolk's greatest churches were built this would have been a thing of the past. However, we must always assume that any church is built on the site of an older one, since this so often proves to be the case. So Sweffling, for example, which is now a pretty little church, must once have been a fortress on a hill.

The churches were used for all social gatherings, at a time when popular religion was much more social than it is now. There was no stark contrast between the communitarianism of medieval Catholicism, and the regular expression of social relationships.

5. The early medieval period.

Going back before the Golden Age of church-building, Suffolk has 42 of England's 120-odd round towers. All but 3 of the rest are in Norfolk. Why were they built? Some have argued that they were originally defensive towers, and, indeed, in almost every case they are much older than the body of the church that stands against them. But not in every case, and only one of them stands alone. However, to look up at the great round tower of Wortham is to see that some defensive purpose must have been intended there. But that cannot have been the case for the majority. Other people have argued that they were lookout towers, or beacons, although surely that would be true of any high point? More extremely, they have been declared ancient wells, revealed as the land eroded.

In a land without stone, you can't build corners. Culturally, round towers became the norm, even in those areas by the sea where stone was available - indeed, it has been suggested that it is actually harder to build round towers than square with flint. But ideas from the continent, and solid stone too, began to flow into England, and by the time the great Suffolk churches were built, the age of the round tower was long-past.

Suffolk also had one of the greatest Norman abbeys, at Bury St Edmunds. The ruins are haunting, despite their setting in a municipal park, and to visit cathedrals over the border in Ely and Norwich is to imagine what might have been here. So far, English Heritage have not got their hands on it, so you can visit it for free. Despite the wealth of the late medieval period, there are some fine small-scale Norman survivals, mostly in out of the way places like Wissington and Thornham Parva. Going still further back, there are the amazing ruins of South Elmham Minster, hidden in the woods and still barely understood.

6. The Reformation and after.

What happened at the Reformation in Suffolk? The first great state-sponsored wave of iconoclasm in the late 1530s/early 40s seems to have been focussed largely on popular manifestations of the cult of the dead, especially after the suppression of chantries, and on popular representations of the efficacy of pilgrimages and intercessions.

These included statues of Mary and the saints (nearly all of which disappeared very early), so-called Doom paintings and other large scale representations of intercession (for instance, Mary tipping the balance of the scales at Cowlinge, which fortunately was whitewashed) and saints on the parclose screens of chantry chapels. Unlike the roods and rood lofts above them, rood screens were usually retained, unless the local reformers were very enthusiastic, and later on their retention was required by law under Elizabeth I. The saints on the roodscreens usually were either painted over, or had their faces scratched out as a salutary warning. St Thomas a Becket, St James and St Edward the Confessor were particularly circumscribed. Suffolk's most famous image, that of Our Lady of Ipswich, was supposedly taken to Chelsea, along with other famous images of Our Lady (Walsingham, Northampton, etc) and publicly burned. However, there is evidence that much of the imagery stripped from churches in the 1530s and 1540s (a hundred years before Government Visitor William Dowsing came wrecking interiors) was actually sold abroad,  since, after the first wave, the accumulation of wealth seems to have been as important as any ideological motive. Many people believe that the image of Mary in the church at Nettuno in Italy is probably that of Our Lady of Ipswich.

What survived this early iconoclasm? For very practical reasons, stained glass windows survived, simply because of the vast expense of replacing them with plain glass. Dowsing is responsible for the destruction of most of Suffolk's glass, without question. It only survived in any quantity where the local family was important enough to protect it, as at Long Melford. Bench ends and fonts which had representations of the Catholic sacraments and teachings had also survived the Reformation for practical reasons, and Dowsing vented his furious cold logic on these as well. Wall paintings were usually painted over, since this was the simplest way of removing them (even if Dowsing had visited Wenhaston, he would not have seen the Wenhaston doom - it had been hidden for a hundred years by the time he cut his swathe across the county) so they survived the Reformation and the Puritans. More intellectual, less graspable aspects of Catholic theology also survived - piscinas, aumbries, sedilias, inscriptions, etc. More practically, images in difficult to reach places (roofs, external turrets, etc) also survived.

Dowsing seems to have been incited to destruction particularly by inscriptions - the words 'Orate pro anima' (pray for the soul of) were removed from inscriptions wherever possible - they are missing from the large inscription around the chancel at Glemsford, although they have survived (and in some cases seem to have been replaced) around the chancel at Long Melford. They have been viciously excised from a brass at Stutton where they were in English and hacked out of at least one of the memorials at Kedington. He also demanded the lowering of altars, which entailed the removal of chancel steps - most of those surviving today are Victorian replacements, although those at Badingham are original, since it would have been an impossible task to remove them! He demanded that churchwardens climb into and onto roofs to remove the hard of access images that survived the reformation. Some Catholic practices had crept back into use in the early 17th century under the influence of Archbishop Laud, and Dowsing was keen to send those packing, too.

It is important for us to remember that Dowsing was not working in isolation. There is considerable evidence to show that, in Suffolk, the puritans were tremendously popular, and it was very unusual for Dowsing to encounter any resistance. He was welcomed with open arms at Otley, and at many of the Ipswich churches. Rare occasions of resistance were at Metfield and Covehithe; and also at Ufford, with good reason. Just as at the Reformation, there would have been plenty of local yobs waiting with ladders and hammers, ready to join in. The Souldiers Catechisme, issued to the New Model Army in 1644, suggests that "nothing ought to be done in a tumultuous manner. But seeing God hath put the sword of reformation into the soldiers hand, I think it is not amiss that they should cancel and demolish those monuments of superstition and idolatry, especially seeing the magistrate and the minister that should have done it formerly neglected it." Dowsing is villified so strongly today because he kept careful notes on his work in his journal, that's all.

A small part of me admires Dowsing above the earlier iconoclasts. At least he was doing it out of religious conviction, whereas many of his predecessors were doing it for profit (melting down images, selling them, etc) or for the sheer thrill of destruction - there are surviving accounts of roving gangs of hooligans destroying the furnishings of churches in London in the 1540s, and the same thing probably happened in Ipswich. This state-sanctioned drunken vandalism reminds one rather of the Nazis, I think.

7. New beginnings, new traditions.

Jumping forward 300 years, the Victorians were mostly kind to Suffolk. It has few Victorian churches outside the towns, for the simple reason that it didn't need them. There are, however, excellent 19th century Catholic churches at Lowestoft, Bungay and Beccles, at St Mary and St Pancras in Ipswich and in Bury St Edmunds. Leiston has the finest Victorian CofE church, and Ipswich has the two that are the grandest, St Mary le Tower, and the most interesting, St Bartholomew. Three other big ones were Bury St John, Felixstowe St John the Baptist, and Lowestoft St John.

In the countryside, Flixton St Mary is probably the most interesting. Of course, as already indicated, churches in Suffolk were restored extensively, although not so much in poorer rural areas. Kelsale, by F.C. Eden and assorted Pre-Raphaelites, is probably the best. Also, the extravaganza at Huntingfield should not be missed, and the finest Victorian glass is at Shimpling.

There are a few awful restorations, Cookley and Stoven outstandingly so, but even Stoven has a certain charm, and Cookley retains a fine Norman door arch. Perhaps the greatest crime committed by the Victorians is that perpetrated by patrons with both money and taste. Churches that were their victims, including Felsham, Cransford and the two Trimley churches, are simply very dull.

In the 20th century, even fewer new churches have been built. Still fewer are interesting, although Felixstowe has the finest examples of both pre- and post-war Anglican Churches. St Andrew (1932) is an important building, being the first pre-cast concrete church in Britain. Cavendish Community Church, (1994), near Felixstowe docks, is more from the 'out-of-town-shopping-centre' school of architecture, but is successful at what it does, and thus leads in a field of few. There are many 20th century Catholic churches in Suffolk, although none of the post-war ones are as interesting as Aldeburgh (c1910). Perhaps the best post-war church in Suffolk is not Anglican or Catholic at all, but Castle Hill Congregational Church (now URC) in Ipswich.

From a church historian's, dare I say churchcrawler's, point of view, the two singularly most interesting and worthwhile churches to visit are probably Earl Stonham and Hopton. Both have something excellent and fascinating from every period.

8. The Way We Live Now.

Most of Suffolk's medieval churches are in the care of the Church of England, and in general it has been a good custodian, despite some awful blips. There was a period in the 1970s when several under-used churches were sold off to be turned into private homes. This has now stopped, but not before some awful results, particularly Mickfield. Other conversions were more successful, Shipmeadow for instance. But there are too many churches for the CofE to reasonably use, and 1 in 10 medieval Suffolk churches (1 in 3 in Ipswich) are now disused and redundant. It is quite unreasonable, too, for local communities to be expected to pay for the upkeep of these churches. Suffolk has 20 or more churches that in many other counties would be the finest. Some of these are in tiny villages.

The Church of England has tried to ensure the proper pastoral care of its parishoners by gathering its parishes together into benefices, each under the care of one minister. Some of these benefices are very large. One in the north of the county contains 11 parishes. Perhaps the CofE has not thought through the logical conclusion of this benefice process (or, more likely, it has). Eventually, these benefices are going to want to stop church-hopping every Sunday, and settle in a single building. This will be accelerated as individual congregations shrink. They are shrinking much faster in some parts of Suffolk than on average, because of the age of the members of some congregations. So, it is an entirely reasonable expectation. Perhaps the congregations will choose the finest or most suitable of medieval churches in the benefice. Or perhaps they will want a new and more suitable building, at the heart of the benefice. What, then, happens to all the historic churches?

In addition, when the Church of England is disestablished, as it surely will be, it will no longer be able to maintain the pretence that it is the only church able to offer baptisms, marriages and funerals to the local community. Some senior Anglicans have described these as the 'core business' of 'CofE PLC'. But the withdrawal from national life that will accompany disestablishment will mean that the Church of England will either need to promote its 'core business' (for which historic buildings will prove very useful) or it will get on with what it is really meant to be doing, which is being the body of Christ in the world today.

Perhaps we need to go back to a time when village churches had more uses than the most obvious. If some of the clutter is cleared away, it is easy to see that they might be used again for entertainment, whether concerts or dances, or as arts and exhibition space. They could also be used by other faith communities, and this is already happening in Suffolk where a slowly growing Catholic population is using some village churches for Saturday evening masses. The Methodist communities in some villages also use the main church now. Conferences and business meetings could, in the age of the car, easily be relocated to village churches.

This may seem apocalyptic, but we have reached an apocalyptic moment, where we all agree that these buildings need to be preserved, but not on who is to pay for this to happen. The Suffolk Historic Churches Trust and the Churches Conservation Trust do excellent work. But posterity cannot be guaranteed by charity. And already, there are churches in great danger, because there simply isn't enough money to go round. This demand will increase as Victorian restorations reach the natural end of their structural life.

Meanwhile, the Church of England, their main custodian, enters a period of transition, conscious that many of its buildings are a drain on its resources, and in becoming glorified register offices they are increasingly unsuitable for the work of God in the modern world.