At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Margaret, Thrandeston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Thrandeston Thrandeston

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    Thrandeston is a lovely village, with that illusion of remoteness which East Anglia does so well. I like coming back here. We are less than a hundred miles from central London, but we might as well be in the Middle Ages. As with several villages in this part of Suffolk, what looks at first sight as if it should be the village green is in fact unenclosed common pasture land, with the result that it is a nature reserve of some significance. The few houses of the village are scattered around this large triangle, and most of them are beautiful.

This was, I suppose, my half-dozenth visit. Away from the main roads, you can cycle for miles in this part of Suffolk without meeting a car, or even another human being. On one occasion as I cycled into Thrandeston, my eye was caught by a large adult male muntjac deer, watching me from beneath a tree in the hedgerow. Captivated, I stopped to watch. It looked like a tiny cow. It didn’t run, but stared at me insolently for a moment, before turning and trotting off towards the embankment, the white scut of its tail bobbing all the while.

Today, a big rabbit bolted across the common as I cycled past. This was all at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, and such a contrast with the bustle I had left behind in Ipswich town centre. People who live in Thrandeston are very fortunate. The serenity of the village is reflected by the church and graveyard, which stand a little way from the green.

In fact, I had been here a couple of weeks previously, on the Sunday morning, hoping to revisit and rephotograph the church. But the Sunday morning service had just started and I must admit that I had been a bit disappointed (yes, I know that's what the churches are here for). But standing outside reminded me how lovely this church was, and so it was hard to resist coming back so soon.

The 15th century tower has a dedicatory inscription. It remembers that the Sulyards and the Cornwallises had it built. At the other end of the church, the chancel weeps more dramatically than that of any other Suffolk church, which is to say it is at a slight angle to the nave. This will be even more apparent inside, of course. It is a reminder that naves and chancels were built at different times by different people, often on the site of earlier ones. It should be more of a surprise to us that so few weep, rather than that any do at all. The porch and clerestory are typical Suffolk perpendicular, but on a small, intimate scale. Inside the church, the silence is punctuated only by the birdsong from the churchyard and the occasional passing car.

A 17th Century poor box stands in front of the late 15th Century font, symbols of the evangelists alternating with Tudor roses. The view east is to the rood screen, rough and rustic with little figures in the spandrels - crowned angels, two other angels blowing the wind, while yet another angel holds a spear, which you might think an instrument of the passion were it not for the fact he is defending himself against a dragon creeping up from the other spandrel. The nave benches are low and narrow, and it is easy to imagine the 19th century citizens of Thrandeston huddled together in them. The benches at the west end of the nave have lovely medieval carvings. St Peter holds his key, St John his poisoned chalice, and what must be a crouching St Bartholomew holding a flencing knife (or is it St St Simon, holding the tail of a broken fish?

crowned angel with a spear (15th Century) spandrels: crowned angel with a spear fighting a dragon (15th Century) spandrel: dragon (15th Century)
spandrels: two crowned angels with long, wavy hair (15th Century) spandrels: cherub blowing the wind and a bird with human hands (15th Century) spandrels: eagle and a cherub blowing the wind (15th Century)
St John holding a poisoned chalice (15th Century) St Bartholomew holding a flencing knife? (15th Century) St Peter holding a key (15th Century) woman in a girdle and cope (15th Century?)

These bench ends are somewhat overshadowed by those in the chancel, though. Here, parts of the rood loft and pieces of 17th Century panelling have been cobbled together to make a stall. In the central entrance stand two most extraordinary figures. They are female. One hitches up her skirt, and they both carry animals. One has a cat, the other what may be an owl. Mortlock says that it is hard to resist the notion that they are witches. But where do they come from, and why are they here? Almost certainly, they are 17th Century, and originally from a domestic setting. A similar figure is carved on a wooden mantelpiece at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich, and I have come across several others on similar furnishings.

They have a misogynistic feel to them, and were no doubt originally inspired by the witch hunt hysteria of the middle of the 17th Century, which was a strong one in this part of East Anglia. Under Cromwell, the Commonwealth persecuted thousands of people to their death, many of whom were old women. Their crime? Perhaps they lived alone, and kept themselves apart from other people. Perhaps they practised natural medicine, or could be called upon if a woman was having difficulties in childbirth. Perhaps some of them were Catholics, and thus didn’t participate in the austere and lengthy services of the Puritan church. Whatever, they were considered witches, and therefore evil, and were drowned, or hung, or burnt. There is no one as superstitious as an extreme protestant.

a witch and her familiar a witch and her familiar (17th Century) a witch and her familiar (17th Century) a witch and her familiar

With this rather sobering thought it is pleasant to turn to a window on the north side of the nave which contains a collection of fragments of medieval glass. Lots of churches have some like this, but these here are particularly pleasing. The feet of a bird, possibly the eagle of St John, the forked beard of God the Father, an angel hand plucking strings, a group of 15th century cockerels that might easily be roaming Thrandeston common but are probably from a heraldic shield, and below them part of an inscription that was once so common but is now so rare that you wouldn't know about it if it didn't exist in places like this: Orate pro Animabus, it reads, 'pray for our souls...'

orate pro animabus (15th Century) four heraldic cocks (15th Century) bearded man (fragment, 15th Century)

Right on the eve of the Reformation came a 1533 inscription in brass, now reset on the chancel wall, for Elizabeth Cornwallis. It begins Of your charitie, pray for the sowle of Mastrys Elizabeth Cornwaleys. Within a few years, such a sentiment would be anathema. It was missing from this church for three hundred years, thanks to vandals or collectors, but was returned here in the mid-19th century. There are a couple of other, later, brass inscriptions in the chancel.

The chancel windows contain some interesting 19th Century glass by William Wailes. They commemorate two children of the Lee-French family. Hugh Spencer Lee-French died in 1860 at the age of 22 months. He is depicted in one light being held by Christ as a demonstration of the Kingdom of God, and in the other being somewhat dramatically borne up by an angel from the globe of the earth to the lights of heaven above. The other is to Thomas Broadley Lee-French, who died at the age of 11 in 1866. In one light he is depicted as the young Samuel telling the priest Eli that he has heard the voice of God, and in the other as the young Christ being found by his parents teaching in the temple. A third window is in a similar style, the Good Samaritan pouring healing oils on to the beaten man's wounds, as St Peter falls to his knees as he watches Christ walk on water, but it is not of the same quality and may even not be by the same workshop.

Of such is the Kingdom: Hugh Spencer Lee-French, 22 months old, held in the arms of Christ (William Wailes, 1860) Hugh Spencer Lee-French, 22 months old, borne up by an angel from the globe of the earth to the lights of heaven (William Wailes, 1860) Thomas Broadley Lee-French, 11 years old, as the young Samuel telling Eli of the voice of God (William Wailes, 1866) Thomas Broadley Lee-French, 11 years old, as the young Christ found by his parents teaching in the temple (William Wailes, 1866)

Looking down on all this, the 19th Century corbels to the roof depict a diverse array of heads. A Moor and a Negro are perhaps tributes to the Victorian empire, while the woman in a wimple harks back to the 14th Century. By the chancel arch, a man whose arms seem to grow out of his head cackles manically. At the other end of the nave, an ugly man gurns, perhaps suffering from toothache, a popular late medieval depiction.

A church full of drama then, fascinating and lovely.


Simon Knott, September 2018

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looking east chancel looking west
image niche (14th Century) and modern good shepherd statue Thomas Broadley Lee-French, 11 years old, as the young Samuel telling Eli of the voice of God, and as the young Christ found by his parents teaching in the temple (William Wailes, 1866) Hugh Spencer Lee-French, 22 months old, held in the arms of Christ and being borne up by an angel from the globe of the earth to the lights of heaven (William Wailes, 1860) fragments, 15th Century Manager of the Kerrison Reformatory, last surviving Freeman of the Borough of Eye (1909)
Of your charite pray for the soule of Mastrys Elizabeth Cornwaleys (reset brass, 1534) stalls, 15th/17th Century reused 15th Century and 17th Century panelling royal arms of Victoria
font (late 15th Century) grim-faced corbel gurning miserably (19th Century) corbel head: woman in a wimple (19th Century) poor box (17th Century)
wide-eyed corbel cackling manically (19th Century) corbel head: negress (19th Century) corbel head: negro (19th Century)
a thank offering, 1853 died off Kingsmill group in the South Sea Islands, 1861, buried at sea >

Vaults of the family of John Rix, gentleman


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