At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Margaret, Thrandeston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Good Shepherd   Thrandeston is a lovely village, with that illusion of remoteness which East Anglia does so well. We are less than a hundred miles from central London, but we might as well be in the Middle Ages. As with most villages in this part of Suffolk, the village green has been left as 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; most of them are beautiful.

It was very quiet. Away from the main roads, you can cycle for miles in this part of Suffolk without meeting a car, or even another human being. 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.

On the village green, a big rabbit bolted as I cycled past. This was all at eleven 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. There were lots of 18th century gravestones; I would encounter this again and again during the course of the day, in greater profusion.

The 15th century tower has a fine dedicatory inscription, which you might miss, screened as it is by a tree. It remembers that the Sulyards and the Cornwallises had it built. Also worthy of note is the extent to which the chancel weeps – that is to say, is at an 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 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. I let myself into the silence of the church.

The scale of the interior is matched inside; the benches are low and narrow, and it was 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; I spotted St Peter, and probably St St Simon, as he appears to be holding the tail of a broken fish. Another figure is possibly Our Lady, and there is a curious weeping woman that seems to have been made by a different hand.

These bench ends are somewhat overshadowed by those in the chancel, though. On a low stall that probably wasn’t made for this church 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. As Aidan Semmens points out, the notion need not be resisted. They are witches, obviously. But where do they come from, and why are they here? To my eye, they look the work of the late 17th century, and may be a reference back to the witch hunt hysteria of the middle of that century. 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 practiced 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.

Blessed Virgin and Child? face St Peter
a witch and her familiar a witch and her familiar a witch and her familiar St Simon

Aidan noted a similar figure carved on a wooden mantlepiece at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich, and since my first visit I have come across several others in domestic settings. Perhaps the figures here also came from a big house. There is no doubt, though, that they have a mysogynist feel to them - they are no tribute to local martyrs, if they even came from this parish at all originally.

Another absolute must-see here is a group of fragments of medieval glass. Lots of churches have some, but here in particular they are worth a second look: 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 village green, and below them part of an inscription that is so rare you wouldn't know about it if it didn't exist places like this: Orate pro Animabus, it reads, 'pray for our souls...'

orate pro animabus fragment: eagle feet four cocks fragment: old fork beard

Contemporary with the glass is an inscription for one of the Cornwallises set in brass in the chancel wall; it is for Elizabeth Cornwaleys. It begins Of your charitie, pray for the sowle of Mistress Elizabeth Cornwaleys. It was missing from this church for three hundred years, thanks to vandals or collectors, but was returned here in the mid-19th century. A couple of later brasses are also to be found in the chancel.

There is also some lovely late 19th century glass; the wide-eyed Joseph and Mary find the young Jesus in the temple, the Good Samaritan pours healing oils on to the beaten man's wounds, as St Peter falls to his knees as he watches Christ walk on water. Best of all, an angel carries a dead child up to heaven. That must have been a comforting image.

When I first visited this church back in 2002, I had found it locked, and the keyholder two miles off. This doesn't sound a lot, but cycling to get the key, coming back with it, returning the key and then coming back to the church to continue my journey took eight miles of cycling. Today, however, the church is open every day, and during the course of 2008 underwent a major restoration which has left it looking lovelier than ever. I came back here in early 2009, and found myself arriving, as before, at eleven o'clock on a Saturday morning, this time on a day of sub-zero temperatures. Today more than ever I was stunned by the special silence and serenity of this church, which so suits its parish.
  fragment: angel musician hands

Simon Knott, February 2009

looking east font niche lion
looking west royal arms Christ carrying his cross, Crucified, Ascended of your charitie
Christ walking on the water an angel carries a dead child to heaven Good Samaritan window

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