At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Woodbridge

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Woodbridge St Mary

north porch flushwork The Woodbridge dead

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Externally, this is one of the great English churches. Its setting is superb, wholly urban, and yet conscious of its presence in an ancient space. The narrow churchyard climbs away from it, surrounded on two sides by the church house and other 18th and 19th century houses. To the north is the Market Square, and a stairway leads down from it to the great porch. The whole thing is just about perfect, the relationship between town and church expressed exactly.

The tower is one of Suffolk's biggest, bold and dramatic in the landscape, particularly when seen from the quayside. Close up, it is even more so, because it rises from below the level of the graveyard, sheer up for more than a hundred feet, a stark, clinical job of the late 15th Century. St Mary has much in common with Southwold St Edmund, being only slightly smaller, and built all in one go over a similar period and timescale. However, the tower of St Edmund is a riot of flushwork, and here the flint is sparer, cleaner, more precise. This only serves to accentuate the splendour of the great north porch through which you enter the church, past the dole cupboard of John Sayer, 1638. This bequest provided bread for the poor of the Parish, and was still in operation up to the middle years of the 20th Century.

Through the great doors is a fine, grand Victorian interior, the work of Richard Phipson. The overall effect is reminiscent of his rebuilding of Ipswich St Mary le Tower, although the nave here is not encumbered by that church's unfortunate heavy glass. Here, you find yourself in a wide, light space, a seemly setting for a number of fascinating medieval survivals. The greatest of these is St Mary's Seven Sacrament font, one of thirteen survivals in Suffolk. It now stands at the west end of the south aisle, under the exquisite 1937 font cover by Walter Forsyth.

The panels show the sacraments of the Catholic Church, and are a reminder that our Medieval churches were not built for congregational Anglican worship. The panels are a bit battered, but are all recognisable. Despite Cautley's doubts about the rayed backgrounds, it seems likely that it was a product of the same workshop as the fonts at Denston and Great Glemham. As on the Great Glemham font, there is a lily crucifix on the stem. The butterfly head dresses of the women date it to the 1480s, making it contemporary with the other two.

The panels are, in clockwise order from the north, Ordination, Matrimony (the two sacraments of service), Baptism, Confirmation (the two sacraments of commission), Reconciliation, Mass, Last Rites (along with Reconciliation, one of the two sacraments of healing) and, in the final eighth panel, the Crucifixion. This last panel, anathema to the protestants of the 1540s, has been paid particular attention by them.

seven sacrament font: ordination seven sacrament font: matrimony seven sacrament font: baptism seven sacrament font: confirmation
seven sacrament font: confession seven sacrament font: mass seven sacrament font: last rites seven sacrament font: crucifixion

The survival of so much Catholic imagery, when we know that the 17th century puritans were particularly active in this area, may seem surprising. But, ironically enough, it is a result of the destruction of a century earlier. During the early Reformation of the 1540s, Woodbridge was wholeheartedly Anglican, and the wrecking crew went to work with a vengeance. The destruction here probably took place in the Autumn of 1547, during the first months of Edward VI's reign, when there was a free-for-all in places like Suffolk. The easiest way to deal with the font was to knock off the more prominent relief, and plaster the whole thing over. When Dowsing and his Biblical fundamentalists arrived at this church almost a century later on the 27th January 1644, they found very little to do.

The Anglicans had also destroyed the roodscreen, for in 1631, 13 years before the visit of William Dowsing, the antiquarian Weever lamented the fact that how glorious it was when it was all standing can be discerned by what remaineth, showing that its destruction had occured before the Puritans were ever on the scene, despite decrees of the time that this should not happen. it should be added, however, that Weever was probably using the word 'glorious' with its early modern connotations of 'pretentious'. What survives are two ranges of ten panels, about a third of the original number, which have been placed in recent years on the west and south walls by the font. They are splendid, although their protective glass makes photographing them rather awkward. Part of the donor's description survives, but nothing above the dado rail.

The modern screen has been recently curtailed, and the surviving panels placed behind the organ. They are actually pretty good, including attempted replicas of some of the medieval panels, the figures a bit like the same artist's work in the sanctuary at St Mary le Tower. Also in this aisle there's a grand memorial of the 1620s to Geoffrey Pitman, climbing to heaven in tiers that seem rather extravagant for a town weaver and tanner, but a weaver in Suffolk might be the equivalent of a factory owner elsewhere. Two hundred years previously, another Woodbridge weaver had donated the screen.

The high sanctuary and reredos reflect St Mary's High Church tradition in the 20th Century. The reredos was the 1950s work of Walter Forsyth whose font cover we have already met. It is in the plain, even serious, style typical of that decade, the saints and their niches painted and gilded standing out all the more for their setting. The vestry on the south side of the chancel has been converted into a chapel for quiet prayer, furnished in a seemly manner with a Blessed Virgin and child statue that may also be the work of Walter Forsyth, and the Lord's Prayer engraved soberly about a cross on slate. The reredos is a curiosity, an early 20th Century period piece depicting the adoration of the Magi by Rupert Corbauld. It came from a church in Lewisham. Up in a window is a 15th Century shield of the Holy Trinity, the only old glass in the church apart from a jumble of heraldic pieces collected at the west end of the north aisle.

There is a single surviving brass attached to the chancel arch, a decent pulpit and some hatchments, all you'd expect from a town church. But one of the glories of this place is even more modern. This is the gorgeous memorial glass in the east window by Martin Travers. As with the reredos in the chapel it shows the adoration of the Magi, and was installed shortly after World War II. There is a similar window by Travers at the remote Broads church of Thurne in Norfolk. Most of the glass in the nave is the work of AL Moore in his familiar style, one window marking the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria. A few years later brought the crop of memorials to young local boys killed in the First World War, now collected together under the tower, which make for some harrowing reading.

A memorial you might miss is set just to the south of the nave altar. A simple block of black marble bears a crudely carved inscription, probably 17th Century , which remembers that Yong Henry Grome a lovely babe here lies confind in dust under this marble stone, who precious was in tender parents eyes yet shortly veiwd the workd and now is gone. Oh learn we then to draw our dearest love from transient treasures to the loves above.

A church full of interesting and moving details, then. The overwhelming impression is of Phipson's excellent 19th Century work in a perfect 15th century coating, one of Suffolk's best fonts, and a sense of duty being fulfilled by those who care for it all. This church always seems to be open and welcoming, and reflects Woodbridge's pride in itself as a proper town, despite its size. A proud church in a proud little town. And this is a church so visitor-friendly that it even has cycle parking in its fascinating graveyard. This is a national treasure - the graveyard, not the cycle rack - a gorgeous verdant cushion for its large jewel. To the north-west of the church is a table tomb with skull, bones and last trump carved in relief on its side.

I walked up to the top of the bank, bringing me level with the statues in the porch alcoves. I looked across at the stunningly pretty houses that open out into the graveyard. Quite what you have to do to deserve to live in one, I'm not sure. But I resolved immediately to start doing the National Lottery, just in case.

Simon Knott, July 2019

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looking west Woodbridge St Mary Adoration of the Magi (Martin Travers, 1939)
font and font cover font shaft detail: lily in a pot Geoffrey Pitman, 1620s buried near this place John Sayer dole cupboard
cherubim (AL Moore, 1870s) St Anne and the young Blessed Virgin St Matthew St Nicholas Holy Trinity (15th Century, reset in hideous 20th Century glass)
Christ in Majesty with saints and martyrs (AL Moore) fragments, continental St George's dragon (AL Moore 1880s) Adoration of the Magi (Martin Travers, 1939) St George flanked by St Patrick and St Andrew (AL Moore, 1880s)
killed in action at Fontaine les Croisilles in humble hope of a blessed immortality Blessed virgin and child reredos: adoration of the magi
all nations shall come and worship before him (Powell & Sons, 1880s) and in honour presented by loyal (AL Moore, 1898) A. L. Moore glass
our father young Henry Grome a lovely babe here lies
Missing after the Battle of Loos killed in action near the Butte de Warlencourt
killed in action at the final battle of Cambrai, buried at Villiers Foucon
Blessed Virgin and Child

church house

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