St Mary, Woolpit
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
I've left the original entry almost entirely as it was, apart from the removal of one absolute howler, which I won't mention. I am not sure if Woolpit still has a Sunday market, and I am sure that someone will tell me if it has not. Paul Hocking is no longer Rector of Woolpit, but to my eyes the church continues to go from strength to strength, feeling at once busy and at the heart of its community, the still centre of a busy village. I like it very much.
2001: The clear blue waters of the Mediterranean swirl around my legs, then past me, buffeting the rocks along the silver beach. Millions of tiny flecks of mica swarm through the current, washed out of the hills of Southern Provence. They shine for a fraction of a second with all the light the high summer sun can give, a universe caught in a moment; then turn, disappearing, making of the water a shimmering skein, an ancient memory.
The sea is at the start of all European civilisation. Here, history wells about me. I think of Europe, and the fragmentation of nations. I think of the Balkans, and the Reformation, and the same water surrounding, tending, isolating. I think of time passing.
A week before, I'd been standing in the cool nave of the church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, Woolpit - or at least, that is what it probably was once, back then. Today, it is dedicated simply as 'St Mary', in common with the majority of Suffolk's medieval churches, among which it is one of the finest, some say. This is mostly by virtue of its beautiful porch, and extraordinary angel roof.
But is that true? For there are those who love this church that, perhaps, never look up at the porch or roof. Is it the plethora of 15th century bench ends that captures the imagination? Or could it be Richard Phipson's outrageous 1850s tower and lacy spire, straight out of the Nene Valley, its evangelistic slogans around the side in a Victorian equivalent of Piccadilly Circus neon? It ought not to work, and yet it does. Or is it that supremely articulate view to the east, perfect of proportion despite the stripping away of its medieval liturgical apparatus? Above all else, and above most others, this is a church with presence.
It was the bench ends that I was thinking of as I immersed myself out of the intensity of the Provencal sun. A number of questions occured to me, as they have done on other occasions, in other churches. Who made them? What did they mean by them? And how did they survive the iconoclasms of the Protestant Reformation? Here in Southern Europe, I thought I might have found some answers.
Woolpit, then. It is perhaps the most perfect of all Suffolk villages. Not sleepy, and chocolate boxy, but to actually live in. Its shops and pubs are arranged around the pleasant village square, and Phipson's crazy spire towers above them. Woolpit still has its school, and you wouldn't need to get in the car every time you needed a loaf of bread, as you'd have to do in some of Suffolk's more famously picturesque villages, like Kersey and Tuddenham. And Woolpit has its Sunday market, beloved of hundreds of non-sabbatarian junk-hunters each week.
Further, Woolpit has its mythology; the two green children, who climbed out of the ground, speaking a strange language and afraid of the sunlight. The boy died soon after, but the girl grew up and married; she learned to speak English, and told of St Martin's Land, from where she and her brother had emerged. There are holes in the ground around Woolpit, quarries where bricks were made in the 19th century. But perhaps there was once something much older, for every Suffolk schoolchild knows that the name 'Woolpit' is nothing to do with wool, but with the wolves that once lived in the pits here...
So, it is a well-known village. It is because of this as much as anything about St Mary itself that makes this church so well-known to people who haven't heard of the even more interesting and beautiful church of St Ethelbert, Hessett, barely three miles away.
Your first sight of St Mary will be Phipson's crazy spire, visible from miles away, and quite unlike anything else in East Anglia. Suffolk is a county where spires are rare enough, anyway. From the far side of the Gipping valley you can see this one and two others, piercing the soft harvest mist in autumn. They are Phipson's equally absurd Great Finborough, and the 1990s blade of St Peter and St Mary, Stowmarket. There are only about a dozen more in the whole of the county. The excuse for this one was that the tower was struck by lightning in 1852, bringing down the previous lead and timber affair (presumably like the one at Hadleigh). The font is contemporary with the tower, suggesting that the old one was destroyed by the fall.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the artist John Piper produced a series of screen prints of aspects of Suffolk churches; for most, he used the fine perpendicular tower, ramifying it in bold Festival of Britain primary colours. But for Woolpit, he chose the porch, because it is Suffolk's finest. Cautley thought it the best in all England. It is two-storey, 15th century, contemporary with the nave. Mortlock tells us that they were both built by wealthy Bury Abbey, who owned the living here. As at Beccles, it rises way above the south aisle, tower-like in itself.
A rood group of niches surmounts the shields of East Anglia above the door. More flank them. Mortlock says that the work began in the early 1430s, and the niches were filled by a bequest of 1473, suggesting that the porch was forty years in the making. The south aisle and chancel are slightly earlier, the north aisle slightly later, so it is the nave that promises us great things, and doesn't disappoint.
You step into cool darkness, and look up. It is breathtaking. This is Suffolk's most perfectly restored angel hammerbeam roof. It may not have the drama of Mildenhall, the exquisiteness of Blythburgh, the sheer mathematics of Needham Market, but it shows us in detail more than any other what the medieval imagination was aiming at. From the still, small silence of the church floor below, you look up into a great shout of praise. Here are hundreds of figures, both angelic and human. The profusion is ordered, as if some mighty hymn were in progress.
Paul Hocking thinks that it is a representation of the Te Deum Laudamus: We praise thee, O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord... To thee all Angels cry aloud, the Heavens, and all the Powers therein. To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry Holy Holy Holy Lord God of Sabaoth... The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee, the goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee, the noble army of Martyrs praise thee...
I know this, because he told me so. I was busy photographing bench ends when this very enthusiastic American bounced in with another visitor, and gave him a whistlestop tour of the church, describing the details with great knowledge and understanding. Solicitously, he talked to me afterwards about what I was doing, and asked me if I'd met the Rector of Woolpit yet. I said that I went out of my way to avoid Rectors wherever possible. He laughed, and replied that, on this occasion, I'd failed, because he was, in fact, the Rector.
After I'd coughed miserably, and he'd laughed again, we had a long chat, uncovering a few mutual aquaintances. He described the roof, which he has obviously spent a lot of time exploring. He pointed out the way the wall posts contained Saints, some with apostolic symbols, some with books, and some with martyr's palms. There are angels on the hammerbeams above, and bearing symbols below. John Blatchly counted 128 angels alone. Some of the shields have letters on them. Are they an acrostic, as on the east chancel wall at Blythburgh? Do they indicate individual Saints? The great Henry Ringham completely restored this roof in 1862, but Mortlock thinks that one of the angels is not his, and I agree - you'll find it in the south west corner. Paul Hocking argues that the restoration was nowhere near as complete as has been made out, and that many features are original.
Henry Ringham also restored the range of bench ends, by duplicating some of the medieval ones, as he did at Great Bealings and Tuddenham St Martin. All are rendered with his customary skill. If Ringham did restore this roof, then the imagery must have been destroyed at some point. One instinctively thinks of William Dowsing, the Puritan inspector of the churches of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, who progressed across the counties during the course of 1644. His delight in the destruction of angel roofs was matched only by that at the destruction of stained glass.
And Dowsing did visit this church. He arrived here in the afternoon of February 29th 1644. It was a Thursday, and he had come here across country from Helmingham, where he had found much to do. He also planned to visit Beyton that day, but in the end stayed overnight at the Bull hotel, and inspected All Saints there in the morning. He then rested for the weekend - the following week, he had a busy tour of southern Cambridgeshire ahead of him.
Dowsing records in great detail what he found to do at each church. In the case of Woolpit, the angel roof is the Dog That Didn't Bark: My Deputy. 80 superstitious pictures; some he brake down, and the rest he gave order to take down; and three crosses to be taken down in 20 days. 8s 6d. There are only two possible reasons why Dowsing doesn't mention the roof. Either he didn't notice it (extremely unlikely) or it had already been destroyed. This second option seems certain; mid-Suffolk was a strongly protestant area, and nearby Rougham, which clearly had a similar roof, was not visited by Dowsing, but was vandalised even more comprehensively than Woolpit. Most likely, the destruction at both churches dated from a hundred years earlier, although it is possible that the Rougham and Woolpit congregations had been puritan enough in the 1630s to do it to their own churches themselves.
The bench ends of Woolpit are remarkable for their abundance. They are not representations of sacraments, virtues and vices as at Tannington and elsewhere, or Saints as at Ufford and Athelington. They are almost all non-allegorical animals, although not the art objects we find at Stowlangtoft, or the mysterious beasts of Lakenheath. Perhaps a good comparison is the similar body of work at nearby Combs. Indeed, although they do not appear to be from the same workshop, it is likely that their creators knew of each others' work. There are dogs, with geese hanging from their mouths, and another which may be a cat with a rat or lizard. There are lions and bears, and a chained monkey, and birds in profusion. So who did them, and why are they here?
There is one school of thought that says that they are simply there to beautify the church, and that they were made by local craftsmen doing what they were best at. If they could do lions, they did lions. If they could render a decent rabbit, then that is what they did. And so on.
But I think that there is rather more to it than that. On my journey down through France, I had spent an afternoon in one of my favourite towns, Autun, in Burgundy. One of the reasons I like Autun is its 11th century Cathedral of St-Lazaire; this is Lazurus, raised by Christ from the dead, and until the 18th century his relics were venerated at a shrine here. St-Lazaire is most famous for its great tympanum above the west door, generally recognised as one of the greatest Romanesque art treasures in the world, and with International Heritage status. It was created during the middle years of the 12th century, and shows the Last Judgement. To emphasise Christ's majesty over all the world, it features all manner of beasts, domestic, wild and mythical.
Throughout the Cathedral, animals infest the famous capitals, which tell the Gospel story. Abbe Denis Grivot, in his Un Bestiaire de la Cathedrale D'Autun (Lyon, 1973) argues that the 12th century creators of all this filled it with animals to echo the final verse of the 150th Psalm, the crowning point of that great sequence of hymns of praise: Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!
Standing in the nave at Autun, I instantly recalled Paul Hocking's words about the roof at Woolpit, when he said he thought it was a representation of the Te Deum Laudamus. The Te Deum is one of the canticles; another is the Benedicite, traditionally sung through Lent: Oh all ye Works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord; praise him and magnify him for ever... O ye whales, and all that move in the Waters, bless ye the Lord... O all ye Fowls of the air, bless ye the Lord... O all ye beasts and Cattle, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever!
Could it be that the bench ends at Woolpit, and elsewhere in Suffolk, were intended to reflect and represent the praise defined in the canticles and psalms? Both would have been central to the liturgy of the medieval Catholic church. Perhaps the bench ends of Woolpit are liturgical and theological after all.
How would a carpenter, or group of carpenters, go about creating a set of benches like the ones at Woolpit? Who were they? Almost certainly, they were locals. They might have been itinerant jobbing carpenters, but I don't think so. The bench ends at adjacent Tostock are clearly by the same hand. But those at nearby Stowlangtoft and Norton are not, and a third hand seems to be responsible for those at Combs, as I previously mentioned. I do not think that the mutilated ones at Rougham and Elmswell are either; they were probably from the same workshop as each other.
So, we have a conscious attempt by skilled members of a community to create a hymn of praise in carved oak, by representing as many beasts as they felt capable of making. Where did they get their ideas from? They would have had no problems with oxen, cocks, conies - these were all around them, in their daily lives. The person who carved the hunting dog here was very familiar with it. Perhaps it was his own. What about monkeys and lions? These are more problematic. In medieval bestiaries, exotic creatures had fabulous legends attached to them, which gave them a theological symbolism.
But this symbolism doesn't usually seem intended when we see them on bench ends. Sometimes they are rendered accurately, but more often wild animals are fairly imaginary; I think particularly of Barningham's camel, and Hadleigh's wolf. It isn't enough to say that the carvers could have seen pictures of exotic beasts. This is fairly unlikely. Probably, the ordinary people of Woolpit never saw a book other than the missals, lectionaries and hagiographies used in church.
They might have seen pictures of lions and monkeys in wall paintings, either in other churches or here at Woolpit. They might have seen them carved in bench ends, for the same reason. In fact, the representation of wild animals varies so much as to suggest that this is not the case - compare, for example, the lions of Combs with those of Stowlangtoft. Probably, they were created in the imagination from descriptions and attributes in stories. But I think that there is a strong possibility that the woodcarvers of Woolpit did see lions and monkeys in real life.
Here in Catholic Southern Europe, there are many remote small towns which, by virtue of being so very far from each other, take on a rich and complex life of their own. Even small villages have their shops, their craftsmen, their tradespeople; they replicate a situation that existed in Suffolk until well into the 19th century, and in some cases beyond, before the great industrialisation and easy transport swept it away. Further, there are traditions here still that we have lost. Whenever I come here, I am fascinated by the itinerant entertainers, who move from village to village, giving a single performance befre moving on. This must also once have been true of England. The thing that fascinates me most is the multitude of small family circuses.
Many of them seem to be of Italian or Romany origin; all family members have multiple roles, from the oldest grandparent to the youngest child, selling tickets, doing acrobatics, being the straight men to the clown (who is typically Grandpa). They all put up the tent before the performance, and take it down afterwards. They move on, through the remote hills of Provence and the Languedoc, performing on village greens, wastegrounds, the corners of fields, even traffic islands.
As I say, I am fascinated, and can rarely resist them, even though I am shocked, even appalled, by the easy cruelty to animals. Performing animals are still often chosen for their curiosity value, if you can call running around in a circle to the crack of a whip 'performing', poor things.
The choices are strange indeed; camels and zebras often feature; I have seen an old bear on a chain, and at one circus in remote Languedoc a hippopotamus of all things - it caught bread thrown by the crowd. There was no safety fence between the seats and the ring, no Health and Safety Executive to penetrate these lost valleys. I do not know if such circuses existed in medieval Suffolk. But I think that they probably did. Suffolk is a maritime county, and exotic animals were widely known and exhibited in medieval Europe. Before the Protestant Reformation cut us of from the mainland, clerics and merchants thought of themselves as European, and travelled widely - English sovereignty was a hazy concept at best, and 'Britishness' was still centuries away from being formulated as an idea. People owed allegiance to their village, their parish, and their lord, not to the Crown and Parliament in London.
Were the woodcarvers of Woolpit and Tostock remembering this? A circus visit, perhaps back in their childhood? Exotic animals rendered inaccurately, to be sure, but with an enthusiastic nostalgia for that exciting moment in their lives? Was there a lion? A monkey, or a bear? How much more powerful if they also knew the fabulous legends about the beasts - and had seen them in real life!
Some of the carvings at Woolpit are allegorical. One shows a monkey dressed in monk's robes. This, I think, is a joke at the expense of the itinerant friars who went from parish to parish, preaching repentance in the streets. They were sanctioned by the Pope, but were beyond the jurisdiction of the local Bishop. They didn't always go down well with the local Priest and congregation, who considered the Friars nosey and hypocritical. A monkey is often a symbol of foolish vanity - hence, a Friar thinking he was better than anyone else. What better way to make the point than to slip him in as one of the creatures praising the Lord?
How did they survive? But why should they have been destroyed? We make the mistake of thinking of the Puritans as vandals. But the more you read about William Dowsing, the more he emerges as being a principled, conservative kind of chap, despite his clearly flawed and fundamentalist theological opinions. He had no reason to destroy animal bench ends. They weren't superstitious - even Dowsing didn't think Catholics worshipped animals. If he didn't think they were meant to represent the canticles, he wouldn't even have considered them religious. Amen to that.
So much for the 17th century. What about the 19th? St Mary is one of the most enthusiastically restored of Suffolk's churches, despite its survivng medieval detail. But it was done well. Mortlock thought that the 19th century pulpit was the work of Ringham - but the brass lectern is pre-Reformation, a fine example. The rood screen dado panels have sentimental 19th century Saints on them, that may or may not duplicate what was there before. They are actually very good, particularly the gorgeous Mary of Magdala. They have their names painted on the cross beams for the less hagiologically articulate Victorians - from left to right across the aisle they are Saints Barbara, Felix, Mary of Magdala, Peter, Paul, Mary, Edmund and Etheldreda. It is unlikely that Saint Felix would have been on a medieval roodscreen, and Mary almost certainly wasn't - it would have relegated her to a position of no more importance than the others. If it reflects anything of what was there before, it was probably St Anne with the infant Virgin.
The top part of the screen was renewed in 1750, and dated so. The gates are probably a Laudian imposition of 120 years earlier, as at Kedington. This may suggest that, by the time of Dowsing's visit, the chancel was being used for some other practical purpose. Above, high above, set in the east nave wall over the chancel arch, is one of the wierdest objects I've seen in a medieval church. It was installed in the 1870s, and is clearly meant to echo the coving of a rood loft. Goodness knows what it actually is, but it is painted in garish colours, and inscribed with texts. In one of those moments where Cautley and credibility part company, he describes anyone who doesn't think it is a genuine medieval canopy of honour as 'stupid'. I suppose that it has a certain curiosity value.
The three-light window above it would have given light to the rood. The east window contains one of Suffolk's best modern Madonna and child images which was made by the artist Ian Keen for the King workshop in the early 1960s. Ian Keen was also responsible for the beautiful St Margaret in St Margaret's church in Norwich, and for the memorable window of St Francis with a labrador at Somerleyton near Lowestoft.
I turned back westwards, past a superb medieval bench end of the three Marys. This is a delight, and you'd travel to London to see it if it was in the V&A. Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of James and Mary of Magdala huddle together, perhaps on the morning of the Resurrection. One of them has a lily of the Annunciation. One head is destroyed - but was it vandalised? Or is it the result of carelessness, the wear and tear of the centuries? Would 17th century puritans have destroyed it if they'd seen it?
Simon Knott, 2001, updated 2008