At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Worlingworth

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Worlingworth Worlingworth

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          This part of Suffolk is a lattice of lanes, meandering aimlessly as if they are so ancient that they have forgotten their purpose. And then you arrive in Worlingworth, which is is a large village and it comes as a surprise. The tower of St Mary rears its 15th Century head above the pretty cottages, and you step through a gate into a tight, verdant graveyard. From here, the sheer scale of the Perpendicular windows in the nave is accentuated by the lack of a clerestory. You can see straight away that it is not going to be dark inside. The porch disguises the size of the church, being large in proportion. In fact, as there are no aisles, Worlingworth has the second largest span of any church roof in Suffolk, after Laxfield, double hammerbeams lifting it across the expanse. The chancel is earlier, although considerably rebuilt. The tower must have been complete by 1452, because in that year William Doker left 40d towards the buying of a bell. Thereafter surviving bequests are for furnishings and burials, so all in all this is a church of the first half of the 15th Century.

As expected, you step into a wide open space full of light, although one surprise in such a big church is the range of doored pews, one of the largest sets in the county and one of the loveliest too. Their doors are carved with the familiar arch, the wood burnished with the patina of age. The date 1630 can be seen at the front, though in fact it is likely that some earlier benches were adapted for reuse perhaps later in the 17th Century, and the date may simply be a survival from an old box pew. They serve their purpose so well that no later century has seen a reason to replace them. The effect of standing among them beneath the great double hammerbeam roof is a little like being in a forest.

The writer Simon Jenkins famously described the parish churches of England as a vast folk museum, and he might well have been thinking about Worlingworth in particular. Here, there is a real sense of the life of ordinary people in this parish over six centuries or more. But perhaps the most interesting survivals here are the more recent. In the south aisle, a large painting shows the Worlingworth Feast on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of George III in 1810. The church you are standing in can be seen to the left. If you look closely, you'll see an ox being roasted on a great spit. Turning to the north west, you can see the spit itself leaning up in the corner. The painting has now been joined by another, depicting the Golden Jubilee feast for Elizabeth II in 2002.

In front of the spit is the famous Worlingworth fire engine, dating from the year of George III's accession, 1760. Once these were a common sight in churchyards or in the yards of stately homes. Mortlock says that this one was last used on Guy Fawkes Night, 1927. On it is the name of the makers, Newsham and Ragg of Cloth Fair, in the city of London. Sir John Betjeman spent the most creative years of his life living in a house in Cloth Fair, so I wonder if he knew of the Worlingworth fire engine?

Worlingworth's 15th Century font is in the typical East Anglian style of that century, with angels holding shields interspersed with the symbols of the four Evangelists. At the base is a dedicatory inscription asking for prayers for the soul of Nicholas Money. Local tradition has it that the font came originally from Bury Abbey, although you can't help thinking that the font there would have been less run of the mill. The towering Perpendicular font cover is contemporary and reminiscent of those at Ufford and Sudbury St Gregory. The painted decoration is mostly later. Whatever the origins of the font it is hard to imagine that the cover came from anywhere else. It must have been designed for the space it now fills.

font: angel holding a shield of the Holy Trinity font and font cover font cover detail

On the north wall, part of the St Christopher wall-painting survives. The figure of the saint is now lost, but the fish still go about their business around his feet. The 15th Century saints remain in glass in some upper lights of the nave, albeit fragmentary. They include St Apollonia, St Catherine, St Mary Magdalene, St Margaret and St Anne with the young Blessed Virgin, an unusual survival. Two reset heraldic shields are contemporary, one of them supported by angels.

There are some interesting fragments of 16th Century glass below, unusual crowned figures that include a majestic Blessed Virgin and Christchild as well as some other figures, all English I think but showing a Flemish influence. Among them is a panel with a paraphrase of Proverbs 10:9, He that walke playnly walketh safely. A very similar panel is in one of the side chapels of Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, and they were likely produced in the mid-16th Century by a Norwich workshop.

St Apollonia (15th Century) St Catherine (15th Century) St Anne teaching the Blessed Virgin to read (15th Century) St Mary Magdalene (15th Century) St Margaret (15th Century) Blessed Virgin and child
faces 'He that walke playnly walketh safely' king

Memorials include one in Coade Stone to Dame Anne Henniker of 1792.The Henniker arms is in glass above the chancel, and another memorial is to Sir John Major of 1780. The Henniker-Majors are most familiar to us from their many memorials not far off at Thornham Magna. John Bacon's memorial to Elizabeth, Dowager Duchess of Chandos is striking.

The royal arms of George III consist of nothing other than the charged shield, with no supporters, crest or motto. From the same century there are some charming and poignant ledger stones at the west end of the nave. The grandly named William Nelson Buckle, second son of the Rev. Charles Buckle, died on the 6th of August 1787, aged just five months, Relieved from Woe, Disease and anxious Care, with all those Passions which perplex us here... Next to him, James Barker to his dearest wyfe Susanna doth this last office of love, for she was Religious, Chaste, Discreet, Loveing... underneath, added almost as an afterthought, he observes that Her rest gives me a rest-lesse life, because she was a vertuous wyfe. But yet I rest in hope to see that Daye of Christ, and then see thee.

A more recent century has given brass plaque memorials to two men of the French family, rich patrons of this parish, who were killed in action during the First World War. Reverend Frederic French had been the rector of this church in the years before the War, and he lost a son and a grandson, less than a fortnight apart. Noel Lee French, the only son of the Rector's oldest son, Edward, who might one day have been heir to the French family fortunes, was killed in Egypt on the 27th of February 1915. As if this was not unbearable enough, the Reverend French's youngest son, William Cotton French, was killed near Neuve Chapelle thirteen days later, on the 12th of March. The plaques are set apart in the chancel, a large medieval consecration cross keeping one of them company. One of a number of brass plaques set beneath windows in the nave remembers James Clayton who died in 1912, who was for 47 years a faithful servant and friend of the late Reverend F French.


Simon Knott, January 2021

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Worlingworth chancel looking east
box pews (1630) altar and reredos George III royal arms
Her Ladyship departed this life at their seat of Thornham Hall in the County of Suffolk Faith and Hope for Elizabeth, Dowager Duchess of Chandos, 1822 fish at St Christopher's feet Worlingworth fire engine two angels for an infant son
reset 15th Century heraldic shield Henniker arms: deus major columna two 15th Century angels and a heraldic shield
gave his life for his country in Egypt killed in action near Neuve Chapelle for 47 years a faithful servant and friend


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