At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter and St Paul, Fressingfield

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Fressingfield tomb of William Sancroft sanctus bell turret

Love by Henry Holiday, 1895 (detail)  

Large and lovely, Fressingfield is a surprise of a village in the hills of north Suffolk. Hills? In north Suffolk? Yes indeed. Here we are, between Framlingham and the Norfolk town of Harleston, and rising out of the barley plains this village of about 800 people clusters about its stunningly beautiful church.

St Peter and St Paul has not one but two pubs in close attendance, their grounds cutting into the churchyard. There used to be a third. One of them, the Fox and Goose, to the south, is the original gild hall, and if you look at the wall post furthest east on the north side you'll see a surviving 15th century image of St Margaret. A gild in her name was active here in the early years of the 16th century, and the north chancel chapel may have been theirs. Arthur Mee's misreading of his notes places this carving inside the church, assuming he ever actually visited here anyway.

But I like to approach this church from the north, climbing the long path through the wide open graveyard. It must be one of Suffolk's biggest, and so many of the stones seem to be to the Etheridge family; it must have been most confusing living in Fressingfield in years gone by. Many of those that aren't Etheridges are Kerridges. Among the Etheridges and Kerridges you may spot a small row of graves to the Borrett family. The right end one is to Mary, the wife of Daniel Borrett, who died December 30th 1853. She was 55. Her inscription reads:

Blest mother, I remember thee from early childhoods hour
When first my heart awoke to feel maternal loves deep power,
In midnight dreams thy angels form around my couch appears,
And oft thy hand seem stretched again to wipe away my tears,
When laid within thy narrow bed where now the green turf grows,
While we where left alone to stem the tide of human woes.

The Suffolk dialect form of the verb in line 4, and the spelling mistake in line 6, only make it more poignant, I think. Beside her lie her husband, who died in the 1880s, and beyond him, their son, the presumed author of the verse. Interestingly, his stone also includes his wife, who died in the mid-20th century, a good 80 years or so after her mother-in-law. Also of interest is that all three gravestones are the same shape, a classical form which must have seemed old-fashioned even in the 1850s; only the lettering reveals that they were produced over the course of a century or so.

The church rises like a great ship amongst all these memories of the past. Riding the gable end is Suffolk's finest medieval sanctus bell turret; the side panelling is gorgeous. It almost certainly dates from 1496, when a new bell was bequeathed. Inside the church, you can still see the hole in the chancel arch through which the bell rope passed. The one at Southwold is grander, but is a Victorian reconstruction. The north side of the church also presents its aisle and chancel chapel, and a rather austere porch that is no longer in use. Coming around to the south of the building, however, you find one of Suffolk's best, a document of the Hundred Years War; Catherine de la Pole built it to her husband and son who died at Harfleur and Agincourt respectively. One of the headstops to the arch shows Henry V, so she can't have blamed him personally. There are some very curious decorations in the spandrels, which were presumably part of a post-iconoclasm repair job, perhaps in the 18th century. I wondered why I didn't come across this kind of thing more often, but then remembered Henry Davy's engraving of Ipswich St Mary at the Elms, which shows the ornate porch plastered over.

Inside the porch are a couple of bosses, one a very rare survival of the Assumption, imagery of which was usually viciously proscribed, and another, now rather hard to make out, of a green man. Given that the stone is very soft, I shouldn't be surprised to learn that the green man has had his eyes and mouth renewed a few times over the centuries.

You step inside, and your first impression will probably be the sea of blue; the entire church is carpeted. A lot of people complain about this, but in honesty I didn't think it was too bad; I'd rather see a brick floor, but the church was so extensively restored in the 19th century that I'm assuming it is all tiles underneath anyway. It does prevent a sight of the 1489 brass to William Brewes and his wife, which is a shame; we have met this family elsewhere at Little Wenham. I was tempted to start tugging the carpet up to look for it, but since I wasn't really sure where it was, and didn't want to end up with several hundred square yards of carpetting piled around me, I resisted.

Fressingfield is most famous for its benches. This has led some writers to eulogise its bench ends, which are not as exciting as those at Wilby, a mile or so off, or Blythburgh's, or Lakenheath's, or a few others others in Suffolk. They're good, but not that good. No, what makes Fressingfield's benches wonderful is the sheer quality of the whole piece; nowhere else in East Anglia is the 15th century so substantial, so full of confidence. Often quoted is Cox in Bench Ends in English Churches (but he is talking about the furnishings as a whole, not just their ends): Fressingfield church, he says, is better fitted throughout with excellent fifteenth-century benches than any other church in the kingdom. Amen to that.

The best and most famous two are those at the west end of the nave, the so-called 'passion bench' and 'dedicatory bench'. The first shows symbols in shields along their backs that are more familiar from East Anglian fonts: the crown of thorns and nails, the reed and sponge, the three dice, and so on. The second shows St Andrew's saltire cross, the papal symbol of St Peter as well as his keys, and several others. They are wonderful.

The bench ends, then: many of them are Saints. Positively identified to varying degrees, these include St Peter with his keys again, St Paul with his sword and book, and St Dorothy with her basket; a man with his dog who may be St Roche, a woman who may be playing a musical instrument, and who may therefore be St Cecilia, and several others. You can see images of these below; click on them to enlarge them.

One of the benches bears initials that may very well be those of Catherine de la Pole, who built the porch. High above, the golden roof is a fine counterpoint to the benches, and the church also retains the window that provided a back-light to the rood. There is also a smattering of surviving medieval glass, including a superb emblem of the Trinity in the south of the chancel. This is slightly different from its normal form; here, the three roundels are labeled Pater (Father) Fili (Son) and Su S (Holy Spirit); the three ribbons into the middle contain the word est, and the centre states Deus (God).

The 19th century restoration provided one of the county's grandest sets of piscina and sedilia up in the sanctuary; it can never have been used for its original purpose. But those decades also left this church a piece of art that is quite frankly superb. This is Henry Holliday's wonderful glass of the figures Hope and Love at the west end of the south aisle, above the font. I immediately fell in love with Hope, but she didn't respond. Holliday has similar figures at Campsea Ash, although there they are of Hope and Faith, causing one to wryly observe that there is no Faith in Fressingfield, and no Love in Campsea Ash...

Facing across from Holliday's gorgeous figures is the rather austere portrait of Archbishop William Sancroft, one of barmy Arthur Mee's heroes. His eulogy in The King's England places a curious slant on Sancroft's life, to say the least. The reality is more interesting, anyway. Sancroft was born here in Fressingfield, and his family lived at Ufford Hall in the south of the parish. He found himself in the unenviable position of being Archbishop of Canterbury during the brief but volatile reign of James II.

Sancroft had to defend the authority and position of the Church of England twice in those three years. His actions may seem contrary to each other when we consider them today; certainly, he seems to have alienated just about everybody at the time.

Firstly, he refused to allow Anglican ministers to read out the King's declaration allowing freedom of worship to non-conformists and Catholics. He drew up a petition at Lambeth Palace with six other Bishops to ensure that Anglican primacy continued to be enshrined in law, and was lucky to escape without a prison sentence. Secondly, he refused to recognise the political coup d'etat by the London merchant classes that deposed James II, and put William III on the throne; Sancroft said that he could not take the oath of allegiance to a King crowned by an authority other than God.

A man of integrity rather than pragmatism, he was thrown out of Canterbury and Lambeth, and retired here, licking his wounds. The last few years of his life were spent lavishing love and attention on the church at nearby Withersdale; it is said that he could never again bear to enter Fressingfield church for Morning Prayer, because this would mean hearing prayers for the King he denied. Was he a bull-headed egomaniac who wanted absolute control over the Church? Or merely a church lawyer who believed in the letter rather than the spirit? Whichever, he is buried here in this churchyard.

  Hope by Henry Holiday, 1895 (detail)

Simon Knott, May 2003, updated July 2015


Hope by Henry Holiday, 1895 Hope by Henry Holiday, 1895 Hope and Love by Henry Holiday, 1895 Love by Henry Holiday, 1895 Love by Henry Holiday, 1895

St Peter holds the key shield of the Holy Trinity (15th century) Fressingfield Mothers Union

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