St Gregory, Sudbury
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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Sudbury is an attractive little town close to the border with Essex, that county forming its urban borders to west and south. Until well into the 19th Century Sudbury was the third largest town in Suffolk after Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, and although it has fallen well down the rankings since then this meant that during the medieval period the town was big enough to be divided up into separate parishes. This has left it with three substantial medieval churches, All Saints, St Peter and here at St Gegory, the largest of the three.
All Saints lies to the south of the town centre and its parish includes Ballingdon south of the Stour, which was in Essex until 1888. St Peter is on the market place, and until the Reformation it acted as a chapel of ease to St Gregory which sits away from the town centre down by the river. St Peter became a separate parish in its own right, but the church was declared redundant in the 1970s. After years of neglect it is currently being converted into an arts centre.
All Saints and St Peter both have wholly urban settings, hemmed in by shops and housing. But St Gregory's aspect has been opened up by the construction of the adjacent ring road, which necessitated the demolition of many of the houses of Gregory Street and Croft Street. With the Croft, a large grassed area leading down to the River Stour, and Leonard Stokes's jewel-like 1890 Catholic church of Our Lady and St John beside it, St Gregory has the loveliest setting of the three.
The late medieval rebuilding of the church was achieved in one long campaign lasting about 150 years, and was unrolled more or less from west to east. In the middle of the 14th Century the rebuilding of the tower began, but then the Black Death intervened. Work restarted, and a bequest of 1384 left a noble towards the making of the tower there. There are other surviving bequests from 1450 onwards, but none of them mention the tower and it is likely to have been complete by the early 15th Century. Before then came the north aisle, the gift of Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1375 to 1381, who met an unusual death for an Archbishop and we will meet him again inside. Then came the nave, clerestories and the south aisle, the widening of the church necessitating a new south porch which we will come to in a moment. Then, last of all, the great chancel was built right at the end of the 15th Century. As Pevsner observed it is quite as long as the nave, and all the more imposing for this. It was designed to accommodate a college of priests.
The most memorable approach to the church is from the south, along the former line of Gregory Street. You enter the churchyard through an avenue leading to the great south porch. The unfamiliar width and shape of the porch is because it also contains a chapel to the east of the entrance which is entered from inside the church. They were clearly built together, although they are structurally separate wihin the shell of the porch. There is something similar not far off at Clare. A 1464 bequest made by Henry Sythyng left forty shillings for a window to be made in the chapel to have a better light, so this may be around the time of its completion. The chapel formerly contained the shrine of Our Lady of Sudbury, although when I visited in the summer of 2020 I'm afraid it was filled with stacked furniture. Be that as it may, this is as grand an entrance to any Suffolk church as you'll find, and you step into an interior where the patina of age survives, as well as a sense of the continuity of its use.
The 19th Century restoration here was the work of William Butterfield, fresh from All Saints Margaret Street in the early 1860s. He would provide familiar echoes of that glorious London temple at a number of East Anglian churches, but not here. This is a pity in a way, for he might have brought Alexander Gibbs or the Bell & Beckham workshop along for the ride, but in fact the glass here came twenty years or more after Butterfield, the tamer work of Lavers, Barraud & Westlake and of Heaton, Butler & Bayne, and their sequence of 19th Century glass saints in the nave windows is imposing without being overwhelming. The benches that came with Butterfield's restoration were curious affairs, freestanding open structures. A minister I met here once compared them to garden furniture, and you could see why. Nevertheless they lasted into the 21st Century, but they have now gone to be replaced with modern chairs. The blue uphostery of the new seating was perhaps intended to fit in with the blue of Butterfield's restored canopy of honour and chancel roof, though some people think them garish. They are certainly better than Butterfield's benches, although perhaps simple cane chairs would have looked better, but of course they would not have been so comfortable. It is hard to know what to do for the best in such a situation, I suppose. The first two photographs below show the nave as it was in 2007 and then in 2020.
The west end of the nave is dominated by a magnificent and carefully restored 15th Century font cover. It towers into space and is reminiscent of those at Ufford and Worlingworth. The font beneath it is unusual for East Anglia, for although early Perpendicular in style (and so probably at least half a century before its cover) it is shallow-bowled and with simple tracery patterns. It is probably contemporary with the rebuilding of the north aisle, the font cover coming when the body of the nave was completed and roughly contemporary with the south porch. Perhaps it was calculated to impress the pilgrims visiting the shrine in the south porch chapel.
The dado of the roodscreen survives, repainted with sentimental early 20th Century figures. You step through it into the chancel, the size of which is accentuated by its emptiness. The windows are high in the late medieval fashion, although oddly outside the tracery continues downwards to create the more familiar shapes of fifty years earlier.
Among St Gregory's
medieval survivals are two curiosities. The first is a
single unrestored panel from the rood screen, now hanging
on the chancel wall. It depicts Sir John Schorne, who,
legend has it, conjured the devil into a boot - or,
because he was invoked in prayers by those suffering from
gout, perhaps out of a boot. At some point the panel
seems to have fallen into the hands of a private
collector, possibly because it was removed to safety at
the time of the Reformation by a member of the
congregation with a special devotion to Sir John. It
later found its way to Sudbury museum, who in more recent
years returned it to the church.
Simon Knott, January 2021
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