At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Troston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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gargoyle and flushwork

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Troston is a little-known village in the quiet lanes between Bury and Diss, purposeful and pleasing, the church quietly grand in what it must be said is a rather bleak churchyard, entirely cleared of headstones by lawnmower enthusiasts at some point. The porch is a bold, confident statement of the late 15th century, with image niches, Marian monograms and a dedicatory inscription in the flushwork. As Pevsner points out, it is very similar to the porch at nearby Honington, and so is perhaps the work of the same masons.

St Mary is a complex building. The porch and Decorated windows should not distract from the fact that the church looked pretty much as it does now by 1300, when the tower was added to the existing nave and earlier chancel. The nave can seem gloomy as you step into it - we haven't been prepared for gloom by an obviously Norman structure as we are at Thornham Parva or Wissington. But as your eyes become accustomed to the light, you realise you are inside a church of outstanding interest, and, perhaps one that is a little unusual, for the 19th Century restoration was carried out by a local amateur architect who just happened to be the patron of the living.

Robert Emlyn Lofft was the grandson of the 18th Century radical lawyer and writer Capel Lofft, and he inherited Troston Hall in 1866. His enthusiasm for architecture extended not just to the church but to a number of buildings in the parish which survive with their idiosyncrasies, including the former village school. Fortunately for us Lofft was an enthusiastic antiquarian, and if the 19th Century patina of the interior is inescapable there are still a number of quite remarkable earlier survivals.

The most striking of these is Troston's fine group of wall paintings. It would be wrong to call them a sequence, for they are separate subjects from different times and apparently by different hands. Most prominent is the 15th century figure of St George on horseback, dispatching a dragon. He is a fine figure, and you can sense the force with which the lance is pushed home. Roughly contemporary with him is a stately St Christopher, familiar from a hundred other East Anglian churches of course, but here with a gravitas he sometimes lacks elsewhere.

There is another figure, a knight on horseback, who appears to be forcing his lance into a dragon-shaped space, almost certainly another St George. But the most interesting thing about him is that he is older than the two larger paintings, a reminder that wall paintings in churches were successively covered and repainted as artistic fashions and devotional priorities changed and developed. In many places, we find that by the later years of the 15th century they are being covered up, and the walls are being punched through with large windows, to illuminate the new arrangement of pulpit and benches, and the great rood above the chancel arch - this, a full half century before the Protestant Reformation.

The most memorable of the paintings here is perhaps the excerpt from what appears to be a 14th century martyrdom of St Edmund scheme. The saint leans back on a tree, his body already pierced by arrows, his attackers looking on. Troston is on the route between the probable site of that martyrdom in Hellesdon near Norwich and the saint's final resting place at Bury Abbey. These paintings are all on the north wall, but above them all, over the chancel arch, sits a 15th century Christ in Judgement, blood spurting from his wounds.

wall painting: St George wall painting: martyrdom of St Edmund wall painting: St George
wall painting: Christ in Judgement with blood spurting from his wounds wall painting: St Christopher

As with many churches, St Mary retains its low-side window. These were intended to be opened for the sanctus bell rung at the consecration of the Mass to be heard across the parish outside, enabling those of the community at work in the fields to pause and join in the contemplation of this most sacred moment. But they were also probably a means of controlling ventilation. The flicker that the updraught of air would have given to the candles on the rood loft above might not have been intended, but it would certainly have been effective. Uniquely in Suffolk, Troston retains the wooden shutter which the clerk would open to ring the bell.

Also in the chancel, St Mary retains the fixings for the Lenten veil, and the Early English detailing of the south wall still suggests something of the quiet mystery of medieval Catholicism before the awe and wonder of the 15th century Perpendicular mood made its impression on Suffolk churches. The woodwork behind the altar was probably the eastern parapet of the rood loft, a rare survival. But the loveliest feature of the chancel is not medieval at all. It is the 1964 east window, by Harry Stammers, and it must rank among the finest of his work. It depicts the story of Emmaus, the unrecognised Christ walking along the road with his two companions, and then making himself known to them above at the supper table in the breaking of the bread.

Angel at Emmaus (Harry Stammers, 1964) Supper at Emmaus (detail, Harry Stammers, 1964) The Risen Christ breaks bread at Emmaus (Harry Stammers, 1964) Supper at Emmaus (detail, Harry Stammers, 1964) Angel at Emmaus (Harry Stammers, 1964)
Journey to Emmaus (Harry Stammers, 1964) Supper at Emmaus (Harry Stammers, 1964)

At the back of the nave, the late medieval benches retain some carvings, including a female figure kneeling at a prayer desk which might have been part of an Annunciation. Certainly, she is not a mermaid as I've seen recorded elsewhere. Other woodwork includes the huge pulpit and reading desk, as big as a family car parked at the east end of the nave. It was cobbled together by Lofft in the 1860s, reusing a pulpit from 250 years earlier.

The royal arms are lettered for George I, but they are actually Stuart arms for James I as you can see from that monarch's motto at the bottom, Exurgat Deus Dissipentur Inimici, a cry from the Psalms for God to rise up and disperse his enemies. Nearby, a memorial plaque remembers Henry Capel Lloft, who honourably fell in a most gallant charge on the French line in the great battle of Albuhera in 1787. Heir to the Hall, he was 28 years old.

As you can see, Troston church is an interesting and unusual church which is not as well-known as many of Suffolk's other churches. This is a church to savour, hopefully in silence and solitude. Things here need to be contemplated. It is a place to sit and wonder.

Simon Knott, July 2019

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chancel looking east rood screen
double decker pulpit riddel post candle stock wyvern room for two
font war memorial James I royal arms relettered for George I honourably fell in a most gallant charge on the French line in the great battle of Albuhera bench end: woman kneeling at prayer desk (Annunciation scene?)



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