At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter and St Paul, Aldeburgh

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Aldeburgh Aldeburgh Anglican
the Aldeburgh dead Anglican south porch

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    The great difference between the coasts of Suffolk and Norfolk is that Suffolk has no coast road, and this seems to encourage the small towns and villages along the shore to retain their individual characters. Few are more characterful than Aldeburgh, a small town which punches well above its weight for its population of a little over two thousand people. This is largely because it developed as a town somewhat later in comparison with other East Anglian coastal towns. While the likes of Dunwich and Orford were competing for trade with Ipswich in the 13th and 14th Centuries, Aldeburgh was little more than a fishing village. However, a series of storms in the late medieval period threw up shingle backs along the coast that spelt the death of Dunwich and Orford as ports, and so it was that their difficulty became an opportunity for the village that lay between them. Aldeburgh profited remarkably quickly. The town grew rapidly and prospered, receiving a charter and becoming a corporation in the early 16th Century on the very eve of the Reformation.

As with many small East Anglian towns, Aldeburgh fell into a decline in the 17th Century, but it reinvented itself in the 18th Century as a bathing resort, which would make its fortune. By the late 19th Century it as one of the most popular destinations on the Suffolk coast, catering for an upper-middle class clientele who would come for the season rather than for day-trippers. It continued through all of this as a busy and successful fishing port, and it is this combination that gives Aldeburgh its singular character. It's one that has appealed to many people over the years, some of whom are remembered in the church, and to whom we will come back later.

Because medieval wealth came so late to Aldeburgh, its church is a perfect example of that grand rebuilding familiar from many small East Anglian towns, the fruit of both civic pride and an avalanche of bequests by those citizens keen to have their souls prayed for after their deaths. The tower is the earliest survival, from the second half of the 14th Century. If it was in proportion, the church against it must have been much smaller than the present one. In any case, it was soon to go. Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton have transcribed dozens of wills relating to Aldeburgh church, which bequeathed money that poured into its rebuilding. A number of the wills show where the wealth was coming from. In 1523, Alice Knight left 6 13s 4d (about 5000 in today's money) and half the proceeds of the sale of the ship called the Lytyll Magdalen to go to the building of the new aisle. In 1526, WIlliam Child declared that I wyll my part of my ship to be sold by myn executors & the money thereof comyng I give to the church of Alburgh to the byldyng of a new ile. The bequests to the aisles continue, until by the 1530s the aisles were being roofed and leaded, and attention was turning to the rebuilding of the chancel. It appears that work was only just completed before the Reformation intervened, and bequests dried up. And yet, despite all this money the church is not as big and as grand as some of Suffolk's other coastal churches, giving it an intimacy that they lack.

St Peter and St Paul sits above the town on the road to Snape. The effect is of a low, sprawling building. No clerestory appears to have ever been intended. The south aisle stands back only slightly from the street line, and this has resulted in one of the most memorable features of the exterior, the substantial south porch with a processional way running through it. The processions that were an essential part of the Holy Week liturgies required a circumnavigation of the church on sanctified ground. This was possible at most churches by using the churchyard, but where a church was against the edge of that ground it was necessary to devise a solution. A number of East Anglian churches have a processional way through the base of the tower, but here at Aldeburgh the problem was that a porch on the south side would block the processional route. The solution was to cut an arch in the east and west walls which would still allow the traditional uses of a porch, but not affect the Holy Week celebrations. We can date its construction fairly precisely, because in 1536 John Lunnys left the residue of the money from the sale of the said houses, debts paid and legacies fulfilled, to go to the building of the porch, and in the following year Agnes Sperks left 20s, about a thousand pounds in today's money, to the making up of the new porch. There's only one other like it in Suffolk, at Stratford St Mary on the Essex border.

You step through the porch into a large, almost squarish space full of light, for there is no coloured glass in the south aisle. The aisles and their arcades continue beyond the chancel arch into a chancel that, with its aisles, is much wider than it is long. The 14th Century font with its alternating lions and angels with shields is the oldest thing here. It has been moved from the west end of the nave to the east end of the north aisle. Behind it is what is probably Suffolk's best-known 20th Century glass, John Piper's memorial window for the composer Benjamin Britten. It depicts three of his church parables, The Prodigal Son, Curlew River, and The Burning Fiery Furnace.

Benjamin Britten The Prodigal Son Curlew River The Burning Fiery Furnace

Perhaps no name is associated more firmly with Aldeburgh than that of Benjamin Britten. He was born up the coast at Kirkley in Lowestoft, where his father was a dentist. An avowed pacifist, Britten went into voluntary exile in America with his partner Peter Pears during the Second World War, but in 1943 while living in California he read a magazine article about the poet George Crabbe and the wild Suffolk coast. He realised that this was creatively and artistically where they needed to be, so at the height of wartime they undertook the dangerous journey home. They rented the mill at nearby Snape where Britten used a passage from Crabbe's long prose poem The Borough as the basis for his first masterpiece, the opera Peter Grimes. The story is set in a small fishing port where the anti-hero Grimes suffers the wrath of the community's hypocrisy for his ill-treatment of his apprentices. The sound of morning service that reaches Ellen and the boy on the beach at the start of act two is from this church, for the Borough, of course, is Aldeburgh.

Directly across from Britten's window is the memorial to George Crabbe himself, who had been born in Aldeburgh in 1754, the son of a salt tax collector. Crabbe hated Aldeburgh and got out as soon as he could. He spent his life elsewhere in both Suffolk and wider England. He died and was buried in Trowbridge, Wiltshire in 1832. Unfortunately for him, he is tied forever to the place of his birth because of his poem. His memorial features a bust effigy and a pedestal with the words to the memory of George Crabbe, the poet of nature and truth, this monument is erected by those who are desirous to record their admiration of his genius in the place of his birth. Britten and Pears on the other hand loved Aldeburgh, and lived here for most of the rest of their lives, firstly at Crag House on the seafront just down from the church and then later at the Red House, near the quiet seclusion of the golf course. In 1948 they had instituted the Aldeburgh Festival at which many of Britten's works received their first performance. From the start, the Festival was a success. It used Aldeburgh Jubilee Hall and this church for its performances, as well as a number of other local churches, but it soon became obvious that it needed a large venue if it was to grow.

The answer came by way of another name associated with Aldeburgh, Newson Garrett, who is remembered along with other members of the Garrett family in the south chancel chapel. Garrett was an energetic and successful 19th Century businessman, who had been closely involved in the development of Aldeburgh as a resort, but who also owned the substantial Dunningworth Maltings on the edge of the village of Snape, though actually on the other side of the River Alde in Tunstall parish. When the now disused maltings came on the market in the 1960s, the Festival redeveloped it as a concert hall. It was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967, and although it was destroyed by fire two years later it was rebuilt and remains a concert space of international importance. Another famous Aldeburgh resident remembered in the south chancel chapel is Newson Garrett's daughter, Eizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a doctor and who in 1908 was elected Mayor of Aldeburgh, the first woman in Britain to hold such a post.

Apart from the font, there's not much else here that predates the Reformation. It's safe to assume that, as with other principally mercantile towns, the wealthy families of Aldeburgh embraced protestantism enthusiastically. When the iconoclast William Dowsing came here on the 24th January 1644 on his visitation of the churches of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, he found that little had survived the Reformation. In his journal he records that we gave order for the takeing down 20 cherubims. These would have been angels in the roof which had often remained when other things were destroyed a century earlier, simply because they were too high up to easily reach. He also gave orders for the removal of 38 pictures, which would have been panels of stained glass. Again, stained glass windows often survived the destruction of the 1530s and 1540s, not for any devotional or sentimental reasons but simply because glass was expensive to replace, but Dowsing had no truck with such pragmatism. His journal tells us that he did not carry out the removal himself (he rarely did for major work like taking down roof angels) but their lecturer Mr Swayn (a godly man) undertook to do and their captain Mr Johnson. John Blatchly, in his commentary to the gazetteer in Trevor Cooper's The Journal of William Dowsing, tells us that the lecturer Mr Swayn was probably John Swayne, a puritan former vicar of Westleton who was appointed as Lecturer (which is to say a preacher and director of morals) at Aldeburgh when the parish priest was ejected by a puritan court in 1641 for being a 'scandalous minister', or theological liberal.

The other glass in the church is a mixed bag, and reflects the somewhat overwhelming restorations of the 1850s, 1870s and 1890s. These were necessary, for as James Bettley points out in his revision of the Buildings of England volume for East Suffolk, the church in the early 19th Century was in decay, especially the windows. Thanks to Aldeburgh's rise to prosperity in the following decades, this could be put right. Most of the glass is by Hardman & Co at the turn of the 20th Century. There was once more glass, but that on the south side was blown out during the Second World War. The best of the other glass is in the south chancel chapel east window by AK Nicholson, depicting the young Blessed Virgin seated at a table reading the Old Testament prophecies about her life, while her mother St Anne looks on. They are flanked by panels of four other female saints.

Also in the south chancel chapel is a substantial memorial to Lady Henrietta Vernon, who died in 1786. A human-sized allegorical figure of grief leans on an urn, while above her an angel points the way to heaven. Back in the nave, the 17th Century pulpit has panels of sea creatures, reminiscent of the contemporary pulpit once in St Mary at Quay in Ipswich, now at Elmsett. On the south side of the chancel arch nearby is a set of royal arms for Charles II. There are a fair number of memorials on the walls of the aisles, mostly of the 18th and 19th Centuries, giving it a feel of a civic church over time. At the west end of the nave beside the west doorway is large memorial in pressed copper to the seven men who lost their lives by the capsizing of the lifeboat 'Aldeburgh' on the 7th of December 1899. The memorial depicts the lifeboat in a roundel, and concludes with a verse from Psalm 77, Thy way is in the sea, and thy paths in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known. There's another memorial to the crew out in the churchyard, and a number of the people we have met inside are also here. Britten and Pears' headstones are side by side in the common run, and the musician Imogen Holst, Britten's assistant for many years and the daughter of the composer Gustav Holst, lies nearby. Not far off are Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her father Newson Garrett. From the churchyard you can look out over the rooftops of their proud little town, with the sea beyond.


Simon Knott, January 2024

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looking east

chancel south aisle chapel looking west
font font and Britten memorial glass sanctuary south aisle altar south aisle looking west
pulpit pulpit detail: fish and grapes George Crabbe Lady Henrietta Vernon, 1786
three sons fragments brass inlays brass
'who lost their lives by the capsizing of the lifeboat 'Aldeburgh' Dec 7th 1899 Walter George Wilkinson John Say, 1809
Adoration of the Magi (Hardman & Co, 1904) St Anne shows the scriptures to the young Blessed Virgin (AK Nicholson, 1929) Crucifixion (Hardman & Co, 1891) St Peter tries to walk on water (Hardman & Co, 1902)
behold a Virgin shall conceive angel music adoration
St Ursula St Katherine St Cecilia St Margaret
The church clock is the gift of Vernon Wentworth Esq English Education Officer, Johore, Malaya 1916-1924 Rev Henry Turner Dowler, 1874
war memorial Newson Garrett, 1893 C II R
killed by a sniper a deo omnia



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