Blackfriars Church, Ipswich
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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probably the oldest continuously occupied town in
England, and its oldest parishes by the docks are the
longest continuously occupied parishes in England. A
conurbation of several known Saxon settlements (and
possibly a few others that aren't yet) developed into a
town that was among the half dozen largest in England by
Domesday, when ten parish churches were recorded.
Prosperity came in waves, and by the 12th Century, the
modern street pattern was more or less laid out, and, in
addition to a number of chapels, there were now fifteen
The Blackfriars church was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it was one of the biggest churches in Ipswich, fully 150 feet long. There were aisles to north and south of the nave and a choir separated nave and chancel, in the cathedral manner. There was a central tower, and early mentions of a spired church seem to refer to this one. The chancel had a chapel to the south, probably constructed after a bequest by the Dukes of Suffolk. Between this chapel and the nave were the chapter house and the sacristy.
It is possible to walk the length of the church along a footpath which connects Foundation Street with Lower Orwell Street and Fore Street. You enter the site from the Foundation Street end at the west end of the north aisle. To your right below the wall you can see into the nave of the church, the square bases of the arcades standing out of the grass. As the path reaches the west end of the nave it turns into the walkway that separated nave and choir. Ahead of you now is a large square area that formed the crossing beneath the tower. The east end of the nave is to your right, and the two stone bases that housed altars stand either side of the entrance to the choir. The path now turns east again and takes you exactly up the centre of the choir. The L-shaped outlines either side of the path were resonance chambers, once filled with hollow jars and set below a wooden floor to amplify the singing from the choir above. Off to the right are the four blank arcades in the east wall of the sacristy and beyond that the chapter house. Following the path you travel to the east wall of the chancel, the sanctuary marked by a raised step, before the path jinks and takes you out of the church to the south of the high altar.
In the middle decades of the 16th Century, the busy liturgical life of medieval Catholic Ipswich began to come to to an end. In 1528, the Priory of St Peter and St Paul was suppressed, freeing up land and assets for Thomas Wolsey's ill-fated Cardinal College. The other priory, Holy Trinity, fell victim to the dissolution of the monasteries in February 1537, and its assets were stripped to line the coffers of the treasury, the land sold off or offered as largesse to favoured citizens. The friaries of course had little in the way of land, and so were not such a priority for asset stripping. However, as the Reformation progressed the State became particularly wary of preaching orders who could not be relied upon to toe the new line. Only one in five parish priests in Suffolk had been considered trustworthy enough to be licenced to preach by the ruling Protestant reformers, and the friars were certainly not to be accorded this privilege. Their donations dried up, and the communities were left to wither on the vine. Inevitably, the friars began to sell their possessions in order to survive. The Treasury soon realised that there would be nothing left for them to sequester, and so in November 1538 the friaries were closed, their assets also going to the State. The land where the Blackfriars foundation stood was granted to the Borough.
Over the next century parts of the friary buildings were demolished, while others became part of Christ's Hospital. The Hospital was, in fact, an amalgamation of foundations, including the first buildings of what went on to become Ipswich Grammar School. This time also brought a prison, an orphanage and Tooley's almshouses (which still survive in rebuilt form today). Part of the Hospital was a workhouse, with dormitories and a workshop, William Smart having left endowments to provide for the needs of the deserving poor. The chancel of the Blackfriars church became the chapel of the Hospital, although there may have been some conflict, because the Parish of St Clement administered the buildings and which might explain why over the course of the 17th Century the chancel and choir fell into disuse, and along with the nave they were largely demolished to provide building stone for the rest of the site.
As buildings crumbled they were replaced with new ones, and soon nothing remained above ground of the friary, except for a row of four blank arcades, part of the interior east wall of the sacristy. By the 19th Century this area between the new town centre and the docks had become industrialised, and a brewery, a slaughterhouse and several workshops stood on the friary site. For a hundred and fifty years, only the mysterious arches on the edge of the brewery yard in School Street suggested that anything had happened here in what was an increasingly remote past. An area of slums spread north and east of the area, along Cox Lane and Rope Walk. In the 1860s the Catholic church of St Pancras was built in Tacket Street, on the edge of the site. As the economy of Ipswich changed, some of the factories fell into disuse, and some were demolished.
In the 1890s, the archaeologist Nina Layard began to investigate the site. Layard was a significant figure in late 19th Century antiquarian circles, and in Ipswich her investigations and discoveries included the site of a Saxon village on what is now the Hadleigh Road industrial estate, one of the founding settlements of Ipswich with a cemetery of 160 graves, as well as the Ice Age remains of settlers along the dried-up river bed that forms a dip in Foxhall Road to the east of the railway bridge. The excavation of the Blackfriars site remains her most visible achievement in Ipswich. Layard died in the 1930s having recorded the layout of the site among its jumble of 19th Century industrial buildings.
In the 1980s, the demand for car parking and low-cost rented accommodation in central Ipswich persuaded the Borough Council to allow the development of the area to the south of Tacket Street. This is a sensitive area, for Fore Street, Lower Orwell Street and Foundation Street are three of the most historic streets in the town and all had been badly served by development in the 1960s. The scheme combined award-winning flats with a privately managed multi-storey car park. As part of the development, the site of the Blackfriars church was at last fully excavated, and at a layer several feet below the modern townscape, some substantial and remarkable remains were properly exposed and preserved. They document a major urban church of the 13th Century which you can at last explore today.
Simon Knott, February 2021
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