At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Boxford

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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It is always a pleasure to come back to Boxford. It's always been one of my favourite Suffolk villages. Many of the buildings on its high street are contemporary with those not far off at Lavenham, and the place really deserves to be better known. The church is full of interest, and is one of a number in Suffolk that were unaccountably missed out of the Simon Jenkins book England's Thousand Best Churches, although I dare say that not a day goes by when someone doesn't point out the omission of one somewhere in England to him, poor man. Boxford was one of the wealthy 15th century cloth-producing villages, and it is as if a vestige of its former significance survives in church and village, as if they still busy themselves independently of the modern world.

St Mary is on a rise, near the centre of the village. Like nearby Kersey, it presents its north face to the village, but its grandest aspect is to the south. The north porch, the usual entrance, is perhaps Suffolk's finest 14th century wooden porch, and the oldest part of the external structure. The south porch, however, is one of the county's grandest 15th century affairs, in bright stone. Six elegant niches line the top, flanking a larger seventh. In the spandrels are an angel and the Blessed Virgin, depicting the Annunciation. It is still possible to pick out the words of the Hail Mary inscribed on the angel's banner. Again, as at Kersey, the donors paid for a porch on the less-used side of the building, perhaps because there was already a fine porch to the north, a reminder that these buildings were raised as parish churches, not village ones.

Above these porches, the 14th century tower rises, a century older now than the church against it. Perhaps it would have been rebuilt if the Reformation had not intervened. Elegant and beautiful, decorated with grotesques, it is topped by a little wood and lead spire. This repays another look, since it is bedecked with Perpendicular flying buttresses. The slate sundial below is also attractive.

St Mary is open every day to visitors. Whether you enter from the north or the south you step into a bright, clean interior, the light from the clerestory filling the nave and aisles. This is a great barn of light, the only colour coming from the glass of the east window. This is by Rosemary Rutherford, and depicts the Transfiguration in flowing chunks of colour, which lends the chancel an air of mystery, giving it a feeling of devotion and prayer. Her work can be found at a number of churches in East Anglia and the East Midlands, most notably perhaps at Hinderclay in Suffolk.

Turning back to the west, perhaps the most memorable feature of the nave is the striking 17th century font cover, which opens out like the one at Bramford. Inside are painted ribbons with quotes from St John's Gospel. Two are taken from Nicodemus' question and Christ's answer: How can a man be borne which is olde? and Except a man be borne of water and of the spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. The other is from the Last Supper: Christ's answer, when Peter baulks at Christ washing his feet: If I wash the(e) not thou hast no part with me.

Boxford Boxford

The late 15th Century south aisle chapel has a feeling of its former importance and an indication of the wealth of the village at that time, with tall, elaborate niches either side of the east window, retaining remains of their former paint. St Edmund stands to the north of the altar. This village was so busy and prosperous, Mortlock notes that there were no less than four Chantry guilds here, at least one of which must have had its altar here. Although nothing remains of the rood screen, it is clear that the rood loft must have extended over the parclose screens of the chantry chapels, as at Dennington.

Boxford has more than its fair share of intriguing post-Reformation memorials, some in brass, some in stone. Two of particular note are here in the south aisle chapel. One is for Elizabeth Hyam, for the fourth time widow, who by a fall that brought on a mortification was at last hastened to her end on the 4th May 1748 in her 113th year. We have no way of knowing how much this is an exaggeration, but she may well have been born in the reign of Charles I, and was perhaps the last person in Suffolk to remember the English Civil War. People born around the time she died could conceivably, in their old age, have seen the Oxford Movement rise to prominence.

The other memorial is rather more pathetic. It is a tiny brass, set in the floor. It is to David Birde, a Rector's son, who died at the age of a few months in 1606. He lies in his bed, with two little shoes under it. Another little brass shield, once part of a larger composition, depicts the Blessed Virgin as the Queen of Heaven, and is probably early 16th century. Another, later, brass remembers William Doggett, Merchant Adventurer.

Not far off from this splendid church is another. After a pint at the Fleece or the White Hart, you could do worse than climb the hill to the outskirts of the village, where you will find another fascinating medieval church at Groton. This parish was the home church of the Winthrop family, who established the State of Massachusetts and have been linked with Groton's fortunes since.

Simon Knott, August 2019

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looking east south aisle chapel
Transfiguration (Rosemary Rutherford, 1970) in her 113th year surgeon Mothers' Union St Mary's Boxford
here sleeps David Birde Master Richard Brond
Rosemary Rutherford 1912-1972 artist and designer


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