At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Michael, Brantham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Brantham Brantham Brantham

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      Brantham is border country. The River Stour sprawls surprisingly widely to the south, with the ribbon of Lawford, Manningtree and Mistley in Essex facing back across the silvery mud flats. The joint village of Brantham and Cattawade sits beside the busy Ipswich to Manningtree road, but the church is set back in the oldest part of the village, its large churchyard flanked by cottages, and you would not know that the road was there. The most memorable sight of approaching is perhaps ES Prior's Arts and Crafts-style lychgate of 1897. It is long and commodious with bench seats both sides, and on the couple of occasions I cycled out this way during the covid lockdown summer of 2020 it was being used by locals as a meeting place to sit and chat, which I thought was lovely. Under the elegantly curved roof, bold roses and intricate vines are carved into the roof beams. There's another lychgate by Prior at Kelsale on the outskirts of Saxmundham.

This was perhaps a predominantly 14th Century church, but it was largely rebuilt by John Hakewill, brother of the more famous Edward, and completed in 1869. The Hakewills were a local dynasty of architects and their work is found at a dozen or so Suffolk churches. In general, John's work is more thoughtful and interesting than that of his brother.He rebuilt the chancel, the north aisle and the upper part of the tower, and the overall effect is of a crisp exterior with, as you would expect around here, river rubble among the flint, especially on the south side. Interestingly, Simon Cotton records a bequest to rebuilding the chancel of 1461, but if that ever happened no trace of the medieval structure survives. James Bettley, revising the Buildings of England volume for East Suffolk, notes that the jaunty weather vane of St Michael on top of the tower came from the now-demolished parish church across the river in Manningtree.

The interior is pleasingly wide and full of light. Again, this is very much Hakewill's interior, but there are older survivals including a fine tracery font of about 1400 that was brought here from the now-redundant church of St Martin Palace Plain, Norwich, and a panel of 15th Century stained glass fragments. These include two larger figures, one of them a bishop giving a blessing and the other apparently a curly-haired young man, but as he is pointing upwards I think he must be what remains of the angel from a Resurrection scene.

a bishop and an angel?, 15th Century a bishop and an angel?, 15th Century

The 19th and 20th Century glass does not intrude, which is as well. The St John the Baptist scene in the west window by John Hall & Sons is surprisingly as late as 1946. It is, as James Bettley observes, very old-fashioned. The glass in the east window is typical work by Lavers, Barraud & Westlake and came as part of Hakewill's rebuilding of the chancel. The pulpit is in an Arts& Crafts style, decorated with the tangled vines of the Tree of Life and the work of a parishioner. Hakewill's chancel beyond is the grandest part of the church. The chancel arch is supported by two carved archangels, lively figures of St Michael and St Gabriel, the work of the sculptor John Jacquet. They are reminiscent of the drawings of the Glasgow artist and writer Alasdair Gray.

Brantham was one of three local churches for which the local artist John Constable painted an altarpiece, the others being at Manningtree and Nayland, and fortunately it was retained in Hakewill's restoration. It depicts Christ welcoming the children, 'for of such are the Kingdom of Heaven', but in fact it is a photographic reproduction. The original is on permanent loan to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the owners of the living. The lectern remembers Captain Charles Berjew Brooke, son of Charles Berjew Brooke and Maud Gwenddolen Brooke, of Colne House, Brantham, Suffolk. Their son was one of many Suffolk soldiers killed on the 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He was mown down while leading his men into battle. He was just 21 years old.

Brantham forms a joint benefice with East Bergholt, and in the 1640s this part of the Suffolk/Essex borderlands was an unhappy heartland of extreme puritanism. William Dowsing, the iconoclast, lived at neighbouring Stratford St Mary, and the next parish, Great Wenham, was the birthplace of Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General. Hopkins was the son of the rector and lived most of his short life across the river in Manningtree and Mistley. No one is more superstitious than an extreme puritan, and during his progress around East Anglia in the two years from 1644 Hopkins was responsible for the deaths of more than a hundred people accused of witchcraft by their neighbours, most of them women. It should be said that Hopkins, like Dowsing, was warmly welcomed in most places that he went, many villagers taking the opportunity to settle old scores. The Brantham Bull, a large pub on the north side of the village dating from the 16th Century, served as a courthouse, and on one occasion it is said that Hopkins personally hung a young woman on the green outside. Remarkably, he was only in his early twenties when he set out on his mission, and he was dead before he was thirty. His grave in Mistley old churchyard is unmarked.


Simon Knott, October 2022

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looking east chancel looking west
font (14th Century) 'tree of life' pulpit 'of such is the Kingdom' by John Constable Nativity
St Michael 'of such is the Kingdom' by John Constable St Gabriel
'Prepare ye the way of the Lord' (John Hall & Sons, 1946) O Life Brantham

lychgate (ES Prior) roof inside the lychgate (ES Prior) lychgate (ES Prior)


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