At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Botolph, Burgh

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Burgh Burgh

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    Burgh sits close to the edge of the larger village of Grundisburgh, but its church is fully a mile away, a reminder that these are not village churches at all, but parish churches. St Botolph is on the edge of the parish, just a field or so from the church of neighbouring Clopton which is also remote from its parish population. There are other curious similarities between these two churches. Both have south towers, two of about thirty-five altogether in East Anglia, all of a broadly similar 14th Century date. And they are both set on mounds, high above the old Woodbridge to Debenham road. Churches on mounds are suggestive of an ancient foundation. In fact, at Burgh there may be more to it than that. There is some evidence of early Roman activity here, and indeed early antiquarians identified this as the site of the Roman Combretonium, although that was actually Coddenham six miles or so to the west. But Dr Sam Newton, the author of The Origins of Beowulf, argues that this site here at Burgh has greater significance as an earlier double-ramparted Iron Age enclosure which appears not to have been settled significantly in the early centuries of the first Christian millennium. There may have been a reason for this, as we will see.

The old school room sits at the churchyard gate, and then there is a fairly steep climb up to the south side of the church, any noise from the road below falling away quickly. This is a an attractive churchyard, sloping from the church on all sides. The southern side is a vast warren, and you can't help thinking that you wouldn't get much rest if you were lying there. Sam Newton tells the story of a poacher who, trapping coneys, discovered a mysterious carved stone here, long since lost. To the east of the chancel there are a couple of notable memorials. One is a low early 19th Century tomb chest enclosed in a spiked cage, perhaps to dissuade body snatchers, more likely simply for ostentation. Near it, John Steptoo's earlier headstone has carved into it a snake eating its own tail flanked by a pick, coffin, hourglass and spade, symbols of mortality.

There are no aisles or clerestories. The nave and chancel are a century later than the tower, and in any case were crisped up by a considerable mid-19th Century restoration. As with other south-towered churches you enter beneath the bells. This is one of an increasing number of churches that has an electric time-lock on its door, so you can visit it at any reasonable time during the day. It's a bit dark under the tower, but on the inner door there's a large boss and ring door handle which may date from as early as the late 13th Century. The church you step into can be a bit gloomy on even the brightest day, thanks to a sizeable collection of early 20th Century glass by Kempe & Co in the windows. The best of these is on the south side of the chancel, an Annunciation scene of 1906. St Gabriel makes his announcement, and Mary turns to look at him. One of my criticisms of Kempe glass (and there are several) is the way the workshop often makes Mary, who was not much more than an adolescent girl, appear matronly, but that isn't so much the case here. Beside it of a year later is the Adoration of the Shepherds, a move away from individual figures to a narrative scene which would become their metier in the years before the First World War. At the west end, St Michael is flanked by St Paul and St Stephen. Rather less good perhaps is the east window, one of Kempe's clumsy crucifixions, flanked by St Andrew and St Botolph.

The Kempe glass is all of a piece with this church's early 20th Century restoration, and an elegant brass plaque in an Arts and Crafts style on the north wall reveals the driving force behind it. It remembers Arthur Maude, who died in 1913. He was for thirty-six years Rector of Burgh, his inscription tells us, and goes on to say that he devoted his substance to the restoration and adornment of this church. The restoration brought the equally elegant mosaic tiling in the chancel and the reredos by Gambier Parry, redolent now of of a kind of faded rustic High Church Edwardian glory. Interestingly, there was an almost exactly contemporary restoration at Clopton, Burgh's twin across the fields, again at the impetus of the rector, but there it was firmly in the style of the Low Church tradition. An earlier restoration at Burgh in the mid-19th Century had brought the restoration of the 15th Century roof by Henry Ringham's Ipswich workshop, and probably also the furnishings below. It also brought glass by Thomas Willement, depicting the Parables of the Vine and of the Good Shepherd. The 17th Century pulpit across the nave curiously has the date 1708 and the name of the rector of the time carved into it. Older still is the font which, although considerably recut, is one of the typically East Anglian series of the 15th Century.

If it is true that this site was long abandoned in the years after the Roman conquest, it might well be to do with a long-told story that the mound on which the church sits had a reputation as the home of a demon fond of water. If you're feeling fanciful you might also note that the placename of Grundisburgh, a mile or so off, can be interpreted as 'the fortress of Grenda or Grendel', the name given to the marsh-dwelling monster of the Beowulf story (alternatively it may simply mean a low-lying place with a fortress). An early narrative records an attempt to exorcise this demon, and the story concerns St Botolph. He had landed in Suffolk in the mid-7th Century to establish his monastery at Icanho on the coast, the modern Iken, some ten miles to the east of Burgh. He was one of the major figures associated with the Kingdom of East Anglia. When he died his bones were brought here to Burgh, for as Sam Newton argues, his reputation as an exorcist of marsh monsters might have encouraged the locals to overcome their fear of the site. The bones were translated some fifty years later to Bury Abbey, only to be desecrated at the Reformation, but he remains the dedication of this little church to this day.


Simon Knott, March 2023

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looking east chancel font
pulpit (17th Century) 'he devoted his substance to the restoration and adornment of this church', 1913 door handle and boss (14th Century?)
Annunciation (Kempe & Co, 1907) Crucifixion flanked by St Andrew and St Botolph (Kempe & Co, 1903) Adoration of the Shepherds (Kempe & Co, 1907) St Michael flanked by St Paul and St Stephen (Kempe & Co, 1906)
St Andrew (Kempe & Co, 1903) Crucifixion (Kempe & Co, 1903) St Botolph (Kempe & Co, 1903) St Michael (Kempe & Co, 1906)
Gabriel at the Annunciation (Kempe & Co, 1906) Mary at the Annunciation (Kempe & Co, 1906) I am the Vine, I am the Good Shepherd (Thomas Willement, 1856)
Kempe wheatsheaf Thomas Willement

caged tombchest symbols of mortality


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