At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Combs

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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riding rough seas Combs Combs
doorway south porch porch

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Combs, pronounced to rhyme with looms, is a large parish, and although there is a remote, pretty village that takes its name up in the hills, the bulk of the population of the parish is down in the housing estate of Combs Ford in suburban Stowmarket. Consequently, this church is often busy with baptisms and weddings, and can reckon on a goodly number of the faithful on a Sunday morning.

St Mary is on the edge of the housing estate, but the setting is otherwise profoundly rural: you reach it along a doglegging lane from the top of Poplar Hill, and the last few hundred yards is along a narrow track which ends in the wide graveyard. The church is set on low ground, hills rising away to north and south, and the effect, on looking down at it, is of a great ship at rest in harbour.

With its grand tower, aisles and clerestories this is a perfect example of a 15th Century Suffolk church in all its glory. In the 1930s, Cautley found the main entrance through the south porch, a grand red brick affair of the late 15th century. It has since been bricked up, and entrance is through the smaller north porch, which faces the estate. The gloom of the north porch leads you into a tall, wide open space, full of light, as if the morning had followed you in from outside. If you had been here ten years ago, the first striking sight would have been the three great bells on the floor at the west end. They represented the late medieval and early modern work of three of East Anglia's great bell-founding families, the Brayers of Norwich and the Graye and Darbie families of Ipswich. The largest dates from the mid-15th century, and was cast by Richard Brayser. Its inscription invokes the prayers of St John the Baptist. The other two come from either side of the 17th century Commonwealth; that by Miles Graye would have been a sonorous accompaniement to Laudian piety, while John Darbie's would have rung in the Restoration. It was fascinating to be able to see them at such close quarters, but they have now been rehung in the tower.

Stretching eastwards is the range of 15th century benches with their predominantly animal bench ends, some 19th Century but mostly medieval in origin, albeit heartily restored and even replaced by the Victorians. The effect is similar to that at Woolpit a few miles to the west. The hares seem alert and wary, as though they might bolt at any moment. Clearly, the medieval artist had seen a hare, but lions were creatures of his imagination.

bench end: cat? lioness? (19th Century) bench end: dog (19th Century) bench end: cat? lioness? (19th Century) bench end: lion (15th Century) bear in muzzle and collar (15th Century restored) bench end: lion (15th Century) bench end: a unicorn turned into an ugly-faced man (15th Century recut 19th Century) bench end: hare (19th Century) bench end: bearded man sitting on a square stool (19th Century) bench end: bearded man sitting on a square stool (19th Century) bench end: man standing in front of a square stool (19th Century) bench end: lion (15th Century, restored 19th Century) bench end: lioness? ape? (15th Century, restored 19th Century) bench end: bull (15th Century, restored 19th Century) bench end: curious dog (19th Century) bench end: owl (19th Century) bench end: lion (19th Century) bench end: gryphon? dragon? (19th Century) bench end: hare (15th Century, restored 19th Century) bench end: pelican (15th Century, restored 19th Century) bench end: gryphon? (15th Century, restored 19th Century) bench end: dog (15th Century, restored 19th Century)

dog Christian greyhound wild man horse monkey squirrel lion reading man eagle lion with a man's head leopard bear in a muzzle dog dog hare monkey dog lion lion standing man praying man wild man wild man

The great glory of this church, however, is the range of 15th century glass towards the east end of the south aisle. It was collected together in this corner of the church after the factory explosion that wrecked most of Stowmarket and killed 28 people in August 1871. The east window and most easterly south window contain figures from a Tree of Jesse, a family tree of Christ. Old Testament prophets and patriarchs mix with kings, most of them clearly labelled: Abraham and his son Isaac wait patiently near the top, and Solomon and David are also close companions.

This second window also contains two surviving scenes from the Seven Works of Mercy, 'give food to the hungry' and 'give water to the thirsty'. But the most remarkable glass here consists of scenes from the life and martyrdom of St Margaret. We see her receiving God's blessing as she tends her sheep (who graze on, apparently unconcerned). We see her tortured while chained to the castle wall. We see her about to be boiled in oil, and most effectively in a composite scene at once being eaten by a dragon and escaping from it. Because there is so much 15th Century glass at Combs, I have organised the panels here window by window, bearing in mind that all this glass is reset and is not in its original place in the church. Hovering over the image should produce a description, and there's more information when you click through.

south aisle, second window from the east:
south aisle second window from east David and Solomon (15th Century) two OT kings (15th Century)
St Margaret tends sheep as Olybrius attempts to seduce her (15th Century, south aisle se2) St Margaret about to be boiled in oil (15th Century, south aisle se2) St Margaret brought before a king and tempted by the devil  (15th Century, south aisle se2)
St Margaret taunted and tortured (15th Century, south aisle se2) Seven Sacraments: Baptism (15th Century, south aisle se2) St Margaret and the dragon, swallowed and then birching the beast (15th Century, south aisle se2)

south aisle, first window from the east:
south aisle first window from east Kings Mannasseh and Josiah (15th Century)
Salmon and his son Boaz (15th Century) two OT kings (15th Century) two OT prophets
feed the hungry (15th Century) Orate pro anima ('pray for the soul of'), 15th Century give water to the thirsty (15th Century)

south aisle, east window:
south aisle east window Jacob and an OT king (15th Century) Ephraim and Ahaija Abraham and Isaac (15th Century)
Christ salvatore mundi and fragments (15th Century) fragments (15th Century) fragments (15th Century)
angel head and fragments (15th Century)

glass elsewhere in the church:
OT kings (15th Century) OT kings (15th Century) OT kings (15th Century)
south aisle 5th window from east shackled

Under the vast chancel arch is the surviving dado of the late 14th/early 15th Century roodscreen, a substantial structure carved and studded with ogee arches beneath trefoiled tracery, the carvings in the spandrels gilded. At the other end of the church, the font is imposing in the cleared space of the west end. It is contemporary with the roodscreen, and the suggestion is that we are seeing a building that is not far off being all of a piece: the fixtures and fittings of a new building roughly a century before the Reformation.

A period of history not otherwise much represented here is that of the early Stuarts, but a brass inscription of 1624 reset on a wall had echoes of Shakespeare: Fare well, deare wife, since thou art now absent from mortalls sight. One of those moments when the human experience transcends the religious tussles of those days.

Outside in the graveyard, two other memorials caught my eye. One dates from 1931, and remembers My Beloved Sweetheart Stan... who died in Aden aged 22 years. Not far off, a small headstone of the late 17th Century records that Here Restesth ye body of Mary, ye wife of Tho. Love Coroner with two still born Children. I stood in the quiet of the graveyard, looking across to the suburbs of the busy town of Stowmarket, and I felt the heartbeat, the connection down the long Combs Ford centuries.

Behind me, there was something rather curious. Although this is a big graveyard, the church is set hard against the western edge of it. Because of this, a processional way was built through the base of the tower by the original builders, as at Ipswich St Lawrence and Stanton St John. This would have allowed medieval processions to circumnavigate the church on consecrated ground. The way here has since been blocked in, and is used as storage space. A surviving stoup inside shows that, through this processional way, the west door was the main entrance to the church in medieval times, when this building was the still point of the people's turning world.


Simon Knott, July 2019

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rood screen dado (15th Century) font looking west
north doorway detail: oak leaves rood screen (detail, 15th Century) two-faced poppyhead piscina and sedilia (restored)
font roof war memorial St Mary's Combs MU
memory Suffolk Regt

        1619 Miles Graye Darbie baptisti               

with two stillborn children asleep my beloved sweetheart Easter


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