At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Cratfield

At the sign of the Barking lion...

home index e-mail what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


woodwose west door dragon


Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

I always look forward to coming back to Cratfield. It's one of the loveliest spots in Suffolk, miles from anywhere, and, if I may be forgiven for a flight of fancy, the sun is always shining and the birds are always singing, or at least they are for me. They certainly were at the end of March 2019, a beautiful early spring day. I'd cycled down from Metfield crossing the windy sugar-beet plain, its hedgerows all denuded, with Laxfield's mighty tower forever on the horizon. It seemed to be where I was heading, and indeed I would be in due course, but first the road descended into a green valley, and this pretty church sat waiting in its bosky glade. Coming back in April 2021 and March 2022 it was the same, as if late winter and early spring were always the perfect time to be in this place.

This is not a big church, and yet it has all the features you might expect from Suffolk in the 15th Century, with aisles, clerestories and a grand porch. In the spandrels of the porch a woodwose and a dragon square up to each other. It has to be said that the wild man with his club and shield appears more dangerous than the dragon. Not large then, but it would be true to call this church elaborate, and the sequence in which this happened are largely known to us for Cratfield has one of the most complete sets of vestry minutes in England. That lovely tower top, for example, is right on the eve of the Reformation, for when the gloves came off the parish sold all its silver rather than let it fall into the government coffers, and then they spent the proceeds on decorating the tower. But the hand of the Victorians fell here too, fortunately the customary light touch of diocesan architect Richard Phipson rather than that of anyone more enthusiastic.

You step in to be presented with one of the more significant medieval art objects in the county, the glorious seven sacrament font. Cautley thought it artistically the finest, and certainly the quality of the carving is of a higher order than that of many of the others. The intricacy can be matched by the font at Little Walsingham in Norfolk. Sadly, two of the panels have been entirely destroyed, presumably by the Anglican reformers of the 1540s and 1550s, but the rest, once made flush with a hammer, spent several centuries behind plaster. Not only have six of the designs survived in something like their original integrity, but they even retain traces of colour.

seven sacrament font

seven sacrament font: crucifixion seven sacrament font: baptism seven sacrament font: confirmation
seven sacrament font: ordination seven sacrament font: matrimony seven sacrament font: last rites

The setting of the font is quite different to that of the seven sacrament font at neighbouring Laxfield, where the fat bowl sits on a stubby stem at the centre of a great cross. Here, the bowl and stem are slender, like an opening flower. The pedestal seems almost too imposing. The shaft is home to eight seated figures, evangelists and apostles all, interspersed with symbols of the evangelists. Above the supporting angels, more figures stand at the corners, including Suffolk favourites St Dorothy and St Edmund. The south-eastern panel shows the crucifixion. Then in a clockwise direction, we find baptism, confirmation, a blank, a blank, ordination, marriage, last rites. The blanks are Mass and Confession, perhaps a sign of early Anglican anger. The odd-panel-out is often eastward or westward, so possibly this font has been moved at some time, probably by Phipson. Since mass and confession have both been completely destroyed, this font doesn't have the harmony of some others despite its delicacy. There are three other seven sacrament fonts a short distance from here (there are only ten in the whole of Suffolk) and they are all different in style.

A solid-looking chest stands at the east end of the north aisle, and an inscription on it records that Roger Walsche gaf thys cheist and asks us to praye for hys sowle to Jhesu Creist. Thanks to the vestry minutes we know that Roger Walsche died in 1475. Beside the font, against the west wall is part of the screen, which Phipson placed here when engaged on his 1879 restoration. He was fresh from his triumph at St Mary le Tower in Ipswich, and turned a kindly eye to this remote outpost. The St Edmund chapel, now a vestry, the furnishings, and the rood loft stairs all still bear witness to their origins beyond the gulf of the 1540s, and this country's cultural revolution. The 18th Century memorial to Sarah Mynne appears to intentionally overlay a medieval aumbry - did her heirs intend it to serve as a dole cupboard of some kind? Or was the aumbry only found and opened by Phipson? All these are fascinating details of a neat, bright, tidy little place. Treasures to be contemplated in tranquility - what more could one ask? And also the cool interior of the church, the somnolent green churchyard, these stay long in the memory too. The qualities of peace are measured against such as these.

Simon Knott, March 2022

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.


looking east chancel looking west
bench end (17th Century) 'Roger Walsche gaf thys cheist, praye for hys sowle to Jhesu Creist' worthily lived as a tenant
Christ carries his cross (German, 17th century) St Luke (Jones & Willis, 1926) Christ the healer (Jones & Willis, 1926) Blessed Virgin (Jones & Willis, 1926) St Paul (Jones & Willis, 1926)
Holy Trinity shield (19th Century) Trinity-style 'Way, Truth, Life' shield (19th Century)

Cratfield lion


The Churches of East Anglia websites are non-profit-making, in fact they are run at a loss. But if you enjoy using them and find them useful, a small contribution towards the costs of web space, train fares and the like would be most gratefully received. You can donate via Paypal.