At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Culford

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Culford Culford yew tree avenue

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          The heathland to the north of Bury St Edmunds can be bleak, especially in winter, but Culford is a cosily domestic former estate village, and to the west of its busy street is the park of Culford Hall, in its time the home of the Bacons, the Cornwallises, the Benyons and the Earls of Cadogan. Today it is a public school, and the church sits in a walled churchyard within its busy grounds. The Reverend Edward Benyon, who inherited the estate in 1839 and must have been quite the wealthiest East Anglian incumbent of his age, had the church rebuilt at his own expense in 1851. Pines and yews overarch the trim, clipped lawns that separate the churchyard from the park road, and if the church is not entirely in an East Anglian style, being in a somewhat splendid flint-and-dressed stone form of Decorated, it is a good example of a rural 19th Century church built without too much concern for cost.

It replaced what White's 1844 Suffolk called a small, neat structure, built at the end of the 17th Century at the expense of Sir Stephen Fox, father-in-law of the third Lord Cornwallis, which in turn presumably replaced a medieval building. Nothing survives of this church except for the memorials, but as we will see they are interesting and in one case quite remarkable. Curiously, the lower part of the tower of an earlier church is said to remain within the flint casing of the new church, but it seems unlikely to have been built in the 17th Century, so did it survive from the medieval church?

Considering his wealth, Benyon's choice of architect was a relatively minor one, William Habershon, whose practice was responsible for a number of minor domestic buildings in Suffolk as well as the restoration of Boulge church on behalf of the Fitzgerald family. It isn't entirely clear how he came to be the architect here, because at the same time that Habershon was working on the church one of the great architects of the age, Sir Arthur Blomfield, was busy on the Culford estate. Habershon had been employed by Benyon to rebuild Ingham rectory, and I suppose that Benyon must have liked it. For many years Blomfield was said to be responsible for the church, a mistake in the first edition of Nikolaus Pevsner's Buildings of England volume for Suffolk which was then repeated elsewhere, despite the fact that a tablet in the church records Habershon as the architect. James Bettley's 2016 revised edition puts matters right.

An avenue of yews leads up to the south doorway, and you step inside to a dark hush, typical of churches built in the 19th Century for the newly fashionable High Church worship. The interior appears all of a piece, tiled floors, sombre woodwork, and glass by John Forsyth, a pupil of Henry Holiday, in the north aisle which was added in the first decade of the 20th Century, the work of a fashionable London architect, Clyde Young.

The most remarkable and memorable feature of the interior is the memorial in the chancel. It is to Lady Jane Bacon, the wife of the artist Nathaniel Bacon, whose own striking memorial is under the tower now. She sits in a central position with an infant seated on her lap, in what surely must be a conscious echo of the Blessed Virgin and Christchild. This is remarkable, because it dates from the later years of the Puritan Commonwealth, in 1656. She is flanked by her grandchildren who look unnervingly like a set of chess pieces. Sir Nicholas Bacon, their father, her son, died two years after her and lies uncomfortably at her feet. Pevsner thought it sincere, not at all aristocratic.

Lady Jane Bacon, her grandchildren (1656) and below them her son Sir Nicholas Bacon (1660) Lady Jane Bacon and grandchildren (1656)
Lady Jane Bacon's grandchildren (1656) Lady Jane Bacon and grandchildren (1656) Lady Jane Bacon's grandchildren (1656)

The memorial is in its original place from the church's predecessor, and Habershon rebuilt the chancel around it, causing it to sit rather awkwardly below floor level, but the other memorials were moved elsewhere so that this space could become a liturgical and devotional stage. It is splendidly tiled under a hammerbeam roof with more early 20th Century glass by John Forsyth.The figures of Faith, Hope and Charity that are in the glass of the lancet windows are by Hardman & Co in the 1860s, and James Bettley thought they might also have been responsible for the original east window. The reredos below it is flanked by opus sectile depictions of the Annunciation that came as part of Clyde Young's 1908 restoration. They look as if they should be the work of Powell & Son,s although they are not mentioned in the Powells opus sectile order book.

A number of ledger stones towards the west end of the nave remember members of the Cornwallis family, mostly children, but if the Lady Jane Bacon memorial is the memory of Culford which most people will take away, it is not the largest memorial here. That accolade is reserved for the large, elegant memorial to the Countess of Cadogan, who died in 1907. The north aisle was constructed to accommodate it. Railed in, beneath a dramatic arch with figures of Faith, Hope and Charity, it has echoes of the memorial at Holkham to the Countess of Leicester. The sculptor was Countess Feodora Gleichen.

Beatrix Jane Craven, Countess Cadogan, 1907 Beatrix Jane Craven, Countess Cadogan Countess Cadogan's cross, 1907

Outside, among the gravestones of villagers and estate workers, are other memorials to members of the Benyon and Cadogan clans. A glimpse of Edwardian piety comes from the memorial to the north of the church, an angel supporting a cross in memory of the nine year old Viscount Chelsea.

At a time when the Church of England is suffering a loss of confidence, and the rural economy of East Anglia has been transformed, Culford church is a reminder of a near-recent past which is almost within the memory. It was not necessarily a kinder or a gentler time, for God knows how hard rural life was in the early years of the 20th Century especially in a grindingly poor area like West Suffolk. But it was of a human scale, and was graspable by those whose allegiance was sought by it. In turn, they helped to sustain it.

Churches like St Mary will never be built again. The opulence and craftsmanship here spring not just from deep faith, but from a fabulous wealth and political power, affirmed by seeming at once immutable and irreversible. The First World War would bring the old ways tumbling down. The Benyons and Cadogans of today will never again wield the influence of their forebears. And it is hard to imagine the fabulously well-to-do of the 21st Century being as beneficent as Benyon was, or having the confidence to employ a minor architect who would make his vision a reality. But there is something more. The glory that is Culford church was built under Benyon and Habershon's directions by the workers of the Culford estate. This was their church. They worshipped in it, they got married in it, they had their babies baptised in it, and they knew that this was where they would end life's journey. No wonder they made a good job of it.

Simon Knott, February 2022

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looking east sanctuary looking west
Faith (Hardman & Co, 1876) Charity (John Dudley Forsyth, 1908) Crucifixion (John Dudley Forsyth, 1910) Annunciation (John Dudley Forsyth, 1908) the women and the angel at the empty tomb (John Dudley Forsyth, 1908) Charity (Hardman & Co, 1876)
Gabriel at the Annunciation queen corbel head Nathaniel Bacon, artist, 1627 Mary at the Annunciation
font heraldic glass roll of honour Nathaniell Cornwallis 'being of the age of two yeares seven months and three weekes and two dayes', 1656
Frederick Cornwallis 'being at ye age of threi yeares and three days' and Anne Cornwallis 'being at ye age of 4 yeares 13 weekes', both July 1655 Charles Lord Cornwallis, 1721 Martin Norridge, 1683
the joye of vertue, who'd not one teare shed fruits and flowers, 1669


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