St John the Baptist, Denham St John
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|The late antiquarian, church
explorer and writer Sam Mortlock used to talk of churches
that seduce the senses and stick like a burr in the
memory, and for me Denham St John is one of these.
It sits among the fields and copses of north Suffolk in
that strangely lonely area between Eye and Framlingham
which is populated as much by deer as by human beings.
There are plenty of roe deer, certainly, and I had even
seen them before in Denham churchyard. But in April 2023
I was making my way towards the church along a long
sunken lane that comes down from Syleham when I was
startled and brought to a stop on my bike by a majestic
adult red deer stag, fully antlered, who broke through
the hedge about thirty yards ahead of me. He stood in the
lane, looking at me for a second, and then clambered up
onto the opposite bank. He seemed as big as a horse.
Behind him came his three female companions, one by one.
It was breathtaking. I watched them cross the field,
huddled closely together, until they disappeared from
This is a mark of quite how remote from civilisation this little church is. It sits in the deep peace of its intimately tree-shrouded churchyard, beside a narrow, rolling lane running westwards from the little hamlet of Denham. There is no tower, and the church appears from a distance as if it might have an agricultural purpose as much as a religious one, a low ancient jumble hugging the soft ground. When I first came here a quarter of a century ago the building had an air of dereliction about it, and it was locked without a keyholder notice as if it had been summarily abandoned, but it has been on a long journey since then and today it is open to pilgrims and strangers.
And yet there is still an endearing ramshackle air about the church, inevitably so given the battering it has taken and the patching up it has needed over the centuries. It is all the more characterful for it of course, although it does make dating the building difficult. The chancel appears to be 14th Century, and three massive Perpendicular windows were inserted into the nave a century later, two on the south side and one on the north. There is as much red brick as there is flint, and on the north side of the nave a large archway has been filled in with red brick showing where a transept chapel once was. Between two massive brick buttresses on the south side the interior of the rood loft stairway is exposed. Pevsner thought there had once been a west tower, and that it had been demolished. But James Bettley, revising the Buildings of England volume for East Suffolk, found the 1744 faculty for the demolition of the tower, and it had in fact been one of Suffolk's twenty-odd south towers, the nave extending further westwards than it does now.
The red brick and flint south porch must post-date the demolition of the tower, but not by much. You step through it down into a wide, light interior, neat and trim without being fussy or over-restored. The view to the east is through a surprisingly wide and low 14th Century chancel arch with the royal arms of Charles I over it. They are dated 1637, a difficult year for that ill-fated monarch. It was the year that the Scottish church rejected the new prayer book, and there was also the controversy in England over the demand for Ship Money. Both of these required a demonstration of loyalty from the Church of England, and in Denham at least they seem to have answered the call. Quite how much the parishioners approved of it is anyone's guess, of course. The two great treasures here predate the royal arms and are both memorials, one in the nave and one in the chancel. One is easily seen, the other hidden.
The first is a beautiful 13th Century effigy of a lady with her heart in her hands. She lies in an alcove on the north side of the nave just to the east of the former entrance to the side chapel. We don't know who she was, but she may have been a member of the locally important Bedingfield family. The other surviving treasure is a figure brass of Sir Anthony Bedingfield who died in 1574. He's hidden under the altar, and it is a palimpsest, which is to say it is cut into the reverse of a brass made for someone else which has been reused. There's a replica of the reverse side on the north wall. It was a 1515 Flemish brass to one Jacobus Wegheschede, and James Bettley notes that other parts of the brass were used for figures at Yealmpton in Devon and Cheam in Surrey. Mortlock wondered if Wegheschede's brass had been removed from a London church during the great wave of iconoclasm in the 1530s and 1540s, to be later reused by an English workshop. Bedingfield's inscription tells us that hic jacet Anthonius Bedingfeld tertius filius Edwardii Bedingfeld militis qui obit primo die februari Anno Domini 1574, 'Here lies Anthony Bedingfield, third son of Edward Bedingfield, soldier, who died the first day of February in the Year of Our Lord 1574'. This is followed by what appears to be a prayer clause, which seems unlikely as late as 1574, but in fact it reads Vixit uterque pietate vivat uterque deo, meaning 'Each lived in piety, may each live in God'. As David King, who helpfully transcribed this final clause for me observes, the Bedingfields stayed Catholic and still are, but this is a nice way of expressing a wish for one's soul without actually saying so.
A century earlier than Bedingfield's brass are the misericord seats on the north side, although unfortunately all of the reliefs below the seats have been smashed. Broadly contemporary with them is the angel holding a scroll in the west window. If the nave was once longer it seems unlikely that he is in his original place, although it may be that the 15th Century tracery of the original west window has brought further east when the wall was rebuilt. Below it is a dedicatory inscription stone from the 13th century. I'm told that this used to be outside, but was brought in to prevent further erosion. The font is plain and octagonal, but it has an inscription telling us that it was restored 1876 in memory of three people whose initials are given and show that they had different surnames. The curiosity is that it does not appear to be a much older font, so does the restoration refer to the font or to the church?
A plaque on the south side of the nave remembers Victor Leopold Stevens Bedwell, 2nd Lieut. Suffolk Regiment, who fell at the Battle of the Somme Aug 18th 1916, Aged 22 years. He was the son of Thomas Bedwell, the rector of Denham St John, who died three years later in 1919. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website tells us that Victor was Craven Scholar at Oxford University in 1915. The Bedwell Prize has been founded at Exeter College, Oxford, in memory of his brilliant learning and personality. His body was never found, and he is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. He was just one of eight lads from Denham lost to the Great War, which must have made a traumatic impact on this intensely rural parish.
Simon Knott, April 2023
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