The Churches of Suffolk

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St Stephen's Chapel, Bures


About this site
being by way of an explanation, and then an introduction.


By way of an explanation

Welcome to the Suffolk churches website. This is an independent fan site about the churches of the county of Suffolk, England. Back in 1997 I began a journey around the county, visiting, photographing and writing about its six hundred-odd Anglican and Catholic churches, as well as some of the non-conformist ones. Although I'd soon largely completed this task, the journey continued. Since then I have regularly revisited many of the churches and updated their pages on this site. I hope that it is not too pompous to say that it began as a kind of pilgrimage, but on the way the website began to take over, being featured on television and in the national press, and even becoming a BBC local radio series.

I've tried to describe each visit, partly as a way of keeping a record, partly as a means of documenting the county, and partly to enable you to experience something of the same thing yourself. I rarely phoned ahead, rarely said who I was, rarely made my intentions clear. The visit you will read about is pretty much the one you would have made yourself. I took thousands of photographs, hosted on flickr and linked to from each page. If you go to the main index, you'll find links to the individual churches, so you can read them in whichever order you like. This isn't a religious website, but I hope it has a spiritual dimension, of sorts. I'm afraid that it isn't a family history website either, but there is a links page that suggests starting points and further ideas for finding ancestors in Suffolk.

Since I started the site in 1998, use of the internet and church-exploring have both increased in popularity, although the former more than the latter, of course. I hope it doesn't sound immodest, but this site has generated a huge amount of interest, and occasionally courted a little controversy. As I continue my journey around the churches of Suffolk I find that an increasing number of them are open daily to visitors. If any of the light and heat generated by my site has been a contributory factor, I am pleased and humbled.

I don't drive, and so most of the churches were visited by bike. However, the burden of travelling alone in Suffolk was lightened on occasions by various friends including the late Peter Stephens and Tom Muckley both of whom are much-missed, and John Vigar who is very much still with us. Simon Cotton and the late Sam Mortlock provided regular advice by e-mail and occasionally in person that improved the site and enabled me to be both more accurate and more insighful. James Bettley's recent revision of the Buildings of England volume for Suffolk has been a valuable new resource, and he has also been generous with his advice and suggestions to me.

That the site survived the most tiresome years of my mid-life crisis was due in no small way to the persistence of Tom Muckley who, as Dr Pusey once said of Hadleigh's Dean Hugh Rose, when hearts were failing, he bade us stir up the gift that was in us. Despite his incomprehension that I would be exploring Suffolk before his beloved Norfolk, his patience extended to me visiting, photographing and writing about just about every church in both counties before his death in the spring of 2009.

That the site exists at all is largely because of the incomprehensible tolerance of my long-suffering and saintly wife Jacqueline, and so it is dedicated to her.

The running costs of the site are not as yet insurmountable, but web space, train fares, equipment and the like must inevitably be paid for, and it is a tremendous help to receive support if you find the site of regular use and interest. There's a donation button at the bottom of the page. If you come across any mistakes, any misrepresentations, any broken links, please let me know. I'll put them right. If you come across any opinions you don't agree with, you can let me know about that as well, if you like. I might not change anything, but it would be good to hear from you. You can contact me via e-mail, or follow me and DM me at Simon Knott on Twitter.


By way of an introduction

I wrote the first version of this introduction back in 1998, which is now nearly a quarter of a century ago. In that time a surprising amount has changed, and in rewriting it I have found it necessary to be much less pessimistic about Suffolk's medieval churches and their future. In many cases, the churches I visited back in the 1990s are better cared for, and more of them are open daily. There seems to have been a gradual awakening to the idea that they are not just there for the people who worship on a Sunday, or for the 'Hatches, Matches and Dispatches' that were described to me back then by one Suffolk clergyman as the 'core business' of the Church of England. In addition there has been a growing desire to welcome visitors to churches, and to find additional uses for the buildings.

This has partly been a result of new cultural enthusiasms that perhaps would have been unexpected a quarter of a century ago. A large heritage industry has grown up in this country. There seems to be an increasing popular fascination with history, art and architecture. Television programmes about churches, castles and archaeological digs have surprisingly large followings, and the bestseller book charts regularly include titles like 'How to read a church', 'England's thousand best churches', 'A hundred churches to see before you die', and the like. People can tell you what a clerestory is and what a hammerbeam was for in a way that they couldn't a quarter of a century ago. Their interest is fuelled by television programmes and the internet. Museums regularly reinvent themselves to be more hands-on and interactive, and they attract many more visitors than they did a few decades ago. Family history has become a major pastime for many people, and again it is the internet that has enabled them to discover their roots.

In addition, and perhaps not unrelated to it, there seems to be a renewed hunger for a sense of the numinous. People are searching for something that they didn't seem to want in the late 20th Century. Sometimes this is satisfied by New Age mysticism, but the Church of England seems to have grasped that, while most people don't attend Sunday services, they still like to wander into a church and have a look around, and then perhaps to sit and to think for a while. And there are times in the lives of even non-churchgoers when they go into a church to pray, or only to have a good cry. Such people won't necessarily come back on Sunday - although, of course, they might - but the church building itself offers them a spiritual shelter, or at least it does if it is open. This can only be good news for England's medieval parish churches and their shrinking congregations, but how it will pan out remains to be seen.

What follows is a kind of starter pack for this site. I've tried to explain the backstory behind the churches of the county as a whole. I hope it is substantially factually correct, although there may be some conclusions you disagree with. I've organised it into numbered chunks so if you get bored with one bit you can move on to the next. Much of what I've written here is true for other counties as well of course, but the individual churches I refer to are all in Suffolk.

See also:

A full index of Suffolk churches

My personal Top 60 Suffolk churches

1. Holy Suffolk

Medieval Suffolk was Seely Suffolk, or Holy Suffolk. The counties of Suffolk and Norfolk between them have more than twelve hundred surviving medieval churches, roughly one in eight of all those in England. Suffolk, the smaller county, has five hundred of these, giving it today something like one medieval church per thousand population. That population was much smaller in medieval times, and there can never have been a time when all these churches were full. But this is to miss the point, since they were not built for the congregational Anglican worship they are mostly used for today. Before the Reformation these were all Catholic churches, and they were built for Catholic worship. Not just for the celebration of Mass, which was in any case not usually intended as a congregational event, but for private devotions, the sacraments and for prayers for the dead. The naves contained altars and chapels, not box-pews and children's corners. The aisles were designed for liturgical processions, not just to increase capacity. We need to remind ourselves of this if we are to appreciate fully what our ancestors have left behind.

What are the threads of continuity? A popular image of a rural parish church is of the Harvest Festival, but in fact Harvest Festivals were an invention of the 19th Century. We think of the Christmas Eve service with its lessons and carols, the candles flickering on the altar. But again, altar candles had fallen into disuse at the Reformation, being thought idolatrous, until the Anglican revival of the 19th Century brought them back. The first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was held at Truro Cathedral in 1880, and its first appearance in its traditional setting of Kings College Chapel in Cambridge happened as recently as 1918.  There are threads of continuity, but perhaps they are not immediately obvious.

2. The Suffolk church - an invented tradition?

I am going to suggest that the typical Suffolk country church is essentially a 19th Century invention. This is generally true, even where the bulk of the church itself is medieval. There are few Suffolk churches that the 19th Century left untouched. Even when the Victorians did not make structural alterations, the liturgical plan of virtually every Suffolk church is that asserted by the Cambridge Camden Society and Oxford Movement Tractarians in the middle years of that century. There are even fewer Suffolk churches where that 19th Century liturgical integrity has been altered since, other than perhaps the removal of heavy benches and their replacement with modern chairs.

Between about 1840 and 1900, the interior of almost every Suffolk church went from being that of a preaching house to a space in which the liturgy might be celebrated in a seemly and fitting manner. Chancels, in some cases closed since the Reformation and used as schools, meeting rooms, mausoleums and vestries, were opened up for worship again. At
Bramford, Little Bealings, Wickhambrook and elsewhere, the benches were turned back to face the east after several hundred years of facing a pulpit in the body of the nave. Medieval fixtures and furnishings, forgotten, ignored or neglected for hundreds of years, were uncovered during restorations, sometimes clumsily repaired or even replaced, and enthusiastically pressed back into service. Suffolk's churches were, in almost every case, beautified again.

At the heart of this Victorian vision, at a time when the Industrial Revolution had turned the world upside down in both cities and the countryside, was a restoration of tradition. Until this point, the Church of England had emphasised the break that had happened at the Reformation in the mid-16th Century. Indeed, it defined the very nature of Anglicanism as a Reformed Church freed from idolatry and superstition. The 16th Century Reformation in England (and particularly in East Anglia) was a violent, traumatic and destructive event, far more so than the excesses of the likes of the iconoclast William Dowsing and the puritans of a century later. And yet by the first decades of the 19th Century a new idea was spreading through the church like wildfire. The plan was to restore the Catholicity of the Church of England.

The spark that lit the flames was perhaps the 1830s reform acts which fully decriminalised Roman Catholicism in England, and allowed the Catholic Church to return to this country in some triumph. What did this mean for Anglicanism? The break with Rome had stripped away corruption and papist excesses, but did it also mean that the Church of England was no longer an Apostolic Church? Was the Church of England now little more than just another protestant sect in comparison with the Catholic Church?  In response, the writings of the Oxford Movement galvanised Anglicanism, declaring it a National Church that derived its authority from the very earliest of Christian missionaries to these shores. As a consequence, there was a renewal of interest in liturgy, furnishings and vestments, a new enthusiasm for saints and sacraments, for piety and personal devotions. The consequent reinvigoration of the Church meant that the Reformation was seen increasingly as, in fact, not a fracture any longer, but as a necessary evolution from the medieval Church to the modern Church, an evolution which had been, if not smooth exactly, then certainly popular, part of a triumphalist national story. This was the motivation to heal the damage by restoring churches to their pre-Reformation integrity, the Camden Society explaining exactly how this might be done.

This affects our reading of any medieval church, since the past has been tinkered with. The world we see is not as we had believed it to be. The completeness of this revision, from the idea of a fracturing Reformation to one of a smooth transition, has become so firm that we will find no shortage of those who decry work of the Victorian restorers, for it is easy to imagine that the Victorians were altering perfectly good medieval interiors. This is simply not the case. The inside of churches had undergone traumatic and radical alterations throughout the period from the 1540s to the1840s. In addition, many rural parish churches had suffered considerable neglect. A large minority (perhaps, in Suffolk, a small majority) of churches had by the early years of the 19th Century fallen into a poor state of repair, a problem made worse by the moribund state of the Church of England in East Anglia. In many places, very few people attended the parish church on a Sunday, preferring the enthusiasms of the non-conformist chapels, especially in the towns. The 19th Century revival not only renewed the church buildings, it revived the Church of England itself.

3. The Golden Age.

The great period of prosperity in Suffolk was the that of the 15th and early 16th Centuries. This is when the grandest Suffolk churches were rebuilt. Because of this, Suffolk's finest churches are Perpendicular in style. In the south of Suffolk are the great wool churches, although more properly these should be called cloth churches, since it was the manufacture of cloth that created the wealth to pay for them.  To travel up the River Brett from
Hadleigh through Kersey and Lindsey to Lavenham, or up the River Stour from Sudbury through Long Melford and Cavendish to Clare, is to journey through the industrial heartland of medieval Suffolk. The churches along the way reflect the great wealth generated at that time. There are also the great churches of the coast, built on the wealth of the ports. You can diverge eastwards off of the A12 Ipswich to Lowestoft road every few miles, and end up at a spectacular Perpendicular church, none more so perhaps than at Blythburgh, which is right on the road. No admirer of large, triumphal churches would want to miss Framlingham, Lavenham, Long Melford, Eye, Southwold, Stoke by Nayland and many others, although of course there are other smaller churches of this time which are equally fine and equally rewarding, the best of all of them being Denston.

4. The age-old heart of the community.

In Suffolk as elsewhere, most medieval churches are an accretion over the centuries, and present different styles of architecture in different parts of the building. The churches were built primarily for the Catholic Church to administer word and sacrament to the people of the parish, but even more so they were used for the private devotions of the people, and for a liturgy that involved processions, shrines and other physical manifestations of worship. And this was a time when popular religion was much more social than it is now, there was no stark contrast between the communitarianism of medieval Catholicism, and the regular expression of social relationships. What else were the churches used for? They were virtually the only substantial buildings outside of the main towns, and they were spacious inside. So, we can assume that the naves were used for meetings and entertainments, for celebrations, and for the regular business of the village. They were perhaps also used for storage, and even as defence in times of danger, although by the time Suffolk's greatest churches were built this would have been a thing of the past. Some of Suffolk's very best churches have evidence of their liturgical life over the whole of the medieval period, perhaps best of all at
Westhall but also impressively at Kedington.

5. The early medieval period.

Going back before the Golden Age of church-building, Suffolk has about forty of England's one hundred and twenty-odd round towers. All but ten of the rest are in Norfolk. Why were they built? Some have argued that they were originally defensive towers, and, indeed, in many cases they are older than the body of the church that stands against them. But this is true of some square towers too, and only one of the round towers in Suffolk stands alone. To look up at the great round tower of
Wortham church is to see that some defensive purpose must have been intended there. But that cannot have been the case for the majority. Other people have argued that they were lookout towers, or beacons, although surely that would be true of any high point? There is not an easy source of building stone in East Anglia, and it's been suggested that this is the reason for building round towers, so you didn't need to form corners. But I'm not sure it would be any easier to build the towers round, and the main motivation for building round towers was probably one of fashion. They exist across the North Sea in Holland and Germany too, though they are curiously absent from much of the rest of England. Round towers continued to be built in East Anglia into the 12th and even 13th Centuries, and probably there were once many more of them that have since been rebuilt square in the fashion of the later medieval period. It's surely no coincidence that the greatest concentration of surviving round towers is in north-east Suffolk and south-east Norfolk, an area where there was not the same degree of late medieval wealth as in the rest of East Anglia.

Suffolk also had one of the great Norman abbeys, at Bury St Edmunds. The ruins are haunting despite their setting in a municipal park, and to visit cathedrals over the border in Ely and Norwich is to imagine what might have been here. Despite the wealth of the late medieval period, there are still some good small-scale Norman survivals, again, mostly in out of the way places like Wissington and Wordwell. Going still further back, there are the ruins of South Elmham Minster, hidden in the woods and still not fully understood.

6. The Reformation and after.

What happened at the Reformation in Suffolk? The first great state-sponsored wave of iconoclasm in the late 1530s/early 1540s seems to have been focused largely on popular manifestations of the cult of the dead, especially after the suppression of chantries, and on popular representations of the efficacy of pilgrimages and intercessions. These included statues of Mary and the saints (nearly all of which disappeared very early), so-called Doom paintings and other large scale representations of intercession (for instance, Mary tipping the balance of the scales at Cowlinge, which fortunately was whitewashed) and saints on the parclose screens of chantry chapels. Unlike the roods and rood lofts above them, rood screens were usually retained, unless the local reformers were very enthusiastic, and later on their retention was required by law under Elizabeth I. The saints on the roodscreens were usually painted over or had their faces scratched out as a salutary warning.

Suffolk's most famous image, that of
the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace at Ipswich, was supposedly taken to Chelsea along with other famous images of Our Lady (Walsingham, Northampton, etc) and publicly burned. However, there is some evidence that images stripped from churches in the 1530s and 1540s (a hundred years before Government Visitor William Dowsing came wrecking interiors) were actually sold abroad, since the accumulation of wealth seems to have been as important as any ideological motive. There's a fairly convincing case that the image of Mary in the church at Nettuno in Italy is  that of Our Lady of Ipswich.

What survived this Reformation iconoclasm? For very practical reasons, much stained glass would have survived, simply because of the expense of replacing it with plain glass. William Dowsing, the itinerant 17th Century iconoclast, regularly records in his journal images in glass that he earmarked for destruction. Bench ends and fonts which had representations of the Catholic sacraments and teachings survive today, and must have been retained for practical reasons, and indeed Dowsing vented his furious cold logic on some of these as well, but not often. This suggests that they had in many cases been covered, the fonts plastered over and the benches boxed in. Paintings were usually whitewashed, since this was the simplest way of removing them. Even if Dowsing had visited
Wenhaston, he would not have seen the Wenhaston Doom for it had been hidden for a hundred years by the time he cut his swathe across the county. More intellectual, less graspable aspects of Catholic theology also survived by being covered or pressed into new uses - piscinas, aumbries, sedilia and so on. More practically, images in difficult to reach places (roofs, external turrets, etc) also survived the 16th Century onslaught.

A hundred years later, William Dowsing's mission was essentially one of advising parishes on how to 'purify' their churches. Although this included dealing with surviving medieval imagery, it was mostly aimed at the recent reforms of Archbishop Laud which had required churches to return the altar to the chancel, to raise it up on steps and to enclose it behind rails. This was considered idolatrous by the puritans, and Dowsing's journal records dozens of occasions when he required parishes to remove rails and steps to the altar. He was also insistent that the Catholic prayer clauses of inscriptions be removed, especially in brass. Orate pro anima (pray for the soul of) was regularly crudely excised, leaving the rest of the inscription intact. He demanded that churchwardens climb into and onto roofs to remove the hard of access images that had survived the Reformation of a century earlier.

It is important to remember that puritanism in East Anglia was popular. It was unusual for Dowsing to encounter any resistance. In the main, churchwardens would have welcomed his visits, since it ensured they were conforming with the Ordinances against Idolatry and Superstition of 1643 and 1644, and so they did not risk being fined. Dowsing charged a noble for his advice, which was six shillings and eightpence. He would often reduce this by half if he felt the parish had already made an honest effort. In comparison, the fine for not conforming with the ordinances was twenty shillings, and there was no limit to how often it could be applied. And of course, just as at the Reformation, there would have been plenty of local yobs waiting with ladders and hammers, ready to join in. The Souldiers Catechisme, issued to the New Model Army in 1644, suggests that nothing ought to be done in a tumultuous manner. But seeing God hath put the sword of reformation into the soldiers hand, I think it is not amiss that they should cancel and demolish those monuments of superstition and idolatry, especially seeing the magistrate and the minister that should have done it formerly neglected it. Dowsing is vilified so strongly today because he kept careful notes on his work in his journal, that's all. And of course in the main the puritans carried out their acts of destruction from religious conviction, whereas many of their predecessors at the Reformation of a century earlier saw it as an opportunity for profit (melting down images, selling them, etc) or for the sheer thrill of destruction. There are surviving accounts of roving gangs of hooligans destroying the furnishings of churches in London in the 1540s, and the same thing probably happened in Ipswich, and was little more than state-sanctioned drunken vandalism.

After the traumas and disruptions of the 17th Century, Suffolk settled down to the Church of England's long 18th Century sleep. Churches which have a feel of this time are some of the loveliest, perhaps best of all at Badley, sitting out on the edge of the woods more than a mile from the nearest road. Ramsholt, Cowlinge and the very early 19th Century refurnishing of Rushbrooke are also well worth a visit.

7. New beginnings, new traditions.

Despite being generally rural in character, the Industrial Revolution had a significant effect upon Suffolk, as the means of distribution and the new technologies altered and improved patterns of farming, and increased the populations of towns. Of course, Suffolk has few Victorian Anglican churches outside of the towns, for the obvious and simple reason that it didn't need them. There are however excellent 19th Century and early 20th Century Catholic churches at
Lowestoft, Bungay and Beccles, at St Pancras in Ipswich and St Edmund in Bury St Edmunds. Leiston has what is probably the most memorable Victorian Anglican parish church, the work of Edward Lamb, and Ipswich has the grandest in Richard Phipson's rebuilding of St Mary le Tower. Other major new churches included St John at Bury St Edmunds, St John the Baptist in Felixstowe, and St John at Lowestoft, the last of these since demolished. In the countryside, Flixton St Mary is probably the most interesting. Of course, as already discussed, churches in Suffolk were restored extensively, although not so much in poorer rural areas, and some of these restorations are very fine indeed. Barsham and Kelsale spring to mind, along with Mildred Holland's extravaganza at Huntingfield.

Even fewer new churches were built in Suffolk in the 20th Century, and of these, few are interesting. Felixstowe has the most exciting Anglican church of the century in
St Andrew, the 1932 work of Raymond Erith and Hilda Mason, and the first pre-cast concrete church in Britain. All Hallows of 1938 in Ipswich is Munro Cautley's finest hour, a church entirely in the Art Deco style, largely surviving in its original incarnation.  Of the same year is St Thomas, also in Ipswich, by Cachemaille Day. There are many 20th century Catholic churches in Suffolk, although none of the post-war ones are as interesting as that at Aldeburgh of about 1910, which had a round tower which was lost to bomb damage, and Kesgrave, of 1930 and later, not an exciting building but it is notable for its large range of stained glass windows by Margaret Agnes Rope and her cousin Margaret Edith Rope. Perhaps the best post-war churches in Suffolk are not Anglican or Catholic at all, but Castle Hill Congregational Church (now URC) in Ipswich by Johns, Slater and Haward, and Trinity Methodist Church in Lowestoft by Walter Thompson. The best single 20th Century refurbishment of a medieval church is that of Kettlebaston, a vividly furnished Anglo-Catholic shrine in the hills.

8. The Way We Live Now.

Most of Suffolk's medieval churches are in the care of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich or the Diocese of Norwich. About a dozen under-used medieval churches were sold off in the 1970s with some awful results, particularly at
Mickfield and Claydon, although both were later rescued. Some were converted into homes, others fell more happily into the hands of local and national trusts.  But there are too many churches for the CofE to reasonably use, and about one in twelve medieval Suffolk churches (and almost half of those in Ipswich) are now no longer used for public worship. It is quite unreasonable, too, for local communities to be expected to pay for the upkeep of these churches. Suffolk has a dozen or more churches that in many other counties would be the finest. Some of these are in tiny villages. The Church of England has tried to ensure the proper pastoral care of its parishioners by gathering its parishes together into benefices, each under the care of one minister or pastoral team. Some of these benefices are large. And already there are benefices that tire of church-hopping every Sunday, and not unreasonably would prefer to settle in a single building. This will be accelerated as individual congregations shrink, and they are shrinking faster in some parts of Suffolk than on average, because of the age of the members of some congregations.

What, then, is to happen to all our historic churches? There are reasons for optimism. We are already going back to a time when village churches had more uses than simply for worship. An increasing number of churches have installed kitchens and toilets, allowing them to be used for concerts and other performances, or as arts and exhibition spaces. And intriguingly they might also be used by other faith communities. Suffolk's growing Catholic population is already holding some of its Saturday evening masses in Anglican parish churches. The Methodist communities in some villages also use the parish church now. And yet, it is hard to see how this will be enough. We all agree that these buildings need to be preserved, but not on who is to pay for this to happen. The Suffolk Historic Churches Trust and the Churches Conservation Trust do excellent work. But can posterity be guaranteed by charity? For already, there are churches in danger, because there simply isn't enough money to go round. This demand will increase as Victorian restorations reach the natural end of their structural life. Meanwhile, the Church of England, their main custodian, enters a period of transition, conscious that many of its buildings are a drain on its resources. It will be interesting to see what the next quarter of a century brings.

Simon Knott, Suffolk, 2022

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