At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Hadleigh

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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


Hadleigh Hadleigh Deanery Tower

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


Hadleigh is a pleasant, self-important little town. It is one of those places remote enough to be a microcosm of bigger towns - the factories, shops and housing estates all to scale. Its centrality in this part of Suffolk gave it the headquarters of Babergh District Council in 1974, despite the fact that the greater part of the population of the district lives in the Sudbury conurbation and the southern suburbs of Ipswich. Having said that, Hadleigh has expanded greatly in recent years, with characterless new estates now lining the bypass, and in any case Babergh District Council has since merged with Mid-Suffolk District Council and the councillors have all toddled off to Stowmarket. But the heart of the town is still probably the loveliest of any in East Anglia.

If Hadleigh is small, however, St Mary is not. This is one of the grand Suffolk churches, the only big one with a medieval spire which is also the only proper wood and lead spire in the county. There are echoes of Chesterfield in Derbyshire, only without the twist. It was built in the 14th century, and the exterior bell, a 1280 clock bell doubling as a sanctus bell, is Suffolk's oldest. The aisles, clerestory and chancel head eastwards of it, equalling Lavenham in their sense of the substantial. It is one of the longest churches in Suffolk.

To the south west of the church stands the famous Hadleigh Deanery, more properly the gorgeous red brick Tudor gateway to the now demolished medieval Deanery. It was at this Deanery gateway in July 1833 that the meeting was held which gave birth to the Oxford Movement, and went on to change the face of Anglican churches forever. It is no exaggeration to say that the modern Church of England was born in this building. The rector here, in one of those anachronisms so beloved of the CofE, is styled 'Dean of Bocking'. Bocking is a large village in Essex, and the living is in the gift of the Archbishop of Canterbury, so Hadleigh Rectors are installed in Canterbury Cathedral.

The south side of the graveyard is taken up by the former guild hall, and on the fourth side there is a scattering of excellent 18th and 19th century municipal and commercial buildings. With the possible exception of the Bury churches, it is the best setting of any urban church in Suffolk. Hadleigh was one of the great cloth towns, a centre for merchants rather than factories (most of the work was farmed out to self-employed weavers in nearby villages, quite literally a cottage industry). The wealth of those days rebuilt the church, particularly the fine 15th century clerestory and aisles.This is a big church, since it needed to contain the chantry altars of at least five medieval guilds. And it has always been an urban church, as you can tell from the way buildings on the north side cut into it. The east window was clearly always intended to be seen up the gap to the busy High Street.

The magnificent south doorway retains its original 15th century doors. It is interesting to compare it with Cotton, barely 50 years older, but from a quite different generation of architecture. Gone are the delicate fleurons, the articulate details that speak of an internal sense of mystery. Here, we enter the realms of self-confident rationalism for the first time. You step into a space that is light and airy, so vast that at once it swallows sound, a feeling accentuated by the sheer width of the chancel arch. Trees close by on the north side gently wave shadows into the nave. It feels that the church is organically part of the town and has been so down the long centuries, although perhaps it is hard at first to see this building as anything other than the rather polite CofE parish church it has become.

If you'd been here some ten years or so ago, you might have though that this was a very strange church, for there was the surreal sight of a snooker table and a pool table in the north aisle. They were part of what was called the Hadleigh Porch Project, an attempt to provide something to do for teenagers in the town who had been causing a nuisance in the churchyard and porch. The parish galvanised itself and attracted funding, and the building became used by young people for secular activities, one idea being that the sense of ownership conveyed would give them a sense of responsibility. Coming here in Lent of 2013, I was struck by the Stations of the Cross lining the arcades, each created by a local youth group or organisation. They were radically different from anything I'd seen before, and I'm sure that Maggi Hambling's Christ, looking on from the north aisle, would have approved.

Coming back in 2019, the snooker and pool tables have now gone, and so have the run of the mill Victorian benches that filled the nave. Regular users of this site will know that I am an enthusiast of replacing 19th Century pews with modern chairs in medieval churches, but here you can't help feeling that it hasn't really been done very well. The chairs themselves are not the problem so much as the floor, which has been left with expanses of floor boards between the lines of poor encaustic tiles. Perhaps there are plans to replace all of this with a polished wood and pamment floor (Oundle in Northamptonshire is a good example on a similar scale). I hope so. At the west end of the nave is a very curious font, a typical 15th Century example but it has been augmented by terrible 19th Century angels moulded on around the base of the bowl. The cover above is by the Anglo-Catholic craftsman Charles Spooner, part of a 1920s refurbishment which also brought his war memorial and a tower screen by Munro Cautley. The slightly later memorial to Dean Carter has tablets by Eric Gill.

The sheer size of the nave and its aisles stops the stained glass overwhelming it, which is a relief because there is a lot of it and it is by no means all good. To start with the best, there is a 1988 window by John O'Connor for Chapel Studios beside Maggi Hambling's painting, a memorial to John Betton, a former rector. But the glass in the south aisle is mostly by Ward & Hughes, and some of it very poor indeed, from the height of that period when Thomas Curtis was trashing the brand. George Hedgeland's painterly window at the east end of the south aisle is half a century earlier, and appears more at home.

Of course, there is much here that is older and more traditional. In the south chancel chapel is what has become known as the St Edmund bench end, attached to a modern bench. It appears to shows a wolf, with the Saint's head in its jaws. But a closer look shows that the beast has cloven hooves, and what are either wings and a collar or possibly eucharistic vestments. It is more likely related to those bench ends more common in east Norfolk depicting a mythical beast holding the head of St John the Baptist. There are squints through to the high altar from this chapel, so this was probably the site of a guild altar.

There are recent memories of the High Church past of St Mary. In the high sanctuary are not one but two plaques to former Dean Hugh Rose, one commemorating his conference that led to the Oxford Movement, and the other the centenary of that movement, laid by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1935. One of the plaques quotes Pusey's eulogy to Rose, that when hearts were failing, he bade us stir up the gift that was in us, and betake ourselves to our true mother. Another religious figure associated with Hadleigh is the puritan preacher Rowland Taylor, who was burned at the stake on nearby Aldham Common in the brief but unhappy reign of Mary I. One of the Ward & Hughes windows in the south aisle tells his story.

Up in the chancel, grinning figures peer down from the roof, and in the east window of the north chancel aisle is a small collection of old glass, including heraldic shields, a Tudor royal arms and haunting fragments of 15th Century English glass, all that survives of what must once have been one of the largest expanses in England, a sobering thought. Several of the shields are for Archbishops of Canterbury, reflecting Hadleigh's significance in the ecclesiastical firmament, and yet the church has surprisingly few grand memorials for a market town church. But Hadleigh was not a particularly strongly non-conformist town. At the time of the 1851 Census Religious Worship there were a little over 3700 people living in the parish, and 680 of them attended morning worship at the church, roughly one in five, although this did include 220 scholars who perhaps had little choice in the matter. Meanwhile up the road at the Congregational chapel there were slightly more than 1000, but of course as a gathered congregation this would have included people who had travelled into Hadleigh from outside. There were also two Primitive Methodist chapels and a Baptist chapel, and all in all the people of Hadleigh seem to have been enthusiastic churchgoers when compared with many other East Anglian towns.

Simon Knott, December 2019

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

looking east chancel looking west
beast with the head of John the Baptist (15th Century) font (15th Century with bits added on in 1870s) looking west
Belton memorial window by John O'Connor, 1988 Belton memorial window by John O'Connor, 1988 fragments Tudor royal arms (16th Century) See of Canterbury impaling Juxon, 1663
heraldic glass See of Canterbury impaling Wareham (early C16) See of Canterbury impaling Sancroft (1680s)
chancel roof figure chancel roof figure chancel roof figure
body of St John the Baptist (15th Century) with restored head of Christ (19th Century) and bird of prey beneath (continental?) Rowland Taylor preaching (Ward & Hughes, 1880s) Rowland Taylor before a Cardinal (Ward & Hughes, 1880s) Rowland Taylor about to be executed (Ward & Hughes, 1880s) of such is the kingdom (George Hedgeland, 1858)
Nativity (Ward & Hughes, 1890s) Christ preaching in Jerusalem (Ward & Hughes, 1880s) Resurrection (Ward & Hughes, 1900s) Christ with disciples (Ward & Hughes, 1900s) Christ with Mary and Martha (Ward & Hughes, 1900s)
Hugh James Rose of Rowland Taylor's fame I shewe an excellent devyne India State Railways John Gaell
war memorial font WAB Jones, Historian Joseph Beaumont, 1681
Head of Christ by Maggi Hambling

Amazon commission helps cover the running costs of this site