At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Helmingham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Hidden Up High: Helmingham, early spring

Helmingham Helmingham
west door Scandit Ethera Virgo Puerpera Virgula Jesse ('The Virgin Mary, branch of Jesse's stem, is assumed into Heaven')

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Among the busy villages to the north of Ipswich, the roads follow ancient routes and accumulate around the park of Helmingham Hall, home of the Tollemache family for well over half a millennium. The Hall as it stands today dates from the early years of the 16th Century, although there were major building projects in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The Hall sits to the north-west of the churchyard, deer grazing among the trees beyond the ornamental lake. It is quite one of Suffolk's most spectacular sights.

And St Mary is a grand sight too, although this is not one of the great East Anglian churches. The construction was largely of the late 15th and early 16th Centuries, but there are are no aisles, no clerestory, and all in all this is a church built for the benefit of a great landed family rather than at the expense of wealthy parishioners competing to elaborate a church. The chancel was rebuilt at an unusual date, the late 18th Century, to create an enlarge burial vault below, but then in the 1840s the church was given the external appearance it has today, perhaps at the hands of Anthony Salvin who was working on the Hall.

But everything is put in the shade by the splendid tower. The contract for building the tower survives in the Bodleian Library. Simon Cotton, in his book Building the Late Medieval Suffolk Parish Church, quotes it at length. On 18 February 1487/8 the mason Thomas Aldrych of North Lopham in Norfolk was commissioned by the Coupers of Helmingham to build a tower at the west end of the cherche of Helmyngham aforeseyd a sufficient newe stepyll of 60 fote of heyte after the brede, wydnesse and thicknesse of the stepyll of Framesden ('at the west end of the church of Helmingham aforesaid a sufficient new tower of 60 feet in height after the breadth, width and thickness of the tower at Framsden'), Framsden being the next parish along. There were further bequests to the tower in the 1490s, and then in 1501 one to mayking the battilments for the stepyll suggesting that by then the height of the tower was almost complete. However wills continued to leave money for the battlements, and then in 1538 when John Wright's will left the enormous sum of five pounds to the making of the battlements, but only if work commenced within four years! This seems to have been the impetus to complete the tower (and indeed you can make out the date 1543 on the parapet).

Along the south side of the base of the tower is the inscription Scandit Ethera Virgo Puerpera Virgula Jesse ("The Virgin Mary, branch of Jesse's stem, is assumed into Heaven"). The survival of the inscription may well be a result of the influence of the Tollemaches, and suggests that the late medieval dedication of this church was probably to the Feast of the Assumption.

Apart from the beautiful tower, the most striking feature is what appears to be a dormer window to the rood along the south side of the nave. It was installed to accommodate a very large Tollemache memorial. And this is perhaps the key thing about this building today, for it memorialises more than any other Suffolk church the dead of a single family. Stepping into the long, narrow and rather dimly-lit nave you are immediately struck by the succession of grand memorials that line the walls. The most memorable is that under the dormer window, erected in 1615. It remembers the 1st Baronet Tollemache, and then beneath him the three earlier generations of his great-grandfather, grandfather and father. Each has a lengthy rhyming inscription. That to the earliest Lionel Tollemache, who had died in 1550, begins:

Baptized Lyonel Tollemache my Name
Since Normans Conquest of unsoyled Fame
Shows my Descent from Ancestors of  Worth;
And that my Life might not belye my Birth,
Their Virtues Track with heedful Steps I  trod,
Rightful to Men, Religious towards God.    

Traind in the Law I gaind the Bar and Bench,
Not bent to Kindle Strife, but rather Quench.
Gentle to Clients, in my Counsels Just,
With Norfolk’s Great Duke in no little trust
Sir Joyce his heir was my Fair Faithful Wife,
Bently my Seat and Sevnty Years my Life

And thus the generations begin, and his descendants are remembered by grand monuments, the work of the likes of William Palmer, Nollekens and a memorable one to the 2nd Baronet who leans up on his arm on a memorial described by Pevsner as sculpturally bad.

Lionel and Grace Tollemache, 1729 Maria Tollemache, Countess of Dysart, 1804 four Lionel Tollemaches, 1550-1605 (erected 1615) Thomas Tollemache, died 1694 Lionel Robert Tollemache, 1793
Sir Lionel Tollemache, 2nd Bt, 1640 Sir Lionel Tollemache, 2nd Bt, 1640 John, 1st Baron Tollemache, 1890
Baptized Lyonel Tollemache my Name Heir of my Father's Name, Sir Name and Seat My stile and Seate (least thy Question should)

Obviously enough, the memorials dominate the internal space, the one to four Lionels under the dormer being fully twenty feet high. But adding a hint of the bizarre to their gravitas are the biblical quotations painted on the walls in almost every available space. They are the work of one of the major figures of 19th Century evangelicalism, John Charles Ryle, the first Bishop of Liverpool. Ryle was rector here early in his career, before taking his muscular Christianity onto Stradbroke (where his enthusiasm for biblical graffiti was toned down a bit) and then on to his episcopal seat. A tireless worker, he combined writing and campaigning on a national stage with visiting the local poor and sick of his parishes. It is worth noting that, at the time of the 1851 national census of religious worship, when barely 20% of the population in this part of England were attending their parish church, Ryle could claim an average Sunday afternoon attendance of 240 out of a parish population of 287. By contrast, neighbouring Pettaugh, with almost exactly the same population, could manage barely 90, and even this is good in comparison with some parts of Suffolk. In addition, Holy Communion was celebrated here at Helmingham more than in any other Suffolk parish, at least 14 times a year, and 45 parishioners communicated. Very few other Suffolk parishes, even those twice as big, could manage double figures.

Ryle was an advocate of that strand of national Anglicanism that was later subsumed by the Oxford Movement as it moved into the mainstream, but he would not have approved of their ritualist enthusiasms. The simple table at the west end of the nave is the one that he gave for celebration of Communion (the current altar here was brought from the now redundant church at Southolt). His sloganeering is in such abundance that it must have provided something of a distraction. Perhaps he was deliberately countering the Tractarian tendencies of the Tollemache family, but the quotes selected seem as much a warning against the liberalism of future incumbents. Woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel above the pulpit must have concentrated the minds of later preachers a bit.

Looking around at the Tollemache memorials, it isstriking how many of them died relatively young, and often in tragic circumstances. One of the Nollekens memorials remembers not just an eighteen year old killed at the siege of Valenciennes, but also his father killed in a duel in New York and two uncles lost at sea. The inscription observes that So many instances of disaster are rarely to be met with in the same family. The parish war memorial in the south wall records that the Tollemache family lost no fewer than five of its sons in the First World War. Not surprisingly perhaps, in Suffolk the family has had a reputation for being unlucky. I once mentioned this to the present Lord Tollemache, but he shook his head, and observed that he considered his family very lucky indeed to have had the privilege of living in the same beautiful house, and farming the same land, for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Finally, this church was once used in an Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special, which was filmed in and around Ipswich. Thanks to the magic of television, Delboy and Rodney stepped westwards from the tower down onto a beach. If you think about it, you'll realise that it is quite impossible to do this anywhere at all on the Suffolk coast.


Simon Knott, April 2021

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looking east sanctuary looking west
'Woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel' Suffer Little Children to come unto me and forbid them not font tower arch
Agnus Dei Holy Trinity lion of St Mark

Hidden Up High: Helmingham

Helmingham Hall stags in field


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