St Margaret, Ipswich
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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|Ipswich has twelve surviving town
centre churches of medieval foundation, more than any
other English town or city outside of London apart from
Bristol, Norwich and York, all of which are bigger. And
yet, in this county of famously splendid churches none of
Ipswich's are among the grandest. Ipswich has been
continuously occupied for longer than any other town in
England, and so some of its medieval churches served
historic parishes which were among the oldest, none of
them very large. Throughout the centuries it has been a
place of some prosperity, apart from a few blips (late
14th Century, 18th Century, nowadays), so there's usually
been money for extending and rebuilding these churches.
Ipswich was a strongly puritan town, (some people would
say that it still is) and so there was also a suspicion
of imagery and antiquarianism.
Given all that, St Margaret stands out as the one Ipswich church which can perhaps hold its own among the more famous Suffolk churches. Pevsner thought it certainly the most spectacular church in Ipswich, and this is partly due to its setting against the backdrop of Christchurch Park. The Park was the site of the Augustinian Priory of Christ Church, and it appears that the priory provided the church for the townspeople when the priory church became too small for the increasing population. The whole south side of the church is open to the road and the approaching viewer. What that viewer sees is a typical East Anglian church built over the course of perhaps half a century from the late 14th to the mid-15th Century, the tall aisle windows in a Decorated style and no fewer than ten Perpendicular windows in the clerestory. The chancel seems an inconsequential thing in comparison, but instead of rebuilding it, the late medieval parish added two transepts, themselves not very deep and so principally for show. By the 1450s the bequests to the church were divided between the fabric of the new candlebeam (which is to say roodscreen) and the fabric of the porch. And yet the most significant and spectacular feature of the interior, as we will see, is not mentioned in any bequests.
In 1459 one John Gerald of Witnesham left 6s 8d to the reparation of the stone walls about the churchyard, and although Gerald's wall has long since been replaced, it is worth seeing the churchyard wall from outside in Christchurch Park. The outline of a blocked doorway is marked, and although it is fanciful to think it might have been used by the priors of Christ Church, it would certainly have been the way that the Withipoll and Fonnereau families of the later Christchurch Mansion made their way to divine service. Local architect Frederick Barnes, best known today for some of the stations on the Ipswich to Cambridge railway line, came along in the early 1870s and oversaw a restoration of the exterior, including the remodelling of the top of the tower (there's a photograph of what it was like in the 1860s at the top of this page). He was also responsible for the rebuilding of the tower of nearby St Lawrence, but he was more restrained here. Barnes is perhaps responsible for the crispness of the exterior, although the older photograph shows it looking very much as it does today apart from the tower and the little spirelets on the pinnacles of the clerestory.
You enter through the flushworked south porch, typical of Suffolk, with two angels holding scrolls in the spandrels under a triple set of image niches. The two lions flanking the entrance bear the date 1993, the beginning of a major restoration that would last more than ten years. You step into the south aisle and then on into the nave, and look up at one of the finest late medieval roofs in England. It is a double hammerbeam construction, allowing a spread across a wider space, and was probably constructed in the 1480s and 1490s. There are seated figures of saints in the wallposts. This was one of the Ipswich churches visited by the iconoclast William Dowsing in January 1644, and curiously he does not mention any angels on the hammerbeams, which almost certainly would have been part of the original construction. He does, however, mention 12 Apostles in stone to be taken down. The late John Blatchly thought this might have referred to the seated saints in the wall posts, which would have been whitewashed and might have appeared to be made of stone in the late January light.
The panels of the roof were painted in the 1690s, and James Bettley in his revision of the Buildings of England volumes for Suffolk notes that it forms a tribute to William and Mary, which is to say it is an expression of protestant triumphalism after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. At the east end the panels are lettered with words from the 1st Letter of Peter, Fear God, Honour the King and Love the Brotherhood. There are various classical architectural motifs and one particular panel of grieving cherubs that Bettley suggests marks the death of Queen Mary in 1694.
There is no medieval glass, and this is probably due to the Godly man, a churchwarden that Dowsing records promised him that he would take down the 30 superstitious pictures when he visited on that January day. To be fair to the churchwarden, no medieval glass survives in any of the other eleven town centre churches either. What does survive here is the 15th Century font, and here's another curiosity. Each panel depicts an angel holding a scroll, except for one which was so obviously damaged that it was recut as a cross, probably during Richard Phipson's internal restoration of the 1850s. All the angels have had their faces removed, and the words on most of the scrolls have been obliterated, as you might expect iconoclasts to do. However, the words on one scroll have survived, and read Sal et Saliva, 'salt and saliva', referring to part of the liturgy of the sacrament of Baptism. How and why did it survive? The most obvious answer is that the angels' faces were destroyed during the Reformation of the 1540s, and then the font was moved against a wall in the fashion of the day. When Puritanism was all the rage in the 17th Century, the scrolls were defaced, except for the one which was against the wall.
Above the tower arch is East Anglia's most spectacular set of royal arms to Charles II, dated 1660. They are set in a remarkably ornate Baroque frame. James Bettley points out the two figures near the base holding flowers and corn, possibly intended as Adam and Eve, They are also on the set recently moved from St Stephen, Ipswich, and on the set at Cretingham as well as being in the contemporary plastering of the famous Ancient House in the town. They are generally credited to the artist John Brame. A panel of the Prince of Wales feathers was set in the back of the arms and is now displayed above the south doorway. You can find the same thing on the back of the Charles II set from St Stephen, Ipswich, and they were also on the back of the set at St Mary Elms which were destroyed by fire about twenty years ago. There were possibly more sets in Ipswich, for most of the other sets of royal arms in the town are more recent. There's never been a satisfactory explanation for why they were arranged like this.
The overall feel inside is of Phipson's restoration, which has the saving grace of woodwork by Henry Ringham. The pair would work together on a more spectacular scale in the following decade at Woolpit and St Mary le Tower in Ipswich. There are a goodly number of memorials around the walls of the aisles and the chancel, a number of them names familiar from the town's roads and streets. Edmund Withipoll, responsible for the building of Christchurch Mansion, is tucked around the corner behind the organ in the north transept, his tombchest lid propped against the wall. His inscription reads Mortui Sine Hosti, 'he died without an enemy', possibly wishful thinking on the part of the Withipolls. Ann Edwin's elegant little roundel at the east end of the south aisle tells us that she was buried here by her own desire, which is rather sweet. Beside it is set a tomb chest in the aisle wall with the inlays for figure brasses and quatrefoils and decorated spandrels at the back. It remembers William Ropkyn, who died in 1512, and his wife, whose chantry chapel was in this transept.
The small amount of coloured glass is unobtrusive in this elegiac gravitas, and the 1870s window by Ward & Hughes depicting the Works of Mercy at the west end of the north aisle is the best of it. It must be said that it doesn't have a lot of competition, for Jones & Willis's 1913 east window of the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ is typical of a studio not known for quality work at the best of times, and which had clearly lost its way by the early 20th Century. How much better it would be with clear glass! Birkin Haward noted that it replaced an 1840s window by Thomas Willement, a surviving panel of which is now in Christchurch Mansion. As you leave the church on your way to track it down you pass the parish war memorial by Henry Munro Cautley, set in the west end of the south aisle. It is one of several he designed for Suffolk churches in the years immediately after the First World War, but this is the best of them. It lists a remarkable number of names given that St Margaret was by no means the most populous parish in the town by the early 20th Century, a sobering thought.
Simon Knott, August 2023
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