At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Michael, Rumburgh

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Rumburgh in winter light

Rumburgh Rumburgh Rumburgh

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          The first sight of Rumburgh church is memorable as you approach the churchyard across a paddock from the Halesworth road. The churchyard lies entirely to the west of the church, and the three tall lancets in the wide, stumpy tower beyond lead the eye to a wooden belfry stage, common enough in Essex perhaps but an exotic beast around here. You inevitably ask yourself if this all of it that ever there was of it, or was it once taller? A further oddity is that the tower is as wide as the church, but its depth is narrow in proportion. It appears to be entirely the work of the 13th Century, and that it is so different in style to other Suffolk churches may be due to the fact that this building was not built as a parish church at all, but as the church of a Benedictine priory. It was founded shortly before the Norman conquest, and James Bettley in the revised Buildings of England volume for East Suffolk suggests that the plan is oddly Saxon, with tower, nave and chancel all exactly the same width, indicating that the later church that we see today was built along the lines of the earlier one. The tower may have taken the place of a more typical Saxon west porch.

The priory had chapels at neighbouring Wissett and Spexhall, both surviving as parish churches. Within fifty years of its foundation, Rumburgh Priory had passed into the ownership of St Mary's Abbey, York, until Cardinal Wolsey sequestrated it in 1528 for funds to build his college at Ipswich. Intriguingly, a number of bequests have been recorded by Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton towards to rebuilding of the tower at Rumburgh. In 1456 John Alberch left the not inconsiderable sum of 40s to the building of the church and tower. There was more money left towards the new building of the tower by Robert Tye in 1465 and in 1483 Geoffrey Barrett left money to the reparation of the new tower in Rumburgh. The earliest of these bequests is almost a century before the Reformation, and the later bequests seem to suggest work being planned if not actually begun, but it seems that nothing was ever done.

Th entrance to the church is through the south porch, and it is worth pointing out that the north, east and south sides of the church beyond the porch are on private land, the garden of the neighbouring house. But you step into the strange atmosphere of the church, one that might be accurately described as a sober silence. There is no coloured glass, and yet the light falls rather dimly through the quarries onto wood and old brick floors. Despite the 19th Century furnishings of the nave there is an austerity which perhaps conjures up something of this building's long past.

The 15th Century font has quatrefoils on its faces, rather like the contemporary font a couple of miles off at Spexhall, although the font there has shields set in the quatrefoils. Turning east, the narrow nave leads you to the screen which broods rather gloomily at the point where the nave morphs into the chancel. The roofs are continuous, there is no other division. But if you look at the screen closely there is gessowork under the varnish as on the screens at Bramfield and Southwold. This is a kind of plaster which is applied wet to a screen or font, and then when it dries it can be carved more delicately than wood or stone can. It suggests that the donor was a person of some means.

There is still some surviving evidence of the community life of this building. The priory arms hang at the west end, and an apparent priest door in the north wall of the chancel was the door the community used as they came in and out of the priory buildings, which were to the north of here. The windows in the north wall, which seem to belong to no architectural period, were probably punched through in the 17th Century after the demolition of the other buildings. A squint and a blocked window in the north chancel wall indicate that once the altar could be watched from other rooms in the complex.

A reminder of religious enthusiasms of some four centuries later is a label on the side of the organ, asking us to Pray for the Soul of James Halliburton Young, Priest, Rector of Shipmeadow 1894-1904. Such an apparently un-Anglican sentiment was typical of the enthusiasms of the early 20th Century Anglo-Catholic movement within the Church of England, of which the now-redundant church at Shipmeadow was a hotspot. Presumably, the organ was moved here when the church there became a private house. 

Sam Mortlock quotes in full the epitaph for Elizabeth Davy, set in stone on the floor. So I shall do the same: She once the fairest flower in May, now turned to lifeless clay; Good God, what can we say? He calls, we must obey. It seems a fitting memorial for this rather sad place. Some Suffolk churches have a timelessness about them, a sense of continuity. But here is a church in which a sense of the past pervades all. To sit here is to be surrounded by ghosts, by stone-cold age. There is much to be impressed by here. But it was rather a relief to step outside, back into the sunshine, and the birds singing in the churchyard. Back into to the 21st Century.

Simon Knott, February 2022

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looking east chancel rumburgh (14)
rumburgh (7) She once the fairest flower in May now turned to lifeless clay. Good God what can we say, he calls we must obey (1781) rumburgh (16)
William, son of William and Susan Aldrich, 1696 Richard, son of William and Susannah Aldrich, 1704 Edmund and Elizabeth Harvey, 1774


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