At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary le Tower, Ipswich

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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St Mary le Tower Palm Sunday 2020: St Mary le Tower

St Mary le Tower St Mary le Tower: the urban context St Mary le Tower

before the rebuilding

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    Familiar to residents and visitors alike, the great Victorian spire of St Mary le Tower rises above the shopping streets of central Ipswich, the nearest thing the town will ever have to a cathedral. This is Suffolk's Victorian church par excellence. It is full of the spirit of its age, from the Suffolk flushwork to the international Gothic of the spire itself. One could no more imagine Ipswich without the Tower than without the Orwell Bridge. There were six town centre churches dedicated to St Mary in the Middle Ages, and four survive, picturesquely differentiated as St Mary le Tower ('the Tower'), St Mary at Elms ('the Elms'), St Mary at Quay and St Mary at Stoke.

There was a church here in 1200, when the Borough of Ipswich was declared in the churchyard by the granting of a charter. When the Diocese of Norwich restored it in the mid-19th Century the decision was made for a complete rebuild in stone on the same site. Diocesan surveyor Richard Phipson was chosen for the job, and the old church was effectively demolished in the 1860s, a new one built in its place. The old foundations were used, with an extension towards Northgate Street, which is why the northern part of the churchyard is so severely cut off.

There never was a north door, and the west door is beautiful and liturgically correct but rather useless, since it is below street level and the path merely leads round to the south. The only parts of the medieval church retained were a doorway, the nave arcades, and a few fixtures and fittings. From the outside it is virtually all Phipson's work, all of a piece, and magnificent. The flushwork is exuberant, and makes you think that being a flint-knapper must have been a good living in the 1860s.

The entrance is in the style of the area's south-west tower porches, although again on a much grander scale. The actual entrance arch seems to have been retained, as it appears to be the same in the photograph of the porch in the 1850s above, albeit with the tablets now removed. If so, then it is 15th Century. There is a Blessed Virgin and Child in the niche above by Richard Pfeiffer. Away to the east, the same sculptor produced St John the Evangelist and St Mary of Magdala on the end of the chancel.

The spire rises some sixty metres, making it the second tallest building in the Borough. The chequerboard pattern of the lower tower is rather alarming in comparison with the subtlety of some Suffolk churches, but must have been the very thing in the late 19th Century for William Butterfield did something similar a half a mile off on the south porch of St Mary at Stoke, and both were put in the shade when Fredrick Barnes's confection of St Lawrence across the road from the Tower was finished twenty years later. The spire is heartier than Phipson's other more feminine Suffolk spires at Great Finborough and Woolpit.

The porch inside is grand, the stone and marble rising to a painted wooden ceilure. St Peter and St Paul, in the windows either side, look on. A little door to the north-east leads up into the belfry, with a ring of twelve bells. Their renewal was completed in 1999. The doorway into the church has been given lovely stops representing the Annunciation, with the angel to the west, and Mary at her prayer desk to the east. As part of a Millenium project all of this was gilded.

Inside, the vastness swallows all sound. Everywhere there is the gleam of polished wood and tile. Sadly, it was fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s to remove tiles from walls, but you can still make out where these would have been. Also removed was the chancel screen. The old memorials crowd uncomfortably at the west end - Phipson was having no truck with them - but the grand view to the east is testimony to Phipson's competency. Everything is done to the letter, with the finest attention paid to detail.
The demolished church was very dark and serious inside, so it must have made quite a contrast when the townspeople first entered their new church. There is a drawing of the inside of this in the north aisle, along with part of the Jacobean chancel arch. Now, the great Perpendicular-style west window fills the nave with coloured light in the afternoons, a perfect foil for evening prayer. A fine Charles II royal arms hangs above.

The Victorian stained glass in the nave windows is of variable quality, but worth exploring because it forms the largest expanse of 19th Century glass in Suffolk. It is interesting in that it provides a catalogue of some of the major 19th Century workshops over a fairly short period, from the 1860s to the 1880s. Much of it is by Clayton & Bell, who probably received the commission for east and west windows and south aisle as part of Phipson's rebuilding contract. A small amount of 1840s glass in the north aisle was reset here from the previous church.

Pentecost The Transfiguration The Miracle at Cana
east window Peter heals a lame man in the name of Christ the believers share their possessions The Stoning of Stephen and Christ in Majesty The Conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus Tree of Jesse
Pentecost and angels St Peter baptises an Ethiopian eunuch and healing scenes Adoration of the Magi and Shepherds with Annunciation, Visitation and Nativity Christ and the children, Christ gathering lilies Christ in Majesty flanked by the Baptism of Christ and the summoning of the Disciples Transfiguration of Christ and Good Shepherd scenes
two angels with Sanctus scrolls The Miracle at Cana and scenes with Martha and Mary Mary and Joseph find the young Christ preaching in the Temple Lucy Chevallier Cobbold at the Presentation in the Temple two angels with Alleluia scrolls
Lucy Chevallier Cobbold at the Presentation in the Temple Baptism of Christ two angels standing on wheels Christ in Majesty Adoration of the Magi Christ in the carpenter's workshop
Annunciation Visitation Nativity Christ in Majesty The Stoning of Stephen 'Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?'
Crowd listening to St Peter preach St Peter Peter baptises an Ethiopian eunuch Christ heals a blind man Christ heals the lame and the sick Christ raises Jairus's daughter from the dead
Adoration of the Magi (detail) Adoration of the Magi (detail) Adoration of the Magi (detail) Adoration of the Shepherds (detail) Adoration of the Shepherds (detail)
whither has thy beloved gone I believe in the resurrection of the dead the life of the world to come Angels sound the Last Trump
Mary Magdalene anoints Christ's feet Mary and Martha await the resurrection of Lazarus Christ with Mary and Martha at Bethany The Miracle at Cana Christ summons the Disciples St John the Baptist indicates the Lamb of God
Joseph with two doves and a candle at the Presentation in the Temple Simeon and the Christ Child at the Presentation in the Temple Lucy Chevallier Cobbold at the Presentation in the Temple A Greek woman asks for Christ to drive out a demon Christ with Martha and Mary at Bethany
the believers share their possessions Peter baptises an Ethiopian eunuch for of such is the Kingdom of God Mary and Joseph find the young Christ preaching in the temple
angels on wheels and angel musicians Lamb of God

The nave woodwork is also largely 19th Century, much the work of Pfeiffer and the always excellent Henry Ringham, more of whose work can be seen at Great Bealings and Woolpit. The front pews are the so-called 'Corporation pews', for the Tower styles itself the civic church of Ipswich, and you can see the same attempt to merge the municipal with the sacramental as at Phipson's other major work for the diocese, the internal restoration of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich. The bench ends show the Ipswich symbols of a seahorse and a lion carrying a ship. If you look carefully at the back of the church, however, you will see that the churchwardens' pews still retain their medieval bench ends. The arcades are from the medieval church, and must have had a slender grace rather lost now - they yearn for white light to enfold them.

The font is a good example of the typical 15th Century East Anglian style, and deserves to be better known. It is in very good condition, probably because this was a town that embraced protestantism whole-heartedly, and it is likely that it was plastered over in the mid-16th century to make it plain and simple. The lions around the pillar stand on human heads, and there are more heads beneath the bowl. There are brasses from the original church in the chancel. The early 18th Century pulpit, contemporary with and similar to the one in the Unitarian chapel, is a bit sombre, but an excellent example of Grinling Gibbons-style carving. The 19th Century screen moved from the chancel arch can now be found at the east end of the north aisle, where it softens the metal organ pipes. It is slightly older than its near-twin which separates off the Lady Chapel.

The Decorated-style east window has a certain delicacy, and the otherwise windowless and heavy-wooded chancel was clearly designed for dark, shadowy, incense-led worship. The best feature of the chancel, and perhaps of the whole church, is the grand reredos, piscina and sedilia in the sanctuary, all of about 1900. A lush Arts and Crafts crucifixion surmounts the altar, done in gesso work on wood. East Anglian saints flank the walls. The set of twelve apostles and twelve angels on the choir stalls (still in use for their original purpose) are also by Pfeiffer. You can see his signature on the back of St Luke's icon of the Blessed Virgin. This sanctuary is the ultimate expression of late 19th Century Tractarianism in Suffolk, and you can easily imagine that you are standing in a 19th century colonial cathedral.
The lady chapel is a pleasing period piece, furnished with late Victorian and Edwardian sentiment. The reredos depicts the Supper at Emmaus flanked by Moses and Elijah in an echo of the Transfiguration,. The early 20th Century paintings on the south wall are lovely, especially the touching infant Christ, as he plays at the feet of St Joseph.

The famous Cobbold family provided ministers for this church for many years in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and their memorials can be seen in the north chancel aisle, beyond the organ. A window dedicated to Lucy Chevallier Cobbold towards the west end of the north aisle depicts her at the Presentation in the Temple. The Cobbold family embraced Tractarianism wholeheartedly, being largely responsible for the building of St Bartholomew near their home at Holywells Park. They probably had an influence over the Bacon family, whose wealth went towards the rebuilding, and whose symbol of a boar may be found in the floor tiles. They were both banking families in Ipswich.

One memorial not to be missed is that to William Smart, MP for Ipswich, which you can find on the wall in the north west corner of the nave. It is painted on wood, and features a panoramic view of the Ipswich townscape as it was in 1599, when he died, a remarkable snapshot of the past. A window depicting Smart kneeling in front of St Mary le Tower can be seen in the chapel of Pembroke College, Cambridge.


Simon Knott, December 2021

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looking east chancel
font pulpit Jelltex with a camera and a donor with a church
Blessed Virgin and Child, 1930s transfiguration altar

St Mary le Tower, 1880s?


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