At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary and St Lambert, Stonham Aspal

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Stonham Aspal

Stonham Aspal Sir Anthony Wingfield clerestory

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          Stonham Aspal sits on the busy A1120, which I'm afraid is a bit of a ratrun for drivers taking a shortcut between the A14 and the A12. The old village centre is still discernible, and the former village pub which is now a Mexican restaurant (or was when I last passed it) was called the Ten Bells, which tells you something about the building across the road in its wide churchyard.

There are two immediately unusual things about this church. Firstly, there’s the dedication. Now, it would be foolish to make too much of the dedications of Anglican churches, since few of them have remained unchanged over the centuries. During the years between the 16th Century Reformation and the 19th Century revival they largely fell into disuse, except where required to differentiate one church in a town from another. Some current dedications of Suffolk churches are the result of well-meaning but not always entirely accurate 18th Century antiquarians. Suffolk's churches were in the Diocese of Norwich in the medieval period, and several dedications were conflated or confused by the antiquarians. Chattisham took on Shottisham’s, while Kirton took on Shotley's, the church there often being refered to as Shotley Kirkton in old documents. They confused the Suffolk Hoo with the Norfolk Hoe, and thought that Suffolk's Shimpling and Norfolk's Shimpling were the same place. Great Ashfield and Badwell Ash actually swapped dedications. The enthusiasm of 19th century Rectors should also not be underestimated. At Whepstead, the parish church is dedicated to St Petronilla, uniquely in all England, but this has no basis in antiquity. Rather, someone there in the 1880s had a special devotion to the Saint, or perhaps thought it was simply a nice name.

So it is no surprise to learn that the Saint Lambert here is a mistake. In fact, there are three Stonhams, and this one once used the name of the Lambert family, owners of the Manor, to distinguish itself from the others. Such distinctions are more common in Essex. There is such a thing as a Saint Lambert, but he was never the dedicatee here.

Secondly, there is that tower. It is remarkable because it dates back to the 18th century, although what you see today is a rebuilding of the 1980s. It gives the bells a quite different sound to that of being rung in a tower of brick, stone or flint. As at Haughley, the tower appears to be a quite separate structure, as if it is only joined on incidentally to the body of the church. Bell chambers like the one here arose from a historical accident. After the Reformation, the adoption of Cranmer’s prayer book made bells liturgically redundant. Their only remaining uses were secular. Any number of things could have happened as a result of this, and most of them did. In some parishes, the bells, and by default the tower, fell into disuse. The weak materials from which many East Anglian towers were constructed, coupled with puritan suspicion of ornate decorations of ecclesiastical buildings in general (the puritans were strong in Suffolk) meant that towers fell throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. By the 19th century there was a concern for their welfare, and a renewed interest in liturgy, which conspired to encourage many parishes to effect repairs. But not all, and they continued to fall, often neglected by otherwise grand 19th century restorations. Acton's was taken down as unsafe in 1880, Stanton All Saints' tower collapsed in 1906. Bildeston's collapsed as recently as 1975, the scaffolding for its impending restoration splintering like matchsticks in the rubble.

There were reasons, however, for towers to be cared for after the Reformation, and before the Victorians came along. In Suffolk, and especially along the coast, many were landmarks and watch towers – you can see far out to sea from the top of the churches at Southwold, Kessingland and Wrentham. Perhaps other church towers were used as strongholds. But there was another factor. There were few artistic flowerings in the English Church in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Renaissance bypassed these islands, pretty much. It is therefore some recompense that the English invented recreational bell-ringing.

As well as their sacramental use within the liturgy, bells had probably always been used for ceremonial and processional purposes. In the later Middle Ages, they replaced Mass dials almost everywhere as a way of informing the people when Mass was about to start. We know they were rung on Holy Days, and tolled for the dead. When these purposes fell into disuse (ringing for services, ceremonial ringing and tolling for the dead are probably Victorian reinventions, and the last of these never survived the great silence of WWII) all that was left was ringing for secular purposes – to warn of an invasion, perhaps, or to call the people together. Some churches had a clock bell (Hadleigh’s sanctus bell was adapted for this purpose), but a clock bell is not actually rung, it is struck. These uses alone were not enough to sustain the upkeep of towers everywhere in such troubled and impoverished times.

So it was a great salvation that a new use was found for the bells. This was not possible in churches with only one or two bells, which is the case of most Suffolk churches, but where there were more, they could be used to splendid effect. At Horham, for instance, which has the oldest ring of eight bells in the world, and here at Stonham Aspal. Mortlock tells us of the local squire, Theodore Eccleston, who was an enthusiastic bell-ringer. In 1742, he replaced the ring of five bells with one of ten, and the bell chamber was built to house them. I'm not clear if the tower was partly demolished to accommodate them, if it had already fallen prey to the depredations of the two centuries since the Reformation, or indeed if it was never completed in the first place.

I've never rung bells myself, but a friend of mine who does insists that bell-ringing is as much maths as physical exertion, a pursuit that takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master. A bell team ringing together enters an inner communion, an almost trance-like state where all individuals are subsumed to a greater purpose. Bell-ringing continues to be important in Suffolk, as it has been for centuries now. In Ronald Blythe’s majestic Akenfield, we meet the bell teams ringing in Suffolk between the wars, walking in a group from one church to its neighbour to ring for the next service. On summer evenings, a walk might take them to ring at half a dozen churches. They undertook feats of endurance on special occasions, extravagant displays of ringing sequences with beautiful names. They were an independently-minded people, often not the least bit religious. This is still the case today. Ringing ran in families in Suffolk: the Baileys, the Wightmans, the Chenerys, the Pipes. It still does.

A third thing that might catch your attention as you approach is Francis Bird's leisured 1714 memorial to Anthony Wingfield, which Pevsner memorably described as being so unlike anything one is used to in churchyards that one feels a monument in Westminster Abbey may be taking a country holiday. Much of the church he gazes upwards at must have been complete by the time the Black Death arrived in Suffolk in the mid-14th Century, but a hundred years later there was money to raise the roof with an attractive clerestory. Simon Cotton found bequests in the late 14th Century and then again in the early 16th Century to the chapel of St Margaret within the church.

You step into what appears at first sight to be a fairly urbanised Victorian restoration, the work of that low-brow architect Edward Hakewill and later his borther John. There is a disappointment in looking up, because the lovely clerestory is not matched by a timber roof - or, if it is, it has long since been ceiled over with boards and plaster. Hakewill was a great one for adding dark and gloomy north aisles, but fortunately for us this church already had a north aisle, and the building is full of light. Hakewill did however add a vestry to the north of the chancel under one continuous roof with it, another habit of his. There is very little coloured glass, and although the 14th Century west window is unusually small, the clerestory does its work for it. The light falls on an interesting collection of bench ends. Mortlock describes them as extensively and cleverly restored. They are attached to 19th Century benches which James Bettley in the revised Buildings of England: Suffolk East credits to James Gibbon, a local craftsman. The lady clutching her hand to her breast was perhaps once holding a rosary, while the man leaning forward over his prayer desk may be asleep, in which case he is Pride from the Seven Deadly Sins. A wolf guards St Edmund's head, a pious lady kneels at a prayer desk, a rather incongruous Chinese dragon shows off his beard. Up in the chancel there are some late 19th Century evangelist symbols on the stalls, of excellent quality.

Winged messenger of St Matthew (19th Century) woman once holding rosary? man at prayer (Pride?) Winged lion of St Mark (19th Century)
Chinese dragon wolf with the head of St Edmund cockatrice

Some 17th century bench ends survive in the north aisle, their solid, slightly rugged appearance typical of the period. There is a good early 17th Century brass to John Metcalfe, who was minister here for more than half the Elizabethan period. The weeping children on an earlier brass have been polished to within an inch of their lives, but this somehow makes them even more haunting. A table at the west end of the nave has been constructed out of the 17th Century tester to the pulpit, and still has the date 1616 and the initials ES, presumably those of a churchwarden of the time. An early 14th Century effigy of a knight who may well have been placed here when the nave was new sleeps in a 19th Century recess.

Intriguingly, the two easternmost clerestory windows have fragments of medieval glass in the upper lights, presumably reset by Hakewill from elsewhere in the church. There are more medieval fragments in the aisle windows. Some of them depict pomegranates, perhaps purely decorative or symbolic of eternal life, but of course it was also the symbol of Catherine of Aragon, which may suggest a new scheme of the early 16th Century, perhaps that contributed to in a will of 1509 leaving 6s 8d (one noble) to the elaboration of the Chapel of St Margaret.

The oldest thing here is probably the curious 13th century font, its arcading seeming un-East Anglian. Did it come from this church originally? Another curiosity is the vast bound chest in the vestry, which on one occasion the churchwarden showed me - it is so big, indeed, that Hakewill must have built his vestry around it. And the vestry has another curiosity, because if you step outside you can see that the entrance is flanked immediately to east and west by the headstone and footstone of the same person's grave. The story goes that the relatives of the deceased refused to allow him to be moved so that the vestry could be built. The single-minded Rector dealt with this by having the vestry built anyway, and its entrance placed directly over the unfortunate deceased's grave, dividing the headstone from the footstone. Thinking about it afterwards, I realised that they were probably simply reset either side in a decorative manner. But it is a good story.


Simon Knott, October 2020

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looking east chancel font
pious knight John Metcalfe 17th century bench ends
pomegranate fragments (early 16th Century?) 1616 ES fragments (15th Century)
three mourning daughters cheered by his genial good nature the men of Stonham Aspal

Stonham Aspal

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