At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Thornham Parva

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Thornham Parva

Thornham Parva Thornham Parva Thornham Parva
Thornham Parva south door Thornham Parva

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From the moment that you see it across the fields, you know that Thornham Parva's little church is something special. At first the silhouette perhaps, or a stain of gold that resolves as you approach into a solid little Norman church. At night it is floodlit and floats above the darkness. On winter days, the low light catches its honeyed walls across ploughed furrows. In summer, the entrancing trees gather, a setting for a diadem. There isn’t really a village, and St Mary sits lonely in the fields. The thatched roof is charming, and set against it is a small square tower, also crowned in thatch. There is a stubborn timelessness about it, a silent witness to long centuries.

The later tower was added to a building that was at heart a small Norman church, although much of the window tracery we see today is contemporary with the tower. The nave was extended with a tiny chancel in the early 14th Century although there is no obvious division from outside. A contract made in 1485 survives between three parishioners and the masons Jon Tilley and Richard Cutting to build the tower at the west end of the church. Subsequently the masons were sued for defective workmanship, but the tower of course survives. It is not a large tower, but money was still being left towards its construction in 1520 when William Baldry bequeathed 3s 4d to the steple in his will.

But you have to step inside to discover that Thornham Parva church is one of the most remarkable of all small churches in East Anglia, a treasure house, an aesthetic pleasure, a delight. It has been shaped by an intensely rural collision of historical circumstances, and they have left a moving and coherent document of our Suffolk past, and a church which attracts visitors from all over the world, for it is worth seeing and worth going to see. In particular, it has not one but two remarkable survivals. If they were in the Victoria and Albert Museum we would willingly travel to London to see them, and happily pay handsomely for doing so. And yet here they are, in the fields that punctuate the Thornham woods, in a church which is open every day.

When Cautley’s revising editors came this way in 1975 they found the church in a bit of a state, and even feared for its future. That it is now the perfect model of a small, well-cared-for English parish church is a tribute to the energy and enthusiasm of the tiny handful of local parishioners who nursed it back to health. You step directly down into the church from a small Norman doorway in the north side. A tiny Georgian gallery curves above you, as if brought from a child's toy church and shoe-horned into the west end here. The small font below it was probably installed at the same time as the chancel was added, and it is in that direction that you must look for the church's great treasures. The gallery and the simple benches are reminders that St Mary was a church of the ordinary people, but the neighbouring village a mile or so off is Thornham Magna where Thornham Hall, the home of the the Majors and later the Hennikers, stands beside the church. It was at the Hall that in the 1920s the remarkable Thornham retable was found and donated by Lord Henniker to this church. It was fully restored in the early years of the 21st Century, and returned to St Mary where it now sits behind protective and alarmed glass in the tiny chancel.

The retable was only part of a much larger altarpiece that probably once stood in the Blackfriars Priory at Thetford over the border in Norfolk. Most of the frontal from the piece is now in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, although one panel is lost to us, but may still be adorning a church out there in Europe somewhere. The Thornham Parva part was removed from the Priory church after it was destroyed in the Anglican Reformation, along with so many of England’s treasures. Perhaps it was taken by recusant Catholics to use in their devotions, but more likely it was simply rescued because it was beautiful. It was purchased by Sir John Major of Thornham Hall in 1778 for his collection, from a house in nearby Stradbroke and later put into storage in the loft of one of the estate barns and forgotten until it was rediscovered.

The retable is painted with ten standing figures about the Crucifixion. The backgrounds are chequered and textured using gesso, a kind of Plaster of Paris which was applied and allowed to dry before being carved to shape and painted. From left to right, the figures are St Dominic (Thetford was a Dominican Priory); St Catherine; St John the Baptist; St Paul; a rood group of the Blessed Virgin, Christ and St John; St Peter; St Edmund; St Margaret; St Peter Martyr (another Dominican). The retable dates from the 1330s, the height of the Decorated period, in the decades before the Black Death. Ironically, it is almost exactly contemporary with the chancel in which it now sits. They are perhaps the liveliest and most alive medieval figures in Suffolk. St Catherine in particular appears to be stepping through an archway from dancing in a garden.

crucified St John agnus dei
St Dominic, St Catherine, St John the Baptist Christ flanked by the Blessed Virgin and St John St Edmund, St Margaret, St Peter Martyr
St Dominic St Margaret St John the Baptist St Paul St Peter Martyr
King of the Jews St Catherine St John at the foot of the cross St Edmund St Peter
St John the Baptist Jesus Nazarenus Rex Judorum hands St Catherine
gold gesso crucified St Edmund's arrow St John the Baptist's camelskin
brush strokes textures St Margaret's dragon
foot foot foot

As if the retable were not enough, the walls of St Mary are lined with some of Suffolk’s most interesting wall paintings. They rank with those at Wissington in the south of county, and date broadly from the early years of the 14th Century, that is to say roughly contemporary with the retable. There are two ranges. On the south wall is the story of the early years of Christ, while on the north wall is the martyrdom of St Edmund. This is very rare. Fragments survive of another sequence not far off at Troston, but there is only one other complete martyrdom story surviving in the whole of the Kingdom.

Both sequences are organised chronologically from right to left. This may seem awkward, but effectively they start in the south west corner of the church and continue anti-clockwise around to the north-west corner. Unfortunately, the paintings on the west wall are now lost to us, behind the gallery.

On the south side, it is reasonable to assume that the very first painting, on the south side of the west wall, was an Annunciation – the angel appearing to Mary. This is lost. A fragment of the next frame survives, just poking up above the south end of the gallery. This is the Visitation, and we see Mary embracing her cousin Elizabeth. The Visitation was an important medieval devotion, because of the way it balances and connects with the Assumption. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, on August 15th, was one of the most significant feast days in the English medieval calendar, and the Assumption was probably the dedication of many Suffolk churches. The other images in the sequence are clearer. We see the angel appearing to the shepherds, and then Christ sits on his mother's lap while the shepherds adore him. Note the way we have lost the adoring figures because of the later punching through of a window. Similarly, the next frame, the Presentation in the Temple, has also suffered from fenestration. We often talk about Victorian vandalism of medieval churches, but here is a prime example of destruction caused by 15th century ‘restoration’.

Blessed Virgin and Child Adoration of the Shepherds Adoration of the Shepherds/Blessed Virgin and Child an angel appears to certain shepherds

What was the point of this sequence? A lot of nonsense is talked about images in wall paintings and stained glass being ‘the poor man's bible’ for peasants who couldn’t read. This reasoning suggests that medieval images were destroyed during the 16th Century Anglican Reformation because ‘they were no longer needed’. In fact, the reformers destroyed them because they were Catholic devotional tools. The wall paintings on the south side here form a rosary sequence, pictures for meditation while saying prayers with the aid of rosary beads. Often this was done while Mass was being said by the priest in the chancel. If the reformers were to turn our churches into congregational preaching houses, the wall paintings had to go.

Intriguingly, the wall paintings here may have been whitewashed even before there were theological reasons for doing so. Most of the windows that punch through the wall paintings in the nave at Thornham Parva date from the 15th Century, not the 16th, that is to say a full century before the Reformation. Could there have been a general redecoration at this time? Whichever, they were whitewashed, to be rediscovered in a kinder, gentler age. When the ranges here were uncovered by the Victorians, the south range was easily recognisable. But the north range wasn’t. For many years, it was thought to represent the martyrdom of St Catherine, because of the large wheel above the north doorway. It was only at the time the paintings were restored in the late 1970s that it became clear that here was something much more exciting.

The sequence begins at the eastern end of the range. We see Edmund fleeing the Viking attack on a town, possibly Rendlesham, home of the Wuffings, the East Anglian royal family. The actual martyrdom is lost because of another of those great windows, but we next see Edmund’s decapitated head being put back on the body by a group of monks. Then, the body is carried off to its shrine at Bedricsworth (soon to become St Edmundsbury) while the wolf that found and guarded the head looks on. The final image on the north wall shows the wheel of a bullock cart crossing a bridge – delightfully, the bridge is represented by the arch of the doorway. This depicts an event that happened some time after. St Edmund’s body (by now sanctified and canonised) is being taken away to escape a later assault by Vikings. It approaches a bridge that is simply too narrow to allow the cart to pass. Miraculously, the cart crosses the bridge, and the Vikings are foiled.

St Edmund's head put back on St Edmund's wolf St Edmund on his throne
St Edmund's coffin on a bullock cart St Edmund decapitated

Although it is sad that we have lost so much of both sequences because of later alterations, it has to be said that the walls of this church are beautiful. The late medieval windows, which include some excellent 20th century glass by Lawrence Whistler, the paraffin lamps, the memorials to churchwardens, all add rather than detract. The screen is tiny and over-restored, but you can still see the sawn-off ends of the rood beam and the floor of the rood loft. Standing in the rood screen, the retable behind you for a moment, the full beauty of the gallery can be seen, and above it a circular window which from the outside is hidden by the tower.

An interesting insight into the medieval life of a small Suffolk parish is given by a will of 1524 recorded by Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton. Robert Baldry, perhaps the brother of the WIlliam who had left money towards the tower four years earlier, declared I bequeth unto Robert George an heckforth (a young female cow) and one acre of whete to discharge myn pyllgrymage unto our ladye of Wallsingham to our ladye of grace in Ippeswich to our ladye of Wullpytt and to the roode in Eye abbey all this to be donne at hys owne cost and charge. Thus, Robert Baldry requested Robert George to visit the most significant Marian shrines in East Anglia at Walsingham, Ipswich and Woolpit as well as to what may have been believed to be a fragment of the True Cross at Eye to make intercessionary prayers for his soul after his death. Most likely it was a previously agreed arrangement made while Baldry was still alive.

And so we step out into the churchyard which has a number of burials of interest. As well as the violinist Frederick Grinke, it includes the last resting place of the great 20th Century architect Sir Basil Spence, designer of Coventry Cathedral, the Kensington and Chelsea barracks in London, and Britain's best university campus, the University of Sussex, to name but three. Ironically, his 1980s memorial, which was designed by himself and carved by John Skelton, was replaced in 2006 because the Suffolk weather had begun to make it crumble. One hopes they used better materials for his buildings.


Simon Knott, April 2021

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looking east sanctuary gallery
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