St Mary, Wetherden
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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|Wetherden is an attractive west
Suffolk village beside the sprawl of Haughley Park in
that area north of Stowmarket which is the county's
agricultural heartland. The church sits in the centre of
the village, and is a noble sight, not particularly large
but, in Mortlock's words, lavish. There are good
views from the east on the road from Haughley, but you
enter the churchyard from the west, the tower with its
reticulated windows and image niches rising imposingly
above you. Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton transcribed a
bequest of 40s to the building of the tower in
1420, and then in 1433 Robert Maggys left 6s 8d to
the new bell, suggesting a date for the tower's
completion, although it must be said that it looks
earlier than this. The east window is also in this
earlier style, and thereafter there are bequests for
furnishings. But in 1487 Sir John Sulyard of Wetherden
Hall asked in his will to be buried in the new aisle
on the south part of the church. Sir John was Chief
Justice to Richard II, a man of some consequence and
considerable wealth, as we will see.
The churchyard path leads round to the south side of the church revealing the Sulyard aisle, and this the most spectacular part of the building. When it was finished it would have been a riot of flushwork symbols, monograms and shields, and although much of the flintwork has now been lost it is easy to get a general idea. The aisle was not completed until the early 16th Century, and in 1517 the will of Dame Anne Bourgchire, Sulyard's widow and widowed again since, asked for her to be buried in the south aisle against the chancel before an image of St Anne, standing at the south end of the said aisle. She also asked for 1000 masses to be sung for soul within 8 days of burial, and a secular priest to sing in the church of Wetherden in the new aisle for 10 years at £6 per annum. A porch is built into the west end of the aisle, its flushwork including pots of lilies representing the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin suggesting a probable medieval dedication of the church, and it is through this that you enter.
The first impression is that this is a church of quality. The benches with their traceried backs, some late medieval and others good Victorian copies, spread eastwards, and echoing them high above is a fine 15th Century double hammerbeam roof. The slightly later and more intimate aisle roof with its angels beyond the delicate and soaring arcade is intricate and beautiful.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, this roof attracted the attention of parliamentary commissioner and iconoclast William Dowsing, who came this way on Monday February 5th, 1644, looking for evidence of ritualist worship. His role, which was largely self-appointed, was to strip the churches of the apparatus installed under the Laudian regime of the 1630s, as well as of surviving features that had been missed by the iconoclasts during the Reformation of a century earlier. Most parishes took this task on for themselves, but some didn't. Dowsing was particularly wary of parishes that had 'scandalous ministers' - that is to say, theological liberals - as rectors. That late winter Monday was a particularly busy day for Dowsing. Like all good puritans he rested on the Sabbath, but he had planned a preliminary tour of Cambridgeshire for the following week. Trevor Cooper, the editor of the new edition of the Dowsing Journals, suggests that on this, the final day of his initial Suffolk tour, he may have carried with him some inkling of the enormity of his task.
Dowsing had set off from Needham
Market that morning, travelling over the fields to Badley
(an identical journey can be made today) and then on into
Stowmarket. It must have been about lunchtime that he
arrived in Wetherden, having bypassed Haughley. He
probably knew that there would be much to do here, for
the Sulyards of Haughley Park were recusants, and their
influence was a strong and obstructive one. He planned to
deal with Elmswell and Tostock later in the afternoon,
before arriving in Bury, where he would spend the night.
Even so, with the help of some very sympathetic
churchwardens, he was also able to survey the two huge
Bury churches of St Mary and St James before the day was
out. In all, he would deal with eight churches this day.
His tour that Monday involved a journey of some twenty
miles. This is good going, on a February day when the
light fades early, on horseback in the days before proper
roads. In his journal, he records his activities at
Wetherden: We brake 100 superstitious pictures in Sr
Edward Silliard's eile; and gave order to break down 60
more; and to take down 68 cherubims; and to levell the
steps in the chancell; there was takeing up 19
superstitious inscriptions, that weighed 65 pounds.
Dowsing would likely approve that today, more prosaically than anything that Dame Anne's will could imagine, the Sulyard aisle is lined with box pews, but Sir John's memorial survives. However, more striking is that of his descendant, a later Sir John who died in 1575. His memorial is set against the arcade and faces outwards. The shield of the Sulyards stands guard over four figures representing Sir John and his family, though Pevsner thought it not a convincing composition. It was the grandson of this Sir John, yet another Sir John, who built Haughley Park.
Most interesting of all is that
Dowsing suggests the brass inscriptions were lifted
during his visit. These were considered superstitious,
because they asked for prayers for the soul of the dead
person, or said that he or she committed their soul into
the hands of God. Both these ideas were theologically
anathema to the Puritans. It was the words cuius
anime proptietur Deus on the Sulyard monument that
goaded the exasperated Dowsing. Nineteen inscriptions is
a lot, and in general Dowsing was careful not to damage
the images of the dead people themselves, or any heraldic
devices or decorations. Indeed, he often found it
necessary only to remove or deface the part of the
inscription that suggested Catholic belief and practice.
But much survived the visit of William Dowsing, and one of the joys of a visit to St Mary is its lovely collection of bench ends. A few are 15th Century originals, most are excellent 19th Century replicas, perhaps by the same carver who produced the bench ends at Combs on the other side of Stowmarket. Among the most memorable are a lion, a wolf, a camel and a hippocampus (part horse, part fish). Others include a stag, an owl, a squirrel eating a nut, a bull, a couple of apes and a very curious creature that appears to be extending its tongue to lick its paws.
The east window is by Henry Hughes,
but the glass on the north side of the nave was installed
in 1947 to replace that blown out by blast damage during
the Second World War. It is by John Hall & Sons, who
had a studio in St Pancras, London, and looks the work of
several decades earlier. I had not heard of them before,
and I was surprised to learn from Aidan MacRae Thomson
that no fewer than five Suffolk churches have glass by
this workshop of about this date. It can never have been
thrilling, and perhaps appealed to a patron wanting
something quietly old-fashioned. Interestingly, parts of
the 19th Century glass that it replaced survive in the
Simon Knott, April 2022
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