At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Wetherden

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Wetherden Wetherden into the sun south doorway
shields and lost flintwork shields and lost flintwork IS in a crown of thorns, shield
St Edmund Annunciation lily pot marian lily

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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.

aisle roof double hammerbeam roof double-hammerbeam nave roof aisle roof angel
double hammerbeams angel with a scroll

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.

So, in the space of an hour or so, St Mary underwent a thorough restructuring. It is interesting to differentiate between the work that Dowsing carries out himself, and that which he delegates to deputies and churchwardens. The superstitious pictures were in stained glass, in the windows. Dowsing himself destroyed all of those in the aisle, but not sixty others - perhaps these were awkward to reach, or perhaps the churchwardens asked if they could leave them until it was possible to replace them with plain glass. He also ordered the taking down of cherubims - these were the angels on the roof hammer beams, the work of several days, and something he felt safe to delegate, along with the removal of the chancel steps installed by the Laudians a decade earlier.

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.

Sulyard memorial Sulyard memorial hic jacet Johannes Sulyard

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.

So what happened here? Today, only one brass survives, set in the chancel. It is likely in any case that many Suffolk brasses were actually stolen or destroyed in the 18th and 19th Centuries by collectors, vandals and thieves, and that may have been what happened here. Still, sixty-five pounds of brass seems an awful lot. Clearly, the only reason for weighing it is if it was going to be melted down, which sounds shocking, but isn't really. The Puritans were pragmatists, and the money they raised for the parishes was given back to them to be used for essential maintenance and charitable works once Dowsing's fee had been extracted. Perhaps the brasses had already been lifted and weighed by enthusiastic parishioners before Dowsing's visit, and he is merely recording here the official detail of this. We will never know.

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.

lion (19th Century) hippocamp (19th Century) wolf (19th Century) camel (19th Century)
squirrel (15th Century) ape (15th Century) stag (15th Century) owl (19th Century)
monkey (19th Century) lion?!  (19th Century) bull (19th Century) Wetherden

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 upper lights.

There are more recent memorials, the best of which is to Edward Sulyard formerly of Haughley Park who died in 1799. A garlanded urn stands on a black marble panel, the inscription telling us that out of a pious and affectionate regard to whose memory his widow and daughters have caused this tablet to be erected. The perils of empire are illustrated by two memorials of the following century. John Marshall, captain 4th Light Dragoons, was 25 years old when in 1865 he died of Crimean Fever at the Monastery of St George, Balaklava Heights. Crimean Fever, or Brucellosis, was a viral haemorrhagic fever which caused the death of thousands of soldiers during the conflict and nearly killed Florence Nightingale. Nearby, the memorial to James Ballam of the 43rd Company Imperial Yeomanry tells us that in 1901 he died of Enteric Fever at Zeerust, South Africa, aged 24 years.

Simon Knott, April 2022

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looking east chancel
font and organ fallen angel
'Suffer little children to come unto me'  (John Hall & Son, 1947) The raising of Jairus's daughter/Samuel and his mother Hannah in the house of Eli (John Hall & Son, 1947) blessed are the pure in heart
Crimean Fever Edward Sulyard late of Haughley Park, 1799 Enteric Fever
rector of this parish


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