At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Wissington

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Wissington Wissington, late summer afternoon memories of 2012: Suffolk churches

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Wissington, sometimes pronounced and even spelt Wiston, is a sleepy Suffolk hamlet in a gentle fold of Essex, above the Stour and not particularly on the way to anywhere else. Norman churches are not common in Suffolk, because so often there was wealth to rebuild them on the eve of the Reformation. The best Norman churches are out on the margins of the county, as though some central authority had forgotten them. Apart from Nayland, the nearest other churches to Wissington are all in Essex.

This is not a church you will come across by accident. You approach by a narrow by-road from the Bures to Nayland road, which peters out into a private lane across the Wissington Hall estate. If you have driven here then you will have to leave your car on the hard standing area before entering the estate. The track is a public footpath, and takes you about 200m past a field of sheep until you reach the church which stands above the farmyard just to the west of the hall.

You enter the churchyard from the eastern end, the apse for a moment making the building look round. The ancient exterior promises gloom, and you'll not be disappointed. You step into a darkness that seems ancient, and your mind can easily conjure up the candle flickering and incense-clouded early middle ages. A building like this has a long memory, and, unusually for Suffolk, probably had as long a life before the Reformation as it has had since.However, having said that St Mary is Norman, a qualification must be made, since the Victorians clearly thought that it wasn't quite Norman enough. They built the eastern apse, and filled the church with 'Norman' furnishings. There is a stone Norman pulpit, an absurd stone Norman reading desk, and even, I am afraid, Norman pews.

However, let us ignore them for the present, for there is a smell of earth, a coolness that is unchanging, whatever the weather outside. And then, as your eyes become accustomed to the gloom, you can look up to see the wonderful wall-paintings. The paintings date from about 1280, and the complete range is still discernible. In common with many other survivals from this period, there are two levels.

The top level of paintings (the best preserved) shows the story of Christ from Annunciation to Ascension. The south wall is best of all. They start at the far eastern end with a scene of the Annunciation. The angel holds a lily, and Mary's face is just visible on the right.This painting is wrongly identified as St Michael in some sources. The Visitation is lost, and we catch up on the story with one of two paintings here that are world famous. This one apparently shows the Nativity, Mary lying in bed and two other women standing beside her, one in distress. It probably shows a scene from the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, in which two midwifes, Zelomi and Salome, attend Christ's birth, but Salome's hand withers up for daring to disbelieve in Mary's virginity. The next part of the story fills two panels. In the first, an angel appears to the shepherds, one of whom is in the panel with him. His fellows gather in the next frame, while young sheep gambol without concern at their feet.

Annunciation (c1280) Mary and two midwives at the birth of Christ, an angel appears to the shepherds (c1280) Shepherds (and sheep) in the fields receive news of Christ's birth (c1280)

In the next frame, the Magi are travelling to greet the Christchild. The journey of the Magi is followed by a two frame scene in which they offer their gifts to the infant Christ. He sits on his mother's lap, much as he does in the same scene at Thornham Parva across the county. There then follows the other world famous image, for the angel appears to the Magi to tell them not to go back to Jerusalem but to return by a different route. As in the capital at Autun Cathedral, they are shown all asleep in the same bed.

Shepherds travel to Bethlehem (c1280) Adoration of the Magi (c1280) Angel appearing to the three wise men in bed together

The final two scenes in this row show the Flight into Egypt and, just before the gallery intervenes and they are lost, the Massacre of the Innocents, with a fearsome soldier wielding a sword. The painting is in ochre, with vine designs around the painted archways and alcoves that offset the subjects. The lower range is less well preserved, and is generally held to be scenes from the life of St Nicholas and St Margaret. The most well-preserved painting shows a man in a boat, and he appears to be holding a bishop's crozier as he blesses the sailors, as in the St Nicholas legend.

There are fewer images surviving on the north wall, and they are generally in poorer condition, but several parts of the crucifixion story are clear. In one, Christ is nailed to the cross. He lies on the ground, and his executioners kneel beside him. I have seen this described as 'Christ washing the feet of his disciples, which is not impossible, but seems odd at this place in the sequence. In the next, a figure holds a stick with a vinegar sponge up to the thirsting Christ, while a woman weeps at his nailed feet. The next image I take to be Christ being taken down from the cross, because the iconography is familiar. He lies with his head to the left resting in his mother's lap. The only other really clear image in the sequence is the risen Christ standing with his hands held open.

Christ taken down from the cross (c1280) Risen Christ (c1280)

There are two other major paintings on the north wall, and they are both really quite extraordinary. One is above the former north door, and shows a large and ferocious dragon. Being a later addition of the 15th Century, he is quite out of scale with the other images, and in quite a different style. There is something very similar at Bartlow in Cambridgeshire. At the other end of the north wall, however, is the earliest known English image of St Francis. He is shown preaching to the birds in the tree. If 1280, the estimated date for this work, is broadly correct, then this could have been painted by people who were alive in the lifetime of their subject.

dragon (c1280) St Francis reading a sermon to birds (c1280)

The major restoration here was begun early, in 1848, perhaps explaining its unecclesiological nature, by the incumbent the Reverend Birch. Over the next twenty years the east end was restructured and the interior refurnished, mostly apparently by local workshops. The stone pulpit and reading desk were the work of Thomas Crisp, who may also have been responsible for the altar rails. The west gallery was erected by William Hawkins of Monks Eleigh in 1862, which seems a very odd date given that this was when most churches were removing their galleries. Perhaps it replaced one that had been there before. Wilmshurst & Oliphant provided the stained glass in the apse lancets, and Thomas Baillie's west window of 1869 seems to have marked the end of the restoration.

From the nave you step beneath the chancel arch into a square space that was perhaps the base of a now-lost crossing tower, as at Ousden or Oulton. The sanctuary beyond is all of Birch's restoration. A brass inscription for a Laudian Rector has been reset in the tiles. Turning back west, you can make out the two parts of the gallery through the gloom, a royal arms of George III and two hatchments flanking it. Mortlock says that it has Fear God and Honour the King inscribed on the back.

Beneath the gallery, the 15th Century font appears at first to be a typical example of the late medieval Suffolk style. But there is one detail that makes it slightly different. The lions at its base are not sitting up, alert, as is common in East Anglia. They are lying down, as though the rural idyll of this place, and its ageless peace, have at last overcome them, and they have surrendered themselves to sleep.

Simon Knott, August 2019

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looking east

Annunciation (Thomas Baillie, 1869) Christ carrying his cross meets his mother (Wilmshurst & Oliphant, 1854) Crucifixion and Deposition (Wilmshurst & Oliphant, 1854) angel at the empty tomb (Wilmshurst & Oliphant, 1854) Sermon on the Mount (Thomas Baillie, 1870)
font and organ looking west sanctuary stall (15th century) and bench (19th Century)
John le Gris who was minister of this church 39 yeares (1630)

sleeping lions


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