At the sign of the Barking lion...

Our Lady Immaculate and St Edmund, Withermarsh Green

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Withermarsh Green

Withermarsh Green

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It is no exaggeration to describe Our Lady Immaculate and St Edmund as the most remote Catholic church in all East Anglia. Here we are in the quiet, lonely landscape to the east of Stoke-by Nayland, where the narrow, high-hedged, jinking lanes descend steeply towards the beds of nameless streams before ascending rapidly to give commanding views across Dedham Vale. It is breathtaking cycling country in every sense, and on the day I came back here in October 2020 I did not pass a car or even see another person for almost half an hour.

A quiet back lane from Shelley circumnavigates the secretive park of Giffords Hall and eventually approaches this simple brick chapel with a castellated porch. Apart from the older attached house there is no other building within half a mile. A memorial plaque reveals its purpose: Here at Withermarsh, the Mass has been celebrated without interruption from about 1216, first nearby in a medieval chapel visible from this place in the grounds of Giffords Hall; then in the hall itself under the care of the Mannock family who dwelt there for 460 years and finally in this chapel built in 1827 under their patronage and by public subscription to provide a permanent place of Catholic worship.

We are in what was the Catholic parish of Stoke-by-Nayland before the Reformation, and as it is still now under the stewardship of the Church of England. However, the Mannocks of adjacent Giffords Hall ignored the Reformation, and continued their communion with the Catholic Church. For this they suffered, although not as much as some in England, or even in Suffolk. For harbouring a Priest, for instance, they could have been put to death. The Timperleys of Hintlesham Hall lost all their wealth, their land and their beautiful house for refusing to conform to the new established Church. A descendant of the Timperleys remarked to me once that his ancestor had backed the wrong horse, but for the Mannocks, the Timperleys, the Gages of Hengrave and the Drurys of Stanningfield, it wasn't so much a case of thinking that the Catholic church would finally overcome its local difficulties, as of actually believing the Church to be true.

The date 1827 on the memorial plaque marks the Catholic Relief Act of that year, which gave Catholics broadly equal rights of free assembly with other non-conformist communities. It was a time of reasonable optimism in Suffolk, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Suffolk had fewer Catholics than any other county in England, at less than 1% of the population. The late 1820s saw the building of four Catholic churches in the county, each with their own resident Priest - the others were at Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Bungay. A cottage at Lawshall near Sudbury was also converted for use as a church, and much of north-west Suffolk was served by the Catholic priest at Thetford just over the Norfolk border. The 1827 church here replaced an earlier one, erected illegally in the middle of the 18th century. Perhaps in such an out-of-the-way place it did not inflame Protestant feelings, or perhaps the Mannocks were influential enough to get away with it - it was not until 1791 that Catholics could erect buildings for the purpose of celebrating mass, and only then under severe restrictions.

James Bettley in the revised Buildings of England: Suffolk West identifies the builder as Robert Kingsbury of the nearby village of Boxford. The adjacent house seems to have been upgraded as a presbytery at the same time. You step into a calm, traditional interior under a western gallery. The atmosphere is intensely rustic, with simple, seemly benches facing towards a traditional high altar. A painting of the crucifixion hangs behind the tall candlesticks on the reredos. Two other paintings hang either side of the church, and perhaps all three originally came from the Hall.

Our Lady Immaculate sanctuary

In one corner stands a side altar, and outside the window beside it is a prayer desk, to allow people to go about their devotions when the church is locked. The font is a little later than the 1820s and must have replaced an earlier font, perhaps even the one from the 18th Century church. 1851 saw the restoration of the heirarchy to the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and for the first time since the Reformation a system of parishes was revived. Even so, the tiny Catholic population of Suffolk meant that these parishes were often very large and were based on an availability of buildings and clergy as much as on the needs of their people. The Bishop was miles away in Northampton, and most likely these remote places were left to their own devices. But this would change, and in the modern era this place became a chapel of ease to the Catholic parish church of St Joseph, Hadleigh, and was served from the modern church there, as was another chapel at Nayland. I am sure that some people in the parish still headed out to beautiful Withermarsh Green by choice as much as out of necessity.

In East Anglia, Catholic Mass attendance is generally booming, and nowhere in the diocese is there a church which is foundering for lack of communicants. However, in common with the rest of western Europe, the number of priests available to preside at Mass is in decline. The reasons for this are various, a lack of confidence in encouraging vocations, difficulties with priestly celibacy, the way in which the flourishing Church outside of Europe absorbs the former surplus of priests there, and so on. The Dioceses of England and Wales have dealt with this problem in different ways, not all of them popular with the ordinary lay Catholics.

In the first years of the 21st Century, the then-Bishop of East Anglia decided that, wherever possible, mass stations within parishes should close, and the people should be encouraged to attend the parish church itself. The idea was that the parish would have more sense of itself as a community, rather than being fragmented. In addition, the parish priest could then concentrate on serving his people in one place, without the need to spend most of Sunday driving around the countryside. And so it was decided to close Withermarsh Green church. But of course there was nothing organic about the Catholic parishes of East Anglia. They had been created as expedient measures in the mid-19th Century in response to the availability of buildings, priests and the numbers of local Catholics at the time. There was no reason why Withermarsh Green should not equally think of itself as a community as, say, Hadleigh.

Be that as it may, the church was closed, and it was put up for sale. At one time it looked as if it was in real danger of being converted into a private residence as happened at Nayland, but fortunately it was bought by the Fenwick family of Higham. It remains a consecrated Catholic church. Even more pleasingly, the Fenwicks allow the church to be used by the Latin Mass chaplaincy set up by the current Bishop of East Anglia, and the Mass is celebrated here in Latin every day, which must be a moving experience out here in the remote, ancient landscape above the Dedham Vale.

Simon Knott, October 2020

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looking east sanctuary
side altar side altar gallery
font looking west sacristy doorway

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