At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary Magdalene, Withersdale

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Everybody who has written about Withersdale church seems to have liked it. Mortlock called it a dear little church, Simon Jenkins thought it unusually atmospheric, Cautley recommended its unspoilt interior, and Arthur Mee, whatever you may think of his writing, obviously cared for the place, mentioning as he does half a dozen pathetic old benches... which once held an honoured place in God's house and are now a shelter from the sun for a few of God's sheep.

The church sits right beside the busy Halesworth to Harleston road, which perhaps you wouldn't expect from its reputation for being remote and peaceful. You reach the towerless church through an old wooden gate on the north side of the sloping churchyard, passing 18th and 19th Century headstones as you come round to the porch on the south side. As you pass the east end you can see that the church is not entirely constructed from rendered rubble, for the east wall has been partly rebuilt in red brick, and the window frame above is made of wood, a memory of times past and a hint of things to come.

On the occasion of my first visit back at the start of the century I found the south side of the building dappled in late winter sunlight, and I remembered how Arthur Mee had found this church surrounded by elm trees, long gone today but their leaves must also have sent shadows scurrying along this wall. At the eastern end of the roof ridge is a pretty weather-boarded turret, the little porch beneath it on the south side. Although the church is visibly Norman in construction, the turret and porch have a later historical resonance, because the appear to have been the 1690s gift of William Sancroft, who had once been Archbishop of Canterbury. Fressingfield was his native village, and Fressingfield church is a medieval wonder, and it is not too fanciful to imagine that Sancroft made St Mary Magdalene his quiet project.

On a sunny day you step into a cool light suffusing the nave and chancel. You can climb up to the tiny gallery at the west end of the nave to look down on the space below. St Mary Magdalene is a relatively unspoiled prayerbook church, its interior almost entirely of the 17th Century, with some sympathetic Victorian additions. The pulpit is against the north wall as at All Saints South Elmham, partly to break away from the tradition of worship being focused on the east, but also perhaps to take full advantage of the theatrical sunlight from the windows in the south wall. The pulpit is tiny, barely two feet across, and the benches face it, and so do the box pews to south and east. The woodwork is mellow, breathing a calmness into the silence, while the chancel beyond is lovely, a little altar guarded by three-sided rails beneath an elegant east window, on that winter day in 2002 with two brass vases of early pussy willow sweet upon its cloth. The benches are simple, perhaps carved locally, and have candle-pricks set in the top of their bench ends. A surviving interloper in all this prayer book sobriety is the Norman font, carved with a tree of life and a grinning face and set upon a modern brick base.
There is a crisp and elegant confidence to the interior, a lingering sense of the 17th Century English Church which had furnished it. A Church which, despite so many traumas in the previous century and a half, had finally come to represent both the simplicity of the Puritans and the seemliness of the Anglicans, and that was the Elizabethan Settlement fulfilled. This was the Church that William Sancroft inherited after Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth came to an end. Sancroft was made Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London, witnessing its destruction by fire in 1666, and overseeing the beginning of its rebuilding in the classical style, and such a contrast with St Mary Magdalene it must have made that perhaps he sometimes wished he was back here. In 1678 he was made Archbishop of Canterbury. A High Anglican, he crowned the Catholic James II with some misgivings, but he then refused to recognise the Protestant coup of William III in 1689, returning to Suffolk, to Fressingfield and Withersdale, where he died in 1693.

To sit in the silence of the shadowed pews here knowing this is to feel a distant beat, the quiet trick of history turned and played. Think of the certainty that this interior represented, the triumph of the will, of belief over mystery, and how the rationalist, superstitious 18th Century parishioners who worshipped here could not have conceived of the great sacramental fire which would one day flame out of Oxford and lick their Church clean. Even so, the interior that they made their own persists today.


Simon Knott, March 2021

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