At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Woolpit

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Woolpit is perhaps the most perfect of all Suffolk villages. Not particularly sleepy, and only a little chocolate boxy, but somewhere that people actually live. Its shops, museum and pub are arranged around the pleasant village square, and Phipson's crazy spire of St Mary's church rises above them. Woolpit still has its school, and you wouldn't need to get in the car every time you needed to go shopping like you would in some of Suffolk's more famously picturesque villages. And then there is the Woolpit of myth, of the two green children who climbed out of the ground, speaking a strange language and afraid of the sunlight. The boy died soon after, but the girl grew up and married. She learned to speak English, and told stories of St Martin's Land from where she and her brother had emerged. There are holes in the ground around Woolpit, quarries where bricks were made in the 19th Century. But perhaps there was once something much older, for as every local schoolchild knows, the name 'Woolpit' is nothing to do with wool, but with the wolves which once haunted the pits here...

Your first sight of St Mary will be diocesan surveyor Richard Phipson's 1870s spire, visible from miles away, and quite unlike anything else in East Anglia. Suffolk is a county where spires are rare enough anyway. From the far side of the Gipping valley you can see this one and two others, piercing the soft harvest mist in autumn. They are Phipson's equally absurd spire at Great Finborough, and then the 1990s blade of St Peter and St Mary, Stowmarket. There are only about a dozen more church spires in the whole of the county. The excuse for this one was that the tower had been struck by lightning in 1852, bringing down the previous lead and timber affair (presumably similar to the one at Hadleigh).

In the 1950s and 1960s the artist John Piper produced a series of screen prints of views of Suffolk churches. For most he used the fine perpendicular tower, typical of the county, ramifying it in bold Festival of Britain primary colours. But for Woolpit he chose the porch, because it is Suffolk's finest. Cautley thought it was the best in all England. As with the contemporary porch at Beccles, it rises way above the south aisle, and is tower-like in itself.

Wills of the 15th and 16th Centuries found by Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton give a fairly clear idea of the sequence of construction of the building. Ralph Howden, clerk in 1420 left 12d to the building of the nave, and then ten years later John Brumpton, the rector, asked in his will to be buried in the chancel and left 5 marks to the building of the porch, thus indicating that by this date the nave, chancel and south aisle must have been pretty well complete. Thereafter a succession of wills bequeathed money to the building of the porch until 1462, at which date John Skeppere the Elder left 13s 4d (which is to say two nobles) to the emendation of the said church on the north side, which is to say the construction of a north aisle. Work on the porch had perhaps been completed by 1474 when the rector John Lynton left the remarkably large amount of 20 for five statues to fill the niches. The last mention of the north aisle is in 1500, when John Cooke's somewhat convoluted will stated that I bequeth toward the makyng of the northe eele of the church of Wulpet x marcs under this condicion if WIlliam Abrey of Wulpett make the foresaid eele with inne the space of ii years after the date of this my will or ellys the said x marcs to be at the disposicon of myne executors. Whether or not the aisle was made within the space of two years can't be known, but there are no further bequests to it, and it is certainly there today.

You step into a cool expanse of clear light thanks to the lack of coloured glass in the nave. There is a feeling of gravitas, of dark wood, tiles and stone. And resist for as long as you might, at last you look up. It is breathtaking. This is Suffolk's most perfectly restored angel hammerbeam roof. It may not have the drama of Mildenhall, the exquisiteness of Blythburgh, the sheer mathematics of Needham Market, but it shows us in detail more than any other church roof in the Kingdom what the medieval imagination was aiming at. From the still, small silence of the church floor below, you look up into a great shout of praise. Here are hundreds of figures, both angelic and human. The profusion is ordered, as if some mighty hymn were in progress, for roofs like this shout as loud as the Te Deum Laudamus: We praise thee, O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord... To thee all Angels cry aloud, the Heavens, and all the Powers therein. To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry Holy Holy Holy Lord God of Sabaoth... The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee, the goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee, the noble army of Martyrs praise thee...

The wall posts contain saints and prophets, some with symbols, some with books, and some with martyr's palms. There are angels on the wallposts and hammerbeams above, and angels bearing symbols below. John Blatchly counted 128 angels altogether. Some of the shields have letters on them. Are they an acrostic, as on the east chancel wall at Blythburgh? Do they represent the names of the saints? The great Henry Ringham completely restored this roof in the 1840s, and the angels are his, but Mortlock thought that the angel in the south-west corner of the nave was not his, but is the surviving original from which he worked. This seems likely, and we might assume that many other damaged angels were removed to allow for their replacements based on this one. Ringham's workshop in St John's Road, Ipswich employed fifty men, but even so this great church must have kept them busy for a good while.

a flight of angels angel with the symbol of St John (Henry Ringham, 1860s) angels in the architecture (15th/19th Centuries)
angels angels roof
angel roof Blessed Virgin and angel St Bartholomew and angel roof
prophet and angel angels St Bartholomew and angel

Ringham's restoration was of a roof which at some point had been badly damaged, its imagery largely excised. One instinctively thinks of the iconoclast William Dowsing, the puritan inspector of the churches of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, who progressed through many of the churches of the two counties during the course of 1644 ensuring that 'superstitious' imagery was removed. Angel roofs were one of his particular targets, not least because many of them had escaped the attentions of the protestant reformers of a century earlier, probably because they were inconvenient to deal with being so high up. Dowsing didn't visit Woolpit church in person, but his deputy did, and this was probably Thomas Denny. He arrived here on the afternoon of February 29th 1644. It was a Thursday, and the pair may have come together across country from Helmingham, where they had found much to do. Dowsing planned to visit Beyton church that day, but in the end stayed overnight at the Bull hotel where he may have written up his deputy's account of the visit to Woolpit, before inspecting All Saints, Beyton in the morning. He then rested for the weekend, probably in Bury St Edmunds. The following week he had a busy tour of southern Cambridgeshire ahead of him.

Dowsing records in great detail in his journal what was done, and what needed to be done, at each church. In the case of Woolpit, the angel roof is 'the dog that didn't bark' in what is a surprisingly brief entry for such a large church. Dowsing writes: My deputy. 80 superstitious pictures; some he brake down, and the rest he gave order to take down; and three crosses to be taken down in 20 days. 8s 6d. The 8s 6d was a noble, and this was Dowsing's charge for his advice. It's worth remembering that most churchwardens and ministers would have been supportive of Dowsing and the puritan project. Sometimes Dowsing waived the charge if he felt an honest effort had been made before his arrival, but either he or his deputy did not apparently think that this was the case at Woolpit. In any case, the charge was worth paying to avoid the fine of 20s for non-compliance, and it is likely that many churchwardens, and perhaps even some ministers, would not have been theologically articulate enough to be sure of what they needed to do. The superstitious pictures that Dowsing mentions were in stained glass and had probably survived the Reformation of a century earlier. The crosses were most likely on the outside of the building, and that there were three suggests that they were gable crosses on nave, chancel and porch.

And yet, he doesn't mention the roof. Given that it would have been cause for considerable offence, there are only two possible reasons. Either his deputy didn't notice it, or the angels had already been vandalised. This second option seems more likely. Mid-Suffolk was a strongly protestant area, and nearby Rougham church, which seems to have had a similar roof, was not visited by Dowsing, but its roof was vandalised even more comprehensively than the roof at Woolpit. Dowsing appears to have not bothered to visit any churches where he knew action was likely to have been taken, and these would have mostly been churches with ministers supportive of the puritan cause. Most likely, the destruction at both churches dated from a hundred years earlier than Dowsing's visit, although it is not impossible that the Rougham and Woolpit congregations had been puritan enough in the 1630s to do it to their own churches themselves. It may well be that Dowsing only directed his deputy to visit Woolpit because it happened to be on their journey from Helmingham towards Beyton.

Beneath the roof, the church is broad, its two aisles giving room for the panoply of medieval liturgical processions. The plain, simple font is the early 20th Century work of Ninian Comper, which might suggest that the old font was damaged by the fall of the spire fifty years earlier, and they'd decided to replace a 19th Century font with something more appropriate. At the east end of the south aisle was once the shrine of Our Lady of Woolpit, Suffolk's most important site of medieval pilgrimage after the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace at Ipswich. But it is the range of benches in the nave that capture a visitor's attention now. The bench ends of Woolpit are remarkable for their abundance, and also for the fact that they are largely not representations of sacraments, virtues and vices as at Tannington and elsewhere, or of Saints as at Ufford and Athelington, or indeed of mythical beasts at so many East Anglian churches. They are almost all non-allegorical animals. Some are 15th Century, others are 19th Century copies. Perhaps a good comparison is with the similar, albeit restored, body of work at nearby Combs. Indeed, although they do not appear to be from the same workshop, it is likely that their creators knew of each others' work. There are dogs with geese hanging from their mouths, and another which may be a cat with a rat or lizard. There are lions and bears, and a chained monkey, and birds in profusion.

unhappy collared beast (15th Century) monkey in a cowl (grinding a hurdy-gurdy?), 15th Century cat with a rat (15th Century) lion (Henry Ringham, 1860s)
startled stag (15th century, restored) gloomy dog (19th Century) dog with a rat (15th Century) puzzled cowled ape with a butter churn? (15th Century)
collared dog dog with a goose (15th Century) dog with a goose (Henry Ringham, 1860s) lion

So who made them, and why are they here? There is one school of thought that says that they are simply there to beautify the church, and that they were made by local craftsmen doing what they were best at. If they could do lions, they did lions. If they could render a decent rabbit, then that is what they did. And so on.

But perhaps there is more to it than that. Many years ago, shortly before a visit to Woolpit, I had spent an afternoon in one of my favourite towns, Autun, in Burgundy. One of the reasons I like Autun is its 11th century Cathedral of St-Lazaire: this is Lazarus, raised by Christ from the dead, and until the 18th Century his relics were venerated at the shrine there. St-Lazaire is most famous for its tympanum above the west door, generally recognised as one of the greatest Romanesque art treasures in the world, and with International Heritage status. It was created during the middle years of the 12th Century, and shows the Last Judgement. To emphasise Christ's majesty over all the world it features all manner of beasts, domestic, wild and mythical. Throughout the Cathedral, animals wander and wind around the famous capitals, which tell the Gospel story. Abbe Denis Grivot, in his Un Bestiaire de la Cathedrale D'Autun (Lyon, 1973) argues that the 12th Century creators of all this work filled it with animals to echo the final verse of the 150th Psalm, the crowning point of that great sequence of hymns of praise: Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!

Looking up into the roof at Woolpit I was reminded of this, and of words of the Te Deum Laudamus. The Te Deum is one of the canticles, and another is the Benedicite, traditionally sung through Lent: Oh all ye Works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord; praise him and magnify him for ever... O ye whales, and all that move in the Waters, bless ye the Lord... O all ye Fowls of the air, bless ye the Lord... O all ye beasts and Cattle, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever! Could it be that the angel roof and bench ends at Woolpit, and elsewhere in East Anglia, were intended to reflect and represent the praise declared in the canticles and psalms? Both would have been central to the liturgy of the medieval Catholic church. Perhaps the bench ends of Woolpit are liturgical and theological after all.

How would a carpenter, or group of carpenters, go about creating a set of benches like the ones at Woolpit? Who were they? Almost certainly, they were locals. They might have been itinerant jobbing carpenters, but I don't think so. The bench ends at adjacent Tostock are clearly by the same hand. But those at nearby Stowlangtoft and Norton are not, and a third hand seems to be responsible for those at Combs, as I previously mentioned. I do not think that the mutilated ones at Rougham and Elmswell are by the Woolpit carvers either, and they were probably from the same workshop as each other. So, perhaps what we are seeing is a conscious attempt by skilled members of a community to create in their church a hymn of praise in carved oak, by representing as many beasts as they felt capable of making. Where did they get their ideas from? They would have had no problems with oxen, cocks, conies - these were all around them, in their daily lives. The person who carved the hunting dog here was very familiar with it. Perhaps it was his own. What about monkeys and lions? These are more problematic. In medieval bestiaries, exotic creatures had fabulous legends attached to them, which gave them a theological symbolism. But this symbolism doesn't usually seem intended when we see them on bench ends. Sometimes wild animals are rendered accurately, but more often they are creatures of the imagination. Think of Barningham's camel, Dennington's giraffe, Denston's elephant. It isn't enough to say that the carvers could have seen pictures of exotic beasts. This is fairly unlikely. Probably, the ordinary people of Woolpit never saw a book other than the missals, lectionaries and hagiographies used in church.

They might have seen pictures of lions and monkeys in wall paintings, either in other churches or here at Woolpit. They might have seen them carved in bench ends elsewhere, for the same reason. In fact, the representation of wild animals varies so much as to suggest that this is not the case - compare, for example, the lions of Combs with those of Stowlangtoft. Probably, they were created in the imagination from descriptions and attributes in stories. But I think that there is a strong possibility that the woodcarvers of Woolpit did see lions and monkeys in real life.

Even today, in more remote parts of Europe there are still villages which, by virtue of being so very far from each other, take on a rich and complex life of their own. Even smaller villages may have their shops, their craftsmen, their tradespeople. They replicate a situation that must have existed in Suffolk until well into the 19th Century, and in some cases beyond, before the great industrialisation swept it all away. Further, there are traditions which survive in such places that we have lost. Even today, itinerant entertainers move from village to village, giving a single performance before moving on. This must also once have been true of England. And perhaps most fascinating of all are the small family circuses and travelling menageries. Mostly they seem to be of Italian or Romany origin. They put up their tent immediately before the performance, and take it down straight away afterwards. The caged animals are coupled up to cars and vans, and they move on, through the remote hills of Provence and Ruthenia, of Galicia and Transylvania, performing and displaying on village greens, waste grounds, the corners of fields, even traffic islands.

I do not know if such travelling circuses and menageries existed in medieval Suffolk. But I think that they probably did. Suffolk is a maritime county, and exotic animals were widely known and exhibited in medieval Europe. Before the Protestant Reformation cut us of from the mainland, clerics and merchants thought of themselves as European, and travelled widely - English sovereignty was a hazy concept at best, and 'Britishness' was still centuries away from being formulated as an idea. People owed allegiance to their husband or wife, their village, their parish, and their lord, not to the Crown and Parliament in London.

Were the woodcarvers of Woolpit and Tostock remembering this? A circus visit, perhaps back in their childhood? Exotic animals rendered inaccurately, to be sure, but with an enthusiastic nostalgia for that exciting moment in their lives? Was there a lion? A monkey, or a bear? How much more powerful if they also knew the fabulous legends about the beasts - and had seen them in real life! Having said that, some of the carvings at Woolpit clearly are allegorical. One shows a monkey dressed in monk's robes. This, I think, is a joke at the expense of the itinerant friars who went from parish to parish, preaching repentance in the streets. They were sanctioned by the Pope, but were beyond the jurisdiction of the local bishop. They didn't always go down well with the local priest and congregation, who considered the friars to be nosey and hypocritical. A monkey was a symbol of foolish vanity - hence, a friar thinking he was better than anyone else. What better way to make the point than to slip him in as one of the creatures praising the Lord?

How did they survive? But why should they have been destroyed? We make the mistake of thinking of the Puritans as vandals. But the more you read about William Dowsing, the more he emerges as being a principled, conservative kind of chap, despite his fundamentalist theological opinions. He had no reason to destroy animal bench ends. They weren't superstitious - even Dowsing didn't think Catholics worshipped animals. If he didn't know they were meant to represent the canticles, he wouldn't even have considered them religious. Amen to that.

So much for the 17th Century. What about the 19th? St Mary is one of the more enthusiastically restored of Suffolk's larger churches, but it was generally done well. Mortlock thought that the 19th Century pulpit was also the work of Ringham, though Pevsner attributes it to George Gilbert Scott's workshop. The brass lectern is pre-Reformation, a fine example. The rood screen dado panels have sentimental 19th Century Saints on them, that may or may not replicate what was there before. They have their names painted on the base for the less hagiologically articulate Victorian worshipper. From left to right across the aisle they are St Barbara, St Felix, St Mary Magdalene, St Peter, St Paul, Blessed Virgin Mary, St Edmund and St Etheldreda. It is unlikely that St Felix would have been on the medieval roodscreen, and the Blessed Virgin almost certainly wasn't, for it would have relegated her to a position of no more importance than the others. If it reflects anything of what was there before, it was probably St Anne with the infant Virgin.

north screen figures: St Withburga, St Felix, St Mary Magdalene, St Peter (19th Century) south screen figures: St Paul, Blessed Virgin and child, St Edmund and St Etheldreda (19th Century)

The top part of the screen was renewed in 1750, and it is dated so. The gates are probably a Laudian addition of 120 years earlier, as at Kedington. This may suggest that, by the time of Dowsing's deputy's visit, the chancel was being used for some other practical purpose. Above, high above, set in the east nave wall over the chancel arch, is one of the weirdest objects I've ever seen in a medieval church. It was installed in the 1870s, and is clearly meant to echo the coving of a rood loft. Goodness knows what it actually is, but it is painted in garish colours, and inscribed with texts. In one of those moments where Cautley and credibility briefly part company, he describes anyone who doesn't think it is a genuine medieval canopy of honour as 'stupid'. I suppose that it has a certain curiosity value.The three-light window above it would have given light to the rood.

All the coloured glass in the church is in the chancel. The Blessed Virgin and child in the east window was by Ian Keen for the King workshop in the early 1960s, who rearranged the 19th Century glass around it. The shields and the roundels successfully echo a few 15th Century angel survivals in the upper lights set among later replacements. Other 15th Century survivals in the chancel include a running stag and a sleeping dragon, and a series of saints who might well be the early 19th Century work of the Lowestoft painter Samuel Yarrington.

One of the stalls in the chancel has a late medieval finial depicting the three Marys. The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Salome and Mary Magdalene huddle together, perhaps on the morning of the Resurrection. The Blessed Virgin holds a lily of the Annunciation. This is a delight, and you'd travel to London to see it if it was in the V&A. One head is destroyed - but was it vandalised? Or is it more likely the result of carelessness, the wear and tear of the centuries? Dowsing rarely mentions seeming any bench ends, and it seems likely that any medieval benches which had survived the attention of the protestant reformers of a century earlier would have been boxed in by the 17th Century, for the sake of fashion as much as for anything else. But how could it possibly have survived the violent zeal of those 16th Century Protestants, battering the Church of England into existence with their axes, pikes and bonfires? How, even after the edicts of the 1530s and 1540s which ordered the destruction of all statues and images of saints, especially those of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is it still there at all? What a fascinating place a medieval church is!


Simon Knott, April 2021

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looking east sanctuary looking east
1750 east window tracery: angels and evangelisticic symbols (15th/19th Centuries) sanctuary
fragments: stag and dragon (15th Century) green man Magnificat (ian Keen, 1960s) stag
Three Marys (15th Century) screen tracery (15th/18th Centuries) lectern
St Andrew and St Matthew wicket gate St Roche and St Paul
on his passage to New Zealand was taken to the haven where he would be (1859)


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