At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Yaxley

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Yaxley giant with a scimitar faces a wolf and a cockatrice woodwose, wild man of the woods, faces a  lion

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    Yaxley is a fairly large village in north Suffolk. not far from Eye, but separated from it by the main Ipswich to Norwich road. Its church sits in the centre of the village. The tower is the oldest part as we see it today, dating from the 14th Century, and then the church was rebuilt to the east of it. By 1459, John Herberd was asking in his will to be buried in the north porch of the church of Yaxley... with a stone upon grave, the rest of the whole of the porch to be paved at my expense, and so the nave was presumably complete by this date. If there was ever an intention to build a north aisle, it would not happen now. But the porch is splendid, a typical two-storey Suffolk porch with flushwork and sacred monograms above the spandrels, in one of which a lichenous woodwose with a club faces off a lion. In the other, a bearded moor with a scimitar confronts what appears to be a wyvern, although the creature's head looks like that of a wolf. The nave behind it is tall, and short in proportion, and without an aisle and clerestory on this side, the church appears fortress-like. The south side is gentler, with a smaller early 19th Century porch now converted into a vestry. The chancel was pretty much rebuilt during Edward Blackburn's enthusiastic restoration of 1868.

You enter through the north porch, under a vaulted ceiling with a large central boss, perhaps of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, although not much remains. It has had an electric light fitting punched through it at some point. Into the church beyond, and immediately there is the expected sense of height, the south aisle seeming low beyond. Turning east, the chancel arch seems disproportionately small, because before the chancel was rebuilt it was much lower. The screen gives some idea of this, although as James Bettley notes in his 2015 revision of the Buildings of England volume for West Suffolk, the tympanum that filled the space above it was removed by Blackburne when he rebuilt the chancel. He also removed the gates, more commonly a feature of Norfolk screens than of Suffolk ones, though of course we are only a couple of miles from the border. Because of the narrowness of the chancel arch, there are just eight painted panels, four on each side.

Yaxley screen south side (St Catherine in panel 4) St Mary Magdalene and St Barbara (Yaxley screen south side) St Dorothy and St Ceciia (Yaxley screen south side)

All of the saints are female. Those on the north side are mostly lost to us, although the figure in the fourth panel was obviously St Catherine with her sword, standing beside an enormous wheel. Those on the south side have survived, although their faces were, as usual, scratched out in response to the injunctions against images of the mid-16th Century, probably by the parishioners themselves. The spandrels above the panels are robustly carved with foliage shapes. Above the screen, above the chancel, the wall is punctuated by a three light window which would once have backlit the rood, but which now only looks into the chancel roof. The doom painting uncovered by Blackburne has now pretty much faded from sight, although the devils gleefully pushing sinners into hell can still be made out.

However, there is still a puzzle here. Two wooden stumps emerge from the north and south walls. They are roughly at the level of the bottom of the window, and so presumably they are all that is left of the beam that supported the rood. And yet, it would have run in front of the doom painting. Even more curious, the upper rood loft stairway exit survives in the north wall, and is roughly level with the top of the screen, slightly lower if anything. This means there must have been an enormous distance, fifteen feet or more, between the rood loft and the rood beam. I suppose one possibility is that we are seeing the remains of two different rood structures, an older one and its later replacement. Beyond the screen, the east window has a collection of fragmentary medieval glass. It was installed here in 1886 for the Reverend William Sewell, who is remembered by Jones & Willis's 1900 'Light of the World' glass on the north side by the pulpit. The focus is on an exquisite fragment depicting Mary's hand supporting the head of the dead Christ. There are fragments of angels and composite figures including angel musicians and St John.

composite St John Mary's hand supporting the head of the dead Christ (15th Century) composite angel musician (15th Century)
composite figure with a scroll organised fragments of old glass St Peter composite angel musician
composite figure with a book composite figure with a book composite St John composite angel musician composite St Andrew
Mary king peeping over a portcullis exaltabit caput

The pulpit itself is memorable, elaborately carved and set proudly under its tester. It's dated 1635, with the churchwardens' initials, and the height of the nave gives it freedom to tower over the church. To the south of it is the brass memorial to Andrew Felgate. HIs inscription reads Hic jacet Andreas Filius Johanis Felgate nuper de Stoneham Aspoll generosus qui obiit 8 die Maii Anno Domini 1598. Et Margareta filia eius unica nuper uxor Roberti Felgate qui obit in puero parto 17 de septembr anno domini 1596. This translates as 'Here lie Andrew, son of John Felgate, late of Stonham Aspall, knight, who died on the 8th of May 1598. And Margaret his only daughter, late wife of Robert Felgate, who died in child birth 17th September 1596.' However, there is only one figure, and there is no inlay where another might once have been set. Another even earlier survival is set over the former south doorway. This is a Sexton's wheel. It's one of just two in East Anglia, the other being a few miles off at Long Stratton over the Norfolk border. It was a means of calculating which of the six Marian feast days would begin a year long one-day-a-week fast for a penitent. Six threads hang from the wheel, and when it was spun, the one that hung downwards was the chosen feast.

A name strongly associated with Yaxley is that of the dance choreographer Frederick Ashton. He first signed the visitors book here on the 2nd May 1939, when he was here with his sister Edith Richards for their mother's funeral. His mother's maiden name, Fulcher, has been added in brackets after his name, apparently by his sister who signed immediately below him. They gave a London address. Their mother Charlotte had been born in Yaxley. She had married a widower, George Ashton, at the British Consulate, Quito, Ecuador in 1895 and they had five children, all of whom were born in Ecuador. Frederick was the youngest son, and Edith the only daughter and youngest child.

However, in 1922 Frederick and Edith's father George committed suicide. Charlotte returned to England with her two youngest children. They lived at 24 Wharton Street, London the address given by Edith and Frederick in the Yaxley visitors book. Edith Ashton married a Trevor Richards in 1932, but they were soon separated and later divorced. She went back to living with her mother and her brother in the Wharton Street house. Edith died in the house in 1939, and was buried at Yaxley. I find it moving that Edith felt it important to add their mother's maiden name after that of her brother. Frederick Ashton was already famous by 1939, but Yaxley locals would have more readily recognised the Fulcher surname.

After the war, Edith would marry twice more. Frederick, despite several affairs with women, would eventually settle down with his long-term partner Martyn Thomas. Over the years Frederick Ashton's name appears several more times in the visitors book, as he was perhaps visiting his mother's grave. In later life he moved to Yaxley himself, where he died in 1988. The architect Sir Basil Spence was a near neighbour. Ashton is buried in the churchyard, and Edith, who died in 1990, is buried beside him.


Simon Knott, December 2023

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looking east sanctuary chancel
font Andrew Felgate, 1596 Andrew Felgate, 1596 pulpit, screen and lectern
Christ the Light of the World lady altar Yaxley Sunday School AD 1903
1786 pray for the soul of John Yaxley, 1505 Yaxley Church 1863
angel with a hautbois sexton's wheel angel with a harp

May 2nd 1939 - the choreographer Frederick Ashton Frederick Ashton 1904-88


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