Friday, 26 November 2010

Withersfield, Suffolk

It is likely there was already a stone church here by the thirteenth century, as a rectory is documented in 1254. Moreover, the iron ring handle on the south door has been dated to that time. Over the years the original building of chancel and nave, to which a side chapel on the south was added, has been altered and extended to suit the religious needs of the parishioners. The building we see now is largely of the late fifteenth century, consisting of nave and tower, constructed when East Anglia was a prosperous centre of the wool trade. The north aisle was added at the end of the fifteenth or beginning of the sixteenth century.

Later in the sixteenth century the building underwent changes when the church had to conform from Catholic to Protestant practice. The walls were white-washed, and the screen lost its loft. The remaining stained glass, paintings and statues were destroyed when William Dowsing, a commissioner during the Commonwealth, ordered their destruction. He reported in his diary that on a visit to Withersfield on January 6th 1643, "we brake down a crucifix and sixty superstitious pictures and gave orders for the levelling the steps in the chancel".

This was followed by a period of partial neglect, perhaps because in the following centuries there was no squire living in the village. But by the nineteenth century this was changing. In 1867, when there was a squireson (a parson who was also the squire), the church was extensively remodelled, and a more regular plan was created by constructing the south aisle and porch, and rebuilding the chancel appropriate for the Church of England liturgy. Essentially this is how it remains today.

The first item you will notice as you enter the church is the octagonal font. Here the children of the parish have been baptised into the Christian community since Tudor times. It is probably late sixteenth century, with its eight panels carved with pointed quatrefoils or imitation shields-of-arms (though one possibly Alington). It is large enough to immerse a baby, and you can just detect where a locking bar was once fixed to secure a cover.

Standing in the centre gangway facing the chancel, you see on your left the north arcade with its quatrefoil piers (columns) and double hollow-chamfered pointed arches: the stone is the white clunch from Cambridgeshire. Behind you, at the west end, are an extremely high arch into the tower, and beyond, a tall Perpendicular window, which with the clerestory windows of the upper nave, creates this light interior.

There is just one window, high up in the clerestory at the east end of the north side, which still has its pre-Reformation stained glass, the only glass ‘picture’ left by Dowsing. This depicts the sign of the Trinity, and perhaps it was endowed by the Gild of the Holy Trinity, the medieval gild of this village.

High above is the dark roughly hewn oak roof of alternating tie-beams with pierced braces, and false hammer-beams. These must once have held carved wooden angels, as there are still fragments of two remaining. One stone corbel has a carved head, but the details do not indicate who he was. Were there others which have been destroyed?

St Mary the Virgin is known for its lively carved bench ends or poppyheads, on the south side of the nave. Comparison with those in St Andrew’s Isleham, which are similar in style and are dated 1452, may indicate these were made in the late 1450s. Several have holes in the top to take rush lights or candles, made when the benches themselves were altered later to make them more comfortable and draught proof when sermons were habitually long. Starting from the west end, they show:

St Michael weighing a soul (a tiny naked figure). He wears a feathered garment, which is exactly the costume ‘St Michael’ would wear in the Mystery plays of the time. On one side of his scale is a ‘soul’, kneeling and praying with a rosary, the attribute (emblem) of St Dominic. We understand that it is his help that weighs down the scale to her advantage in spite of the devilish figures who try to upset the balance.

Following this, two animals, possibly puppies, or even dragons (see the easternmost poppyhead), apparently fighting among vines. This might be taken as a warning against the consequences of

Next but one, a youth holding the shield of St George. The red cross on a white ground is the Banner of the Resurrection, the Christian symbol of Victory over Death.

Next but one, a ‘Pelican in its Piety’ with four chicks in a nest. It was believed that the pelican pecked at its own breast to feed its young with its blood. It symbolised Christ shedding his own blood for mankind. The leaves and fruits of the plants on which the nest rests are particularly finely carved.

Then, a collared and chained Swan. This is the badge of Henry V, subsequently used by his successor. This poppyhead must have been carved when there was a Lancastrian king on the throne, probably Henry VI, and signify loyalty to him.

Next, a Mermaid. She would originally have held a mirror. These creatures symbolised the lusts of the flesh, and the Church used them to turn people away from temptation and consequent disaster.

At the easternmost end, St. George and the Dragon. This saint represents the fight and subsequent victory of good over evil. Here he is attired as for a joust, with a lance and jousting shield. Perhaps the sculptor had not seen a soldier armed for war, but only a participant in this sport. The horse’s harness and the saint’s armour are shown in careful detail. The dragon is particularly large and repulsive.

On the floor in front of the chancel step, is a small memorial brass to Joanna Argell, née Bury, with her heraldic device. She died in 1579. It reads:

Joannae quondam Bury claris parent? orate nupt
Uxori Palu: Argall cmi Lond ar quivu 18 annos
Et amplius feliciter vixerat aetat suae an’ dm 1579 placide in xpo
Dormien: pientiss marit’ppetui amoris sui pign.

(To Joanna formerly Bury descended from famous parents lately wife of Paul Argall of the county of London esquire with whom she had lived happily for 18 years and more, falling peacefully asleep in Christ on the 6th day of the month of January in the year of our Lord 1579. Her most devoted husband set up this pledge of his undying love.)

To your right is the site of a fourteenth century chantry chapel, with its space marked out on the floor by paving bricks. The east window, smaller and lower than the others in the church, has Decorated tracery. On the east wall is a blocked doorway which would have given access to a demolished stairway to the rood loft.

On the floor is the black marble memorial slab for Sir John Jacob who died in 1740. Sir John, the colonel of a regiment in the Duke of Marlborough’s army, was executor to his cousin, the last Lord Alington, Lord of the Manor of Withersfield, whose seat was in Horseheath. He built West Wratting Hall with a legacy from Lord Alington. After the abolition of chantries by Edward V1, the local Lords of the Manor came to regard these chapels as their personal spaces. Probably Lord Alington himself is buried in the same vault.

The chancel screen must once have been one of the finest fifteenth or early sixteenth century screens, for it is very delicately carved and has a wealth of detail, some minute. Prominent on the tracery of the lower panels are Tudor roses. Unfortunately it has suffered badly over the years. What is unusual is that the gates with the screen, have survived. Screens were taken down in Edward VI’s reign, brought back under Mary, and had their roods, the cross with the crucified Christ, and lofts removed under Elizabeth 1. Further, the floor level of the chancel was raised in the nineteenth century. This may account for the way the screen seems to fit so badly into the arch.

At some time statues were removed. In the late seventeenth century, since it now looked denuded, baroque carvings of cherubs and classical corn husk drops were affixed. Finally it was painted in the 1867 restoration in what were believed to be medieval colours and patterns, though these may not be correct. If you look very closely at the panels on the west (nave) side of the screen, you will see in the spandrels, heads in hats, birds and animals, wild boars for example. On the cusps of tracery are even tinier creatures, owls and lions’ heads among them. On the east (chancel) side which is not damaged, are pairs of creatures in the upper spandrels, fishes, birds and animals among them.

On the north wall of the north aisle near the altar is a small brass plaque. Written in an abbreviated form of Latin, (rather like a text message), it reads:

Orate pro animabus Roberti Wyburgh et bene
factorum suorum qui istam ylam fieri fecerunt

(Pray for the souls of Robert Wyburgh and his benefactors who had this aisle made).

Robert Wyburgh’s will of 1497 left £40, a very large sum then, for the fabric of the church, and requests a chantry be made for him, so the aisle is likely to have been built as his chantry chapel. This would date it to about 1500. Possibly some of his legacy was also used for building the south doorway, and the rood screen. He also left money to many other local churches. He may have been a maltster, as he leaves bequests of malt to the poor and others. He also leaves his rights to farm ‘strips’ in various fields in Withersfield.

The aisle’s roof has pale oak woodwork which is carved and moulded, and there are carved bosses, which include a Tudor rose, dating the roof to post 1485, the heraldic mullet of the de Vere family, a phoenix and a grotesque face of a man with his tongue out.

On the Victorian south door is the oldest artefact belonging to the church. It is the iron ring handle with a circular pierced back plate, and is thirteenth century. Two salamanders, which were believed to survive fire and so would protect a building, are riveted to the oval handle, while on the ring at the end of the shank is a tiny bird. This could be a dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit.

When the south aisle was erected in 1867, both its south and east elevation and the south clerestory with their battlemented tops, the whole of the chancel and vestry, and the porch, were refaced to give the unified appearance that is seen now from the south. A variety of stones and knapped flints from various sources were used. In contrast, the fifteenth century tower is built with a mixture of locally collected field stones with limestone dressings. The north aisle walls are covered with rendering. These walls were in trouble by the eighteenth century, and brick buttresses were added to shore it up, giving it its haphazard appearance. The square 15th century tower has diagonal buttresses and a castellated parapet, and there is a large yawning gargoyle as a waterspout on the south side. On the south-east corner is a castellated stair turret which rises above the parapet, a feature seen in several local churches.

ST MARY. Perp, except for the S chapel, which is Dec but rebuilt. Chancel rebuilt and S aisle added in 1867. W tower with higher SE stair-turret, S doorway with Perp decoration. The N aisle was built by Robert Wyburgh c. 1480 (see the brass inscription). But in the roof the mullet of the de Veres also appears (cf. Lavenham). Arcade of four bays, quatrefoil piers, double-hollow-chamfered arches. This is Perp. The former Dec arcade is perhaps represented by the Stoup, which seems to be a re-used respond. - FONT. Octagonal, probably C17. Decoration with shields and pointed quatrefoils. - SCREEN. Good; repainted. Two-light divisions with (re-made?) pendants instead of intermediate mullions. Trefoiled ogee arches and tracery above them. - PULPIT. Jacobean. - BENCHES. Some straight-headed with buttresses, others with figured poppy-heads: St George and the Dragon, St Michael weighing souls, two puppies coming up from the foliage, angel with shield, two birds on a leaf, etc. - (RING HANDLE of the S door, of two Salamanders. LG) - PLATE. Cup and Paten 1701.

St Mary the Virgin (2)

Chancel Screen

Poppyhead (9)

North Aisle Boss

WITHERSFIELD. Those who look inside its church will be delighted by the sight of some fine old woodwork. The benches have poppyheads with fruit and foliage and such figures as George spearing the dragon and St Michael weighing souls. The 15th century screen has ornate tracery with chubby-faced heads hanging down, and boldly carved on it are birds and fish and dragons. The beautiful pulpit is Jacobean, delicately ornamented with round arches. The embattled tower, the clerestoried nave, and the tall chancel arch are all 500 years old, and so is the north aisle, which has still a brass inscription to Robert Wyburgh who built it. Over it is a fine roof with an embattled cornice, and with bosses which include a grotesque head and a pelican plucking her breast. On the door of the church is an iron handle with two salamanders.

Flickr set.

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