Friday, 2 September 2011

Hessett, Suffolk

I love Suffolk churches - or perhaps more correctly south Suffolk churches since those are in my catchment area - they all seem to be big, blowsy and scream wool money (also they often have retained many more original features than their Cambridgeshire neighbours).

St Ethelbert doesn't disappoint with poppyheads, old glass and most of all wallpaintings - notice the 's', there are 5 in all. I've said before that wallpaintings are rare survivors so a church with 5 originals is rare indeed.

1.   Above the South door: This was once thought to be John the Baptist but restoration work in 1997 revealed St Michael. He wears a feather tunic and is weighing a soul in his balance scale. A devil can be seen a short way above, and to the left of the South door arch.

2.   Above the North door: St Christopher carrying the Christ-child through the water. We can see plainly his staff and the fish in the water. The silhouettes of people halfway down are believed to represent the donors.

3.  North aisle: The seven deadly sins. This is the earliest of the wall paintings and may date from 1460. A branched tongue rises from hell with two demons at the bottom. At the top is Pride in all his finery, then Lust (a couple kissing), Anger (with switch and dagger), Sloth (falling asleep on his perch), Envy, Avarice (holding his tightly closed purse) and Gluttony (with a haunch of meat, or possibly a bottle). This painting is particularly well preserved.

4.  Christ of the Trades. This is the rarest of the wall paintings and only a very few survive in Cornwall. Christ cannot be seen but the tools remain. The tools were in use about 1430 and it is possible that the altar nearby in the North aisle was used by local trade guilds. There are 38 symbols with some possible identification of the users: a wooden clog (patten maker); jug (vintner); playing card (card maker); scourge(schoolmaster or constable), musical pipe (musician); awl (shoemaker), shuttle (weaver); flaying knife (skinner); wheel (wright); gridiron (cook); balance with meat (butcher); spokeshave and hatchet (cooper); ball (ball maker); candle (candlemaker); three-pronged fork; hammer and axe (carpenter); spade (gardener), flail (thresher); anchor (mariner); pair of pincers; saw (sawyer); pair of scissors (tailor); basin (potter); two-pronged fork (husbandman); hammer, bellows and tongs (smith); scythe (reaper); pair of shears (wool stapler); trumpet (trumpeter) cord (cordwainer or shoemaker); harquebus rest (soldier); mason’s chisel (mason); sword (knight); sieve; brace bit (armourer). In this painting can be seen a consecration cross, doubtless put here when the restored North aisle was consecrated by a Bishop in the late 15th century.

5.  Above the South aisle piscina: St Barbara holding a model of a tower. She was killed by her pagan father for adding a third window to a tower in honour of the Holy Trinity. She is, therefore, the patron saint of architects. Her father was struck dead by a thunderbolt. For this reason she is also patron saint of the Royal Artillery and others concerned with explosives!

ST ETHELBERT. All Perp, except for the chancel, which is Dec and has one E window with flowing tracery. Attached to the chancel a two-storeyed Vestry with barred windows. The lower room has a small three-light window. The upper room is reached by an original ladder with solid steps. There is a fireplace too. Along the Vestry and part of the N aisle runs a long inscription reading: John Hoo and his wife ‘the qweche hath mad y chapel aewery deyl heyteynd y westry & batylementyd y hole’. So with his money he built the N aisle (or N chapel? see below), heightened the Vestry, and embattled the whole. John Hoo died in 1492. The N aisle indeed has battlements, which are of very pretty openwork stone-carving. The clerestory has the same, though the pattern differs. Three-light windows with transoms. The clerestory has not the double number of windows. The S aisle is similar to the N aisle and has again openwork battlements. Excellent S porch, partly faced with stone, partly with knapped flint. Entrance arch with St George and the Dragon in the spandrels .Three canopied niches. Base decorated with initials and quatrefoils. The buttresses have flushwork emblems. Among the initials the K. B. refers presumably to a member of the Bacon family. John Bacon’s initials appear on the W tower. This has parapet as well as battlements decorated. The arcades inside are typically Perp. A slender shaft to the nave without capital, wide diagonal hollows and shafts to the arch openings with capitals. There are four bays, and in addition the one-bay chapel to the N to which reference has already been made. Aisle roofs with arched braces and a little carving. - FONT. Panelled stem. Bowl with flowers in cusped quatrefoils and similar decoration. The inscription on the base mentions Robert Hoo who died in 1510. - SCREEN. Tall, with one-light divisions with broad ogee arches. Simple panel tracery over; cresting. - BENCHES. A complete square-headed set in the nave. Also some with poppy-heads, and traceried fronts. One extremely richly carved front of a bench back with birds. - WALL PAINTINGS. On the S wall: St Barbara (E of SE window); St Christopher (over S door). On the N wall: Seven deadly Sins, a tree growing out of the Mouth of Hell. Below Christ of the Trades (note the six of diamonds). - STAINED GLASS. Much preserved in the aisle windows, including an Annunciation, a St Paul with the Sword, and a St Nicholas blessing little boys. One of them holds a golf club. - SINDON CLOTH. i.e. cloth to cover the Pyx. A great rarity. Of linen lace (on loan to the British Museum). - BURSE, that is case for the corporal, the cloth on which the wafer lies during Mass. Linen, edged with green silk. On the one side Head of Christ in an ogee quatrefoil, on the other Lamb in a similar field. - MONUMENT. Lionel and Anna Bacon, 1653 by John Stone. Tablet with inscription in an exuberantly carved cartouche with drapery, two shields, an urn at the top, a pineapple at the foot.

 St Barbara

Window (2.1)

Christ of the trades

Bench (2)

Window (5.2)

Rood screen

HESSETT. We are constantly amazed at the priceless possessions tucked away in our villages, things that any museum must long for; and here is Hessett with two scraps of needlework which are national treasures.

It is an attractive village of thatched roofs, where little bridges cross the ditches to the front doors. In the shade of the yews in the churchyard are several stone lids which closed on Hessett folk 700 years  ago; and the villagers today tell the way of the wind by a 600 year old weathervane on the tower, its arrow pointing to heaven, its sword with a crowned hilt symbolising the martyrdom of Ethelbert, to whom the church is dedicated.

It is a grand sight outside, with a most striking parapet (pierced, pinnacled, battlemented) running round the clerestoried nave, the south aisle, the porch, and the tower, which are all of our famous 15th century; only the 14th century chancel is plain.

Four angels with shields stand on the parapet of the tower, and a row of shields below them bears the initials of the builders, John and Isabel Bacon, who are believed to have added also the south porch with its panelled roof, its three daintily vaulted niches, and St George and the Dragon in the spandrels of the doorway. A bench just inside has their family arms, and another has a greyhound, probably their crest. The fine lofty arch of their tower matches the arcades reaching up to a nave roof here in their time, though its angel corbels have dwindled sadly. An inscription in flints along the north side (where is a 14th century doorway) tells us that John and Katherine Hoo built the chapel before John died in 1492; and an inscription in Latin round the 15th century font tells that it was given by Robert and Agnes Hoo. Flowers run round its pedestal and round the bowl.

New at the same time as the font was the screen with the delicate tracery, which we found gay with a fresh coat of blue and gold and red. Curiously small is the newel doorway to the vanished rood loft. The dark chancel is much as it was 600 years ago, with its old  low seats with wide book-rests and some richly carved stalls, where we we found a hawk with a partridge, a viper and two dragons, heads and doves and pelicans, and also a mitred abbot standing on an arm-rest. A sanctuary chair was added in Jacobean days. Most unusual is the tracery of the east window, and it is strange to find that the vestry piscina has been cut through to make a peephole to the altar. A door strong with 14th century ironwork leads into this vestry, where are tiles with lions and roses and a crude old ladder leading to a room above.

Very surprising is it to find a golf club* in a window of this church and a playing card on its walls. The playing card, six of diamonds, is one of the few distinguishable things in a faded wall-painting of the Seven Deadly Sins. It is believed to be the earliest picture of a card in England and dates the painting as late 15th century. Also on the walls are traces of a Jesse tree and of a saint holding a church. The golf club is held by one of the boys grouped round St Nicholas, who appears in medieval glass in the south aisle. Another window shows a man with a sword in a purple robe and fur collar; a 15th century bishop is in the clerestory; and in more old glass in the north aisle is Nicholas again, with St James, the Annunciation, and Christ rising from the Tomb.

Such treasures of medieval glass and stone and woodwork might seem enough for one village, but something far more precious is inside the old chestnut chest with complicated locks and iron bands, for of all our ten thousand villages Hessett alone has managed to keep the cloth which covered the pyx and the linen bag which held the sacramental wafers, two unique pieces of 15th century needlework.The pyx cloth is of fine linen over two feet square, and with a hole through which passed the chain on which the pyx was suspended above the altar. The cloth is worked to resemble lace. Its silk fringe of rose and yellow has almost worn away, but one of the tasselled gilt balls still hangs from a corner. The linen bag is bound with pale green silk and has the holy lamb on one side and on the other a portrait of Our Lord and the winged creatures of the Evangelists.

Though the head and shoulders of the central figure are now a bishop (identified by the children around him as St Nicholas) the window is not a Nicholas window. The head and shoulders have been patched in from elsewhere and the window would originally have portrayed the three Marys - ie. the three daughters of St Anne. The most important daughter was, of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary (probably in the right-hand light, now damaged beyond recognition) . The other two lights are unmistakable. In the centre light, the seated figure (now a bishop from the neck up is actually St Mary Cleophas; at her knees, her four children - St James the Less, holding the fuller’s (cloth cleaner’s) club with which he was said to have been martyred, St Simon with his fish, St Joseph Justus, and St Jude. One of the children is carrying loaves, the symbol of St Philip but this could just indicate confusion in the mediaeval workshop. In the left-hand light is St Mary Salome with her two children; St James, holding the gilded scallop shell which is his symbol, and St John the Evangelist.


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