Monday, 5 September 2011

Lidgate, Suffolk

St Mary sits beside the remains of a Norman castle on a hill apart from the main body of Lidgate. A simple building it is charming nevertheless. It's two main attractions are a brass to a priest one of only four in Suffolk, sadly covered by the immoveable chancel runner, and the extraordinary collection of graffiti.

The church is rich with these medieval and later doodles and it pays to take time studying them in different lights. The earliest signature goes back to 1547 (King Henry VIII's time). Hunt for the four windmills and the very rare lines of music - three and four line plainsong staves invented in 14th century complete with notation as part of a Rebus. There are also birds and a chalice and bread. These doodles were probably done before the advent of benches and during the social events that took place in the nave from time to time.

ST MARY. Norman nave. S doorway of Norman proportions, but given Perp mouldings. C13 chancel with nobly spaced lancets on the N side. Piscina shafted with pointed-trefoiled head. E window Dec with simple flowing tracery. Arcade Dec. Four bays, tall octagonal piers, double-chamfered arches. W tower late C13 or early C14. - PULPIT. Jacobean. - SCREENS. Rood Screen with simple one-light divisions. N Parclose Screen also one-light divisions, but prettier tracery. - BENCHES. Straight-headed, some with linenfold decoration on the ends. -  (Brass CHANDELIER. LG) - PLATE. Silver-gilt Cups said to be German, C17. - BRASS. A priest, C15, the head renewed. A 20 in. figure said to represent John Lidgate the poet, who was born at Lidgate in 1375 and died probably in 1451.

Graffiti (3)

Graffiti (6)

LIDGATE. For 500 years it has had a majestic place in our literature, for here was born one to whom the torch of song and learning passed from the hand of Chaucer. John Lydgate, 30 years old when Chaucer laid down his pen, taught young England to write poetry and continue the chorus of song unbroken.

Much of the church was a century old when he was brought to it to be christened at the font which has now disappeared, and the tower rose at the same time with the poet. His portrait brass, with a new head, is in the church*. It is an impressive thought that the brass was engraved by an artist familiar with this genius of poetry who presented one copy of his poems to the ill-fated young Henry the Sixth and another to Warwick the Kingmaker. A few fragments of ancient glass in the heads of some of the windows may have been here to admit the light for that christening long ago, and the chancel screen with its solid panels and massive tracery is old enough to have been set up when John Lydgate and Thomas Occleve were the only living poets destined to join our immortals.

The delightful little pulpit has been here three centuries. Many a generation of villagers has occupied these massive benches. There is an old traceried screen dividing the nave from the vestry, and in the vestry is an ancient cupboard with carved panels. The chancel had received three generations of worshippers before John Lydgate’s parents were born; the nave and aisles, the lofty arcades on their splendid pillars, the finely moulded chancel arch with beautiful capitals, are all as they were when the boy with the gift of song came here.

Even before the poet’s days a great change had come to the village, for its castle was already gone and the church had risen within its earthworks. The moat which guarded the castle remains but is now dry, and in the churchyard is still an ivied remnant of the castle wall within whose shadow little John Lydgate played.

Born here about 1370, without a surname, he took the name of his village, but in his writings described himself as the Monk of Bury. At the monastery there he received his early education, and he himself has told us of his preferring cherry-stones to church, and of his delight in availing himself of the vines and orchards of the monks. After study at Oxford and abroad he returned to Bury St Edmunds a travelled scholar, to teach rhetoric and poetry. With the exception of a few years his later life was passed at the monastery, where his many poems were written.

He knew and reverenced Chaucer, to whom he sent his manuscripts for criticism, and he alludes to him as his beloved master in poetry. He had many patrons, including Henry the Fifth and Henry the Sixth, but there are many merry references in his writings to his poverty. He had more industry than genius, his output reaching 140,000 lines, of which one poem (Falls of Princes) is nine times as long as Hamlet, while his Troy Book runs to 30,000 lines. He celebrated the return from Agincourt, the coronation of Henry the Sixth, wrote the Dance of Death to illustrate pictures in St Paul’s, the story of its martyr for St Albans, and many poems called for by his patrons.

It was an age of leisure and few books, and nothing he wrote was too long for his generation. Only occasionally does he flash or flame into genius, yet his influence was profound, down to Chatterton’s time.

For us he lives in his shorter works, of which London Lickpenny still fresh and vital. In it a poor Kentish countryman comes to town seeking justice, but wherever he turns "for lack of money I could not speed." The misadventures of the visitor are repeated in old plays, but in his lines we see 15th century London, and hear its street cries. Flemings offer him fine felt hats and spectacles; others cry hot peascods, strawberry ripe, and cherries. They offer him spice, pepper, saffron, velvet, silk, lawn, and Paris thread, hot sheep's feet, mackerel, and rushes green; but the only thing he would have bought if he could was his own hood, stolen from his head and exposed for sale in East Cheap. He died in 1451 and was buried at Bury St Edmunds.

* Actually now thought to be Robert Maunsel, Rector in 1302.

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