Monday, 5 September 2011

Long Melford, Suffolk

I think any commentary other than why did I wait so long to visit Holy Trinity would be superfluous so I will leave it to Pevsner and Mee.

Holy Trinity (4)

Glass (2)

Glass (15)

Glass (23)

LONG MELFORD. To one who would know Suffolk in an hour or two we may commend Long Melford, a glorious place to saunter in. It has a mile of delightful houses with little windows and lovely gardens, a wide street which needs no pavements, almshouses in a little world of their own on the green, and it is rich in natural beauty and architectural splendour. It has a house Queen Elizabeth thought fit for her, and a church which we think fit for kings.

The great Melford Hall, one of the best moated houses left to us from Tudor days, looks on to the village street, a long red wall by the moat ending at the gateway in a charming brick summerhouse known as the Octagon, to which steps lead from the garden. Built on three sides of a quadrangle, crowned by six turrets with elegant domes, the hall is superbly set in a park of 132 acres. The conduit supplying it with water is still on the green, a little structure built to match the house, as Sir William Cordell built the almshouses to match it also. It was he who entertained Elizabeth with great feasting; she is shown in a gorgeous dress in one of the windows. The moat protecting the queen was being filled with water when we called.

At the two ends of the village street, with this hall magnificent between them, stand Melford Place and Kentwell Hall. Melford Place is the old home of the Martyns, whose chapel has been made into an entrance hall, beautiful with 14th century woodwork and a fine roof. Kentwell Hall, with its domed turrets and its five projecting wings, is Elizabethan and is reached by a magnificent lime avenue about a mile long; we may walk along it. The house is still protected by a moat and reached by two bridges. In its windows is a little glass six centuries old.

In this place where so much is fine the church is best of all, one of the magnificent spectacles of our countryside. It stands across the green with the Tudor almshouses in front of it. Its tower has been burned down and built again with dainty buttresses and stately pinnacles, but for the rest it has been as we see it for 500 years, an enchanting sight, 260 feet long and with about a hundred windows. We see its great walls and its proud tower for miles. The names of those who helped to build it are below the battlements.

We come through the handsome doorway, under three richly canopied niches, into the lofty nave of seven bays with a massive timber roof of English chestnut, running from the west window to the east. It is held up by fine oak figures on the wall-posts, over 60 of them in the nave and aisles and another 40 in the lady chapel, a beautiful building beyond the chancel reached by a private door inside and a public door outside. The walls of the nave are richly decorated with slender columns running up to the corbels of the roof and with trefoiled arcading between the arches and the great clerestory windows. Alone in the west wall is the head of a monk looking out on it. Older still is an alabaster carving let into the north wall, a 14th century sculpture of the Wise Men. It was buried for 200 years, but time has not worn the gilt from a chalice or the embroidery on the Madonna’s gown.

Looking along the nave the eye is drawn by the mass effect of the stone reredos. Like the pulpit which matches it, it is 19th century, but is vigorously carved with a Crucifixion scene, the two Marys and Roman soldiers standing by. On the right of the sanctuary lies Sir William Cordell amid all this beauty that he raised to endure throughout the generations. Speaker of Parliament, Privy Councillor to Mary Tudor, Master of the Rolls to Elizabeth, builder of Melford Hall, he lies a truly noble figure under a marble canopy with four statues watching over him, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude. This is from his inscription:

 A man of worth and sterling piety,
A man devout and just, whom neither fear
Nor hate could turn from virtue’s straight career.
That which he promised he performed, and would
Dlscern and shun the bad and live the good.

Facing him across the sanctuary is the altar tomb of John Clopton, sleeping under an arch through which we see the Clopton chantry built in his memory. We come into it through a small vestibule with a fan-vaulted ceiling and a fireplace, having first passed the tomb of Sir William Clopton, the father of John. He died in 1446 and is a finely carved figure in armour on a richly canopied tomb under a lovely window. His tomb is one of those rare ones with a stoup built into them for holy water.

The Clopton chantry, with a double peephole, a sedilia, a piscina, and a door into a tiny priest’s room, has 12 beautiful canopied niches on the chancel side, each niche with dainty vaulting and elegant pinnacles, and round the chapel walls are painted verses composed by John Lydgate, the poet monk of Bury St Edmunds, who may have helped to build this place.

There is a little group of brasses on each side of the sanctuary, all set in the floor. Round about Sir William Clopton’s tomb are the portraits of his wife, a son, and two daughters, one of the daughters a lady with long hair wearing a cap decorated with roses. A 16th century Francis Clopton is in armour. Across the church are the brasses of the Martyns, Roger of 1615 with two wives and ten children, and Richard of 1624 with three wives, a son and daughter and two babies in shrouds.

The church in the old days was remarkably rich in glass, and it has still some splendid windows, most of the old glass having been collected and put into the east window and the two west ones. The east window has St Andrew at the top of a central panel with Mary nursing her son taken down from the Cross; He is like a boy, and her tears are falling over Him. Below stands St Edmund, his figure the finest piece of glass in the church. At the feet of the Madonna the artist has put a little man with rings on his thumbs, and at the feet of St Edmund is a mitred abbot. In the other four panels are 12 figures including Edward the Confessor, abbots and abbesses of East Anglia, the mother of William Clopton, Chief Justice Howard, and St Giles with a rector at his feet. In the west window of the north aisle are 40 figures in bright costumes with a picture of Long Melford bridge, and in the other west window is a valuable portrait of Thomas Rookwood whose father was in Gunpowder Plot, two women watching the opening of the tomb, a delightful old windmill, and Sir Robert Cavendish in his judge’s robes.

But what is regarded as the most precious window in the church is called the Lily Crucifix, showing the Cross in the form of a lily, a rather puzzling fragment which can be understood with a little study; it is over the north door. Standing in the nave near this window is an almsbox 600 years old, and close by is the 15th century font.

We must come outside to go into the lady chapel, a rare little place big enough to be a village church and rightly considered the gem of Long Melford. It was built in 1496 and reminds us of the chapel in the crypt of Canterbury, for it has an inner chapel surrounded on all sides with what its founder called the cloisters. Above them are richly moulded timber roofs borne on 40 wooden figures; these aisle roofs are the richest woodwork in Long Melford. It is difficult to realise that even a hundred years ago nearly all the windows here were hidden by lath and plaster and that this lovely place was used as a storeroom and a coal cellar. Long before that it was used as a school, and the multiplication table is still painted on the wall. It is the chapel itself that is so beautiful in its great simplicity. The arcades are of white stone enriched with niches and panels, and at the east and west are screens dividing the chapel from the aisles. The stone-work is finely carved, and there are slender columns running up the walls for the roof to rest on. It is what a lady chapel should be, an oasis of quiet and dignity and charm in which we can escape from this world that is too much with us.


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