Thursday, 8 September 2011

Woolpit, Suffolk

St Mary was undergoing major restoration when I visited but luckily it seemed to be towards the end of the project and most, if not all, of the church's treasures were on display. This is, without doubt, quite high up in my personal Top 10 best churches - it is simply stunning. From the double hammer-beam roof with numerous angels, fantastic poppyheads, fragments of old glass to the porch it is just wonderful.

ST MARY. The conspicuous spire was built by R. M. Phipson in 1854. With its openwork parapet and the double-curved flying buttresses helping to hold it up, it is Nene Valley rather than Suffolk, but makes an attractive feature. The tower has a timber vault of 1854 and a sexfoiled circular window into the nave. The medieval church of Woolpit is Perp, except for the modest Dec S aisle and the Dec chancel. This has a five-light E window with reticulated tracery, niches with ogee heads in the buttresses l. and r., and a shafted doorway. The S porch can be dated c. 1435-55 (money given for it in 1440 and 1451). It is extremely opulent, much taller than the aisle, with a stone-faced front panelled all over, an entrance with a big crocketed ogee gable and five stepped niches above, and the mouldings of the entrance arch beset with the repeated motif of a beast with a big leaf coming out of its mouth. The side windows have crocketed ogee gables too, and so has the doorway inside, whose arch mouldings are decorated with fleurons. The porch has openwork cresting and a lierne-vault with many bosses. Many legacies are recorded for the rest of the church. They run from 1444 to 1461 and refer to ‘ye body of ye churche’, ‘tabernaculum beate Marie de novo faciendo’, ‘emendacio’, ‘amendyng’, and ‘reparacon’. The sums involved range from 1s. 8d. to £14. The sum of 13s. 8d. occurs three times in wills. Perp N aisle, not ornate. Perp arcade inside, of five bays, surprisingly quiet (octagonal piers, arches with one hollow chamfer and one wave moulding). Fine Perp clerestory with doubled windows. The windows are of two lights with panel tracery. The wall has flushwork decoration: panelling, chequerboard pattern, and emblems. When the clerestory was built, the  splendid roof was also made, one of the proudest in Suffolk. The roof stands on wall-posts which in their turn rest on angel brackets. Small figures against the wall-posts. The roof has double hammerbeams throughout and angels against both hammers. The upper hammers, as Cautley has pointed out, are false. The wall-plate is decorated with two tiers of demi-figures of angels. All the spread-out wings make a glorious feathery, spiky pattern. Decorated spandrels and crestings of both hammerbeams and collars. In the aisle roofs also angels on the wall-posts. Large angels in addition against every second pair of principals so that their heads are separated only by big bosses. Against the other pairs wall-posts with demi-figures in niches and angels below them. Does any of the money left in the 1440s and 1450s refer to the clerestory and roof? - SCREEN. On the dado eight repainted figures. One-light divisions with ogee arches and some panel tracery above. High up, below the E window of the nave, is what Cautley calls a ROOD CANOPY. Five bays of finely ribbed coving with lierne patterns. Is it not more likely that this is, as Vallance has suggested, a displaced part of the rood loft? - BENCHES. With poppy-heads and saints as well as animals on the arms. Traceried ends with a variety of patterns. Carved backs as well. - LECTERN. A fine brass eagle on a substantial base and shaft. It may date from c. 1525. It belongs in a group with Cavendish, Upwell Norfolk, Croft Lincs, Chipping Campden Glos, and Corpus Christi College Oxford. - PLATE. Cup and Paten 1576; Cup 1776.

St Mary (4)

Poppyhead (51)

Angel (29)

Nave roof (1)

Rood screen (2)

WOOLPIT. Its last wolf was slain 600 years ago, and its name in Domesday Book, meaning that there were pits here for the destruction of wolves, has lost its significance in its new spelling. The old home of the wolf is safe for Red Riding Hood today, a picture of beauty with an old well sunk in its green, its timbered cottages, its charming rectory, and the handsome 14th century church.

A wet moat marks the site of a well and a pilgrim’s chapel; one of the two niches on an outer wall of the church is said to have contained a famous Madonna by which they prayed before passing to the well. The great Abbot Samson journeyed to Rome to secure the revenues from this well for his abbey at Bury, to which Woolpit belonged. The modern tower rests on its Norman foundations, the 14th century tower having been overthrown by lightning. It has a delicate spire with flying buttresses from the pinnacles. A striking open parapet rises above the stately porch, which has five bold niches over its doorway, a vaulted roof with grotesque bosses, and priest’s room above; it is one of England’s loveliest porches. In the charming inner doorway still hangs the ancient door.

The nave arcades are 14th century. In the chancel is a double piscina, and on the sedilia is a crudely carved block of stone. The fine brass eagle lectern was the gift of Queen Elizabeth, one of only about 50 old ones remaining in England.

The treasure of the church is the magnificent double hammer-beam roof in the nave, with choirs of angels. Like the splendid clerestory it is 15th century. The beams and spandrels are elaborately carved and there are two rows of angels on each side with outspread wings. The wall-plates have more angels, and the saints, standing in canopied niches supporting the beams, are in turn borne by angels praying as they hover. The aisle roofs are similar but not so elaborate. A wonderful sight it is to look up in this clerestoried nave to these roofs, with hundreds of angels and thousands of pieces of carved fretwork on the beams and brackets and spandrels. The whole work is a triumph of craftsmanship.

The nave is full of handsomely carved old and new benches, with about 50 heraldic animals on the arm-rests. One seems to be sitting in a chair holding his head, another has a queer little creature crawling into its mouth. The choir-stalls have fine poppyheads and angels on the arm-rests.

A richly carved blue and gold canopy below a triple lancet window, probably part of the original rood loft, is above the 15th century chancel screen, delicately and beautifully carved and glowing with paintings of eight saints. Set in the tracery of the chancel windows are hundreds of fragments of old glass.

In the tower hangs a list of bishops from the year 609, rectors from 1162, churchwardens from 1556, and sextons from 1606. The bishops for 700 years and the rectors for 200 had literally to guard their flocks from the wolves which gave their name to this home of peace.

No comments:

Post a Comment