Friday, 11 May 2012

Little Saxham, Suffolk

Having been unable to church visit for almost a month due to the truly appalling rain we've been having, my will cracked on Wednesday and I decided on a long promised visit to the Saxhams in Suffolk. The weather was decidedly overcast with occasional showers but I could resist no longer - of course had I left it until today I'd have got much better exteriors...the sun is finally back.

Though technically outside my perimeter, several family tree members are entombed in both villages so a special trip was required.

I have to say that, despite the dubious weather, St Nicholas is probably my favourite church that I've visited to date - well certainly in Suffolk and it's definitely in the top five.

The tower is the crowning glory of the church. Of the 41 round towers in this county it is certainly amongst the finest. The lower part is probably Saxon and was built for defence purposes against Danish raiders. Later, in the early 12th century the Normans added the superb blank arcading round the bell-stage - its wide mortar joints indicating its early date. Originally the tower was probably detached, with access by a rope ladder to the opening, which is now on the inside of the church, above the tower arch.

The south door is early Norman with a plain panelled tympanum above. The key escutcheon is 14th century, the adjacent former handle-mounting is Norman, and the door hinges are medieval. Just inside the church on the left is a blind Norman arch. Pevsner believed it to be the original north door moved to this position in the 14th century when the north aisle was built, but Norman Scarfe has suggested that it would have made an appropriate background for the font which would have originally stood here.

The vestry was built as a chantry chapel in 1520, and dedicated to Our Lady and St. John the Evangelist, by Sir Thomas Lucas (my children’s 16th Great Grandfather and one of the reasons for my visit). He married Elizabeth Kemys from Monmouthshire and was appointed Solicitor-General to Henry VII, having been promoted to that office from the household of the King’s uncle, Jasper Tudor. To his credit, Lucas was no friend of Thomas Wolsey, being sent to the Tower in 1516 for speaking scandalous words of the Lord Cardinal.

Sir Thomas Lucas loved the litle Church of Saxham, and in his will he decreed that the chancel bee renewed aboute embattiled as the Church is by myne executors at my charge. His executors, however, failed him. Whilst the tower and nave are indeed crenellated, the chancel remains unadorned. Under the archway between his chapel and the chancel, Sir Thomas built a table-tomb for himself. However, after he died in 1531, he was buried in London and his chantry chapel was taken over by the Crofts family who made it their own memorial chapel. Sir John Crofts (my 152th Great Grandfather) bought Sir Thomas’s mansion, Little Saxham Hall, which was similar in design and magnificence to Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk. It was demolished in 1773. The vestry, which is kept locked, now houses the massive baroque monument to William, 1st Baron Crofts (d.1677) and his second wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Lord Spencer of Wormleighton, by Abraham Storey. The Lucas tomb was replaced in the roughest possible manner with fragments of it being used to block up the archway. In his Dictionary of British Sculptors, 1660- 1851, Rupert Gunnis wrote,

Storey’s monuments are of great importance, his finest being one commemorating Lord and Lady Crofts at Little Saxham, Suffolk, which was erected about 1678. This has a life-sized, semi-recumbent figure of Lord Crofts in full peer’s robes, while his wife reclines on a lower table.

It is signed on the right hand side, Story Fecit, and the initials A.S. appear on the seal which His Lordship is holding. The shield at the bottom carries the arms of Crofts impaling Spencer.

William Crofts was brought up in the household of the Duke of York and accompanied the royal family in exile. When Lucy Walters died in Paris in 1658, her son by Prince Charles - James, the future Duke of Monmouth – was entrusted to his care. John Gage, writing in 1838, describes the madcap Crofts, as one of those choice spirits who were at once the delight and discredit of the court of the merry monarch. He was one of the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber and was raised to the peerage, probably for raising money for his future monarch.

Charles II used to visit the Crofts at Saxham when he came to the Newmarket races. He attended a service here on 17th April, 1670, when he listened to a lengthy sermon from George Seignior, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

The King was impressed by its theme and had the sermon printed by His Majesty’s special command. (A copy is in the West Suffolk Record Office.) Pepys recorded this visit to Saxham in his diary but some of the pages of his manuscript have been cut out; because, Gage says, from memoranda remaining, it seems to have been a scene of debauchery.

On the east wall of the vestry there are two monuments: a fine one to Elizabeth Crofts, who died on 1st October, 1642, with a fulsome eulogy four cherubs and a rare topless bust. This is an unusual feature for the Commonwealth, but foreshadows the liberated age of the Restoration. Secondly a good classical monument signed by William Palmer, a prominent sculptor who had worked under John Nost, to Anne Crofts who left this world for a better Sept. 22 1727.On the west wall there is a rather heavy monument to her husband, William Crofts, who died in 1694.

Two parts of the original rood-screen are now in the Tower archway with fine carvings of lions, birds, rabbits, a dog and squirrels facing each other in the spandrels. The oak extending Stuart bier is a rare survival and a wealth of poppyheads are delightful: one is a beautiful praying figure, while the rest are exotic animals. Many medieval ones, easy to differentiate from later replicas, survive.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised but to my astonishment Simon Jenkins makes no reference to St Nicholas – I know he only chose 1000 churches, and that any such choice is bound to be subjective, however, his selections, or rather omissions, appear more and more baffling.

Pevsner: ST NICHOLAS. The most spectacular Norman round tower in Suffolk. Round the top a rhythmical order of arches on columns. In the four main directions they hold deeply recessed two-light bell-openings, in the diagonals two lower blank arches. Billet frieze along the sill-level. The tower arch into the nave is tall, and s of it is a blank arch on colonnettes with coarse volute capitals. It is the re-used Norman N doorway. All these Norman arches have strong roll mouldings. Norman also the s doorway, also with volute capitals and also with a roll moulding and an outer billet frieze. Dec N aisle with its three-bay arcade (very elementary continuous mouldings) and its clerestory windows over. The s porch belongs to the same time. Finally the Perp contribution: the nave and chancel s sides with uncusped, rather bald tracery, the E window, and the N chapel. - PULPIT. Jacobean. - COMMUNION RAIL. Brought recently from Little Livermere. With c 18 balusters. Coming forward in the middle in an elegant double curve. - SCREEN. Only the dado survives. - STALLS. The fronts have openwork flat tapering balusters, a Jacobean motif. - BENCHES. With reclining animals as poppyheads. One end has a kneeling and praying figure instead, and one end is traceried. - BIER. A C17 bier in the N aisle; a rare survival. - PLATE. Two Patens 1799. - MONUMENTS. Thomas Fitzlucas d. 1531, erected before his death (he was buried in London). Four-centred blank arch with cresting. Inside, the panels with lozenges and quatrefoils with shields which faced the sides of the former tomb-chest. - William, Baron Crofts, d. 1677, by Abraham Storey, signed by him and with his initials on a badge which the baron holds. Big standing monument of white and black marble. Two semi-reclining effigies, he above and behind her, i.e. a conservative motif in the last quarter of the century. ‘Modern ’ on the other hand the back architecture, with columns carrying a large open scrolly pediment. - Mrs Ann Croftes d. 1727. By W. Palmer.

St Nicholas (3)

St Nicholas (4)

Poppyhead (28)

Poppyhead (12)

St Nicholas (8)

LITTLE SAXHAM. Its delightful group of thatched cottages look through odd-shaped windows at one of the most curious round towers in England. It is Norman, with blank walls lit only by a narrow west window with zigzag ornament up to the top stage, where arches and windows give an unusual and striking effect something like a round loggia. Very lightly the tower carries its 800 years. Gargoyles are round the parapet, and inside is an arch nearly four times as high as it is wide, and a low recess which appears to have been a seat flanked by small pillars with crude capitals. The Normans also built the nave walls, and the south doorway is as they left it, grand with chevron carving. The chancel, the aisle, and the porch with a scratch dial were finished about 500 years ago, and a touch of the old colouring is left on a pier. Dogs, ducks, and pelicans perch as poppyheads on the fine old benches. The Jacobean pulpit has a carved sounding-board. Bits of the old screen are preserved on each side of the altar. The east window pictures four saints: Nicholas with a child, Peter and Paul with books, and Edmund with arrows. Close by is an oval of old glass with the Croft arms in bright colours. Coloured shields are round a nameless tomb in the wall, some more on the chancel memorial to Sir Thomas Lucas, solicitor-general to Henry the Seventh.

It was Sir Thomas who built the manor. Only part of a moat and some foundations in a field remain of this house where Charles the Second was entertained and where our two most famous diarists used to come. Charles came to stay with William, first and only Baron Crofts, whom we see in the church reclining with his wife in a massive black and white monument, he with a crown and she with a book. It was in the charge of this Madcap Crofts, as he was called, that Charles placed the son known at that time as James Crofts, and later as the ill-fated Duke of Monmouth. Pepys was here on one of the king’s visits, but all he records is a glimpse of the king reeling drunkenly to bed; while John Evelyn tells of how, finding himself at Bury St Edmunds, he came along here to call on this same William Crofts and found him dying.


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