Holy Trinity, Blythburgh, Suffolk
My favourite church in England.
Ten years earlier, I had written:
Perhaps some counties have a church which sums them up. If there has to be one for Suffolk, it must be the church of the Most Holy Trinity, Blythburgh. Here is the Suffolk imagination writ large, as large as it gets, and not overwritten by the Anglican triumphalism of the 19th century. Blythburgh church is often compared with its near neighbour, St Edmund at Southwold, but this isn’t a fair comparison – Southwold church is much grander, and full of urban confidence. Probably a better comparison is with St Margaret, Lowestoft, for there, too, the Reformation intervened before the tower could be rebuilt. The two churches have a lot in common, but Blythburgh has the saving grace. It is so fascinating, so stunningly beautiful, by virtue of a factor that is rare in Anglican parish churches: sheer neglect.
Holy Trinity, Blythburgh, is the church that Suffolk people know and love best, and because of this it has generated some wonderful legends. The first is that Blythburgh, now a tiny village bisected by the fearsome A12 between London and the east coast ports, was once a thriving medieval town. This idea is used to explain the size of the church; in reality, it is almost certainly not the case. Blythburgh has always been small. But it did have an important medieval priory, and thus its church attracted enough wealthy piety on the eve of the Reformation to bankroll a spectacular rebuilding.
It is to Lavenham, Long Melford, Mildenhall, Southwold and here that we come to see the late 15th century Suffolk aesthetic in perfection. But for my money, Holy Trinity, Blythburgh, is the most significant medieval art object in the county, ranking alongside Salle in Norfolk. Look up at the clerestory; it seems impossible, there is so much glass, so little stone; and yet it rides the building with an air of permanence. Beneath, there is a coyness about the aisles that I prefer to the mathematics of Lavenham. Here, it could not have been done otherwise; it distils human architectural experience. If St Peter and St Paul at Lavenham is man talking to God, Holy Trinity at Blythburgh is God talking to man.
At the east end, a curious series of initials in Lombardic script stretch across the outer chancel wall. You can see an image of this in the left hand column. It reads A-N-JS-B-S-T-M-S-A-H-K-R. This probably stands for Ad Nomina JesuS, Beati Sanctae Trinitas, Maria Sanctorem Anne Honorem Katherine Reconstructus (‘In the name of the blessed Jesus, the Holy Trinity, and in honour of holy Mary, Anne and Katherine, this was rebuilt’). A fanciful theory is that they are the initials of the wives of the donors. However, note the symbol of the Trinity in the T stone, and I think this is a clue to the whole piece.
High above, an old man sits on the gable end. Incredibly, this is a medieval image of God the Father, and extraordinary survival; we’ll come back to this in a moment.
The porch is part of the late 15th century rebuilding, but it was considerably restored in the early 20th century. Interestingly, the angels crowning the battlements look medieval – but they weren’t there in 1900, so must have come from somewhere else. Pretty much all the porch’s features of interest date from this time. These include the small medieval font pressed into service as a holy water stoup, and image niche above the doors. This has been filled in more recent years by an image if the Holy Trinity; God the Father holds the Son suspended while a dove representing the Holy Spirit alights; you can see medieval versions of this at Framlingham and Little Glemham.
Of all medieval imagery, this was the most frowned upon by puritans. An image of God the Father was thought the most suspicious of all idolatry. As late as the 1870s, when the Reverend White edited the first popular edition of the Diary of William Dowsing, he actually congratulated Dowsing on destroying images of the Holy Trinity in the course of his 1644 progress through the counties of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
William Dowsing visited on the morning on April 9th, 1644. It was a Tuesday, and he had spent most of the week in the area. The previous day he’d been at Southwold and Walberswick to the east, but preceded his visit here with one to Blyford, which lies to the west, so he was probably staying overnight at the family home in Laxfield. He found twenty images in stained glass to take to task (a surprisingly small number, given the size of the place) and two hundred more that were inaccessible that morning (probably in the great east window). Three brass inscriptions incurred his wrath (but again, this is curious; there were many more) and he also ordered down the cross on the porch and the cross on the tower. Most significantly of all, he decided the angels in the roof should go.
Lots of Suffolk churches have angels in their roofs. None are like Blythburgh’s. You step inside, and there they are, exactly as you’ve seen them in books and in photographs. They are awesome, breathtaking. There are twelve of them. Perhaps there were once twenty. How would you get them down if ordered to do so? The roof is so high, and the stencilling of IHS symbols would also have to go.
Perhaps this was already indistinct by the time Dowsing visited. Perhaps Tuesday, 9th of April 1644 was a dull day.
Several of the angels are peppered with lead shot. Here is another of those Suffolk legends; that Dowsing and the churchwardens fired muskets at the angels to try and bring them down. But when the angels were restored in the 1970s, the lead shot removed was found to be 18th century; contemporary with them there is a note in the churchwardens accounts that men were paid for shooting jackdaws living inside the building, so that is probably where the shot arises from.
Similarly, the splendid church guide repeats the error that the Holy Trinity symbol in the porch filled a gap that had been ’empty since 1644′. But there was certainly no image in it when Dowsing arrived here, or anywhere else in Suffolk; statues were completely outlawed by injunctions in the early years of the reign of Edward VI, almost a hundred years before the morning of Dowsing’s visit.
Another feature used as evidence of puritan destruction is the ring fixed into the most westerly pillar of the north arcade. Cromwell’s men stabled their horses here, apparently. Well, it almost certainly is a ring for tying horses to, and the broken bricks at the cleared west end also suggest this; but there is no reason to think that Cromwell and the puritans were responsible. For a full century before Cromwell, and for nearly two hundred years afterwards, a church as big as this would have had a multitude of uses.
Holy Trinity was built for the rituals of the Catholic church; once these were no longer allowed, a village like Blythburgh, which can never have had more than 500 people, would have seen it as an asset in other ways. It was only with the 19th century sacramental revival brought about by the Oxford Movement that we started getting all holy again about our parish churches. Perhaps it was used as an overnight stables for passing travellers on the main road; not an un-Christian use for it to be put to, I think.
In August 1577, a great storm brought down the steeple, which fell into the church and damaged the font. This was at the height of Elizabethan superstition, and the devil was blamed; his hoof marks can still be seen on the church door. Supposedly, a black dog ran through the church, killing two parishioners; he was seen the same day at St Mary, Bungay. Black Shuck is the East Anglian devil dog, the feared hound of the marshes; and Holy Trinity is the self-styled Cathedral of the Marshes, so it is appropriate that he appeared here.
You can see where the font has been broken. You can also see that this was one of the rare, beautiful seven sacrament fonts, similar in style to the one at Westhall; but, like those at neighbouring Wenhaston and Southwold, it has been completely stripped of imagery. Almost certainly, this was in the 1540s, but there is a story that the font at Wenhaston was chiselled clean as part of the 19th century restoration.
More importantly in any case, the storm, or the dog, or the devil, damaged the roof; it would not be properly repaired for more than 400 years. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, accounts note that Holy Trinity is not impregnable to the weather. By the 19th century, parishioners attended divine service with umbrellas. By the 1880s, it was a positively dangerous building to be in, and the Bishop of Norwich ordered it closed.
Why had Holy Trinity not been restored? Simply, this is a big church, with a tiny village. There was no rich patron, and in any case the parishioners had a passion for Methodism. Probably, repairs had been mooted, but not a wholesale restoration as we have seen at Lavenham, Long Melford and Southwold. By the 1880s, attention in England had turned to the preservation of medieval detail; in short, restorations were not as ignorant as they had been a quarter of a century earlier. Suggestions that Holy Trinity should be restored in the manner of the other three were blocked by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, and this owed a lot to the energy of William Morris, the Society’s secretary.
The slow, patient restoration of this building took the best part of a century; indeed, when I first visited in the 1980s I was still aware of a sense of decay.
Nothing could be further from the truth today. You step into a wide, white, open space, one of England’s great church interiors. There, high above you, is the glorious roof and the angels of God. The brick floors spread around the scraped font, which still bears its dedicatory inscription and standing places for participants. You turn into the central gangway, and more than twenty empty indents for brasses stretch before you. Dowsing can be blamed for the destruction of hardly any of them. In reality, you see the work of 18th and 19th century thieves and collectors.
The bench-ends are superb. The benches themselves were reconstructed in the late 19th century, supposedly from the main post of Westleton windmill, but the ends are some of the county’s finest medieval images. There are basically three series: the seven deadly sins, the seven works of mercy, and the four seasons. There are also angels bearing symbols of the Holy Trinity and the crown. Examples of all of these can be seen below; hover on them to read a description, click on them to see them enlarged.
The rood screen is a disappointment; most of it is modern, and the medieval bits perfunctory and scoured. Having said this, note how tiny the exit from the north aisle rood loft stair is. Also at this end of the church, notice a bare scattering of medieval glass, including some Saints.
But step through the central aisle to see something remarkable. The choir stalls are fronted by exquisite carvings of the 12 apostles, evangelists, and even figures who may be King Anna and his daughter St Etheldreda. She founded the priory that became Ely Cathedral, and there is a local connection because her father was killed at the Battle of Blythburgh. It seems likely that there was a shrine to them here.
Seeing these sixteen carvings is a bit like gobbling up a very large box of chocolates, but it is worth stopping to consider quite how genuine they all are. For a start, there could not have been choir stalls here in medieval times, and in any case we know that these desks and their frontages were in the north aisle chapel until the 19th century. They were used as school benches in the 17th century; they still bear holes for inkpots, and the graffiti of a bored Dutch child (his father was probably working on draining the marshes) is dated 1665 – you can see it in the left-hand column. There is nothing at all like them anywhere else in Suffolk, and although we know that they predate the restoration of Holy Trinity (and therefore almost certainly come from here originally) they seem of too high a quality to come from such a rural outback. In short, they are not medieval, whatever the guidebooks say.
Whatever, the east end of the chancel and aisles are thrillingly modern, wholly devotional. In the north aisle, traditionally the Hopton chantry, extraordinary friezes of skeletons become symbols of the four evangelists behind the altar. Beside them, with a view into the sanctuary, is one of Suffolk’s biggest Easter sepulchres, tomb of the Hoptons. In the surviving sedilia of the high altar, we find Peter Ball’s beautiful Madonna and Child and a fine Holy Trinity plate, which distract perhaps only slightly from the Jewish imagery above the reredos. It is all just about perfect.
Tucked to one side of the organ is a clockjack; Suffolk has two, and the other is down-river at Southwold. They date from the late 17th century, and presumably once struck the hours; at high church Blythburgh and Southwold today, they are used to announce the entry of the ministers.
You may be reading this entry in a far-off land; or perhaps you are here at home. Whatever, if you have not visited this church, then I urge you to do so. It is the most beautiful church in Suffolk, a wonderful art object, and it is always open in daylight. It remains one of the most significant medieval buildings in England. If you only visit one of Suffolk’s churches, then make it this one.
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