CAVENDISH : CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN
Church Post Code CO10 8BA
Open to visitors
Visited December 2023
It was a cloudless December day in 2023. The early morning frost had just about cleared and the sun was blazing down. We had started off the day in Cambridgeshire, with a visit to Warboys and then on to Sutton in the Isle, close to Ely Cathedral before crossing the county line in to Suffolk, where we were to spend the rest of the day.
The intention was to visit Lavenham, Long Melford, Cavendish and Clare; retracing some of the steps that I had taken back in the summer of 2015, when a proposed tour of this area was badly hampered by heavy rain. I failed to reach Cavendish and Clare on that occasion and it was a mere eight and a half years later that they were finally visited.
The village here bears the name of Sir John Cavendish, who was Chief Justice of the Kings Bench under King Richard II at the time of the Peasants Revolt in 1381; being beheaded by rioters during that year.
The church of St Mary the Virgin is centrally located in the village, set alongside a large area of green, with public house and restaurant close by to the south and west. My immediate reaction was to find the famous spot where the church tower rises up behind some delightful pink walled thatched cottages, as seen in books and calendars over the years.
There was a church here at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, which was rebuilt in Norman times, which was again rebuilt giving us the structure that we see today. The oldest parts of the present structure are from around 1300 with the tower, south porch and the lower parts of the wall of the south aisle dating from that time. In 1350 the south aisle wall was built up to its present height. A bequest from John Cavendish led to the chancel being rebuilt in 1381 or shortly after. During the 15th century the north aisle, north arcade and clerestory was added. The chancel was much repaired during the 17th century and there was considerable Victorian restoration here.
The present day church consists of west tower, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, south porch and chancel. The church grounds are a little tight and the sun was blazing down to extent that it was quite hard to photograph properly. Exterior shots are limited as a result.
The west tower here is unusual, with substantial octagonal stair turret to the south east corner. It was the second week of advent and a Christmas star was mounted at the top of the tower, next to a crouching gargoyle. A single bell stands proud over the top of the tower.
The clerestory is of five three light windows, with intricate flushwork designs, and coats of arms on the battlements. The nave is also battlemented, this time in red brick. Moving across to the east, the fine east window is of seven lights.
The church was open to visitors, with a sign up hoping that the visitor finds the church to be a peaceful sanctuary. Inside it is bright and welcoming; walls are whitewashed. It is a simple uncluttered interior and I liked it very much.
The chancel is simple and tasteful; the east window is of plain glass but with some reset medieval stained glass fragments. The sedilia, the seating for the priests during the Mass, takes the form of a stone bench with a piscina to the east used to wash the Holy Vessels used during the Mass. As it was advent season, the altar cloth was purple.
There is a little stained glass here. A four light window at the east end of the south aisle has two depictions of the risen Christ central; the resurrection and the ascension. These are flanked by St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who is shown carrying stones, which was the manner of his martyrdom. We also see St Barnabas, with both characters appearing in Acts. The nativity scene was set up in front of this window. Apparently, the junior school nativity service had ended a couple of hours before and I suspect that the church wasn’t the oasis of calm then as it was now! The other glass is a beautiful depiction of Mary cradling the baby Jesus, flanked by angels.
Over in the north aisle is a 16th century Flemish reredos, very much Anglo Catholic in nature, which has a gilded framework around it which was made by Ninian Comper in 1895. The centre piece here is a depiction of the crucifixion; with Christ crucified between two thieves, with angels collecting the precious blood of Christ in goblets from wounds in hands feet and side.
Mary Magdalene, with long red hair falling, holds on to the cross and looks upwards. John also looks up, removed from his traditional position to the right of the cross as we look at it. Mary the mother of Jesus has collapsed and is being attended to by other women. This is a busy scene, far removed from some other more formal Victorian depictions with lots of figures milling around, including Roman soldiers throwing dice for Jesus’ cloak.
The gilded frame around this is the work of Comper, with among the carvings being a pieta, with Mary the mother of Jesus cradling the body of her crucified son, Jesus carrying his cross and Mary crowned the Queen of Heaven, holding the baby Jesus. We also have a scene in which Jesus is releasing someone from a giant serpent’s mouth. It says in the Creed that Jesus descended to the dead. Here we see the harrowing of hell where Jesus conquered the devil; took his power and freed the righteous captives.
At the east end of the south aisle is a chest tomb chest to George Colt who died in 1570, a squint allows someone at this altar to look through to the high altar in the chancel.
CLARE : CHURCH OF ST PETER & ST PAUL
Church Post Code CO10 8NY
Open to visitors
We left Cavendish and headed just over two miles east to Clare. The church here, dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, is a delight. This is another church of huge proportions, illustrating the wealth here in the middle ages.
The church here is set in the northern most two thirds of a square, in the centre of the village, surrounded on three sides by roads. The church here makes it in to Simon Jenkins’ book England’s Thousand Best Churches and he describes the structure thus, that it ‘floats on the skyline like a great ship’.
It is thought that there might have been a church here built soon after the Norman Conquest but the earliest parts of the present structure date back to the 13th century. The south porch and south chapel date from 1380 and there was much rebuilding here around 1460, with the nave and chancel being rebuilt at this time with the north and south aisles widened. This is a striking church of massive proportions.
All available ledges to the south were taken by a large number of white pigeons, who may well have been basking in the sun but they certainly weren’t taking much heat from it. A delightful sun dial over the porch is dated 1790 and is inscribed ‘Go About You Business’ in the Old script where the letter ‘S’ at the start of middle of the word is elongated; resembling an ‘F’. As always, seeing this, there is an inner chuckle, remembering the Vicar of Dibley sketch where Alice Tinker attempts to do a reading from the old King James translation.
This is a beautiful, bright, welcoming interior. Looking to the chancel arch, there are two doors, one either side of the arch, which would have led to the rood loft. Obviously, there is a stair case leading up to each and each extends upwards in the form of a crocketed pinnacle which stands out above the chancel roof, marking out the western end of the nave.
It was advent season, the piers were decked out with greenery and the Christmas tree was up at the chancel arch. The altar cloth was purple, as seen earlier on today; the liturgical colour for advent. The nativity scene was set out in front of the altar in readiness for the Christmas services.
There is a fascinating history to parts of the interior here. William ‘Basher’ Dowsing visited here in January 1644 and left his usual trail of destruction. Many items seen as idolatrous were destroyed during the Reformation and this campaign was resumed by Puritans in the 1640’s. Dowsing was appointed Commissioner for the Destruction of Monuments and Superstition which was to carry out work in accordance with the Parliamentary Ordinance of 1643 which stated that all monuments of superstition and idolatry should be removed and abolished which included anything which represented any member of the Trinity or the Virgin Mary or Saints.
Dowsing kept a diary of his destruction and wrote of his visit to Clare in January 1644 ‘we broke down 1,000 Pictures superstitious; I broke down 200; 3 of God the Father, and 3 of Christ and the Holy Lamb, and 3 of the Holy Ghost like a Dove with Wings; and the 12 Apostles were carved in Wood, on the top of the Roof, which we gave order to take down; and 20 Cherubims to be taken down; and the Sun and Moon in the East Window, by the King's Arms, to be taken down.’
The five light east window would have been filled with medieval stained glass, all of which was destroyed. Today the east window is primarily of clear glass but with several heraldic panels which detail the coats of arms of those who contributed to the 17th century chancel rebuilding. Up higher though, we have the sun and the moon that Dowsing mentioned as having been taken down; lovingly retrieved, saved and put back in to the east window from where it was taken during those curious days. Fascinating to think what the interior of the church looked in pre Dowsing days. With the wealth of the area here, the items destroyed would have been of the very highest quality!
There is some interesting stained glass to be seen here, with a depiction of the crucifixion by FC Eden in the north aisle being possibly the pick of the bunch. This window, if it had been here in Dowsing’s time would have been hated by the iconoclasts as it features what they would have seen as an idolatrous image of the Triune God; Father Son and Holy Spirit.
The Father is at the top, crowned with one hand raised in blessing, holding a globe. The Son is Christ crucified with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove between the two. Over the top of the crucifixion scene is the Pelican in her piety. Here, a mother pelican rips at her breast, feeding the waiting chicks her blood. This was often used as an analogy for Christ shedding his blood for us.
By the side of the pelican are the sun and the moon, with angels in flight who have their hands covering their eyes. Mary and John are in their traditional places alongside the cross but all is raised up, with the cross seeming to burst forth out of an open tomb filled with blood. Mary and Jon are each raised up on plinths with Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross.
Flanking Mary Magdalene are St Michael who holds the scale on which all will be judged on the final day; with serpent trodden underfoot which references his beating Satan in Revelation, and St George who is depicted with sword pointing downwards.
We also have depictions of an Angel of the Lord appearing to the Three Mary’s and Peter on Easter morning, and Faith, Hope and Love with Faith portrayed with a cross, Hope with an anchor, an often used symbol for the Christian faith and Charity with children. Modern translations of the Bible have replaced the word Charity with Love.
In a Jacobean gallery in the south aisle we have a telling of the nativity, with a little poetic license allowing the Shepherds and Wise Men to be there at the same time.
What a fascinating church, full of history and I haven’t even begun to do this justice in the space that I have. In the space of three hours or so I had visited four of Suffolk’s finest churches, all of which appear in Jenkin’s thousand, with Long Melford and Lavenham appearing in the top hundred. It was a good churchcrawl and there was still a couple of hours of daylight left. We aimed in the direction of Haverhill, before crossing back in to Cambridgeshire, ending the day in fading daylight at s small church at Shudy Camps, far removed from what I had seen here, but fascinating nonetheless, admiring a fine collection of graffiti. The common man and woman leaving their own mark, but in a different way than those men and women who made their wealth from the wool trade. A fine churchcrawl; this is why I do what I do.