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Church Post Code  IP30 9QP

Open to visitors

Visited November 2023

It was drawing to the close of what had been a very successful Suffolk churchcrawl, on a sunny and pleasant November day in 2023. We had spent the day working around churches to the north of Bury St Edmunds, before moving on to Walsham Le Willows; which I had wanted to visit since reading a fascinating book on the Black Death, which recorded Walsham’s struggle with the Black Death in 1349, compiled using surviving historical records. Leaving Walsham, we approached Woolpit from the north; with this being our final church of the afternoon.


It wasn’t my intention to visit here but Gary suggested this one as he had recently seen a Youtube video on the green children of Woolpit. I had a quick look on the Suffolk Churches website and saw how impressive the church was, as well as being interested as well in the legend of the green children myself, so this one was added on to the day’s itinerary.

The tale is that two children with green skin suddenly arrived in the village at some point during the 12th century, a brother and sister who spoke a strange language and who, at first, only ate raw broad beans. The boy was sickly and died soon after but the girl survived in to adulthood and married. The village sign shows both of the children along with a wolf; with the village here being at one point known as Wulf-Pytt, a pit for trapping wolves.

The village itself can be found some seven miles east of Bury St Edmunds, between Bury and Stowmarket. During the middle ages, the village was on land owned by the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds; a prosperous area, which at one point was one of the most densely populated areas of rural England.  Today, this is a busy, bustling village which recorded a population of 2094 at the time of the 2021 census.

The church of St Mary is located centrally in the village. It is suggested that a small Saxon church stood in the same position as the present structure, with this being replaced by a Norman church. The medieval church that we see today consists of west tower with spire, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, south porch and chancel. A fine structure, which reflects the wealth of the area at the time that the church was built!


Looking at the church from the south, the square west tower is built of flint and Barnack stone. It has had a torrid history to be fair. In 1602 the church was badly damaged during a thunderstorm. The tower had to be rebuilt at that time with the spire then being blown down during the great Hurricane of 1703. To the final blow was in July 1852 when the spire was struck by lightning and had to be rebuilt. The tower and spire are the work of Richard Phipson, who was the Diocesan architect for the Diocese of Norwich. A beautiful piece of work which dominates the local landscape; and in a style that is out of keeping with that found in this area.

Just to break off for a second, the ferocity of the storm of 1703, which lasted for the best part of a week and which affected the South of England, was so great that an estimated 8,000 people died, the vast majority being lost a sea. Daniel Defoe wrote a book the following year called ‘The Storm’. It is said that 400 windmills were destroyed and Defoe recounts that the sails on some windmills were turning so fast that the sails overheated and caught fire! Around 100 churches were damaged.

The buttressed tower has a stair turret to the south east corner. The octagonal broach spire has two tiers of gabled lucarne windows, and is attached to the tower with flying buttresses. A frieze surrounding the four sides of the tower reads ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’.


The 15th century two storey south porch is of the very finest quality; one of the finest in Suffolk, and has five empty image niches to the south which would at one time have had statues which would have been destroyed during the Reformation of the 16th century or the Commonwealth period in the 17th century. The statues were donated in 1474 by Robert Lytton at a cost of £20! There are also stools for statues in the buttressing.

There is a stair turret at the North West corner leading up to the upper room; a look at the east wall of the porch shows breathtaking flint flushwork. Inside the porch, there is a fan vaulted ceiling, with carved bosses at the joints. Several of these carvings take the form of mythical beats; grinning and with a hairstyle seen in church Zoom meetings throughout the country during the covid lockdowns.

Several bench seats are set out to the south side of the church; a fine place to sit and rest awhile on a fine summer evening, cold drink in hand, watching the world go by. The air would be heavy with thunder rolling off in the distance, gradually getting closer; the birds singing their final chorus of the day before heading off to roost; distant sounds of happiness drifting over from the inn to the north. A place to be at peace!

A quick check beforehand showed that the church would be open to visitors, but that there would be people around setting up for an event the following day; interior photos are a little limited as a result. They were a friendly bunch, which sadly isn’t always the case.


Taking an initial look around the interior, the nave dates from the 14th century, with the magnificent double hammer beam roof also dating from that time. The church here, as throughout the country, would have suffered damage during the Reformation and the Civil War, where spiritual matters were stripped back to basics, with items deemed as idolatrous being destroyed; the view being that people were worshiping the ‘idolatrous’ items instead of worshiping God.

William Dowsing is a name that often occurs in Suffolk. In 1643 this Puritan iconoclast was appointed ‘Commissioner for the destruction of monuments of idolatry and superstition’; visiting 250 or so churches in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, and leaving a written record of the destruction he wrought! He didn’t visit Woolpit himself but his deputy did and Dowsing’s record states ‘My Deputy 80 superstitious pictures some he brake down and the rest he gave orders to take down and three crosses to be taken down in 20 days 6s 8d’ The price at the end is what the church was charged for his ‘services’.

 There are five bay arcades to north and south, with each having octagonal piers and capitals. The south arcade dates from the early 14th century with the north arcade dating from later that same century. The pews for the most part date from the 15th century with carvings of animals on them, both real and mythical. These were not regarded as a problem by the reformers as they were not deemed to be of a spiritual nature which would divert the congregation from the God that they were supposed to be worshiping.


Nave is separated from chancel by a 15th century rood screen, which is painted at the bottom, having been repainted in 1892. To the right of the screen is a doorway which led up to the rood loft, with the rood itself, a carving of the crucifixion, also being removed by the restorers as being idolatrous.

The chancel dates from the 14th century but a priest’s door with semi-circular arch against the south wall shows that there was an earlier chancel here from that previous Norman building.

The east window is of interest with the central image of the Virgin with Child surrounded by various coats of arms. The main interest is up in the tracery though, with some reset medieval glass. Two angels within quatre foil designs blow trumpets, an often used symbol of the resurrection. Below that are three feathered angels at prayer. A close look at these show that there is a wheel immediately below each angel. This identifies them as a class of angel called Thrones or Ophanim; who along with Cherubim and Seraphim never sleep, continually guarding the throne of God. Below that there are depictions of the four evangelists, along with their associated symbols.


The altar cloth has a depiction of an angel in flight, blowing a trumpet. A single poppy contained within the design was no doubt added during the recent Remembrance Sunday. The altar cloth itself is green, this being the liturgical colour used for ‘Ordinary Times’, the time between Easter and Advent. Advent was just a few weeks away, at which point the altar cloth would be changed to one of dark blue or purple.

A shelf under the south window of the chancel forms the sedilia, the seating for the priests during the Mass. The sedilia is graduated with a seat further towards the east being higher; to be used by those present on the day who have a higher spiritual authority. To the east of that is the piscina, in which the Holy Vessels used during the Mass would be washed.

There is an altar set up at the east end of the south aisle, with sedilia and damaged piscina against the south wall. The east window is of two lights with Close by we also have a carving of a Wodewose; a wild man of the woods, who is represented as a hairy figure who is often seen carrying a club.


The 14th century roof consists of more than 125 angels and was restored in 1862, when damage on the angels was repaired. Dowsing had a particular hatred of angel roofs and stained glass, but he didn’t specifically mention that the angels in the roof here were defaced during his deputy’s visit. Perhaps they had already fallen foul of the reformers during the previous century.

Evidence of repair is evident throughout the roof, with the new wood being of slightly different coloured wood. Angels with outstretched, but curiously small wings are attached to the beams, holding shields. Some of the shields have a single letter on them; one has a key and another has a triangle, which is symbolic of the Holy Trinity. Between these are a selection of carvings; with several of birds, more than one green man like male figure and a female figure wearing a horned headdress.

Running along the walls are smaller angels, with longer wings which, one would suspect would be more equipped for flight. Some of these figures are at prayer. Other angels, lower down can be found in between the clerestory windows. Again, these are carved with curiously small wings; one serene looking female figure holds out what could be a laurel wreath, symbolic of victory. These angels lower down appear to be from the Victorian restoration, considerably more recent than the ancient carvings of saints and disciples that stand immediately above them. Perhaps these are an entirely Victorian addition, or perhaps the work of the reformers centuries before was more thorough on their targets lower down


The church grounds are large and well maintained, but there is nothing in the grounds that has its own Grade II Listing. This surprised me a little as over to the east there is a row of five deaths head stones, which look to date from early in the 18th century. These all have a carving of a human skull on then, the deaths head; there to remind those looking on that Man is mortal and will die. An instruction to live a good Christian life, trust in God and not to be caught short when your own time comes; and in days of low life expectancy, it could be later than you think!

Most of these just have the standard skull, but a couple have the skull winged, which symbolises the flight of the soul towards Heaven whilst another has an open book at the side of the skull, the book of life in which the deeds of the deceased would be recorded.


What a magnificent church. From my end it was the last church of the day, it was a long way home and I was a little rushed. I have missed a few things but I hope that there has been enough included here to make this page worthwhile. Open to visitors and an essential visit if you are anywhere near the area.

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