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Old Shoreham (Sussex)

Blythburgh

Dedication : Holy Trinity              Simon Jenkins: ***                                                  Principal Features : Poppyhead benches. Angel roof.

Blythburgh - pronounced “Blyboro” - is one of those huge flint and flushwork gothic churches that are so characteristic of Suffolk. Visible from long distances across the salt marshes, Blythburgh Church resembles a great ship that has somehow been washed up in a storm from nearby Southwold.

Looking at the history of this site, we find those c7 warrior kings of ancient England popping their heads up again. In this case, The pagan King Penda of Mercia defeating Anna, the first King of the East Angles, at the Battle of Bulcamp on the Blyth estuary. Penda also played a significant, albeit similarly indirect, role at Castor Church in Cambridgeshire. Anna and his son are believed to have been interred at a much earlier church here.

The Domesday Book shows Blythburgh as a royal burgh and having one of the richest churches in Suffolk. The Prior of an adjacent Augustinian house was granted the right to build a new church - the one we see today - in 1412.

Blythburgh did not enjoy good fortune. The Dissolution of the Monasteries left the church without the support of a priory. The Civil War led to some of the “idolatrous” images being removed from the church, although it seems to have been spared gratuitous destruction. There followed 200 years of neglect and decay, culminating in closure for safety reasons for a short period in c19. Only in 1881 was a restoration fund started and Blythburgh could begin its long road back to the magnificent structure - and largely unchanged - structure we see today.

Structurally, we are able to marvel at the space and light and a near-complete perpendicular church but not, in truth, at very much else. As with nearby Ufford, however, it is the furnishings that provide the interest. The bench poppy heads are great fun and largely intact. We can even see the Seven Deadly Sins laid out to provoke our guilt! There is a lovely roof with original paint and angels. There is a “Seven Sacrament Font” (the seven Christian ceremonies - such as Baptism- that brings one “nearer to God”) but it was totally defaced. There are some fine and fierce looking creatures standing guard on the church roof.

Finally, I have to mention the story that in a great storm of August 1577 lightning “cleft the door” and caused sundry other damage as well as, it is said, claiming the lives of two people. The burn marks are still on the door, and there are those then and now who prefer to them as the handmarks of the Devil....

The “regulation” view from the nave to the chancel. The clean spaciousness of this church clear to see, no doubt enhanced by the uniform roof line and the unusual symmetry of the arcades. This church is really a big rectangular box with no obstructions. The frequency of the nave and clerestory windows make this a church full of light.

The gorgeous roof, with oodles of original paintwork and pairs of angels. Note the monograms of Christ, similar to those in Ufford. There are plenty of holes perforating the roof. Some have blamed Cromwell’s troops for discharging muskets. The more likely explanation, apparently, is the bounty that was offered for shooting the jackdaws that plagued the church in c18! Remarkably, no “ironmongery” was used in this roof - just mortis joints and wooden pins.

The south porch would often have been used for marriages and baptisms. The niche statue is modern - the ancient one would have been destroyed by the Puritans. Above the entrance there is a first floor priest’s room that the priest would have used for private prayers for the church’s benefactors.

At the entrance to the porch is a holy water stoup.

The east end window. Note the “lombardic” script picked out in flushwork at the base - shown enlarged above this picture.

The extraordinary clean uninterrupted architectural lines of the nave and chancel. Perhaps it was the years of neglect that legislated against the usual temptations to add side chapels, vestries and the like in style current at the time,

These book rests from the choir stalls were used in the Hopton Chapel within the church when it was used as a schoolroom in c17!

The Seven Sacrament font, sadly shorn of its ornamentation by the Puritans.

The choir stalls have evangelists carved on their front faces, in this case - from left to right - SS John the Baptist, Matthew, Matthias, Bartholomew, Philip, Andrew and Luke.

Looking towards the north east of the church the ubiquitous bench poppy heads can clearly be seen.

The north door with its lightning burns clearly visible to the right.

Grotesques and Sentinels

Blyburgh has some superb external carvings, Top left a gryphon stands watch over the porch. Top right is a wonderful bear with a chain around his neck to which a heavy weight is attached. It was no fun being a bear in mediavel times! These sentinels appear on each of the nave buttresses. In the lower picture is the topmost part of the south aspect of the porch. Another ugly brute keeps watch on the left pinnacle whilst a peaceful and somewhat incongruous human figure peers curiously from the right. Below the flushwork strip we can see an angel preaching to us, what looks like a small cat’s head and a grotesque figure whose mouth holds one of the downpipes.

 

 

The Poppy Heads - all Life is Here

Summer

Angel with Crown

Slander

The Sick Bed

Sowing

Gluttony

Footnote

Autumn

So what does this all mean? It doesn’t take a genius to know there must be some meaning to these “letters”. First, the boring and most likely option: that they are the initials of a latin dedication - “Ad Honorem Jesu Beati Sanctae Trinitatis Maria Sanctae Annae Hic Kancellus Reconstructus” - or “To the honour of Blessed Jesus, the Holy Trinity, Mary and St Anne this chancel has been rebuilt”. The second is that they are initials of benefactors of the church. Better still, they may be both!