St John the Baptist, Stoke-by-Clare
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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|The large, pleasant villages of
the upper Stour Valley, with their half-timbered houses,
village greens and grand churches, are strikingly lovely.
Stoke-by-Clare, Clare and Cavendish lie all in a row on
the Haverhill to Sudbury road, with Long Melford,
Glemsford and Hundon not far off. John Appleby's book Suffolk
Summer tells his story of being an American
serviceman in what were then busy working villages in the
year the Second World War ended. Appleby spent these
quiet months before he was repatriated cycling around
Suffolk villages and visiting their churches, often
starting or finishing his journey at stations on the old
Cambridge to Colchester railway line which ran along the
Stour Valley and within a hundred yards of this church.
The railway has gone now, and prosperity has made these
The church sits in the grounds of Stoke College, a building of 15th Century origins. It was the College of St John the Baptist, effectively a community of priests. If Appleby found these villages busy in the 1940s, think what they must have been like in the 1540s! The Stour Valley villages were then hives of industry, turning the wool of the sheep farmed in the hills around into cloth. At that time, the last Dean of the College was Matthew Parker, later Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the pivotal figures in the English Reformation. He played an important role in the story of Stoke-by-Clare's parish church too, as we shall see. The oldest part of the church is the tower, which as Pevsner noted is that of an earlier church, probably early 14th Century, which was successively rebuilt over the course of the 15th Century. A number of bequests to the church, recorded by Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton, were made in the middle years of that century to the fixtures and fittings of the church, suggesting that the rebuilt church was largely complete by that time. However, in 1510 Thomas Elys left money to the new aisle of the church, and indeed the external appearance of Stoke-by-Clare's church seems to be one on the very eve of the Reformation and perhaps even a little bit later, probably thanks to Parker's enthusiasm for creating a fitting space for congregational worship.
Like many industrial places, Stoke
by Clare was a hotbed of Protestantism by the early years
of the 16th Century. Parker's influence fell heavily on
St John the Baptist, and it was one of the flagship
preaching houses of the reformers. The exterior is grand
and austere, the castellated aisles stretching beyond the
high clerestory to the chancel east wall, as if this were
a ship, and the nave roof the bridge. To complete the
illusion, the rood turret on the north side has a little
door leading out onto the aisle roof. You enter the
church through the castellated north porch into a
powerful, wide interior full of light. The brick floors
and white walls seem to emphasise this simplicity. There
is little coloured glass, and what there is in the nave
eschews the frequent sentimentality of 19th Century
figurative glass for texts and a simple memorial to
Parker. The wineglass pulpit he knew is still in situ,
the result of a bequest of the 1490s. It is richly carved
but barely twenty inches wide inside, and generally held
to be the smallest medieval pulpit surviving in England.
The war memorial glass depicting a busy if rather jolly St George in the south chancel chapel is interesting, because it is to the design of Thomas Derrick. Derrick was best known as a cartoonist. He worked for Punch magazine, and also designed some World War Two propaganda posters.
Stepping back out of the chancel
and facing west you can see that the filled-in tower arch
is out of alignment, the south arcade finishing more or
less in the middle of it. What has clearly happened is
that the south aisle wall is the original south wall of
an aisleless nave, retained for a new use when the new
south arcade was built in the 15th Century. This may mean
that the south chapel predates this and it is possible
that the church was originally cruciform. As the whole
church was rebuilt northwards of the retained south wall,
so the tower was left behind towards the south.
Its subject matter is conventional, but the colour scheme is unusual, with a pale green background. Christ sits in Majesty on a rainbow at the top, and below him stands St Michael weighing souls against their sins in a balance. Around St Michael's feet the dead rise from their graves as at Stanningfield. The heavenly city is off to the left, while the fires of Hell burn merrily on the right. Another curiosity in this corner of the church is hidden away on a north side window sill. It is a primitively carved inscription on Latin to a Priest, William Dickons, dated 1567. This is fully twenty years after the Reformation, but the bottom of the inscription appears to have been obliterated. Was he one of the old college that had remained here, and died here? Was it placed here unofficially? Did the lost inscription ask us to pray for his soul?
As you'd expect in a place of such late medieval and early modern wealth, St John the Baptist has a number of brasses, mostly at the eastern end of the nave. The best-known are to Edward and Alice Talkerne. He died in 1597, she in 1605, her inscription declaring not only that she was a widdow, that she was buried by her husband. In this case of course the word 'by' has the same meaning as 'beside'. William Butcher was buried near to them in 1611, and his inscription tells us that he gave ye poore of Stoke at his buriall £V & more £XX to remayne in stocke for them forever: allso to ye poore of Sibly Hiningham £40 at his buryall & £X to remayne in stocke for them for ever.
There is a sense of course in which this building is a shell, stripped of the medieval purposes which dictated its construction. Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton transcribed the 1477 will in Latin of Agnes Dyke, which makes interesting reading and gives a flavour not only of the way in which the church was used, its furnishings and its liturgy, but also an insight into the religious beliefs and ferment of those extraordinary decades before the Reformation. She left 26s 8d to the purchase of a canopy for the pyx to hang in over the high altar of the church where the Lord's body may rest and a new and precious container to be prepared for placing the body of Our Lord Jesus Christ in, for carrying from the church into the town there when necessary. The will continues with three further bequests: to the making of a new solar in the same church called 'le rodlofte' to be newly made, 13s 4d, to the provision of new stools in the same church 13s 4d, and to the paving of the same church 6s 8d. Almost thirty years later in 1506 Florence Aisshefeld, widow of Stanton, was concerned for the welfare of her immortal soul, and left money to the gilde of Stow Seynt John aforsaid 6s 8d there to be remembered and praied for as a suster of the same.
But the prayers for Florence Aisshefeld's soul had but a half century to run, and Agnes Dyke's canopy, pyx and solar were soon to come tumbling down. Matthew Parker's muscular theology on the other hand is reflected in the 16th Century clock bell, for which he was probably responsible. Unusually for late medieval bells, it doesn't bear an invocation to a saint, but the motto Surge Mane Servire Deo ('Rise in the Morning to Serve God'). The old world was coming to an end, and the movers and shakers of the new world were coming out of places like Stoke-by-Clare. These people went about their business with enthusiasm, and early-modern England was forged in their preaching.
Simon Knott, September 2021
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