St Mary, Thornham Parva
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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From the moment that you see it across the fields, you know that Thornham Parva's little church is something special. At first the silhouette perhaps, or a stain of gold that resolves as you approach into a solid little Norman church. At night it is floodlit and floats above the darkness. On winter days, the low light catches its honeyed walls across ploughed furrows. In summer, the entrancing trees gather, a setting for a diadem. There isnt really a village, and St Mary sits lonely in the fields. The thatched roof is charming, and set against it is a small square tower, also crowned in thatch. There is a stubborn timelessness about it, a silent witness to long centuries.
The later tower was added to a building that was at heart a small Norman church, although much of the window tracery we see today is contemporary with the tower. The nave was extended with a tiny chancel in the early 14th Century although there is no obvious division from outside. A contract made in 1485 survives between three parishioners and the masons Jon Tilley and Richard Cutting to build the tower at the west end of the church. Subsequently the masons were sued for defective workmanship, but the tower of course survives. It is not a large tower, but money was still being left towards its construction in 1520 when William Baldry bequeathed 3s 4d to the steple in his will.
But you have to step
inside to discover that Thornham Parva church is one of
the most remarkable of all small churches in East Anglia,
a treasure house, an aesthetic pleasure, a delight. It
has been shaped by an intensely rural collision of
historical circumstances, and they have left a moving and
coherent document of our Suffolk past, and a church which
attracts visitors from all over the world, for it is
worth seeing and worth going to see. In particular, it
has not one but two remarkable survivals. If they were in
the Victoria and Albert Museum we would willingly travel
to London to see them, and happily pay handsomely for
doing so. And yet here they are, in the fields that
punctuate the Thornham woods, in a church which is open
The retable was only part of a much larger altarpiece that probably once stood in the Blackfriars Priory at Thetford over the border in Norfolk. Most of the frontal from the piece is now in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, although one panel is lost to us, but may still be adorning a church out there in Europe somewhere. The Thornham Parva part was removed from the Priory church after it was destroyed in the Anglican Reformation, along with so many of Englands treasures. Perhaps it was taken by recusant Catholics to use in their devotions, but more likely it was simply rescued because it was beautiful. It was purchased by Sir John Major of Thornham Hall in 1778 for his collection, from a house in nearby Stradbroke and later put into storage in the loft of one of the estate barns and forgotten until it was rediscovered.
The retable is painted with ten standing figures about the Crucifixion. The backgrounds are chequered and textured using gesso, a kind of Plaster of Paris which was applied and allowed to dry before being carved to shape and painted. From left to right, the figures are St Dominic (Thetford was a Dominican Priory); St Catherine; St John the Baptist; St Paul; a rood group of the Blessed Virgin, Christ and St John; St Peter; St Edmund; St Margaret; St Peter Martyr (another Dominican). The retable dates from the 1330s, the height of the Decorated period, in the decades before the Black Death. Ironically, it is almost exactly contemporary with the chancel in which it now sits. They are perhaps the liveliest and most alive medieval figures in Suffolk. St Catherine in particular appears to be stepping through an archway from dancing in a garden.
As if the retable were
not enough, the walls of St Mary are lined with some of
Suffolks most interesting wall paintings. They rank
with those at Wissington in the south of county, and date
broadly from the early years of the 14th Century, that is
to say roughly contemporary with the retable. There are
two ranges. On the south wall is the story of the early
years of Christ, while on the north wall is the martyrdom
of St Edmund. This is very rare. Fragments survive of
another sequence not far off at Troston, but there is
only one other complete martyrdom story surviving in the
whole of the Kingdom.
What was the point of
this sequence? A lot of nonsense is talked about images
in wall paintings and stained glass being the poor
man's bible for peasants who couldnt read.
This reasoning suggests that medieval images were
destroyed during the 16th Century Anglican Reformation
because they were no longer needed. In fact,
the reformers destroyed them because they were Catholic
devotional tools. The wall paintings on the south side
here form a rosary sequence, pictures for meditation
while saying prayers with the aid of rosary beads. Often
this was done while Mass was being said by the priest in
the chancel. If the reformers were to turn our churches
into congregational preaching houses, the wall paintings
had to go.
Although it is sad that we have lost so much of both sequences because of later alterations, it has to be said that the walls of this church are beautiful. The late medieval windows, which include some excellent 20th century glass by Lawrence Whistler, the paraffin lamps, the memorials to churchwardens, all add rather than detract. The screen is tiny and over-restored, but you can still see the sawn-off ends of the rood beam and the floor of the rood loft. Standing in the rood screen, the retable behind you for a moment, the full beauty of the gallery can be seen, and above it a circular window which from the outside is hidden by the tower.
An interesting insight into the medieval life of a small Suffolk parish is given by a will of 1524 recorded by Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton. Robert Baldry, perhaps the brother of the WIlliam who had left money towards the tower four years earlier, declared I bequeth unto Robert George an heckforth (a young female cow) and one acre of whete to discharge myn pyllgrymage unto our ladye of Wallsingham to our ladye of grace in Ippeswich to our ladye of Wullpytt and to the roode in Eye abbey all this to be donne at hys owne cost and charge. Thus, Robert Baldry requested Robert George to visit the most significant Marian shrines in East Anglia at Walsingham, Ipswich and Woolpit as well as to what may have been believed to be a fragment of the True Cross at Eye to make intercessionary prayers for his soul after his death. Most likely it was a previously agreed arrangement made while Baldry was still alive.
And so we step out into the churchyard which has a number of burials of interest. As well as the violinist Frederick Grinke, it includes the last resting place of the great 20th Century architect Sir Basil Spence, designer of Coventry Cathedral, the Kensington and Chelsea barracks in London, and Britain's best university campus, the University of Sussex, to name but three. Ironically, his 1980s memorial, which was designed by himself and carved by John Skelton, was replaced in 2006 because the Suffolk weather had begun to make it crumble. One hopes they used better materials for his buildings.
Simon Knott, April 2021
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