(bly) Holy Trinity Church

A Supremely Beautiful Place (Arthur Mee's Suffolk)

View from northern bank of the R. Blyth

BLYTHBURGH. As gracious an old place as we could hope to come to in a day's journey, it was once a port where ships came with many cargoes, and though its greatest days have gone it still has a splendour that draws all travellers to it, and among its possessions are stones said to be from the coffin of a king of 1300 years ago.

Up the River Blyth sailed the Romans, and after them the Saxons and the Normans. Those who came 600 years ago found a town with a priory, busy wharves, a great trade in fish, and a flourishing weaving industry. But misfortune was to come soon after. Ships no longer sailed to the old moorings, trade died away, more than one fire took its toll of the wooden houses, and what had been a bustling town became the quiet village we see, a lovely old place with thatched houses about its marvellous church.

Still standing not far away is a hollow oak where one of the Royalist Rouses (perhaps Sir John) is said to have hidden in the Civil War, his wife bringing him food secretly; and it is also said that in after years Sir Robert Rouse and some of his friends would meet at night in the same tree and pledge the king across the water. Of Blythburgh's 12th century priory only a few ruins are left in a garden. Their neighbours are old houses, an inn with fine beams and panels, and an old grey building called Flemish House where a weaver lived in the prosperous years.

But more than all else we come to see the great church the monks may have built. Standing proudly where it draws the eyes of all, it is one of the magnificent shrines of East Anglia, a supremely beautiful building with grace and grandeur outside and in, almost 130 feet long. A splendid tribute it is to the skill and devotion of the 15th century builders, and a witness of the great wealth of old Blythburgh.

Looking down from the parapet of one of the aisles is a remarkable gallery of queer creatures carved in stone, an unusual and most entertaining company. There are stone circles with little finials also enriching this parapet, and below are seven splendid windows with fine tracery, while above are the windows of the clerestory, all so big and so close together that we wonder how the narrow pilasters between them can support the roof. The north side has a simpler parapet and a porch with painted beams, a lion and a griffin over the doorway. Under the east window is a curious flint inscription which has long puzzled the antiquarians, but is thought to record the building of the church.

The remarkable south porch has big doors still fastened by great beams, and in the room above is a tiny opening through which a watchful monk could peep into the church. Just outside is a stoup so big that it may have been a font, and on the arch of another doorway is what is left of a mass clock.

We come into this great place with great expectations, and we are not disappointed. It has the greatness of a wonderful simplicity, not rich as many churches are, but light and spacious and white from floor to roof. The roof is superb; the horses of the Roundheads that broke so many of the floor tiles could do no harm up there. It is a wonderful mass of painted beams (hundreds of feet of them), a striking contrast with the plain white walls, and well lit up by the 36 clerestory windows. There are great angels on the beams, some battered by time and rifle shot; it is said that some of them have still Civil War bullets in them.

Yet not even war could spoil Blythburgh, and here today are windows with fragments of the old glass found among rubbish in the churchyard and put back in the beautiful old tracery they long ago adorned. Many of the old pieces are in the Hopton chantry, where 15th century heraldry makes a pleasant touch of colour and St Felix shines among a few portraits. It is interesting to find him here, for he links this church with forgotten days and battles long ago.

A man of peace, he came preaching Christianity in East Anglia in the 7th century and must have seen the first little church here, a building of wood and thatch said to have been finished about 620. St Felix died in 647, and only a few years afterwards the East Anglians and Mercians fought a great battle close by, King Anna of the East Anglians being slain. It is said that his body lay for a time in the simple church from which this majestic pile has grown, and there are fragments of stone which may have been his coffin; they are in the floor between the font and the porch, and thrilling it is to look at such a link with the early days of Christianity in a Suffolk village.

The story of Blythburgh's treasures is not yet half told. Here is a big chest, a stair to an old roodloft, and a pair of stones in the north aisle showing the spot where a prior was buried with his feet to the west so that he might face the congregation when he rose again. Here is a curious almsbox beautifully carved by a craftsman 400 or 500 years ago, and a first edition of the Authorised Version of the Bible. Here is the tomb of Thomas Neale, who died in 1640 and gave eight almshouses at Bramfield, and a plain tomb of the last of the Swillingtons, to which a little tale belongs. For a long time the monks of the priory were said to have hidden their church plate within this tomb, but when it was opened nothing was found. What really happened was that Henry the Eighth gave the treasures to Sir Arthur Hopton, who pawned them and never got them back. Sir Arthur lies here in a tomb with a richly sculptured canopy.

A pathetic bronze on one of the walls has on it a profile portrait of Ernest Crofts, R.A., put here by students who knew him, and there is a little tablet at the side to his daughter Elizabeth, saying:
What we bury in the grave is but earthly clothing; what we love lives on.

There is a tablet also to another RA, his friend and neighbour here, John Seymour Lucas. Here this fine artist lived and died. He painted some of the most dramatic scenes of our history, and his picture of Drake playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe, unperturbed by the news of the sighting of the Armada, will alone secure him a place among our fine painters.

Old and new craftsmanship has gone to the making of the screens shutting off the chancel and the two chapels. The dreaded death-watch beetle has attacked them.

On a black day in the year 1577 a flash of lightning struck the spire and sent tons of masonry crashing through the roof, a man and a boy being killed and many people scorched. The splendid 15th century font was damaged, and, as if it had not suffered enough, was afterwards battered by the soldiers, who broke the figures in its panels. The fall of the spire brought down the old bells, and with them came one of the curiosities of this place, a Jack o' the Clock which is one of the minor sights of Suffolk. It has been repaired and is here for all to see, striking at the beginning of service. One of very few in Europe of its kind, it has an odd figure which strikes a bell with an axe.

At the west end of the church is an old wheel and clamp of one of the bells that fell three centuries ago, but still up in the tower, ringing faithful and true, is a bell of those days which is interesting to engineers as an example of early foundry work. It stands 42 inches high and weighs about 8 cwt, and it has handsome rings for hanging it. In our time this bell has cracked and been repaired by welding.

In this noble place are some very queer folk, a company of little wooden people as odd as any East Anglia has, fashioned by 15th century woodcarvers who must have been very knowing fellows, worldly-wise and good humoured. We can imagine them thinking that even if no good sermons were preached from the pulpit the worshippers should still go away with something to think on, and so they carved sermons on these fine old bench-ends and made a gallery of saints on the chancel stalls. It is odd to notice that the stalls have inkwells, relics of the 17th century when they were used in the Hopton chapel, which was then a school for the children of Dutchmen and Swedes hired to help in the work of preventing the flooding of the river. One of the Swedish boys has achieved for himself a mischievous immortality by carving his name on a stall.

The gallery of saints is charming. There is Luke in a doctor's cap, Andrew with a six-pointed beard, Bartholomew with a knife, Matthias with an axe and book, Thomas with a staff, Matthew with a purse, Stephen with three stones, John with a serpent in a cup. Even more fascinating are the old benches, their poppyheads richly carved with illustrations of the four seasons and the deadly sins. We see Sloth sitting in bed, too lazy to get up; Drunkenness punished in the stocks; Avarice sitting on his money though he is in agony with toothache; Gluttony uncomfortably overfed; Pride richly dressed ; and Hypocrisy as a little praying figure staring about. Slander is here with her tongue cut (Tell tale tit, your tongue shall be slit), for even so do our churches and nurseries keep the old ideas alive.

Yet, wonderful as are all these little figures, there are three things that may thrill the pilgrim more: two crude old benches and part of an oak lectern. The base of the lectern is crudely shaped, and the benches are nothing to look at, yet all three are amazing by their very presence here, for they are of bog oak from a submerged forest.

Bible Answers