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The parish church of St Margaret is always open in recognition of a grant made to the parish by the Churches Conservation Trust in the mid 1990s to restore what is essentially a medieval Grade II listed building.

It is appropriate that entry, from north or south (picture to the left), is by a Norman doorway. When both doors are open there is a striking view through the church from the north into the southern churchyard. A visitor cannot help but step through time to when the Cluniac monks of Thetford Priory were consolidating their East Anglian mission by founding the Priory of Wangford circa 1180. They quickly began collecting local benefactions to support it and this is how Stoven first entered ecclesiastical history. The Bigods were the lay founders of Thetford and they also held Stoven.

There was a strong French connection. Analysis of early deeds points to Wangford's founder being ‘Ansered of France'. A deed circa 1200 states that Sir Geraline de Vernuns 'gave to God and the church of St. Peter, Wangford, and the monks there serving God, whatever his father Anteredus had granted them, the church of Reydon with the chapel of Rissemere'. Rissemere was a hamlet within the ecclesiastical parish of Reydon, which eventually became the port of Southwold. Anteredus’ benefaction also included the water-mill and dam at Reydon, and an acre of land near the dam for its repair.

Taxation returns show that by the end of the 13th century there had been numerous benefactions to the priory. The prior held lands and rents in Wangford and adjacent parishes of the annual value of £12 and also a mill at 'Surgueland,' worth 20s. a year. The spiritual property included Reydon with its chapel, and Stoven. These appropriations were worth £22 a year. The total income of the priory, exclusive of the tithes of Wangford itself, was thus about £35. On the eve of the Dissolution in 1535 the prior held the rectories of Wangford, Reydon cum Southwold, Covehithe (North Hales), and Stoven, with a substantial income from the churches of Stoven and Easton Bavents

On the Dissolution of the monasteries Wangford Priory and Stoven passed into the hands of the Duke of Norfolk from whose son it was purchased by Sir John Rous ( the 6th baronet of the Rous family became Earl of Stradbroke) in the early days of the seventeenth century. It appears that the building began to deteriorate for the next two centuries. By 1835 the living had been downgraded from a rectory to a perpetual curacy. Ten years later the rural church restoration movement reached Stoven when the building's antiquity was affirmed by a project to encase the decaying medieval carcase in a neo-Norman facade with a French belltower. This was a significant milestone in church history because it coincided with a conjunction of historians, who were researching the development of building style, with architects who applied their findings to the restoration of old country churches and the construction of new outposts of christianity in expanding towns and cities. A key figure, both as a theorist and practictioner, was Thomas Rickman (1799-1852). His chief claim to fame is a book 'Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture' published in 1819. In the book he established the terms 'Norman', 'Early English' and 'Decorated', which were to become the basis of architectural pattern books. A.W.N Pugin was a disciple of Rickman and went on to become the champion of Gothic Revival as a carrier of a 'new age of faith'. Clearly, the Normanising of Stoven is a remarkable example of this combination of ecclesiastical history with the missionary zeal of wealthy Victorians.

By the mid century the Lemans of Brampton Hall were impropriators and patrons, and in 1854 the Rev. George Orgill Leman was the incumbent. The Brampton connection was no doubt instrumental in the eventual merging the parishes of Stoven with Brampton.

The crisis for Stoven church came towards the end of the 20th century when in 1987 the bill for repairs was far greater than the parishioners could service. The church was declared redundant and put up for sale. The poor state of the building put off many prospective purchasers and in 1992 the Church Commissioners prepared a notice of demolition. It was then that a re-examination of the fabric was made with the surprise finding that the walls of the medieval church still existed beneath the plastered Victorian outer shell. Also, the cost of renovation was not so great as the original estimate. The redundancy notice was recinded and a renovated church was reopened in 1996. Small areas of the original walls were left unplastered to prove a medieval provenance.

thetford_door.jpgWe shall never know who designed the magnificent Norman arch in Stoven's south wall. After the Dissolution, Wangford Priory church seems to have been completely rebuilt for the parish, so there are no clues in this direction. Possibly, the flow of ideas came from the 12th century building designs of Wangford's mother house at Thetford.

The Priory of Our Lady of Thetford was established by Roger Bigod in 1104. By 1114 the new abbbey church was completed while construction of the other buildings and cloister continued throughout the 12th century. The only Norman feature to be found today in the ruined remains at Thetford is the 12th century doorway to the Priors lodging (pictured to the left). This is a much simpler round-headed design than the one at Stoven and lacks the second inner arch. The main points of similarity are the upturned carved caps of the door jambs. However, this feature is also found in other Norman doorways in the neighbourhood, such as Westhall.

The existence two doors into the west end of the nave is unusual, but is also a feature of its neighbour at Uggeshall. The latter has two 12th century round-headed doors, the northern one of which is blocked. Uggeshall was also a Bigod possession.


Another possible explanation for the north door at Stoven is that when the church was Normanised an original southern priest's entrance to the chancel was dismantled to make way for the small extension now to be found there, and the doorway moved to a new nave entrance in its north wall.

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Nevertheless, Stoven stands complete in all its historical mysteries, representing a plan and a style which, as the last in a long sequence of architects and their patrons, is believed by its parishioners to be best suited to a sacred space for modern worship with fitting ceremony.









Part of the northern facade.

On a wider scale, Stoven's ecclesiastical history represents the complex origins of the parish system in England that lie in the gradual subdivision of large, ill-defined territories centred on the churches established by kings and bishops in the Anglo-Saxon period. From the 10th century onwards new churches were established by other landlords for themselves and their tenants so that by the 11th - 12th centuries church-going had become organised on a strictly territorial basis.

By 1100 there were 6-7000 parish churches in England, each of which performed pastoral care for a community living within a well-defined area, its size depending on the density of population. In rural areas a parish often, but not always, came to be equivalent to a manor, and the parish church, the property of the manorial lord, was usually located adjacent to his residence. A parish was expected to have sufficient resources to support the church and priest, and to undertake the care of the poor and sick. It was sustained by taxes and tithes levied on agricultural produce, although landlords took some of the revenue for their own purposes leaving priests as poor as their other tenants. Stoven's church stands as an icon of the gradual failure of this system with the spread of agnosticicm and atheism and a continuing decline in church-going into the third millennium.

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(c. 1908)