BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

29 October 2014

BBC Homepage

Local BBC Sites

Neighbouring Sites

Related BBC Sites

Contact Us

You are in: Suffolk > Nature > Coast > > Point 6 - The Parish Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr

The Church of St.Edmund, Southwold

The Church of St.Edmund, Southwold

Point 6 - The Parish Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr

Called the grandest church in Suffolk, St Edmund’s was built in the 15th century, and is Grade 1 listed.

The area around the church was then the medieval centre of Southwold.

The Rose Rent

In 1458 the Prior of Thetford gave some additional land for the churchyard.  In place of asking an annual rent he requested that one rose be placed on the high altar.  This tradition continues to this day with a rose being placed on the altar on 24th June, St John the Baptist's Day. 

The font cover measuring 24 ft high!

The font cover measuring 24 ft high!

Village Fairs

Markets and fairs would have taken place on the green beside the church. If the merry-making got out of hand the village stocks would be put to good use!

The church would not have had any pews at this time, instead the nave would have been used as a community centre, only the choir beyond the screen would have been used for holy services.

In those days the church would have been approached from the west so that side of the church is particularly ornate. The 100 ft tower and the mix of dark and knapped flint produces an imposing spectacle.

The first thing that strikes you on walking into the church is the light from the huge glittering windows. It seems unbelievable that at one stage in its history these were partially bricked up, presumably to conserve heat in what must have been a pretty chilly building.

The Font

The font is of a similar age to the church but suffered badly during the reformation, when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church. Carved figures in the niches were hacked away and large pieces of masonry are missing where the font was attacked with an axe.

Southwold Jack

Southwold Jack

This destruction was carried out on the orders of Captain Dowsing who went around the churches in East Anglia looking for what he considered to be idolatrous images.

The font cover is a replacement for the one destroyed by Dowsing in 1643 and it stands at a staggering 24 feet high! For baptisms a cable and pulley system with a counter weight has to be deployed to raise the cover to enable the Vicar to reach the holy water. It must be a fairly fraught occasion for all concerned!


Model of lifeboat in the Church

Model of lifeboat in the Church

Southwold Jack

A famous local figure, Southwold Jack represents a soldier from the Wars of the Roses. He is dressed in armour and holds a sword in one hand and a battle axe in the other. This axe can be raised to ring the bell, which tells the congregation that the service is about to begin.

Jack has been in the church since the 15th century and it’s thought his original function was to strike the hours on the clock. There is another Jack of the Clock in Blythburgh Church, but they are rare figures.

He is a familiar sight for many people as he has been ‘borrowed’ by Adnams Brewery as their trademark.

The Lifeboat

Hanging from the ceiling is a model of the Alfred Corry. Its most famous coxswain was Sam May, who is buried in the churchyard. He has a delightful epitaph on his gravestone which reads:

His anchor was the holy word
His rudder blooming hope
The love of God his main topsail
And faith his sailing rope.

Detail on the lectern

Detail on the lectern

A reminder that he was a seaman but also a faithful member of the church.

Medieval toothache and horse skulls

In the chancel are some very unusual carvings on the arm rests of the choir stalls. One of them is of a man who is pulling his mouth open and it’s thought to represent the agonies of medieval toothache!

There is also plenty of graffiti on the choir stalls, but it's not recent, it dates back to the 17th century. At this time the chancel was not in use for regular worship but was being used as a school room for the local children - so nothing changes, at least they didn’t have spray paint then…

Underneath the choir stalls is an acoustic chamber with small openings in the stone which were designed to enhance the sound of the choir. Various items were placed in the empty chamber to improve the resonance….old urns, large pots and even the skulls of horses!

But with a modern day amplification system in place these chambers are no longer used.

The Rood Screen

This elaborate screen was erected in 1480 and is a national treasure with its delicate wood carving tracery. The top of the screen was destroyed by the reformers and the panels at the base were defaced.

The twelve apostles are clearly depicted on these panels with their symbols to identify them, but every face has been obliterated. Dowsing’s men didn’t approve of representations of human figures. They thought it was distracting from the main purpose of the church - which was to worship.

The rotten roof

Another interesting tale relates to some restoration work which took place in the late 19th century.  The roof of the church was found to be rotten and a large piece of roofing hung precariously over the pulpit. 

Because of the difficulty in reaching the offending piece, a bowler from the local cricket team was called upon to dislodge the item with a cricket ball.  Apparently he was successful and no mention is made of any broken windows!


Before you leave the church be sure to look at the beautiful Millennium kneelers. All 350 of them were individually designed, each with their own special meaning. They were worked on by 130 different stitchers who between them sewed over eight million stitches.

On leaving the Church and heading back towards the seafront you will see Adnams Brewery.

last updated: 22/04/2008 at 10:52
created: 14/07/2005

Have Your Say

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Peter Page
No mention of the significant pipe organ with its wonderful case.

Doug Persons (USAF MSgt, Ret)
I have had the pleasure of visiting Bury and the church many times over the past years. I feel a specialbond there due to the efforts of John Appleby, anAmerican Serviceman servingthere during WW11. He also started the memorial gardensbehind the church. Bury StEdmunds is one of my favorite towns in all of England. I will be back again next year! Sincerely,Doug Personsemail -

Barry Weaver
What is the story behind the carved heads on the row of houses near the church-one of them looks like s=oliver Hardy of Laurel and Hardy.

Jenny RAy
desperately seeking the Southwold Beach Hut Kneeler kit (either a copy or a picture or a half completed one) from St Edmonds Church.

vera abram
i have the calling to visit the church hopefully i will find my way back

david abbott
I was interested in who was southwold jack as I have aquired a caddy spoon depicting Jack. My curiosity is satisfied.

You are in: Suffolk > Nature > Coast > > Point 6 - The Parish Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr

Grab a Crab

Grab a Crab game

How many crabs can you fish out from the sea?

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy