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29 October 2014

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Discovering Southwold

You are in: Suffolk > Coast > Discovering Southwold > The Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr

David Weight

David Weight

The Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr

Listen/read more about the parish church of Southwold from David Weight, who runs the guided tours.


The Font

My name is David Weight, I’m a member of the choir here in the church and I also run the church guided tours which take place in the summer.  We’re a small team of volunteers and we take people round the church once a week during the summer.  We think it’s a wonderful church and we’d like to share some of its beauties and some of its fascinating history with visitors.

One of this first things we visit on our tour is the font at the west end of the church.  The font goes back to the 15th century, when this church was built but is in a very sad state today alas, because during the time of the reformation, when Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic church a lot of damage was done to the font to remove the various figures that were carved in the niches and we can still see also large pieces of masonry missing where the reformers hacked away with an axe.  Above it is a magnificent font cover. 

All covers were there to prevent people getting at holy water and using it for the wrong purposes, and the covers in East Anglia got more and more elaborate and this one here is believed to be the tallest in the country.  It is a modern reproduction of the original cover which was destroyed during the time of the commonwealth, during Cromwell’s time.  A certain Capt Dowsing went around to East Anglian churches to destroy what they considered to by idolatrous images. 

So this beautiful reproduction was designed by F E Howard in the 1930s.  It was based on designs that are still in existence.  There is an original font cover, not quite as large as this one, not far from here, in the village of Ufford.   This font cover can be raised by a cable and pulley system on a counter weight in the corner, so it can be used for baptisms, and is still used.  The vicar stands up on this plinth here and is able to reach into the font for the water to baptise the child. 

No doubt the mother feels somewhat anxious during the process! But we’ve had no accidents and the thing of course is checked very regularly for safety.  But it is a beautiful object and looks particularly good when viewed from the east end of the church framed in the west window.

Southwold Jack

Now in a corner here, not far from the font we see a very famous local figure, called the Southwold Jack.  It’s a representation of a soldier from the wars of the roses, wearing his armour, although there are some artistic embellishments. 

He holds in his left hand a sword and in his right a battle axe and that little axe can be raised and the bell rung. In fact I’ll demonstrate that….the battleaxe will rise and then when dropped, hits the bell (BELL RINGS).  That is used to tell the congregation we are about to start a service, but Jack’s first and original function we believe was to strike the hours on a clock and he goes back to the time when this church was built in the 15th century and he’s been in the church in various places ever since. 

His figure is very well known because he’s been borrowed by the local brewery, Adnams, as their trademark.  But  we had him first!  There is another Jack of the Clock in Blythburgh Church, not far from here.  But they are rather rare figures and so we’re very proud of him and he really does represent Southwold.

The Alfred Corry

Now, near the Jack is a model lifeboat hanging from the ceiling which commemorates the service of a wonderful team of lifeboatmen who ran this boat called the Alfred Corry, known otherwise as Southwold No 1.  This was in service some 25 years until early in the 20th century when it was retired from service and had a remarkable record of saving lives. 

The most famous coxswain was a certain Sam May, who was one of the great characters of Southwold in his day.  He alone has the honour of having a plaque commemorating his name on one of the pews and he is buried in the churchyard with a very delightful epitaph on his grave stone, recalling his time at sea.

The epitaph to Sam May reads as follows, reminding us that he was a seaman but also a faithful member of this church:

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

Southold, USA

The next thing to see is a board on the north wall of the church, which is called the Board of the Perpetual Curates of the Chapel of St Edmund’s, Southwold.  This mouthful reminds us that there was prior to this church a chapel on this site and the so-called Curates are recorded on this board going right back to the year 1314.   It takes us right up to the previous incumbent, Peter Bustin, who was installed here in 1984. 

But one name we always like to call attention to on this board is John Youngs, who was the son of the vicar here.  In the early 17th century because there was a swing back towards the pre-reformation church and its practices, which was not favoured by either Young senior or Young junior.  Young junior, along with many other people in East Anglia at that time, decided that their future lay on the other side of the Atlantic, in the New World, where they were free to worship in the way they preferred. 

John Youngs finally landed on Long Island and founded, with others the town of Southold, commemorating the fact that he came from this part of the world.  Southold, Long Island has no ‘w’ in it, but it’s a town of a similar size to ours and still has close links with this town. 

Many exchanges take place between the two and the inhabitants of Southold were kind enough to leave money to pay for the refurbishment of our pulpit here and there is a small brass plaque on the floor to commemorate that fact.

Wood carvings

In the chancel we have some very fine choir stalls with misericordes, which are carvings underneath seats which tilt up.  Possibly these stalls may have come from a monastery originally because they are not the sort of thing you normally find in a parish church.  

The carvings on the arm rests are also fascinating, all kinds of weird creatures and people, allowing the medieval carvers to use a bit of fantasy.  One of the most intriguing figures is a representation of a man who is pulling his mouth open and we think he’s probably got toothache!

Another interesting feature is the magnificent ceiling, which is very striking and beautifully painted with angels coming out on the hammer beams.  On the two desks of the choir stalls are very old graffiti, which were probably carvings from school children dating back to the time when this chancel was not in use for regular worship, but was used as a school room for the local children.  So things don’t change much over the centuries, children in those days were just as apt to carve and make their mark on their desk as they are today.  They go back, some of these carvings, to the 17th century.

Underneath these stalls there’s another curious feature – we have an acoustic chamber, which is a sort of vault beneath the seats, with little openings in the stone work, which was designed, we believe to enhance the sound of singing in here.  It would act as a kind of amplifier, and various things were placed in this empty chamber to help the resonance.  Things such as, I believe, old urns and large earthenware pots and even skulls of horses and things like that.  But we don’t go into those vaults any more and we don’t need that amplification any more either because we have our own modern amplification system in the church.

The Rood Screen

The most noteworthy feature of St Edmunds Church is its screen, the rood screen that goes right across the church.  It dates back to the late 15th century with the most beautiful elaborate and delicate wood carving tracery. 

Alas the whole of the top of the screen was destroyed and all we have left to remind us how magnificent this piece of artwork was, are the panels at the base, which too have been literally defaced.  The figures have their faces somewhat damaged and this was done again during the commonwealth period by Dowsing’s men to show that they did not approve of representations of the figures of human beings.  It was distracting, they thought, from the main purpose of worship in church.  But fortunately they only seem to have gone through the motions and we can still make out the figures quite clearly in the centre at least, representing the 12 apostles, each with their symbols of the cross or keys and so on, so that we can identify them. 

They are on a beautiful moulded gilt background on a plasterwork called gesso and every single piece of woodwork is decorated.  Not the smallest patch of wood is left undecorated with little flowers and bird figures.  It is a glorious piece of work, the colours are somewhat faded, but not too much and it’s only been very lightly re-touched in the Victorian times to try and save it from total deterioration, but it is something of which the church is very proud and we hope it will continue to survive for many more centuries.

On the other two sides of this panel we have representations on the left side, that’s the north side of the angelic host with some rather elaborate costumes which remind us of the actors of the guilds in the medieval mystery plays and on the south side rather cruder and simpler panels representing the prophets of the old testament, so this is a very elaborate piece indeed and a national treasure.

Love Story

Another intriguing feature at St Edmund’s Church is in the Lady Chapel on the south side of the Church.  Looking up at the ceiling we see two wooden roof bosses, carvings representing a gentleman with a beard and a lady with a rather elaborate head dress. 

A local historian in the 19th century came up with the theory that the lady is a representation of the sister of Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, who in her youth fell in love with one of the favourites of the court, Charles Brandon.  But she wasn’t at liberty to marry him, because for reasons of state she had to marry the rather ancient King of France. 

But that marriage didn’t last very long because age took its toll and the King of France died and then Mary was free to marry her childhood sweetheart, who was the Duke of Suffolk and she became the Duchess of Suffolk, so there is that Suffolk connection.  It is somewhat tenuous and we have no further proof than that, but we like the love story, so we perpetuate it.

last updated: 09/08/07

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Angus Murray
I'd have like to see a bit more information about the magnificent ceiling, which in my opinion is the most striking part of the church.

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