Blythburgh is my all time favourite wool church. Lavenham, Long Melford and Southwold may be big and splendid, but none can compare to Blythburgh. It is a marvellous setting rising above the marshes and tidal lagoon. It dominates its countryside.
There is thought to have been a church here since 630. By the time of Doomsday, Blythburgh was a royal burgh with one of the richest churches in Suffolk. It became a thriving medieval town. The Prior of an adjacent Augustinian house was granted the right to build a new church – the one we see today – in 1412. The Dissolution of the Monasteries left the church without the support of a priory and was the start of a log decline in its fortunes.
During a great storm in 1577, lightning struck the steeple which fell on the church and damaged the font. Another flash cleft the north door and the scorch marks can still be seen. The superstitious congregation ascribed this to the work of the devil who had clawed the door with his finger nails.
William Dowsing, a Parliamentarian, was sent to Blythburgh to rid it of it ‘superstitious ornaments’. He removed crosses, brass, stained glass and angels from the roof. There are stories that his soldiers shot into the angels in the ceiling and the bullet holes can be seen today. There is no contemporary evidence for this. It is more likely the holes were caused by locals were paid for shooting jackdaws that plagued church in 18thC.
There followed 200 years of neglect and decay. The church became so unsafe it was closed. In other large churches like Covehithe and Walberswick, the parishioners petitioned to demolish their church and build a smaller one. Fortunately this didn’t happen at Blythburgh. In 1881 a restoration fund started and work began to restore the building back to its former glory. It escaped Victorian modernisation. Work took nearly a century.
What the visitors sees now is a near perfect Perpendicular church, built with the local flint. There is the typical square Suffolk tower at the west end with its flushwork battlemented top and buttresses. The nave and chancel are very long with a clerestory. The side aisles have flushwork buttresses and an open carved parapet along the top with carved figures or animals. Running below this is a flushwork frieze with carved angel heads. The east end is a lavish display of wealth and decoration. There are flushwork panels on either side of the window and a carved frieze below with a series of initials. At the centre top is a carving of God the Father. In comparison, the tower seems plain.
The decorative parapet extends round the top of the south porch. This has an upper room which was originally the priests room, but is now used a a reading room. There is a large stoup inside the porch with has a rib vaulted ceiling and the original oak door.
If the outside of the church is good, the inside is even better. First impressions are of size and light. Windows are plain glass apart from a few fragments of stained glass at the top and the light floods into the church. The red brick floor glows in the light.
Our eyes were immediately drawn up to the roof. The guide book describes this as 'an arch-braced, firred, tie beam roof.' The paintwork on the roof is still the original which has faded to lovely muted colours. There is a series of painted bosses running the length of the roof. These have angels on either side have flowing locks and huge wings. They are holding shields, bearing the arms of local families. Originally the angels were coloured in red, green and gold paint. Above the south door is a newly painted angel showing just how bright the colours must have been when new.
The rafter beams are painted with red IHS and sprays of flowers. It is a glorious roof.
At the back of the church is a simple 15thC font with winged beasts around the base. This was originally a seven sacrament font like the one at Badingham, but the carvings were removed in the Reformation.
A wooden screen cuts off the base of the tower which still has a very long ladder to the bell chamber.
Set into the south west corner of the nave by the south porch is a narrow spiral staircase which leads to the room above the porch. It continues up to give access to the outside of the roof (locked).
Old tomb slabs are let into the floor. Their brasses were removed by Dowsing so there is no indication who they were. The late 19thC pews in the nave have medieval ends with carved poppyheads and pew ends.
The pulpit has carved panels with flower motifs, very Arts and Crafts.
The rood screen stretches across the nave and side aisles. This has been heavily restored and little medieval work is left. At the bottom are simply carved panels. Above is delicately carved tracery. Originally there would have been a rood loft reached by stairs in the north and south aisles.
The choir stall are the originals with saints and angels carved along the front and poppyheads. The choir was the school after the reformation and the holes for the inkwells can still be seen in the pews.
On the south side of the chancel above the vestry is a Jack-o’-the Clock dating from 1682. This would have struck the hours and is now used to announce the entry of ministers during services. Three stone steps are all that is left of the sedilia on the south wall, with a piscina beyond. The altar is a simple table set under the huge east window.
Set in the wall between the chancel and north chapel under is the massive tomb of John Hopton, Lord of the Manor, who died in 1478. On the base set in quadrifoils are painted shields. There were originally three brasses set into the top of the tomb commemorating John and his two wives. These were removed by Dowsing. The tomb would have served as an Easter Sepulchre where the host was kept from Good Friday until Easter Sunday.
There is a simple table altar in the north chapel which has a modern carving of the Virgin and Child in a corner.
Don't miss the alms box on the north wall. Dating from 1473 it is a rare example of a Peter's Pence Box. These appeared in churches from the 8thC and were referred to as 'arca Domini' (chest of the Lord) which the church used to pay dues to Rome. A tax of one penny per household was levied with payment to the Pope ever year on St Peter's Day (Lammas Day, or 1st August). After the Reformation, the box was used for voluntary donations made by Roman Catholics to the private purse of the Pope.
Blythburgh is a wonderful church and does get a lot of visitors. It is open 9-6 (or dusk if earlier) and there is a large car park to the south west of the church. The area is popular with walkers as there are footpaths along the river and across the marshes.