St Elthelbert’s Church

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Hessett is a long straggling rather sleepy village to the south of the A14. It has a splendid 15thC church. At the west end is a massive square flint tower with stepped buttresses. There is a carved frieze with the crests of the Bacon family who funded it. Above is an openwork battlement with tall slender crocketed pinnacles at the corners.

The nave and side aisles are rendered with open carved battlements and more crocketed pinnacles. The chancel is earlier and built using rough flints, unlike the 16thC south porch with has knapped flint walls and a stone facade. Niches would have contained statues pre-Refomation. At the corners are angels.

From a distance, this is a rather uninspiring exterior, but it does improve once inside. The south porch has old stone benches along the side walls and a splendid sanctuary knocker. Inside octagonal pillars separate nave and side aisles. There is a simple wood ceiling with figures hacked off. Walls are whitewashed and there are simple wooden pews in the nave.

Oil lamps hang from the ceiling, although they now contain energy saving light bulbs.

The 15thC rood screen painted patterned panels at the base. Above is delicate tracery, beautifully painted. The stairs to the long gone rood loft are in the south chancel arch. Metal gates lead down into the chancel and there are 15th/16thC choir stalls round three sides . The simple high altar has a stone reredos with a carving of the last supper.

The vestry door on the north wall and retains its original 14thC door with sanctuary knocker. The vestry is unusual in having two floors. This is said to have been the refuge of a female hermit, who slept in the room above.

The organ is at the end of the north aisle. On the side of the organ is the Royal Coat of Arms. On the floor below is the old clock mechanism and a strong box which defeated Cromwell’s men. They were given the two keys but not the metal bar needed to open the lid.

Lovely medieval stained glass survives in the aisle windows. Most of the heads were destroyed by the Puritans and have been replaced by 19thC additions. The north aisle windows tell the life and Passion of Christ. The south aisle contains images of saints.

I’ve left the best bit to last – the wall paintings. Originally all the walls would have been covered with paintings but these were covered by whitewash after the Reformation and were only rediscovered during 19thC restoration. The 15thC wall paintings in Hessett are some of the best in Suffolk.

Above the north door is St Christopher with staff in hand. Next is a painting of the Seven Deadly Sins. At the bottom are two demons. A tree sprouts from Hell. At the end of the branches are the open mouth of Hell with figures representing the seven deadly sins standing in them. Pride is at the top. Below on the left is Lust, on right is Wrath. Below these are Sloth (left) and Envy (right). At the bottom are Avarice (left) and Gluttony (right).

Below is the Warning to Sabbath Breakers At the centre is the figure of Christ. Around him are pictures of agricultural and domestic tools forbidden to be used on a Sunday, lest they make Christ’s wounds bleed.

Above the south door is an image of St Michael weighing souls. Parts of the painting have been destroyed, but he still has a fine pair of feet and is wearing a red cloak. He is holding the cross beam of a balance with a soul in it. (In some books this is described as St Christopher but the church guide disagrees with this).

The final painting on the south wall is the best preserved. It is St Barbara, holding a tower. She was popular in Medieval times as she gave protection against lightning strikes and sudden fires. She has now been downgraded by the catholic Church as a mythical saint. According to legend, she was walled in a tower by her father. After making several unsuccessful attempts to escape she was beheaded by her father who was then struck by a thunderbolt.

This is a nice little church and repays a visit. It is open everyday and there is parking by the village hall near the church.

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