St Michael’s Church

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St Michael’s Church in Framlingham houses the tombs of the Howard Family of Framlingham Castle and is a splendid building worthy of their patronage.

It is built from the local flint with a tall battlemented square tower with a decorative frieze around the top and flushwork buttresses. It has a clerestoried nave with lower side aisles and large chapels, the family mausoleums on either side of the chancel. The nave has a lead frieze round the top decorated with angels and castles and verses from the Bible which were added during the 19thC as part of the Arts and Craft Movement renovations. Binoculars are really needed to appreciate the detail.

Most of the church was built between 1350-1555 in classic Perpendicular style. The Howards, Dukes of Norfolk, lived in Framlingham Castle. The family mausoleum was at Thetford Abbey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. They were responsible for building the massive chancel with side chapels, finished in 1554 for the family tombs. It was only used for a few years as the family seat moved to Arundel Castle in Sussex.

Entry is through the south porch and our first impression was the size of the building. This is a BIG church, with slender octagonal pillars and pointed arches. The large Perpendicular windows contain plain glass making the church feel light and airy. The impression of size is emphasised by the chancel which is now bare of furnishings.

There are dark wood pews with poppy heads. Above is a lovely wood roof. Originally this would have been a hammer beam roof, but a row of fan vaulting was added round the base in the 16thC hiding the base of the beams. This is best viewed from the east end as it is lit by light from the east window.

At the back of the west end is a wooden balcony with the organ dating from the 17thC. This was originally built for Pembroke College and installed here in 1708. It is a glorious Baroque design and one of only three to survive the Iconoclasts during the Commonwealth. Cromwell disliked the ornate style and ordered the organs to be destroyed.

At the back of the church is a 14thC octagonal carved font with angels holding shields and winged beasts carved on the panels round the bowl. The bowl is supported by angel heads on a carved stand with lions and woodwoses (wild men of the woods and popular in the 14thC). The oak cover is shaped like a crocketed pinnacle. During the Commonwealth, it was left to rot in the graveyard and was rescued by the vicar after the Restoration.

On the north wall opposite the door is a 14thC wall painting of the Holy Trinity. The upper part was lost when the clerestory was added. All that is left of God the Father are his sleeved arms on either side of the crucified Christ.

Over the south door is a modern hatchment commemorating the fallen of the 390th Bombardment group of USAAF who were stationed at Framlingham during the Second World War.

The Royal Coat of Arms hangs in the south aisle.

There is no rood screen or parclose screens between chancel and side chapels. The chancel is large but feels even larger as it is an empty space with no choir stalls. The walls are covered with Victorian stencil designs in shades of grey. Linked to the emptiness, they leave the chancel feeling cold and unwelcoming. There is a free standing table altar with panelled reredos under the east window. On either side are painted panels with the Ten Commandments. In the centre is an abstract image entitled ‘The Glory’. The guide book describes this as a mystical painting. At the centre of a multicoloured corona surrounded by small clouds is IHS, signifying the name of Jesus. I’m afraid it didn’t do much for me.

On either side of the chancel are the huge memorial chapels. These are screened from the side aisles by wooden screens but have open arches into the chancel. The Howard tombs are the highlight of the church. There are small labels in front of the tombs identifying them. My descriptions are based on these and the official guide book from the church. I found during research that some descriptions in guide books and the web are wrong or at the best confusing.

The south chapel contains two tombs. That on the right is Sir Robert Hitcham, who died in 1635. He bought the Manors of Framlingham and Saxtead from the Second Earl of Suffolk. He was a philanthropist and left money for building poorhouses in the area as well as almshouses in Framlingham. The tomb is a black marble slab supported by four kneeling angels at the corners.

On the left is the tomb of Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk and his wife Anne Plantagenet, daughter of Edward IV. As a royal princess she was superior to him in rank and is on his right. Thomas was responsible for building the chapel as a family mausoleum. This has figures of apostles round the base set in shell niches. At the corners are lions holding shields. The tomb is described as one of the finest examples of Renaissance sculpture in Europe.

The tomb on the right is that of Henry Fitzroy, illegitimate son of Henry VIII who died young from consumption. This has a series of scenes from the Old Testament carved round the base of the tomb.

To the left is the tomb of Mary Fitzalan and Margaret Audley, wives of the fourth Duke who both died in childbirth. Their effigies lie on top of the tomb with lions holding shields. At their feet is a horned stag.

On the wall set under an ogee arch, is a small tomb of Elizabeth, the infant daughter of Margaret Audley and the fourth duke.

To the west of this on the north wall is the splendid tomb of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and Frances de Vere. He was the son of the third duke and father of the fourth duke. He was arrested and beheaded on a fabricated charge of high treason which explains why his coronet lies beside his knee rather than on his head. His second son was responsible for erecting the tomb. It is a stunning tomb, and designed to impress. It was collapsing and was completely restored and repainted in the late 70s.

Both figures are wearing red cloaks trimmed with ermine. He is in armour picked out with gold paint. His feet rest on a gilded lion, hers on a blue boar. There are small kneeling figures of their children at the head and foot wearing red cloaks trimmed with ermine. On the sides, painted shields flank a Latin inscription. 

St Michael’s is a large and splendid church but somehow it didn’t fire the imagination, despite the nave roof and the Howard tombs. I felt it was a soulless building. Clearing the furniture from the nave creates a large rather austere space. The tombs feel a bit lost in it.

On our first visit thirty plus years ago, I was bowled over by the church, by its size and the tombs. The chancel hadn’t been cleared of furniture and it had a more intimate feel. This time I have to confess to being disappointed.

Don’t be put off by these negative comments, the church is definitely worth a visit. There is some on road parking by the church, otherwise park in the Market Place or in the larger car park by the castle.

The church is open 8.30-dusk.
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