St Margaret’s Church, Ipswich

Ipswich has twelve medieval churches and St Margaret’s is a glorious, though slightly unusual, example of one of these fine, historical buildings. From the outside it appears like many medieval parish churches you find in an English town or village, but inside it has a superbly carved, fifteenth-century double-hammer beam roof embellished with, and this is the surprise, a programme of late seventeenth-century paintings.

St Margaret’s Church, Ipswich – a Grade I listed, mediaeval beauty.

Originally part of the Holy Trinity priory, St Margaret’s was built during the course of the fourteenth century for the growing lay community that flourished around the Augustinian priory.

St Margaret’s in the bright sunlight of early spring and the soft hues of a winter sunset.

Ipswich during the medieval period was a successful, wealthy town with the East Anglian wool traders exporting to the Continent from the Port of Ipswich. Successful merchants and townsfolk, like any good Christians of the time, provided funds for the church and towards the end of the fifteenth century a double hammerbeam roof was added to the building in order to raise the roof and add a clerestory.

The fifteenth-century clerestory and double hammerbeam roof.

Several merchant families are recorded as major benefactors of the church who provided the funds for raising the roof. John (died 1503) and Katherine Hall (died 1506) and their son, William, were woad dyers and woad merchants, and their initials and merchant marks have been noted carved in the timbers of the roof. Other initials and marks belonging to the brickmakers, Henry and Isabel Tylmaker who left legacies in their wills of 1445 and 1460, can be seen together with the mark for a thatcher, John Byrd the Elder.

Left photo, the nave looking to the east, middle photo, looking to the west and finally the righthand photo shows the large, useful mirror to aid viewing the ceiling.

Looking up at the roof you can see amongst the ornate, decorative embellishments, carved saints, both male and female, unfortunately most are difficult to make out and even harder to identify in the gloom (binoculars and a very sunny day are needed).

Ornate fifteenth-century carving.

Altogether there are over 120 carvings embellishing the roof structure including on the south side symbols of the Passion. The ladder, spear, nails, crown of thorns and scourging pillar have been recorded, but without binoculars I couldn’t see them let alone manage to photograph them in the ambient light despite it being a very sunny day. A camera with more oomph than mine was needed.

Detail of the fine carvings.

Since 1700 there has been a decorative scheme of shields used to hide the damage caused by William Dowsing and his iconoclasts who visited during 1644.

Margarett’s, Jan. 30. There was 12 Apostles in stone taken down; and between 20 and 30 superstitious pictures to be taken down, which a godly man, a churchwarden promised to do.

‘The journal of William Dowsing of Stratford, parliamentary visitor, appointed under a warrant from the Earl of Manchester, for demolishing the superstitious pictures and ornaments of churches.’ Journal commenced 1643, Sudbury, Suffolk.
Decorative shield pierced by metal tie-rod. The ties were installed to stabilise the nave walls/roof in the early nineteenth century.

This particular display of heraldry is explained in depth here if you’re interested. It reminded me of how far most of us have come from some of the pedantic and somewhat trivial aspects of the British class system.

Moving on from that aside, and returning to the roof and its programme of late seventeenth-century paintings, we see an elaborate tribute to William and Mary. There are 50 panels that were painted and installed in late 1694 and early 1695. Along the centre at the highest point of the ceiling run a series of ten sky panels with clouds and gilt stars. Then to either side of those run panels of heraldic arms. In this sequence above the north aisle two panels show the arms of England and Scotland and on the other side above the south aisle of France and Ireland.

The third series of panels (those immediately above the clerestory) feature texts such as ‘Feare God’ and ‘Honour the king’. Not all the panels contain words, many simply show trompe l’oeil cartouche imagery popular in the Baroque period. The painting is thought to be by local artists, with perhaps the more accomplished depictions by either William Carpenter alias Cheeseman (a painter and glazier) or Thomas Steward (a painter and engraver). Both men are in the local record as having being paid for creative work during the 1690s in the Ipswich area.

Left- cloud panels seen along centre of the roof. Right – panel trompe l’oeil cartouche with text.

St Margaret’s painted ceiling is unusual and part of Ipswich’s history, but it is still heavy-looking, dark and gloomy despite undergoing a programme of conservation and cleaning in 1994/5. Perhaps regional tastes at the time of William and Mary were for dark and heavy and not elegant interiors, but somehow I think that this was the best that could be afforded. Ipswich, at the end of the seventeenth century was no longer a wealthy town exporting wool to Europe.

Salt and Spittle

Now reading ‘Salt and Spittle’ you may have thought I was going to post a ‘foodie’ review following a visit to a new, ironically named local pub, but no that’s not the case.

Fifteenth-century Stone font. St Margaret’s, Ipswich.

Of course, I am sure some folk will already know about pre-Reformation baptismal rites, but this was all knew to me despite my longstanding interest in medieval art, sculpture and architecture. Perhaps, that is because the ‘salt and spittle’ aspect did not easily lend itself to artistic interpretation.

The ‘sal et saliva’ (salt and spittle) was part of the sacrament of baptism where salt was placed in the infant’s mouth whilst the nose and ears were anointed with the priest’s saliva during the ceremony.

A defaced survivor.

Fascinatingly and somewhat serendipitously, there is a medieval font in Ipswich where it is still possible to read the ‘sal et saliva’ carved into stone. The eight sided, fifteenth-century font bowl of the church of St Margaret shows eight angels bearing scrolls. Originally, all eight angels had carved faces and text on their scrolls, but then the iconoclasts came to visit. It isn’t clear whether the angels were defaced sometime during the sixteenth century or later when William Dowsing made his destructive tour through East Anglia.

“Margarett’s, Jan. 30. There was 12 Apostles in stone taken down; and between 20 and 30 superstitious pictures to be taken down, which a godly man, a churchwarden promised to do.”

William Dowsing. Record – St Margaret’s Church, Ipswich. 30th January 1644

However, the survival of the text might simply have been that the font had been moved up against a pillar or the wall and had therefore restricted access for arm with chisel. Although, it does appear that the angel’s face was removed. I suppose it will remain an unresolved mystery as to why this text ‘sal et saliva’ has survived.

The Reformation in England had mixed outcomes but at least one benefit was that such a superstitious and unhygienic aspect of baptism fell out of practice. I can’t imagine many modern parents would want their baby anointed with spittle not least in these Covid 19 times.