Cathedral kneelers: tales of Suffolk villages

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This piece was previously published on the InSuffolk site (find them at @insuffolk on twitter).

Suffolk, the curious county, has its well known tales of saints and martyrs, of a great book that underpins the laws of the land and towering church edifices where queens lie. We have villages under the sea, a ghost writer who once lived in a spectre infested village and roaming black dogs with eyes of carmine fire. There are stories of tamer beasts too: of binary patterned Dalmatians who drank from a church horse trough as they searched for their stolen 101 puppies; the poor entombed mummified cats found walled up in Tudor buildings throughout the county and the gentle giant working horses that ploughed our fields. We have curious place names (Finger Bread Hill, Beggars Bush, Wherstead Ooze, Burnt Dick Hill and Smear Marshes) and architecture that spits in the face of straightness (the crinkle crankle walls of Bramfield and Tudor squew whiffness of Lavenham) but look a little harder and you will find thousands of smaller stories too within this big, bold narrative. These stories are frequently overshadowed by the pomp and circumstance of history and the pew kneelers at the cathedral of St James in Bury St Edmunds are one such example.

I stumbled upon these accidentally after calling in at the cathedrals newly refurbished Pilgrims Refectory for lunch one Saturday. Having spent a happy half hour making sure they were all placed the right way -all the better to admire the many, many crewel stitches that go into their designs- I looked up to see some cathedral staff grinning broadly at my apparently, slightly barking behaviour. After seeing them in such close quarters, my curiosity about their inception was peaked.

The kneelers are a relatively modern ‘invention’ because prayer was never supposed to be comfortable and the Christian church did not originally intend to meet our need for comfort; instead inculcating congregants with the sense that the holiest of outcomes (heaven) involved a degree of self sacrifice, denial and subjugation in the face of unheated and cold stone floors. The transaction was not between the worshipper and the church per se, but between them and God and therefore no earthly comforts or comfy intermediary between supplicant, floor and their God was offered.

Times move on though and churches, as well as wanting to appear more welcoming, are seeking new ways of embedding themselves into their community and tear down some of the ancient rituals that may intimidate as much as they comfort. People aren’t so attached to formal and old religious emblems of security and belonging, the ways by which churches pandered to their wealthier congregants via ornate tombs, dedicated and reserved pews with high backs to increase the distance between their noble occupants and the ‘great unwashed’ in the pews behind, and richly coloured stained glass windows. Churches are, in effect, advertising and celebrating the ordinary people who once lived and continue to live and work in a parish and they use items such as kneelers to tell their stories.

And what stories! With over five hundred parishes in the Diocese, each kneeler is united by a common theme of colour-the three hues of Suffolk blue which marked a cloth out as originating from the county when it was traded in mainland Europe. The broadcloth trade was already established in Suffolk before the arrival of the Flemish weavers in the 1330s and the main broadcloth area stretched in a roughly trinagular shape between Hadleigh, Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds. The cloth was dyed with woad or indigo and Hadleigh became reknowned for its blue cloth whilst the success of Lavenhams blue serge led to it becoming the 14th richest place in the country by 1524. This is why the kneelers embroidery is set against a Suffolk blue backdrop with the colour representing the Diocese or ‘mother’. Each kneeler is then embroidered with a crewel work design that reflects some aspect of parish history, some traditional and others quirkier.

An online record of church kneelers across the country was set up by Lady Bingham of Cornhill who described them as a form of folk art, one which she says makes up as vast library of information about the interests of innumerable parishes. Unnoticed yet widespread, she sees them as fine examples of folk art and a narrative through craft by local people that is often disregarded by the lofty. The kneelers of the cathedral of Bury St Edmunds are included in this record.

When it was decided to make them, each parish was invited to choose an emblem or motif that symbolised parish and church and said something significant about them. Some motifs possess layer upon layer of folklore and spiritual history spanning centuries and one example of this is the scallop, that ancient symbol of christianity and central to the design of the St James of Dunwich kneeler. The scallop shell is arguably more famously associated with Aldeburgh and the Maggie Hambling sculptural tribute to Benjamin Britten than it is with Dunwich. However the shell itself is a wider symbol of the sea, of pilgrimage and fertility and is seen in paintings such as Boticelli’s ‘Venus’ with its underlying messages about the birth of love and spiritual beauty as a driving force of life. Dunwich’s own loss of one of its churches to the might of the sea acts as poignant counterpart to the scallop shell as a giver of life and facilitator of spiritual rebirth.

The British Museum has a scallop shell shaped lead ampula found in Dunwich that is believed to have originated between 1067-1600- quite a wide period of time but also indicative of the enduring popularity of the motif. Worn on the person, the pilgrim would use it as a flask, to hold water and offer spiritual succour during an arduous trek through the mountains of north west Spain. Today, pilgrims wear scallop shells and are given them as symbolic gift upon their arrival at pilgrimage sites.

The Wall of St James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages of the Middle Ages and a plenary indulgence could be earned by completing the route- the church at Dunwich takes its name from the saint. The Spanish city of Santiago De Compostela had its beginnings in the shrine of St James the Great which is now in their cathedral and it was the end point of the pilgrimage. There is metaphor in the shell shape too: its deep pleats and grooves meet at a single point on the shell and symbolise the different routes taken and the common goal and it also repesents the pilgrim too. The shells wash up in their thousands on the beaches of Galicia and this is interpreted as the hand of God, guiding and urging pilgrims forward. The body of St James was feared lost to the sea during a furious storm but then the waves gave him up and when he was found prone on the sands, his body was adorned with thousands of tiny scallop shells. There are other tales too, of horses and bridegrooms guiding a boat carrying James’ body to land and in this tale, the horse and rider are encrusted with shells after being feared drowned.

The cathedral cloisters

Now to the village of Boulge which is the burial site of Edward FitzGerald who lies in the churchyard of the small, isolated Church of St Michael & All Angels. His grave is situated next to the FitzGerald family mausoleum, a location that poignantly reflects his decision to not make Boule Hall his home because he chose to live in a thatched cottage on the family estate instead. A friend of Tennyson, Fitzgerald was the translator of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám from its original Persian alongside some of fellow Suffolk poet George Crabbe’s poems. The Boulge parish has chosen for its kneeler, a single bloom of Fitzgeralds Persian Rose, the Rosa Damascene of the Caspian with over 800 years of intoxicatingly perfumed history to commemorate its literary resident whose grave is near to a rose bush which bears this dedication: “This Rose tree raised in Kew Gardens from seed brought by Wm. Simpson, Artist-Traveller from the grave of Omar Khayyam at Nashipur was planted by a few admirers of Edward Fitzgerald in the name of the Omar Khayyam Club on the 7th October 1893′′. On a trip to Nashipur in Persia, Simpson had previously gathered a pocketful of rosehips from roses growing near to the tomb of Omar Khayyam which he sent to Fitzgeralds publisher. This resulted in a rose described by Grant Allen as “Long with a double fragrance may it bloom, This Rose from Iran on an English stock”, and a local nursery Notcutts has helped conserve stocks by budding and grafting new plants.

Like Boulge, St John the Baptist at Onehouse has gone for a non indigenous plant and embroidered a Honey Locust Tree on its kneeler, a tree which is very closely associated with its saintly namesake. The Book of Matthew tells us that John survived year round by eating the edible fruit of the Honey Locust “…and his food was locusts and wild honey”(chapter 3, verse 4) and not live bugs which has been a common misinterpretation. Locust populations in Israel and the Holy Lands are strongly dependent upon the rainy season which causes the parched desert sands to become giddy with blooms and lush vegetation which spring up as if from nowhere and live a brief life which ends after they have reproduced. For much of the year, these ravenous insects would simply not have enough to eat in these sere and rocky deserts but the Locust Tree (Ceratoni Siliqua) prefers this kind of terrain and the flat leathery pods, surrounded by a spongy sweet pulp (carob) grow thickly upon its branches. Locally referred to as’ Saint John’s Bread’, the pods would have nourished John the Baptist and any locust that decided to try to brave the hostile conditions.

At the top of a winding and narrow lane, the strategic location of Little Cornard and its church is obvious, situated on the waning hills of the Chiltern ridge where the Suffolk lands rise up to meet the Essex border. The parish of Little Cornard was the first place in Suffolk to report the Black Death and lost 60 congregants with 21 families suffering the loss of every adult member. Other battles were fought and also brought death in their wake because here the Danes and the Saxons fought a savage and arduous conflict. None of these events feature on the All Saints kneeler which is instead emblazoned with – a peacock- that most un Suffolk and indeed, un-English bird. There is a Peacock Hall in the village though, an 18 timber-framed and plastered house with a keystone decorated with an angels head. According to archive material, the manor was held in 1333 by John Somersham who also held the Manor of Peacocks in Little Cornard and today, locals report peacocks do live in their vicinity as semi tame family pets.

The history of the bird in England is less clear although there is evidence that the Indian Peafowl was brought by Phoenician traders as gifts to the pharaohs of Egypt as long ago as 1000 B.C and probably brought here by the Romans. Their association with grand homes? Maybe because they were popular edible centrepieces at banquets or were an exotic ornate addition to the grounds, showing that their owners were worldy sophisticated people. The actual word ‘Peacock’ comes from the old Anglo Saxon (péa) to describe an overtly vain person, from the pre 7th Century word “peacocc” and Chaucer used the word to refer to an ostentatious person, calling him “proud a pekok” in Troilus and Criseyde.The word, as a personal name, was first recorded in the Domesday Book for the county of Essex in 1086.

Many of the kneelers use puns based on a parish name as in the wheelbarrow chosen by Barrow, the crow that represents Crowfield (although Crowfield is not named from the bird but from an Old English word croh meaning nook or corner) and Burgate’s gate. Modern parish life is celebrated too: Leavenheaths grazing cows juxtaposed with electricity pylons; Leistons nuclear power station (which has its own sci-fi kind of strange beauty in the sea mists that swirl in the early morning) and the modernised ‘House in the Clouds’ of Thorpeness. Suffolks watery locale and maritime heritage is beautifully represented from the crewelled Wolverston smugglers cat sitting in a cottage window, the tall mast of HMS Ganges chosen by Shotley parish and Dalham’s Golden Hind, captained by Sir Francis Drake. His agent went by the name of Martin Stuteville, came from the village and was also his sailing companion alongside familial owner of the local manor house. The village name, Dalham, springs from the Old English word for valley homestead.

For me, the stand out piece of Suffolk curiousness is the frog emblazoned kneeler that represents Frostenden; a village that the Danes referred to as ‘the valley of the frog’ (‘frosc’ = ‘frog’) and in possession of one of Suffolks 38 round tower churches -completely ancient in itself and one of the oldest of the old. A valley is indicated by names that contain the Old English ‘denu’- although do be sure to pronounce Frostenden without that ‘t’. Recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Froxedena’ , the good book also stated that ocean going crafts moored here although all that remains now of its marine past is a ditch that is barely wide enough to house a family of frogs and many acres of farmland separate the village from the North Sea. Near to the old port area by a footpath running from Cove Bottom is a large earthen mound which locals say has yet to be excavated or even explained definitively. A report from the early 1900’s talks of a ‘naust’ – a Viking dry dock rarely seen outside of Denmark and, also scattered around and lying buried under great whippy stems of brambles and thickets of nettles, are what remains of the old quays. You’ll find other port-related working objects lie scattered about the place too if you really hunt about.

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