St Mary the Virgin
Suffolk CO7 6TA
This ancient parish church in East Bergholt is very unusual because it has no tower or spire and its peal of five bells are housed in a unique medieval wooden bell cage. It is intimately associated with the fine 18th century English painter, John Constable.
It is well worth spending some time here, exploring the church, inspecting the bells in St Mary's Church Bell Cage and finding the graves of the wealthy Constable Family and their poorer tenant farmer, Willy Lott of Flatford.
The original church was built around 1350 and was gradually embellished by wealthy patrons who added extra aisles and chapels. Wool from Suffolk sheep underpinned the economy of England in The Middle Ages and the landowners grew rich from the cloth trade.
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Involvement of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
In 1525 the major manorial patrons, the De Veres, decided it was time to upgrade their church and in this endeavour they were supported by local Cardinal, Thomas Wolsey.
Work started on a tower but unfortunately, before it could be fully built, the money ran out. Around the same time, Cardinal Wolsey fell out of favour with King Henry VIII and lost his power, influence and wealth. The King was excommunicated by the Pope and Henry made himself Supreme Head of the Church in England. The scene was set for a lengthy period of religious turmoil.
The oldest part of the interior is the mid 14th century Chancel and Crossing. During the De Vere extensions a castellated rood tower (only visible from the outside) was built, and two side chapels were also added at this time. The north and south chapel walls bear outlines of consecration crosses. The North Chapel is now the clergy vestry and the organ chamber.
In the north wall of the Chancel is an Easter Sepulchre and beside it a memorial to John Constable’s wife, Maria. Opposite, framed by two carved angels, is an acrostic monument - a poem that reads something like a crossword. The horizontal lines are a poem but the first letters of each line create vertically another phrase!
In the North Aisle can be found fragments of the tomb of Anna Parker, who died in 1656. Depicted are a bear's head and camels! Next, on a plain stone is the oldest inscription in the church (possibly of the 15th century). They didn’t mince their words in those days, referring to despised worms and putrid slime.
The next memorial to John Mattinson is much kinder. It reads 'Eleven years the beloved schoolmaster of this Town, and then unfortunately shott'. The Latin couplet means 'He profited and pleased, mixed business with pleasure, to his pupils a terror and a delight'.
Also in this aisle is the Parish chest dated by the horned lock-plate about 1400 AD; the lid is a hollowed-out tree trunk, probably of poplar.
During the Civil Wars many churches were desecrated and vandalized by the Parliamentary troops but they left a memorial brass in the centre aisle to Robert Alefounder who died 1639.
On the south side of the church is a fine carved oak chapel screen depicting scenes of Suffolk life. Stained glass windows depict the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity and Patience.
Constable Memorial Window
The centre window is a memorial to local artist John Constable, R.A., who died in1837. Note: the window incorporates his sketch of the Chancel and Sanctuary in his time, and an engraving of Willy Lott’s cottage at Flatford. There is also a sketch of a new tower (wishful thinking perhaps after 300 years without one!)
The West End was finally completed in 1991 providing quite a modern feel to this end of the church.
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The Church Exterior
If you approach the church from the east, you are presented with a splendid late Perpendicular stone and flintwork exterior. The church is 120 feet (36.6 metres) long, 56 feet (17 metres)wide and 45 feet (13.7 metres) high. Renovations were started in 1525 by the De Vere family, and the unfinished eastern face of the Nave shows that a similarly grand Chancel was also planned.
You will notice the North Rood Turret bears the star or "mullet", emblem of the De Veres, Earls of Oxford, sometime lords of the principal manor and the then patrons of the church living.
It is a different story at the west end. Here are the remains of the West Tower base. The structure barely reaches to the level of the clerestory. Before it could progress further the money ran out and the church was left without a tower or a spire; somewhere had to be found to house the church bells so a temporary wooden shelter (the bell cage) was built for them in 1531.
Because the aborted tower had effectively blocked entry from the west end, an arch had to be pierced through the base to make a processional way.
The little white cupola and red brick facings were an 18th century addition.
Above the West Door are inscribed the initial letters of Latin words. They stand for “Holy Church John Fine, Francis (or Frederick) Yual and others made (this gift) in honour of Jesus and Mary”.
The South Porch is two storeys. The priest’s room above is the subject of a famous painting by John Constable. The pillars supporting the seats are almost certainly from an earlier (? 14th century) building. On the outside above the door is a sundial with the inscription 'Time passeth like a shadow'.
The gravestones and tombs really tell the story of this parish church. Memorials range from elegant stone vaults to red brick chest tombs.
The Constable family tomb
The family tomb is in the north-east corner of the churchyard near the red brick Boiler House. The artist's parents are here but Constable himself is buried in the graveyard of St John-at-Hampstead church in London.
The grave of William Lott (of 'Willy Lott’s Cottage)
Lott's grave is located by the main path adjacent to the east end of the Lady Chapel.
Contact & Further Information
+44 (0)1206 392 646
Google Maps - St Mary the Virgin Church