St Peter & St Paul
AldeburghAldeburgh
Victoria Road
Suffolk IP15 5DY

 

 

Aldeburgh parish church occupies the highest piece of land in this small East coast town. It faces towards the sea. For over a thousand years local people have worshipped here and also used their church for secular activities.

The oldest part of the current church is the tower with its external turret staircase, built in the 14th century. It was an important navigation landmark and was built to give early warning of attack by pirates. When the ships of these privateers were sighted, a warning bell (which can still be seen) was rung.

Entry to the church is through the west door, under the tower. This church is open during the day, and has a cheerful welcome notice.

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Architectural History
Before 1500 the church comprised just the tower and a nave then a massive programme of enlargement began. First north and south chapels were added which were later extended to form aisles. In 1524 the roof of the nave and the tower arch were raised, and in 1545 the chancel was added.
 
These extensions and the building of the south porch caused a problem, bringing the church to the very edge of its consecrated ground. The Holy Trinity Guild solved the problem by putting arches through the east and west walls of the porch to create a processional way.
 
All this happened at a time when Aldeburgh was a prosperous port and shipbuilding centre. Ship auctions were regularly held in the church nave.
 
Several times theatrical performances were held in the church. When the theatres on the south bank of London were closed, travelling bands of players such as the one William Shakespeare belonged to, would tour the provinces. In 1573 the Earl of Leicester’s Men played the church.
 
There are no theatrical artefacts in the church but there is a beautiful model of an old ship hanging from the roof.
 
The Elizabethan design has changed little but internally there is a pleasing mixture of old and new.
 
Looking Around
Many visitors come to Aldeburgh to admire artist John Piper’s glorious memorial window to Benjamin Britten. The glowing stained glass panels depict images from three of the composer’s church parables: The Prodigal Son, Curlew River, and The Burning Fiery Furnace. It sits in the north aisle, and gets enough light to fill the aisle with colour.
 
Taking pride of place in front of the window is the 1320 font, a survivor from the earlier church and the oldest item to be seen. You will notice that during the Puritan ‘clean up’ it was severely damaged.
 
The Puritan Purge
In the olden days everything in the church (including the font) would have been brightly painted and enriched with ecclesiastical symbols but the Puritans were on their way.
 
In 1643 an absolute act of vandalism took place. Thomas Johnson, a member of a local ship-building family and a one-time Master of the “Rainbow”, co-operated with William Dowsing in “…taking down 20 cherubim and 38 pictures”.
 
They also attacked the ancient font, hacking off the angels and shields with their swords and removing the paint. If you look carefully you can see the sword cuts and a few traces of remaining colour. However, on one side, possibly where they couldn’t reach, an angel and a complete shield are untouched.
 
Johnson was rewarded for his whole-hearted acceptance of Puritanism. He was made a leader in the Parliamentarian Army during the Civil Wars and is buried under the floor of the chancel.
 
Beautiful Wood Carving
The church is full of beautiful carving, much of it 19th century when the church was again enlarged and restored. However, the carved pulpit does date from 1625 although originally it would have had 3-decks. Two beautifully carved angels guard the entrance to the Sanctuary.
 
Two other lovely pieces of carving can be found facing each other on the choir stalls. On the left is a medieval dog and on the right is Samson, the musical church cat.
 
Memorials
The church has many beautiful and restrained memorials. There are seven well preserved and interesting 16th and 17th century memorial brasses and a lovely marble bust of local 18th century poet, George Crabbe.
 
In the south aisle is the town’s unusual elegant and poignant war memorial. I can do no better than quote from Simon’s Suffolk Churches – “…the golden rays of the dying soldier's nimbus illuminating the inscription: …and everyone said to his brother be of good cheer.
 
The 1889 lifeboat disaster memorial in late Victorian copper work at the west end is much more flamboyant but tells an horrific tale of tragedy and bravery.
 
The Graveyard
The graveyard has a number of important people buried in it. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears are buried side by side, their graves marked with identical black slate headstones simply carved with a name and dates. Behind them is the grave of musician and Festival Director, Imogen Holst, daughter of composer Gustav Holst.
 
Also buried in the church yard is Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, one of the Garretts who built the Snape Maltings complex as part of their industrial empire. She is famous for being the first woman doctor in England. Less well known is the fact that she was also the first ever female mayor in England (of Aldeburgh, of course.)
 
This parish church is full of the spirit of Aldeburgh not ancient aristocratic tombs. Its long association with music and the Arts is celebrated along with its local heroes - an enjoyable place to visit.
 
Visitors are always welcome to join in services, special events or to just look around. Visit the church’s excellent website to find times of services and musical events.
 
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Contact & Further Information
 
Google Maps - Aldeburgh