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Ipswich Icons: Verdict? Most spectacular of town churches

PUBLISHED: 19:00 06 August 2017

St Margaret's Clock. Picture: ARCHANT

St Margaret's Clock. Picture: ARCHANT

Archant

If you enter Christchurch Park through the Soane Street gates and walk up towards the mansion you are also approaching the site of the St Augustinian Priory founded during the reign of Henry II in 1160, writes John Norman.

St Margaret's Doorway to Christchurch Park. Picture: ARCHANT St Margaret's Doorway to Christchurch Park. Picture: ARCHANT

Not surprisingly, the priory also included a church (stop looking; it was demolished along with the priory, probably in 1536 at the time of the Reformation.)

The church of the Holy Trinity, probably a room within the priory, was built by the friars in 1177 and served not only the religious order but also the local population.

Space within the nave soon became too small for the growing parish; the friars were restricted in their daily prayers by the presence of an expanding congregation and decided, by the thirteenth century, to build a new church just outside the priory grounds.

The new building was dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch.

St Margarets Ipswich. Picture: ARCHANT St Margarets Ipswich. Picture: ARCHANT

Thus St Margaret’s church was used for worship by the parishioners and the church inside the religious house restricted to the canons and priors of Holy Trinity.

St Margaret’s church was built in the closing years of the thirteenth century and is first mentioned in parish records in 1307.

By the fourteenth century (1381), St Margaret’s was the most populous parish in Ipswich, having grown across the south-facing slope of the valley 
side, outside of the town’s ramparts.

Henry VIII’s reformation of 1536 dissolved the priory. The priory buildings were granted to Sir Thomas Pope (founder of Trinity College, Oxford) who immediately sold them to Edmund Withipoll.

He built a large Elizabethan house on the plot; today we know it as Christchurch Mansion.

Across the lawn St Margaret’s flourished, attracting a huge congregation.

The doorway in the wall between the church and the mansion allowed the Withipolls, the Devereuxs and the Fonnereaus to access the church directly from the mansion.

There is a supposition that the families from the mansion used this doorway, entered the church through the north door (not through the south porch with the ordinary mortals) and took their place in their own private box pews.

Today, access through the wall is bricked-up but its position is obvious from the Caen stone arch.

The ground level on the church side of the wall is a couple of feet higher than the lawn in front of the mansion, the result of 700 years of digging graves to bury parishioners.

Whenever a grave is dug there is always a surplus of excavated material, which is piled on top of the plot to encourage the replaced soil to settle.

Over time most English churchyards have swelled; no wonder, with the remains of a thousand bodies buried beneath the turf.

In the 15th century (1450) the nave roof of St Margaret’s was raised and the clerestory windows inserted. The new roof, a double hammer beam, originally had carved angels on the beam ends.

The angels were torn down on the orders of iconoclast Dowsing (1643 visit) and some time later replaced with shields with the arms of the Christchurch and Red House families.

A structural survey undertaken at the turn of the nineteenth century indicated that the nave walls were showing the initial signs of spreading.

To counteract this, in 1803 twisted iron tie-rods were inserted, spanning the nave between the hammer brackets, which involved piercing the shields which had replaced the earlier angels.

The ceiling panels, between the hammer beams (on the underside of the roof), were painted in the late 17th century by Flemish artists.

Unfortunately they have faded badly and despite the fact that there has been at least one attempt to renovate them they are so dark it is almost impossible to see any detail from the floor of the nave.

In 1871 the top of the tower was rebuilt in grand style: twin bell openings to match the clerestory windows.

There is a classical frame and supporting bracket dated 1737 surrounding the clock, which surprisingly is 40 years younger: named and dated Moore of Ipswich, 1778.

As Pevsner’s said, “St Margaret’s is the most spectacular church in Ipswich”.

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