Monday, 15 August 2016

St Ethelbert, Hessett

St Ethelbert is a church visitor's delight: a small village church packed with interest, and well preserved.

A church is recorded here in 1005, but the present building is largely 15th century, except for the 14th century chancel. The exterior has a handsome battlemented west tower, with decorative battlements continuing along the clerestory and aisle roofs. There is also a fine south porch, with attractive flush-work, niches for statues, panelled tracery and, above the arch, images of St George and the Dragon.

Inside, the elegant Perpendicular nave arcade draws the eye to a delicate chancel arch. This is filled with a late 15th century screen, still retaining traces of paint. the rood stair is still intact. The chancel beyond has a pretty decorated east window with flowing tracery, and benches with decorative poppy-heads, one of which has a splendidly carved back of shields, quatrefoils and birds.

But the real excitement is found in the aisles; these have the remnants of wall paintings, of St Barbara and St Michael in the south aisle, and St Christopher above the north door. Further along the north aisle is a depiction of the seven deadly sins, formed as a tree emerging from the mouth of hell. Below this is a very rare 'Christ of the Trades', with the head of Christ surrounded by the tools of various trades, and, oddly, a six of diamonds playing card. Traditionally, this motif was a warning against breaking the Sabbath by working; the tools surrounding Christ's bleeding head resemble a crown of thorns, the implication being that working on the Sabbath inflicts his wounds anew.

As if these treasures were not enough, the aisle windows contain late mediaeval glass, albeit rather muddled, so that St Mary Cleophas, surrounded by her four children, has been given the head of a Bishop (and therefore confused as St Nicholas). One of the children (St James the Less) is holding a fuller's club, the instrument of his subsequent martyrdom. (Pevsner cheerfully calls it a golf club in the Suffolk edition of the "Buildings of England"). There is also a fine panelled font of c. 1451, and a picture of two treasures, now at the British Museum: a sindon (pyx cloth), which would have covered the reserved sacrament, and a burse, for containing the linen for the act of consecration.

The Church is still used regularly for service, as part of the benefice of Rougham, Beyton with Hessett and Rushbrooke.

St Ethelbert : The Street, Hessett, Suffolk, IP30 9AX

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