St Mary’s Church sits in the centre of the Suffolk market town of Bungay and its elegant tower is a focal point that can be seen for miles around, standing at 33.5 metres high.
The church was originally the parochial nave of the church of a Benedictine nunnery founded in about 1160. In the present building, there are elements of the Decorated and Perpendicular styles. The church was much rebuilt after a serious fire in 1688 and was again restored in 1879.
St Mary’s stands in a large and interesting churchyard, parts of which were once occupied by the Priory buildings. Its crowning glory is the magnificent tower set at the west end of the south aisle which is a masterpiece the 15th-century design – graceful, elegant and handsomely proportioned. It is the first of a series of East Anglian towers all built with octagonal buttresses at the corners which carried above the parapets to terminate as pinnacles.
The tower is worth examining in detail, especially its western face, where there is flint-and-stone ‘flushwork’ panelling in the base-course and lower parts of the buttresses and also over the west window. Here is the crowned ‘M’ – an emblem formed so that it incorporates all the letters of Maria in honour of the churches patron saint. There is exquisite stone carving in the frieze beneath the West window and in the embattled parapets.
The clock, by Gillett of Croydon, was given by the town at a cost of £123 in 1884, although the present dial dates from 1923. The ring of eight bells was cast by Thomas Mears II of Whitechapel in 1820 and retuned, quarter-tuned and rehung in a new frame by Taylors of Loughborough in 1969. The tenor Bell weighs 800 kg.
The western wall of the nave is pierced by a magnificent seven-light window. This attempt by early-15th-century craftsman to go as far as they dared to create walls of glass has a height of 28 feet, a breadth of 16 feet and occupies a remarkable amount of the surface area of the West end. It’s upper end half is an amazing display of tracery design combining the grid-like patterns of the Perpendicular style with the intersecting arcs of the 14th-century Decorated style of architecture. Beneath it is the great west doorway and on the wall to the north is an oval wall plaque to Thomas Bardwell, a local painter and pioneer of the ‘conversation piece’. One cherub remains, but the inscription has completely eroded away. It read:
Thomas Bardwell, portrait painter.
Died Sept. 9th 1767, age 63.
Nearly opposite the west door is a large stone, which probably arrived in the ice age. It is still called the ‘Druids stone’ and it was the custom for children to dance round it 12 times to raise the ‘Evil One’. Some think that it is a Ley or Direction stone. It may have marked the site of a pagan temple or meeting place before the first church was built on the site.
Further east are remains of the Priory both above and below ground. What can now be seen in the doorways, and more especially the carved stonework in the remains of the windows and arches of these ruins, is predominantly work of the 13th and early 14th centuries, and is earlier than the nave and aisles.
The fine two-storeyed porch has a large holy water stoup and the blocked remains of another flanking its outer entrance, where in the squandrels each side of the arch are a Knight with a lion and lion with a mouse. From the corners of the parapet a chained begging monkey and a hound with folded paws peer out. Inside, the vaulted stone roof is studded with bosses, the central one displaying the Instruments of the Passion surrounded by eight little angel faces. The north door incorporates ancient studded panels which came from a 16th-century house in Earsham Street. Many years ago this porch was used as a schoolroom for Bungay children; in the winter they were taught in the parvise (or priest’s chamber) above.
The absence of a structural chancel creates an interior of unusual proportions that emphasises the considerable height of the nave and the great breadth of the building, which is not far short of its length of 72 feet (21.9m). Plenty of light floods in through the windows – much of their glass was replaced after damage during the Second World War – and particularly through the great west window.
Aspects of the interior date back to the 14th- and 15th-century, including some of the timber framework of the roofs, although a great deal of renewal took place after damage by the great fire of 1688 – especially in the south aisle roof where the date of its completion (1699) appears on one of the 18 carved bosses and 4 half-bosses which adorn it. Also here are a harp, a trumpeting angel, a lion, etc. The north aisle roof is studded with 32 carved bosses and four half-bosses, including two at the west pointing fingers eastwards; amongst the variety of designs, some of which are mediaeval, are two-headed eagles, a skull and crossbones and a rather splendid bat.
Near the entrance is a carved wooden dole cupboard, where bread was left for collection by the poor. Although restored in the 19th century, its bears the date 1675 and a rebus (a kind of pun) of a large ‘Q’ and a rat, for Curate, with his initials, and also mitred bishops being pulled downwards by hands.
The font dates from around 1700 and is attractive craftsmanship of the period with cherubs and roses on its bowl and fluted stem. Its cover is partly 18th-century and partly of 1925. It is interesting that both churches in Bungay have 18th-century fonts – uncommon in East Anglia.
The ancient stone bowl on the floor nearby is thought to be part of the Saxon or Norman font; it was discovered near the staithe in 1924.
Several memorials on the walls and in the floors commemorate people of the past who were part of this church and town. The wall plaques on the north aisle are especially worth pausing to admire and read.
The War Memorial Chapel at the east end of the aisle has a 17th century Flemish carving of the Resurrection forming the central panel of its reredos. This was the gift of Sir H Rider Haggard of Ditchingham House – the author of King Solomon’s Mines. Also of the 17th century, but much restored, is the communion table here.
Text: “The Priory Church Of St Mary, Bungay, Suffolk – The Churches Conservation Trust” by Roy Tricker.
There has been one significant addition to the inside of the Church in recent years. During 2013 and 2014 a new multi-purpose room , the Bowerbank Room, was constructed inside the West end of the Church and toilet facilities were installed in the base of the tower.
The Bowerbank Room has separate under-floor heating and is intended to accommodate small meetings and exhibitions as well as providing a base for refreshments during concerts and major events. The room is designed so that when the West door of the church and the large doors of the room itself are opened there is still a processional way into the Church.
The room was designed by the architects, Inkpen Downie and constructed by Willow Builders, a local company. The cost of the construction was £225,000 of which £94,000 was provided by a grant from the Leader Fund and the remainder was sourced from a legacy given to the friends of St. Mary’s under the will of the late Miss Kathleen Bowerbank whose ashes are interred under the floor of the new room.