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Tour of St Mary’s Church Long Sutton


Settlement and naming of (Long) Sutton

The area around what is now the small town of Long Sutton in south east Lincolnshire was once a wild, ecologically rich, frontier land.

The early settlement lay on the western side of a natural divide immediately south of The Wash estuary. This divide was the wide and treacherous watercourse called the Wellstream in the medieval period; it was fordable in places at low tide with the help and advice of local guides. It is here that King John’s treasure is said to have been lost in 1216 whilst being transported west from Bishop’s Lynn, now King’s Lynn, in the extensive marshlands referred to as Cross Keys Wash. Today, in this largely reclaimed fenland region, the river is known to us as the Nene.

In the past this was the natural boundary between tribes and kingdoms; the Celtic Iceni to the east and the Coritani to the west during Roman times; East Anglia and Mercia in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Although the Wellstream also became the initial boundary between the later counties of Lincolnshire and Norfolk during the 10th century, the progress of land reclamation means that today the Nene no longer follows that administrative division.

Given the geographical circumstances in ancient times, it was quite natural for a settlement or port to be founded on the slightly higher silty ground on the western bank of the Wellstream outflow into The Wash.

In the 1086 Domesday book, commissioned by King William I (‘The Conqueror’) of England, Long Sutton is referred to as ‘Sudtone’ and is described as being ‘king’s land’, that is, belonging directly to the king. 

Sudtone, or Sutton, is quite a common English place name, probably meaning south or southward town (tun is the Old English word for an enclosure or settlement of some kind).

Travel by sea and river was often more practical than by land until recent centuries. In this low lying fenland region especially, journeying by land was often rather dangerous due to quicksand, not helped by a general dearth of good quality tracks and roads.

So, let us imagine some of those first Anglian pirates in their long boats from Jutland entering The Wash, way back in the 5th century AD during sub-Roman times. Some would have gone west inland via the Witham at what is now Boston. Some others would have gone south west towards the Welland where Spalding now lies. Others would have gone south east towards the mouth of the Great Ouse towards what is now King’s Lynn. And others still would have headed due south towards the large opening of the Wellstream. They might naturally name any settlement they first came to on the right bank as ‘Sudtone’, ‘south(ward) town’, Sutton, in their own language of Old English. The name might even refer to the settlement being southward of Lutton (‘Luctone’ in Domesday 1086), if indeed such a settlement existed around the end of the Roman period in the 5th century AD.

For most of its existence, Long Sutton lay in the extreme east of the eastern division of Elloewapentake in the Holland riding of Lincolnshire. It’s not absolutely certain what Elloe means, though it may stem from a word describing the low lying fens. 

Wapentake is definitely a word of Old Norse origin, corresponding to the Old English hundreddivision of settlement. The latter probably meant a hundred hides of land and the court thereof. Wapentake, a term stemming from the days of the Danelaw when England was divided between Danish and English ruled regions in the late 9th century AD, may refer to a Scandinavian style court or meeting place, perhaps at a crossroads or on neutral land, where a court would meet periodically, consisting of local officials and elders who might signify their status and participation through the show or laying down of weapons and the use of oaths. 

The Origins of Saint Mary’s Church

Long Sutton would have had an earlier Anglo-Saxon church, which appears to have been located on what is now the A17, a little further south from the present site, near the first port and manor house. Early Anglo-Saxon churches tended to be wooden and would therefore leave little archaeological trace, though a later one of stone construction might well have been built and almost certainly by early Norman times.

What is known, however, is that Cluniac monks from Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk, built the first church on the present site around 1134. This was in fact a major move ecclesiastically, involving the establishment of chapels at what is now Sutton Bridge, Lutton, Sutton Saint James and Sutton Saint Edmund, creating a greater parish and raising the church of Long Sutton Saint Mary’s to Minster status.

The church was served by a team of eight monks from Castle Acre, who would change quarterly in pairs. It is not known why it was administered this way, though one possibility may be that the area was considered quite remote for Cluniac monks to abide for longer than three months at a time.

In 1170 the present church was built in the Norman-Transitional style on an area of higher raised silt, presumably to establish more secure foundations and drainage. This would appear to have been a wise choice, because the present church has certainly stood the test of time and the foundation the considerable weight of Barnack limestone. This honey coloured limestone, used commonly throughout south Lincolnshire and further afield, would have been ferried in from the site at Barnack near Stamford, using the more extensive navigable waterways of the time, a more practical method of transporting such cargo at the time.

Important patronage

This new establishment seems to have been undertaken under the patronage of the notable Nicola de la Haye (Haie) of Swaton, Lincolnshire, a co-heiress of a major Lincolnshire landholder of Norman and English descent. In time she became hereditary sheriff of Lincolnshire and constable of Lincoln Castle, facing many threats and vicissitudes with her husband, though she remained steadfastly loyal to the controversial King John

By around 1200 the present tower was completed, originally built separated from the nave, and it remains the oldest, tallest wooden spire in Europe. Timbers here have been carbon dated to as far back as 1120. This remarkable structure was reputedly used as a model for the original Early English spire at the magnificent Salisbury Cathedral. The spire was originally built detached from the main body of the church, though the presence of more bulky columns in the centre of the nave might suggest that there was an earlier plan to construct the tower there. It was also at this time that the town received its Market Charter from King John in 1202.

Interesting features – the south porch entrance

The early 14th century south porch entrance has some very interesting roof bosses and ceiling vaulting. 

Look carefully at the first one and you will be able to make out a portrayal of a phoenixpecking at its own heart: This is thought to be an early symbol of the Resurrection.

The second boss nearest the entrance to the nave shows two masks, thought to be a reference to the fact that mummers or folk plays were performed here by medieval guilds. It is certain that such plays were performed here during the reign of Mary I and into the 1570s, after Queen Mary lifted the Excommunication Order in 1553 after King Edward VI’s ambassador was killed here.

In the porch there are also the steps leading up to what is known as the Parvaise Room. This dates back to the 14th century and was originally used as a monastic scriptorium. Later, continuing the tradition of study, it was here also that the first school in the town was established. Remarkably, there are some long established education charities which are still aiding teenage education and apprenticeships right up to this day.

During Victorian times, the same room had evolved into a pre-training priest school and library. In more recent times the space has been utilised for Sunday school activities.

The nave 

Entering the nave, there is a memorial to a grave digger and sexton on the wall immediately behind.

Continuing ahead, turn right and east through the splendid Norman nave of eight bays. The roof was raised in the 19th century, adding another clerestory and thereby more light into the nave.

Looking east towards the chancel, the viewer will see the doorway to the rood screen behind the pulpit. Though the earlier medieval appointments are long gone, including the pulpit and wall paintings (whose vestiges are hard to make out), the present pulpit is nevertheless wonderful and dedicated to the churchwardens John Swain and John Peele.

For an example of 16th century graffiti, on the right side of the altar there is a date of 1572 carved into the stone, plus the masons’ marks. There is also the basic building plan of the church. 

The hammer beam roof of the chancel is notable, along with the flying angels.

Also notable is the rare Peter’s Pence eagle lectern in the Early English style, dating from prior to the Reformation. It is in fact one of only three surviving examples in the entire country.

The reredos at the high altar is Victorian, a fine representation of the Last Supper dating from when the sanctuary was reordered. At that time, the original round Norman-Transitional apsewas discovered, which had been squared around 1260 to utilise space for the monks’ cell; there are original medieval wall tiles on the first floor. Today this area is often used for radio and television programmes, though the monks’ cell itself is not often open.

The ground floor of the monks’ cell, though small, appears seven sided and has a groined vault. There is a small, tight winding staircase to the upper monks’ cell, a small but lovely space containing superb, apparently original brick work in the vaulted ceiling, a tremendous example of precise medieval pointing that was clearly a labour of love or devotion for someone. That said, this cramped holy place must have been quite cold and lonely for those monks, especially during the winter months, which may be the reason they were sent in pairs.

Back into the nave proper, there is the wonderful five panelled Victorian stained glass in the east window of the chancel, representing scenes from the life of Christ. There are other fine examples of stained glass elsewhere, representing scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

What is more, whilst on the subject of glass, in the north aisle there is an example of one of the largest pieces of medieval painted glass in Europe. It is disputed as to what the image actually represents, but it is clearly of a knight in full armour around the time of the early ‘Hundred Years’ War’, about the middle of the 14th century. It may be an image of Saint George and the Dragon, though some think it may represent John of Gaunt, son of Edward III and Duke of Lancaster. The British Museum holds copies of this.

Immediately to the left of the altar there is a notable tomb, that of John Bailey (inscribed with ‘Alas Poor Bailey’), a local doctor murdered on the Long Sutton Wisbech road in 1795, though sadly the perpetrators were never caught. His surgery was in one of the town houses situated off the churchyard in London Road.

In Victorian times under the patronage of the Leigh Bennetts, considerable renovation was carried out in the church. This included putting a renovated Tudor organ in its present position over the tomb of its medieval benefactor Thomas Allen. He also bequeathed monies to the town still given today for the upkeep of the organ and education. The organ is one of the earliest in the country, parts of it dating back to the 16th century. This organ is still in use today during Sunday worship.

The lady chapel was restored after WWII, where the Laudian altar is still used. Within the chapel are the tombstones and plaques dedicated to Richard Delamore and family, who signed the arrest warrant for John Palmer (aka Dick Turpin), who lived in the town for two years.

Looking upward into the nave, there are some remarkable and newly restored examples of medieval wall paintings, dating from around 1200, soon after the nave was first built. 

During the early Victorian period, more of these paintings were removed in an attempt to finish off the process which began during the Reformation. Though only vestiges remain, stylistically, these closely resemble other known works which were created by the DurhamSchool of wall painting. It’s reasonable to assume, therefore, that artisans of this same school completed these at Long Sutton. It is remarkable to think that prior to the Reformation, the entire church would have been covered in these highly decorative and informative wall paintings, a feature of nearly all churches in those days.

Moving to the right of the altar there is a cross dedicated to the Unknown Soldier, given to the church in 1926.

At the west end of the church there is a 17th century Jacobean Poor Box, which is inscribed ‘Remember the Poor’. There are also some notable medieval charity boards.

At the west end of the south aisle, there is the wonderful stained glass window of the Nativity.

Looking to the west door there is the site of the minstrels’ gallery. The parish fire engine was at one time stored here before the building of the first fire station.

The north door has a fine example of an ogee arch and to the left lies the wonderfully simple Norman octagonal font.

As Long Sutton has been a port for most of its history, there are some notable references to its status and the sea in the church. In the south aisle there is a plaque to Vice Admiral Sir Thomas Beatie, a lifelong friend of Admiral Lord Nelson. Next to that is a plaque to the Allenby family, related to General Allenby of the Middle East, who entered Jerusalem in 1918 at the start of the British occupation of the Holy Land.

The tower

There are eight bells contained within the tower which are still regularly rung: They date to 1928. The clock chimes the hour day and night and is wound twice a week, a reminder that Saint Mary’s church has kept time for this small community ever since the first monks from Castle Acre Priory came here. 

On the outside above the bell tower door there is a mass dial clock. The first clock dates back to 1547, which was improved in 1765, to be renewed in 1889 and 1912.

On the spire, the golden cockerel atop the weather vane reputedly dates from medieval times and was restored in 2004.

Notable graves

The churchyard boundary remains essentially the same as that laid out in the late 1100s.

One notable headstone to look out for is that of the last Wash Guide, Charles Wigglesworth. This dates back to the time before the erection of the bridge at Sutton Bridge

The first bridge was constructed in 1831, designed by John Rennie and Thomas Telford and it opened very much like Tower Bridge does today. However, it was soon replaced by a swing bridge designed by Robert Stephenson. This too had a relatively short life, the present one being built in 1897.

Inside the church there is a headstone for an early 19th century plumber and lead worker called Joseph Tunnard. This person left his footprint on the south aisle lead roof during repairs in 1828, which may have been a way of ‘signing’ his work.

There are also several tombs of the Skelton family, notable Lords of the Manor of Long Sutton, both inside and outside in the churchyard, including some table top tombs.

There are also some important Victorian tombs of churchwardens John Swain and Richard Peele, plus numerous organists and school masters.

However, the oldest graves lie in the Lady Chapel, which are marked by brasses and some lie under the nave carpet. 

In general terms the church of Saint Mary in Long Sutton is one of the most remarkable in all of south Lincolnshire, bearing testimony to its early and continued importance and the relative wealth of this region as a whole during the medieval period.


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