The stories of many Suffolk parishes are told through their church kneelers, explains Nicola Miller
Suffolk, the curious county, has its well-known tales of saints and martyrs, a great book that underpins the laws of the land, and towering churches where queens lie.
We have villages under the sea, a writer of ghost stories who once lived in a spectre-infested village and roaming black dogs with eyes of carmine fire.
There are stories of tamer beasts, too: of Dalmatians who drank from a church horse trough as they searched for their stolen 101 puppies; poor mummified cats walled up in Tudor buildings, and the gentle giant working horses that ploughed our fields.
We have curious place names (Finger Bread Hill, Beggars Bush, Wherstead Ooze, Burnt Dick Hill and Smear Marshes) and architecture that spits in the face of straightness (crinkle crankle walls and Tudor skew-whiffness) but look a little harder. You will find thousands of smaller stories within this big, bold narrative. The pew kneelers at the cathedral of St James in Bury St Edmunds are one such example; each one is like a chapter of a book, telling its own little tale.
The kneelers are a relatively modern creation because prayer was not intended to be comfortable. Congregants were taught with a sense that the holiest of outcomes (heaven) involved a degree of self-sacrifice and subjugation in the face of unheated and cold stone floors. The transaction was not between the worshipper and the church per se but between them and God. Therefore, no comfy intermediary between the supplicant, floor and their God were offered.
Times move on, though. Churches wanting to appear more welcoming are seeking new ways of embedding themselves into their community. They are, in effect, celebrating the ordinary people who once lived - and continue to live and work in a parish - and kneelers tell their stories. They are a form of folk art, said Lady Bingham of Cornhill, who established an online record of church kneelers across the nation, and one which she says makes up a vast library of information about the interests of numerous parishes.
Each parish was invited to choose a symbolic or literal emblem or motif when it was decided to make the kneelers. Some motifs possess layer upon layer of folklore and spiritual history spanning centuries. The scallop, an ancient symbol of Christianity, is central to the design of the St James of Dunwich kneeler. A broader symbol of the sea, of pilgrimage and fertility, the scallop is seen in paintings such as Botticelli’s ‘Venus’. Dunwich’s own loss of one of its churches to the might of the sea acts as a poignant counterpart to the scallop shell as a giver of life and facilitator of spiritual rebirth.
Many of the kneelers use puns based on a parish name. A wheelbarrow was chosen by Barrow; a crow represents Crowfield (although Crowfield is not named from the bird but ‘croh’, an Old English word for nook or corner). Modern parish life is celebrated too: Leavenheath’s grazing cows are juxtaposed with electricity pylons; Leiston’s kneeler is graced with its nuclear power station, and Thorpeness’s features the modernised ‘House in the Clouds’. Suffolk’s watery locale and maritime heritage are represented by the crewel Wolverston smuggler’s cat sitting in a cottage window, the tall mast of HMS Ganges chosen by Shotley parish, and Dalham’s Golden Hind, captained by Sir Francis Drake.
My favourite is Polstead’s, whose blood-red cherries are both a reminder of its history as a fruit-growing region and the location of the Red Barn Murder. Polstead cherry vendors used to sell their fruit by the pint and cry, “Polstead cherries, Polstead cherries, red as Maria Marten’s blood,” according to Ronald Blythe. I am also rather fond of Boulge’s kneeler, where a single bloom of Fitzgerald Persian Rose, the Rosa Damascene of the Caspian with over 800 years of intoxicatingly perfumed history, commemorates Edward Fitzgerald. He lies in the churchyard of St Michael & All Angels. A friend of Tennyson, Fitzgerald was the translator of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám from its original Persian alongside some of fellow Suffolk poet George Crabbe’s poems.
Post-lockdown, the cathedral is in the process of putting out its kneelers once again. To see a selection online, visit https://parishkneelers.co.uk/.
-- Nicola Miller is a freelancewriter and columnist