At first glance, you might think St Mary’s at Lidgate is a fairly prosaic Suffolk parish church. Set back from the road at the end of a lane and accessed via a set of pretty gates, it is situated on a high knoll overlooking the fields and woods beyond. This is a secluded and peaceful spot but, aside from an odd slab of flint wall in the churchyard, there’s not a great deal to cause excitement. Yet it contains secrets that mark it as one of Suffolk’s most compelling churches.
For a start, it is a place of very ancient sanctity; an ecclesiastical building may have occupied this site for over 1,200 years (a Saxon baluster, possibly from an earlier church, is held by the Suffolk Archaeological Society.) Prior to this, Church Hill was likely part of a Roman settlement; Roman bricks are incorporated into the fabric of the current building and the remains of a Roman soldier were uncovered during building work nearby. Earlier still, Bronze Age settlers likely occupied the site.
In the c. 12th, a Norman motte and bailey castle was erected here during the civil wars of succession known as The Anarchy. The motte was of a rare quadrangular design; in the churchyard a free-standing section of flint wall is all that remains of the castle’s masonry (thought to be part of the gatehouse.) The Norman church, replacing the Saxon one, evolved alongside the castle, growing from a simple c. 11th design to what exists today.
Inside the otherwise unadorned church, if you know where to look, is a fascinating array of medieval graffiti. There are plenty of examples of apotropaic markings, such as the ubiquitous ‘daisy wheel‘ motifs, as well as more ornate ‘Solomon’s knots’. Rarest of all are two inscriptions attributable to the c. 14th / 15th poet John de Lydgate, who was born in the village and later became a monk at the abbey at Bury St Edmunds. One piece of graffiti, translated from Latin, reads: ‘John Lydgate made this on the day of St Simon and St Jude’ – 28th October, with the year some time between 1390 and 1450. The other is a rebus puzzle dedicated to a certain ‘Lady Catherine’.
Roughly 150,000 lines of verse have been attributed to Lydgate, making him one of the most prolific of medieval authors. Amongst his work was ‘The Lives of Saints Edmund & Fremund’, which was presented to a young King Henry VI during his stay at Bury St Edmunds abbey. Edmund and Lydgate may have more than this in common; if certain scholars are to be believed, they are both buried beneath the tennis courts in the modern-day Abbey Gardens in Bury.
The key to the church can be obtained from the owners of Woodhills Cottage, beside the entrance to the churchyard. It should be noted that Sam is a really enthusiastic key-holder; chatty, friendly and with lots of anecdotes, she made our visit to St Mary’s especially enjoyable. Amazingly, well-behaved dogs are actually allowed inside the church; the objective seems to be to actively encourage the use of this ancient place, which can only be a good thing.