HITCHAM is one of the largest parishes in south Suffolk. Now 3,872 acres, before 1934 it was 4,270 acres (including a detached part of Brettenham that was re-united with Hitcham in 1885). However it is likely that Anglo-Saxon Hitcham was even larger as topographical and manorial evidence suggest that Wattisham was once part of Hitcham: this would enlarge Hitcham to 5,568 acres, making it even larger than Long Melford (5,185 acres) or Stoke-by-Nayland (5,277 acres).
Around 1000 A.D. two Anglo-Saxon thanes, brothers called Godwine and Aelfmaer, bequeathed their paternal estate at Hitcham to the Abbey at Ely. Godwine, who was wealthy enough to have his own steward and goldsmith, also gave the Abbey his estate at Hoo. In 1086 Hitcham was Ely’s largest single estate in Suffolk, and by far the most valuable, worth twice as much as any other possession. (The 11 carucates here were worth £40. For comparison, Bury Abbey’s great estate at Long Melford consisted of 12 carucates, worth £30. Under the Feudal System, a carucate was 120 acres, as much land as could be tilled by one plough and eight oxen in a year).
When a Bishopric was established at Ely in 1109, Hitcham became part of the Bishop’s estate. It remained in the hands of the Bishops of Ely until 1559, when it was acquired by the Crown through a forced exchange.
The patronage of the church also belonged to Ely. Although an endowment of only 2 acres is mentioned in Domesday Book, it later became a valuable church living. Instead of impropriating the income and installing a vicar, Ely chose to keep it as a wealthy rectory to be bestowed on favoured clerics. This is reflected in the list of Rectors, which includes several scholars and important churchmen including a Cardinal.
In the absence of any important secular lords in medieval Hitcham, the impetus for church building could only come from the bishops, the rectors and the ordinary farmers of the Parish. The present church reflects this in that although it is large (reflecting parish) and well built, it is not overly ornate. This impression has been further heightened by the work of zealous Protestants, who have systematically defaced or removed all the angels and other ‘superstitious’ images. The whitewashed walls further add to the air of restrained austerity; luckily they also bring out the church’s fine proportions and give an air of lightness and spaciousness. The medieval church must however have appeared somewhat different, for traces of wall-paintings were found in 1878 between the nave arches.
In 1934 the patronage of the church reverted, by means no more startling than an announcement in the London Gazette, from the Crown to the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.
ALL SAINTS CHURCH consists of a large west tower, clerestoried nave, long chancel, two aisles, south porch and north double-storeyed vestry.
TOWER – A massive edifice which dominates the exterior of the church. Particularly impressive when viewed from the road from Bildeston. 15th-century perpendicular windows. Largely plain, except for chequer-pattern flushwork on the angle buttresses (similar pattern on the castellated nave top). Buttresses descend into the church – this has been taken as a sign that the tower was free-standing when built.
NAVE – 5-bay arcades with octagonal piers, probably mid-late 14th-century. Small niche in a half pillar at the E. and of N. aisle. Original quatrefoil windows in the clerestory on the N. side; on the S. side these have been replaced by arched windows with simple median mullion. The roof has fine altemating double hammerbeam and arch-braced trusses and at the ends of the lower hammerbeams are various emblems, (see notes on the royal badges below) including the monogram of King James I (Lord of the manor & patron of the church), indicating some early 17th-century work. However the wall-posts in the form of angels (now mutilated) indicating that parts must be earlier. A west gallery was removed in 1878, as were the old high-backed pews. The new benches incorporate some 15th-century poppy heads and arm rests
CHANCEL – Lower part of a fine mid-15th-century rood screen with painted panels depicting angels bearing the Instruments of the Passion. (see notes below for details) S. & E. walls had to be taken down and rebuilt in 1878. In a buttress a fragment of a cross (claimed as 9th-10th-century); fragments of a cist (a stone coffin) a Barnack stone cross, part of a reredos, and a piece of a font base ware found – unfortunately they are now lost. During Canon Grant’s Incumbency (1861-1903) Hitcham made tentative steps towards an Anglo-Catholic style of worship by adopting an eastward position for celebrating Holy Communion. The two steps to the sanctuary, representing the major sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism and the five steps to the chancel, representing the lesser sacraments of Confirmation, Penance, Holy Orders, Matrimony and Extreme Unction were introduced to the chancel during this period. The great East window, behind the altar, contains mouchettes, curved but some stonework looks Victorian. Dagger shapes in the window tracery used principally during the Decorated period of the 14th-century.
AISLES – Roofs thought to be 15th-century, but a benefaction to the church in 1523 of £6.13s. 4d towards the leading of the roofs suggests that a later date might be more accurate. At the E. end of the S. aisle is the monogram of King Charles I, probably indicating some 17th-century repair. Windows mainly Perpendicular; those at the E. ends are slightly earlier. Above the S.door is a 1937 King George Vl set of Royal Arms; pierced and carved in gilded and painted wood, it is regarded as possibly the best of Suffolk’s modern Royal Arms. Opposite, above the W. door, is a wooden angel recently given to the church and thought to have been carved at the end of the 19th-century by Miss March Phillips, a relative of Canon Grant. A large painting in the S. aisle came from the palace of the Bishop of Bath & Wells where it was described as a copy of an old master. It is clearly derived from an “Adoration of the Magi” by Rubens (1577-1640) being similar, but reversed, to the one in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. The font, installed in 1878.
PORCH – Described imaginatively by an English Heritage Inspector as a ‘world beater’; nonetheless a splendid piece of 15th-century work; trefoil headed flushwork panels, niches above the door and in the buttresses. carved doorway with crowns and lions’ heads, mutilated shields in the spandrels with the symbols of the Trinity (left) and the Passion (right). S. door contemporary; carved shields and crowns, roses in the spandrels, lion stop on one side, angels within a fence on the other and a carved wooden door. The design of the porch closely resembles those at Bildeston, Preston and Felsham – they must be all by the same hand. (wills of 1470 & 1471 refer to glass for the windows of Felsham porch – and therefore suggest construction dates). Thomas Fyssher, Rector of Hitcham 1466-1500, requested burial in the porch and was probably responsible for its construction. The porch was restored in 1883 in memory of the Revd Professor J. Henslow, and again in 1992 under the watchful eye of English Heritage. Although the roof had been leaking badly for some years, few of the medieval timbers needed replacing.
VESTRY – Restored from a ruinous condition in 1987; the vestry had an ancient fireplace which unfortunately had to be bricked up. A narrow stone staircase leads into an upper chamber. The restorers had to lower the floor of the upper room so that it now conceals the arch of the barred lower window – heavily barred for past security purposes. The upper room contains a painting of the Crucifixion by the late Denis Knight of Hitcham.
THE SCREEN – The lower part of a fine mid-15th-century screen of specifically Suffolk work, one of the finest in West Suffolk.
In 1461 Richard Wederton Esq. requested burial before the image of the Crucifixion ie the Rood on the top of the screen.
In 1491 John Lever requested a taper of wax to burn before the Rood.
In 1524 Thomas Scorrell made a bequest towards the repair of the “boording the bak syde of the Roode of the Candyll beame next to the Chancell”.
The full screen was probably destroyed during the reign of Edward VI (1547-53).
The surviving panels show angels with the instruments of the Passion. Reading from L to R these are:
1) The SCOURGE – upraised in the L. hand of the Angel its knotted thongs dangling by his arm.
2) The PILLAR OF FLAGELLATION – with its cords around it.
3) The SPEAR
4) Apparently the SEAMLESS ROBE held up in the Angel’s two hands.
5) Half blank and defaced.
6) Very much damaged, but probably the CLEFT REED for the sponge of hyssop.
7) The NAILS AND THE HAMMER
8) CROWN OF THORNS, held in the Angel’s two hands. (The poppy-head of a bench in the nave is carved as an angel holding a crown of thorns in just this way).
ROYAL BADGES – The royal badges on the ends of the nave roof beams cover the reigns of sovereigns from Henry VI – James I. All the badges are surmounted by crowns and were clearly carved at the same date so date from the time of James I (1603-1625).
- Tudor Rose
- Two feathers
- Sun in splendour
- Sword and (?) sceptre within wreath
- Rose en soleil
- Monogram of James I
- Cross patee fitchee
THE BELLS -The solid turret visible from the outside of the tower is the staircase to the bells. A benefaction of 1491 gave 3s 4d to the repair of the bells and in 1522 Dr William Cooke made provision in his will towards a little bell to hang in the ‘steeple’. John Bowell, in 1524, gave 13s 4d to the making of the bell frame, a massive timber structure which still holds the bells in place. The existing bells, six in number, are the tenor cast in 1744 and weighing 18 cwt, two cast in 1697, one in 1755 and two in 1837. Because of fear of damage being caused to the tower, the bells were secured in a locked position in 1926, and now cannot be pealed.
THE ORGAN – The original organ, part of which still remains, dates from about 1800. The instrument was completely rebuilt by Bishop & Son of Ipswich and London in 1976 and contains pipework by Benjamin Flight. The organ retains an example of the English Cornet Stop.
THE CHURCH FURNITURE – The present ordering of the interior of the church dates from 1937. The organ was moved from the S. aisle to its present position and the font from the W. end of the nave to where it is at the W. end of the S. aisle. The benches in front of the organ and the pair of unusual churchwarden’s stalls were re-fashioned from pews which formerly occupied the chancel. The Bishop’s stall in the chancel was introduced at the same time. The elegant pulpit is 18th-century but the tester or sounding board above it was created in 1937 from the top of a table used in the vestry. The pews in the S. aisle were recently acquired from a redundant church.