It’s the village familiar from the 1950s British Railways poster – horses by the watersplash, with the church at the top of the hill in the background (1). This image travelled all over the country; as Pevsner says, Kersey is the most picturesque village in Suffolk. There’s much more to Kersey church than that though.
Although the north aisle is 14th c., the building looks Perpendicular, thanks especially to the tower (2). Documents tell us a bit about it – the key years are 1430-1465 (remember these). In 1430, a chaplain named Robert Sket left £2 to the ‘work’ of the new [sic] tower [ad opus nove campanile]. By 1443 the bells were being mentioned, well in hand when in 1447 John Pusk left the substantial sum of 10 marks [£6 13s. 4d] ‘when they begin to buy the new bells’. The tower battlement was also being mentioned in wills then, so the tower was evidently nearly complete. There are north and south porches, the latter (3) the more attractive of the two, with a fine ceiling, even though there is no village to speak of on this side. Enter by it, if you look over to the north aisle, you spot a splash of colour – the base of the 15th c. roodscreen bearing paintings of local hero S. Edmund, two other kings and three prophets (4) has been moved there. In 1463 John Puske – son of James – gave the large sum of 15 marks (£10) towards painting the “candlebeam”, meaning the roodscreen. The body of the church was clearly largely finished, and after this bequest donations for the next half-century largely centred upon furnishings; in 1490 John Cole gave 5 marks for ‘making a new pyx for the sacrament’ and in 1508 John Marchant left 20s to a ‘ship of silver to bear in frankincense’ [incense boat] whilst in 1490 Robert Cooke instructed his executors ‘to buy 2 altar cloths for the high altar of Kersey with the curtains at the ends and the frontlet, for the sum of 6 marks’ (Warham Guild, anyone?).
Prominent in this aisle is a large 14th c. ogee-headed niche (5), topped by crockets and pinnacles. I realised its purpose back in the mid-1980s, when I was in search of evidence for church building and looking at Papal Indulgences from the 14th and 15th c.; I came across one dated 1464 that was rather different, viz: – To all Christ’s faithful etc, Pius II, having learned that to the parish church of St Mary Kersey (called de Pietate) in the diocese of Norwich, there was a great resort of the faithful on account of the infinite miracles which, by the merits and intercessions of the same Virgin, had been and were being wrought daily by Almighty God at a certain image of her in the said church, granted in perpetuity, under date Id March Anno 6  to all who, being truly penitent and having confessed, visited on the feasts of the Annunciation and Nativity of the said Virgin, from the first to the second vespers and give alms for the enlargement and restoration of the said church, an indulgence of three years and three quarantines of enjoined penance, the said grant to be null and void if any similar and unexpired indulgence had been granted by the said pope. Inasmuch as Pope Pius died before his letters were drawn up, the Pope hereby decrees that the present letters shall serve as proof of the said indulgence [Cal. Papal Letters, Vol.12, pp 419-420, 1464 16 Kal. Oct (16 Sept). St Peter’s Rome. 1 Paul II]. I should add that Dr Diana Webb of Kings College, London must have hit on this indulgence at around the same time, publishing it in her book Pilgrimage in Mediaeval England (2000). The synchronisation of the timing of the indulgence with the building campaign at Kersey church is surely no coincidence.
This niche was an obvious location for the shrine, presumably an image like the one at Souillac (6). The shrine gets a mention in a couple of Kersey wills – Richard Lucy bequeathed in 1465 ‘for a torch to burn before the image of the Blessed Mary of Pity to the value of 5s.’ and in 1506 William Ambrose gave 20d. ‘to our Lady of Pity in Kersey church, to help to the painting’. Of course building that fine porch on the south side would have meant that visitors opening the south door would have had an immediate sight of the shrine, decorated with flowers and with candles burning around it.
East Anglia had its large shrines, famous throughout the country; Walsingham of course, and St. Edmund at Bury, as well as Etheldreda (Audry) at Ely. There were other well-known ones like Our Lady of Grace in Ipswich, Saint Walstan of Bawburgh, the Holy Rood of Bromholm and Saint William of Norwich. But there were shrines of more local repute, some Suffolk examples including Our Lady at Sudbury and Woolpit, and roods at Beccles, Framsden, Gislingham and Kirton. Kersey was one of these. Jonathan Sumption has pointed out that these local shrines often had a very short-lived popularity; the early 14th c. date of the niche, together with documentary evidence extending into the early 16th c. suggests that Kersey was longer-lived.
These local shrines often ‘survive’ because they are mentioned in wills, where the mediaeval testator wanted pilgrimages to be carried out for the welfare of their soul after their death. Thus in 1493 John Moore of Gislingham in north Suffolk wanted various pilgrimages carried out for him, including Our Lady of Walsingham, St. Walstan, St. Nicholas of Tibenham (just over the Norfolk border), “ou’ blisseyd lady of Wolpett”, the “blissyd Roode of Gyslinghm” and “good King henr” (Henry VI). Similarly in 1516 Gregory Clerk, twice Mayor of Norwich (1505 and 1514), wanted pilgrimages on his behalf to the Holy Cross of Bromholm, the Holy Rood of Beccles, Our Lady of Walsingham, Our Lady of “Redybone”, Our Lady of “Armeburghe” [St. Mary de Arneburgh in Great Yarmouth parish church], Our Lady of Grace at Ipswich, Our Lady of Grace at Cambridge, Our Lady of the Mount at Lynn, St. “Tebald” [Saint Theobald’s shrine at Hautbois, near Wroxham in Norfolk], St. “Wandred” [Saint Wandrille at Bixley near Norwich], St. “Hede of Tremyngham” [an alabaster image of St John Baptist’s head at Trimingham, near Cromer], St. Audry of Ely and St. Philip’s Arm at Castle Acre. Many of these were local shrines, and there were some rare saints; Mendlesham had a shrine of Saint Uncumber.
Often a testator mentions mainly shrines within 20 miles of their homes. Our Lady of “Redybone” and Henry VI are interesting examples from further afield. This maid (hence Puella as she was sometimes known) is said to have lived at Redbourne near St Albans; she fell into a millstream and was saved from the millwheel by her parents praying to St Alban. She appears on the church screen at Gateley in Norfolk (7) and also had shrines in some churches, like Hackford in Norfolk. Henry VI shares the screen at Gateley with the maid “Redybone”. He died in 1471, very possibly killed by Edward VI. He was venerated for his piety both in his life and after his death and burial at Chertsey Abbey. His relics were moved to St. George’s chapel at Windsor in 1484. Quite a number of East Anglian churches had shrines to him, or paintings on their screens, like the one at Barton Turf in Norfolk (8). Moves for his canonisation seem to have foundered on a combination of the financial prudence of Henry VII as well as the guillotine of the Reformation.
All these ‘local’ shrines were to be swept away of course, nothing of them surviving on the ground, unlike Kersey. Our Lady of Walsingham was restored in the early 20th century, Our Lady of Grace at Ipswich more recently. Here we have a glimpse of the rich tapestry of church life in mediaeval England.
Jonathan Sumption, Pilgrimage. An Image of Mediaeval Devotion, London, Faber, 1975.
Diana Webb, Pilgrimage in Mediaeval England, London, Hambledon, 2000.