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The church is much changed from the original church which was recorded
in the Domesday Survey of 1086. Little evidence of this Norman or
possibly Saxon church remains, although some masonry to be seen
in the lower stage of the tower may be of this date.
We also know that the church had a South porch that contained a
simple 11th century doorway. Unfortunately, the porch and doorway
disappeared in a major restoration and rebuilding in 1873. However,
we do have a picture of the porch from an etching in 1848.
Much of the church that we see today stems from the 19th century
restoration but the church still contains many original items of
an earlier date.
The Western tower (14th century)
has diagonal buttresses at its western angles. The two light belfry
windows and the similar west window are in the Decorated style of
the early 14th century. The restored west doorway is also of this
date, although some of the masonry in the lower part of the tower
is arranged differently from
the rest and may have formed part of the 11th century church.
The clock was given in 1880 and was restored in 1938. The
parapet has lovely 15th century flint panelling (flushwork) with
traceried panels. Beneath it is a band of flowers (flearons) and
carved heads, in addition to a large head at the centre of the west
side and a gargoyle head on the south side.
The tower is home to a peal of six bells. Three of these
bells were cast c. 1480-1 510 by John Kebyll of London. Another
was made in 1609 by Brend, the Norwich bell-founder, and the tenor,
weighing 8cwt.3qtr.7Ib, is by Lester and Pack of Whitechapel, made
in 1762. The ring was completed by the addition of a new treble
bell by John Warner of London in 1880. The second bell was recast
in 1938, and the bells were rehung in new oak frames by Bowell of
A gem in the crown that is St John's can be found in the churchyard
on the tombstone of John Noller (1725), which can be found
south west of the church steps and in eight yards. The east and
west faces of the tombstone are small, inclined oblong recesses
which form a simple and imaginative sundial. Every sundial needs
a pointer or gnomon projecting in front of the dial to cast a shadow
on to a marked scale. Any such projection low down on a tombstone
would certainly, sooner or later, be damaged. To prevent this happening,
the designer of John Noller's headstone hit upon the ingenious idea
of making the edge of the headstone's surface the gnomon and obtained
the relative projection by recessing the dial.
Tombstone with integral sundial
As the stone faces east and west, he carved a morning dial on one
side (east face) and an evening one on the other (west face). If
you look in the recesses on both faces you will see the hour markings
1,2,3,4,5 on the west recess and 7,8,9,10,11 on the east recess.
12 o'clock is not marked because at the moment of noon each dial
is completely in shadow.
You will also notice that the dials are not upright on the stone
but at a slant. The upper edge which acts as the gnomon is so slanted
as to point exactly to the north star, or in other words, be parallel
with the earth's axis.
And why was it done? Well, we are not sure, but just as some clocks
are marked with tile inscription "Tempus fugit" or time
flies, so this gravestone with its sundial marking the passing of
time also reminds us, the living, that our time soon passes. Or
perhaps it was picking up on another thought about time from the
"There is a time for everything, and a season
activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die,"
The Font c 1400
This is a typical East Anglian design with octagonal panelled bowl
carved with lions interspersed with angels holding shields on which
are displayed the instruments of the Passion (East), the Cross (South),
the emblem of the Trinity (West) and the three crowns of East Anglia
(North). The bowl of the font is original.
The Nave c 1500
Internally the building is harmonious, light and well-proportioned.
The aisles are separated from the nave by 15th century (Perpendicular)
arcades of four bays, with octagonal piers which have moulded capitals
and bases. These are topped by six two light clerestorey windows.
At the West end of the nave is the comparatively modern glazed
gallery, from which the church's peal of six bells are rung. The
west window of the tower ringing chamber contains the only piece
of mediaeval glass, the head of an angel, to survive in this
church. Above the ringing chamber is a large Sanctus bell window,
which in mediaeval times allowed the ringer of the Sanctus bell
to see over the Rood Screen to the main altar.
The 19th century stained glass throughout the church is of interest
because of the subjects represented as well as the makers and artists
The West window of the North aisle is described in The Popular
Guide to Suffolk Churches as being "a fairly terrible product
of Ward and Hughes and features an outlandishly dressed centurion".
What else can be said? Beauty is obviously in the eye of the beholder.
The East window of the North aisle depicting two angels against
patterned quarries is of interest because of its local connections.
It was designed and painted by Mary and Bessie McKean of Saxmundham
in 1872 and installed by Mr Howlett, a Saxmundham glazier.
The Victorian tour de force is obviously the West window of the
South aisle, designed by the Dowager Marchioness of Waterford, a
friend of the poet John Ruskin, and a well known artist and book
illustrator. The glass is by O'Connor and Taylor and illustrates
Jesus's ascension into heaven, in brilliant colour. Jesus stands
in the centre, and the disciples kneel on either side. The drama
of the scene is enhanced by the quality of the artist's work and
in particular the facial features.
Pews and Pulpit
The existing pews and pulpit date from the restoration of 1873 and
are made from New Zealand kaurie pine. They replace the old box
pews which were so tall that many folk using them could neither
see nor be seen.
c15th single-hammerbeam arch braced roof.
The whole of the nave is crowned with a splendid 15th century single-hammerbeam
arch braced roof, with castellated hammers and wooden demi-figures
as corbels below the wall posts.
During the Georgian era, or perhaps before, the roof was covered
in with a flat plaster ceiling. A church guide book of 1855 states
that at the time only the "ends" of the roof were visible
below the ceiling and that the whole interior was disfigured by
Happily the ceiling was removed in 1932 to reveal this splendid
roof. It has been restored and the wall plates have been renewed,
as have several of the other timbers. The ancient woodwork is less
brown in appearance than the modern. The figures beneath the wall
posts are mostly original.
One of the most distinctive features of St John's is its weeping
chancel. If you stand in the nave centre aisle and look towards
the altar, you will notice that the Chancel is built at a pronounced
angle to the nave. This is fairly common in churches built in the
shape of a cross (cruciform) but is very rare in a church of this
type. The main feature is not the angle, which is much greater than
usual, but that it is to the South.
Other churches with weeping chancels incline to the North, representing
Jesus on the cross with his head towards the penitent thief on his
right Here it is to his left, signifying that Jesus died for the
impenitent as well as the penitent. Saxmundham church is one of
the few in Europe to have this feature.
The Chancel arch and the two bay arcade North and South were replaced
as part of the 1873 restoration, but we think that the restorers
copied the original forms (Decorated style)
The organ by Albert Pease of Hackney was installed here
in the early 1950s. It has two manuals, pedals and 15 speaking stops.
Within the church are some finely executed monuments by some famous
sculptors. Among them is the memorial, by Nollekens, to Charles
Long, who died in 1812, in which a fat putto sits with his torch
reversed in mourning against the dark obelisk.
Thomas Thurlow provided the tablet over the vestry door for Susanna
Mayhew in 1853.
Sir Richard Westmacott carved the memorial to Rt. Hon. Sir Charles
Long, a prominent politician. He was MP for Dunwich and created
Baron Farnborough in 1826. His monument here is a cenotaph as he
is actually buried at Wormley in Hertfordshire.
There are several wall memorials to the Long family. One on the
North wall of the chapel commemorating Beeston Long (1765) and his
wife, Sarah, is by William Tyler, who had studied under Roubiliac
and was an original member of the Royal Academy. Another, in similar
style over the small South doorway, commemorates Charles and Mary
A memorial with anchor and ensign draped over the obelisk commemorates
George Long, who as a young man was killed in 1782 leading the storming
of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka.
The Long family originally came from Wiltshire, but their association
with Saxmundham dates from the 17th century. Lord Farnborough's
great-grandfather, Samuel Long (1638-1683), was appointed secretary
to the Jamaica Commissioners immediately after the conquest of that
island, and on his return to England purchased Hurts Hall, Saxmundham.