No visit to Bury St Edmunds would be truly complete without exploring the beautiful Church of St Mary’s in more detail.
Unlike St James’ Church (now St Edmundsbury Cathedral) which has been much altered over the centuries, St Mary’s Church presents itself very much in its original state of the 1430s when the church was largely rebuilt and extended, and with most of its original features still intact.
Amongst its many treasures is the tomb of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, as well as a great example of a medieval ‘pardon grave’ belonging to John Baret, a wealthy clothier and benefactor of the town.
However, one of the most outstanding features of the church is, without doubt, its magnificent angel hammerbeam roof, dating from the 1440s. Thanks to the enormous height of the ceiling the angels managed to escape any attempts of destruction, allowing the angel roof to remain unchanged for centuries.
Unfortunately, a major disadvantage of the angels being so high up in the nave is that it is impossible to see their faces with the naked eye. The last time anyone inspected them from a close distance was when they were given a good ‘dusting down’ in the 1840s and later on in the 1960s.On one of these occasions the hand of one of the angels got knocked off in the process – it can now be seen displayed in a glass cabinet next to John Baret’s tomb.
It was therefore a very memorable event when, in February 2020, the authors Renée Waite and Tim Crosbie presented their beautifully photographed and researched book ‘The Angels of Honey Hill’. For the first time the angels and all the other carved creatures surrounding them were revealed in all their glory, for everybody to appreciate. It was surprising, and touching to note, that the angels’ faces appear very human and are not conventional ‘angelic sculptures’ as in other similar-type religious roofs. We have reason to believe that the wealthy clothier John Baret had at least partially financed the roof and that the angels’ faces were carved in the likeness of himself and his friends. Who knew that our medieval ancestors have been looking down on us for centuries?
The photographs also revealed for the first time that the angels’ beautiful faces beam with friendly and smiling expressions. Adding to the originality of the images is the fact that the authors had made a conscious decision not to erase the numerous cobwebs, presenting the angels ‘warts and all’, with spiders and other creepy crawlies!
If you would like to find out more, please visit St Mary’s Church armed with binoculars, or/and even better, contact the authors for a copy of ‘The Angels of Honey Hill’ by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Copies are also obtainable from St Mary’s Church, http://www.wearechurch.net/contact-us/.
Martina Shorts, Bury St Edmunds Tour Guides