The church stands impressively at the top of Market Hill and dominates the town. This is not surprising since the siting and the design of this building was a deliberate piece of medieval town planning conceived before the Black Death of 1348-49. It formed the centrepiece of Elizabeth de Burgh’s town expansion soon after she gained control of her estate in 1322. The site of the church would have been pegged out before anything else and it is no accident that the main west doors open on to the great market square for this was designed as a civic church for processions and guild events. It was only after her death in 1360 that encroachments on and around the site began to detract from the original scheme. In the sixteenth century a Moot Hall would occupy the bottom half of the hill and remain for 300 years.
In the 1840s all of these encroachments were removed and Elizabeth de Burgh’s original and dramatic concept recovered. The Victorians appreciated what they had found and used the open spaces to advantage. Unfortunately for us the overwhelming flow of modern traffic once again prevents us from appreciating what we have, a remarkably designed medieval town centre. On the Continent we would call it The Piazza.
It has always been said that this church was built during the years 1450-85 but we now know that this cannot be so. There were certainly at least three stages in the building and they were probably 1330-48, 1360, 1425-50. The
church consists of a nave and chancel, both flanked by aisles, a south porch and a west tower. Building began with the first two bays of the chancel, including the chancel arch, and the base of the tower. The tower was intended to stand beyond the west end of the nave, outside the body of the church as at All Saints and St. Gregory’s but with a connecting passage from north to south as at Dedham in Essex.
When this building was commenced the Decorated style was on its way out and the new Perpendicular style was coming in, simplified and with the emphasis on the vertical thrust. St. Peter’s is built in a curious blend of the two, which helps to date it. The chancel arch is exceptionally fine with an inner moulding springing from short columns standing on brackets. This is from the Decorated period and so are the clerestory windows in the chancel but there is an additional pair from when the chancel was extended and they have the late Perpendicular depressed arch. The tracery of the windows throughout the church is highly individual and leans towards the Decorated style, but the close-set windows, the narrow buttresses, and the slender columns of the nave arcade are all early Perpendicular. Finally the massive columns, which support the tower, have detail on their bases identical to the fourteenth-century pillars at St. Gregory’s.
The proportions are splendid and the tower is exactly the right height and size, built in three stages with angle buttresses and stepped battlements with pinnacles in the form of statues. A copper clad spire of 1810, which replaced an earlier timber spire, was removed in 1968 and there are no plans to replace it. The south porch is two storeyed and the ground floor was meant to be vaulted; the piers for the vault are still visible. The exterior stonework, including the three niches, was restored in 1911 by C.G. Hare and the three figures were inserted at the same time, they represent Christ in the act of blessing flanked by St. Peter and St. Gregory. The doors inside the porch as well as those on the north side are original and well carved. Several of the windows have been faithfully restored in recent years although the east window is a reconstruction from the early nineteenth century. It is blocked below the transom to allow for a classical reredos, which used to be in the chancel.
If possible one should enter through the west door beneath the tower and if you are fortunate enough to find thefloor clear of chairs the effect is moving and dramatic. The tower stands on three great arches so that in effect you are immediately in the nave, which with the tower is six bays in length. The pillars of the nave arcade are slender with four attached shafts and moulded capitais but the detail of those on the north side differ from those opposite which indicates a time lapse in the building. Above the arcade is the five-bay clerestory but the windows are strangely out of rhythm with the arches below. The roof is very much part of the clerestory and is pitched with its five bays separated by long arch braces supporting the tie beams. The braces spring from carved stone corbels and there is a marvellous feeling of space. The tie beams carry short king posts which support the ridge and an additional support and decorative feature is the arch bracing running along the ridge from east to west. The entire roof is ceiled and panelled with slender ribs at the intersections of which are small gilt bosses. Finally and most effectively the cornice is in the form of beautiful fan-shaped coving framing each window.
This roof is unique in a county famous for its variety of styles but doubts were raised concerning its age from an entry in William Dowsing’s diary of 1643 which states:
“St. Peter’s. We brake down pictures of God the Father, two crucifixes, and pictures of Christ, about one hundred in all, and gave orders to take down a cross off the steeple and diverse angels, twenty at least on the roof of the church”.
It has been supposed that the last item implied that the nave roof was originally a hammer beam construction but there is no evidence to support this. Close inspection from scaffolding in 1976 revealed that the roof is basically fifteenth-century work and that if anything had been replaced in the 1685 restoration it was some of the arch bracing. It is possible that the original bracing was decorated with small angels.
This roof is the only medieval nave roof in Suffolk to be completely ceiled and panelled in its original form. Fan-shaped coving appears at Framlingham and Norwich but in both cases it disguises hammer beams; that is not the case in Sudbury.
Above the chancel arch is what purports to be a canopy of honour to the rood screen but it is not. It is formed from the cresting of the vanished screen and has been much refurbished and placed here at an uncertain date. Only part of the dado of the screen has survived but terribly repainted in the early nineteenth century. It must have been magnificent and the doorways from the loft remain and prove that it spanned the whole church from north to south.
The aisles are broad and form a processional route with good roofs, especially in the north aisle which has bosses and stone corbels. The principals are arch braced with carving in the spandrels. The windows are linked with a continuous stone moulding and there is a good collection of nineteenth-century stained glass. The western bays of each aisle flank the tower and were the last extensions made to the medieval church. Because of the houses, which encroached on the site, there are some odd angles at the western end of the north aisle.
In the south aisle is the fifteenth-century font, octagonal with each side carved with a cusped and pointed quatrefoil. During the religious upheaval of the seventeenth century it was shamefully removed and used as a horse trough but was apparently returned when the animals refused to drink from it.
The chancel was restored and decorated by Bodley in 1898 but his decoration of the walls was removed in 1968. It consisted mainly of the repeated motif of the crowned cross keys of St. Peter on a dark red background. His reredos has survived, 20ft high and a little over 7ft in width in the Gothic style and depicting the crucifixion. It replaced the classical reredos of 1715 which consisted of a central pedimented board displaying the Ten Commandments flanked by the two paintings of Moses and Aaron by Robert Cardinall which hang over the north and south doors. Cardinall was a local artist and a pupil of Sir Godfrey Kneller.
The chancel is two bays in length with an extended sanctuary built in two periods which accounts for the astonishing inclination to the south. Between the bays are beautiful parclose screens from the fifteenth century with one light divisions which have richly carved tracery heads and carved dado. They are very similar to those in All Saints church and were once richly decorated but were repainted several times since and were finally stripped of all colour in the nineteenth century.
The ceiling of the chancel is original although recoloured by Bodley. It is flat pitched, ceiled and panelled. Along the ridge are small but detailed bosses depicting angels carrying a book, a shield and a cross. Other bosses at the intersection of the panel ribs are in the form of faces, flowers, leaves, etc. A beautiful roof has been astonishingly overlooked by most of the experts including Pevsner and Munro Cautley in his magnum opus.
The South Chapel, sometimes called the Lady Chapel, has an unusual altar of oak and boxwood. The front is carved with the Nativity scene and the shallow reredos shows da Vinci’s Last Supper. It is an early twentieth-century Flemish piece appreciated more in recent years than when it was first installed. In the south wall is a large recess, which once held an image, possibly St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. At the base of the pillar facing it is some interesting medieval graffiti including a crucifixion. It could only have been carved by persons kneeling before that image, possibly pilgrims because Sudbury was the last overnight stop on the pilgrimage route to St. Edmundsbury.
This church has been most fortunate in its restorations from which it has benefited enormously. We have already seen much of Bodley’s work which was very sympathetic and enhanced an already beautiful church. However, we owe even more to Butterfield who was engaged by Canon Molyneux in 1858-59, a very dangerous age where restorations are concerned. Molyneux was apparently a man of taste and discrimination and was responsible for sensitive restoration work at Salter’s Hall which was where he lived.
He seems to have exerted considerable control over Butterfield both here and at St. Gregory’s. He was also ruthless in cleansing the church of any eighteenth century fittings and fixtures. There were formerly three wide eighteenth-century galleries, the west one under the tower which held the organ was erected at a cost of £66 15s 8d in 1777. Molyneux had all three removed and on the night of 30 March 1859 he had all the box pews taken out and sold on the Market Hill next morning. They were replaced by simple rush-seated ladder-back chairs designed by Butterfield. It was intended that just sufficient chairs were put out for each service and returned to store after use leaving the church uncluttered, as it would have been in medieval days. It was a revolutionary idea conceived to show off the building to advantage.
The chancel floor was relaid and a new pulpit installed, both remarkably restrained. However, the crowning achievement was the reintroduction of stained glass to the windows. Now Victorian stained glass can be beautiful or hideous, tactful or over sentimental, beautifully toned or garish. The three windows from the Butterfield restoration are perfect and are the work of Hardman, but the relationship between the two men was not always harmonious.
When the first window was produced, the chancel east, Butterfield criticised it for lacking ‘strength and force’. Hardman, not pleased with such criticism, inserted the second window under the tower without waiting for Butterfield’s approval of the cartoons. Butterfield was of course furious but nevertheless commissioned a third window, the east window of the south chapel.
Towards the end of the century Hardman would be commissioned to produce more windows but the earlier ones for Butterfield are superior.
There was another major restoration in 1968 when the tower had to be rebuilt from the belfry level. The greater part of the cost was met by a legacy from Mr. C.W. Worters, an ex-butcher from North Street in Sudbury. It was a splendid gift in the true spirit of the cloth merchants who first built the church. There were of course many other contributors and we have every reason to be thankful to them. There was a real danger that the tower may have been demolished and incredible though it may seem at least one person advocated that the roofs be removed and the church be allowed to become a ruin.
St. Peter’s was declared redundant in 1972 and after standing unused for four years was invested in the Redundant Churches Fund. It now has a new life as a cultural and social hall though still remaining a consecrated building. The Friends of St. Peter’s, a local charitable trust, has done much to raise funds for internal maintenance and improvements.