The focal point of Gislingham’s history and the chief glory of the village is St. Mary’s Church. The nave and chancel were built in the 1420s, the ornate North Porch being added some 80 years later. The original tower collapsed on the 19th of February, 1599 and was replaced by the present red brick tower in 1639. The font and the benches with carved poppyheads West of the font are 15th century.
3. St. Mary’s Church
The fame of St. Mary’s rests on some fragments of 15th century, painted glass in one of its windows. All the windows were filled with painted glass until the 1640s, when a band of Roundheads visited the church and smashed them to the greater glory of God and Oliver Cromwell.
By some miracle, part of the North window adjoining the chancel arch survived their vandalism. That portion contains one of the earliest known botanical records, possibly the earliest in all England. The 15th century Flemish artist who painted the glass, for the windows evidently tired of saints and angels and heraldic devices. For the lower lights of the window by the chancel arch he painted several panels depicting faithfully and beautifully the blossoms and foliage of the wild blue columbine, aquilegia vulgaris, which is known to have flourished in this area at that time. Higher in the window is depicted a white flower thought to be the wild crocus or meadow saffron. Botanists, antiquarians, artists and ordinary lovers of the beautiful all over the world know of Gislingham’s church with the flower in the window, and many have come to see it.
Until recent years the bells of St. Mary’s were hardly less famous than the columbine window. Their sweet tone is praised in any number of writings about Gislingham over the centuries. Four of the bells survived the collapse of the tower in 1599; one was added in 1671 and the sixth in 1814. In 1822 a peal of 10,080 changes of ‘Grandsire’ was rung on these bells, a record which remained unbroken until it was surpassed in Yass, Australia, less than twenty years ago. A fascinating tablet in the belfry commemorates the local feat where the vocations of the champion ringers are illustrated by the tools of their trades: a spade and coffin for the sexton, anvils for two blacksmiths, a trowel for a bricklayer, a dibbler or hoe for a gardener, and an awl for a shimmiker. Today the fame of St. Mary’s six bells is celebrated in the name of our local tavern.
It is to St. Mary’s, too, that you must turn for a picture of eighteenth century Gislingham. The box pews, the 3-decker pulpit, the gallery at the West end of the nave, and the pegs along the walls where worshippers hung their hats and their wigs are all Georgian. Even the position of the pulpit, mid-way between font and chancel arch, is strictly Georgian, along with the wrought-iron stand on the handrails of the pulpit which was used to hold an hour-glass in an age when the quality of a sermon was proportionate to its length.
How the congregation must have squirmed on the uncomfortable benches when the preacher reached over and turned the hour-glass upside down, signifying still more to come! The eighteenth century must have been a flourishing period in the long history of St. Mary’s, because the present Rectory was built at that time. There are indications that previously the Rectors had lived at Ivy House Farm on the Mellis Road.
In St. Mary’s Church you will find recorded the beginning of education in Gislingham where a mural tablet in the chancel commemorates the generosity of John Darbe who lived at Church Farm, and who in 1637 “gave eleaven poundes per. ann. for the maintainance of a free-schoole in this towne”. An adjoining tablet records that his widow Mary Darby “gave the yearely rents of lands of five poundes towards the encres and the maintenance of a Grammar Schoole, and XXs. per anym. for teachinge poore children to reade Englishe. By ther exsample 3L. per anym” was given by other presently after for the same use. The Reference Department of the Borough Library at Ipswich has preserved an advertisement of 1766 for a Master for the Free Grammar-School in Gislingham: “Properly qualified in the Latin and Greek tongues, apply to Arthur Heigham of Hunston for further information. N.B. No letters will be answered but what come free of postage”.
By 1829 the Grammar School had become an elementary school.