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History and Romance

Around 1928, the East Anglian Daily Times published a series of articles on "Suffolk Parishes: Their History and Romance. The article on Earl Soham, written by "Yeoman" is reproduced here with the permission of the EADT Editor (a one-time pupil at Earl Soham school!). Unfortunately, the photographs accompanying the article are not of sufficient quality to be reproduced here.

Suffolk Parishes: Their History and Romance

Earl Soham

(Reproduced, with permission, from the East Anglian Daily Times, dated April 18th, 1928).

"When Dunwich, that mighty city of Suffolk, proud capital of all East Anglia, stood in all her glory - a glory, which alas! has come to nought these many years - Earl Soham was the occasional residence of Felix, the Bishop of the now "Ruined City." This is, according to tradition, and although tradition, like rumour, is notoriously a lying jade, there seems to be some grounds for the story which has been handed down throughout the countless years which have rolled by since Dunwich, magnificent in her splendour, reached the zenith of her prosperity. At any rate, it is recorded that after the death of Felix in 647, his body was removed from its burial place and reinterred in a monastery at Earl Soham, where "he had his seat some time." And although this same monastery was afterwards razed to the ground by the ravening marauders of the North - those splendid fighters, but ruthless savages, the Danes - we find that in the reign of King Canute, Abbot Athelstan discovered the bones of Felix and placed them in his abbey of Ramsey. That, at least, is the story, but some historians aver that Earl Soham and Monk Soham have been confused, and that the latter place is the one intended. 

But however true the tale and whether Earl Soham can justly claim the distinction rumour has wreathed around it is a matter of opinion, and the village to day has many points of in-terest without delving quite so far back into the wild and romantic past - a past of blonde-bearded invaders, of Christian edifices sacked and despoiled by heathen adventurers, of murderous onslaughts and deadly combat. A large, spreading village and a remarkably pretty one, a country of fresh open spaces and rolling landscape, a vision of isolated farmhouses, standing in their surroundings of stacks and barns, with all the dignity won by honest endeavour, and dainty cottages whose tinted fronts add a touch of colour to the village street. 

Close by the latter is the church of St. Mary, a neat little building of brick and flint, with a nave and chancel, a Western tower containing six hells and a South porch. In the latter, which possesses a massive door and roses on the arch, is a list of the rectors who have officiated at St. Mary's since its erection, commencing with one John de Hayford, and the date, 1300. The tower contains six bells, the treble being added in 1903 as the gift of Sir Auckland Colvin, K.C.S.I., K.C.M.G., C.I.E., who died in 1908, and is commemorated by a brass tablet on the South wall of the nave. Amongst his other good work in connection with the church was the repair of the tower in 1899 - when he also presented a fine oaken lectern - and the rebuilding of the East wall the following year. Six years later he gave the beautiful stained glass East window, both as a thanksgiving for the termination of the South African War, and as a permanent memorial to John Russell Colvin, a one-time Governor of the North-West provinces of India, and whose death occurred at the height of the mutiny. 

There is a fine hammer-beam roof to the nave, but, like so many of its kind, this has suffered sadly at the itching and misguided hands of those despoilers of the beautiful in our churches - the Puritan iconoclasts. The octagonal font, on which, amongst other things, are angels holding shields and representations of lions, is also somewhat damaged, though fortunately not to any great extent. About its base is the pious injunction to "Pray for the soul of Robert Kinge, who caused this font to be made" although, in fact, the inscription is practically illegible. 

Unfortunately, the general appearance of the interior is somewhat severe, presenting an air of aloofness rarely discovered in a village place of worship, but this is undoubtedly due to the comfortless chairs which act as the sole seating accommodation, that is, with the exception of the choir stalls, which contain some excellent carving. 

The chancel dates from the early fourteenth century, and contains a piscina on its South side, whilst over the arch are the arms of that scapegrace scion of Royalty known to all men as the "Merry Monarch." On the North wall is a memorial to the Rev. John Hindes Groome, M.A., rector of both Earl and Monk Soham for over twenty-six years, and whose death occurred in 1845; whilst there is a floor-stone to another incumbent of earlier date, the Rev. Peter Basford, who died in 1705. Another stone exists in the aisle to members of the Hindes family, including John Clayton Hindes, the date of his death being given as 1824. There is a finely-carved pulpit and sounding-board. 

Going outside, one discovers what is surely one of the most picturesque churchyards it is possible to imagine, a churchyard worthy of the village it serves, and worthier still of the religious edifice it surrounds. For here are green shrubs and trees, their buds bursting into life, their branches waving in the faint Spring breeze, whilst daffodils and primroses, yellow as the sun at whose beckoning gesture they rear their dainty heads above the turf, brighten and refresh the grey drabness of the stones; flowers of infinite beauty and a cer-tain timid grandeur - blossoms belonging to the quietude of the country more than the artificial town, and yet flowers which need no eulogies to tell their praises and sing of their glorification. The tower has a good doorway, above which is a three-light Window, with a niche on each side, whilst there is another overhead. On the buttresses, about twelve feet from the ground, are two tablets mentioning the names of Thomas Edward and Ranulph Colnett, to both of whom present parishioners owe a debt of gratitude for the splendid work they did in connection with the church in days gone by. 

An interesting story of the past, and one which reveals the hazards and perils of a sailor's life, is revealed by the fact that a certain Richard Wyard, a native of Earl Soham, and a captain in the merchant service, left in 1677 a rent-charge of £5 yearly to be distributed after a sermon preached every year on February 25th and April 23rd, in gratitude for his narrow escape from shipwreck on those days. And, appropriately enough, the text he chose for the sermon is to be found in the twenty-third and twenty-fourth verses of Psalm cvii., with that thoughtful assertion as applicable to-day as when it first originated: - 
"They that go down to the sea in ships, they do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep." 

A short distance from the church, and stand-ing within wooded surroundings is Earl Soham Lodge, a splendid residence, with that certain air of hospitality for which the country houses of England are noted. And this particular place is no exception, for, with its gravelled drive, its verdant lawns of velvety turf, its neat flower beds, and pleasant shrubs, with a silvery moat to enhance its other attractions, the fine old building stands square and firm, like some mighty guardian defending the beauties of the countryside against the ever-threatening march of the spreading towns. Over a hundred years ago Earl Soham Lodge was described as a ''modern building,'' which probably means that it was erected some time during the eighteenth century, and quite possibly on the site of the ancient manor house, home of many of the famous and the great. 

For the Manor of Earl Soham from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries belonged to the mighty Bigods, Earls of Norfolk, which probably explains its name, and from one of the line, Roger, it obtained the right to hold a fair and market here in the reign of Edward the First. It formed part of the estates of the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk until the reign of James the First, when it was sold by Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, to John Cornwallis Esquire. The sent of the latter, Thomas, became Member of Parliament for Suffolk, and, having no issue, he left the manor to Elizabeth Corderoy, who, at her marriage, disposed of this inheritance to John Cotton, second son of Sir Allen Cotton, the Lord Mayor of London in 1626. This John Cotton lived here for some time, and in 1646 became Sheriff of the county, besides being a Justice of the Peace. 

Unfortunately, however, this family was not fated long to enjoy the beauties of their new home, and this, not because of any fault of their own, but through the forgetfulness of a king. For the second Cotton to reside at Earl Soham had opened his purse freely in the Royal cause during the struggle between the Crown and the Parliament, and his generosity and his loyalty were to prove his undoing - as indeed they were of many another during those desperate days. It was in 1655 he died, burdened with debts contracted through fealty to his liege, worn out with the struggle to maintain appearances, and at his death, his son, of stern necessity, was compelled to sell the estates, this time to Leicester Devereaux, Lord Viscount Hereford. 

It will thus be seen that the story of some of those who made the manor-house at Earl Soham their home is a chequered one; as is always the case where history goes far back into the dimming centuries. For families, like individuals, come up and fall; their sun rises and sets, and a few remain as an example to the rest. 

But apart from the noble races which have lived here, there is a particular historical interest and a certain romantic aspect about the ancient oaks which spread themselves in all their knightly grandeur in the park about Earl Soham Lodge. Many and many a year back before the age of steel, before the belching smoke of the modern ironclad made the sweet ocean air hideous, before men, half-naked and grimy, sweated and choked as they shovelled coal into the maw of the flaming furnaces, this park at Earl Soham was famous for its mighty oaks. And when those "wooden walls" of England put out from their snug harbours to carry the flag into the remote corners of the earth, and show whatever foemen they came across that the vessels of that seemingly insignificant island washed by the grey sea waves its sons rode upon in search of action and adventure, could withstand their onslaughts, and hurl the gage of battle in their teeth, it was oak from the trees which flourished at Earl Soham that often formed the backbone of the fleet. For many a ship-of-war owed its strength and toughness to these Earl Soham oaks, and thus to this Suffolk village must be given some part of the credit due to those of our ancestors who kept these shores inviolate against apparently hopeless odds. 

But Earl Soham was always noted for the size of its magnificent timber, and, besides providing planks for the benefit of the English Navy, we discover that in 1670 an oak was made into a dwelling-house, so large and mas-sive it appears to have been. 

Besides the church, the village contains another place of religion in the shape of a large Baptist Chapel*, erected in 1842, the previous building for the use of members of the same denomination being now used as a Reading Room and Village Club. 

Apart from its past, Earl Soham is a place much more attractive than some villages of Suffolk, and, supporting a population of between five and six hundred it seems somewhat larger than many others, its spreading appearance and well-planned aspect lending themselves to this supposition. But, of course, historically, it appeals even more, as any such place must whose roots have been firmly embedded in the fruitful soil of ancient story - a story of Christian priests and savage Danes, of noble names and knightly deeds, of fortunes won and possessions faded, of associations with those builders of Empire who swept the seas before the coming of modern invention threw their ships on the scrap heap of time. 

YEOMAN."


* Editor's Note: The Baptist Chapel has since been sold as a private dwelling, and the church has moved to the nearby town of Framlingham.