St Mary’s is a Grade II* listed Church with many interesting and historical features. It is set in a pretty churchyard (with some fascinating 17th Century headstones) by the River Stour and the Stour Valley Path. It is also adjacent to the site of the original Saxon settlement in Great Bradley and the medieval moated system which then contained the Hall.
The current building effectively dates from early Norman times. Along with many Suffolk churches, there were substantial changes and additions in the 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries, many coinciding with the prosperity of the Wool Trade.
St Mary’s has retained both of its two fine Norman doorways (North and South), of which the Southern is outstanding with a wonderful arch dating from the mid to late 12th Century. It is considered to be one of the best and most unusual in Suffolk. The South arch is encompassed within a striking Tudor brick porch, reputedly built by Henry VIII’s brickmaker, probably around 1520. The porch, too, is considered one of the finest of its kind in Suffolk; it has small stained glass windows on each side along with brick niches around the entrance.
The windows of the Church date back to the Decorated period of the early 14th century but were largely destroyed during the Reformation. The Church, however, has some fine stained glass dating from the 20th Century. The stained glass in the East window was designed in the Modern style in 1919 as a moving tribute to Rex Wilder (the son of the Rector of Great Bradley at the time) who was killed in 1914. The depiction has an almost Rupert Brooke style to it and is very unusual. On the South side of the Nave is a stained glass window scene depicting more traditional scenes (including local thatched cottages) designed in the early 1950’s by Powell and Sons, a well-known stained glass manufacturer in London. The maker’s mark – the small etching of a monk – can be spotted by the observant!
The 14th Century octagonal font has survived despite damage caused during the Reformation and again, a century later, by Oliver Cromwell’s men, led here in Suffolk by William ‘Basher’ Dowsing. Remnants of the original paint can be seen if you look closely, particularly around the base. The font is still used for baptisms today and is a focal point for flowers for major services and festivals.
The fine Tower at the Western end was added in the 14th Century. There is an old fireplace, believed to be where the bread for mass would have been baked, while above the unused West door is another three panelled stained glass window. Within the Tower itself are three bells, which are all of interest. The oldest is a tenor which was made in around 1310, making it one of the oldest bells in Suffolk! It is inscribed “Richard de Wymbis me fecit”. Wymbis is known to have had a bell foundry nearby and this is one of only five of his bells still surviving. The second bell at Great Bradley dates from 1576 and the third, a treble, bears no inscription but is pre-Reformation (though no earlier than 1300). The bells are still used regularly at services and on special occasions.
Tours of the Tower are available from time to time and from the top, there is a wonderful, expansive view of the Upper Stour valley and the surrounding countryside.
On the West wall is a list of Rectors of the Church (now part of the Stourhead Benefice) from the year 1311 to date, including our current incumbent, Father Christopher Giles, who arrived in 2020.
Far from being a museum piece, St Mary’s is still much loved and is used and enjoyed by villagers and visitors alike. The Church is always open. However, the cost of running and retaining this place of worship is high. If you feel able to assist, please very kindly make a donation by clicking on the Donate Now button on the front page.
The above piece was written from notes by R.W. Tricker 1975 and from the new guide for the church arranged by Ken Ireland and Charles Ryder in 2019. Further information by Simon Knox can be found at the Suffolk churches site. www.suffolkchurches.co.uk