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The church is a dominant structure and is located on the northern fringe of the village overlooking open farmland and is approximately 5 miles south of Bungay. A farmhouse and associated farm buildings, Abbey Farm, lie immediately to the north of the church, and the private garden of the house wraps around the structure to the north, east and south sides.
The original church formed part of the Benedictine Priory which was founded shortly before the Norman conquest in 1064. It had chapels at Wissett and Spexhall, both of which survive as parish churches. The Domesday Book records the property held by the church at Rumburgh – 40 acres, 6 borders, 1 plough team and wood for 6 hogs, together with a proportion of rents from a hunting forest. Within 50 years of its foundation, Rumburgh Priory had passed into the ownership of St Mary's Abbey, York. In 1086 there were 12 monks under Prior Frater Blakere. By 1291 the Priory had accumulated assets in 11 parishes totalling just over £35. Joes Halton was appointed the last prior in 1525. By September of that year, Stephen Gardiner made a Visitation, but 3 years later, on 12th September, 1528, the priory was dissolved by Henry VIII and the funds sequestrated to Cardinal Wolsey to finance the building of his college at Ipswich.
At that time the monastery covered approximately 12,500 square feet, and was built around a rectangular Cloister which measured 45 feet in length on the south and north sides, and 66 feet on the east and west sides, with a breadth of 6 feet. On the east side there stood the Buttery, with two lower chambers which may well have been used as the Sacristy, Chapter House and Slype, which led out from the north door in the chancel through the burial ground. On the west side stood the Prior’s Hall with guest bedrooms above, the main Entrance and Kitchen. To the north was the Refectory, and Parlour with Solar above. On the south side was the existing church and chancel, the only building with a lead roof, the others being slated. There were also outbuildings with straw roofs and lands totalling 267 acres and 3 roods.
The remaining structure, 87 feet in length and 22 feet in breadth, is basically 13th century with 15th century alterations and reconstruction. As well as the Chancel and Nave with its wonderful beamed roof, there is a plain tiled south Porch with a large round-headed recess for a Holy water stoup, and an unusual squat, rectangular, west Tower, surmounted by an oak-framed weather-boarded Belfry with hipped roof clad in plain tiles. Although its appearance belies it, this belfry is complete and unique. There is a peal of 6 bells, the latest having been added in 2004. There is a band of ringers who regularly ring for services and special occasions.
Internally the walls are plain and austere, The dark rood screen of perpendicular style must have been glorious in its day, but now all is hidden under thick, brown varnish. There is still surviving gesso-work (moulded plaster applied to wood before painting) underneath this. The stairs to the Rood Loft are built into the thick north wall.
The windows in the north wall, which seem to belong to no architectural period, were probably punched through in the 17th century after the demolition of the other buildings. A squint and a blocked window in the north chancel wall indicate that once the altar could be watched from other rooms in the complex. Repairs have been undertaken to the glazing of a number of the windows and in addition the stone tracery to the east gable window has been restored.
The priory arms hang at the west end, a last reminder of the former community life of this building. The pulpit is Jacobean and sets the preacher a good “six feet above contradiction”. Prior to the restoration it stood in the middle of the nave. The Sanctuary area is paved with glazed Minton tiles. In 1823 a Minstrel’s Gallery was constructed in the nave, but it was removed by 1866.
Among the memorials set in the stone and brick floor is that of Eliza Davy. The epitaph reads: She once the fairest flower in May, now turned to lifeless clay; Good God, what can we say? He calls, we must obey.
Some Suffolk churches have a timelessness about them, a sense of continuity. This is a church in which a sense of the past pervades all. To sit here is to be surrounded by ghosts, and by a palpable sense of history, but over and above this, Rumburgh remains a living, loved and active parish church.
Rumburgh with S Elmham All Saints
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