The small village of Saint James South Elmham is situated in quiet countryside in the north of Suffolk, about seven miles south of Bungay, and seven miles north-west from Halesworth. It is one of the group of six parishes called South Elmham and these, together with the four Ilketshall villages nearby, are known locally as “The Saints”.
The church of Saint James (the Great) occupies the highest site in the County. It stands in a quiet location at the eastern end of the village. In medieval times it was part of the estate of the bishop of Norwich and part of it served as a deer park for the bishops in the 12th and 13th centuries.
It is a building of flint and rubble of various dates, the north and west walls of the church, and the base of its tower are Norman, though some experts believe that the tower up to the stringcourse may be Saxon. The two-storey tower is tall and un-buttressed, the upper storey having Y-tracery bell-openings (c.1300) and the parapet is decorated with arcading in flushwork.
The nave has a late C12th north doorway. Folklore calls such doors “The devil’s door” which was opened during baptism for the banished evil spirits to make their exit. That this is an ancient belief is evidenced in a Sussex manuscript of 1602 (quoted in the Victoria County History of Sussex) which says : "The north door is clene dammed".
The C13th builders gave the church the four-bay south aisle with its octagonal piers and octagonal moulded capitals and chamfered arches. The south doorway is also C13th, as are two of the aisle windows. The chancel with its south doorway also dates from this period.
There is C14th work in the sedilia (the seating on the south side of the sanctuary for the clergy) and the tiny piscina. On the south side of the choir is a Rood stair with a squint window through to the south aisle. Part of the old Rood Screen of 1340 remains, with its primitive massive oak with trefoils above the heavy panels, and is now re-used as a dividing wall for the small vestry area by the main south-west door.
High up in the west wall is a small recessed cupboard with wooden doors which is believed to have been a medieval Reliquary.
One of the aisle windows, the north nave windows and the porch are all C15th. There is a Jacobean chest and a pulpit of the same period.
The font is Norman, with a bowl of Purbeck marble which is square with tapering sides. Each face is carved with an arcade of five round-headed arches, and the spandrels of the upper surface are elaborated with relief wedges pointing into the angles. These “arrows” were traditionally used to represent the Trinity. The condition of the bowl is generally worn; the surface, once polished, now granular where the fossils of the limestone remain raised but their matrix is eroded away. There is a major vertical crack in the south face, and a crack around the bowl just above the lower rim. The upper rim is generally chipped due probably, in part, to an extremely heavy font cover, which is raised on a pulley. The round basin is lead-lined, the lead sheet covering part of the upper surface of the bowl. The bowl stands on five cylindrical shafts, the central one thicker than those at the angles, and these on the usual Purbeck base with lobes at the angles and on each face. This base has retained its surface and its polish. The base stands on a plinth with a hollow and an angle roll at the top, and this on a second plinth, with an upper angle roll, and a modern step. The two plinths are medieval but probably not contemporary with the bowl.
The cover, in Perpendicular style, dates from the C15th, and has a graceful border of oak leaves. The original pulley weight, in the form of a gilded bird, now stands on a shelf on the west wall.
The belfry in the western tower houses 4 bells, one of pre-Reformation date. They cannot be rung at the moment as the mechanism needs repair, and are static, but a jury-rig system allows one to be tolled for services.
The east window dates from the C19th and follows C14th design.
The registers date from 1584. There are three small brasses, one showing a civilian and his wife of the C16th which has unfortunately lost its name plaque.
Of great interest are the series of early C20th original wood carvings executed by the villagers in the winter evening woodwork classes organised by the then Patron of the Living, Sir Shafto Adair. All ages and social status combined to beautify the chancel with their work, and the whole is lined with light oak panelling made by the whole class, each one heading the panel with something simple or intricate according to the skill and fancy of the worker – a mouse, a blacksmith’s tools, the dove and the ark, keys, horseshoes, the serpent and the apple, and bird on a spray, a fish. The south door was the work of a daughter in memory of her parents, while Sir Shafto Adair himself carved two large owls to stand on either side of the lectern which was made by his wife. Unfortunately, these were stolen in the 1980’s, but two beautiful replacements were produced in the Millennium Year and put back into the original positions.
In 2006 work was carried out to install new electrical wiring, lights and heating.
The church is open to visitors during daylight hours daily from Easter to Michaelmas. Its beautiful and peaceful atmosphere is much remarked upon by those who enter.