St Mary-le-Tower through eight centuries
Holy Trinity Priory was founded in about 1177 and for 360 years its black-habited Augustinian secular canons served the Tower church and parish.
By 29 June 1200, when King John’s Charter was received in the churchyard, the second Romanesque church shown on the Borough Seal had replaced the former Saxon building. St Mary le Tower has been the town’s civic church ever since.
Turstan, a canon in 1220, is the first incumbent whose name we know.
In 1325 the Merchant Guild of Corpus Christ was founded. Its processions, plays and feasts were held on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Miracle play props were stored in the church. Each Maundy Thursday the feet of 13 poor men were washed in the chancel.The Chaplain of the Guild taught the sons of members, probably in the south aisle: this was the beginning of the town grammar school.
By 1450, the Romanesque church needed rebuilding and William Gowty’s will of 1448 left ‘calyon stone for all the new church being built in the churchyard of the same church’. The north and south nave aisles of this third church were built then.
In 1479, Robert Wimbill, notary public, ordered a memorial brass (under chancel carpet) with a prayer to the Trinity across his breast:
‘My hope lies in my bosom;
Holy Trinity, one God, have mercy on me.’
1512 Thomas Drayll, mercer, MP, died and was buried under a Norwich-made bracket brass laid in the north nave aisle chapel to St Katharine which he had endowed already.
1525 Thomas Baldry, mercer, MP, was buried with a brass showing his first wife Alys and second wife Christian. He left £20 to ‘the new making of the steeple’.
1537 Holy Trinity Priory dissolved. Thomas Peacock, displaced chaplain of Edmund Daundy’s chantry of St Thomas of Canterbury in St Lawrence church was the last canon incumbent.
From that time, the parishioners elected their own ministers and paid church rates for their support.
1540 Thomas Manser’s will ordered that the south aisle be extended to the east end of the chancel and that his tomb be like that of Edmund Daundy at St Lawrence, thus dating the south chancel two-bay arcade.
1561 Queen Elizabeth, visited Ipswich and found the ministers serving the churches much inferior to the canons of the priories her father dissolved.
The Corporation agreed to appoint one Town Preacher for sermons at the Tower on Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whitsunday and Michaelmas, to be attended by all Portmen and Councilmen robed.
1570 The Corporation Seat was built on the north of the nave so that the members could sit comfortably through sermons as long as three and a half hours.
1599 William Smarte, MP, died and his memorial oil-painted on board has the earliest panorama of Ipswich at the foot, acrostic verses of high quality and portraits of William and Alice [Scrivener] his wife. He left books and manuscripts, at first kept in a chest in the vestry for a preacher’s library.
1605 Samuel Ward, the most celebrated of all Town Preachers was appointed. He preached every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and took charge of such charities as schools and almshouses. His working library was greatly enlarged. A strict Puritan, he fell foul of Bp Matthew Wren at Norwich and Archbp William Laud at Canterbury. When in 1635 he was banned from preaching for life for encouraging emigration to New England there were riots on the streets of Ipswich. The Corporation refused to replace him and paid his stipend for life, then supported his widow and eldest son who could not work. His floor slab of 1640 is now in the choir vestry.
1643 As the Civil War loomed, the church was firmly in Puritan hands. Churchwarden Jacob Caley arranged that when his friend William Dowsing arrived to cleanse the church of superstition, the saints in stained glass had already been replaced by clear windows.
The spire (shown on Smarte’s memorial) was blown down in a hurricane on 18 February 1661. A legacy of 1716 towards rebuilding it was swallowed up in Chancery.
1664 The Corporation Seat was enlarged and refurbished by the direction of Robert Clarke, Town Clerk.
1700 The present pulpit was built and carved by Edward Hubbard to sit above the desks for lecturer and sexton facing the Corporation Seat.
1832 The 16 year-old Samuel Read painted a view of the interior showing how dark and gloomy the many galleries had made the building. The organ, originally built by Renatus Harris in 1680, was at the west end. The 18th century organist and composer Joseph Gibbs was buried near the organ stool.
The present fourth church was almost totally rebuilt in phases beginning with the chancel in 1850-53. The two-bay south chancel arcade was retained. In the 1860s the nave and aisles were tackled, again retaining the arcades. The whole campaign was paid for by George Bacon, banker and philanthropist, and the architect was Richard Makilwaine Phipson.
Ipswich was from the 17th century a Puritan stronghold, in early-Victorian times Evangelical, but the vicars who oversaw the rebuilding of the Tower Church were Tractarians and the furnishings and ornaments suited the ritual they favoured. A tradition of choral services and sacramental teaching still exists, but the churchmanship has never been extreme.
From The Church of St Mary-le-Tower Guide, 2010