St Mary the Virgin, Santon Downham, Suffolk

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Feature Sets (3)


The village stands on the southern bank of the Little Ouse that forms the boundary with Norfolk. The tiny village of Santon, which was subsumed into the parish in 1963, is over the river in Norfolk. Santon Downham is in the middle of Thetford forest and is now the home of the headquarters of the Forestry Commission for the East Anglian district. Downham Hall, N of the church, near the river, was the focus of a sporting estate until the early years of the 20thc., but the Mackenzie heir sold up in 1918, the Forestry Commission acquired the land in1924, and the hall was demolished from 1925. New houses for the Commission workers were built around the green, to the W of the church, in the 1950s, effectively shifting the village centre to the SW. Between 1920 and 1970 Santon Downham was almost entirely devoted to forestry, with almost all of its male inhabitants employed by the Commission. Since the '70s many of the residents have exercised their right to buy their houses, and less than one in twenty of the 250 present inhabitants work in forestry. The area was anciently dominated by warrens, with Santon Warren to the N, Santon Downham Warren to the S. These were set up in the Middle Ages (see Preface to Suffolk), often by the monastic houses of Ely and Bury. As at Lakenheath, the sandy soil was prey to sandstorms, especially if it was overgrazed by the rabbits, and one such engulfed the village of Santon Downham over a period of several decades, culminating in 1668.

St Mary's stands at the E end of the village green; which is little more than a clearing in the surrounding pine forests. It comprises an unaisled nave, chancel and W tower, all of flint with ashlar dressings. The nave has 12thc. N and S doorways, the N under a porch whose abnormally thick E wall may originally have been the W wall of the N chapel (see below). The western pair of side windows in the nave have round-headed arches and splays within but pointed lancets on the outside. There was once a chapel at the E end of the nave on the N side; its blocked 14thc. arch has been converted into a window, and its piscina remains, now on the exterior nave wall. The chancel has a S doorway ofc.1200, apparently re-set from the N wall. Otherwise the lateral chancel windows are 13thc. lancets except for one with flowing tracery on the S, indicating a 14thc. campaign. The E window is 19thc. and reticulated. The 14thc. campaign also included the chancel arch. The W tower, though plain and unbuttressed, is dated by wills to 1460-1503, so its 15thc. W window is an original feature. It has a polygonal SW stair. There was a major restoration in 1893. Romanesque features recorded here are the N and S nave doorways, the S chancel doorway, a relief panel set over the S nave doorway and a section of string course or possibly a lintel now re-set inside the chancel in the N wall.


The manor of Santon Downham was held by St Edmundsbury Abbey before the Conquest, and by Frodo, Abbot Baldwin's brother, in 1086. It had three carucates of ploughland, mostly held by nine free men owing customary dues to St Edmundsbury. Also recorded were meadow, a fishery and 21 pigs and 900 sheep. A church was recorded with 20 acres of land. Another holding in Santon Downham was in the hands of 'a half free man under soke to St Aethelthryth' (i.e. Ely). This included half a carucate and an acre of meadow. A John de Santon appears c.1170, and his granddaughter Alice married Robert de Vere, 5th Earl of Oxford (1240-96), which is the likeliest explanation for the manor passing to the de Vere family. The manor was subsequently subdivided, but a relevant feature of its history is the granting of Downham Ixworth manor to Ixworth priory in 1250-51. After the Dissolution it was granted to Richard Codington. The estate passed through many hands until it was sold to speculators in 1918. It was acquired by the Forestry Commission in 1924 and the hall was demolished in the following year.

Benefice of Brandon and Santon Downham with Elveden and Lakenheath.


Exterior Features


N nave doorway

Segmental-headed and stilted, two orders in embrasures, one in arch. The doorway has been remodelled and is protected by a porch.

h. of opening 2.46 m
w. of opening 1.08 m
First order

Jambs: As S nave doorway, first order except that the half-rolls on the impost faces are cable-moulded.

Second order

Detached en-delit nook-shafts carved with single-strand cable supported on roll-hollow bases. Both capitals are trefoil-scalloped, the shields given no special emphasis, with roll neckings. There are no imposts but the abaci of the capitals are carved with horizontal double-rolls. Above each capital the arch is stilted with a vertical arrises rising from the angles of the capitals to meet the outer arris of the chamfered segmental arch that covers both jamb orders. The label has an inner roll and human head label stops, both with faces completely erased.

S chancel doorway

Round-headed, single order. Plain chamfered jambs support thin hollow-chamfered imposts, also chamfered on the angles. The arch is chamfered with a row of large dogtooth on the chamfer - seven units, equally spaced. The surface of the chamfer has two parallel grooves. There is no label.

h. of opening 2.01 m
w. of opening 0.65 m

S nave doorway

Rounded-headed (slightly stilted), two orders

h. of opening 2.55 m
w. of opening 1.07 m
First order

The first order is of normal thickness but unusually narrow. The jambs are plain and square in section. The imposts are flat, possibly cut back, on their front faces, which abut the capitals of the second order. The inner faces of the imposts are chamfered with a thin row of cable in the middle of the chamfer and a double-quirked half-roll at the bottom of the face. The arch is plain and square-sectioned.

Second order

Detached en-delit nook-shafts carved with single-strand cable supported on roll-hollow bases. Both capitals are trefoils with shields outlined by a thin roll and roll neckings. They have tall abaci decorated with a horizontal half-roll (N) or two half-rolls (S), but no impost blocks. The arch has a fat nook-roll and a face hollow. There is no label.

Exterior Decoration


Relief panel with lion

The rectangular panel is set above the S nave doorway and depicts a lion walking in right profile. The panel is bordered by a plain raised rim on all four sides. The lion has a dog-like head with leaf-shaped ears sticking up. Its mouth is open. It has a long neck with a mane shown by a row of strands terminating in curls. The left foreleg is raised, as if in benediction or greeting. The tail descends between the back legs before curving forwards and up to the vertical, terminating in a large lily above the lion's back. A stylised tree rises from the groundline in the centre, its slender trunk angled to the right so that it rises immediately in front of the lion's chest. It terminates just below the beast's head in a cluster of stems and leaves. Low down on the trunk is an opposed pair of spiral stems.

approx. h. of block 0.70 m
approx. w. of block 0.57 m

Interior Features

Interior Decoration


String course section with dogtooth and cusping

The block is re-set in the N wall of the chancel, immediately E of the W window on that side. Its position corresponds with the apex of a former round-headed doorway, now blocked with clunch, visible on the exterior wall of the chancel. The block is chamfered for most of its length, short sections at either end remaining unchamfered. The chamfer is decorated with dogtooth, seven units evenly spaced, and the surface of the chamfer has two parallel grooves. The face is decorated with a cusped groove of eight equal arches with a ninth shorter one to make the cusped section of the face correspond exactly with the chamfered section below it.

h. of block 0.135 m
length of chamfered section 0.96 m
overall length of block 1.12 m


The S nave doorway is more or less in its original state, although the abnormally narrow inner order with imposts treated as corbels is unusual. The trefoil capitals and arch profile suggest a date in the 1120s or '30s, and this is borne out by the bulbous forms of the base rolls. The N doorway is contemporary but its arch has been replaced with one that is stilted and chamfered, perhapsc.1200. This is the date of the S chancel doorway, which appears to have been moved from the corresponding position on the N, presumably to suit the convenience of the vicar. The decoration of the re-set string course section in the chancel matches that of the priest's doorway arch except for the cusping. Its form with unchamfered sections at either end suggested a lintel to Fitch, but his assertion that it 'would fit exactly as the lintel across the round arch' is not confirmed by the measurements. The most exciting piece, however, is the relief above the S doorway. Pevsner called it a lion, the identification accepted here. Fitch reported other opinions; the Paschal Lamb, or a wolf devouring the Tree of Life. That it is a lion seems verified by its pose and its mane, as well as the treatment of the tail; standard for lions in this period. The raised foreleg is uncommon, but the idea of a benediction is not so far-fetched given the lion's common identification with Christ (Baxter, 37-39). Fitch's comparison with capitals in the transept of Ely Cathedral is well-made. He also compares it with the S doorway tympanum at Wordwell, some 10 miles from Santon Downham, which is stylistically quite different but also includes lions and foliage. The panel could date fromc.1100, but may equally be contemporary with the nave doorways.


  • R. Baxter, Bestiaries and their Users in the Middle Ages. Stroud 1998, especially 37-39.
  • H. M. Cautley, Suffolk Churches and their Treasures. London 1937.
  • J. Fitch, The Church in the Forest: St Mary the Virgin Santon Downham, Suffolk with some notes on All Saints' Santon, Norfolk. Thetford 1970, revised 1996.
  • D. P. Mortlock, The Popular Guide to Suffolk Churches: 1 W Suffolk. Cambridge 1988, 184-85.
  • N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Suffolk. Harmondsworth 1961, rev. E. Radcliffe 1975, 411.
Exterior from SW.
Exterior from NW.
Interior to W.
Interior to E.
Chancel interior to NE.


Site Location
Santon Downham
National Grid Reference
TL 817 876 
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Suffolk
now: Suffolk
medieval: North Elmham (c.950-1071), Thetford (1071-94), Norwich (from 1094)
now: St Edmundsbury and Ipswich
now: St Mary the Virgin
medieval: All Saints
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Ron Baxter