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The Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr, Little Whelnetham

The Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr, marked as ‘Chaple w[i]th out a Steeple’ marked as a landmark on the road between Bradfield Combust and Bury St Edmunds by John Ogilby (1675)

Did the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr in Little Whelnetham, formerly the conventual church of the Crutched Friars, survive the Reformation?

A curiosity I recently noted on one of the road maps drawn by John Ogilby in 1675 is the appearance of ‘a Chaple w[i]th out a Steeple’ as a landmark between Bradfield Combust and Bury St Edmunds, shown just to the southwest of ‘An old ruinous Abby or Pryory’, which was the rather obscure house of Crutched Friars in the parish of Little Whelnetham. The fact that the chapel is depicted both as a separate building from the ‘ruinous Abby’ and not described as ‘ruinous’ strongly suggests that the chapel was still standing in 1675 and was, perhaps, still in use as a chapel of ease within the parish of Little Whelnetham at that date. The chapel can be none other than the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr which became the chapel of a house of Crutched Friars founded in 1274 by the De Bures family.

A sculpture on the site of London’s Crutched Friars © The Dabbler

The Crutched Friars, so-called after the cross (crux) they wore on their habits arrived in London in the 1240s and founded a handful of religious houses around England, including at Little Whelnetham. The friary was always small (although it had a daughter house at Barham in Cambridgeshire) and does not seem to have survived until the dissolution of the monasteries. This fact may be significant for the survival of the chapel; before the dissolution, even when religious houses became derelict, their churches usually remained consecrated buildings and continued as chapels (consider the case of Old Leiston Abbey, abandoned in 1364 but retained as a chapel).

Furthermore, it is likely that the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr, which presumably came into existence as a manorial chapel of ease (like the nearby chapel of St Clare that later became the parish church of Bradfield St Clare) remained a place of worship for local parishioners during and after its occupation by the friars. This is especially likely given the shape of the parish of Little Whelnetham, in which the area occupied by the house of Crutched Friars was a parochial exclave (this has led to some confusion about whether Crutched Friars is in Little or Great Whelnetham). It was not uncommon for small monastic churches in Suffolk to double up for parish worship – this was the case at Bungay, Redlingfield, Rumburgh, and several other sites in Suffolk.

A further indication that the chapel may have survived the dissolution as a building distinct from the former monastery is found in place names. The house constructed from remains of the old house of Crutched Friars was known as Chapel Hill Farmhouse, and appears on Hodskinson’s 1783 map of Suffolk as ‘Chaple House’ (although the chapel itself appears to have disappeared by that date). Similarly, a nearby windmill was known as Chapel Mill.

The fact that the memory of the chapel was more prominent than the memory of the Crutched Friars suggests that it had gone out of use or fallen into ruin more recently than the friary. The 1984 listing for the house called Crutched Friars notes that a single buttress attributed to the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr survives to the north of the house (visible in the photograph below), but this is inconsistent with the portrayal of the friary ruins and chapel as separate buildings by Ogilby in the 1670s.

Interestingly, satellite images of the site on Google Maps reveal what might be crop marks in what appears to be the site of the chapel portrayed by Ogilby – slightly southwest of the early modern farmhouse.

While scarcely conclusive, this accumulation of circumstantial evidence – and, in particularly, the Ogilby map – suggests to me a high likelihood that the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr which the Crutched Friars used as their conventual church not only stood some distance away from the main friary buildings, but also continued in use for some time after the dissolution – and was possibly still in use as a chapel of ease within the parish of Little Whelnetham as late as the 1670s. Clearly, more research is required to establish this, but it seems to me a mistake to roll the history of the chapel entirely together with that of the friary; the picture in Little Whelnetham was more complex.

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