Most visitors to Framlingham put a tour of the castle at the top of their list of ‘must dos’. So impressive is this 12th century stronghold, which later became the prestigious residence of the Dukes of Norfolk, it would be easy to overlook the nearby, somewhat less conspicuous, Church of St Michael the Archangel.

Like many East Anglian churches, St Michael’s is a fine flint building with a handsome clock tower, impressive enough but nothing out of the ordinary for the region. Step inside, however, and the very special nature of this place of worship becomes apparent.

The church has a long and colourful history, dating back to at least the twelfth century, but even with absolutely no knowledge of the building’s past it is hard not to appreciate the pure aesthetic appeal of the interior as it appears today.
The hammer beam roof with its intricate ornamental coving, the chancel arch and richly stencilled walls, the embellished pipes of the rare Thamar organ and the 14th century wall painting of the Holy Trinity are all simply lovely to look at.

Why not spend as long as you like just taking in the beauty, and then join one of the conducted tours, led by knowledgeable guides, to bring it all to life?

If you do take a tour, it will certainly encompass perhaps the most magnificent features of St Michaels: the tombs.

The chancel, commissioned to provide a mausoleum for the Howard family after the dissolution of Thetford Priory, holds six in total, and each was designed with the intention of displaying  the family’s wealth and importance.

To the north of the chancel there are four tombs, the closest to the altar being that of Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset and King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son. Henry was betrothed to Mary, daughter of the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and on his death from consumption aged just seventeen, was buried at Thetford Priory. After the dissolution, his tomb, with its depiction of Old Testament scenes decorating the sides,  was moved to Framlingham. When Mary died, some twenty years later, her body was also buried in the tomb.

Next to Henry and Mary lie two of the wives of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk.

The 4th Duke was widowed three times before his own life ended on the guillotine at the Tower of London at the behest of Good Queen Bess, and this tomb commemorates his first and second wives. Mary FitzAlan and Margaret Audley were each heiresses from important bloodlines, and the tomb is topped by their effigies in robes of state, resting their heads and feet on their family emblems.

Rather poignantly, the third tomb is relatively plain and small in size, commemorating Elizabeth, the infant daughter of Thomas Howard and Margaret Audley.

Lastly on the north side, and most spectacularly, is the brightly coloured tomb of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and his wife, Francis de Vere. Henry, younger brother of Thomas Howard, was referred to as “The Poet Earl” on account of his classical education and talent with words. Henry was executed for treason on fabricated charges, but his youngest son arranged for the erection of the tomb in his parents’ honour.

At the foot end kneel Henry’s two sons, while at the head are his three daughters, resplendent in their robes and leaving onlookers in no doubt that the couple were held in the highest esteem by their children. In the mid-1970s, this tomb was in very poor repair, but after careful cleaning and restoration it regained its original vivid brilliance.

To the south of the chancel, the final two tombs are those of the 3rd Duke of Norfolk and Sir Robert Hitcham. The 3rd Duke, Thomas Howard, was the chancel’s architect and commissioner, and his tomb is archeologically the most outstanding of all of them, depicting as it does figures of St Paul, Aaron and the twelve apostles. The design of the tomb, part French and part English, befits the status of the Duke, at that time the greatest nobleman in England.

Whether such a great man would appreciate the presence of a non-family member in his mausoleum is perhaps questionable. Robert Hitcham bought Framlingham Castle in 1635 before dying only a year later. He was a great benefactor to Framlingham and its people, although his complicated will, making provision for schools and housing, took seventeen years of legal wrangling to administer. His tomb, a black marble slab supported at each corner by a kneeling angel, bears an inscription commemorating his work for the poor.

Through the Howard family and Sir Robert Hitcham, the stories of St Michael’s Church and Framlingham Castle are inextricably interwoven. St Michael’s church has its own website with a detailed history of the tombs and more information about the Tamar Organ and you can find out more about the castle here.

By Debbie Ottway

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