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Elveden Memorial Service to Maharajah Duleep Singh


Which is the strangest church in Suffolk? It could well be this one. Over the years I have passed it, wandered around it, poked about in the graveyard, and so on. But I'd never been inside. That was about to change.

On April 26th 2003, I stood at the top of the churchyard of Redgrave, near Diss, and looked around. The sun was shining, and I was conscious of the fact that I had just completed all but the final leg of my journey around the churches of Suffolk. If you draw a vertical line from Elveden to Clare, you separate Suffolk into two parts; seven eighths of it is to the east of the line, one eighth to the west. In visiting Redgrave, I had visited every Suffolk parish church to the east of the line. Only the difficult bit remained.

Why difficult? Well, I live in Ipswich and I don’t drive, so the extreme west of the county has always taken a lot of planning. Also, once you get there and start cycling around, you find that the churches are a long way apart. Over in the east, you can’t visit a medieval church without seeing half a dozen more on the horizon, but here in the west there are vast stretches of fenland and heathland separating them. Even worse, the connecting roads in the west tend to be busy, noisy and dangerous. You can cycle for hours in the lost lanes around Halesworth and Stowmarket without seeing a soul, but this doesn’t happen around Brandon and Mildenhall.

Elveden Hall Grave of Prince Duleep Singh

And finally, there is another factor, the S factor. S is for suspicion. Quite simply, many ministers and churchwardens in the far north west of the county don’t much like people visiting their churches. Virtually all are locked, and only some have keyholders. The position is slightly better in the south west around Newmarket and Haverhill, where there are fewer locked churches and less suspicion, but even so it can be a bit stressful. A far cry from the joy of church-visiting in the Sole Bay and Blyth Valley benefices, for example.

So, my feelings as I stood in the Redgrave sunshine were mixed. I had been putting off the Wild West for too long, and now I would have to face it.

I had recently been contacted by Claire Gorst of the Maharaja Duleep Singh Centenary Trust, who had told me of exciting plans for a British Sikh heritage trail, which would include Elveden and its church. I’ll explain why in a moment. She was very enthusiastic, and so was I, but in the back of my mind were the several occasions on which I had already attempted, and failed, to gain entry to Elveden church.

Claire gave me the name of the Minister into whose care Elveden fell, and I tried ringing him up. Now, I know that Anglican ministers are very busy people, but it took me nearly three days before I found him in. This isn’t his fault, but I wouldn’t have bothered to pursue it if I had thought I could have got inside another way. When I did get through to him he was very pleasant, but most insistent on knowing why I wanted to get inside.

“Well”, I told him, “I’m thinking of becoming an Anglican, and I want to see what the building is like before I take the plunge and come to a service.” I didn’t really. Even I’m not that sarky. I explained about the website, and the journey, and so on and so forth. This is another problem with the far west of the county – because I haven’t done much of it yet, people haven’t heard of this site.

Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail

Eventually he gave in, and gave me the telephone number of a churchwarden. She was also very polite and helpful, and, once she had established that the minister had said it was alright, arranged to meet me at the church.

So on an overcast Saturday in May, DD picked me up at Bury railway station, and we headed up to Elveden in his Lotus Elise. This didn’t take very long, as you may imagine. Indeed, it probably took about the same time to cross the road from the estate office car park to the church. This road is the A11, the main Norwich to London road. Mostly, it is a dual carriageway (triple at one point) but Elveden is a hellish bottleneck, and the village is ruined by it, which is a terrible shame. There is talk of a bypass, but there has been talk of a bypass for 40 years or more.

The Maharaja and Guests

As you approach Elveden, there is Suffolk’s biggest war memorial, to those killed from the three parishes that meet at this point. It is over 30 metres high, and you used to be able to climb up the inside. Someone in the village has told me that more people have been killed on the road in Elveden since the end of the War than there are names on the war memorial. I can well believe it.

Many people will know St Andrew and St Patrick as another familiar landmark on the road, but as you are swept along in the stream of traffic you are unlikely to appreciate quite how extraordinary a building it is. For a start, it has two towers. And a cloister. And two naves, effectively. It has undergone three major building programmes in the space of thirty years, any one of which would have sufficed to transform it utterly.

If you had seen this church before the 1860s, you would have thought it nothing remarkable. A simple aisle-less, clerestory-less building, typical of, and indistinguishable from, hundreds of other East Anglian flint churches. A journey to nearby Barnham will show you what I mean.

The story of the transformation of Elveden church begins in the early 19th century, on the other side of the world. The leader of the Sikhs, Ranjit Singh, controlled a united Punjab that stretched from the Khyber Pass to the borders of Tibet. His capital was at Lahore, but more importantly it included the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. The wealth of this vast Kingdom made him a major power-player in early 19th century politics, and he was a particular thorn in the flesh of the British Imperial war machine. At this time, the Punjab had a great artistic and cultural flowering that was hardly matched anywhere in the world.

It was not to last. The British forced Ranjit Singh to the negotiating table over the disputed border with Afghanistan, and a year later, in 1839, he was dead. A power vacuum ensued, and his six year old son Duleep Singh became a pawn between rival factions. It was exactly the opportunity that the British had been waiting for, and in February 1846 they poured across the borders in their thousands. Within a month, almost half the child-Prince's Kingdom was in foreign hands. The British installed a governor, and started to harvest the fruits of their new territory's wealth.

Over the next three years, the British gradually extended their rule, putting down uprisings and turning local warlords. Given that the Sikh political structures were in disarray, this was achieved at considerable loss to the invaders - thousands of British soldiers were killed. They are hardly remembered today. British losses at the Crimea ten years later were much slighter, but perhaps the invention of photography in the meantime had given people at home a clearer picture of what was happening, and so the Crimea still remains in the British folk memory.

For much of the period of the war, Prince Duleep Singh had remained in the seclusion of his fabulous palace in Lahore. However, once the Punjab was secure, he was sent into remote internal exile.

The missionaries poured in. Bearing in mind the value that Sikh culture places upon education, perhaps it is no surprise that their influence came to bear on the young Prince, and he became a Christian. The extent to which this was forced upon him is lost to us today.

A year later, the Prince sailed for England with his mother. He was admitted to the royal court by Queen Victoria, spending time both at Windsor and, particularly, in Scotland, where he grew up. In the 1860s, the Prince and his mother were significant members of London society, but she died suddenly in 1863. He returned with her ashes to the Punjab, and there he married. His wife, Bamba Muller, was part German, part Ethiopian. As part of the British pacification of India programme, the young couple were granted the lease on a vast, derelict stately home in the depths of the Suffolk countryside. This was Elveden Hall. He would never see India again.

With some considerable energy, Duleep Singh set about transforming the fortunes of the moribund estate. Being particularly fond of hunting (as a six year old, he'd had two tutors - one for learning the court language, Persian, and the other for hunting to hawk) he developed the estate for game. The house was rebuilt in 1870.

The year before, the Prince had begun to glorify the church so that it was more in keeping with the splendour of his court. This church, dedicated to St Andrew, was what now forms the north aisle of the present church. There are many little details, but the restoration includes two major features; firstly, the remarkable roof, with its extraordinary sprung sprung wallposts set on arches suspended in the window embrasures, and, secondly, the font, which Mortlock tells us is in the Sicilian-Norman style. Supported by eight elegant columns, it is very beautiful, and the angel in particular is one of Suffolk's loveliest. You can see him in an image on the left.

Duleep Singh seems to have settled comfortably into the role of an English country gentleman. And then, something extraordinary happened. The Prince, steeped in the proud tradition of his homeland, decided to return to the Punjab to fulfill his destiny as the leader of the Sikh people. He got as far as Aden before the British arrested him, and sent him home. He then set about trying to recruit Russian support for a Sikh uprising, travelling secretly across Europe in the guise of an Irishman, Patrick Casey. In between these times of cloak and dagger espionage, he would return to Elveden to shoot grouse with the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. It is a remarkable story.

Ultimately, his attempts to save his people from colonial oppression were doomed to failure. He died in Paris in 1893, the British seemingly unshakeable in their control of India. He was buried at Elveden churchyard in a simple grave.

The chancel of the 1869 church is now screened off as a chapel, accessible from the chancel of the new church, but set in it is the 1894 memorial window to Maharaja Prince Duleep Singh, the Adoration of the Magi by Kempe. Asian Princes bend their knees before a particularly Anglo-Saxon Madonna and Child. I could not think of a less appropriate subject.

And so, the Lion of the North had come to a humble end. His five children, several named after British royal princes, had left Elveden behind; they all died childless, one of them as recently as 1957. The estate reverted to the Crown, being bought by the brewing family, the Guinnesses.

Edward Cecil Guinness, first Earl Iveagh, commemorated bountifully in James Joyce's 1916 Ulysses, took the estate firmly in hand. The English agricultural depression had begun in the 1880s, and it would not be ended until the Second World War drew the greater part of English agriculture back under cultivation. It had hit the Estate hard. But Elveden was transformed, and so was the church.

Iveagh appointed William Caroe to build an entirely new church beside the old. It would be of such a scale that the old church of St Andrew would form the south aisle of the new church - a similar arrangement in reverse can be found at William Butterfield's Ipswich St Mary at Stoke. The size may have reflected Iveagh's visions of grandeur, but it was also a practical arrangement, to accomodate the greatly enlarged staff of the estate. Attendance at church was compulsory; non-conformists were also expected to go, and the Gunnesses did not employ Catholics.

Between 1904 and 1906, the new structure went up. Mortlock recalls that Pevsner thought it 'Art Nouveau Gothic', which sums it up well. Lancet windows in the north side of the old church were moved across to the south side, and a wide open nave built beside it. Curiously, although this is much higher than the old and incorporates a Suffolk-style roof, Caroe resisted the temptation of a clerestory. The new church was rebenched throughout, and the woodwork is of a very high quality. The dates of the restoration can be found on bench ends up in the new chancel, and exploring all the symbolism will detain you for hours. Emblems of the nations of the British Isles also feature in the floor tiles.

The new church was dedicated to St Patrick, patron Saint of the Guinness's homeland. At this time, of course, Ireland was still a part of the United Kingdom, and despite the tensions and troubles of the previous century the Union was probably stronger at the opening of the 20th century than it had ever been. This was to change very rapidly. From the first shots fired at the General Post Office in April 1916, to complete independence in 1922, was just six years. Dublin, a firmly protestant city, in which the Iveaghs commemorated their dead at the Anglican cathedral of St Patrick, became the capital city of a staunchly Catholic nation. The Anglicans, the so-called Protestant Ascendancy, left in their thousands during the 1920s, depopulating the great houses, and leaving hundreds of Anglican parish churches completely bereft of congregations. Apart from a concentration in the wealthy suburbs of south Dublin, there are hardly any Anglicans left in the Republic today. But St Patrick's cathedral maintains its lonely witness to long years of British rule; the Iveagh transept includes the vast war memorial to WWI dead, and all the colours of the Irish regiments - it is said that 99% of the Union flags in the Republic are in the Guinness chapel of St Patrick's cathedral. Dublin, of course, is famous as the biggest city in Europe without a Catholic cathedral. It still has two Anglican ones.

Against this background then, we arrived at Elveden. The church is uncomfortably close to the busy road, but the sparkle of flint in the recent rain made it a thing of great beauty. The main entrance is now at the west end of the new church. The surviving 14th century tower now forms the west end of the south aisle, and we will come back to the other tower beyond it in a moment.

The churchwardens are a husband and wife team, and they gave generously of their time to show us around. But I could not see why this church should not be open. Perhaps the participation of the Maharajah Duleep Singh Centenary Trust will encourage it to be so.

You step into a wide open space under a high, heavy roof laden with angels. There is a wide aisle off to the south; this is the former nave, and still has something of that quality. The whole space is suffused with gorgeously coloured light from excellent 19th and 20th century windows. These include one by Frank Brangwyn, at the west end of the new nave. Andrew and Patrick look down from a heavenly host on a mother and father entertaining their children and a host of woodland animals by reading them stories. It is quite the loveliest thing in the building.

Other windows, mostly in the south aisle, are also lovely. Hugh Easton's commemorative window for the former USAAF base at Elveden is magnificent. Either side are windows to Iveaghs - a gorgeous George killing a dragon, also by Hugh Easton, and a curious 1971 assemblage depicting images from the lives of Edward Guinness's heir and his wife, which also works rather well. The effect of all three windows together is particularly fine when seen from the new nave.

Turning ahead of you to the new chancel, there is the mighty alabaster reredos. It cost £1,200 in 1906, about a quarter of a million in today’s money. It reflects the woodwork, in depicting patron Saints and East Anglian monarchs, around a surprisingly simple Supper at Emmaus. This reredos, and the Brangwyn window, reminded me of the work at the Guinness’s other spiritual home, St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, which also includes a window by Frank Brangwyn commisioned by them. Everything is of the highest quality. Rarely has the cliché ‘no expense spared’ been as accurate as it is here.

Up at the front, a little brass plate reminds us that Edward VII slept through a sermon here in 1908. How different it must have seemed to him from the carefree days with his old friend the Maharajah! Still, it must have been a great occasion, full of Edwardian pomp, and the glitz that only the fabulously rich can provide. Today, the church is still splendid, but the Guinesses are no longer fabulously rich, and attendance at church is no longer compulsory for estate workers; there are far fewer of them anyway. The Church of England is in decline everywhere; and, let us be honest, particularly so in this part of Suffolk, where it seems to have retreated to a state of siege. Today, the congregation of this mighty citadel is as low as four. The revolutionary disappearance of Anglican congregations in the Iveagh's homeland is now being repeated in a slow, inexorable English way.

I wandered outside, and there were more curiosities. Set in the wall are two linked hands, presumably a relic from a broken 18th century memorial. They must have been set here when the wall was moved back in the 1950s. In the south chancel wall, the bottom of an egg-cup protrudes from among the flints. This, apparently, is the trademark of the architect WD Caroe. I was struck again by the sheer quality of his work.

To the east of the new chancel, Duleep Singh’s gravestone is a very simple one. It is quite different in character to the church behind it. A plaque on the east end of the church remembers the centenary of his death.

Continuing around the church, I came to the surprise of a long cloister, connecting the former Priest door of the old church to the new bell tower. It was built in 1922 as a memorial to the wife of the first Earl Iveagh. Caroe was the architect again, and he installed eight bells, dedicated to Mary, Gabriel, Edmund, Andrew, Patrick, Christ, God the Father, and the King. The excellent guidebook recalls that his intention was for the bells to be cast to maintain the hum and tap tones of the renowned ancient Suffolk bells of Lavenham... thus the true bell music of the old type is maintained.

This church is magnificent, obviously enough. It has everything going for it, and is a national treasure. And yet, it has hardly any congregation. So, what is to be done?

If we continue to think of rural historic churches as nothing more than outstations of the Church of England, it is hard to see how some of them will survive. This church in particular has no future in its present form as a village parish church. New roles must be found, new ways to involve local people and encourage their use. One would have thought that this would be easier here than elsewhere. And yet, heads seem to have dropped in this part of Suffolk. It gave me cause for contemplation as I wandered around the graveyard.

The other provoking thought was that this building summed up almost two centuries of British imperial adventure, and that we lived in a world that still suffered from the consequences. It is worth remembering where the wealth that rebuilt St Andrew and St Patrick came from.

As so often in British imperial history, interference in other peoples’ problems and the imposition of short-term solutions has left massive scars and long-cast shadows. For the Punjab, as in Ireland, there are no simple solutions. Sheer proximity has, after several centuries of cruel and exploitative involvement, finally encouraged the British government to pursue a solution in Ireland that is not entirely based on self-interest. I fear that the Punjab is too far away for the British to care very much now about what they did there then.