The Seven Deadly Sins of Blythburgh

Blythburgh Church in Suffolk has famous 'poppyheads' at the end of its fifteenth-century pews. These are carved figures of people, animals or plants, and are useful for holding while standing up after a long sermon. Several of Blythburgh’s are said to signify the seven deadly sins. These, according to the likes of Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian, are pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth, which are contrary to the seven capital virtues. I’ll confess to being unable to interpret the carvings with any sense of confidence. Many are damaged by centuries of wear or William Dowsing’s chiselling skills, but a story they still try to tell. Here is my attempt to match the sins with the carvings, to which more accomplished observers than me might offer correction. Below, Slander brandishes her tongue:

Gluttony shows his belly:

Hypocrisy his false piety:

Sloth appears in his bedgown:

Wrath bears his sword:

Limiting ‘deadly’ sins to seven is dangerously misleading. If eating a mere fruit warranted the fall of an entire race, might even the tiniest, weeniest of offences bar one from heaven for ever? Yes, according to James, who declares:

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. (2:10)

Categorising some sins as quite bad while others as really bad merely massages our pride that we are better than others, whose sins are far worse. So many poppyheads would the carvers of Blythburgh have had to create there would not be pews enough to attach them. Furthermore, it is best we move away from talking about ‘sins’ which may be considered a list of wrong actions, and talk about ‘sin’ which bespeaks our actual fallen state and not just its individual symptoms. My mother currently cannot sleep, has toothache, vomits and cannot walk- these are just the effects of the actual cancer that is killing her. Yet there is good news, the proclamation of which Blythburgh church was meant to have been constructed. Although our sin is great and our sins numerous, the grace of God that freely pardons us is vaster still.

Thy mercy, my God, is the theme of my song,

The joy of my heart, and the boast of my tongue;

Thy free grace alone, from the first to the last,

Has won my affections, and bound my soul fast.


Thy mercy, in Jesus, exempts me from hell;

Its glories I’ll sing, and its wonders I’ll tell;

’Twas Jesus, my Friend, when he hung on the tree,

Who opened the channel of mercy for me.


[Without thy sweet mercy I could not live here;

Sin soon would reduce me to utter despair;

But, through thy free goodness, my spirits revive,

And he that first made me still keeps me alive.]


[Thy mercy is more than a match for my heart,

Which wonders to feel its own hardness depart;

Dissolved by thy goodness, I fall to the ground,

And weep to the praise of the mercy I found.]


The door of thy mercy stands open all day,

To the poor and the needy, who knock by the way.

No sinner shall ever be empty sent back,

Who comes seeking mercy for Jesus’s sake.


Great Father of mercies, thy goodness I own,

And the covenant love of thy crucified Son;

All praise to the Spirit, whose whisper divine

Seals mercy, and pardon, and righteousness mine.


J. Stocker, in Gadsby’s Hymns, Number 11