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St Edmund, Acle


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    St Edmund, Acle

Acle is a busy little town on the edge of the Broads, and its church is a substantial aisleless building set on a slight rise beside the main street. Its pretty turreted round tower with an octagonal bell stage was perhaps all built in one go in the 13th Century, the battlement stage being added in the 15th Century. That there was a Norman church here once is shown by the doorway fragments built into the roodstair turret, beside which a low side window is set in an ogee-arched alcove. Diocesan surveyor Richard Phipson led the 1860s restoration, though the chancel was seen to by Ewan Christian in the first years of the 20th Century, its sombre crispness providing the one jarring note. But the nave is pleasingly thatched, and all in all this building has perhaps more the feel of a country church than of an urban one.

You step down into an interior which Phipson restored neatly but not overwhelmingly, and the first sight is of Acle's great treasure, its 15th Century font. Curiously, the dedicatory inscription tells us that it was donated in 1410, but does not tell us the name of the donor. Four of the eight panels contain symbols of the four evangelists. Of the other four panels two contain angels, one holding a shield with the Instruments of the Passion, the other with a shield of the Holy Trinity. The other two panels are remarkable in their way, and both rare survivals. One is of the Holy Trinity depicted as God the Father sitting on a throne, holding the crucified Christ between his knees while the dove of the Holy Spirit descends. God's face has been smashed, probably by 16th Century Anglican iconoclasts. The current face is a later restoration. The stone cross still has the fixings for the body of Christ, which may have been made of wood or metal. On the other side of the font is a Pieta, Mary weeping with her dead Son on her lap. This image has also had its faces smashed out. As with the image of God the Father, the more enlightened Victorians restored them sensitively, but I suspect Mary's face was originally more anguished. Today, she appears rather serene. This font was an act of Catholic catechesis. It depicts images that are at once devotional and instructional, allowing the people to both use it as a focus for prayer, but also to form an understanding of doctrine. For this above all, it was broken and hidden from view. The whole piece is a wonder, particularly since it retains much of its original colour.


font: angel with a shield of the Trinity font: God the Father, crucified Son and dove of the Holy Spirit (15th Century) font: pieta (15th Century)
woodwose and lions

Turning east, Acle's screen is intricate and lovely, the narrow chancel arch making it taller than it is wide. The dado panels are painted in familiar reds and greens, and stencilled with monograms of St Edmund, an E interspliced with the martyr king's arrows. A modern rood group sits above the screen, but how elegant the whole thing must have looked in medieval times with its rood loft thrusting forward and running the full width of the nave! There were stairways to the loft on both sides, and as previously mentioned the external stairwell survives on the south side. On the north side the space has been replaced by a window.

Stepping through into the chancel, you can see the other great treasure of the building. This is a large graffito scrawled on to the north wall. It was written during a time of pestilence, and it was uncovered in the early 20th century, but for many years it had to be covered to stop it fading. It has now been restored, and is protected behind glass. It is written in Latin, and is incomplete, because a later window punched through part of it. In translation, it is at once a hopeless cry for help and a call for prayer, an anguished reflection on the prevailing circumstances:

Oh lamentable death, how many dost thou cast into the pit!
Anon the infants fade away, and of the aged death makes an end.
Now these, now those, thou ravagest, O death on every side;
Those that wear horns or veils, fate spareth not.
Therefore, while in the world the brute beast plague rages hour by hour,
With prayer and with remembrance deplore death's deadliness

Oh lamentable death, how many dost thou cast into the pit

Dating of such things cannot be an exact science, but there are a couple of clues that might suggest an answer. The phrase with prayer and with remembrance seems to suggest prayers for the dead, placing this inscription from before the Reformation. It is written in Latin, and although this in itself does not mean it is medieval, it is a suggestion that it comes from a time when this was the language of Church business. But most striking of all is the phrase Those that wear horns or veils, which probably refers not to 'sinners' and the 'righteous', but to lay and religious women. The veils are of those in holy orders, and the horns perhaps the horned headdresses which were popular in the middle years of the 14th Century. It seems likely then that this graffito coincides with the particularly virulent outbreak of bubonic plague which swept through western Europe in 1348 and 1349, revisiting in several waves over the next twenty years, and which came to be called the Black Death by the Victorians. How terrifying. I wonder who wrote it? The parish priest? Was he holed up in the church saying masses for the dead while all around the pestilence grew and took its toll? In Norfolk, the Death of 1349 carried away perhaps half the population. Few and far between must have been the families unaffected. It changed the world for ever.

It is worth pointing out that, like wall paintings, this graffito survived because the churches of East Anglia were generally not prey to the 19th Century fashion for raking out internal plaster to reveal bare stone. This is because there is no stone. Acle, as with almost all medieval churches in Norfolk and Suffolk, was built out of flint and clunch. Removing the plaster wasn't an option. Beneath the inscription is a brass to Thomas Stone, rector here during the reign of James I. 17th Century brasses of ministers are unusual in Norfolk, so it is a pity that this one is mounted on the wall. I know that parishes do this with the best of intentions, but it is a mistake. If there was a fire, the brass would melt. Floor mounted brasses don't melt - the heat rises away from them. Also here in the chancel is a pretty roundel of glass depicting the Blessed Virgin and child. It's a modern replica of an early 16th Century one at Nowton in Suffolk. It was made by the King & Son workshop, and their artist helpfully signed it near the bottom.

Simon Knott, May 2021

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looking east rood screen chancel
The Lord hath caused this painfull sheperd dye to live with him in joyes eternally A Rose for England Hanoverian royal arms
he had no greater joy than to hear his people walking in the truth St Etheldreda

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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk