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

St Mary and St Walstan, Bawburgh


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There are islands off the coast of Norwich. Here we are in typically rural Norfolk, a quiet village set in a rolling landscape of farms and sprawling fields punctuated by woods and copses, the sound of traffic on the busy A11 and A47 not so very far off. And yet, we are very close to Norwich, but floating free from it thanks to local authority planning.

Norfolk and Suffolk have their similarities of course. Norfolk is a lot bigger, and emptier, especially towards the west. But the biggest difference between the two counties is their relationship with their county towns. Ipswich, above all else, is Suffolk distilled and amplified, the working and historic county translated into an urban setting. Industrial Ipswich was the fountainhead of the county's agricultural production, the docks an interface between Suffolk and the world. To know brash and breezy Ipswich is to know what Suffolk was and is.

But Norwich is different to Ipswich, and it is different to the rest of Norfolk. As you enter the city you pass hoardings which proudly proclaim, in George Borrow's words, that you are entering Norwich, a Fine City! It is like crossing a forcefield. Norwich is a fine city, and it is also a small city, but as Norwich is so far from any other place of near-equivalent size - Ipswich is 40 miles away, Cambridge nearly 60 - it is completely out of scale to its population. If Norwich were dropped into South or West Yorkshire, or Greater Manchester, it would disappear. Here, it assumes the importance of a Leeds or a Sheffield, cities four times as big.

At times, Norwich can feel like a great European city, living a technicolour life in the soft, pastel setting of its rural hinterland. Its industrial past, in shoes, textiles and chocolate, was not grounded in the local countryside in the same way as the industry of Ipswich. In the 1960s the University of East Anglia came, and Norwich's nightlife is lived by people who have, in fair proportion, not grown up in Norfolk.

To set off from Norwich is to enter a countryside that feels different. It is like leaving a shore for the open sea, a sea with islands. The soft fields of Norfolk wash right up against the edge of the city, insulating villages that would have been absorbed if she had grown any larger. Just a mile or so from the edge is Bawburgh. Every island has a story, and Bawburgh's is the story of St Walstan.

St Walstan was a Prince, the son of Benedict and Blid of the royal house of East Anglia. Blid would herself become a Saint. Walstan was born in Bawburgh, or perhaps at the royal vill of Blythburgh in Suffolk. As a teenager, he followed Christ's instruction to renounce all he possessed and become a disciple. Giving up his claims to succession, he did not delay to reach northern parts, as the Nova Legenda Anglie tells us, and humbled himself to become a farmworker in central Norfolk.

After a series of adventures which revealed his saintly character, one of which involved him being rewarded with a pair of young oxen, he received news in about 1015 from an Angel. He would die and be received into heaven in three days time. With typical East Anglian stoicism, he nodded his head and left his scythe to go and find a Priest to receive the Last Rites. Unfortunately, the Priest had no water, but, magically, a spring welled up where they stood.

This was in Taverham, and when Walstan died the two oxen carried his body on a cart to be buried at Bawburgh. On the way, they stopped to rest in Costessey, where another spring sprang up. At last, they came to Bawburgh. They stopped outside the church, and a third spring appeared, the biggest. And then, the Nova Legenda Anglie tells us, Angells opened the walls in hast, and the two oxen with their burden walked into the church. Walstan's body was placed in the church, becoming a site of pilgrimage for people who sought miracles and healing. Eleven miracles have been handed down to us.

St Walstan (20th Century)   The St Walstan legend is interesting for all sorts of reasons. Compared with the West Country, survivals of local Saints' cults are very rare in East Anglia. This part of Norfolk was strongly recusant during the penal years, and it is likely that local people kept stories of Walstan in their tradition even after the practice of devotion to him became impossible. When the penal years ended, the new Catholic church at Costessey in 1841 was dedicated to Our Lady and St Walstan.

Although there is no evidence that the Saint was part of the original dedication of Bawburgh church, the foundations of which certainly predate the St Walstan legend, it bears the name today, and that is because the relics of St Walstan continued to be important right up to the Reformation. Bequests made to the shrine are recorded in late Medieval wills, and these in turn were noted by 18th century antiquarians who restored dedications to parish churches, not always very accurately, after the long puritan night.

During the late 14th century, when acts of pilgrimage were at their most significant, thousands of people must have made their way every year. On the north side of the church was the chapel that contained his bones. From this, a sunken pathway led down the steep hill to the well on the site of the third spring. Incredibly, this pathway was destroyed as recently as 1999, to be replaced by a sterile driveway that circumnavigates the farm to the north of the church.

The date of the Walstan legend is interesting, right on the eve of the Norman settlement of England. It is almost exactly contemporary with that much more famous legend, the founding of the shrine at Walsingham by Lady Richeldis. Could it be that these cults endured partly as a form of resistance by the Saxons, popular local legends in the face of Norman cultural hegemony? Or was it that the Normans themselves who ensured that these popular pieties continued, nurturing them in the place of surviving neo-pagan practices?

We can never know, but what is certain is that St Walstan's legend recommended him as a Saint of the ordinary people, a worker Saint if you will, which may explain his almost complete disappearance from popular English story after the Reformation.

Two excellent books by local author Carol Twinch have helped popularise this very East Anglian figure. And, interestingly, in the latter half of the 20th century his cult has been explored increasingly by the Anglicans, at a time when devotion to Saints seems to be going out of fashion in that Communion. There are popular pilgrimages here every year still under the auspices of the Anglican Diocese of Norwich. Perhaps it is the simplicity of Walstan's life, and the healing nature of his miracles, that lend themselves particularly to the quiet nature of modern Anglican spirituality.

You approach the church from the village street and your first sight of it is from the south-east, looking down into the churchyard. What a beautiful church it is! It must be among the loveliest of all East Anglia's 160-odd round-towered churches. The idiosyncratic stepped gables, the red roof of the nave and a little flame-like pinnacle on the cap of the tower are memorable, particularly in this dramatic setting on the steeply-pitched side of the ridge. The graveyard falls away dramatically on the northern side, and from there St Mary and St Walstan appears fortress-like.

You step into a wide, simple interior, white walls and bare wood setting into relief sudden flashes of colour. How much of this church was here when Walstan's body was brought here? Probably, none of it. The archway to the tower is 13th century, and the windows suggest that the rest of the building is early 14th century. Quite probably, the whole church was rebuilt as a result of the prosperity brought about by the shrine of St Walstan. On the north side of the nave there is a large archway, a filled-in opening. It is tempting to think this is the wall that the Angells had opened in hast, but it was probably the entrance to the later chapel of St Walstan, since this wall post-dates the St Walstan legend by 300 years.

The remains of the 15th century roodscreen are made up rather dramatically into an early 20th century screen with bubbly cusping and a canopy of honour above, all of it unpainted. It is difficult to know how they resisted painting it, but it suits the simplicity of the building just as it is. And there are plenty of survivals here of Bawburgh's colourful Catholic past. Most interesting of all, the collection of brasses. Bawburgh has two shroud brasses and a chalice brass. The biggest of these is above a memorial inscription to Thomas Tyard who died in 1505. It is 60cm long, and he lies with the shroud partly open, his hands crossed in an act of piety. Beneath it is the inscription plate, but it seems likely to me that the inscription and the shrouded figure do not belong together, given the differences in the quality of the two. As if to confirm this, a surviving brass rivet in the stone above the figure's head suggests the loss of another brass, presumably Tyard's.

The other shroud brass is unidentified, and quite different. It depicts a smaller figure sewn tightly into a shroud, with just the face peeking out. It is so like the figures mounted on the wall at Yoxford in Suffolk that I assume it is a figure adrift from a larger collection, perhaps representing one of the dead children of a larger figure.

Set in between them is a late 17th century brass inscription and shield to a minister of this church, Philip Tenison. It is quite fitting that it should be here, because Tenison was an antiquarian at a time when such things were looked on with grave suspicion, and Carol Twinch notes that he recorded information about the Walstan shrine here that might otherwise have been lost to us. Deprived of his living by the Puritans, he later became an Archdeacon after the Restoration, in which case the date of 1660 here is obviously wrong.

I think that all five of these brasses were reset here from elsewhere in the church by the Victorians. The chalice brass may well be in its original position. It is to the Priest William Rechers, and is right on the eve of the Reformation, 1531, so he would have been one of the last Priests to be commemorated in this fashion. As at Little Walsingham, two hands are shown holding the base of the chalice, elevating it.

In the nave, there are three further pre-Reformation brass inscriptions, at least two of which are on their original matrices, and one of which retains one of the two figures commemorated, Robert Grote, who died in 1500. His wife is missing, as is the Priest Edward Kightling, whose empty matrix shows that he was wearing priestly vestments.

shroud brass and 1505 inscription shroud brass
shroud brass (detail) shroud brass (detail) ghost
chalice brass, 1531 Robert and Agnes Grote, 1500

This is a good collection of late medieval brasses, and is remarkable hat so much has survived. Only a couple have been stolen, but it is clear an attempt has been made on the life of the smaller shroud brass. It has been broken in half, and the lower part protrudes upwards. These chancel brasses have also suffered very badly from being covered by carpets, the underlay breaking up and soaking with moisture to scour the brass. On my most recent visit, the churchwarden agreed that to would be better to remove the carpet altogether, and I do hope that this will happen.

But the most vivid memory of the past at Bawburgh is the collection of late medieval glass in the nave. Best of all is St Barbara. She stands proudly, holding her church. Across the nave is a lovely fragment of an Annunciation scene. Mary stands in front of a pot of lilies, and a scroll declares Ecce Ancilla Domini Fiat ('Behold the Handmaid of the Lord, Let it be so'). A crowned female head nearby is probably from a Coronation of the Blessed Virgin.

There are floating angels, perhaps censing or collecting the precious blood at the crucifixion, and a king who may be Christ from the same Coronation scene. There is larger, crowned, bearded king, perhaps God the Father, some fragments of St Catherine and perhaps St Gregory, and a lay figure in late medieval dress who might just be a pilgrim to the Shrine of St Walstan. Perhaps most pleasing, because it is so complete, is a set of roundels featuring the words of the Nunc Dimmitis, Simeon's prayer on seeing the infant Christ for the first time. It is rather moving to find them in the same window as the Annunciation, which features words which would be familiar to pilgrims from both the Ave Maria and the Magnificat. It is easy to imagine them sitting telling their beads at a journey's end, contemplating this glass.

Angel at the Annunciation (15th Century) St Barbara (15th Century)
fragments (donor head? 15th Century) Angel at the Annunciation (15th Century) St Barbara (15th Century) 'Ecce Ancilla Domini Fiat': Mary at the Annunciation (15th Century) crowned Blessed Virgin robed in ermine at Coronation of the Queen of Heaven (15th Century)
crowned BVM (15th Century) Crowned head of a king, probably Christ from a Coronation of the Blessed Virgin scene (15th Century) sad crowned head (15th Century)

At the west end of the church is a small patch of wall painting which defies easy interpretation. It is obviously at least three separate subjects, the most recent being part of an Elizabethan text, below that apparently two figures embracing, the lowest a roundel topped by indecipherable text. It is likely that there is part of a Seven Works of Mercy sequence, which was often placed on the western wall of a smaller church like this.

There is much else besides. The people here were obviously very pleased at the 1660 Restoration, and immediately erected a new set of royal arms to Charles II. You can't help thinking of Philip Tenison, and how it might just be his influence that the people were pleased to see the back of puritanism. One old bench end with an inscription is marooned on the wall, curiously in the shape and location of a holy water stoup (is it covering it?) and there's a nice European roundel in the chancel, which I take to be from a series of Stations of the Cross. Otherwise all is Victorian, or the influence of Victorians. And then you spot the 17th century poorbox fashioned like a newel post, still secured in the east end of the nave. It is from the protestant days of this church, but it is still a reminder of charity, and the offerings of generations of pilgrims that made this one of Norfolk's most significant shrines, and still a beautiful and interesting church today.

Simon Knott, April 2019

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looking east chancel neo-Norman font
Blessed Virgin (Continental, refashioned as roundel) St Walstan (20th Century) SS Mary and Walstan Bawburgh M U wall paintings the Patron Saint of farming and farmworkers buried here in 1016
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine - 'Now lettest thou thy servant depart' Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum - 'for mine eyes have seen thy salvation' Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum - 'which thou hast prepared before the face of all people' Lumen ad revelationem gentium - 'a light to enlighten the gentiles'
Charles II royal arms 1660 angels collecting the Precious Blood of Christ (15th Century) foliage tracery (15th Century)


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