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St Mary, Binham
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St Mary, Binham
North Norfolk is a haunted land, the spiritual ghosts of the past elusive but only ever just out of sight. Walsingham was one of the most important pilgrimage sites in medieval northern Europe, and its resonances can still be felt at the Anglican and Catholic shrines, re-established in the 20th Century. A couple of miles to the east of Walsingham was Binham Priory, whose ruins today sprawl in the green meadows on the outskirts of the village. It was founded in 1091 as a dependency of the Benedictine Abbey at St Albans. This was shortly after the visions of the Blessed Virgin reported at Walsingham by Richeldis de Ferveches, but before the establishment of the Priory there. Much of what we see today is of the 12th and 13th Centuries when things really began to get going around here, making it one of the spiritual heartlands of England. Despite this, the Priory was never particularly wealthy, and then in 1539 it all came to an end with the Dissolution.
Most of the priory was
demolished fairly soon afterwards for building materials,
but enough survives to give a sense of the scale and
perhaps a feeling of what it might once have been like.
The great cruciform church was also largely demolished,
leaving just a stub of the nave in use as the parish
church, for the church was once very big indeed. The nave
had aisles (you can see the remains of the walls outside)
and beyond the modern east wall there were two transepts
with a great crossing, and a long chancel with a lady
chapel to the north of it. The present east wall was
created by building up the pulpitum that once separated
the nave from the crossing. The aisles were probably
blocked off by rubble in the arcade, although the north
aisle apparently survived until a general restoration of
the early 19th Century. This was the time the tracery in
the west window was largely bricked in, but it had
probably been falling to pieces for years.
You enter the church through the north doorway into the new visitors centre and then beyond it into a space of remarkable height, feeling narrower than it actually is. The church is long, seven bays, although there were once nine, suggesting that the collegiate church began before the crossing. Even so, the east wall seems a long way off. Above, the rising arcades, triforia and galleries are of cathedral-like proportions. When I revisited recently all the benches had been moved to the sides to allow for performances of the Binham Passion Play, accentuating the architecture and making the space below them seem even plainer than it was already, for very little survives of the medieval life of the priory church. What does, though, is remarkable. The 15th Century screen dado is now behind glass in the north-west corner. During the middle of the 16th Century it was whitewashed and overwritten with biblical texts, as we must assume so many were - even if the figures were not idolatrous, the early protestants were not comfortable with portrayals of the human face and body. However, over the years the whitewash has flaked away, and the figures have begun to show through. They are haunting.
Beside the screen is one of East Anglia's thirty-odd late medieval Seven Sacrament fonts. These started to appear in Norfolk and Suffolk churches in about 1450 and continued to be made until the 1540s by which time the Reformation was taking hold. The Binham font has some similarities to that nearby at Cley, and the panels are in a varying state of survival. Most appear to have been attacked in the upper half of each panel. The most easterly panel is Baptism, the priest totally immersing the infant in the font while godparents and acolytes look on. Clockwise from there the sequence continues with Ordination, the ordinand kneeling before a bishop. Two more line up for their turn, and in the background an acolyte holds the chrismatory of holy oils. The south panel depicts the Mass. From behind we see the priest facing the altar and elevating the host. The figure on the right must be holding the houseling bread. Could the figure with raised hands on the left be a donor?
Next comes the odd-panel-out, the Baptism of Christ. This is the most common of the eighth panels on seven sacrament fonts, but the arrangement here is a little unusual. Christ stands centrally, a small figure and apparently naked, while John the Baptist in his camel skin stands on the right. The figure of God the Father stands behind Christ wearing a crown. Another figure with raised hands stands on the left, and may well be another donor. The last Rites panel faces west. The dying man lies with his head to the right, the priest administering the holy oil. Behind the priest stands an acolyte holding the chrismatory, and behind him stands the grieving wife of the dying man. In the Confirmation panel, which comes next, the priest stands on the right with the acolyte holding the chrismatory behind him. He confirms a child held by a figure on the left. Next comes confession, with the penitent kneeling before the priest for absolution, a large angel in the background keeping an eye on things. The final panel is Matrimony. As at Cawston, the supporting angels under the bowl hold symbols of the sacrament in the panel above them. Eight apostles flank the stem.
Contemporary with the font are the benches, their bench ends mutilated but a number still identifiable. An infant wrapped in swaddling may mark a churching pew. There's something similar not far off at Upper Sheringham. A cleric stands in a pulpit and a female figure apparently holding a basket of fruit is likely to be St Dorothy. At the other end of the church, the sanctuary is plain and seemly. A Stuart Holy Table serves as the altar, behind it a cabinet supports the candles, with two taller candlesticks from a Sarum screen either side. It is all simple and moving. Either side are original doorways that once led through the pulpitum into the choir. One of them has recently been reopened up, and you can step through it into the open air. You find yourself on the west side of the crossing, its piers towering above you, and the east end of the chancel seems a remarkably long way off. Standing on the site of the former high altar and looking back westwards to the piers of the crossing and the church beyond, you at last get some sense of the sheer scale of the original priory church. To the south, the remains of the conventual buildings lie, and wandering through them might reawaken a few more furtive ghosts.
At the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, a fair number of incumbents were reluctant to fill in the return, perhaps fearing that a judgement might be made about their income in relation to the size of their congregation. William Upjohn, Vicar of Binham, had no such doubts. The nave of this old Priory has been used as the parish church for ages, he wrote. It is kept in good repair, called Binham Abbey and will seat 300. At the time, Binham had a population of just over five hundred, and a little over one hundred of them attended the service on the morning of the census, two hundred tipping up for the afternoon sermon which was always more popular in East Anglia. This isn't a bad proportion of the parish, especially compared with some nearby churches, but the Reverend Upjohn was moved to point out that the number attending Divine Service depends on the weather. Women, children and old people cannot attend in rainy or snowy weather. We know that it rained on the morning of the census, and perhaps that is why the Reverend Upjohn felt able to record 'average attendance' in the morning at an ambitious one hundred and sixty.
Curiously, he added a postscript, perhaps thinking of the scholars who had no choice but to also attend both services, to the effect that there are also 20 girls clothed and educated solely at the expense of Thomas Truesdale Clarke Esq. Lord of the Manor. All in all, it sounds as if it was a busy place in those days before the Anglican revival in East Anglia had really taken hold. Perhaps it was competition from the recently erected Binham Methodist Chapel that was keeping him on his toes, for Hercules Sands, the steward there, claimed that the average congregation for the two Sunday services in the chapel was about a hundred and fifty.
Simon Knott, May 2023
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