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St Margaret, Breckles


tower top Breckles Breckles Breckles

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St Margaret, Breckles

The village of Breckles happily finds itself bypassed by the main Thetford to Watton road, standing on higher ground on a quiet parallel lane, a reminder that we have left the Breckland behind, and the gentle hills are beginning to roll greenly and wooded under the Norfolk sky. Breckles Hall was built in the 1580s for Francis Wodehouse, whose wife was known, says Pevsner, as a popish seducinge recusant. He notes that the Hall has what appears to be a genuine priest hole for hiding ministering Jesuits from their mandatory sentence of a shameful, painful death, but of course less than half a century before this the Breckles parish church of St Margaret had been in the care of the Catholic Church, and its ministers were Catholic priests. All of this had changed in less than a lifetime, and many must there have been of the newly protestant parishioners who remembered fondly the colour and drama of the liturgical life of their childhood.

If those early 16th Century priests could come back today they would still recognise the outside of St Margaret as their church, for little has changed. They may even have been among those who commissioned the late 15th Century octagonal bell stage, although the main part of the tower below is old, even late Saxon perhaps. The tower archway has intriguing designs on its capitals which may well predate the Norman invasion.

Once inside, our priests would be on less familiar ground, despite the rigorous attempt by the maverick EB Lamb to restore the medieval integrity of the interior in 1862. The survival of their font might comfort them given that it was already ancient in their time, hacked out by Normans when they enforced the increasing practice of infant baptism in the late 11th Century. The designs seem so unfamiliar to us because there is no attempt at unity or symmetry. Mortlock calls it lively and barbaric, which is about right. The eastern face is memorable, with four standing figures in archways who may be the four Evangelists, or the four Latin Doctors, or four orders of the clergy, or anything else I suppose.

font (south) font (east) font (west)
font (detail) font detail font

The simple screen dates from the late 14th Century, although what you see today perhaps owes as much to Lamb's restoration as anything that was there before. Chains of flowers grow directly out of the wood, and the lack of paint carries echoes of the austere Laudian screens of a century and a half later. Stepping through it, our pre-Reformation priests would be unable to begin to comprehend the theology behind the mid-17th Century ledger stones to John Webb and his daughter Ursula Hewyt. Webb was son-in-law to the puritan Sir Thomas Richardson, Lord Chief Justice of England during the later years of the Commonwealth. But it is Ursula's stone that is remarkable, because it is small and round rather than long and rectangular. In keeping with the lunacy of those times that were so out of joint, she chose as her epitaph Stat ut vixit erecta - and so she was buried standing up.

Simon Knott, November 2020

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looking east altar screen
stat ut vixit erecta ('stands erect as he lived') stat ut vixit erecta ('stands erect as he lived') screen detail

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