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

St John the Baptist, Bressingham


west door

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    St John the Baptist, Bressingham

Bressingham is a scattered parish just to the west of Diss, and close to the Suffolk border. The tall tower of its church might even make you think for a moment that you are in Suffolk, for it is typical of the powerful late medieval towers that you so often find in the southern county. The parish is best known for its steam museum in the grounds of the Hall, and the church sits on the other side of the Hall in the same grounds. The overwhelming impression is of a 15th Century Perpendicular building, but there is more going on here than at first meets the eye. The chancel is earlier, and despite some later window tracery replacements it still retains some of its original 14th Century features inside.

The tower came next, the result of several bequests in the middle years of the 15th Century, but it was not until the end of that century that they got around to rebuilding the nave, and what a remarkable structure it is. The eight windows of the clerestory are picked out in flushwork on both sides, making this seem a taller and longer church than it actually is. There were bequests at the start of the 16th Century for finishing off the roof, and the last piece to be completed appears to have been the north aisle, for on this side there is a dedicatory inscription to Sir Roger Pilkington dated 1527. This is a late date for an East Anglian country church to be completed, making it roughly contemporary with Lavenham and Southwold in Suffolk. The nave that it replaced was taller and narrower judging by the surviving drip course on the east side of the tower, and was probably aisleless.

So many large churches underwent enthusiastic 19th Century restorations that you might fear the interior will not live up to the exterior, but when you step in through the north doorway it is to find yourself in a church which is trim and well-kept, but rural in character. And here, ranged before you, are the original furnishings that came with the completion of the church in the 16th Century, and they are quite remarkable. The work is of the highest quality, and they have a style tantalisingly poised on the edge of what would have been an English Renaissance in church furnishings if the the Reformation hadn't intervened. Instead, the stately homes of England benefited from this great flowering of decorative art, while our churches suffered the dumbing down of Protestantism. The only range of furnishings in East Anglia that can match them are those at Fressingfield in Suffolk, not so very far over the border.

bench ends (early 16th Century) bench ends (early 16th Century) Bressingham benches (photographed 2006) Bressingham benches (photographed 2006)
Bressingham benches (photographed 2006) Bressingham benches (photographed 2006) Bressingham benches (photographed 2006)

Each bench end is supported by buttresses which rise in several stages, each in an individual style. The central panels are decorative and ornate, mostly secular patterns of flowers, fruit and heads but also some with angels, St Michael and St Gabriel among them. However, this flowing renaissance style is punctuated at the top of each buttress by more familiar bench end figures. Most of these have been vandalised by the 16th Century iconoclasts, which must have happened not much more than ten years after they were carved. Among them are figures which appear to be from a set of the Seven Works of Mercy.

The 14th Century tracery font is roughly contemporary with the rebuilding of the chancel, and the scattering of 15th Century glass fragments in the east window presumably came with the rebuilding of the nave. Later centuries have made their mark, including a set of royal arms for Charles II (it denotes him secundus) a set of stocks and a late 19th Century funeral bier, more ornate than most you find in country churches. The glass in the north aisle depicting the figures of St Paul and St Peter, and the roundel heads of John the Baptist and Christ, was installed in 1877 by J & J King of Norwich, but as Birkin Haward points out, it is clearly from the studio of Heaton, Butler & Bayne and commemorates people who had died ten years earlier.

Another curios 19th Century survival is the little barrel organ in one corner of the nave. There are only about half a dozen of these left in East Anglia. A metal cylinder is loaded into the back and turned, little teeth operating pipes to play a tune. The beauty of it was that you get get barrels for both sacred and secular tunes, allowing the organ to be used both in the church and on the village green. Perhaps the mingling of these worlds help encourage the late 19th Century enthusiasm for new hymns and new tunes, and in turn the Anglican revival.

Simon Knott, October 2022

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looking east chancel looking west
font Charles II royal arms barrel organ
nave roof Mary, Queen of Heaven
St John the Baptist and Christ (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, installed by J&J King, c1870) funeral bier St Paul and St Peter (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, installed by J&J King, c1870)
fragments (15th Century) fragments (15th Century) fragments (15th Century)
Elizabeth Lamb of God
barrel organ barrel


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