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

St Bartholomew, Brisley


Brisley Brisley Brisley

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    St Bartholomew, Brisley

Norfolk is not short of great Perpendicular churches with a village huddled around them, and here is another. St Bartholomew is enormous, and its village fairly remote in the winding lanes between Dereham and Fakenham. Even so, Brisley is fairly sizeablecompared with most in this area of straggling hamlets, and on first seeing it there was something about it that made it seem more urban to me than it was. It took me a moment to put my finger on it, and then I noticed the telephone wires lining the graveyard, tangling and cutting across each other as they connected to the houses on the other side of the road. Ironically we are gradually doing away with such things in towns, replacing them with wireless links and underground fibre-optic cables. But here in the heart of rural Norfolk such things can still create a kind of visual pollution. But despite this the church completely dominates the place, and it is hard to stand anywhere here and either not see it or be unaware of its presence. Think of what that must have been like in the late Middle Ages! The sheer presence of such a building must have been both a comfort and a terrifying reminder of last things, and the world to come.

The bulk of the church is accentuated by its tower, for which bequests exist in the first half of the 15th Century. The lowest stage is the biggest, and the great west window is set within a kind of blank arch. The aisles squeeze the nave up into a clerestory to the east of the tower, with a long chancel beyond. The tall chancel windows create a sense of the building pushing back against the tower, a delightful tension. A curiosity is their Decorated tracery when the rest of the church is entirely Perpendicular, and yet they appear to be a part of the same building campaign. Pevsner felt this was evidence that to the medieval mason both forms were equally valid.

Some of East Anglia's largest 15th Century country churches were over-restored in the 19th Century, turning them into urban, anonyomous spaces inside that might as well be in the centre of busy towns. But this did not happen to St Bartholomew, and to enter it today is to find yourself in an entirely rustic, perhaps even ramshackle place. It is a delight if you enjoy rough and ready churches. The ranges of old benches with their traceried backs line the stone floors under old roofs with head bosses, and the walls around are speckled and dappled with flaking patches and hints of colour. There are some wall paintings remaining, including the haunting face of one St Christopher, the stooped body of a second and the unusual survival of St Andrew carrying his cross.  

Brisley's is a church of idiosyncracies, of a hundred little details that make the place memorable. These include a number of tracery-backed 15th Century benches from the time that sermons were becoming an essential part of the liturgy. Thier bench ends include an engaging dog with a duck or goose in its mouth. As at neighbouring Gateley the font is primitive and bulky, and topped off by a jaunty coloured cover. In 1753 the church put up its new George II royal arms. These are signed at the bottom by the churchwardens G Betler and F Frohawk, and also by J Brothill who cleaned and repaired them in 1854.

There are a number of surviving brasses from either side of the Reformation divide, the most famous of which is up in the chancel, depicting Priest John Athowe. It is right on the very eve of the Reformation, 1531, and would be one of the last of its kind in England. It shows him wearing his mass vestments and holding an ornate chalice with the host rising from it. At some point someone has attempted to remove it but succeeded only in brreaking part of his head away. The inscription records that he was the rector of Horningtoft, a nearby parish. Athowe's inscription, which also asks for prayers for his soul, is in Latin, but another brass inscription in the nave has something similar in English. This is to Robert Markayte and Rose his wife, and dates from 1525. It is an unusual survival, and a haunting one, because it still contains both clauses that normally incurred the wrath of Anglican iconoclasts; Of your Charyte pray for the sowles of... it begins, and concludes on whose sowles Jsu have Mcy Amen.

A nearby ledger stone.reads Heer under William Scrivenors dust (whose life both pious was and just) as in a bed of down doth rest in hope to rise among the blest - and that's all. Nearby, there is another brass inscription, a very terse memorial: here lyeth buried the body of Christopher Athowe who dyed the 22 of October 1585, Anno Aetatis sum ('his age was') 72. Athowe, of course, was the name of the Priest whose effigy appears up in the chancel. To have died age 72 in 1585 would have meant he was perhaps a nephew or great-nephew of the old man, and probably just old enough to remember Catholic England, although his inscription reveals no shred of sympathy for it.

The great east window contains the church's only coloured glass, a depiction of the crucifixion of the 1850s that Birkin Haward thought was probably the work of Charles Clutterbuck. It owes more than a nod to the 1630s depiction of the same subject at Peterhouse Chapel, Cambridge, and in turn provided the inspiration for Ward & Hughes' 1874 east window at Gressenhall.

Perhaps the most memorable feature of St Bartholomew is to be found when you have stepped through the 15th Century screen into the chancel. There is a doorway to the north which leads down into the crypt below the sanctuary. You climb down a narrow flight of stairs into a space which is curiously light and clean. I could imagine it as a wine cellar of some kind, perhaps. It is less easy to populate it in your mind with piles of coffins. A notice on the wall tells you that it was once used to accommodate prisoners overnight on the long journey from Kings Lynn assizes to the gallows in Norwich. Imagine spending the night here with your execution in prospect for the day ahead! Not a happy thought.

Simon Knott, December 2020

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Brisley Brisley crucified
triple decker pulpit font south doorway 1753 royal arms George II
head of a saint dog with a goose St Christopher
St Mary Magdalene ikons chalice, Brisley
here lyeth buryed the body of Christopher Athowe John Athorne, 1531 Heer under William Scrivenors dust (whose life both pious was & just) as in a bed of down doth rest in hope to rise among the blest
of your charyte pray for the sowles of Robert Markante and Rose his wyfe 15th Century bench and a dog with a duck

steps to the crypt window in the crypt entrance to the crypt

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