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

St Mary, Burgh-next-Aylsham


Burgh-next-Aylsham Burgh-next-Aylsham image niches

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    St Mary, Burgh-next-Aylsham

Burgh-next-Aylsham probably seems a busy little place if you approach it from the east or west along the busy Aylsham to Wroxham road, but I have never done this. If you walk or cycle down the narrow lane through the Tuttington woods out of high Norfolk you get a quite different impression, crossing the main road being the only sign of civilisation before you get to the church. Better still, across the water meadows of the Bure from Brampton to the south - no traffic here, just footpaths and footbridges over the lazy river as it meanders aimlessly between the two villages. The view of St Mary across the river from the south is one of the finest of any church in East Anglia.

This is not a large church and it is without aisles or clerestories, but you step into a great feeling of light and space, and turning to the east you find something thrilling, for here as Pevsner so eloquently puts it, is unexpectedly, the finest Early English chancel in East Anglia. It is as if part of Lincoln Cathedral were shrunk down and transported across to the Bure valley. The basic plan here can be dated fairly accurately to the first decade of the 13th century, but you will not be surprised to learn that a lot of what you see here today is, in fact, Victorian. That so much survives, and that it is done so well, may be due to the watchful eye of the great architect George Gilbert Scott. In June 1865 he was staying with his cousin and they came to visit the church. He later wrote to the patron Roger Kerrison of Burgh Hall expressing to you my high sense of its architectural value and of the care which it merits. The chancel, which seems to be only a fragment, is really one of the very best pieces of Early English one meets with.

The restoration itself was by Richard Phipson, Diocesan architect, responsible for the restoration of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich and the complete rebuilding of St Mary le Tower in Ipswich. Phipson was not the most exciting architect of the 19th Century, having an eye for the letter rather than the spirit, but this served St Mary well. The east wall is his, as, indeed, is everything east of the second lancet. You can see this more clearly from the outside. He also rebuilt the north chapel, probably intending it as an organ chamber. It is good work of its kind and is, above all else, still very beautiful. Mercifully the brick floors remain and the clearing of clutter and the way you step down in to the chancel make of it an inspiring, memorable space.

Burgh-next-Aylsham chancel Burgh-next-Aylsham

And it is for more than this that St Mary is a church of special interest, for back at the west end of the nave is one of Norfolk's twenty-two seven sacrament fonts. These fonts date from the 15th Century, a time when local landed families were trying to assert the official doctrine of the Catholic Church in the face of local superstitions and abuses. One way of doing this was to bequeath money in your will to pay for furnishings that could be used devotionally, depicting the Works of Mercy, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Sacraments, and so on, in glass, painted wood and stone.

A typical late medieval East Anglian font is always octagonal, so as well as the seven sacraments you get an eighth panel, which varies from place to place. Most commonly found is the Baptism of Christ or the Crucifixion, but there are a few seven sacrament fonts in East Anglia with unique eighth panels, for example the martyrdom of St Andrew at Melton in Suffolk and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin at Great Witchingham in Norfolk. Interestingly, here at Burgh-next-Aylsham there is some disagreement about exactly what the eighth panel is. It shows a figure kneeling at an altar before an object, and this has been interpreted as the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. But the object looks to me to have human form, and I think it is actually the Mass of St Gregory, as represented on the rood screen at Wyverstone in Suffolk. A doubting Priest, celebrating Mass, has his doubts cast away when the host turns into the human form of Christ. The panels, clockwise from the east, are Mass (the Priest with his back to the viewer), the odd panel out (probably the Mass of St Gregory), Last Rites, Matrimony, Confession (taking place at a shriving pew), Baptism, Confirmation (involving an infant) and ordination.

seven sacrament font seven sacrament font: Mass seven sacrament font: Mass of St Gregory
seven sacrament font: Last Rites seven sacrament font: Matrimony seven sacrament font: Confession
seven sacrament font: Baptism seven sacrament font: Confirmation seven sacrament font: Ordination

This font is not in terribly good condition. The injunctions against images in the later years of the reign of Henry VIII, and especially under his son, the boy king Edward VI, would have left the parish here with a problem. Wall paintings were easily whitewashed, statues and sculptures smashed and burned. Stained glass was usually allowed to remain, since its replacement was not cheap or practical. The Anglicans were more pragmatic than the Puritans of a century later. But what was to be done with a font? Seven sacrament fonts were barely half a century old at the time of the Reformation. Anglicans may have thrown off Catholic teachings to do with Mary, Saints and the souls of the faithful departed, but they still believed in infant baptism, and they still needed fonts for the purpose. In a few cases, for example Loddon, the font was completely excised of its images in the 1540s (not, as the guide book there suggests, a century later). But this seems a bit drastic, and the resulting damaged font would have been less than pleasing to ordinary parishioners. Much better to knock the reliefs flush with the outer panelling (hence the loss of most of the heads) and then plaster the whole piece over. That almost certainly was what happened here at Burgh towards the middle years of the Sixteenth Century, as the new model Church of England was forged into being. This font is more battered than most, principally, I suspect, because of the shallowness of the images, and more needed to be knocked flush. But enough survives to identify every sacrament. It has a slimness and elegance that puts one in mind of the one at Earsham down by the Waveney, although the shaft is like that at nearby Sloley, with the four evangelistic symbols at the corner of the foot. It is set on a simple Maltese cross.

But the magic of the view to the east is worth more than an examination of the font, I think. I write this at the height of the covid pandemic when Burgh-next-Aylsham, and next spring, seem very far away. But oh, how I look forward to stepping out across the Bure water meadows from Brampton on the other side, knowing that on a spring day there are few lovelier places in England.

Simon Knott, October 2020

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looking east looking west seven sacrament font
Mary at the Annunciation Burgh-next-Aylsham Burgh-next-Aylsham Burgh-next-Aylsham
in the alley adjoyning lyeth ye body birds pecking at fruits (13th Century)


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