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

St Andrew, North Burlingham

Burlingham St Andrew: click to enlarge
windows tower

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    St Andrew, North Burlingham
St Walstan with his scythe   This church will be a familiar landmark to anyone who has made the journey by car from Norwich to Yarmouth. Although the village of North Burlingham is now thankfully bypassed, the great tower of St Andrew still lifts its head above the trees on a rise to the north of the road. Pevsner was careful enough to notice a Norman hood mould reset above the south porch entrance, but really this building is the work of the late medieval period. Will evidence places the tower as being under construction throughout the 1460s, and this is probably the date of the great Perpendicular windows that flank the nave. The body of the nave and chancel are probably a bit earlier, but not much. St Andrew is a great statement of the wealth of East Anglia towards the end of the middle ages, and the dramatic view of it from the main Norwich to Yarmouth road was fully intended from the start.

There were once three Burlingham parishes. As well as St Edmund away in South Burlingham, there was another North Burlingham church, St Peter, a hundred yards away towards Yarmouth. It is now a ruin, and St Andrew, the larger of the two, has survived as the village church.

For a church with such a grand aspect, the graveyard is surprisingly tight on the south side, and the restored flintwork is perhaps a little overneat. As with Blofield, a couple of miles off, this church has an urban feel. It would be quite at home in a town, and the sense of this inside is accentuated by the busy way the pews crowd together. You feel that this is not a quiet backwater, but a church where there is life.

However, as enthusiastic as the Victorians no doubt were at North Burlingham, there are many survivals of older times, and the greatest of these is the last medieval roodscreen in East Anglia, and one of the last in England. It is dated 1536, by which date it must already have seemed a defiant statement. As if in response, the faces of the Saints have been excised more violently than any others in East Anglia, by the cruel, puritan hands of Edward VI's Taleban. They must have been beautiful once. They depict, from the north, St Withburga holding a church and with deer at her feet and St Benedict with devils at his feet, (it is worth recalling that these two represented Holy Orders a year or so before the cruel dissolution of the monasteries), St Edward the Confessor, St Thomas of Canterbury (most viciously excised of all, he championed European Catholicism against the crown), St John the Baptist, St Cecilia, St Walstan (Norfolk's worker saint, again thoroughly disapproved of by the Anglican reformers), St Catherine, and St Etheldreda. There is an unidentified male figure between St Catherine and St Etheldreda.

St Withburga St Edward the Confessor St John the Baptist St Cecilia
deer St Catherine St Withburga and St Benedict St Edward the Confessor and St Thomas of Canterbury
St Walstan and St Catherine detail St John the Baptist devil
north side St John the Baptist anno domini 

There is another fine medieval screen set into the tower arch, but it did not actually come from this church at all. Along with several of the memorials, and a couple of late medieval brasses, it came from the ruined church of St Peter up the road. There are beautiful medallion faces, and the angels carry shields with the keys of St Peter in them. You can't help thinking that it would have been rather imposing in its original church.

One of the delights of making this journey around Norfolk is bumping into people who are users of the site. That was the case here, a mother and her son who are typical of thousands of ordinary people who get on with the work of safeguarding our heritage. It seems a small miracle to me that there are so many people who will still go out of their way to quietly carry out the herculean task of keeping our medieval churches in business, despite the disinterest, hostility and shameful lack of support that come from central government and seem increasingly enshrined in national culture and our hysterical media. And they do this for no reward.

These buildings are much more than mere venues for religious services and marriages. They are our national folk museum, our island story, the touchstones down the long generations to where we came from, the hearts of communities that have survived, if only in name, since long before the Normans arrived and got us all organised. As we witness the tortuous death throes of the Church of England, they remind us that these buildings are bigger and older than the Anglicanism to which they now play host, and and if they are to survive beyond our time it will be because of these wonderful custodians. Every time I enter one of these buildings and meet people like this, I am truly humbled.

  detail on the screen from St Peter

Simon Knott, November 2007

screens: St Peter (foreground) and St Andrew (background) looking east looking west  
part of the screen from St Peter part of the screen from St Peter part of the screen from St Peter orate pro anima
this do heere lies buried in dust low side window angel musician
under the tower Deo Trino et Uni Sacrum skull Deo Trino et Uni Sacrum  

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