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

St Edmund, South Burlingham

Burlingham St Edmund: click to view large

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    St Edmund, South Burlingham
hourglass   The area between Norwich and Yarmouth has plenty of interesting little churches, but I do not think that any are quite so fascinating or as lovely as Burlingham St Edmund. It is an outstanding small church. Here we are in the narrow lanes south of the A47, heading for the Halvergate marshes and the broad river Yare. The simple flint walls of the nave and chancel are topped off with a beautiful thatched roof, which seems to ooze over them like melted cheese.

St Edmund is not as well known as near neighbours Hemblington and Wickhampton, with which it has much in common, and I fear that this is simply because it is not as easy of access as they are. Now, this is a dangerous path to follow, for if our collective folk heritage is to be protected and supported, it is important that as many people as possible know about the treasures and delights of churches like this one. We came here on the Historic Churches bike ride day 2007, and stepped into an utterly lovely interior, harmonious and full of creamy light.

Even before you enter the building, its origins are revealed by a splendid Norman south doorway, already beginning to point towards the first stages of Early English. This is not rugged, like those famous neighbours on the other side of the Yare at Hales and Heckingham, but delicate and feminine. It is a mark of the beguiling, quiet simplicity of the interior to come. We stepped down through it, and beyond the elegant Purbeck marble font on its columns is the ghost of another Norman doorway on the north side.

St Edmund is one of those churches where everything seems to come together, the precious medieval survivals chiming perfectly with the later works of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Victorians did a perfect job in blending the harmonious whole. The first striking survival is beside the former north doorway, a tall St Christopher wall painting. Most of the surviving St Christophers are in this part of Norfolk, a land of small parishes where it is easy to pass several churches in a day's walk. But it is not the St Christopher wall painting for which South Burlingham is renowned, for up in the chancel, on the south wall, is one of England's best preserved scenes of the martyrdom of St Thomas of Canterbury. Because Thomas symbolised so strongly the power of the Catholic Church over the Crown, his images were viciously circumscribed by the Anglicans at the time of the 16th century Reformation. The image of him on the screen at North Burlingham, a mile or so to the north, was almost completely obliterated barely ten years after it had been painted. Here, the wallpainting had probably been whitewashed half a century earlier, during the 15th century, as fashions changed, to be revealed again during the 19th century.

St Christopher martyrdom St Thomas of Canterbury

These images of holy figures are one thing, but we also have medieval bench ends, and some of them, although no doubt representing Evangelists and Old Testament Prophets, are undoubtedly based on medieval Norfolkers, sitting proudly in what was the richest county in England. Another is an elephant with a castle on this back, a familiar East Anglian medieval image.

bench end figure Elephant and Castle figure beheaded beheaded

No one would call these fine carvings humble, but they pale into insignificance in comparison with Norfolk's finest 15th century pulpit. Mortlock thought it the best in England, noting that the base board and crocketted parapet are both carved out of a single piece of wood. The panels are narrow and elegant, the painting in vivid late medieval reds and greens, and a Latin inscription is from St Matthew's Gospel, Christ's affirmation of the significance of John the Baptist. These wonderful objects are a reminder that pulpits and sermons are not a product of the protestant Reformation, but were in our churches a full century before, as the years after the Black Death made us all serious, and the preaching of Friars began to encourage a congregational act of worship rather than a diversity of personal devotions. If anything, the Reformation actually suppressed preaching, making Ministers apply for a licence to preach, and then at first they could only use homilies prepared by central government, an enforcement which has a curiously modern ring to it. A later generation of preachers would make the sermon their own, of course, and St Edmund retains its 18th century preacher's hour glass, one of the loveliest in Norfolk. It was not intended to keep the preacher brief, but to ensure that he did not cheat the congregation by preaching a short sermon.

The rood screen beyond is contemporary with the pulpit. Incidentally, there is a bit of a puzzle on the north side, where the lower parts of the panels are unpainted. Pevsner thought this showed where altars had been, while Mortlock imagined that box pews had been built right up against the screen. It is unlikely that post-Reformation furnishings would have affected the painting of the screen, and yet the obscured area seems too big for altars.

You step through the screen into what must be one of the most elegant and atmospheric chancels of any small Norfolk church. Indeed, it feels larger than it is. The return stalls have 17th century graffiti on them, probably from the time when the chancel was used as a school, as well as a couple of 19th century parvenus. The sanctuary, with elegant 18th century railings and its frontal and dossal dressed this day in passiontide red, is stunningly lovely, really feeling as if it is what Philip Larkin called 'the Holy End'. Hidden away behind it is one of those rare chalice brasses, marking the burial place of a medieval Catholic Priest.

The sanctuary is a perfect focus for the simplicity and harmony of this quiet, beautiful building. The church seems to express the peace and quietness of its surroundings, an organic growth in the secretive Norfolk fields, the rustic thatched roof and flint walls a counterpoint to the green cushion and stones of the graveyard. Inside the church, high in the centre light of a window, a single piece of medieval glass shows the head of the risen Christ, still looking on after half a millennium, like a blessing.

  God loveth a cheerful giver

Simon Knott, November 2007

doorway font looking east 15th century pulpit west end
John the Baptist screen tracery sanctuary
Jonathan Edward Futter Christ in Majesty chalice brass
lamp  window

graffito graffito graffito graffito 

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