The Burnhams
Deepdale I Norton I Overy I Priory I St Henry I Sutton I Thorpe I Ulph I Westgate

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

St Margaret, Burnham Norton

Burnham Norton: most beautiful

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south side... ...and north

  St Margaret, Burnham Norton

This is the most beautiful of the six surviving medieval Burnham churches, both in terms of its setting and its structure. The position is superb, on a hilltop half a mile north of the town of Burnham Market (the name means Burnham north town), half a mile south of the sea. Two other nearby hilltops are the sites of working windmills.

Some Norfolk round towers are primitive and rugged, but that could not be said here. This is a tower that exhibits the full flowering of Norman confidence in this part of Norfolk that has seen more interplay between invading forces than most. The Normans put an end to all that.

St Margaret is a big church, aisled and clerestoried, but has a tiny village down in the valley below - Burnham Norton is the smallest of all the Burnhams. Given that these large buildings were never intended for congregational Anglican worship, it would always be a struggle to fill it; but the local parish have overcome this problem in an intriguing and beautiful way. Wooden screens have been placed within the north and south arcades, and the two most westerly bays have been curtained off in the nave, but not in the aisles. The effect is of a church within a church, roughly a third the size of the whole thing, and wide, open empty aisles to stroll around. The western third of the nave is also empty apart from one of the finest Norman fonts I've seen in Norfolk - square, bulky, brooding, magnificent.

inside the inner church, looking west outside the inner church, looking south-east from the north doorway one of the finest Norman fonts in Norfolk square, bulky, brooding, magnificent

The most famous possession of the church is the heptagonal wineglass pulpit, which has six painted panels. Four of them feature the Latin Doctors of the Church: Gregory, Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome. They are shown in splendidly human poses, reading, writing or, in one case, sharpening a pen. St Gregory's papal tiara has been scratched out, but not St Jerome's cardinal's hat. You can see them below.

These four are found everywhere in Norfolk, hardly anywhere in Suffolk; I wonder why this is? They were part of a 15th century attempt by the rising middle classes to enforce the othodox doctrine of the Church in the face of local superstitions and abuses - a kind of proto-Reformation, if you like. I explore this idea more on the introduction to Cawston and Salle.

The other two panels feature two members of that rising middle class, John Goldalle and his wife. The devastation of the Black Death a century earlier had led to an economic revolution in East Anglia, the old estates broken up and sold and then acquired by an increasingly dominant new class in society. These people, well-educated and articulate, could not rely on the old ideas of chivalry and noblesse oblige to maintain their position. They had the major stake in not only the wealth of their parish, but its imagination. This was not a new theology (although many of their descendants would be responsible for the introduction of protestantism a century later) but rather a distillation of the old into rigorous, focused teaching - the sacraments, the virtues and vices, the works of mercy, and so on. The quid pro quo, of course, was that in leaving money for these features to be added to the church, they also reminded the ordinary people to pray for their souls, and this was the most pressing business of the medieval church; the Black Death had concentrated the minds of everyone.

the Goldalle's gift
Katherine Goldalle John Goldalle St Augustine St Jerome St Gregory St Ambrose
part of the dedicatory inscription

There is another pulpit, large and square in the body of the nave, and a good little screen across the narrow chancel arch; although the figures are gone, the imposed Elizabethan text from after the Reformation survives on one of the panels.

One of the most beautiful things here is the east window. Small and high, above the Sarum screen, it is filled with art deco glass, images of the two St Margarets. Perfect in the simplicity of the sanctuary.

There is a modern roll of honour, but the most famous name associated with this parish is Horatio Nelson. His father was Rector here, and two of his brothers as well - though not at the same time of course. William Nelson was Rector at the time of the Admiral's death, which must have concentrated the attention of the press of the day on this remote corner of Norfolk.

Simon Knott, May 2005

  modern roll of honour

through the screen to the simple sanctuary looking east the other pulpit
screen (north) screen (south) Elizabethan text William III royal arms
two Margarets

The Burnhams
Deepdale I Norton I Overy I Priory I St Henry I Sutton I Thorpe I Ulph I Westgate

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