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

St Lawrence, Castle Rising

Castle Rising

Castle Rising west front (photograph taken in 2005) west doorway

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  St Lawrence, Castle Rising

To look at a map you might easily think that Castle Rising is the very outer edge of Kings Lynn, but it is separated from the town and the suburban Woottons by a belt of woodland, and when you get there it is a village of twisty roads and cottages, typical of West Norfolk in that respect. But there is more to Castle Rising than this, for as well as this grand cruciform church and the delightful red brick almshouses that stand beside it there is of course the castle. As a child it was the first proper castle I ever visited, and I still feel a sense of excitement whenever I cycle past it.

Castle and church were built to the orders of William d'Albini the younger, whose father we have already met at Wymondham Abbey. Thus, this was a late Norman structure, a cruciform church with a central tower replacing a smaller church which survives as a low ruin within the castle earthworks. Its design was a grand gesture, intended to impress. As Pevsner says of the west front, it is a swagger piece of Norman decoration. And yet much of what we see today is the result of successive 19th Century restorations, firstly by Anthony Salvin in the 1840s that renewed the windows and brought the dramatic arcading, and then by George Street in the 1860s, who toned down some of Salvin's excesses and redid the tower with a saddleback roof. The 1880s brought the grand south porch, a curious structure which is essentially in a late medieval East Anglian style except that the heads of the doorway, image niches and windows are all faux-Norman. It was built at the behest of the Howard family, of whom Mary Howard, as Pevsner notes, stamped her mark upon the church as much as anyone.

The south porch shelters a door with a curious handle designed as the head of a man, and as is not uncommon with churches of this type, the space you step into feels much smaller than it looks from the outside. There is fortunately not much coloured glass, for a reason we will come back to in a moment, and so the stone can speak for itself. Dominating the west end of the nave is Castle Rising's impressive 12th Century font. Decorative fonts of this age are fairly common in north-west Norfolk, but this is something else again, a large, rugged structure, its carving different on each side. The most memorable side faces towards the west, with three devilish heads in a row glaring out. Could they be cats? It is almost a primitive structure compared with the elegance of the contemporary font a few miles off at Shernborne.


The aisleless nave feels an intimate space, hemmed in between the largely blank west wall and the east wall at the crossing with its Norman tower arch. The transepts were intended to be replaced in the 1880s, but only the south transept was ever built. The journey from the font eastwards is one through time, from the Norman nave and the massive columns and capitals of the Norman tower arch, through the Transitional chancel arch, into the wholly Early English chancel with its triple lancet windows. Looking back, the glass in the west window is by William Wailes in the 1860s, and depicts the angel appearing to the shepherds.

The Wailes glass is of interest as much because of what it replaced as for what it is, for in the 1840s the east and west windows are recorded by Birkin Haward as having glass by the Norwich-based workshop of Samuel Yarington. Yarington's glass was pre-ecclesiological in style and so you can understand the desire to have such unfashionable work replaced. Nevertheless, until the 1970s his decorative design remained in the east window, and the chancel also had 1850s glass by EB Lamb and what Birkin Haward thought was the only glass in East Anglia by the Paris workshop of Antoine Lusson outside of Ely Cathedral. These last two had come as part of Street's restoration and with the Howards' money, but all of it appears to have been removed and mostly destroyed as late as a restoration of 1975, right on the cusp of such things no longer being considered dispensable.

Scattered around are memorials to the Howards, who bankrolled the successive restorations.Their money has left a church that's all of a piece, and yet it speaks of two great ages of change in England, the Norman and the Victorian, when our masters were full of confidence. Because of this, its monumental character may be a little out of keeping with the quiet spirituality of the modern Church of England, but its drama is a statement of solidity and permanence.

Simon Knott, April 2023

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looking east looking through the chancel arch chancel
font looking west west window (photograph taken in 2005)
tower arch capital face in a door handle


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