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

St Margaret, Cley-next-the-Sea


Cley-next-the-Sea Cley-next-the-Sea from Wiveton churchyard south transept
south porch Shields of the Holy Trinity and Instruments of the Passion in the porch spandrels south doorway south transept

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St Margaret, Cley-next-the-Sea

It is repetitious to observe that East Anglia was the industrial heartland of late medieval England, or that this nation was a devout Catholic country at the time, or even that the collision of these two facts resulted in some of the most splendid church architecture in northern Europe. Virtually every medieval parish church in the land bears some evidence of this time, but it is particularly obvious in the centres of power, money and influence of those days. Cley once stood at the harbour mouth of Blakeney Haven, that great North Norfolk conurbation of ports, and its streets thronged with wealthy merchants and their workers. Today, the harbour is lost to us, but you can still make out its shape if you stand in Wiveton churchyard and look back across to Cley, a mile or so off. At Blakeney itself, the quayside survives with some of its buildings to help a reconstruction in the mind, but Cley has nothing now except its church and a few cottages, a village green and a windmill, away from where the medieval port stood. Ironically, you wouldn't even know that the sea was close.

But the setting of the church is lovely, on a gentle rise above a green. The churchyard headstones, many of them dating from the Eighteenth Century, are scattered, not lined up in clinical rows by misguided 1970s lawn-mower enthusiasts. If you come in late spring the churchyard is still uncut, a paradise of wild flowers and tall grasses, and from them rises this memorable building. Cautley said of it that this is a most magnificent church. Mortlock, writing half a century later, considered it a marvellous, vital building. Pevsner thought it most striking and improbable-looking. What you see is, at first sight, complex. The vast nave with its clerestory is all of a piece. The offset late Thirteenth Century tower is perhaps unexpectedly mean, and although it seems likely it was intended for rebuilding, the great west window added in the Fifteenth Century suggests that it would have been in the same place. That century also brought grand Perpendicular tracery for the south aisle windows, but the chancel is curiously simple, and eventually surely would have been replaced. A transept sticks out on the south side, roofless and glassless. Little trace survives of a matching one on the north side.

The merchant de Vaux family were responsible for rebuilding the church in the early Fourteenth Century, and the new nave was built to the south of the original nave, which was then demolished and replaced with an aisle. You can still see its roofline on the east face of the tower. The master mason was William Ramsey, one of the more significant in England at the time, for the Ramsey family were responsible for the Palace of Westminster and parts of Norwich Cathedral. Work began in the 1320s, and proceeded quickly until the building was pretty well complete by the mid-1340s. This is an early date for the complete rebuilding of an East Anglian church, and shows that here, in Blakeney Haven, the new money was early. It would not be for almost another hundred years that many Suffolk and south Norfolk families were in a position to do the same. Why was this? Partly, the wealth of the Blakeney Haven ports did not depend just on East Anglian cloth. But there was another, more apocalyptic factor.

Before Ramsey could turn his attention to the chancel and the problem of that blessed tower, a new and frightening pestilence reached England. For anyone living in a port, diseases brought from abroad were an everyday hazard that had to be balanced against full employment and opportunities for wealth creation. Even so, this was something on a spectacular scale, a strain of bubonic plague that reached the south coast ports in August 1348 and that by the dismal late winter months of 1349 had reached Norfolk. Perhaps half the population died, although in the ports there seems to have been a higher survival rate, so perhaps there was more immunity due to previous exposure. However, Ramsey and his son both died, and the work of the ports was disrupted for several generations. The Victorians, relishing the gothic horror of the disaster, looked back from their own cholera-plagued century and called it the Black Death.

Half a century later, trade, confidence, and a renewed obsession with the cult of the dead led to more money being lavished on St Margaret. This was the time that the mighty south porch was built, a Perpendicular fortress that guards, rather uneasily, the Decorated entrance. The window tracery was replaced in the south aisle and at the west, and the church was further furnished with a mighty rood screen now lost to us. Benches came, glass (also lost) and a seven sacrament font intended to assert the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. By the early Sixteenth Century, Cley church was at a peak of its glory, but very quickly those times were to tumble. The English Reformation brought to an abrupt end the need for bequests, and all work on developing the building stopped. And, state protestantism would sow the seeds that would help England emerge as an insular, capitalist nation, changing patterns of trade, and doing away with the need for Blakeney Haven, pushing Norfolk back into the relief of a long, agricultural sleep.

So, you take a walk around the outside of St Margaret, the window tracery a text book of the way English architecture developed over the centuries. The most beautiful is that in the south transept, elegant lights that build to a cluster of vast quatrefoils. This was competed on the eve of the Black Death, and is probably at the very apex of English artistic endeavour. It may well never have been filled with glass, for it is possible that the transepts were not completed in time for their use before the pestilence, or that there was ever a need to use them after the recovery from it, and so they were blocked off. And, then, of course, the Reformation intervened.

You step into the church through the south porch, with its flanking shields of the Holy Trinity and the Instruments of the Passion. Above, in the vaulting, are bosses. One shows an angry woman chasing a fox that has stolen her magnificent cockerel. Another shows two devils beating the bare buttocks of a man. Judging by his obvious masculinity I wondered if it might be a comment on lust. There is also an Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in the centre, curiously meaner than the other two bosses.

porch boss: a fox stealing a cockerel from a woman porch boss: two devils beating a man's bare bottom porch boss: Assumption of the Blessed Virgin

Grand Perpendicular is so common in East Anglia that there is an unfamiliarity about the church that begins within the porch, for the south doorway is heavily cusped in the Decorated fashion. You step through it into a nave that takes the breath away, it is such a feast for the senses. The west end of the church has been cleared, creating a cathedral-like vastness. The light which fills the nave does not have that white East Anglian quality familiar from Perpendicular buildings. It is somehow more intimate. The smell is of age rather than furniture polish, a creamy dampness that recalls former business rather than decay. The honeyed stone is also somehow foreign in this heartland of flint. It affects the sound in a different way. The building asks of us an awe that is not due to its size alone. The journey through it begins at the west end of the nave, and Cley's Seven Sacrament font.

The font looks lonely in its clearing, and is not the most spectacular of the series, but it is characterful. The scene of the Last Rites shows the priest standing against the right hand side of the panel as if he were lying on the bed on top of the dying man. The Confession panel shows the priest and the penitent facing each other across a shriving bench. Confirmation shows a tonsured cleric blessing a group of people that include children and babies. Mass is shown from behind, the Priest elevating the host while the acolytes on either side kneel and hold tapers. The eighth and odd-panel-out is lost, and you can't help wondering if it might have depicted the church's patron saint.

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

There are about thirty of these Seven Sacrament fonts surviving in East Anglia, and they all date from the end of the Fifteenth Century and the start of the Sixteenth Century. They were part of a project to reinforce Catholic orthodoxy, essential if the new rising landed class who had grown rich on the consequences of the Black Death were to have their souls prayed for. Because of this, there is a sense that this font doesn't belong to the people who had rebuilt Cley church in the early Fourteenth Century. They would not have understood the theological imperative of its placing here, for their world was still unshaken. Their world was one of private devotions and shared stories, and lining the walls above the arcades are image brackets on which their saints once stood, each one supported by a splendid carved figure with traces of original colour. A musician plays a fife and drum, a woman gathers fruit and foliage, St George dispatches a dragon, and a fearsome lion holds a bone in his jaws.

musician playing a fife and drum a woman holding fruits and foliage St George and the dragon a lion with a bone

Part of this Fifteenth Century project to reinforce doctrine was a new emphasis on the importance of preaching. The priest stepped out of the chancel and into the nave for the first time. A pulpit was provided for him to stand in, and benches for the people to sit and listen on. Worship became less devotional and more congregational, a change that would accelerate in the following century and culminate in the Reformation. The pulpit here was replaced in the 17th Century, but some of the bench ends survive, and tell us something of what was valued by and of interest to the carvers, including that staple of East Anglian bench ends, a mermaid.

recut creature wearing a stole mermaid (15th Century) hands on hips (15th Century) recarved seated man with a book (15th Century) seated man with a book (15th Century)

The early Fourteenth Century merchant class who had worshipped here before the benches were installed are far from sight now, but their successors often make themselves known to us, either in bequests or memorials. There are no grand memorials here at Cley, indeed almost nothing after the 17th Century silting up of the Haven, but there are some fine figure brasses, the best of which is at the east end of the south aisle. The large figures of John Symondes and his wife Agnes lie in their shrouds, their eight children arrayed beneath them. He died in 1512, she in 1508 and the figures may well have been made in their lifetime. Other figures include two civilian brasses, most likely merchants, and an orphaned group of six sons.

John and Agnes Symondes 1512/1508 six sons civilian c1500
four sons and four daughters of John and Agnes Symondes (c1510)

You can't help thinking that the years after the Reformation and the later silting up of the port must have been lean ones here. Unlike the churchyard, not much of the life of this place in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries survives inside the church. The remains of a fragmentary Stuart royal arms repurposed for Queen Anne are propped up in the north aisle along with a decalogue board which must be roughly contemporary. The chancel is remarkably bare of the Big House memorials you would expect to find in many East Anglian churches, especially of this size. There's a sense in which this is a building which has lost its purpose, and lost it long ago. For although churches must ever be reinventing themselves for the changing fashions in liturgy and worship, what this place once meant to those who built it and those who elaborated it has gone. Looking around at the splendour of William Ramsey's work, at what survives of the elaborate furnishings, and sensing the echoes of the rich devotional life it once hosted, you get the sense of an ending, of a way of life replaced by something so wholly different in a few short years of Reformation. Churches like this had been built for so much more than congregational worship, but this was all they could now do. It was as if modern worshipping communities are camped out uneasily in the ruins, in the vastness of something so wholly beyond the imagination.

Simon Knott, March 2022

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looking east chancel looking west
pulpit (17th Century) seven sacrament font (15th Century) north aisle chapel
Christ summons St Peter, flanked by St Margaret and St Nicholas (Powell & Sons, 1920s) Christ the Good Shepherd flanked by St Hubert and St George (Powell & Sons, 1920s) Cley church
The spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters (Powell & Sons, 1920s) the disciples see Christ walking across the water (Powell & Sons, 1920s) and there was no more sea  (Powell & Sons, 1920s)
bearded man on an armrest bearded head on an armrest
fragmentary Stuart royal arms relettered for Anne Ten Commandments
skull and winged hour glass (17th Century) hour glass, 'ut hora sic vita', 'resurgam'
'resurgam' skull and crossed bones


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