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

St Nicholas, Dereham


Dereham (photographed 2006) Dereham (photographed 2006) Dereham (photographed 2006)

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  St Nicholas, Dereham

Dereham is the Heart of Norfolk, and I know this because it tells you so on the signs as you enter the town. Until about forty years ago Dereham was plain old East Dereham, just a little market town, but it has undergone a great expansion and redefined itself with lavish amounts of civic pride, and why not? In terms of population, Dereham is now the sixth largest settlement in Norfolk after Norwich, Kings Lynn, Great Yarmouth, Gorleston-on-Sea and Thetford, but they are all quite different in character and so I think Dereham is quite justified in thinking of itself as Norfolk's largest country town, remote and important and almost as close to the exact centre of Norfolk as it is possible to be.

Pevsner and his revising editor Bill Wilson were critical of Dereham's expansion in the 1970s and 1980s, and Norfolk friends of mine refer to it disparagingly as 'Drearum'. But this isn't really fair, and in any case few of Norfolk's country towns are of any great consequence, and here the narrow streets and low rise buildings are a perfect foil for this grand urban church. It's worth saying that, almost without exception, the great parish churches of East Anglia are found outside of its largest towns and cities. Norwich (apart from St Peter Mancroft, there's the exception), Ipswich, Cambridge, Colchester and Lowestoft have nothing to compare with the glories of Wymondham, Bury St Edmunds, Kings Lynn, Wisbech or Southwold, and even grander parish churches than these can be found out in the countryside. And so here at Dereham we have one of the great medieval churches of England, and not as well known as it would be in almost any other county.

As you approach from the High Street it appears that there are two churches close together. This is because St Nicholas has a detached bell tower sitting to the south-east of the chancel. Spreading beyond it, the great cruciform church with its low central tower has a fortress-like feel. The bell tower went up in the early 16th Century, and as Paul Cattermole and Simon Cotton note, more than fifty wills survive that leave money to its building, a remarkable demonstration of civic wealth and pride. One of them, the 1501 will of Richard Pynnes, left £40 (roughly £35,000 in today's money) to the reparation of the clocher if it should be built within ten years of my decease, but the majority of the bequests are for small amounts of money, often as little as 3s 6d or half a noble, about £140 in today's money. In 1536 money was still being left to the bell tower, and so it must have been finished right on the eve of the Reformation. Possibly, of course, it was completed after the Reformation as a civic project, but by then the bequests would have dried up.

The intriguing question is why was the bell tower built separately in the first place? The Norman church here was also cruciform and had a central bell tower, and yet the current central tower is not quite in the same place. Simply, it has been rebuilt further west and no longer rises at the meeting place of nave, chancel and transepts. This seems to have happened in the 14th Century, and Pevsner thought it most likely that the Norman crossing tower had fallen, taking out the eastern bays of the arcades which ran into the chancel. A sturdier crossing tower was then built in its current place and the eastern bays added to the chancel. And yet, if the new tower was sturdier, why was it not used for the bells? As Paul Cattermole and Simon Cotton also point out, there was major activity here in the 1460s, which is to say several decades before work on the bell tower began. Churchwardens' accounts show that the font was installed in 1468, four years after work had begun on rebuilding the south aisle and a year after work began on the north aisle. The same year that the font came, the roof of the lady chapel was releaded. This shows work progressing on an extensive rebuild, and yet the tower was not rebuilt again. Did the parishioners decide it was not worth the risk, and it would be better to hang the bells in a separate tower? In 1539, right on the eve of the Reformation, the churchwardens' accounts show that the central tower was reduced in height, and releaded with a cupola. It would never be used for ringing bells now.

As with any big church, you step inside to a feeling of space. But St Nicholas is more complex than that. Because of the lowness of the arcades. the separation of the crossing by arches and the narrowness of the chancel arch beyond, it feels as if you are walking through a series of rooms, new vistas opening up to you as you change direction. This means that the building is not as easily graspable as, say, Wymondham Abbey or Kings Lynn St Nicholas, where the churches are similarly large, but are open like halls. The feel is very much of the church's 20th Century reorderings and refurbishments, with a raised dais and central altar under the crossing, but overseeing it all from the west end of the nave is that font of 1468. It cost £12 14s 9d, roughly £11,000 in today's money, and is one of East Anglia's thirty-odd seven sacrament fonts.

seven sacrament font seven sacrament font: Last Rites
seven sacrament font: Mass (E) seven sacrament font: Ordination (SE) seven sacrament font: Matrimony (S) seven sacrament font: Last Rites (SW)
seven sacrament font: Crucifixion (W) seven sacrament font: Baptism (NW) seven sacrament font: Confirmation (N) seven sacrament font: Confession (NE)

Around the stem stand saints, among them St Bartholomew and St Dorothy, The most easterly panel depicts the Mass. The priest faces us over a small altar, an acolyte on the right has a houseling cloth hanging from his arm, another on the left appears to be ringing the sacring bell. Three other figures look up in awe and wonder. Moving anti-clockwise, the next panel depicts Ordination, a bishop ordaining three kneeling figures. A figure on the left holds the chrismatory of holy oils, the other figure holds the bishop's crosier. The south panel depicts Matrimony. The happy couple once held hands, but these have been broken off. The priest turns away to read the service from the missal. Continuing anti-clockwise, the next panel depicts Last Rites, always an interesting subject on a seven sacrament font. The priest anoints the chest of the dying man with holy oil. His soon-to-be-widow kneels beside his pillow. Behind her, an acolyte holds the chrismatory of oils.

The most westerly panel is the odd one out, in this case the Crucifixion. This is quite a busy scene, with six figures at the foot of the cross. None of them appear to be intended as the Blessed Virgin or St John. Could they be the donors of the font? Turning to the north-west panel, this depicts Baptism. The priest holds the baby over the water. A figure on the left appears to be holding a chrism cloth, and one of the right the chrismatory. The north panel depicts Confirmation. This is often a crowded scene, but in this case it is just one held infant being confirmed by the administration of holy oil. a figure on the right holds the chrismatory. The final panel to the north-east depicts Confession. This is quite a lively scene, with the priest seated, the kneeling penitent watched over by angels, and another candidate waiting their turn at a shriving bench beyond.

Walking eastwards we leave the font behind. Despite the clerestory this is not a high nave, and this emphasises the width of the aisles, creating a sense of the church sprawling, unfolding as you walk through it. The lack of coloured glass in most of the windows allows light to fill the space, falling across white walls and modern furnishings. The north and south transepts appear vestigial in this great space, and curiously misaligned. That to the south forms a lady chapel, with some of that remarkably good glass by Robert Bayne, depicting the Te Deum Laudamus. In the early 1860s he had joined the firm of Heaton & Butler, and for a few short years they produced remarkable and revolutionary work. Ironically, its popularity would be the firm's undoing, for they soon became a mass production workshop, and they would never be so good again. A 14th Century piscina sits happily beside a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. The transept is separated from the crossing by a 15th Century screen. It came from Oxborough, where the tower and 150ft spire collapsed into the nave on a day of high winds in the autumn of 1948. It destroyed all except the chancel and the Bedingfield Chapel, and when the screen was rescued from the rubble the following year there was no place left for it, and so it was brought here.

the Oxborough screen Oxborough screen: St Augustine Oxborough screen: St John
Oxborough screen: St John the Baptist Oxborough screen: St Etheldreda Oxborough screen: St Mary Magdalene (partial)

The screen has six panels. The first is usually identified as St Thomas of Canterbury. This error seems to date back to Munro Cautley, who would have seen the screen in situ at Oxborough in the 1920s, but he may simply have misread his notes for it actually depicts St Augustine, one of the four Latin Doctors and a popular figure on Norfolk screens. He wears a mitre, and holds his symbols of a cross and a burning heart. The next panel is St John with his poisoned chalice, a tiny dragon climbing out of it. Then comes St John the Baptist, holding the agnus dei on a book. The fourth figure is St Etheldreda, a crowned nun holding a mitre. All that survives of the fifth panel is St Mary Magdalene's ointment pot, for the left two-thirds of the panel are lost. The sixth panel is lost completely.

The north transept is home to Dereham's famous memorial to the 18th Century poet William Cowper. His work is perhaps not read widely today, but he was an intriguing voice of his age. An angst-ridden depressive, he sought the company of gentle people and gentle animals. He kept pet hares, and would not answer the door in the evenings when his beloved hares Tiney and Puss were given free range of the house. Cowper had been born at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire in 1731. After school he was articled to a solicitor, but his fragile mental health made it impossible for him to cope, and after three suicide attempts he was incarcerated in an asylum at St Albans. Recovering, he moved to Huntingdon to live with a retired clergyman called Morley Unwin and his wife Mary, who would become Cowper's lifelong companion after the death of her husband. They moved together to Olney in Buckinghamshire, where they befriended the repentant slave trader turned Anglican minister John Newton, writer of the hymn Amazing Grace, which is ironically better known today than any of Cowper's work.

Newton was a fiery evangelical, and the two of them must have made a strange combination. Morley Unwin' died, and Newton left for London to become rector of St Mary Woolnoth. These were difficult years for Cowper, but in 1795 he and Mary moved to Norfolk to be near his cousin John Johnson, a clergyman. They lived in various places before finally settling in Dereham. Mary died the following year, from which Cowper never really recovered, dying himself in 1800. His connection with Dereham is thus a brief and tenuous one, for he only lived here for a couple of years, but he was buried with due ceremony in this transept chapel. His 1802 memorial is by John Flaxman and consists of an austere tablet topped by a palm branch, the bible and a copy of one of those verse epics, The Task. Mary Unwin and his nurse Margaret Perowne are also remembered. The window above is by Heaton, Butler and Bayne, and was installed in 1900 on the centenary of Cowper's death. Birkin Haward thought it Heaton, Butler & Bayne at their dullest commercial, which isn't wholly unfair for the workshop was well past its best by then, but they were certainly guilty of far worse, and there is a charm to this window because it features the hares Tiney and Puss, as well as Cowper's dog Beau. Cowper's was a distinctly English voice, a militant protestant who was an influence on the militantly Catholic Gerard Manley Hopkins and the militantly agnostic Philip Larkin. His good simple verse is also owed a debt by the likes of Hardy and Auden, and his letters and diaries are a sheer joy to read.

William Cowper's dog Beau and two of his hares, perhaps Tiney and Puss (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1900) William Cowper memorial window (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1900) William Cowper with his dog Beau and two of his hares (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1900)
'the Gospel whispers peace' (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1900) 'Father of mercies, we have need' (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1900) 'Regions Caesar never knew' (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1900) 'Call'd thee away from peaceable employ' (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1900)

The other glass in the north transept is by Harry Stammers, an artist whose lively style is instantly recognisable. It was installed in 1957 and tells the story of St Withburga, a saint associated with Dereham. Traditionally, Withburga was the youngest daughter of King Anna of East Anglia and thus the great-niece of King Rędwald of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Her elder sister was the more famous St Etheldreda who founded Ely Cathedral. Withburga fled from Suffolk to Norfolk after the death of her father in the Battle of Blythburgh. She founded a convent at Dereham, and noticing the hunger of the workers who were building it, she prayed to the Blessed Virgin who arranged for two magical does to give them milk every morning. Her legend goes on to say that a local landowner who tried to hunt the does down was thrown from his horse and killed. Withburga died in 743 and was buried at Dereham, although her body (found to be incorruptible, of course) was later reinterred at Ely Cathedral beside that of her sister.

It has to be said that the dates don't really add up, for Withburga's death was ninety years after the Battle of Blythburgh, but perhaps the worst that can be said is that she perhaps wasn't of royal blood at all. Her cult was never large, and appears to have been an adjunct to that of her supposed sister Etheldreda. Both women's bones were disinterred and destroyed at the Reformation. There is a sunken spring in Dereham churchyard known as St Withburga's well, the structure a 19th Century restoration of what may have been a 14th Century grotto, itself seven hundred years after the Battle of Blythburgh. But East Anglian people have long memories.

Simon Knott, July 2023

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looking east crossing looking east from the crossing
chancel high altar sanctuary
looking west from the crossing south transept chapel south transept chapel looking west in the nave
Legend of St Withburga (Harry Stammers, 1957) Legend of St Withburga (Harry Stammers, 1957) Te Deum Laudamus (Robert Bayne, 1863) rectors and vicars
north transept ceiling Our Lady of Walsingham and piscina Brigadier-General William Earle Gascoyne Lytton Bulwer, 1910 'they do not die nor lose their mortal sympathy nor change to us although they die', 1923
'kind nurse of Cowper in his final days', 1816 WIlliam Cowper, 1800 'watched a poet through misfortune's vale', 1796

Withburga's well (photographed 2006) Withburga's well (photographed 2006)


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