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St Mary, East Bilney

East Bilney

East Bilney East Bilney church (Ladbrooke)

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    St Mary, East Bilney

This fine Victorian church sits away from its village in the gentle hills between Dereham and Fakenham. It was built to replace the ramshackle church that Ladbroke drew here in the 1820s. It is hard to see that any part of it survives from the medieval structure, but it was all done well and broadly on the plan of the original, including the replacement of a south transept.

When I first visited in 2006 the church was kept locked, although there was a nice keyholder notice which virtually implored you to take a look inside. Coming back ten years later I found the church open. Now, you might wonder if such a building has anything inside to offer the church explorer. Indeed, back in 2006 we did consider forging on to Tittleshall rather than getting the key, but the rumour of Henry Holiday windows won the day, and I am glad that we bothered, and I was equally pleased to return in 2016.

You step into a bright, clean interior coloured by the flanking late 19th and early 20th century windows. The font and tower arch survive from the earlier building, and I wondered if the lower part of the chancel arch was medieval too. Whatever, the interior is all very harmonious, and very well done. Much of the glass is rather serious in that turn of the century manner typical of Powell & Sons, culminating in the 1920s war memorial window depicting St Michael and St Alban. The crucifixion uses Henry Holiday cartoons, but in truth it isn't his most memorable work for the studio. Other glass is by Shrigley and Hunt, the best of which we'll come to in a moment.

There are two earlier roundels, continental glass of the 17th century each set in a ring of English medieval fragments, both with intriguing inscriptions. One declares itself to be from Monasterium Leodiense Duodecim Apostolorum, the Monastery of the Twelve Apostles at Leyden. Another roundel has a Latin inscription from I Samuel 17 beginning Cumque gladium non haberet David, 'and there was no sword in the hand of David when he defeated the Philistines'.

Monastery of the Twelve Apostles, Luyden Cumque gladium non haberet David

One significant local figure remembered in the Shrigley and Hunt glass at East Bilney is the 16th Century Catholic priest Thomas Bilney. I'm sure that Bilney would have been quite at home with much of the teaching of the modern Catholic Church, but his doubts about some medieval practices drew the attention of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII's thought police. They cautioned him, but released him to preach again because he was so articulate in his arguments against Lutheranism and the protestant reformers. Eventually, as battle-lines hardened, he was arrested under the authority of the Bishop of Norwich, and burned at the stake as a heretic. A window in the chancel shows Bilney in two scenes, firstly preaching, and then in chains outside Norwich Cathedral awaiting his execution. I must say that he looks remarkably cheerful under the circumstances.

.Thomas Bilney preaching Thomas Bilney Thomas Bilney at the stake

It would have taken a lawyer with a fine eye for the small print to find Bilney guilty of heresy, but what was more to the point was that the Bishop of Norwich had acted without authorisation from above. In turn, he was arrested, and he forfeited his possessions as a punishment for his treatment of Bilney. This, of course, could not bring Thomas Bilney back. His influence over his pupils at Cambridge University meant that there were articulate and ardent advocates of his cause, among them the increasingly protestant Hugh Latimer. In martyring Bilney, the Church authorities set in motion a chain of events that would lead directly to the horrific conflicts of the middle years of the 16th century, and several centuries of sectarian prejudice and conflict.

A panel of glass positioned in a wooden frame beside the chancel arch is a copy of a medieval panel at Dunston depicting St Nicomedes. It is probably intended to portray Bilney in a rather different manner, as a pious saint, which he certainly was.

Simon Knott, August 2020

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looking east chancel looking west
Of such is the Kingdom font Ascension
St Nicomedes (modern copy) Crucifixion (Henry Holiday) St Michael (Powell & Son) St Alban (Powell & Son)
Of such is the Kingdom (detail) The Norfolk Regiment Resurrection
late Bengal Civil Service


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