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St Peter and St Paul, East Harling
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St Peter and St Paul, East Harling
We're in the gentle landscape of south Norfolk with its fields and copses, the working county rather than the tourist county. East Harling is, as Pevsner observed, a substantial village, the largest place between Thetford and Diss. I once met someone who in the 1960s had been a boarding pupil at Eccles Hall School a couple of miles off, and they told me that East Harling was the local 'big town' where they went to spend their pocket money on a Saturday morning, which tells you a lot about the place and about south Norfolk in general.
There's a West Harling too, but it is tiny, and a Middle Harling that's a straggle of houses between them. There was once also a Little Harling, but over the last few hundred years its name has contracted to Larling. And East Harling was once known as Market Harling, a reminder of its previous importance. The market has long gone, but those glory years have left behind one of the biggest and best churches in the south of the county. It sits to the west of the village beside the River Thet. A rebuilding began here early in the 14th Century when the tower went up as far as the bell stage. Once the famines and pestilences of the middle of the century were out of the way the rebuilding commenced, a new church with aisles to the nave. However, it wasn't until the middle decades of the 15th Century that East Harling church became the building we see today.
The principal figure behind this late medieval wonder was Anne Harling. She was born in 1426, the only child of Sir Robert Harling and Jane Gonville, who brought with her the wealth of the Gonville estates at nearby Rushford. Anne inherited the vast Harling estate when her father was killed fighting in France when she was nine years old. Three years later, her guardian Sir John Falstolf married her off to Sir William Chamberlain, a wealthy soldier. It was when Anne came of age in 1447 that things really got going, because the family's vast wealth could now be freely expended on the rebuilding project. Simon Cotton tells me of a 17th Century copy of an incomplete East Harling bede roll, dateable to 1498-1524, which records that Anne Harling did edify the body of this new church. She rebuilt the walls of both aisles, provided the masonry and glazing for the windows on the south side and built the battlements of the steeple and lantern. Also the seid gode Lady dede edifye ye chapel of Seynt Anne, her patron saint. The work continued when Sir William died in 1462, and in 1467 the widowed Anne married Sir Robert Wingfield, a wealthy and ambitious politician who spent much of his married life in exile in Europe with Edward IV. He died in 1481, leaving Anne widowed for a second time and still childless. However, these two marriages had bankrolled a no expenses spared rebuilding of the church. Anne did marry one more time near the end of her life to another wealthy landowner, Sir John Scrope, though of course there would be no children now. She died in 1498 when she was in her early seventies a few weeks after him.
Why did they want to rebuild the church on such a scale? In the years after the Black Death the old estates were broken up as landowning families were left without heirs. and new landowners came to prominence. It became important for them to capture the imagination of their parishes, because they wanted to ensure that they spent as little time in purgatory after their deaths as possible. This was a two-fold process, first of all enforcing the orthodox doctrine of the Catholic Church in glass, paintings and carvings, and leaving great churches that asked for the prayers of the faithful after their deaths. All three of Anne's husbands would have contributed to this project, but especially the first two. The church that these marriages built is a textbook example of its century, with tall Perpendicular windows ranged along nave and chancel and grand stone-faced clerestories above. As the bede roll mentioned, the tower was completed with elegant battlements and a memorable tall lead and timber fleche which Mortlock tells us was the model for the one at St Peter Mancroft in Norwich a few years later. Only the south porch is rather mean, despite its flushwork, a result of its height being shortened in the early 19th Century.
You step through it
into a long, tall space, feeling rather cramped perhaps,
not least because of the imposing 15th Century parclose
screen that encloses a large chapel at the east end of
the south aisle and dominates the nave. The space between
the elegant arcades is narrow, a reflection on the
planned church when the late 14th Century rebuilding
started. But the aisles compensate with their width, and
the deeply set coving of the parclose screen gives some
indication of what the rood screen would have been like,
continuing northwards from the parclose across the
chancel arch with perhaps a second parclose in the north
aisle. Part of its dado survives at the west end, a
traceried affair with carved spandrels. A three light
window below the eastern apex of the nave hammerbeam roof
must have back-lit the rood itself, but there is a
curious opening below that may have been a place for a
sanctus bell, although Mortlock thought it was simply to
allow ventilation into the chancel roof.
The top two rows depict some of the Joyful Mysteries, and the top row begins with the Annunciation. Mary is at her prayer desk, while Gabriel, crowned and haloed, kneels in supplication with a sceptre of lilies. The next panel is the Visitation. Mary's cousin Elizabeth, hooded to show her age, places her hand on Mary's pregnant belly. Next comes the Nativity. The two midwives Zelomi and Salome look on, the infant in the manger is rayed, a horned cow gazes in awe while Joseph sleeps at the foot of the bed. Then comes the Adoration of the Shepherds. One holds a lamb, one plays pipes. A third appears to offer a fleece. Finally in this row, the Adoration of the Magi: Two of the wise men gauge each others' reactions as the third offers his gift.
The second row begins with a panel of collected fragments, not shown here. The story continues with the Presentation in the Temple. Joseph carries the doves, Mary offers the child to Simeon. Then comes the Finding in the Temple. Head covered, Mary bursts in among the men in the synagogue to find her son teaching. The third panel is the Miracle at Canaa. Christ, seated at the top table, blesses a chicken and a ham. Mary directs the servant. This row ends with another panel of collected fragments, not shown here.
The third row begins with a figure panel of St Mary Magdalene. It may be that she is holding her long hair ready to anoint Christ's feet, but it is also possible that this panel was not in the east window originally. The Christ story then continues with the Sorrowful Mysteries. Firstly, the Betrayal at Gethsemane. Judas kisses Christ while Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest's servant. Next is the Crucifixion. Mary swoons in John's arms. Then the Deposition from the Cross, tears springing from Mary's eyes as she holds the dead body of her son, Finally, one of the Glorious Mysteries, but out of order, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Mary is assumed bodily into heaven in a rayed nimbus.
The bottom row begins with one of two donor panels, this one probably Sir Robert Wingfield, Anne Harling's second husband. The Glorious Mysteries continue with the Resurrection, Christ stepping fully clothed from the tomb showing his wounded hands. Unusually, the soldiers are awake. Then comes the Ascension of Christ. Mary, surrounded by disciples, watches as her son ascends to heaven. Finally in this sequence, the Descent of the Holy Spirit. Mary, surrounded by disciples, receives the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The last panel in this row is the other donor panel, probably depicting Sir William Chamberlain, Anne Harling's first husband.
You sometimes see descriptions of glass like that at East Harling as being a 'poor man's bible', the need for which was superseded at the Reformation. But this is not the case. These were devotional objects, designed to be used as meditations while praying and saying the rosary. They were created in the 15th Century, that time when the mind of the Church was fiercely concentrated on asserting orthodox Catholic doctrine in the face of local superstitions and abuses. As such, they were anathema to the reformers, and were later elsewhere destroyed for being superstitious, not for being superfluous.
A couple of other details in the east window include a selection of tiny baskets. Mortlock calls them 'frails', simple rush baskets used by workmen to carry tools. Also, though not in such profusion, there are bodices. These symbols are repeated elsewhere in the church in stone on tombs, and as such must be symbols of the Harling family. Another symbol is high up on the north side, a red squirrel. Curiously, this also appears in the painting A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling by Hans Holbein, now thought to be a portrait of Anne Lovell. The squirrel is a symbol of the Lovell family, who took over the local manor here from the Harlings in the 16th century, and the starling represents the manor of East Harling.
Shortly after I first came here in the early years of the century I was able to visit the Norfolk County Archaeological Service archive at Gressenhall. Here, there is more glass from East Harling. It was probably removed from the church for safety in 1939, and then not replaced, possibly ending up at the old Museum of Church Art in Norwich at St Peter Hungate, before disappearing into storage when that closed in 1993. It depicts a Bishop and Christ seated in Majesty, and the lozenges in between carry the telltale frails and bodices familiar from other glass within the church. There's a photograph of it at the bottom of this page.
Coming back into the nave and that remarkable parclose screen, we find another memory of Anne Harling, because the chapel it contains was ordered as a chantry chapel for the memory of her parents. The chapel contains two substantial tombs. One is an early 17th Century memorial to Sir Thomas and Lady Alice Lovell, her of the squirrel who died in 1604. Their symbols lie at their feet, his a magnificent peacock, hers a gruesome Saracen scalp held aloft. To the north of it is the memorial to Sir Robert and Lady Joan Harling, the parents of Anne Harling. The effigies on the memorial are unlikely to be from here originally, as they don't fit, and must have come from elsewhere. Anne lies with her first husband Sir William Chamberlain in the north wall of the chancel. The table tomb is surmounted by an arch which lets into what is now the vestry beyond. This was ye chapel of Seynt Anne, mentioned in the bede roll. Their brass figures have gone, but it seems likely that the tomb was placed here to serve as an Easter sepulchre.
There's an evocative picture of East Harling to be formed from the words of White's Directory of Norfolk in 1845. At the time, East Harling had a population of more than a thousand people. The market was still held every Tuesday, and there were three cattle fairs in May, September and October when people would pour into the town from miles around. There were eight inns and beerhouses, and among other things East Harling supported a ladies' school, two hairdressers and a dressmaker, all signs of middle class prosperity. Six years later at the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship there was a Wesletyan Methodist chapel, a Primitive Methodist chapel and a Society of Friends meeting house in addition to the parish church. Two hundred of the parishioners attended St Peter and St Paul on the morning of the census, although eighty of these were scholars who had no choice but to be there. However, as you would expect in East Anglia there were many more in attendance for the Sunday afternoon sermon, because preaching was always more popular than divine worship in this part of the world. I wonder what they made of the glass in the east window?
Simon Knott, November 2022
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