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

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Erpingham


Erpingham Erpingham Erpingham

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Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Erpingham

Erpingham is a largish village, and one that is still getting larger if all the building work I saw there in May 2021 is anything to go by. But the church sits away from the village, down narrow, doglegging lanes in this surprisingly rolling landscape. A person in possession of a decent Ordnance Survey map is never in want of knowing what the church tower in the distance is, but in this part of East Anglia there are so many grand medieval towers that it is still possible to be confused. How helpful it is, then, to approach St Mary and see the letters E R P I N G H A M interspersed with Marian monograms around the parapet of the tower! This is not a medieval attempt at a village sign, but a reminder that the bequest of the 1480s which paid for the tower came from a member of the Erpingham family. What a bold tower this is, and how long and low the 14th Century nave and 15th Century chancel seem, especially from the aisleless north, without a clerestory. There is a delightful Annunciation scene in little niches either side of the west door. There was a major restoration of 1899, late enough to be sympathetic.

Erpingham is one of those special places you sometimes come across unexpectedly in the backwaters of England. It was a hotspot of the most vigorous kind of Anglo-Catholicism, as at South Creake in the north of Norfolk. A medieval building stripped bare by protestants and puritans in the 16th and 17th Centuries, little more than a preaching house during the long 18th Century night, it was touched by the great 19th Century wave of sacramentalism sent out from Oxford, and repopulated with the colour and drama of something approaching its original function in the early years of the 20th. You could enter here into the heart of the Anglo-Catholic imagination.

Stepping in from the south is curiously like entering South Creake's church. The south aisle is emptied of furnishings,and beside it the uncluttered nave with its simple Victorian benches provided an understated setting for the devotional statues that line the arcade. Urban Anglo-Catholic churches can sometimes seem continental, but there is something very English about this place, its Marian devotion sympathetic to its rural setting, a reminder that the rest of the world considered England to be 'Our Lady's Dowry' in the days before Anglicanism. The lack of a north aisle and the 19th Century benches against the wall remind us that this is actually a fairly small church after that imposing tower. All in all it is simple yet beautiful, the setting for a good number of medieval survivals.

Pevsner tells us that the font came from the church of St Benedict in Norwich, bombed during the Second World War. The seated figures on the panels were substantially recut and repaired, presumably in the 19th Century when it was still in Norwich. Christ seated in Judgement now curiously has the face of a woman, presumably because the folds of his gown suggested it might be a dress.

Erpingham font from St Benedict, Norwich Christ in Judgement with a woman's head

The south aisle has one of Norfolk's best-known brasses, to Sir John de Erpingham who died in 1370. It dates from about half a century later, commissioned by his son Sir Thomas Erpingham who, as John Vigar reminds us in his book Norfolk Churches, was a hero of Agincourt. Sir John stands full armour and it is easy to imagine him clanking around bloodsoaked fields.

There are scatterings of medieval glass, including a typical angel of the Norwich school with a modern face, the restoration work of King & Son. The east window is odd, an arrangement of 16th Century Flemish panels, or at least that is what they appear to be. In fact, they are modern copies of glass originally made for Steinfeld Abbey in Germany in the 1520s. The originals were donated to the church in 1955 by Blickling Hall, but then returned there in the 1990s, presumably at the request of the National Trust. They'd been bought for the Hall in the early 19th Century from the Norwich dealer JC Hampp.

angel a Norfolk angel Adoration Adoration of the Angels
Erpingham Risen Christ and St Thomas Three Marys with the Risen Christ Three Marys with the Risen Christ
Flight into Egypt and the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents St Anne and St Joachim Mary meets the Risen Christ

At the end of the south aisle a large traceried squint looks through into the sanctuary. The modern tabernacle, which in the Catholic tradition is usually immediately behind the altar, is offset to one side so that it aligns with this squint for anyone celebrating Mass at the side altar. Other curiosities include one of East Anglia's dozen or so sets of royal arms for Elizabeth II and a shrine to King Charles the Martyr. A lamp is suspended in front of his painted portrait, an inscription beneath .

As you would expect, the modern glass is of a high quality. The figures of Mary Magdalene and the RIsen Christ in the garden are the 1860s work of Clayton & Bell, although as Birkin Haward noted they date from the time that the studio was shared with Heaton, Butler & Bayne, and Haward thought he detected the hand of Robert Bayne in their design. A lovely Arts and Crafts Blessed Virgin and child in the south aisle is unsigned, but is it possible that it is the design of Louis Davis, perhpas for Powell & Sons?

The Risen Christ Mary Magdalene Blessed Virgin and child
Christ and Mary Magdalene in the garden Ave Maria Gratia Plena Adoration of the Magi Blessed Virgin and child

A reminder of the modern tradition at Erpingham is in a number of memorial inscriptions in glass, and one in brass, for Father Samuel Harvard-Watts, incumbent here 1922 to 1944, who was presumably responsible for the church's character. It observes Tu es Sacerdos in Aeternum ('You are a Priest in all Eternity') and asks us to pray for his soul.

Simon Knott, July 2021

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Erpingham screen chancel
south arcade Erpingham Erpingham
King Charles the Martyr pray for us side altar ecce agnus dei
here lies the body of William Hobart tu es sacerdos in aeternum Knight
Ruth Alston James L Hardie 1987 died a prisoner of war in Siam
E II R water stoup


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