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

St Swithin, Frettenham

Frettenham

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    St Swithin, Frettenham

Frettenham is another large village in the otherwise intensely rural rolling fields between Norwich and the Broads. Someone I met in one of the Sprowston churches once told me that locals there thought of themselves as living in 'suburban Broadland', but I thought this was a better description of Frettenham. Arthur Mee noted in the 1930s that every cottage was given half an acre of land by the late Lord Suffield, although there appears to have been considerable building since then, perhaps on some of those half acres. I was disappointed to find that Post Office Road no longer had a post office, but School Lane still has a school, and heading out of the village to the north is Church Lane. You can see the tower of St Swithin from a fair distance, because it is a tall tower of a big church, quite a contrast with nearby Spixworth on the road to Norwich. But here, the church sits on its own, away from the village and out in the fields. The sprawling graveyard is lined with old trees, and there is perhaps a sense of loneliness and abandonment after the crisp suburban streets of the village. This is an illusion of course, because Frettenham church is still very much in use. But the churchyard is perhaps not an unreasonable suggestion of what we will find inside.

At first sight, St Swithin is a typical late medieval East Anglian church, with aisles and a clerestory. However, the rebuilding here was relatively early, as you can tell from the quatrefoil windows in the clerestory. The chancel is all Victorian, I think. A neat obelisk of a war memorial is set beside the south face of the tower. You step into a large, cluttered interior full of dusty light, rough and ready and full of interest. However, a striking, perhaps even jarring note is struck by some quite extraordinary recent additions of the mid 1980s. The first you see on entering is a brightly coloured St Christopher on the wall of the north aisle. Both St Christopher and the Christchild are rather sombre, the slippery rocks beneath the surface of the water perhaps concentrating the Saint's mind. Turning to the east, you see what is surely one of the most remarkable east windows in any Norfolk church. It depicts the Harrowing of Hell, the Risen Christ fending off Death while ushered by an angel. When I first visited in 2009, the churchwarden working at the back of the church told me that it was designed and installed by a working party from the Manpower Services Commission, a claim also made in the church guide, which seemed extraordinary to me, to say the least.

Harrowing of Hell Harrowing of Hell angel
Harrowing of Hell

In fact, it is quite true. The designer was Paul Greener, a young man of 24 who joined the Youth Opportunities Programme after being unemployed for six months. The working party were engaged on building and decoration repairs in the church, and being given a fairly free hand they decided to go a step further. The chargehand of the working party, Michael Lane and the young Paul Greener painted the decorative mural work that you see around the east window of the south aisle. It depicts the life of St Swithin in roundels connected by vines, although unfortunately it has more recently suffered badly from water soaking through at the top. However, at the time it was received very well by the parish, so the two suggested they might have a go at some stained glass. As Paul told me later, 'none of us had had any training at all, but we went on a simple course and I did some designs for the little chancel windows. I think I did two and Mike did two. Well. they seemed to be received well, despite the fact that neither of us knew what we were doing. I realised at the time that I was involved in some thing pretty unique!'

legend of St Swithin Legend of St Swithin crossed keys two fish

These first pieces are set into the upper lights of the chancel north windows. One depicts the keys of St Peter, another two fish. Another sympathetic mind, Richard Seaman, joined the project. Buoyed up by their success so far, the three suggested what would be their biggest legacies, the St Christopher in the north aisle, and the east window. The parish wanted a Resurrection scene, and so Paul made the design in the evening at home. He continues: 'I worked this up in to a first cartoon which got sent to Canterbury for perusal. Much to my surprise, it was accepted. The window itself was made in two places, in Frettenham church itself, and in a room at the Broadland District Council's waste disposal depot in Frettenham. We had to buy a kiln for the firing of the painted segments of glass. We knew virtually nothing of the technique of manufacture, and I remember we were allowed to buy a book on it. It was absolutely invaluable, and we would have struggled even more than we did without it. There were three of us working on it in the initial stages: me, Michael Lane and Richard Seaman. Then Mike left the MSC project for a job with Broadland Council. That left me and Richard to soldier on. However, Richard had a degree in painting, and between the two of us I think you will agree, we seemed to manage. I did most of the cutting of the glass, while Richard did most of the lead-work. We shared the glass painting and the firing, and all the soldering and cementing and the messy stuff. The making of the east window took about six to eight months, including the fitting of it, which I believe was about three weeks all told. During this time Richard was also working on the St. Christopher, of which I did but a small part. The window was unveiled at the Easter Sunday service in 1988.'

A remarkable story. Paul tells me that in later years he opened a shop in Norwich, and did a History of Art degree at the UEA. He went on to study Theology, and worked as an Interpreter for Norwich Museums Service. The story of what happened here in the late 1980s now seems like something out of a novel, and really deserves to be much better known.

But this modern work should not distract us from a fair number of good medieval survivals. There are some pieces of restored 15th Century glass reset in the south side of the chancel, both angels, one of them a St Gabriel from an Annunciation scene. The Purbeck marble font at the east end of the nave is reset on a modern shaft, but a great curiosity is a second font which has been set precariously on a pair of what appear to be carved Norman capitals at the east end of the south aisle.

The church has a number of brasses, some figures and others inscriptions. The best of these is to Alice Thorndon, who died in 1420, which has a remarkable rhyming epitaph in Middle English:

O cryst ihesu pyte and mercy haue
On Alys brimham that whylom was the wyff
Of gylys thorndon whych her’ y graue
And her deffende fro werre off fendys stryff
Make her partable of eternal lyff
By the meryt off thy passion
Whych wyth thy blood madyst our redempcion.

'O cryst ihesu pyte and mercy haue': Alice Thorndon, 1420 woman in a kennel headdress (mid-C15)
'having continues a payneful and profitable minister of God unto this p'ish 48 yeares': Richard Woodes, 1620
Margaret Whyte

Nearby, the inscription to Richard Woodes, a rector here who died in 1620, tells us that he had been a paynefull and profitable minister of God for 48 years. This hardly sounds like a compliment to modern ears, but presumably means that he was painstaking in his work, and was able in teaching his flock the meaning of scripture, which was no less than any heartily protestant congregation of the early 17th Century would expect from their minister. Such Puritan sentiments would resound down the following half century, as hundreds of more sacramentally-minded ministers in East Anglia were hounded out by outraged parishioners and lost their parishes and homes to the sequestration courts of the Commonwealth period. They would be described in the witness accounts as 'scandalous ministers', and the charges laid against them would include drinking in alehouses and consorting with common whores, but their only real crime was that their theology and churchmanship disagreed with that laid down by the government, and they refused to collude with the Puritans' plan to recast the minds of the common people in their own mould.

'Heauen hath what's due, for it her soule retaines': Mary Reeve, 1669 'late purser on board HM Ship Centaur... he was a prisoner under Hider Ally and Tippo Saib ten years': William Drake, 1810 'being called to London by the illness of his beloved brother, he was stricken by the hand of death': Thomas Drake, 1810 John Levicke Gent, 1660

Equally memorable with the 1980s work and the brasses are the inscriptions on some of the ledger stones. Of Mary Reeve, who died in 1669, it was recorded that

Heaven hath its due for it her soule retaines,
the Dead her due for her good name remaines,
and Earth what's due for here her corps is layd,
Blessed was her end, while these three debts were payd.


In 1810, Thomas Drake died, when being called to London by the illness of his beloved brother William Drake, he was stricken by the hand of death. Unfortunately, his brother predeceased him by six days, and not far off his own inscription tells us that he was late purser on board HM ship Centaur, and that he was a prisoner under Hider Ally and Tippo Saib ten years.

Finally, a nice roundel of glass with a shield for St Swithin, showing raindrops falling on roses, an echo of My Favourite Things, perhaps, though no matching roundel for whiskers on kittens is to be found, I'm afraid.

Simon Knott, August 2019

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looking east chancel south aisle east window
St Christopher font Good Shepherd font and Norman capitals piscina
raindrops on roses

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