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

St Helen, Gateley


Gateley Gateley Gateley
cheeky monkey smug lion take aim

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    St Helen, Gateley

The greening of Norfolk happens so swiftly. After the relentless cold of winter, a few days of warm rain and sunshine bring about a sudden change, the recent buds relax and spread, and the countryside is transformed from its harsh monochrome into a thousand shades of gently blooming green. The lanes begin to narrow, the angelica and cow parsley erupting below thickening hedges, and the land becomes more secretive, its close-knit parishes hidden, the church towers in their huddled graveyards seeming more remote than when exposed in bare winter.

If you live in the middle of a big city, or in some sprawling suburban hinterland, it may be hard for you to comprehend just how remote Gateley is. You come along the little lane from Brisley, branching off onto smaller lanes through rolling, high-copsed farmland. If anything comes the other way there's negotiating to be done, but nothing ever does. There is no village, not even a hamlet, just occasional farms and the odd row of cottages. If you stop the car there is an intense quiet apart from the birds who know they own the place. If another human being crosses your path it would be something to remark upon, but none ever do. Nearer to the church there is open parkland. A herd of deer, like a fleet of silent and steadily moving ships, crops the new spring grass that still shines from overnight rain.

Mortlock describes St Helen as an unpretentious church, and that's about right. The nave is mostly 15th Century, the chancel a Victorian rebuilding. You step into a rather dim space, narrow and aisleless but with a flavour of the period helped by surviving medieval benches and a lack of clutter. The floor is renewed, but still brick rather than tile. The font is primitive, and despite its marble pedestal it appears to grow organically out of the floor like a mushroom.

What makes Gateley famous is one of the most interesting set of rood screen paintings in East Anglia. Some of the best in Norfolk are obviously the work of itinerant craftsmen from elsewhere, but the screen here has more of a local flavour, which suggests it is a work of the early 16th Century. It seems safe to assume that the saints chosen for a screen often show evidence of local devotions, which makes the screen here even more intriguing.

The tracery above is rough and ready, but half a millennium on the paintings still delight. There are just eight of them. On the north side are four women, and on the south side four men. The screen includes no less than three medieval figures who were never formally canonised, and one of them is probably a unique representation.

screen (north) screen (south)

On the far left of the north side of the screen is St Etheldreda, foundress of the Diocese of Ely and shown here as a nun labelled in Latin, Scta Adria, which is to say St Audrey. She is probably the nun on the screen at nearby Litcham. Next, St Elizabeth, also with a nun's habit and her arms crossed. Beside her is the Blessed Virgin, who turns to face her cousin, and it is not hard to think that these two panels together form an image of the Visitation. The final figure on the south side is the first curiosity, the Mistress of Ridibowne, a local devotion. Virtually nothing is known about her. Ridibowne was probably either Redbowne in Lincolnshire or Redbowne in Hertfordshire. No other representation is known to exist, although she may be the unidentified figure holding a spray on the screen formerly at Babingley. Two early 16th Century wills point to other local devotions to her, one at Hackford and the other at Cromer (thanks to Ann Eljenholm Nichols for this information.)

St Etheldreda (16th Century) St Elizabeth (16th Century) Blessed Virgin (16th Century) Mistress Ridibone (16th Century)
St Elizabeth St Mary Puella Ridebone

Turning to the south side of the screen, the first figure from the left is St Louis of France. Beside him, Henry VI is labelled in Latin as 'the Blessed Martyr Henry VI', and then St Augustine and finally Sir John Schorne, conjuring the devil into a boot - although the late Tom Muckley argued that the legend had become corrupted, for devotion to Sir John was considered efficacious against gout, and so surely he is conjuring the devil out of the boot (Tom was a sufferer from gout himself)..

St Louis (16th Century) Henry VI (16th Century) St Augustine Sir John Schorne conjures the devil into a boot (16th Century)
Gateley Sir John Schorne conjures the devil into a boot (16th Century) Blessed Henry VI

There are memories of 20th Century Anglo-catholic piety at Gateley. The statue of the Blessed Virgin had candles in front when I first came here in April 2005, although we were here in Holy Week but it was not veiled, so perhaps this is an enthusiasm whose time has gone. A gilded 20th Century reredos set in a Sarum screen depicts six saints. As on screen they are female on the north side and male on the south side, with the St Withburga, St Etheldreda and St Helen to the north and St Hugh, St Walstan and St Felix to the north.

There are traces of decorative wall painting at the north-west corner of the nave that probably predate the Perpendicular of the windows, and a really good Charles I set of royal arms. Rather than initials it gives his name as Carolus Rex. This is in itself an unusual thing to find, but is made even more interesting by the inscription painted on the frame, Custos Utruisque Tabulae, which means something like 'he guards both tables' which Mortlock suggests means that the arms were at one time associated with a set of decalogue boards. It may also hint at his being king over two Kingdoms. Presumably it was painted by royalist parishioners, a reminder to anyone who was tempted to support the parliamentarians that the King was God's representative on Earth, or at least in England, and that any attempt to subvert his authority was to turn the natural order upside down. But it did no good, because he was beheaded anyway.

Simon Knott, December 2021

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looking east the Gateley screen sanctuary

Blessed Virgin Charles I royal arms Carolus
the uniform practice of true piety mythical beast mythical beast
Holy Trinity shield font cherub
St Withburga St Etheldreda St Helen
St Hugh St Walstan St Felix


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