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

St James, Great Ellingham

Great Ellingham

blocked war memorial two rustic cherubs (1820)

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St James, Great Ellingham

Here we are in the agricultural heartland of south Norfolk, in the rolling fields between Norwich and Thetford. Attleborough is just a couple of miles off, but otherwise Great Ellingham is the largest village around here. And in this part of Norfolk it's quite unusual to find a parish church with a village spread around it. Great Ellingham is big enough to feel like a proper place, and was once a substantial parish. At the 1841 census the village had over a thousand people, and could support two pubs, two beer houses, two bakers and a butcher, as well as three blacksmiths, two wheelwrights and a shoemaker. In common with much of the rest of rural Norfolk, the population has declined since then. The advent of supermarkets and the internal combustion engine has seen off almost all the tradesmen. But the large church still sits in its wide graveyard surrounded by attractive houses. St James is the Lord of all it surveys.

The church is typical of larger East Anglian churches in that it has a long nave and chancel, aisles and a clerestory. But what you see is essentially a church of the early 14th century, the Decorated period, with a spire of wood and lead, whereas many of the big rebuilds in East Anglia are Perpendicular work from a century or so later. The reason for this prominence of later architecture is that the increased prosperity of the region in the years after the Black Death, and the renewed sense of mortality that the pestilence encouraged, led to vast amounts of New Money being spent on church rebuilds.

The Black Death carried off about half the population of Norfolk. But this devastation was not evenly spread, and the very young and the very old bore the brunt of the disease. More people died in towns and cities than in the countryside, and the poor suffered more than the rich. However, the rich did suffer, and the old landed estates were broken up where an owner died and no heir survived. A rising merchant class pounced on the chance to buy land, and the status that went with it. The new owners rapidly became the ruling class. But there was still the problem of death, especially when it came like a thief in the night. The newly wealthy had to ensure that the poor of the parish would pray for their souls if they met an untimely end. A big new in-yer-face church was the best way of doing this. Perhaps the newly rich themselves felt insecure. Asserting their position in stone and bricks must have helped their self-image. And there was also a need to enforce control over the imagination of the parishioners, because the naturally conservative East Anglians did not always take kindly to the parvenus of the newly moneyed, just as we did not easily warm to vulgar Thatcherism half a millennium later.

But St James was not rebuilt. However, we should not assume that this was because the parish was unusually poor in the 15th century, or that the old order had not changed, or that there was no wealthy benefactor. It may simply be that the exterior was already so fine that all the money was spent inside on furnishings.

The most singular aspect of the exterior is the chequerwork. This is a decorative design whereby large square blocks of knapped flint alternate with square blocks of stone. Most famously in East Anglia it decorates the mighty church at Southwold. Here at Great Ellingham it is finer on the north side than on the south. Perhaps the best view of all is from the north-east corner of the graveyard, from where you can see both the chequerwork and the glorious east window with its flowing tracery.

Seeing such a grand exterior, you may fear an overwhelming Victorianisation of the interior. Bigger churches tended to be in poor condition by the 19th century after long years of neglect, and the Victorians could not often resist imposing a grand, urban, anonymous interior on these large country churches, quite out of keeping with the character and history of the building. A good, or perhaps that should be bad, example of that kind of thing around here is a few miles off at Hingham. However, St James has the great benefit of an interior which is at once wholly rustic and grand, a difficult combination that always takes the breath away when it works. It does here.

The tall unbroken nave and chancel are bright and open beneath rank upon rank of ancient beams. A 15th Century arch-braced roof crowns the nave, and there is one of the late 18th Century in the chancel, which looks as if it has been hewn out of rough timber. Best of all, you can climb to the ringers gallery beneath the tower to see it all at close quarters, and to gaze eastwards through a forest of beams. The great east window carries the eye onwards, and fills the building with light. Cautley didn't think much of the chancel roof, but it has great character, particularly the way that the carpenter supported it by carrying the uprights over the clerestory windows. Judging by the position of the corbels, this must always have been the case.

Back on the ground, modern chairs and simple furnishings create a welcoming feeling. The font, with shields in lozenges, is 14th Century and must be contemporary with the grand rebuilding of the time. When I first came here at the start of the century it was still filled with holy water to act as a stoup, and this combined with the smell of incense gave a sense of the character of the worship here.

The wide aisles are a pleasant place to wander, not least because they are home to a variety of medieval survivals and some good 20th Century work, a happy combination. The lack of 19th Century glass means that they are filled with light. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find anything of the 19th century at all here, which shows considerable skill and sleight of hand on the part of the Victorians, since the layout of the interior here is certainly a 19th century reinvention of its medieval past. During the 17th and 18th Centuries, St James would have been more of a preaching house than a sacramental space. A 20th Century restoration revealed the wall paintings. There is a large image niche near to the east end of the south aisle that is thought to have once been associated with the shrine to Our Lady of Ellingham. It is painted in rich greens and reads, and includes angels in exquisite detail at the top. A piscina on the far side of the window embrasure is contemporary with it.

pilgrim, cross, devil? mural angel (15th Century)

An even more interesting painting is at the west end of the aisle. It shows, or appears to show, a traveller with a pilgrim staff approaching a preaching cross, while on the far side a creature with a tail walks away. The pilgrim figure has been variously interpreted as St James or St Christopher, neither of which is wholly satisfactory. This painting reminds me of the boss in the porch at Norwich St Stephen which depicts a cloaked figure, and a preaching cross, and what may be a devil. The boss has also never been satisfactorily explained.

In the north aisle the entrance to the rood loft stairs shows that the screen stretched right the way across the church, and must have been very impressive indeed, especially in such a high space. Very little of it survives. A few bays of the dado cordon off the chapel of Our Lady in the south aisle, and there are some more panels at the west end of that aisle near to the south door.

The small amount of coloured glass here dates from the 1920s and may have been the work of King and Son. The evangelistic symbols are enamel work , and are signed C.C.T & J.H. fecit. St James in the south aisle depicts the legend of Santiago de Compostella, St James of the Field of Stars. As Mortlock points out, the artist didn't realise that in the Legend of St James the boat traditionally arrives without sails.

I said that this church is both rustic and grand, but it is not a grandness which depended on the patronage of a single landed family. There are few memorials, and these are understated. Even the church's only brass, up in the chancel, is a simple yet lovely image of a lady wearing a rather ordinary head dress and gown. She is believed to be Anne Conners, and to date from about 1500. All in all the church of St James is a good example of the way that centuries of both care and neglect can conspire to produce something organically beautiful, a building that feels loved and used, abounding in a character all of its own.

Simon Knott, November 2020

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looking east view from the top wood, stone, air I
Anne Conners, c1500 piscina looking down Saint James
image canopy (15th Century) war memorial sanctuary
agnus dei behold also the ships St Mark


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