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

St Botolph, Grimston


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    St Botolph, Grimston
St Matthew's angel and scroll   It is obvious, as you explore the little villages south of the Sandringham estate, that there really wasn't very much money around here in the late medieval period. Further west and south, churches were being rebuilt on a epic scale, the largest structures to go up in west Norfolk before or since. But to stand outside many of the churches in this area is to revisit the intimate scale of a couple of centuries before. Most often, it is the tower which makes this difference.

But there are exceptions, of course, and St Botolph is one of them. For here in the late 15th Century the locals bankrolled a great Perpendicular tower to match the grandeur of their church in all its Early English glory. It is more usual in East Anglia for the tower to predate the church, and end up looking uncomfortable, like a guest at a dinner who knows he's about to be asked to leave. But when the church predates the tower, the result is most often an aesthetic pleasure, and here is such a one at Grimston.

St Botolph is different to many of its neighbours in another way, because it is open to pilgrims and passing strangers every day. They step through the 15th Century porch into a big 13th and 14th Century church, fully aisled and clerestoried, full of confidence.

One of the delights of this church is one of the quirkiest sets of late medieval bench ends in this part of Norfolk. Some of them are on benches at the back of the church, some on the return stalls in the chancel. The star of them is probably the delightful mermaid, albeit rather restored, and I was also very pleased to see the man in the stocks with a pig on his back, presumably undergoing his punishment for stealing it. Others include a man wrapped in his blankets representing sloth, and a fox with a goose, its neck in his mouth. There is also a haughty cock, a jolly lion and what I take to be a rather gloomy camel, a curiously beturbanned mythical beast, and a lovely little inquisitive lion who appears to be peeping around the choir stalls to see what is going on in the sanctuary. One curiosity is a bench end of two figures, one apparently attempting to twist the other's head off. Not too far from here there are bench ends of contortionists and wrestlers, so perhaps that is what is represented here, a memory of some medieval travelling fair.

mermaid (15th Century) turbaned mythical creature cock inquisitive lion man in the stocks with a stolen pig on his backgloomy camel jolly lion sloth fox with a goose in his mouth wrestlers?

There is a numinous quality to the light inside St Botolph, largely a result of the extent to which the windows are filled with clear glass, many of the quarries organised into sober patterns. The light fills a church which is confidently furnished and obviously very well-loved and taken care of. I recalled what my friend the late Tom Muckley would say about churches like this, that they were seemly and fitting for Anglican worship.

Not all the glass is clear, for one window in the south side of the chancel depicts an unusual subject, the appearance of St Paul before Herod Agrippa. Installed in 1851, the window is an early work of the O'Connor brothers. In the story, which is in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul has appealed to Rome for justice after being accused of heresy by Agrippa, who was King of Judea. The Roman governor Festus, sympathetic to Agrippa, suggests that a disputation between the two in front of him might seal the verdict of Paul's guilt. However, during the course of the argument Paul converts Agrippa to Christianity.

The scene struck me, because quite by chance I had seen it the previous day at Peterhouse chapel in Cambridge, in 1850s glass ordered from a Munich workshop. Perhaps the story was particularly in the zeitgeist that decade, in which the first great wave of the Oxford Movement began to roll out across the sleepy Church of England.

  queen on a misericord

Simon Knott, August 2016

chancel east window St Paul before Herod Agrippa at Caesarea Herod and Festus font

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