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

St Peter and St Paul, Knapton


Knapton south porch Knapton

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    St Peter and St Paul, Knapton

Here we are again in the rolling landscape up near the north-east coast, and if this area can sometimes be a little bleak in winter, in summer it is a joy to behold. In any case St Peter and St Paul is nicely tucked away in its little village, sheltered in a fold of the hills that lie just inland. As usual around here, a 15th century rebuilding has left big windows and a building full of light. A refreshing difference is that the tower is offset, suggesting that the original church was to the north of the present one. The priest door in the chancel has its own little porch, a smaller version of the one at nearby Trunch. These are unusual. Presumably, someone local thought it was a good idea, which it is, and you can't help wondering why there aren't more of them.

Knapton's church has one extraordinary feature that strikes you as soon as you step inside and look up. This is the late medieval double-hammerbeam roof, one of the widest in England, crossing about 12 metres in a single span, a remarkable feat. There are echoes of another great East Anglian late medieval roof, at Woolpit in Suffolk. In the lower reaches, on the wall posts, angels flutter holding the symbols of saints and instruments of the passion, while almost appearing to stand on their backs are the figures of saints, prophets and kings set in niches in the wall posts themselves. Higher up, painted angels flutter, again carrying instruments of the passion, musical instruments and other symbols. As at Woolpit, the vast array of angels and other figures creates a sense of business, as though we are looking up into, I suppose, heaven itself. But these are no mere decoration. Rather, they were probably intended as a psalm of praise, a liturgical adjunct to the devotions of the Catholic faithful in the nave below. For this reason, they were frowned on by protestants and in many cases destroyed.

Knapton angels angel carrying three nails, now lost (15th Century) Knapton angels
angel carrying a ladder (15th Century) angel carrying a portative organ (15th Century) angel carrying a crown of thorns (15th Century)
angel carrying a fish (1930s) angel carrying a hammer and pincers (1930s) angel carrying a bird (1930s)

At Woolpit, the puritan iconoclast William Dowsing found no fault with the angel roof during his visit of January 1644, because it had already been stripped of 'superstitious imagery' by the Anglican reformers of a century earlier. So virtually all the angels there are Victorian. How about at Knapton? Well, I was interested to come across an 1882 report from William Morris's Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings describing a visit to Knapton church. The SPAB was in the habit of dropping in on medieval churches which were undergoing restoration to make sure that the job was being done properly. At Knapton, the late Victorian restoration was at the hands of the great George Gilbert Scott. The Society journal records that a deputation from the Society having visited this church, about to be restored by Mr. G. G. Scott, reported that it was of great architectural value, possessing among other things a very fine old Perpendicular roof, rich with carving and painted decoration. A letter was addressed to Mr. Scott by the Committee, explaining their views as to what ought and ought not to be done, which Mr. Scott received in a very friendly spirit, expressing his agreement with the views of the Society in this instance.

Here at Knapton, many of the angels in the rafters do indeed appear to be medieval, but in any case the great restoration of the roof here was in the 1930s, and the larger angels on the wall posts date from this time, although the figures of saints, kings and prophets set in the posts above them do appear to be unrestored. Perhaps we may assume that the 1930s would have meant a restoration more focused on preserving details than that of half a century earlier, and this is why so much sense of the original is retained.

Below the great roof is one of the great Norfolk font covers, a beautiful white 18th century Palladian affair bearing the palindromic Greek sentence NIYON ANOMHMA MH MONAN OYIN - 'wash my sins not my face only'. A cover of this description was noted at Hingham in the 1840s, but did not survive the comprehensive Victorian restoration there. I wonder if this could be the same one?

There is a spectacular deep-cut ledger stone with a skull and winged egg timer for the appropriately named Richard Flight, and a single pre-Reformation brass inscription still asking for prayers for the soul of its owner. The heartily restored rood screen has curious little gates with fluted columns. All in all I must say that I like Knapton for being unusual and idiosyncratic just as much as I do for its wonderful roof.

Simon Knott, August 2019

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looking east font looking west
font and font cover NI?ON ANOMHMATA MH MONAN O?IN piscina, sedilia, credence, lectern
Here lyeth the body of Richard fflight skull and ferns formerly a manufacturer in Norwich
William Smyth, 1474


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