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

St Mary Magdalene, Magdalen
(Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalene)


Magdalen south porch Burgess memorial

    St Mary Magdalene, Magdalen
St Helen   You cross the wide, lazy Great Ouse, and at once Norfolk changes. The rippling countryside flattens out, the horizon straightens. Norfolk's trees disappear, apart from the odd one or two that flame like beacons below the perpendicular sky. There aren't really fields anymore, just wide prairies, and the villages are perfunctory. This is the Marshland.

Pevsner mentions very few buildings west of the Ouse - except the great churches, some of which are among England's finest. In his book England's Thousand Best Churches, Simon Jenkins includes no less than ten of the Norfolk marshland churches. There are only nine for the whole of Northumberland.

Magdalen is perhaps close enough to the rest of Norfolk to still be a proper East Anglian village, and a pretty one at that. One to savour if you are heading west and about to tip off the edge of the real county into that strange, sinking landscape beyond. Inexorably, water spilt here would roll into Lincolnshire. But the church is a marshland church, big bold and beautiful with that air of chiarascuro familiar from its neighbours, a slightly decayed beauty with the smell of old wood and damp in the air.

The village takes its name from St Mary of Magdala, of course, because it is really one of the Wiggenhalls. Over the years, Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalene has become a bit of a mouthful, particularly given the presence of the nearby parish of Wiggenhall St Mary, where there is no real village. So, Magdalen it has become, incidentally giving its name for a time to the railway station on the Cambridge to Kings Lynn line nearby, although that has returned to its original name of Watlington now. The church is a gorgeous assemblage of red brick, flint and stone, wholly organic as it rises venerably in the narrow graveyard.

It is all pretty much 15th century, built on wool money, although as is common in East Anglia the great tower is earlier, on the eve of the Black Death. If it had ever been rebuilt, this would have been one of the most magnificent churches in England.

You step into a huge building, full of light, a dusty air falling slowly. At the west end, there is a strange little door into the base of the tower, and I wonder if the rebuilding of the nave raised the level of the floor. On either side of it the remains of the rood screen are propped up, just four panels depicting the evangelistic symbols. Now, this is very curious, because the evangelistic symbols do not generally appear on roodscreens. But the work certainly looks medieval, and the face of Matthew's winged man has been scratched out.

rood screen: St Mark and St Matthew rood screen: St Mark rood screen: St Matthew rood screen: St Luke rood screen: St John rood screen: St Luke and St John

Much of the character of the nave comes from the woodwork, a pleasing mixture of simple medieval benches and 19th century box pews beneath the original 15th century roof, which is rather rustic in character with alternating hammerbeams and queen posts.

Just as neighbouring Wiggenhall St Mary has the largest collection of medieval bench ends in Norfolk, St Mary Magdalen has the largest collection of 15th century stained glass figures. There are about forty of them, scattered in the upper lights of the north aisle. However, they are a rather specialist collection, and not easily identifiable to the untutored eye, because rather than familiar Apostles and Saints they mostly represent Bishops, Archbishops and Popes.

angel with a lance and banner bearded saint with a book angel with peacock eye feathers and a book saint with a martyr's palm and a book
bishop with a cross composite female Saint saint with a book bearded saint wearing a hat and carrying a sword

Simon Cotton, in the church guide, provides an excellent key to them. Ann Eljenholm Nichols' book Early Art of Norfolk, probably the best book ever written about the medieval churches of Norfolk, shows that more than a few of them are unique representations in the county, and perhaps in the Kingdom. Most of them have scrolls, and with binoculars you can decipher some of the inscriptions, but few have their familiar symbols with them.

An exception is the coy St Helen in the east window of the aisle. The glass in this window appears to be by a different hand, and may have been collected from elsewhere. There is one earlier figure, a 14th century Bishop who may well be St Nicholas, in the lower part of the middle window.

This is a pleasant building to wander in, and big enough to give a sense of exploration to a browse. The chancel arch is immense, and this is accentuated somewhat by the lack of a tower arch at the other end. The stone floors are pleasing and set off the old woodwork well. Above, wingless angels hold symbols of the Passion. Below the capitals of the arcade, enormous ugly heaters, as attentive as triffids, look on. A church full of atmosphere, then.


Simon Knott, June 2006, updated April 2017


looking east chancel looking west
Killed in Action at Hannah in Mesopotamia March 10th 1916 and interred on the left bank of the River Tigris near Orah and junction of the River Wadi altar 19th Century decalogue boards passed to higher service at Wallaceburg, Ontario
three angels, a martyr and St Helen font two saints with swords and seven bishops
eight bishops ten bishops two blessing saints and eight bishops

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