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

All Saints, Marsham


Marsham Marsham Marsham
Marsham Marsham Marsham

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All Saints, Marsham

Norfolk's most famous churches are often those which appear architecturally spectacular to even disinterested eyes, but there are plenty of other churches that most people would pass without a second glance, a few of which are of outstanding interest. All Saints, Marsham, is one of these.

Marsham is a large, busy village on the Norwich to Cromer road, but the church is set back from the road to the south of the village, and you approach it up a narrow lane past 19th Century cottages. A niche above the east window faces the road, and in medieval times the statue it held would have been the last thing seen by parishioners before setting out on the long journey to Norwich, London, and beyond. There were big rebuildings here in the 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries, but all in all this appears a typical late medieval East Anglian church as you approach it up the lane, its aisles and clerestory familiar from elsewhere, although the building folds itself back modestly behind its tower when seen from the west. The tall, single storey porch has an entrance which is nearly as high as itself, and the wooden roof of the porch is gaily painted. You step through the south door into a dark, secretive building.

At first sight this is perhaps not a spectacular interior, and this is probably why Marsham is not better known, but it is harmonious and has more than its fair share of survivals of its liturgical life down the long centuries. It is not so much secretive as deceptive, but to wander around inside is to encounter wonders. The first of these greets you as you enter the door. This is one of Norfolk's twenty-odd 15th Century Seven Sacrament fonts. Marsham's is tall and elegant, reminiscent of the one nearby at Burgh-next-Aylsham. But Marsham's is the better of the two I think, not only because of the quality of the carving, but also the light extent of the damage inflicted by subsequent centuries.

Anti-clockwise from the east, the panels depict Baptism (E) with the infant being fully immersed in the customary medieval manner, and then Mass (NE) with the priest standing with his back to the viewer facing the altar, and the sanctus bell in a stirrup above the screen being rung on the left. Next comes Ordination (N), with three kneeling ordinands, Matrimony (NW), where curiously the bride's head has gone but not the heads of the others, and Confession (W) which another curiosity for the scene is set beneath a canopy which may be intended to represent the Holy House in Nazareth. The odd panel out on this font is the Last Judgement (SW) which is remarkably well done. Christ sits on a rainbow flanked by Mary and John, while at his feet, the dead rise from their coffins. The last two panels are Last Rites (S), with a mourner in front of the bed, and then Confirmation (SE), as usual of an infant in arms.

Seven Sacrament font: Baptism  (15th Century) Seven Sacrament font (15th Century) Seven Sacrament font: stem (15th Century)
Seven Sacrament font: Eucharist (15th Century) Seven Sacrament font: Ordination (15th Century) Seven Sacrament font: Marriage (15th Century)
Seven Sacrament font: Last Rites (15th Century) Seven Sacrament font: 8th panel, Christ in Judgement (15th Century) Seven Sacrament font: Confirmation (15th Century)

The pillar of the font features alternating angels and evangelists. Above the font is a tall organ gallery, and on it is a handsome set of royal arms. These are a rare survival in Norfolk for they are the arms of James I, with a quotation from Psalm 72: Give the Kinge thy iudgements O God and thy righteousnes unto the Kinges lorre: then shall he iudge the people accordinge to righte, and defende the poore. There can be no doubting the maleness of both the lion and the unicorn. Until the 1880 restoration, the font stood in the north aisle by the second arcade bay from the west. You can still see the fixing for the font cover. At one time, the fixing was shaped like a boy's face, the so called 'laughing boy of Marsham', but both boy and font cover were lost in the restoration.

The nave windows have fragments of medieval and continental glass, but they are unusual. Set in two small lights in the north aisle are an elephant and a unicorn, the only two in stained glass anywhere in East Anglia I believe. There are also two figures in the south aisle, King David and Judas Maccabeus. They came from Bolwick Hall, and were placed here by the Mercers' Company whose arms are now between them. Up above, the hammerbeam roof is a fine late medieval example, but this church began to spread in the eighteenth century, and solid oak tie beams were put in to stop it collapsing. They are a curious and powerful contrast with the delicacy of the woodwork above.

The best woodwork here, though, is the early 16th Century screen. It is by the same workshop as those at Aylsham and Suffield. Unusually, the dado panels depict an odd number of figures on each side, just seven, the two outer panels being hidden behind the chancel arch and left blank, making sixteen panels in total. On the north side, the figures are St Faith with a saw, St James the Less with a fuller's club, St Thomas with a lance, St James with a staff, St John with a poisoned chalice, St Andrew with a cross and St Peter with his keys. On the south side are St Paul with a book, St Philip with a basket, and then, oddly, four figures apparently without symbols. The final panel depicts a bishop who is likely to be St Thomas of Canterbury. Looking closely you can see that St Paul should be holding a sword, and his hand appears to be in the attitude to hold one - but it isn't there. Similarly, the hands of the four figures without symbols look as if they are in attitudes of holding objects, and it begins to dawn that the painting of this screen was not finished.

St Peter (15th Century) Marsham St John (15th Century)
St Andrew (15th Century) St James (15th Century) St Thomas (15th Century)
St Paul (15th Century) St Philip (15th Century) Saint (15th Century)
Saint (unfinished) (15th Century) Saint (unfinished)  (15th Century) Thomas of Canterbury (15th Century)

The upper tracery of the screen hangs like foliage, an echo of the forest of branches in the roof above. The late 19th and early 20th Century glass casts a dim light. The east window, by Powell & Sons, is a meditation on I am the vine, ye are the branches, giving the workshop full licence for its typical lush vinework, angels and saints. The war memorial window features St George and, more unusually, Sir Galahad from the legend of King Arthur. Kempe & Co's Abraham and Sarah are a curiosity, with the infant Isaac at Sarah's feet carrying his bound branches in an echo of the saltire cross on the screen.

Ledger stones in the nave include one for Mrs Margaret Lyng who died in 1698, and records that her worth and goodnesse cannot be expressed within the limits of a gravestone. Perhaps more honestly, another nearby observes that To die I must, to stay I'd rather, to go I must, I know not whither. A much older stone towards the chancel is engraved around the edge with the word Oblivio ('unknown') repeated eight times. The inscription in Latin apparently tells us that you shall never know my name for I am condemned to oblivion as having been dead in the heart.

An intriguing church, full of interest, one of the very best of East Anglia's lesser-known churches.

Simon Knott, November 2020

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Marsham Marsham
south aisle altar I am the Vine St George and Sir Galahad Marsham
oblivio composite composite whose worth and goodnesse cannot be expressed within the limits of a grave stone
Marsham James I Marsham
Sarah and Isaac (Kempe & Co) Isaac (Kempe & Co) Abraham (Kempe & Co) Sir Galahad
St Peter, the Blessed Virgin and St John the Royal Norfolk Regiment I am the Vine, ye are the branches St Martin and St Agnes with child martyrs
Marsham Queen's head graffiti cross
by faith Abraham obeyed six Powell angels through faith also Sarah received strength


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