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

All Saints, 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. It sits in a large, busy village on the Norwich to Cromer road, but the church is set back 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 and London, and beyond.

An early 14th Century tower and apparently the porch too, but the church against it was rebuilt over the subsequent couple of centuries. Paul Cattermole and Simon Cotton transcribed William Camplyn's bequest of 1533 of 6s 8d and an oke saving the toppe to reparation of the north aisle. Judging by the window tracery, this seems a good date for the completion of the church. Presumably the wood of the 'oke' would be of use in the construction, while 'the toppe' would have been more useful for firewood. 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 ceiling is gaily painted.

You step into it and pass through the south door into a quiet, squarish space of wood and stone. The coloured glass does not intrude, the first impression is that this is not a spectacular building, and perhaps this is why Marsham church is not better known. But the interior is harmonious, and it 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. Under the west gallery 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. The scenes are set in deep reliefs under cusped ogee arched canopies, which perhaps explains ther good condition, for it would not have been necessary to knock them flush before plastering. Though of course, there is some mid-16th Century iconoclastic damage.

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

Starting from the east, the first panel depicts Baptism, with the infant being fully immersed in the customary medieval manner, a godparent on the left holding the chrysom cloth. Then, moving anti-clockwise, the Mass panel at north-east has the priest at the altar, elevating the host with his back to the viewer facing the altar, while an acolyte on the left rings the sanctus bell in a stirrup above his head. The north panel is Ordination, with three kneeling ordinands. The Matrimony panel to the north-west has the couple holding hands on the left of the scene while the priest points to a page in an open book held by an acolyte. Confession to the west is set beneath a canopy which may be intended to represent the Holy House in Nazareth. An angel stands at the back, while the devil sneaks out on the right. The odd panel out on this font is the Last Judgement at south-west. 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 to the south, the dying man's wife mourning in front of the bed, and an acolyte holding the chrismatory. Finally, Confirmation at south-east with, as usual, an infant in arms.

The stem 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 one of his mottos, exurgat deus, dissipentur inimici, 'Rise up o God and scatter my enemies'. Underneath is 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.

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 medieval glass anywhere in East Anglia I believe. There are also two fragmentary figures in the south aisle, one a king with a harp, who must be David, and the other a knight with three heraldic choughs on his tabard and banner. They came from Bolwick Hall, and were placed here by the Mercers' Company whose arms are now between them. Up above, the alternating hammerbeam roof is a fine late medieval example, but the walls of the nave began to spread in the eighteenth century, and so 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. You can still see how the south arcade is leaning, especially at the east end.

The screen is of the early 16th Century. It appears to be by the same workshop as those at nearby Aylsham and Suffield. The 18th Century antiquarian Francis Blomefield recorded an inscription asking for prayers for the souls of John de Norton and Margaret his wife, but this has now been lost. Three bequests in the first decade of the 16th Century indicate work going on then. In 1503 Alice Bishop left 3 (about 2,600 in today's money) to painting pane of the roodloft. In 1507, Alice Cannelles left 20s to gilding of the perke (ie: the screen) and WIlliam Tegge left money in 1509 to paint pane of pulpitum commonly called the perke. 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. Twelve of them depict Apostles, the other two a locally important saint and a bishop, but in fact there is more going on here than meets the eye - or, more precisely, less.

the Marsham screen

screen (north) screen (south)
St Peter (16th Century) St Andrew (16th Century) St Paul (16th Century)
St James (15th Century) St Thomas (15th Century) St John (15th Century)
Saint (unfinished) (15th Century) St Philip (15th Century) Thomas of Canterbury (15th Century)

On the north side, the first figure is St Faith with her saw. The great Priory at nearby Horsham was dedicated to her, and most of the English churches dedicated to her are in this part of Norfolk. Next is St James the Less with a fuller's club, then St Thomas with a lance, St James with a staff, St John with a poisoned chalice, St Andrew with a cross and finally St Peter with his keys. It's on the south side that things are less conventional. The first figure is clearly St Paul. He appears paired with St Peter either side of the opening on a number of Norfolk screens. He holds a book, and leans on his sword, except that his sword isn't there. It appears that it was never painted, and the screen is unfinished. After St Philip with a basket, there are four more figures in an attitude of holding their symbol, but the symbol has never been painted. They must be St Simon, St Bartholomew, St Matthew and St Jude, though it isn't clear in which order. The final panel depicts a bishop who is likely to be St Thomas of Canterbury. The upper tracery of the screen hangs like foliage, an echo of the forest of branches in the roof above.

The early 20th Century glass casts a dim light. The east window, by Powell & Sons in 1907, is a familiar design of I am the vine, ye are the branches, giving the workshop full licence for its typical early 20th Century lush vinework, angels and saints. Another window has 1930s glass by them depicting St George and, more unusually, Sir Galahad from the legend of King Arthur. Herbert Bryan's glass of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac of about 1905 is also unusual, 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 has no name, but is engraved around the edge with the word oblivio, meaning 'oblivion', or in this context more precisely 'unknown' or 'forgotten', repeated eight times. The inscription in the centre reads Oblivio. Oblivioni datus, Sum Tanquam Mortuus a Corde, Oblivio. which means something like 'Oblivion. I am given to oblivion because I am dead at heart. Oblivion.' How odd! And it seems odd that it is set in such a prominent position, more often reserved for people of local importance. A suicide perhaps?

Simon Knott, December 2023

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looking east looking west

James I sanctuary font and James I royal arms oblivio
crowned woman Abraham, Sarah and Isaac (Herbert Bryans, c1905) 'I am the vine, ye are the branches (Powell & Sons, 1907) composite king composite knight
Marsham the Royal Norfolk Regiment Marsham
skull and crossed bones for John Bear here lieth ye body of Samuel Thorisby Junior John and Agnes Bysschap, 1489
south aisle altar looking west through the screen leaning arcade


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