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

St Mary, Martham

a great ship

south porch Martham

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St Mary, Martham

This magnificent building sits on a gentle rise in its busy village not far from the North Sea. Here we have left the tedious urban coastal strip behind, and we are in a land of villages, rivers and woods, the Fleggs, and St Mary is the Cathedral of the Fleggs. Unequivocably so, because this is the biggest, grandest church for miles around. The views from the tower are spectacular. Even on the hazy, misty day I went up it in August 2005 I could identify twelve other churches from the top. On a clear day there must be many more.

St Mary is a church of two distinct parts, and this is as obvious from the outside as it is within. The tower is early Perpendicular, and the nave with its aisles and clerestories is classic mid-15th century work, a textbook large East Anglian church. But the chancel is something else again. It was built in the 1870s as a memorial to a 19th century rector, Jonathan Dawson, and was the gift of Mrs Alice Langley. Tall, solid, in a flamboyante style, it is an astonishing conceit, as if a chapel from a French cathedral had been lifted up and put down here instead.

The architect of the chancel was Philip Boyce. As Pevsner notes, very little is known about him; he seems to have worked out of Cheltenham, and was a member of the Royal Institute of Architects for just four years. No other work is known by him in East Anglia, and so si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

As well as building the chancel, Boyce was responsible for what is a crisp, reasonably successful restoration of the nave. You step into a church full of light and space. St Mary is home to a memorable collection of medieval survivals, the first of which is the 15th Century seven sacrament font. This is in relatively good condition, with crowded scenes set beneath cusped arches which retain traces of their original colour. The carving is not crude, but it is certainly not delicate, and perhaps this font offers less to the casual explorer than some other seven sacrament fonts, but it has a number of interesting details.

seven sacrament font seven sacrament font: Last Rites seven sacrament font: Baptism
seven sacrament font: Confirmation seven sacrament font: Confession seven sacrament font: Holy Orders
font: Christ in Judgement seven sacrament font: Matrimony seven sacrament font: Mass

The most easterly panel is Last Rites, the dying figure wrapped up like a mummy. You can see the chrismatory box in the hands of the acolyte standing at the foot of the bed. Then, in anticlockwise order, comes Baptism (NE), the infant being fully immersed in the water in the medieval manner, and then Confirmation (N) including a babe in arms. Next comes Confession (NW), perhaps the most interesting panel because the action takes place under the canopy of a chapel as on the font at Marsham, with the devil sneaking out through the door. The last three panels are Ordination (W), with the ordinand kneeling, Last Judgement (SW), which is the odd panel out, Matrimony (S), a very clear panel with the woman wearing a kennel headdress of the 1480s, and finally Mass (SE), the Priest with his back to us, the altar beyond with riddle posts.

Eight Saints stand in niches around the pillar, including St Andrew with his saltire cross. I suspect that at some point the font has been turned one place anti-clockwise and reset, perhaps not intentionally and probably during the 19th Century restoration, because I think that Baptism may have originally faced east and the Last Judgement west.

But Martham's most spectacular treasure is the collection of medieval glass in the east windows of the south and north aisles. These consist of a series of more than twenty panels of individual saints and scenes, presumably part of much larger sequences originally. Much of it is good glass of the 15th Century Norwich school, and it is likely that it formed a collection and did not all come from this church originally. It was probably set in its current windows by Hardman & Co as part of the 1860s restoration of the nave. All of it is restored to a greater or lesser extent, but the added panes are not intrusive. Some scenes have been reconstructed using the smallest of details as a starting point, while others have been merely filled in where a piece was missing. The many figures were likely originally in the upper lights of large windows.

The north aisle east window features a large crucifixion in the middle at the top, with two other large scenes below, the Scourging of Christ and a tender scene of the infant Christ meeting St John the Baptist. Flanking these are scenes including St Edmund, St Margaret, The Ascension, the Resurrection, St Agnes and a King and Queen who might be part of a Coronation of the Queen of Heaven scene.

The east window of the south aisle contains a similar collection, but with one or two more unusual subjects. The main central light is a dramatic figure of St Michael, with innocent souls on one pan of his balance and wicked looking devils on the other. Below him is Eve spinning. The flanking subjects include St Mary of Magdala, St James, St Margaret, a tonsured figure with a crook and a variety of angels illustrating the orders.

St Michael weighs souls against their sins (detail, 15th Century) St Michael (15th Century) St Margaret's dragon (detail, 15th Century)
angel with a balance (15th Century) The Christ child meets the young John the Baptist (15th Century) Eve spinning (15th Century) St Michael weighing souls (15th Century) Disciples at the Ascension (detail, 15th Century)
Annunciation (15th Century) Christ is beaten and mocked (15th Century) Resurrection (15th Century) crucifixion (early 16th Century?)
angel with a sword (15th Century) St Juliana tames a demon (15th Century) St Louis? (15th Century)
St Edmund (15th Century) St Agnes (15th Century) St Mary Magdalene (15th Century) St Margaret (15th Century) St James (15th Century)

This is all spectacular stuff, and it is offset quietly by a good range of bench ends, some old and some new, which are good quality work and include a number of figures and faces. Curiously, some of the medieval poppyheads appear to have been altered, probably in Victorian times. One face has been given a 17th Century puritan's top hat, and another turned into a bell with a Marian monogram.

And so, we come to the chancel. It really is very impressive. You enter beneath a cusped chancel arch through a fine wrought-iron screen. The capitals on the arch are a cornucopia of intricate detail. The glass is all by Hardman & Co, in a style diversified enough to allow each window its own presence whilst still being part of a coherent scheme. It has a rich cathedral quality that is in keeping with the architecture, and the east window must be one of the grandest in any village church in East Anglia. The faux-Easter sepulchre on the north side of the sanctuary is the Reverend Dawson's memorial. Put together with the capitals and stone reredos I do not think there is a richer, louder and more confident Victorian moment in Norfolk, not excluding Booton.

Simon Knott, November 2020

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looking east

15th Century panels, south aisle Transfiguration (Hardman & Co, 1860s) east window (Hardman & Co, 1860s) He is not here, he is risen (Hardman & Co, 1860s) 15th Century panels, north aisle
Simeon and Anna with the Christ child (Hardman & Co, 1860s) Presentation in the Temple (Hardman & Co, 1860s) Healing the Sick, Raising the Dead (Hardman & Co, 1860s) Annunciation (Hardman & Co, 1860s) The raising of Jairus's daughter (Hardman & Co, 1860s)
mock Easter sepulchre chancel roof 1717
owl and weasel capital: agnus dei man in a hat emerging from foliage bell with AMR monogram

from Martham tower

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