home I index I latest I glossary I introductions I e-mail I about this site

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

St Mary, Martham

Martham: magnificent

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
Perpendicular tower spirit of the age: 15th century spirit of the age: 19th century disaster at sea

    St Mary, Martham
you're so flamboyant   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 2005 I identified 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, 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 fine collection of medieval survivals, the most interesting of which is the seven sacrament font. This is in relatively good condition, with crowded scenes set beneath cusped arches which retain their original colour. The carving is not delicate, but rather earthy.

The most easterly panel is the Last Rites, the figure in the bed wrapped up somewhat like a mummy. You can see the chrismatory box in the hands of the acolyte at his feet. Then, in anticlockwise order, come Baptism (NE), the infant being dunked in the water; Confirmation (N) including a babe in arms; Confession (NW), perhaps the most interesting panel, the action taking place in a chapel withe the devil sneaking out through the door; Ordination (W), the ordinand kneeling; The Last Judgement (SW), which is the odd panel out; Matrimony (S), a very clear panel, the woman wearing a kennel headdress, and finally Mass (SE), the Priest with his back to us, the altar beyond with riddle posts.

Marsham's seven sacrament font St James St Andrew
Last Rites (E) Baptism (NE) Confirmation (N) Confession (NW)
Ordination (W) The Last Judgement (SW) Matrimony (S) Mass (SE)

Eight Saints stand in niches around the pillar. The most obvious is St Andrew with his saltire cross. I suspect that at some point the font has been turned one place anti-clockwise and reset, probably during the Restoration, because I think that Baptism may have faced east and the Last Judgement west.

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 a much larger sequence originally. Much of it is good glass of the 15th century Norwich school; 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 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.

east window of the north aisle St Edmund St Margaret the Ascension the Resurrection the Infant Christ meets John the Baptist
the Scourging of Christ St Agnes King (from Coronation of the Queen of Heaven?) Queen (from Coronation of the Queen of Heaven?) figures in top lights

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.

east window of the south aisle St Mary of Magdala St James St Margaret 
a tonsured figure with a crook orders of angels: Powers orders of angels: Principalities orders of angels: Cherubim orders of angels: Thrones demi-angels with scrolls

This is all spectacular stuff, and it is offset quietly by a fine 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.

poppyhead poppyhead: bell poppyhead: puritan hat poppyhead: bearded face poppyhead: standing figure poppyhead: flowers - unfinished?

And so, we come to the chancel. It really is very impressive, and it is difficult to remain neutral about it. I like it a lot, but I can understand why other people condemn it. 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 not wonderful, but it has a rich cathedral quality in keeping. The 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, April 2006


from the gallery looking east south aisle chapel chancel: detail looking west from the chancel looking west
screens and east window clerestory and arcade roof Easter sepulchre: one of Norfolk's loudest 19th century moments
east window Ascension Presentation in the Temple south door heart brass the view east just after the reconstruction
owl and squirrel bells I bells II Somerton wind farm from the top of the tower


Amazon commission helps cover the running costs of this site

home I index I latest I glossary I introductions I e-mail I about this site

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