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St Mary, North Elmham

North Elmham

green man doleful dog the Treasure of Abbot Thomas (M R James)
Coronation of the Blessed Virgin (15th Century) shaggy beard

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    St Mary, North Elmham

North Elmham was one of the early sites of the Bishops of East Anglia, and there was a cathedral here for more than a hundred years at the start of the last millennium. In 1073 the see was moved to Thetford, and then to Norwich, where both Bishops with jurisdiction over Norfolk churches, Catholic and Anglican, have their cathedrals today. No trace survives of the North Elmham cathedral, which was almost certainly a wooden building. The Normans probably moved the see away from here because this little village in the Wensum valley was simply too remote from their great castles at Thetford and Norwich. Even sleepier today, the graveyard of St Mary is home to wandering sheep and their lambs, and it feels a long way from anywhere. But as if to make up for it, St Mary is a one of those huge Perpendicular churches that Norfolk does so well, as solid and buttressed example of the best that15th Century builders and craftsmen could do, and as big as a small cathedral.

Not far off from the church is the ruin of a Norman chapel. This was built by Herbert de Losinga, first Bishop of Norwich, whose country retreat was here. The chapel served his house, but one of his successors, the late 14th Century Hugh Despencer, built a larger fortified house on the site of the chapel. The mingled ruins of these two buildings are pleasant to explore, and the view back across the village to the tower of St Mary is a good one. The ruins serve as a reminder that even after the see was moved, North Elmham was still a place of some importance. And the building of de Losinga's chapel probably led indirectly to the the building of St Mary, as we will see.

As you approach St Mary, you begin to see that all is not quite as it seems. The crispness of the exterior of what appears to be all of the late medieval rebuilding stems from a refacing with flint in the 19th Century, but there are a number of little details that show that some of the building predates its apparent late medieval construction. The south porch is vaulted, and there is a very fine boss of the Coronation of the Queen of Heaven, although unfortunately both the main figures have had their heads removed. In contrast, a primitive grotesque forms a headstop to the south doorway. This is much earlier, telling us that this entrance was here in the late 1200s. In fact, this was the time the nave was first built.

Large medieval churches can be made urban and anonymous by insensitive 19th Century restorations. The work here at North Elmham was considerable but early, by the often articulate diocesan architect John Brown in 1852, and it has left the interior a light, peaceful place, quite at ease with itself. The most striking feature is that the arcades have alternating round and octagonal pillars, which I don't think I've seen anywhere else in Norfolk. The responds at the east end of both arcades are Norman. Pevsner suggests that what probably happened was that the parish used the old wooden cathedral after the see was moved, but when de Losinga built his house and chapel he also paid for a new parish church, probably about 1100. Pevsner thinks that the work on his house and chapel must have necessitated the removal of the old cathedral, suggesting that it was on the same site as the house.

Not much else survives from de Losinga's time, or even Despencer's, but there are a number of fine late medieval survivals that give you an indication of the glory that was once here. The best of these is the rood screen dado. The panels are wide and ornately cusped, the original reds, greens and golds showing boldly. The antiquarian Frances Blomefield claimed in his notebooks that the date 1474 was visible on the screen when he visited in the early 18th Century.There's a local tradition that the panels spent several centuries being used as floorboards until they were rescued by John Brown during the 1852 restoration, and they were reset at the east end of the nave some thirty years later. It is hard to tell if the dado is in its original place, because it is so long and stretches beyond the arcades.

screen (north)

angels with scrolls (15th Century) two saracens (15th Century) iconoclasm: St George and dragon (15th Century)

St Augustine (15th Century) St Thomas (15th Century) St Bartholomew (15th Century) St Jude (15th Century)
St James the less (15th Century) St Phillip (15th Century) St John the Evangelist (15th Century)
St Barbara (15th Century) St Cecilia (15th Century) St Dorothy: face scratched out St Sitha (15th Century)
St Petronilla  (15th Century) St Agnes (15th Century) St Christiana

There are 24 panels in all, of which 17 have figures on. After two blank panels at the far north are St Benedict and St Augustine. Then, after a missing figure, (indeed, the whole panel is missing) come St Thomas on his own with a spear, St Bartholomew with a sword-like flencing knife and St Jude with a boat, St James the Less with a fuller's club and St Philip with his loaves, and lastly St John the Evangelist with the poisoned chalice and St Paul with a sword. Over on the south side are St Barbara with her tower and St Cecilia with her floral wreath, St Dorothy with her flowers and St Sitha with her beads, St Juliana with a dragon on a chain and St Petronilla with a book and a large key, St Agnes pierced through the neck holding a lamb and and finally a figure identified as St Christina, shot through with arrows, who appears to have been an amalgam of St Catherine and St Sebastian. The last four panels are missing. Clearly, the complete range should include five more disciples and perhaps the other Doctors. It is notable that the men are all on one side and the women on the other, as often found on very late screens.

The carving in the spandrels above is also intriguing. Two figures fighting appear to be a Turk and a Moor, and an almost-destroyed St George dispatches a dragon. Most curious of all, one depicts a cloaked man riding a pig. It would be interesting to know what was in the matching spandrel, which is completely defaced.

The Victorian character of the nave somewhat overwhelms a nice collection of 15th Century bench ends, including a chained bear and a giraffe. The person who carved this had obviously never seen one, because he thought it would have a floppy neck. There is a smattering of stained glass including two large 14th Century figures. One is an angel playing a zither, and the other an exquisite but sadly eroded Madonna and child.

North Elmham Blessed Virgin and child (14th Century) Blessed Virgin and child (14th Century)

The restoration of the chancel must have come after that of the nave, I think. It is less restrained, and the pointy stone reredos is a jarring moment. A church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition might just get away with it by dressing it up, but I got the impression that in recent decades worship at North Elmham has been rather Low Church in character, and as a result the east end feels a bit bleak. But all in all North Elmham is one of those reassuring places, with a sense of permanence and a confidence in its own story. A lot has happened here. Less happens today, and that's no bad thing.

Simon Knott, December 2020

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