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

St Stephen, Norwich

Norwich St Stephen

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    St Stephen, Norwich

St Stephen is the odd one out of Norwich's big medieval churches. A great sprawling beast, unkempt on its sloping site, it has none of the Perpendicular precision and politeness of St Andrew or St Peter Mancroft, or the repose of the identikit smaller churches whose parishes pack central Norwich like Larkin's squares of wheat. The offset tower, forming what is effectively a three-storey porch at the west end of the north side, is unique among larger medieval churches in East Anglia, and by the time you get to the east end of the north aisle, there is so much below floor level that the aisle is almost two storeys high. The elaborate transept, and the stone facing of clerestory, chancel and tower, give a sense of a building that has been cobbled together, a vast labyrinthine structure out of the pages of Gormenghast, perhaps.

When I first visited St Stephen about twenty years ago I had the devil of a job trying to see inside. Unusually for a large medieval church in a city centre, though not unusually for Norwich I'm afraid, it was hardly ever open. When I did finally enter the building it was to see St Stephen in the dusty last days of its old sleepy incarnation. The church had found itself at one of the entrances of Norwich's new massive identikit shopping mall, the Chapelfield Centre, and its graveyard has become a walkway to the doors. Suddenly, it needed to awaken from its slumber.

Coming back in 2019 I stepped down as before from the street into the great porch, which is long enough for its vaulted ceiling to have two large bosses at its junctions. The first shows the martyrdom of St Stephen, two figures above slamming large stones down onto the unfortunate proto-martyr's head. The other is more curious. A figure on the left wearing a crown or possibly a martyr's laurels holds his cloak, while on the left a man reaches around to pull a woman away from a massive devil standing at the top of a pillar. Because St Stephen is so often paired with St Lawrence, this is generally assumed to be St Lawrence - but doing what? Rescuing a soul from the devil, perhaps?

There was a church here in the 14th century, and the ground plan was probably similar. What we see today externally is almost all the work of the early 16th century, a large late medieval church on the eve of the Reformation. Indeed, there is some evidence that the nave was not finished until the reign of Edward VI, which may explain why they stopped putting angels on the hammerbeam corbels. The curious detailing on the tower is probably the result of a remodelling in the early 17th century. When I'd first been this way I remember that I entered a fairly gloomy interior, but as my eyes became accustomed to the light there was inevitably a comparison with another very late medieval church of broadly similar size, Lavenham in Suffolk, particularly in the tracery of the arcades. There is no break between the nave and chancel, a fine hammerbeam roof stretching away into the distance.

St Stephen had undergone a wholesale restoration by Diocesan architect Richard Phipson in the 1870s. Phipson was not a bad architect, but he tended to observe the letter of medievalism rather than the spirit. In addition, Phipson liked to design for High Church worship, and in the 19th Century St Stephen was very much in the Low Church tradition. But in the first decades of the 21st Century, this church underwent a major reordering, and today is full of light and colour, and devoid of Phipson's dour furnishings. The nave was converted into an activity area, and the west end given kitchens and the like. A new 'Area of Worship' was built into what is now the chancel, a semi-circle of chairs put out to face the screen that hides the sanctuary where the toilets were installed. This reordering was in no small way due to the presence of the Chapelfield shopping centre, for suddenly the church found itself engulfed by crowds scurrying through to the shops. The building is now open every day, glass doors replacing the old wooden ones at the west end, and the west end of the nave has been turned into a café. These two photographs show the view east before and after the 2007 reordering.

the view east before 2007 looking east

This is a good setting for the large range of memorials from the 17th to the 19th centuries that flank the aisle walls, set between the windows and peering out into the light. Mostly they are to local worthies, and it is no surprise that such a central and prominent parish has provided many mayors of the city. The proximity of the hospital meant that this also came to be regarded as the doctors' church, and several of the tombs have medical imagery - snakes and staffs, and the like. The 1812 memorial to Elizabeth Coppen is worthy of note for it is one of only a handful in Norfolk which was made out of artificial Coade stone.

But there are some enticing medieval survivals, and St Stephen's great treasure is its range of brasses. There are no less than nine fine figure brasses, including several pairs. The loveliest is set in a little box under a cover behind the organ. The floor has been raised here, but you can take off the trapdoor and see beneath it a pretty little brass of a lady. Curiously, the inscription tells us that it is Elenor Buttrey, last Prioress of Campsey Ashe Abbey in Suffolk, but I don't think that can be right. The figure looks at least a hundred years earlier (Prioress Buttrey died in 1547, at the start of the ultra-protestant reign of Edward VI) and in addition to the style of her dress, there are two little pilgrims sitting on the ground at her feet, telling their rosaries. It is exquisite, but it would have been anathema to the early Anglicans, and so I think that this inscription and figure did not originally belong together. Other brasses are to members of the Brasyer, Cappe and Mingay families, who provided mayors of Norwich in the 15th and early 16th centuries. The Brasyers are famous in bellringing circles because they owned Norwich's main bell foundry, and produced many East Anglian bells that are still rung today. The figures are set in the sanctuary and at the far west end of the nave.

Phipson set the font at the entrance to the north transept, creating a kind of baptistery, but it has now been returned to the west end of the nave. This is now the setting for some of St Stephen's fine 20th century windows. In the early 1950s, Alfred Wilkinson created a sequence of scenes from the life of Christ that are set here and in the south aisle depicting the nativity, the crucifixion and the resurrection. Wilkinson may also be responsible for the war memorial window, which includes a depiction of Norwich Cathedral. But look up, and see something from a previous civilisation, for the north aisle retains its canopy of honour to a vanished altar that was once here.

There is actually a fair amount of very late medieval glass in the vast east window, including figures of St Christopher and St Anne as well as donors, but it is mostly fragmentary, and mixed in with later continental glass and some 19th century glass. The overall effect is quite pleasing. It was all removed during the war, which is why this window did not suffer the fate of the windows in the aisles and at the west end. The areas enclosed as a meeting room at the east end of the south aisle icludes a royal arms for Henry VIII impaling those of Jane Seymour, his third and favourite wife to whom he was married for just over a year in 1536-7, and who was the mother of Edward VI.

A plaque to Walter Chapman Morgan, a son of the rector and a lieutenant in the 8th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment, records that he was killed at Delville Wood on 19th July 1916. This was poignant for me, as my own great-grandfather Arthur Page was killed in the same place in the early hours of the following morning. Something to think about as I stepped out into the sunshine of early September. As part of the reordering, the parish planned for most of the gravestones to the west of the church to be leveled and the area to be landscaped, but fortunately Norwich City Council's planning committee rejected this and the gravestones were retained. It is perhaps a mark of how quickly fashions change that surely nobody would think of suggesting such an action today.

Simon Knott, December 2019

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looking east Saints including St Christopher and St Anne and donors, 16th Century Crucifixion (Alfred Wilkinson, c1950) Ascension (Alfred Wilkinson, c1950) St Stephen (Kempe & Co, 1904)
'She saith unto him': Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ in the garden (Alfred Wilkinson, c1950) 'He is not here, he is risen': angel at the empty tomb (Alfred Wilkinson, c1950) Christ calms the storm (Alfred Wilkinson? 1930s) Resurrection scenes (Alfred Wilkinson, c1950) Henry VIII impaled with Jane Seymour (1536)
bedesmen (15th Century?) Norwich Cathedral (Alfred Wilkinson, c1950) agnus dei (Heaton, Butler & Bayne?)
coade stone memorial: Elizabeth Coppin, 1812 'I know whom I have believed': Bignold memorial, 1830s John and Susan Mingay, 1630s with sun and moon Louisa Bignold mosaic, 1893 Female figure, C15 and inscription for Elenor Buttrey, C16
killed in action in Delville Wood north aisle canopy of honour Elizabeth II royal arms and angels (Alfred Wilkinson, 1953)
Martyrdom of St Stephen (15th Century)


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