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St Helen, Ranworth

Ranworth St Helen

Tom Muckley at Ranworth, August 2004 Ranworth

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    St Helen, Ranworth

I fondly recall my first ever visit to Ranworth some 15 years ago with that great aficionado of Norfolk churches the late Tom Muckley. It was our first church of a dozen or so planned for that day, and Tom was a bit concerned it would cast all the others into its shadow. And there is much about Ranworth to be impressed by. The tall tower and long church are shoehorned into a relatively narrow churchyard set apparently among the hedgerowed Norfolk fields. A look at a map, however, or even better a view from the top of the tower (they encourage you to go up) will tell you that here we are on the southern edge of the Norfolk Broads system, the wide Ranworth Broad and narrower Malthouse Broad immediately to the north and east. Boats tie up at a staithe below the church, and the constant stream of visitors, many wearing life jackets, are a result of this proximity. They are rewarded with a café to the east of the church, and when suitably refreshed they are able to enter a typical East Anglian medieval church, missing only the clerestory that might knock its grandness into magnificence.

I came back to Ranworth towards the end of July 2019. It had been a fitful summer. The previous week had seen the hottest day on record in East Anglia, but also two days of incessant rain. Only a fool could have ignored these as symptoms of increasing global warming. Cycling from Wroxham through pretty Salhouse and Woodbastwick I passed hardly another soul. It was only coming into Ranworth that I became aware of the presence of holiday makers making the most of the fine day.

You step into a wide open space, full of light thanks to the lack of coloured glass. The plain, even austere, arcaded font stands high on two tiers, dominating the west end of the nave, the stairway up into the tower leading off behind it. The west window, by Hardman & Co of about 1900, is the only window fully filled with stained glass and is set so far back within the tower that it does not intrude. And so you turn to face the east.

The treasures of St Helen are well-known. Two are very rare, the third the finest of its kind. The first of them sits just inside the south door, the Ranworth Antiphoner, a large singing book now in a bullet-proof glass case. This illuminated manuscript was produced at Langley Abbey. It was used in this church before the Reformation, and then disappeared for three hundred years. In the 1850s, it was discovered in the collection of the merchant banker Henry Huth, but it was not until its sale in 1912 that it was recognised as coming from Ranworth originally. By one of those miracles that sometimes happens at the right time, it was bought and returned here. Tom told me that for many years it was kept in a room on the tower stairs.

Secondly, towards the east end of the nave stands the splendid Cantor's desk. This was used for reading the Gospel, and is unusual in having two ledges, one facing east, the other west. It may originally have been in the rood loft. The eastern side has an image of St John's evangelistic symbol and the opening line of his Gospel in Latin. The west face has, apparently pasted on, a fifteenth century versicle form of the Gloria.

cantor's desk with opening of Gloria cantor's desk with eagle of St John

But all this is just a prelude for what is to come, for behind it stands the greatest rood screen in East Anglia. It stretches right across the east end of the nave, being built out to form grand reredoses to the side chapels with parclose screens facing each other across the centre. As Pevsner points out, a bequest for a screen was made in 1419, and yet the painting seems more typical of the 1470s and 1480s. There may be a reason for this, as we shall see. The screen is obviously part of the same group as Filby, and probably North Elmham.

The dado, the lower part of central screen, has tweve Apostle figures, six on each side. To the north are St Simon, St Thomas, St Bartholomew, St James, St Andrew and St Peter. On the south side are St Paul, St John, St Philip, St James the Less, St Jude and St Matthew.

Ranworth screen (north side): St Simon, St Thomas, St Bartholomew, St James, St Andrew, St Peter Ranworth screen (south side): St Paul, St John, St Philip, St James the Less, St Jude, St Matthew
Ranworth screen: St Simon and St Thomas Ranworth screen: St Bartholmew and St James Ranworth screen: St Andrew and St Peter
Ranworth screen: St Paul and St John Ranworth screen: St Philip and St James the Less Ranworth screen: St Jude and St Matthew

The aisle chapels have figures in sets of four as reredoses The south aisle chapel range consists of the Holy Kinship, that is to say St Mary Salome, the Blessed Virgin and child, and St Mary Cleopas. With Mary Salome are the young St James, holding a scallop shell, and St John, holding a toy eagle. St Mary Cleophas has her four children with her, James the Less, Simon, Jude and Joseph. Completing the quartet of panels here is St Margaret.

Ranworth screen: north side reredos and altar Ranworth screen (south reredos): St Mary Salome, Blessed Virgin, St Mary Cleophas, St Margaret
Ranworth screen: Holy Kinship, St Mary Salome Ranworth screen: Holy Kinship, Blessed Virgin Ranworth screen: Holy Kinship, St Mary Cleophas Ranworth screen: St Margaret

However, the figures on the north aisle chapel are rather curious. The first and fourth figures are St Etheldreda and St Barbara. The two central figures appear at first sight to both be St John the Baptist! However, a longer look tells you that something rather unusual has happened here. The third panel appears to be faded, not as richly coloured as the others. At the top, the angel leaning above all the other figures has here been partly replaced by a field of red with gold stars. And at last it strikes you - the entire screen was repainted towards the end of the medieval period apart from this panel. And when you turn your attention to the second figure, it becomes clear that an image of St Agnes has been adapted to be St John the Baptist - her joyful leaping little lamb, as on the screens at Cawston and Westhall, has been converted into the Lamb of God. She has been given a beard, but still appears entirely feminine.

Ranworth screen: south side reredos and altar Ranworth screen (north reredos): St Etheldreda, St Agnes/St John the Baptist, St John the Baptist, St Barbara
Ranworth screen: St Etheldreda Ranworth screen: St Agnes repainted as St John the Baptist (II) Ranworth screen: St John the Baptist (I) Ranworth screen: St Barbara

What happened here? The repainting at the top of the third panel may give us a clue. At some point the panel has been covered, perhaps boarded over, maybe as a background to a statue or other image. However, it was felt necessary to retain an image of St John the Baptist, so the second panel was adapted. We know there was a chapel here to St John the Baptist, so that explains why it was thought necessary to retain his image, but why cover the third panel rather than any of the others? It is all very mysterious.

Finally, we come to what are perhaps the best and certainly most famous parts of the screen, the parclose sides which face towards each other across the nave. On the north side, St Stephen and St Felix accompany one of the great medieval art survivals of the 15th century, St George. Similarly opposite, another archbishop and martyr pair, this time St Thomas of Canterbury and St Lawrence, join a glorious St Michael. If the overall painting scheme here doesn't quite live up to the glorious work on the screen at nearby Barton Turf, the dragon killers here are surely the best single painted 15th century panels in East Anglia.

Ranworth screen (north side parclose): St George, St Felix, St Stephen Ranworth screen: St George Ranworth screen: St Stephen Ranworth screen: St Felix
Ranworth screen (south side parclose): St Thomas of Canterbury, St Lawrence, St Michael Ranworth screen: St Michael Ranworth screen: St Lawrence Ranworth screen: St Thomas of Canterbury

Who is missing? By rights, the four Latin Doctors, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory and Jerome should be here - they seem to have been mandatory in east Norfolk. But the Ranworth screen, despite its splendour, is still incomplete. The entire rood and roodloft has been lost, and what we see now is merely the bottom two thirds of the original. Probably, the rood loft also had painted panels. Perhaps the four Doctors were among them. And surely there were doors, common enough on rood screens in Norfolk, which also would have had Saints on panels. The east side of the screen is also painted, Tudor roses on red to the north, on green to the south.

The chancel is large, and feels rather empty after what we have travelled through to get to it. The return stalls against the screen have misericord seats, their carvings mostly modern but a couple of them are medieval. The east window has a good 1950s scene of the Adoration of the Magi, apparently by A L Wilkinson for King & Son, the faces sympathetically drawn. The scene is set centrally in a field of clear glass and is very well done.

I loved coming back to Ranworth. Here, some of the finest treasures of the late Medieval English church are set in a building of great beauty, accessible to a constant stream of visitors, many with small children who might be having their very first experience of exploring a medieval church and going up its tower. The best English churches are folk museums as well as living faith communities. St Helen is clearly among the best examples of both.

Simon Knott, July 2019

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The Ranworth screen font (looking east) Adoration of the Magi (AL Wilkinson for King & Son, 1951)
sanctuary a loyal subject and a strenuous supporter of the king and constitution St George on the war memorial font (looking west)


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