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

St George, Rollesby

Rollesby

Rollesby Rollesby Rollesby
Rollesby Rollesby

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St George, Rollesby

It was a bright spring day the first time I came to Rollesby. The azure sky set off beautifully the grand chancel with its crowning pinnacle figures. The nave, aisles and chancel, unusually for Norfolk, are almost entirely of the Decorated period, the early 14th century, with little of the more familiar Perpendicular architecture of a century and more later. The clerestory in particular is a textbook example of the period, as is the cusping on the south doorway. The octagonal top of the round tower appears late 13th Century, but is perhaps actually a little later and thus contemporary with the building of the nave and chancel. The lower part of the tower is so restored it is hard to tell how old it is, but early Norman doesn't seem an unreasonable assumption. The window tracery is largely 19th Century, which is in itself nothing remarkable, and yet the windows here probably tell us more of Rollesby's story than anything else does.

Something extraordinary happened to the Church of England during the middle years of the 19th Century. For generations it had been an arm of the state, a Church by Law Established, the rock upon which the protestant nation was built. But a series of reform acts in the 1820s and 1830s made that rock tremble. Firstly, many of the administrative functions of the Church were taken away from it and handed to secular authorities. And then, even worse, Catholicism was decriminalised. Suddenly, it was possible for Christians to worship together without owing allegiance to either the Crown or to the Bible of non-conformism. Where did the Church of England's identity now subsist? Was it to be sidelined as a mere protestant sect?

A group of academics at Oxford University sprang into action. They called for the restablishment of Anglicanism as a National Church. They issued a series of tracts, explaining the historic roots of the Church of England, and its self-perception as a Church with an Apostolic tradition. Because of this, they became known as the Tractarians, or the Oxford Movement.

The great majority of the British people in the 1830s and 1840s would have had a serious mistrust of anything that had happened in their national Church before the 16th Century Protestant Reformation purified it of Popery. But the Tractarians took on the task of smoothing over this Reformation fracture and re-establishing the connection between the 19th Century Church and the early Church through the medieval conduit. They made a spectacularly successful job of this, and as a result the Church of England was changed forever. In just about every parish in the land, Anglican churches were restored to what was believed to be their medieval integrity. Chancels were refitted for sacramental worship, the old protestant furnishings were thrown out, and surviving medieval artefacts rediscovered and restored enthusiastically to use. By the 1870s, Anglican churches were once again a riot of colour and ceremony, where only half a century before most had been dull, plain, preaching boxes.

There were, of course, casualties. In seeking out the Catholic medieval roots of the Church, Oxford's academics had also painfully exposed the gap between the modern Church of England and the essential nature of Catholicism. Was it really possible to find a middle way between what Anglicanism believed itself to be, and what it was unable to demonstrate as a reality? Or had the Reformation really been a fracture? Inevitably, since the touchstone of Catholicism is the Apostolic Succession, thousands of people, mainly intellectual and upper-middle class, left the Church of England to be received into the Catholic Church. But the central project of the Tractarians had succeeded. They re-established the Church of England as the spiritual and ceremonial pulse of the Nation.

Tractarianism was fully in the ascendant, becoming Anglo-Catholicism as the century progressed, and reaching its peak during the First World War, as the Church provided the triumphalism necessary for the fight, and the authority to mourn for its casualties afterwards.

But the First World War had broken the spell. Reaching a peak in the 1930s, the ceremonies and liturgies of the High Church wing began to ring hollow, and by the 1950s and 1960s the Anglo-Catholics were a minority. Newer spiritual currents were running deeper. Evangelicalism was undergoing a renaissance, especially in the cities. After the 1992 decision by the Church of England to ordain women as priests, Anglo-Catholicism fragmented. The larger, liberal wing sought out a quieter, more intellectual spirituality. The spiky, militant wing was left to sulk outside the doors of the Church, administered by Flying Bishops and treated as an exotic flower. How much longer could it bloom, or even survive?

And yet, something remained. The great wave of restoration in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, which had handsomely bankrolled by a booming industrial economy and a new, wealthy landed class, produced a massive refurnishing of English churches, not least in the way of stained glass. That the windows in a church are full of coloured glass would be the most startling change an 18th Century parishioner would notice if he could come back to life and visit a church today. As Anglo-Catholicism retreated, and High Church ceremonial disappeared, the glass remained. And so it does today, often the only surviving evidence of that remarkable time.
      
There seems to have been a lot of money about in this part of Norfolk during those years, because many of the churches in this area underwent expensive restorations and refurnishings. Much of the piety and tradition that fuelled this may have gone today, but the glass remains, and here at Rollesby there is an impressive collection. At Ormesby St Margaret up the road, the re-medievalisation of the building was paid for by the Lacon brewing family, but here the benefactor was the rector himself. The gift of the living, 657 a year, about 130,000 in today's money, was in the hands of the Tacon family, and in 1872 the then-owner of the living, Richard John Tacon, presented himself to it. He was to remain rector for nearly sixty years, and in that time he would oversee the transformation of the interior of his church. Because of him, St George has one of the largest collections of late 19th and early 20th Century glass east of Norwich. In this area perhaps only Ormesby St Margaret has more, and it is a much bigger church than this one.

I mention all this before anything else merely to illustrate the point that English churches are rarely evidence of continuity, but of the drama of violence and ideas. The architectural historian Andy Foster has described history as a palimpsest, but not all historical periods write with equally heavy hands. The character of St George today is almost entirely the work of the Reverend Tacon - and yet, he has been dead eighty years, and virtually nothing in the Church of England remains the same as during his lifetime. The liturgy has changed, ideas and attitudes have changed, and certainly the centrality of the Church in mainstream English life has changed, and gone for good. And yet still these windows remain.

You step inside to a wide interior, although in fact this is an illusion created by the sprawling aisles, for the arcades are close together and the nave is narrow as it rises between them to the clerestory and roof. The chancel is long and high beyond to the east, and wider than the space between the arcades. What happened here? The obvious answer is that the arcades replaced the walls of a smaller earlier church, and the chancel was built independently of this work.

The glass at Rollesby covers a period of just over a century from the 1870s onwards, suggesting that the tradition did not get underway here until Richard Tacon became rector. The subject matter is almost entirely saints and Marian scenes, suggesting something about Tacon's devotional enthusiasms. There are considerable schemes of work by three major workshops, but remarkably the earliest glass here is not by a familiar workshop at all but by Eliza Dominy, an anateur artist who had been born Eliza Costerton in nearby Great Yarmouth. An inscription tells us that she erected and designed it. The first word is often used of people who commission or pay for memorials, the second suggests it may have been made by a local workshop to her design. The glass remembers her father, John Fisher Costerton, a magistrate and councillor of Great Yarmouth. The Costertons lived at nearby Bradwell Hall which was at that time in Suffolk. It depicts him as a young man as St John and as an old man as St Thomas. It is remarkable in its way.

John Fisher Costerton as St Thomas and St John by Eliza Dominy Costerton, 1878 The young John Fisher Costerton as St John (Eliza Dominy Costerton, 1878) John Fisher Costerton as St Thomas (Eliza Dominy Costerton, 1878)

The rest of the 19th Century glass at Rollesby is by the studio of Cox, Sons and Buckley, but the biggest schemes got underway in the early 20th Century by two of the most prolific workshops of the period, Powell & Sons and AK Nicholson. Theirs is the rest of the glass in the nave, and as much of it is memorial glass it provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of well-to-do parishioners of Rollesby during the first half of the 20th Century.

But you need to step up into the chancel to see what is probably the most memorable glass at Rollesby. This is by Emma Blount, and was installed in 2011. It had not been there on my previous visit, and so was something of a surprise to me given its scale, confidence and quality. It depicts St Raphael, the archangel most familiar to us from his part in the story of Tobias in the apocryphal Book of Tobit. He steps out of a flower-garlanded mandoral looking full of power and strength. Below, a girl throwing a stick for a dog on the beach recalls the dog that tags along with Raphael and Tobias in the story.

St Raphael (Emma Blount, 2011) St Raphael (Emma Blount, 2011) St Raphael (Emma Blount, 2011) sea bass (detail, Emma Blount, 2011)
girl and dog on Yarmouth beach (detail, Emma Blount, 2011) two angels scatter roses (detail, Emma Blount, 2011) barn owl: 'God heals' (detail, Emma Blount, 2011)

Not a great deal survives of the earlier life of the church. Ironically of course, anything that had survived the Reformation might well have been lost in the considerable attempt to restore medieval integrity in the 19th Century. But there are some curiosities. The font is one of several local 13th Century Purbeck marble fonts reset on a collonade. Inside it is a portable font of the sort used by energetic 19th Century rectors. It was pleasing to imagine Richard John Tacon heading off to local cottages with it. In the south-east corner of the sanctuary is a very curious structure, a little room built into the walls. It must be a sacristy of some kind - what else could it be? But it is very small. And why is there nothing like it anywhere else in East Anglia?

There are several interesting memorials that predate the restoration, all a bit battered. Reclining at a precarious angle on the north side of the sanctuary is Rose Claxton, in late 16th century dress.She looks rather as if she's just been stuck up the corner because they can't think what else to do with her, poor thing, but her inscription assures us otherwise:

Know Friendly Passenger that this smale roome
Rose Claxton's Body onelye doth intombe.
Her Bewtye, Love & Gracefull Modestye
In her Freinds Hartes shall Lyve Eternallye.


Across from her is Leonard Mapes of Beeston next Norwich with his wife and his children in alabaster, all praying together.He died in 1619, and it looks as if the top of his memorial is missing. A third is stuck under the tower, a simple memorial to Hannah Watson, who died in 1810. Just in front of her is

One of the slightly later memorials includes an idiosyncratic details that I have only seen once or twice elsewhere. It remembers Georgiana Mary Cock, daughter of Thomas Baker, one of Richard Tacon's predecessors. She died at sea on April 2nd 1840 on the way home from India, her husband being a Major General in the Bengal Army. The memorial gives the place of her death as being Latitude 27 north, Longitude 39 west, which is roughly 2000km west of the Canary Islands. She was 28 years old.

Simon Knott, November 2020

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looking east font
St Alban, St Michael and St Edmund (Powell & Sons, 1918) St Martha, St Gabriel and St Mary of Bethany (Powell & Sons, 1921) Christ in Majesty flanked by angels above the crucifixion (Powell & Sons) Annunciation (AK Nicholson, 1919) St Ursula and St Elizabeth of Hungary by AK Nicholson, 1932
Annunciation (Powell & Sons, 1921) Blessed Virgin and Mary Ann Ensor as St Elizabeth St George and St Michael Faithful and True (Powell & Sons, 1918)
St Michael (Powell & Sons, 1952) St Michael (Powell & Sons, 1952) Annunciation (AK Nicholson, 1919) St Michael (Powell & Sons, 1918) Mary of Bethany (Powell & Sons, 1921)
Blessed Virgin Mary Ann Ensor as St Elizabeth St Ursula (AK Nicholson, 1932) St Elizabeth of Hungary (AK Nicholson, 1932)
Gabriel at the Annunciation (AK Nicholson, 1919) St George St Michael St Alban (Powell & Sons, 1918) St Edmund (Powell & Sons, 1918)
St Ursula protects the poor (detail, AK Nicholson, 1932) St Martha (detail, Powell & Sons, 1921) Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation (AK Nicholson, 1919)
Ecce ancilla Domini, 1919 (AK Nicholson, 1919) organist of this church for 55 years (Powell & Sons) ad majorem Dei gloriam et in piam memoriam (AK Nicholson, 1919)
sacristy? Leonard and Katherine Mapes piscina
Hannah Watson, 1810 Rose Claxton (late 16th Century)
late one of the Magistrates of Great Yarmouth died at sea on her homeward passage to England in Latitude 27 north, Longitude 39 west
font font and portable font
erected by his friends in the Flegg district

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