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St Peter and St Paul, Salle
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and St Paul, Salle
You see it
long before you reach it, that great tower rising out of
the barley fields somewhere near the middle of Norfolk.
St Peter and St Paul is big. This is accentuated by the
way in which it stands almost alone with only a couple of
Victorian buildings and a cricket pitch for company. What
an idyllic spot! And yet there is an urban quality to the
building, as if this were some great city church in the
middle of Norwich or Bristol.
You enter the building from the west, an unusual experience in East Anglia, and your first sight is of the seven sacrament font with its tall 15th century canopy, similar to the cover at Cawston. This one is so big it is supported by a crane attached to the ringing gallery under the tower. The font below it is interesting because each panel is supported by an angel holding a symbol of the sacrament above - a pot of chrism oil beneath Baptism, for example. The panels themselves are simply done, and are not particularly characterful, apart from the way that Mary turns away and is comforted at the Crucifixion. This panel faces west, and then anticlockwise are the Mass (viewed sideways, as at nearby Great Witchingham), Ordination (the candidate kneeling), Baptism (a server holds the book up for the Priest to read), Confirmation (the candidate obviously a child), Confession (perhaps the most interesting panel - the penitent kneels in a shriving pew), Matrimony (the couples' hands joined by a stole, she in late 15th century dress) and finally Last Rites (the dying man on the floor under blankets as at Great Witchingham).
The font step has a dedicatory inscription to John and Agnes Luce, asking for prayers for their souls. We know that John died in 1489. Perhaps the actual fabric of the building was complete by this date. Beyond the font stretches the vastness of the building, the arcades gathering the eyes and leading them forward to the great east window. The chancel arch is barely there at all, just a simple high opening, but as MR James pointed out it was never intended to be seen. The sheer bulk of what remains of the rood screen tells us quite how vast it must have been when complete. The arch would have been pretty well hidden. Everything was to scale, and although none of the screen survives above the dado, the panels themselves are enormous, almost six feet high. As at Cawston here are St Gregory, St Jerome, St Ambrose and St Augustine, the four Latin Doctors of the Church on the doors. Either side are just two surviving paintings. To the north are Thomas and James, to the south are Philip and Bartholomew. The empty panels are a mystery, for the screen stood here for a century before its destruction, so it must have been finished, and the dado seems too high to have been hidden by nave altars. And yet, it has all the appearance of never having been painted.
Because the building is so vast the surviving medieval glass seems scattered, but there is actually a lot of it and some of it is very significant. Some was moved during the restoration of the early 20th century when Herbert Bryans kitted out the windows in the north transept, and the yellow galley lozenges were thankfully replaced with clear glass in the 1970s. The images in the east window are mainly figures. Old kings kneel before young princes, there are armoured men and angels, the remains of a scaly dragon. In the centre at the bottom is a perfect Trinity shield, displayed by an angel looking askance. Some of the panels are now in the south transept. These include fragments of a set of the orders of angels. A kneeling figure is Thomas Brigg, donor of the transept. The scroll behind him begins Benedicat Virgo, 'Blessed Virgin'. The mother of God sits surrounded by red glory, and two women holding croziers, one of them crowned, may be St Etheldreda and St Hilda. Certainly, the crowned figure holding a cross is St Helena.
Wondering at the font, the screen and the glass might lead you to easily miss one of the other great glories of this building, a set of wooden bosses that line the ridge of the chancel. There are nine of them altogether, the first and last set against the walls at the ends of the roof ridge, and they form a kind of rosary sequence of joyful and glorious mysteries. They start with the Annunciation in the west and then continue with the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection , and the Ascension into Heaven, shown here in photographs by John Salmon.
Although the roof isn't up there with the glory of neighbouring Cawston, it retains a number original 15th Century angels and paintwork, including sacred monograms, and around the wallplate part of the Te Deum Laudamus and psalm 150. These particular texts seem to have provided the inspiration for many late 15th century interiors. The angels in the roof, the animals on the bench ends, the Saints on the rood screen all in harmony: Let everything that has breath Praise ye the Lord! The benches are mostly renewed now, but the pulpit is an elegant example of the 15th century, contemporary with the building of the church at a time when a new emphasis began to be placed on preaching. Curiously, it has been rather awkwardly converted into a three-decker arrangement, probably in the 18th century, with the addition of a platform and desk from a set of box pews. A large sounding board has been placed overhead. The box pews suggest that the medieval furnishings were replaced at an early date, although the replacements too have gone now. However, the chancel retains the 15th Century return stalls that were here when the church was new. Although Salle probably never had a college of Priests, all those Masses for the dead must have provided plenty of employment, because we know that there were seven Priests here at a time when the population of the parish was barely 200. Stall ends include heads, a dragon tied up in a knot, a restored pelican in her piety, and a monkey. The misericord seats feature faces.
Salle is one of those churches full
of intriguing little details that might easily pass you
by, so great is the wonder of everything around. Those
two little corbel heads above the south door, for
instance - what were they for? Perhaps they supported an
image that could be seen from the north doorway as people
entered, although not a St Christopher as the guidebook
suggests, I think. There is a pretty piscina in the north
transept which has been outlined in wood, a memorial and
helm above, a tall image bracket in the corner of the
wall of the south transept, a floreated piscina nearby.
One part of the building that many visitors must miss is the chapel above the north porch. There is no sign indicating the way up to it, but the doorway at the west end of the north aisle is always open. Inside, the vaulted roof is punctuated by spectacularly pretty bosses which you can view at close quarters. Angels and green men stud the vaulting around the central boss of the Coronation of the Queen of Heaven - how on earth did that survive the Reformation?
This is a tremendous building, a box of fascinating delights. What purpose does it serve now? As I said in the introduction, its size was not in response to the needs of a congregation, and as far as worship is concerned it will never be full. It remains constantly in use, however, both for regular services in the chancel, sometimes for concerts and recordings, but also of course for the poshest sort of wedding, the kind only the Church of England can provide. If they help ensure the survival of the building, then so be it.
Simon Knott, April 2020
Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.
You can also read: an introduction to the churches of Cawston and Salle
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