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

St Peter and St Paul, Salle


Salle west doors Salle
Salle jackdaws beacon

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    St Peter 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.

Why so big? These great medieval churches were not of course built for the congregational worship of the Church of England, but for the devotions, processions and sacraments of the medieval Catholic Church. They were paid for by their patrons as acts of piety of course, but also in response to their need for prayers after their deaths. Until the Reformation came along it was assumed that the living and the dead of any English parish were joined in an intimate communion, and that each would be praying for the other. Just as the dead would be praying for the daily lives of the living, so it was the responsibility of the living to pray for the welfare of the souls of the dead. For the newly-rich who had benefited from the break-up of the great landed estates in the years after the Black Death this came with an insecurity, for how could they ensure that the peasants of the parishes they left behind after their deaths would carry on praying for the souls of these parvenu overlords? One way was to bequeath big churches and expensive liturgical features to their parish, inscribed Orate Pro Anima... ('Pray for the Soul of...'). The daily life of the Catholic parishes of England would thus ensure that they would not be forgotten.

Salle church went up in one long campaign during the 15th century, a replacement for an earlier building on the same site, and broadly contemporary with the church at neighbouring Cawston. But while Cawston was largely the work of a single family, here the building benefited from an accident of history, for several very wealthy families owned manors and halls in the parish at the same time, and it so happened that the time was East Anglia's greatest era of church building. Among them were the Boleyns, the Brewes, the Mautebys, the Briggs, the Morleys, the Luces and the Kerdistons, and some of their shields appear above the great west door, along with two mighty censing angels, characteristic of late medieval piety. A steady stream of hefty bequests meant that no expense needed to be spared, and the mighty tower with its vast bell openings was topped with battlements and pinnacles on the very eve of the Reformation.

As at Blythburgh in Suffolk, Salle church has benefited from the restraint of a late 19th Century restoration when care was given to not wiping out the patina of the past, and the building as we see it now has no external Victorian additions. It is all of a piece. The porches either side are huge affairs and match the transepts, giving the effect of a vast animal, a dragon perhaps, sprawling with an erect head in the Norfolk countryside. The creature's tail is the chancel, in itself longer and higher than many Norfolk churches. The aisles are tall, austere and parapeted, the Perpendicular windows are arcades of glass. In the porches, the vaulted ceilings are studded with bosses. The central one in the north porch depicts Christ in Majesty, sitting on a rainbow in judgement.

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).

seven sacrament font: Confession (15th Century) font seven sacrament font: Ordination (15th Century)
seven sacrament font: Matrimony (15th Century) seven sacrament font: Baptism (15th Century) seven sacrament font: Mass (15th Century)
seven sacrament font: Crucifixion (15th Century) seven sacrament font: Confirmation (15th Century) seven sacrament font: Last Rites (15th Century)

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.

St Thomas and St James the Less (15th Century) four Latin Doctors (15th Century) St Phillip and St Bartholomew (15th Century)

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.

Angel holding a Trinity shield (15th Century)

St Margaret and St Catherine (15th Century) angel holding royal arms (15th Century) Coronation of the Blessed Virgin
angel playing a lute (15th Century) Resurrection (15th Century) Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation (15th Century) Gabriel at the Annunciation (15th Century) St Helen Thomas Brigg, donor (15th Century) angel playing a harp (15th Century)
St Lawrence (15th Century) Daniel (15th Century) Enoch (15th Century) Elijah (15th Century) Elias (15th Century) Noah (15th Century)
Annunciation, Coronation of the Queen of Heaven and donors (15th Century) Cardinals (15th Century) patriarchs, prophets and cardinals (15th Century)
Orders of Angels: Powers (15th Century) female donors (15th Century) Princes and Kings (15th Century)

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.

Adoration of the Shepherds (c) John Salmon Adoration of the Magi (c) John Salmon Presentation on the Temple (c) John Salmon Entry into Jerusalem (c) John Salmon
Last Supper (c) John Salmon Crucifixion (c) John Salmon Resurrection (c) John Salmon Ascension into Heaven (c) 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.

Talking Heads (return stalls, 15th Century) cowled and tonsured monk (return stalls, 15th Century) bat-winged man in a cowl (return stalls, 15th Century)
monkeying around all of a tangle pelican in her piety
misericord: happy lion (15th Century) two pike leaping from a river misericord: stern-faced man (15th Century)

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.

There are many brasses and brass inlays in the nave floor. One of the most interesting is a chalice brass (although the chalice is now gone) to Simon Boleyn, a Priest, who died in 1489, and to the east of it a pair of brasses to Geoffrey and Alice Boleyn, great-grandparents to Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. Another pair of brasses are to Thomas and Katherine Rose and their eight children. Unlike many churches, Salle actually retains some of the 'missing' brasses, now locked away for safety. It would be nice to think they could eventually be reset in the floor.

Salle Salle Salle Salle
Salle Salle

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?

angel angel
green man Coronation of the Queen of Heaven green man

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

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looking east

font Salle Salle
south transept Salle south transept
Jesse's stem (Herbert Bryans, 1912) St Nicholas (Herbert Bryans, 1912) St Catherine (Herbert Bryans, 1912) St Helen and St Constantine (Herbert Bryans, 1912) two angels (Herbert Bryans, 1912)
angels of the beatitudes (Herbert Bryans, 1912)

Salle canopy of honour  (15th Century) 3PN X (any ideas?)


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You can also read: an introduction to the churches of Cawston and Salle


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