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St Mary Magdalene, Sandringham
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Were it not for what you might already know, St Mary Magdalene would appear to be just another of north-west Norfolk's quietly set little parish churches, albeit a considerably restored one. It is perfectly possibly to visit it without even noticing its more famous neighbour, but not without passing the busy car park that sprawls beyond the adjoining village green. Perhaps the most striking thing about the church is quite how small it is, which might be unexpected if you have only known it by its reputation. It is an attractive little building, constructed principally of the local carrstone. It is hard to see beyond successive restorations, especially given that carrstone of all materials disguises the difference between ancient structure and modern repairs, but the south porch and tower have enough suggestions of the 15th Century to presume a late medieval rebuilding. But this was one of the poorest areas of England from the 18th Century onwards thanks to a massive depopulation caused by intensive sheep farming and warrening.
The placename Sandringham appears to be a contraction of Sand Dersingham, Dersingham being the large village just over the hill and this being the sandy end of it. The Cowper family owned the original Sandringham House, and paid Samuel Teulon for a restoration of the church in the 1850s. Very little evidence of this survives other than the chancel arch and the remodelled east end of the chancel. In 1862 Queen Victoria bought the vast estate for her son the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, intending that it would keep him out of trouble, which to some extent it did given the time, energy and money that he would spend on it. He was instrumental in the restoration of a number of the villages and their churches on the estate, and in 1890 Sir Arthur Blomfield took on Sandringham church, rebuilding the roofs, replacing the window tracery and expanding the church with a north aisle and a south transept, and a prominent structure on each side of the chancel, the one on the north side being a vestry, while that to the south, which has all the appearances of an organ chamber, would become the royal porch and entrance.
But we must enter through the south porch, and step into a nave which, despite Blomfield's aisle, is strikingly small and crowded. However, the view to the east is breathtaking, for when Edward VII died in 1910 the chancel was remodelled as a memorial to him, with painted sculpture, glass and stencilling by Kempe & Co and the startling solid silver altar and reredos, the work of the Paris firm of Barkentin & Krall, a gift from Rodman Wannamaker, an American friend of the king. The designs on them were by Walter Tower of Kempe & Co.
Either side of the chancel are sumptuous stalls now in use as the royal family pews, with sculptures of angels intervening in human affairs, for example the Annunciation and Christ at Gethsemane. Between them, set in the centre of the chancel floor, is an inscribed gold cross and two plaques. They mark the spot where coffins have been placed for the lying in state of royal family members who have died at Sandringham House. The easterly plaque is inscribed with the monogram of George VI and the dates 8th to 15th February 1952. The westerly plaque is inscribed with the monogram of George V and the dates 21st to 23rd January 1936. They were placed either side of the cross which marks the place where the coffin of Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence lay in state from January 15th to the 20th 1892. He was the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, and the elder brother of the future George V. He was second in line to the throne after his father, and his death caused a considerable shock to late Victorian society. Also on the cross are the dates November 22nd to 26th 1925, marking the resting place of the coffin of his mother Queen Alexandra, widow of Edward VII.
The Duke of Clarence appears in glass by Heaton, Butler & Bayne in the west window as St Edward. The baptistery shoehorned beneath it has a small early 20th Century marble baluster font, replacing a large font of the 1880s which was carted off to Flitcham. The new font is set behind railings and can't be approached, but continues to be of particular interest to some visitors because it is where Diana, the future Princess of Wales, was baptised in 1961. As you've probably realised, the royal family have left an overwhelming impression on this little church, and this is at its most visible in the form of memorials, from those of Edward VII's brothers and sisters installed while he was still Prince of Wales through to the north aisle memorial to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and her husband George VI. As Pevsner emphasises, all of these are private, not public memorials, and there are of course no burials.
The church has a few other splendid details, many of them gifts either to or from the royal family. The most striking of these is the pulpit, made of oak and encased in silver. Like the altar and reredos it was the work of the Paris firm of Barkentin & Krall, and was also presented by Rodman Wanamaker in the 1920s. His also was the gift of the 17th Century Spanish processional cross that stands behind it. Across the chancel arch from them is an elegant figure of St George by Alfred Gilbert, 1892. It is made of ivory encased in polished aluminium, the new wonder material of that age. Gilbert is probably most famous for the scupture in Picadilly Circus which is popularly known as Eros. It is also made of aluminium.
The windows throughout the church have stained glass in them, none very good suggests Pevsner. The earliest are the work of Heaton, Butler & Bayne in the 1890s, while by the First World War the studio of choice was Kempe & Co. Their 1920s window in the north aisle depicts four scenes from the legend of St George in a faux-medieval style, set under canopies as if they are on a stage set. However, incorporated into the central light are a collection of surprisingly poor quality fragments of continental glass of the 16th and 17th Centuries. Opposite in the south wall of the nave is more Kempe glass, including a more impressive central light in a continental style by the firm depicting the Day of Judgement, with Christ in Majesty at the top, saints and martyrs below, and St Michael sorting out souls as they rise from the ground and the ocean at the bottom. There is more glass hidden away in the vestry, two cartoon-like panels, one depicting the finding of Moses in the bullrushes and the other of Mary and Joseph finding the young Christ teaching in the Temple. They are colourless outlines, a curiosity and yet one which seems to work. I expect that they are also by Kempe & Co.
More excitingly, The upper lights of both these windows each have six late medieval figures of saints. There are two more in the porch, making fourteen altogether. They appear to be early 16th Century given the choice of saints, and although they do not look like typical Norwich school glass they are restored to a greater or lesser extent. The church guide suggests they were made by a Kings Lynn workshop, which may well be so. Each has a label across the middle, although not all of the labels are correct.
Those in the glass on the south side of the nave are St Erasmus as a bishop holding a mitre, St Agnes holding a lamb and with a sword through her throat, and St Stephen holding the stones which will be the instrument of his martyrdom. Next comes a curiosity, for the label reads St Francis (sanctus rather than sancta), but the figure is a woman. Mortlock thought it was the only medieval representation of St Frances in England, but unfortunately this is not the case, for the figure is a composite of two female saints. The top half is St Ursula holding arrows, while the bottom half is St Dorothy handing a basket of flowers to a child. The last two are St Giles with a hind leaping up at him, and St Apollonia holding her tooth in pincers.
In the north aisle, St Michael dispatches a dragon, and then St Ignatius is shown as a bishop with a flaming heart, a unique representation in England I think. Next comes St Bridget of Sweden receiving the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. I think she is mostly a modern restoration. She's recorded as St Brigid in some accounts, a quite different saint, and oddly her legend reads Sanctus (male) rather than Sancta (female). Then comes St Margaret holds her cross above a defeated dragon, St Vincent holds the saw that was one of the instruments of his martyrdom, and lastly St Leonard holds manacles, for he is the patron saint of prisoners. The two extra figures in the porch are St Catherine with her sword and wheel and St Etheldreda as an abbess.
As Sam Mortlock once observed, Sandringham has become a magnet for thousands of tourists, and the church is so encrusted with royal associations that it is impossible to view it as one would any other parish church. And yet of course the parish had a life before the royal family came along. In 1844, White's Directory of Norfolk observed that it was a small village and parish, containing only 53 inhabitants. Charles Spencer Cowper lived at the Hall, a large cemented brick mansion, and the only other residents thought worthy of note by the Directory were William Durrant who was a farmer, Charles Kent the parish clerk, and the rector of the church who was George Browne Moxon. He was in receipt of tithes valued at £171 a year, about £34,000 in today's money, not bad for such a small parish. Seven years later at the Census of Religious Worship of 1851, Moxon claimed that half the population of the parish attended church on a Sunday, which is quite likely true if they worked for the Hall. Moxon tersely appended his return with the remark that there was no dissenting place of worship, no public house. It was the quietest of north-west Norfolk backwaters, but rapid and even unimaginable change was coming.
Simon Knott, April 2023
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