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St Mary, Shelton
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This great red brick ship of a church rides a rolling narrow churchyard in the fields to the east of Long Stratton, a memorable sight. As Bill Wilson points out in his revision of the Buildings of England volumes for Norfolk, Norfolk has hardly more than half a dozen Perp churches of the first order. Shelton is one of them. It is by no means the largest church in Norfolk, but it has everything you might expect of a church built with unlimited wealth at the end of the Middle Ages. Sir Ralph Shelton, the late 15th Century High Sheriff of Norfolk, included in his will of 1497 an instruction to make up completeley the church of Shelton aforesaid, in masonry, tymber, iron and leede accordinge to the form as I have begunne it, suggesting that the rebuilding had commenced under Shelton's watch while he was still alive and was completed after his death, giving a date for the construction of between about 1490 and the 1520s. Simon Cotton found several bequests of the 1520s and 1530s to the rood loft, which would only have been installed once the church was complete.
During this long single campaign the church was entirely rebuilt apart from the tower. The truncated chancel was the fashion as the 15th Century became the 16th. Above the porch and south aisle, the clerestory is faced in stone and so only the earlier tower remains to speak of East Anglia's native flint. It too would perhaps have been rebuilt, probably in brick or stone. Because this didn't happen before the Reformation intervened, the entrance to the parvise room above the porch had to be bridged in from the present tower stairs, and the west window of the south aisle survives from the church's predecessor. Probably, a westward extension to the aisle was planned, but this was also abandoned, leaving the present curious west side to porch and aisle.There is something thrilling and memorable about late Perpendicular architecture when you are more familiar with that of the 14th and 15th Centuries. It is found most often in towns and cities, and there are good examples at St Peter Mancroft, St Andrew and St Stephen in nearby Norwich. Perhaps the best comparison is with the church at Denston in Suffolk, another country church in the fields lavishly bankrolled in the early 16th Century.
Was the porch itself ever finished? Pevsner thought not. You can look up through the broken vaulting to see the blocked door from the tower stairs and a window into the church, but perhaps it is not broken at all but was simply never completed, in which case work may have been going on here as late as the 1540s.
Stepping through into the church itself there is the thrill of openness and light. The tall arcades march away eastwards between the white walls like trees in a forest glade. Your eyes are drawn inextricably upwards and beyond, the building opening out immediately without complexity, a perfect example of late medieval rationalism in stone and brick. The height of the unbroken nave and chancel is accentuated by the fact that the hammerbeam roof has gone, and only its corbels remain. Supposedly, it was taken away in the 18th Century to be used for a tithe barn and it was replaced with a white ceilure, fashionable at the time, and which seems higher than an open roof would feel The east window, which is unusually tall and thin, echoes the forest of architecture before it. The late 15th and early 16th Century glass in it and in its flanking windows at the east ends of the aisles is most interesting because it is such an extensive part of a single scheme it is possible to imagine what it was like when it was complete.
The kneeling figures in the east window are mostly donors at prayer, members of the Shelton family accompanied by the Shelton crest of a yellow cross on an azure shield. Their shell-tun rebus, a scallop shell on a barrel, appears several times. Gaps have been filled in with earlier 15th Century glass of saints and angels.More glass t the east ends of the north and south aisles includes two Annunciation scenes in the upper lights and what remains of a large Resurrection scene. St Peter appears holding his keys but with an angel's head, and there are other composite figures of angels and saints. The panel depicting St Edmund and St Edward the Martyr has the inscription D 1813 scratched into it, which must refer to an early 19th Century restoration of the glass. This brought the coloured surrounds in purple and orange, and may well have been by the same workshop that carried out something similar at Morningthorpe.
The font is contemporary with the earliest of the glass, the evangelistic symbols alternating with angels holding shields in the typical East Anglian manner. On the shields are the instruments of the passion, the Holy Trinity, three crowns and three chalices. Lions and woodwoses once alternated on the stem, though the woodwoses obviously suffered at the hands of 16th and 17th Century vandals, and were recut in the 1880s as buttresses. Otherwise, the old furnishings have long since gone to be replaced by 19th Century poppy-headed benches in a 15th Century style. Shelton tombs form great blocks jutting out of the east wall, dividing the aisles from the chancel itself. The dado is all that survives of the rood screen mentioned earlier. It crosses the full width of the church, the only delineation of the chancel from the nave under the continuous roof. It must have been very impressive when it was complete. From quite a different theological epoch only a century later comes the 1623 Houghton tomb in the south-east corner. Sir Robert Houghton and his wife, along with two children, glower miserably at each other as they kneel like giant chess pieces on the tomb top. The skull, crudely painted onto the pediment, seems to laugh at them. Even for those puritan times it is a dour piece, and it feels a bit out of keeping here.
High above the tower arch at the other end of the nave is a huge William III royal arms carved in stone. It is supposed to have been given to the parish as part of the 1880s restoration, so I wonder where it came from? What a barn of a place this must have seemed before the restoration of the 1880s. As with a number of large rural churches it had fallen into a certain amount of decay, but as early as the 1851 Census of Religious Worship it appears to have had an energetic incumbent. Out of a scattered parish population of two hundred people, twenty chose to come to church that morning, but John Curteis, the rector, recorded that a further eighty-five 'scholars' had also attended. He noted in his return that a Sunday school has been supported by the Rector. Day School room has just been completed. This seems a huge number given the parish population, and so they must also have included children from neighbouring parishes which were similarly scattered. That he had a total of a hundred and sixty five in attendance for his afternoon sermon is probably a tribute to his energy and enthusiasm.
St Mary must have been very much in the Anglo-Catholic tradition by the early years of the 20th Century, and the inscription on the simple war memorial for the lost boys of both Shelton and neighbouring Hardwick, a larger village, begins Of your Charity pray for the Souls of the Gallant Dead. Today, the population of the combined civil parish of Shelton and Hardwick is barely half what it was in 1851, but interestingly there appears to be a large Shelton diaspora in North America. I get more family history-related e-mails enquirues about this church, mostly from American Sheltons, than for any other church in Norfolk.
Simon Knott, October 2022
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