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St Mary, Swardeston


let these instances of mortality remind thee of thy own south porch chancel doorway

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    St Mary, Swardeston

Swardeston is a fairly large village just to the south of Norwich and seems nothing special, so if you did not know you might wonder why the church here receives many visitors. For forty-six years at the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th Century, the Vicar here was Frederick Cavell. He transformed the church and the village, and left it its greatest legacy. The first hint of this comes as you approach the church from the south. The bulky, granite war memorial is no different to a thousand others, except that the first name under the legend Pro Patria is Edith Louisa Cavell. It should be said that her name comes first simply in alphabetical order, but she was quite the most famous woman to be killed in World War One, and one of the more significant English figures of that slaughter. Her story was one of the most fondly told in the years after the War, becoming an expression of English stoicism and resolve to match that of Captain Robert Scott who had died in Antartica just three years earlier. The rise of cheap, tabloid newspapers and increasing mass literacy at this time probably helped the legend grow as well as the intense patriotic fervour of the first years of the War. Even so, if the English nation hadn't embraced protestantism so firmly then no doubt she'd be recognised as a saint by now.

Frederick Cavell's first action on arriving in the parish had been to build a grand new Vicarage beside the church. Today it's a private house. While the Vicarage was being built, The Cavells lived in a Georgian farmhouse nearby, and this was where Edith Cavell was born in 1865. Edith's letters reveal that her Low Church father had a puritan streak that made him quite distant from his children, and she spent much of her early life wandering the parish, drawing and painting. At school she showed a talent for languages, particularly French, and in 1890, at the age of 25, she set off for Brussels to work as a governess. Five years later she was back in Swardeston, nursing her father through an illness, and this seems to have been what set her mind to training as a nurse.

Cavell worked in hospitals in Kent, London and Manchester before setting off back to Brussels in 1906. She ran a training school for nurses there, but often returned to Norfolk, and it was while at home in Swardeston that she heard of the German invasion of Belgium in 1914. She made her fateful decision to return to the country, and she would never see England again.

From the stories abot Cavell it is easy to imagine some dynamic, flighty young girl putting the world to rights, but of course Cavell was forty-eight years old when she headed back across the German Ocean. From then on, the story is well known. Her training school nursed soldiers of both sides, but she also saw it as her humanitarian duty to help hunted British soldiers escape back to England. Inevitably she was caught, and she was shot by the Germans at first light on the morning of October the 12th, 1915, a few weeks before her fiftieth birthday. Her last words would have been familiar to any English person in the first half of the 20th century: Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.

Edith Louisa Cavell Edith Louisa Cavell Edith Cavell

She was buried in a military cemetery, but after the War her body was brought back to England, and after a funeral in Westminster Abbey she was buried in the Cathedral close in Norwich. There is a fine, dramatic monument to her outside the National Portrait Gallery near Trafalgar Square, and a fairly awful one outside the Erpingham Gate of Norwich Cathedral. Perhaps the best memorial though is the east window here at Swardeston, commissioned by her family and completed before the end of the War by Ernest Heasman. In light, muted colours, Edith kneels in her nurse's uniform at the foot of the cross accompanied by smaller, appropriate figures, including St Agnes, St Margaret and Florence Nightingale. In recent years a new parish room has been built to the east of the church and dedicated to her. It quietly displays a number of artifacts related to her and her memory. It is very well done.

Her father's church is a long, tall, simple building, all under one roof and probably originally Norman at heart. The 14th and 15th Centuries saw a big rebuilding here, leaving the tower and most of the window tracery. The 19th Century restoration has left the interior simple and fitting. The nave windows are almost entirely clear, and there is a sense of height and length. It is perhaps a rather gloomy interior, maybe reflecting the character of Frederick Cavell and his Low Church enthusiasms.There are a few old survivals including some old benches, the skeleton of a 15th century screen, and the beautiful rustic timber roof. The font is large and plain, the 17th century font cover elegant. Some continental glass includes a rare Lactation Miracle of St Bernard scene, the Blessed Virgin with the Christchild sitting on her lap squirts milk from her breast into the kneeling saint's mouth. Another panel depicts St Anthony of Egypt with his tau cross. Nothing terribly exciting perhaps, but this building retains a feel of the time of its restoration, and Edith Cavell would certainly recognise it today.

Simon Knott, October 2020

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looking east font
angel holding a cross flanked by St George and St Alban Edith Cavell memorial window by Ernest Heaseman, 1917 angels at the foot of the cross flanked by St James the Less and St Bartholomew angel holding a crown flanked by St Osyth and St Edmund
Blessed Virgin and Child with St Bernard (Flemish, early 16th Century) George II royal arms St Anthony of Egypt (17th Century?)

Nurse Edith Cavell

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