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

St Mary, Tharston



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St Mary, Tharston

Tharston is barely a mile from the main Ipswich to Norwich road, but the lanes leading up to St Mary are intensely rural, snaking through an increasingly rolling landscape until they meet at this quietly-set church. The small village to the west has a feeling of remoteness, quite an achievement barely eight miles from the centre of Norwich. The lanes curve about the churchyard, often a sign of an ancient site, and on a sunny day there are fine views across the countryside in all directions. The church is largely a 15th Century rebuilding of what came before, with some Decorated details surviving. There was a substantial restoration in the 1860s both within and without. There are no aisles or clerestories and close to perhaps the church seems smaller than it is, thanks to its wide churchyard. The small flush-worked north porch is built awkwardly into a buttress, a curious thing to do perhaps.

You step through it into an interior which feels narrow thanks to the height of the nave roof, and perhaps a little austere. There is little coloured glass, and the tightly tucked benches huddle anonymously. And yet, when you look more closely at them, there is a surprise, for three of them towards the east are carved with fascinating reliefs. One appears to show a crowned female figure holding a crosier and a book, in which case she may well be St Etheldreda. Another is an exquisite St Michael weighing souls against their sins. A third depicts the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, rayed in a nimbus as angels carry her up to heaven. Can they really be medieval? Ann Eljenhom Nichols includes the images of St Michael and the Blessed Virgin in her Early Art of Norfolk, but she hedges her bets a little by suggesting that they were restored in the 1920s.

St Etheldreda? Assumption of the Blessed Virgin St Michael weighing souls against their sins

There are several hundred fonts in East Anglia produced to a similar pattern in the 15th Century. Octagonal, their panels often depict angels, evangelistic symbols, shields and roses, their stems supported by lions, woodwoses and other figures. Tharston's is a very good example of the type. Pevsner thought it must be by the same carver as the font across the Norwich road at Morningthorpe. The angel facing east in particular is full of character, the late medieval carving giving his eyes the appearance of him wearing goggles, and his hair a WWII flying helmet.

Stepping up into the chancel, the east window is a curiosity. It appears to have been rebuilt in the early 20th Century at a time when the fashion for the Tudor style was touching buildings of all types. The clear glass is fortunate, but there is also some good glass in the south windows of the chancel by J & J King of Norwich. Apart from the font and the bench ends, the most memorable survivals at Tharston are in the chancel. These are the memorials, some to members of the Harvey family, whose mausoleum is to the south of the church. The earliest is of 1623 and is to Robert Woode. he lies tucked beneath his inscription, a rotting corpse lying on a divan. A hundred and fifty years later in the chancel, General Sir Robert Harvey's grand memorial depicts two Peninsular War soldiers flanking a litany of his achievements.

Soldier of the Peninsular War General Sir Robert John Harvey, 1860 Soldier of the Peninsular War
Robert Woode, 1623 corpse memorial

As often in rural East Anglia you are reminded that these parishes were once busier places, and not so long ago either, judging by the number of late 19th and early 20th Century headstones about the church, but mechanisation of farming greatly reduced the number of people required to work the land. Even so, the number of burials in a typical county churchyard is usually estimated as being about ten thousand, a remarkable thought. At the time of the 1851 Census of Religious worship there were three hundred and seventy four people living in the parish, of whom only twenty chose to attend the service on the morning of the census. There were more present for the afternoon sermon as was common in rural East Anglia, where the sermon was usually more popular than the service, and there were thirty scholars who had no choice but to attend both, but even so it is easy to imagine the frustration of William Briggs, the vicar, for Tharston was a wealthy parish.

Filling in the census return, Briggs was moved to note at the bottom of it that Out of the income of the vicarage, the house built by loan of Queen Anne's bounty, rates etc what a lamentable state of things that whilst the great tithes which amount to 420 per annum (roughly 84,000 in today's money) not a single expence from them contributed to any charitable object in the Parish, the spiritual duties should be so inadequately paid for. The great (rectorial) tithes were held by the Harvey family who were patrons of the church and who also owned much of the land in the parish. They were responsible for the lesser (vicarial) tithes which paid just 120 a year to the vicar, about 24,000 in today's money. One imagines that there was a certain amount of tension between William Briggs and the Harveys, but much would change in the Anglican landscape over the next half century.

Simon Knott, June 2022

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looking east chancel
font angel Christ prays at Gethsemane/Christ carries his cross (J&J King, 1874) Charlotte Harvey, 1869
rotting corpse of Robert Woode, 1623


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