home I index I introductions I e-mail I about this site

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

St Margaret, Upton


Upton looking down the Upton dead: white brick tombs

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

    St Margaret, Upton

Upton is on the edge of Broadland, and its church sits to the south of the village in the intensely agricultural landscape between the Bure and the Yare. The church is entirely Perpendicular in style, and yet somehow it doesn't look quite right. When you know that the tower was rebuilt in the early 1930s it comes as no surprise, and there are echoes of the contemporary tower of St Alban's at Lakenham in Norwich. Pevsner observes that the one it replaced had long been ruined, and certainly an old photograph at the back of the church shows what looks like a ruinous tower. Simon Cotton points out that right at the end of the medieval period there were a number of bequests to the building of a tower. In 1545, when the Reformation was already underway, John Poddes of Fishley left 6/8 to the reparacion of Upton steple, and the following year Richard Wynn left forty shillings to ye mendyng and repation of Upton stepull when ye townshype gothe aboute ye repation and mendyng of ye same stepyll. The following year, Henry VIII died, and the arch-protestant regime of the boy king Edward VI began, within five years he was dead, and the pendulum swung back the other way under the brief reign of his half-sister Mary. In such uncertain times no parish would commit to such a major project as building a tower. Indeed, as late as 1587, well into Elizabeth's reign, Richard Taylor left fower poundes of good English money towards the building uppe of the steple again, to be paid when the parishioners doe build upp the same, which seems wishful thinking at best. It seems unlikely that Upton church tower was ever built, and the ruin in the old photograph is the ruin of a stump.

The rest of the church is crisp because it was substantially rebuilt over the course of nine years towards the end of the 19th Century, replacing all the window tracery but reusing much of the original structure otherwise. The architect was AS Hewitt, and he began with the chancel in 1879 before moving on to the nave and aisles and then finally adding the porch in 1888.As often in this part of the county there is the pleasure of stepping through it into a large church without any coloured glass, the main effect being of white light falling across wood and stone. It feels less restored within than without, although in fact all the furnishings and the roofs came as part of Hewitt's restoration. However, their plain simplicity means that the two most memorable surviving features of the medieval church stand out. The first is the imposing font, which is at first sight typical of the East Anglian style fonts of the 15th Century, of which several hundred survive. However, it is a particularly early one, dating from a bequest of 1380 and probably installed here by the start of the following century. Many fonts in the series are elegant, but I do not think that adjective could be used of Upton's font, for it is a powerful, bulky thing. The bowl alternates the evangelistic symbols with angels, some of whom are holding shields but one of which is playing nakers, a popular late medieval percussion instrument based on the Arabic naqqara drums, which had been brought back to western Europe during the crusades. On the stem, angels alternate with men and women (donors perhaps?) including a cleric holding a finely carved rosary, all under elaborate canopies.

font: angel playing nakers font: cleric with a rosary
font: angel holding a chalice font font

Little of the screen survives at Upton, but what does is interesting. What remains is the dado, which features images of eight saints. As common, those on the north side are male and those on the south side female. The male figures are the four Latin Doctors, St Augustine, St Jerome, St Gregory and St Ambrose. St Jerome wears his cardinal's hat, St Gregory a crown to show he was pope, the other two wear bishop's mitres. The panels are now partly obscured by the concrete steps of the pulpit. The Doctors are particularly common on late medieval screens in Norfolk, and are even found as the central figures on some screens, for example on the screen gates at Salle. The figures on the south side are more interesting. The first two are St Helen holding her cross, and St Etheldreda with a crozier.

The next two figures, however, have caused some confusion. The first figure holds a large bowl and a basket, while the second rather gruesomely holds a disgorged breast in a pair of pincers. She is certainly St Agatha, but when Munro Cautley visited in the 1930s, he mixed up the sequence on the south side and gave it as, from the left, St Helen, St Etheldreda, St Agatha and Joan de Valois. This must have been a misreading of his notes, but the error has been repeated in several texts since. But if the fourth figure is St Agatha, who is the third figure? Cautley's Joan de Valois was the early 14th Century Countess of Hainault, and although she was undoubtedly a good person it seems unlikely that she appeared on a remote Norfolk roodscreen nearly two hundred years later. The saucer or bowl that she carries would normally be regarded as a symbol of St Lucy, and this panel is identified as her in several sources, while the basket would be of either St Dorothy or St Elizabeth of Hungary, both very popular late medieval saints in East Anglia. St Elizabeth of Hungary normally wears a crown, and this figure doesn't, but she does wear a white veil, and the basket appears to contain loaves of bread and a bottle. St Elizabeth of Hungary was a vowess, and was known for her acts of charity, and so I think this figure is not St Joan de Valois, St Lucy or St Dorothy, but St Elizabeth of Hungary. The inscription on the screen is for William and Agnes Wynne, both of whom died in 1505, although, as Simon Cotton points out, a bequest to the screen is not made in either of their wills.

screen (north): St Augustine, St Jerome, St Gregory, St Ambrose screen (south): St Helen, St Etheldreda, St Lucy, St Agatha
St Helen and St Etheldreda St Elizabeth of Hungary and St Agatha

Tucked behind the organ in the south aisle beside a consecration cross is an elaborately traceried piscina which fortunately survived the 1880s restoration and suggests that this whole building was once perfectly splendid, although of course it must have been in a bit of a state by the time the restoration became necessary. The return for Upton at the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship illustrates in extremis the enthusiasm of East Anglian rural people for preaching rather than devotional worship. Upton and Fishley was a joint parish with a population of 568, but only four of that number lived in Fishley. Curiously, they were not ecclesiastically united, which is to say that they did not share an incumbent. By arrangement, the morning and afternoon services alternated between the two churches, and on the morning of the census just twenty-eight people attended divine service in Upton church, whilst there were more than a hundred present at Fishley church to hear the Sunday afternoon sermon. Meanwhile, almost a hundred people attended each of the services at Upton Primitive Methodist chapel, and there must have been others heading into the Wesleyan chapel at nearby Acle. The Anglican revival of the next half century would radically alter this situation.

Simon Knott, October 2022

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.


looking east looking west
north aisle altar chancel consecration cross and piscina


The Churches of East Anglia websites are non-profit-making. But if you enjoy using them and find them useful, a small contribution towards the cost of web space, train fares and the like would be most gratefully received. You can donate via Paypal.



home I index I latest I introductions I e-mail I about this site I glossary
Norwich I ruined churches I desktop backgrounds I round tower churches
links I small print I www.simonknott.co.uk I www.suffolkchurches.co.uk

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