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

St Mary Magdalen, Warham

Warham St Mary Magdalene

buttressed priest door Roy and Billa Harrod Founder of the Norfolk Churches Trust

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St Mary Magdalen, Warham

You might think that East Anglia in general, and north Norfolk in particular, have more than their fair share of medieval churches given the population, but of course this is a reminder that they were not built for congregational worship but for the devotional liturgies of the medieval Catholic church. You might also think that Warham is doubly greedy, for this little village has not one but two medieval churches at either end of its street. There were two ecclesiastical parishes here once, and as each church had many functions beyond mere attendance at Mass, they thrived. After the Reformation the parishes were united, that of St Mary Magdalen being subsumed into that of All Saints, and this church became a chapel of ease to what was now Warham's parish church. Even so they are less than a mile apart, and as Norfolk's rural population fell through the second half of the 19th Century this church fell increasingly into disuse. Eventually, it was nearly lost to us, but we'll come back to that.

The setting is unusual, for the churchyard is fronted to the street by a high wall with heavy wrought-iron gates, perhaps a product of the iron workers at Thornham. It has an air of privacy about it, as if this were a private cemetery rather than a churchyard. The church is simple, aisleless and relatively small. Outwardly it appears a 14th Century piece adapted in the following century, but looking more closely you can see that this was basically an elaboration of a Norman church from which the blocked north doorway and the lower part of the tower remain. The priest doorway in the chancel south wall has a buttress over it as at Knapton in east Norfolk, for which there seems to be no reason other than fashion. Stepping into the church through the south porch comes as something of a quiet surprise, for your first sight is of an elegant little birdbath font and box pews crammed either side of the brick pamment floor, a triple-decker pulpit rising like a tree beyond. From the chancel, the doors into the brick-built 18th Century Turner mausoleum are heavy, white and wooden, with vertical metal bars. You step through into a space that is completely bare, the Turners remembered by the ledger stones in the floor.

There was an exceptionally early restoration of this church in 1801, and Pevsner records that it was at the hands of William Jary of Binham under the instruction of the Reverend WH Langton. As such it is pre-ecclesiological, and it gives the interior its entirely Georgian character, as if this might be a church in a Jane Austen novel. However, the Reverend Langton was not finished there. In the early 19th Century there was a fashion for beautifying churches as places of worship with coloured glass. Eventually the demand would create an enormous stained glass industry in this country, but at this early date the easiest way of achieving it was by installing old glass imported from abroad. There was a considerable market for this, and it was supplied by churches, monasteries and abbeys closed or sacked during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars - and, it must be said, by other continental churches who saw it as a way of making a bit of money. One of the main dealers was JC Hampp of Norwich, and in 1806 Langton bought a large collection of continental glass from Hampp and had it set here in the chancel.

Transfiguration, Christ with Moses and Elijah (continental, 16th Century) Christ's entry into Jerusalem on a young colt (continental, 16th Century)
Betrayal of Christ: the Kiss of Judas and St Peter attacks the High Priest's servant (continental, 16th Century) Christ and his mother (continental, 16th Century) Deposition of Christ (continental, 16th Century)
Christ's entry into Jerusalem (continental, 16th Century) St John the Baptist (continental, 16th Century) Christ and St Thomas?  (continental, 16th Century) the dead Christ taken down from the cross (continental, 16th Century)
Christ with a group of men (continental, 16th Century) three women (continental, 16th Century) abbots and abbesses (continental, 16th Century) pope and cardinals (continental, 16th Century)
fragments (continental, 16th Century) fragments (continental, 16th Century) fragments: Adoration of the Shepherds? (continental, 16th Century)
Daniel (continental, 16th Century) Gerhardt Thenhaef and Wendelina Canille 1628

The glass is mostly German, and relatively early for imported glass being mainly from the 16th Century. Large panel scenes depict scenes from a Passion sequence: Christ enters Jerusalem on a young colt, he is betrayed by a kiss, crucified, taken down from the cross and buried. Two crowded panels depict white-robed abbots and abbesses with croziers and a pope with cardinals. Gordon Plumb tells me that they are fragments of a scene showing Mary sheltering Cistercians under her cloak and came from the cloister of the monastery at Altenberg. Other fragmentary scenes show St John the Baptist and, I think, Christ with St Thomas. A tall panel of King David is set in the west window. Some of the glass has inscriptions, and some of it is dated, as was common in north European glass of the time. A large panel of a man dispensing charity has 1569 under his feet, and beneath that an inscription remembers the marriage of Gerhardt Thethaef and Wendelina Canisia in 1628.

As if that were not enough, there is also a considerable collection of medieval English fragments reset on the north side of the nave. It is not clear to me if they came from this church originally or if they were also bought from JC Hampp, who was also in the market for such pieces. I suspect the latter given that the great majority of the fragments depict heads. Most are clearly angel heads with the bubbly hair familiar from work of the Norwich school of glass, some are female saints and there are some tonsured heads too. They are generally arranged in pairs, and the two angel musicians in the centre, sometimes nicknamed Lennon and McCartney, will be familiar to many from photographs.

looking in (15th Century) angel musicians (15th Century) angel head (15th Century)
angel head and crowned head (15th Century) angel heads (15th Century) angel with pipe and prayer wheel, female head, crown and book (15th Century)
censing angel (15th Century) Blessed Virgin at the Coronation of the Queen of Heaven and at the Annunciation (15th Century) angel head with 'alleluia' scroll, Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation with 'ecce ancilla (domini)' scroll (15th Century)
two tonsured heads, one female head  (15th Century) happy lion (15th Century) fragments: censing angel, female saint, peasant (15th Century)
angel musician, crowned female head (15th Century) angel head, female head (15th Century) fragments: female head, angel head (15th Century)
fragments: hands holding hands, donor with a scroll (15th Century) figure wearing a cap, angel bowing a viol, overflowing font (15th Century) fragments (15th Century) demonic fragments (15th Century)

I mentioned earlier that this church was almost lost to us. It was one of dozens of Norfolk churches declared surplus to requirements in the 1960s. The Brooke report considered what should be done with those in the city of Norwich, of which 24 were redundant. It concluded that they should be demolished, the land sold for development and the money used to build new churches out in the suburbs where they would be more needed. This would, of course, have set a precedent for the rest of Norfolk, and for the rest of England. Enter the redoubtable Lady Wilhelmine 'Billa' Harrod, lover of all things Norfolk and old. She confronted the Brooke report and defeated it. She set up the Norfolk Churches Trust, which used the expertise of prominent people to arrange the conveying of leases on redundant churches to those who would care for them and love them. On occasions, the Trust took on the lease of the building itself if those who loved it could not afford to.

One of the remarkable things about Billa Harrod is that she was not content with finding new uses for old churches. She was convinced that they should be retained for worship wherever this was possible. Amazingly, churches like those nearby at Waterden and Cockthorpe, which had been out of use since the 1930s and were in a near ruinous condition, were rescued by the Norfolk Churches Trust in the 1980s and returned to use. Warham St Mary Magdalen was another of the churches that the Trust championed. Billa Harrod was also committed to churches being open to pilgrims and strangers, encouraging rescued buildings to be open twenty-four hours a day if possible, and certainly daily where not. A committed Anglo-Catholic, she saw them as sacramental spaces, not as mere preaching boxes. She developed the concept of Pilgrim Churches, an idea whose time has still not come, but may ultimately be important for rescuing medieval churches from disuse. Her greatest legacy, perhaps, was not that she saved Norfolk churches from destruction, but that she convinced so many other people that this was a worthwhile thing to do.

We cannot spare a single Norfolk church, wrote her close friend Sir John Betjeman in his foreword to her Norfolk Country Churches and the Future, published by the Norfolk Society in 1972. When a church has been pulled down the country seems empty or is like a necklace with a jewel missing... Norfolk is a faithful county to have kept so many of its churches standing through the centuries. Like St Mary Magdalene herself, it has not suggested selling its precious gift to give to the poor, but has known the true value of witness to the faith. God save the Norfolk parish churches. In saving them, we will keep Norfolk the treasure for the future that it is today.

By one of those curious coincidences that inevitably occur from time to time, the day on which I first set foot in this church in May 2005 was the day that Lady Harrod died. Her funeral was held in this church six days later, and she is buried to the west of the church with her husband, the world-renowned economist Sir Roy Harrod. A lettered tablet inside the church on the south side of the nave remembers her as the founder of the Norfolk Churches Trust, and rejoices appropriately, in the words of Psalm 122, I was glad when they said unto me let us go into the House of the Lord. In five hundred years time, historians may wonder how it was that so many medieval churches survived the steep religious decline of the late 20th Century. I suspect that Lady Harrod would not wish them to remember her, but would merely be content that it was so.

Simon Knott, May 2022

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looking east sanctuary Hanoverian arms and birdbath font
Charity (continental, 16th Century) Gospel scenes (continental, 16th Century) panels (continental, 16th Century) Daniel (continental, 16th Century)


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