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

St Nicholas, Woodrising

Woodrising: charming

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overgrown you could easily miss it long shadows
surrounded by trees south aisle east end

    St Nicholas, Woodrising

It was getting late in the day. We'd had the benefit of the first really lovely day of the year, a bright and crisp combination of sunshine and frost. But now the sun was low in the sky, sending long shadows as if the gleaming tops of buildings were peeping from a grey fog. And so we came to Woodrising.

  This village has a beautiful name, and is set among the woodlands and valleys south of the Letton Hall estate.The road through is a fairly swift one, and you might easily miss St Nicholas, not least because the tower collapsed in the early 18th century. It has never been rebuilt, or even tidied up, and is now a charming, overgrown ruin at the west end of the church. Set back behind cottages as it is, and surrounded by trees at a bend in the road, you might not even recognise St Nicholas as a church unless you looked more closely.

When the tower collapsed, the bell frame was moved to a corner of the graveyard, and covered with a thatched roof. It is still there today, and currently contains one 19th century bell.

I wondered if the ruin of the tower, as charming as it is, might give an indication of the inside of the church, but this was not the case at all. St Nicholas inside is a delight. The slanting light played across venerable oak and creamy stone, picking out the brass of the candelabras. A play of light and shadow on the south arcade and chancel arch created a sense of unfolding spaces, of rooms opening off each other, a chiaroscuro effect.

The chancel arch has two of the most characterful corbel heads I've ever seen. That behind the pulpit particularly; he is yawning wildly, which may even be appropriate sometimes.

The south aisle extends eastwards beyond the chancel arch for a bay, with a raised platform at its eastern end and a table tomb separating aisle from chancel. There is no name on the tomb, and the brass inlay is now empty. It is old enough to be contemporary with the Witchingham family when they were Lords of the Manor here. Curiously, there are two squints into the chancel, one at each end of the tomb, suggesting that there was an altar against the east wall, and another at the west end of the tomb.


As Mortlock observes, there is a most agreeable lack of symmetry. The west end of the church is taken up by a narrow gallery, and at the top is one of East Anglia's six surviving church barrel organs. The benches are understated 19th century attempts at late medieval. It is a well-kept yet slightly ramshackle interior, a collection of bits and pieces from every century that give St Nicholas a character all of its own. I liked it a lot. I couldn't think of another church quite like it, and it has stuck in my memory since.

Moses   Aaron   And in the chancel there are more surprises. The decalogue boards are tall portraits of Moses and Aaron holding the tablets of stone. Both look sombre in the austere sanctuary.

On the north side of the chancel, set in a cage of columns in a place where there'd have been an Easter Sepulchre a few years earlier, is the 1564 effigy of Sir Richard Southwell. He wasn't a very nice person; 'unscrupulous' is the word Mortlock chooses to describe a man who was vain, treacherous and self-seeking. Adopted by the Duke of Norfolk after the death of his father, Southwell was brought up with the young Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, only to betray him to the authorities in 1547. Surrey was executed for treason, but Southwell went on to achieve power and fame.

If the Southwells are remembered at all today, however, it is only because of Sir Richard's grandson Robert, who was a Saint - quite literally. While at Cambridge University, Robert was received back into the Catholic faith that his grandfather had renounced, and went off to the continent to train for the Priesthood. Returning to England a Jesuit Priest, he was considered fair game for the authorities, despite his noble birth. In 1594 he was captured, tortured and interrogated.

On the 21st of February 1595, he was led out to die at Tyburn. Hung by the neck until he began to lose consciousness, he was cut down, and his genitals were removed and his bowels wound out, both being consigned to the fire in front of his eyes. His arms and legs were hacked off, and at last he was beheaded. He was just 34 years old.

By a great irony, Henry Howard's grandson Philip also became a Catholic, and was similarly sentenced to death, although mercifully he died in prison before the sentence could be carried out. In 1970, they were both added to the Canon of Saints by Pope Paul VI as two of the Blessed Martyrs of England and Wales.

  view from the porch
    The Howards and the Southwells intermarried, despite Sir Richard's betrayal. A brass inscription in the sanctuary remembers Robert Southwell's uncle, another Robert, who was also the son of Henry Howard's sister Elizabeth. It must have seemed a very small world.

Simon Knott, January 2006


looking east looking south-east into the aisle south aisle barrel organ
looking west font and south aisle two squints into the chancel notice in porch
Sir Richard Southwell (boo, hiss) hatchments Robert Southwell
rector's eye view looking into the south aisle from the chancel

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