Thurifer is church crawling
Mary’s month of October sees me back in Norfolk and its rich heritage of churches. Standing in splendid and imposing isolation, the church of St Mary the Virgin, Erpingham long ago lost its village, now a mile or so away, but continues to dominate the surrounding fields. There is a medieval brass to Sir John Erpingham. His son was Sir Thomas, who fought at Agincourt and is a character in Shakespeare’s Henry V. He lies entombed in Norwich Cathedral where there is also an Erpingham Gate. He was born in the village in 1357 and built the church. He was a gallant soldier, not least under John of Gaunt, in battles in Scotland. He also saw action with the Teutonic Knights in Poland at Danzig (modern day Gdansk). In the years before Agincourt he was involved in battles at Prague, Jerusalem, Vienna, Venice, Cyprus, Turin, Paris. He was perhaps something of a mercenary, though a valiant one, and shared the exile of Henry Bolingbroke. He was a Knight of the Garter and was instrumental in gaining a new charter for Norwich. He died in 1428. The church has a catholic ethos, possibly the legacy of one its twentieth century incumbents, Fr Raby. A red light shines beside a portrait of the Royal Martyr, King Charles I, as well as those for Our Lady and several saints and the Reserved Sacrament in an oddly situated aumbry on the east wall. But not is all that it appears. The east window is a modern reproduction of disparate Flemish, German and French fourteenth and fifteenth century glass. The original had been on loan from Blickling Hall but the National Trust was not satisfied that its conservation was secure in the church and it was returned to the Hall. There is a pleasing rood screen which turned out originally to have been the frame of a reredos. A statue of Our Lady is from Vanpoulles and there is a charming angel in medieval stained glass in the east window of the south aisle. The font is also an import and its rich figurative decoration survived the Norfolk iconoclasts. The church is well worth a visit.
Also isolated from the village it serves, but on not so imposing a mound, is the parish church of Salle—pronounced Saul—dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. It is also a huge and distinctive church for so small a population (50) and is an outstanding example of the Perpendicular. The tower of stone and flint is among the best in East Anglia. Features to look out for include a range of fifteenth century misericords, a pulpit from the same era, and medieval stained glass survivals in the south transept. The font has panels depicting the seven sacraments. Panels of the battered rood screen survive, but the four Latin Doctors of the Church are identifiable on the door panels. Several wealthy medieval families contributed to the church and are commemorated in brasses and brass inlays in the nave. Among them can be found Simon Boleyn, priest (obiit 1489) and the grandparents of Queen Anne Boleyn, Geoffrey and Alice. Do not forget to look up and admire that vast roof and the several bosses which depict the joyful and sorrowful mysteries of the rosary.
Not far away there is another magnificent roof, at Cawston in St Agnes. Its tower dominates the surrounding countryside and the church is another fine example of the Perpendicular. The rich interior is rewarding. Angels are depicted between the hammer beams of the roof and on the posts, traces of original paint can be seen and the roof is regarded as one of the finest in the diocese. Above the chancel arch can be discerned faint traces of a doom painting. There is a very fine rood screen (more survives than at Salle) which is among the best that you are likely to see. On the gates are Saints Gregory, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine of Hippo. Among the panels can be seen St Agnes and her lamb, Saints Peter, Paul, Andrew and other of the Apostles (St Matthew wears spectacles). The is also a much damaged image of Sir John Schorn who was the object of a local cultus; as such he may have roused the particular ire of the protestant iconoclasts. Although the rood is worth detailed viewing, do not miss some lovely stained glass, not least angels playing musical instruments: commonplace imagery but well executed here. The glories of the church lie in the nave, and in comparison the chancel is modest; but look at the misericords and their carvings, not least one of a dragon.
Although there was an enormous amount of protestant vandalism throughout England, Norfolk still has treasures that speak of a pre-Reformation church and society. East Anglia was particularly unlucky to have spawned William Dowsing. Suffolk-born, he was the Provost-Marshall of the Parliamentary Army in East Anglia. In 1643 he was appointed commissioner for the ‘destruction of monuments of idolatry and superstition’ to implement a parliamentary ordinance of that year. Dowsing had a particular animus against angels as well as altar rails, chancel steps, stone altars, crucifixes, holy water stoops, images of Our Lady and the saints, all of which fell under his beady and suspicious eye. He was not alone. Many happily joined him in his year-long progress through Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. He kept a journal of his iconoclasm: a rich, if dispiriting, source for the period.