Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Salle, Norfolk

Salle (pronounced ‘Saul’) is a parish remote from the centres of population in deepest Norfolk. It was never a very populous area and today the church stands on its own, just across the road from the cricket ground and visible for miles. The tall, slender, tower dominates, of course. 130 feet high, its slenderness masks its size. It is constructed of flint but with Barnack stone dressings. Flint is the local building material in East Anglia – limestone does not occur locally but had to be imported from quarries a hundred miles away in Northamptonshire, Rutland and Lincolnshire, places like Ancaster, Barnack, Clipsham and Weldon. The parapet of the tower is rather later, and can be dated c. 1511. Not the least of the tower’s pleasures are the beautifully traceried ‘sound holes’ half way up (in reality ventilation holes for the mediaeval bellringers.

You approach the church from the west; go through the lychgate and prepare to enter through the large door in the west face of the tower. Like the main doorways of the nave, this is the original 15th c. woodwork. Before you enter, you are struck by the two large stone angels swinging thuribles carved into the doorway, and also note the carved arms of local families above your head, along with the Royal Arms of Henry V as Prince of Wales 1405-1413 (which help date the start of the building campaign). Salle is organic, early Perpendicular, architecture, without the somewhat machine-made feel that can dominate the later work on into the Tudor period.

In front of you along the east-west axis is the font, one of the family of the Seven Sacrament fonts that are almost exclusive to Norfolk and Suffolk. Its octagonal bowl features carvings of the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church, the eighth face with the Crucifixion, all rather battered, probably in the 17th century. The font is still topped by its original towering pinnacled wooden cover. Once abreast of the font, you now can appreciate the sheer size of the building, with a vast nave with north and south aisles and transepts, and an immense chancel beyond, stretching into the distance. Some cathedrals are smaller.

Both aisles retain their mediaeval porches, the north porch’s upper room having been a chapel and it still retains the piscina beside a vanished altar. The south porch has the arms of Thomas Brigg, its builder, who asked to be buried in the south transept at his death in 1444. The 18th century antiquarian Tom Martin recorded an inscription in a nave window to Thomas Boleyn, who died in 1411. Former inscriptions recorded that the chancel was finished in 1440, the same year as the north transept. So we have a picture of a church begun around 1400 and completed 40 years later.

Mention of the names Brigg and Boleyn is a reminder of the local families who built the church, along with the Brewes, Fountaine, Kerdeston and Shardelow families, amongst others. And yes, Anne Boleyn was a member of that family, though she probably never lived in Salle. 

The quality of the building work is paralleled by the furnishings, some of which survive – memorial brasses in the floor, and stained glass. Most of the original glass has gone, but those pieces that do survive particularly in the chancel east window and the transepts are of high quality. The roofs are the original early 15th century ones; magnificent carved bosses depicting scenes from the Life of Christ adorn the chancel roof, the nave roof has angels and a little of its original painting. The pulpit was perhaps in place for the priest to proclaim the victory at Agincourt; succeeding centuries supplied 17th c. altar rails, and desks added to the pulpit transforming it into a three-decker. The interior is a pleasing ensemble, with woodwork mellowed and textured silver by the passage of time. 

In the opinion of many good judges (and this writer) Salle is the finest 15th c. church in the whole of East Anglia. Come here if you can; the church is open all day. You may well be on your own. Sit down, commune with God in silence, the only noise the quiet insistent tick of the clock high in the tower. 

I first visited Salle church half a century ago. Back in 1996, I was being interviewed for a teaching post, when the interviewer (who like me came from Norfolk) alluded to the reference in my CV to using mediaeval documents to date Norfolk churches. “What is the best church in Norfolk?” he asked. I paused for perhaps five seconds before uttering the one word, “Salle”. I think that it was the correct answer. 

More about Salle can be found here:-

– W. L. E. Parsons, Salle, Norwich, Jarrold, 1937.

– Eamon Duffy, “Salle Church and the Reformation”, in Saints, Sacrilege & Sedition, London, Bloomsbury, 2012, pp. 83-107.

– Julian Flannery, Fifty English Steeples, London, Thames and Hudson, 2016, pp. 286-293.

– Online: