Acle Fishley Hoveton Ingham Neatishead
South Walsham St Lawrence South Walsham St Mary
Stalham Sutton Wroxham

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

St Edmund, Acle

Crowned beauty - St Edmund of Acle

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    St Edmund, Acle

Norfolk has some pretty little towns. But Acle is not one of them, I think. It seemed to me a dour place, as if it had sold its soul in exchange for profiting from the needs of Broadland holidaymakers. And it was the only place all day where I felt I was taking my life in my hands when I crossed the road. The town has no real centre; the church, for example, is in the outskirts at an anonymous traffic junction.

Having said all that, St Edmund is a fine building, with a pretty turreted round tower. The bell stage is a lovely Decorated adornment to the Norman tower, dating as it does from the 13th century rather than from the 15th as you more frequently find. There is a thatched nave and a good mixture of medieval window traceries. A very late roodstair turret has been truncated, but is still striking. Beside it, a lowside window is set in an ogee-arched alcove. And that is just the exterior. For, just as outside it is not at all typical for an urban church, so the inside is similarly full of survivals of earlier times. St Edmund quite puts its town in the shade.

You step down into an interior which has been restored neatly but not overwhelmingly. As I said before, this does not have the feel of an urban church. In front of you is one of the two great treasures of St Edmund, the 15th century font.

Curiously, the dedicatory inscription reveals 1410 as the year of the donation, but not the name of the donor. Four of the eight panels contain symbols of the four evangelists. Angels alternate with formal images in the other four panels. One angel holds a shield depicting the instruments of Christ's passion. Another holds a shield depicting the symbol of the Holy Trinity. More powerful than this, the very rare medieval image of the Holy Trinity has also survived on this font; God the Father sits on a throne, holding the crucified Christ between his knees while the dove of the Holy Spirit descends. God's face has been smashed, probably by 16th century Anglican iconoclasts. The current face is a later restoration. Hauntingly, the stone cross still has the fixings for the body of Christ, which may have been made of wood or metal.

Opposite, the Holy Mother of God weeps with her dead Son on her lap. This image has also had its faces smashed out. As with the image of God the Father, the more enlightened Victorians restored them sensitively, but I suspect Mary's face was originally more anguished - today, she appears rather serene. The whole piece is breathtaking, particularly since it retains much of its original colour. You can see images of some of the panels below. After the Reformation (but not before the faces could be smashed) it would have been plastered over before the Victorian restoration led to its being revealed. What does it all mean? This font is an act of Catholic catechesis. It depicts images that are at once devotional and instructional, allowing the people to both use it as a focus for prayer, but also to form an understanding of doctrine. For this above all, it was broken and hidden from view.

Acle's screen is intricate and lovely, the narrow chancel arch making it taller than it is wide. The dado panels are painted in familiar reds and greens, and stencilled with monograms of St Edmund, an E interspliced with the martyr king's arrows. A modern rood group sits above the screen, but how elegant the whole thing must have looked in medieval times with its rood loft thrusting forward and running the full width of the nave! There were stairways to the loft on both sides; as mentioned before, the external stairwell survives on the south side, and on the north side the space has been filled in with a lovely modern window.

Stepping through into the chancel, you can see the other great treasure of the building. This is a large graffito scrawled on to the north wall. It was written during a time of pestilence, and reveals something of the human misery that is often hidden from us in history books. It was uncovered in the early 20th century, but for many years had to be covered to stop it fading. It has now been fully restored, and is protected behind glass. It is written in Latin, and is incomplete, because a later window punched through part of it. In translation, it is at once a hopeless cry for help and a call for prayer, an anguished reflection on the prevailing circumstances:

Oh lamentable death, how many dost thou cast into the pit!
Anon the infants fade away, and of the aged death makes an end.
Now these, now those, thou ravagest, O death on every side;
Those that wear horns or veils, fate spareth not.
Therefore, while in the world the brute beast plague rages hour by hour,
With prayer and with remembrance deplore death's deadliness.

Dating of such things is not an exact science, but there are a couple of clues that suggest an answer. Firstly, the use of Latin and the call to prayers for the dead suggest this is before the 16th century Reformation. Secondly, the use of the words 'horns' and 'veils' seems to refer not to sinners and the righteous, but to lay and religious women - the horns probably are the horned headress which was popular in the middle years of the 14th century. Almost certainly, then, this graffito coincides with the Black Death, a particularly virulent outbreak of bubonic plague which swept through western Europe in 1348 and 1349.

How terrifying. I wonder who wrote it? The Parish Priest? Was he holed up in the church saying Masses for the dead while all around the pestilence grew and took its toll? In Norfolk, the Death of 1349 carried away about half the population. Few and far between must have been the families unaffected. It changed the world for ever.

It is worth pointing out that, like wallpaintings, this graffito survived because East Anglia did not succumb to the Victorian fashion for raking out internal plaster to reveal bare stone. This is because there is no stone - Acle, as with almost all medieval churches in Norfolk and Suffolk, was built out of flint and clunch. Dispensing with the plaster wasn't an option.

Standing here in awe may distract you from the brass beneath, but it is worthy of note. It depicts Thomas Stone, Vicar here during the reign of James I. It is the only 17th century brass of a minister in the whole of Norfolk. What a pity it is mounted on the wall! I know that parishes do this with the best of intentions, but it is a mistake. If there was a fire, the brass would melt. Floor mounted brasses don't melt - the heat rises away from them.

Also here in the chancel is a pretty roundel of glass depicting the Holy Mother of God. I suspect that it is a modern replica, but it is very lovely all the same. It matches the Lady altar in the nave in being simple and devotional. I decided I liked this church a great deal.

Simon Knott, September 2004

You can also read: an introduction to some Broadland churches I

   

Looking west towards the font Looking east towards the screen The screen The sanctuary Monogram of St Edmund on the screen modern window in the former roodstair embrasure
Font: Holy Trinity symbol Font: Holy Trinity Font: Pieta Font: Pieta (detail)
Font: Instruments of the Passion Font: lions Westwards, a narrow church South side of the screen
Inscription and brass 'O lamentable death...' Acle's unique brass Royal Arms
Lady altarReplica glass

an introduction to some Broadland churches I

Acle Fishley Hoveton Ingham Neatishead
South Walsham St Lawrence South Walsham St Mary
Stalham Sutton Wroxham

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