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

St Mary, Attleborough


Attleborough north porch blocked chancel arch

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  St Mary, Attleborough

Attleborough is a pleasant little town, although it is sometimes put in the shade by Wymondham, its more famous neighbour. And this church too suffers by comparison with Wymondham Abbey, but it deserves to be better known. In some counties it would stand amongst the highest rank of churches. Pevsner considered it a very stately church in the middle of an uncommonly featureless little town, which seems harsh, for Attleborough has very much the character of a typical small East Anglian agricultural town, one of many.

The exterior of the church is a little odd, especially when seen from the east, for the tower is at the east end rather than the west. It is flanked by two long transepts which, taken together with the tower, form on their own a structure larger than some churches. However, the long, wide nave hides behind, for this was once a great Norman cruciform church with a central tower, and the old chancel has been lost. It was wide enough to have aisles, and it was taken down in 1541 after the college of priests had been closed. Not much of the Norman structure survives other than the lower part of the tower, for the church was considerably rebuilt in the mid-14th Century, the nave was given new arcades in the 15th Century, and the clerestories and roof were altered in the early 16th Century.

You enter through the large 15th Century north porch under a vaulted ceiling. There are five large bosses forming a rosary sequence, but unfortunately they have been whitewashed so many times over the years that they are barely legible. The central one shows the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin as the Queen of Heaven, which would have been the ultimate one in the sequence. Of the others, you can still make out the Annunciation and the Ascension of Christ. The two not pictured are probably the Nativity and the Resurrection.

1. Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin 4. Ascension of Christ 5. Coronation of the Queen of Heaven

The nave you step into is a wide open space made intimate by coloured glass in most of the windows. The famous Attleborough rood screen stands forward of the crossing and runs right across the nave and aisles, rising high to its original rood loft coving. Above it on the wall above the crossing arch is one of Norfolk's most singular wall paintings. It is on three levels. At the top are the remains of an Annunciation. In the middle row, prophets and angels cense the vanished crucifixion. At the bottom are the Blessed Virgin and St John, with two more censing angels.

The figures would originally have provided a backdrop to the rood. This would have consisted of a crucified Christ, and you can't help thinking that it would have been a mighty cross if the lower figures were to stand at its foot and the middle row of figures were to flank it. Most likely it rose beyond the lower window and up into the upper window, which might have provided a backlight as became fashionable towards the end of the medieval period. The sheer scale of the Attleborough screen beneath it makes it quite different in character to other East Anglian screens, almost as if it had a further purpose it is so fortress-like. It dates from about th mid-15th Century. A dedicatory inscription across the screen asks for prayers for the souls of Richard and Margaret Hart, Peter and Isabella Martyn and Thomas Cove, rector. Simon Cotton points out that Cove was rector here between 1424 and 1446, when he died. Peter Martyn's 1458 will left the considerable sum of two pounds to Attleborough church, and there was a further bequest to the screen in 1465, suggesting it was already under construction at this time.

the Attleborough rood prophets and saints flank the lost crucifixion
prophets and saints flank the lost crucifixion prophets and saints flank the lost crucifixion
Blessed Virgin and censing angel censing angel and St John

The screen has had a colourful history. About sixty years after its construction it was whitewashed, and improving quotations from the Bible were added including across the top Put thine trust in God with all thyne hearte, and leane notunto thyne owne wytt, in all thy ways have respect unto hym and he shall order thy goyngs, be not wyse in thyne own conceyte but feare the Lord and departe from evyle, so shall they navel be wholl and thy bones strong. 5 Proverbs. In the early 17th Century the arms of the various Bishoprics of England and Wales were added in a run along the top. Then, at the time of a reordering of the church in 1842, it was sold to a Norwich antique dealer for 40. He would have found an easy sale, either to a country house or even to a church which was in the first vanguard of the Oxford Movement and Camden Society's resacramentalisation of English churches. However, not unreasonably the Bishop of Norwich refused to allow the sale to go through. The parish had already removed the screen, so it was dumped at the back of the church, where it remained until 1932 when it was restored and reinstated.

The painted figures on the panels are close to life-size, and six of them survive in two separate groups. To the north, St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist flanking the Blessed Virgin and Child. On the south side St Thomas of Canterbury and St Bartholomew flank the Holy Trinity, consisting of God the Father seated on a throne with the crucified Son between his knees. Above Christ's head, the Holy Spirit descends as a dove. A dedicatory inscription runs across the screen, and there are scriptural texts from a hundred years later applied by the Elizabethans.

The Attleborough screen rood screen: St John the Baptist, Blessed Virgin and child, St John the Evangelist rood screen: St Thomas of Canterbury, Holy Trinity, St Bartholomew
rood loft rood loft
rood screen: St John the Baptist rood screen: Blessed Virgin and Child rood screen: St John the Evangelist
St Thomas of Canterbury Holy Trinity St Bartholomew
rood screen: 'orate pro animabus' rood screen: texts

The space beyond the screen is shadowy and enclosed, as if you had entered a series of rooms which unfold before you. After the cavernous nave, the sanctuary beneath the crossing is an intimate space. Back in the nave, the great cast iron lectern sits at the west end facing east, and the steps leading up to it are set curiously on a pair of serpents. It is recorded as having been in St Nicholas, King's Lynn originally. The late medieval font beyond it in the south aisle is of historical interest because it was originally at Booton before the church there was rebuilt in the 19th Century. In the south aisle near the font are the remains of a St Christopher wall painting above the south doorway which now forms the entrance to a modern extension. Below it is a large 17th Century poorbox wedged into the aisle wall.

The glass in the windows of the aisles is almost all early 20th Century, and comes from several different workshops, but it does not impose itself as much as it would in a smaller church. The best of it is an early 1930s Adoration of the Shepherds by AJ Davies of the Bromsgrove Guild. The Crucifixion and the Angel at the Empty Tomb are both by Heaton, Butler & Bayne in their familiar subdued First World War period style. Much older than any of these is the 1853 east window depicting the Crucifixion flanked by the Nativity and the Ascension, an early work by Powell & Sons. The west window contains restored fragmentary medieval glass, among them angel musicians and what the revised Buildings of England volume for Norfolk: North-West and South bizarrely describes as the Immaculate Conception! It is of course the Annunciation, and as this error isn't in the earlier Pevsner volumes it is not the good Doctor who is to blame.

Simon Knott, April 2023

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looking west sanctuary sanctuary
font looking west lectern
The angel and the women at the empty tomb (Heaton, Butler & Bayne c1915) Crucifixion (Heaton, Butler & Bayne c1915) Adoration (AJ Davies c1930) Nativity flanked by the Light of the World and the Good Shepherd Nativity, Crucifixion, Ascension (Powell & Sons, 1853)
five lights under a canopy Coronation of the Queen of Heaven donor at the feet of St Christopher


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