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

St Michael, Aylsham


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St Michael, Aylsham

There are of course many differences between the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. One of them is that Norfolk is bigger, and another is that Norfolk's market towns tend to be smaller, meaning that they assume a local importance out of all proportion to their size. Aylsham, for example, has a population of under nine thousand, but it has a sense of being the Big Town for local villages for miles around. It is also one of the fastest growing places in Norfolk, its population almost doubling over the last thirty years, as if it was trying to be catch up and be big enough for its parish church, which is one of the largest in Norfolk. St Michael is everything a small town Anglican parish church should be, with the exterior glories of the Middle Ages, and internally the confidence and directness of Victorian and later civic pride, tempered by the modern low key liturgical values of much of the Church of England. It is neither too High, with a provocative Big Six silver candlesticks on the altar and a smell of incense, or too Low, with budget chairs in a half circle, banners and an overhead projector screen. Stepping into St Michael, you feel the sturdy self-confidence of the centuries and you know that you could not be in any other country in the world.

Although it is a big church it is not an imposing one in the manner of, say, nearby North Walsham's grand parish church. It sprawls in a kind of close that at once separates it from the market square and defines it as a place apart. There are aisles and clerestories in the familiar late medieval manner, but a substantial south transept and south porch dominate the view as you approach, the church behind seeming low and sprawling rather than rising to dominate. It is a memorable exterior if not, perhaps, an exciting one. The tower is topped off with a small 18th Century wooden framed lead fleche. Externally, the oldest part of the building is the tower which went up in the 14th Century, a start of a major rebuilding programme over the course of a century and a half. The porch and transept were added in the late 15th Century to an older church. This time must also have brought the extension eastwards of the aisles to form chancel chapels, although we will need to be cautious about using the window tracery to date the structures, for as Pevsner points out the church was drastically restored in the 1840s by Edmund Yates the vicar, who was an early adopter of Oxford Movement and Camden Society principles. Much of the window tracery dates from this time.

The impact on entering is entirely that of an urban church. The west end of the nave is raised to form a hospitality area, and then steps lead down into the nave. The 1840s font is an attempt at the 15th Century style, not entirely successfully. It's either a complete recutting of an older font or a new one from scratch, but whichever it is you can't help thinking that even a decade later they would have kept the medieval one as it was. Similarly, Yates removed the older benching which seems mostly to have consisted of box pews, and replaced it with the prim range of benches that crowd up the middle of the nave. Indeed, not much at all survived this restoration, but the major exception is the dado of the rood screen.

There are no fewer than sixteen panels, and it seems unlikely that the screen ever stretched across the church, the chancel chapels likely having parclose screens of their own. A dedicatory inscription at the north end of the aisle asks us to pray for the souls of Thomas Wymer, Joan and Margaret his wives and John Jannys. It is dated 1507, but the curiosity is that the screen is older than this by perhaps half a century. These first four panels appear to be painted later on paper, and stuck on over earlier paintings, in the manner familiar from the Lessingham screen. The inscription also tells us that the donors caused this part to be gilded, suggesting an upgrade for an already existing screen. The first three panels depict Margaret and Thomas Wymer separated by St Thomas. After these follow a sequence of the other ten disciples beginning with St James the Less and also with St John the Baptist and St Paul, making sixteen altogether. Interestingly, the last five panels appear to be by the same hand as the first four, and conclude with John Jannys, the other donor.

the Aylsham rood screen donors rood screen: St John the Baptist rood screen: St John the Baptist and St Peter
rood screen (north) rood screen (south)

Given that Yates' restoration removed or destroyed so much, it is ironic that it also brought this church its most notable feature, its mid-19th Century glass.White's Norfolk Directory of 1845 unusually goes on at great length about this church, a fascinating snapshot of a Norfolk church right at the start of the 19th Century revival, and you can only assume that the notes were supplied by Edmund Yates himself. It records that the large east window, and that on the south side of the altar, were filled with stained glass in 1842-3 representing various saints, arms, etc. Several windows on the north and south sides were similarly decorated in 1844, and all the designs are admirably executed by Mr Yarington of Norwich. Samuel Yarington's workshop was the busiest in Norfolk in the first half of the 19th Century, and the Aylsham glass came towards the end of his career when the nationwide stained glass industry was still just getting going. Yarington's east window is the largest surviving example of his work, depicting St Peter, St James, St John and St Andrew. As you might expect with Yarington some of the other glass incorporates older fragments, the kneeling knight on the south side of the sanctuary and the entire figure of St John in one of the south side windows being of 16th Century German origin.

The other major mid-19th Century glass is in the south chancel chapel. This is by Charles Clutterbuck and depicts Moses demonstrating the brazen serpent to his followers. This is painted in enamel, and as Birkin Haward observed it has deteriorated. Clutterbuck's studio was at Stratford in east London, and although the glass is a decade or so later than Yarrington's it is still not in the preferred ecclesiological style. This is because Clutterbuck was enamoured of old techniques and designs, and so his glass can sometimes appear earlier than it is. Over in the north chancel chapel a contemporary window is an early work by Clayton & Bell, bursting onto the scene to show what the rest of the century would be like.

All this was new at the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, and yet there was still work to be done. Of Aylsham's parish population of 2,741 almost a thousand people attended a service at one of Aylsham's four non-conformist chapels that day. There are no figures given for the Anglican parish church, and so perhaps it was closed for restoration at the time, although it is unlikely that any of the faithful Anglican parishioners would have attended a chapel instead. They would more likely have headed off to a neighbouring parish church, perhaps Blickling, Banningham or Burgh-next-Aylsham. The energetic Yates, filling in the return, noted that the church had very bad accommodation for the poor, badly pewed, and that of the 910 sittings, which is to say the seating capacity of the church, 850 were paid for, with only 90 of them free. Within a year or so this would be remedied as Yates ripped out the rented box pews and replaced them with free seating for hundreds of people. One can only imagine what the Aylsham gentry and middle classes thought of this.

Simon Knott, November 2022

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looking east sanctuary looking west
font Moses and the serpent St Peter, St James, St John, St Andrew St John under St Philip, St Paul, St James the Less and St Bartholomew
St John the Baptist St John the Baptist kneeling king


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