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St Mary and St Walstan, Bawburgh
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and St Walstan, Bawburgh
But Norwich is different to Ipswich, and it is different to the rest of Norfolk. As you enter the city you pass hoardings which proudly proclaim, in George Borrow's words, that you are entering Norwich, a Fine City! It is like crossing a forcefield. Norwich is a fine city, and it is also a small city; however, Norwich is so far from any other place of equivalent size - Ipswich is 40 miles away, Cambridge nearly 60 - that it is completely out of scale to its population. If Norwich were dropped into South or West Yorkshire, or Greater Manchester, it would disappear. Here, it assumes the importance of a Leeds or a Sheffield, cities four times as big.
St Walstan was a Prince, the son of Benedict and Blid of the royal house of East Anglia. Blid would herself become a Saint. He was born in Bawburgh, or perhaps at the royal vill of Blythburgh in Suffolk. As a teenager, he followed Christ's instruction to renounce all he possessed and become a disciple. Giving up his claims to succession, he did not delay to reach northern parts, as the Nova Legenda Anglie tells us, and humbled himself to be a farmworker in central Norfolk.
After a series of adventures that revealed his saintly character, one of which involved him being rewarded with a pair of young oxen, he received news in about 1015 from an Angel; he would die and be received into heaven in three days time. With typical East Anglian stoicism, he nodded his head and left his scythe to go and find a Priest to receive the Last Rites. Unfortunately, the Priest had no water, but, magically, a spring welled up where they stood.
This was in Taverham, and when Walstan died the two oxen carried his body on a cart to be buried at Bawburgh. On the way, they stopped to rest in Costessey, where another spring sprang up. At last, they came to Bawburgh. They stopped outside the church, and a third spring appeared, the biggest. And then, the Nova Legenda Anglie tells us, Angells opened the walls in hast, and the two oxen with their burden walked into the church. Walstan's body was placed in the church, becoming a site of pilgrimage for people who sought miracles and healing. Eleven miracles have been handed down to us.
During the late 14th century, when acts of pilgrimage were at their most significant, thousands of people must have made their way every year. On the north side of the church was the chapel that contained his bones. From this, a sunken pathway led down the steep hill to the well on the site of the third spring. Incredibly, this pathway was destroyed as recently as 1999, to be replaced by a sterile driveway that circumnavigates the farm to the north of the church.
The date of the Walstan legend is interesting, right on the eve of the Norman settlement of England. It is almost exactly contemporary with that much more famous legend, the founding of the shrine at Walsingham by Lady Richeldis. Could it be that the cults endured as a form of resistance by the Saxons, popular local legends in the face of Norman cultural hegemony? or was it that the Normans themselves who ensured that these popular pieities continued, nurturing them in the place of surviving pagan practices?
My good friend Peter Stephens lives in Bawburgh, and so I was particularly looking forward to seeing this church. In the winter just gone, Peter and I had spent several days of somewhat unpredictable weather exploring the churches of central Norfolk, and so I took it as a sign when we got to Bawburgh that the sun came out against all the odds. There were to be blizzards later in the day, and the temperature was still barely above freezing, but for a moment there was a feeling that spring was in the air, the earth renewing itself, the long cold winter coming to an end. I was pleased to be here, and I think Peter was too.
On the north side of the nave there is a large archway, a filled-in opening. For a moment I was tempted to think this was the wall the Angells had opened in hast, but it was probably the entrance to the later chapel of St Walstan, since this wall post-dates the St Walstan legend by 300 years.
The remains of the 15th century roodscreen are made up rather dramatically into an early 20th century screen with bubbly cusping and a canopy of honour above, all of it unpainted. It is difficult to know how they resisted painting it, but I am glad that they did, because it suits the simplicity of the building just as it is.
Set in between them is a late 17th century brass inscription and shield to a minister of this church, Philip Tenison. It is quite fitting that it should be here, because Tenison was an antiquarian at a time when such things were looked on with grave suspicion, and Carol Twinch notes that he recorded information about the Walstan shrine here that might otherwise have been lost to us. Deprived of his living by the Puritans, he later became an Archdeacon after the Restoration, in which case the date of 1660 here is obviously wrong.
This is a wonderful collection of late medieval brasses, and is extraordinary that so much has survived. Only a couple have been stolen, but it is clear an attempt has been made on the life of the smaller shroud brass; it has been broken in half, and the lower part protrudes upwards. It is firmly secured, but it is possibly the reason that the central brasses in the chancel are covered, to stop anyone tripping on it. Unfortunately, the carpets are drawing the moisture through the stone, and these five brasses were absolutely soaked, the latten oxidising. Perhaps the parish will find another way of caring for them.
The most vivid memory of the past at Bawburgh is the superb collection of late medieval glass in the most easterly windows on both sides of the nave. Best of all is the wonderful St Barbara, as good as anything else in Norfolk. She stands proudly, holding her church. Across the nave is a lavely fragment of an Annunciation scene.
It is rather moving to find them in the same window as the Annunciation, which features words which would be familiar to pilgrims from both the Ave Maria and the Magnificat. It is easy to imagine them sitting telling their beads at a journey's end, contemplating this glass.
At the west end of the church is a small patch of wall painting which defies easy interpretation. It is obviously two separate subjects, the upper appearing to be two figures embracing, the lower a roundel topped by indecipherable text. It is likely that they are part of a Seven Works of Mercy sequence, which was often placed on the western wall of a smaller church like this.
Simon Knott, March 2006
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