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

St Mary, Binham

Binham

Binham Binham (photographed 2004) Binham
Binham Binham (photographed 2004) rose window

looking towards the crossing from the south transept looking east from the crossing looking north from the crossing
looking west from the high altar looking west from the high altar looking north from the choir

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St Mary, Binham

North Norfolk is a haunted land, the spiritual ghosts of the past elusive but only ever just out of sight. Walsingham was one of the most important pilgrimage sites in medieval northern Europe, and its resonances can still be felt at the Anglican and Catholic shrines, re-established in the 20th Century. A couple of miles to the east of Walsingham was Binham Priory, whose ruins today sprawl in the green meadows on the outskirts of the village. It was founded in 1091 as a dependency of the Benedictine Abbey at St Albans. This was shortly after the visions of the Blessed Virgin reported at Walsingham by Richeldis de Ferveches, but before the establishment of the Priory there. Much of what we see today is of the 12th and 13th Centuries when things really began to get going around here, making it one of the spiritual heartlands of England. Despite this, the Priory was never particularly wealthy, and then in 1539 it all came to an end with the Dissolution.

Most of the priory was demolished fairly soon afterwards for building materials, but enough survives to give a sense of the scale and perhaps a feeling of what it might once have been like. The great cruciform church was also largely demolished, leaving just a stub of the nave in use as the parish church, for the church was once very big indeed. The nave had aisles (you can see the remains of the walls outside) and beyond the modern east wall there were two transepts with a great crossing, and a long chancel with a lady chapel to the north of it. The present east wall was created by building up the pulpitum that once separated the nave from the crossing. The aisles were probably blocked off by rubble in the arcade, although the north aisle apparently survived until a general restoration of the early 19th Century. This was the time the tracery in the west window was largely bricked in, but it had probably been falling to pieces for years.

You approach the church from the west, and the frontage is memorable, the brick-filled tall windows rising to a rose window. Contemporary accounts suggest that the west front was built in the first half of the thirteenth century. If this is the case, then it is a very early example of bar tracery. Bar tracery had first appeared earlier in the century at Rheims Cathedral, and enabled a flowering of artistic style. Lighter and easier to manage than the old plate tracery, it led to the development of Decorated architecture. Westminster Abbey has surviving Decorated tracery from later in the same century, and there is some evidence that Decorated windows were installed at Lincoln Cathedral and Windsor before those at Binham, but these are now lost. It seems strange that the new French style made itself known here before almost anywhere else in England. Perhaps it was because Binham was close to Blakeney Haven, one of the great East Anglian ports of the Middle Ages, and it is en route from there to Walsingham. This must have been a cosmopolitan place in the 13th Century.

You enter the church through the new visitors centre and step beyond it into a space of remarkable height, feeling narrower than it actually is. The church is long, seven bays, although there were once nine, suggesting that the collegiate church began before the crossing. Even so, the east wall seems a long way off. Above, the rising arcades, triforia and galleries are of cathedral-like proportions. When I revisited recently all the benches had been moved to the sides to allow for performances of the Binham Passion Play, accentuating the architecture and making the space below them seem even plainer than it was already, for very little survives of the medieval life of the priory church. What does, though, is remarkable. The 15th Century screen dado is now behind glass in the north-west corner. During the middle of the 16th Century it was whitewashed and overwritten with biblical texts, as we must assume so many were - even if the figures were not idolatrous, the early protestants were not comfortable with portrayals of the human face and body. However, over the years the whitewash has flaked away, and the figures have begun to show through. They are haunting.

the Binham screen

Henry VI on the Binham screen (15th Century/overpainted 16th Century) the Binham screen (15th Century/overpainted 16th Century) the Binham screen (15th Century/overpainted 16th Century, photographed 2004)
the Binham screen (15th Century/overpainted 16th Century) the Binham screen (15th Century/overpainted 16th Century) the Binham screen (15th Century/overpainted 16th Century) the Binham screen (15th Century/overpainted 16th Century)
the Binham screen (15th Century/overpainted 16th Century) the Binham screen (15th Century/overpainted 16th Century) the Binham screen (15th Century/overpainted 16th Century, photographed 2004) the Binham screen (15th Century/overpainted 16th Century, photographed 2004)

Beside the screen is one of East Anglia's thirty-odd 15th Century Seven Sacrament fonts. It is in pretty good condition and bears some resemblance to the one a few miles off at Cley. The panels, clockwise from the east are Baptism, Ordination, Mass, Baptism of Christ, Last Rites, Confirmation, Confession and Matrimony. As at Cawston, the supporting angels under the bowl hold symbols of the sacrament in the panel above them. Eight apostles flank the stem .Unfortunately the font was almost entirely encased in foliage when I visited in Holy Week 2022. Contemporary with the font are the benches, their bench ends mutilated but a number still identifiable. A female figure holding a basket of fruit is likely to be St Dorothy.

At the other end of the church, the sanctuary is plain and seemly. A Stuart Holy Table serves as the altar, behind it a cabinet supports the candles, with two taller candlesticks from a Sarum screen either side. It is all simple and moving. Either side are original doorways that once led through the pulpitum into the choir. One of them has recently been reopened up, and you can step through it into the open air. You find yourself on the west side of the crossing, its piers towering above you, and the east end of the chancel seems a remarkably long way off. Standing on the site of the former high altar and looking back westwards to the piers of the crossing and the church beyond, you at last get some sense of the sheer scale of the original priory church. To the south, the remains of the conventual buildings lie, and wandering through them might reawaken a few more furtive ghosts.

At the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, a fair number of incumbents were reluctant to fill in the return, perhaps fearing that a judgement might be made about their income in relation to the size of their congregation. William Upjohn, Vicar of Binham, had no such doubts. The nave of this old Priory has been used as the parish church for ages, he wrote. It is kept in good repair, called Binham Abbey and will seat 300. At the time, Binham had a population of just over five hundred, and a little over one hundred of them attended the service on the morning of the census, two hundred tipping up for the afternoon sermon which was always more popular in East Anglia. This isn't a bad proportion of the parish, especially compared with some nearby churches, but the Reverend Upjohn was moved to point out that the number attending Divine Service depends on the weather. Women, children and old people cannot attend in rainy or snowy weather. We know that it rained on the morning of the census, and perhaps that is why the Reverend Upjohn felt able to record 'average attendance' in the morning at an ambitious one hundred and sixty.

Curiously, he added a postscript, perhaps thinking of the scholars who had no choice but to also attend both services, to the effect that there are also 20 girls clothed and educated solely at the expense of Thomas Truesdale Clarke Esq. Lord of the Manor. All in all, it sounds as if it was a busy place in those days before the Anglican revival in East Anglia had really taken hold. Perhaps it was competition from the recently erected Binham Methodist Chapel that was keeping him on his toes, for Hercules Sands, the steward there, claimed that the average congregation for the two Sunday services in the chapel was about a hundred and fifty.

Simon Knott, May 2022

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looking east looking west looking west
font (photographed 2004) sanctuary St Dorothy
misericord (photographed 2004) bench ends bench ends

   
   
               
                 

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