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

St Mary, Burgh St Peter

Burgh St Peter - a ziggurat temple in the marshes rather than Iraq

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Okay, it is laughable - but.... refreshingly sane south doorway

    St Mary, Burgh St Peter
Or a Mayan temple, perhaps?   One of the delights of exploring medieval churches is that no two are the same as each other, every single one is different. But, of course, some are more different than others.

The structures that come down to us from the medieval times have been buffetted by the winds of history, but have also been shaped by the eccentricities of the families and individuals that had an influence upon their repairs, extensions and restorations. The gothic forms of the middle ages resonate across all churches of the time; but consensus falls apart in later centuries, especially in that most eccentric of all architectural periods, the late 18th century. Also, this is a time when the use of a church is called into question; when we look at a medieval English parish church today we need to remember that what we are seeing is essentially a Victorian vision of the medieval, not the real thing.

Our 18th century ancestors would not recognise the insides of their churches if they came back to them today, with their sanctuaries, benches and coloured glass. The 18th century was a time of low congregations, and the family at the Big House could pretty much run the church their own way, if they had a mind to.

The Boycotts of Burgh did. As patrons, they presented their own sons to the living for nearly two hundred years - that is to say, the Boycotts not only owned the place, they ministered to it as well. They made themselves responsible for the repair of the building, which was in rather bad shape by the late 18th century. As was common for the local gentry, they saw the parish church as their mausoleum, but rather than fill the building with elaborate tombs, they built an extraordinary structure onto the base of the ruined tower, thus killing two birds with one stone.

The Boycott mausoleum was the work of Samuel Boycott, who in 1793 obtained a faculty to repair and build up the steeple which has long been in a ruinous condition. Can't have been much arguing with that in the Bishop's office, but you wonder if he submitted plans along with it. Probably, there never was a tower. The base is very late medieval, probably early 16th century, and it is likely the tower was never completed before the Reformation intervened.

And so, Boycott's folly went up. The little church guide says that it is supposedly based on a church which Samuel's son saw on the Grand Tour in Italy, but observes that it has more in common with the ziggerat temples of Iraq.

Beyond, the full length of nave and chancel are thatched, probably from the reed beds that extend across to Suffolk to the east of the church. It is relatively new, the previous roof having been destroyed by fire as recently as 1998.

Inside, all is fairly typical of a high church 1880 restoration, retaining the medieval font with its typically local peasant heads, and, fortunately, the extraordinary pulpit of 1811, again the gift of the Boycotts, emblazoned with their memorial plates in brass. The Marian dedication of the church was probably a result of 19th century enthusiasms. The screen is 20th century. Of more interest are the decalogue boards, once at the east end but now suspended against the west wall - they are huge.

  ...but ooh! There's the pulpit!

Not all the Boycotts became Rectors. Samuel's grandson Charles did not follow his older brother into the ministry, but ended up as a land agent on a vast estate in County Mayo, in Ireland. In the agricultural depression of the1880s, he attempted to enforce rent rises on behalf of the absentee landlord. He became the test case of the Parnellite Land League's attempt to fight such rises. He was shunned by everone in the parish - when his carriage drove by, the people turned their backs on it. Servants refused to work for him. Shops refused to supply him with goods. Nobody spoke to either him or his family for more than a year.

Because of the success of the campaign, Absentee landlords refrained from imposing rent rises, and, filled with new confidence, rural support avalanched to republican candidates. Within twenty years, Sinn Fein would be the largest single party in Ireland.

Boycott returned to Burgh a broken man, having already given his name as a new word to the English language. He died here in Burgh, and his simple grave is just to the east of the church, a gentle reminder of the excesses of English colonialism, and more than a footnote in Irish history.

  Charles Boycott - more than a footnote in Irish history

Simon Knott, February 2005


Looking east Relatively sane font... Norfolk in winter - the sanctuary Looking west - decalogue boards
Typically local font details

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