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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

Norfolk ziggurat Burgh St Peter
Burgh St Peter Burgh St Peter Burgh St Peter

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St Mary, Burgh St Peter

One of the delights of exploring churches is that no two are exactly alike, every single one is different. But some, of course, are more different than others. The structures that come down to us from the medieval times have been buffeted 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 fell apart in later centuries, especially in that most eccentric of all architectural periods, the late 18th century. Also, this is a time when the uses of a church were in themselves called into question. Was it the embodiment of the protestant state, an administrative arm that reached out to record births, marriages and deaths as well as dispensing parish aid? Was it intended as a building to house the memorials and achievements of the local landed families, a place where the ordinary parishioners could bathe in the light of their elders and betters, or was it primarily a worship space? And if the latter, what form could that worship take? It is important to remember that when we look at a medieval English parish church through our 21st Century eyes, what we are seeing is essentially a Victorian and early 20th Century vision of the medieval, not the real thing.

Our 18th Century ancestors would not recognise their churches if they came back to them today, now adorned as they are with altars, sanctuaries 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. And the Boycotts of Burgh did. As patrons, they presented their own sons to the living for nearly two hundred years, until well into the 20th Century, which is to say that the Boycotts not only owned the place, they ministered to it as well. They made themselves responsible for the repair of the building, which as often in rural East Anglia was in a 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.

Probably, there never was a medieval tower here at Burgh St Peter. The base on which this elaborate structure is built is late medieval, but it seems probable that the intended tower of the 16th Century never materialised given that a bequest of 1539 ordered 20 towards the building of the steeple of Burgh if it be so that they go forward. This is right on the very eve of the Reformation, and the wording of the bequest suggests that such a major building project had already been thrown into uncertainty. All that was completed was the base course. If they had proceeded with the planned tower it is likely that it would have been similar to that at neighbouring Wheatacre which had been completed the decade before in an idiosyncratic flint and brick chequerboard style.

But the Reformation's intervention was the late 18th Century's opportunity. What we see today is the work of Samuel Boycott, owner of the living, and forms a mausoleum to the Boycott family. In 1793 he obtained a faculty to repair and build up the steeple which has long been in a ruinous condition. There can't have been much arguing with that in the Bishop of Norwich's office, but you do wonder if Boycott submitted plans along with it. The faculty was granted, 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 ziggurat temples of Iraq. Beyond it 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 in 1998.

You step inside over a 13th Century coffin lid reused as a threshold to a space which is s fairly typical High Church restoration of the 1880s, retaining the medieval font with its peasant heads. The Marian dedication of the church may have been a result of these High Church enthusiasms, although there were at one time surviving remnants of another church to the west of the current church, which may well have been the one with the St Peter dedication. The screen is of the 20th Century. Of more interest are the huge decalogue boards, once at the east end but now suspended against the west wall. Also fortunately surviving is the extraordinary pulpit of 1811, again the gift of the Boycotts, emblazoned with their memorial plates in brass.

Not all the Boycotts became rectors of course. Samuel's grandson Charles did not follow his brother William into the ministry, but became a land agent on the vast estate of Lord Erne in County Mayo, 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 everyone 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.

Simon Knott, November 2020

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looking east font
the Boycott pulpit the Boycott pulpit 19th Century banner
stone coffin lid doorstep Charles Cunningham Boycott


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