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St Edmund, South Burlingham
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Edmund, South Burlingham
St Edmund is one of those churches where everything seems to come together, the precious medieval survivals chiming perfectly with the later works of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Victorians did a perfect job in blending the harmonious whole. The first striking survival is beside the former north doorway, a tall St Christopher wall painting. Most of the surviving St Christophers are in this part of Norfolk, a land of small parishes where it is easy to pass several churches in a day's walk. But it is not the St Christopher wall painting for which South Burlingham is renowned, for up in the chancel, on the south wall, is one of England's best preserved scenes of the martyrdom of St Thomas of Canterbury. Because Thomas symbolised so strongly the power of the Catholic Church over the Crown, his images were viciously circumscribed by the Anglicans at the time of the 16th century Reformation. The image of him on the screen at North Burlingham, a mile or so to the north, was almost completely obliterated barely ten years after it had been painted. Here, the wallpainting had probably been whitewashed half a century earlier, during the 15th century, as fashions changed, to be revealed again during the 19th century.
These images of holy figures are one thing, but we also have medieval bench ends, and some of them, although no doubt representing Evangelists and Old Testament Prophets, are undoubtedly based on medieval Norfolkers, sitting proudly in what was the richest county in England. Another is an elephant with a castle on this back, a familiar East Anglian medieval image.
No one would call these fine carvings humble, but they pale into insignificance in comparison with Norfolk's finest 15th century pulpit. Mortlock thought it the best in England, noting that the base board and crocketted parapet are both carved out of a single piece of wood. The panels are narrow and elegant, the painting in vivid late medieval reds and greens, and a Latin inscription is from St Matthew's Gospel, Christ's affirmation of the significance of John the Baptist. These wonderful objects are a reminder that pulpits and sermons are not a product of the protestant Reformation, but were in our churches a full century before, as the years after the Black Death made us all serious, and the preaching of Friars began to encourage a congregational act of worship rather than a diversity of personal devotions. If anything, the Reformation actually suppressed preaching, making Ministers apply for a licence to preach, and then at first they could only use homilies prepared by central government, an enforcement which has a curiously modern ring to it. A later generation of preachers would make the sermon their own, of course, and St Edmund retains its 18th century preacher's hour glass, one of the loveliest in Norfolk. It was not intended to keep the preacher brief, but to ensure that he did not cheat the congregation by preaching a short sermon.
The rood screen beyond is contemporary with the pulpit. Incidentally, there is a bit of a puzzle on the north side, where the lower parts of the panels are unpainted. Pevsner thought this showed where altars had been, while Mortlock imagined that box pews had been built right up against the screen. It is unlikely that post-Reformation furnishings would have affected the painting of the screen, and yet the obscured area seems too big for altars.
Simon Knott, November 2007
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