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

St Margaret, Burnham Norton

Burnham Norton

Burnham Norton

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St Margaret, Burnham Norton

This is the most interesting and perhaps also the loveliest of the six surviving medieval Burnham churches. It stands on a hilltop about half a mile north of the town of Burnham Market (the name of the parish simply means 'Burnham north town'), and a mile south of the sea in the other direction. Two other nearby hilltops are the sites of windmills.The village is the smallest of all the Burnham villages, but its church is a large one with aisles and clerestories and one of Norfolk's most imposing round towers. It may be from as early as the 11th Century, and then from about 1300 onwards the rest of the church was rebuilt, chancel and north aisle coming first, then the south aisle. Towards the end of the medieval period the nave roof was raised and the clerestory inserted.

You enter through the north porch, and stepping inside is slightly disorientating at first. When the church was restored sympathetically in the 19th Century, the seating was corralled behind screens which separate it off from the aisles and the west end of the nave, leaving them pleasingly clear. The effect is of a church within a church. The square, brooding Norman font sits alone, and impressive in its brick-floored setting. But you pass through the scene to see this church's most memorable feature for here is the mid-15th Century hexagonal wineglass pulpit with its six painted panels. Four of them feature the Latin Doctors of the Church, St Gregory, St Augustine, St Ambrose and St Jerome. They are shown reading, writing or, in one case, sharpening a pen. St Gregory's papal tiara has been scratched out, but not St Jerome's cardinal's hat. The four Latin Doctors are often found in Norfolk churches, usually on screens, but rarely in Suffolk and there must be a reason for this. Pulpits began to appear in churches a century or so before the Reformation as preaching grew in significance and worship became more communal. They were usually the gift of donors, often members of the newly rich land-owning classes. The other two panels on the pulpit feature two of those people, the donors of the font, John and Katherine Goldalle.

pulpit: St Ambrose (15th Century) pulpit (15th Century) pulpit: St Gregory (15th Century)
pulpit: St Jerome (15th Century) pulpit: donor, John Goldalle (15th Century) pulpit: St Augustine (15th Century)

The devastation of the Black Death a century earlier had led to an economic revolution in East Anglia, the old estates broken up and sold and then acquired by an increasingly dominant new class in society. These people, well-educated and articulate, could not rely on the old ideas of chivalry and noblesse oblige to maintain their position. They had the major stake in not only the wealth of their parish, but in its imagination. This was not a new theology (although many of their descendants would be responsible for the introduction of protestantism a century later) but rather a distillation of the old into rigorous, focused teaching - the sacraments, the virtues and vices, the works of mercy, and so on. The quid pro quo, of course, was that in leaving money for these features to be added to the church, they also reminded the ordinary people to pray for their souls, and this was the most pressing business of the late medieval church. The Black Death had concentrated the minds of everyone.

The 15th Century screen, dated 1458 and so broadly contemporary with the pulpit, forms a fourth side to the inner church. The coving to it was added in the 1950s. intriguingly, all that survives on the panels are some fragmentary painted inscriptions. You step through it into a simple, seemly chancel, the sanctuary watched over by St Margaret of Antioch and St Margaret of Scotland in delightful glass of about 1920 by Trena Cox, a perfect finishing touch. Back in the nave, a set of Stuart royal arms has been relettered for WIlliam III and dated 1697. We are left in no doubt as to the masculinity of the lion and the unicorn.

Simon Knott, May 2022

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looking east screen sanctuary south aisle chapel
font St Margaret of Anticoh and St Margaret of Scotland (Trena Cox, c1920) screen with text fragments screen with text fragments
W R 1697

Burnham Deepdale - Burnham Norton - Burnham Overy - Burnham Sutton - Burnham Thorpe - Burnham Ulph - Burnham Westgate

   
   
               
                 

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