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

All Saints, Catfield


Catfield Catfield (2004)

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All Saints, Catfield

Catfield is a largish village on the edge of the Broads which seems to owe its current existence to agriculture as much as to Broads tourism, and appropriately enough its church is out in the fields with just a few older houses for company. The setting is idyllic, the churchyard behind a small green with the parish war memorial, which is inscribed with a verse of O Valiant Hearts, a hymn written by John Stanhope Arkwright and which is largely forgotten now. It was written specifically to be sung at Armistice Day services. As a child, the church choir I was in sung it each year at the annual service in Cambridge Guildhall for what had by then become Remembrance Day, the old men sobbing into their handkerchiefs as we looked on and wondered.

Pevsner eloquently describes the building as mostly early Perp with Dec reminiscences, a reminder that at the very start of the 15th Century Norfolk church builders were often happy to stick with what they knew. The tower is slightly earlier, the east window probably the last bit to be completed, and so the church unfolds from west to east over the course of about a century. Pevsner goes on to call it unambitious, but that seems appropriate enough in this quiet backwater. As with all good churchyards, a large part of that at Catfield is reserved as a nature conservation area, the headstones peeking like ships tossed at sea among the wild grasses. The church itself, first seen from the north, appears secretive, but you come around to the south side where a large open two-storey porch with its modern sundial welcomes you.

There are two aisles, but no clerestories, and so you step into a square, light space thanks to the lack of coloured glass. Between the inside of the south doorway and the west window of the south aisle, the open stairway into the top of the porch tumbles down like a waterfall. this creates a feel of a large square space in the nave. A rather lurid purple light fills the space beneath the tower, but looking east is to see that All Saints has one of those splendid Broadland screens. This must have been a very impressive screen at one time, because the two roodloft stairs set in the window embrasures of the aisles are fully eight feet west of the chancel arch. This tells us that there were parclose screens in each of the aisles that turned back to meet the rood screen, most likely with a single loft walkway that ran right across the church.

Appropriately for the architecture the structure of what has survived is more homely than that of some of its neighbours, but the painting is of high quality, and unusually it features panels of sixteen Kings. Julian Luxford in The Art and Science of the Church Screen in Medieval Europe suggests some possibilities to the identity of the kings. On the north side (pictured below), from left to right, panel one is likely to be St Sigebert, panel three is either St Athelstan or St Ethelbert holding a church, and panel five is St Sebert or St Ethelbert holding a church which looks to represent St Paul's Cathedral. It seems likely that St Ethelbert is one of those two figures. Panel six is St Kenelm holding a golden lily, panel seven seems likely to be St Owsin, and panel eight is St Edward the Confessor holding a ring. On the south side, from left to right, St Edmund holds an arrow in the first panel, St Edward the Martyr is in the second panel, and St Oswald holds a cross in panel five. Carved in the spandrels of the screen is a tiny head, apparently crowned, and flanked closely by what appear to be two lions. Curious.

Catfield screen (north): eight kings St Edward the Confessor St Kenelm
Catfield screen (2004) a king and two lions? (2004)

When M R James came this way in the 1930s he reported that the areas above the arcades were resplendent with wall paintings. Only one of these is clear today, the dramatic depiction of the stoning of St Stephen. It must be added though that James did not always visit the churches he writes about and that some of his Norfolk and Suffolk is the result of what we would now call a 'virtual journey' through other writers' reference books. Other scenes that were once clearer are said to have included a wheel of fortune, the seven deadly sins and the seven sacraments. Without a clerestory there was plenty of room to fill the walls above the arcades, so it is a pity that they have been lost.

Another curiosity is the Royal Arms, which are clearly those of the Hanoverian kings, but the inscription reads V 1st R for Queen Victoria. Sets of royal arms with the initials of later monarchs are not unusual, and these were probably repainted when William IV died and Victoria came to the throne bringing with her a new set of arms. But why the 1st? For I have never seen a royal arms where this was thought necessary with Victoria's initial anywhere else. Most likely they had been repainted several times before, and perhaps the previous IV of either George or William was showed through the overpainting, and had to be hastily adapted into a 1st.

An interesting insight into the mindset of a 19th Century village and its inhabitants before the Anglican revival of the 19th Century took hold around here is provided by the 1851 Census of Religious Worship. The entry for Catfield was completed by the Reverend William Armins Hipper, who was the acting curate. At this time, the rector of Catfield was the Reverend Bartholomew Cubitt. He was the non-resident Lord of the Manor and the patron of the living, as if he had stepped out of the pages of Trollope, and so Hipper was obviously employed by him to do his duty, a system frowned on by the Tractarians and which gradually fell into disuse as the century progressed.

Unusually, Hipper divided the count of the congregation at Catfield that day into men and women. Of the three hundred-odd seats in the church, two hundred were paid for by their occupants, and of the rest, which were free, Hipper reported that there were 80 or 24 uncomfortable but well filled by men. On the morning of the census there were forty in the congregation apart from the scholars, who had no choice but to be there. This is not many at all out of a parish population of more than seven hundred people. Hipper counted that twenty of them were men and twenty were women, but at the afternoon service, which was the big sermon of the week, there were still just twenty women, but now there were a hundred men! Hipper explained this by noting that the adult male labouring population are in this parish very regular attendants. Many of their wives and daughters attend a small conventicle of ranters in the village.

This small conventicle was a Primitive Methodist chapel which had been erected in 1838. It held two hundred people, so about the same as the parish church, and similarly about half of the seats were free and half were paid for by their occupants. The chapel steward, William Riches, counted a hundred and thirty four attendants in the afternoon and a hundred in the evening. We know that well into the 20th Century it was common for East Anglian villagers to attend the parish church in the morning and the non-conformist chapel in the afternoon or evening (the practice of an afternoon sermon in Anglican parish churches also died out as the 19th Century progressed). In Ronald Blythe's majestic Akenfield, published in the 1960s, the elderly people of his Suffolk village remembered that as children they had been taken to both church and chapel not just for religion, but also for the music.

Two mysteries remain of course. In rural East Anglia usually between a third and a half of the population attended church or chapel on a Sunday. If this was also true for Catfield, where were the other villagers going? The most likely answer is to one of the other non-conformist chapels in the area, and the obvious one would seem to be Ingham Particular Baptist Chapel which attracted a total congregation of almost six hundred on the day of the census, in a parish with a population of fewer than five hundred. The other mystery is just exactly what it was that attracted their wives and daughters to the Methodists while the husbands were in the parish church? One likes to imagine a young, handsome and charismatic minister, but of course we will never know.

Simon Knott, September 2021

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looking east chancel sanctuary
south doorway and parvise stairway font The stoning of Stephen (2004) V 1st R (2004)


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