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

St Mary, East Raynham

East Raynham

East Raynham war memorial

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St Mary, East Raynham

The gently rolling landscape south of Fakenham is a patchwork of fields and copses, and set among them, enveloped in its rich parkland, is Raynham Hall. The Hall was, and is, the home of the Townshend family, the most famous member of which was probably Charles 'Turnip' Townshend, second Viscount. At the start of the 18th Century he helped to turn English agriculture upside-down with his vigorous promotion of four-field crop rotation. This led to a remarkable increase in food production and consequently of the English population, putting in place at least some of the preconditions for the Industrial Revolution, as well as leaving him with a memorable nickname.
The church sits beside the Hall. Here on the Raynham estate there were three churches, but the one serving the parish of West Raynham, set in the main village on the estate, had fallen into disuse by the early years of the 18th Century. Few people attended the established church for religious reasons in those days, and the very meaning of the Church of England had come to be little more than as an arm of the state, registering births, marriages and deaths and marking national events and occasions. This would not really change until the rise of Evangelicalism in the later years of the same century, and so it was of little consequence that West Raynham church was abandoned, and East Raynham church beside the Hall became the church for a new joint parish, carrying out the functions for both.

However, the religious landscape had altered significantly by the middle years of the 19th Century. At the time of the National Census of Religious Worship in 1851, perhaps as many as 30% of the population were attending their Anglican parish church on a Sunday, and the rise to prominence of the Oxford Movement had created a new understanding of the meaning of Anglican church buildings. In short, there was a renewed enthusiasm for the Church of England, and most of England's parish churches were restored and even rebuilt at this time. In the 1860s the old East Raynham church was demolished, and rebuilt on a grand scale.

The architects were Clark and Holland. Pevsner calls them rather obscure architects from Newmarket. The construction took two years, at a cost of 7,000, about a million and a half in today's money which feels about right. The church is broadly similar in outside appearance to its predecessor on the site, although the overall effect is of something grander. A plaque under the tower records the dedication on April 17th 1868, the Friday of Easter Week.

If the exterior promises an anonymous, urban interior, you step into a pleasant surprise. This is a quiet, calm, seemly building, with none of the fireworks of the broadly contemporary rebuilding at Blickling, with which it bears some similarities. The nave is wide and open, well-lit and neatly-furnished. The glass in the aisle east windows is of the 1950s, depicting the Risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus with Saints who appear to be intended as James and John in the north aisle, and Christ flanked by St Margaret and the Blessed Virgin in the other.

The overwhelming presence in the chancel though is of the Townshend family, their memorials going back more than half a millennium. The Easter Sepulchre is a surprise, elegant and full of eve-of-the-Reformation detail. It was built by the bequest of Sir Roger Townshend who was a lawyer, with among his clients the famous Paston family. A near contemporary brass figure remembers George Townshend, his son, who is depicted as a boy. Another brass is to a tonsured priest, Master Robert Godfrey. The inscription asking for prayers for his soul tells us that he died in 1522.

George Townshend c1500 Easter sepulchre c1500 Master Robert Godfrey, 1522
grieving angels, 1850s Townshend of Kut

The two angels praying over a cross on the memorial to Charles Townshend and his wife Charlotte appear to be a sentimental version in slight relief of Richard Westmacott Junior's near-contemporary monument to Henry Villebois at nearby Marham, a design which was also used at Shimpling in Suffolk for members of the Hallifax family. Could this one actually also be by Westmacott, albeit a cheaper edition of the same?

Perhaps the most interesting memorial to modern eyes is that to Townshend of Kut. A little-known name now perhaps, but a century ago he was a national celebrity. Kut-al-Amara in modern Iraq was the scene of one of the more infamous events of the First World War. In the winter of 1915, about 30,000 British soldiers led by General Charles Townshend holed up in the city to defend it against Ottoman forces led by the German high command. Fed on stories of the siege of Khartoum thirty years earlier, the British public avidly followed the course of the event in the new popular tabloid newspapers.

It was a military disaster. Empire forces tried to break the siege, at the loss of some 33,000 lives. Townshend finally surrendered to the Germans in April, by which time some 17,000 of those in the city had died. The writer Jan Morris called it the most abject capitulation in Britain’s military history. Poignantly, his memorial records that his widow erected it to the one whose memory will always live.

Big estates like Raynham defined a rural patronage which would last until the First World War changed the English countryside forever. Here, the Hall with the church beside it are a reminder of a time that was in the living memory of our grandparents, a key to understanding the popular experience of the world before ours.

Simon Knott, October 2021

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looking east looking west
Risen Christ flanked by St Margaret and the Blessed Virgin (GER Smith? 1950s) St James and St John with the Risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus (GER Smith? 1950s)
font pulpit Townshend


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