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Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Erpingham


Erpingham Erpingham Erpingham

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Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Erpingham

Erpingham is a large, working village in an intensely agricultural landscape, and one that's getting larger if the new houses on the road to Aylsham are anything to go by. But the church sits away from the village, down narrow, doglegging lanes in this surprisingly rolling countryside. A person in possession of a decent Ordnance Survey map is never in want of knowing what the church tower in the distance is, but in this part of East Anglia there are so many grand medieval towers that it is still possible to be confused. How helpful it is, then, to approach St Mary and see the letters E R P I N G H A M interspersed with Marian monograms picked out in flushwork around three sides of the parapet! There were a number of bequests to the tower in the 1480s. Geoffrey Atwell left 26s 8d (a pound and a noble, roughly a thousand pounds in today's money) in 1484, and the following year Robert Kytte left 10 marks, roughly five thousand pounds in today's money. These not inconsiderable sums must have been just two bequests with others that have not survived, suggesting that this is when the building of the tower was getting underway. And then in 1533 John Freman left 2d to the reparation of the bells. Almost fifty years seems a long time for the building of a Norfolk tower, and so we can safely assume that it was complete by then.

The tower must have been the last part of the late medieval rebuilding. The nave and chancel came in the 14th and 15th Centuries, perhaps as part of one long single campaign. There is an aisle on the south side, but not on the north. There is no clerestory, and the height of the tower makes this seem a long, low church. The west doorway with its Annunciation scene in the spandrels would have been the finishing touch. There was a general restoration in 1899, a late date and so broadly sympathetic, although Cautley still bemoaned its crispness.

Erpingham is one of those special places you sometimes come across unexpectedly in the backwaters of England. In the early 20th Century it was a hotspot of the most vigorous kind of Anglo-Catholicism, as at South Creake in the north of Norfolk. A medieval building stripped bare by protestants and puritans in the 16th and 17th Centuries, little more than a preaching house during the long 18th Century night, it was touched by the great 19th Century wave of sacramentalism sent out from Oxford, and repopulated with the colour and drama of something approaching its original function in the early years of the 20th. Then, you could enter here into the heart of the Anglo-Catholic imagination.

Stepping in from the south, you can see immediately that this is not a large church. The south aisle is emptied of furnishings, and beside it the uncluttered nave with its plain benches provides an intimate and understated setting for the devotional statues that line the arcade. Urban Anglo-Catholic churches can sometimes seem continental, but there is something very English about this place, sympathetic to its rural setting, a reminder that the rest of the world considered England to be Our Lady's Dowry in the days before the Reformation. It is a simple and yet lovely space. The focus is towards the early 20th Century rood group, and beyond it the chancel, with its splendid east window. This contains an arrangement of twelve French and German panels of the early 16th Century - or, at least, that is what they appear to be. In fact, they are modern replicas. The originals were donated to the church in 1955 by Blickling Hall, but then returned there in the 1990s, after it became clear that the damp conditions in the church were causing some deterioration. Eight of the panels originally came from Steinfeld Abbey in Germany, the other four from French churches. They'd been bought for the Hall in the early 19th Century from the Norwich continental glass dealer JC Hampp.

probably a detail of  Lot and his family escaping the destruction of Sodom (German glass from Steinfeld Abbey, 1520s, replica) Presentation of the Blessed Virgin to the Temple (German glass from Steinfeld Abbey, 1520s, replica) St Anne and St Joachim (German glass from Steinfeld Abbey, 1520s, replica) Massacre of the Holy Innocents (German glass from Steinfeld Abbey, 1520s, replica)
St Quirinus (German glass from Steinfeld Abbey, 1520s, replica) St Paul and St Norbert (German glass from Steinfeld Abbey, 1520s, replica) Blessed Virgin and Christchild and St Potentinus (German glass from Steinfeld Abbey, 1520s, replica) St Quirinus (German glass from Steinfeld Abbey, 1520s, replica)
Nativity: adoration of the angels with the shepherds approaching (German glass from Steinfeld Abbey, 1520s, replica) St Thomas sees the wounds of the Risen Christ (German glass from Steinfeld Abbey, 1520s, replica) The Three Marys meet the Risen Christ in the Garden (German glass from Steinfeld Abbey, 1520s, replica) Flight into Egypt from the Massacre of the Holy Innocents (German glass from Steinfeld Abbey, 1520s, replica)

The panels are set in three rows, separated by bottle-end roundels which Birkin Haward thought gave a distracting effect. The top row starts with three figures hurrying away from a city, which must have been part of a larger scene, perhaps the flight of Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom. Next, the young Blessed Virgin is presented to the Temple by her parents Joachim and Anne, an incident in the early life of Mary recounted in the apocryphal Gospel of St James. The next panel shows Anne and Joachim in their house awaiting the birth of the Blessed Virgin, from the same sequence. The Corpus Vitrearum notes that there's a third panel from this sequence in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. There must have been several others. These first three panels are all French glass of about 1510. Finally on this row, the Massacre of the Holy Innocents is from a German church, which the Corpus Vitrearum thought was probably in Cologne.

The rest of the glass came from Steinfeld Abbey. The middle row begins and ends with panels depicting St Quirinus. In between are two pairs of saints, St Paul with St Norbert in the first and the Blessed Virgin and Child with St Potentinus in the second. This apparently obscure saint was the patron of the Steinfeld Abbey church, which held his relics. The bottom row has four gospel scenes. The first is a beautiful depiction of the Adoration of the Angels at the Nativity. St Joseph looks on, and through the open window we see the shepherds hurrying down from the hills, urged on by an angel. Then comes St Thomas seeing the wounds of the Risen Christ and believing, the three Marys meeting the Risen Christ in the garden, and lastly the Flight into Egypt, with the Massacre of the Holy Innocents in the foreground.

The other glass in the church is also of interest. A 15th Century Norwich School angel keeps watch with his replacement head in the east window of the south aisle. A continental roundel shows St Nicholas bringing the three boys in the barrel back to life. Two excellent figures were originally part of a scene in which St Mary Magdalene meets the risen Christ in the garden and mistakes him for the gardener, Christ shown here holding a spade. They are the 1860 work of Clayton & Bell, although as Birkin Haward noted, they date from the time that their studio was shared with Heaton & Butler, and Haward thought he detected the hand of Robert Bayne in their design in the years before he joined the second of those companies. The loss of the original setting from their best period is very regrettable, Haward observed. There is also a roundel depicting the Adoration of the Magi, perhaps also by Clayton & Bell. The south aisle has a lovely Arts & Crafts-style figure of the Blessed Virgin and Child of the early 1950s. It is unsigned, but it looks very much like the work of half a century earlier by Louis Davis, so I wondered if it might be by Powell & Sons using one of his old designs for the company.

The 15th Century font is oddly set within the south aisle to the east of the door. It came from the church of St Benedict in Norwich, which was bombed during the Second World War and then demolished, all but the tower. The figures around the bowl are mostly seated saints, although not all are clearly identifiable. St Peter holds his key, and a figure holding what appears to be a pilgrim staff and cross is presumably St James, but some of the faces have been altered, so for example Christ in Judgement seated on a rainbow has been given the head of a woman, presumably because the folds of his gown suggested that it might be a dress.

Font: St John the Baptist with cross or St James with pilgrim staff and purse (15th Century, from St Benedict, Norwich) Font: St Peter with book and key (15th Century, from St Benedict, Norwich)
Font: (15th Century, from St Benedict, Norwich) Font: abbess with a scroll (15th Century, from St Benedict, Norwich) Font: St James the Less with book and fullers club (15th Century, from St Benedict, Norwich)

At the east end of the south aisle a large traceried squint looks through into the sanctuary. The modern tabernacle, which in the Catholic tradition is usually immediately behind the altar, is offset to one side so that it aligns with this squint for anyone celebrating Mass at the side altar. Also in this aisle are one of East Anglia's dozen or so sets of royal arms for Elizabeth II and a shrine to King Charles the Martyr. A lamp is suspended in front of his painted portrait, an inscription beneath. There are several memorial inscriptions in glass, and also one in brass for Father Samuel Harvard-Watts, incumbent here from 1922 to 1944, who was may well have been responsible for the church's character as we see it today. It observes Tu es Sacerdos in Aeternum ('You are a Priest in all Eternity') and asks us to pray for his soul.

The south aisle also contains one of Norfolk's best-known brasses, to Sir John de Erpingham who died in 1370. Sir John stands in full armour, and it is easy to imagine him clanking around blood-soaked fields. It dates from about forty years after his death, and was commissioned by his son Sir Thomas Erpingham who, as John Vigar reminds us in his book Norfolk Churches, was a hero of Agincourt. Sir Thomas appears in Shakespeare's Henry V as a man on whom the king looks kindly as they battle their way across northern France. Returning to these shores, he had the Erpingham Gate built, that impressive entrance to the close of Norwich Cathedral.

Simon Knott, December 2023

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looking east chancel south aisle chapel
angel (15th Century, replacement head) Blessed Virgin and Christchild (1950s) Mary Magdalene mistakes the Risen Christ for the gardener (Robert Bayne for Clayton & Bell, 1860) St Nicholas and the boys in the barrel (continental, 16th Century)
Salvator Mundi St John the Baptist St Thomas of Canterbury St Joseph and the Christchild
tabernacle squint rood
Erpingham Adoration of the Magi Charles King and Martyr
Sir John de Erpingham, 1370 Sir John de Erpingham, 1370 Sir John de Erpingham, 1370
Ave Maria Gratia Plena traceried squint, looking west Erpingham and Calthorpe Mothers Union
E II R tu es sacerdos in aeternum
died a prisoner of war in Siam Ad majorem Dei gloriam
here lies the body of William Hobart


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