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

St John the Baptist, Garboldisham

north porch

Garboldisham Garboldisham To commemorate sixty years reign of our Gracious Queen 1837-1897

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    St John the Baptist, Garboldisham

Here we are in the Norfolk and Suffolk border country, and St John the Baptist is by far the biggest church around here, its tower a beacon above the river valley. Simon Cotton tells me that there were bequests towards the building of the tower throughout the 1460s, and one of 1463 leaves money to the stipend of the mason in the first year of his job, which as Simon suggests gives a good date for the beginning of the tower, the architect being the same as for the Suffolk towers of Ixworth, Badwell Ash and Elmswell,

The exterior is all of a late medieval piece, grand and opulent, and not only grand but also curious. The tower is notable for its proportion and decoration, but if you stand to the west of the tower you can see that it once had a western porch built against it. These so-called Galilee porches, named for their role in the Holy Week processions, are unusual in East Anglia, where it was more common to begin the procession out in the churchyard. Pevsner points us towards the one over the Suffolk border in Lakenheath, though in fact he is quite wrong, for the structure at Lakenheath was never a porch, but a lean-to building, perhaps a school, and it was built after the Reformation. There is a Galilee porch not so very far from here on the round tower at Mutford over the border in Suffolk, and a very grand one at Bottisham in Cambridgeshire. But whatever was once here at Garboldisham has now gone.

But if you come round to the north side, there actually is a very grand late medieval porch, with flanking niches and inscriptions. And yet, the more you look at it the more you realise that something here is not quite right. Simply, it doesn't seem to fit. The arch is the wrong shape for the spandrels, as if it has been narrowed from its former width, and there is a messiness about the way it fits to the north side of the church. You can't help thinking that at some time the western porch has been dismantled and moved around to this side. And there is more, for the inscription above asks us to pray for the soul of William Pece, but this inscription is obviously recut, with no evidence I can see that it necessarily replicates exactly what was there before. Indeed, it appears incomplete. I wonder to what extent the whole thing is a later confection.

Perhaps this expert sleight of hand tells us more about what we will find inside than the medieval grandness does, for you step into an interior which is steeped in late 19th/early 20th Century Anglican triumphalism, principally the work of Powell & Sons. Here is the highly polished confidence that comes from a generation which took churchgoing seriously. And so did the generation before them of course, as you can see from the renewed fancy tracery of the east window.

But there are survivals of earlier times. The base of the 15th Century screen in the north aisle is yet another curiosity, because it too doesn't quite fit. A local story claims that it came from the abandoned and ruined neighbouring church of Garboldisham All Saints. This may well be true, although it doesn't sound right - where was the screen in all the time after the ruination of All Saints church after the Reformation? For it surely can't have been moved here then, and perhaps it did not arrive here until the 19th Century restoration of St John. Whatever, its four panels are all of interest. The first figure is St Germain, patriarch of Constantinople and a minor doctor of the church. His only English church dedication is on the other side of Norfolk at one of the Wiggenhalls. Next comes St William of York, then St Mary Magdalene and a pleasingly simple St Agnes, her lamb jumping up at her leg like a little dog. It probably dates from the end of the 15th Century.

There's a good carved set of Queen Anne arms and a bold 15th Century font, although nothing at all survives of the reliefs on its panels. Both Pevsner and Mortlock seem to have missed the 1579 brass to John Carlton, which is surprising because it has an associated merchant mark, a rarity. The inscription reads
Here lyeth buryed the bodie of John Carlton, late while he lyved of Garboldesham, Mercer, who had to wyfe Elizabeth, and of her fower sonnes & nyne daughters, which John dyed the third daye of Aprill in the yere of our Lord God, 1579. Post tenebras Spero Lucem. In 1787, James Taylor sought himself a more furtive immortality, carving his name into a shield on the south face of the tower. You can still see it today. And despite the best efforts of those Victorians, the tower still speaks to us more of the 15th Century than of their later enthusiasms, a surviving great Norfolk medieval moment, a wonder.

Simon Knott, December 2020

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font looking east Royal arms of Queen Anne
St Michael flanked by angels with a sword and a shield (George F Molyneux Montgomerie WWI memorial) Blessed Virgin and child flanked by angel musicians east window: resurrection Christ heals the sick St Elizabeth of Hungary, St Francis and St Dorothy
John Carlton's merchant mark Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see St Mary Magdalene and St Agnes
Blessed Virgin at the Presentation in the Temple of such is the Kingdom Presentation in the Temple: Simeon and the Christ Child flanked by the Blessed Virgin and Anna St Dorothy
St Agnes's lamb (15th Century) Major CFM Montgomerie died at La Perle, St Lucia... fell near Suvla Bay
two doves at the Presentation in the Temple agnus dei two angels: Holy Holy Holy


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