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

St Helen, Gateley

Gateley: unpretentious treasure

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    St Helen, Gateley
through the churchyard gate   The greening of Norfolk happens so swiftly. After the long, cold winter, a few days of warm rain and sunshine bring about a sudden change; the recent buds relax and spread, and the countryside is transformed from its harsh monochrome into a thousand shades of gently blooming green. That which was exposed begins to hide, and Tom observed that it would have been more difficult to photograph this church if we had come just a few days later.

If you live in the middle of a big city, or in some sprawling suburban hinterland, it may be hard for you to comprehend just how remote this church is.

You come along the little lane from Brisley, branching off onto smaller lanes through rolling, close-hedged countryside. If anything comes the other way, there's negotiating to be done; but nothing ever does. There is no village, not even a hamlet, just occasional farms and the odd row of cottages. If you stop the car, there is intense quiet, apart from the birds who know they own the place. Near to the church there is open parkland, and a vast herd of deer, like a fleet of silent and steadily moving yachts, crops the spring grass that still shines from overnight rain.

Here, we are in the middle of the loose triangle made by the tiny towns of Dereham, Fakenham and Holt. There is an intense sense of remoteness, and if we had seen another human being out here it would have been something to remark upon, but we never did. Even the keyholder, who we had previously contacted, was out, but she had left the key on the kitchen table for us.

Mortlock describes St Helen as an unpretentious church, and that's about right. The nave is mostly 15th century, the chancel a Victorian rebuilding. You step into a rather dim space, narrow and aisleless but with a flavour of the period helped by surviving medieval benches and a lack of clutter. The floor is renewed, but still brick rather than tile; the font must be one of the most primitive in the county, and despite its marble pedestal it appears to grow organically out of the floor like a mushroom.

What makes Gateley famous is one of the most interesting set of rood screen paintings in East Anglia. Some of the finest in the region are obviously the work of craftsmen from elsewhere, but the screen here has more of a local flavour. We should always assume that the Saints chosen for a screen show evidence of local devotions, and that is particularly the case here.

  Sir John Schorne (detail)

The tracery above is rough and ready; but half a millennium on, the paintings are still a delight. There are just eight of them. On the north side are four women, and on the south side four men. The screen includes no less than three medieval figures who were never formally canonised, and one of them is probably a unique representation.

From left to right they are St Etheldreda, foundress of the Diocese of Ely and shown here as a nun labelled in Latin, Scta Adria, St Audrey (and she is probably the nun on the screen at nearby Litcham); St Elizabeth, also with a nun's habit and her arms crossed as if in an echo of the Visitation; The Blessed Virgin, turned to face her cousin; and then a curiosity, the Mistress of Ridibowne, a local devotion. Virtually nothing is known about her. Ridibowne was probably either Redbowne in Lincolnshire or Redbowne in Hertfordshire. No other representation is known to exist, although she may be the unidentified figure holding a spray on the screen at Babingley. Two early 16th century wills point to other local devotions to her, one at Hackford and the other at Cromer (thanks to Ann Eljenholm Nichols for this information.)

On the north side are St Louis of France, Henry VI labelled in Latin as 'the Blessed Martyr Henry VI' , St Augustine and Sir John Schorne, conjuring the devil into a boot - although Tom says he wonders if the legend has become corrupted; devotion to Sir John was considered efficacious against gout, and so surely he is conjuring the devil out of the boot.

Another intriguing feature of the screen is the inscriptions, in Latin but done in a local hand, probably the Priest.

North side Gateley screen south side
I: St Etheldreda II: St Elizabeth III: Blessed Virgin Mary the Mistress of Ridebowne
St Louis of France the Blessed Martyr Henry VI St Augustine Sir John Schorne
Scta Adria ('Holy Audrey') Scta Elizabeth ('Holy Elizabeth') Scta Maria ('Holy Mary')
Scta Puellt Ridibowne ('Holy Mistress of Ridebowne') Bt+ Henricus VI ('Blessed Martyr Henry VI') Magister Johanes Schorne ('Master John Schorne')

There are traces of 20th century Anglo-catholic piety at Gateley; there is a gilded reredos set in a Sarum screen, and a Marian statue with candles in front. But curiously, although we were here in Holy Week, it was not covered, so perhaps this is an enthusiasm whose time has gone.

There are traces of decorative wall painting at the north-west corner of the nave that probably predate the Perpendicular of the windows, and a fine Charles I set of royal arms. This is an unusual thing to find, but is made even more interesting by the inscription painted on the frame, Custos Utruisque Tabulae, which means something like 'he guards the tables of the laws' which Mortlock suggests, convincingly, means that the arms were at one time associated with a set of the Ten Commandments. Presumably it was painted by royalist parishioners, a reminder to anyone who was tempted to support the parliamentarians that the King was God's representative on Earth, or at least in England, and that any attempt to subvert his authority was to turn the natural order upside down. But it did no good, because he was beheaded anyway.

Simon Knott, May 2006


south doorway crude font sanctuary curiously uncloaked Madonna
looking east traces of wall painting royal arms English altar with reredos
reredos detail: St Hugh, St Wolstan, St Felix looking west bench ends bench ends

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