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The Assumption, Great Witchingham

Great Witchingham

south porch south porch: Blessed Virgin and Gabriel at the Annunciation under a row of Ave Maria Regina monograms

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The Assumption, Great Witchingham

Much of the parish of Great Witchingham is down on the main Norwich to Fakenham road, but up here in the gentle hills the church sits in a hamlet of old houses at a meeting of roads. The churchyard is enclosed by stately lime trees which give it a grand and rather secretive feel. The church fits snugly into this space, not large, but with the aisles and clerestory that reflect the money lavished on it in the late medieval period. Simon Cotton tells me that there was a bequest in 1381 for the south aisle and then as late as 1493 a significant bequest for a new roof which would have brought the clerestory. The tower is from the century before, a bequest of 1377, and the chancel from the century before that but with evidence of earlier work. So, all in all this is a fairly typical East Anglian country church. Brick details enliven the clerestory, and the most westerly window on each side is false, the tracery filled with knapped flint as in the false windows on the tower at Deopham. they would never have had glass in them.

The dedication of the church is to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, one of the most common medieval dedications in East Anglia. However, the porch might suggest that a dedication to the Annunciation would have been equally appropriate, for in the spandrels are two remarkably crisp carvings depicting Mary at her prayer desk and the announcing angel with his scroll.

You step into a seemly, homely building without coloured glass. The squarish nave, with its aisles cleared, feels a little crowded thanks to the high furnishings. The star of the show here is to the west of them, Great Witchingham's late 15th Century font, one of the best of East Anglia's thirty-odd Seven Sacrament series. On my most recent visit it was encased in insulating material to protect it from work being done under the tower, but if you get to see it the most striking and memorable thing about it is the amount of original colour it retains, mostly red and green and reminiscent of the font elsewhere in Norfolk at Loddon, although this one is in far better condition.

The dramatic image of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven, in a nimbus lifted by angels, faces north-west. Anti-clockwise around the font from it are the panels for Mass (seen sideways, the priest kneeling at the altar, the acolyte behind with a taper), Ordination (the ordinand kneeling), Baptism (the priest lowering the baby into the water), Confirmation, Confession (the priest sits in a chair, the penitent on a bench, an angel guards them while the devil sneaks out the back way), Matrimony and the Last Rites (the sick man apparently on the floor covered in blankets). Beneath the bowl, symbols of the four Evangelists alternate with the four Latin Doctors of the Church who seem to have been a popular subject locally, as they are on the roodscreen doors at both Cawston and Salle. The eagle of St John is under the Assumption panel, and then anti-clockwise they are St Ambrose, the lion of St Mark, St Gregory, the winged man of St Matthew, St Augustine, the bull of St Luke, and St Jerome. Between the eight Saints are the heads of kings.

The panel depicting the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a rare survival. It occurs on fonts only twice elsewhere in East Anglia, at Bridgham in Norfolk, and on the Mysteries of the Virgin font at Ipswich St Matthew in Suffolk. The doctrine of the Assumption was central to late medieval worship, and its celebration on the 15th August, at the height of the harvest, was the third great festival of the year after Easter and Christmas. It was frowned on by the Anglican reformers for being non-scriptural, and they excised it from Anglican doctrine and the new Book of Common Prayer. Its imagery was scoured from English churches, except where it was hidden, and we know that many fonts were plastered over to hide their imagery (not to save it, but to remove it from public view). Almost certainly that is what happened here.

seven sacrament font The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin on the seven sacrament font Saints on the font stem under a canopy of Evangelists and Doctors of the Church
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin on the seven sacrament font Mass on the seven sacrament font Ordination on the seven sacrament font Baptism on the seven sacrament font
Confirmation on the seven sacrament font Confession on the seven sacrament font Matrimony on the seven sacrament font Last Rites on the seven sacrament font
Evangelist: winged lion of St Mark Doctor of the Church: St Gregory Evangelist: winged man of St Matthew
Doctor of the Church: St Augustine Evangelist: winged bull of St Luke Doctor of the Church: St Jerome
Evangelist: eagle of St John Doctor of the Church: St Ambrose

Seven Sacraments fonts are reminders of a reforming movement in the Church that began a full century before the English Reformation. During the 15th Century, there seems to have been an attempt to assert orthodox Catholic doctrine. Why did this happen? Some books suggest that it was in the face of heretical movements like Lollardy, but it seems more likely that an emergent middle class which had come to prominence with the changing land ownership resulting form the mid-14th Century Black Death, and which was strong in this wool and cloth-producing area, attempted to close the gap between their educated, articulate theology and the superstitious practices and beliefs of the ordinary working people.

And so, in came the fonts, bench ends and wall paintings depicting the Sacraments, the Works of Mercy, the Cardinal Virtues and the Deadly Sins, and attention was turned from private devotions towards the great rood, a reminder to the common people of the central mystery of the Christian faith, the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At this time churches began to be seated, and large windows were punched through walls to illuminate the shadowy places. Pulpits appeared now, a century before the protestant reformers came along, and many older wall paintings were whitewashed over. Why was this? Many that were lost depicted the lives of saints, and perhaps it was thought they were a distraction, open to abuses and superstitions. Most of the wall paintings that survived into the 16th Century appear to be those concerned with Catholic doctrine, and like the plastered fonts none at all survived unwhitewashed to incur the wrath of the Puritans a century later. In his progress around the counties of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, government-appointed iconoclast William Dowsing did not see a single seven sacrament font or wall painting.

Simon Cotton's 1976 guidebook for Great Witchingham imagined the church as it was on the eve of the Reformation in the first decades of the early 16th Century: Through the chancel screen we see the High Altar, even more richly decorated; four lighted candles stand upon the altar (possibly without precedent elsewhere in England) and many more surround it, whilst above the altar the blessed sacrament is reserved for the sick in a silver pyx. At Mass time on Sunday, the whole population of Witchingham throngs the nave, people chatting to each other from time to time. Latin phrases filter down the chancel, lights flicker, stained glass glimmers, incense smoke ascends, and bells ring.

The interior today is a little disappointing after the memory of such wonders, and it is hard to imagine that altar ablaze today. The medieval interiors of English churches are largely Victorian reinventions, what the 19th Century thought the 15th Century looked like, and before that great wave of restoration these buildings had been preaching boxes for three hundred years, their congregations focused on the pulpit rather than the altar. However, as so often there are a number of medieval survivals other than the font, including bench ends of an angel and devil on the north side of the nave, and high in the nave roof wingless angels carrying shields, a scroll, a cross and a heart. The most easterly bay is ceilured, and would have been the canopy of honour to the rood.

As with many English churches, there are memorials to local people of significance in the centuries after the Reformation. There are a couple of interesting brass inscriptions, but most memorable of all is the early 17th Century inscription to George and Alice Meares, erected by their daughter Susan Birde:

Stay (Gentle reader) stay, and lend us thine ey,
that were as you, though now full low wee lye.
We livde and loved long, were blest wth store,
from none wee tooke but gave to thos were poor.
Gods Word wee dayly redde, observde his daye,
Gods Spirit movde and so wee did obey.
True yokefellowes we were on earth, & bee
true saints in heaven kept for eternitie.
So now pass on, thus lyve, thus dye, and take
thy share in Joyes for thy redeemers sake.

Perhaps the most striking object here other than the font is the remarkably large lectern, quite out of scale with the rest of the furnishings. It is an eagle, but what a bird! You'd soon run if you saw this fellow coming in to land. It was brought here from New College, Oxford in the 19th Century, and was used as the pulpit before the present simple one came in 1974 from St Matthias, Colindale. It seems a pity to see it now sitting disused in the south aisle, aching to take flight again.

Simon Knott, November 2021

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looking east chancel south aisle eagle lectern
stay (gentle reader) stay, lend us thine ey Heare lyeth ye body of George Meares Esquier whoe deceased 10th daie of May anno 1626
Here under resteth interred the bodye of Marye Aleyn the wife of Thomas Aleyn of this parishe who lived a matron the number of 72 yeares frute full in children and departed this world a true member of christ the 27th daye of November 1617

seven sacrament font, 2021


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