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All Saints, Gresham
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The narrow, deep set lanes that thread through fields and copses in the rolling landscape south of the Cromer and Sheringham coast are a riot of green in early summer and a delight to cycle in. The villages that straggle along the lanes are mostly tiny and inconsequential. This is a land of small churches, many of them round-towered and pretty much all of them open every day. The parish of Gresham as two distinct settlements, Gresham and Lower Gresham, and the parish church sits between the two looking very fine on a rise in its tree-surrounded churchyard. The 12th Century round tower was significantly altered in the 1880s when the octagonal 14th Century bellstage was removed and the tower heightened so that it is round all the way to the top, leaving it looking rather stark I'm afraid.
The body of the church is more characterful, principally a rebuilding of the early 14th Century, but then a hundred and fifty years later the central Decorated window of the three on each side of the nave was replaced with a large Perpendicular window, giving a pleasing symmetrical effect. It is perhaps a surprise that the Victorians resisted replacing them to make the range more uniform. The two-storey south porch appears larger than it actually is, and as Sam Mortlock observed, it adds a touch of pretention to an otherwise simple little church. This simplicity extends inside, even severely so, the character all of a major restoration of the 1850s, and this would perhaps not be a memorable church were it not for one remarkable feature, for Gresham has one of the very best of all of the East Anglian seven sacrament font series. It is in remarkably good condition, probably because the reliefs are so deeply set it was not necessary for the Anglican reformers of the mid-16th Century to knock them flush before being plastered over. There is only one panel which has suffered damage, as we will see.
The crowding of the figures into the scenes is reminiscent of the Seven Sacrament font at Badingham in Suffolk. The most easterly panel is the eighth scene, which is necessarily added to the scenes depicting the seven sacraments of the Catholic church. It depicts the Baptism of Christ. Christ stands centrally in the River Jordan. John the Baptist on the right pours water from a ewer over his head. At the top left, God the Father sends down the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. Another figure (the font donor?) kneels with a baptismal cloth over his arm. Travelling clockwise around the font, the next panel depicts Last Rites, a remarkably lively scene. The priest lays his hat on the dying man's bed and anoints the man's chest with holy oil. An acolyte behind him holds the open missal. The grieving soon-to-be widow kneels at the foot of the bed, using her headscarf to wipe her tears. Behind her, another acolyte holds the chrismatory which contains the holy oils. Three neighbours or family members crowd in and pray.
The next panel faces south, and depicts Confirmation. Seven parents bring their babies to be confirmed by the priest. An acolyte stands with an open missal second left at the back. Next comes Baptism. The priest totally immerses the baby. An acolyte holds open the missal. The godparents flank the font, the parents standing behind on the left. Facing west is Mass. The priest faces the altar and elevates the host. An acolyte on the right pulls a rope to ring the sacring bell. Coming round to the north-west panel, the Confession scene is the only one that has suffered damage. The penitent kneels and the seated priest hears his confession. An acolyte behind uses an aspurgillum to sprinkle holy water on the devil who sneaks out. However, the figure of the devil has been completely scraped off. Could this possibly have been done when the plaster was removed in the 19th Century, and the parish decided it didn't want the devil on its font? The priests head has also been damaged, and this was possibly to make the relief flush for plastering.
Facing north is Matrimony. The priest in the centre joins the hands of the bride and groom. An acolyte holds open the missal, and the witnesses crowd in. Finally, the panel depicting Ordination. Two ordinands kneel to be anointed with holy oils by the bishop. Behind them, one acolyte holds the chrismatory containing the holy oils, another holds an open missal. A third acolyte behind the priest rings a handbell. At the back, the priest and people look on. This panel is described in a number of sources, including Francis Bond's classic Fonts and Font Covers, as Matrimony, probably because of the two kneeling figures, but it isn't. The figure administering the sacrament is a bishop not a priest, and the chrismatory would be superfluous because holy oils are not used in the liturgy of Matrimony. Bond identifies the real Matrimony panel as Ordination, which is perhaps absurd because there is no bishop and one of the figures is clearly a woman, so I can only assume he misread his notes and his mistake has been repeated in later works.
A memorial in the chancel remembers three young men killed in the Second World War, and its inscription tells us that it was erected by Lt Col RC Batt to the Glory of God and in loving memory of his three younger sons. They died in Alexandria, Normandy and Newcastle, two of them in the same month towards the end of the war. The late Tom Muckley explained to me once that the plainness of Gresham church is largely due to the actions of the very Lt Col Batt whose sons are memorialised here. Batt was an ardent protestant at a time when the vicar of Gresham was an enthusiastic Anglo-Catholic. As one of the patrons of the living, the Colonel demanded that all the 'popish' decorations and ornaments in the church be removed. When the vicar refused, Batt took the church to a consistory court and won. Tom reflected that this must have been one of the last ecclesiastical battles of this kind. There was some local feeling that Batt had become mentally unwell because of the deaths of his three sons, and this might explain his obsession with cleansing the church of all imagery. It is said that he even tried to have the font boarded over because of the figures on it.
At the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship the rector here was the Reverend Francis Edward Ardon, and the return he made provides an interesting insight into Gresham at the time. There were almost four hundred people living in the parish, and he recorded that on average forty of them attended Sunday morning worship, roughly ten per cent of the parish population, but typically for East Anglia there was a far higher average attendance of a hundred and fifty who came to hear the Sunday afternoon sermon. These sermons were preached in almost every parish, and probably attracted the attention of some non-conformists, who formed a majority in many East Anglian parishes. The fashion for afternoon sermons died out later in the century as the Church of England was returned to its sacramental roots by the influence of the Oxford Movement, but they were a significant feature of Anglican practice for a couple of centuries.
It is worth pointing out that these average attendances were often inflated, many incumbents trying to explain what were generally lower attendances on the day of the census. One of the intentions of the 1851 Census was to check on the proportion of parishioners attending the services of the Established Church, and if the incumbent was providing value for money. Not surprisingly, many tried to justify their positions. Ardon's income as Rector of Gresham came to about £350 a year, which is roughly £70,000 in today's money. Ardon added in his return that as well as the two alternating morning and afternoon services at Gresham he held a lecture every Sunday evening from April to November. He was also moved to point out that Poors Rates, Synodals, Procurations - expense of collecting tithe etc reduce the income of the Living by more than £50 per annum and the General Rent charge is being reduced every year. One wonders how much sympathy his parishioners had for his plight.
Simon Knott, June 2023
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