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

St Andrew, Hempstead



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    St Andrew, Hempstead

Hempstead church sits alone in the flat fields less than a mile from the coast in north-east Norfolk. On a summer's day it is a very pleasant place to be, despite the busy traffic of tractors bringing in the harvest and holidaymakers heading for the beach. But how different it is in winter! For then, sea frets spread like smoke across the bare soil, the few trees drip with damp, and the occasional farmworker on a bike is the only movement in the ancient, narrow lanes. It might be any century. It seems impossible that we are less than 150 miles from central London.

St Andrew is not a remarkable church. It is as serene as its setting, a place where not a lot happens. Damp greenness spots the font, but this makes it more organic, as if the whole place is comfortably blending into the fields. A couple of medieval angels look from a north window into the silence. Most curiously out of place, three massive baroque bench ends that came here from Kings College Chapel in Cambridge. A contrast with the homely hand-painted decalogue boards in the simple sanctuary, the handwritten roll of honour. Such is the setting, then, for one of East Anglia's most remarkable art objects, the late 14th Century rood screen.

The Hempstead screen is appropriately rustic, even rough and ready. The uneven top beam is completely unrestored, and indeed, the whole piece has only been lightly touched since its original construction. But the real significance of this screen comes from the quality of the painting. It is exquisite, and certainly on a par with Norfolk's best at Barton Turf. Indeed, if it were in better condition it would be as well known as the screen there. Norfolk's most famous screen is at Ranworth, but the painting there is certainly not as fine as that here at Hempstead. I first came here many years ago with the late Tom Muckley, who had seen many more screens than me. He pointed out the superb quality of the panels featuring St Stephen and St Lawrence, and the use of that pale and radiant blue, fabulously expensive to produce and unique in his experience.

the Hempstead screen

Hempstead screen: St Stephen Hempstead screen: St Theobald and St Denis Hempstead screen: St Erasmus Hempstead screen: St Lawrence's grid iron

One winter's day in February 1982, someone came into St Andrew and used a screwdriver to remove one of the boards of the rood screen. It was an image of St Eligius, patron Saint of farriers, found once only elsewhere on a screen in East Anglia. He stands at his forge working on the leg he has miraculously removed from the no doubt astonished horse beside him. The panel has never been found. But what remains tells us how splendid the screen must have been when it was new, and makes us mourn for what has been lost here and all over England.

The screen dado consists of two ranges of eight panels each, the panels arranged in pairs, some pairs significant, others apparently not so. They are, on the north side:

I: St Juliana - she has the devil on a halter
II: this image is lost to us

III: St Helen - little remains, but the label at the bottom survived
IV: this image is lost to us, but enough of the label survives to show it was probably St Agnes, possibly St Agatha

V: St Theobald, a Bishop
VI St Denis, another Bishop - he holds his severed head in his hands

VII: St John of Bridlington. He holds a fish, and is curiously represented as a Bishop, which he wasn't
VIII: St Giles, with the hart he rescued sitting at his feet

Hempstead screen: St Juliana Hempstead screen: St Juliana's haltered demon Hempstead screen: St Theobald and St Denis Hempstead screen: St John of Bridlington and St Giles

On the south side:

IX: St George, splendid with a red beard and the English banner above his head
X: St Erasmus, rather gruesome, his entrails being wound out on a windlass

XI: St Stephen, holding stones, the instruments of his martyrdom
XII: St Lawrence, with a gridiron, the instrument of his martyrdom

XIII: St Blaise, patron Saint of woolcombers, as a Bishop
XIV: St Francis as a friar, holding up his hands to show the stigmata

XV: St Leonard, patron Saint of prisoners, in fetters
XVI: St Eligius, the stolen panel. The photograph here is taken from the book English Church Screens by Aymer Vallance, Batsford, 1936.

Hempstead screen: St George and St Erasmus Hempstead screen: St Stephen and St Lawrence Hempstead screen: St Blaise and St Francis Hempstead screen: St Leonard and the missing St Eligius St Eligius, the lost panel

Coming back to Hempstead in the summer of 2019 I found the church open, an act of faith. If the Hempstead screen was in the Victorian and Albert Museum we would all happily head down to London to see it, but here it sits quietly in a Norfolk field awaiting pilgrims and strangers to pay it homage.

Simon Knott, August 2019

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font looking east looking west bench end from Kings College Chapel
chancel lamp and cross


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