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

St Peter and St Paul, Heydon


Heydon south porch south porch vaulting
south porch path

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    St Peter and St Paul, Heydon

Heydon is a small, pretty village, not much more than a street really, on the edge of the Heydon Hall estate. The village is well-known for its pub and tearooms which attract hordes of visitors in summer, and both the Hall and the village are regularly used as a set for films and television programmes, including most famously The Go-Between but also one of the best episodes of The Comic Strip Presents. The church sits beside the village green near the entrance to the Park, its tower rising above the street and the grand west doorway facing onto it. A succession of bequests in the second half of the 15th Century bankrolled its construction, and the south porch and the windows of the church that opens up beyond it appear to be of of a similar date. However, the north porch is older, and the arcades inside are in the style of a hundred years earlier than the tower and windows, and so they are probably a good guide to the rebuilding of the church, the window tracery being replaced on a larger scale as fashions and priorities changed. There will be another indication that this is what happened when we go inside.

When I came back here in May 2021 both the west doors and the south porch were open, and appear to be so every day. It's worth at least looking in the south porch, for it is stone-vaulted beneath its parvise room and has a number of bosses of angels arranged around the central figure of Christ in Majesty. At some point they have been painted over, and the paint is now peeling.

angel boss (south porch) Christ in Majesty boss (south porch) angel boss (south porch)

The church you step into is at once familiar and yet, not quite. The great cup-shaped font at the west end is difficult to date - Pevsner thought 13th Century. There was a considerable 19th Century restoration, but the patronage of the Hall has left survivals from most centuries. The remaining benches are clustered together in the middle of the nave creating wide open spaces in the aisles and the west end of the nave. What little coloured glass there is can be found towards the east of the aisles. The best is the 1870s glass in the south aisle of the Blessed Virgin flanked by St Peter and St Paul which Birkin Haward thought was probably the work of Burlison & Grylls. In the north aisle, the Powell & Sons glass is in their typical style of the 1920s. The organ chamber blocking the aisle east window makes that side of the church seem a little gloomy, but the clerestories flood the nave and in any case it is the light cast by the great east window beyond the 15th Century screen that draws the eye. The screen has a dedicatory inscription of 1480 to John Dynne. Two 17th Century box pews stand in front of it. There are fragments of 15th Century glass in the upper lights of one of the chancel windows, including the head of a woman wearing a veil, but they are perhaps inconsequential in such a large space. The upper lights of the east window have some figures of saints by J Dixon, but again these hardly intrude.

Heydon is memorable for its wall paintings. They are relatively late, coming after the Black Death had instilled a new urgency in the late medieval church, but before the increasing rationalism of the 15th Century replaced devotional tools with congregational ones. The most impressive of the paintings is in the north aisle. This depicts the Three Living and the Three Dead. Three knights out hunting meet three corpses in increasing states of decay. Two of the three Princes survive at Heydon, and one of the corpses pokes his skull eerily above an 18th Century memorial. As you are so once were we, the three hunting princes are told, as we are so you shall be, a meditation on the fleeting nature of mortality.

At the east end of the aisle is a sequence of the life of St John the Baptist. This includes two scenes of Salome dancing before Herod from different dates, suggesting that the entire sequence was repainted at some point, giving strong credence to the idea that this was the location of a chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist. Also surviving at Heydon is a beautiful image of the Adoration of the Magi, once part of a sequence of events in the story of Christ.

Two Kings and a Falcon from Three Living and Three Dead wall painting King and Falcon from Three Living and Three Dead wall painting north aisle chapel Adoration of the Magi

Why were these made? It is too simplistic to think of them as some kind of 'poor man's bible', superseded once parishioners had access to the vernacular written word. Rather, they were tools for Catholic teaching and for devotions, to be meditated upon. As you are, so once were we, as we are, so you will be. Is this just a warning about the inevitability of death, and a call to repentance? Or, more subtly, a meditation on the transitoriness of worldly things? For the medieval mind, death did not come as an end. Rather, it was a transition. Dead parishioners were still called to mind as members of the community. They were prayed for, and it was assumed that the souls of the dead were still praying for those of the living. Wealth was not forever, and immortality existed for all, as long as praying for the dead did. The material world was a temporary thing, a passing shadow.

Medieval worship was less congregational, more devotional, and the role of the priest at Mass was not so much to lead worship as to embody it. His was the chancel, its upkeep was his responsibility, and certainly by the late Middle Ages it had become his exclusive domain. The nave was the place of the parish. The wealthier members of the parish paid for its construction, and it was the people of the parish who fitted it out for the devotions and rituals that Catholic worship demanded of them. Here, parishioners could follow their personal devotional path, albeit in public, in the presence of the Host. It was important enough that Mass was happening. There was no call to participate in what the priest was doing. Rather, this was the time to pray devotedly and silently, beads in hand. Worship was active, not passive.

Curiously, as at so many churches, the wall paintings in the north aisle at Heydon are punched through by later windows placed there before the Reformation. It is as if, during the 15th Century, the need for the public manifestation of private devotions came to an end, and was gradually overtaken by an increasingly passive, corporate act of worship. It is no coincidence that this was the time that pulpits first appeared, and the roods were built larger and higher, filling the east end of the nave, a constant reminder of the central mystery of the Christian faith. With the coming of the pulpit, the Priest left his chancel and entered the domain of the people, taking it over. All eyes were fixed on him now. The paintings could be whitewashed, perhaps a century before the Reformation, and the great Perpendicular windows filled the nave with light, the plowman gazing in wonder on the rood, his attention gained, his head buzzing with ideas that may or may not have been beyond his comprehension. There would be no going back.

Simon Knott, June 2021

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looking east

woman wearing a veil fragments pray for the soul of
Grief Madonna and child Presentation in the Temple
Roman soldier at the Resurrection Queen Anne royal arms Blessed Virgin and Christ child flanked by St Paul and St Peter (Burlison & Grylls? 1870s)


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