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

St Withburga, Holkham

Holkham: massive, but simple and peaceful

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please keep gate closed - to keep out the deer and sheep from the north-east from the south-east mausoleum
high on a hill dramatic west front south tower

    St Withburga, Holkham
a remote corner   This massive church would be quite at home in the centre of a large town, but here it sits on a hilltop in a remote corner of the Holkham Hall estate, with only deer and sheep for company. It looks all of its restoration of the late 1860s, but there is medieval work at the core. Not that this matters much, because James Colling's rebuilding was wholly excellent, creating a big, light, rural estate church that was nevertheless grand enough to suit Holkham Hall and the Cokes, the Earls of Leicester, who own it.

The Hall is about a mile away, and you can see it shimmering across the park and lake from the south entrance of the church. In between, flotillas of sheep and deer graze their way gently across the green and into the great oaks of the woods. It is all absolutely charming, and not the less so for being an almost entirely man-made landscape.

That said, the mound on which St Withburga sits is an ancient place. It has been suggested that it is an Iron Age site, perhaps for burials or a temple. It is composed entirely of sand, and it is most likely that it is a dune thrown up by the sea, which is now more than a mile from the church to the north.

The graveyard wall surrounds the mound completely, and it is very pleasing to navigate the church in what is effectively a moat, noting the mausoleum to the west, and looking up at the great west front which looks like something you might come across on the Loire.

The great tower must make a fine view from the house. Although it incorporates earlier work, it is entirely rebuilt. You enter through the south porch beneath it, a bold, confident space which is of itself bigger than some Norfolk churches I have been in. The south doorway is evidence of the earlier church, I think, although the marble tiling of the floor has lifted it up considerably and left the arch looking most curious. And then you step through into a wide, high, cool, open space.

main entrance  

Again, there is a feeling of being in France, as if this was some great Abbey church. The rebuilding was paid for by Juliana, Countess of Leicester, and she died in 1870, just as it was completed. Her simple effigy lies in the bare north aisle chapel, and perhaps the biggest surprise about St Withburga is how simple and understated everything is. There are generations of vast Coke memorials, of course - but they are not here. They are in Tittleshall church, some fifteen miles to the south, another outpost of the Coke empire. Here, the memorials are simpler, and all the more affecting: a sequence of 17th century memorials, brasses and ledger stones collected together in the south aisle chapel, and the moving wall memorials in the north aisle to Coke sons killed in the World Wars.

Jane Osborne, 1618 Susan Doyly..." in the fifth year of her age..." Miles Armiger 1639 - by Nicholas Stone? Arthur George Coke, 1915 crowned lion device
"the body of the first borne child... which was still borne..." David Arthur Coke, 1941 war memorial Alice Emily White, 1936 Merriall Coke and husband, with grandparents, 1636

Two of the ledger stones are to children, both all the more moving for being written in the stilted hand that puritanism forced upon us. One is to Susan Doyly, who died aged five. Curiously, the inscription concludes with the legend MY HOP IS IN THE - and that is all. Friend of the site Chris Upton suggests that it means simply My Hope is in Thee. Next to it, another ledger is to the body of the first borne child and son of Sir Nicholas Lestrange... which was still borne...

Pevsner thinks that two of the 17th century wall memorials may be by the great Nicholas Stone. One is to Miles Armiger, who died in 1639, and the other is a curious affair to Meriall Coke and her husband, of 1636. She is flanked by two other couples, who turn out to be her grandparents.

A rare, large 18th century glass in the south aisle chapel records that in the years 1767 and 1768, this church and chancel were repaired and beautified by Margaret, Baroness Clifford. The huge chancel was obviously intended for Tractarian worhip, and in general the whole building is testimony to the gentle enthusiasm for ritual of this period, before spiky Anglo-catholicism took charge later in the century. I don't always warm to big churches, but here is a simple, peaceful, prayerful space - a vast one, but a pleasure still.

Simon Knott, July 2006


looking east chancel north-west corner with font
south arcade north aisle south doorway pulpit by Colling 
south entrance beneath the tower font looking west "in the years 1767 and 1768, this church and chancel were repaired and beautified..." St Withburga
east window Juliana, Countess of Leicester sanctuary coffin lids 

Holkham Hall park I Holkham Hall park II Holkham Hall park III

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