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St Withburga, Holkham
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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.
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.
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
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