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

All Saints, Lessingham

Lessingham

ruined chancel

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    All Saints, Lessingham

I first came here with the late Tom Muckley in one of the first years of the new century. Having already sampled the delights of the amazing screen at neighbouring Hempstead, we had passed through this village, and seen the tower sticking above the house tops. Coming back, we found you had to drive almost a mile out of the village and then return towards the church on a minor track. There is a footpath from the village, but no vehicular approach, which I rather thought was just as it should be. However, coming back in the summer of 2019 I had forgotten about the footpath, and ended up cycling almost 270 degrees around the church, a couple of fields always separating me from it until at last I reached the track I had remembered.

Coming closer, I was reminded how crisp this little church is, because for all its apparent 14th Century appearance, it underwent a major rebuilding by Diocesan architect Herbert Green in the 1890s. Photographs of the church before the restoration show it as pretty much a complete ruin, with only the chancel in use. Green restored the whole building, allowing the congregation to move back into the nave, and so it was with some irony that the chancel was severely damaged by a storm in October 1961. It was decided to block off the chancel and make the ruin safe, leaving a tower and trimly thatched nave with what is effectively a walled garden on the site of the chancel.

The church is always open. You step into a pleasant, well-kept, much-loved and welcoming village church. There is nothing remarkable. The Purbeck marble font is typical of this area, and there is an early Jacobean pulpit and tester. On the north side of the sanctuary is a war memorial window depicting St Andrew, St George and King Richard the Lionheart. The figures look entirely the work of Powell & Sons to me, but Birkin Haward wondered if the artist was the young Christopher Webb. It remembers Lieutenant Locke Francis William Angerstein Kendall, who died of wounds near Jerusalem at the age of 27. A view of the city of Jerusalem is below King Richard's feet.

died of wounds near Jerusalem (Christopher Webb? 1920s) St Andrew (Christopher Webb? 1920s) St George (Christopher Webb? 1920s) King Richard Coeur de Lion (Christopher Webb? 1920s) Jerusalem (Christopher Webb? 1920s)

For me, a more moving war memorial is the original handwritten roll of honour, still surviving here after more than a century. Charmingly, the Mothers Union banner for the combined parish of Hempstead, Lessingham and Eccles is dated 1895. You feel a real sense of the place being a touchstone down the long Lessingham generations, and if that is all there was then it would be enough. However, there is something else, something that is no longer here. Before the chancel was demolished, All Saints had the surviving panels of a splendid rood screen with twelve painted figures. I had read much about it. Although much later than the screen at Hempstead, it was of particular interest because, as well as the twelve figures of apostles, there were further figures which had been superimposed on paper some time in the 16th century, perhaps, unusually, during the 1550s reign of Mary I.

The screen is no longer in Lessingham church, and for reasons that will become apparent there is some dispute about the identities of the figures on the panels. I had read the Norfolk Museums Service record, but this did not completely agree with an account that Chris Harrison had found by WW Williamson in Norfolk Archaeology, 1950. Williamson had seen the screen in situ.

Green moved the screen into its original position at the entrance to the chancel, but after the destruction of the chancel and the blocking off of the arch, it was moved to an unsatisfactory position at the west end of the nave. After a couple of years, it was decided to loan it to the church furnishings museum at St Peter Hungate in Norwich, where it would be a star attraction, and in 1968 the screen headed off to the big city.

However, when public spending cuts forced the closure of that museum in the 1990s the screen went into storage, in the depths of Norwich castle. In 1995, it was moved to the Architectural Service archive at Gressenhall. The two sides were packed into enormous pine cases, and screwed up tightly to prevent them rattling around.

One hot summer day in 2006, I went with Chris Harrison to visit the archive. It was like stepping into Aladdin's cave. The kind archivist unscrewed the front of the two cases, and revealed the wonders inside. It was the first time that the cases had been opened, the first time the screen had been seen for eleven years. I hope I don't sound immodest if I say I felt a little like Howard Carter.

The screen is intricate and flowery, full of the flavour of the English Renaissance -or, at least, what it might have been if puritanism hadn't intervened. This suggests that the construction of the screen itself is quite late, perhaps early in the 16th century. It has been heavily restored, presumably by Green; the base is new, as are some of the uprights. Holes where buttressing might have been attached have been cut out and filled.

The figures are painted in two, possibly three, distinct styles. The original twelve are all by the same artist, and depict the eleven disciples and one other, possibly St Paul. Where a paper figure has been superimposed, there is a white banner with a legend about two-thirds of the way up the panel. This appears on panels I, II, VI, VII, VIII and IX. Curiously, there is a break in the background painting at the same point in panels XI and XII - could they also have been superimposed? Or, intriguingly, were they prepared, but the imposition never carried out? Gessowork flowers are discernible on at least one of the panels, St Thomas, and probably date from the original decoration of the screen. They may have been generally removed before superimposition. The figures of St Roche and St Jerome give some indication of the quality of the whole if it had ever been completed. The original faces peer through like ghosts.

St Roche (St Thomas behind) St Jerome St Thomas

On the north side of the screen, figure I is, I believe, St Roche superimposed over St Thomas. The superimposed figure is seated, and lifts his cape above his leg. A figure in white, possibly an angel, points to the leg, while a little dog looks on. Unfortunately, the leg itself is obliterated, but almost certainly it shows plague sores. Now, there was a great outbreak of plague in this part of Norfolk in 1555 - St Roche also appears on the screen at nearby Stalham - so this may well be evidence of a Marian restoration. St Thomas behind holds a spear.

Figure II is St Matthew. A superimposed figure has been removed. Figures III, IV and V are St Simon, St James and St Andrew. Superimposed figure VI is clearly St Jerome, wearing his cardinal's robes. Providentially, the superimposition is damaged in exactly the right place to see that the figure behind is holding a key, and is thus St Peter.

St Roche and St Matthew St Simon and St James St Andrew and St Jerome

On the south side, the first figure imposed is clearly St Gregory. He wears a papal crown and carries a papal cross. The figure beneath is unidentifiable, although I believe that what appears to be a white shell on his head is actually a fragment of the later superimposition. Most likely, it is St Paul to match St Peter across the doorway.

Superimposed figure VIII is St Augustine, and IX is St Ambrose (Ann Elenholm Nichols' identification of this last as St Anselm is a proofing error, I think). As with panel VII, it is not possible to discern who the figures underneath are. Figures X, XI and XII are St Philip, St Jude and St James the Less. The last two panels appear to have been at least prepared for superimposition.

St Gregory superimposed St Augustine superimposed St Ambrose superimposed St Philip St Jude St James

There were once doors, with two panels each. These depicted St Apollonia, St Catherine, St Margaret, and St Mary of Magdala. Williamson identified two of these, and one other, as being loose panels in the vestry in 1950. Their location since is unclear. But it is a stunningly lovely screen, and not without a frisson of excitement. It would be nice to think that one day it could be put back on public display, possibly even at Lessingham church. And you can't help wondering what happened to the door panels. Did they also go to St Peter Hungate? Are they somewhere in storage, even now?

It would be wonderful, of course, if the screen could be returned to the church, although with the chancel gone that would create some logistical difficulties, and of course there may well be other sensible reasons that the parish would prefer not to take on the responsibility for the screen. But I do wish it could be displayed again somewhere.

Simon Knott, August 2019

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looking east font
pulpit roll of honour Hempstead Lessingham Eccles M U for love of God and home 1895 St Andrew, St George, Richard the Lionheart (Christopher Webb? 1920s)

   

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