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Holy Trinity, Loddon
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Norfolk towns can seem very insular. England is so small that very few parts of it achieve the sense you get in France of small towns so remote that they acquire the functions and significance of larger towns. East Anglia, parts of the West Country, Cumbria perhaps. Loddon is not particularly far from anywhere; Beccles and Bungay are both within ten miles, and are larger. Ah, but they are in Suffolk you see, and along the Waveney valley the border still seems to mean something. And so here is Loddon, with a barely 5,000 souls even including adjacent Chedgrave, but it still has its bank, shops, pubs, library, and so on.
As well as the magnificence of Holy Trinity, its vast graveyard spreading beyond the market square, there is a very grand Methodist church, St John. The two communities are effectively merged, and, as the The Church in Loddon site says, there has been an Anglican/Methodist united Church in Loddon for more than 25 years now, and we share everything - ministers, buildings, bank account, etc. and have one Joint Church Council. We worship in Holy Trinity in the summer and in St. John's in the winter. I understand that the town's Catholics, who do not have their own building in Loddon but are part of the parish of Poringland, also share in the worship of the community on occasions. It is all very pleasing, and no doubt gets up the noses of local fundamentalists, which can only be a good thing.
Holy Trinity is a big church, and its vastness isn't really apparent until you get close up - the graveyard is so wide. The size of the building is a result of the late medieval piety of the local Hobart family, particularly Sir James Hobart, who is depicted inside. He arranged the complete rebuilding in the 1480s, so it is all of a piece and roughly contemporary with Suffolk's even bigger Southwold, with which it has some similarities. The tower was topped out in the early years of the sixteenth century, the massive porch following soon after, and there you are, a complete church more or less, with nothing for the Reformation to interrupt. And yet the Reformers left their mark almost immediately, as we shall see.
Amazingly, the image of the Holy Trinity in the niche above the south entrance is medieval - it was discovered under floorboards during what was by anyone's standards a massive Victorian restoration of the inside. The head of God the Father is a replacement, but it is still awesome.
I arrived here a few days after the tsunami had destroyed so much of the Indian Ocean rim. At this time, it wasn't clear just how appalling the destruction was, but The Church in Loddon had organised prayers in Holy Trinity, and it so happened that these began as I stepped into the church. Now, I had no problem with this, as it is good to see a church being used for one of its proper purposes. As a Catholic, I am used to people wandering around, children playing noisily and other stuff going on during Mass; but I know Anglicans don't like it much (I am unsure of the Methodist position on extra-curricular activity) and so I quietly waited at the back, photographing the font and the west window, the sound of the hushed voices and their just-perceptible words putting me in a meditative frame of mind.
The font is grand, elegant even, but almost entirely defaced. It must have been magnificent in its heyday, and is still imposing. A bequest of 1487 paid for it, a font depicting the seven sacraments of the Catholic church, part of the reinforcing of orthodox Catholic teaching that is one of the main features of the late 15th century English church, probably in the face of local superstitions and abuses. Pevsner, Mortlock and the guidebook here suggest that the panels were destroyed in 1642; the churchwardens' accounts show that a Mr Rochester, a glazier of Beccles, was paid six shillings for the destruction of images. I don't believe for a moment that this means the font.
The early 1640s was the time of a great reaction against surviving 'superstitious imagery'. The most famous exponent of this was the iconoclast William Dowsing, who furthered the Puritan project by travelling through almost 400 churches in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, putting the world to protestant rights. Dowsing was just one of several iconoclasts at work at this time, but he is infamous because he kept a diary of his activities, and the diary has survived. Interestingly, Dowsing hardly ever mentions images in stone, and only once does he mention imagery on a font. And yet we know he visited several churches where there are fine seven sacrament fonts today, and others where there are magnificent screens with images of Saints. How come Dowsing didn't destroy them? Simple. He didn't see them.
The greater part of the destruction of English churches had taken place a full century before Dowsing made his way around southern East Anglia. The injunctions against images of the 1530s make it impossible that anything in the way of statues or wall paintings survived to the time of the Puritans. The Anglicans were busy cleansing the buildings of their forefathers, making way for the creation of their new model Church of England. But destruction can take several forms, and in many cases it was easier to plaster over imagery than to destroy it - why bother to smash up the font and replace it when you can as easily plaster it over? Rood screens and wallpaintings were also easily covered. But we must assume that in some parishes it was considered easier to chisel off the panels on a font than to cover them, and that is what appears to have happened at Loddon. If asked to guess, I would suggest that the autumn of 1547, with Henry VIII dying and the theological gloves coming off, would have been the ideal time for some Loddon Anglican to take the future into his own hands and erase the sacraments on the font. Bet he didn't bother to get a faculty.
So how come stained glass survived for another century? Unlike the Puritans, the Anglicans were pragmatists. They only destroyed Catholic imagery that was accessible, so statues, carvings and wall-paintings went, but angels remote in hammerbeam roofs and gable end crosses survived. And nothing was destroyed that would cause the Anglicans more trouble than the destruction was worth; it would have been madness to put out all the glass when it could not easily be replaced.
The Puritans had no such qualms. The images in stone and wood had all been destroyed before the memory of anyone left alive, and the sacraments on fonts had also disappeared from sight so long ago that probably nobody knew they had ever existed. But at Loddon, as elsewhere, the stained glass still needed to be dealt with. Enter Mr Rochester, a glazier.
I mused on all this while I waited for the prayers to end. There were five in the group, a minister and four of his congregation, which made it intimate and powerful, and although I added my silent prayers to theirs, I didn't want to join them. What I mostly wanted was to go and photograph the screen; but this was impossible, because their chairs were grouped in front of it, and even I am not that rude.
Eventually, their prayers turned into discussion of an impending wedding, and so I assumed they had finished, and wandered eastwards. I have to say that I was greeted with a certain amount of hostility; two of the women failed to return my smile (which I have always been told is charming) and didn't allow me more than a flicker of eye contact.
"I hope I didn't disturb you", I said to the minister. "Oh no, not at all!" he gushed hurriedly in an embarrassed manner, as if he had somehow let the side down by being affable. They all carried on as if I wasn't there, while I moved their chairs out the way to photograph the screen.
Loddon screen is absolutely fascinating, and for me the highlight of the church. It depicts a rosary sequence from the birth of the Blessed Virgin to the Presentation in the Temple (the south side of the screen is completely lost, but was probably a Passion sequence). Two things make the screen remarkable. Firstly, the cartoon quality of the work, as if the blocks of colour had been outlined in black felt-tip, which gives it a Flemish feel, and the fact that there is an odd-panel-out, the sequence being interrupted by the highly unusual martyrdom of St William of Norwich.
Jewish communites had been expelled from England in 1290 (they were eventually allowed to return by Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s) but before this there had been a number of hideous pogroms. One in Norwich in 1144, which resulted in a number of deaths, arose from the malicious story that the Jews of Norwich had sacrificed a Christian child on the eve of the Passover to provide blood for rituals. It is unlikely that there really had been such a death, let alone a murder; but the sensationalising of the event by the local Christian community led to the eventual canonisation of the supposed dead child as St William of Norwich. This all seems so off the wall as to be quaint - but I ought to warn you that, even today, if you put the words 'Loddon' and 'Jews' in an internet search engine it takes you straight to the website of a right wing fundamentalist American anti-semitic organisation, who report the event as fact and present Loddon screen as evidence, unless, and I quote, the Power of Jewish Money has had it removed.
Incidentally, if anyone is really interested in conspiracy theories, a regular user of this site tells me that the computers of Southend Borough Council blot out the page you are currently reading because, and I quote, it contains material related to the occult. It seems to me that the screen panel is most powerful as evidence of the history of the Christian persecution of the Jews; so as you can see, I was pretty keen to get a photograph, if only to prove the lunatic crackpot conspiracy theories of these Nazi publishers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion wrong. If I mysteriously disappear under a bus tomorrow, you'll know why. You can see it below.
The martyrdom is panel I of the dado. It is preceded by St Anne and the young Blessed Virgin on the gate to the north chancel chapel - sadly, only half of this remains. Panel II is the Annunciation, perhaps the best of the lot, and then the Visitation and Nativity share panel III. In IV is a circumcision that is a bit graphic for my liking, V is the Adoration of the Magi, and VI part of the Presentation in the Temple.
As you'd expect with a big church, this is a pleasant place to wander. There are a number of brasses, all to the Hobart family in the 14th and 15th centuries, but perhaps most remarkable tomb is that of the wonderfully named Lady Dionys Williamson. She died in 1684, having been the single largest contributor to the rebuilding of St Paul's Cathedral after the fire, as well as bankrolling the rebuilding of St Dunstan-in-the-East and St Mary-le-Bow. I found the memorial to the Cadge brothers in the north aisle profoundly moving, as I had recently read a lot about the effects of WWI on East Anglian communities. I sauntered around a while, and then thought I'd better be moving on. I said goodbye to a couple of the people engrossed in conversation, but they didn't reply. Oh well. They can obviously live without me.
Before heading on to the real outback, we took advantage of Loddon's local services, patronising one of the high street pubs. I won't tell you what it was called, because quite frankly I don't have the time or energy to keep answering e-mails from solicitors, but let's just say the name of the pub was not without theological significance. Honestly, I'm sorry to keep moaning about Loddon, but the beer was sour and the pie was foul. The seats had the stuffing coming out, and I sat back wondering at it all. Two local lads on the pool table were checking their watches to make sure they didn't miss their bus home - their trip into Loddon to play pool had apparently been the highlight of their week. Sometimes the 21st century can seem a long way away.
Simon Knott, January 2005
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