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

St Catherine, Ludham


Ludham south porch

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St Catherine, Ludham

Ludham is a large, attractive village on a surprisingly busy road in the heart of Broadland, and its church is one of the biggest and most interesting in the area. It sits in the middle of the village in a wide churchyard. The tower and chancel appear to be of the 14th Century, but in the 15th Century the nave was rebuilt with aisles and clerestories, and a grand south porch added. Pevsner points out that one window in each aisle is older, and so the new aisles probably replaced earlier ones. There were restorations in 1861 (chancel) and 1891 (nave), neither of which did much to alter the exterior, although as you might expect the earlier restoration was less sympathetic to the interior.

Despite the grandness of the south porch it has been converted into a vestry, and so you enter the church through the quieter north porch which faces the village crossroads. The nave you step into has a feeling of great light and space, thanks to an absence of coloured glass. The furnishings and floor came with the 1891 restoration, but the woodwork is sympathetic and the tiles are unobtrusive. It is a good setting for Ludham's font, which is a fine example of the 15th Century East Anglian style. Lions alternate with the evangelistic symbols on the bowl, and around the stem are two lions and two woodwoses alternating with smaller figures under canopies. The woodwoses are worth a look, because one of them, unusually, is female. She is beardless and carries a club. Her partner on the other side of the stem carries a club and a shield.

font male woodwose with a club and shield female woodwose with a club

Ludham church has another most unusual survival, which you see as you turn to the east. This is the tympanum above the chancel arch which is painted with a rood scene. By the end of the medieval period, every church in the land had a rood set in front or above of its chancel arch, a depiction of the Crucifixion to remind the parishioners of the central mystery of the Faith. This surviving tympanum tells a story about the English Reformation that did away with them, and there is more to come, as we will see on the other side of it.

The Reformation in this country is sometimes presented as a gradual metamorphosis from Catholic to Protestant, but of course for the people who experienced it the Reformation was a violent fracture, and perhaps nowhere more violent than in East Anglia. After the break with Rome in 1534 and the dissolution of the monasteries that followed, there was a series of injunctions against images in churches which led to the removal or defacing of statues and screen paintings. When the gloves came off under the boy King Edward VI in 1547, roving gangs of hooligans wreaked immense havoc in the name of the protestant cause. Much of the damage is blamed on Oliver Cromwell's men of a century later, but that isn't the case. The great roods were toppled by the Boy King's champions, in every church in the land. Not a single one survived, anywhere in the kingdom. Screens were generally retained as an expedient measure, for there were plenty of possible other uses for a chancel space. Priests were replaced with preachers, and bishops were to be done away with altogether. All was set fair for a Protestant Revolution.

And then, the Boy King died. This wonderful accident of history was a pivotal moment, for without his death, England would be a quite different country today. Edward's advisors were preparing a presbyterian system of church government without Bishops or central ecclesiastical authority. There would be no Church of England as we know it if they had succeeded, but rather something more along the lines of the Church of Scotland. In his stead, despite the efforts of those who wanted to place a puritan Suffolk girl, Edward's cousin Lady Jane Grey, on the throne, came his older sister Mary. For several reasons her brief reign is now considered unhappy, but her regime played the leading hand in kickstarting the Church of England as we know it today. She reinstated the authority of the Church, and returned it to its pre-Reformation structure, which also largely survives today. Taking us back into Europe, she went to great lengths to restore the Catholicity of the English Church. Part of her plan included the replacement of the great roods.

Many parishes appear to have greeted this plan warmly. The English people were generally not terribly keen on Protestantism, not dipping more than a toe into its water until the Elizabethan settlement with all its concessions won them over in the 1570s. As a temporary measure, most parishes seem to have either painted a rood above the chancel arch, or, perhaps more frequently as at Ludham, placed a boarded tympanum within the arch, and painted it on that. There would be time to replace their temporary rood with the real thing. But even as they relaxed in the summer sun of 1557, Mary was dying. Her Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Pole, was dying too. At last, the Protestants would have the upper hand. With Mary's death and the swift enforcement of Elizabeth's claim, an ordinance went out once again ordering the destruction of roods and the placing of the Royal Arms in every chancel arch in the land. The obvious thing to do was to paint it over the temporary rood as a stopgap measure. But here at Ludham the parish did something different. They painted the Royal Arms on canvas, and stretched it over the rood boards.

The Ludham Rood looking west from the chancel royal arms of Elizabeth I

Why did they do this? Was it a temporary measure? Did they think that the tables would turn again, or was it a act carried out in enthusiastic haste with a plan to erect a more permanent arms at leisure? As it turned out, Elizabeth's reign would last longer than that of any other English Queen until Victoria, and there would be no return to the Marian church. The carpenters would come and erect a permanent set of Royal Arms, and the canvas Arms and board Rood would be dismantled. However, they were not destroyed. Instead, the boards of the temporary Rood and the temporary canvas Royal Arms were blocked into the rood loft stairs when they were filled in as part of the protestant project. And there they stayed, until an 1879 Sunday afternoon outing of the Norfolk Archaeological Society led to their discovery. I bet they felt pretty pleased with themselves.

And now, they are reinstalled within the chancel arch, both the Rood (facing west) and the canvas arms (facing east). The rood is extraordinary, because no complete pre-Edward VI rood survives, and this is one of the few Marian examples. The crucifixion is flanked by the figures of the Blessed Virgin and St Longinus on one side, and St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist on the other side. Angels stand at the outside of the scene. Dr Francis Young suggests that the choice of Longinus and St John the Baptist here is didactically interesting - two declarations of Jesus' identity, perhaps reflecting the Counter-Reformation focus on teaching and correct doctrine, in contrast to the medieval focus on the pathos of Mary and John at the foot of the cross. Christ's figure on the cross is strikingly animated. The twist of his head pulls it out of the familiar balance. The other figures are stilted by comparison. The arms of the cross bear the symbols of the Evangelists, the eagle of St John hovering above Christ's head. This is a rare insight into the English imagination of the mid-16th Century. The Arms, by contrast, are secular and triumphant, our first taste of the modern age. Non me pudet evangilium Christi, the legend reads: 'I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ'. They are similarly rare, for there are just three sets of Elizabethan arms in Norfolk, and perhaps fewer than twenty in all England.

Below the tympanum, the rood screen installed here in 1493 is satisfyingly complete. Along the top rail of the dado, a banded inscription in English reads Pray for the sowle of John Salmon and Cecily his wyf that gave forten pounde and for alle other benefactors. Made in the year of the Lord God MCCCCLXXXXIII. The sequence of painted figures is particularly interesting. There are twelve of them, and they match each other in pairs across the screen. On the north side from left to right they are St Mary Magdalene with her pot of ointment, St Stephen with his stones, St Edmund with his crown, King Henry VI in his royal regalia and the Latin Doctors St Augustine and St Ambrose. If you look at the figures on the south side of the screen from right to left you can see how they pair up with those on the north side. St Apollonia with her tooth in pincers pairs with St Mary Magdalene on the north side as two of the Holy Helpers. St Lawrence, like St Stephen on the north side, is a martyred deacon, and he holds the grid iron that he was killed on. Continuing leftwards, St Edward the Confessor holds a ring and pairs with Henry VI on the north side, both English kings. St Walstan pairs with St Edmund, both East Anglian saints. Finally, the other two Latin Doctors, St Jerome and St Gregory. St Jerome has had his cardinal's hat thoroughly scratched out, and the same has happened to St Gregory's papal crown.

screen (north): St Mary Magdalene, St Stephen, St Edmund, Henry VI, St Augustine, St Ambrose screen (south): St Gregory, St Jerome, St Edward the Confessor, St Walstan, St Lawrence, St Apollonia
St Mary Magdalene and St Stephen St Edmund and King Henry VI St Augustine and St Ambrose
St Gregory and St Jerome St Edward the Confessor and St Walstan St Lawrence and St Apollonia
St Mary Magdalene St Apollonia St Edmund
St Stephen St Gregory St Jerome

The chancel arch capitals are replete with grinning monsters, a familiar motif of the 14th Century. Stepping through the screen into the chancel arch feels a bit of a disappointment after the delights we have left behind, for the 1861 restoration fell heavily here. However, a large squint from the south aisle chapel survived it. This is interesting, because it is suggests that there was a chantry altar in the south aisle, and a Mass might be said there while a Mass was in progress in the chancel. When two Masses were said together, the subsidiary Mass in the aisle only began once the eucharistic prayer of the Mass on the high altar started. Since the Mass was generally whispered rather than voiced, it was necessary for the priest in the aisle to have a clear view of what was happening in the chancel.

Coming back into the nave, there is the curiosity of several shaped brasses in the floor. A heart-shaped brass of 1633 remembers Grace White. The larger brass above it is for her father, Richard Barker who had died in 1605. His lengthy inscription records that:

Westbilney in my youth my place of birth and staye,
but Ludham in mine age removd me hence a waye,
and death from Ludham tooke my bodye to ye grave.
The fatal ende of mortall fleshe no'ofer ende it have,
here lies my corps interrd as duste wch shall remaine,
till Judgement Daye when at y last all fleshe shall rise againe.
Then shall my soule w bodye joynd together live for ever,
wth Christ my hope in life and death who his to faile doth never.

Below Grace's heart is the inscription to her husband, Christopher White, 1659, the last of them to die. Another brass nearby is a sarcophagus shape set in a slate surround with floral corners. It dates from two centuries later and so has no connection with the other shaped brass in terms of family and manufacture except perhaps that it was suggested by them, which is a nice thought. It remembers Elizabeth and William Roll, who died in 1817 and 1824 respectively. The entirely secular inscription goes on to tell us that this plate laid by order of their daughter Mary Smith in memory to her parents, 1830. Intriguingly, the maker's mark records that it was made by ER Roll.

Simon Knott, September 2022

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font, looking east looking east screen
looking west looking west chancel arch capital
Grace White, 1653 Richard Barker, his daughter Grace White, her husband Christopher White 'Freed from this dream of life this maze of care the tender mother rests...'
St Catherine's Ludham M U / Ludham G F S IHS squint
memory deposited the remains roof


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