magnificent building sits on a gentle rise in its
busy village not far from the North Sea. Here, we
have left the tedious urban coastal strip behind,
and we are in a land of villages, rivers and
woods, the Fleggs, and St Mary is the Cathedral
of the Fleggs. Unequivocably so, because this is
the biggest, grandest church for miles around.
The views from the tower are spectacular; even on
the hazy, misty day I went up it in 2005 I
identified twelve other churches from the top. On
a clear day there must be many more.
St Mary is a church of two distinct parts, and
this is as obvious from the outside as it is
within. The tower is early Perpendicular, and the
nave with its aisles and clerestories is classic
mid-15th century work, a textbook large East
Anglian church. But the chancel is something else
again. It was built in the 1870s as a memorial to
a 19th century Rector, Jonathan Dawson, the gift
of Mrs Alice Langley. Tall, solid, in a
flamboyante style, it is an astonishing conceit,
as if a chapel from a French cathedral had been
lifted up and put down here instead.
architect of the chancel was Philip Boyce. As Pevsner
notes, very little is known about him; he seems to have
worked out of Cheltenham, and was a member of the Royal
Institute of Architects for just four years. No other
work is known by him in East Anglia, and so si
monumentum requiris, circumspice.
As well as building the chancel, Boyce was responsible
for what is a crisp, reasonably successful restoration of
the nave. You step into a church full of light and space.
St Mary is home to a fine collection of medieval
survivals, the most interesting of which is the seven
sacrament font. This is in relatively good condition,
with crowded scenes set beneath cusped arches which
retain their original colour. The carving is not
delicate, but rather earthy.
The most easterly panel is the Last Rites, the figure in
the bed wrapped up somewhat like a mummy. You can see the
chrismatory box in the hands of the acolyte at his feet.
Then, in anticlockwise order, come Baptism (NE), the
infant being dunked in the water; Confirmation (N)
including a babe in arms; Confession (NW), perhaps the
most interesting panel, the action taking place in a
chapel withe the devil sneaking out through the door;
Ordination (W), the ordinand kneeling; The Last Judgement
(SW), which is the odd panel out; Matrimony (S), a very
clear panel, the woman wearing a kennel headdress, and
finally Mass (SE), the Priest with his back to us, the
altar beyond with riddle posts.
Eight Saints stand in niches around the
pillar. The most obvious is St Andrew with his saltire
cross. I suspect that at some point the font has been
turned one place anti-clockwise and reset, probably
during the Restoration, because I think that Baptism may
have faced east and the Last Judgement west.
Martham's most spectacular treasure is the collection of
medieval glass in the east windows of the south and north
aisles. These consist of a series of more than twenty
panels of individual Saints and scenes, presumably part
of a much larger sequence originally. Much of it is good
glass of the 15th century Norwich school; all of it is
restored to a greater or lesser extent, but the added
panes are not intrusive. Some scenes have been
reconstructed using the smallest of details as a starting
point, while others have been merely filled in where a
piece was missing.
The north aisle east window features a large crucifixion
in the middle at the top, with two other large scenes
below, the Scourging of Christ and a tender scene of the
infant Christ meeting St John the Baptist. Flanking these
are scenes including St Edmund, St Margaret, The
Ascension, the Resurrection, St Agnes and a King and
Queen who might be part of a Coronation of the Queen of
window of the south aisle contains a similar collection,
but with one or two more unusual subjects. The main
central light is a dramatic figure of St Michael, with
innocent souls on one pan of his balance and wicked
looking devils on the other. Below him is Eve spinning.
The flanking subjects include St Mary of Magdala, St
James, St Margaret, a tonsured figure with a crook and a
variety of angels illustrating the orders.
This is all spectacular stuff, and it is offset quietly
by a fine range of bench ends, some old and some new,
which are good quality work and include a number of
figures and faces. Curiously, some of the medieval
poppyheads appear to have been altered, probably in
Victorian times. One face has been given a 17th century
puritan's top hat, and another turned into a bell with a
And so, we come to the chancel. It really is
very impressive, and it is difficult to remain neutral
about it. I like it a lot, but I can understand why other
people condemn it. You enter beneath a cusped chancel
arch through a fine, wrought-iron screen. The capitals on
the arch are a cornucopia of intricate detail. The glass
is not wonderful, but it has a rich cathedral quality in
keeping. The Easter sepulchre on the north side of the
sanctuary is the Reverend Dawson's memorial. Put together
with the capitals and stone reredos I do not think there
is a richer, louder and more confident Victorian moment
in Norfolk, not excluding Booton.
Simon Knott, April 2006