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

St Peter, Melton Constable

Melton Constable in the rain

Melton Constable (2005) Melton Constable (2005)

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St Peter, Melton Constable

Melton Constable is a large village in north Norfolk not far from Fakenham, and Melton Constable Hall was home to generations of the Astleys, the Barons Hastings. They've been here since the 14th Century, and the current Hall dates from the second half of the 17th Century. Sam Mortlock recalled Jacob Astley, the Royalist general who, on the eve of the Battle of Edgehill, coined the famous prayer Lord, thou knowest how busy I shall be this day. If I forget thee, please do not thou forget me. In the second half of the 19th Century the village of Melton Constable briefly became a major railway junction for the MGNR, the Midlands and Great Northern Railway, or the 'Muddle and Get Nowhere' as it was fondly known thanks to some of its convoluted routes. The railway is long gone, but the village still has streets of red-brick terraces as if this was Norwich or Ipswich. But the parish church is away from all this, out on the estate of the Hall, which was sold by the Astleys a few years back. Today, there are some concerns about its condition.

I hadn't been to Melton Constable for years, and so it was just our luck that our visit in November 2022 coincided with the heaviest rainfall for months, and there were hours of it. Fortunately I had previously photographed the exterior on a sunny day. St Peter is, at first sight, a Norman church, small but interesting, though not very precise in its meaning, as Pevsner memorably observed. Much happened here even before it arrived at a substantial 19th Century restoration. The chancel was rebuilt in the 15th Century, and towards the end of the 17th Century the Hastings Mausoleum was built as a transept on the south side. The matching transept on the north side was added in the 1850s, and now forms a vestry and organ chamber. In the 1880s there was a general restoration, and this was when the upper part of the tower was renewed.

You enter through the west doors, the interior of the church presenting itself almost entirely in one go. It is indeed a small church, and the first impression looking east is of the outline of the undecorated Norman chancel arch which is the former west arch of the central tower, and above it, as if an echo of the arch below, a similarly-sized double arch separated by a massive stone pillar. This structure dominates the church, and the chancel seems little more than a small room beyond it. The other impression is of the array of Astley memorials that line the walls. By contrast they are not imposing, and the effect is perhaps of a gallery rather than of a mausoleum. There are more than twenty of them, and although none of them is significant enough to have made it into CB Newham's majestic Country Church Monuments, as a group they form an impressive collecton in themselves. No Norfolk country church has more. The best are up in the grand Hastings family pew which is raised above the mausoleum in the south transept, and elegantly furnished. It is lit by an arched window within which is set 20th century heraldic glass, which Birkin Haward tells us was made by Knowles of York. Mortlock thought the whole thing oddly reminiscent of an opera set, and pointed out the low wall at the back of the pew behind which the servants sat.

Francis Astley, 1778 Charlotte Astley etc, 1848 war memorial Anna Maria Astley aged 8 years and 3 months, 1768
Simon Astley, 1946 Sir Jacob Astley, 1817 Jacob Henry Delaval, Lord Hastings, 1871 Jacob, Lord Hastings, 1859
Sir Jacob Astley, 1760 Lady Elizabeth Astley, 1683 Isabella Astley aged 19, 1741 Sir Philip and Dame Elizabeth Astley, 1739
Delaval, 21st Baron Hastings and Madge, 1956/1975 Sir Edward Astley etc, 1802 Mrs Tabitha Kettle and two children (twins) the sons of Jacob Astley Esq and Lucy his wife, 1732 Rhoda Astley, age 19, and Sophia Astley, age 6, 1807/1808
Anne Potter MacQueen, 1833 Anne Hussey (Coade & Sealy, 1812) Edward Astley, 1846

It is striking how many of the memorials remember children and young people, and you might well think that the Astleys were an unlucky lot before you realise that of course every family regularly lost young members in the days before modern medicine. The Astleys simply had enough money to commemorate them. A few years back the memorials were in need of some restoration, and the then-churchwarden told me that the Baron Hastings of the day, who was ninety years old and lived at the family's main seat, the even grander Seaton Delaval Hall in Newcastle, had recently offered to pay for their refurbishment. A good thing too, because they would certainly be a cross to bear for the average PCC.

If the best of the memorials are in the Hastings pew, the largest memorials flank the sanctuary in the chancel, which is focused on a Flemish triptych depicting a Crucifixion flanked by the Garden of Gethsemane and the Deposition from the Cross. With your back to the nave there is no sense at all of the Norman origins of this place, and emphasising its design for late medieval liturgy is a remarkable survival. This is the low side window on the south side of the chancel, which not only retains its wooden shutters, it is set within a window splay in which are cut an alcove seat facing east, and opposite the seat a bookrest. Here then, in its exact original form, is the seat where a clerk would sit and open the shutter to ring the sanctus bell at the point of consecration in the Mass. The opened shutter would also allow an updraft of air to the rood, which was set just behind and above the clerk's head. As the priest elevated the host and it became the body of Christ, the bell would ring and all the candles would flicker. Just imagine.

A 15th Century crowned head of a female saint is set in the clear glass of the east window, and there is a small further collection of medieval and continental glass in a window on the north side of the nave. Some of it is heraldic, but one panel, probably cut from a larger scene, shows a noblewoman holding a flower while she stands on battlements looking out over a scene that is lost to us. It may well depict part of the story of St George, in which case she is watching him dispatch the dragon. A small panel below it tells us that Synne and Iniquite bring them to Mysere, and I believe is the work of an early 16th Century Norwich workshop. There are more of these panels in Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, and at Thurton on the other side of Norfolk. The other glass appears to be a group of 17th Century Flemish figures, probably originally intended for domestic settings. One, showing a man or woman reading with spectacles, can also be found at Blundeston in Suffolk. Others include a barefooted man gathering (or selling?) grapes, a nobleman in a hat and bowed shoes, and a further panel that appears to show the same man taking off his hat and bowing. They are not in very good condition I'm afraid.

a noble woman holding a flower and watching from the battlements (16th Century?) 'Synne and iniquite bring them to mysere' (English, early 16th Century) crowned female saint (15th Century)
an old woman reading with spectacles (Flemish, 17th Century) barefoot man picking (selling?) grapes (Flemish, 17th Century) richly dressed man in a hat and bow-tied shoes (Flemish, 17th Century) richly dressed man taking off his hat and bowing (Flemish, 17th Century)

An ogee-arched alcove to the south of the chancel arch probably once contained a shrine altar of some kind, but today is the setting for the parish war memorial, although as you might expect it is an Astley that comes first on it. On the north side of the nave from here is the organ, with behind it the north transept. If you step behind the organ there is the surprise of a large window containing glass of about 1860 by William Wailes. It must have been imposing even before the organ was placed in front of it. It shows a crucifixion with John, the Blessed Virgin and St Mary Salome looking on from one side, Roman soldiers on the other, and St Mary Magdalene kneeling at the foot of the cross. It is good of its kind.

The font is a large example of the 18th Century baluster style, looking a little uncomfortable shoehorned in behind the benches in the north-west corner of the nave. This century was a busy time for the Astleys, and most of their memorials date from it. All very grand then, and leaving the church it was impossible not to turn back and take a last look at it. Mortlock, visiting in the 1980s, felt that in the silence, the weight of an ancient family obsessed by lineage is almost oppressive, and that it about right, for although the Astleys are no longer a presence at Melton Constable, the church is still entirely theirs.

Simon Knott, November 2022

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looking east chancel looking west
font Astley family pew looking west
Crucifixion (William Wailes, c1860) Mary Magdalene at the foot of the crucifixion (William Wailes, c1860) St John, the Blessed Virgin and St Mary Salome at the foot of the cross  (William Wailes, c1860) Roman soldiers at the Crucifixion (William Wailes, c1860)
skull at the foot of the cross (William Wailes, c1860) Astley family pew glass (Knowles of York, 20th Century) lion and castle in a setting of lamps and angels
heraldic glass shuttered low side window, alcove seat and book rest


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