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

St Mary, Moulton St Mary


Moulton The Moulton dead
To the Glory of God and in grateful remembrance of the men of Moulton St Mary who fell in the Great War The Moulton dead looking out

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St Mary, Moulton St Mary

The Bure, the Yare and the Waveney carve south-east Norfolk up into marsh-hemmed peninsulas. Nowhere here is on the way to anywhere else. The Norwich to Lowestoft and Yarmouth railway lines trundle through, threading over the reeds and the water. Berney Arms station, on the back line to Yarmouth, is more than a mile from the nearest road, accessible only by the railway, the river or the footpath across the marsh. Barely a hundred miles from central London it is one of the most remote railway stations in England, but it is surprisingly busy perhaps on that account alone, being popular with walkers even though the pub from which it takes its name has now closed.

Moulton St Mary church is also remote, although the setting is pastoral rather than bleak. A paddock of sheep and a copse separate the walled churchyard from the road, and a farmhouse which was presumably once a wing of the Hall keeps the church company. The village itself is over a mile away, and it is not surprising that St Mary was declared redundant and is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. The high pitched roof of the nave reaches almost to the conical top of the sturdy round tower, and a smaller church appears to have been entirely rebuilt in the 13th Century. The roof seems remarkably steep, and this is accentuated by the former drip course of its thatched predecessor which disappears beneath the roofline, suggesting that the roofline is a product of the 19th Century restoration.

A large 15th Century window to let in the light in the new fashion dominates the south side of the nave. The windows in the chancel are wooden and date from the 1870s when it was extended in brick, but probably match what was there before. The churchyard is atmospheric, the walls overgrown with roses creeping in from the garden next door. On the north side of the church a headstone remembers Alfred Wright, who died on board the Lusitania in 1911. The sinking of this ship four years later would be one of the events that brought the United States into World War One.

From the 16th Century south porch you step down into an interior which is at once simple and harmonious, with a delicious atmosphere. It is easy to see why this is some people's favourite small Norfolk church. The octagonal Purbeck marble font on its 19th Century legs is probably the one provided for the new church in the 13th Century. Turning back to face the south doorway, a sequence of wall painting panels depict the Seven Works of Mercy of about 1380. They are so similar to those across the fields at Wickhampton that they are likely to be by the same workshop. The great pestilence had led to a concentration on Last Things, and subjects like the Works of Mercy were in part an attempt to reassert orthodox Catholic doctrine in the face of local superstitions and abuses.

works of mercy: welcoming the stranger, burying the dead, clothing the naked works of mercy: Christ, visiting the prisoner, burying the dead

The Works of Mercy are described in Matthew 25, where Christ's followers are called upon to welcome the stranger, give food to the hungry, to clothe the naked, give water to the thirsty, to comfort the sick, to visit the prisoner and to bury the dead. The sequence at Moulton is a little curious, because it is disrupted after the first three panels by a window, continuing beyond it above the south doorway. The final panel after the Bury the Dead appears to be Give Water to the Thirsty, which feels awkwardly out of order. Was it added at a later date because of the window? But this doesn't feel right, because surely the window is earlier. Otherwise, the sequence is in order.

Across on the north wall is the familiar St Christopher, of whom there are so many survivals in this part of Norfolk. St Christopher was considered the patron saint of travellers, because it was believed that his intercessions would protect those on journeys, and he would pray for the souls of those taken suddenly from this life while away from home. The image of St Christopher was conventionally painted so it could be seen from the entrance to the church, providing a focus for prayers asking for his aid from passing strangers.

Moulton has a number of late medieval brasses, and the most interesting is that to Thomasina Palmer. It is date 1544, by which time the Reformation in England was fully underway, to be unleashed in full with the accession of Edward VI just three years later. Thomasina is depicted kneeling at a prayerdesk, and her inscription asks us to pray for her soul and commends her soul to God, sentiments that would soon be anathema in the English Church. Protestants did not believe it was possible to influence the outcome for a soul after death, and prayers for the dead were deeply frowned upon. It is not uncommon to find brass inscriptions where these prayer clauses have been excised, although hers survives in full, as do several other similar though slightly earlier inscriptions to various members of the Toller and Underwode families.

The lovely chancel retains its early 17th Century furnishings on the 19th Century tiled floor. The readers desk is dated 1619, and Edmund Anguish, who may have paid for all this, has his 1628 memorial on the south side of the sanctuary. Below it, the 13th Century double piscina is likely to be the original from the rebuilding of the church at that time. On the north side of the sanctuary is a curiosity. The window splay stops a metre or so above the sill, as if a monument, perhaps an Easter sepulchre, has been removed. On one side is the head of a lion. Arthur Mee claims to have seen two of these in the 1930s, one on each side, so they were probably corbels to support wooden coving. Was he misreading his notes? Or where has one gone since?

The chancel roof is considerably lower than the nave roof, the break creating an intimacy beyond as if we were moving into another room. Standing below it and looking east, you get a good view of one of the finest sets of decalogue, creed and prayer boards in Norfolk. It is set on the west wall above the tower arch. It dates from the 17th Century, and may well be contemporary with the chancel furnishings. At the top, red curtains are drawn back, their pendants creating a trompe-l'œeil effect, to reveal Noah's ark on top of Mount Ararat and Mount Sinai either side of an IHS monogram. Below, the Lords Prayer and the Creed flank the Ten Commandments under disconcertingly bat-like cherubs. A memorable piece.

Simon Knott, July 2022

looking east chancel looking west
font (2005) decalogue pulpit (17th Century) memorial and double piscina
St Christopher Thomasina Palmer at her prayerdesk Christ carries his cross, Christ is Crucified, Christ is taken down from the cross works of mercy: burying the dead
heraldic glass John and Catherine Toller brick rood stair and piscina
Untitled Anne Underwode

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