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

St Mary Magdalene, Mulbarton


Mulbarton a dove descends on four cherubs

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St Mary Magdalene, Mulbarton

St Mary Magdalene sits beside the common on the edge of this large suburban village to the south-west of Norwich, its disproportionately tall tower rearing dramatically up above the open spaces. There was a bequest in the 1390s for a new bell, often a good clue to the date of the completion of a tower, and it probably followed the rebuilding of the nave and preceded the rebuilding of the chancel. This must have been a long, narrow church before diocesan surveyor Richard Phipson came along in the 1870s and added the north aisle, and even now it feels rather a tightly constrained space to step into. The aisle is almost as wide as the nave, resulting in the chancel feeling offset in one corner.

The furnishings are almost entirely of the 1870s and are presumably Phipson's, replacing the box pews that were here before as the Church of England responded to the changes in fashion and worship promoted by the ecclesiological movement, but it had been fashionable earlier in that century to fit coloured glass into church windows for decorative purposes. There were few English workshops producing stained glass in those Georgian decades, and so it was often bought from dealers like JC Hampp in Norwich who specialised in medieval English glass, and later glass collected from churches and monasteries on the continent. However, here it seems that a new rector arriving from Martham brought some of the glass from that as yet unrestored church with him, and it is set here at Mulbarton in the chancel. It is quite likely that none of it came from this church originally. Most of it is 15th Century English glass, with a few pieces of continental glass of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

composite: St Anne (with the head of an Old Testament Patriarch) shows the scriptures to her daughter the Blessed Virgin (with the head of an angel), 15th Century King Solomon holds the Temple (15th Century) Adam and Eve (15th Century) Adam digs  (15th Century) composite: Powers from the Orders of Angels with a King's head (15th Century)
angel playing a harp a nun and a friar reset as if they were donor figures (continental, 16th Century) angel playing a rebec
east window Joseph interpreting dreams (continental, 17th Century) St Gregory (continental, 17th Century)

Most memorable among the English glass are two panels, the first of Adam and Eve scurrying along in their fig leaves, and then Adam, exiled from Eden, puts his back into digging with a spade. This second image is one of a pair, the other being Eve spinning, for when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? But Eve is still twenty miles away at Martham. Some of the glass is composite, and what must have been an exquisite image of St Anne showing the Blessed Virgin the scriptures that foretell what is to happen to her has been given the head of an Old Testament prophet or patriarch, and her daughter the head of an angel and a crown. Another dramatic figure, Powers from the Orders of Angels, bestrides the devil he has defeated, but he also has an intruder's head. A more complete figure wearing a crown and holding a sword and a building has been identified as St Ethelbert, but I think it is actually King Solomon holding the Temple. There are two earlier figures of a king and a bishop, as well as two panels of continental glass, one of which depicts Joseph in chains interpreting dreams and the other, a roundel, the figure of a pope, most likely St Gregory. Two other Continental figures of a nun and a friar are set at the bottom as though they were donor figures. Above all this are two exquisite 15th century angels, one playing a harp and the other a lute.Below the glass in the east window, the curtains can be pulled back to reveal a lovely Arts & Crafts painted wood reredos depicting the Risen Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning. The inscription is dated in the 1950s, but it seems a little earlier than this.

sanctuary Mary Magdalene and the Risen Christ

At the west end of the north aisle are two very early figures by AK Nicholson, depicting Dorcas and Anna. They are dated 1907, when Nicholson was still in his mid-thirties and very much in the Arts & Crafts tradition.

The church's grandest memorials are set at the west end of the nave and in the chancel. The most striking of these is beside the tower arch, a remarkably tall monument of 1675 to the lawyer and landowner Sir Edwin Rich. It is fully of its date, as lively as a Restoration comedy, surmounted by an hourglass which, now broken, looks like an upturned stool. The scrollwork is, as Pevsner puts it, coarse, as if done with more enthusiasm than skill. The inscription reminds us that Our lyfe is like an hower glasse and our riches are like sand wch runnes with us but the time of our continuance her and then must be turned up by another. It goes on to enjoin us to speake to God as if men heard your talke, and to lyve with men as if God sawe your walke. Famously, it continues that Thetford gave me breath, and Norwich breeding, but also records that he had to go to Cambridge for learning.

Sir Edwin is also mentioned on his brother Robert's memorial, a roughly contemporary tablet reset rather awkwardly beside the south doorway. Under a pediment which proclaims the key Christian virtues it notes that Edwin and Robert's father, an earlier Sir Edwin, was Knighted at Cadiz and bought this mannour in the 42 year of Q: Elizabeth, but later dyed and was buryed at Hartlepool. Robert himself was buried at nearby Swardeston in 1651, but later dug up and brought here to be laid in the family vault that the younger Sir Edwin had constructed. In the chancel, the Lany memorial of a century later is elegant and of high quality, but most curious of all is the nearby memorial to Sarah Scargill, the Rector's wife, who died in 1680. The inscription to her, written by her grieving husband, is contained in a closed book which can be opened to reveal it.

Simon Knott, September 2021

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looking east looking east Mulbarton
Dorcas (AK Nicholson, 1907) Dorcas and Anna (AK Nicholson, 1907) Anna (AK Nicholson, 1907) Anna AK Nicholson, 1907
her end was peace dyed and was buryed at Hartlepool our lyfe is like an hower glasse a long life marked by active kindness war memorial


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