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

St John, Oxborough


Oxborough north arcade and clerestory north arcade and clerestory

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    St John, Oxborough

At one time if you had come this way you would have found one of Norfolk's biggest churches, its powerful tower supporting a 150 foot spire. But one morning of high winds in the autumn of 1948 the spire tottered, the tower crumbled and they both came crashing down into the church below. The children were out in the school playground across the road, which will have given them a story they must still be telling their grandchildren. By the time the dust settled it was obvious that the damage was considerable, although by some miracle the early 16th Century Bedingfield Chapel at the east end of the south aisle had survived. The former tower and nave area have been grassed over now, the north arcade and aisle wall retained as a kind of colonnade evocative of classical ruins, the chancel given a new west wall and becoming the new church and the Bedingfield chapel given its own entrance. The overall effect is rather lovely, like a cluster of ecclesiastical buildings in a garden. The church gets a fair number of visitors because it sits immediately to the north of the National Trust's Oxburgh Hall, one of the most grandest Houses in Norfolk, and, it must be said, directly opposite a popular pub with a large beer garden.

Today, the church and the Bedingfield chapel have separate entrances from the grassed area of the former nave. The chapel contains the Bedingfield monuments, generally agreed to be some of the the finest early 16th Century memorials in England, and certainly the best ones made out of terracotta, although there is work elsewhere in Norfolk at Wymondham and Bracon Ash that is likely by the same workshop. They are massive, canopied and elaborately decorated in the international Renaissance style. The earlier of the two is believed to be for Margaret Bedingfield, who left instructions for the chapel to be built in her will of 1513. It forms a triumphant entrance screen leading into the eastern part of the chapel. Beyond it, the second Bedingfield monument is set at right angles to it in the wall separating the chapel from what was then the chancel. To stand in the chapel is to be surrounded by the full glory of the English Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation.

Bedingfield chapel Bedingfield chapel
Bedingfield chapel Bedingfield chapel Bedingfield chapel Bedingfield chapel

There are other, later Bedingfield memorials around the wall of the chapel, any of which would be more imposing on its own in a different setting. The Bedingfields lived at the Hall. They were 16th Century recusants, but a certain amount of pragmatism ensured their survival despite their retention of the Old Faith. As so often with landed Catholics, they chose to be buried here in their parish church even after the Anglicans took it over. The chapel is a curious place, quite unlike a church and more like being in a state room of a fabulous palace.

To enter the church itself you go back outside, and in through the new west doorway. The church you step into is light and lovely inside, with a crispness in the way it was restored. In this truncated space the Perpendicular east window seems huge. To the south of it there is some surviving medieval glass. Several tall panels depict Old Testament prophets Baruch, Isaiah, Haggai and a fourth who stubbornly remains unidentifiable. He holds a scroll with a quotation from Isaiah, but Isaiah is easily identifiable as one of the other survivors. There would once have been twelve of them, and if the others were here we could easily tell which one he was. In the east window, a roundel has been made up of part of an image of King Solomon and there are six angel musicians with various instruments including one playing the bagpipes.

Isaiah and Baruch (15th Century) King Solomon (15th Century) Haggai and unidentified prophet with text from Isaiah  (15th Century)
angel musicians: harp and psaltery (15th Century) angel musicians: portative organs (15th Century) angel musicians: bagpipes and gittern? (15th Century)

The memorials rescued from the rubble are now on the south wall, and there is also a grand early 16th Century piscina and sedilia. Oxborough also has one of those latten eagle lecterns made in East Anglia about 1500. It has a dedicatory inscription asking for prayers for the soul of Thomas Kypping, quondam rectoris de Norburgh, presumably nearby Narborough.

The 15th Century screen is now at Dereham, and you have to remind yourself as you stand in the intimacy of the modern church that the screen stood behind you, and that this space was once the much smaller part of a larger building.

Simon Knott, July 2021

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latten lectern (15th Century) chancel latten lectern, piscina and sedilia (all 15th Century)
Charles Parkin, 1765 Bedingfields Bedingfields Bedingfields
cherubs draping a winged skull


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