Oxborough St John Oxburgh Hall Chapel

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

St John, Oxborough

Church turned inside out - St John, Oxborough

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
Like some curious post-modern construction. Very Libeskind.
Like a film set from here The north aisle and clerestory arcade and clerestory from the inside

    St John, Oxborough

This church gets a lot of visitors for several reasons, one of which is what happened here one autumn afternoon in 1948. While the children were out playing in the school yard across the street, the great tower and spire of St John tottered, crumbled, and came crashing down into the church below. It must have been absolutely spectacular. Just imagine being six years old and watching that happen! I would have wet myself with fright. Still, it would have made a good story to bore any future grandchildren with. I wonder how many times I would end up telling it?

By the time the dust had settled, it was obvious that the damage was considerable, although by some miracle the early 16th century Bedingfield Chapel to the south of the chancel had survived. The former tower and nave area have been grassed over now, the north arcade and aisle wall retained as the kind of collonade you might expect to find in an Italian hill town, the chancel given a new west wall and the Bedingfield chapel given its own entrance. The overall effect is rather lovely, a cluster of ecclesiastical buildings in a garden. From the road it almost has a post-modern feel to it, the sort of thing that Daniel Libeskind might have produced for Salford Quays. There's still something voyeuristic about coming to see it though, a bit like slowing down to gawp at a road accident.

Another reason for so many visitors is that the church sits immediately to the north of the National Trust's Oxburgh Hall, one of the most spectacular Houses in Norfolk. For historical reasons the Hall has its own
chapel, but the life of the Hall has touched the history of this church in a major way, as we will see.

I said before that it was fortunate the Bedingfield chapel survived, because it contains a pair of what Mortlock thought were the best terracotta tombs in England. To stand in the chapel is to be surrounded by the full glory of the English Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation. The earlier of the two for Margaret Bedingfield forms a triumphant entrance screen to the west of the chapel, and through the other you can see into the chancel. They are massive, canopied and elaborately decorated in the international renaissance style, and lead you to wonder what would have happened to design in England if we had not opted out of the European Church.

Inside the Bedingfield chapel looking west Close up of Margaret Bedingfield's tomb Henry and Anne Bedingfield, late 17th century Henry Bedingfield, 1684
Canopy of Margaret Bedingfield's tomb "As I am so shall you be..." Margaret Bedingfield's tomb chest

The Bedingfields lived at the Hall - in fact, they still do, though not the ones buried here, obviously. They were a major recusant family, but a certain amount of pragmatism ensured their survival despite their retention of the Old Faith. For example, they chose to be buried here in the parish church even after the Anglicans took it over, and the memorial to the two Henry Bedingfields had to wait half a century to proclaim their Stuart sympathies. The chapel is a curious place, quite unlike a church. It is rather like being in a state room in a fabulous palace.

The Jacobite Bedingfields I Two Henry Bedingfields. See either side for inscriptions The Jacobite Bedingfields II

To enter the church itself you will need to go back outside, and in through the west door. The church is lovely inside, with a Festival of Britain crispness to the way it was restored. The memorials they rescued from the rubble are now on the south wall, and there is also a mighty fine piscina and sedilia. There is some good surviving medieval glass depicting Old Testament prophets and a king, but the medieval roodscreen is now at East Dereham. They get so many visitors here that you'd think the parish would be tempted to install a tat shop, but it is all very restrained. You can buy a pen or a bookmark, but more space has been given to the second hand bookstall at the back, which is encouraging.

Inside the church, looking east Inside the church, looking west Terracotta tomb from the church side Old Testament prophets Old Testament prophets Old Testament prophets
King with a sword Memorials rescued from the rubble Piscina and sedilia

I said earlier that the Bedingfields were famously recusant. Do wander in the graveyard to the north of the church before leaving. There are several fairly modern headstones that have Catholic inscriptions, a reminder of how Catholicism survived in many rural communities where the Big House was Catholic. Resistance through ritual, pragmatism, call it what you will.

Simon Knott, January 2005


Oxborough war memorial graveyard

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