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

St Mary Magdalene, Pentney


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narrow gate

    St Mary Magdalene, Pentney
Charles Thackeray, his sister and mother at the foot of the Cross (Ward & Hughes, 1886)   Pentney seemed a lovely village. I'd been dodging the traffic on the A47, and it seemed such a relief to turn off at West Bilney and cycle down the long, quiet lane which leads to Pentney church. The tower was like a beacon ahead, and when I came to it I was struck by the neatness of the churchyard, and the long tunnel-like appearance of the nave and chancel. It was as if everything had been drawn with a ruler. As you'd expect in this part of Norfolk, the church is constructed largely from a mixture of carstone and river bed rubble, the tower mostly from flint. The coursing under the roofline gives the effect of some kind of speciality cake, as if you could take a knife and cut a delicious slice.

You look at the church and you think to yourself, well, they're 13th Century windows in the bell tower and that's a 13th Century chancel. Someone in the early 16th Century has put Perpendicular windows in the nave, but ignoring that this is of course a 13th Century church. And then you step inside and realise that you couldn't be more wrong, because to north and south of the nave are beautiful interlaced arcades of the Norman period.

And this is where it gets even more interesting, because as Mortlock points out, the part of the church with this arcading must have been the chancel originally. So what we actually have is a small church, a tiny church, of the Norman period. And then something happened at Pentney and a tower was slapped on, the nave and chancel were converted into one long nave, and a new chancel was added.

Why did they need to make Pentney church bigger? The Augustinian priory here had been established before the middle of the 12th Century, but there, too, there were substantial building projects in the 13th and 14th Centuries. One can only imagine that Pentney simply kept getting bigger, more prosperous, and more important. Hard to imagine today. If anyone could tell us, it is the bewhiskered fellow forming a corbel head on the north wall, but he keeps his counsel.

I am often critical of the work of the Ward & Hughes workshop on this website. The busiest workshop in the land by the end of the 19th Century, their policy seems to have been to fill churches with thick-glassed sentimental scenes of variable quality, and after the turn of the century the drawing is often execrable.

But Pentney is in the fortunate position of having commissioned Ward & Hughes fairly early on in their careers. In 1886, the Thackeray family paid for the east window to be installed, a crucifixion scene which is at first sight attractive and interesting, three figures either side of the crucified Christ and Mary Magdalene at his feet, all under a floral canopy.

But it bears even closer inspection. To the right of Christ are the figures of Longinus, John and Peter, with none of the jazzy halos that would soon become Ward & Hughes's hallmark, but characterful faces not bereft of emotion. Mary Magdalene is struck down by grief, but it is the three figures on the left hand side that demand our attention. The two Marys are sombre and sorrowful, but behind them is a third figure who looks like a wanderer, a traveller who has turned up at the last minute to find out what is going on. In fact, it is a portrait of Charles Carnegie Thackeray, a lieutenant in the Cheshire Regiment, who in 1884 at the age of 25 died in Solon, the modern Solo in Indonesia. Quite what the Cheshire Regiment were doing in a Dutch Colony in 1884 I don't know, but here Charles is, and the two Marys are portraits of his sister and his mother. A haunting piece of social history, quite up there with the interlaced arcades and the bewhiskered fellow on the corbel.

  Longinus, John and Peter at the foot of the Cross (Ward & Hughes, 1886)

Simon Knott, August 2016

font looking east interlaced arcade
corbel face Charles Thackeray, his sister and mother at the foot of the Cross (Ward & Hughes, 1886) Charles Thackeray, his sister and mother at the foot of the Cross (Ward & Hughes, 1886) Dove descending between angels
Jesus When He Had Cried Again With A Loud Vouce Yielded Up The Ghost

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