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

St Mary, Redenhall


Redenhall sanctus bell turret

    St Mary, Redenhall
surprised little lion under the lectern (15th Century)   I had not been back to Redenhall for ten years, but its great tower is unforgettable, rearing out of the rolling hills to the north of the Waveney. As you get closer, you see that spreading beyond the church is what must be one of the largest churchyards in Norfolk, and there is a reason for this. Although Redenhall is a tiny village, the parish includes the pretty market town of Harleston, from which it is separated by the horrible Diss to Yarmouth road. Harleston has a 19th century chapel of ease in its centre, but when you see St Mary even from a distance you know that this is the one that means business.

Reminiscent of the towers at Eye and Laxfield over the Suffolk border, the tower was almost certainly the work of the same masons. It was bankrolled by the De la Poles, one of the richest families in East Anglia in the 15th century, and the fact that the elaborate flushwork is only in three sides of the tower, but not on the south side which cannot be seen from the road, shows that they were a pretty wily bunch when it came to splashing the cash.

The De la Poles had been beneficiaries of the pestilences of the previous century, when the deaths of roughly half the people of Norfolk and Suffolk resulted in the break-up of the old estates and the rising of wages and prices, enabling those with money to buy land cheaply. This emergence across northern Europe of a property-owning independent middle class without historic ties and loyalties to their parishes and people would inevitably lead to the continent's two great ideologies of the second half of the millennium, Protestantism and Capitalism.

But that was in the future when the De la Poles and fellow proto-capitalists the Brothertons were making bequests to rebuild St Mary. Up went the tower and the clerestory, and the aisle windows were all replaced in the fashion of the day. Only the chancel was left looking rather mean and slight. Perhaps they would have got to that too had priorities not changed. Around the base of the tower you can see their leopard and wild man symbols. You might also spot tortoises, for this was the symbol of the Gawdy family. One curious detail is the carving of farriers' implements on the west door. These have been taken to mean that the door was paid for by the local farriers' guild, but I see no reason to suppose that the carving is contemporary, and I think it is as likely to be the work of an idle 18th century hand.

Redenhall church is famous for one particular medieval survival. This is the spectacular double-headed eagle lectern, the glorious product of a 15th century East Anglian workshop. There is another in one of the Kings Lynn churches, and the one at St Mark's in Venice is said to be from the same workshop. I love the little lions on the pedestals best of all. Remarkably, the church has a second medieval lectern, a wooden one, and both are solidly chained down to prevent theft.

double-headed eagle lectern (15th Century) double-headed eagle lectern (15th Century) double-headed eagle lectern (15th Century)

Inevitably, the interior of the church is not going to live up to the exterior. Today, I had come here from the two churches of the Pulhams, both huge barns of churches, and this one is a bit of a barn too, vast and echoey, but perhaps a classier barn than the two I had previously visited. It is true that the inside of St Mary has been thoroughly Victorianised, and it is really hard to summon up any sense of its medieval life. The serious dark woodwork of the case of the Holdich organ in the west gallery would have frowned on the acres of coloured glass in the naves at the Pulhams, but here there is relatively clear light with only a few Ward & Nixon windows that can easily be tuned out. The best glass is in the chancel, the early 20th Century east window by Herbert Bryans to the design of Ernest Heasman. They worked together elsewhere in Norfolk in the north transept at Salle, and on the east window at Holt which is broadly similar to this one. The other glass in the chancel is of the 1860s, by Thomas Baillie.

There are interesting corners which give the church very much a character of its own, for example the Gawdy chapel at the east end of the north aisle which contains a spirited classical altar tomb of the late 18th century, a hint of Strawberry Hill Gothick about it, rather unusual but very well done.

The window of heraldic glass is by Samuel Yarrington, and is said to have come from Gawdy Hall in the north of the parish, demolished in the early years of WWII. An intriguing detail in the Gawdy chapel is a 16th Century Venetian linen chest which is also said to come from Gawdy Hall. It stands open, and you can see a depiction of the Annunciation with sailing ships above on the inside of the lid, which is at once very curious and rather lovely.

You can walk around the great organ to beneath the tower, an impressive space as large as some churches. Though the west doorway is no longer in use, you get an impression of the great processional entrance this must once have been, and perhaps an inkling of what St Mary was like in its late medieval heyday, a place at last to reflect on the glory that once was here.

As if to remind us of the passing of all such things, a surviving painted plaque, probably from a lost 17th Century memorial, hangs beside the tower arch. Death, it reads, behold thy selfe to me, such one was I as thou, and thou in time shall be even dust as I am now...

  Death, behold thy selfe to me

Simon Knott, August 2018


looking east chancel looking west
font and plough Gawdy Hall chapel annunciation under sailing ships (Venetian, 16th Century)
lady in a kennel headdress (roof corbel, 15th Century) man with a big moustache (roof corbel, 15th Century) Acorn tangle corbel (19th Century)
Blessed Virgin Mary at the foot of the crucifixion (Herbert Bryans and Ernest Heasman, 1912) Crucifixion flanked by St John the Baptist, Blessed Virgin, St John and St Stephen (Herbert Bryans and Ernest Heasman, 1912) Gawdy family marriage shields (Samuel Yarrington, 1825) Christ preaching and bible scenes (Thomas Baillie, 1860s)
Agnus Dei (Thomas Baillie, 1860s) Lamb of God (Ward & Nixon, 1860s) Behold the Lamb of God (Ward & Nixon, 1850s) pelican in her piety (Ward & Nixon, 1850s)
Christ preaching and bible scenes (Thomas Baillie, 1860s) Good Samaritan (Thomas Baillie, 1860s) Mary Magdalene mistakes the risen Christ for the gardener (Thomas Baillie, 1860s) Abram and Lot embrace as brothers (Thomas Baillie, 1860s) Presentation in the Temple (Thomas Baillie, 1860s)
raising of the widow of Nain's son (Ward & Nixon, 1850s) Resurrection (Ward & Nixon, 1860s) the raising of Lazarus (Ward & Nixon, 1850s)
wooden lectern, (16th Century)

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