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St Mary, Reepham
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Reepham is one of those fine little Norfolk towns that must once have been fiercely independent in the days before there were commuters, and before shoppers could easily drive to the nearest edge-of-the-city supermarket. It has two churches in its churchyard, one hiding behind the other. The prominent one overlooking the old market place was the parish church of Whitwell, the one behind the parish church for Reepham. Once there were three churches in this churchyard, for the remains of the third survive to the south of Whitwell church.
Reepham's three-in-one churchyard is in the centre of town. How did it come to be home to three churches? Churches that share churchyards are not common, but perhaps half a dozen examples survive in East Anglia, and there were once more. To understand why, it's important to remember the difference between a parish and its town or village, and what were once the functions of a parish church. The English parish system is ancient, dating back to Saxon times. In East Anglia more than in most regions, the ecclesiastical parishes pretty much reflect what was there a thousand years ago, apart from the tidying up and rationalisation that have occured from time to time. Parishes are areas of land, most commonly about ten square miles, though urban parishes are much smaller and remote ones may be many times bigger. They share contiguous borders, which is to say that there are no gaps between them. It is always possible to step from one parish into another. Everywhere in England is within a Church of England parish.
The population of a parish is often scattered through it, but he great majority of parishes contain a single larger settlement within their boundaries, which shares the parish name. To look at them on a map, you could be fooled into thinking that the parish has grown up around the settlement, but of course, this is not the case. Settlements occur naturally and organically over the centuries, almost always for economic reasons. Some parishes have more than one significant settlement, and very occasionally the largest settlement does not share the name of the parish.
Above all, a medieval church is a parish church, not a village church. It just so happens that most of them are in the main settlement of the parish, but in Norfolk and Suffolk more than in most places, a significant minority are outside the village of their parish name. And while we may assume that the settlement will be near the middle of the parish, there are plenty of examples where this is not the case at all. Often, it will be towards the edge, and sometimes the main settlements of two adjacent parishes will adjoin each other. When this happens, it may have been found convenient in ancient times for the two parish churches to share consecrated ground. On a rare occasion, the settlements of three parishes may be adjacent, and this is what happened at Reepham.
The three churches here were all hard against their parish boundaries, although not actually joined on to each other. You might think this would make the holding of concurrent services awkward, but we need to remember that at the time they were built they were not used for 'services' in the way that we would understand the word to day. After all, they were not built as Anglican churches at all, but as Catholic churches, and at a time when congregational, corporate worship was a minor part of the life of the Church, where it existed at all. A church building was designed to allow private devotions, the administration of sacraments, Masses to be said at different altars by different priests, and so on. Worship was active and communitarian, rather than passive and congregational. Medieval churches were busy places, and this would be the case whether or not all these activities were happening in a single building or in two, or even three.
It was only after the Reformation, with the advent of divine service at prescribed times, that churches sharing churchyards became problematic. If they also shared a minister (as increasingly happened) then it made good sense to take down one building and just use the other. Hackford church's demise is attributed to a fire in 1546, but this date looks suspiciously similar to that of the many examples of churches derelicted by the protestant reformers. Sometimes churches served by monasteries were taken down and cannibalised for their building materials. We know that masonry from Hackford church was used in the expansion of Whitwell church.
So Hackford church was lost, its parish merged into that of Whitwell, but the two other buildings underwent all the considerable changes that the protestant Reformation and the subsequent years of conflict could bring. When the Church of England entered its century of torpor in the 1700s they probably settled down with a quiet sigh of relief, but the 19th century Anglican revival brought new challenges and changes, and both churches underwent major restorations and rebuildings.
The two surviving churches remained in separate parishes up into the 1930s, but this was increasingly an anomaly, and it was probably only the Anglican revival that allowed them to sustain this for so long. In 1970, Whitwell church was at last declared redundant and became the parish hall, a happy outcome for the town, and in reality no more than just another reinvention of this once-medieval building. And so it was that St Mary became the parish church for the whole of Reepham.
The surviving one of the three Reepham churches is tucked away behind the more prominent and prettier Whitwell church, to which it is now joined by a corridor. The parish boundary between Reepham and Whitwell ran along the west wall of the Reepham church's nave, and so the tower is tucked neatly against the south side, in the manner of about thirty other East Anglian churches, although uniquely among them it does not form the main entrance. Instead, there is a slightly awkward porch sandwiched between the west wall of the tower and the east wall of the chancel of Whitwell's church.
Reepham's chancel contains one of Norfolk's more memorable 14th Century memorial tombs, for Sir William de Kerdiston. He lies in full armour, a lion at his feet, on a bed of cobbles. There is a tension in his arms and legs as if he might leap up at any moment. At the base of the tomb are eight weepers in 14th Century dress and with traces of original colour behind them. A couple of them are damaged, but this is likely due to wear and tear rather than iconoclasm, for one of the undamaged figures carries a rosary which the reformers would have thought pertinent to destroy. A hanging lion pendant has done even better to survive the accidents of six hundred years.
The interior of the church was extensively restored in the late 1870s by Herbert Green, who had recently been appointed as diocesan surveyor and was perhaps understandably enthusiastic. Pevsner thought that the window tracery was too much restored to be trusted for placing a date on the construction of the walls. The nave has aisles but there is now no clerestory, for it was removed in the late 18th Century, presumably because of problems with the roof. A single span roof over both nave and aisles replaced it. This low roof can make the nave seem uncomfortably gloomy by contrast with the light of the aisles beyond its arcades. The slightness of the east window doesn't help. It was placed there in the 1840s, and Pevsner quotes architect Joseph Stannard as claiming the tiny slipper chapel at Walsingham as the source of its design, a curious choice for a church as big as this. The west window is more impressive, but with the chancel of Whitwell church a few yards beyond it, it is perhaps fighting a losing battle as far as light is concerned. The large Purbeck Marble font below it holds itself aloof from its setting of encaustic tiles like the top tier of a wedding cake. Still square yet no longer Norman, the bowl is a good example of the beginnings of Early English patternwork.
One curiosity is the 1885 memorial to Sir Edmund Jodrell. It shows him in profile, the very model of a Victorian gentleman, but his beflowered and beribboned portrait being conveyed up to heaven by cherubs seems to have escaped from a baroque memorial of two centuries earlier. Meanwhile, the 1658 ledger stone for Edward Heyward tells us that he was In byrth not obscure, of parts eminent, in the Accademy a precious ornament accomplished in the theory of all sciences, dignified in the Worshipfull Society of the Inner Temple, a patron of Justice in his countrey, laudeable in his life, peaceable in his death, an entirely secular inscription from what was still one of the last years of the Commonwealth.
Sets of Royal Arms are rarely dated, and those to the House of Hanover are in any case plentiful, but those at Reepham to George II are worth a second glance. They carry the date 1745, which perhaps tells us something about the loyalties of this place at that pivotal date in English, Scottish and Irish history. Charles Stuart's attempted coup d'état was a romantic fancy which had no real chance of succeeding, any more than his grandfather James II was ever likely to have held onto his throne more than half a century earlier. And probably things would not have turned out well if it had succeeded. The power of the protestant London merchant classes, which had formerly backed Cromwell, had also guaranteed the success of William of Orange's takeover of the English throne in 1688. That power was now deeply invested in the Hanovers, and was clearly also supported here in this little Norfolk town.
Simon Knott, June 2021
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