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

St Peter and St Paul, Salle

The sheer size of it: St Peter and St Paul, Salle.

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
Across the fields: no confusing it with Cawston, then. Miles from anywhere, a couple of Victorian buildings and a cricket pitch for company Look up in Salle Muscular: the north side
Defining perpendicular: from the west from the north-east The north transept The west front The north porch
Censing angel in the spandrel of the west doorway Angels of Salle The chancel: bigger than many churches Gargoyle and flushwork
North porch South porch

    St Peter and St Paul, Salle

During their awesome reign over the other great teams of Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, Liverpool football club placed a huge sign in the changing room corridor, so that it was the last thing visiting teams saw before they walked out on to the pitch: This is ANFIELD, it warned. The name alone was enough to impress. Similarly, the cover of the guidebook here proclaims, in a single word, SALLE. Again, it suffices; the word, pronounced to rhyme with call, stands for the building. Perhaps only the name Blythburgh has the same power in all East Anglia.

North porch chapel vaulting: Coronation of the Queen of Heaven   St Peter and St Paul is big. This is accentuated by the way in which it stands almost alone in the barley fields, with only a couple of Victorian buildings and a cricket pitch for company. What an idyllic spot! And yet there is an urban quality to the building, as if this was some great city church in the middle of Norwich or Bristol. It went up in the course of the 15th century, a replacement for an earlier building on the same site, broadly contemporary with neighbouring Cawston. While Cawston was largely the work of a single family, here the building benefited from an accident of history; several very wealthy families owned manors and halls in the parish at the same time, and it so happened that the time was the greatest era of rural church building.

Among them were the Boleyns, the Brewes, the Mautebys, the Briggs, the Morleys, the Luces and the Kerdistons, and some of their shields appear above the great west door, along with two mighty censing angels, characteristic of late medieval piety. A steady stream of hefty bequests meant that no expense needed to be spared, and the mighty tower with its vast bell openings was topped with battlements and pinnacles on the very eve of the Reformation.

As at Blythburgh, St Peter and St Paul benefited from the restraint of a late restoration, and the building as we see it now has no external Victorian additions. It is all of a piece. The porches either side are huge affairs, matching the transepts, and give the effect of a vast animal, a dragon perhaps, sprawling with erect head in the Norfolk countryside. Its tail is the chancel, in itself longer and higher than many Norfolk churches. The aisles are tall, austere, parapeted, the Perpendicular windows arcades of glass. In the porches, the vaulted ceilings are studded with bosses; the central one in the north porch depicts Christ in Majesty, sitting on a rainbow in judgement.

Looking west from beneath the tower The font, font cover and crane Looking east Looking west Pulpit

You enter the building from the west, an unusual experience in East Anglia, and your first sight is of the seven sacraments font with its tall 15th century canopy, similar to the cover at Cawston. This one is so big it is supported by a crane attached to the ringing gallery under the tower.

Bowl of the seven sacraments font - see below for panels   The font below is interesting because each panel is supported by an angel holding a symbol of the sacrament above - a pot of chrism oil beneath Baptism, for example. The panels themselves are simply done, and are not particularly characterful, apart from the way that Mary turns away and is comforted at the Crucifixion. This panel faces west, and then anticlockwise are the Mass (viewed sideways, as at nearby Great Witchingham), Ordination (the candidate kneeling), Baptism (a server holds the book up for the Priest to read), Confirmation (the candidate obviously a child), Penance (perhaps the most interesting panel - the penitent kneels in a shriving pew), Matrimony (the couples' hands joined by a stole, she in late 15th century dress) and finally Last Rites (the dying man on the floor under blankets as at Great Witchingham).

You can see all these panels below - click on them to enlarge them. The font step has a dedicatory inscription to John and Agnes Luce, asking for prayers for their souls. We know that John died in 1489. Perhaps the actual fabric of the building was complete by this date.

W: Crucifixion SW: Mass S: Ordination SE: Baptism
E: Confirmation NE: Penance N: Matrimony NW: Last Rites

Beyond the font stretches the vastness of the building, the arcades gathering the eyes and leading them forward to the great east window. The chancel arch is barely there at all, just a simple high opening; but as MR James pointed out, it was never intended to be seen.The sheer bulk of the rood screen dado tells us quite how vast the rood apparatus must have been here, and the arch would have been pretty well hidden. Everything is built to scale; although everything has been cut off above the panels, probably in the late 1540s, the panels themselves are enormous, almost six feet high. As at Cawston, St Gregory, St Jerome, St Ambrose and St Augustine, the four Doctors of the Church, are on the doors. Either side are just two surviving paintings; to the north are Thomas and James, to the south are Philip and Bartholomew. The empty panels are a mystery; the screen stood here for a century before its destruction, so it must have been finished; and the dado seems too high to have been hidden by nave altars. And yet, it has all the appearance of never having been painted.

The screen: St Thomas and St James The Screen: St Gregory and St Jerome The screen: St Ambrose and St Augustine The screen: St Philip and St Bartholomew
The screen: north side The screen: south side

Because the building is so vast, the surviving medieval glass seems scattered, but there is actually a lot of it and some of it is very significant. Some was moved during the restoration of the early 20th century, when the hideous modern glass in the north transept was installed, and the yellow galley lozenges were thankfully replaced with clear glass in the 1970s. The images in the east window are mainly figures; old kings kneel before young princes, there are armoured men and angels, the remains of a scaly dragon. In the centre at the bottom is a perfect Trinity shield, displayed by an angel looking askance.

East window glass: armoured figures holding scourges East window glass: old kings kneel before young princes East window glass: a dragon South transept glass: John Brigg, donor South transept glass: Mother of God enthroned
South transept glass: from the order of angels South transept glass: two female Saints - St Hilda and St Etheldreda? East window glass: angel with Holy Trinity shield South transept glass: St Helena with the true cross

Some of the panels are now in the south transept. These include fragments of a set of the orders of angels. A kneeling figure is Thomas Brigg, donor of the transept; the scroll behind him begins Benedicat Virgo, 'Blessed Virgin'. The mother of God sits surrounded by red glory, and two women holding croziers, one of them crowned, may be St Etheldreda and St Hilda. Certainly, the crowned figure holding a cross is St Helena. You can see all these above.

Chancel boss 1: the annunciation   Despite the wonders of the font, the screen and the glass, the great glory of the building for me is the set of bosses that line the roof of the chancel. They are easily missed, being very high, and need a good lens; a couple of my photos did not come out as well as I'd hoped, and so I must go back, as if I needed an excuse. There are nine altogether, the first and last set against the walls at the ends of the roof ridge, and they form a kind of rosary sequence of joyful and glorious mysteries. They start with the Annunciation in the west (see left) and then continue with the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection , and the Ascension into Heaven. You can see these last eight in John Salmon's splendid photographs below.

Adoration of the Shepherds (c) John Salmon Adoration of the Magi (c) John Salmon Presentation on the Temple (c) John Salmon Entry into Jerusalem (c) John Salmon
Last Supper (c) John Salmon Crucifixion (c) John Salmon Resurrection (c) John Salmon Ascension into Heaven (c) John Salmon

There is a fine set of return stalls in the chancel. Although Salle probably never had a college of Priests, all those Masses for the dead must have provided plenty of employment, because we know that there were seven Priests here at a time when the population of the parish was barely 200. Bench ends include heads, a dragon tied up in a knot, a restored pelican in her piety, and a monkey. The misericord seats feature faces, including one that is quite extraordinary.

Angel in the nave roof   Although the roof isn't up to the glory of neighbouring Cawston, it includes lots of original angels and paintwork, including sacred monograms, and around the wallplate part of the Te Deum Laudamus and psalm 150. These particular texts seem to have provided the inspiration for many late 15th century interiors; the angels in the roof, the animals on the bench ends, the Saints on the rood screen all in harmony: Let everything that has breath Praise ye the Lord! The benches are mostly renewed now, but the pulpit is an elegant example of the 15th century, from the time when a priority began to be placed on preaching.

Curiously, it has been rather awkwardly converted into a three-decker arrangement, probably in the 18th century, with the addition of a platform and desk from a set of box pews. A large sounding board has been placed overhead. The box pews suggest that the medieval furnishings were replaced at an early date, although the replacements too have gone now.

The nave roof Monkey Restored pelican in her piety Head on the return stalls, polished by generations of hands The nave roof (detail)
Grinning youth on a misericord Knotted dragon A late medieval conversation Face on a misericord

Salle is one of those churches full of intriguing little details that might easily pass you by, so great is the wonder of everything around. Those two little corbel heads above the south door, for instance - what were they for? Perhaps they supported an image that could be seen from the north doorway as people entered, although not a St Christopher as the guidebook suggests, I think. There is a pretty piscina in the unfortunate north transept that has been outlined in wood, a memorial and helm above, a tall image bracket in the corner of the wall of the south transept, a floreated piscina nearby.

Chalice brass inlay to Simon Boleyn   There are many brasses and brass inlays in the nave floor; one of the most interesting is a chalice brass (although the chalice is now gone) to Simon Boleyn, a Priest, who died in 1489, and to the east of it a pair of brasses to Geoffrey and Alice Boleyn, great-grandparents to Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. Another pair of brasses are to Thomas and Katherine Rose and their eight children. Unlike many churches, Salle actually retains some of the 'missing' brasses, now locked away for safety. It would be nice to think they could eventually be reset in the floor.

One part of the building that many visitors must miss is the chapel above the north porch. There is no sign indicating it; but the doorway, at the west end of the north aisle, is always open. Inside, the vaulted roof is punctuated by spectacularly pretty bosses which you can view at close quarters. The colour is a bit fanciful, but they are fascinating, particularly the central boss of the Coronation of the Queen of Heaven - how on earth did that survive the Reformation?

This is a tremendous building, a box of fascinating delights. What purpose does it serve now? As I said in the introduction, its size was not in response to the needs of a congregation, and as far as worship is concerned it will never be full. It remains constantly in use, however; for regular services in the chancel, sometimes for concerts and recordings, but also of course for the poshest sort of wedding, the kind only the Church of England can provide, and no doubt other elements of the core business of CofE PLC. It is easy to be cynical, but if they ensure the survival of the building, then so be it.

Simon Knott, June 2004

  Geoffrey and Alice Bolyen

You can also read: an introduction to the churches of Cawston and Salle


Looking west Corbel above the south door Corbel above the south door Piscina in north transept Pulpit and north arcade
Looking back to return stalls in chancel Royal Arms Piscina in the north transept Medieval chest
Image niche beside south transept Looking into north transept Memorial and helm in north transept North porch boss: Christ in Majesty North porch boss: donor?
North porch chapel vaulting: green man North porch chapel vaulting: angel South porch boss: angel

an introduction to the churches of Cawston and Salle


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