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St Margaret, Suffield
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There are so many medieval churches in the area between Aylsham and Cromer that it seems impossible that any of them can be remote; but many of them are, and St Margaret is one of them. Actually only a few fields away from St Giles at Colby, there is no direct route between them, and in general all the roads around here twist and turn in a convoluted way. The rather stark flat-topped tower rises above a boiling of trees in the otherwise gently rolling expanse of potato fields. It was unfinished on the eve of the Reformation; Pevsner notes a bequest to cover it of 1523, but this never happened.
The massing of the tower, nave, aisles and chancel make this appear a big church; but it isn't really. The creamy light from the clerestory and nave windows creates a sense of openness, and there are some quirky features like the four riddle posts from a Sarum screen, their gilded angels still in place, two in situ and the other two reset at the far end of the chancel beside the rood screen dado. They serve as candle holders, but look most odd.
The great treasure of St Margaret is the rood screen, and the hands that made it included that of the master carver at Aylsham. Although eight of the figures on the dado panels survive, the greatest interest here is in the carved spandrils, which are some of the richest in Norfolk. In pairs, they depict fables, marvellous beasts and Christian symbols and allegories. A wild man with a club rushes at a dragon; on another pair, a pig sits on a tun playing a harp (could this be a rebus?) while three smaller pigs dance beside a trough. Elsewhere, an eagle catches a rabbit while its luckier comanion escapes into a buirrow; on the adjacent carving, a pelican pecks its chest to feed its young with blood. Another eagle bites the horn of a unicorn; a fox and a goose fight over a morsel while a monkey in a friar's habit looks on. Delightful stuff. Several of these images are below - hover to read and click to enlarge the images.
The sequence of eight figures on the dado panels is an odd one. On the north side are the four Latin Doctors, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory and Jerome. Jerome has a little lion for company, and across the entrance to the chancel two more little animals accompany their Saints: these are the bull of St Luke and the eagle of St John. These two Evangelists are repainted, and have wings. I did wonder at first if they were overpaintings of something else, but it appears not. Finally, there are two more obscure figures. One is the locally popular Sir John Schorne conjuring the devil into a boot, and the last is a figure in black, lifting his robe to reveal his armour, a bird perched on his arm.
Obviously, it seems odd that there are only two of the four evangelists, while two of the eight Saints are little-known in comparison with the other six. Jeremy Haselock tells me that the eighth figure is the obscure St Jeron, and it is quite likely that all these panels all came from here originally, but that they have been rearranged and reset (there are also two blank panels of modern wood either side). There would once have been more, certainly including the other two evangelists. The four Latin Doctors may well have been on the roodscreen gates, as is common in Norfolk.
There is a nice double piscina up in the chancel, and a couple of curiosities; the panels of the font are cemented over - I wonder what might be underneath them? - and an old memorial peeps its head above the 19th century panelling of the chancel.
Simon Knott, October 2005
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