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

St Margaret, Swannington


headstop: bishop Swannington headstop: boy

    St Margaret, Swannington
crowned angel playing a harp (East Anglian, 15th Century)   Swannington sits in the hills above the Norwich to Fakenham road, a large village in woods and fields, higher than its near neighbours Alderford and Attlebridge. Not far off are giants: the churches of Salle and Cawston are visible as sentinels from the ridge a mile or so to the north. But here we are still settled in wooded lanes, and St Margaret is a big comfortable church that seems to have relaxed, sprawling in its wide graveyard at the highest point in the village.

Most striking, of course, is that massive tower, quite unlike the erect pencil-like beacons of Attlebridge and Alderford. It is as if the medieval stone masons delivered the materials for all three towers to this church by mistake, and then used them all here. Successive restorations, including a fairly big 19th century one, have enhanced it, and here it sits, flanked by its aisles, as fat as butter on a mound of green velvet.

And perhaps a reminder that we are close to some of England's greatest churches is the magnificent south face of the porch. The porch itself is a functional, perfunctory one, and presumably this facing was onto an older structure. In stone and flushwork above the door are the words IHS NAZARENES ('Jesus of Nazareth'), and there are flushwork monograms about the base.

Best of all, in the spandrels, are two carved scenes. The one on the left shows a very fat dragon, with two bemused onlookers. On the right hand side, the dragon is dead, the people are happy, and an armoured female looks triumphant. These are scenes in the life of St Margaret, an unusual thing to find, although the same two scenes may be on the screen at nearby Weston Longville.

Because the aisles extend to the western face of the tower, and the area below the tower is open, the west end of the church is wide and high, creating the sense that this will be a bigger church than it actually is. The war memorial is set in the middle of the west wall. Turning east, The building opens out into its aisles and then narrows again for the tall chancel. The interior is rather dark, because there is no clerestory, and the richly coloured glass of the east window is jewel-like in the gloom.

The whole church focuses on the collection of glass in the east window, featuring heads of flowers with exhortations to Seek the Lord and Watch and Pray. It is rich and intricate, as if this was the side chapel of a French cathedral, and it was intended for contemplation. In fact, apart from the two heads of Christ, it must all have come from a domestic setting originally.

Face of Christ (continental, 17th Century) east window Face of Christ (continental, 17th Century)
Seek The Lord (continental domestic glass, composite) Watch And Pray, Seek The Lord (Continental domestic glass, composite) Watch And Pray (continental domestic glass, composite)

There are a few intriguing medieval survivals. The chancel roof is original, late 15th century. A crowned Norfolk angel plays the harp cheerfully high up in a west window. The purbeck marble font, probably 13th century, has been cobbled together with marble legs by the Victorians.

Best of all is the Norman pillar piscina in the sanctuary. Supposedly, it was 'found' by the Rector in the rood loft stairway in 1917. The date alone makes this unlikely, and It probably didn't come from here originally (there is a 14th century one set in the wall behind it) but it features exquisite carvings, including St George killing a dragon.

In church exploring terms this is not a major interior, particularly in comparison with some of its near neighbours, but it has great local character and, despite its Victorian going over, something of the flavour of the self-important 18th century, when the nation was ruled from the pulpits of the parish churches. As if to remind us of this, Jonathan Bladwell gave the royal arms of George III in 1762, and signed them too.

  Gloria in Exclesis Deo

Simon Knott, March 2006, updated March 2018


looking east Peter up at the holy end holy table
East Anglian angel playing a harp (15th Century) with fragments of Continental glass (17th Century) in dear remembrance of their infant children died at Quebec George III royal arms, the gift of Jno. Bladwell 1762
life of St Margaret I front of the porch life of St Margaret II

the Swannington dead


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