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

St Mary, Tunstead

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  St Mary, Tunstead

Norfolk has some vast churches, as you know, and some of them are in very small villages. Tunstead church is particularly large; but, as at Salle, there is barely a village to speak of at all, just scatterings of dwellings along the lanes round about. To the north of the church there is virtually nothing at all until you reach Sloley church a couple of miles off. On a bright spring day it was exciting to come around the corner and see it standing there, but this must be a bleak, dramatic spot in the middle of winter.

Unless you are actually standing there, St Mary can appear smaller than it is because it doesn't have the great uplift you expect from the perpendicular period, as at neighbouring Worstead for example. The chancel here was rebuilt in the 15th century, as you can see from the window tracery, but the massive nave and aisles are earlier, and a clerestory was never added. Instead, you get a curious line of flint arcading, surely too elaborate to be intended as a temporary measure? One clue may be that, inside, there is no chancel arch, and this was the fashion in the very end, before the Reformation stopped big churches being built. The nave may have been raised slightly to harmonise with the chancel, but not enough to allow room for a clerestory. Why not build both higher, and run a clerestory the full length of the church, as at Shelton? Well, this would necessitate rebuilding the tower, so perhaps it was a plan for the future. Whatever, it would never happen.

As at Worstead, South Creake and some other big Norfolk churches, the interior has been vastly improved by the removal of benches from the aisles and back of the church. This creates a feeling of lightness and space, and restores the original intention that a nave was a place for moving about in, not for sitting still. It also increases the impact of the views west and east from each end of the church. The beautiful tower arch does no harm at all to the presence of the unremarkable Victorian font at the west, but the most spectacular view is towards the east, and Tunstead's splendid 15th century screen, probably contemporary with the chancel and a cousin of Worstead's.

The screen rises boldly, its tracery spare and open. There are 16 panels along the dado; at each end are two each of the four Latin doctors, and in between them the eleven faithful disciples with St Matthew. The figures are more authentic and less repainted than those at Worstead. On the north side are St Gregory and St Ambrose, followed by St Thomas and St Bartholomew, St Simon and St Jude and, beside the entrance, St Matthew and St Paul. On the south side are St Peter and St Andrew, St James and St John, St Philip and St James the Less, and last of all St Augustine and St Jerome. An intriguing detail is that the floor of the rood loft survives pretty much intact. High above, the rood beam still bears its original paint. Click on the images below to see them enlarged.

screen: north side, I-VIII Tunstead rood screen screen: south side, IX-XVI
I: St Gregory, II: St Ambrose III: St Thomas, IV: St Bartholomew V: St Simon, VI: St Jude VII: St Matthew, VIII: St Paul
IX: St Peter, X: St Andrew XI: St James, XII: St John XIII: St Philip, XIV: St James the Less XV: St Augustine, XVI: St Jerome
detail: St Simon rood beam and rood loft floor through the screen detail: St Ambrose
rood beam and rood loft floor from the west the screen in full

On either side of the nave, the arcades are crowned by huge image niches, with grotesques looking down. They are not as elaborate as those at Cley, with which this nave is a near contemporary, and look a little curious with the bare, sparse walls above. Again, you can't help but think this is unfinished work. The north arcade almost collapsed in the middle years of the 20th century, and the church was closed while the north side was rebuilt. A plaque on the west wall remembers the reopening.

A Decorated nave and a Perpendicular chancel is unusual in East Anglia - it is more common to find it the other way around. And Tunstead has a most unusual chancel. Its vastness gives it power, but this is magnified by the way the east window is filled in. It was bricked up in the 18th century, and now the eye is drawn to a vast suspended cross made out of natural objects and materials. It is very dramatic.

Beneath the cross is the most unusual feature of Tunstead church, and one that has never been satisfactorily explained. This is a platform, rising about two metres above the current level of the sanctuary, with a depth of about a metre from the east wall. Beneath it there is a vaulted chamber, with a door access from the south side of the sanctuary, and a low arched opening towards the west behind the altar. Steps lead up to the platform on the north side.

You can see pictures of it below. What could it have been for? One theory is that it was a room for the display of relics. In medieval times, churches had relics to consecrate the altar, and the idea is that Tunstead's relics were so significant that they needed a special place built. Unfortunately, this theory does not bear too much examination; the chancel here is very late, and if there had been relics worthy of pilgrimage at Tunstead in the late 15th century we should certainly know about them from documentary evidence. Another theory suggests that this was a stage for the performance of mystery plays, which were usually perfomed in large churches. This is a neat idea, but again does not really stand up. Why are such stages not found in other churches? Why only here, in the middle of nowhere?

I suspect that the real reason may be more mundane, and for clues we need to look at the similarly late Perpendicular chancels of Shelton and St Peter Mancroft in Norwich. Perpendicular demands a building full of light - but more than this, it needs a balance between windows to north and south. Because of this, the integrity of the architecture is compromised if you add a sacristy to south or north. Sometimes, as at Salthouse, this problem is overcome by putting the sacristy at the east end of a chancel aisle. At Shelton and Norwich, however, the sacristy is built hard against the east end of the chancel, beneath the raised east window. Here at Tunstead, the east window is also raised; but the east end of the chancel is hard against the boundary of the consecrated ground, and so I think they built the sacristy inside the chancel, but still behind the altar. There would also be the advantage of not needing to use expensive waterproof materials. The remains of a reredos built into the western face of the platform suggests that its presence here was entirely intentional.

The Reformation put an end to all this, but on the continent there are many examples of 16th and 17th century churches with sacristies at the east end. That is, I think, what happened here.

One last curiosity. On reading the visitors book (I know that makes me sound a saddo, but I can never resist) I was struck, firstly, by how many visitors this church has, and then by how the great majority of them seem to be from Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Slovakia. I assume that they are menial workers on the vast farming conglomerates based around here.

Then I noticed that some of the names recurred, as if their visits had been regular. I thought how lovely it was that, so far from home, they saw this as a place of sanctuary, and that St Mary provided a focus for their private devotions. Certainly, the church retains enough medieval features, in either age or style, to remind them of the Catholic churches of their homelands. When you are so far from home, I imagine that the face of Christ is a comfort whichever hat he is wearing.

Simon Knott, April 2005


magnificent view east magnificent view west chancel sanctuary back through the screen from the chancel
nave arcade image niche nave arcade image niche nave arcade image niche nave arcade image niche grotesque steps up to platform
 north side of the sanctuary showing steps, platform, remains of reredos and sarum screen window into the sacristy inside the sacristy remains of reredos
amazing ironwork on the south door reopening of the church

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