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

St Peter and St Paul, Wendling


Wendling Wendling

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St Peter and St Paul, Wendling

At the first sight of St Peter and St Paul, Wendling, you might think it was no more than one of those little churches which you often find in East Anglia up back lanes near busy roads. This is how it seemed to me on the January day I first visited it, a simple 14th Century construction augmented a bit a century or so later, its little churchyard an oasis against the noise of cars and lorries and the wintry greyscale of the flat fields around it. Coming back on a summer day several years later it seemed a softer, more friendly place. Perhaps it was the full-leaved trees that kept out the noise of the A47 rushing its traffic through from the Midlands to the east coast ports and softened the now-burgeoning landscape around it.

The 19th Century pioneer photographer Robert Howlett, most famous today perhaps for his photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing in front of coils of remarkably large chains, was the son of the rector here, and is buried to the east of the chancel. His grave is perhaps, in the words of the great Dr Johnson, worth seeing but not worth going to see, and I am sure there are those who might think that Wendling church itself not worth the bother. Indeed, when I did at last get to see inside in 2006 I found myself signing the same page in the visitors book as people from the previous century.

Be that as it may, you step into a pleasant, Victorianised space, well-kept but not looking as if it is used very much except for baptisms, weddings and funerals, and the occasional Sunday service. There is an imposing royal arms of George III, redated and relettered to show George IIII, reset in the north doorway. The mid-19th Century decorative glass in the east window is good of its kind. Birkin Haward thought it might have been the work of William Wailes.

But there is more to this little church than at first meets the eye, for Wendling church has one of England's 40-odd seven sacrament fonts, some 25 of which are in Norfolk.
Wendling font is quite unlike any of the others in the series, because it has been carved with what appears to be a local hand. It may well even have been done by someone who saw the one at neighbouring Dereham, and thought to themselves, yes, I could have a go at that. If so, it is not a copy, and is in its way quite unusual. It may or may not have come from this church originally, but it is now set on a 19th Century stem. I see no reason to think that it was originally in the local abbey church as at least one guide book suggests, because if it was then I think it would be of a higher quality.

That said, it is a fascinating and delightful piece of early 16th Century folk art. On church sculptures of this time you can sometimes see the beginnings of what would have been an immensely flowery, fruity English Renaissance - the 1544 font at Walsoken is a case in point. But there is nothing like that here. Pevsner says of it that it is badly preserved and probably never well-carved. Mortlock, a kinder man, observes that the font is notable for the crudity and engaging ham-fistedness of its carving.

Anti-clockwise from the east, the panels begin with Matrimony. Unusually, the couple are kneeling with their hands joined. Ordination (NE) shows the Bishop with his back to us, and the ordinand kneeling facing us. I do not recall seeing this arrangement elsewhere. Mass (N) shows the Priest elevating the host behind a small stone altar facing the viewer. This panel is very close to the organ, and is difficult to see and photograph. Next, Confession, (NW) it must be, but uniquely the confessor is shown standing giving absolution to the kneeling confessee, and this panel has been wrongly interpreted as Communion in at least one guide. Confirmation (W) has been completely defaced and nothing can be made out of it.

Baptism (SW) is the most conventional of the arrangements. The odd panel out is, as often, the Baptism of Christ (S), perhaps the best of the panels, a dynamic arrangement where John confers the Baptism on a Christ standing in a pillar of water as a dove descends, as on the font at Fincham. Finally, Last Rites (SE) is conventional in its form, but very simply rendered, with the bed of the dying man low down in the panel and the Priest leaning over him administering the sacrament as two other figures look on.

Seven Sacrament font: Matrimony (16th Century) Wendling seven sacrament font: Ordination Wendling seven sacrament font: Ordination, Mass
Seven Sacrament font: Confession (16th Century) Seven Sacrament font: Baptism (16th Century) Seven Sacrament font: Baptism of Christ (16th Century) Seven Sacrament font: Last Rites (16th Century)

Seven Sacrament fonts were just one part of an attempt, from the middle of the 15th Century onwards, to reinforce orthodox Catholic doctrine in the face of local superstitions and private abuses. There were several reasons for this. The Black Death had changed the English economic landscape entirely. The old estates were broken up, and the new landowners were a vigorous, money-making breed without the trappings of historic patronage. They gave large amounts of money to the Church, and in many places in East Anglia churches were completely rebuilt, sometimes on a vast scale. Here at Wendling, the transept was built at this time, and given the fine tracery in its window.

The newly rich wanted to assert their identity. They wanted to capture the imagination of the parish. Going now were the days when the main function of a church was as a place for ordinary working people to carry out their private devotions. From now on, there would be focus - a church would become a place where people made a corporate act of worship, where sacraments were shared communally. A century or more before the English Reformation, benches began to appear, some of which still survive today. Pulpits were placed in the nave, and the Priest came down out of the chancel, making the whole church his own.

The reward for this, of course, was the prayers of the faithful after death. By enforcing orthodox Catholic doctrine, the new landed gentry ensured that the people understood their religious duties and carried them out, including prayers for the dead. By bequeathing large sums in their wills for rebuilding, and for new fonts, screens, pulpits and the like, they ensured that those prayers for the dead were said for them. Wendling font is one of the last of the seven sacrament fonts in England. Probably only Walsoken is later. It is curious, then, that it does not look like the result of rich patronage. Perhaps what we have here is a priest, or a parish, who simply wanted to assert Catholic orthodoxy because they believed it to be true.

Simon Knott, November 2020

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looking east chancel sanctuary
Wendling seven sacrament font George IIII royal arms leaves Wendling Sunday School
Henry Flerrour, 1620

Robert Howlett, artist Robert Howlett, Artist


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