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

St Mary, Winfarthing

Winfarthing: strong and handsome

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sumptuous big porch Decorated

    St Mary, Winfarthing

This is a strong, handsome church in a pretty village, one of several with unusual names in the fertile, rolling landscape between Diss and Attleborough. After the Conquest, this area was covered by a vast hunting forest, and even today it is possible to stand on the rise of the churchyard and imagine the treetops spreading to the horizon.

the Sword of Winfarthing   If you have a vivid imagination, you might populate the woodlands with argumentative knights and pilgrims, for the parish was the subject of a great medieval legend, the Sword of Winfarthing. It was said that one knight killed another in a dispute over a woman, and sought refuge in the church. No doubt he claimed Benefit of Clergy (meaning, simply, that he could read and write) and was allowed to flee into exile.

But his sword remained and, for whatever reason, it became a relic imbued with supernatural properties. Thomas Becon's Reliques of Rome (1563) recalled that a wife who wanted to rid herself of an abusive husband could achieve this by praying and setting a candle before that swerd every Sunday for the space of a whole yere, no Sunday excepted, for then all was vain whatsoever was done before. Its help was also sought for thinges that were lost and for horses that were eyther stolen or were alse run astray.

Today, the sword is itself lost, gone astray like so much else in the holocaust of the Reformation. But what became of it? Perhaps it was melted down. Or perhaps it was buried, and it still lies under the ground somewhere in the fields of south Norfolk.

Just like tourism today, pilgrimage brought prosperity to a parish, and this may explain why St Mary underwent a fairly sumptuous rebuild in the early 14th century. The nave is rather striking, the larger Decorated windows and the quatrefoil windows of the clerestory seeming to alternate. The late Middle Ages and the 19th century brought further refurbishment and refinement, leaving us with a crisp, comfortable interior that is lighter than it might have been, given the economy of the windows.

The most striking feature of the interior is the huge, tublike font, which sits at the west end. It actually appears to be parts of two separate fonts joined together, and Pevsner thought the octagonal top part was probably a Victorian addition to the Norman stem. Whatever, the most interesting thing about it is the pair of faces on the eastern pillars of the base.

Post Tenaebras Spero Lucem   There is a collection of medieval glass fragments compiled into two roundels in the upper lights of the east window, but otherwise the sanctuary is spare and simple, though rather less stark than that of neighbouring Gissing.

There are two slightly unusual memorials. The 1754 wall monument to John Edwards appears to have been inscribed by an unskilled, amateur hand; and yet the moulding of the plaque itself is very good, and surely must have been bought off-the-shelf from a skilled stonemason. A brass plaque at the west end reveals puritan sentiments in its Latin inscriptions: Post Tenaebras Spero Lucem it says, and Post Mortem Vitam Aeternam: 'After Shadows I Hope for Light', and 'After Death the Life Eternal'.

In the north side of the chancel a modern window dedicated to two Cole brothers depicts a plough, a stag, and the Sword of Winfarthing.

Simon Knott, March 2006


looking east sanctuary another view of the font fragments of medieval glass
looking west into the south aisle 1754 wall monument to John Edwards

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