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

St Mary, Wiveton


Wiveton Wiveton from Blakeney tower

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St Mary, Wiveton

Wiveton sits out on the northern edge of Norfolk where the county dissolves into the salt marshes. It owes its origins to the sea, for it was once a port, as were several of its neighbours before the slow, sad silting up of the creeks. The setting of the church is entirely rural, across the village green from the pub, but the view northwards from the churchyard is more dramatic. About a mile off is the grand sight of Cley church, and between the two the fields are bowl-like, marking the lost harbour across which the two churches once faced each other. The port curved westwards upriver towards Blakeney, while another creek took ships up to Salthouse to the east. But by the 17th Century, as England turned its back on Europe and grazing on the salt marshes for the London market became more profitable than exporting woollen cloth, these busy ports suffered a dramatic depopulation. Standing there it is easy to imagine them, to repopulate them in your mind. The wind in the trees and the mewing of gulls only make it all more poignant.

As often in Norfolk, this is a big church but does not at first sight appear so, everything being so to scale. There seems to have been a rebuilding begun in the early 14th Century which brought the tower and perhaps the chancel, or at least the start of it, for the Black Death likely intervened before it could be completed. And then in the early 15th Century that cloth wealth brought a major rebuilding of the nave with aisles, clerestories and porches. Pevsner records a bequest of 1437 when John Hakon left 200 marks, about £30,000 in today's money, towards the makynge of a newe churche. It appears that the chancel and the tower were also altered at this time, although they were not rebuilt. Finally, Thomas Jekyll came along to bring the church up to shape in the 1860s, and among other things he repaired the window tracery and restored the roofs. As Mortlock notes, Jekyll in his instructions ordered that as little distinction as possible shall exist between appearance of old and new work, so all in all the architectural harmony is pleasing but it does make it a little difficult to disentangle.

You step into a church which feels larger than it seemed outside, pamment brick floors sprawling eastwards, the font of about 1400 standing proud at the west end. There is a uniformity to the interior, not least because of one of the oddest schemes of glass in any East Anglian church, bands of blue and yellow that run down both sides of the nave. On a sunny day they fill the church with a dancing light, and although you would not want it everywhere it is good that it exists in at least one church. On a dull day it can make the interior rather gloomy though, I'm afraid. On this bright day of early spring sunshine in March 2022 it was a delight, and appropriate too, for a thousand miles to the east there was war in Ukraine, and the blue and yellow flag was being flown in support all over England.

If you have just been to the treasure barn of Cley church then Wiveton may disappoint at first sight, for although there are old survivals here they require seeking out, and do not contribute to an overall wow factor as at the church's near neighbour. But they are certainly interesting. The brasses set at the east end of the nave include a rare cadaver brass of 1470 depicting the rotting corpse of Thomas Brigge entwined in his shroud. Nearby, but on the other side of the Reformation divide, is his descendant George Brigge with his wife Anne. They lie under larger figure brasses of 1597. Another brass, for William Bisshop, a Priest of 1512, is set into a stone which also now remembers another minister, Robert Lowde, a rector of Wiveton in the late 17th Century. A few short years after the restoration and triumph of Anglicanism, he is remembered in Latin as Presbiter Ecclesiae Anglicanae, a Priest of the Church of England. A later incumbent had a more notorious end, for Arthur Mee in his Kings England volume for Norfolk recalls James Hackman, an 18th Century rector here, who in 1779 was publicly hung at Tyburn after shooting dead his fiancée outside the Haymarket Theatre in London, which must have given local people something to talk about.

There is just one piece of the church's late medieval glass surviving, but its story is remarkable. It depicts the evangelistic symbol of St Mark, a winged lion, and it was found about thirty years ago blocked up where you now see it, in the top light of the north chancel window. It had been plastered over when the window was filled in, probably a 17th Century attempt to save money on heating and glass, and when the window was opened up again it was discovered. Although most of the treasures of English churches were destroyed during the Reformation of the mid-16th Century, stained glass often survived, simply because it was difficult to replace. However, the puritans of a hundred years later were less pragmatic, and the panel has been peppered with musket shot, presumably an attempt to remove it. After its discovery it was restored and even exhibited in the Vatican Museums for a while as an example both of late medieval English art and of early modern English iconoclasm.

The grand chandelier is actually a modern replacement, for its 18th Century predecessor was stolen in the early 1980s, likely ending up in an antiques warehouse in North America. And Wiveton church has been unlucky more recently too, for in 2019 two of the great beams that support the chancel roof fell down into the sanctuary, fortunately during the night when no one was in the building. Emergency repairs were put in place, but the church is now raising funds for a major restoration.

These north Norfolk churches are full of ghosts for me, ghosts of my own past and of one person in particular, that of Norfolk churches expert the late Tom Muckley, who back at the start of the century insisted that, as I had completed my journey through the churches of Suffolk, I should now visit every Norfolk church. He stands beside the font in one of the photographs below. I did not finish visiting all of Norfolk's churches until a few years after Tom's death, but I was often conscious of his presence and particularly so here, for I had not been back to Wiveton church since that visit with him in October 2004. I had not thought much of the church then, I recall, but it moved me greatly now. Of course, it was not the church that had changed in those two decades.

Simon Knott, March 2022

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looking east chancel looking west
organ icon and cross we pray you remember in your prayers
William Bisshop, 1512 (photograph taken in 2004) skeleton and shroud of Thomas Brigge, 1470  (photograph taken in 2004) Anne Brigge, 1597 (photograph taken in 2004)
the late Tom Muckley inspecting the Wiveton font, 11th September 2004 near this monument and in the same vault with the remains of her much respected friend Wiveton M U
St Mark


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