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

St Mary, Worstead


Worstead Worstead Worstead
Worstead Worstead

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    St Mary, Worstead

Worstead is always a good place to start a Norfolk church-exploring bike ride. The little station sits a mile or so to the west of the village, which is large enough to feel as if it might have intended to have become a town once, but didn't. One this warm day at the end of August 2019 there was nobody about, just a fat cat lazily rolling in the village square. The sun was cutting the haze, the sky wide and blue. It was like being in France.

Worstead church is absolutely enormous, and hemmed in by the walls of a tight little graveyard. Like the church at Salle, and at Southwold in Suffolk, St Mary was all built in one go, pretty much. This happened in the late 14th Century. As at Salle, it is reflective of a large number of bequests from different people over a short period rather than anyone fabulously rich doing it on their own, and the money, of course, came from wool. Worstead is still recognised as the name of a fabric today.

I said it was pretty much built at one go, but there was still plenty of money about in the 15th Century to raise the clerestory and install a hammerbeam roof. This seems to have been such an ambitious project that flying buttresses had to be installed on top of the aisles to hold the top of the nave up, an expedient measure that has left the building both interesting and beautiful. The great south porch is vaulted in brick with stone ribs, and on a central boss is depicted the Coronation of the Queen of Heaven, the Blessed Virgin Mary seated between Christ her son and God the Father. They both remain intact, but the figure of Mary has been decapitated.

south porch vaulting south porch: Coronation of the Queen of Heaven south porch boss: angel with a banner

It was my third visit of the summer, and once again I stepped out of the sunlight into the slight chill of a vast open space. Even if you don't easily warm to big churches and prefer the little ones, St Mary is so pretty inside that it is hard not to love it. This is partly helped by the open space at the west end of the nave and the clearing of the aisles that serves to accentuate the width of the interior. In the body of the church are lovely early 19th Century box pews, perhaps out of keeping with the medieval nature of the rest of the building, but quirky and delightful. The great tower arch is elegant, and is thrown into relief by the towering font cover. The ringing gallery under the tower is dated 1501, and is reminiscent of the one not so very far off at Cawston. The 19th Century tower screen below it is a perfect foil for the medieval details to the east. The paintings in the dado depict Christian virtues and are apparently copies of windows by Sir Joshua Reynolds at New College, Oxford.

You turn eastwards across the openness of the brick floors punctuated with ledgerstones and brass matrices, your eye drawn by Worstead's famous roodscreen, remarkable perhaps tmore because of its height, elegance and completeness than its historicity. Several of the sixteen figures on the dado panels have been repainted sumptuously, but not always with an eye to authenticity. Most, though not all, depict disciples, and yet several are replicated on the unrepainted aisle screens, suggesting that there may once have been different figures on the central screen. From north to south they are a dreadfully repainted Christ the Man of Sorrows, a similarly poor St Paul, then St James the Less, St Philip, St Simon, St Jude, St Matthew, St John, St Andrew, St Peter, St James, St Thomas, St Bartholomew, a figure labelled St Jerome who looks very much as if he was originally St Matthias, and then the two oddest figures, St William of Norwich holding three nails, the focus of an anti-semitic medieval cult, and then a figure crucified, arms tied to the spans. This is the infamous St Uncumber, also known as St Wilgefortis, the bearded lady of early medieval mythology. Divine intervention allowed her to grow a beard to ward off suitors, and consequently she was crucified. Across the top rail, a dedicatory inscription winds, mysterious and beautiful.

The Worstead roodscreen

roodscreen: Man of Sorrows and St Paul roodscreen: St James the Less and St Philip roodscreen: St Simon and St Jude roodscreen: St Matthew and St John
roodscreen: St Andrew and St Peter roodscreen: St Bartholomew and St Jerome/Matthias roodscreen: St James and St Thomas roodscreen: St William of Norwich and St Uncumber

The aisles extend either side of the chancel. Each has its own small screen with just four figures. The four figures at the entrance to the north side are St Peter, St Paul, St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. The screen on the south side features another St Bartholomew, another St Philip, St Lawrence and a bishop, probably St Thomas of Canterbury. Five of these eight figures are also on the central rood screen, so if the figures there are not the products of the Victorian restoration then it would suggest that these aisle screens came originally from elsewhere.

north aisle screen: St Peter and St Paul south aisle screen: St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist south aisle screen: St Bartholomew and St Philip south aisle screen: St Lawrence and St Thomas of Canterbury

A number of brasses are set in the brick floor of the nave to the west of the screen, including two figures of priests and some inscription plates. The chancel beyond the screen is full of light thanks to its flanking aisles, and the openness of the five light east window. It is perhaps a quiet and unexciting space after the drama of the nave. But this church is in any case a building to wander around in, a place to enjoy for its great beauty as much as to interrogate for its medieval authenticity. As you turn corners, vistas open up. The view from the font to the south door, for example, or that back to the west from the chancel. All perfect, all delightful.. A church to return to again and again.

Simon Knott, September 2019

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looking east looking west
font and tower arch font and font cover chancel south chancel aisle chapel south aisle looking west
font and ledger stones Our Lady of Walsingham Our Lady of Walsingham

priest brass A most painful Disorder which he sustained for seven years with uncommon patience put an End to his truly valuable and Exemplary Life Mary at the Annunciation the entrance into the vault of the family of Brograves Our Lady of Walsingham
late C15 priest brass pray for the soul of John Earman
north chancel aisle chapel tower screen: Compassion, Fortitude, Faith, Charity south chancel chapel


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