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Mary and St Thomas of Canterbury, Wymondham
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and St Thomas of Canterbury, Wymondham
In the beginning, there was a Benedictine Priory, an offshoot of the Abbey of St Albans. It was founded here because, after the Conquest, William I granted the lands of Wymondham to the Duc d'Albini, and the Duke's brother was Abbot of St Albans. Part of the project consisted of building a massive Priory church, much bigger than the one you see today. In style, it was like the Abbey church of Bury St Edmund, or Ely Cathedral. It was a cruciform church about 70 metres long, and had twin west towers - you can see something similar today at Kings Lynn St Margaret. As at St Margaret, there was a third tower above the central crossing, the chancel extending a long way eastwards, and transepts that were as tall as the nave roof. It was completed during the 12th century.
However, when the central crossing tower became unsafe in the late 14th century and had to be taken down, the Priory rebuilt it to the west of the crossing, actually within the nave. This is the east tower that you see today, now a shell. In turn, the parish extended the church further west, demolishing the two west towers and replacing them with the massive structure you see today. It really is huge; although it is not as tall as the church tower at Cromer, its solidity lends it a vastness not sensed there.
Still without parapet or panelling, the west tower was never finished; but it features in the turbulent history of mid 16th century England because William Kett, one of the leaders of Kett's Rebellion, was hung from the top of it by Edward VI's thought police, a reminder of just how closely church and state became allied during the Reformation. It did give me pause for thought - hanging your enemy from a church tower seems such an obvious thing to do when you want to make a point. I wonder just how many more times it happened to less notable victims over the centuries, on church towers up and down the land?
You enter today through the great north porch, which is similar to that nearby at Hethersett, even to the extent of having an almost identical series of bosses. They depict rosary scenes in the life of Christ and the Blessed Virgin.
As I said, we came here on a spectacularly cold day, but I was delighted to discover that the interior of the church was heated, even on a Saturday. The church attracts a considerable number of visitors, as you might expect; but I still thought this was a nice gesture.
Wymondham church is above all else an architectural wonder; but in many ways this is a simple building, easy to explore and satisfying to visit. It has the feel of a small Anglican cathedral in that there is a pleasing mix of ancient Norman architecture and modern Anglican triumphalism; as in a cathedral, there are open spaces, and the old pews have been replaced with modern chairs, which almost always seems to work well. The glorious arcading, triforium and clerestory create a sense of great height; this, coupled with the lack of east or west windows, can make you feel rather boxed in, but I found I quite liked that; it made the place seem more intimate, despite its size.
Comper's glory shouldn't distract you from the early 16th century facade above the sedilia. It is terracotta, and probably from the same workshop as the Bedingfield tombs at Oxborough. Here you see what might have happened to English church architecture if theReformation hadn't intervened. Looking west from the sanctuary, the original west window is clearly discernible, now home to the organ.
If Comper's work is a little rich for you, you may prefer the north aisle, which is wide enough to be a church in itself. Cleared of clutter, a few rows of chairs face a gorgeous early 20th century triptych depicting Mary and John at the foot of the cross. The Madonna and child towards the west is also Comper's, but the 1930s towering font cover on the typical East Anglian 15th century font is not; it is by Cecil Upcher. The south aisle is truncated, the eastern bays now curtained off; but here are the few medieval survivals in glass. From slightly later, but the other side of the Reformation divide, is an Elizabethan text on the arcade. It probably marks the point to which the pulpit was moved by the Anglicans in the 16th century.
St Mary and St Thomas of Canterbury is a church that it is easy to admire, and it certainly impressed me. Perhaps, it is not so easy a building to love. Inevitably, there is something rather urban in its grandeur, and even the warmth of the heating couldn't take the edge off the remoteness and anonymity you inevitably find in such a space.
However, the friendliness of the people on duty helped to make up for this. The area beneath the west tower has been converted into a shop, and the nice lady working there was very chatty and helpful. I have to say that I think it would concentrate my mind a bit, knowing that mighty weight was above me. The shop itself is good of its kind, selling books and religious items rather than just souvenirs, and more icons and rosaries than you would normally expect to find in an establishment of the Church of England.
The lady said that she was a Methodist really, and found the services rather formal, but she'd started coming to the Abbey because her daughter went there. "You ought to come, Mum, we're just like real Catholics!", she giggled, as she recalled her daughter's words. As a 'real Catholic' myself, I couldn't help thinking that we would have stripped out Comper's reredos long ago, and Masses would be accompanied by guitars and percussion, possibly with a modicum of clapping and the help of an overhead projector screen; but I kept my counsel.
Simon Knott, January 2006
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