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

St Mary and St Thomas of Canterbury, Wymondham

'Wymondham Abbey'


Wymondham Wymondham Wymondham
Wymondham Wymondham Wymondham


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  St Mary and St Thomas of Canterbury, Wymondham

This massive church and its famous twin towers will be familiar to anyone who has ever been within a few miles of Wymondham, pronounced Win-d'm. It rises dramatically above the townscape, and from a distance it punctuates the horizon when the town can no longer be seen. And yet, closer to, you can wander the streets of this little town without even knowing it is there, for it sits away from the market square and the shopping streets. You approach it down a narrow lane, and turning a corner it greets you as if it were a great surprise. The church is often referred to as Wymondham Abbey, which isn't entirely correct. In the beginning there was a Benedictine priory, an offshoot of the Abbey of St Albans. It was founded here because at the start of the 12th Century, after the Conquest, the lands of Wymondham were granted to William Daubigny, the son of a Norman nobleman. Daubigny's brother was the Abbot of St Albans, and the Daubigny family would be the founders and, for a century and a half, the principal benefactors of the attached priory here at Wymondham. Part of the project consisted of building a great priory church, larger than the one you see today.

In style, it was perhaps a bit like the abbey church of Bury St Edmunds, or Ely Cathedral. It was a cruciform church about seventy metres long, and had twin west towers. You can see something similar today at St Margaret in Kings Lynn. There was a third tower above the central crossing, the chancel extending a long way eastwards beyond it, and there were transepts as tall as the nave roof. It was completed before the end of the 12th Century.The central crossing tower however was further east than the current east tower, the chancel extending eastwards beyond it. Daubigny intended the church to serve the parish as well as the priory, but this was not managed without recourse to the advice of Pope Innocent IV, who granted the people use of the nave and the north aisle, the priory retaining the south aisle, transepts and chancel.

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 one you see today. It is remarkably large and solid, even in proportion to the great church against which it sits. When the new east tower was built, the western face of it cut off the nave from the chancel, creating two separate spaces. When the new west tower went up, it blocked off the former west window between the old towers. You can see a surviving trace of one of the original west towers tucked in behind the south-eastern corner of the current tower, the base of its wall rising above the roofline at the western end of the clerestory. Because of this, Wymondham is the only medieval parish church in Norfolk, and one of the few in England, that has no window at either end.

Wymondham Priory became an Abbey in 1448, and seems to have lived its final century peaceably enough before being closed and asset-stripped by Henry VIII in the 1530s. The church then became solely the charge of the parish. The eastern parts, apart from the tower, were demolished along with most of the other Abbey buildings. It is hard to imagine the effect on the town of the sudden removal of this ecclesiastical city from within its midst. Bruce Wilson, in Paul Cattermole's splendid Wymondham Abbey, a History of the Monastery and Parish Church, observes that the abbey was huge compared to the structures of the town... it was also the principal provider of spiritual needs, welfare, education and employment, and the greatest consumer of local produce and services. After the Dissolution the town greatly suffered from the consequent loss of services and trade, and its landscape was forever transformed. Walking around the church today it is easy to be impressed by what has survived, but perhaps less impressed by the visitors centre shoehorned in beside the east tower on the north side. You might have hoped for something that harmonised with the south aisle, or alternatively something brave and exciting that spoke for the 21st Century in the way that the church speaks for the 12th Century. But this is neither I'm afraid, and locals who compare it to a garden shed are perhaps not far wrong.

And so, to the inside. 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 in the vaulting. They depict the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Ascension and the Coronation of the Queen of Heaven, four rosary scenes in the life of Christ and his mother. And then you step through the doorway into the west end of the north aisle into a great space full of light. 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 with its pleasing mix of ancient Norman architecture and modern Anglican triumphalism. As in a cathedral, there are open spaces, and the old benches have been replaced with modern chairs, which almost always seems to work well in a large space. The arcading, triforium and clerestory create a sense of great height which, coupled with the lack of east or west windows, makes the space unfamiliar and perhaps more intimate, despite its size.

The modern, triumphant feel to the place is largely owing to a major early 20th Century restoration, which brought the vast reredos by Ninian Comper. This is often considered to be his finest single work, and it forms the parish war memorial. It was designed before the War, but plans were put on hold and then built and gilded during the 1920s and 1930s. It consists of three tiers of saints, with Christ in Majesty topping the tiers under the great tester. The rood group above is familiar from Comper's other work at Eye in Suffolk and St Peter's at Ely in Cambridgeshire, but on a larger scale. And the work was never completed, for the space where the retable was planned hidden by curtains. It is hard to conceive that work of this kind and to this scale will ever again be installed in an English church.

reredos and rood (Ninian Comper_ chancel reredos (Ninian Comper, 1912-33) reredos detail (Ninian Comper)

To the south of the reredos is the grand early 16th Century sedilia in terracotta, made by the same workshop as the tombs at Oxborough in Norfolk and Layer Marney in Essex. It is an intriguing hint of the direction English church art might have taken if the Reformation hadn't intervened. If Comper's work is a little rich for you, and it is for me, you may prefer the east end north aisle, which is wide enough to be a church in itself. Cleared of clutter, a few rows of chairs face a large triptych depicting Mary and John at the foot of the cross flanked by King David and St Edmund. It was designed in the 1920s by Edward Warren. The moulded and gilded panels are by Robert Anning Bell and the figures were painted by Dacres Adams. It was not made for this church at all, but for the lovely Arts and Crafts church of St Peter, Lowestoft, shamefully demolished in the 1970s. The Christopher Whall glass from that church is now at St Margaret, Lowestoft. You get a sense of the sheer size of the triptych relative to the doorway to the north of it.

Also in this aisle is some early 19th Century glass installed by Samuel Yarington of Norwich, perhaps best known for his arrangement of collected medieval and continental glass in several dozen East Anglian churches. He often worked with Robert Allen, the Lowestoft porcelain and glass painter, but Birkin Haward thought that the three large panels at the bottom here, depicting the Nativity, Crucifixion and Resurrection, were likely to be by Joseph Grant of Costessey. Grant is an interesting character because he was a Catholic, and his main experience of glass was from the collected German panels he saw attending Mass in Costessey Hall chapel. Even in the 1850s his style was still pre-ecclesiological, which is to say he paid no heed to the increasing convention among church artists of how subjects should be represented.

The corbels in the 15th century roof above the north aisle include a fox running off with a goose and a man with a splendid pair of moustaches. The Virgin and Christchild towards the west end of the aisle 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, probably best known today for restoring Pulls Ferry in Norwich, which was his home. The south aisle contains most of the memorials, which tell a story of the wealth of 18th Century Wymondham without being particularly exciting. The east end of the aisle is now the entrance to the visitors centre. Back in the nave, an Elizabethan text on the arcade probably marks the point to which the pulpit was moved by the Anglicans in the 16th Century.

This parish has been through a difficult time over the last few years, and for a long while the building was not accessible to pilgrims and strangers. But those dark days are over now, and currently the church is open to visitors from ten until four every day except Sunday, when it closes at one.

Simon Knott, March 2023

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looking east looking west arcade
font (15th Century) and font cover (Cecil Upcher, 1930s) north aisle chapel Blessed Virgin and child east end of the south aisle
moustached man Elizabeth II royal arms (2012) winged lion
Blessed Virgin and child with scenes  (probably Joseph Grant of Costessey, c1840) Nativity (probably Joseph Grant of Costessey, c1840) Crucifixion (probably Joseph Grant of Costessey, c1840) Resurrection
Drake memorial, 1736 Drake memorial, 1793 Jeremiah Burroughes, 1767 Diamond Jubilee (2012)
Our Lady of Walsingham reredos (Robert  Anning Bell and Dacres Adams,1920s, from St Peter's, Lowestoft) terracotta sedilia (1540s)


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