Medieval Norfolk – Discover the Hidden Architecture

The county of Norfolk is renowned for its picturesque views, rolling acres of countryside and off the beaten path wonders. Perhaps the most impressive of all the county’s offerings are its medieval churches. Throughout the Middle Ages, Norfolk enjoyed prosperity from blossoming wool and agriculture industries, and its affluence during this period is reflected in the amount of churches built at the time. Norfolk has the greatest concentration of medieval churches in the world, and more than the rest of the United Kingdom combined. Over 650 churches from the period are still standing, dominating the landscape with spires and round towers.

Architectural and Artistic Wonders

There are many unique features of medieval architecture that make its appeal so timeless and awe inspiring. Thick stone was used prominently during the period, and many of the remaining churches in Norfolk are thick walled from cut stone and adorned with grand, imposing archways. Stone towers, too, were often built on churches during medieval times, and around 30 towers are still standing in Norfolk today.

Impressively, a great amount of artwork from the period still remains in good condition. Vivid paintings with bold reds and greens are representative of a great deal of medieval art, and many walls and panels are still adorned with these artworks, centuries later. Although some artwork has been whitewashed and painted over during renovations over the centuries, many of it was later restored to its original state. Carvings, too, were typical during this period, and some of Norfolk’s medieval churches still have intricately carved wooden bench ends, panelling and rafters. The carvings were usually inspired by evangelists and Old Testament prophets.

As Norfolk enjoyed its prosperity and wealth in the later medieval period, skilled glaziers and artisans found plenty of work adorning the county’s churches with intricate and striking stained glass windows. Amazingly, some medieval churches still have intact windows depicting beautiful scenes of angels, saints and other religious iconography.

Overgrown and Crumbling Ruins

Although many of Norfolk’s churches have had extensive restoration and repairs, a handful have been ravaged by time and neglect. Some churches are located in the ‘lost villages’ of Norfolk; places where settlements, hamlets and communities once stood. Some villages fell into the sea, others were abandoned during the plague and times of war. The well-built, stone medieval churches are all that remain in some of these lost villages.

St John’s, in Waxham, fares in much better condition than most. Its features have been weathered over the years, but the interior and exterior are still in good condition.

Other places, like St Felix, in Babingley, are much worse. St Felix is overgrown by ivy and marsh. Its tower, although now a shell of its former self, still stands, and some arches and large parts of the church are in strong condition. However, the site is mostly an eerie wonderment, alone in the countryside.

St Andrew’s, at Bircham Tofts, is in a similar state. From afar, the church appears to be a silhouette of overgrown bramble and dense thicket against the Norfolk sky. Although the external stonework simply cannot be seen, the interior of the church is accessible, but the masonry is in a similar state of neglect.

Other church sites are in much more drastic states of disrepair and abandonment. At All Saints, in Beachamwell, a handful of ruined stumps from the stone tower are all that remain of the medieval church.

St Andrew’s, in Rockland All Saints, is now just three jagged shards of a stone wall. In most of these places, few buildings are nearby and there are no signs marking them as sites of medieval churches. Visitors and passers-by would be forgiven for not realising that they are so close to historical ruins.

Eccentric Tales and Stories

Many of Norfolk’s medieval churches have interesting stories and backgrounds. St Michael the Archangel, in Booton, was built over an existing medieval church. It was designed by an eccentric clergyman, Whitwell Elwin. Elwin, who claimed to be a descendant of Pocahontos, scoured the country looking for inspiration to how he should redesign the church. On these travels, he was often accompanied by female acquaintances he called his ‘Blessed Girls’, and it is said the angels carved in the roof are in their likeness.

A recent discovery at St Clement’s Church in Outwell has puzzled historians. This year, 12 demons were found carved in the roof of the nave. The demons are on the shoulders of each of the 12 apostles, seeming to overcome the apostles when, traditionally, it is the other way round. Even more bizarrely, the carvings are positioned in such a way that it is almost impossible to see them clearly when looking up from the floor of the church. Although they have weathered over the years, the carvings have drawn great interest from historians, who are keen to preserve them and study their meaning.

St Edmund’s church has similar eerie carvings. Renowned for its intact medieval stone font, the church also has many beautifully preserved stone and wood carvings, still legible after 600 years. Perhaps the most interesting of all these carvings, however, is one thought to have made by a local priest during the outbreak of the black plague in the late 14th century. Almost half of the population of Norfolk died from the plague, and historians think that the latin inscription, asking for prayers for departed ‘brothers and sisters’, was tragically written by the priest himself. It is believed that the priest, stricken with grief following the many prayers he had held for those who had died, carved the plea in between masses.

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Written on behalf of the Norfolk Holiday