St. Mary & St. Margaret’s Guide

We welcome our visitors to this ancient church which for centuries has retained an atmosphere of timelessness from the days when Sprowston was a small rural village. However, it would be a mistake to think that our Church has always been the same; the building has evolved over the centuries, according to the needs of those who maintained it and worshipped in it. The building has many stories to tell, all bound up in the history of the surrounding community. For centuries St. Mary & St. Margarets was closely identified with the local dignitaries who held Sprowston Manor, you can see their family tombs and memorials still today, and it serves as a contrast to the more humble, some might say “working class” setting of St. Cuthberts. The stories of both our Churches offer a glimpse into our social history and the lives of of those who came before us, which in turn, have fed into our lives today. At the centre of this is our shared faith in God.

It  seems that Christian worship has been practised in Sprowston since the time of the Normans, maybe even before that. The Domesday Book of 1086 records the establishment of  two manors here in 1066; one was held by Bishop Stigand. Since the Saxon Lords of the Manors normally provided and maintained the parish churches it could be assumed that the Bishop would ensure that there was a Church building, however basic.

In 1119 Herbert de Losinga, first Norman Bishop of Norwich founded the Lazar House on Sprowston Road as a hospital for people suffering from leprosy on land owned by Sprowston Church.

In 1144 Thomas of Monmouth, a monk of Norwich Priory, wrote an account of the death, and miracle workings at the tomb of St. William of Norwich. In this Latin document reference is made to Sprowston Church and its parish priest. The first incumbent (Vicar) named in Diocesan Records is Hugh de Fakenham, roundabout the year 1200 AD.

Dedicated to St. Mary & St. Margaret

Thought once to be dedicated only to St. Margaret, it seems that our Church has been linked to two saints for a very long time. At the Archdeacon’s Visitation of 1368 the Church was recorded as ‘dedicatio Sancta Maria et Sancta Margareta.’ ( dedicated to St. Mary & St. Margaret)

Our St. Mary is Mary Magdalene who travelled with Jesus and was there at his death and at the resurrection, find out more about her here

St. Margaret was a legendary figure, supposedly a princess of Antioch who was fed to a dragon for her religious beliefs and miraculously survived. The story was brought from the Holy Land by the returning Crusaders of 1098 and may be a pointer to the foundation date of the church. The Parish churches of nearby Catton and Drayton are also dedicated to St. Margaret – there may have been a local cult to her. You can read about her here

The Exterior

Approached from the South side, the 50′ tower forms a colourful landmark in local red brick. According to notes by the Revd. Caddy Thomas, who visited in 1840, it replaced a round, flint tower which had collapsed about 60 years previously. Such round towers were usually of Saxo-Norman origin dating from around 1000 to 1200.

Pictured above is the South side of the Church, with its welcoming porch, and typical Norfolk flintwork. The aisle windows here are in the pattern of the late 15th or early 16th centuries, some hundred years or more after the North aisle counterparts. This delay may be attributable to the Black Death of 1349 and 1361, which reduced the East Anglian population to one third or less. The effect was that the masons and craftsmen of 1349 laid down their tools and went home to die, leaving their great-grandsons to finish the work in the fulness of time as the country recovered from the devastation.

The Clerestory (upper tier) windows are possibly 18th Century copies of a 16th Century style. These windows are thought to have been re-modled when the brick tower was built.

.At around 1540, John Corbet, Lord of Sprowston Manor, acquired the redundant church of Beeston St. Andrew, a mile or so away. No doubt much of the material from this demolished church went into raising the clerestory of Sprowston Church, as evidenced by the random stone ashlars (worked stone) and fragments of 14th Century window tracery worked into the South wall of the Chancel.

The windows of the North aisle, above, with their Y-tracery and the North/South doorways, date the fabric as belonging to the first part of the 14th Century. Outside the wall is buttressed with heavy brick ramps to counteract some settlement of the walls. This frequently arose when the light-weight thatched roofs, commonplace in the middle ages, were replaced in sheet lead which proved too heavy a thrust on the inadequate foundations.

At some later date, presumably in the fifteen hundreds, the East end of this aisle was removed to extend it in an easterly direction to form a chapel. The joining of old and new work is plainly visible on the outside.

The large East Window is in the Gothic style, popular in the middle of the 14th Century. Parts of it have been replaced over the years, but to the original design. To the North side of the East Window you can see the red brick exstension (below), a victorian addition which houses the vestry.

The Porch

Porches for Parish Churches came into vogue during the 14th Century, and had various uses; business, such as the attestation of wills, was conducted , and some served as School rooms.

The entrance archway is difficult to date. The shape of the arch does not seem to correspond with the mouldings, jambs and capitals; it seems they have been assembled from re-cycled parts, possibly originating from the former church of Beeston.

There are scratch-dials on the quoin stones beside the entrance arch. These would indicate to the parishioners the times for the Mass.

There is also a mason’s mark, by which the master craftsman signed his work with his own personal symbol.

Scratch dials, Mason's Mark and Votive Crosses

Also there are a series crosses carved by medieval travellers setting out on pilgrimages or journeys with a promise of donations to the Church upon their safe return.

The Tower

As mentioned, the present brick tower replaced a round flint edifice towards the end of the 18th Century. The interior within the brickwork is of flint rubble, presumably from the demolished fabric. There are three stages marked on the exterior by string courses and an embattled parapet. A gargoyle head on the West side may be original and medieval- it is intended to project rainwater away from the foundations.

Inside the Tower are our three bells

The Visitation inventory of 1368 records only handbells,  but  that of 1552 indicates that three bells had been hung for ringing. They would have included the present Tenor bell.

In 1975 the ringing wheels and clappers of all three bells were removed, and Ellacombe strikers fitted. These operate from a clavier board.

Two of the bells predate the present tower and would seem to have survived the collapse of its predecessor. The inscriptions on these are said to be unique:

Tenor Bell.  Pre-reformation, thought to be the work of John Maggs, bellfounder in the Burlingham Group at about 1440. Inscription – OMNIS SPIRITUS LAUDET DOMINUM (Let everything that breathes praise the Lord)

Weight 4½ cwt. Bell. Cast in Norwich at the bell foundry of Wm. and Alice Brend. Inscription – Anno Domini 1625 (In the year of our Lord 1625)

2nd Weight 6 cwt. Cast by J. Taylor of Loughborough.
Inscription – J. TAYLOR FECIT LOUGHBORO OS MEUM ANNUNTIABIT LAUDUM TUAM MDCCCXLIV (My mouth shall proclaim your praise 1844)

The Interior

Entrance is by the South doorway, dating from the early 14th Century, with more medieval graffiti on the door-jambs.

The interior is dominated by the 4-bay arcade forming the aisles; dating from early 14th Century and contemporary with the North aisle windows. On the South side a tablet records that the clerestory (the upper tier) was rebuilt in 1725, probably to correct the outward spread of the main walls.

The plain tie-beam roof seems to date from a late 19th Century restoration when the nave roof was raised by a few feet so that it was at a higher level than the chancel. The four corbels on each side, between the upper tier windows, once supported the wall-posts of a hammer-beam roof.

The Organ is a single manual 18th Century Chamber Organ, thought to have been brought from Beeston Hall. The Pews and Pulpit are Victorian replacements. The original 17th Century three-decker pulpit was moved to All Saints Mundesley.

Situated near to the Font at the west end of the building is an original Victorian Bier, above, which would have been used to carry a coffin.

The Font

According to Caddy `Thomas (1840) this was given by a member of the Stracey family. Our original medieval font  is now buired deep in its final resting place, having fallen to the ravages of time. This “new” font  would appear to be a very good 19th Centuary copy of the 16th Century original in Holy Trinity Church, Coventry.

The octagonal bowl panels are carved with shields and the ‘portcullis’ badge of the Tudors, now adopted by the House of Commons. The shaft is panelled with traditional Perpendicular tracery and the bowl supported by carved angels, vines and acanthus leaves. On one, the face of a ‘Green Man’ peers through the leaves.

The Royal Arms

Over the tower doorway hang  the Royal Arms. These were displayed in churches after the Reformation as a reminder that the sovereign, not the Pope, is Head of the Established Church.

 It is painted on canvas and denotes the arms of George III prior to 1801 when the fleurs-de-lys of France were removed.

As you can see, age has not been kind, but it is similar to this clearer example of the Royal Arms found in the Church of St James, Southreppes:

The War Memorial

These plaques, in the North aisle commemorate the people of the parish who were killed or missing in World War I (82 names)

and World War II (46 names).

The largest of the two plaques was paid for by the Straceys, the local lords of the manor, who lost a son, during the Great War.

The top inscription reads:


Every year on Remembrance Sunday the Church is full of local people; remembering all who have died during times of conflict.

The Knolles Monument

Monument commemorating Christopher Knolles (d 29th November 1610, aged 67 years) and his second wife, Elizabeth, the daughter of John Berney of Langley and niece of Jane Berney- wife of John Corbet who held Sprowston manor.  The smaller stauettes are of their six sons and three daughters. The knolles family originated from Cheshire, they held manors in West Norfolk (Foulden, Pickenham & Harpley). They were descendents of Sir Robert Knolles who commanded the English forces in France during the Hundred Years War. The damage caused to the monument probably occured during the Civil War of 1642-1649 when the Puritan Parliament appointed commissioners to visit Churches and destroy stained glass and imagery thought to depict “Popish practices”; it is thought that the figures demonstrated a “superstitious attitude of prayer”.

The North Aisle Chapel

The North Aisle Chapel was formed in the mid-16th Century; built by the Corbet family of Sprowston manor to accommodate their family tombs and monuments. The chapel was created by extending the aisle eastward and building a new gable end into which a square-headed Tudor style window was inserted; this was blocked when the Victorian vestry was added, but revealed when the plaster was removed during repair work.

John Corbet (d1559)

Pictured above is the memorial brass of John Corbet of Sprowston manor who died in 1559. His wife is portrayed with their 6 daughters. The space left on the inscription for her date of death is unfilled, presumably she remarried and moved on.

Sir Miles Corbet (d.1607) with first and second wives. Wall monument with kneeling effigies.

Thomas Corbet (d.1617) and Ann his wife.

Altar tomb with recumbent figures.

There is no monument here to John, the first of the Sprowston Corbets. In his will (1540) he requested burial in ‘Spikeworth’ (Spixworth) church. He appointed as executors his sons, John (1), John (2) and Thomas the priest.

In the chapel floor is a freestone slab with the indent of an elaborate brass, now missing. The brass may well have commemorated Thomas Corbet at rest with his ancestors, after a career in the Church. Most of the family were in the legal profession, and all were fanatically Royalist during the Civil War; the one exception being Miles Corbet who sat in judgement of King Charles I and was hanged at Tyburn.

The Chancel Screen

Chancel Screens, usually referred to as Rood-screens, came into vogue from about 1450 and were in popular use for about a century until the Reformation led to a reversal of thinking. Previously the intention was to shut off the chancel and sanctuary as the exclusive domain of the clergy. It also excluded the laity (non Clergy) from active participation in the services, the rules of the medieval Church being that we should only approach God  through the prayers of the priesthood.

Only the lower frame (the wainscot) now remains, but an upper framework would have supported a walk-way known as the Roodloft. Across the chancel arch was fixed the Rood-beam. This beam supported the Rood, i.e. a large wooden cross or crucifix. Usually there were carved wooden figures on either side of St. Mary and St. John. Below is an artist’s impression of how the rood screen would have looked.

Normally the lower screen panels were blocked and painted, depicting various saints and apostles. The carvings which remain in the lower panels are of Tudor roses and foliage patterns.

The carvings on the innermost panels represent the signs of the four evangelists; an eagle (St. John) and a winged lion (St. Mark) are still apparent, but missing, are an angel (St. Matthew) and a winged ox (St. Luke).

During the Reformation the removal of  Rood screens was ordered;  opening up the chancel to the main body of the church, so that everybody could take part in worship.

The Chancel

The Chancel extends from the east of the rood screen up to the sanctuary where the altar (communion table) stands; here Holy communion is celebrated, (see What is Holy Communion? ) and Marriages are blessed. The Chancel is lofty and well-lit by the double tier of windows. The roof is a well constructed oak kingpost type with wall posts, probably 19th Century.

Behind the altar is the stone reredos (screen) from the middle ages. like most decoration of its kind, this would have originally been brightly coloured. The reredos is in three sections: The Lord’s prayer, The Ten Commandments and The Apostles Creed – which reads: 

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost;
The holy Catholick Church;
The Communion of Saints;
The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body,
And the Life everlasting.

A number of monuments dominate the Chancel; predominantly that of Sir Thomas Adams, together, with his wife, on the South side of the sanctuary. He was a former Lord Mayor of London, and the alabaster effigy. shows him in civic robes and regalia over his armour. Sir Thomas acquired the Sprowston Manor from the Corbets about 1645 and he died in 1667. Like the Corbets he was a staunch supporter of the monarchy during the Civil War and he took a prominent part in the restoration of Charles II to the throne.

On the North side are wall memorials to Nathaniel Micklethwaite (d.1757) and Lady Wilhelmina Micklethwaite (d.1788) of the family which resided at Beeston Hall during the 18th Century. These two monuments are considered to be particularly fine; they were by Robert Page of Norwich and John Bacon of London respectively.

Another to Sir Paul Paynter and family, also linked with the Beeston manor.

The sill of the window in the SE of the sanctuary was lowered to provide a seat (sedilia) for the officiating clergy – priest, deacon and sub-deacon.; in this period there would have been no pews for people to sit on.

The purpose for the square recess behind the Vicar’s stall is not known. It is in the location of the traditional ‘low side’ window and may have had a hinged wooden shutter from which a bell would be rung during Mass. Another theory is that this was a “leper window”; enabling lepers (outside) to watch the service and / or receive communion.

Stained Glass

It is believed that there was once  a profusion of heraldic stained glass here. Much of the former glass was probably removed after the Reformation or during the Civil War. Only one example of medieval stained glass remains; a roundel depicting an angel with a fourstringed musical instrument.

Roundel Stained Glass Window

Many such angels were created by the Norwich School of Glasspainters in the 15th century, and you can find them all over Norfolk. Follow the links below to see some more. Norwich was one of the three main centres in the country producing stained glass during the Middle Ages:

Norfolk stained glass

Norfolk Angels

There was a great resurgence of decorative glazing in churches during the 19th Century and the chancel East Window is a fine example. It depicts six of the seven Acts of Mercy: To feed the hungry. To give water to the thirsty. To clothe the naked. To shelter the homeless. To visit the sick. And to visit the imprisoned. Missing is the seventh act: To bury the dead.

The East Window of the South Aisle is also Victorian, showing figures personifying Justice and Mercy.

The St. Mary Magdalen window in the South Aisle was installed in the early 1960’s.

A living Community

Our Parish Church is very special; a place of worship for over 900 years, it continues to change and evolve, according to the needs of our community, and yet, it remains very much the same. We are very much a living Church community, and the building is open for all. You may have been married here, had your child christened, or attended the funeral of a loved one. Of course, these days, we no longer benefit from the wealth of a “Lord of the manor”, and so we rely on the generosity of those who use this place to keep the building in good repair.

See also our new guide to St. Cuthbert’s here