We welcome our visitors to this ancient church which for centuries has retained the atmosphere of timelessness from days when Sprowston was a small rural village. It is a fact that Christian worship has been practised here since the time of the Normans, perhaps before that.
The Domesday Book of 1086 records that of the two manors here in 1066 one was held by Bishop Stigand. In point of fact this ill-fated prelate was Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Norman Conquest, although not recognised as such by the Conqueror.
Since the Saxon Lords of the Manors normally provided and maintained the parish churches it could be assumed that the Primate would ensure that there was. such a building, however basic.
In 1119 Herbert de Losinga, first Norman Bishop of Norwich founded the Lazar House on Sprowston Road as a hospital for lepers ‘on land owned by Sprowston Church’ – obviously much in being and attracting endowments.
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 named in Diocesan Records is Hugh de Fakenham, roundabout the year 1200 AD.
Walter Rye, eminent Norfolk historian, refers to the dual dedication of the church but thought that formerly it was to St. Margaret only. This probably stems from the fact that in the History of Norfolk’ (Revd. Francis Blomefield, 17051752) it was so described. However, at the Archdeacon’s Visitation of 1368 it was recorded as ‘dedicatio Sancta Maria et Sancta Margareta.’
St. Mary is the Mary of Magdalena referred to in the New Testament. 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 Cat ton and Drayton are also dedicated to St. Margaret – there may have been a local cult to her.
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. The assumption is that with a small two-cell church attached, it served the parish until, in the era of re-building and extension from about 1300, the present-day church arose around it, so that worship would continue uninterrupted while the work went on.
The windows of the North aisle, 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 sane 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 some 13′ in an easterly direction to form a chapel. The joining of old and new work is plainly visible on the outside, that of more recent date showing ‘galletting’ work of infilling joints with flaked flint.
The three-light East Window at the end of the chancel is in the Gothic Geometrical style, towards the middle of the 14th Century. Parts of the mullions and tracery have been replaced over the years, but to the original design.
Moving round the the South side, 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 somewhat enigmatical as to dating, possibly an 18th Century concept of a 16th Century style. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (Buildings of England) circa 1960, is convinced that they were re-modelled when the tower was rebuilt (c.1780) and later ‘reGothicised’ again. Possibly so, although a 150-year-old photograph shows them much as at present, i.e. the Tudor style known as the five-centre arch, in popular use immediately before and after the Reformation.
This was the time of the dissolution of the monasteries when many entrepreneurial Lords of Manor acquired erstwhile church properties at knock-down prices.
At this time (c. 1540) John Corbet, Lord of Sprowston Manor, acquired, with other ecclesiastical properties, the redundant church of Bees ton St. Andrew, a mile or so away, which had been confiscated by the Crown from Peterstone Priory, together with the chapel of St. Mary Magdalen, in the South of the parish.
No doubt much of the material from these demolished churches went into raising the clerestory of Sprowston Church, as evidenced by the random stone ashlars and fragments of 14th Century window tracery worked into the South wall of the Chancel.
Porches for Parish Churches came into vogue during the 14th Century. Secular parish business, such as attestation of wills, was conducted here – also part of the marriage service as indicated by Chaucer (Prologue, Wife of Bath’s Tale).
The entrance archway seems to be of an indeterminate date. The shape of the arch does not seem to correspond with the mouldings, jambs and capitals, as if they have been assembled together from re-cycled parts. The outer dripstone terminates in worn corbel heads, seemingly representing a mediaeval man and woman and possibly the donors of the original edifice, which was probably a superior piece of building work.
The former church of Beeston has been mentioned as a potential ‘quarry’ for material and there, in 1542, a parishioner bequeathed a considerable sum of money to repair the church porch.
Of interest are the scratch-dials on the quoin stones beside the entrance arch. These would indicate to the parishioners the times for the Mass at the various guild altars.
There is also a mason’s mark, by which the master craftsman signed his work with his own personal symbol.
Also a series of votive crosses carved by mediaeval travellers setting out on pilgrimages or journeys with a promise of donations to the Church upon their safe return.
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 hand on the West side may be original and mediaeval – it is intended to project rainwater away from the foundations.
In 1518 Margaret Rawson, a parishioner, left 20s. (about £1,000 in present-day value) for providing battlements to the former tower.
Entrance is by the South doorway – early 14th Century, continuous moulding from apex to floor without capitals. More mediaeval graffiti on the door-jambs.
The nave interior is dominated by the 4-bay arcade forming the aisles. These double chamfered arches rest on octagonal moulded capitals and octagonal piers, all dating from early 14th Century and contemporary with the North aisle windows. On the South side a tablet records that the clerestory was built (rebuilt) in 1725, probably to correct the. outward spread of the main walls.
The plain tie-beam roof seems to date from the 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 Ladbrooke etching of 1826 indicates that previously the reverse applied.
The four corbels on each side, between the clerestory windows, once supported the wall-posts of a hammer-beam roof.
According to Caddy `Thomas (1840) this was given by a member of the Stracey family. It would appear to be a very good 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, a flash-back to an older religion which pre-dated Christianity.
Over the tower doorway these were displayed in churches, after the Reformation as a reminder that the sovereign, and not the Pope, is the Head of the Established Church. This particular example is painted on canvas and denotes the arms of George III prior to 1801 when the fleurs-de-lys of France were removed.
The Pulpit is of the present century. It replaced an elegant predecessor of Jacobean date, complete with backboard and carved ‘tester’ sounding board, which now graces the church of All Saints, Mundesley.
The North Aisle Chapel would seem to have been formed in the mid-16th Century 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 recently revealed when the plaster was removed during repair work.
Since the CORBET family acquired the Sprowston manor about that time is is a fair assumption that they built the chapel to accommodate their family tombs and monuments.
Pictured on the left is a rubbing taken from the memorial brass of John Corbet 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.
There is a small floor brass to Robert Spelman (d.1585) who would have been the stepson of Sir Miles. Lady Katherine, his second wife, was the widow of John Spelman of Narborough, a former High Court Judge.
John Corbet (d.1559) An 1815 engraving by John Cotman of John Corbet and family. Brass and table tomb.
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.
Sir John Corbet (d.1627) Wall tablet.
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 priest-brass as illustrated in ‘Brasses of Norfolk’ (Greenwood & Norris), the outline suggests a coped ecclesiastic such as a Canon or a Prebendary. 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; two generations of attorneys and a Chancellor of the Diocese (Clement), fanatically Royalist in the Civil War. One exception was Miles, Recorder of Yarmouth, who sat in judgement of King Charles I and was hanged at Tyburn upon the Restoration.
Chancel Screens, usually referred to as Rood-screens, came into vogue from about 1450 and were in popular use for about a century; when the Reformation led to a reversal of philosophy. Previously the intention was to shut off the chancel and sanctuary as the exclusive domain of the clergy. It also excluded the laity from active participation in the services, the tenets of the mediaeval Church being that man should only approach his Creator through the intercession of the priesthood.
Only the wainscot now remains, but an upper framework would have supported a walk-way known as the Roodloft, or in the vernacular, ‘the perke.’ Across the chancel arch was fixed the Rood-beam, the mortices into which it rested are visible below the arch capitals.
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.
Although many roodscreens were provided by wealthy benefactors and carry dates and inscriptions to such effect, the Sprowston screen seems to have evolved through fundraising over a period. There are references in the wills of parishioners from the turn of the 15th Century ‘to paint the perke’ (1504), ‘to make the perke’ (1507), ‘to make the roodloft’ (1506) etc.
Normally the lower screen panels were blocked in and painted, depicting various saints, apostles, Doctors of the Church and so on.
The carvings which remain in the lower panels are of interest, with Tudor roses and foliage patterns. Those in the two outermost bays seem to portray the stylised pomegranate which was the personal emblem of Catherine of Aragon, first wife of King Henry VIII. She became Queen in 1509, another factor in dating.
The carvings on the innermost panels may possibly represent the signs of the four evangelists, the feathered creature to the North being intended for an eagle (St. John).
That to the South may be a winged lion (St. Mark), bearing in mind that a mediaeval carver might have little concept as to the appearance of such an animal. The door panels would have completed the quartet, the angel (St. Matthew) and the winged ox (St. Luke).
The blocked doorway on the South side of the screen, with its 16th Century flattened arch and embattled cornice, seems to have troubled the Revd. Caddy Thomas when he visited, some 150 years back. Perhaps the door was still in situ because he saw it as a ‘confessional box’ and denounced its ‘Popish profligacy.’
In point of fact the rationale of the arrangement seems fairly obvious. When a screen was first set up, a newel stairway would be built, traditionally into the corner of the North aisle and the arcade respond. This stairway gave access to the roodloft. (The upper opening is still visible above the lectern.) But when the North aisle was extended eastwards some 30 years later, and its East gable removed, the stairs were of necessity demolished. It then became necessary to provide a substitute stairway on the South side and the filled-in archway would have provided entrance to it.
The doorway embellishment is identical to that on the niche beside the vestry door and would seem to suggest that they were both part of a common provenance.
‘The small 16th Century recess in the South-east corner of the South Aisle indicates that a side altar was once sited here; it formed a piscina drain where the Communion vessels were once ceremoniously rinsed. In most mediaeval churches there would be a Lady Chapel at the East end of the North Aisle. The alterations here in forming the North Aisle chapel would have precluded this – instead it would have to be set up on the South.
Ironically all these re-arrangements were proved to be abortive. Ten years later, with the Reformation under way, King Edward VI was to order the removal of the Rood, the roodloft, the guild side-altars and the opening up of the chancel to the main body of the church.
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.
The monuments dominate the chancel, predominantly that of Sir Thomas Adams 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 Mickelthwaite (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. Partially obscured but protected by the Adams memorial is a well preserved 14th Century piscina with drain cavity; it has the cusped tracery of the period.
To the west of the small door a 14th Century moulded capital is partially embedded in the wall; this is something of a mystery. Perhaps it formed part of a more ambitious archway for the original priest’s door, before the Reformation made its usage largely superfluous.
The purpose for the square recess behind the Vicar’s stall is not known. It is the traditional ‘low side’ window site and may have had a hinged wooden shutter from which a bell would be rung to announce the elevation of the Host during Mass.
It has been said that church bells are neither strictly of religious nor secular connotation but they bridge a gap between both.
The Visitation inventory of 1368 merely records handbells but in that of 1552, submitted to the Commissioners of Edward VI, there were three bells 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.
Weight 4½ cwt. Cast in Norwich at the bell foundry of Wm. and Alice Brend. Inscription – Anno Domini 1625 ABW
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
Weight 7 cwt. Pre-reformation, thought to be the work of
John Maggs, bellfounder in the Burlingham Group about 1440
Inscription – OMNIS SPIRITUS LAUDET DOMINUM (Let everything that breathes praise the Lord)
Over two centuries back, the Revd. Francis Blomefield described a profusion of heraldic stained glass here, of which only a fragment remains – the coat of arms for the Dukes of Norfolk .- in the spandrel of one of the North Aisle windows. Much of the former glass was probably removed after the Reformation or during the Civil War, for Blomefield had access to records which have long since disappeared.
In the easternmost window of the South Aisle is a roundel of mediaeval stained glass depicting an angel with a fourstringed musical instrument.
Roundels were generally indicative of the 13th Century but the yellow pigment suggests a century later. In the Middle Ages Norwich was one of the three main centres in the country producing stained glass.
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 and is by Hardman as a memorial to Suffield Farmer (x865).
The East Window of the South Aisle is also of Victoria- work, showing figures personifying Justice and Mercy. In the spandrel of the tower base window are two female figures, probably representing two of the Cardinal Virtues. The St. Mary Magdalen window in the South Aisle is modern.
Our Parish Church is a very special place. It has been used as a place of worship for over 900 years. It is a very beautiful and ancient building with not only a great sense of history but also a profound atmosphere. Many people come to the building to mark the significant events in their lives. They bring their children to be baptised, they cane to celebrate their weddings and, of course, it is also where many funerals take place. These special services mean that the church has a very clear role as the place in which people express their deepest longings at times of transition in their lives. It is, therefore, a building thought of with respect and affection by the people of Sprowston.
Of course, it also has a regular life of prayer and worship focussed Sunday by Sunday but now also including some weekdays as well. There are services here every Sunday morning and the great majority of evenings as well. The years of prayer have hallowed the building, giving it a deeply spiritual atmosphere, and therefore it can be a very beautiful and moving environment in which to worship God.
The life of any Christian community based in any church building must not only care for its fabric but must also be outward looking in its care for the local community. This church building is beginning a new phase in which it is hoped it will increasingly become a focus of community life. It is now regularly open for coffee and conversation, used for concerts and drama, and its historic value is appreciated by the local schools who visit regularly. The air, being to deepen all the links that there are between this very fine building and the community in which it stands.