At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Andrew, Norton

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Norton Norton

unicorn scratching its behind (15th Century)   Norton is a busy village on the Stowmarket to Thetford road, but the church is out in the fields. St Andrew is the slightly demur sister church of St George, a mile away at Stowlangtoft. A footpath across the fields connects the two churches. Both are treasure houses of the medieval, and both of them bear the heavy hand of 19th century attempts to make them appear more medieval than they already were. Perhaps it is the more intimate scale of St Andrew, and the way it is not so gloomy inside, that makes me prefer it to its neighbour.

The church is open every day. You approach down a narrow lane, and the church unfolds through an avenue of trees in front of you. The graveyard is wide and well-populated with 18th century headstones, although there has been some clearance to the south of the nave and chancel, which is a pity.

Even on this dull late winter day in February 2018, the church felt full of light. This is because of the size of the windows in what is actually a small church, despite its aisles and clerestory. The biggest are on the south side of the late 13th century chancel, and were put in by the Victorians to match the 15th century ones in the nave. Some of this light is coloured, because what Norton has in abundance is fascinating stained glass.

One range in the south side of the chancel has five almost complete early 15th century figures. These include a superb St Christopher who I think must have been touched up, a restored St Etheldreda and St Andrew. A king with a cross may well be Henry V, and another figure carries a martyr's palm. In the east end of the south aisle there are four more figures, but on closer inspection only the most southerly is anything like complete. This shows St Agatha with a rather gruesome breast in her pincers. Her head, you will see, is a Victorian invention, as are the other three heads in this range. At least hers is relatively appropriate - St Paul, second from the left, has been given the head of a young prince straight from Camelot. St Catherine has the head of a medieval lady rather than a royal princess. The figure of Christ blessing his mother from a Coronation of the Blessed Virgin scene has been given the head of a young girl. Is it possible that the restorer simply used heads at random that were lying around in the workshop?

St Margaret (15th Century) St Christopher (15th Century, restored) martyr with a palm (15th Century) St Etheldreda (15th/19th Century) St Andrew (15th Century) St Paul with a young king's head (15th/19th Century) Christ from the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin with a woman's head  (15th/19th Century) St Agatha (15th/19th Century)

The stained glass in the chancel is even more curious. The east window tracery dates from that time in the 14th century when Decorated is becoming Perpendicular. Mortlock thinks it is original tracery. It has a cluster of late 19th century glass in the upper lights depicting angels over St Elizabeth and the Blessed Virgin. I assume that there was more below at one time, but this has been removed. However, in a window above the priests door that was retained during the Victorian refurbishment, there is an angel swinging a censer above his head.

And yet, he isn't. For the shape of this glass appears to match exactly the tracery to the south and north of the upper lights of the east window. He must have come from here originally. The only problem is, to fit the glass in you would need to turn him on his head, so that he is upside down. This presents a rather more dramatic prospect. Perhaps he was an angel of the Holy Blood hovering above a crucifixion, a remarkable thought.

15th Century censing angel as he is, and as he should be

Norton church has two further outstanding treasures of national importance. The first is the 15th century font. It is in superb condition, and I believe there is a good reason for this. The carved reliefs are in heavily rebated niches, so that when the Elizabethans plastered it over there was nothing protruding to be mutilated. Virtually all that has suffered is the tip of St Matthew's nose. Other faces show the other three evangelists, and there are also a pelican in her piety and a unicorn - a most unusual subject on a font, but a symbol in various ways of both Christ and the Virgin Mary. There is another on the font across the fields at Pakenham.

Beneath the bowl are angels and Marian hearts, and beneath them the supporters include a wodewose and a very strange looking goat. It might be connected with the heraldic symbol of the Bardwell family, who were Lords of the manor here at the time of the rebuilding. Their shield is also in the north aisle.

font font: unicorn (15th Century) font: woodwose with a shield (15th Century) font: pelican in her piety

But what makes Norton a really special place to visit is the collection of 14th century stalls with misericord seats. They are some of the finest in Suffolk, eclipsed only by those at Stowlangtoft. This is, of course, interesting, if not a little bit suspicious. Why should two neighbouring churches have some of the best stalls in East Anglia? A local carpenter who was good at them? Well, perhaps. But I do not think the stalls originally came from either church. They may have come from a priory church like nearby Thetford, but they might also have come from Bury Abbey, which had a connection with this church. However, I am suspicious enough to wonder if either set were in their current church before the mid-19th century. Not that any of this matters, but it is a reminder to us quite how achingly passionate the Victorians were about restoring a sense of the medieval to their churches. Where did they come from? The woman carding wool seems to me a key East Anglian image of the time, and the monk falling asleep over his manuscript a wry joke. The stall end of a woman baring the bottom of the child beneath her is rather more disturbing. At first it appears that she is spanking him, but it is actually his hand on his backside, not hers. Two other stall ends feature deadly sins, a man with his money in a chest for avarice and a man in bed for sloth. A lion savages a wodewose, a pelican feeds her young with her own blood, St Edmund and St Andrew are martyred. They are all superb.

stall arm: woman baring a boy's bottom (15th Century) stall arm: greed (man with a money chest) (15th Century) stall arm: sloth (man in bed) (15th Century)
misericord: woman carding wool (15th Century) misericord: monk falling asleep over a manuscript (15th Century) misericord: martyrdom of St Andrew (15th Century)
misericord: martyrdom of St Edmund (15th Century) misericord: pelican in her piety (15th Century) misericord: lion savaging a woodwose (15th Century)

Back in the nave there are some very fine bench ends that clearly come from the Stowlangtoft/Tostock/Woolpit group although most are very badly mutilated. This is as likely to be wear and tear as any form of iconoclasm, not least because the one survival, and a surprising one, shows a priest telling the rosary at his prayer desk. At the back of the church is a very curious monument. The name has now gone, but Mortlock tells us that it remembers Daniel Bales who died in 1625. He left a dole of bread for the poor, and the arched recess with the skeleton at the back was the place where the bread was placed.

At the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, the minister here was the splendidly named Reverend Aldersley Dicken. Anglican congregations reached a peak in the middle of the 19th Century, and even in strongly non-conformist Suffolk one would normally expect up to a third of the population of the village to be attending the parish church on a Sunday.

However, given Norton's 1851 population of 927 people, Dicken was notably coy about the attendance at his church, recording it on the census form as below average congregation and 41 scholars. The scholars, one assumes, had no choice but to attend. Dicken then relented slightly, attempting to define 'average congregation' as 117 in the morning and 234 in the afternoon, but went on to note that the church being at a distance from the village, number present is subject to accidents and could lead to no true conclusion. One can't help thinking that the census-numerators might have considered themselves entirely capable of drawing any true conclusions without Dicken's direction. Meanwhile, up on the village high street 200 people attended worship in the Baptist Chapel, and a brave and faithful 16 saw out the service in the Wesleyan Reform Methodist Chapel.

  bench end: elephant (15th Century)   bench end: unicorn scratching its behind (15th Century)

Simon Knott, March 2018

looking east St Elizabeth and St Mary (19th Century)
Bardwell goat Horatio Nelson Grimley bardwell goat impaled
hic jacet Johanes Rokwod gent hic jacet Edmunde Coket

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