On the edge of the Norfolk Broads sits the parish church of St Peter at Smallburgh. The register of St. Benet at Holme has documentation citing the presentation of John of Smallburgh to the rectory in 1186. Later, rector Henry Hemingburg was presented by the abbot in 1305.
Originally of Norman construction (although many believe there may have been a Saxon church before it), nothing of its first incarnation remains, however, a lot of the remaining structure still has historical merit, with elements existing from the 15th, 16thand 17thcenturies.
By the 17thcentury, all four churches within the benefice were in a ruinous state. Thankfully, since then, all have undergone significant reconstruction efforts.
The tower fell on 23rdMay 1677 due to neglect (despite being deemed to be ‘in sufficient repair’ four days before) and caused considerable damage to the nave and font. At this time, the country was suffering as a result of the dissolution of the monasteries and all parish funds were being directed to the poor and destitute, leaving no money for reconstruction of their churches.
Eventually replacing the ruined tower was a shorter, square version that was a precursor to the wider repairs carried out during the 1880s at a grand cost of over £800. The chancel was restored in 1885 during the incumbency of the Rev. W. T Griffith and the roof decoration was said to have been inspired by the German wife of the Reverend J R Milne, but was never completed.
The repairs undertaken during the Victorian era were extensive and included (but were not limited to) raising roof levels, reconstructing all window tracery, replacing pews and the installation of a new lectern and pulpit. In 1902, the western bay of the nave was destroyed by the fall of the tower once more but was later restored to its original length.
Today, the church is Grade II* listed and remains nestled in a rural environment, flanked by open fields.
The south porch, although small and unassuming, is a hotbed of history. Atop one of the bench seats is a 13thcentury grave slab or former coffin lid, which has been cut in half lengthways. The other half, cut across the line of the cross, sits under the north wall. It is presumed to be the former marker of a benefactor who was originally buried in the north east corner of the nave.
On the other bench seat is a rather fun piece of Victorian graffiti, the likes of which I have seen on the woodwork of several Norfolk churches. Two teenagers, in 1853 and 1857 respectively, had traced around their shoe, scoring the outline into the wood.
The water stoup in the right corner of the porch is also a fascinating piece of church history. Originally, it would have been a large stone bowl, filled with holy water that parishioners would cross themselves with upon entry to the church. In the sixteenth century, the bowl was broken off in an attempt to end this ritual. Today, the small stoup is filled with flowers.
Smallburgh’s Rood Screen:
The rood screen at Smallburgh is arguably the main focal point of the church today. Constructed in the early days of the church, it would originally have reached approximately twelve feet high with a beam across the top depicting Christ, with smaller figures of angels close by.
Similarly, there was once a rood loft in the church as its steps and imprints remain in the wall. Such lofts were used for preaching, reading the gospel during mass, or for choristers.
Today, only the lower panels of the screen remain. Despite escaping the reformation under Henry VIII, when Edward VI came to the throne, rural Norfolk finally felt the effects of Henry’s scheme. Between 1549 and 1551, much of the church’s decoration was removed in order to make for a simpler interior, which fitted the new stripped-down services of the time. These views were exacerbated during the Civil War where Cromwell’s efforts to make a puritan country resulted in the desecration of beautiful church architecture and fittings across the land.
Due to the damage to the remaining depictions of saints, there is debate over their exact identities. However, they are generally believed to be:
- St Anthony – Shown as a hermit, with a bell in hand and a pig at his feet.
- St Edward the Confessor – The ring or sceptre in his right hand has been removed.
- St Stephen – Shown as a deacon with a napkin over his shoulder and a sun above him, depicting God.
- St George and the Dragon
- St Giles – Pierced by an arrow and wearing a black monk’s habit.
- St Lawrence – As a deacon with a grid iron.
- St Leonard – Most damaged. Holding a staff, he could also be a bishop or abbot.
- St Leger – Beside a bishop, carrying a staff. Has also suffered from considerable damage.
Three other boards were found in 1885 where they had been repurposed to make the side of the clerk’s desk. These are thought to be St Petronella, an archbishop (potentially of Canterbury) and St Martin as a bishop.
To the west of the south porch lie the family graves of the Whittletons. The family experienced tremendous grief as all their children died within a very short space of time. Presumably, this was through an illness such as TB, smallpox or scarlet fever, the likes of which often decimated families within a space of weeks.
The wide empty space by the south porch is reportedly the mass unmarked grave of former inmates of the village workhouse, who died before construction of a later burial space by the workhouse itself.
The headstone of John Knights (d. 1882 age 75) bears some particularly striking and crisp symbolism. A broken column is common Victorian shorthand for a life cut short (particularly popular on graves of a first born son or a man who died young), however such a well-preserved carving of a obelisk in the process of breaking is very unusual.
His epitaph reads:
WHO FELL ASLEEP IN JESUS
OCT. 21. 1882
AGED 75 YEARS.
MUCH REGRETTED BY HIS FAMILY.
HIS END WAS PEACE.
IN PEACE LET ME RESIGN MY BREATH
AND THY SALVATION SEE
MY SINS DESERVE ETERNAL DEATH
BUT JESUS DIED FOR ME.
Set into the wall is the 18thcentury grave slab of Robert Bond, who died on January 19th, 1753, aged 58. This is clearly a later addition to the outside of the church and has ensured the preservation of the piece, despite the damage to the cherub design at the top.
However, his epitaph reads very similarly to a famous interment inside Norwich cathedral – that of Thomas Gooding, who was buried standing upright so that his body would be first into heaven on the day of resurrection.
While Gooding’s 1600 inscription reads:
All you that do this place pass bye,
Remember death for you must dye,
As you are now even so was I,
And as I am so shall you be,
Thomas Gooding here do Staye,
Waiting for Gods Judgement Daye.
Bond’s inscription, carved 153 years later, reads:
(f’s have been replaced with s’s in transcription)
All you that do this Place pass by
Remember Death for you must Die,
As you are now so once was I
And as I am so must you Be
Therefore prepare to follow me.
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