Rich from the textile trade, a significant slice of East Anglia’s wealth went into church building in the 14th and 15th centuries.
From the humblest parish church to the greatest, every place of worship had something new. At Belaugh the church got a new painted screen. At Norwich Cathedral they added a spire and fan vaulting. Churches built in the two centuries before the Reformation under Henry VIII are often referred to as Wool Churches. Here’s a selection of 10 outstanding Wool Churches each of them providing a breathing space from the rush and noise of the modern-day world and a link to our country’s spiritual and cultural heritage.
Walpole St. Peter
Known as The Cathedral of the Marshlands it is regarded by many as ‘the finest parish church in England’.
This church is so far west in the county that it falls in the Ely, rather than Norwich, Diocese.
Not everyone agrees that this is the best in the county. John Betjeman observed that, ‘Lovers of Norfolk churches can never agree which is the best’. He thought opinion was evenly divided, ‘one is either a Salle or a Cawston man’.
St. Peter and St. Paul, Salle
Take the road north out of Reepham and you’ll soon catch a glimpse of Salle church. It is hard to believe anyone could build anything so big, so far from a centre of population. But it was never meant to seat a large number of people. Its size and rich ornamentation were an offering – from big, rich, important men to an even bigger, richer, more important God. The church once had a staff of seven priests – all praying for their individual sponsors. But the reforms of Henry VIII changed all that and much of the elaborate interior was destroyed. There are sufficient clues to its former glory in carvings, paintings, stained glass and memorials.
One can’t help wondering how much keeping up with the Joneses – or rather the the Boleyns, the Brewes, the Mautebys, the Briggs, the Morleys, the Luces and the Kerdistons in this case – was going on in the 14th century when the de la Pole family applied some of their wealth to a new church in the next door parish.
St. Agnes, Cawston
Like Salle, Cawston’s church is massive with sufficient surviving artwork to wonder at. You’ll love the painting showing St. Matthew wearing Harry Potter spectacles and the angel carvings high up in the hammer beam roof.
In their day these great church buildings had little in the way of seating. Most was in the chancel, between the screen and altar, reserved for ministers. A few benches, for the elderly and infirm, were provided along the walls – hence the phrase ‘To go to the wall’. This left the majority of the church as open space where processions could take place and the congregation stood during services. When there were no services, the large covered space could be used for other purposes, including feasts and markets. A short distance from Cawston is a church that has revived this ancient custom.
St. Michael, Aylsham
By way of contrast, St. Michael’s is a busy, well attended church, in the middle of a bustling market town. Monday is market day and on Mondays part of the market comes into church! There are stalls – bric a brac, clothing, books – coffee and tea are served, the organ plays popular tunes, and the local food bank receives and distributes groceries to families going through difficult times.
Aylsham’s earlier claim to fame was fine linen. The Web of Aylsham, as it was known, graced the bed chambers and tables of royalty but in later days the town became known for its equally fine Worsted cloth. Not better known than the village that gave the cloth its name, of course. Worsted is 10 miles to the east.
St Mary, Worstead
The church sits on the edge of the quiet village square, square-towered, full of light and interest. Complete with 15th century paintings and side chapels still in use, it is just a short walk from the railway station on the Bittern Line.
Once the second biggest city in England, much of Norwich’s wealth came from the wool trade and no church reflects more of its 15th century opulence than
St. Peter Mancroft
I scarcely remember ever to have seen a more beautiful parish church,’ wrote the 18th century diarist and founder of Methodism, John Wesley, ‘the more so because its beauty results not from foreign ornaments, but from the very fine form and structure of it. It is very large, and of uncommon height, and the sides are almost all window: so that it has an awful and venerable look, and at the same time surprisingly cheerful’. The church’s greatest treasure is the east window and other surviving pieces of medieval stained glass.
The church’s twin towers can be seen for miles around, a familiar sight to all who travel on the A11. Originally founded in the 11th century, the building was shared by both monks and parishioners. When the central tower collapsed in the 14th century a great re-building project extended the nave westward. Not much remains of the monastic buildings, but the great church continues as a place of worship. Each generation adding a little of its own. The golden brilliance of Ninian Comper’s confident, 20th century reredos is worth a visit in its own right.
St. Mary, Attleborough
By-passed by the A11, Attleborough is a thriving town with another re-built 14th century church at its heart. St. Mary’s particular claims to fame are the longest screen in East Anglia and some remarkable wall paintings.
St. Andrew, Blofield
Just south of the Norwich to Great Yarmouth road, big and built high on a hill above the River Yare, St. Andrew’s has one of the tallest towers in Norfolk. It has a notable font (variously dated from 13th-16th century) with carved panels of the life of Christ. The 20th century stained glass commemorating Margaret Harker, who was once a director of Norfolk Red Cross, has some interesting contemporary subjects including Great Yarmouth herring girls and nurses at work.
St. Margaret, Cley
It is hard to imagine the River Glaven as the centre of a thriving port. Over the years, the channels have silted up and the trade is long gone. But in its 14th century hay day it was busy and prosperous. One can catch a glimpse of its wealth reflected in the churches of Wiveton, Blakeney and Cley. The grandest of them all is St. Margret’s, Cley. For all the church’s grandeur, its great size and light streaming in through the clerestory windows, it’s most memorable features are the little things – quirky carvings on the bench ends and a woman chasing a fox that’s making off with her prize cockerel on a roof boss in the porch.
And what is more, it is situated on the village green and they still serve refreshments in the Three Swallows next door.
Get directions to individual churches here.