St Andrew, Norton
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
Simon Knott, March 2018
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