From roof-bosses to stained-glass, these are the best bits of Salle church.
Packed full of medieval treasures, this giant of a church can be seen for miles around. Surrounded by countryside it was once called ‘The Cathedral of the Fields’. I recently visited and I am excited to share a summary of my best bits of Salle church.
Introduction to St Peter and St Paul’s
I have a confession. I call myself a church-crawler but I’ve yet to explore Norfolk’s legendary churches. I’ve never been to Norwich or King’s Lynn and even thought Swaffham and Swaffham Prior were the same place until yesterday. How embarrassing?! Having dipped my toe in the water today I am well on the road to rectifying this little sin.
My trip to Norfolk was for a very specific purpose: Cawston church had advertised a ‘Hard-Hat Day’. Contractors had recently been repairing the fifteenth-century roof and offered the community bookable tours around the scaffold (details here and another post to follow!). My partner wrote about Cawston church for his Masters dissertation and he booked us both tickets. I had a fabulous day out and explored several other local gems, including the church of St Peter and St Paul, Salle.
Salle (sounds like ‘Saul’ rhymes with call) church is vast. This church is known as ‘the cathedral of the fields’ and can be seen for miles around. Even with the large number of people who would have populated the local area in the fifteenth century, they probably wouldn’t have even begun to fill the building we see today. The reason for its size is that it benefitted from a large number of very wealthy patrons who paid for its expansion and decoration. (Simon Knott at Norfolk Churches summarises this well.) One of these families is the Boleyn family and the brass of Geoffrey Boleyn (great-grandfather of Anne Boleyn) survives in the nave.
You enter Salle church through its huge west door. The vastness of the building is striking. The clerestory and east window stretch-out before you drawing your eyes upward. Built and decorated in the fifteenth century, there are many surviving medieval features and remarkably there are few alterations and additions of more modern periods. For this reason Salle moved me. I felt captivated by its age and the ages it has seen pass.
If churches could talk imagine what St Peter and Paul, Salle could tell us.
My Best Bits
There are lots of places that summarise exciting church buildings in full detail. The relevant Pevsner and Simon Jenkins England’s Thousand Best Churches spring to mind. I also have a lovely book called Norfolk Churches Great and Small by CV Roberts, which gives a good breakdown of what to look out for (in Norfolk churches, unsurprisingly). If you prefer looking online have a look at Norfolk churches and Churches of Norfolk.
These comprehensive guides are wonderful, accurate and informative so there is little point repeating all of the information that they share. Instead I am going to draw your attention to the bits that I loved the most.
The Seven-Sacrament Font and Cover
The font is the first thing that you see when you walk through the door and it really grabs attention with a huge font cover. A crane supports the font cover which stretches to an incredible height of over 15 feet. I found that it presented a real photography challenge.
Note – I find fonts are a challenge to photograph. Strewn with detritus they sit at the back of the church and used as gift-tables-cum-entrance-kiosks. I very frequently have to move piles of stuff off the top! Plastic flowers spring to mind **shudder**.
Anyway, back to the font in Salle (which I am pleased to say is free from clutter). The crane assists in the process of lifting the cover in some sort of weight and pulley mechanism system (somebody help me with the physics!?) The woodwork is beautiful. The cover is made from spindly timbers and the top looks so fragile that, frankly, I am flabbergasted that it is still intact.
Upon inspection of the stained-glass I was jumping for joy to find the aforementioned spindly timbers represented in the imagery.
These two fellows are Thomas Luce and his son Robert and they appear in the tracery of one of the west window of the north transept. They “caused this font to be made”.
The carvings on the octagonal font are a little tricky to work out without some help so, using a trusty guidebook, I managed to pick out the Seven Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Mass, Matrimony, Ordination, Penance and Last Rights. The eighth and final panel shows the Crucifixion.
According to Harris’ Guide to Churches and Cathedrals there are 41 seven-sacrament fonts that date between 1468 and 1544 (Harris’ top three are Badingham and Cratfield, Suffolk, and Brooke, Norfolk). Sadly, iconoclasts have completely defaced or mutilated some of them.
East Anglia has some fabulous rood screens and Salle’s is no exception. The function of these screens in the Middle Ages was to divide the laity in the nave of the church from the Clergy performing religious worship in the chancel. It would have been richly decorated with paintings and the upper part of the screen would have been open to enable the congregation to view The Elevation of the Host – the critical point of Mass. In addition, the screen would have been topped with a Crucifix, called a ‘Rood’ in Anglo-Saxon English.
Paintings of saints adorn the panels of the screen. On the central doors are the four doctors of the church: St Gregory, St Jerome, St Ambrose and St Augustine. Either side are St Thomas and St James on the north (left) and St Philip and St Bartholomew on the south (right). The rest of the panels are now empty and it is a mystery as to what they would have presented.
In addition to the figures of saints, the borders and spandrels of the screen have painted flowers and carved animals. By far my favourite thing in the whole church is this miniature St. George on a rearing horse. His armour is easy to distinguish and he is raising his arm to fight the adjacent dragon. I love the red detail of the horse’s bridle and saddle – just gorgeous!
Where medieval roofs survive intact, many decorative bosses also survive. High-up and unobserved they proudly display fascinating examples of biblical scenes and saints having escaped the wrath of Iconoclasts. Additionally bosses also depict a wide range of subjects from heraldry, foliage, animals, green-men and even scenes of every day life. At Salle church there are bosses in the the chancel, the chapel over the north porch and the nave.
The roof in the chapel is the prettiest by far. The faded colours are subtle blues, greens and golds against a white plaster background and the ceiling itself is low, perfect for examining these beautiful carvings. There are green men and angels with instruments, but of particular interest is this Coronation of the Virgin scene, damaged by Iconoclasts in the 16th century.
The chancel bosses are unpainted and represent a series of New Testament scenes. Those easiest to distinguish are the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. The whole thing is easiest to see with binoculars. Whether the roof would originally have been painted is unclear from ground level but based upon the surviving sumptuous polychromy of the screen and the other roofs in the church, it is likely that they would have been.
The bosses in the nave are mostly roses but faces appear amongst them too. This roof also shows evidence of painted patterns and words.
For more information about bosses see a book called “Roof Bosses in Medieval Churches” by CJP Cave. It overs a huge over view of all of the significant collections of medieval bosses that you need to see now! And be sure to visit Norwich Cathedral which has over 800 bosses!
In the Middle Ages the nave roof was built to be a spectacle with many angels included in the decorative scheme. Today it is only a shadow of its former self, with only a few rafters displaying the original medieval painted scheme. Nonetheless these are magnificent survivals.
Artists in the Middle Ages depicted angels with feathered arms and legs, like the one in stained glass below. Carvers and painters of the period took inspiration from what they saw around them and in this case their inspiration came from Mystery Plays. Actors performed in the streets where actors covered themselves in feathered garments to emphasise flight. Historians often call these garments ‘feather-tights’. (I want some so much!)
I really love seeing these angels. It instantly brings back memories of my home town York and seeing the Mystery Plays performed on carts with crowds of people gathered round.
You must visit this church. It is sure to be open so if you’re in the area you have no excuse not to go. They welcome visitors and there is a handy leaflet to tour you around the church. Do not miss the little rooms above the two porches, known as Parvis, which in the Middle Ages would have functioned as chapels. I have mentioned the one above the north porch but there is also one above the south porch with an interesting array of architectural fragments.
Things to take:
- A torch (to light up carvings, floor brasses and the stairways to the extra rooms above the porches)
- Binoculars (to see the fantastic bosses)
- The Norfolk Pevsner
- Some change for the donations box
- And obviously a camera with lots of memory and good charge
Also look out for the Boleyn brass. A quick search on the web showed that the brass in the nave is to Geoffrey and Alice Boleyn, Great-Grandparents to the famous Ann Boleyn, so if you’re a Tudor nut Do. Not. Miss. This!
Well that is all I can squeeze in to this post! Let me know what you think. Have you visited Salle? What were your best bits? Have I encouraged you to visit / visit again? If so I would love to hear all about it. Get in touch…
Bye for now!