fiery angels by Mary Lowndes (1898)
St Peter and St Paul, Shropham, Norfolk
Shropham is a largish village on the edge of the Breckland, not far from the Gallows HIll interchange on the A11, but with the water meadows of the young River Thet keeping the modern world at arms length. The parish was a large one for the Brecklands in medieval times. Shropham Hall is a good mile off, as close to Great Hockham as it is to its own village. And Shropham's church of St Peter and St Paul is big too, an imposing and substantial structure, its tower from the early 16th Century and its nave substantially of the late 15th Century, but still bearing the marks of the Early English church it replaced. The north doorway probably says something of the scale of the earlier building, as does the pretty clerestory of quatrefoils.
Now, they are overwhelmed by the huge Perpendicular chancel, which screams late medieval wealth at you. Just on its own it would be bigger than many Norfolk churches. In fact, it was substantially redone in the 19th Century, but probably as an accurate copy of what was there before if the scale is anything to go by, and as for that magnificent east window, if it isn't the same as before then I'm sure we won't mind. The churchyard is also suitably large, with a modern extension to the west, and pleasingly disorganised. Here the Shropham dead lie, down the long generations.
Inevitably, with such a large chancel and low clerestory, the eye is drawn to the great east window on entry. All this was intended. By the 15th Century there was a move away from the shadowy, mystical worship and private devotions of the previous centuries. The Priest came down out of the chancel to his pulpit, and made the nave his own. Benches were provided to encourage a more corporate attitude to Mass, an enforcement of Catholic doctrine, the beginning of congregational worship. The building filled with light from the east, cool, clear and rational. The Reformation was less than a century away.
Quite the most eyecatching things about St Peter and St Paul, however, both date from the 20th Century. They are both windows. The most interesting is that on the south side of the chancel by Mary Lowndes. She was one of the major figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement, working with such greats as Christopher Whall and creating the Glass House Studio in Fulham with Alfred Drury, but she was also an important figure in the Suffragette movement. It was Mary Lowndes who designed their well-known posters, including the ones letting the public know about the Cat & Mouse Act. Her work can be found in half a dozen East Anglian churches, most notably at Lamarsh in Essex and Ufford in Cambridgeshire, where she designed full schemes, but also at Snape in Suffolk, Linton in Cambridgeshire and here at Shropham, her only work in Norfolk and an early work at that. It depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Magi in an English woodland, a fiery angel standing behind the Holy Family. At the bottom are scenes of the shepherds in the hills with their flocks and the wise men following the star.
The other window, perhaps not quite so thrilling, is by Powell & Sons and dates from the 1940s. It commemorates Flight Sergeant Ronald Garnier, of Shropham Hall, who was Killed in action off Gibraltar in a Spitfire 11th October 1942. The figures of St Michael and St George flank Ronald Garnier as he kneels to pray with his sword against a cross, as well as scenes of the Rock of Gibraltar and Shropham Hall, his home. The only other stained glass in the church is a curiously unsatisfactory mid-19th Century crucifixion in the central light of that great east window. Were there once scenes in the other lights?
Hanging on the south side of the sanctuary is one of those fascinating little survivals which help make exploring churches so interesting. This is the late 19th Century processional banner for Shropham & Larling Girls Friendly Society, which was an Anglican organisation, one of several founded at that time of which the Mothers Union is probably the best known today. The GFS was intended to support unmarried girls in service, away from home and working in big houses like Shropham Hall. It was very common for working class girls to go into service - my grandmother, the daughter of a Cambridge drayman, was a servant in a large house in Hertfordshire as a young girl in the last years of the First World War. But it was that War which changed the social structure of England forever, and although some girls would still go into service there were no longer the great numbers of them living away from home, nor was there any longer the paternalistic expectation that the Church would take care of their moral welfare, and it faded from sight. In fact, the Girls Friendly Society survives today, working with young women with emotional difficulties.
Nearby, the great 18th Century wall memorial to James Barker and his family suggests that they were themselves probably not short of a few servants.