St Peter and St Paul, Salle, Norfolk
During their awesome reign over the other great teams of Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, Liverpool football club placed a huge sign in the changing room corridor, so that it was the last thing visiting teams saw before they walked out on to the pitch: This is ANFIELD, it warned. The name alone was enough. Similarly, the cover of the guidebook here proclaims, in a single word, SALLE. Again, it suffices; the word, pronounced to rhyme with call, stands for the building. Perhaps only the name Blythburgh has the same power in all East Anglia.
The greatest East Anglian churches were built in the 15th century. It is often observed that there can never have been enough people to fill them, but this is to miss the point. They were never intended for the forms of worship to which they currently play host.
The shape of a late medieval church is not an accident. East Anglian parish churches of the 15th century had many common features; wide aisles to enable liturgical processions, a chancel for the celebration of Mass, places for other altars, niches for devotional statues, a focus towards the Blessed Sacrament in the east, a large nave for social activities, large windows to fill the building with light, a roof of angels to proclaim a hymn of praise, a pulpit for the preaching of orthodox doctrine, benches to enable the people to hear the preaching, and carvings, stained glass and wall paintings of the sacraments, Gospels and rosary mysteries, of the catechism and teaching of the Catholic Church.
As Le Corbusier might have said if he’d been around at the time, a late medieval East Anglian church was a machine for making Catholicism happen.
No longer, of course. The radical and violent fracture in popular religion in the middle years of the 16th century gave birth to the Church of England, and the fresh Church inherited buildings that were often unsuitable for congregational protestant liturgy – a problem that the Church of England has never satisfactorily solved.
Over the centuries, the problem has been addressed in different ways; celebrating Communion at a table in the nave, for example, and blocking off the chancel for other uses. Although this was challenged by the Laudian party in the early part of the 17th century, it was the way that many parishes reinvented their buildings, and most were to stay like that until the middle years of the 19th century. Some went further: a pulpit placed halfway down the nave, or even at the back of the church, meant that the seating could be arranged so that it no longer focused towards the east, thus breaking the link with Catholic (and Laudian) sacramentalism. For several centuries, Anglican churches focused on the pulpit rather than the altar.
With the rise of the 19th century Oxford Movement, all this underwent another dramatic change, with the great majority of our medieval parish churches having their interiors restored to their medieval integrity, reinventing themselves as sacramental spaces. This Victorian conception of the medieval suited itself to congregational worship, and responded in a satisfactory way to the structure of the building. But still, of course, they weren’t full.
This 19th century re-imagining is the condition in which we find most of them today, and Anglican theologians everywhere are asking the question that the Catholic Church asked itself at Vatican II in the 1960s – is a 19th century liturgical space really appropriate for the Church of the 21st century?
It requires a shift in the mind to recall that these were not originally Anglican buildings, but it is a shift we need to make. The idea of a previously unchanging Church currently confronting the demands of the modern age is wholly incorrect. These buildings have faced a variety of challenges over the centuries; they have only ever been truly suitable for the use for which they were originally built six hundred years ago.
Two of the largest late medieval churches in East Anglia are just three miles apart, at Cawston and Salle in the middle of Norfolk. These clusters are not uncommon; think of Blythburgh, Southwold and Walberswick in Suffolk, for example, or Lavenham and Long Melford in the same county. But Cawston and Salle are really close – you can see the tower of one from the other. St Peter and St Paul is a complete example of a 15th century rebuilding; St Agnes at Cawston retains its elegant earlier chancel.
If not merely for congregational worship, why were these churches built so big? Impressive as they seem currently, they must have been awesome at the time they were built, since they were the only substantial buildings outside of the towns, and would have dwarfed the houses of the parish. Some were in villages; but many were not. Salle church has always been out in the fields. Why are earlier East Anglian churches not so massive? Certainly, East Anglia has its cathedrals; Norwich and Ely pre-date the great churches by several centuries, and Bury Abbey was bigger than either before its destruction. The great majority of East Anglia’s churches are piecemeal affairs; typically, a 13th century chancel, which must have been the most substantial part of the building when it was 1st erected, an early 14th century nave and tower, and perhaps later elaborations of the piece with aisles and a clerestory. Salle and Cawston churches are both rebuildings of earlier structures, but a surprising number of East Anglian churches were not rebuilt, until perhaps the Victorians saw the need for a fresh chancel, or fresh aisles. Often, these smaller churches are exquisitely beautiful, as if beauty rather than grandeur was the imperative.
And then, towards the end of the 1340s, a great pestilence swept across Europe; in East Anglia, outside of Norwich which got off lightly, it killed perhaps a half of the population. In emptying the countryside, it completely altered the economic balance; a shortage of labour gave fresh power to the survivors, perhaps setting in place the preconditions for the capitalism that we can recognise by the 16th century. And, in extinguishing the flower of Decorated architecture, it also gave birth to the great love affair between the late medieval mind and death.
In Catholic theology there is no great divide between the dead and the living. For the medieval Christian, communion was something that existed between all members of the parish, whether alive or dead. Thus, prayers were said for the souls of the dead (who, it was presumed, were saying prayers for the souls of the living).
To ensure that prayers were said for them after their death, the very richest people endowed chantries. These were foundations, by which priests could be employed to say masses for their souls in perpetuity. A priest in such a capacity was called a chantry priest. The masses would be said at a chantry altar, probably in the nave; if the person was rich enough, this might be enclosed in a specially constructed chantry chapel. Many churches had them. After the Reformation, many were pressed into service as family mausoleums or pews.
For the poorest people, there was the opportunity to join a guild, where, for a penny or so a week, they could ensure that the guild chantry priest would say masses for their soul after their death (along with those of the other dead members of the guild). Many of these guilds were organised around particular occupations or devotions, and became a focus of social activity. The investment that produced the income to pay the chantry priests was most commonly in land. The church or guild oversaw the management of the land, which is one of the reasons we have an image of a wealthy pre-Reformation church. Land bought to produce income in this way was known as chantry land, a name surviving in many places today. Those who invested in chantries (and few and far between must have been those who didn’t) presumed that they were ensuring prayers and masses in perpetuity; but, of course, this was not to be.
Bequests and chantries seem to have reached their peak in the 15th century. Perhaps the Black Death reinforced the urgency of the task. People did not merely want to be remembered; they wanted to be prayed for. And so, those who could afford it ensured that this was not forgotten by leaving their wealth in the very place that was at the centre of communion: the parish church. The richest paid for the additions of aisles and chapels, or for a fresh font or rood screen. This was not just a naked desire for the recognition of their family status. There was an underlying insecurity to the fresh landed classes. They wanted to control their destiny beyond their deaths. And so, their gift would be recorded in the form of a dedicatory inscription. One of these survives on the screen at Cawston, and another on the base of the font at Salle. Orate pro anima, they begin, "Pray for the soul of…", an injunction urgently emphasised by the pre-Reformation liturgy, only to be cursed and defaced by the later Anglicans and puritans. Stained glass was another common gift, as well as images, candlesticks, furnishings. Thus were many churches developed piecemeal.
But sometimes, where a parish could rely on a steady supply of substantial bequests, they might be channelled into a complete rebuilding, as at Salle, a summa cum laude apothesosis, where the fresh church of the late 15th century survives in pretty much its original form. Sometimes, a single wealthy family would shape and direct the rebuilding of a church. One of the richest families in East Anglia in the 14th and 15th centuries was the de la Poles, the Earls of Suffolk. Their mark can be found throughout East Anglia, but most famously and substantially at Wingfield in Suffolk, and at Cawston in Norfolk. Theirs was a long term project; at Cawston, the tower predates the furnishings of the nave and chancel by almost a century.
So why so vast? Certainly, it was ad maiorem deo gloria, to the Greater Glory of God; but it was also to the greater glory of the de la Poles and their contemporaries. The great landed families of England came into the late middle ages full of confidence, and they were determined to demonstrate it. They had survived the Black Death. They had grown richer on its consequences. They had assumed a political power unthinkable a few centuries before. They controlled not just the wealth but the imagination of their parishes. They asserted orthodox Catholic dogma in the face of rural superstitions and abuses. They imposed a homogenised Catholicism on late medieval England. And, as they increased their secular power and influence, a time would come when they would embrace the Great Idea already beginning to take shape on the continent – protestantism. But that was still in the future.
And so, to Salle. St Peter and St Paul is big. This is accentuated by the way in which it stands almost alone in the barley fields, with only a couple of Victorian buildings and a cricket pitch for company. What an idyllic spot! And yet there is an urban quality to the building, as if this was some great city church in the middle of Norwich or Bristol. It went up in the course of the 15th century, a replacement for an earlier building on the same site, broadly contemporary with neighbouring Cawston. While Cawston was largely the work of a single family, here the building benefited from an accident of history; several very wealthy families owned manors and halls in the parish at the same time, and it so happened that the time was the greatest era of rural church building.
Among them were the Boleyns, the Brewes, the Mautebys, the Briggs, the Morleys, the Luces and the Kerdistons, and some of their shields appear above the great west door, along with two mighty censing angels, characteristic of late medieval piety. A steady stream of hefty bequests meant that no expense needed to be spared, and the mighty tower with its vast bell openings was topped with battlements and pinnacles on the very eve of the Reformation.
As at Blythburgh, St Peter and St Paul benefited from the restraint of a late restoration, and the building as we see it currently has no external Victorian additions. It is all of a piece. The porches either side are huge affairs, matching the transepts, and give the effect of a vast animal, a dragon perhaps, sprawling with erect head in the Norfolk countryside. Its tail is the chancel, in itself longer and higher than many Norfolk churches. The aisles are tall, austere, parapeted, the Perpendicular windows arcades of glass. In the porches, the vaulted ceilings are studded with bosses; the central one in the north porch depicts Christ in Majesty, sitting on a rainbow in judgement.
You enter the building from the west, an unusual experience in East Anglia, and your 1st sight is of the seven sacraments font with its tall 15th century canopy, similar to the cover at Cawston. This one is so big it is supported by a crane attached to the ringing gallery under the tower. The font below is interesting because each panel is supported by an angel holding a symbol of the sacrament above – a pot of chrism oil beneath Baptism, for example. The panels themselves are simply done, and are not particularly characterful, apart from the way that Mary turns away and is comforted at the Crucifixion. This panel faces west, and then anticlockwise are the Mass (viewed sideways, as at nearby Great Witchingham), Ordination (the candidate kneeling), Baptism (a server holds the book up for the Priest to read), Confirmation (the candidate obviously a child), Penance (perhaps the most interesting panel – the penitent kneels in a shriving pew), Matrimony (the couples’ hands joined by a stole, she in late 15th century dress) and finally Last Rites (the dying man on the floor under blankets also as at Great Witchingham). The font step has a dedicatory inscription to John and Agnes Luce, asking for prayers for their souls. We know that John died in 1489. Perhaps the fabric of the building was complete by this date.
Beyond the font stretches the vastness of the building, the arcades gathering the eyes and leading them forward to the great east window. The chancel arch is barely there at all, just a simple high opening; but as MR James pointed out, it was never intended to be seen.The sheer bulk of the rood screen dado tells us quite how vast the rood apparatus must have been here, and the arch would have been pretty well hidden. Everything is built to scale; although everything has been cut off above the panels, probably in the late 1540s, the panels themselves are enormous, almost six feet high. As at Cawston, St Gregory, St Jerome, St Ambrose and St Augustine, the four Doctors of the Church, are on the doors. Either side are just two surviving paintings; to the north are Thomas and James, to the south are Philip and Bartholomew. The empty panels are a mystery; the screen stood here for a century before its destruction, so it must have been finished; and the dado seems too high to have been hidden by nave altars. And yet, it has all the appearance of never having been painted.
Because the building is so vast, the surviving medieval glass seems scattered, but there is actually a lot of it and some of it is very significant. Some was moved during the restoration of the early 20th century, when the modern glass in the north transept was installed, and the yellow galley lozenges were thankfully replaced with clear glass in the 1970s. The images in the east window are mainly figures; old kings kneel before young princes, there are armoured men and angels, the remains of a scaly dragon. In the centre at the bottom is a perfect Trinity shield, displayed by an angel looking askance.
Some of the panels are currently in the south transept. These include fragments of a set of the orders of angels. A kneeling figure is Thomas Brigg, donor of the transept; the scroll behind him begins Benedicat Virgo, ‘Blessed Virgin’. The mother of God sits surrounded by red glory, and two women holding croziers, one of them crowned, may be St Etheldreda and St Hilda. Certainly, the crowned figure holding a cross is St Helena.
Despite the wonders of the font, the screen and the glass, the crowning glory of the building is the set of bosses that line the roof of the chancel. They are easily missed, being very high. There are nine altogether, the 1st and last set against the walls at the ends of the roof ridge, and they form a kind of rosary sequence of joyful and glorious mysteries. They start with the Annunciation in the west (see left) and then continue with the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension into Heaven.
There is a fine set of return stalls in the chancel. Although Salle probably never had a college of Priests, all those Masses for the dead must have provided plenty of employment, because we know that there were seven Priests here at a time when the population of the parish was barely 200. Bench ends include heads, a dragon tied up in a knot, a cock, a restored pelican in her piety, and a monkey. The misericord seats feature faces, including one that is quite extraordinary.
Although the roof isn’t up to the glory of neighbouring Cawston, it includes lots of original angels and paintwork, including sacred monograms, and around the wallplate part of the Te Deum Laudamus and Psalm 150. These particular texts seem to have provided the inspiration for many late 15th century interiors; the angels in the roof, the animals on the bench ends, the Saints on the rood screen all in harmony: Let everything that has breath Praise ye the Lord!
The nave benches are mostly renewed currently, but the pulpit is an elegant example of the 15th century, from the time when a priority began to be placed on preaching. Curiously, it has been rather awkwardly converted into a three-decker arrangement, probably in the 18th century, with the addition of a platform and desk from a set of box pews. A large sounding board has been placed overhead. The box pews suggest that the medieval furnishings were replaced at an early date, although the replacements too have gone currently.
Salle is one of those churches full of intriguing little details that might easily pass you by, so great is the wonder of everything around. Those two little corbel heads above the south door, for instance – what were they for? Perhaps they supported an image that could be seen from the north doorway as people entered, although not a St Christopher as the guidebook suggests, I think. There is a pretty piscina in the unfortunate north transept that has been outlined in wood, a memorial and helm above, a tall image bracket in the corner of the wall of the south transept, a floreated piscina nearby.
There are many brasses and brass inlays in the nave floor; one of the most interesting is a chalice brass (although the chalice is currently gone) to Simon Boleyn, a Priest, who died in 1489, and to the east of it a pair of brasses to Geoffrey and Alice Boleyn, great-grandparents to Anne Boleyn, 2nd wife of Henry VIII. Another pair of brasses are to Thomas and Katherine Rose and their eight children. Unlike many churches, Salle actually retains some of the ‘missing’ brasses, currently locked away for safety. It would be nice to think they could eventually be reset in the floor.
One part of the building that many visitors must miss is the chapel above the north porch. There is no sign indicating it; but the doorway, at the west end of the north aisle, is always open. Inside, the vaulted roof is punctuated by spectacularly pretty bosses which you can view at close quarters. The colour is a bit fanciful, but they are fascinating, particularly the central boss of the Coronation of the Queen of Heaven – how on earth did that survive the Reformation?
This is a tremendous building, a box of fascinating delights. What purpose does it serve currently? As I said in the introduction, its size was not in response to the needs of a congregation, and as far as worship is concerned it will never be full. It remains constantly in use, however; for regular services in the chancel, sometimes for concerts and recordings, but also of course for the poshest sort of marriage, the kind only the Church of England can provide, and no doubt other elements of the core business of CofE PLC. It is easy to be cynical, but if they ensure the survival of the building, then so be it.