St Mary, North Elmham
The large church of St Mary’s lies close by to the ruins of North Elmham Chapel, a Norman structure which was built on the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon timber cathedral. North Elmham was once a place of great importance as it was the seat of the Bishop of East Anglia until it was moved to Thetford in 1071. This goes some way to explaining the sheer size of St Mary’s in comparison to the parish in which it resides.
St Mary’s has a charming churchyard, half of which has been given over to sheep who come here to graze from the neighboring farm. Outside, I also spotted a rather handsome gargoyle above the west entrance which, at the time of my visit, was sporting an amusing tuft of grass hair.
The oldest elements of the church are Norman with the nave and south entrance dating from the late 1200s. In the 19th century, the church was restored by John Brown, a pupil and relative of William Brown of Ipswich. John Brown, aided by his two sons, also worked as a surveyor for Norwich Cathedral and assisted in the restoration of its crossing tower.
John Brown was responsible for rescuing and reinstalling St Mary’s wonderful rood screen which, up until then, had been used as flooring. The screen depicts seventeen figures, including St Barbara, who is depicted holding the tower in which she was incarcerated by her father. When St Barbara declared herself a Christian her father attempted to kill her, but when an opening in the tower miraculously appeared, she was able to escape. Unfortunately, she was recaptured and subsequently tortured. But no matter what injuries they inflicted, her wounds would be healed by the morning. Her father would eventually condemn her to death and, after she was beheaded, he was struck by lighting and consumed by flames.