Home > Medieval churches > King’s Lynn, Norfolk

King’s Lynn, Norfolk

Another day, another port. Portsmouth, Bristol, they all offer up something. But these look south and west respectively: KL looks east; the visitors book in S Margarets is full of Latvians, Estonians, Poles; not since the days of the Hanseatic league has so much Marshland wealth been making its way to the Baltic.

The walls describe a long circuit beside the Ouse, enclosing the Millfleet and the Purfleet, making three parishes, All Saints, St Margaret, St Nicholas. Not all emerged at once; and only one, All Saints, is really an ordinary town church. St Margaret’s, by the Tuesday market, had a parochial function (fulfilled originally by a monk, no less), but is mainly the Benedictine daughter house of the monks of Norwich, and thus the main monastic community in the town and also the main church connected to the bishop in what medieval people knew as Bishop’s Lynn.

It is one of the strangets, least beautiful, churches in the country; like roaming inside a personality twisted up slightly by its own history.  Even from the outside, this is clear. The east front, a weird amalgam of the C15 and the C18, its Gothick rose (Pevsner says it is C15: really??) somewhow a bit of both. The truncated tower, once topped by a mini-Ely octagon. Not the only one in Lynn, it will turn out. The Odd Thing stricking out of the north tower, facing the tower, with a strangely stilted arch: is this *meant* to be a porch? Or the way in to a lost outer aisle? And the west front, twin-towered, trumeau-doored, a show-off statement undermined by its collisions of style: the north tower is Norwich romanesque going on early gothic going on Dec – three hundred years in a single stone sandwich – the central portion with a grand window by the builder of St Nicholas, the south tower perp too.

Inside it is a vast, plain very long vista, the size perhaps a function of combining parochial functions in a busy, growing town with a monastic one. The east end is c1200, presumably replacing something smaller, but there are Norman arches – 1110s-30s? or even 1090s? – holding up the north tower, so the footprint of the nave must always have been as it is – big. But the tower-nave transition is as outside a bewilder of stuff, leaning bunches of Romanesque columns colliding with early gothic and later. And the nave?? The nave had always ready been rebuilt in the late c13 or early c14, but in the C18, after the tower demolished its predecessor, it was rebuilt, the masons, taking the arcade down but leaving their Dec bases standing, from which they built up again; and doing a fair impression of late Perp but not quite able to give their low arches barbaricgothic points. The rather unlovely depressed arches that result sap all the visual energy from arcade, clerestory, windows, and make them somehow prosaic, municipal; a fair reflection of C18 small town Anglicanism, perhaps?

The crossing a mish mash again, and then the east end, early EE; and here the scale is grand, big arcades, attached columns, clerestory; stiff leaf caps and little quatrefoils in between the spandrels of the arches; but the execution is appalling, cack-handed stiff leaf, the spandrel quats too small, containing ungainly little heads and figures; and to make things worse/odder, the clerestory has been done over again in the C18 by Mr Deppressed Arches – depression brought on by Suppression? – and the e wall is C18, I presume, with a bloodless but enormous C19 reredos.

This would all bring one down a bit, where it not for the content. They start a fair way down the nave, where a really first-rate rococo pulpit prepares one for a series of black wooden Jacobean screens/stalls beneath the crossing; and these continue into the choir in a complete set of wooden C14 screens and stalls (the latter may be C15); I wonder how many lesser-great-church sets survive like this. And this battered, thrilling woodwork separates off the two side chapels, giving a maze-like feeling to exploring the chronological labyrinthes of mismanaged design with which this church is filled. One is inaccessible, but in the other, this churches one great work of art, the two C14 Flemish brasses to Adam de Walsokne and Robert Braunche. With clear light falling on all this the prospects are a little exhausting.

First the screens, with tracery of the c1330-50s in the south but quite possible in the 1370s and 80s too in East Anglia;  different sets as if not quite contemporary; one lot, a little later, in the SE bay has surprising slightly raised canopy work over the ach opening, like a wooden sedilia. Big imitation oak and vine crockets, wood carved to imiate wood, crawl up the arches, very reminscent of Winchester; the carpenter there was East Anglian, I recall. The SW corner has tracery covered on little High Dec grotesques, lttle oaken gems, one of which I’m delighted to discover shows a man anally penetrating himself. Never let it be said that the medieval church was not catholic in the truest sense. It’s also another one for my emerging theory that truly obscene images in English chuches are usually in choirs, whose inhabitants of course had abandoned gender altogether and thus could cope, ha ha.

And in the choir, the windows of the screens double up as canopies, for beneath each is a stall with a misericord, and in front a form for choristers, these perhaps Perp. And a beautifully lit set of really well-carved misericords (later?), including a splendiferously unhappy green man, and lots of heraldry and kings.

Now for the brasses, the man and his two wives looking more like a transfiguration of aristocrats into saints than an image of a local merchant/mayor, a vision intensified by the tension between their plain, beautifully drawn faces and folds, and the carpet-intensity of what’s behind them, astonishingly completely undamaged, Christ and the saints and weepers and tapestry like patternings containing elegant beasts and little wild men. Indeed a wild man with his tongue out, a very early depiction, wrestles an eagle between the legs of the central figure. And beneath them, like the margins of a manuscript, the delicious Peacock Feast, the long table serving girls and paired lordly figures vivid; the other brass has a sadly less well-preserved series of equally chivalrous/secular scenes; one would love to know what of: there’s  miller, a hunt, but also it seems some things more mythological. This is a very early Wild Man; the extent to which chivalric culture suffuses the memorial of this layman and wider lay culture suffuses an object in a church is eloquent of the tastes of C14 merchants at the top of their game; one wonders how many saw this as a little outré for people of their class. 

Just round the corner is the long low warehouse of the Hanseatic league and the exceptionally elaborate guild hall. And not far away, suprisingly central, one of the few standing pieces of an English mendicant church, its chancel large in proportion to the nave; the characteristic thin space with processional access to the cloister beneath the tower – which stands, and is octagonal again, and handled inside as a little C15 Ely octagon, to be added to Peterborough and St Margaret’s (and, for its Lady chapel, Fordham) in the list of east Anglian buildings to be so very impressed by Ely.

And further N vast and empty in its silent corner by the Saturday market, is St Nicholas, as ridiculous as a chapel of ease as St Thomas Portsmouth, another overblown merchant’s church to put next that one and to St Mary Redcliffe and to Shoreham. Which is why it’s so fascinating to see that the mason knows the Bristol Master’s work: he too can quote from earlier architectures (the trumeau door, several semicircular openings); he likes window traery in which imaginery smaller windows are placed inside larger ones (Bristol E window); he likes little theatrical gestures, like the way the door steps up into the w window above (quoting in particular St Mary Redcliffe porch north door here?). More diagnostically he too uses hexagonal arches (the doors) and in the priest’s door to the chancel he adds to them a minature starburst canopy, of which the only other examples in the country are at Bristol (and St David’s). Amazing. Of course this is a design of the very late C14 – it is reasonably well dated – and a reminder that the sobriety of Perp and the court/SW idea that the old style was to be rejected rather than incorporated, never happened in e anglia. Ely has no true Perp at all!

This is a work of real quality, like St Mary Redcliffe preserving a c1200 corner tower and spire and otherwise a complete rebuild, a great empty barn-hall lit by some of the best Perp tracery in the country, and in the clerestory intersecting ogees, which at first sight look very Bristol too, until one remembers this is a standard early-mid C14 tracery pattern round here, here simply kept alive late. It has a delicious wide roof full of angel-musicians; it has a great brass lectern with a delightfully spirited thick-feathered eagle; it has a couple of pews – the best are in the V&A – with first rate earlier C15 carving, including a beguiling and beautifully preserved St John on Patmos, and a hermit emerging from a shell And it has a show-off porch to the town, with a lierne vault covered in untouched bosses a la Peterborough parish church and Walpole St Peter – are the doors original here? – and the most splendid display of anti-sober-Perp panelling and patterning, little raised lines in ferocious cusped grids.

The guide points out the complex of doors and sacristies at the E end, suggesting processional access behind a large reredos to which the starburst door is the most important; and a long and evocative struggle of the rich local merchants with St Margaret’s over baptismal rights, only resolved in the C17 – from which the font dates (but what is the wannabe font-like stoup thing next to it?). It was not a simple town/tonsure tension: Margary Kempe, whose dad was a parish grandee, sided with St Margarets.

But Lynn’s most remarkable medieval structure has to be the Red Mount Chapel. Here we are outside the medieval walls, and almost next to the former course of the Purfleet; and I’m very grateful to conservation officer David Pitcher for opening it up and generously showing me around; also for the good company of the coincidentall-met (or possiby Mary-supplied) e-pilgrim Father Simon, en route from Edinburgh to Walsingham.

We are atop a marsh bank that may be very ancient, and which at some point and for some reason had a barrow-sized platform attached to one side. A platform that at some point and for some reason became associated with the Virgin Mary, and which also belonged to the townsmen. So that in 1485 when the prior of St Margaret’s wanted to do something to this intriguing place/thing, he had to negotiate permission (with the thing half built). What went up first was not done especially well, but it was strange. A brick octagon on the mound, which was greatly enlarged and given a retaining wall for the purposes. One way in: straight into the mound, along a dark passage, to a bare room facing east where the ground is left to slope up, two rectangular openings perhaps for wooden niches, and a great empty tomb recess. Another way in: outside, at the top of the mount, up the octagon, to whatever was originally on top. This could have been quite elaborate, as it was surely the main chapel, and there are little openings – for lights? – in the exterior buttresses that have carving, showing there was decent freestone in a not always convincingly executed structure. And finally a third entrance leading to stairs up and down and a middle storey presumed preiest’s room: narrower stairs but still with built-in brick handrails, this entrance presumably for the priest/staff; there is a little guard’s room by the main door, too.

Whatever the chapel at the top was originally like, it was replaced in 1506 by a little gem. The upper floor of the octagon rises to and then part-circulates an inner chapel shaped like a cross, which is entered on the n arm; it has a little rosette oculus window in each arm, and little openings from the stair to excite approaching pilgrim/manage glimpses of crowded events. And inside, a tiny cruciform chapel, with a high platform for an image at the e end (replaced but on good evidence) raised above the stairway curling round the building beneath, and richly panelled tunnel vaults in each arm, like those at Henry VIIs chapel vestibule, coming together in a delicious tiny fan vault with an empty ringlet where a boss should be (was?); there’s a string course all round filled with paterae, and these jump over the very slender and elegant attached columns (now removed) and capitals on the four inner corners of the crossing. This last element, combined with the oculi, gives the whole a lightness of touch that may just be another case of Marian architecture; the rest is womb0like and rich, but not in architectural anything more than  a miniatured Peterborough New Building/King’s (it is between these two in time) work out.

This building is often talked of as a one-off (when it’s talked of at all: David’s article in BAA Journal a major step in this respect), but it’s not that simple. The upper, later part can be placed alongside St Winifred’s Well, Holywell (and, to a lesser extent, the outer part of the Booth porch at Hereford) as a Marian cult-related structure of the Tudor era by top masons: this chapel has understandably been attributed to John Wastell and this Holywell shrine is clearly by someone close to the king’s works. All these can to different extents, give or take a nearer Octagon or two, be tied formally, functionally and conceptually back to the outer north porch at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, probably of the 1320s (and before that who knows where). And the mid/late C15 upstairs/downstairs Christ’s tomb image is precisely that seen in my Westbury crypt, and possibly awaiting discovery elsehwere too. So it is fuel to several fires; and even today, as invisible children peer in at the roughcast brick of Christ’s imaginery Norfolk tomb; or one climbs the shoddy stairwells to face the sudden footings of well-cut ashlar, then turn to enter this tiny bare battered enclosure of cervical delicacy, richness and cut stone fecundity, it is a shock in this town-edge municipal park.  

And here are five medieval churches, four of them extraordinary; one overblown and battered priory-cum-parish church (what kind of complex lay around it?); one of the two or three best preserved examples of that lost class, the mendicant churches; one of England’s half-dozen truly lesee majeste merchant’s churches; and one more cultic Lady chapel for my Lady chapel bag, full of clever Marian/Christological associations (a cross inside an octagon; a bare lower church with a recess).

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