Stories Behind the Signs: Fersfield

There are parts of South Norfolk that, even today, can seem remote – like those that have a maze of lanes, particularly between Diss and Thetford where the villages hide. It is surprising therefore that one of those villages, Fersfield, holds an important place in the history of Norfolk; but not necessarily because of the village itself, or its parish church. Fersfield is famous because of an 18th century incumbent of its church, St Andrew’s

Fersfield & Blomefield (St Andrews)2
St Andrew’s Church, Fersfield, Norfolk. Photo: Simon Knott.

The church of St Andrews at Fersfield sits where some of those lanes mentioned come together, its truncated, pencil-like tower a beacon across the fields and farmlands. According to Simon Knott (2018):

” The capped tower is reminiscent of Culpho and Thornham Parva in Suffolk, and probably dates from the early 14th century. If so, it is probably later than the bulk of the church against which it sits. There were further improvements: money in the late 15th century brought a fairly imposing south aisle and porch, and the chancel is entirely Victorian, I think. But it all works well together, especially when seen from the south-east.”

Fersfield & Blomefield (Village Sign)

This church is depicted on the village sign at Fersfield, and stands next to it. At the brick base of the sign is a metal plaque which reads:

“This sign was given by the people, to the people of the village of Fersfield. 31st July 1988.” Then, in two columns the plaque includes the names of ten individuals before concluding. ‘Between the faces lies our village history.”

Taking this as a guide, it is clear that the residents of Fersfield have every right to celebrate the village’s past. More importantly however is that it was at Fersfield where the first major work on the history of the entire county of Norfolk was written; its author was Francis Blomefield, the 18th century incumbent of St Andrew’s Church who happened to have been born in the village on 23 July 1705.

Fersfield & Blomefield (Blomefield Tablets)
The Blomefield Tablets in St Andrew’s Church, Fersfield. Photo: Wikipedia

Francis Blomefield was the eldest son of Henry and Alice Blomefield, who were yeoman farmers nearby. Later biographies record that he developed a fascination for visiting churches as a child, when he began recording their monumental inscriptions, covering Norfolk, Suffolk and later Cambridgeshire. At the same time he began his education at Diss and Thetford Grammar Schools; then, in April 1724, he was admitted to Caius College, Cambridge from where he graduated BA in 1727 and MA in 1728. While at college, he also began keeping genealogical and heraldic notes relating to local families; then, soon after leaving university in 1727 he was ordained a priest whilst continuing with collecting materials for an account of the antiquities of Cambridgeshire.

Fersfield & Blomefield (Portrait)
Blomefield depicted in the frontispiece to volume 1 of the quarto edition of An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk (1805). Image: Wikipedia.

On 13 September 1729 Francis Blomefield was ordained as an Anglican minister when he was ‘presented by his father, Henry Blomefield, Gent’. His first appointment was a very brief affair as rector of Hargham before moving on to become rector of Fersfield, his father’s family living. According to Simon Knott, it was at Fersfield where:

“……. he would spend the rest of his life. He was not always a well man, and although he visited many of the churches himself, the bulk of his work involved sending questionnaires to Rectors of other churches. Because of this, and because Blomefield himself did not always understand what he was seeing or reading about, the survey needs to be used with care. Moreover, Blomefield did not finish it. I always tend to think of 18th century antiquarians as be whiskered old men sitting with quill pens at high desks, but Blomefield contracted smallpox and died at the age of 47. His work was completed by friends, most notably Charles Parkin and William Whittingham.”

It was on 1 September 1732, when Francis Blomefield married Mary Womack, the daughter of a former rector of Fersfield. They had three daughters, two of whom survived him. It was also in 1732 when the project of collecting materials for an account of the antiquities of Cambridgeshire was deferred when he was given access to Peter Le Neve’s huge collection of materials for the history of Norfolk by Le Neve’s executor “Honest Tom” Martin.

Fersfield & Blomefield (Thomas Martin)
Thomas Martin FSA (8 March 1696/7 to 7 March 1771), known as “Honest Tom Martin of Palgrave”, was an antiquarian and lawyer. Image: Wikipedia.

It is said that during a visit to Oxnead Hall in 1735, Blomefield found a vast number of written correspondences among the papers of the country house. Of the discovery, Blomefield wrote in May 1735:

“There are innumerable letters, of good consequence in history, still lying among the loose papers all which I layd (sic) up in a corner of the room on an heap, which contains several sacksful, but as they seemed to have some family affairs of one nature or other intermixed in them I did not offer to touch any of them…”

This collection, known today as the ‘Paston Letters’, is now regarded as one of national significance. These papers date from the period of the Wars of the Roses and the Black Death and reveal details of everyday life of a notable East Anglian family.

Before his untimely death, on 16 January 1752, Blomefield wrote just three volumes of his ‘An Essay towards the Topographical History of the County of Norfolk’. Determined to protect and control the production of this work, he also installed a printing press in his own home. The first volume, covering his own Parish of Fersfield among others, was completed on 25th December 1739. He was nearing completion of his third volume – having reached page 678 – when he contracted the deadly smallpox during a visit to London. He died in Fersfield on 16th January 1752 aged 47. The Rev. Charles Parkin, the rector at Oxborough and a friend and fellow history enthusiast, was the first to continue Blomefield’s work. He not only completed Blomefield’s third volume but went on to write two further volumes. This initial set of three was subsequently published in various forms.

Fersfield & Blomefield (Portrait)2
Portrait of The Rev’d Francis Blomefield at St Andrew’s Church in Fersfield. Photo: Sonya Duncan

This portrait of Francis Blomefield is positioned on the south side of St. Anne’s chapel in St. Andrew’s Church, allowing him a pleasing opportunity to look down on a memorial which he himself took great pains to conserve. In his own words, from Volume 1 of his work:

“In the south side of St. Anne’s chapel, in the south isle, under the window, in an arch in the wall, lies an effigies of a knight, armed capà-pié, cut out of one piece of oak, which being in a dirty condition, I had it taken out and washed very clean…..… After removing the seats that stood before it, I caused it to be painted in the same colours, as near as could be, and added this inscription:

‘Sir Robert du Bois, Knt. Son of Sir Robert, and Grandson of Sir Robert du Bois, Knt. Founder of this Isle, Lord of this Manor, and Patron of this Church, died in 1311, aged 43 Years.’

Fersfield (Bois Pedigree)
The Bois Pedigree.

He, the most famous medieval survival is the man in a glass case and represents someone who was probably responsible for the rebuilding of the church’s tower. He lies with his legs uncrossed, a rather surprised buck at his feet. Nearby is a relatively plain Norman font. After his own visit to St Andrew’s in 2018, Simon Knott also wondered:

“…… how much Blomefield would recognise his own church if he came back to it today. The furnishings are all modern, and the feel is of a pleasantly light space of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His memorial is in the rebuilt chancel, a fairly simple ledger stone set, not inappropriately, beneath the kind of 17th century panelling which must have been familiar to him. Less happy is the clumsy reredos, which looks as if some of the panelling had been left over and cobbled together with a picture of the Last Supper…… Even today, St Andrew is not without Antiquarian interest. Above Blomefield’s memorial in the east window are three roundels of glass, all of which are continental, I think. They depict St Andrew, St Gregory, and the eagle of St John. They were probably placed here by the Victorians at the time of the rebuilding. Curiously, Blomefield records quite a lot of medieval glass at Fersfield, mostly from the narrative of the Blessed Virgin, which is now all gone……… But despite the modern ambience, this is a church in which to recall the 18th century. The south aisle contains more Blomefield memorials, curly ones on the walls and simple ledgers on the floor. And, looking down on them all, the great royal arms of Queen Anne dated 1703, two years before Francis Blomefield was born.”

Fersfield & Blomefield (Volumes)

Of Francis Blomefield, it has been said that he was one of a generation of 18th century historians who ultimately saved that past belonging to Norfolk churches from being consigned to oblivion – with no thanks to the 16th century Anglicans and 17th century Puritans who seemed ‘hell-bent’ in doing just that. He was a giant among Norfolk antiquarians!

THE END

Some Sources:
http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/fersfield/fersfield.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Blomefield
https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol1/pp74-114

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

Wickhampton: St Andrews and a Legend!

On reclaimed marshland where the most frequent visitors are birds, the site of St Andrew’s Church at Wickhampton was once covered by sea, now it stands as a lonely beacon on the haunting expanse of Halvergate marsh. It is a place which inspires calm – unlike the story attached to the stone effigies it guards. Many childhood generations have been told the heartrending and cautionary tale of two local brothers who took extreme measures to resolve their differences; it warns against sibling wars.

Wickhampton Legend4 (St Andrews)
St Andrews, Wickhampton, Norfolk.

This tale has to start in the chancel of St Andrew’s Church where there is an interesting pair of 13th century effigies, representing Sir William and Isabella Gerbygge; the couple lie in single beds awaiting Judgement Day. Sir William served as a Bailiff of Great Yarmouth in the 1270s and died about 1280. One fascinating feature of Sir William is that he is shown holding a heart in his hands. This has given rise to several interpretations. The most romantic interpretation is that Sir George is showing his love for his wife. A more religious interpretation is that he is holding his heart up to God in prayer. Another, rather intriguing interpretation is that the heart tells the story of Sir William’s two sons who tore each other’s hearts out.

Wickhampton Legend1

It was during the reign of Edward I that Wickhampton, on the marshes near Breydon Water, was a place of fishing, fine hunting and with a farm and a church; the neighbouring village of Halvergate was rich in arable land and seen as the better of the two villages for it boasted many fine farms and a fine church.

Sir William Gerbygge owned both villages and he and his two sons, Gilbert, the elder son, and William managed the estate. It was a fine estate, the rich farmland produced bountiful crops, while livestock thrived on the damp verdant pastures, which also provided hay for the winter months. Wildlife abounded, providing fine sport and hunting. The sons were very fortunate, a fact that Sir William was forever reminding them. But the brothers were quarrelsome and jealous and their father often had to reproach them.

Wickhampton Legend6

Gilbert, the elder son, wanted the better of the inheritance and his possessive gaze took in all that was good, frequently using the word “my”, to the annoyance of his brother and the villagers. But William was strong and had a sharp mind, frequently quarrelling with his brother and driving his father to his wits end to know how best to distribute his lands after his death. He eventually left Wickhampton to William and the better of the two villages, Halvergate, to Gilbert. He made known of his Will and prayed for peace as he breathed his last. But, after his death, there would be little peace. At first Gilbert and William wanted to at least give the impression that they were both pleased with their respective inheritances; when they met, they would make a point of shaking hands – which was noted by the quiet villagers with a cynical nod as they could see the storm clouds gathering. In fact, the two brothers were to spend years arguing over their respective lands, with neither brother conceding; gradually, the dispute became bitter and finally, became violent.

It happened at ploughing time of one particular year, when the folk looked forward to another good season. There was a field, just north of Wickhampton church which projected far into the boundary of Halvergate, and Gilbert saw this as an opportunity. He called to his brother who happened to be close by, “That field should be mine. It is an obvious mistake, made when the boundaries were drawn”. William replied coolly “You already have enough…….no mistake was made”. But the impetuous Gilbert, angry that he could not sway his younger brother, jumped from his saddle, rushed over to William and pulled him from his horse. “I will have my way” he shouted, striking William with his bare hands.

Wickhampton Legend7
Conflict!

The two brothers then attacked each other with increasing ferocity that frightened the folk who had gathered around to watch the fight. Gilbert and William tore at each other with bare hands, at the edge of the field over which they disagreed. They grasped for hair to pull out by its roots, ears to rent, fingers, legs, arms and noses which were scratched, pulled and twisted with unreasoning and inhuman fury. The differences, pent up over the years, were released as they became snarling and snorting animals. The villagers dared not to intervene.

As the blood began to flow and the fighting became ever more intense, a demonic fury gripped the two brothers. Their finger nails appeared to grow longer, their teeth became fangs, their eyes widened and the villagers gazed on in silence. The brothers tore at each other’s throats and breasts with devilish roars in what became their final fight. Then, strange as it would appear and precisely at the same point in time, the brothers tore the hearts from each other with their bare hands in a final burst of malice. They lay upon the ground, lifeless – as one would expect! The awestruck onlookers then saw a divine figure overhead, some said it was an angel, others said no – it was God who was so appalled by the brother’s behaviour that he instantly turned them both to stone to atone for such sins and as a warning to others. God also ensured that the stone fingers of each brother would remain clutching the heart of the other. Local villagers bore the stone corpses – together with the clutched hearts – into the church to serve as a reminder of the perils of fighting. As for the brothers’ lands; they were renamed Wicked Hampton, now shortened to Wickhampton, and Hell Fire Gate, now known as Halvergate. Legend also has it that, over time, one brother’s heart has been worn away leaving just one grasping a heart with the other next to him.

 

But there is more to St Andrew’s church than a legend, standing as it does in a secluded rural location on the wide open Halvergate marshes where the Yare Valley seems to contain any excitement it may have of reaching the sea. We are still four miles from the coast and there is nothing hereabouts until you reach Yarmouth except – the haunting flatness. Five-hundred years ago, St Andrews stood on the edge of a wide inlet, but the silting up of the estuary over the years left its tower as a beacon for nothing else other river boats.

The dedication of the church to St Andrew seems appropriate; he is the patron saint of fishermen, and Wickhampton is said to have been a fishing community which supported a population of around 500 inhabitants and had direct access to the river Yare. The church was built in the 13th century, but it seems very likely that an earlier church stood on the same spot for at least several hundred years before that. The earliest part of the church is the 13th century tower. The nave was rebuilt around 1340, and the chancel and south porch were added in the 15th century.

That said, the most interesting historic feature of St Andrews church is a series of 14th century wall paintings which are simply staggering, and the detail is remarkable. They were hidden by plaster at the Reformation and only came to light again during restoration in 1840 by the Diocesan architect Richard Phipson, someone criticised for over doing it! However, many wallpaintings of this kind were lost when liturgical patterns changed in the 15th century, a full century before the Reformation when perpendicular windows often destroyed such decorations when punched through them. But the three main subjects at Wickhampton are pretty well complete. They sit on the north wall with the largest, at the extreme westend, being the best surviving depiction in Norfolk of the Three Living and Three Dead. The theme was a common one in medieval art; the frailty of human life and the certainty of mortality. Three kings are shown hunting, and they meet three skeletons in a wood. They give the kings a warning,

‘As you are now, so once were we. as we are now, so shall you be.’

Wickhampton Legend (Wall Painting_Simon K)2b
Three kings are hunting and meet three skeletons in a wood. They give the kings a warning. Photo: Simon K Flickr.
Wickhampton Legend (Wall Painting)2a
The Three Living Kings.
Wickhampton Legend (Wall Painting)2
The Three Skeletons.

The final wall painting shows The Seven Acts of Mercy and The Resurrection, which illustrates people Feeding the Hungry, Giving Drink to the Thirsty, Clothing the Naked, Visiting the Prisoner, Receiving the Stranger, Visiting the Sick, and Burying the Dead. In a largely illiterate society, these images acted as as colourful reminder to churchgoers of the sort of behaviour that was expected of medieval Christians. The message is driven home in the final scene, showing Christ raising his hand in a gesture of blessing.

Wickhampton Legend (Wall Painting)1
The Seven Acts of Mercy and The Resurrection

According to Simon Knott: The Seven Works of Mercy were, and are, a Catholic catechetical tool, designed to help the faithful follow the teachings of Christ with regard to strangers as set forth in Chapter 25 of St Matthew’s Gospel. By meditating on these images, the worshippers could ensure they were carrying out this advice in their daily lives. The faithful are called upon to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to give shelter to the homeless, to visit the sick, to comfort the prisoner, and to bury the dead. The way in which meditative images could be used to follow their example give us an insight into the way in which medieval Christianity was practiced in the days before congregational worship became the norm. The illustrations at Wickhampton are stunning in their simplicity and emotion. The Burying of the Dead panel in particular deserves to be as well-known as any 14th century Christian image in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and yet here it is, in an isolated church on the edge of a wild Norfolk marshland.

There are, of course, other features of historic interest in the church beyond the wall paintings. The pulpit is late Elizabethan, while the benches in the nave are Victorian, in the style of the Jacobean period. A single original Jacobean bench end survives in the chancel. In the nave hangs a royal coat of arms to George I, dated 1737. The organ came from Freethorpe Manor and is housed in an 1810 mahogany cabinet made by George Pike. Near the south door is an ancient parish chest. In its traditional place opposite the entrance is a painting of St Christopher carrying the Christ Child. You can still see swarms of fish around St Christopher’s feet, perhaps another sign of Wickhampton’s once-thriving fishing industry.

To visit Wickhampton church will provide an unforgettable experience. The church seems stranded, lost in time, with no obvious village left to serve, but the superb wall paintings speak of a long and rich past, now lost, when this rural backwater was a busy place, full of life, and providing the roots of a possible sibling feud – one which led to a legend!

THE END

Sources:
www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/wickhampton/wickhampton.htm
https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/norfolk/churches/wickhampton.htm

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.