Norfolk was known in the Middle Ages for its great holiness, with streams of pilgrims making their way in particular to Bromholm to venerate the Holy Rood, and to Walsingham where Our Lady had appeared to a noblewoman called Richeldis of Faverches in 1061. The county was adorned with large numbers of striking parish churches, which survive to this day in Anglican hands, usually in rather austere condition.
After the Reformation, Norfolk became a great centre of nonconformity, providing large numbers of men to the parliamentary army in the English Civil War. Catholicism survived mainly through the protection of Catholic landowners such as the Bedingfelds at Oxburgh, the Jerninghams (Barons Stafford 1825-1913) at Costessey and the Howard Dukes of Norfolk, with their palace in Norwich and their estates centred at Kenninghall in the county.
The only medieval place of worship in current Catholic hands is the mid-14th-century Slipper Chapel at Little Houghton, Walsingham, purchased in 1896 by the convert Charlotte Boyd. Restored in 1904 by Thomas Garner, its beauty stands out among its undistinguished surroundings which include the Shrine of the Reconciliation. In 2014 the Marists announced they were relinquishing their custodianship of the National Shrine after 47 years. In the five years to 2020 Monsignor John Armitage was the vigorous Rector of the Shrine, and did much to put Catholic (as opposed to Anglo-Catholic) Walsingham on the map. Steps are now being taken to improve the whole area round the Slipper Chapel.
Most of the major towns of Norfolk had discreet Catholic chapels in the 18th century. A survivor of this style of architecture is the pre-Emancipation Church of St Mary, Thetford of 1826. Externally it looks like a nonconformist chapel built in flint with its four round-headed windows. The interior is painted beautifully white with a screen at the east end of Corinthian columns either side of a painting. Norwich had a handsome 18th-century classical church by James Paine within the palace of the Dukes of Norfolk – now offices.
Sir Henry Paston-Bedingfeld took advantage of the new freedom to build a detached chapel at Oxburgh in 1835-9 in brick Perpendicular style, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and St Margaret. The interior is dominated by a splendid retable incorporating an early-16th-century altarpiece from Antwerp. The Jerninghams built a brick church with lancet windows at Costessey in 1841 to replace the ambitious free-standing Perpendicular chapel at their house (demolished c 1920).
Growing Catholic confidence was demonstrated by construction of the Church of St Mary, Great Yarmouth built by JJ Scoles for the Jesuits in 1848-50. The church is built in knapped flint in Perpendicular style. Inside there is much stencilling and 20th-century wall painting. The Jesuits departed in 1962 and were replaced by the Augustinians from 1972 to 1995. The church has intermittently suffered from vandalism and arson.
Between 1884 and 1910 the Church of St John the Baptist (from 1976 the Cathedral) was built at the expense of the 15th Duke of Norfolk. Its grey bulk with central tower wonderfully dominates the southern end of Norwich. The architects were George Gilbert Scott and, after his death, John Oldrid Scott. The style is Early English with large circular arcade piers. The quality of the detailing of the building together with the stained glass by Powell and Hardman is superb. The interior suffered a certain amount of post-Vatican II mucking-about but Russell Taylor has over the past 15 years demonstrated what a reasonably attractive new rite sanctuary can look like.
Our Lady of the Annunciation, King’s Lynn, situated in a quiet part of the town, was rebuilt in 1897 with a substantial donation from the Prince of Wales who wanted a suitable Catholic church available for some of his foreign guests at Sandringham. The style is Gothic Revival with a dark brown carstone exterior. Some fittings from the earlier 1845 church by A. W. N. Pugin survive. The chief interest of the building lies in the Lady Chapel, built as a replica of the Holy House of Loreto; this from its inception until 1934 acted as the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.
There are four other Catholic religious buildings in Norfolk which deserve attention:
The tiny Church of Our Lady of Consolation and St Stephen, Lynford was built for the former ballerina Yolande Lyne Stephens of Lynford Hall, a fabulously rich widow, in 1877 by Henry Clutton. It is a small knapped flint building deep in the woods near Thetford battle ground. Mass was celebrated regularly until 2004 when the building was leased to the admirable Norfolk Churches Trust. When last visited, it was in a fairly sorry state but this should now be.
Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, Gillingham, situated in south east Norfolk, a mile north of the border with Suffolk, was built in 1898 by George Kenyon who 28 years earlier had abandoned Anglican theological college at Cuddesdon, converted, joined the Papal Zouaves in the defence of Rome and become a Papal Chamberlain. The brick campanile towers at the west end were modelled on Santissima Trinità dei Monti in Rome. The interior has five bays and is painted white with a gilded and marbled altar.
St Joseph, Sheringham, funded by the wealthy Mrs Henry Deterding, was built by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1908-10 and was extended in 1934. It is a Gothic mellow red brick building, high and narrow, with stone facings. The furnishings are excellent with a painted reredos of saints copied mainly from Ranworth Church in the Broads. The church suffered an unfortunate reordering by Anthony Rossi as late as 1993.
St Peter the Apostle, Gorleston-on-Sea is the only church designed by the sculptor Eric Gill. Started in 1938, the quietish red brick exterior hides a beautiful cruciform interior round an early central altar, painted white throughout, with pointed crossing arches. The dramatic east window of the Risen Christ is by Joseph Nuttgens.
Catholic Norfolk has recently done very well out of the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund. The Cathedral has had a grant of some £312,000, St Mary’s, Great Yarmouth some £433,000, St Peter the Apostle, Gorleston-on-Sea some £137,000 and Our Lady of Consolation, Lynford some £120,000, a total of some £1,002,000, a surprisingly large sum for one county.
In 1687, Norfolk was placed under the jurisdiction of the Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District, (and from 1840 that of the Eastern District). In 1850, with the restoration of the hierarchy, the county became part of the Diocese of Northampton. In 1976, the diocese of East Anglia was created with its cathedral in Norwich. Since 2013 the 4th Bishop has been the congenial and much-loved figure of the Rt Rev Alan Hopes, Anglican convert and former auxiliary bishop of Westminster. His considerable success as a bishop can be measured by the relatively large number of ordinands he has attracted in a diocese with a smallish Catholic population – 12 so far as priests and a further seven in the pipeline; if only some of his episcopal colleagues could achieve the same degree of success. It shows what can be done through careful nurturing. Bishop Alan turned 75 in March 2019 but his resignation has not yet been accepted by Rome.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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