Dr Nicholas Groves FRHistS
Some Aspects Of Its History
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Picture 11: Engraving of church by James Sillett, 1828, showing the cupola.
Like many churches dedicated to St Michael, this one stands on a hill – in this case a fairly steep rise to the west, along St Andrew’s Street.
We cannot know exactly how long a church has stood on this site, but there was certainly one here by the tenth century, and possibly earlier. We know also that the site itself may have been of religious importance to the pre-Christian Angles who lived here – maybe as early as the fifth century. Nothing remains of the original Anglo-Saxon church, which may well have been a wooden structure.
It was also the meeting-place of the Anglo-Saxon moot or council, which gives it one of its names, St Michael Motstow. But its more usual name, St Michael-at-Plea, refers to the fact that the Archdeacons of Norwich held their court in the church.
The church has a very idiosyncratic floor-plan. It consists of a nave and chancel, with north and south transepts, west tower, and south porch, but there is also a chapel attached to the south transept.
You can walk right round the outside of the church to see its exterior. The present building dates from about c1350-c1550 (what is known as the Perpendicular period). It seems to have been built in one campaign.
This is shown by the carved border just above ground-level (the plinth frieze), which continues unbroken round the nave, transepts, and chancel aisle. It is now in a sorry state, but must originally have been very impressive. It is of limestone, and made up of quatrefoils, shields, roses, and niches, all deeply cut to hold flints, most of which have now been lost. This style of work, known as flushwork, is a feature of East Anglian churches, where the blackness of the cut flint contrasts with the cream of the limestone. This frieze is
extremely deeply cut, implying that when these parts of the church were rebuilt, a good deal of money was made available. Unfortunately, no records such as wills have come down to us to enable a more exact date.
The chancel is older than the nave and transepts, as it has no plinth frieze, and the walls are very much rougher in construction. Its exact date is uncertain, but the window on the north side, with its Y-tracery, may imply a date somewhere in the thirteenth century – if the window can be relied on: it may be a nineteenth-century insert. The chancel lost its thatch at some point in the eighteenth century.
The splendid south porch is a later addition, as it cuts across the nave frieze. Again, a good deal of money was spent on it, as its south face (the one you see as you come along the path) is all of limestone, which has to be brought a great distance. It has two storeys, and above the doorway is another flushwork frieze, with crowned Ms for Michael [see picture 9]. The statue and its niche are of 1887, and replaced a sundial. Somewhat unusually for a Norfolk church, the porch opens into the tower, rather than directly into the nave. The inner door is the original mediæval one, with a carved border of quatrefoils.
Picture 12: Exterior of porch, 2012.
The tower is, at first sight, an odd structure [see picture 7]. This is explained by the fact that its top storey is missing. It was in a bad way in 1762. Two of the five bells were sold in 1777 to fund repairs, and two more in 1787. But by this time the tower was so dilapidated and dangerous that the top stage was taken down, and replaced by a cupola holding the remaining bell [see pictures 11 and 12]. In 1887, the cupola was removed, and the pinnacles added; they are somewhat over-large, although they do restore some of the lost height. The clock, with its inscription ‘Forget Me Not’, was erected in 1827. The 1886 plans for restoration show that it was intended to rebuild the top stage, but this did not happen. The remaining bell was sold in 1983. But in December 2011, the 1706 clock bell from St John-de-Sepulchre was brought here, and can be heard striking the hours.
When the church was declared redundant in 1973 most of the furnishings were removed, but there is still a good deal to see.
The nave roof, which is contemporary with the nave, is a splendid structure, with angels holding shields along the ridge. The shields, reading from east to west, are:
Archbishop Matthew Parker; [see picture 1]
(Matthew Parker (1504-75) was born in Norwich, and was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1559 until his death. His arms also appear in the east window.)
The font is of late mediæval date, and has angels’ heads underneath the bowl; in its original state it was most likely painted. It has a spectacular seventeenth-century cover, with four pillars supporting a canopy, topped by a set of ogee arches, which are in turn topped by an open-work pilaster. On top this again is a dove, recalling the descent of the Holy Ghost at Jesus’ baptism. [see picture 5] The stage below the arches is very similar to the font covers at the neighbouring churches of St George Tombland and St Andrew.
High on the walls at the west end of the nave are two paintings, one on either side. These are of Moses [see picture 8] and Aaron [see picture 4], and probably formed part of the pre-1887 reredos, which contained the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.
The east window contains what little mediæval glass remains [see picture 6]. It is of fifteenth century Norwich make, and was all reset in this window in the twentieth. Reading from the north, the tracery lights are: in the first, a jigsaw of pieces; in the second, the Virgin Mary in a blue robe and a crown, which may be from a scene of the Coronation of the Virgin; third, an angel in feathered costume; and finally an apostle. The main lights have three shields: in the north is the arms of the Diocese (three gold mitres on blue); in the centre the pre-1603 royal arms (France and England) [see picture 3]; and in the south East Anglia (three gold crowns on blue). Archbishop Parker’s arms appear also in the top of the south main light.
A number of wall monuments survive. Of particular note is that to Jacques de Hem (d 1603) which is behind the font, and fitted in to the angle of the walls. He was one of the ‘Strangers’ who arrived in Norwich in the sixteenth century from the Low Countries to work in the textile trade. The commemorative inscription occupies one panel; the other has a picture of de Hem and his family in prayer. The pediment is filled with standard memento mori symbols – skulls, crossbones, spades, etc..
The chancel screen is a feature of the church. The mediæval rood screen had long gone, but in 1890 the then Rector, Percy Carmichael Clarke, bought a screen made of deal from St John Timberhill, which had just acquired a solid oak one. In 1907 his successor, Charles Baker, put the current screen into St Michael’s. It was originally surmounted by a crucifix flanked by the statues of the Virgin Mary and St John, [see picture 2] but these were removed following redundancy. The donor (who even now remains anonymous) had intended her money as a personal gift to the Rector, but he persuaded her that it should instead be spent on ‘some needed improvement to the church’. It cost £130, of which the donor gave £100; the rest was to be ‘provided by divers pious and well-disposed persons’. The deal screen was given to St James Pockthorpe: it vanished from there sometime around 1950.
THE LATE VICTORIAN RESTORATION
Some earlier attempts at restoration had been made: notably in 1784, when the Vestry voted in favour of replacing the lead roofing with a patent cast-iron one, though probably fortunately, this did not happen. In 1853 the Vestry again applied to the Archdeacon for permission to remove the lead, but to replace it this time with slate. He refused, and said they must repair the lead. In 1832 the inside had a make-over: a new pulpit and reading desk were installed, the walls were colour-washed, the ceilings whitewashed, the box-pews received new fronts and had their baize linings either repaired or replaced. The whole church and the vestry were painted, the curtains dyed, and a wall erected on the north side of the churchyard. ‘All this done, and much more’, says the memorandum in the church records; it was carried out by levying a rate of seven shillings in the pound. The porch was also repaired in 1841, but details were not noted.
Percy Carmichael Clarke was inducted as Rector in 1886, and set about restoring the church in line with then-current ideas on how a church should look. It still retained the box-pews in the nave, and the remains of the seating for the Archdeacon’s court against the north wall of the chancel (see below). According to the account in the frame in the porch, the chancel arch itself had been boarded up, though there is no other evidence of this. Chairs replaced the box-pews (some panelling made from them is in the room over the south porch); benches for a robed choir were put into the chancel, which was also raised above the nave; and an organ was placed in the south chancel chapel. The wooden pulpit of 1832 was replaced by a stone one. The tracery of the nave windows is glazed with blue glass, and this glass also filled the main lights (it was removed when the church was again restored in 1970s). This was the appearance the church kept until it was closed in 1973.
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