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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Monuments in Norwich Churches

Monuments in Norwich churches

One sign of the considerable wealth of Norwich for some two hundred years from Elizabethan times is the large number of memorials to its leading citizens in the City‘s churches and Cathedral. This is emphasised even more by what appears to be a distinctive Norwich school of monumental masons around 1600 and the emergence in the 18th century of sculptors specialising in this work with a high degree of skill. Norwich probably has the most substantial collection of such monuments in England.

Influence of the Reformation

The earlier phase was encouraged by the Reformation. It is likely that the City‘s civic leadership would have tended to be Protestant as opposed to the greater conservatism of the landowners in the country. This is particularly marked in the church of St Simon & St Jude in Elm Hill. Here side altars dedicated to the Virgin and her mother St Anne were obliterated by new memorials to members of the Pettus family, an unusually powerful and in-your-face assertion of where authority now lay.

Another effect of the Reformation was to provide walls whitewashed to efface Catholic images on which the monuments could be placed. Sometimes in these days a monument has to be removed for conservation an older painting is discovered behind it. Thirdly there was less space in the church for burials, so graves had to be dug in the churchyard and the opportunity lost for commemoration within the building, had not the monuments been erected.

A Norwich school

The first Norwich "school" of monuments seems to have existed from about 1570 to 1630, after which prosperity declined for a time. Typical are the two Calthorpe monuments in the north presbytery aisle of the cathedral and in St Martin Palace Plain church. The Johnson monument in St Etheldreda‘s is another as is the van Kurnbeck in St Mary Coslany. This last is significant because the style may well have been adapted from continental models and van Kurnbeck is clearly the name of a relatively recent immigrant from the Low Countries. With some of today‘s problems in mind, one wonders how long it took for the van Kurnbecks to become established enough to have such a memorial in what was then a less unfashionable church than it is now.

Monuments took various forms: tombchests like the Bacon in St Gregory‘s; husband and wife kneeling at a prayer desk, sometimes with children behind them or in a predella below them as in St John Maddermarket and many others; life-size figures, standing, kneeling or recumbent - there is a Pettus at St Simon & St Jude so tall that he breaks the line of the chancel arch; or busts. Sir Petre Seaman, the brewer, at St Gregory‘s is one of these, surprisingly military. One of his descendants tells of his being very self-important. Typically, the monument is by a London sculptor - local ones not good enough evidently - Thomas Green of Camberwell. Sir Petre would not like to be as he now is, hidden behind the Victorian organ. At St Peter Parmentergate Richard Berney and his Hobart wife lie, not quite lifesize, on a four-poster. This monument is, unusually, not of stone but of plaster on a framework of wood. There are barely half a dozen of these in the whole country.

Eighteenth century

In the 18th century the whitewashed walls were becoming full up and monuments tended to be smaller but not less elegant. This was the time of memorials signed by Norwich artists: John Ivory, Robert Page and Thomas Rawlins, who was also an architect. Page‘s own monument is in St John Timberhill. One by Rawlins is in St John Maddermarket on the north wall above the gallery, just across from his own ledger stone in the floor.

The earlier masons did not live just on making monuments but seem to have diversified into fireplaces such as one can see at Strangers‘ Hall, door-frames and rarities like Gybson‘s conduit just below Westwick Street. Over the course of time people tended to be commemorated as Esq. or Gentleman, rather than for the civic office they had held, titles they could bequeath to their descendants. These trails can be explored, as can many others, in Jon Finch‘s "Church Monuments in Norfolk before 1850" which can be read in the Library. Like Bill Wilson‘s updating of Pevsner‘s "Norfolk" in the Buildings of England series, it takes one out into the county as well.

I hope very much that this brief note will lead you on a voyage of exploration.

Anthony Barnes

October 2008