The reformation of Langham, Norfolk: notes regarding an enigmatic object of devotion, a church that vanished, and the so-called “Langham Madonna”
In 1086, when the Domesday Book was composed, what is now the little village of Langham in Norfolk — in our own time, a small place of fewer than 400 souls — already had two churches. These two churches stood only about 300 meters distant from each other. Langham had long been divided into two main manors, which probably explains the two churches and their foundation well before the date of the Conquest.
One of these churches — St Andrew, associated with the manor variously called Langham Magna, Langham Episcopi or Langham Bishop — still exists today, under the dedication St Andrew & St Mary. The building stands on a little ridge at the centre of the present-day village, with the land sloping away to the sea to the north, towards a little stream to the south. The other — St Mary, associated with Langham Parva — was located a short distance down the road towards Binham, apparently always outside the main settlement. It was probably the fact of this ridge and the road running along it that gave the village its unremarkable name, shared with parishes in Essex, Suffolk, Rutland and Dorset.
Yet St Mary disappears from the records at some point between the creation of the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535, where it features, and the national inventory of church goods of 1552, where it does not.
What happened? Of these two churches, St Andrew seems always to have been the more prominent. By the twelfth century it was a vicarage, under the control of the bishop of Norwich. The bishop also had a “palace” in the parish, to the west of the road to Field Dalling alongside what is now known as the Ford, which may — if one accepts local opinion on these things — have previously been the site of a Roman villa. Certainly Roman material has been found at the site. Meanwhile part of the flooded moat of the bishop’s palace is still visible, set in a damp sort of meadow with horses grazing nearby and some working farm buildings immediately next to it. (Peter Tolhurst, Norfolk Parish Treasures: North and West Norfolk, Black Dog Books (2014), p. 91.)
The ecclesiastical taxation of 1291-92 assessed the bishop’s church, St Andrew, at £3 10s 0d. St Mary, in contrast, where Sir John Cokefield, a layman, was patron, was only worth at 10s. (See here) As for the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535, it assessed the value of St Andrew at £4 11s 8d per annum, while St Mary was worth £3 10s 5d. These were, incidentally, both relatively poor livings by wealthy north Norfolk standards. The Valor Ecclesiasticus assessed neighbouring Blakeney, for instance, as worth a clear £27 13s 4d per annum. But then Blakeney was, at the time, one of a trio of thriving Glaven ports, while Langham remained, as it always has been, primarily agricultural.
For a small village, Langham St Andrew is an impressive church. The current structure was (re)built in flint in the fourteenth century, then enlarged and enriched throughout the course of the fifteenth century, with major restoration campaigns in 1868, 1900, 1906, the mid 1980s and doubtless at other times as well. From the tall tower with its late fifteenth century crenelated parapet, on the right sort of day, one can, allegedly, see all the way to Norwich. There is a general feeling, expressed by Pevsner among others, that the 1868 renovation left the church looking “lifeless”, but this seems unkind to me. On a bright spring morning, when the snowdrops are in bloom and the sunlight catches the flintwork and the old render, it’s a wholly delightful, atmospheric place, both inside and out.
But let us consider, for a moment, the interior of the church. One of its most striking features of St Andrew these days is its bold asymmetry. While the nave has a south aisle complete with a chapel at the end, there is no north aisle whatsoever. What there is, however, is a strange, slightly wonky filled-in arch, larger than a normal doorway, in the north wall, just east of the present entrance. On the outside, meanwhile, someone has scored into the (1980s?) render the outline of a roofline, and then a door within that. Pevsner thought that the “mysterious, shapeless” arch might signal the existence of a vanished chapel. (Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson, Norfolk I: Norwich and North-East, Yale University Press (2002) p. 584.)
Such “missing” portions of medieval churches are, of course, more usual than otherwise. The parish next door, Cockthorpe, had its chancel shortened, probably in the seventeenth century, and has blocked-up south-facing wall openings. The church of Cley-next-the-Sea, in its current form built during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, straddling as it did so the trauma of the Black Death, now has both its massive, ornate transepts blocked off — indeed, it’s possible that this may have happened soon after they were built, well before the reformation, due to the loss of a third or more of the local parishioners. And as we’ve seen, St Mary’s Langham vanished altogether.Read the rest of this entry »