St Margarets Church

Perhaps symbolically of this new world, Tivetshall lost its other church, St Mary, to the sonic boom of a jet plane in the late 1940s. But the one that remains is an absolute jewel. St Margaret sits out in the flat, fields, but its crowded graveyard is well-maintained, a blanket of emerald in this ploughed empty landscape.

The chancel is curious; its steeply pitched roof is higher than the western part of the church. Although it is basically early 14th century, despite the addition of later windows, it looks rather like a farmworker’s cottage tacked to the east of the nave. The tower is broadly contemporary, which, as Pevsner points out, is curious, for a major bequest for its rebuilding was made in 1456. The nave is clinically perpendicular with crisp windows, so perhaps they spent the money there instead.

I hope that nobody in this parish will be offended if I say that this is a ramshackle, cluttered, untidy church; and delightfully so. It feels intensely like a church of the common people. They’ve hung on to the medieval bench ends, which the Victorians must have itched to replace, they are in such rough condition. One of them appears to depict the lower half of St George, and another pair must have been an Annunciation. One bench has a niche in the end, and the 15th century survivals are reminiscent of those at the Wiggenhalls. They must have been wonderful in their day. There are some earthy 17th century additions, presumably the work of a local carpenter.

In medieval days, churches were essentially two separate rooms. This is hard to imagine today, unless you come to somewhere like Tivetshall, because the chancel arch retains its boarded tympanum. It is safe to say that all churches once had one of these, but they were mostly removed at the Reformation because they were an integral part of the proscribed rood loft. A few places, they survived, and as at Ludham, the tympanum here was painted with the state Royal Arms. This had been a decree of Henry VIII, but no Henry VIII royal arms survive (those at Rushbrooke in Suffolk are a fake). So, the set for Elizabeth I at Tivetshall St Margaret are some of the earliest in England.

They stretch across the church, wall to wall and from the top of the roodscreen to the roof. The lion and the draagon flank the vast Arms, with God Save Our Quene Elizabeth painted beneath, and a neat reminder of who was now in charge: Let every sowle submit hym selfe unto the authority of the hyer powers, for there is no power but of God, the powers that be are ordayned by God. The design includes the symbols of the other four Tudor monarchs, as well as the badge of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn.

Beneath them, the Ten Commandments are rendered as a chunk of scriptural prose. There is certainly no finer set of this period, and thanks to a sensitive, recent restoration they are in superb condition, as vibrant and clear as when they were painted. We even know which churchwardens were responsible for their construction and placement, for the date is given as 1587, and at the sides of the tympanum they are remembered: Rychard Russell, Jaffrey Neve and John Freman: In there tyme they caused this for to be done.

This is a super church, absolutely packed with atmosphere and an intense sense of its rural past. A little treasure, a Norfolk delight.

Simon Knott, March 2006