Does Fishley’s St Mary’s Church hide a secret message in its stained glass windows?
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
It emerged like Sleeping Beauty's castle from an enchanted wood, but St Mary's at Fishley may boast another secret, one that links it to a time of radical underground movements that sought to win equality for women.
Like a lonely ship in a sea of cornfields, St Mary's church serves a village lost to time and has gazed out over this peaceful corner of Broadland since the 12th century.
A round-towered gem, this little church close to Acle still holds two services a month, a confetti flurry of weddings every year, special events and is open every Friday to welcome visitors. But how many who pass through the doors spot the secret, hidden in plain sight?
Ivan Warden loves this church. He has loved it since he and late wife Carol moved to the area and walked across the golden fields of corn towards a magical sight, a hidden building in a thicket of trees which was once at the heart of a wealthy estate where King John was said to hunt along the shore of what was then a bay.
"All you could see all those years ago was a tower, just above the treetops," said Ivan, church warden at St Mary's, who moved to Acle in 1973 and first crossed the threshold of the church in 1988, "as soon as I stepped inside, I just felt something important was happening. Here was this little place in Norfolk that has stood in this spot for more than 1,000 years from when the Saxons came here.
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"There hasn't been a village at Fishley since the Saxons left, but here it stands, this remote gem in open countryside, which is a tribute to everyone that has loved the church and determined to keep it safe."
To condense what Ivan and other volunteers, including former warden Chloe Ecclestone, have done for St Mary's into just a few sentences does little to reward their pioneering spirit over the decades. But suffice it to say, their love has paid dividends.
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A newly secure tower, a reestablished churchyard, a watertight roof, new access and gates, new pathways and restored stained glass: which is where this particular story begins.
It's not just Ivan and the current conservators who have fought to keep St Mary's in peak condition, it's also their predecessors such as Sophia Catherine Edwards, who inherited the Fishley estate in the 1860s and carried out a host of restorative work which safeguarded the church.
Bequeathed the estate by her uncle the Reverend Edward Marsham, who is commemorated by a spectacular stained glass window in St Mary's, Sophia set about restoring the church, which had fallen on somewhat hard times and was repaired to the designs of her cousin, the Reverend John Barsham Johnson, rector of Welborne.
Sophia lived in an age where women were barred from universities, couldn't open their own bank accounts, hold mortgages or hold any occupation of importance - instead, they were expected to be dependent on men, first as daughters and later as wives and mothers.
So Sophia was somewhat of an anomaly: unmarried, she was the independent owner of a modest estate and she set out to make her mark on this glorious patch of Norfolk, renovating the church attached to Fishley Hall and building not one, but two schools.
Ivan began to research the remarkable Sophia when St Mary's began to open more regularly and visitors started to flock to the church in the fields.
"I wanted to know more about the woman from the lectern (Sophia's life is commemorated on the church's lectern) - where she was from, what she looked like, who she was," he said, "we knew that she had lived at Hardingham Hall, so I contacted the family there and they invited me to visit."
There, Ivan was shown a portrait of a woman wearing a purple dress, with green and white accents: Sophia.
"We knew that she had fallen in love with the church and taken great efforts to restore it. What you see today is what Sophia planned, and she also built a rectory for its rector, David Thomas Barry, who loved St Mary's so much that he had his wife exhumed and buried here, instead."
Ivan was struck by Sophia's portrait and the windows she had installed at the church which were very distinctive: green, purple and white: "My feeling was that the colours were either her favourites or that they meant something. But it wasn't until a visitor made a suggestion that I thought anything of it.
"Earlier this year, a lady came to visit and remarked upon the windows," said Ivan, "and then she said, 'you must know what these mean? These are the suffragette colours…'"
Although the colours purple, white and green were adopted by the Women's Social and Political Union in 1908 by Mrs Pethick Lawrence to unify participants in an enormous demonstration for women's rights in Hyde Park, there is a suggestion that these colours had been used by underground activists for many years.
Lawrence said: "Purple is the royal colour, it stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity. White stands for purity in private and public life. Green is the colour of hope."
The Temperance Movement in England has close links to suffrage and much in common, from friends, money, political affiliations and tactics to an agitation for moral, social and political changes, including women's rights. Whether it was changing the laws that governed alcohol or about who could vote, the politically active women involved were often one and the same.
But Temperance women are often written out of accounts of women's suffrage, possibly because their actions were more restrained than those of later activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst, but from the very early days of the 1830s, women were encouraging other women to fight for the right to vote.
"I can't help but think that Sophia was a remarkable woman for her time and that she could have been linked to those early groups that fought for equality, especially as she would have encountered so many problems being an unmarried woman with property," said Ivan.
"I feel that we are looking at a message hidden in plain sight, a declaration from the past, and if not, the coincidence seems to be incredible. All of us who volunteer at St Mary's feel very warmly towards Sophia because we feel the same about the church as she did. I just wish we knew more about her and who she really was."
A facsimile of Sophia Edwards' picture will soon hang at the church, which is open every Friday from 10am.