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St Peter Mancroft Church, Norwich

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A Saxon creation?

In Anglo Saxon times the centre of Norwich was further towards the river, where Tombland is now and the first market stood. The Norman conquerors went out of their way to change that, building the castle and pulling down buildings to create space for the cathedral. The French-speaking newcomers set up the new market place where it is now, and also a church to serve the area. The builder of the first church was Ralp de Guader, Earl of Norfolk, in 1075, who dedicated it to St Peter and St Paul. Earl Ralph came to a sticky end. He rebelled against King William, but the plot was uncovered. While Ralph got away to his castle in Brittany, the Conqueror took his vengeance on those in Norwich who supported him; at Christmas 1075 the king came to Norwich, banished some and gouged others eyes out.

Typical. What about the church?

It eventually passed into the hands of the Abbey of St Peter at Gloucester, and was renamed St Peter of Gloucester in Norwich. Local people would later have a different name for it. There are two theories as to how it became known as Mancroft. The 18th century Norwich historian Blomefield thought it came from a shortening of the name of the area set aside for the new market Great Field, in Latin Magna Crofta, hence Man-croft. Others said the first word came from the first syllable of the original owner of the land, Man or Manne. Following local pressure, the church was handed to the Benedictine monks of nearby St Mary-in-the-Fields, the site of the modern Assembly House and Theatre Royal. By this time it was in a state of disrepair. Long-term rebuilding was needed, but then as now that cost money. It took the better part of half a century to raise it with the help of gifts and legacies from merchant guilds and wealthy citizens. From 1430 to 1455 St Peter Mancroft took the shape it is today.

Why was it so special?

A particularly tall, spacious church, straddling the citys public space, it has been mistaken by some visitors for the cathedral, such is its central position in the city. The total height of the steeple is 146ft, while the wooden roof is particularly striking. Slender pillars and large aisle windows add to the feeling of light which belies the churchs substantial exterior. The official guidebook likens it to a wall of glass. St Peter Mancroft became important after the 16th century Reformation. At a stroke, the myriad of religious houses which had dominated Norwich spiritual life, along with the religious guilds, disappeared. The church was freed of monkish control, eventually passing to the control of trustees. They gained the right to appoint their own vicar, a privilege extended to the parishioners today. The area was one of the wealthiest in the city, a fact reflected by the names of its worshippers, including many Norwich mayors and other substantial citizens.

What about during the English Civil War?

Norfolk was lucky to avoid the worst destruction of the war, being dominated from 1642 on by Parliamentary supporters. That was not to say there was no conflict. In 1648, as fighting flared up for the last time, rioting between Royalists and Parliamentarians culminated in an explosion of the nearby Bethel Street gunpowder store. It killed many people as well as blowing in the church windows. Today the east window survives as a real masterpiece of 15th century art. There an unknown artist has presented in individual panels many of the Biblical stories of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Take a look if you have the chance; theres a wealth of detail and quirky humanity in these pictures. At one time all the windows were like this but it is a minor miracle we still have this survivor. After the 1648 disaster the remaining pieces were picked up and eventually reassembled. Some of it ended up at stately Felbrigg Hall, near Cromer. This was the home of the Windham family, who came to prominence in Elizabethan times. Francis Windham, then Recorder of Norwich, has a fine tomb at St Peter Mancroft.

Any other distinguished parishioners?

Sir Thomas Browne, family physician, historian, philosopher and allround Renaissance man lived in Norwich in the 17th century. His house was in the Haymarket it his statue standing outside the church. He was buried at St Peter Mancroft in 1682 but his skull was accidentally dug up by workmen in the 19th century. After several decades on show in the museum of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, it was reburied in 1922. You can see a cast of it in the sacristy along with a fine portrait of Sir Thomas. Also remembered is Sir James Smith, the 18th century botanist and founder of the modern Linnean Society. Less famous were the boy bishops selected from 1327 each December 6 feast of St Nicholas, the patron saint of children. The young bishop enjoyed a four-day episcopacy.

And today?

In the early 1960s the church faced crisis. The weight of the roof was pushing the walls out; in a major operation from 1962-64 the roof was raised on jacks and the walls pushed outwards. East Anglias Far East Prisoners of War, meanwhile, are remembered with some fine oak furniture and a memorial on the southaisle wall. Music-lovers will appreciate the organ built in 1984. Regarded as a masterpiece, it was paid for by public subscription launched in 1979. The 21st century Norwich Forum and Millennium Plain, though very different from the church, take nothing away from its appeal; arguably the open space only enhances it.

St Peter Mancroft (01603 610433) is open weekdays from 10am.
Refreshments are served in The Octagon extension.

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