Piety and Benevolence at St. Catherine’s, Fritton
By Simon Cotton
It was a summer Saturday in 1974 when I first visited Fritton, a Norfolk village 10 miles south of Norwich. But it was only five years later, when I studied the wills of the inhabitants dating from the two centuries leading up to the Reformation, that I understood the effort that this little village made to beautify its church just before a major upheaval in religious life.
The first sight of it, by itself up a grassy track, is promising. St. Catherine’s has a round tower, exceptionally rare outside of East Anglia. There are around 40 of them in Suffolk and 120 in Norfolk, mostly from the 11th and 12th centuries. An octagonal belfry was probably added around 1502, when John Carentyne of the neighboring village of Morningthorpe left 12d. (a shilling, one twentieth of pound) to the “reparation” of the tower in his will. Five hundred years ago “reparation” could mean new building, and though 12 pence does not sound very much in 2020, sums of money need to be multiplied by at least a thousand to correspond to present-day values. He was also one of several donors to the campaign.
The tower wasn’t the only part of the church that got attention then. Roger Brome wrote in his 1502 will: “I bequeath to the heynyng [heightening] of the walls of the seyde church xxvjs. viijd.” You can see the large windows in the late-Perpendicular style that were part of this job. This “heightening” with brick was part of a programme, as John Alvard left the very substantial sum of £7 to “ye repacon of ye churchroffe in freton £7” in 1506. Three years later, John Johnson left 6s. 8d. to the “reparation” of the church roof, and asked his executors to arrange 30 masses in Fritton church for his soul (and his friends’ souls) within five years.
John Alvard was clearly a well-to-do man. His was the only one of 16 Fritton wills between 1461-1545 not asking for burial in the churchyard; he requested burial in the porch, a prestigious place, as people could erect a memorial inscription asking people passing on their way into church to say a prayer for the repose of their soul. In his will he requested that once a year the parish should keep “placebo dirige & messe or requiem for my sowle & my frends sowlys & a certen in the seid church.” These were common requests in wills of that time — placebo and dirige are the Mattins and Vespers of the Office of the Dead which would be offered, along with the Requiem Mass. A “certen” or “certain” meant a weekly celebration of the Mass.
There’s a faded wall painting of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, on the north wall, nearly opposite the entrance; it was commonly believed that anyone who saw that would be safe from harm that day. And under it is a very faded inscription saying that John Alvard gave this painting. A bit further along is a restored but very intelligible painting of Saint George and the dragon. In the background are the princess whom he saved and the town — or castle — where her parents and other inhabitants would have been watching events unfold. Mediaeval churches were much more colourful places than we often assume.
The new roof of John Alvard’s time does not survive, it was replaced in a restoration of 1913. At the same time, the Chancel Screen was given a new upper portion, including a rood group, replacing one that had been destroyed around 1550. The lower part is original, c.1510, and of high quality. It was made in the same workshop (probably in Norwich) that provided half a dozen other screens in the early 16th century. It is finely carved — Saint George and the dragon feature again, as well as unicorns — and has much of its original painting, in very good condition. One panel on the north side depicts a donor, John Bacon, together with his wife, 11 sons and three daughters, with three of them holding rosaries.
Another donor, Stephen Browne, left 6s 8d towards “gilding the perke” in 1528, using a local term for the rood screen, and gilding could also mean painting. The Latin Doctors appear; later iconoclasts allowed Saint Jerome to keep his cardinal’s hat, though Saint Gregory has lost his papal tiara. On the south side are Saint Simon (with his emblem, a fish) and Saint Jude (likewise, holding a boat). Again, the screen is finely carved above Saint Simon, but above Saint Jude the “carving” is painted upon a solid block of wood. Why didn’t the carpenter complete the carving? This is one of the mysteries of Fritton.
To the north side of a screen is another survival, the steep roodstair that enabled a sexton to access the roodloft to light and replace the candles that burned on the roodbeam, in honour of the rood; it has a little window to light it. More remarkable is a 13th c. wallpainting thought to represent Saint Edmund of Abingdon, an exiled Archbishop of Canterbury, who was canonised in 1246.
The font is one of the type of “perpendicular” fonts known as “East Anglian” fonts, of which there are many in Norfolk and Suffolk, distinguished by some very cheerful carved lions at its base. This was clearly provided as part of the rebuilding. Margaret Sporle’s 1536 will said “Itm I bequeath to make a covering for the ffonte in the churche of ffreton forsayd v marke [66s. 8d.].” She requested a yearly obit for her soul and all Christian souls for 10 years, for a priest to sing a trental of masses [30 masses, a common request], again for her soul and all Christian souls, and for the parson of Fritton to say a “certain” twice yearly for 10 years. The residue of her goods was to be bestowed “in dede [deed] of charitie and pitie for my sowle and all christen sowles.”
Late-mediaeval Catholics took their duty of intercession for the departed — all the departed, not just their own souls — very seriously. Three other Fritton wills survive for the period between Margaret Sporle’s death and the death of Henry VIII in 1547. All testify to the continuing belief in the intercessory role of Our Lady and All Saints [commonly referred to as the “holy company of heaven”].
There is one more mystery to ponder, as you walk away from this delightful church. Most mediaeval wills do not refer to the dedication of Fritton church, although those that do — from the 15th century — give it as Saint Mary. Today it is Saint Catherine, and when the great historian Francis Blomefield, who died in 1752 compiled his magnum opus “An essay towards a topographical history of Norfolk,” he gave it as Saint Catherine too, a rare dedication. Does that mean that there was a reconsecration of the church, together with a change in the patron saint, when the rebuilding of the church was completed early in the 16th century? Just imagine how proud the villagers were on that day.
Dr. Simon Cotton is honorary senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Birmingham in the UK and a former churchwarden of St. Giles, Norwich and St. Jude, Peterborough. He is a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.