John Wesley (1703-1791), on his visit to Norwich, came into St Peter Mancroft and wrote in his diary:
“I scarcely remember ever to have seen a more beautiful parish church; the more so because its beauty results not from foreign ornaments, but from the very fine form and structure of it. It is very large, and of uncommon height, and the sides are almost all window: so that it has an awful and venerable look, and at the same time surprisingly cheerful.”
Like the market place where St Peter Mancroft stands, the Church was a Norman foundation built by Ralph de Guader, Earl of Norfolk, in 1075. The Normans tried to suppress the old market, held in Tombland, by building their Cathedral and monastery enclosure over it and set up a new market place in the great field below the Castle where they could keep an eye on it.
Not long after, Earl Ralph lost everything in rebellion against William the Conqueror. Ralph had bestowed the church on one of his chaplains, Wala, who in turn passed it to the Abbey of St Peter in Gloucester where he fled after the Rebellion. For 300 years it was known as St Peter of Gloucester in Norwich. In 1388, after local pressure, it passed to the Benedictine community of St Mary-in-the-Fields whose Church stood on the site of the present day Assembly House and Theatre Royal.
The Dean and Chapter of St Mary’s found the old Church of St Peter in a poor condition and in 1390 they decided to rebuild it. However, it was not until 1430, with gifts and legacies from wealthy citizens, and donations from merchant and craft guilds, that the first stone was laid. The church was consecrated 25 years later. The present building owes much of its unity of style to a single phase of construction.
During the Reformation the College of St Mary-in-the-Fields was suppressed and the patronage of St Peter Mancroft passed through several families until, from 1581 it was acquired by trustees on behalf of the parishioners. Today the incumbent is styled Vicar, and he is still appointed by his parishioners. The importance of St Peter Mancroft was greatly increased after the Reformation when the religious communities which had overshadowed it were swept away and the religious life of the city became concentrated on the parish churches. It remains the most important church of the civic community as the many memorials on its walls to mayors and merchants testify.
In the twentieth century, the number of people resident in the parish decreased as the population moved from the cramped courts and yards of the city centre to the new suburbs. In 1982 the parish was joined with the neighbouring Parish of St John Maddermarket when that church was made redundant – St John Maddermarket it now cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust. Despite recent residential developments within the parish, the resident population of this city centre parish remains relatively small and the congregation of St Peter Mancroft continues to be drawn from across Norwich as well as the surrounding towns and villages.
So who was St Peter Mancroft? There is fact no such saint – the church was originally dedicated to the common joint dedication of St Peter and St Paul, later shortened to St Peter. Mancroft may derive from the Old English ġemǣne croft (common field), from the Latin magna crofta (Great field), or may be named after a one-time owner of the land by the name of Mann or Manne. The truth has been lost in the mists of time!
The present church built in the ‘Perpendicular’ style is believed to have replaced a Norman church, possibly cruciform in plan with a tower over the crossing.
The present building was a deliberate display of wealth on the part of the 15th century citizens of Norwich, then the second city in England after London: the church is almost entirely faced with limestone, which was brought from many miles away by land and sea since there is no local free-stone in Norfolk. The stone is used with expensive knapped flintwork. The mighty tower, heavily panelled and buttressed to all four sides, was probably intended to carry a further lantern stage, as at Boston in Lincolnshire, but this was never done. The tower was crowned with the lead-covered fleche, stone parapet and pinnacles, by the Architect A. E. Street in 1895. The tower contains an historic peal of 14 bells. Click here for more information on the history of the bells and bellringing at Mancroft.
The church has fine porches with stone vaulted ceilings to the North and South. The North porch has parvise (a room over the porch).
As rebuilt, the church occupies the entire length of the original churchyard. In order to maintain a route around the building within the churchyard for processions, a popular element of worship in the 15th century, at the east end a processional way was built (now incorporated in the Octagon) under the raised high altar, and balanced by an even more impressive passage-way under the tower. Right: the West doors under the tower.
The nave is 60 feet in height and of eight arched bays with slender columns. Above there is a continuous clerestory of 17 windows on each side. There is no structural division between the nave and the chancel giving the church an open and airy feel. The chancel is delineated by the roof bosses.
Simon Jenkins writes in England’s Thousand Best Churches:
“Few who enter St Peter’s for the first time can stifle a gasp. The sense of space and light is overwhelming. To those who find Perpendicular bland or lacking in shadow or mystery, Norwich answers with a blaze of daylight, as if the sky itself had been invited to pray.”
The magnificent wooden roof is one of the chief glories of the church. It is a hammer-beam and arch-braced roof but the hammer-beams are concealed behind timber groining. There are angels on the end of each hammer-beam. The importance of the chancel is emphasised by a second, smaller row of angels and gilded suns-in-splendour ridge bosses. In 1962-64 the roof was raised on jacks and the walls, which had been forced outwards over the centuries by the great weight of the roof, were pulled back to save the church from collapse.
The great East Window contains the finest and most extensive collection of the work of the fifteenth-century school of Norwich glass-painters. Until 1648 many of the windows in the church would have been filled with similar stained glass depicting scenes from the bible. In that year rioting between the Puritans and the Royalists led to a gunpowder explosion in a house in Bethel Street leaving many dead and the windows of the church blown in.
Not until four years later, in 1652, were the remains of the stained glass windows from around the church gathered together into the east window. Photographs of sequences of stained glass panels that were formerly located in various windows are displayed at the back of church according to the season so that visitors can appreciate the exquisite details.
The richness of the east end is continued below the window in the reredos, designed by J. P. Seddon in 1885 and gilded and coloured by Sir Ninian Comper in 1930. Comper also added the beardless figure of Christ in glory and the figures of the four saints who brought christianity to East Anglia.
Two medieval canon’s stalls, complete with misericords, are incorporated into the Victorian choir stalls and may have come from St Mary’s.
The font in the baptistry stands under a rare and unusual 15th century wooden canopy – originally highly coloured. Only the lower section is original; the upper part of the canopy was restored, complete with trumpet wielding angels and pelican for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Also in the baptistry is the beautiful Mancroft resurrection tapestry of 1573. It may have been the Easter Day altar frontal woven in the parish by refugee Flemish weavers.
The 38 stop organ which graces the west end of the nave was built by Peter Collins, then of Redbourn, Hertfordshire, in 1984. The case is of English Oak with lime wood embellishments.
The church has two small transepts aligning with the easternmost bay of the nave.
The North transept is the St Nicholas Chapel: Here, before the Reformation, the ceremonies to elect a ‘Boy Bishop’ were held on 6th December. The inventory, now held in the Bristish Museum, describes the elaborate mitres and pastoral staff used by the ‘bishop’ and his ‘deacons’. One of the special coins struck to commemorate a Mancroft boy’s ‘episcopate’ can be seen in the Castle Museum. The transept now houses the treasury displaying some of Mancroft’s remarkable collection of church silver (one of the finest of any parish church in the country) including the Gleane and Thistle cups, and other historic artefacts and artworks. Church plate is also on display here from the neighbouring church of St Stephen.
The South transept, which formerly housed the 1911 Hele organ, has become a quiet chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The book of sorrow and loss is kept here and the chapel is reserved at all times for private prayer. The meditative cross with raised arms is the work of York Sculptor, Charles Gurrey.
The St Anne Chapel (South aisle) was once the meeting place for mothers and daughters who belonged to the medieval Guild of St Anne (similar to the present day Mother’s Union). The Chapel’s East window is by H. Hendrie (1921) and is a memorial to the dead of the Great War.
The Jesus Chapel (North aisle) is the earliest part of the present church and contains the tomb of Francis Windham. The East window of the chapel features a fine stained glass window with the theme of mountains commemorating a former vicar, Archdeacon Pelham Burn, who met his death in 1901, mountaineering in the Alps. The modern altar frontal and dorsal are the work of Isabel Clover. Weekday services are held in this chapel.
The medieval three-storey sacristy, built beyond the east wall of the church and fronting onto Weaver’s Lane was originally the sacristy and treasury of the church. It may have been converted later into accommodation for the priest. Now restored to its original function it contains many original features, including a piscina still used for its original purpose as sacristy drain and a fireplace (now a cupboard) where charcoal for the censers was kindled. The richly inlaid octagonal sacristy table was once the sounding board for the pulpit!
Mancroft possesses one of the five remaining portions of parochial libraries in Norfolk. There are sixteen books dating from the twelfth century to 1763 including a manuscript Vulgate of 1340. The finest books, including the illuminated twelfth century St Paul’s Epistles are held in the Norfolk Record Office (facsimiles are on display in the treasury) while the other books are available to view on request at Norwich Cathedral Library.
The Octagon, built in 1983 at a cost of £250,000, was the first extension of this type in recent years to a medieval church of this status and architectural coherence. It was designed by the then church architect, Robert Potter, also Surveyor of the fabric of St Paul’s Cathedral. Its form is derived from the common medieval plan of octagonal chapter houses attached to medieval cathedrals.
With its worshipping congregation and its outreach the church of St Peter Mancroft welcomes all who come through its door and endeavours to fulfil Wesley’s comment and remain ‘venerable and surprisingly cheerful’.
For photographs of St Peter Mancroft please click here (external link opens in a new window).