The Parish Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or St Mary's Church for short) has stood at the heart of the market town of Attleborough since Saxon times. Christian worship has been offered on this site for over one thousand years. The church is Grade I listed.
St Mary’s is home to an active worshipping Church Family of all ages. The church is open for prayer, quiet and visiting all day, every day of the year. The Church Hall is used daily by many organisations, and as a day centre for the elderly.
The church building
A mediaeval record suggests that the young St Edmund, who became King of the East Angles, spent a year with the priests in Attleborough before his Coronation in Suffolk in 856. There was certainly a Saxon church on the present site, and some of its foundations can still be seen below the level of the pavement at the base of the tower.
That Saxon church was replaced by a Norman church, probably some time between 1075 and 1135. Nothing remains of this Norman church except parts of the present tower, which was in fact at the west end of that church.
In 1297 Sir William Mortimer built the south chapel (now the choir vestry), and he was buried before the altar of that chapel. In the following century Thomas Chaunticlere built the north chapel, and he was buried in it in 1379.
Around 1368, Sir Robert Mortimer, a descendant of Sir William, founded a college of priests called the College of the Holy Cross. He provided them with an endowment and they lived in a house north-west of the church. He began the rebuilding of the Norman church, and this work was finished in 1405. It was then given over to the College of the Holy Cross and closed to the parishioners. As compensation, the present nave and aisles and the north porch were built, and completed in 1436. Thus by the middle of the fifteenth century Attleborough had a very large church, cruciform in shape – the older part to the east, the tower in the centre, the new nave for the people to the west. The filled-in arch at the present east end would once have been the frame of a vista leading up to the high altar of the collegiate church.
In 1541, at the dissolution of the monasteries, the College of the Holy Cross was abolished and the collegiate choir where they had worshipped was destroyed by Robert, Earl of Sussex, who removed the memorial stones and brasses of his ancestors to make floors and ornament his manor house. The ruined walls were pulled down and used to make up the road to Buckenham, and this demolition of the church to the east of the tower has given the building its present truncated appearance.
The church, dedicated to the Assumption, now consists of a clerestoried nave of five bays, with north and south aisles, and chapels beyond the screen with the Norman tower standing between them. One chapel now houses the organ; the other has housed vestries for the past two decades. The oak roof of the nave dates from the fifteenth century and was restored in 1908.
Some interesting features
The porch has lovely bosses on its stone vaulted ceiling. The central boss, obscured by centuries of overpainting, shows the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin. Above the porch is a room called a ‘parvise’ – perhaps originally a priest’s room, later a schoolroom. Closed to the public, it is reached via a fifteenth century door in the church and an unusual turret staircase.
An ancient grave slab is set into the floor to the right as you enter by the porch. Much older than the present nave, it is a relic of the earlier church.
Seven consecration crosses can still be seen, three on the walls of the south aisle and four in the north aisle. These mark the spots anointed with holy oil by the Bishop when the church was consecrated.
The Stations of the Cross were erected in 2009 in memory of Sally Aisbitt. The artist, Helen McIldowie-Jenkins, used techniques and motifs familiar to mediaeval artists to depict the journey of Jesus to his Crucifixion and burial.
The pulpit, carved in the early eighteenth century and attributed to the workshop of Grinling Gibbons, was acquired in 1845.
The Rood Screen has been described as ‘one of the most precious possessions of our English churches’. Dated around 1475, the 52 foot long oak screen is the only one in Norfolk to stretch across the nave and both side aisles. The painted figures depict (north to south) St John the Baptist, our Lady as Queen of Heaven with the Holy Child, St John the Evangelist, (probably) St Thomas Becket, the Holy Trinity and St Bartholomew. After the Reformation Biblical texts were painted over the original decoration. The rood loft was overpainted in 1615 with the arms of twenty-four Bishoprics.
The mural on the wall above the screen is the remains of a painting from around 1500. It depicts the Adoration of the Cross by saints, prophets and angels. Concealed at the Reformation, it was uncovered in 1844 but whitewashed over immediately, and uncovered a second time in 1935.
The chapel beyond the screen features a gold altar frontal designed by Renate Melinsky in 1994. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved here.
The stained glass windows are principally Victorian or early twentieth century. The surviving mediaeval glass is in the great West window; the central lights at the top depict the Annunciation. A fine twentieth century window in the South Chapel depicts the Adoration of the Infant Jesus.
St Christopher is partially visible in the remains of a mural above the south door. His presence would have reassured passing travellers.
An alms box by the south door is made of solid oak. It is bound with iron, with three locks and set with pebbles to make it ‘burglar proof’.
The font is mediaeval but has only stood in Attleborough since 1975, when it was brought from a redundant church. Note the comical faces. The 1980s font cover shows the dove of the Holy Spirit on the orb of this world.
The carved iron lectern steps were a gift from the Churchwardens in 1816, in a most unusual style. The eagle lectern is probably some years older.