History of St Mary's

During the medieval period, East Anglian churches harboured many anchorites and a large proportion were female  - anchoresses.  "The preponderance of female religious in medieval Norfolk and Suffolk adds a significant dimension to what historians have previously noted about the diocese: that in the Middle Ages the lay population of Norfolk and Suffolk were active participants in, and generous supporters of, a dynamic religious culture"*  

Today, the most well known of these "female religious" is Julian of Norwich.  Julian's 'Revelations of Divine Love', recorded during decades of plague and devastation that some historians estimate to have halved the national population, inspired many during the 2020 pandemic.  We know little of Julian, but she did undertake a type of incarceration that is hard for anyone in the twenty first century to comprehend.  Nevertheless her writing resonates powerfully.

Which is perhaps how I've been led to wonder whether the squint in St Mary's external brickwork behind the Easter Sepulchre led into an anchorhold!  And have wondered who might have inhabited the cell on this windswept hill, and what their motives and desires might have been - and what the focus and inspiration of their faith?

Among the medieval finds recorded from the fields adjoining St Mary's and listed in Norfolk Heritage Explorer is the base of a pilgrim's ampulla depicting a crowned W - the decorative mark used by the medieval pilgrimage centre at Walsingham.  Ampullae were small, lead flasks worn around a pilgrim's neck containing holy water or scented oils.  Could this have been worn by a pilgrim travelling from Walsingham to meet and pray with our anchorite?  

The 15th Century Easter Sepulchre on the north chancel wall is one of only three remaining in Norfolk. The sepulchre at St Mary's, Baconsthorpe is very similar in appearance.  Might they have been created by the same stone mason?  The third sepulchre from this period still existing in Norfolk is found in St Andrew's, Northwold.  

The cross and host would have been placed in these sepulchres on Maundy Thursday until Easter Sunday.  At St Mary's, Kelling, the location of the squint would have allowed an anchorite to see the altar directly from their cell through the sepulchre window, and also receive the sacraments. 

*Gilchrist, N. and Oliva, M.  Religious Women in Medieval East Anglia. p. 9-11. Norwich, 1993,

Some useful links:

The Life of an Anchoress - The British Library

The Life of an Anchoress - The History Press

Norfolk Churches

Norfolk Heritage Explorer

Historic England

British History Online

M Witting '22

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