The Church of St Mary the Virgin

Church Tour
Text by The Late
Richard Butler-Stoney
Pamela Fawcett

This church has retained its complete set of Decorated Period windows with a rich variety of designs in flowing tracery. This gives it unsurpassed beauty which is a thrill to find on such a remote site.
The church at Great Walsingham, built in 1320, has some similar features but lost its entire chancel. It seems likely that the same master builder and craftsmen built Beeston Church soon afterwards.

The original Decorated Period church here had clerestory windows of quatrefoils within circles. Their outline shows only faintly on the North side but may be seen dearly on the South side. Early in the Perpendicular Period, probably 1410, the clerestory walls were raised and 8 tall windows replaced the quatrefoils. These Perpendicular windows were the gift of Beeston's Guild of the Virgin Mary.

THE TOWER was also raised by the addition of an extra belfry stage and so we can see a Decorated belfry topped by a Perpendicular belfry, but sadly only one modest bell inside. It is recorded that the other bells were sold to buy a barrel organ and gallery in 1826. The proportions of this church are most elegant and the extra height to the tower would have been in keeping with the taller nave.

THE SPIRE was added in 1873 to replace a small spire on a cupola which had been struck by lightning. A picture hanging in the church shows that cupola.

THE EAST WINDOW has lovely reticulated tracery, and the East windows of both aisles have double reticulated tracery. All the windows are particularly tall and have very high pointed arches which accentuate the vertical emphasis. Inside we find tall slender piers of clustered columns which further contribute to the uplifting experience.

THE ROOF is a single hammerbeam design with long wall ports decorated by carvings (Fig. 1), and showing the appearance of realty ancient English oak. The carved figures stand oh a pedestal and have a canopy over them, but have been thoroughly defaced. This suggests that they were saints who cannot now be identified. The window above the chancel arch must have been added to throw light on these figures. On the hammerbeams there is a further row of angels holding shields.

THE NORTH AISLE ROOF also has angels holding shields and saints on the wall posts like the nave roof but here the saints are seated and have been even more severely disfigured. Fine medieval oak carpentry here Includes carvings where the beams cross. On some may be seen traces of their original colouring. The external covering was replaced by stainless steel in 1987 following a series of attempts to steal the lead.

REMAINS of a 15th century sacristy will be found on the South side of the chancel in the form of a row of stone corbels which supported a lean-to roof. The blocked sacristy door shows on the inside next to the priest's door.

A PLOUGHSHARE is dearly depicted on a roof boss just inside the N door. There is a Public House in the village called "The Ploughshare”. This refers to the days when bond-men held strips of arable land as tenants of the Lord of the Manor and paid by performing work for the said Lord. On taking up or surrendering their tenancy the customary "fine" in Beeston was a ploughshare instead of money. This was a token of their share in the plough used by all in the manor.

THE PORCH was built for secular use including the court leet of the Manor. When Stephen Bamwell came from Ireland to become the new Lord of the Manor a row ensued, because Beeston's ancient custom of the ploughshare was threatened. So a rhyming notice was painted above the door in the porch explaining the custom and ending with the words -
"Lord Bamwell see thou keep it." It was then kept.

CONSECRATION CROSSES (Fig. 2) will be seen on either side of the tower arch. These existed from the time when the Bishop of Norwich first consecrated the building, c.1326. Above is a later wall painting which was connected with the baptistry. What survives of it is a quatrefoil with golden rays coming down on to it.

THE FONT is set in an imposing position with the benches specially arranged to allow space around the font. The conical font cover with its crocketing is medieval except for the curious ball at the top.

THE BENCHES are a complete set of the 15th century, which have elaborate traceried backs. Here will be noted the quatrefoil within a circle repeated like the design in the early clerestory windows. The arm rests have been robbed of their wood carvings but the poppyheads survive. One from the front row (Fig.3) is illustrated from three sides. Click the drawing to watch a photo...

THE FLOOR has kept its original level throughout. This is one of few churches that kept the chancel floor at the original level. Pamments and hand-made bricks pave the church and contribute to the timeless feel of the interior. A few much worn Bawsey tiles which were glazed have been reset around the base of the font. They would have been part of the original floor of this church.

THE SCREEN is 15th century and full of interest although it has been badly mutilated and its roodloft is missing. The painted panels have been defaced with vicious thoroughness, but some saints may be recognised by their symbols.

From North to South they are:-

1. St Cedlia with a garland of roses.
3. St Agnes with lamb.
5. St Etheldreda, Abbess with crosier.
7. St Clement of Rome with an anchor.
9. A bishop, St Thomas of Canterbury?
12.St Leonard with a chain.

Above these are beautifully carved animals, etc. (Fig. 4). Look for a monkey, a deer, a unicorn, a boar mauling a man, a fox catching a bird, an eagle and St George slaying a dragon.

THE ARMS (Fig. 5) of John FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel who married Lady Maltravers represent the Patron on the screen. He died in 1434. Their heads feature on the outer doorway of the porch.
Also on the screen will be found the ploughshare with 'B' and a tun or barrel, making a pun on the word Beeston.

THE VESTRY was formed in 1813 in the South aisle where it extends alongside the tower. There is a fireplace there. A similar room exists in the North aisle. It is unusual to have the aisles surrounding the tower, but they were all built at the same time.

A LATIN WALL PLAQUE with fine calligraphy near the door tells how John Forby refurbished the chancel in 1598.
He was rector from 1595 to 1614 and did much to restore the church after the destruction of images in 1548.
The seats which he provided lasted until the 19th century.

THE WALL PAINTING above the chancel arch is a frame for the Royal Arms (of James I) which was painted by William Roose in John Forby's time. The Royal Arms near the South door are Hanoverian (1714-1801), Further wall painting was done on the East wall with shields of Cambridge Colleges; most of these have been lost, but enough remains to imagine the setting. John Forby was a member of Caius College.

THE PULPIT was installed in 1592 at the request of a special preacher. It had the shape of a wineglass, but then it was greatly restored in the 17th century, when it gained the panelling with segmented arches and long pilasters. An iron fixing for its sounding board may be seen in the wall behind.

THE ORGAN was made by a blacksmith in West Tofts, near Thetford, who only made 4 organs of which this is the last to remain in use. Sycamore wood was used for the interior parts of it.

FLOOR SLABS commemorate the Bamwell family of Mileham Hall who were Lords of the Manor here from the 16th to 19th centuries. The Rev. William Bamwell was a rector here and was buried on the same day as his wife. There are five small oval slabs to the memory of the infant children of the Rev. John Nelson.

A STONE CROSS beside the church path reminds us of Beeston's famous boxer, Jem Mace, who was bom near the Plough Share Inn in 1831 and had a long and distinguished career in professional bare fisted boxing which he transformed into a proper sport. He died in Liverpool in 1910.

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Beeston Church
King’s Lynn