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Church of St Nicholas, Dereham

Description: Church of St Nicholas

Grade: I
Date Listed: 20 August 1951
English Heritage Building ID: 219399

OS Grid Reference: TF9869113306
OS Grid Coordinates: 598691, 313306
Latitude/Longitude: 52.6810, 0.9379

Location: St Withburga Lane, Dereham, Norfolk NR19 1DL

Locality: Dereham
Local Authority: Breckland District Council
County: Norfolk
Country: England
Postcode: NR19 1DL

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Listing Text

20-AUG-51 (North side)


The church is pre-Conquest in origin, but the earliest visible fabric is C12 (SW door, spiral shafts by the chancel arch and parts of the S transept arch). Chancel, N transept arch, and arcades C13. Central tower rebuilt and moved one bay W, transepts built, nave and arcades lengthened one bay to the W in the C14. S aisle refenestrated, transepts enlarged, roofs rebuilt, clerestory added late C15. Fine font of c.1468. S porch c.1500. Detached bell tower built c.1515-25. Central tower reduced in height 1539. The NE chapel, adjacent to the chancel, was demolished in 1565. Restored in the C19. NE vestry added in 1922.

Flint rubble with some knapped flint, stone dressings, lead roofs.

An unusual plan. Aisled and cruciform, but the transepts and nave extend one bay E of the crossing. Unaisled chancel, NE vestry, SW porch, crossing tower. Detached bell tower (separately listed) stands adjacent.

The exterior is largely Decorated and Perpendicular in appearance. The low crossing tower, reduced in height in 1539, is made more prominent by the lack of parapets except on the SE transeptal chapel and the steeply pitched roofs of the nave and chancel. It has pairs of C14 two-light windows with flowing ogee tracery. The long chancel has C13 gabled buttresses with heads in elliptical openings, a large C15 window with vertical tracery and a C13 foiled roundel in the gable above it. There are two C13 two-light windows plate tracery quatrefoils and an Early English style windows with three stepped lights in the S wall. There are similar windows in the N wall. C13 chancel S door, the door of 1862 with iron work by Gidney¿s. Low NE vestry of 1922 in a simple Perpendicular style. Above it is visible a steeply pitch roof scar in the E wall of the NE transeptal chapel for the former St Edmund¿s chapel (demolished 1565) in the position of the vestry, and an area of herringbone brick and flint masonry in the chancel N wall, probably the remains of an earlier chancel.

The S transept has a very tall C15 or early C16 W window with a square head, and a similar, but shorter S window with an embattled transom. Above this is a C14 window with cusped, reticulated tracery in a square frame, and there is a similar high level window in the E wall. The SE transeptal chapel has a rich embattled parapet with carved quatrefoils and windows like those in the S transept, Perpendicular below, Decorated above. There is a high level blocked opening, probably for a C14 window, in the SE chapel E wall. The S aisle has large windows of c.1464-6 with embattled transoms and vertical tracery. The clerestory has 3-light windows with square heads. Very fine S porch of c.1500 with a base frieze with quatrefoils, short buttresses with flint flush work and carved grotesques, canopied statue niches, and a carved Annunciation in the spandrels of the outer opening. The S door is mid C12, reset, and has two orders of shafts and a cusped, trefoil head similar to the Prior¿s door at Ely. The nave W window is early C14 and has cusped Y-tracery. Below it the C14 W door with continuous chamfers is flanked by two ogee-headed niches.

The N aisle has large, C14 windows with flowing, Decorated tracery and a N door with a pointed head in a square frame. The N transept has a high level C14 N window similar to those in the N aisle; below it is a large C15 window with vertical tracery and sub-transoms. There is a similar window in the N wall of the NE transeptal chapel, which does not have an upper level.

A large and lofty interior, with the crossing arches and chancel arch beyond forming a good vista down the nave. The inside is largely C13 and C14, with some reworking in the later middle ages, with the chapel ceilings being particularly notable. The tall C14 chancel arch is flanked by C12 spiral shafts, probably a remnant of the former E crossing arch, and other irregularities in this area also point towards rebuilding. The lower part of the responds for the arch to the SE transeptal chapel are C12; the arch to the NE chapel is early C13 and have keeled shafts on moulded corbels with twisted ends. Above this arch are two windows, now opening internally, one a C13 quatrefoil, the other a two-light C14 window with a triangular head; there are similar windows on the other side, probably a remnant of a clerestory before the SE and NE chapels were heightened. The chancel windows have chamfered rere-arches, and there is a C13 string course that rises over the S priest's door and N vestry door. The sedilia, piscina and aumbry are good C13 work. In the W wall of the chancel to the N of the chancel arch is the door to the former roof loft, which was formerly accessed from the demolished St Edmund¿s chapel on the site of the present NE vestry. The high level door to the S of the chancel arch provided access from the screen to the muniment room over the S transept.

The massive crossing arches are C14 and have polygonal responds for the inner orders and continuous outer orders. The lantern tower has a C14 gallery of pointed, chamfered arches with polygonal moulded capitals on quatrefoil shafts. Above this, the rere-arches of the tower windows are deeply recessed and have similar arcading in the front plane.

The nave arcades, both of five bays, are C13, extended in the C14. The S arcade is early C13 and has round piers with moulded capitals except for the first pier from the west, which is polygonal and has C14 polygonal moulded capitals. The N arcade is mid C13 and has quatrefoil piers with quatrefoil, moulded capitals, again except for the last pier from the W, which is like that on the S. As the responds on each side match the eastern part of the arcades, it is likely that the nave was extended by one bay to the W in the C14 and the polygonal piers added then; the arcade arches on both sides, of two chamfered orders, were probably also rebuilt in the C14. The arches into the transepts from the aisles were rebuilt probably in the early C16 and have an inner order on polygonal responds with embattled capitals with fleurons, an outer order of many continuous mouldings and a hood mould with angel stops towards the transept. The S window of the S transept has a large, four centred rere-arch also with tiny mouldings.

The most important fitting is the superb Seven Sacraments font, one of the very best in the country. It is documented to 1468. Octagonal, the sacrament scenes are set under vaulted niches, with further vaulted statue niches on the angles and on the base. Excellent brass eagle lectern of 1482. C13 trefoiled double piscina in the chancel, with dog tooth ornament, detached shafts and a hood mould with head stops. Similar, but plainer, three-seat stepped sedilia with moulded arches. In the chancel N wall a trefoiled aumbry with a lamp holder at the apex. C15 piscina in the S transept.

Notable C15 ceilings in the transeptal chapels, with flat cusped panels and painted decoration. That on the S may be c.1430, and is probably associated with the raising of the chapel by William Boton to create a muniment room on the upper floor. It has emblems of the Lamb and Flag lying on the Book of Life. That on the N belongs to the chapel of Thomas Becket and is late C15, and has alternating eagles and crowns in wreaths. The S aisle roof is late medieval and has plain, open, arched braces; the N aisle roof is more heavily moulded and has flowing tracery in the spandrels. The S transept has a hammerbeam roof with heraldry and fleuron bosses. The nave has a C19 boarded barrel ceiling with cusped panels defined by ribs, and there is a much renewed or entirely C19 cusped, boarded ceiling in the N transept. The chancel has a very plain crownpost roof, with an embattled wall plate.

Screen of 1480 with painted figures of saints including St Withburga at the entrance to the S transept, brought from Oxburgh church in 1949. Fine early C16 Flemish chest with Mannerist figures, given to the church in 1786 by William Rush and said to have come from the ruins of Buckingham Castle. Organ of 1785 by Bernard Smith, much rebuilt in the C19 and C20.

C19 nave benches, remodelled in the C20, with poppy heads only on the outer ends. Gothic-style reredos of 1857, painted with figures of saints in 1929. An interesting rood screen of 1921 (a war memorial) in a free art and crafts gothic style, with a carved rood group and demi-figures of angels.

Some good C19 and early C20 glass, including the chancel NE and SE windows by Wailes of 1857, the S transept of 1847 by Heaton, Butler and Bayne, and also by them the E window of 1904 and the N transept window of 1905. The Cowper memorial window of 1900 in the NE chapel is also very fine.

An impressive collection of monuments, the most notable of which is to the poet William Cowper, d. 1800, by Flaxman in the N transept, a palm branch draped across a bible, and above it a memorial window of 1900. A small brass demi-figure for Edmund Kelyng, d.1479 and another for Etheldreda Castell, d.1486. There are also many other C18 and C19 wall tablets, and numerous ledger slabs.

A church was founded at Dereham in 654 by St Withburga, daughter of Anna, King of the East Angles. The place where she was first buried became a spring, known as St Withburga¿s well, after her body was removed to the church. The church and associated nunnery were destroyed by the Danes c.870. In the early 10th century, Dereham was given to the refounded abbey at Ely and the church was rebuilt. The earliest visible fabric in the present church is C12, and it is unclear if it was newly rebuilt at that date or constructed around an older church. Either way, it is almost certain that the church was cruciform, with a crossign tower one bay E of the present tower. The church was greatly rebuilt in the C13, when the nave arcades were added, and again in the C14. Probably at this time, probably due to concerns about the stability of the tower or even because of its collapse, the crossing tower was demolished and one bay W. Also at this time, new transepts were rebuilt, and the nave lengthened. The church was extensively refurbished and refurnished in the later C15. The work on the S aisle windows is documented to 1464-6.

The font was provided in 1468 for £12 16s 9d, and probably provides a terminal date for structural work on the nave. The lectern is 1482. The S porch was added c.1500 and paid for by Roger and Margaret Boton. Detached bell tower built c.1515-25. Central tower reduced in height 1539. The NE chapel and St Edmund¿s Chapel to its E were demolished in 1565. By the late C18 the roofs were largely ceiled in, and the church had substantial galleries, including two tiers of galleries in the aisles.

Restoration in 1857 (architect unidentified) included replacing two Perpendicular windows in the chancel with three-light Early English-style windows. There were extensive restorations in 1876 and 1885-6. The galleries were removed during the C19 and the seating installed, although this was modified in the C20. The rood screen was installed in 1921 as a memorial for WWI. The NE vestry built on the site of St Edmund's Chapel in 1922. The Oxburgh screen of c.1480 at the entrance to the S transept Lady chapel was brought from Oxburgh church in 1949, following the collapse of the spire there and the subsequent demolition of the nave.

Boston, Noel. Notes on Dereham Church. nd c.1940.
Pevsner, N and Wilson, B., Buildings of England, Norfolk (2nd Ed. 2002), 283-6
Rose, Martial. The Parish Church of St Nicholas, east Dereham. 2002.

The church of St Nicholas, Dereham is designated at Grade I for the following principal reasons:
* Outstanding parish church of the C12 and later, with excellent work of the C13, C14 and C15.
* Superb Seven Sacraments font, securely dated to 1468.
* C15 brass eagle lectern.
* Excellent late C15 painted ceilings.
* Monument to William Cowper, d.1800, by Flaxman, with associated window.
* For its later fittings, including the rood screen and Cowper memorial window.
* For its unusual relationship with the detached bell tower and sunken well.
* For its complex fabric, containing clues to its growth and origins.
* For its importance at the heart of the town of Dereham, possessing a very strong visual presence.
* For the historic interest of its Anglo-Saxon foundation by a royal Saint.

This text is a legacy record and has not been updated since the building was originally listed. Details of the building may have changed in the intervening time. You should not rely on this listing as an accurate description of the building.

Source: English Heritage

Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.