St Mary’s Church

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This small thatched church is in a lovely setting just off the road in the tiny settlement of Thornham Parva. It is surrounded by a well cared for graveyard with limes and carefully trimmed yews. The grass was covered with snowdrops and the yellow flowers of lesser celandine, primroses and daffodils.

The church is Norman but has traces of Saxon work in the walls. Both doorways are Norman. The south is the more elaborate with pillars with carved capitals and a round arch. There is a small Norman window in the south wall. The larger windows are either Decorated or perpendicular. For Suffolk, the tower is very low, not much higher than the nave and has a thatched roof.

Entry is through the north door. Inside it is a simple church with with plain plaster ceiling and whitewashed walls. The beam supports from an earlier roof can be seen along the top of the nave. It is still lit by oil lamps. There are simple wooden pews which have electric heaters underneath, probably much needed in the winter. The pulpit is late 19thC.

At the west end is a 19thC wooden gallery which would have held the church musicians. On the wall are painted panels with the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. At the top is a tiny round Saxon window.

Across the chancel is a 15thC rood screen with delicate tracery along the top. There is a simple table altar. The base of the east wall is covered with carved panels from the 17thC pulpit.

Above is the 13thC retable set behind alarmed glass. This was painted for Thetford Priory and following the Dissolution of the Monasteries it is thought to have been kept in a private chapel, before being taken to Thornham Hall. It was discovered in 1927 and given to the church. It is a priceless work of art with nine arches containing painted figures set on a gold background. The detail is amazing. St Edmund is holding the arrow that killed him. Margaret of Anticoch is holding the spear she used to kill the dragon. St Catherine is holding the wheel used to break her.

From left to right, are the images of St Dominic, St Catherine, John the Baptist, St Peter. In the centre is the crucifixion with The Virgin Mary and St John. Beyond are St Paul, St Edmund, Margaret of Antioch and Peter the Martyr.

The east window contains traces of medieval glass at the top.

The other treasure in the church are the 14thC wall paintings which cover the walls of the nave. Those on the south wall are of the martyrdom of St Edmund. (This is special as there is only one other sequence in the rest of England.) On the north wall are scenes of the nativity. Later windows cut across some of the images. There is a patterned border with a scroll design along the top and bottom of the paintings.

The martyrdom of St Edmund needs to be read from east to west. Edmund is seen fleeing on horseback from a Viking attack. The martyrdom itself was destroyed when the window was put in. Beyond, Edmund’s decapitated head being put back on the body by a group of monks. The body is then carried off to its shrine at Bedricsworth (later to become St Edmundsbury) while the wolf that found and guarded the head looks on. The final image shows the wheel of a cart carrying St Edmund’s body miraculously crossing a very narrow bridge.

The Nativity scenes need to be read from west to east. The Annunciation scene is hidden behind the gallery. The Nativity is above the north door. In the next scene, angels tell the shepherds of Christ’s birth. The final scene shows the adoration of the magi.

There are also consecration crosses painted on the walls.

This is another delightful church and well worth finding. It is open daily from 9-5 and there is a parking area by the church.

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