The Thatched Medieval Churches in East Anglia
And a meeting with Britain’s oldest Thatcher
These buildings speak for themselves… So I’ll be brief. As a group, they are perhaps the most beautiful set of thatched structures in Britain. There are around a hundred churches, with some thatch to protect them, in these islands. The majority date from the medieval period, and lie in three East Anglian counties…
Some of the earliest; all with round towers, can be seen in the History page, on the early medieval period. These round towers, were built for defence, as well as worship. Several of these towers have collapsed, on other churches, over the centuries; leaving only the large nave and smaller chancel, still standing. Often these two features are combined, under one long thatched roof. Relatively low and narrow buildings, easy to timber and easy to thatch. The buildings follow the normal progression of church architecture. From the Romanesque, of Saxons and Normans. On through the ever more ornate styles, of the Gothic period; of the later Middle Ages.
Once, most parish churches throughout Britain were thatched; restorations and rebuilding, down through the centuries, removed most of these roofs. As late as 1880, the Suffolk parish of Reydon, decided to remove their church’s thatch. But being short of money, only the side visible from the road was tiled. To give, at least the impression, of modernity. Other churches in this area, also have partly thatched roofs; the result of other ‘improvements’…
At the end of this ecclesiastical tour, the final church will show it’s little wooden treasure; Britain’s oldest thatcher…
So, in no particular order…
Holy Cross, at Caston in Norfolk. Dating from around 1300. The design of this church is repeated. in thousands of other parish churches. But this one has kept it’s thatch roof. Photo; courtesy Alan Porter LRPS
St John the Baptist, at Butley in Suffolk, in around 1900. With a 12thcentury thatched nave. This old image shows a coat of long straw. Which most of the churches, away from the reed growing areas, once had. All are now coated in water reed. Including this charming example.
All Saints, at Rampton in Cambridgeshire. One of the very few, medieval thatched churches, not found in Norfolk or Suffolk. The thatch here also covers a nave, from the 12th century.
St Mary’s’, at Barton Bendish in Norfolk. This 14thcentury church, never had a tower. The parish probably being too poor to afford one.
St. Mary’s at Uggeshall in Suffolk, in around 1920. And in the process of having a new ridge applied…
St Andrew’s, at Bramfield in Suffolk. This 14thcentury church, was never attached; to it’s earlier, round bell tower. Which was built for defence, centuries before.
St Mary’s, at Thornham Parva in Suffolk. This 14th century church has a thatched tower. In fact this little church, appears to be one of a very few, which is totally covered with thatch. The right hand image, of around 1930, shows a long straw thatch…
St Mary’s at Sisland in Norfolk. A tiny parish, with less than fifty souls. The top image shows the church being ridged in sedge grass, after a rethatch in Norfolk Reed. The left hand image dates from a few years later, when the roof has toned down… Much of the church is eighteenth century; its medieval predecessor was destroyed by lightning, on a Sunday afternoon, in July 1761; during ‘divine service’… Left photo copyright & courtesy; Evelyn Simak @ Geograph
St Margaret and All Saints, at Lowestoft in Suffolk, in around 1900. This church was once two. St Margaret’s lying under one thatched nave ; All Saints under the adjoining one… The building fell prey to incendiary bombs, in 1941. Thatchers restored the roof , in water reed and sedge grass, in October 1949.
For many years the parishioners of nearby Kirkley also used this church, as their thatched building was in a dilapidated condition. In 1749 it was decided to re-roof and thatch Kirkley church, James Chamberlayne being paid seventy pounds to construct the roof. When done a ‘treat’ for the workers cost the church worthies three pounds… Four shillings was then laid out, for ‘expenses and assistance in buying the reed’. Six hundred bundles were purchased, at two pounds eight shillings a hundred. These were brought some six miles or so from Benacre Broad, for four pounds ten shillings; the carters being allowed a shilling ‘for drink’, for each of the twelve loads. A further four shillings being paid ‘for recovering reed when dispersed by a flood’; either at Benacre, or on site… The thatchers where paid ten pounds, seventeen shillings and two pence, for ‘laying on the reed, broaches, &c.’; a further thirty shillings covered the cost of straw, no doubt for the ridge. It is interesting to note that the party for the workmen, on completing the timber roof, totalled almost a third of thatcher’s bill!
St Peter’s at Kirkley… Showing the church, as restored in 1749. This image dates to before the area became overwhelmed by nearby Lowestoft. Leading to an increase in population and the almost total rebuilding of the church; between 1874 and 1876; only the tower remains, standing above a tiled roof… Thatch lasts well hereabouts and the water reed thatch shown, is possibly the first replacement, or perhaps the second, of the 1749 water reed roof, mentioned above…
St Peter’s, at Great Livermere in Suffolk. A church, from the 13th century, with only it’s nave still thatched.
All Saints, at Chedgrave in Norfolk. Only the tower is thatched here. And dates to the 12th century or earlier. This, and the towers at Thornham Parva and Uggeshall seem to be the only remaining examples…
St Mary’s, at Burgh St Peter in Norfolk. A church that did not give it’s name, to it’s location. The continuously thatched nave and chancel, are early 14th century. The huge tower dates from 1790. And covers the tomb of the Boycott family. Members of this tribe, gave the language a new word, when they were shunned by their neighbours.
St Margaret’s, at Hales in Norfolk. Hardly unchanged since the 12th century. It has a Romanesque, rounded chancel. A shape, that has given many generations of thatchers, little trouble to complete.
St Andrew’s, at Hempstead in Norfolk. Dating from the 13th to the 15th centuries.
St Lawrence‘s, at Ingworth in Norfolk. The rounded end, is all that is left of a collapsed round tower. It now makes an attractive vestry.
All Saints, at Billockby in Norfolk. This image, from 1783, shows a poor state of affairs. Things have now improved. But the thatched chancel still makes up the main church. The porch is now also covered. But the nave and tower remain open to the skies.
St Nicholas’, at Potter Heigham in Norfolk. The tower and chancel are both 12th century. The central nave was raised, in around 1500. Unlike most rebuilding works, this project was recoated with thatch. Not the usual lead or tiles.
All Saints, at Ringsfield in Suffolk. For some reason, ‘All Saints’ , along with ‘St Mary’s’, is a common dedication, for a goodly number of thatched churches. Like many, this one was restored in the 19th century. But still kept it’s thatch.
St Peter’s, at Rockland St Peter in Norfolk. Here the 15th century nave is thatched; the tower being three centuries older.
St Mary’s, at Henstead cum Hulver in Suffolk. A large parish church from the later medieval period.
St Michael and All Angels, at Rushmere in Suffolk. The ‘mere’ that once lay close by, perhaps provided rushes for coating this church.
St Ethelbert’s, at Thurton in Norfolk. Dating from the 12th century. The thatch here wraps neatly around the tower, and covers the porch.
St Michael and All Angels, at Stockton in Norfolk. Dating from the 12th to the 15th centuries. The new thatch, shown here, had just replaced a sixty year old roof…
St Margaret’s, at Herringfleet in Suffolk. Local lore states, the Saxon watch tower came first. Followed by a separate small chapel, which is now the chancel. A little later, in the 12th century, the thatched nave was built; joining all together.
St Botolph’s, at North Cove in Suffolk. In around 1910. This old image shows an early example, of a thatch covered with wire netting. The nave here has Anglo Saxon origins. With roof timbers dating from the 15th century.
St Mary’s, at Coney Weston in Suffolk. What we see dates from the 14th century. But the thatched nave once adjoined a large tower… That fell, in 1690.
St Peter’s, at Theberton in Suffolk. A 12thcentury church, with a splendid 15th century southerly extension.
St Mary’s, at Thwaite St Mary in Norfolk. A 12th century nave, with it’s original Norman doorway.
Another St Mary’s, this one is at Ashby in Suffolk. As with many of these churches, this fine building lies in a remote location. Where time seems to have passed them by. This one is only accessible by a footpath, crossing some Suffolk fields… But the walk was worth it.
And finally, a small Suffolk church…
In medieval Suffolk, an unknown master carver once got to work, creating an exquisite wooden image of a thatcher. This is just one, of a splendid group, almost certainly originally created for the pews, in the little church, of St Mary’s at Ixworth Thorpe. Why the carver included a thatcher, we can’t say. The church itself is thatched. Perhaps he portrayed the thatcher, who covered the church roof, during his time in the village.
The thatcher here is just 8 inches (200mm) tall and dressed in his Sunday best. Our man is ready for some long straw work, Suffolk’s traditional thatching material. He has a side rake at the ready and a knife for trimming; his tools have remained unchanged, for over half a millennium. His fashionable clothes date him nicely, to the second half of the fifteenth century…