The parish of Feltwell is large in extent and the roads form a figure of eight. At the centre of the figure you will find the church of St Mary.
The oldest part of the building is the chancel, which is in the decorated style of architecture (1275 1375) and confirms that the church is over 600 years old. The first rector, Nicholas de Coulteshale, was instituted in 1303. There is, however, just to the right of the south door, a part of the church that is believed to be of Norman origin, and it could be that there was a church on this site prior to the building of St Mary's. In 1602 the church was listed among the Ruined and Decayed Churches in the Deanery of Fincham and Cranwich. It was repaired in 1834 and in 1862 the North aisle was rebuilt to make the church its present size.
Before the addition of the north aisle it was one of the "Norfolk long thin churches". There is just enough left to understand something of this beautiful example of these churches if one stands so that the north aisle is not visible.
Upon on entering the church you will notice the lanterns over the south and west doors. They are two of three given by Mrs Ashley O' Rorke in memory of her late husband. Each is inscribed:
A.R.H.O'R I.O'R 22nd June 1936
"Mizpah" refers to Genesis 31 v 49 which reads: "The Lord watch between thee and me when we are absent one from the other".
The church consists of chancel, nave, south clerestory, south porch and massive embattled tower, which contains three bells, the oldest one bearing the inscription "John Draper made me in 1621". The other bells are marked "Thomas Newman made me in 1711" and "Thomas Thickpenny and Peter Drak C.W. 1711". Without doubt the "C.W." indicates that the two men were churchwardens. The bell cast in 1621 weighs just over half a ton and the two cast in 1711 weigh 8cwt and 6cwt. In 1966, the belfry of St Mary's church was considered to be in need of attention and the three bells were taken down so that the structure could be repaired. The bells were re-hung by John Taylor of Loughborough during the week commencing 22nd April 1968.
The lofty west tower is beautifully built in stone and is described by Pevsner as "sumptuous". One must remember that towers of this size, and churches in general, were built at the rate of 6 feet (about 2 metres) per year to enable the mortar to dry; this is apparent on most churches if looked at carefully. On the exterior of the tower there are several sculpted figures surrounding the coping and some twenty shields bearing the arms of the Moundeford, Barry and Fincham families.
The church has a fine timbered roof of great beauty from 1830 and the spandrels under the beams are enriched with beautifully carved angels and pierced tracery. Note too the figures of angels with outstretched wings on the beams. The roof looks down on a magnificent array of Tudor benches or pews built in the late 1400s (reputedly given by one of the Moundeford family in memory of their kinsfolk) and are some of the finest examples of pre- Reformation benches in this country. These pews have pierced backs, poppyheads and mutilated animal or figurative handrests. Many of these were probably disfigured during the Commonwealth of 1647 when untold damage was done to our churches. They did, however, miss some and these may be seen between the font and the tower. These pews are built for Tudor people who were much smaller than we are today - indeed it would be impossible even in the longest and most boring sermon to feel drowsy. The church will now, with the addition of the modern pews, seat 680 people.
In the corner near the pulpit are the well-worn steps to the rood loft which can be seen coming down through the thickness of the wall to what was the chapel of St Catherine. This would have been the same size as the present vestry and North chapel. The date of the demolition of St Catherine's chapel is not known but it was there in 1536 when one of the Francis Moundefords was buried in "St Kathryn's Chapell" and her sister Elizabeth Morewood was buried there in 1541. The rood screen is of carved oak, but is partly modern. High on the screen are nine carved figures, each playing an instrument.
In the same wave of destruction, when the pews were mutilated, several of the brasses on the church floor were ripped up. Two were preserved and placed on the south wall of the chancel. The larger brass is to the memory of Margaret Moundeford who died in 1520. She is wearing the head-dress of the period, known as the kennel head-dress, from its resemblance to the gable end of a dog kennel. From her girdle hang her beads, purse and pomander (an aromtic ball carried to preserve against infection). The Latin inscription translates as 'Pray for the soul of Margaret Moundeford" and ends "On whose soul may God have mercy".
There are a number of memorials in the church. On the south wall of the chancel there is an effigy of Osbert de Moundeford, a kneeling figure in armour with his two wives kneeling beside him. On the opposite wall of the chancel is a brass to the memory of the Reverend William Newcome; he was the eldest son of the Lord Primate of Ireland and the Vicar of Sutton; this brass was previously coloured and traces of the colour can still be seen; it is of a very high quality. On the tablets on the south wall above the door are coloured shields and inscriptions to the memory of the last members of the Clough family who lived in Feltwell for over 200 years. In the chancel there are two rather special brasses, for Moundeford and Hethe, which were made in Bury St. Edmunds. There are two wall monuments to members of the Moundeford family, which were restored in 1988. On the floor are several ledge stones and one, in Latin, relates to John Wace who was a master at Feltwell Grammar School and was buried in 1672. There are several more beneath the choir stalls: the people lying beneath the visible stones were all interrelated.
There are some excellent windows in the church. The most notable is the fine east window of five lights depicting scriptural scenes, mainly from the New Testament. This window was donated by the people of Hockwold to the people of Feltwell because a Feltwell doctor stayed in Hockwold and administered to the people during a plague. This window was taken out in 1851 and exhibited at the Paris Exhibition. Subsequently it was lost on the return journey and came to light in the docklands of London six weeks later and was replaced in Feltwell church. The windows on the North side of the nave once bore the shields and arms of de Moundeford, Manning, Grey and Southwell, but these have now disappeared. The vestry window contains the only remaining example of arms.
The chancel, tower and north chapel contain together nine stained glass windows. They form the only set of such windows in the United Kingdom. Although they were installed at the expense of the Reverend E.B. Sparke between 1858 and 1863 by two firms from Dijon in France, they are in the style of the 13th century. The Reverend Sparke was a very rich and well travelled man who was familiar with stained glass windows in cathedrals at home and abroad and some of the designs from these buildings are incorporated in the Feltwell windows. The red coloured glass was only found in two of the most notable cathedrals in Europe, and he had the glass specially made in France: no other church in Britain has the same red coloured glass.
The coat of arms of George IV in the clerestory was removed from St Nicholas church, the now redundant church in the north of Feltwell.
In conclusion, this church is a priceless heritage. We didn't build it: we inherited it. If it is ever allowed to deteriorate, we could not, even with all our modern knowledge and technology replace it with anything half so fine. It is ours to care for, and if we do nothing else, we must see that it is handed down to the next generation in at least as good condition as we found it.
Peter Cooper, quondam Chairman of the Feltwell Historical and Archaeological Society, from his own research and that of Alfred J Orange, the Feltwell village historian who died in 1992, compiled this history of St Marys.
Continue on the St. Mary's Loop or go to Written Records or join the Tour