St Mary, Attleborough, Norfolk

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Feature Sets (2)


St Mary's was a grand aisleless cruciform church in the 12thc. Much of the surviving building dates from the 14c and 15c, including the present aisled nave and both transepts, but the lower stage of the central tower is Romanesque, as are the four arches of the crossing, complete with their carved capitals and supports. Above the W crossing arch, on the W face of the central tower - which is also the internal E wall of the nave - there are two decorated Romanesque round-headed openings, one above the other, on slightly different axes. They light the two-storeyed wall passage running around the tower, and also look down into the nave. The openings now serve the bell chamber above the crossing.

The unaisled Romanesque chancel had been replaced by 1405 by an aisled structure, which was itself demolished in 1541. The massive timber Rood Screen of c. 1480s extends across the full width of the nave and aisles. Important wall-painting associated with the screen partly survives  in the nave, above the W arch of the tower.

The only Romanesque sculpture at St Mary’s is found on the capitals of the crossing, the W crossing arch, the bell openings and the interior of the tower.  


Attleborough, in the Hundred of Shropham, was held by Thorold before the Norman Conquest and by Roger, son of Rainard, at the time of the Domesday survey. By 1405, the E arm of the church had been demolished and rebuilt, accommodating the college of priests established by the Mortimer family to serve a chantry chapel dedicated to the Holy Cross. In 1541, following the abolition of the English monasteries, this quasi-monastic arrangement led to the demolition of the chancel which, it was claimed, had been appropriated by the college.


Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches


All of the arches of the crossing are of two orders. With the exception of the W face of the W arch, which uniquely has carved ornament, the arches have an angle roll edged by a hollow on both the inner and outer order, on both faces. The soffits of the crossing arches are supported on triple half-shafts flanked by nook shafts, all on chamfered bases. The triple shafts are mostly topped by sheathed cushion capitals with an undulating foliate contour below the shield, some with angle tucks and crockets.

Crossing: E arch

The E face of the blocked E crossing arch is preserved on the exterior of the building, including the outer of the two arch orders with its S-shaped section.

NE crossing pier, E face

The nook shaft on the E face of the NE crossing pier supports a foliated sheathed cushion capital with a quirked and chamfered impost. Flanking the arch at a short distance are the remains of a nook shaft, flat leaf capital and quirked and chamfered impost, vestiges of the lost Romanesque chancel, possibly indicating that that it was rib-vaulted. (Thurlby 1996, 153-4)

SE crossing pier, E face

As above, with the NE crossing pier, E face.

Crossing: N arch

Crossing: S arch

Crossing: W arch

On the W face of the W arch, the angle roll of the outer order is replaced by an order of double-cone ornament with intermediate scalloped clasps and a hood mould of syncopated double-disc or radial billet. The outer capitals  of the soffit order have a volute on the leading angle, as does the SE nook shaft capital, uniquely. The NW and SW nook shafts have flat leaf capitals.

Wall passages/Gallery arcades

Tower openings

Bell openings

Above the W crossing arch, on the W (nave) face of the tower there are two round-headed openings, one above the other, slightly out of alignment, lighting a two-storey wall passage. Both openings have an outer pair of half-shafts on the wall plane and an inner pair with a rounded section. The shafts appear to be made of plastered rubble rather than ashlar. There are no capitals; the shafts support imposts, those in the upper openings again rather crudely modelled. In both openings, the arch is decorated with a row of double-cone ornament pinched at regular intervals by scalloped clasps, sometimes paired, and with syncopated double disc (radial billet) on the label.

Tower wall passage

The two-storeyed wall passage within the tower opens into the central space through internal arcades composed of round-headed arches decorated with a single roll. The arcades are supported on short rectangular piers with chamfered edges and plain chamfered imposts and terminals. Below the arcades, a string course carved with a spiral ornament runs around around the wall at the level of the bell platform floor.  


Triple shafts on crossing piers also occur at Norwich Cathedral (1096 - 1118), as well as at the Norfolk priories of Binham and Carrow.

The tower openings at Attleborough are sometimes referred to as windows in the literature (eg Pevsner, Norfolk 2, 2000, 185). As they may have been internal features, have no splay and were never glazed, the term 'openings'  has instead been used here. The Romanesque openings into the wall passage in the upper stage of the crossing tower at St Mary's, Bampton (Oxfordshire) appear always to have been internal. The Attleborough openings were blocked for a period, presumably in connection with the surrounding wall painting in the 15c. Pevsner notes that they were reopened in the 18c.

It is thought that the bells at Attleborough were originally rung from the the ground floor of the crossing and that the present bell chamber is a post-medieval contrivance. It has been suggested that the upper of the two tower openings is a secondary feature, created in the 19c to give the now elevated bell-ringers a good view of proceedings in the nave. The argument seems to depend on the estimated height of the Norman nave roof, and the assumption that it would not have enclosed the upper opening, which could therefore be a later modification. There is no appreciable difference in appearance between the two openings, however. Both seem to have been damaged and rather crudely restored, probably in the course of being blocked and subsequently reopened in connection with the 15thc wall painting.The two carved motifs on the arches of the openings were also used on the W crossing arch immediately below them, namely the double-cone ornament with scalloped clasps, and syncopated double disc (or radial billet), both of which also occur on a regionally distinctive group of doorways surviving at parish churches in the SE of the county (eg Hales, N doorway, Hellington and Heckingham)

Malcolm Thurlby convincingly compares both the stylised foliate cushion capitals and tower wall passages at Attleborough with those in the eastern arm of Norwich Cathedral (Thurlby 1996, 153-4). To these can be added the triple half-shafts on the crossing piers at both buildings. Thurlby suggests a date of c1140 for the crossing at Attleborough. The points of comparison with elements occurring in the first building phase at the cathedral (1096-1118) might suggest a somewhat earlier date for Attleborough.


  • R. Bond, The Bell Frame at St Mary's Church, Attleborough, Norfolk: An historical analysis. English Heritage Reports and Papers B/014/2004.

  • P Brown, ed, Domesday Book. Norfolk, 2 vols, London and Chichester 1984

  • English Heritage Listed Building number 1342445

  • J. A. Franklin, ‘The Romanesque Sculpture of Norwich and Norfolk: The City and its Hinterland – Some Observations,’ in Norwich. Medieval and Early Modern Art, Architecture and Archaeology, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions vol.38 2015, 135 -161, 151, 152.

  • N. Pevsner and Bill Wilson: The Buildings of England: Norfolk 2, Harmondsworth 1962, repr. 2000, 185-7

  • M. Thurlby in Norwich Cathedral: Church, City & Diocese, 1096-1996, London & Rio Grande, Ohio 1996, eds I. Atherton et al, 153-4.

  • The Victoria History of the Counties of England. Norfolk. 2 vols, London 1901/1906, vol.2, 90.

Attleborough: view from E
Attleborough, from the SE


Site Location
National Grid Reference
TM 046 952 
now: Norfolk
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Norfolk
medieval: North Elmham (c.950-1071), Thetford (1071-94), Norwich (from 1094)
now: Norwich
now: St Mary
medieval: St Mary
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Jill A Franklin 
Visit Date
August 1984