Monday, 18 December 2017

Snakes, Scrolls & Anglo-Saxon Secrets

"Open weekend reveals secrets of historic church." The headline in the local paper was intriguing. Mum kept the cutting for me, and on my next visit to see her, on a sunny Norfolk autumn afternoon, we drove up a narrow, bumpy bridleway, just beyond the village of North Pickenham. 

The Church of St Mary's, at Houghton on the Hill, is hidden from view, and even when you arrive, it nestles shyly amid the trees.

Houghton on the Hill is mentioned in Domesday, and if the name Houghton has the same derivation as Houghton near West Rudham, then it means enclosure on the hill-spur [hoh (hill-spur) plus tun (enclosure, settlement or farm)].

The main reason for my visit was to see the murals, and they're hard to miss. As you walk through the door, you can see them, in all their - slightly faded - glory. These murals have not been precisely dated, but the general consensus is that they are pre-Conquest, and it's thought that they are the oldest of their type, certainly in England and possibly in Europe. There have been many scholarly articles published, examining the history and the symbolism of these paintings. This blog post is not about that, just about the experience of visiting this unique place and seeing these wonderful murals.

Alan, our guide, explained that they are what's known as a Doom Painting (depicting the Last Judgement.) He showed us the figures who are in Hell, looking up towards God, who has Jesus sitting on his knee. 

The notorious figures holding the serpents/scrolls have been the subject of much discussion. Alan says he is convinced that they are serpents, because of the shape of them. Comparison with the figure on the other side, who is in Hell, would seem to confirm this. The figure here is holding a plump, red, angry 'scroll', which does, admittedly, look very much like an untamed serpent.

My love of all aspects of Anglo-Saxon history has endured for nearly forty years. I studied it for my degree, I've continued to research it ever since, and this has resulted in the publication of three novels, contributions to two anthologies (one fiction, one non-fiction) and a commission to write a history of the ancient kingdom of Mercia. But never have I seen anything like these murals. To view them was a fabulous experience, and I marvelled at the fact that they have survived, and the circumstances which led to their discovery.

Bob Davey found the church back in the 1990s, derelict, and in need of restoration. In the course of that restoration, the murals were revealed.

The Anglo-Saxon images are the earliest paintings to have been revealed beneath the layers of plaster. But there is a fragment of a later painting, which contains words taken from Cranmer's Common Book of Prayer. This was produced during the reign of Edward VI, and demonstrates that for centuries, this was a working church. In all, there are five layers of paintings and the argument persists: should the later layers be completely erased in order to reveal the earlier ones?

On the north wall, the paintings depict the birth of Eve, and one can just make out the figure of Adam leaning against the tree of life.

Nearer the north door, (now blocked up) there was a depiction of Noah's Ark and apparently all around the lower portion of the walls, there was a strip of blue - a reference to the fact that the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Not everything inside the church was a joy to see. When Bob Davey stumbled across the ruined church, hidden by trees, covered with ivy and lacking its roof, he had to evict a group of Satanists before he could begin the restoration. No easy matter, when, as the local police told him, being a Satanist is not a crime. Alan showed us the damage done by this group (see the picture below.) There is also a swastika carved into the church wall, which must be left because, yes, it, too, is a part of the history of the building.

After years of painstaking restoration, the church is now safe, its future secured by the foundation of a trust. Various items have now been returned: a seventeenth-century chest, a prayer book, the font and the stoup bowl.

Alan took us outside for a tour round the building. There was once a round tower, and the existing porch was hit by a zeppelin bomb during WWI, resulting in a gaping hole which remained for eighty years. Lying in the shadow of the south wall is the spot where Robert de Neville's tomb was located. He was the lord of the manor in the thirteenth century, who apparently was executed for being found 'in criminal conversation' with a high-born lady.

Beyond the chancel, it was thought by some that the remains of a Roman baths were visible, but Alan thinks not. He showed us the extent of each generation of building, and the different roof lines.

The window on the north wall was purportedly stolen by GIs in WWII, and the replacement is a 'best guess', as no one knew what the original design looked like.

The replacement window -behind the grave stones
the window can also be seen in the top photo

Between the window and the now blocked up north door, there is a blocked up Anglo-Saxon window. 

Back inside, I photographed the Saxon window on the south wall, which has not been blocked up, but has been glazed. At the time, of course, it would not have had glass in it.

The church, which has never been de-consecrated, is Grade I listed. It is in the middle of nowhere now, but there was a village nearby. The church is close to Peddar's Way, the old Roman Road, and was on the pilgrimage route to Walsingham, (apparently Catherine of Aragon visited with her entourage.) Of the village, there is now no trace. Richard Muir's Lost Villages of Britain does not mention Houghton on the Hill, and there seems not to have been one specific reason for the disappearance of the village. I wondered about plague, or enclosure, but it seems as if the village simply shrank over time. 
"By 1603 the rector reported only fifteen communicants, that is, adults who took communion. In 1676 this had risen slightly to eighteen. In 1664 the hearth tax recorded seven individuals charged for fourteen hearths, seven of them in one household - presumably Houghton Farm, the only substantial dwelling in the village." (Friends of St Mary’s Trust pdf)
The church, still owned by the Church of England, is safe, but the trustees still work hard, and rely on donations to fund the ongoing restoration, plans for which include the uncovering of the paintings on the south wall. 

As we stood in that tranquil place on that quiet autumn afternoon, I contemplated how the church would have looked to its eleventh, maybe even tenth-century congregation. Paintings, in bright colours, covering all the interior walls, and depicting scenes from the Bible, must have been a truly awesome sight.

Links and further information: 

[All photographs by and copyright of the author]


  1. Fantastic story! But what a horrible decision to be faced with - whether or not to destroy the 'new' paintings in the hopes that there 'old' paintings underneath!

    1. Yes, it's an awful dilemma. They are certain that at one time the entire church would have been covered in the murals, but obviously later generations have redecorated. It will be interesting to see how the renovations progress...

  2. Adding this church to my must get around to see list. Thank you! A question, Annie: I'm not an AS glass expert, but why do you think the AS window was not glazed? Window glass has been found for even earlier AS churches. Just picking your brains here.

    1. Hi Christopher - yes, you must visit, it's well worth it. I was told that the windows weren't glazed, and took the info at face value, but if, as you say, older churches had glazed windows, then we must be open to the possibility that these were, too...

  3. Oh, Annie, you give me all these must-see places with your posts! I loved this!

    1. Thank you Anna! I think you would love Norfolk - big skies, beautiful beaches and lots and lots of old churches :-)

  4. We placed a geocache here many years ago to encourage visitors who enjoy caching. We visit whenever we can as my parents still live in the next village of Ashill.
    I used to regularly walk to the church before any restoration was even a possibility just because it was an abandoned village.... Have watched its transformation for decades... Love it

    1. Hi Lesley, how wonderful for you to have seen the changes over the years. I saw the photos of how it looked when Bob first found it - hard to believe how much it's changed since :-)

  5. Replies
    1. It is indeed. And it's lovely that it's been saved from ruin :-)