All about All Saints, Mendham

“A Battleground of Beliefs”

We want to tell you of things you may never have heard, describe a place very different from this, point out fascinating objects that have been here for over a hundred years – or most of a millennium – that you may never have noticed, and reveal secrets here that you will probably never see “in the flesh” nor have known of their existence. But most of all, we want to tell you why they are here – or why they are not here any longer.

All Saints is the church closest to the River Waveney. It may well have been a sacred spot for centuries even before the Angles and Saxons settled here, as the Christian church was known for using places for its worship that had been used previously. Indeed, this site was used in  Anglo-Saxon times for spreading the Gospel to these pagan settlers. It was described in the 900’s as a Minster, or mission church, with several clergy covering a wide area. By 1086 the Domesday Survey mentioned it and two other churches being given 83 acres for the use of the priests!

But the building in those days would have been very different from what we see today.

It would have been smaller, with just small round topped windows high up the walls. Instead of the sturdy tower at the west end, nearest the river, it might have had a shorter one rising from near the centre of the roof, or not  had one at all. Many local churches had round towers, like at Needham and, originally, at Redenhall, but there is not any evidence for this here. Yet, if you look at the stones in the church wall, just to the right of the porch, you can see the round ends of small pillars that probably come from this earlier building. Yes, they recycled in those days too!

There may have been a door in the west end where the tower is now. If you look outside at the sides of the tower where it joins the church wall it is just possible to trace where there may have been buttresses helping to hold up the older end wall. So some parts of the ancient church may survive – they are just hidden.

But let us remember that the old churches in each of our towns and villages, which are so common around here, took a huge amount of time, effort and money to build. From Saxon times onwards, skilled builders would be required to create walls from the piles of flint collected locally and  masons to shape the stone brought from further afield by ox cart or barges on the river. Cranes would have to be constructed to lift the large corner stones from whichever form of transport was used and raise to whatever height was required on the tower or walls. Teams of carpenters would be bringing the massive oak or elm trunks to be fashioned into the great beams that spanned the nave or the tower. Pits would be dug so the huge timbers could be laid across them and cut to size. The “top dog” stood above and held the upper handle of the long two-man saw, as they pushed and pulled it through the wood, whilst the “under dog” crouched below and grasped the lower handle as the dust and debris cascaded down upon him. It must have been incredibly hard and filthy work. All those involved in the construction of the church would have had to risk the relatively flimsy wooden scaffolding that slotted into “putlog holes” in gaps left in the walls at each level. We often gaze and admire the design or symmetry of buildings without thinking of those who must have risked their health to create them.

Meanwhile, around the church grew the village of Mendham, cottages built of large timber frames fastened together with wooden pegs, walls filled with hazel sticks and daubed with clay, their roofs from thatched straw, and yet made in such a way that some could last hundreds of years. The thatched building close to the present iron gate was actually a hall in Medieval times, possibly one of several in the vicinity. Other houses would be very small indeed by today’s standards.

This would make quite a contrast for Mendham folk, leaving their often cramped, small wooden cottages to enter the tall stone-built church. Yet the contrast would have been even greater than this, for the church became a riot of colour.

Imagine leaving a little hut of wood, with clay walls and thatch or the fields nearby to enter a different world. The later, Medieval church would be filled with wall paintings. Since all services were conducted in Latin, which the peasants would recognise but few really understand, there would be illustrations of Bible stories on all the walls in order to help explain their faith. Above and below these would be vast areas of colour, sometimes plain, sometimes patterned. As the Norman church replaced the Saxon minister it would have provided even more wall space. When the congregation grew and the wealth of the patrons of the church increased, the aisles were built, which moved the wall space outwards but darkened the centre of the church. To compensate, a higher storey with another line of windows on each side was built: the clerestory.

Again, the wall spaces between the new windows would have been full of images too. As the roof was raised the now, even larger space above the arch to the chancel (with the altar at its far end) probably would have been filled with a screen upon which would have been a huge “Doom” painting of The Day of Judgement. These were typical in our churches. There would have been the mouth of a monster on the right, with tormented souls being led or pushed into it. On the left there would have been a collection of saints and those who were saved. Above them all would have been Christ, surrounded by angels and saints. Sadly, all evidence of these paintings has gone from All Saints Church. Yet traces of colour survive on the coving of our ancient timber roof just in front of the arch. This part of the ceiling was known as the “canopy of honour”, for this was a particularly holy part of the church for the congregation, for here they might receive Holy Communion, as they were not allowed beyond this point. Only the priest and his sacristan who prepared the bread and wafers for him were permitted to enter the chancel. The days of a choir in the chancel were yet to come. Indeed, the priest was responsible for maintaining the chancel, the nave and the rest of the church was the congregation’s responsibility. The priest would stand in the doorway of a large painted wooden screen that covered the whole entrance to the chancel. It too would be painted, with pictures of saints across its front. On top of this would have been a balcony with a large cross in its centre. In old English the word for cross was “rood”, and thus it was called the “rood screen” whilst the balcony was the “rood loft”. Indeed, the old stairs and doorway to this “loft” remain high in the wall near the organ. These were for lighting huge candles that would have illuminated the colourful figures of Jesus on the “rood”, his mother, the Virgin Mary and St. John on either side of him when the church was in darkness. Also, at certain points of the church year, the figures may have been cloaked.

Once the aisles were built there would have been a separate chapel to the Virgin Mary, where the Lady chapel is now. It would have had its own altar but also a highly coloured statue of the Virgin Mary. You can see the niche in the wall called a piscina which they used for pouring out any left over holy water. The water ran into the core of the wall, so that those worshipping evil could not retrieve it from a drain. There is still a rare squint or hagioscope in the left wall of the chapel through which the folk in the chapel and aisle could see the priest at the main altar in his chancel when he reached one of the most important moments of their service, the “elevation of the host”, when he raised the holy bread up high once it had been blessed and when they believed it turned into the body of Christ and the wine into his blood. There used to be a little wooden door across the squint which was found during the Victorian refurbishment. Yet this may be evidence that those in the Lady Chapel was once separated from the rest of the congregation, possibly because of their class and status. It provided the watcher with a very private and personal view of one of the most holy moments in the church. Perhaps less distraction meant the greater the intimacy of the moment and the closer to Christ they felt, the more solid their relationship with him and thus, maybe, a better chance of less time in purgatory or worse, going into the jaws of Hell.

On the other side of the church, where the organ is now, there would probably have been a chapel to “All Saints”, with an effigy of God and images of his saints. Another statue of this would probably have stood in the niche above the door to the front porch when it was built.