A Brief History of St Peter’s Church, Forncett St Peter

Written by Ana Moskvina.

In Domesday Book, the estate of Forncett was the land of Roger Bigod and is said to have had two churches – identified as the present-day St Peter’s and St Mary’s , which are recorded as separate parish churches. Parts of St Peter’s Church Forncett remarkably now look exactly the same as the Domesday Book recorder would have seen in 1086! These include a significant amount of fabric at the west end, including the tower, and in the chancel. Look out for what is called the ‘herringbone pattern’ in the flintwork – flints laid in rows slightly at an angle to make a pattern – particularly evident in the outside of the south wall of the chancel. 

 

Ancient tower St Peters Photo. A Moskvina
Photo: A Moskvina

 

Saxon Herringbone flintwork South Chancel Photo. A Moskvina
Photo: A Moskvina

 The same wall also bears traces of an intriguing opening above the 13th-century priest’s door, Anglo-Saxon in character, but of unknown function: it is too big to be a window and too high above the ground to be a door!  The Anglo-Saxon church was simple in plan and only consisted of the tower, nave and chancel. The church’s present-day tower is outstanding, although its date has been debated: it could be either late Saxon or early Norman. However, from a stylistic point of view, the tower, with its characteristic double bell openings divided in the middle by stone shafts crowned with capitals, is undeniably Anglo-Saxon. Unusually, the capital in the east opening, although weathered, bears traces of intricate carving, which is very difficult to see from the ground level.

 

Anglo Saxon double bell opening Photo A Rae
Photo: A Rae

 The west door is characteristically Norman, whilst the parapet and the stringcourse decorated with gargoyles date to 14th century. Internally, there is a rare timber staircase, dating, most likely, to the 15th-16th centuries.

 

Norman West Door Photo A Moskvina
Photo: A Moskvina

 In the 15th century, in common with many churches, there was significant rebuilding, and the aisles were added. The entrance into the church is through the beautiful 15th-century north porch, which, when it was built, would have played a much more significant role than it does today - marriages, contracts, and business deals took place here. The porch at St Peter’s is decorated with the emblems of St Peter and St Paul: the shields with crossed keys for Peter and crossed swords for Paul. There is also an inscription above, which is almost impossible to decipher, but it reads: ‘Saints Petur and Pawle patronnys of yis place Praye to Ihu i(n) heven yt I may see his face’ [Saints Peter and Paul patrons of this place Pray to Jesus in heaven that I may see His face]. It is common for a church dedicated to both Peter and Paul to lose the Paul along the way, which is what happened here. Further above you can see the letters ‘HIS’ made in typical East Anglian flushwork – they symbolise Jesus Christ.

 

North Porch Photo. A Moskvina
Photo: A Moskvina

Inside the church, the arch-braced roof, rood stair, piscina, simple font and a number of pew ends are medieval.The latter are of exceptional quality and depict a range of figures: Apostles, personifications of seasons and occupations and symbols of vices. Various suggestions as to the specific identities of these figures have been made and some are still debated. For example, who is the lady in a small house on the north side of the church? The pew ends were severely damaged by iconoclasts in the Reformation and what we see now are a mixture of restored medieval carvings and replacements carved in Victorian times.

 

Pew Ends Photo A Moskvina
Photo: A Moskvina

The alabaster tomb to Elizabeth and Thomas Drake, who died in 1485, is another exceptional feature of the church, showing the couple in their carefully depicted medieval dress. The tomb incorporates unusual niello work – a type of engraving that uses a black mixture to fill out the engraved lines, which may be unique in Norfolk.

 

Drake Tomb Photo A Rae
Photo: A Rae

 The church was restored and re-seated by Thomas Jekyll in 1857, and, as a result, the interior is largely a mixture of 15th-century and 19th-century fabric, perhaps with the exception of the Jacobean pulpit. The stained glass, the reredos, the organ and the seating are Victorian.

Other important features of the church include a stone mensa slab at the entrance into the tower (it used to be a part of one of the altars in the church and is now set at an angle under the tower arch), two early brass inscriptions and two ledger stones, as well as the remnants of a Victorian heating system at the west end of the nave.

 

Stone mensa slab Photo A Moskvina
Photo: A Moskvina

The church also celebrates a connection with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, although there are no tangible reminders of their stays in Forncett in the church, beyond modern displays.

Ana Moskvina
Historic Church Building Support Officer, Diocese of Norwich

Bibliography:
Blomefield, F., 'Hundred of Depwade: Forncet', in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 5 (London, 1806), pp. 223-262.
Bryant, T.H., Norfolk Churches (Norwich, 1900).
Burcher, D., Norfolk and Suffolk Churches – the Domesday Record (Lowestoft, 2019).
Heywood, S., The Round Tower of the Church of St Peter, Forncett (Norwich 2006)
Izat, R., and Webster, J., The Parish Church of Forncett St Peter. An Historical Guide (Forncett, 2009)
Pevsner, N. and Wilson, B., The Buildings of England. Norfolk 2: North-West and South (London, 1999).
Mortlock, D.P. and Roberts, C.V., The Guide to Norfolk Churches (Cambridge, 2017).
Unpublished Document: Heywood, S., Report, Supplement to Principal Report of November 2006, The Church of St Peter, Forncett. Detail of Eastern Bell Opening.