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Kent, United Kingdom
Author of Tracing Your Family History Through Death Records. http://tiny.cc/pzwuay My blog has moved to: http://www.heritagefamilyhistory.co.uk/blog

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

St Mary's Thornham Parva

Set among a patchwork of Suffolk fields Thornham Magna church is a quiet, unassuming  yet attractive flint church with a thatched roof. Small in stature and isolated it may be but its unassuming exterior belies the fact it is one of England’s ecclesiastical gems. The church is renowned for two things – firstly the magnificent retable and secondly its medieval wall paintings believed to date from the 14th century.

My husband and I visited Thornham Parva one bitterly cold February morning with a light falling of snow upon the ground. It struck me that it often seems to be our most isolated churches that offer up the most unexpected delights and, walking along the church path flanked by topiary bushes, I was not ready for the sight that met me once I opened the door into the church and stepped inside.

I knew that Thornham Magna was famous for its wall paintings but I had no idea of the extent to which the walls were covered with them or how each set of paintings told a different story.

The wall paintings could in no way be described as fine art  but they provide a tantalising glimpse into a different age; an age when the majority of our medieval ancestors, who were for the most part uneducated but who would very much have lived in the fear of God would not have understood the liturgy of church services which was of course in Latin.  The images were therefore an aid to worship not just for the uneducated congregation but also, I suspect, for the priests and clergy themselves. As we saw in the first part of my church blog changes brought about by the Reformation meant that by the time of Edward V1 anything representing Catholic imagery was ordered to be destroyed. This included not only images of the saints from rood screens, many of which had their faces scrubbed out but images on the sides of fonts many of which were smashed or chiselled away and any wall paintings which were lime-washed over.  It is not clear whether the Thornham paintings were painted over at the Reformation or before this however. It has been noted that fourteenth century pre-Reformation alterations to the church destroyed at least one of the paintings,  but it is certain that their presence was unknown when they were re-discovered in the twentieth century.

St Edmund's head is rejoined to his body by his followers
For centuries  the paintings were hidden from sight by lime wash and then, following their re-discovery  in the early twentieth century, they were partly obscured by a dark layer of wax misguidingly placed there in the 1930s to help preserve them. An intensive program of restoration work in the 1980s removed the wax and  uncovered further paintings.

Though the wall paintings may have been carried out by a fairly crude local painter they are however almost unique because there is only one other known sequence of wall paintings ( at Cliffe in Kent) that depicts events from the life Saint Edmund, the king of East Anglia who met his death at the hands of the Danes in 869. St Edmund is understandably an especially popular saint in East Anglia, his remains having been buried at Bury (hence its title Bury St Edmunds). The paintings include scenes depicting his failed attempt to flee from the Danes, his burial procession, his severed head being reunited with his body and an event that happened many years after his death when his remains were being temporarily taken to London. On this occasion  the cart carrying his remains was miraculously able to traverse a bridge that was too narrow for it.

St Edmund is not the only protagonist depicted in the paintings however. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and  a series of paintings depicting the nativity of Christ from the Annunciation  to his presentation in the temple can also be seen, although  at least one has been lost behind a later wooden gallery at the west end of the church. 
St Joseph on the left and the virgin and child on the right

The wall paintings are wonderful but now, understandably after all they have endured, sadly faded and I only wish we could  step back in time to view them in all their original glory. By contrast the retable  is  richly coloured and obviously a work of fine art carried out by an artist of  far greater skill. A retable is simply a series of painted panels set over the altar and would have been found in  many churches in medieval times.  This one is estimated to date from the 14th century  and again includes an image of St Edmund as well as several other saints and the crucifixion. The retable did not originally belong in the church but was mysteriously  discovered  in a stable loft close to Thornham in the 1920s while what is believed to be a sister retable is to be found in the Musee de Cluny in Paris. Both are clearly by the same artist and also appear to have suffered damage in the same place probably during the Reformation thus indicating they were once together in the same church. Nothing is known about how the second retable ended up in Paris but historians here believe they have uncovered something of the story of the Thornham retable. It is thought originally to have belonged in  nearby Thetford  Priory but at some point after the Dissolution of the Monasteries it is believed to have found its way into the hands of a local Catholic family by the name of Cox until it was sold at auction in 1778 to an ancestor of the owner of Thornham Hall where it stayed until it was finally acknowledged as a piece of fine art in the 1920s.

The rest of the church offers further points of interest for  the visitor including a fine 15th century rood screen and accompanying remains of the rood loft staircase while on the west wall of the nave is a bowed 18th century gallery. There is also a handsome wooden parish chest which would originally have housed parish documents including the parish registers and possibly once the parish alms.

Looking through the rood screen towards the gallery on the west nave wall.

The Parish Chest
Crucifixion Scene from the Retable
Looking towards the rood screen and chancel


  1. Wonderful pictures and narrative. Parish churches and their churchyards are a passion of mine

  2. Thanks Ann, glad you are enjoying the blog. A new post coming soon now that my book on death records is just about finished!