Gissing is just one of just 186 round tower churches in the Country and is a grade one listed building. It dates from the 11th century, stands in the middle of the village and is bordered by the pub, bowling green and Victorian School. Gissing Church has been described as one of the "best small churches in Norfolk"
Like most small churches it has been remodelled and added to over the centuries so what you see today is very different to the church of 900 years ago and like many old buildings it is impossible to be precise about some of the changes which have taken place.
Pre-reformation this church would have been full of medieval colour and decorated with statues, stained glass and paintings. Much of this colour and vibrancy would have been lost in the 16th century when puritanism was in the ascendancy; coloured glass and statues were smashed and paintings whitewashed over.
St Mary the Virgin
Gissing church is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin as are numerous other churches in these parts, for example Diss, Tivetshall and Pulham to name but three.
The appeal of Mary was very strong in the medieval period - her place in popular thinking was fundamental, often at the expense of God himself! She was thought of as a trustworthy friend and a fount of mercy who could always be relied on to use her influence in heavenly circles on our behalf.
Hundreds of miracles are attributed to her: an influential collection of these was made by Anselm, Abbot of Bury St Edmunds in the early twelfth century, around about the time this church was built.
The age of Gissing Church
The church itself is early, probably dating from between 1050AD and 1120, one indicator being the double-splay bull's eye windows in the tower. These are typical Saxo-Norman feature; built in the Saxon tradition during the Norman period.
The nave is of a similar period - indicated by the vast thickness of the walls and the long and short work on the quoins (corner stones) to SW. and NW.
The Round Tower
The church has one of the famous round towers, the origins of which are still debated. There were originally 144 of these in Norfolk, 43 in Suffolk and a handful in the rest of the eastern counties. In particular they are clustered around the river basin of the Yare/Waveney system.
Significantly, the only other area with similar round towers is to be found in North Germany bordering the Baltic and North seas - an area to which we were linked by trade.
It appears unlikely that the tower was originally built for defensive purposes, by AD 1000 the Viking raids had ceased and in any event the tower is not tall enough to house any significant defensive preparations.
At the base of the tower on the west side we can see signs of a doorway - this typical narrow, arched, early doorway which was blocked up in the major renovations of 1877 would have provided an easy way in. The original building probably had a thatched roof which would be susceptible to fire in the event of an attack? both features provide further evidence that the main purpose of the tower was not defence.
On balance there was probably a church attached to the tower from the beginning although the evidence for this is slight.
In the nineteenth century a west gallery was added which ran along the rear of the church across the entrance to the tower.
This handsome structure is the main entrance into the church and was built in the Perpendicular style in 1474. It is decorated with flush work panels of knapped flint and originally its niches would have contained statues of the saints. Robert Scale provided 40d (just under 17p!) towards building it.
Originally the porch had an upper room and this was often used by the priest as a kind of vestry, although village arms and armour were sometimes kept here.
We know that John Gibbs, the village priest who was ejected from office as a non-juror in 1690 went on living in this room. He certainly can?t have felt the cold overmuch!
The porch was also used as a general meeting place for important transactions - William Rooper's will of 1623 stipulates that Thomas, his heir, must pay out legacies ?at or in the churche porche of the pshe of Gyssinge".
We cannot be certain why we have a north porch at all and not one on the south side. The north side of the church was usually reserved for secular activities such as markets, fairs, sports and general socialising (Gissing had a weekly market from 1378 and a fair on St. James' day, July 25th). The south side of a Church was normally reserved for things religious, especially the burial of the dead.
It was in the porch that important parts of ceremonies took place - baptism, the burial service, weddings, the churching of women (purification after childbirth) and the absolution of the penitent.
So, by rights, our porch should be on the south, as in most other rural churches. However as the bulk of the village and our main street lay to the north in the medieval period, so perhaps this explains things.
As you enter the church by the north porch one of the first things you see is the font; it dates from the 14th century, is still used for christenings today.
Behind the font lays the South door which is little used and usually locked ? a walk around the outside of the church reveals the wonderful detail over the South door.
One of the truly outstanding features of this small church is the magnificent double hammer beam roof of the nave, a feature dating to the end of the 15th century. Each stage is decorated with angels and must have looked spectacular when it was first erected for it would have been highly coloured with much red and gold - a very expensive item for so small a church (There were only 150 communicants as late as 1603, after another century of population growth). Each angel is different and has a special emblem on its shield.
Another mystery is the lower ends of the wall posts where the figures have been hacked in two and the corbel stones on which they should rest have been removed. Was the roof reused from another, grander location? If so, it seems very fortuitous that the roof fits the width of this nave so well and why were the wall posts not remodelled at the time?
One would think that the wall posts could never have reached any lower where they lie over a window, especially the easternmost window on the north side of the nave which predates the roof and contains the opening to the rood loft stair!
A better theory is that this is simply a grand faux pas. Such structures were made in a timber yard off site and if someone got their measurements wrong regarding the positioning of the windows and especially as most of the windows were also new in the same period and would be made by masons on quite a different site then this sort of mistake is all too possible. A result would have been a roof which came down much lower than expected and where some of the wall posts hung down over the windows as pendants.
A final possibility is that in the eighteenth century when things Gothic were rather out of fashion, lower, false ceilings were sometimes put into church naves. Ceilings of this nature made things lighter, brighter and warmer but would have necessitated just such "adjustments" as we see, or it may be that the nineteenth century west gallery, which was certainly there in 1877, extended further round the nave walls at one point. This might also require surgery on the roof and could also account for the number of tiny upper windows shown on Ladbroke's drawing (see below).
The angels probably survived the reformation for want of long enough ladder to reach them.
The stair that leads nowhere
As you walk up the aisle there is a door let into the window reveal on the north side of the nave. This leads to a narrow stair in the wall which leads precisely nowhere.
Studies of other churches show us that this stair once led up onto the platform over the screen (roodscreen) which once divided chancel from nave. This carried a huge crucifix (the rood) and flanking statues of the Virgin and St. John (the Evangelist). Choristers sometimes sang from up here and mass might be said here on the feast of the Holy Cross.
All this was probably lost at the time of the Reformation when images and other Catholic imagery were torn down. Screens sometimes survive because they perform a useful function, separating the priestly part of the church (the chancel) from the rest and protecting the holy altar from the attentions of unruly children and stray dogs.
The evicted priest, John Gibbs, was said to have made his bed on the rood loft stair (probably on the missing wooden stair up to the window) when he was camping out in the church, arranging his bed so that he could see the altar first thing in the morning.
The Kemp Chapel
The chapels at the east end of the church were probably originally chantry chapels - built to provide an altar and space for a priest dedicated to pray for one's soul in perpetuity. The north chapel was traditionally the burial place of the lords of the manor but with 5 manors there were a fair number of people entitled to occupy this space.
The Kemps did not arrive in the village until 1465 when the chapel may already have been in existence (the south chapel was certainly originally thirteenth century). In 1465 the Kemps held three of the manors and it was only in 1595 that they bought the remaining two. It was after this that we find Kemp monuments appearing in the north chapel, the first being for Robert in 1614.
Few other families are buried in the Church because only patrons and priests were thought worthy to lie inside the church itself in the medieval period and lying nearest the altar had the highest kudos of all.
Ordinary mortals had to be buried outside, most preferring the east end of the church or near the south doorway where they would be probably be seen and remembered. Nobody wanted to lie in the ungodly, north side of the church.
The South Chapel
This area now contains the Victorian Organ and serves as the vestry for today's Vicar. Under this Chapel lies a crypt but access is blocked and no one has entered for many years.One day a CCTV may be used to explore the crypt but for now its contents remain a mystery.
Every medieval church would have had rich stained glass and Gissing was no exception. The glass probably illustrated stories from the Bible for the (mostly illiterate) congregation but Puritanism largely put paid to this. The churchwardens' accounts from 1643-5 show that Gissing lost its glass when the parish paid 6s 8d "to the visseter when the picters were pulld down in the windeows".
It then cost the parish 1-9s-4d to reglaze and they even had to provide the ladders "to pull down the croses of the church and stepple" at a further cost of 1s 8d!
A Victorian Restoration
Much of the Church we see today is a product of the restoration in 1877 the tiled floor, organ and pews date from this period reconciling Catholic heritage with Protestant conscience.
Gissing High Street
An extract from Feyden's map shows there was still a through road on the north side of the church at the end of the eighteenth century and a goodly number of houses lay there. The hollow way in the adjacent meadow shows where it once ran. Instead of turning up towards Malthouse Lane as the road now does, it once continued straight across towards Gissing Hall (then the site of the Rectory). It was in the 1820s that the Kemps rerouted this section of road further north to give their park more privacy.