St Mary the Virgin – Gissing
Gessing, Gwissing, Gyssenge, Gyssyng or Gissing: these are some of the different ways of spelling the name of our parish. Some experts think that it means the settlement of a Saxon family named Gisa, whilst others think it could be Danish in origin. There is still a place called Gessing in Denmark, and it is possible that colonists from there could have settled here and given it the name of their old home. Either way Gissing has been a parish from very early times, probably for more than a thousand years as “Gessinga” is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086.
Gissing has just one of 186 round tower churches in the country and it is a Grade One listed building. It dates from the 11th century, stands in the middle of the village and is bordered by The Crown, the bowling green, a Victorian school and Gissing Community Centre which opened in 2017. Gissing Church has been described as one of the ‘best small churches in Norfolk’ and by one historian as a ‘Faberge egg of a church’ noted for its wonderful double hammer-beam angel roof.
Like most small churches it has been extensively remodelled and added to over the centuries so what you see today is very different to the church of 900 years ago: like many old buildings it is impossible to be precise about some of the changes which have taken place.
Pre-reformation, this church would probably 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 local churches including Diss, Tivetshall and Pulham.
The appeal of Mary was very strong in the medieval period and 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 people’s 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 12th century, around about the time this church was built.
The age of Gissing Church
The tower is the oldest part of the church and may be Saxon in origin (pre-1066).
The church itself probably dates from between 1050 and 1120, one indicator being the 3 double-splay bull's eye windows in the tower which are a typical Saxo-Norman features, built in the Saxon tradition during the Norman period.
The two light windows with the zigzag carving in the west side and the belfry windows are of Norman origin.
The south wall of the nave is the oldest part of the main body of the church as evidenced 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 a round tower and there were originally 144 round tower churches in Norfolk, 43 in Suffolk and a handful in the rest of the eastern counties the origins of which are still debated. Many are clustered around the river basin of the Yare and Waveney.
Significantly, the only other area with similar round towers can be found in North Germany bordering the Baltic and North seas, (especially prominent in the Frisian Islands) - an area linked to England by trade and the origin of some early Anglo-Saxon settlers.
Whilst some round towers, eg Forncett St. Peter, were certainly intended to be used for defensive purposes, it appears unlikely that Gissing’s tower was originally built for this reason, as by 1000 Viking raids had ceased and in any event the tower is not tall enough to mount any significant defence, unlike other round tower churches in the region.
Further evidence that the main purpose of the tower was not defence can be found at the base of the tower on the west side where 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 have been susceptible to fire in the event of an attack.
On balance, there was probably a church attached to the tower from the earliest days although the evidence for this is slight but the original church in which Gissing’s earliest residents worshipped God was, no doubt, a very basic wooden structure.
The belfry has Norman bell openings with scallop capitals on mid-wall shafts and the current belfry itself is dates from 1832 and is by Robert Ayton, a builder who is otherwise unknown. It is a very light timber construction, the walls hacked to make it fit.
Of the 5 bells, 3 are marked Ipswich 1670 and may be a set mentioned in 1552, re-cast for change ringing; and two date from 1832 and were made at Downham Market.
There was once a West Gallery running along the rear of the building across the entrance to the tower but this was removed in the renovation of 1877.
The roof covering is modern dating from work in 2005 and the tower parapet was reconstructed in the restoration of 2017.
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 18th century and the oldest houses in the village lay to the north. This would have been a main route through the village. 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 re-routed this section of road further north to give their park more privacy.
The north road may partly explain why the entrance to the church is on the north side as porches are usually found on the south side of a church.
This handsome structure, is the main entrance into the church and was built in the Perpendicular style in 1474. Robert Scale left 40d (just under 17p!) in his will towards the construction.
The north side of the church was usually reserved for secular activities such as markets, fairs, sports and socialising (Gissing had a weekly market from 1378 and a fair on St. James' Day, the 25th July). The south side of a church was normally reserved for things religious, especially the burial of the dead.
Important parts of religious ceremonies took place in the porch: baptisms, weddings, burial services, the churching of women (purification after childbirth) and the absolution of the penitent.
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’.
The North Porch is very elaborate for such a small church whilst the Norman doorway into the church is simpler than the second Norman door on the south side of the church. The porch has an extravagant façade of flush-work knapped flint panelling and the pair of large niches which would have originally contained statues of saints. Circular flower patterns decorate the doorway and flowers alternating with crowns are found on the arch.
According to the historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, the porch may have Saxon foundations but he gives no source for this and without further information it is difficult to comment.
The window above the entrance indicates that originally the porch had an upper room. This was often used by the priest as a kind of vestry, although village arms and armour were sometimes kept here.
It is said that John Gibbs, the non-juroring rector, who was deprived of his living in 1690, used to live in the room over the porch, and slept on the rood-stairs with his head on the upper door so that he could see the altar when he woke.
Non-jurors were the clergy who had taken the vow of allegiance to James ll and felt that they could not take the same oath to William and Mary. Their numbers included Archbishop Sancroft and Thomas Kon, Bishop of Bath and Wells.
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, and is still used for christenings today. It consists of a plain octagonal bowl (typical late medieval design) with four triple pilasters at the corners. The bowl is scalloped below and the polygonal stem has canopies.
Behind the font is the rarely used South Door which is usually locked when not needed for disabled access. A walk around the outside of the church reveals the wonderful detail over this Norman door.
Each side of the South Door has a shaft with scalloped capitals and the zigzag or chevron design around the arch, all typical features of the (Romanesque) period from 1066 to 1200.
The curiosity here is what appears to be the head of a muzzled bear looking downwards from the top centre of the Norman arch. Some say it is too early for heraldic significance, whilst others note that a muzzled bear was a symbol of restraining evil or the triumph of Christianity over Paganism.
Recent research may have uncovered a link between a prominent family who held land both in Gissing and Warwickshire – the Hastings family whose seat is at Fillongley in Warwickshire. A muzzled bear is the symbol used in the current coat of arms of the county of Warwickshire (usually a muzzled bear standing with a staff in his hand) and therefore the muzzled bear carving over the south doorway could be a link to the Hastings family.
‘The History of Gissing Church’ by Avril Pierssene contains further information on this and other prominent people associated with the church and can be found in the archive section of the Friends website.
There is a scratch or mass dial on the left of the doorway which would have been used much as a sun dial is used – in an age when most people were illiterate, it would have let villagers know when it was time for mass.
One of the truly outstanding features inside this small church is the magnificent angel roof of the nave, a feature dating to the end of the 15th century. The fashion for installing angel hammer-beam roofs began around 1395 in Westminster Hall in London and ended around 1534, with the beginning of the Reformation when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Church and hostility towards religious idols (including angels) began in earnest.
Gissing’s roof follows the Westminster Hall style and is different in construction to false hammer beam roofs where the hammer beams are solely for show and serve no structural function, for example at Swaffham church which is 30 miles north west of here.
True hammer beam roofs like Gissing, are more common in Suffolk and examples can be found at Stonham Parva, Grundisburgh and Coddenham. (see the Angel trail section of this site)
It is interesting to ponder the builder’s motivation and speculate about why the Gissing roof is much more closely related to the roof at Coddenham, some 25 miles south of here than it is with Wymondham Abbey which is just a few miles to the north.
To find such a beautiful and ambitious roof on a small church such as Gissing is unusual. Our roof was installed in the 15th century to protect the existing Norman walls and it replaces the earlier, steeper roof which may have been thatched.
The way that this double hammer beam has been installed over the Norman structure is typical of the medieval period and demonstrates the slightly uneasy relationship that some new roofs had with the older walls as, although it fits relatively neatly at the east and west ends, you can see that some of the middle wall posts have been cut short above the windows.
The nave roof at Gissing is constructed of 7 double hammer beam English oak trusses forming 6 bays which are decorated with 2 tiers of angels and the lower, wall post carvings which are not always found on churches with angel roofs. Wall post carvings do not follow a standard pattern in all churches and instead depend on the available finances and the scale of the roof. Their presence in Gissing demonstrates the vision and ambition of our roof builders.
The two tiers of angels are a mixture of the original medieval carvings and later Victorian replacements which were installed in 1877. The Victorian angels are larger than their medieval counterparts, they are less well carved and the appearance quite different.
Originally the roof must have looked spectacular as it would have been highly coloured with much red and gold - a very expensive item for so small a church with only 150 communicants as late as 1603. Each angel is different and has a special emblem on its shield. Further details about the angels, with Sarah Cassell’s full analysis of the angels and saints adorning Gissing’s roof can be found on the Friends website.
The angels probably survived the Reformation for want of a long enough ladder to reach them!
The Angel Trail
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 goes precisely nowhere.
Studies of other churches show us that this stair once led up onto the platform over the screen (roodscreen) which would have 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 rood stair is a remarkable feature. The door is high above the floor, in the eastern splay of the north-east nave window. There are three steps inside, one with a wooden tread; then it becomes a rough tunnel 10 to 15 feet long, hacked out of the wall and resembling a mine sloping gently up to emerge at a round-headed doorway east of the chancel arch.
As previously mentioned, John Gibbs, the non-juror rector deprived of his living in 1690, was allowed to sleep in this tunnel, arranging his bed so that he could see the altar first thing in the morning. He certainly cannot have felt the cold overmuch!
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 praying for one's soul in perpetuity. It is also possible that the chapel was a Lady Chapel given the dedication of the church to the Virgin Mary.
The North Chapel or Kemp 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 early 14th century North Chapel was the family chapel of the Kemp family, lords of the manor from 1324 until the early 20th century, although they did not arrive as residents of Gissing until 1465. The medieval roof above the altar at the east end is carved as a canopy of honour for the altar. The present altar is 17th century Jacobean, like the screen to the chapel, and the drop handled bier is dates from 1700.
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, and the Kemp memorials in the chancel and chapel are a notable feature of the church, four particularly deserving of attention.
In the NE corner is the early alabaster monument for Robert Kemp, who died in 1614 which has an old funerary helmet, hanging over it. Robert is described as the officer to King Edward VI (1547-53) and to Queen Mary (1558) who kept ‘their Custome House at London’. He had 8 sons and 3 daughters. His son and heir was created a Baronet by King Charles I in 1642.
In the NW corner, there is another grand monument to Sir Robert Kemp MP, d.1710. He had two wives both named Mary. ‘Both these ladyes were very prudent and pious, few exceeded ye former, scarce any the latter’. This is a copy of the monument in Norwich Cathedral by Edward Stanton, the third member of the great family of monumental sculptors, who worked from about 1640 to 1720. There are 3 garbs (sheaves of wheat) on the Kemp arms, and the crest is a pelican upon a garb. Their motto means, "I hope for light".
On the Chancel south wall there are two more Kemp monuments. Sir Robert Kemp MP who died in 1734, has a cherub blowing a trumpet from the top of a marble pediment. The other one is shaped like a sarcophagus with drapes over it and is for four more members of the Kemp family, made by Charles Regnart of London in the early 19th century.
The Kemps were buried here until quite recently, the last being Colonel Sir Kenneth Hager Kemp, C.B.E., the 12th Baronet, in 1936.
There was once a Parochial Chapel dedicated to All Saints which is believed to have stood in the churchyard to the east of St. Mary's, but no remains survive. This is like Tibenham and it may be that the All Saints Chapel might have been what is now the Kemp Chapel but we have no way of knowing.
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 probably be seen and remembered. Nobody wanted to lie in the ‘ungodly’, north side of the church.
The South Chapel
The South Chapel was certainly originally 13th century as its arches reveal. This area now contains the Victorian organ and serves as the vestry for today's Rector.
The structure is now all 19th century, flint, and stone with much re-used masonry. Ladbroke shows a pointed door at the west end of the south wall; there is no such door here now but there is one in the east wall. The south and west windows are shown as Y-tracery; they are now Victorian-Decorated. The roof is like that of the North Chapel and the floor is of Brusly tiles. There are two arches to the chancel, steeply pointed, with a central octagonal pier and restored imposts.
There is a light to the vault below the south window and under this Chapel lies a crypt but access is blocked and no one has entered for many years. Recently as part of the 2017 restoration the crypt has been viewed from the outside and has shown many Kemp tombs
and the entrance was also discovered but no entry was attempted. A list of Kemp tombs in the crypt can be found in the Kemp Chapel.
The sanctuary is paved with glazed tiles and the emblems of the four evangelists created with a mosaic of tiles. In the centre of the Chancel are a profusion of “M”s for Mary created in soft colours.
Stained glass and changing styles in windows
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 unpronounced long and short work of the west quoins and the Norman north and south doors suggest the nave is contemporary with the tower. The thickness of the walls is shown by the rood stair tunnel that has been hacked out of their centre. However, the walls have been heightened and therefore the round- headed windows formerly at the top of the south elevation cannot be original.
The South Chapel arches are Early English; the North Chapel Y-tracery windows seem to be the c. 1300 version of this style, and therefore it is probable that the South Chapel windows shown by Ladbroke were of this period also.
There was at least one decorated window in the north nave wall, dating from the 14th century. An intensive Perpendicular re-modelling period followed this. As mentioned before, a bequest was left in 1474 to the North Porch and to ‘repair the benches’. It is interesting that whereas in Norman times the south doorway was the more important, by the 15th century the north elevation had become more ornate due to the village street being on that side. The two south nave windows, the original chancel east window, the chancel arch and the roofs are all this period.
According to Pevsner this consists of a paten, London 1514, and a chalice, Norwich 1567, although with the chalice ... 1567 is engraved on it. (1567 was the year that the Norwich Diocese was directed, by Archbishop Parker, to commission new chalices for every Church).
The North Chapel screen is really formed from the sides of 17th century box pews; two arms of a stall support it on the north and the doors have S-hinges. One similar panel is in the South Chapel.
There is a 17th century table in the North Chapel; a 17th century chest; and some late medieval-early post-medieval poppy heads among the Victorian examples.
There is a bier dated 1700, and a 19th century pulpit, lectern, and stalls, all good quality.
It is known there was a west gallery before 1877 and the little rectangular window shown by Ladbroke must have lit this. Could it be that there were galleries to north and south as well? The clerestory windows must date from after the heightening of the wall, which was
presumably when the roof was added; in 1877 they were called modern; was a gallery inserted which removed the bases of the figures? Such galleries tended to appear in the Revival of the 1840s but Ladbroke shows that the west gallery at least was there earlier, yet this still could be the explanation.
Alternatively, a flat ceiling may have been inserted in the 18th century to hide what taste of the time may have regarded as a barbarous roof (compare the hacking away of the sedilia at West Walton), or it is even possible that this may go-back to the 17th century when the figures may have been considered idolatrous (compare the several cases where angel roofs were subject to musket fire in the Civil War). But in both these cases it would be hard to explain the clerestory windows.
In 1877 the building was restored. The nave roof was rebuilt, the chancel roof re-made, the south clerestory removed as well as the tower west door; the parvis floor was removed, but the gable restored; the chancel east window and one north nave window were remodelled in Decorated style; the south chapel was rebuilt, and the whole was re-floored.
Much of this work was necessitated by decay but it is hard to explain why the chancel east window was replaced in a different style, or Decorated style windows introduced into the South Chapel. The nave window may have been remodelled to "match" the adjacent window (though in fact it is quite different) to provide a Decorated elevation to the north and a Perpendicular elevation to the south. The new east window and the chancel roof are high quality pieces of work.
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 re-glaze 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!