Norfolk has some fabulous late medieval painted screens, but what is left is certainly just a remnant of what once existed. A significant number of screens and their painted decoration have been lost since the mid-sixteenth century as a consequence of vandalism, iconoclasm, philistinism, apathy and neglect. Iconoclasm in my view can be overstated, but the destructive power of philistinism, neglect and apathy are underestimated. Our medieval church buildings were badly neglected in the 18th and early 19th century and more medieval art was lost in that period and from the wave of heavy-handed restoration that followed, than to the zeal of the Protestant reformer.
In 1859 the talented painter Cornelius Winter ( 1817-1891) was touring Norfolk recording medieval art and he visited St Mary’s church in Great Plumstead and recorded in watercolour four panel-paintings that remained from the medieval rood screen in the church. They are now in the collection of the Norwich Castle Museum. The four panels were all that was left of what was evidently a fine series of panels and he notes that the rest had ‘long been lost’. The panels were in fine condition and there wasn’t even the merest hint that they had been damaged by the hand of an iconoclast, not even a token scratching out of the faces. There was some damage to the painted surface of the panels, but one has to conclude that the loss of the screen in its entirety was not down to any religious ideology.
The four figures of clerics, a monastic superior paired with the figure of a bishop. St Benedict is paired with St Dunstan of Canterbury and St Martin with St Giles, the latter dressed in a Benedictine habit. It seems a particularly deliberate choice of figures and an unusual combination, that to my knowledge is not repeated elsewhere. As we don’t know what other panels the screen had it’s difficult to jump to any firm conclusions, but one can’t help thinking that a member of a religious order might have been a candidate as patron. Blomefield says (note 1) that the Rectory of Great Plumstead was appropriated from 1320 by Merton Priory in Surrey, but I can’t see them having a hand in it, as the house was Augustinian and not Benedictine. The patronage of this very particular combination of figures must remain a mystery.
What is much clearer to determine is the date, stylistically we are looking at panels that date from the end of the 15th-century. The figures of the bishops at Plumstead immediately brought to my mind the four panels on the rood screen at Foxley which is about twenty miles away. The Plumstead bishops have some distinctive features: low mitres, pointed shoes, the openness of the apparels of the amices, a particular treatment of fur and fringe, wildly curling hair and the slightly swaying posture. All these features are found in the figures of three of the Latin Doctors on the Foxley screen.
The family likeness is so strong, that I would hazard a guess they were by the same hand. We know the date of the Foxley screen and from that, we can determine a rough date for the Great Plumstead panels. At Foxley, the panels include donor images of John Baymond and his wife and in his will of 1485, he gave four marks to paint the screen. (note 2).
Sadly these panels so faithfully recorded by Winter are no more. In 1891 Great Plumstead church was almost entirely destroyed by a catastrophic fire. The church was gutted and all the furnishings, including the rood screen panels, were destroyed. Nothing survived the fire, except for a couple of late medieval brasses and the vast majority of the structure had to be rebuilt – the church interior is now anodyne, cold and lacking in colour. Thank goodness Winter made the effort to record these lost panels as without his fine drawings all evidence of their existence would have been eradicated.
Note 1. Francis Blomefield, ‘North Erpingham Hundred: Plumstead’, in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 8 (London, 1808), pp. 146-148. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol8/pp146-148 [accessed 26 October 2018].
Note 2. S. Cotton ‘Mediaeval Roodscreens in Norfolk – Their Construction and Painting Dates’, Norfolk Archaeology 40 (1987), p. 48.