St Nicholas Church -The Building (Founded by St Withburga AD654)
Points of interest in and around the church
The Font - Made in 1488, it is a ‘Seven Sacrament’ font with the churches sacraments carved on the sides. (Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Marriage, Confession, Ordination and Unction) The eighth side shows the crucifixion
Parish Priests - On the north wall is a plaque listing the parish priests of Dereham. Of interest are Edmund Bonner, who became Bishop of London in 1539 and Benjamin Armstrong, whose diary gives a picture of the parish in the mid Victorian era.
The Eagle Lectern - Made in Liege around 1475 on of the few surviving lecterns of this age.
William Cowper -The poet William Cowper 1731 – 1800 has had many of his poems introduced into our modern hymnbooks. Many of his hymns being instantly recognisable throughout the world. William Cowper is buried in the North transept and a plaque and stained glass window to his memory can be found in this area of the church.
Tudor Ceilings - The two Tudor ceilings are at the north and south transepts. Painted in the 15th century they still remain a beautiful example of Tudor artwork. But you need to remember to look up.
The Lantern Tower - The Lantern tower allows the center of the church to be illuminated with natural daylight. The illumination of the nave altar forming a stunning centerpiece to the church. The lantern tower also houses the Sanctus bell. First mentioned in 1553 the Sanctus bell is in regular use and protected from the weather by a coop supporting the weather vane. This can be seen to best advantage when walking down Church Street.
The Chancel - The first impression of the chancel are the views of the East Window (best viewed on a sunny Sunday morning) and the Reredos, the painted screen behind the high altar. The Reredos was made in 1857 and painted to its present condition in 1929. On the south wall of the Chancel is a double piscina (where the priest washed his hands and the sacred vessels during the service) and a stepped sedilia (seats for the clergy). The north wall houses the aumbry where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved for communicating to the sick and housebound.
The Lady Chapel - On the south side of the transept is the Lady Chapel. The screen enclosing the chapel was made in 1488 and originally stood in Oxborough church. The screen contains a painting of St Withburga. The Lady Chapel remains a place for quiet prayer and reflection within the church. Here there is provision to light a candle to remember a loved one. The chapel has a small altar backed by a tapestry and also contains bibles for visitors.
Rash’s Chest Rash’s chest, heavily carved including of the nativity, was made in Flanders in the early 16th century and is positioned in the south aisle. The chest is regularly used as the table for signing wedding certificates. It also provides a platform for a statue of St Withburga, made and presented to the church by Sister Benedicta.
The Churchyard - Outside the west door is the St Withburga well where the Saint was first buried. It was an important pilgrim shrine in Saxon times. The well sprang up when the remains of St Withburga were removed to Ely Cathedral. A service is held at the well on the first Sunday in July when water from the well is blessed and sprinkled onto the congregation. Near to the well is a memorial to a French prisoner of war who was shot in 1799 while trying to escape from the bell tower. The bell tower, used as a prison at that time, was a holding point during the transportation of the prisoners.
The Bell Tower - The separate bell tower although unusual is not unique. The large windows in the lantern tower of the church prevented the installation of heavy bells in the church tower. The separate tower houses 8 bells, the heaviest (Tenor bell) being 22 cwt (similar to the weight of a family saloon car). The tenor was cast in 1957, when major restoration of the bell frame was carried out, and the oldest being cast in 1753. All of the bells are regularly rung and officially classed as being in ‘excellent’ condition.
Historical time line
654 Saint Withburga laid the foundation of a church and convent
870 The church was destroyed by Danish Raiders
974 The Abbots and Monks of Ely stole Saint Withburga’s body and removed her to Ely to lie with her sisters
1120 Norman church built on the site. Only the south west doorway and part of the chancel arch remains.
1200 The chancel and most of the nave built during this century.
1300 In this century the central lantern tower was built. The Nave was extended and the north and south aisles added.
1501 – 1536 The magnificent detached bell tower was built
1800 The poet William Cowper was buried in the north transept.
1850 – 1858 During the incumbency of Benjamin Armstrong, the chancel was restored and re-opened. During this century galleries were removed and most of the stained glass inserted.
1957 A new tenor bell cast. The wooden bell frame was replaced by a steel one and the bells re-hung.
1995 Church organ restored and moved from the south transept to its present position in the north transept. Thus allowing more light into the center of the church.
1999 The east window was removed and restored.
2007 Roof re-leaded.