History of the Church


According to records the earliest part of the building is from C 1370 when work began on the chancel. The tower is perpendicular and it is recorded that donations towards the cost of this were listed to be in progress in C 1445. The tower is a landmark for miles around. There are four large belfry openings originally to allow for the sounds of the four bells to be heard. Sadly only one bell remains. The bell tower gives the brave persons who climb up into it an amazing panoramic view for miles around.

Cotton S.A The Architecture of St. Bartholomew’s Church, Brisley A Chronology, Norfolk Churches Trust 1994.

Church Interior:

St. Bartholomew’s Church dates in part from 1370-1460. The very tall screen, fitting for the chancel arch, dates from the C 15. There is a fine sedilia and piscina dating from C 1380, above which are some fine carvings of birds, flowers and even a lion attacking a dog! The Church retains its original box pews and the benches are C 16th. One of the benches has a beautiful carved fox carrying off a goose.

There is a large three decker pulpit in a commanding position at the front of the nave. This type of pulpit would have been used by the clerk at the lowest level, to lead the responses, with the parson using the middle stall to read the service and the tall wineglass stemmed pulpit for the sermon.

The Gallery is one of the later additions to the Church. It stands across the west end of the Church and up until WW1 was used by Brisley village band for services. Subsequently the Church obtained a barrel organ which is still in use today. Both the Gallery and the organ need restoration. It is hoped we can get the organ back in full working order shortly.

The East Window dominates the Church with the stained glass being added in 1855. It depicts the Crucifixion with a crowd scene in the foreground.

The Royal Arms are those of George 11, dated 1753. It contains the names of the craftsman and the churchwardens which were added when it was restored in 1834. Sadly the Royal Arms are in a sad state and badly need to be restored.

The Taverner Brass:

This brass is in the floor of the nave, it marks the grave of John Taverner who died in 1548, His son Richard Taverner (1505-1570) translated the Bible into English.

John Athowe’s Brass:

In the centre of the chancel floor is this brass. Sadly someone has stolen the head off the body. John Athowe was Rector at St. Bartholomew’s and Horningtoft and he died in 1531. This brass shows the priest wearing catholic vestments and carrying a large chalice.

Also under this stone is an unknown young lady who was buried in 1718.

The Crypt:

The crypt of St. Bartholomew’s Church is under the sanctuary. It holds many secrets but visitors often comment that they feel it is a place which makes them feel calm. There is a beautiful, probably Tudor oak door leading down into the crypt. This crypt was used as a charnel house for the storing of bones but was later used to keep prisoners in overnight on their walk from King’s Lynn to the assizes in Norwich. We have the full story in the church about a local man who was placed in the crypt overnight before he was taken to be hanged at Norwich castle.

Wall Paintings:

St. Bartholomew’s Church is one of the few churches in Norfolk built in the medieval period whose interior has escaped major C 19th and C 20th restoration. As a result, a number of important examples of painted decoration from the medieval and post-Reformation periods survive in the church:


The South Aisle:

Between two windows in the south wall, St. Christopher is holding the staff in the right hand, and the Holy Child on the left shoulder; the Child and the head and feet of the Saint are defaced, but part of the latter’s mantle, swathed around the shoulders, and his knee-length gipon, belted at the waist and enriched with a pattern are clearly seen. An original consecration cross is also to be found on the south wall. Originally there would have been twelve crosses.

St. Andrew is the most complete figure on this wall. The face and hands show fine modelling. St. Andrew holds a cross saltire in his left hand and a book in his right hand.

South Aisle Column contains some red over peach coloured limewash. There appears to be a black fictive hanging there. Clearly there were very colourful wall paintings all around the columns which during the Reformation were totally whitewashed over.

The North Aisle:

On the north aisle wall is an excellent large scale late medieval’ St. Christopher. It has been executed in an expensive range of pigments and gold. Unfortunately it has been damaged by attempts in earlier years to uncover it. It is possible to see clearly St. Christopher’s face with flowing yellow hair and beard. He holds a staff in his left hand and the Christ Child sits on his right shoulder. The Child has a rich modelled face, blue eyes and yellow hair.

North East Corner:

Figure of an Angel-

Situated in a cut-away window jamb is an angel C 15th with a cross-circlet, standing on a pedestal, against a red background. On the plaster are the remains of a delicate scrollwork pattern with florets in red, probably C 14th.

Along the north aisle wall there are repeated circular motifs – S R G appears to be all that remains of the lettering.

Over the south door:

Potentially, there is a large area if painting over the south door and its outer borders which were uncovered and referred by a historian in 1883. It is believed that this painting is of the Ascension but too little can now be seen to be sure. Sadly water from the roof leaking has damaged this area and monies are urgently needed to restore the roof so that further damage is not done.

The Font and Candle Stands:

The font in St. Bart’s is beautifully carved with an unusual wooden carved top over it.

There are three candle stands. Each has been made for the Church. One is carved in oak and was made by local craftsman Andrew Bird. The other two stands are made of iron by a local blacksmith and commemorate local people from Brisley.

Roof Timbers:

An almost complete moulded roof timber survives probably dating from C 15th. There is polychrome only at the east and west ends of the south aisle.

Arcade Piers:

There is some decoration beneath the west face of the arcade piers. Because the paintings have only been partially uncovered, their subject matter remains unclear.

There has been detailed research undertaken on the wall paintings and a copy of this is available in the church for anyone interested to read.

Displays in the Church:

In St. Bart’s we have a table of folders which contain local history and photos of various events held in the village, school and Church. There is a large amount of information about the 59 men from Brisley who served in WW1- there are also photos and biographies of some of the 13 young men who were killed or died from their wounds in both world wars.

There is a children’s area in the Church-created from two box pews, which is full of toys and books for young people to use when visiting the Church. We also have a book table where people can find a range of second hand books to purchase.

Visitors are welcome every day of the week to this beautiful Church.

St Bartholomew, Brisley

The giant Norfolk Perpendicular church with a remote village around it is a bit of a cliche – and yet, here it is. St Bartholomew is vast, and Brisley is remote, in the winding lanes between Dereham and Fakenham. The church is the focal point of the Village and it is hard to stand somewhere and not be aware of its presence.
Think of what that must have been like in the late middle ages! We often talk about the hugeness of these churches as being an offering to the glory of God, but it the sheer presence of a place like St Bartholomew doesn’t half concentrate the mind on the spiritual side of life. It must have been both a comfort and a terrifying reminder of last things, and the world to come.

The hugeness of St Bartholomew is accentuated by the sheer bulk of the tower, and also by the way that the four stages work together. The lowest stage is the biggest, and the enormous west window is set within a kind of blank arch. The aisles squeeze the nave up into a clerestory to the east of the tower, with a large chancel on its own beyond. The tall chancel windows create a sense of the building pushing back against the tower, a delightful tension.

Some of these great 15th century churches were over-restored in the 19th century, turning them into urban, anonyomous spaces inside that might as well be in the centre of a busy town. But St Bartholomew was not one of them, and to enter it today is to find yourself in an utterly rustic, even ramshackle place. It is very atmospheric, a delight if you, like me, enjoy rough and ready churches. The ranges of old benches with their traceried backs line the stone floors under old roofs with head bosses, and the walls around are speckled and dappled with flaking patches and hints of colour. There are some wall paintings remaining, including the haunting face of one St Christopher, the stooped body of a second and the unusual survival of St Andrew carrying his cross.

A third figure is claimed as St Bartholomew; there is a fine angel in a window splay in the north aisle which obviously once formed the back of an image niche.

Brisley is a church of idiosyncracies, of a hundred little details that make the place unique. There are a number of carved 15th century bench ends, including an engaging dog with a goose in its mouth. As at neighbouring Gateley the font is primitive and bulky, and topped off by a jaunty coloured cover. In 1753, the church put up its new George II royal arms. These are signed at the bottom by G Betler and F Frohawk, who cleaned and repaired them in 1854.

The famous brass is up in the chancel, depicting Priest John Athorne. It is right on the very eve of the Reformation, 1531, and would be one of the last of its kind in England. It shows him wearing Mass vestments and holding an ornate chalice with the host rising from it. The inscription records that he was Rector of Horningtoft, a nearby parish.

Athorne’s inscription, which also asks for prayers for his soul, is in Latin, but another brass inscription in the nave has something similar in English. This is to Robert Markayte and Rose his wife, and dates from 1525. It is an unusual survival, and a haunting one, because it still contains both clauses that normally incurred the wrath of Anglican iconoclasts; Of your Charyte pray for the sowles of… it begins, and concludes on whose sowles Jsu have Mcy Amen.

Another interesting inscription is on a ledger stone. P.M.S. it begins, and then Heer under William Scrivenors dust (whose life both pious was and just) as in a bed of down doth rest in hope to rise among the blest – and that’s all. Presumably, it was a member of Scrivenor’s family, perhaps an infant. But we are not even told the name. Nearby, there is another brass inscription, a very terse memorial: here lyeth buried the body of Christopher Athorne who dyed the 22 of October 1585, Anno Aetatis sum (‘his age was’) 72. Athorne, of course, was the name of the Priest whose effigy appears up in the chancel. To have died age 72 in 1585 would have meant he was nephew or great-nephew of the old man, and probably just old enough to remember Catholic England – although his inscription reveals no shred of sympathy for it.
Another memorable feature of St Bartholomew is to be found when you have stepped through the 15th century screen into the chancel. There is a doorway to the north which leads down into the crypt below the sanctuary. This is well worth a visit, and is usually open to the public. You climb down a narrow flight of stairs into a space which is curiously light and clean. A notice on the wall tells you that it was once used to accommodate prisoners overnight on the long journey from Kings Lynn assizes to the gallows in Norwich. Imagine spending the night here with your execution in prospect for the day ahead! Not a happy thought.