Little is known regarding the early history of Cromer, or Crowmere as it was then called, other than that it was a small village or hamlet known as Shipden or 'Shipdene, a prosperous seaport which is mentioned in the Norwich Doomsday Book. (There is an ancient book in the Parish Chest which has a heading 'Cromere known in the county as Shipdene'. The first mention of Cromer occurs in the will of Sir John de Repps in conjunction with Shipden in the Hundred Rolls of 1274.
Two churches were known to be in the area; one at Shipden and the other at Cromer, and it appears, from the records, that the same Parson held both Livings. In 1317 Shipden churchyard was being encroached by the sea, and in 1337 the name of Cromer appeared in the King's Rolls, when the Rector, John de Lodbrok, and parishioners petitioned King Edward III (1327-1376) for permission to build a larger church, as their Parish Church was in danger from the sea. The request was granted and extra ground was obtained to extend the churchyard.
Some years later Shipden, with its church, disappeared into the sea. The site of this church is thought to be about 400 yards out beyond the end of the Pier and was known to the fishermen as "Church Rock". In 1888 a pleasure steamer, the Victoria, from Yarmouth, fouled this so-called Church Rock and eventually sunk. On the advice of Trinity House, as a safety precaution, the rock was blown up.
The earlier church is believed to have been known as Shipden-Juxta-Felbrigg, but apart from the little documentary evidence to be found in ancient Wills, little has been passed on to posterity regarding this church. A closer examination of the present structure will, however, reveal indications of a previous one. Inside the two pillars of the present chancel arch can be seen the bases of two other pillars of an earlier structure. They are standing about two-and-a-half inches above the floor. Some of the pillars in the nave have bases which have obviously been incorporated with older stonework.
When the church was re-floored in 1863-64 an older floor, with the foundations of a smaller square tower, was discovered about two-and-a-half feet below the surface. At the same time traces of an earlier chancel wall, consisting of rough flint work was uncovered and, during the installation of the heating system in 1911, a long outer wall was also exposed. An inspection of the tower staircase will show that about 70 feet up, at the level of the present bell-ringing chamber, are signs that this could have been the height of the previous tower.
It is a well known fact that, when rebuilding a church, builders incorporate parts of the existing fabric, where possible, in a new structure and much can be detected in our church which obviously owes its origin to the past. The features mentioned, and many others that can be seen, should be sufficient for us to assume that the present building was erected on the site of an earlier but smaller church and that elements of the old building have been incorporated, by the builders, into the new.
The Church in the 14th - 16th Centuries
It is difficult for us to envisage the situation prevailing in Cromer during this period but there must have been great prosperity and spirituality in the community for it to have created and maintained such a magnificent structure.
Dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul, the church was built of freestone and squared and knapped flints in the Early Perpendicular style at its finest. It consisted of a nave measuring 105 feet in length, a chancel 61 feet long, North and South Aisles (the breadth of the nave and aisles being 63 feet) and North and South Porches. The West Porch (The Galilee Porch) was added at a later date. There were 4 chapels; the Chapel of Our Lady of Pity, the Chapel of the Good Cross, the Chapel of St. Nicholas and the Maid Ridibons Chapel.
A tower, 60 feet higher than any parish church tower in Norwich, then considered to be second only in the realm to London, and the highest church tower in Norfolk, will be described in greater detail in the next section. The overall measurement from the West Door to the east wall of the Chancel is approximately 188 feet.
There was a Rood Screen which extended from the North Aisle wall across the nave to the South Aisle wall; this had turrets and entrances on both sides. A six-sided turret can still be seen on the north side, although the doorway is now bricked up. William Crowmere, a citizen of Cromer who was Mayor of London in 1413, and Lord Mayor in 1424, left £40 in his Will (a lot of money in those days) for a Rood Loft. The church had many shrines and images belonging to various Guilds; and several Lights. Proof of the great splendour provided by wealthy patrons and parishioners can be seen in the Inventory taken during the reign of King Edward VI (1547-1552). The High Altar was sumptuously furnished with very fine vestments and ornaments. The Bells were valued at £46, which was also a considerable figure for that period.
This lofty and majestic tower, the highest in Norfolk, has been a land- and sea-mark for nearly six centuries. No matter in which direction one might approach Cromer, it is this fine tower which immediately attracts one's attention, soaring in the sky as a reminder that the church has been a focal point of worship to Almighty God in the past, present and, we trust, in the future.
It is constructed mainly of knapped flint, and measures at the inside base 22 feet square, with the outside being 35 feet square. From the ground, the top of the pinnacles reach a height of 160 feet 4 inches, with buttresses up to 130 feet, which are beautifully carved and shaped with freestone and squared flints.
The tower is divided from the nave by an imposing and graceful arch, which has pillars measuring 6 feet in width. There is a recess in the north wall which, in olden times, was most probably used as a receptacle for processional crosses and banner staves. At the junction of the north and west walls, there is a door which leads to the tower staircase. It is interesting to note that it is constructed in two different sections; is partly brick vaulted and is unusually large.
The tower staircase is illuminated by electric light in addition to the 12 small windows to be seen at different levels. The tower is lit on the west side by the West Window above the west door, and on all sides by 4 splendid quatrefoil windows or Sound Holes which are most elaborately traced and very pleasing to the eye. Above the louvres there are four fine double-light lancet windows on each side of the tower. Higher than these windows and again on all sides of the tower, are five plain shields arranged in a two-one-two pattern. As the early prints of 1737 show, the tower did have a weathervane, and a part of the base still remains today. We can only assume it disappeared in the general decay of the church during the 18th Century.
According to an architect's report of 1857 the tower was structurally sound but needed some restoration to keep the weather out. However, it was struck by lightning in 1871 and the south west pinnacle was cut in two and taken down for safety. In 1873 it was again struck by lightning but on this occasion the bolt passed down the conductor which had been fitted after the 1871 strike. Unfortunately it tore up the pathway at the foot of the tower and broke many nearby windows. However, in 1884, work was known to be in progress on the tower and, according to contemporary writers, the scaffolding was a wonderful piece of work. From the ground to the very top of the tower was covered with a lattice work of poles, and to see the workmen climbing about this structure was a thrilling sight to behold. The work was completed and the tower fully restored by 1886.
During the 1939-45 War, the tower was used as a Fire Spotting point, for in 1941 local business men and property owners formed, and financed by voluntary subscriptions, the Cromer Fire Spotting Co-operative Committee. In consequence the tower was manned during the night by a Fire Spotter who, from his point of vantage, was able to telephone information to the Fire and Civil Defence services, enabling them to deal with incidents with the minimum of delay. So once again this grand old tower played a vital part during the time of extreme peril to the nation. In 1968 steeplejacks removed a considerable quantity of weeds and moss that had collected high up on the exterior walls, and today the tower is considered to be in excellent condition.
Climbing the Tower
Twenty steps up, there is a recess which led through a doorway to a bell gallery. This ceased to be used many years ago and it is possible that, at some period, the bells were rung from this gallery. On the way up the staircase, the various periodical 'patching-up' of the walls through the centuries and the fine brick vaulting are well worth noting.
Eighty two steps up, you come to the Bell Ringing Chamber, housing the fine clock mechanism, which has served Cromer so well since 1863. On the east side of the chamber there are three doorways that lead to smaller staircases. Two of these give access to the north and south sides of the nave roof. The other staircase looks down on the nave, and at one time gave access to the previous roof void, which for safety reasons, although partly glazed, was sealed up during 1971. The door of the ringing chamber is also partly glazed to enable visitors to see the more interesting parts.
Ninety steps up, there is a bricked-in doorway. This once led to a platform, which was the highest point of this section of the tower staircase. It was thought that on this platform a light or beacon was exposed towards the sea before the introduction of lighthouses. The doorway is known as "Yaxley's Hole" as it is tradition in Cromer, that a boy of that name, whilst bird-nesting with a companion, had a dispute regarding the spoils. It seems the other boy either pushed or let go of Yaxley's legs, and he fell off the platform to the ground about 70 feet below. Incredible, as it may sound, he came to little harm. He was known to have served on a 'man-of-war" in the Royal Navy, returning after an eventful life to die quietly within sight of the tower that made his name part of Cromer's folklore. An outside examination of the tower will reveal that the platform from which Yaxley fell is in fact the top of a small tower, which encloses this section of the staircase between the two buttresses of the main tower. The staircases of the north and south porches are constructed in a similar manner. The staircase is now incorporated within the main walls of the tower. It is not so wide as the first section although much bigger than a normal church tower staircase.
One hundred and fourteen steps up will bring us to the Bell Chamber which houses six bells. The original peal was five but only one of these remains, the other four being sold during the sad period of the 18th century. This ancient bell was cast at Norwich in the latter part of the 15th Century and bears the Leonine inscription in black letters, "Missus Vero Pie Gabriel Fert Leta Marie" (Now Gabriel being sent, bears joyful tidings to Holy Mary). The present peal was presented by Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, Bart. and was cast by Mears and Steinbank at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1874. The peal was re-hung on ball-bearings in 1948. These require greasing every ten years. There are two tall, two-light bell openings in each side of the chamber which is quite unusual, and the door of this chamber is partly glazed for the benefit of visitors.
One hundred and fifty eight steps up, and we come to a recess which once led to a room under the roof of the tower. Walter Rye mentions the room and describes the door which led to it in his 'Cromer Past and Present'. The beams which supported the flooring of this room can still be seen from the bell chamber. This room was lit by eight small windows, two on each side of the tower, which can be easily identified from the ground by an iron bar placed across each of them. The purpose of the room is unknown. It has been suggested that it could have been used by men engaged on 'watch duties' in times of peril and fears of invasion.
One hundred and seventy one steps up brings us to the roof of the tower which is tiled and surrounded by a most attractive stone parapet 3 feet 9 inches high. This is crested on each side by eight stone fleur-de-lis. On each corner there is an imposing pinnacle and the traditional water spout gargoyles. A bridge extends from west to east across the roof. The views to be seen at this level are magnificent. A fact that can be verified by the thousands of visitors who ascend the tower during the summer season, when it is open to the public.
The West Porch (The 'Galilee' Porch)
The Galilee porch was originally Gothic architecture and once the pride of the church. It was the subject of the drawing, seen to the left, by the celebrated Norfolk artist, John Sell Cotman. The porch stands out about 21 feet from the Tower wall, measures about 15 feet and has stone seats on both sides. At the entrance of this porch are two shields, representing the Patrons of the church with their respective symbols; the crossed keys for St. Peter and St. Paul. Time and decay however, have almost obliterated these symbols, which must have looked imposing at this entrance of the church. The arch of the doorway leading into the tower is richly double moulded, bearing on the outer moulding a blank shield and a rose charged with a quatrefoil alternately, and on the inner, a shield with an angel alternately. The lower compartments of the inner moulding have an angel holding a shield. Finely vaulted with the figures of St. Peter and St. Paul with their emblems in the centre and four other figures. As previously mentioned, the battlements were added during the 1862-3 restoration period. This porch had a brief restoration in 1969 but it is rarely used today. However when the west door is open it presents a most impressive view of this magnificent church.
The South Porch
The entrance to the south porch has an elaborately carved doorway, above which is a figure of an angel with outstretched wings holding a shield, over which is a decorated niche, now empty. There are stone seats on both sides of the porch having vaulting similar to the west porch, with the figures of St. Peter and St. Paul and their emblems in the centre. Also there are four other figures. There is an empty, unused room above which, in olden times, could have been the first schoolroom in Cromer. Access to this room and the south aisle roof is by a door in the north-west corner of the porch, and is reached by a circular stairway within a small tower similar to the north porch. Today the south porch is the normal entry and exit for all services to the public.
The North Porch
This porch, once an important entrance to the church, was used as the Vicar's Vestry. It has a room above which contains a huge ancient fireplace; most probably dating back to the Tudor period. It also contains a hagioscope, and these features indicate that it must have been occupied by either Chaplains or visiting preachers in the past. There is also some old masonry which, once, must have adorned the church. The entrance to this room is by a small door situated in the west corner of the north aisle. Externally it forms a small tower containing 22 circular steps. These lead to the room, and also give access to the north aisle roof, where there are indications that, in earlier times, there could have been an entry to this small tower from outside the church.
The porch was known to be in a ruinous state around 1800, as prints, paintings and photographs bear testimony. This can be verified from the following extract from the Rev. Armstrong's Norfolk Diary, dated 31-8-1852:
"As to Cromer, it is a most aristocratic place of the kind in Norfolk. The church tower is superb but the south porch and the chancel are no more. Mr. B. Bond Cabbell, who has recently purchased Cromer Hall, is about to repair the beautiful northern entrance."
However, when restored, the vaulting was copied in wood without any figures or symbols.
The 16th Century to 1862
Although the Reformation, which started around 1532, swept away many abuses, it actually marked the start of the decline of the Cromer church building. When Papal Supremacy was abolished in 1534, King Henry VIII (1509-1546) seized the Advowson for himself, from the Court of Carthusians, and later deprived the church of its Manors and other properties. This had disastrous consequences for the fabric, and there was a great decline in the fortunes of this noble structure. Within the course of a hundred years the Chancel had fallen into an irremediable state of repair. A brief restoration was carried out in 166 but the decline continued and, in 1681, a certain Rev. Thomas Gill, Rector of Ingworth and lessee of the great tithes, sought and obtained permission from the Bishop of Norwich to pull the chancel down. To their everlasting shame this was carried out with the use of gunpowder.
There was no improvement and, indeed, the decline in the next 70 years was such that only 2 marriages were registered between the years of 1728 and 1757. Serious consideration was given as to whether the church should be completely demolished but, thanks to the efforts of William Windham of Felbrigg, who interceded with the Bishop of Norwich, the church was reprieved. Nothing was done to halt the decay, however, and the situation became very critical.
In 1767, most of the nave and aisle roofs had fallen in and the remainder had been pulled down to prevent accidents. Services were being held under the tower, for safety reasons. The estimated cost of repairing the church was in the region of £1,000. This was a formidable sum to the town's inhabitants who were mostly poor fishermen, so the Bishop of Norwich gave permission to sell 4 bells, lead from the now demolished roofs and many other saleable materials. We can only conjecture that this must have included valuable brasses and wood carvings etc. which must have been a great loss to the church. The money realised was spent on making the church weatherproof. Windows were filled in with wood or bricks, thereby destroying much of the tracery and stained glass windows.
Much of the building's beauty disappeared and, to make matters worse, a gallery was erected at the west end. In fact, almost everything done at this time was to spoil the remaining architectural beauty of the church. The 18th century was indeed a period of darkness and despair for Cromer Parish Church.
The Turning of the Tide
During the early part of the 19th century great and wealthy families were attracted to Cromer and the surrounding area. They included the Buxtons who were associated with the anti-slavery movement, the Bond Cabbells of Cromer Hall, the Gurneys of Earlham, and the Barclay and Hoare families.
Cromer began to develop into a select holiday resort for the well-to-do and the population soon doubled. In consequence the West Gallery was pulled down to provide for extra seating. During this operation about 400 cartridges were discovered behind the woodwork, a reminder of the Napoleon invasion fears and that the tower would have obviously been a strong point in our defence.
To the disgust of many, however, the West Gallery was rebuilt, and other galleries were erected in the North and South aisles. In 1967, when the walls of the church were stripped and refaced, four sockets were exposed over the north and south porches which might be assumed would have received the supporting beams of the galleries.
The Church quite rightly benefited from the rising prosperity. In 1862, there was a strong urge to restore the church and, due to the generosity of the wealthy families who had, by then, become associated with Cromer (as well as the local residents and tradesmen) restoration commenced in great earnest.
The old family box pews and the three galleries were all removed and new seating provided. Gifts included the beautiful hammer beam roof of the nave, by Benjamin Bond Cabbell of Cromer Hall, the Lord of the Manor and Sir T.F. Buxton, MP. with Charles Buxton. The roofs of both the north and south aisles and four windows were also given by Benjamin Bond Cabbell who truly responded in the manner befitting a good Lord of the Manor.
Several windows were restored at the expense of various members of the Buxton family, and Cromer Church owes much to these great families for their generosity.
According to my studies, the Churchyard was once considered to have contained 4 acres. Obviously, through the years, this has shrunk considerably. Sometimes this has been done officially but, at others, I rather suspect other means were used.
As mentioned in 'Notes on Cromer Churches', there must have been some strange goings-on during the middle of the l9th century, for not only was the church in great decay but, according to the "Town Book", parishioners were in the habit of drying their washing hung on lines in the churchyard, which was also let out (officially) as pasture for sheep and cattle. There are some very interesting entries in the Churchwardens' Accounts of the same period, for hedgehogs were bought at a cost of four pence each to keep down the vermin in the Churchyard.
On the 22nd March 1895 a meeting in the Vestry was convened for the inhabitants of Cromer. The purpose of the meeting was to hear a proposition from the newly formed Cromer Urban District Council who wanted to widen the roads adjacent to the churchyard and required a Faculty to do so. The assembly in the Vestry agreed and, eventually, the churchyard was cut back by an average of 12 feet in Church Street, High Street and Tucker Street. Cromer U.D.C. agreeing to become responsible for the maintenance of the churchyard as an open space, accessible to the public, under the provisions of the Open Spaces Acts of 1877-1890.
A close examination of the churchyard wall will reveal, engraved on the stone parapet on the Church Street side: "The Churchyard extends an average of 12 feet beyond this wall." On the Tucker Street side the engraving reads: "The Churchyard extends an average of 6 feet beyond this wall."
In 1934, the Cromer U.D.C. again sought permission to remove another portion of the churchyard at the north eastern and south western corners, in order to make the corner less dangerous, but this time it met with great hostility. Public meetings were held to protest at the application, and eventually the Faculty was refused by the Chancellor of the Diocese at the Norwich Consistory Court.
The churchyard was once enclosed by iron railings, which were taken down as part of the War effort during the 2nd World War. Although greatly disputed at the time, I understand, it could be seen as a blessing in disguise for, today, particularly during the summer months, the churchyard has become one of the showpieces of Cromer town centre.
This brief History of Cromer Parish Church is based on extracts from 'The History of Cromer Parish Church' by S.K. Clarke. It was edited by Robin Selwyn and prepared for the Web site by David Orsborne.