For a thousand years or more men and women of Pakefield have worshipped God in this church – and they still do. But nowadays many visitors come every year – some to worship and some just to look at the thatched church which stands so strikingly at the cliff’s edge. The majority are struck by its simplicity and beauty, which in mediaeval times was far more colourful than it now is. Not a few are puzzled by the fact that it was a ‘semi-detached’ church and still has two almost identical naves and chancels.
And thereby hangs a tale…
In Cromwell’s time most of the mediaeval splendour of the church was destroyed, and during the Second World War the thatched roof and most of the furniture was burnt when incendiary bombs were dropped during an air raid in 1941. For the next eight years the interior was exposed to wind and weather – yet it still stands, a silent witness to God’s love for man, and man’s love and devotion to God.
On entering through the main entrance on the north side one is in what was the Parish Church of St. Margaret; beyond the arches which divide the church is what was the Parish Church of All Saints’, with its 15th century south porch – a strange and puzzling statement which can only be explained by telling the history of Pakefield and its church – or churches.
No-one knows when the first Christian church was built here, but it is reasonable to assume that long before the Romans began their occupation of Britain in 55 BC there was a heathen shrine where the church now stands, and that the first church was built before the last of the legions left in 406 AD. This assumption is justified by the fact that at the west end of the present church, at the foot of the tower, is some ancient masonry which was almost certainly the base of a round Saxon tower. At the bottom of that masonry is a large sarcen stone which probably extends into, and forms part of, the foundation of the original wall that divided the two churches.
This sarcen stone is one of several such Neolithic relics which were deposited in East Anglia at the end of the Ice Age, when glaciers which had carried them all the way across what is now the North Sea finally melted. These stones were so different from any others in the neighbourhoods where they were found that they seem to have been regarded with superstitious awe by the ancient inhabitants, who tended to use them as ready-made altar stones for their heathen worship. For a long time it had been thought that the Pakefield stone might have been used for that purpose, and this possibility became near-certainty in 1934 when human bones were found at the base of the stone, suggesting sinister forms of worship on this spot many centuries ago.
It may be that the first Christians to settle here were sailors or merchants, or even Roman soldiers – for such, very often, were the first to proclaim the Gospel in heathen lands. Whoever they were, they probably built their little church on the spot, which from time immemorial, had been a place of worship – and they would have built it so that when the congregation faced the new altar at the east end of the church, they had their backs to the old heathen altar, which to them symbolised the powers of evil and spiritual darkness.
We must admit that not a single fragment of such an early church remains, but that should be expected, as any church built at that time would have been of wattle and daub, or at the best, of timber.
We must also remember that the east coast was constantly ravaged by Viking and Danish raiders, who burned, pillaged and plundered the whole countryside during the last hundred years or so of the Roman occupation, until well into the 9th century, and until the end of those centuries of terror, churches were built and burned, and re-built time and time again. It is quite possible that the small church at Pakefield rose, so to speak, from its ashes more than once, as happened elsewhere along the East Anglian coast.
A strange fact must now be related: at the end of the 10th century, or at the latest, by the beginning of the eleventh, there were two semi-detached churches in Pakefield: they were mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086), and must have been the first buildings of a permanent nature to be built in this place. There will always be uncertainty about why they were built in this peculiar manner. Various explanations have been suggested, the one that seems most likely being to the effect that the Lords of the two manors of Pakefield Pyes and Rothenhale, who shared authority over the village, each decided to build a church – and each, naturally, wanted to have the ancient sarcen stone at the west end of his fine new church.
In the end, it seems, they compromised by building the churches in this uniquely strange manner, with the sarcen stone under the end of the dividing wall, and under the foundations of the small round tower which the churches shared. Whether this is why it happened, we shall never know, but the fact is that it did happen, and each church had its own Rector and its own congregation until 1411. Nevertheless, there were changes: in the late 13th or early 14th century St. Margaret’s was lengthened. The east window determines the date, for it cannot have been later than the early 14th century. Unfortunately, when the church was rebuilt after the Second World War the tracery of this window was so decayed that in order to preserve it it was filled in with stonework instead of glass.
We know that All Saints’ was lengthened about 100 years later, since its east window definitely belongs to the 15th century – but we can date this work more precisely, since the extension included the crypt (below the high level sanctuary floor), and access to the crypt was by way of a spiral staircase, the top of which intruded into the sanctuary of St. Margaret’s. Obviously the Rector of St. Margaret’s would not have allowed such an outrage – unless he happened to be the Rector of All Saints’ as well! (The “apse” at the top of the steps in St. Margaret’s is part of the top of that staircase: the door between the two sanctuaries originally gave access to the stairs from All Saints’).
The first man to be Rector of both Churches was Robert Graunt, who had been Rector of All Saints’ since 1392, and became Rector of St. Margaret’s in 1411.
He only lived another ten years, but during that time (in addition to what has already been described) he pierced the dividing wall (without actually demolishing it) inserting the pillars and arches, and constructed a rood screen the full width of the two churches (together with stairs leading to the loft with a connecting door at a high level). All of this was no doubt done on the assumption that from then on common sense would prevail, and that in future there would be but one church with one Rector. It is possible that while all this was being done, the new square tower was begun (to replace the old Saxon tower which by then was probably 400/500 years old) and at the same time a new south door had, of necessity, to be made.
The south porch was probably built at the same time. Obviously Robert Graunt must have been a very wealthy man, and it is more than likely that he gave our present font to All Saints’ within a few years of his institution in 1392; in any case, it would not have been made later than 1399. In spite of all that Graunt did, the “plurality” was not continued after his death in 1421: the arches were filled in, and for the next 128 years each church had its own Rector, and although after 1549 nearly every Rector was a “pluralist” for at least a part of his incumbency, it was not until 1748 that common sense did prevail, and the two churches were legally and permanently joined to become the Parish Church of All Saints’ and Saint Margaret, as had been foreseen by Robert Graunt more than 300 years previously.
It seems that during the Commonwealth period St. Margaret’s was used by the “Independents” while All Saints’ continued (for a time, at any rate) in the old tradition. After the restoration of the monarchy, both churches maintained the time-honoured “high church” standards until the “medieties” were finally united in 1748, and indeed until 1871 when the Rev. Lewis Price began his long “Protestant Evangelical Ministry” – the first twenty-five years of which are commemorated by the stained glass window which he rather immodestly allowed to be set at the east end of All Saints’ several years before his retirement. In this respect, as a memorial, it must be quite unique. Canon Hunt described him as a “rugged puritan with a Welshman’s fire”. A very evangelical standard of churchmanship was maintained until the Rev. B.P.W. Stather Hunt became Rector in 1927.
Mr Hunt quickly began the task of restoring the church to something of its mediaeval splendour. This was achieved (not without some opposition) by 1938. Two years later, on the night of 21st April 1941, two incendiary bombs were dropped on the thatched roof – with disastrous results. Fortunately the walls remained fairly sound and intact, and the tower was not damaged, but the roof and most of the furnishings were either destroyed or rendered unusable – and so it remained until the war was over. Rebuilding operations began as soon as possible, and the people of Pakefield still have every reason to be proud of the fact that their church was the first in England to be rebuilt and rededicated after the war. The rededication was performed by the Bishop of Norwich on Sunday 29th January 1950.
Since then several other alterations have been made to bring the church into the 21st century. Carpets have been laid, new heating and lighting provided, comfortable chairs have replaced the pews (meaning the church can be used much more effectively by the community for concerts, and by the church for different forms of services), a kitchen and toilet and small creche / prayer room added and a more accessible entrance has been constructed. There is also a prayer station where visitors can spend some time in quiet, leave prayer requests and light a candle. The organ has been upgraded and powerpoint screens installed for multi media presentations.
If you want to know more……… check out our page ‘Short Guide to Church History’