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Church Post Code NR16 2NB

Open to visitors

Visited October 2023

It was a sunny and warm late October day in 2023; a day away from work and a full day’s churchcrawl planned in Norfolk. We had started off visiting a few small village churches close to Thetford, with the intention of working towards the church of St Peter & St Paul at East Harling. This had been on my to visit list for an embarrassing number of years, due to the fine east window, which is home to some of the finest 15th century stained glass in Norfolk; and I daresay much further afield!

East Harling is a lovely village, which recorded a population of 2,489 at the time of the 2021 census, can be found some eight miles east of Thetford and 25 miles to the south west of Norwich. According to Google Maps we were 82 miles from Peterborough and. Again according to Google Maps, I could have cycled this in five hours, which I guarantee would not have been the case if I had actually tried it!


Fortunately we were in Gary’s car, and the spire of the church of St Peter and St Paul came in to view across the field as we headed in from the south. I love the county of Norfolk, and have had some wonderful stays here, mainly in the North Norfolk coastal area. I have also seen some quirky sights. Here, it was a pig running down the middle of the main road just outside the village! We have each said ‘only in Norfolk’ several times during trips there, but always with great affection.

The church can be found to the north west of the village, in an attractive setting, with the church itself, set back from the main road a little due to the large church grounds, being a real statement piece which reflects, as does so many on Norfolk and Suffolk, the wealth of the area in medieval times.

The core of the church that we see today dates from around 1300 onwards, with the west tower, north and south doorways and north and south aisles all dating from that time. In 1435 Sir Robert Herling bequeathed money to build a chantry chapel, in which prayers would have been said by a team of clergy, for him and his family.

His daughter Anne and her two husbands were responsible for the structure that we see today. Her first husband, William Chamberlain started off the restoration and rebuilding, which included new nave roof and clerestory added with aisles being rebuilt. Anne’s second husband Robert Wingfield provided the magnificent east window.


The church that we see today consists of west tower with spire, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, south porch, south chapel, two north chapels and chancel. Looking at the church from the south, the flint west tower, which dates from the period 1300 – 1320, is heavily buttressed with stair turret to the south east corner. The church clock in the traditional colours of blue and gold is set on to the south face. Gargoyles can be seen central on each face of the tower, with the one to the south gazing out through lichen encrusted eyes.

An ornately carved parapet, which dates to around 150 years later than the tower, contains shields on which are various emblems including a Unicorn, which is a part of the Herling family crest. The Unicorn can be seen elsewhere in this church. Medieval statues face out from all four sides. The tall, slender, elegant spire is covered with lead and supported by eight flying buttresses.

The south porch sits level with the western end of the south aisle, and dates from the 15th century. Visitors approaching from the south will see beautifully constructed flint and stone flushwork panelling; an empty image niche over the door. The porch was restored in 1990.

The clerestory consists of nine three light windows, with this also being part of Chamberlain’s mid 15th century rebuilding. The chancel has a fine east window of five lights. This is a very large church, a church of pleasing dimensions, and of the highest quality!


Moving inside it was bright and welcoming with the sun streaming in through the clerestory windows. As one would expect, this is an impressive church inside as well. There are five bay arcades to north and south, tall and elegant with polygonal piers and capitals, with each side dating to the 14th century.

Looking up, a series of corbels show angels carrying the instruments of the crucifixion. A 15th century screen separates the south aisle from south chapel. This is intricately carved with the visitor entering in through an ogee archway, with another unicorn over the top of the arch.

At the west end of the nave, there are the remains of the old rood screen, which would have stood at the chancel arch in pre reformation times. In all there are six large panels and two smaller panels, with some intricate carvings to be seen within a quatre foil design at the top of each panel, including Jesus crucified on a vine which emerges out of a sleeping Jesse.

The chancel is long and wide, with memorials to members of the Lovell family at the east end of the north and south walls. Helmets hang from on high above both. The altar is plain and simple; raised up on two steps with just a cross and two candles. The altar cloth was green, this being the liturgical colour used from the end of Pentecost (the seventh Sunday after Easter) to the start of advent (the four Sundays before Christmas).


As mentioned at the start of this piece, the main reason for the visit here was to see the east window, and its fine collection of stained glass. This window was gifted by Robert Wingfield around 1470 and was moved to safety at East Harling Hall to protect it from Puritans in the 1640’s, finally being returned to its rightful place in 1736. It was also moved during World War Two, being reinserted in 1947. The window itself is of five lights and there are twenty medieval panels, which are as follows…

Upper Level from left to right: The annunciation, the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that she will give birth to Jesus. Note that the angel bows to Mary. Next we have Mary meeting Elizabeth, both with child with Elizabeth to give birth to John the Baptist. We then have three depictions of the nativity with the star’s light shining down of Jesus with further panels detailing the arrival of the Shepherds and the Wise Men.

On the next level down we have a jumble of fragments at each end. Second from the left we have the Baby Jesus presented to Simeon in the Temple; Joseph holding the sacrifice of two Turtledoves or young pigeons, which indicated that they were of limited means. This is followed by Jesus as a 12 year old teaching in the temple and Jesus’ first miracle, turning water in to wine at the wedding in Cana.


On the third level we have another set of fragments, which form a female figure thought to be Mary Magdalene. We then see the betrayal of Jesus by Judas on the night of his arrest betraying his Lord with a kiss whilst off to one side Peter cuts off the ear of Malchus, the High Priest’s servant Then we see the crucifixion, a pieta, with Mary cradling the body of her crucified son. 

On the bottom level, at either end, we have donors to this church, Sir Robert Wingfield and Sir William Chamberlain. Second from the left we have the Resurrection, followed by the ascension. Taking a close look at this depiction of the ascension we see the feet of the risen Christ, shown with wounds, and a set of foot prints half was between Christ’s feet and those gathered below. Finally we see the Holy Spirit shining down at the day of Pentecost and Mary after death, being taken up in to Heaven by five angels.


As you would imagine, with this being produced in pre reformation days when the religion of the country was Catholic, Mary in her blue cloak is at the centre of the majority of the panels. A truly wonderful series, which was a delight to see in real life after so many years of wanting to travel here! The church guide mentions that the glass was moved twice, but I do wonder how it survived the destruction of the Reformation as well. 


There are some interesting carvings in the choirstalls, including a depiction pelican piety where the mother pecks at her chest and feeds her chicks with her own blood. This was an often used allegory for the sacrifice of Christ shedding his blood for us.

What a fabulous church; it was really good to have finally visited here. After a quick look around the church grounds, we headed over to the local bakery to pick up lunch. The friendly lady serving asked after my accent (Peterborian) and was interested in the fact that we were visiting churches. She suggested that we visit neighbouring Kenninghall and with no concrete plans for the next couple of hours we were pleased to do this. There are very fond memories of my short time spent in East Harling; this ladies and gentlemen, is why I do what I do!

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