St Mary the Virgin

St Mary the Virgin has its own webpage giving details about its history. You can find it HERE. Consequently, I give below only a summary of the history of the church and for a change start with an odd question.

What is a dog whipper?

A dog whipper was a church official charged with removing unruly dogs from church and grounds during services. Those employed for the position were given a three-foot-long whip and a pair of dog tongs with which to remove the animals. They were given the task of keeping stray animals away from the church so that priests could carry out their duties unhindered. The whip was utilized both for enforcement and as a deterrent while the tongs enabled the whipper to clasp a problematic animal from a safe distance. It was not uncommon for household dogs to accompany, or at least follow, their owners to church services at this time. If at any point they became loud, fought with other animals, attacked congregation members, or were otherwise disruptive, it was the job of the dog whipper to remove them from the church as well as to allow the service to continue in peace.
Preposterous as it may seem St Mary’s had at least two dog whippers. The church registers reveal this from the burial entries for James Adams on 15th September 1774 – see copy on the left – and for John Ward who was buried on 19th April 1782. The registers show both were dog whippers at St Mary’s.


A church is mentioned at Martham in the Domesday Book of 1086 together with 50 acres of land to provide an income for the parish priest.  At that time Martham also had two manors.  One manor was centred on Martham Hall (Hall Road) and was held by the Bishop of Elmham as part of his income.  The other manor, centred at Moregrove, was held by another ‘lord’ who also held the right to appoint the rector at St Mary’s (an advowson). This manor was held in 1224 by Matthew de Gunton who in that year gave the advowson to the Monastery and Priory at Norwich Cathedral on the understanding that the monks would continue to pray for his soul and the souls of his family and servants.  As a result of this gift Martham comes under the patronage of Norwich Cathedral and the Cathedral is responsible for appointing the parish priests.  

The church was built during two periods. The tower and nave were built between about 1377 and 1450 in the perpendicular style of that era. In those days the stonemasons travelled to wherever work was taking place, leaving their mason’s marks on the stonework. One of these left marks on several churches in east Norfolk and became known as ‘The Martham Mason’.  

The chancel that was built at that time became totally dilapidated and was rebuilt between 1855 and 1861. The new chancel is a magnificent example of the gothic revival architecture of that period. The architect was Philip Boyce whose brilliant design was exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1856.  

There are very good 15th/17th century woodwork features and fine Victorian fittings in the chancel. The church has a 15th century ‘seven sacrament’ font and a late 15th century memorial brass to a man named Robert Alen.

In 1999 work was carried out on the tower floor to install drainage and the footings of a round tower probably dating to the 12th century were exposed indicating that there had been an earlier church on the same site as the present one. That may have been the church mentioned in the Domesday Book. During the excavations medieval graves were also identified as well as a small lead-melting pit containing medieval window glass. Also flint flakes, medieval pottery sherds and a pit for melting lead window cames plus remains of Roman tiles and a lava quern were found.

Martham is famous as the burial place of St Blide early in the 11th century. St Blide was the mother of St Walstan and was born about 1075, she was related by marriage to the Royal Family of the Kingdom of Wessex. The chapel in Martham Church where she was buried was dedicated in her honour. In 1522 Robert Fullere a tanner of Norwich gave money for repairs to Martham Church ‘where St Blide lyeth’.

When he died in 1375 the then vicar, John Spire left 10 marks (£6 13s  4d or £6.66) to Martham Church which may have prompted the start of the re-building of the present church beginning with the tower although this would have been insufficient to finance re-building the whole church. A project on that scale, at that time would have required detailed drawings and contracts to have been drawn up. The place to look for those would be in the records of the Priory and Monastery at Norwich Cathedral as it was the patron of the church. Their records reveal that their master mason Robert Everard was working on St Mary’s chancel during the years 1450 to 1480.  Another important contributor to the cost of the building may have been local landowner Roger Clarke to whom a stained-glass window was dedicated.

There is a Parish Chest that was made in about 1300, its lid carved from a singe tree truck.

If you go St Mary’s website you can also see information about the font, the stained-glass windows and the magnificent carved wooden angels in the chancel.

Details about the church graveyard can be found HERE.

Read the strange story of ‘Base born Biggs’ HERE

Read about the Burraway mystery HERE


Below is an album of photos relating to the church. Click a thumbnail for a close-up and scroll through all the images from there.

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