|The name Brunstead or Brumstead, spelt Brumestead in 1086, means “Broom covered place”. (The names of Brundall near Norwich and Broome near Harleston probably have similar origins, also nearby Bromholm – broom covered island).
Although there was a church here by the time of the Doomsday Survey in 1086, and possibly long before that date, Brunstead church owes its appearance today to the people who built it in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Two wills reveal dates when building was going on: in 1381 Isabel de Brook left 3s. 4d. to make a new glass window at the east end of the chancel, whilst in 1390 Drew Gerner left £1 towards making the tower (“factur campanil”) plus 6s. towards the bells, as well as to making a window.
The Exterior of the Church:
The fine tower is the most important part of the building and merits careful inspection. It is one of the earliest examples of a type that is common in Norfolk which have the characteristic features of a west doorway with window above it. “Sound-holes” in the second storey and diagonal buttresses at the corners. Other later examples in the neighbourhood include Walcott (c. 1453-74) Happisburgh (c. 1480), Bacton (c. 1459-85), Waxham (c. 1436) and Ridlington (c. 1422). For its early date Brunstead is unusual in its use of the diagonal buttresses – most towers in this area up to c.1420 used set-back buttresses (Cromer c. 1420 and Hickling are examples) thought the tower at Winterton, mentioned in a will of 1387 but probably not completed until c. 1430 uses the diagonal type. The two-light west window is relatively small, as in other early examples (e.g. Swanton Abbot) of its use, before the use of a large west window both as part of the design and as a means of lighting the interior were realised; whilst the belfry windows are in a clearly developed Perpendicular style.
Other features to notice are the proportions of the tower, enhanced by a careful managing of the set-offs in the buttresses and the way it is divided into sections by two string-courses, the delicate quatrefoil “sound-holes” (really ventilation holes for the ringers) and the economical way in which the tower, revealed externally by the tiny slit windows on the west face. Three large but plain merlons on each face tops the tower and there are gargoyles with grotesque carving to throw rainwater clear. The belfry stage, though built of the same flint as the rest of the church (with stone only used for dressings) seems detectably different from the rest, and maybe slightly late. It formerly had three bells, the two larger being sold by faculty in 1733 to pay for repairs, but the single remaining bell is a very fine one by Brasyers of Norwich, cast c.1470 and weighing about 6.5cwt. It is inscribed “Hac In Conclave Gabriel Vuc Pange Suave”.
The remainder of the church is a single cell building, with no separate structural chancel, to which a small south porch is attached. It is often stated that the chancel was demolished in 1827, but this cannot be the case as the Ladbrooke print dated 1823 shows a building the same length as the present one. Any such alteration must thus have been made in the 18th century. Comparison with the Ladbrooke print also reveals that the window tracery of one south window has been completely renewed; the easternmost of the two also looks slightly different from that in the print. In 1823 the thatching of the nave was in two levels, presumably it was reordered in the present style when the church was re-roofed in 1834. The brick buttresses on the north and south sides appear to be 18th century, whilst those at the east end are nicely worked in flint and stone and if of 1827 are remarkably good examples of the period.
The tracery of the east window is not shown in the Ladbrooke print and is in the same style as the windows on the south side of the nave (with cusped intersection tracery) except that is a wider, four-light, rather than three-light window. The windows on the north side have intersection ‘Y’ tracery, without cusping. One unusual feature is the pair of small windows, one in each wall, towards the east end of the nave, which have ogre heads with tracery above and are set beneath square labels. These are most unusual and may have been installed to throw light on the nave altars in front of the rood screen. Two final external features to notice are the blocked north doorway, rather similar to the south doorway and dating from the late 14th century. A porch shelters the south doorway, with a niche over its entrance, which probably once contained a statue of the patron saint. Notice the carved heads as label stops at the ends of the arch mouldings.
The rather severe interior of the church reflects its 19th century restoration. A tablet over the north door records it’s re-roofing in 1834, whilst one at present on the floor reads “This church was restored and repaired at the sole expense of the Rector, the Rev. H.N.W. Comyn and his wife Elizabeth Comyn 1867”. It was re-seated at that time. In 1875 the restoration of the ‘chancel’ cost £500 and in that year George Durrant of Norwich gave the stained glass of the east window at a cost of £110. Much of this restoration seems to have been necessary though, as new seats were provided in 1818-19, as recorded in the church wardens accounts, some of it doubtless reflected the Victorian views of what a church should look like. In 1834, the vestry meeting agreed to take down the “dangerous and unsafe” roof and to replace it with a new one thatched with the best available reeds. This cost £220, of which £199 was raised by the church rate. Horatio Nelson William Comyn was the son of Nelson’s chaplain, younger Comyn, who was baptised on board H.M.S. Victory, was also rector of Walcott 1850-77 and it is recorded that he raised the money for the church restoration by selling tobacco, vegetables, sweets and plants, which he carried in his pony and trap. The font has an octagonal bowl with a quatrefoil motif, dating from the 14th century. The pews have poppy head ends, a Victorian imitation of the mediaeval style. Before moving down the church, go under the tower and examine the original door to the tower stairs, which is 600 years old.
The memorial tablets in the church are unspectacular, but are an interesting collection. Starting on the south wall of the nave and proceeding anti-clockwise, they are as follows:
1. Mary Durrant (1800) and William Durrant (1819)
2. Charlotte Comyn (1848), late wife of the Rev. S. G. Comyn.
The tablet records that he was Chaplain to Nelson at the Nile and Copenhagen. J. Thurlow of Stalham carved it.
3. (North Wall). Elizabeth yn (1877) and the Rev. H.N.W. Comyn (1887)
4. The Rev. Maurice Charles Hilton Bird, 37 years Rector (1924) and his wife Kate (1828).
5. Cubitt Durrant (1865), and his wife Ann (1900) and son William (1877). The tablet is by Perfitt of Stalham.
6. War memorial tablet (1914-18) – nicely carved like an open book, with a wreath above.
There are also a number of ledger slabs in the floor, also some slabs which once bore mediaeval brasses which have long since vanished. From the west end, the ledgers commemorate:
1. Elizabeth Harcourt (1672)
2. Boys Harcourt (1697) and Elizabeth Harcourt (1685).
3. Henry Sydnor (1678)
Towards the east end, notice the Victorian pulpit and reading desk On the south side can be seen the entry to the rood stairs, which shows where the mediaeval rood screen once crossed the church, separating the nave from the chancel. The stairs gave access for the parish clerk or sexton to the loft above the screen to enable him to renew the candles, which burnt in honour of the rood – the large crucifix flanked by figures of Our Lady and St. John (part of the loft survives at the nearby church of Tunstead). By the entry to the rood stairs (15th century) you can see a 15th century piscine, which enabled a priest saying mass at a nearby altar to wash the chalice and paten. The lion corbel has a counterpart of a helmeted head on the north side. Victorian boards bearing the Creed and Decalogue flank the altar. One slightly unusual feature is the “three sided” altar rails, dating from 1870, but in a traditionally puritan arrangement of the 17th century, which permitted lay access up to the east wall of the chancel. Although Brunstead Church is locked, the key may be obtained from the keyholder Geoffrey Beck, next door to the Church at Brunstead Hall Farm.