Shelton Church

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The Church of St Mary is to be found in a beautiful rural setting at Shelton, just over 2 miles from Long Stratton and 12 miles from Norwich.St Mary's Shelton is known far beyond just the village itself. The church, which has a rich history, is loved for the exceptional beauty of the building, both inside and out. This magnificent brick building has a good acoustic. There is no electricity so sadly it is rarely used for services in winter.

Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the church as it now stands was largely built during the 15th century, by Sir Ralph Shelton, on the site of an earlier construction mentioned in the Domesday Book.

Sir Ralph was a man of considerable wealth and accomplishment, becoming High Sheriff of Norfolk (1488-89). He built himself a fortified manor house (now demolished) and embarked upon the church, though its interior was not complete upon his death. In his will, Sir Ralph included a list of pious requests and distributed substantial sums of money to a range of ecclesiastical causes (including provision for priests to sing divine service for him and his family for 99 years). He also ordered his executors to complete the rebuilding of the church at Shelton in accordance with his plans and left the resources for this. However, his son John, it seems, was too pre-occupied with matters at Court to finish the original design.

Sir John Shelton’s connection with the royal family was his marriage to the aunt of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. Lady Shelton was chosen as governess to Princess Mary (Henry’s daughter by his first wife). However, when Anne Boleyn was executed, Lady Shelton and her husband gained a responsibility for Princess Elizabeth, Anne’s daughter (later to become Elizabeth I). The younger princess, whose life was at times under threat, and was placed in their charge at Shelton. On one occasion, Sir John reputedly hid the young princess in the church tower to avoid her arrest by court conspirators.

The succeeding generations of Sheltons appear gradually to have lost interest in the parish: their holdings were sold by about 1600. The last male Shelton was buried in the church chancel in 1749.

Shelton church is an architectural treasure, a superb example of the Perpendicular style. The 14th-century tower, built of flint, and the west window of the south aisle are all that remain of the previous church. The rest, unusually for Norfolk, is constructed in red brick with some stone dressings and embellished with a ‛diaper’ pattern in darker coloured bricks.  The effect, particularly on a sunny day, can be stunning.

The church comprises tower, south porch, nave and two aisles (all of the same length) with no projecting chancel. There is also a small sacristry at the east end ‒ a rare feature – and a five-sided external casing of brick and stone for the staircase (which would have led to a rood loft) on the north side.

Along the sides are large 15th-century windows (three on the south and four on the north), each with delicate tracery and gargoyles above, and nine clerestory windows.

The porch is a tall and impressive two-storey structure, though the floor at the upper level is incomplete, as is the fan vaulting underneath it. The upper level of the porch would have been accessed via the tower stair and a connecting passage, rather than having its own staircase. Some commentators believe that this arrangement, the placing of the north door in the far corner and the lack of an identifiable chancel may indicate (together with some internal signs) that Sir John did not entirely follow Sir Ralph's grand design.

The interior of the church is bright and spacious, illuminated by the external light from the large ground floor and clerestory windows. The three eastern windows are magnificent, containing much 15th-century glass (restored during the 1990s). Various members of the Shelton family are depicted (recognised by their shield of blue with a gold cross), including Sir Ralph and his wife in the upper portion of the central window and Sir John and Lady Shelton, Princess Elizabeth's guardians, in the east window of the south aisle. Look out, too, for the boar of the Boleyn family. The central east window is particularly tall in relation to the wall in which it is set: some commentators consider that this may indicate that a grander design for the east end may have been intended by Sir Ralph.

One unintended feature of the interior is the high flat ceiling. The old roof was apparently removed in the 18th century to be used on a tithe barn. The stone corbels which would have supported the roof trusses remain. They consist of angels holding shields showing the Shelton arms, and illustrations of an ‘R’, a shell and a barrel (shell-tun = Shelton). The shell and tun motif also appear in many windows and on the pulpit. The Shelton arms are also on the lectern (considered to be as old as the church).

The base of the rood screen remains in place across most of the church, but has no trace left of the original painting. Nearby, on the north wall, is the entrance to the rood stairs.

Over the tomb to the north of the altar are the beginnings of an elaborate canopy, which some think may be the tomb of the founder, Sir Ralph Shelton (not completed by Sir John, possibly because of the expense). The chest to the south of the altar, alternatively, may have been prepared by Sir Ralph for his own and his wife’s interment. The tomb of Sir Robert Houghton (1623) is in the south-east corner and retains much colour. Above the tower arch is one of the best examples of the Royal Arms of William III (1689-1702), made of gilded and painted oak and gifted to the church in 1881. 

Spacious and elegant, Shelton is a wonderful church to visit, with its impressive structure and interesting features.  It is also an inspirational place for worship, especially – given its superb acoustics – with music.


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