Castle Acre Church  
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Church of St. James the Great

There can be few parish churches in England which are situated almost midway between the impressive earthworks of a Norman Castle and the extensive ruins of a Cluniac Priory but this is the case with the Church of St James, Castle Acre. A Grade 1 listed building, it stands in the centre of the village, high above the River Nar.

During the Late Saxon period, Castle Acre had developed into a substantial and wealthy settlement owned by a thegn called Toki, as recorded in the Domesday Book. It was given to the Norman William of Warenne who rebuilt the Late Saxon hall in stone, the first ‘castle’ from which he controlled his surrounding estates. The Priory was also founded by him and building had begun on the site before 1090. Its foundation charter provides evidence for a Saxon church serving the settlement because William of Warenne gave the income from ‘the church at Acre’ to the Priory.

Though this Saxon church has vanished, the blocked Norman window over the priest’s door in the south chancel wall indicates that there was indeed a building here pre-dating the present one. Castle Acre had three medieval manors (Earl’s Manor; Fox’s Manor and Arundells) and two fairs held on Stocks Green and St James’ Green.

Being on the Peddar’s Way, the ancient Roman road which remained in use as a north-south trackway, and on the pilgrim route to the shrine at Walsingham, it was a prosperous community with inns and hostels built to cater for travellers and pilgrims. This prosperity must have helped to finance the rebuilding of the parish church in the 14th and 15th centuries in the most up-to-date Perpendicular style of slender piers, soaring arches and tall windows.

Though substantially restored in 1846 and again in 1875, the church still contains many medieval treasures. The hexagonal font, dating from the fifteenth century, has the original counter-balance mechanism of its cover in working order and its red, green and gold paintwork has been uncovered during restoration works.

The 15th century goblet pulpit has painted images of the four Latin Doctors of the Church and the same high quality craftsmanship can be seen in the surviving panels of the rood screen depicting the eleven disciples and St Matthias and the instruments by which they were tortured.

Though the parish church lies outside the original town defences, showing that the town had outgrown its original boundaries by the 13th century, nevertheless the greater part of the encircling town ditch and bank survives. In fact, Castle Acre is altogether very special, not only for its Castle, Priory and St James’ Church but because it is a rare and almost complete survival of a Norman planned settlement.

Benefactors through the Centuries

In general it was the more affluent members of a community who left Wills in past centuries as their prosperity meant that they had goods and property to bestow. However, Medieval Wills also show that the testator was concerned with what would happen after his or her death.

Keen to atone for transgressions on earth and to help his or her soul pass through Purgatory to Heaven, such a person could specify burial or funeral arrangements and leave a charitable bequest for building work on a church or for plate, lights (candles) or altar cloths.

Some Wills provide for the payment to priests to say prayers ‘in perpetuity’ for the souls of the testator and his family at an existing chapel or altar or even bestow enough money for the foundation of a new chantry or chantry chapel.

Most Medieval Wills have a prayer-like introduction with standardised wording: In the name of God, Amen. I, …… citizen of ……, being of sound mind and memory, make and set out my testament in the following manner. First, I leave and commend my soul to almighty God, my creator and my saviour, to the Blessed Virgin Mary his mother, and to all the saints.

Surviving Wills for Castle Acre’s Church include the following:

1514 Will of Thomas Candeler
He requested burial in the church and gave 53s 4d to the painting of the tabernacle of St Catherine (possibly now in use as the canopy of the font) on the condition of keeping a light in the bason before our Lady in the chapel, with 5 waxe candels to be light at ev'ry principal feste, in every dobil feste 2, and every single feste 1’

1515 Calybut’s Chapel
The east end of the south aisle may have been the ‘Callybut’s Chapel’ referred to in 1515 when Margaret Calybut was buried there. The building of this chapel may have been financed by the Calybut family of Castle Acre.

1525 Will of Henry Scottyng
He requested burial in the Chapel of our Lady and gave 10 acres to the Church as well as ‘to the rood light 6d; to ‘Our Lady’s light 6d’; to the common light 6d and to St Nicholas 6d’ asking also that prayers be said ‘to keep his yearday’.

1598 Bequest of Eleanor Gybbon
She gave to the church a silver-gilt cup and cover for use during Communion.

From An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: volume 1. Francis Blomefield (1805).