History of St Mary's Church High Easter
St. Mary’s High Easter is a Norman church with significant 14th and 15th Century additions, it is not known whether there was a church on the site at an earlier date. Building began soon after the Norman Conquest around 1100, with the chancel and nave on something close to today’s footprint. The walls are of flint rubble and there are visible Roman tiles in the chancel walls and quoins (corners), recycled from an unknown earlier building. The Norman nave had a steeply pitched roof, the outline of which can be seen on the east wall of the tower.
Some time in the mid 1300s there was an ambitious plan to extend the church with the addition of two side aisles, the chancel arch was enlarged to fit the new layout but the extension plans stalled, with only the north aisle added; this is why the chancel arch seems to be out of position. The north aisle wasn’t completed until around 1400. The next addition was, circa 1460, the tower at the west end of the nave, this is one of the most imposing in the area and has flint chequer work near its base, something often seen in East Anglian churches. After the tower was built there was another ambitious improvement: the nave roof was taken off and the brick clerestory added, the clerestory
windows much improving the natural light in the nave. A new flat pitch roof was added with the magnificent oak tie-beams that can be seen today. The interior of the roof is an outstanding example of structural and decorative carpentry, the beams profusely carved with animals and foliage; five-barred gates can be seen on both the east and central tie-beams honouring the donor who paid for this work, Sir Geoffrey Gate. The brick porch to the south door was probably added at the same time in the early 16th Century.
There was little additional building in the following centuries until a general restoration in 1864-5. The collapsing medieval vestry was replaced with the present vestry, a gallery that had been installed beneath the bell-ringing chamber in the tower was removed and the pews we use today installed. The stained glass windows in the north aisle and the chancel are all Victorian.
There are six bells, one is undated, two dated 1588, the others 1590, 1699 and 1897.
The village historian, Derek Bircher, provides the names of the vicars from the year 1279 onwards. Little is known of many of these though the name Gepp is still familiar. Two Gepp vicars, father and son, both Edward, were in office from 1849 to 1916, the Old Vicarage was built for the father. Another long serving vicar was Edmund Stileman in office from 1516 to 1566, serving throughout the English Reformation. Stileman arrived as a Roman Catholic priest, after Henry VIII’s Break with Rome (rejection of the Pope’s authority) there was at first little change in liturgy. In Edward VI’s reign the first English Prayer Book was introduced and Stileman became more like an Anglican vicar. Edward’s death brought Mary to the throne and return to Roman Catholicism, then finally (for Edmund Stileman) Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne in 1558 and, with her, the supremacy of the Church of England.
The Reformation was also the end for the powerful Gate family, influential in the nation as well as the parish. Sir Geoffrey, donor of the clerestory and the magnificent nave roof, is probably buried under the north aisle, his widow Dame Agnes’s tomb was for centuries in the small chapel at the east end of the north aisle. Their son, Sir John Gate was a leading supporter of Lady Jane Grey whom Protestants wished to see on the throne rather than Mary. Sir John was convicted of High Treason and executed on Tower Hill on 22nd August 1553; the Crown seized all the Gate family’s lands and possessions and the surviving family left the area.
Where to find us
St Mary’s Church
The church is in the centre of the village and accessed via the gate adjacent to The Punchbowl.