Making Their Mark
Landscape|January - February 2018

Thousands of examples of medieval graffiti carved in the stones of Norfolk’s churches are giving a voice to people previously invisible to history

Matthew Champion
LOOKING OVER THE salt marshes of the North Norfolk coast sits the quiet village of Blakeney, now a haunt of birdwatchers and pleasure sailors. Back in the Middle Ages, however, this settlement of flint cottages was a thriving sea port. Countless vessels shipped in timber from the Baltic, taking out bales of East Anglian wool to the Low Countries. A place of commerce and new money, the community poured gold and silver into building its own magnificent medieval church.

Standing as much a testament to business as to God, the church is a truly magnificent example of late medieval architecture. Its tower looms above the coast, visible as a landmark many miles out to sea. Uniquely, at the east end of the church, is a second small tower, built as a beacon to guide ships safely into harbour at the mouth of the River Glaven. However, in recent years it has not been the ships that once populated the harbour that has brought Blakeney to the attention of the world. Instead, it is tiny images of medieval ships carved into the very stones of the church.

These medieval graffiti inscriptions were discovered in the 1990s by John Peake, as part of ongoing research by the Blakeney Area Historical Society. For more than five years, he has carefully examined the walls and pillars at Blakeney, as well as at a number of nearby churches. All have been found to contain significant quantities of graffiti dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. There are builders’ accounts on the wall of Cley church, a mile and a half away to the east, dating from the 19th century restoration. At Morston, the same distance in the opposite direction, the base of the font is covered with dozens of outlines of people’s shoes, as a very personal commemoration of their visit, all created over a period of at least three centuries. At Wiveton, archaic Greek inscriptions are carved into one of the pillars of the north arcade. And ship graffiti; virtually all of the churches in this part of Norfolk contain images of ancient ships carved into the stones.

Understanding the motifs

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