Locally, here in East Anglia, the porous relationship between history and heritage is on display. History as ‘heritage’ can be seen widely scattered across the landscape, and specifically, in our museums, country houses and, of course, our churches. History, a discipline consisting of sources and interpretations gathered from our past mingles with heritage, our collective inherited culture. Whilst history is often contentious it is not easily monetized unlike heritage that frequently becomes a tourist driven revenue opportunity.
The other week I went to visit St Helen’s the parish church in Ranworth. It is substantially a 14th and 15th-century church and is known as ‘the cathedral of the Broads’. Many people on boating holidays take the short walk up from Ranworth Broad to visit the church and climb the tower for the amazing views across the Broads. There is a small visitors’ centre with tea rooms within the churchyard. I spent over an hour in the church photographing its outstanding painted rood screen. During that time about a dozen visitors came in and headed for the tower, but only one couple were interested in the screen, the others didn’t even appear to notice it. The rood screen is not only of historical interest, but it also a beautiful part of the East Anglian heritage.
Rood screens were common place in medieval churches as they formally separated the most holy space, the chancel with the alter, from the nave. East Anglia has many medieval churches that still have part of their original painted wooden panel and tracery screens. Unfortunately, the top third of these structures are missing. The rood, a wooden cross bearing the crucified Christ, along with carved representations of Mary and St John that filled the upper space were all removed during the Reformation of the mid-16th century.
The rood screen at St Helen’s, Ranworth, is a very fine example of medieval craftsmanship and painting (oil on wooden panels) and dates from the late-15th century. Original documentation, a bequest, has been located and in part it refers to the rood screen. It is the will of Robert Iryng, dated 1479, and provides evidence that some painting was carried out during the 1470s with a direct reference to the painting of the panels above the altar of St Mary (pictured below).
The Ranworth rood screen is a survivor although not in its complete form. It is also somewhat battered by the defacing attentions of the puritan iconoclast followers of William Dowsing (1596–1668), but it is still worth a visit and some up-close scrutiny. The screen looks beautiful even if your not interested in its history.