Although today it appears to be a rural church, during the fifteenth century St. Agnes at Cawston was at the centre of a small town in the hundred of South Erpingham and there had been a church at this site since the thirteenth century (Barringer 2005, 97), and possibly earlier.
The church was reconstructed through the fifteenth century, commemorative inscription on the north door reads Orate pro anima Roberti Oxburgh, et pro quibus tenetur qui istud Ele fiere fecit (pray for the soul of Robert of Oxburgh and all to whom he is indebted, who caused this aisle to be made). But it is Michael de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, whose father had been impeached as Chancellor of England at the Merciless Parliament in 1388, who paid for the construction of the imposing tower, constructed of coursed ashlar and conscpicuous in a county with no native building stone. A statement to the de la Pole wealth.
In the nave of St. Agnes, one of Norfolk’s famous fifteenth century rood screens retains its heavenly family in ten vertical panels, crowned by subtle cusped ogees, (from north to south) St. Agnes, St. Helen, St. Thomas, St. John the Evangelist, St. James the Great, St. Andrew, St. Paul, St. Peter, St. James the Less, St. Bartholomew, St. Philip, St. Simon, St. Jude, St. Matthias and John Schorne, with the four Latin Doctors depicted on the doors. John Schorne was a particularly popular fourteenth century English saint and is also displayed on screens in several other churches in the county, as are numerous other saints depicted here. The screen took approximately forty five years to complete, if the painting of the panels is taken into account. In 1460 John Barker, in his will, left ten marks to the rood loft, presumably the carpentry work following the completion of the new nave, and Richard Browne left 4 marks to ‘paint a pane of the rood screen’ in 1504, indicating a protracted and expensive project. The sums donated suggest that space on the screen was at a premium and to pay to have a panel painted required significant personal wealth. In their wills, testators were reticent to include the particular saint they wished to have painted and some conjecture is required, although the arrangement of the images was not entirely random. Running along the full width of the predella at the base of the north side of the screen is an inscription, mostly illegible today but which originally read:
‘Prey for the sowlis of William Atereth, and Alice his Wyff, the weche dede these iiii panys peynte be the executoris lyff….’ (Blomefield 1807, vol. vi, 266).
The number and diversity of the other saints depicted on the screen at Cawston, ranging from the Four Latin Doctors to a more recent English saint in the form of John Schorne, further suggests the scheme was devised by a mixture of patrons and must have been subject to some negotiation amongst the parishioners (Duffy 1997, 150). There is no evidence for any inscription having been included on the south side but documentary evidence reveals some clues. Richard Browne left 4 marks in 1504 to paint one pane of the screen (Cotton 1987, 47) but again, it is impossible to establish whether this testator gave a preference for the saint depicted or whether he was simply able to contribute the funds and leave the direction of the work to someone else. John Schorne was renowned for his medical powers, particularly his ability to cure gout. To suggest that a benefactor with a disease sat on the south side of the church, however, would be speculation in the extreme. Nevertheless, all these saints were powerful intercessors (Graves 2000, 89) and part of a cult of images prevalent during the later middle ages. The overall scheme on the screen was devised as an accumulation of contributions and the laity may have been able to choose, not only the images but the artist too. The fact that the inscription is written in English, not in Latin, reinforces the fact that the inscription was inextricably linked to a group of the laity with no control from ecclesiastical authority. Images of St. Edmund or St. Michael, de la Pole’s favourite saints, are conspicuously absent from the scheme and this may suggest an apparent decline in the influence of the family by the turn of the sixteenth century.
Above the arch into the tower space and directly below the ringing chamber are a series of wooden plaques, carved in relief, which together form the rhyme relating to the Plough Monday celebrations…
‘God Spede the Plow,
And send us all corne enow,
Our purpose for to mak,
at crow of cok ye plowlete of Sygate,
Be mery and glade,
Wat Goodale yis work mad.’