The most beautiful situated of all the churches surrounding Ashbourne, Norbury church can be easily missed. It is invisible from the road: a discrete sign on an overgrown wall is the only indication to the passer-by of its existence. Follow this curving wall round, however, and the view opens out into a classic English composition: tall trees frame a mellow stone church with low embattled tower which rub shoulders with the Manor house, a happy blend of Norman, mediaeval and late 17th century building. It was for centuries the home of the Fitzherbert's, whose tombs are amongst the chief glories of the church. They were soldiers, lawyers and, in Elizabeth's reign, stalwart adherents of the old religion (one of them, Sir Thomas, died in the Tower for his beliefs). A later member of the family, widow of a Norbury Fitzherbert, became famous briefly as the wife of George IV. The house, after years of neglect, has recently been sympathetically restored by a Fitzherbert descendant, and now in the hands of the National Trust: an imaginative landscaping enhances the charm of an already charming view.
The greater part of the present church dates from the 14th and 15th centuries, though earlier work survives inside; for example, the two late Anglo-Saxon cross-shafts, with interlaced design, and the early English font, a crude tub supported by clustered columns. The most striking feature, however, is the chancel, an ambitious structure for a church of this size, built probably about 1360, by Henry de Kniveton, Rector from 1349 to 1395 and possessed of ample private means. It is very nearly as long as the nave and is internally the same height, with no chancel arch to detract from the spaciousness of the interior. It is lit by very large three-light windows with highly individual intersecting tracery, using at the main crossing points of the members large, twelve-petalled flowers (these appear both inside and outside); the east window, of five lights, is perhaps less successful. The disproportionately large pyramid capped buttresses, Pevsner suggests, possibly indicate a projected stone vault which was never carried out.
The nave and clerestory, the north aisle, the southeast and south west chapels, the tower - the base of which forms the entrance porch - and also the roof of the chancel, were all the work of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, carried out in two phases under the patronage of Nicholas Fitzherbert and his grandson John. The latter, who died in 1517, willed that his body should be buried “under the newe made arche benethe the Steple or els where God shall otherwyse dispose it.” He lies under a plain altar-tomb, marked by a brass plate, close to “the steple,” in the south west chapel. He bequeathed that a penny should be given to “all Christian clerks that can and will say a de profundis for my soul, also every man woman and child that comes to my buriall should have a farthing white loffe and a penny of silver and the ringers of the bells eight pence.”
Most of the delights of Norbury church are to be found in a chancel, now restored to its former glory. After an absence of 10 years, the 14th century glass in the great east window, which had suffered from the ravages of nature and man, has been cleaned, re-leaded and re-set. Cohorts of grey-bearded saints now once more gaze benevolently down, each bearing his appropriate emblem: familiar ones like St Peter with his keys, St Andrew with his Saltire cross, St Bartholomew with his butcher's knife, and more obscure ones like St Thaddeus with his ship. Above and around them the arms of ancient families glow: Mowbray and Claire, Fitzherbert and de Burgh, Pole and Lancaster. More fragments of mediaeval glass survive in the south east Chapel, notably one depicting the patronal St Barlock and the donor, Nicholas Fitzherbert and his family, who are shown kneeling. In this chapel lies the oldest of the notable Fitzherbert tombs, a stark stone effigy of Sir Henry, who twice represented the Shire in parliament in Edward I’s reign; he is depicted in coats of mail and surcoat, sheathing his sword. This originally stood in the centre of the chancel until removed in the last century to make way for the more striking monuments to his descendants, Nicholas (the builder) and Ralph, his son, who died respectively in 1473 and 1483. An inscription now erased, said of Nicolas:
“This church he made at his own expense
In the joy of heaven be his recompense.”
These two alabaster tombs are evidently by the same hand and are excellent examples of the craft of the period. The armour of the two knights, the dress of Ralph's wife Elizabeth, the hair, are all executed with minute attention to detail. Elizabeth wears a tiny Virgin and Child medallion around her neck; her husband and father-in-law both sports the Yorkist Sun and Rose collar (and Ralph wear's Richard III’s boar too). Under Ralph's foot cowers a tiny bedesman with a rosary. Around the sides of the tombs, framed by richly crocketed nodding ogee arches, are the weepers (Nicholas’ two wives bore him seventeen children, Ralph and Elizabeth had fifteen). Each one is distinguished - knight, priest, lawyer, lady. Between these two tombs, inset into the chancel floor, is a brass (more precisely a palimpsest or reused brass) to Anthony Fitzherbert, youngest of Ralph’s sons, eminent Tudor lawyer and the judge of Sir Thomas More. Headless now, like the man he condemned, he is shown in his judge’s robes, his wife in widows’ weeds, their children kneeling below. There are other Fitzherbert memorials, including an incised slab which shows a corpse in a winding sheet (compare with the Beresford tomb at Fenny Bentley, which is roughly contemporary); this may be, on the evidence of the defaced coat of arms on the slab, Elizabeth, wife of Ralph Fitzherbert, who thus has the distinction of being twice commemorated in effigy in the church.
From patricians to plebeians: George and Mary Evans (George Eliot's models for the parents of Adam Bede) lie in the churchyard (the original of “Adam Bede”, Robert Evans, is thought to have carved to the gothic altar in the north aisle). Amongst numerous members of the Maskrey family buried here (a name that George Eliot also made use of) are two who died tragically young, remembered on an unusual slate 18th century wall tablet on the outside of the porch. The finely-cut declaration is vaguely classical in aspiration, but the Leicestershire sculptor, who signs his name beneath, gives the capitals a twist that turns them into pagodas. Would a country stone mason in a remote Leicestershire village have been aware for the current craze for chinoiserie?
The Parish of St Mary and St Barlok operates its own web site. Click here to visit.