MANY SMALL PLACES in East Anglia have disproportionately large churches. Cley-Next-The-Sea (‘Cley’) is no exception. Its parish church of St Margaret of Antioch is one of the largest in northern Norfolk. It stands atop a hillock, which used to be an island only reachable by boat. The boats that reached Cley were not only those of locals but also foreign vessels bringing valuable cargos to Cley. According to Marjorie Missen, who has written a detailed guide to the church, it was at Cley:
“… that strong links were made with Hanseatic traders and it was in some measure due to their wealth that today we are able to wonder at the size and magnificence of St Margaret’s.”
Without doubt, this church is both impressive in size and contains much of remarkable beauty. Most of the church was built during the 14th and 15th centuries. Its external walls are of flint with stone dressing. Amongst the things that caught my eye during our first and, as yet, only visit to the church were the beautiful, vaulted ceiling of its south porch; the stone carvings on the 15th century font: they depict aspects of the Sacrament; the wood carvings on some of the choir stalls (miserichords); and stone carvings of musicians on the tops of columns lining the nave. However, what first attracted my attention to this church was part of its exterior.
A roofless gothic structure projects from the south side of the church at the place where one would expect a transept. This structure is affixed to the main body of the church but is blocked off from it. Once upon a time, this might have been accessible from within the church when or if it it formed the south transept. I have so far been unable to find any definitive explanation for the abandonment of the south transept and its decay. Ms Missen wrote:
“The large scale work on the transepts and nave are unlikely to have begun before about 1315, or even later. Although the transepts have been in ruins for some centuries the delicacy and tracery of the south window can still be appreciated.”
Interesting as this is, it does not provide any reason why the south transept and the north have been blocked off from the church and allowed to become dilapidated. It has been suggested by Simon Knott (http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/cley/cley.htm) that the transepts, whose construction began in the early 14th century, were never completed because of The Black Death, which reached Norfolk in 1349:
“The most beautiful is that in the south transept, elegant lights that build to a cluster of vast quatrefoils. This was competed on the eve of the Black Death, and is probably at the very apex of English artistic endeavour. But I think that it was never filled with glass. I can see no evidence that the transepts were completed in time for their use before the pestilence, or that there was ever a need to use them after the recovery from it. And, then, of course, the Reformation intervened.”
This seems a quite reasonable theory. Yet, it is only a hypothesis, and so the mystery lives on. Is the south transept a ruin or an uncompleted building? That is the question.