Why would an atheist radical historian go to church? My answer would be that history is an attempt to find out who we are. Churches are, invariably, the oldest surviving buildings in European cities, towns and villages and by closely reading them we can discover how class, status and power shaped the lives of the people through, sometimes, over a thousand years of time. The ‘we’ is everyone coming to the Radical site; whether Norfolk is home or a new place and from whatever ‘faith’ or ‘non-faith’ background you come from.
This is the story of a journey to one remarkable Norfolk church; a journey passing through the suburban necropolis of Toftwood to what Tourism Norfolk would, no doubt, call the ‘market town’ of Swaffham, although many years have passed since the market destroyed the ‘market’.
The church of St Peter and St Paul with its majestic tower of cream stone dominates the town. Most church towers in Norfolk are built of flint but, in a grand gesture, the stone was brought from Barnack in north Cambridgeshire and shipped through the Fenland waterways to the wonderfully named nearby river Wissey.
Already massively rebuilt during the 14th century, the booming cloth trade and population growth in the mid-15th century saw a spectacular re-fashioning to the fabric of the building with the insertion of a chestnut hammer beam roof and the addition of a guild chapel and west porch.
The new work was paid for by representatives of a new, rising force: the bourgeoisie. The evidence points to the roof being funded by John Chapman, ‘the Pedlar of Swaffham’, who gave the congregation a vision of heaven: 192 angels looking down from stunning heights. There are wood carvings of Chapman prominent in the chancel and the nave and they tell the story of the self-made man; we see him as he was then, a merchant financier in his counting-house, and as he was before, an itinerant salesman on the road with his sack of commodities – the ‘Pedlar’.
What makes Chapman’s vision so extraordinary is the prominence he gave to his companion, his dog. No name has come down to us but I like to think of the dog as Fido, ‘I trust’. We see Fido, at the front of the nave, looking up in benign amazement at the angels and the stars beyond. Chapman also placed a statue of Fido on the roof of the porch. Surely no dog has ever been commemorated in such a way; Fido is still on guard after nearly 600 years and visitors still pass underneath him or her.
The iconoclasts of the Reformation and the Puritan Revolution left Chapman and Fido in peace; after all, Chapman was an exemplar of the rising class and of possessive individualism: the businessman as pilgrim. In a corner near the old Corpus Christi guild chapel is a 1590 memorial to another, later upwardly mobile bourgeois, Katherine Seward, the maternal grandmother of Oliver Cromwell.
For all these years, Fido has been guarding the memory of the grandma of a regicide and bringer of revolution: some dog.