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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

03 September 2021

The year 1549 was significant for North Walsham — and the Church, Malcolm Guite reflects

AS A historic market town, North Walsham is naturally proud of its old Market Cross. The “market cross”, is not, in fact, a cross at all, but an elegant octagonal structure. Eight open arches lead into a raised wooden floor above, on which fine oak beams lift a two-stage roof, leaded, and all crowned with a clock and a weathervane. The clock and weathervane are later additions, 18th- and 19th-century; but the market cross itself began life in 1549 as a gift from the Bishop of Norwich to the people of the town.

And, as I sat down to rest by the cross and read a brief inscription of its history, it was this date of its inception that struck me; for 1549 is, famously, the date of another gift from the Church to the people of England: the Book of Common Prayer. Perched on the edge, under one of the arches, and enjoying a bottle of local ale and a pork pie bought from the market stalls, I found myself pondering on the many things that the Market Cross and the BCP have in common.

Both were a transformation of something that already existed, but with the aim of making it more accessible and more widely used. That 1549 BCP was the first prayer book to include the complete forms of service for daily and Sunday worship in English. Morning and evening prayer already existed, but now they could be entered into and enjoyed much more fully, with a real understanding of their meaning. Likewise, there had been a stone pillar to mark the “market cross”, and the rights, which had been granted back in the 13th century, to buy and sell and exchange goods around it; but, in 1549, it was transformed: the eight arches or porticoes, like the sides of a font, welcomed people in from all directions, and provided a centre, a shelter, and a focus for the community — again, all things that the BCP was there to do.

Of course, the Market Cross is not now exactly as it was in 1549, and neither is the BCP. The BCP was revised further in 1552 and 1604, and the first iteration of the market cross was not actually completed till 1555. The BCP was, of course, abrogated under Mary, and again under Cromwell, but eventually revised and restored, after many vicissitudes, in 1662. Likewise, our little market cross was destroyed, together with the entire market, in a fire of 1600, only to be restored by another bishop and re-presented to the town in 1602.

So, as with anything worth preserving, there is always a need for revision and restoration, but there is also a long continuity. All the essentials of life which were brought and exchanged here in 1549 — the beer and butter, the bread and wine — are still brought and exchanged, perhaps wrapped a little differently.

And, likewise, the things that we bring and exchange in our life of prayer remain essentially the same: we bring the pain and joy, the confession and thanksgiving; we bring them into the shelter, the time-worn table of exchange which is our common liturgy, and come away, as though from market, revived, refurbished, supplied again with the week’s necessities of grace, glad for the gift our common prayer — our common place of exchange — and thinking that maybe, with so much grace on offer, we got a bit of a bargain.

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