Martham has had a church since time immemorial. A church is mentioned in Domesday Book of 1086 together 50 acres of land to provide an income for the parish priest. At that time Martham also had 43 freemen and two manors. One manor [centred on the later Martham Hall] was held by the Bishop of Elmham as part of his income. The other manor [centred on Moregrove] was held by another ‘lord’ who also held the advowson, (the right to appoint the rector). This manor was held in1160, by Matthew de Gunton who in that year gave the advowson to the Monastery and Priory at Norwich Cathedral on the understanding that the monks would continue to pray for his soul and the souls of his family and servants. Thus we find that Martham is under the patronage of Norwich Cathedral and that the Cathedral is responsible for appointing the parish priests of Martham. Martham became a ‘Norwich Cathedral Peculiar’.
The magnificent church that you see today was built during two periods. The tower and nave were built between about 1377 and 1450 in the magnificent perpendicular style of that era. In those days the stonemasons (who were extremely skilled men) travelled to wherever work was taking place, leaving their mason’s marks (their signatures) on the stonework. One of these left marks on several churches in east Norfolk and became known as ‘The Martham Mason’.
The chancel that was built at that time from 1450 onwards became totally dilapidated and was rebuilt between 1855 and 1861 during the major restoration that took place during those years. The new chancel is a most magnificent example of the gothic revival architecture of that period and included every feature that might have been found in the finest church built before the reformation. The architect was Philip Boyce whose brilliant design was exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1856. Martham was one of the first churches in the Norwich Diocese to be re-ordered following the Oxford Movement and the ensuing revival in the Anglican Church.
In 1999 when work on the tower floor to install drainage was being done, the footings of a round tower were exposed indicating that there had been an earlier church on the same site as the present one. That may have been the church mentioned in Domesday Book.
It had been thought that the anchoress Olive de Raveningham lived in a small cell attached to the round towered church. There is however considerable uncertainty about this. In the 13th century, when she may have lived, those who felt a vocation to become anchorites made solemn promises in the presence of a priest or bishop, and detailed records of these were kept in the Norwich Diocesan Archives. Olive’s name does not appear among these records. However she may have been a religious woman fulfilling another role.
Martham was famous as the burial place of St Blide early in the 11th century. St Blide was the mother of St Walstan and was born about 1075, she was related by marriage to the Royal Family of the House of Wessex. The chapel in Martham Church where she was buried was dedicated in her honour. In 1522 Robert Fullere a tanner of Norwich gave money for repairs to Martham Church ‘where St Blide lyeth’.
The bequest in 1375 of money to Martham Church by the vicar John Spire may have prompted the start of the building of the present church beginning with the tower. John Spire made his will in Latin in 1374. It was translated into English by Barbara Cornford and reads as follows –
“In the name of God Amen. Thursday before the Assumption of the Blessed Mary 1374, I, the said John Spire, Vicar of Martham made my will in the following way – In the first place I leave my soul to God and the Blessed Mary and all the saints, and my body to be buried in the chapel of Saint Blide at Martham...I leave to the use of that church 10 Marks”
John Spire died in 1375 having been Vicar of Martham since 1349. Although, in his will, he made other bequests, half of his estate – 10 marks or £6 13s. 4d. (£6.66) being left to Martham Church, however, this would have been insufficient to finance the re-building of the church
A project on the scale of the rebuilding of Martham Church at that time would have required a detailed contract to have been drawn up. Contracts from that era have very rarely survived, but as the Priory and Monastery at Norwich Cathedral was the patron of the church it is likely that it was organised from the Cathedral. Their records reveal that their master mason Robert Everard was working on the building of the chancel of that church during the years 1450 to 1480. Another important contributor to the cost of the building may have been local landowner Roger Clarke to whom a stained glass window was dedicated. This window was not installed after the Victorian restoration.