Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Everyone Writes On Walls – Except Me!

This is a piece of Latin graffiti from Pompeii– back in Roman times, with no internet and Twitter, this was the way that people expressed their opinions- by writing on the public walls.

Currently here in East Anglia, there is much discussion about Banksy. Personally I think he’s a very gifted guy, and makes clever statements about contemporary issues through his artwork. Halfway between Pompeii, and 21st Century spray painting there is the graffiti of the medieval period. I knew nothing about this until Jon lent me an informative book on the subject. It seems that back then, people often ‘made their mark’ in the church buildings when they went to pray. And Norfolk is the best county for finding such graffiti. In Norwich Cathedral, you’ll find numerous marks – crosses, ships, symbols – but also out in the little villages too.

Across the county there are hexfoils, sometimes called ‘daisy wheels’. These are circular designs made with compasses [did you draw them in maths lessons?] Some think these are signs of the Trinity, others that they were made by masons and architects – a reminder of the way to measure and construct angles. 

There are pictures of people, words and names, signs and symbols.  Litcham church has many examples - a “Solomon’s Knot” as well as a heart-felt prayer to St Martyn. [The knot is on the NMGS logo below]

St Nicholas’ Church Blakeney has many ships, carved around a side altar –put there by families praying for their men out ‘in peril on the sea’? 

Beside the front door of the church in Worthing a few miles from here is a sundial- believed to have been an aid to remembering the times of Mass. It seems that the majority of the graffiti represent the prayers of the faithful worshippers – and as churches are restored and ancient walls strengthened, still more of these signs are being uncovered. 

The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, has done an incredible amount of research. Many of these marks have yet to be interpreted, and the NMGS continues to make new discoveries. For eighteen months, many church buildings have been closed for public worship – but some were opened for private prayer. 

I’m not sure the clergy would have been happy if people had scratched their prayer requests on the wall [Post-It notes are a less damaging option these days] Recently I stood outside Worthing church in the sunshine, marvelling that for over a millennium people had come to that quiet place to reflect, pray, praise and worship. 

I am glad their marks remain – a reminder in this ever changing world that some truths are eternal. 

[this is based on the article I recently wrote for our Parish Magazine]


  1. Isn't it odd that this is mainly a Norfolk thing? I've not come across any in the Suffolk churches I've visited - or perhaps I've not looked close enough

    1. I only learned this recently - but suggest you check out this Suffolk site, Sue; It seems to be an arcane subject, only seriously catalogued in the last 10 years or so. I'm not surprised you and I had not heard of it, despite having been around East Anglia for over half a century!!

  2. Lovely blog post! There is an old rock fortress in Sri Lanka, with some frescos painted on a portion of the rock that had been covered with plaster and some old graffiti written by visitors centuries ago.

  3. Great and interesting article Angela. Would love to read the whole thing. x

    1. The parish mag article just had a couple of extra 'local' comments, not relevant to the blog!

  4. I love seeing well done graffiti and also initials carved into old pieces of furniture in unexpected places.

    Banksy's work is brilliant and is usually a real statement of our times and the work by street artist Akse, such as the Marcus Radford mural in Manchester is amazing. Far better a well painted wall than an old derelict eyesore and there are some wonderful examples around aren't there :-)

  5. One thing I miss from the old country is the ancient buildings, the churches with 16th or 17th century graves to be found. I never knew about this medieval graffiti. DH was using spray paint the other day and it was clogging and not efficient. I commented that graffiti creators in cities never seem to have a problem with their spray paint.


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