A message from medieval times


Our new logo is taken from graffiti left in Martham St

Mary’s church in the medieval age.  It shows a ‘cog’, an oak

sailing vessel very common in northern Europe during the

Middle Ages.  They were used by the Hanseatic League and

replicas can be seen in Sweden at Malmo.  Cogs were plank

built, had one mast and a square rigged single sail hanging

from one yard. 

Matthew Champion will be speaking to the Martham Local History Group this year as part of our programme.  He wrote a book on medieval ship graffiti in churches and has produced an entertaining video about these ships and mentions Martham in particular.  See his video here.

The following is a description of the graffiti

and something of its significance written by Ann Meakin, our

MLHG president.

Martham's mystery mariner

Looking around St. Marys – our ancient Parish church, you may have noticed a ship scratched on one of the pillars.  How did that come to be there?  What does it mean?  Why is it there?  When you look closely you can see that it is very beautifully drawn by an artist with a very good knowledge of sailing ships and how they work.  A close inspection reveals that there is lime-wash in the scratched outline and that it therefore dates from before the Reformation in the 16th century when much that was decorative was obliterated with lime wash.  The lime-wash either wore off or was removed in a later century. 


It is of the type of ship called a ‘cog’ that was built in the 1300s, 1400s and 1500s as a sea-going coastal trading vessel.  You can distinguish the hull with a high peak at the prow, the tall mast and the sails and the rigging and even the crow’s nest.

But why is it there?  Before the days of road, rail and air transport everything was transported by water and even the narrowest rivers that were navigable were used by small boats.  Sea-going transport was vital and almost every place near the sea had its harbour or jetty from the beach.  But seafarers had a very risky job.  They were in constant danger from the weather, the tides, the hidden sandbanks and rocks and even pirates and warfare.  Seafaring took men away from their homes for months, sometimes years on end and they needed to know that people remembered them and prayed for them.


Nowadays we think constantly of those near and dear to us and have photos and other mementoes to remind us to think of them and to pray for them.  Many centuries ago they did not have these things.  Being out of sight meant that sailors could be out of mind too, but they desperately needed to feel that they were not forgotten.  The symbol of a ship on a church pillar would remind people to pray for and remember before God those of their community who were seafarers.  Sometimes a wealthy merchant ship-owner would have commissioned a skilled artist to make an engraving of his ship. 


At places like Blakeney, Wiveton and Cley, which were important ports in the Middle Ages, you can see several ships scratched on pillars in the churches, but I have not seen one that is as large or finely crafted as ours at Martham.

My guess is that ours was commissioned by a wealthy local merchant ship owner about 600 years ago.  But who was he?  We have considerable information about Martham people of the past from the vast collection of Wills in the Norfolk Record Office.  Not all of them have been read, so maybe someone doing research will one day be able to discover the name of our mystery mariner.

Ann Meakin,

President, Martham Local History Group

(Right) Cley church, Hanseatic cog graffiti 











(Right) Blakeney church cog

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We meet at the Methodist Church, Martham