St Andrew's Church
covehithe with benacre
Covehithe and St Andrew's Church
Covehithe, known as North Hales (Nordhalla or Nordhals) in the Domesday Survey of 1086, grew from what was once a small Roman and Anglo Saxon settlement, into a prosperous fishing village during the Middle Ages. Indeed, with its growing prosperity, the town was granted a fair on the feast day of St Andrew during the reign of Edward I. It took its current name from the de Cove family who were lords here at the time, and from the hithe or quay used for loading and unloading small vessels.
By the 17th Century, its fortunes had declined as it fell victim, like nearby Dunwich, to the sea. Following periods of substantial coastal erosion during the 18th and 19th Centuries (which continues to this day) all of the fishing port was lost - the only recorded pub in the village The Anchor had closed by 1882. Covehithe now comprises a number of working farm buildings, a house and several cottages, all dominated by St Andrew’s church and surrounded by farmland. It has a population of around 20 and the parish is now combined with that of neighbouring Benacre.
During the First World War, Covehithe Airfield was established as a night landing ground. Operated by the Royal Naval Air Service, it carried out anti-Zeppelin patrols along the coast. It closed in 1919 and the land was returned to agricultural use. During the Second World War, a series of pillboxes and other defences were placed along the Covehithe coastline as part of the coastal defences against German invasion, and an Extra Low radar station was placed at Covehithe by the RAF as part of the ‘Chain Home’ early warning system. Most of the pillboxes have since been lost to coastal erosion and the radar station was dismantled after the war.
We know from several sources that the building of the original Church of St Andrew was financed by the private munificence of a wealthy incumbent – one William Yarmouth and his friends. He was appointed a cleric in 1459 under the patronage of the Prior and Convent of Thetford, as were many of the incumbents of St Andrew’s between 1402 and 1536. From an early period, the parish of Covehithe had been dependent for its religious instruction upon the Prior and Monks of Wangford, whose community was a Priory and Cell to Thetford Priory (being subordinate to the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny in France until 1393).
The oldest fabric in the original large medieval church dates from 14th Century, though much is from 15th Century. During the Civil War, William Dowsing, the Parliamentary Commissioner of infamous memory, destroyed much of the stained glass. Local people refused to help him raise ladders to do other damage so he left a warrant with the Constable to destroy many other items within 14 days. The warrant was never executed.
By the 17th Century, the large church became too expensive to maintain and the parish was given permission in 1672 by the Ecclesiastical Authorities to remove the roof and build a much smaller church within it. This work was undertaken by James Gilbert and Enoch Girling and completed the same year; plaques can be found in the new church commemorating their work. It was built to adjoin the original tower: once an important landmark for ships at sea. The church contains the octagonal font defaced by Dowsing’s men, the pulpit and three poppy-head pew ends from the original church.
In keeping with a village so closely associated with the sea, St Andrew's church holds a long list of names of local men who fought and died in the War, a large contingent of whom were in the Navy. It remains a tradition of St Andrew's that the following verse is sung at the end of every Service:
O Trinity of love and power,
our brethren shield in danger's hour;
from rock and tempest, fire and foe,
protect them wheresoe'er they go:
thus evermore shall rise to thee
glad hymns of praise from land and sea