Norfolk’s Heir to the Punjab

On an income from the India Office of £2,000 a year, he carefully collected books and objects of antiquarian interest. Although his father reverted to Sikhism, Prince Freddy never visited India and happily continued as an Anglican. He would walk down from the Hall to the church on Sunday mornings in a chalk-stripe suit, with hat and stick. What he liked more than anything was restoring old buildings in East Anglia, especially churches.

His collection of pictures of Norfolk churches, mounted and filed alphabetically, is preserved by Thetford public library, and he gave to the town the timber-framed Ancient House, now used as a museum.

"Dreading the restorer's zeal," says his newly added entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "he advocated repairing old landmarks to retain their character, urging local residents to 'preserve every bit of tangible history' that still existed in parish churches."

He saved the Norwich church of St Peter's, Hungate, from demolition at the beginning of the 20th century. Norwich has dozens of churches and used to have more. St Peter's is a pretty little church, rebuilt as a "neat building of black flint" by John and Margaret Paston in 1458. It stands surrounding by 16th and 17th century cottages above the picturesque Elm Hill.

The corbels that support the roof beams are carved to represent the four Evangelists and the four great Latin doctors of the Church, Saints Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory and Jerome. It hasn't been used as a church for 70 years, but served from 1936 to 1995 as a museum of old church fittings – rood screens, pyxes, bench ends, reredoses and things like that. The last time I heard, it was empty.

Another Norwich church in which Prince Frederick took a beneficial interest was St Swithin's. It stands in St Benedict's street, which once boasted four churches, until St Benedict's was destroyed in an air raid in 1942.

St Swithin's itself suffered the demolition of its tower in 1881, and in the first years of the 20th century it might have been converted into a hall had it not been for the energy of its incumbent, John Sawbridge, and the support of Prince Frederick.

Now it serves as Norwich Arts Centre and has seen performances by Oasis and Manic Street Preachers. It is not easy to think that Prince Frederick would approve.

He might be happier with Wymondham Abbey, in the slow restoration of which he took the greatest interest. A parish church since the Reformation, the Abbey was left by its strange history with a big tower at each end, but with an internal vista down the great Norman nave that ended in a blank wall.

This was triumphantly improved by Ninian Comper who designed for it a tall altar screen of carved figures under wooden canopies, ranged in three tiers around a central figure of Christ in majesty. It was inspired by an old drawing of the high altar of Westminster Abbey. Even higher up, at the clerestory level, Comper contrived a rood beam with the figures each side of Mary and John.

How strange that the modest Prince Frederick should have found such a peaceful sequel to the power-struggle that had enveloped his father.

'Sacred Mysteries', a new collection of 90 of the best of Christopher Howse's columns, published by Continuum, is on sale at all good bookshops or from Telegraph Books (£12.99 + £ 1.25 p&p), on 0870 428 4112 or at books.telegraph.co.uk

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