Medieval Graffiti

All of us can imagine the medieval world. Our imagination was created by our upbringing, the books we read, and the films we saw. Imagining the Middle Ages is an act that usually starts in childhood, and changes slowly as we grow older. From the brightly coloured pages of a child’s history book to the visceral panoramas of the latest season of Game of Thrones, how we see the Middle Ages changes. In most cases, however, the fundamental perspective remains the same: it’s an elite view of the medieval past, a Middle Ages composed of princes and kings, of knights and fair damsels in distress. It is a vision of the past that includes the splendour of great cathedrals and the brooding darkness of mighty castles. A past of banquets and battles. But it has little bearing upon reality.

The problem with our view of the Middle Ages is that it excludes the vast majority of people who lived in it, so it’s a highly partial and misleading picture of that world. Just like today, most medieval people did not belong to top 5 per cent of society, they weren’t kings, princes, knights, or damsels. Most men, women and children were commoners. It is no coincidence that this other, everyday, 95 per cent of the population was the one who did most of the work.

Putting aside farming, food processing and survival, it was these workers who were responsible for actually building most of what we think of when the Middle Ages come to mind. These are the people who built the magnificent medieval cathedrals, the craftsmen who constructed the dour and monumental castles. The workers whose blood and sweat bonds together the stones of every medieval church. They are the men whose deft fingers filled window spaces with blindingly bright stained glass. These are the people who built the Middle Ages. Yet we really know very little about them.

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Composite image including a tiny selection of the many thousands of medieval compass drawn designs being discovered in English churches.

The voices of medieval commoners are largely silent. The science of archaeology tells us something about their general health, about what they wore, where they lived, and what they ate. Modern techniques such as isotope analysis can even tell us details such as where they grew up. The wonders of modern science have their limitations, however. Archaeology and isotope analysis cannot tell us what these people felt and thought, what they dreamed of and feared, what they thought was funny or what they held dear.

Most medieval documents come with the same limitations. Occasionally, the lower classes turn up in the odd surviving document, account book or legal proceedings but, with low levels of literacy throughout much of the Middle Ages, these documents are usually the work of third parties. They were written and compiled by the priests, scribes and lawyers of the elite. They refer to the lower orders, but are most certainly not in their own words. Even where they turn up in the bright borders of illuminated manuscripts, it is alongside the fantasy beasts and grotesques of the medieval imagination rather than as a reflection of reality. Their voice – the voice of the medieval commoner, of the vast majority of medieval people – is largely lost.

The past seven or eight years have seen a massive rise in one particular area of medieval studies – an area that has the potential to give back a voice to the silent majority of the medieval population. Specialists have been studying medieval church graffiti for many decades. But new digital imaging technologies, and the recent establishment of numerous volunteer recording programmes, have transformed its scope and implications. The study of early graffiti has become commonplace. The first large-scale survey began in the English county of Norfolk a little over six years ago. Norfolk is home to more than 650 surviving medieval churches – more than in any other area in England. The results of that survey have been astonishing.

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Enigmatic seventeenth century memorial inscriptions from Norwich cathedral.

To date, the Norfolk survey has recorded more than 26,000 previously unknown medieval inscriptions. More recent surveys begun in other English counties are revealing similar levels of medieval graffiti. A survey of Norwich Cathedral found that the building contained more than 5,000 individual inscriptions. Some of them dated as far back as the 12th century. It has also become clear that the graffiti inscriptions are unlike just about any other kind of source in medieval studies. They are informal. Many of the inscriptions are images rather than text. This means that they could have been made by just about anyone in the Middle Ages, not just princes and priests. In fact, the evidence on the walls suggests that they were made by everyone: from the lord of the manor and parish priest, all the way down to the lowliest of commoners. These newly discovered inscriptions are giving back individual voices to generations of long-dead medieval churchgoers. The inscriptions number in the hundreds of thousands, and they are opening an entire new world of research.

Today, graffiti is seen as both destructive and anti-social. It is widely regarded as vandalism, not as something to be encouraged on ancient monuments and historic sites. That attitude is largely a modern one. Until recent centuries, people of just about every level of society carved graffiti into ancient buildings. It simply wasn’t seen as something to be condemned. The Coliseum in Rome, or Bodiam Castle in England, to take just two examples of key European heritage sites, are covered in centuries-worth of graffiti. Many of these inscriptions were created by members of the upper classes undertaking a ‘Grand Tour’ at the end of their education, and date to the 18th and 19th century. In the same tradition, early visitors to the Egyptian pyramids didn’t even need to carve the graffiti themselves – they could hire someone to do it for them. Graffiti was seen as something that was both accepted and acceptable.

Medieval masons, the people who actually built these monuments, left the earliest markings to be found on any medieval church or cathedral. The traditional story is that each individual mason would have his own personal mark, which he’d inscribe wherever he’d worked. These angular marks, known today as ‘mason’s marks’, acted as a form of quality control. They also allowed the ‘master mason’, who doubled as architect and paymaster, to calculate how much each of his workmen was due to be paid. Masons today continue this old practice of marking their work, but their marks are more discreet, hidden away between stones and in darkened corners. Occasionally, the medieval masons left something more.

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A selection of medieval compass drawn designs from Belaugh church in Norfolk. All images courtesy NSMGS

Their pragmatic approach to the construction of these stone monuments meant that the walls themselves sometimes served as drawing boards. In a few cases, such as at Binham Priory in Norfolk or Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, intricate working drawings can be found etched into the stones. The designs at Binham all appear to relate to the building of the priory’s great west front in the 1240s. It is one of the earliest marvels of gothic window design to be built in England. The nameless master-mason who undertook the work was apparently unfamiliar and uncomfortable with this innovative style. Step by step, he worked out the specifics of the design on the walls of the half-finished priory church. Sadly, the great west window, which acted as a centrepiece to the design, structurally failed in the late 18th century. It then had to be bricked up – and remains so today. From the mason’s inscriptions, however, we have a clear indication of how this groundbreaking design would have looked.

Witch marks were, simply, prayers made solid in stone

Many of the markings discovered in medieval churches are all but identical. A survey of a church in northern England will reveal the same graffiti motifs and markings as those found in a church on the English South Coast. Even more remarkably, the same medieval markings recorded in most English churches are in churches across the whole of western Europe. Essentially, everywhere the medieval Christian church thrived, medieval Europeans inscribed their places of worship with the same graffiti marks. Known as ‘ritual protection marks’, medieval people believed that these symbols warded off evil influences. Today they are more commonly called ‘witch marks’.

Witch marks make up about a third of all recorded inscriptions. This means that we have many, many thousands of examples of them. Some churches, such as that at Cowlinge in Suffolk, can contain many dozens of witch marks. It is a rare church that doesn’t contain at least a small collection. These markings make clear the differences between the medieval and modern concepts of graffiti. Much modern graffiti tends to be collections of names and dates, examples of people ‘leaving their mark’ upon a place.

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However, witch marks belong to the world of faith and spirituality. They were not a replacement for the orthodox prayers of the Christian church. As much as the Church might have disapproved, people used them in association, as supplements to orthodox prayers. They enhanced the spiritual, and symbolised God’s protection from the powers of evil. They were, simply, prayers made solid in stone.

What makes the witch marks even more powerful is that they were also personal. The religion of medieval England was one of hierarchy, with parishioners’ own worship and interactions being organised and mediated by the parish priest. The priest, in turn, was subservient to the local bishop and, eventually, to the Pope himself. The prayers in the stonework altogether bypass that hierarchy, and it’s a hierarchy from which almost all other historical sources from the medieval world originate. These are personal interactions and statements by everyday members of the parish congregation with ‘their’ God. There is no need of intercession by priests, bishops or the Pope. In that way, they reveal things that the official, learned histories of medieval religion never can. These are not actions based deep in medieval theology and scholarly argument. They are acts of personal faith and belief, reflecting real people’s hopes, dreams and fears.

Many of the other images on the walls were born of an agricultural society. We see windmills, horses and geese – fixtures of peasant life. These are things that they saw every day, that were important to them, and essential to their ability to feed themselves and their families. The walls are also covered in the mundane: images of the people themselves, their faces and hands. In some cases, they left full-length portraits. Staring at the medieval walls long enough will sometimes result in the walls staring back.

Beasts and dragons are also included in the graffiti. They are strange and misshapen creatures, who seemingly walked, or flew, straight off the decorative borders of an illuminated manuscript. There are images of knights on horseback, heraldry and coats of arms, suggesting that the graffiti was either created by those from the knightly classes, or perhaps those who aspired to be. The walls are full of the peoples’ hopes. They also contain their darkest fears.

Take, for example, angels and demons: the medieval church was awash with images of them. Angels were carved into the elaborate roof timbers, their wings outstretched soaring high above the congregation. Angels flew in the bright wall paintings that once adorned almost every medieval church, passing news to the Virgin Mary or leading the souls of the departed heavenward. Angels guarded the ends of dark wooden pews and pale stone fonts, carved there, bearing shields emblazoned with the arms of saints.

The demons are there, too. Grotesque beasts painted on the walls above the chancel arch, casting the souls of the damned down into the everlasting sufferings of hell. Comic demons sitting beneath the carved seats of the choir-stalls, bared backsides raised to noisily salute the clergy who perched upon them. Demons in coloured glass dance in the windows.

Demons were very real, and to be feared. This fear drove people to carve their counter-curses into the walls of the parish church.

But while the medieval church was formally adorned with angels and demons, when it comes to the graffiti on the walls, there are only demons – many dozens of them, from the grotesque to the comic, dancing across the angel-free stonework.

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Medieval demon complete with ‘flesh hook’ still stalking the walls of Beachamwell church in Norfolk.

Why are there no angels? The reason is quite simple. The graffiti on the walls shows only what those who made it thought was real and immediate. Angels were heavenly beings. They littered the pages of the Bible, but could not be expected to play a part in the lives of the people in the world. Demons, on the other hand, were very real indeed. It was demons who were responsible for any sudden illness or unexplained death. Demons brought down a blight upon the harvest crops. Demons unbalanced the mind of the simpleton, and brought on the terrifying storms that could lay waste a whole year’s crop in a single afternoon. Demons were real and to be feared. This fear drove medieval people to carve their counter-curses into the walls of the parish church.

Of all the graffiti being recorded in English churches, text inscriptions are actually rather rare. They make up only about 5 per cent of all the discovered markings: again, a distinct difference with modern graffiti. The rarity is in part a result of the low rates of contemporary literacy, but it is also testimony to the power of images over the written word. Many of the text inscriptions are difficult to read even by long-practiced historians. Generation after generation of wear and abrasion has left them in a sorry state. Even those that can still be made out are sometimes less than illuminating. The poor level of education among some parish priests, and the use of shortcuts and contractions, is reflected in the sometimes appalling attempts at Latin found on the walls. In many cases, the Latin is so bad that the only person who could probably have read it was the very same person who wrote it. Sometimes the writing on the walls simply can’t be read.

So what are these ancient markings on our medieval churches? Are they simply the random scribblings and doodles of bored choirboys, or do they have a deeper significance? Is there a meaning to some of them beyond the obvious? Beyond the simple statement of ‘I was here’? Recent research suggests that, yes, they are very important.

One of the most striking types of medieval graffiti is that of medieval ships. These small images are among the best-studied of all the graffiti, and are beginning to shed light on the mystery of exactly why they were made. When the modern surveys began, it was widely presumed that ship graffiti was confined to coastal churches: simple images created by local people of the ships they saw every day. However, research has shown that ship graffiti is found just about anywhere in the country. There are examples from Wiltshire and Leicestershire, about as far from the sea as one can get in mainland England. Even more intriguing, all the examples of ship graffiti, even those found many miles inland, appear to show sea-going vessels. The church at Blakeney, on the north Norfolk coast in the east of England, can help to explain why there is so much graffiti of these little ships.

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Simple late medieval example of ship graffiti from Cley-next-the-Sea church in Norfolk.

Blakeney’s church is covered in early graffiti inscriptions, and they are spread fairly evenly throughout the building. All the dozens of examples of ship graffiti, however, are to be found clustered in one clear and distinct area. Without exception, all of the images were inscribed on the pillars of the south arcade – and most are on the single pillar that sits at the eastern end. According to maritime historians, the images were created over a period of 200-300 years. Despite this, each little ship respects the space of those around them, never crossing over one another. This tells us that the earlier ships were still clearly visible when the later images were created centuries later.

People sat in the dark, praying for the safety of a long-drowned ship, and etched their fears and demons into the walls.

It is, however, their location that holds the real clue to their meaning. The eastern pillar into which they are carved sits opposite the side altar in the south aisle. From the historical record we know that this altar was dedicated to a church’s patron saint. In the case of Blakeney, that was Saint Nicholas. Now better known for his association with children and Christmas, throughout the Middle Ages St Nicholas was regarded as the patron of ‘those in peril upon the sea’. The ship graffiti is clustered around the St Nicholas altar for a reason. Historians and archaeologists believe that each of these little ships was a ‘votive’ offering – quite literally, a prayer carved into the stonework. Exactly what that prayer was, we might never know. Was it a prayer of thanksgiving for a voyage safely undertaken, or a prayer for safe passage on a voyage yet to be made? The fact that some of the ships appear damaged has led some to suggest that these might be prayers for ships, crews and loved ones that never made it home.

This is the true value of searching out these ancient inscriptions on the wall. These little prayers and etchings offer one of the few avenues into the hopes and feelings of those who left their mark many centuries ago. It is not a world of knights, princes and kings. It is a world of real, fallible human beings. People who sat in the dark, praying for the safety of a long-drowned ship, and etched their fears and demons into the walls. Quite simply, the medieval graffiti gives us back the lost voices of the medieval world.

THE END

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Something Odd about this Fenland Tower!

If you walk out from Wisbech northwards along the Walton Road there are some trees – on one side or the other – but the dominant impression of the flat land is as a sea of wheat. After about half an hour, the horizon ahead is broken by a church tower with pinnacled corners. Its silhouette in the distance looks like a long-eared owl. It’s still another three furlongs or so till you reach the church of St Mary, West Walton, but not until you’re round the bend by the village is it clear that there is something very odd about the tower. It is quite a way from the church, under which several springs are said to rise. The tower needed firmer footings.

West Walton (St Marys Tower)1

This bell tower is a triumph of Early English architecture – tall lancet window openings, without decorative tracery. It dates from the mid 13th century. The fenland sky is visible through the arches on the four sides of the ground storey. The next two storeys are progressively taller – the first pierced by three lancets on each side, and the second by pairs below a super-arch. The parapet and the owl-ear pinnacles are two centuries later, but I don’t mind that.

Walking through the archway of the tower into the churchyard is not the end of a pleasant morning’s stroll. There’s impressive stuff to see inside. But first you can pause and see how odd the church looks with no hint of tower or spire. The nave is high and the chancel lower but long.

West Walton (St Marys - inside)2

From a distance, between the nave windows and the pitched lead roof, a row of small round-headed windows is tucked beneath the eaves, punctuating blind arcading at a rate of one window every three arches.

The church looks not so much like a barn as like the airship hangar at Cardington in Bedfordshire, as it appears across the flat fields as the train goes by. Of course St Mary isn’t as vast as that, but the first glimpse inside the south door is pretty impressive.

Before turning the handle of that door, it is impossible not to be distracted by the Tudor stepped parapet of brick plonked on top of the Early English stone archway of the deep porch. Did the builders of this addition mean it to be rendered and so be less like a sore thumb?

West Walton (St Marys - inside)1

Anyway, the impression of the church interior from the doorway is strong, but not simple. The feeling is of space. This is partly because no pews or chairs cover the wide stone-paved floor of the rear of the nave, and partly because the nave and the aisles each side are lit by daylight from the later perpendicular windows.

There is something else to notice about the wide arches between nave and aisles. They appear alive. Each column supporting an arch looks as if it had four scaffolding poles enclosing it. These are thin shafts of polished Purbeck marble, completely detached from the column and embraced halfway up by linked collars of stone. These detached shafts plunge upward into capitals of stiff-leaf carving. That is the technical name, but they look not at all stiff here, but like a sort of foam of vegetation caught in the act of bursting into the air. I’d wanted to see this church because of some splendid photographs by Matthew Byrne in his new book, English Parish Churches and Chapels.

The bell tower at St Mary, West Walton, is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. The church itself, like all those in the book, has benefited from a grant from the National Churches Trust. It needs more help to deal with subsidence. Otherwise, such marvels, in their hundreds, as English medieval churches, will not much longer stand.

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St Andrews, Ringstead – I am the Door!

At last, it can be revealed – Norfolk’s part in the Da Vinci Code. I knew that something mysterious was going on here as soon as we arrived; from the south, St Andrew appears to be a normal, if over-restored, 14th century church, but the north side has been comprehensively redeveloped to give it the appearance of some kind of nightmarish institution. Huge, angry grotesques guard the guttering, and the tower beyond is like that of a Scottish baronial castle. A massive chimney in the north-east corner completes the effect, giving the whole piece the look of a lunatic asylum.

Ringstead (Chuch)2And here’s something even stranger. St Andrew was locked. Now, this is near impossible; here on the outskirts of Hunstanton, we are at the heart of the greatest concentration of open medieval churches in northern Europe. Every other single medieval church for miles and miles, hundreds and hundreds of them, is kept open for business, welcoming to strangers and pilgrims alike. It seemed impossible that, deep within this area, there should be a renegade, and so I assumed that it was a mistake.

Not so, apparently. Peter, who was with me, assured me that he had never found this church open, and several other church explorers have also mentioned to me that they have yet to see inside the walls of Ringstead church. Now, some people might suggest that the PCC responsible for running such a church must be inhospitable, or unfriendly, or unhelpful, or disinterested, or suspicious, or unenthusiastic, or ungenerous, or thoughtless, or mean-spirited, or lacking in energy, or rude, or incompetent, or even downright lazy.

But not me. I would like to be charitable, and offer an alternative solution. Above the locked gates of the rather ugly south porch is a massive 19th century niche with a statue in it depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd. It isn’t done well – Christ looks bored, or fed up, and the lamb looks as if it is struggling to escape – but I had been looking at it for a few moments when I noticed the inscription. In large letters beneath Christ’s feet it reads I AM THE DOOR.

Ringstead (Church Porch)1
I AM THE DOOR!

Of course! Now, I have not actually read the Da Vinci Code – I reached about page 12 before I realised that it was the biggest pile of nonsense I had picked up in months, and my time would be better spent in doing something useful like cutting my toe-nails – but I had read enough to know that we should all be looking for secret signs. And perhaps this was one of them.

Ringstead (Chuch)3Now, it may be that the 19th century restorers of St Andrew had put up this inscription to remind passers-by that Ringstead church is the House of God, and that His home was always to be open to those seeking Him. However, I do not think this can be the case, for why now would the Parish of Ringstead go out its way to lock God’s people out of His house? I was sure that Peter and I had stumbled on something mysterious, something that would knock Dan Brown’s poppycock into the shadows.

We looked up at it, wondering. Presumably, you climbed to the niche and did something to the statue to open the door. What could it be? A twist of the lamb’s ears, perhaps?

Ringstead (Tower)What we needed, of course, was a ladder. We wandered round behind the tower – which, incidentally, is most curious, the entire western side of it rebuilt in brick at some point – and there it was, a tall ladder leaning against one of the buttresses. It wasn’t locked to anything, it was just leaning there. This was too unlikely to be a coincidence, that the only church for miles around which is kept locked should also carelessly leave a ladder behind the tower. Nobody obsessed with security could be that stupid. No, I imagined north-west Norfolk’s Freemasons meeting up here after dark, hauling the ladder around to the porch, and using the secret entrance through the niche.

Peter was all for taking the ladder and giving it a go, but I did not want to get into trouble. The thing was, if we were caught, was there not a danger that someone might think that I, too, was a Freemason? As a Catholic, I am banned on the point of excommunication from becoming a Freemason.

Ringstead (Gargoyle)Because of this, I am unable to imagine what shadowy activities such people might get up to once entry was gained. If it was me, of course, I would be wandering around like the saddo I am, photographing the font and the pulpit, and enjoying Frederick Preedy’s east window, which I am told by Mortlock depicts St Andrew and St Peter holding the former churches of Great and Little Ringstead. I might even say a prayer or two. No doubt the Freemasons eschew these excitements for drinking toasts to Dan Brown and sacrificing goats on the altar. It’s a funny old world.

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The parish webmaster for Ringstead did ask the author, at the time of the original publication, to say that this article about Ringstead St Andrew is not in any way endorsed by the parish!

Alicia – What A Woman!

The daughter of a Norwich watchmaker, Alicia Meynell was born in 1782 and became the first woman in the Jockey Club Records to have raced and won against a man, a record unequalled until 1943. From her early years she called herself ‘Meynell’, perhaps at the request of her Massingham family over near Kings Lynn! Alicia Meynell was to go on to lead a colourful life and was nicknamed the ‘Norfolk Nymth’.

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Alicia Meynell (Thornton) 1
Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Thornton

We know that she had at least one sister, possibly older than her, who married William Flint of Yorkshire, a gentleman who was very keen for horses. Perhaps through the Flints, Alicia met and fell madly in love with their neighbour, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Thornton of the Second Regiment of the York Militia. He was a man of some property and respect in the area, and he cut a dashing figure, even at a ripe age of 60 years. Alicia was a young lady of some 18 years of age and only one of a long line Thornton’s mistresses! Despite this ‘discrepancy’, it was Thornton who encouraged Alicia to become an expert horsewoman and one of the things both were to have in common was the ability to ride and ride well. Remember that this was a time when women were at least partly judged by their “seat”: how well they could handle a horse. Alicia was a dynamo. She too knew her horseflesh, and she owned no less than three hunters. She was pleased to ride to hounds, something that was still rather rare for a woman because of the difficulty in thundering over rough, unpredictable terrain in a side saddle – wasn’t easy but Alicia did it, and did it very well. One day while she was visiting her sister, Alicia and her brother-in-law, William Flint, went riding. She was on her husband’s favourite horse, a brute named ‘Vingarillo’. Flint was riding his favourite, a brown hunter named ‘Thornville’. As they argued good naturedly about which horse was better, they decided to race to prove the point. It seems, only a race could settle this argument and so, off they rode. Twice – and Alicia won both times.

Alicia Meynell 3

A sore loser, Flint challenged her to a real race, at the Newmarket Race Track, and named a princely prize of 1,000 guineas (which would be equivalent to over £28,000 today!). Flint probably thought that Alicia would decline – but she certainly did not! Immediately word spread far and wide. A woman? Racing? Who wouldn’t want to see that! They met on the last day of the York meet in August 1804. The York Herald reported that 100,000 people crowded the race track to watch, more than ten times the number that had assembled for the last “big” race between more famous horses. Even the military in the form of the 6th Light Dragoons was called in for crowd control. The total amount of bets laid was estimated to be over £200,000!

Alicia Meynell 1

Alicia was in rare form. She wore a dress spotted like leopard skin, with a buff waistcoat and blue sleeves and cap. The crowd adored her. She must have been quite a contrast to Flint, who rode all in white. But his heavenly apparel didn’t reflect his attitude. He refused anyone to ride alongside Alicia to help her if her side-saddle slipped (a common courtesy for women riders), and he ordered her to ride on a side of the track that deprived her of her whip hand. Neither trip handicapped Alicia. She was ahead from the start and stayed that way for nearly three quarters of the four-mile circuit. The Herald reported, “Never surely did a woman ride in better style. It is difficult to say whether her horsemanship, her dress, or her beauty was more admired.” But something happened to Vingarillo in the last mile, causing him to falter, and Flint nipped ahead and won.

Alicia wasn’t at all pleased. After hearing people go on and on about how gentlemanly Flint had been to race with a woman to begin with, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Herald denouncing him and demanding a rematch. But it was a Mr. Bromford who next challenged her to ride the following year, with the prize a £2,000 and a great quantity of French wine. She agreed, but on the day of the race Bromford decamped and the lady won by default. Alicia, in a new outfit with purple cap and waistcoat, buff-coloured skirts, and purple shoes with embroidered stockings, was not about to be sent to the sidelines. That same day, she raced 2 miles on a mare named Louisa against Buckle, one of the premier paid jockeys of the day. The Annual Register records that:

“Mrs. Thornton, by the most excellent horsemanship, pushed forward and came in a style far superior to anything of the kind we have ever witnessed, gaining her race by half a neck.”

Alicia Meynell 1

Unfortunately, she was not so good at choosing husbands. Colonel Thornton turned out to be something of a scoundrel. When Flint won the first race, the colonel refused to honour the bet he and Alicia had made, insisting it had all been a joke. An outraged Flint showed up at the second race and literally horsewhipped the Colonel in public before being confined to jail for assault. Several years of court battles led to a decision for the Colonel. Even worse, however, is his treatment of Alicia in later years who he left behind when, in 1814, he went off to France; apparently, he preferred France over England , ever since his court-martial some time back!  Thorton was never to return, leaving Alicia to raise their illegitimate son alone. When Thorton died 1823, he left a part of his estate to a woman named Priscilla Duins but the bulk went to his illegitimate daughter by her – Thornvillia Dianna Rockingham Thornton – and did he really name her after his ex-friend’s horse!. So it was that Alicia was left nothing from Thornton’s Will, although their ‘alleged’ son, Thomas, received a bequest of £100. But in the end it was Alicia who had the last laugh. While Thornton is barely remembered – a womaniser who lacks honour, Alicia’s name would go down in history. Remember – She remained the only woman listed in the records of England’s Jockey Club to have raced and won against a man – until 1943 that is.

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Hyam Plutzik Comes to Shipdham

Shipdham lies approximately 3 miles south-west of East Dereham, Norfolk. The name derives from the Old English word for sheep – ‘sceap’ – hence ‘homestead with a flock of sheep’. Shipdham is sometimes confused with Shipden – the drowned village off the North Norfolk coast near Cromer. Shipdham was the first US heavy bomber base in Norfolk during World War II and was home to the famous B-24 Liberator bombers.

Shipdham (Bomber)1
Shipdham – WWII home to the famous B-24 Liberator bombers.

Hyam Plutzik was born in Brooklyn on July 13, 1911, the son of recent immigrants from what is now Belarus. He spoke only Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian until the age of seven, when he enrolled in grammar school near Southbury, Connecticut, where his parents owned a farm. Plutzik graduated from Trinity College in 1932, where he studied under Professor Odell Shepard. He continued graduate studies at Yale University, becoming one of the first Jewish students there. His poem “The Three” won the Cooke Prize at Yale in 1933.

Shipdham (Hyam Plutzik)
Hyam Plutzik was stationed at Shipdham c.1944-5

After working briefly in Brooklyn, where he wrote features for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Plutzik spent a Thoreauvian year in the Connecticut countryside, writing his long poem, “Death at The Purple Rim”, which earned him another Cooke Prize in 1941, the only student to have won the award twice. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army Air Force throughout the Amerian South and in Norwich, England, experiences that inspired many of his poems.

In 1942, Hyam Plutzik enlisted in the U.S. Army, becoming first a drill sergeant then first and second lieutenant. During the war, he married Tanya Roth, who worked for the War Information Bureau in New York City. Numerous moves—twelve different cities and twenty different houses before going overseas—and the lack of private time in army life made it difficult for Plutzik to continue to write poetry. The only poem he was able to complete was “Elegy.” But he did create an outline for and composed the first twenty lines of the long poem, Horatio, that was finally published to much acclaim in 1961.

Before going abroad, he was stationed at many bases throughout the American South, where he witnessed first-hand the institutional racism of segregation and Jim Crow. His experiences in Louisiana and Mississippi inspired him to write a number of poems that expressed his disgust for the way the Negro was being treated, such as “To Abraham Lincoln, That He Walk By Day,” and “The Road.” After his deployment in the South, he was stationed at Shipdham c.1944-5 and became the Ordinance, Information and Education Officer for the 44th Bombardment Group of the USAAF. Even in wartime Britain, Plutzik found time to attend Shakespearean plays and visit literary landmarks. He also collected impressions that later led to the composition of some of his notable “war poems” such as “Bomber Base,” “The Airfield at Shipdham,” and “The Airman Who Flew Over Shakespeare’s England.” Like many servicemen, he wrote letters to his wife, parents, siblings and friends nearly every day, in which he described the experiences of wartime and the lives of ordinary soldiers. He also kept a journal; an entry dated June 5, 1944, the eve of D-Day, describes the uncertainty felt by men who were fighting a war as the English tried to carry on their everyday activities:

Shipdham (Air Drop)1

“The invasion of France began after all the years of preparation and all the wrongs suffered at the hand of the evil one…How cold it must be in the sky now, and on the coasts of France…On a bomber base in England, with a farmer harrowing an adjacent field behind a plodding horse, I pass the D-day of this war.”

Plutzik continued his tour of duty in England for several months after the cessation of hostilities in the summer of 1945. He helped establish a library in Norwich and regularly gave informal lectures on American life and culture to local residents. Though his superiors encouraged him to re-enlist, Plutzik, like millions of other G.I.’s, was eager to resume his stateside life and career that had been interrupted by World War II. He rejoined his wife, Tanya, in New York. Soon afterwards, he was hired by the University of Rochester to teach in its English department.

Plutzik wrote two poems which were directly inspired by Shipdham – the first is ‘On the Airfield at Shipdham’ which concerns a skylark that he saw above the runway and which he connects to the bombers:

There is the lark, you said. And for the first time

I saw, far up in the fast darkening air,

The small lonely singer beating its wings

Against the pull of the old and evil earth.

It is too late, I said, to praise its song ….

Praise instead (because they bring our deaths

And thus another cycle of this bird’s praises)

The beasts with guts of metal groaning on the line

Or in the higher sky solemnly muttering.

© by the Estate of Hyam Plutzik. All rights reserved.

Shipdham (Mottram)1
R.H.Mottram ‘Man of Letters’

This poem was dedicated to R.H. Mottram, the Norwich-based novelist, best known for his Spanish Farm Trilogy (1927). Plutzik met Mottram after he invited him to give a lecture at the Shipdham air base. In fact, Plutzik records the event in a fascinating letter to his wife:

 Dearest Tanya,

This evening Mr Mottram, well-known resident of the nearby city, came & lectured on our base, and I have just come back from taking him & his wife back to their home. Riding in the dark along the wet roads, with the forlorn landscape illuminated occasionally by the dimmed-out lights, I thought of you my wife, and I felt very lonely for you.

(Printed by permission of Rochester University archive.)

On the Sunday evening in question, Mottram and his wife were entertained in the officer’s mess and after the lecture were driven back to 4, Poplar Drive – just off the Newmarket Road in Norwich.

The second poem inspired by Shipdham is ‘Bomber Base’  which appeared in Plutzik’s 1949 collection  Aspects of Proteus. In this longer poem, the poet contemplates the bombers spread out on the airfield prior to take off but then shifts his attention to the surrounding East Anglian landscape where he notes the ‘thatched farmhouse sleeps in the dark’ or how the ‘bomb trucks move down the deserted perimeter/ Where the cold North wind stifles all.’

Shipdham (Airfield)2
Submitted pic of 44th Bomb Group Liberators in action at Shipdham airfield circa 1944.

Norfolk also features in his famous poem The Airman Who Flew Over Shakespeare’ s England  where ‘pilgrims along the holy roads/To  Walsingham’ are mentioned. There is also a lesser known poem called The Old War which appeared in Apples of Shinar (1959) which was also set in the county. Plutzik’s long dramatic poem Horatio, although not set in the Norfolk, was drafted during his time here. The poem wasn’t published until 1961 – one year before Plutzik’s premature death from cancer. Plutzik was only 50 years old when he died.

Shipdham (Plutzik Headstone)
Hyam Plutzik is buried in the large Jewish Cemetery at Old Montefiore in the Borough of Queens, New York City, USA.

Already there is no one to call to.
The body of Edward is not Edward,
Nor the ashes of Gregory Gregory.
Alexander is no longer Alexander in the earth.

Nothing can be done but something can be said at least.

(From Requiem for Edward Carrigh)

Copyright by the Estate of Hyam Plutzik. All rights reserved

Ted Hughes was a big fan of Plutzik’s work and said: ‘Plutzik’s poems have haunted me for twenty-five years. His visions are authentic and piercing, and the song in them is strange – dense and harrowing, with unforgettable tones.’

Shipdham (Barrack Block)1
Today the airfield has been turned into an industrial estate – but a few derelict buildings still survive.

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The Rabbit in East Anglia – Revisited.

Introduction:

Following their introduction into the British Isles by the Normans, rabbits were farmed in manmade warrens call “Coneygarths”, whose so-called “pillow mounds” encouraged the species to burrow and facilitate their capture. The construction of pillow mounds represents a remarkable long-lived form of animal husbandry, which in some places remained in use until the early 20th century. The vast majority of known pillow mounds are thought to be post-medieval and consequently the landscapes of extant rabbit warrens are a reflection of post-medieval warrening experience rather than that preceeded it.

Further, although former warrens are geographically widespread across England and Wales, their remains are more prevalent in western upland areas because the growth of arable practices in Eastern England during post-medieval period removed many of that regions former warrens. Despite this, chancery records reveals numerous references to rabbits and rabbit warrens in Eastern England compared to elsewhere. They also imply that the warrens in Eastern England were able to produce a surplus of rabbits that suported an export trade and supplied the Royal Court at Westminister, something that warrens in the remainder of England were less able to do.

The rabbit was rare in medieval England and much sought after for both its meat and its fur by landlord and poacher alike. Today the rabbit is regarded as prolific, destructive and of little value but this modern reputation belies historical experience where or much of its history the rabbit was a rare and highly prized commodity. The animal, believed to be indigenous during a previous interglacial period, was considered extinct until deliberately (re)introduced via France in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its value lay both in its meat and fur and, as someone noted in the 17th century:

 ‘no host could be deemed a good housekeeper that hath not plenty of these at all times to furnish his table’.

The rabbit’s fur was used as clothing as well as on clothing and, although neither the most fashionable nor valuable, rabbit fur became very popular in the 13th century. Yet in the beginning when first introduced, the rabbit found the English climate inhospitable and needed careful rearing and cosseting inside specially created warrens such as ‘pillow mounds’. For the next five centuries the vast majority of England’s rabbit population lived protected within these confines, and it was not until the 18th century that it successfully broke out and colonised a much wider area and through numbers devalued its worth.

Back in the 17th century the rabbit was still regarded as an important cash crop.  In the Middle Ages rabbit warrens represented almost the sole source of supply for rabbits and their scarcity made them a valuable and fiercely guarded commodity. Indeed, the collapse of the grain market in the later 14th and 15th centuries encouraged some landlords to develop their warrens as an alternative source of income, to the extent that rabbiting can be classed as an unlikely but successful late medieval growth industry.

I

Throughout the Middle Ages the right to hunt and kill any beast or game was a special privilege granted by the king, so that all hunting was carefully controlled and restricted. Hunting in the extensive royal forests was the privilege of the king alone, but outside these areas the Crown was prepared to sell exclusive hunting rights by means of a charter of free-warren. In effect, the recipient of this charter was granted the sole right to kill the beasts of warren, which basically consisted of the pheasant, partridge, hare and rabbit, within a specified area. Hence the right to keep and kill rabbits was the exclusive privilege of the owner of free-warren and it was therefore illegal for anybody else to attempt to do so. Free-warren was consequently a valuable privilege, jealously guarded by its owner.

Whereas the modern rabbit has developed a resilience to the damp British climate, its medieval predecessor felt this aversion more keenly so areas of dry and sandy soil were chosen; also, gradients were preferred so as to facilitated both drainage and the dispersal of burrowed soil. Significantly the largest concentration of warrens in East Anglia was in Breckland, a region of undulating heathland, low rainfall and deep, porous sands, in other words an ideal habitat for the rabbit.

rabbit warreners
Rabbit Warreners

Most warrens in  East Anglia had been founded by the late 13th century, many by church landlords. The Bishoprics of Ely created warrens at Brandon and Freckenham respectively; Bury St Edmunds Abbey did likewise at Mildenhall and so did West Acre Priory at Wicken and Custhorpe in Norfolk. The Prior and Convent of Ely were granted free-warren in Lakenheath. It is believed that the rabbit was a particularly favoured delicacy of the Abbot of St Edmunds who had a warren created at his country retreat in Elmswell and at Long Melford, whilst both West Acre and West Dereham Priories also established their own warrens nearby. Various lay landlords were also prominent in this new experiment, notably at Methwold, Thetford, Tunstead and Gimingham. It is difficult to ascertain the exact area of these early warrens, although the largest swept down the western edge of Breckland from Thetford through Wangford to Eriswell. By the end of the Middle Ages such warrens had probably grown to occupy the 1000 acres plus they were to reach at their zeniths.

Medieval Rabbit Warren1
Medieval Rabbit Warren

The distinctive clustering of warrens indicates that the rabbit did not colonize a wide geographical area and even in central parts of East Anglia it remained a rare beast. This might surprise a modern reader familiar with the animal’s ubiquity and sex drive, but the medieval rabbit was fragile and uncomfortable in its new, cold environment and under constant threat from predators and harsh winter conditions. Consequently, low fertility and high mortality rates restricted natural increase, even within the relative safety of the warren. This placed severe restrictions on long distance migrations, although undoubtedly some fledgling warrens were spawned in the vicinity of the early warrens, and these were then exploited by eager landlords.

The exploitation of warrens was a highly skilled business and most warreners were full-time manorial officials, paying them handsome wages but often stipulating their exact duties and reserving the right of dismissal if their work was unsatisfactory. Besides financial remuneration, most warreners enjoyed other perks such as extra pasture rights and flee accommodation within the warren lodge. The pressures of their work were largely seasonal and peaked with cullings in the autumn when the rabbit’s fur was thickest. Extra help was often required in this busy period, as at Lakenheath in I384 when seven men were hired for twenty weeks.

The most common method of trapping was with ferrets and nets, the ferrets being released into specific burrows to drive the rabbits above ground and into nets tended by trappers. Most warreners reared their own ferrets, although sometimes a ferreter was hired at considerable expense. For much of the year, however, the warrener worked alone to guard his rabbits against hunger and predators and even to seek ways to encourage breeding. Surprisingly perhaps, the early rabbits were reluctant burrowers, which prompted some warreners to construct artificial burrows or ‘pillow mounds’. Over time, rabbits got the message!

Rabbit Pillow Mound Diagram
Rabbit Pillow Mound

Pillow mounds were designed to provide dry, well-ventilated burrows in which the rabbit could breed comfortably; the very existence of these ‘aids’ just emphasize both the animal’s unease in the damp climate and the need to mother the animal carefully. Warreners needed to take positive steps to curtail rabbit’s high mortality rates, particularly with any shortage of winter food, although on the heathlands gorse provided a cheap and convenient source. Other than that, oats were regularly fed to rabbits. Warreners also waged a perpetual war against the rabbit’s natural predators and poachers. The fox, stoat, weasel, wildcat and polecat stalked with ruthless efficiency, so that Brandon, Lakenheath and Kennett warrens were set with numerous traps and snares ‘for nocturnal predators’.

Warren Lodges:

The real threat from both predators and poachers eventually resulted in the construction of a wooden watchtower at Lakenheath warren in I365 and a stone lodge in Methwold by I413, followed by Thetford. These lodges were features of medieval Breckland and the one at Thetford still stands. Most date from the late 14th century and reflected the threat posed by poachers and the determination of landlords to protect increasingly valuable assets. These remarkable buildings also absorbed much of the capital invested in warrens for they were expensive to build and maintain. Brandon lodge was completed in the I380’s and stood at two storeys high and was protected by slit windows and flint walls three feet thick. At Elmswell in the early 16th century, the warren lessee was allowed over one-sixth the value of the lease each year to spend on upkeep. Rabbit rearing was otherwise a relatively inexpensive business, with the major expenditure on labour.

mildenhall_warren_lodge
Mildenhall Warren Lodge

II

Output from most warrens remained low until the later 14th century. Cullings varied wildly from year to year, but seldom exceeded a couple of hundred. The sale price of the rabbit reflected its scarcity and for a century after its introduction to East Anglia it cost at least 3d each, which was equivalent to the wage of almost two days’ unskilled labour. Rabbits proved most acceptable gifts to friends, favourites and eminents and the Prior of Ely sent sixty to Edward III in I345.

Prior to the Black Death of 1348-9, rabbit production was a distinctly low output concern geared primarily towards household consumption. It presented some commercial opportunities in the luxury goods market, but its mass marketing potential was restricted by its high price and the low incomes of most Englishmen. The early warrens often represented a net financial loss in many years, emphasizing that rabbits were essentially an indulgence enjoyed only by the very wealthy. However, the drastic reduction in the human population after the mid-14th century Black Death heralded a remarkable change in fortunes for commercial rabbiting. This was brought about by rapid gains in living standards and the purchasing power for many people. This increased purchasing power induced changes in taste and fashion and opened up a new market for goods previously considered as nonessential. Hence in the late 14th century there was considerable growth in output of goods with relatively high value, such as woollen cloth, cutlery, leather goods, pewter and wine.

Thetford Warren Old Map
Old Map of Thetford Rabbit Warren Area

Commercial rabbit rearing benefited from the changing economic conditions in a number of ways. First, the labour costs of rabbit keeping were low compared to grain farming and this enhanced its attractiveness to landlords in a period of rising wages. Furthermore, cullings could be sharply increased without a big rise in labour inputs, so that unit costs in rabbit production fell appreciably in the 14th century. Secondly, the demand for meat rose, and although there are no grounds for supposing that the rabbit suddenly became the meat of the masses, it certainly descended the social scale. Lastly, demand for better clothing increased and chroniclers commented on the rising standard of dress amongst the masses. Being a low-value fur, rabbit was most likely to benefit from any expansion in the mass clothing market. The common grey rabbit was most numerous in East Anglian warrens and was used for warmth rather than for display. On the other hand, Methwold, Wretham and some coastal warrens specialised in the rarer silver- grey and black rabbits. These were much more fashionable as an adornment on clothing and, apparently, Henry VII possessed night attire tailored with black rabbit fur which bore a close resemblance to the more expensive ermine and was much in demand as an imitation. By mid-century the rabbit had replaced the Russian squirrel as the basic fur of north-west Europe, and the growth of exports from London points to England’s role as a major supplier. London was not the only port to benefit, for at Blakeney in the 16th century rabbit skins were the fourth-largest export commodity. The Low Countries remained an important market, but Norfolk ports also sent furs to Danzig and the Baltic.

The rabbit trade between East Anglia and London also remained prosperous for some considerable time. Methwold warren was a regular supplier to the London market and a London merchant was fined for importing East Anglian rabbits during the close season imposed by the Poulters. Throughout the Middle Ages this Guild had fixed the price of rabbits on the London market and in the 15th century one would fetch between 3d and 4d. Even after the relatively high costs of transport and labour, the net profit on one trip was still considerable.

III

The rabbit undoubtedly made a significant impact upon those areas to which it was introduced. East Anglian soils display a wide variety of type and composition, from fertile clays to thin, acidic sands, and in the Middle Ages these sands presented a formidable obstacle to cultivation. Rabbits were valuable precisely because they provided an opportunity to make productive use of the poorest soils, and indeed some warrens were founded on soils described as fit only for rabbits. Furthermore, as areas of poor soil were most likely to suffer the brunt of the declining grain market in the later Middle Ages, then rabbiting offered a welcome source of alternative income in a difficult period. The industry presented a range of employment opportunities, not all of them legal, and as output increased so did the occupational spin-offs. The position of warrener was itself financially rewarding, whilst helping with the trapping or guarding of rabbits could provide a useful source of supplementary income at the very least.

The preparation of furs was a skilled and specialized task, and towns and villages near the warren areas harboured a number of skinners and barkers dependent on the local rabbit and sheep trades. They were prominent in medieval Thetford and Bury St Edmunds. The rabbit industry also encouraged other specialists in the clothing trades, such as listers and glove-makers . It is also probable that the fur was sometimes shorn from the skin and then felted, again for use in clothing. Of course, the amount of specialist craftwork generated by the rabbit industry locally should not be overstated, for the largest warrens tended to send their produce directly to London, and so some of the benefit accrued to London skinners and poulters. However, this trade, though largely seasonal, did then provide much needed stimulus to the boatmen and carriers of the region. As the mass of the peasantry was legally excluded from taking the rabbit, any benefit to them from the growth of the industry would appear negligible. However, it is suspected that many peasants living in the vicinity of warrens secured a reasonable supply of rabbits illegally, either for domestic consumption or for distribution through the black market. The incidence of poaching increases rapidly from the mid-fourteenth century, reflecting both the growth in rabbits and of poaching itself.

Poaching:

The attraction of poaching was its simplicity and its profitability. Most warrens were situated on vast and isolated tracts of heathland, some distance from the nearest village and were therefore exposed and palpably difficult to protect. In addition, the rabbit prefers to leave its burrow and graze nocturnally, thus presenting poachers with excellent cover from the protective gaze of warren officials and with easier pickings on the ground. With no necessity to drive the colony from its burrows, they merely surrounded the unsuspecting animals  with dogs. The stout warren lodges provided a base for the warreners’ operations against the poachers and welcome protection in case of danger, but they fought a losing battle.

poacher1
Poacher

Many of the peasants who lived in the rabbit-producing regions must have poached at some stage during their lives and most of the reported cases involved one-off offenders. However, the countless references to the use of nets, ferrets and dogs largely indicated planned operations within the rabbit-warren itself, and often the perpetrators of these deeds are common or habitual poachers. It is also apparent that no-one was beyond reproach, judging by the number of petty clerics involved in poaching. In 1435 the parson of Cressingham was fined for poaching at Swaffham and Augustinian canons from Blythburgh Priory were regular unwanted visitors to Westwood warren. In 1425 one of their number, Thomas Sherman, was described in the court roll as ‘a poaching canon’.

poacher3

Most of these regular poachers reared their own ferrets and dogs, and made their own nets. Greyhounds were popular, and were certainly favoured by the Blythburgh canons. However, rough heathland terrain proved demanding and other poachers preferred the more hardy lurcher, a cross between the greyhound and the collie.  Court officials kept a watchful eye over these men, and John Brette of Flempton (Surf) was fined because ‘he kept a certain dog in order to kill the lord’s rabbits’.  Some poachers, such as Geoffrey Sewale of Walberswick, preferred to set traps in the warrens but for many, ferreting remained the most popular. Indeed, they were in such demand on the Suffolk Sandlings in the 15th century that one Blythburgh canon ran a profitable business in leasing  his well-trained ferrets to other poachers, presumably for a suitable fee.

By the later Middle Ages poaching had become a sufficiently serious and lucrative business for poachers to organize themselves into gangs. These were not merely some haphazard extension of individual operations, but represented a deliberate and carefully planned pooling of knowledge and resources. Their activities were characterized by efficiency and ruthlessness and they entered warrens heavily armed and equipped with a comprehensive range of poaching accessories. Their success undoubtedly prompted manorial officials to try and catch them with incriminating evidence even before they entered the warrens. The homes of an East Suffolk gang were scrutinized by court officials from Walberswick, who allegedly found four men keeping lurchers ‘in their tenements’, one man keeping ferrets and a net in his house’, and another with a supply of ‘haypenne’ nets.  A Thetford gang of the 1440s, equally well equipped but more elusive, was reportedly operating in Downham warren attired with ‘soldiers tunics, steel helmets, bows and arrows’, whilst others were armed ‘with cudgels and staffs’. In September I444 this formidable bunch attacked and wounded three members of a rival gang from Elveden and without licence abducted and unjustly imprisoned them in the town of Thetford’.

Poacher2

Many of these Breckland gangs were comprised of skilled craftsmen, notably bakers, weavers, fishermen, and hostelers, and with their wide range of contacts hostelers may have been particularly important in co-ordinating activities. It is also possible that some warreners played a double game, for their expertise and local knowledge would have been invaluable. A Robert Fisher, a warrener living in Thetford, certainly poached in nearby Downham warren in 1446. With or without inside help, most poaching gangs included a number of men drafted from outside the locality. Court rolls always listed those culprits known to them, but often complained that these were joined by many other unknown men’. Such anonymity reduced the courts’ chances of breaking up gangs, and provided the gangs themselves with a wider range of dispersal points for their illicit gains.

It is possible that the rise in poaching was motivated by a sense of social grievance as much as by economic necessity. Resistance to the feudal order was endemic in late medieval East Anglia and court rolls repeatedly record refusals to perform manorial offices, labour services and the like. Occasionally this flared into violent protest, and most commentators have noted the vehemence of the I381 revolt in the region. The criminal activities of the poaching gangs were primarily directed against the ‘privilege of feudal order’ and so might have been championed and condoned by other peasants.

The rabbit was undoubtedly a very tangible embodiment of feudal privilege and status and therefore an ideal medium for social protest. The Smithfield rebels of I38I explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt hares in the field. The physical damage caused by maurauding rabbits was certainly a source of friction and was amongst the grievances cited in Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk in 1549. Unfortunately, conclusive proof that poaching was a major form of social protest is elusive. Its increase in the later 14th century certainly corresponded with a rise in social tensions, but also with a rise in the demand for the rabbit. Indeed, there was little sense of camaraderie or social unity between those Thetford and Elveden gangs in the I440s.

THE END

Sources:

 

Doughty’s Hospital – Its Beginnings

On 25 March 1677, the Norwich Court of Mayoralty received a letter from William Doughty of Dereham, Gentleman. In this letter he declared his intention to come and live in Norwich and asked that he “be freed from rates and other charges while living in the City”. The Court agreed to free him from such ‘liabilities’ on the presumption that a ‘quid pro quo’ existed whereby Doughty would honour his declared intention to endow an Almshouse on the City. Ten years later, William Doughty made his Will, a formidable document of some 19 folios in which he bequeathed £6000 to his Trustees – his kinsman Robert Doughty of Hanworth, plus four Aldermen, namely, William Barnham, Michael Beverley, Augustine Briggs and Mr Willis junior, – “my very good friends”. These gentlemen were instructed to:

“purchase a piece of ground in Norwich which had never belonged to the Church and to build on it a substantial foursquare house of well-burnt brick on a stone foundation without any chambers above to be used as a hospital or almshouse for the habitation of poor old men and women”.

Doughtys (Up To Date)
Yes, William Doughty’s almshouse was originally called ‘Doughty’s Hospital’ but today the word ‘Hospital’ has been dropped as many people find it confusing. Doughty’s is not a hospital in the modern sense of the word – it has no nursing or medical services. The origin of the word ‘hospital’ is the Latin word ‘hospes’ meaning a guest, as in the use ‘hospitality’. This was relevant in former times because ‘hospitals’ or almshouses used to provide ‘alms’ for destitute people, giving them shelter, food and water.

 

**********

Little is known of William Doughty’s background, although the Will of his father, also named William Doughty, Gentleman of East Dereham in Norfolk, survives and reveals some clues. Comparison of this Will, dated 1650, with that of William Doughty (junior), indicates that both father and son had much in common. They both displayed ‘understated religious preamble’ in their respective Wills and a puritanical insistence on mourning attire which should not display  “vanity or vain expense”. However, the son’s bequests were less modest than those of his father’s.

William Doughty (senior) had clearly been a wealthy man; he was a member of the landed gentry of Norfolk, who made sure that all of his children, both male and female, were adequately looked after when he died. He also had a very clear idea about the relative merits of his offspring and appears to have been well aware of the potential ‘less than honest’ dealings amongst them. William Doughty (junior) on the other hand, showed himself as more of a ‘Puritan’ through his substantial charitable bequests and his attitude towards hard work. However, unlike many founders of almshouses, he was not to impose any religious restrictions or requirements on the inmates of what would become Doughty’s Hospital after his death. There is no mention of any wife or children in his Will and the fact that he bequeathed large charitable gifts suggests that he was either a bachelor or childless widower. However, he did have kin to whom he was to bequeath both money and land, but in some instances this came with conditions which tied the hands of the recipients in law –

“I have good reason and just cause to bind all and every of them by law…..as fully and firmly as the law can……for if I had not trusted to their fair words they had not deceived me”.

It seems therefore that William was not blessed with the most reliable or trustworthy of relatives. Maybe, the problems that ensued within and between the broader family ultimately persuaded him to give so much of his estate to charity?

William Doughty was reputed to have been from a non-conformist background and his Will had specified that his almshouse must be built on land that had “never been occupied by the Church”. A reflection maybe that, despite the power of the “Established Church” and the existence of such an extensive diocese centred on Norwich Cathedral itself, the City was a hub of non-conformist beliefs and activity. With this in mind, the details of his Will relating to the proposed Almshouse or Hospital – these two names are interchangeable in his Will – were specific. He stated that the ‘foursquare’ house was to be built around a quadrangle, or centre court, a well and pump provided and a “house of office” to be placed in a convenient place for the use of the ‘inmates’. Also, the front of what would be the Almshouse was to be built of freestone with a gate “so narrow that a cart should not be able to come into the courtyard”. At the entrance was to be placed a convenient dwelling for the ‘.Master of the Hospital’. The buildings were to include a large cellar for “laying in of coales” for the use of the poor people and the ground was to be large enough to make a convenient walled garden for their use. The cost of both the land and buildings together was not to exceed £600. With the balance of Doughty’s bequest, the Trustees were to buy lands and renements in Norfolk which must not be “subject to be overflowne with the sea” and to produce an annual income to the Trust of at least £250. This money was to provide pensions for the old people, cover repairs to the Almshouse whenever required, plus any other necessary costs.

Doughty (Will p1)
The first page of William Doughty’s Will which ran to 16 folios (Norfolk Record Office)

Instructions covering those who would live in the Almshouse were, simiarly, not overlooked. The Almshouse was to to be large enough to accommodate a total of 24 poor aged men and 8 poor aged women, each of whom was to be given an allowance of 2 shillings every Saturday morning to buy food. In addition to this measure of payment,  each resident would be provided with coal and “a coat or gown of purple cloth which was to be renewed every two years”. If anyone moved out of the almshouse, he was to leave his coat and she her gown behind. The Trustees were to appoint “a sober and discreet single man” to be Master. He was to live in the Hospital and to govern its running and well being, reporting all “disorders and misdemeanours” by the residents. The Master was to receive 4 shillings a week “for his pains” but if the Trustees found him remiss or negligent in the performance of his duties they were to displace him.

The final condition stipulated in William Doughty’s Will was that six years from his death – or earlier if they are ready – the Trustees were to transfer the Almhouses, Lands and Properties to the Mayor, Sheriffs and Citizens of Norwich.

Besides leaving money to finance the building and running of an almshouse in Norwich, William Doughty also left sums to the City’s Mayor, Sheriffs and Citizens from which interest free loan would be made available to poor weavers, shopkeepers and lightermen or keelmen engaged in transporting goods between Norwich and Yarmouth. He bequeathed £5 to each of his servants and 10 shillings to each of the twelve poorest families living nearest to his house, with further legacies to his nephews and other kinsmen – including an annuity of £10 to his kinsman and namesake William Doughty, a probable nephew, who had been “laid in London’s Wood Street Counter and the Kings Bench for debt from 1682 to 1683”. Then, around August 1684 he was put into Norwich Prison, again for debt and was not released until 1687.

Doughty (Wood_Street_Compter,_1793)

This nephew William was allowed just £10 per annum, to be paid to him quarterly for his maintenance and the Executors had to demand a receipt before three credible witnesses. Of equal importance was that no part of our William’s legacy was to be paid over to the nephew’s creditors. A second reference to William’s impecunious namesake was that the Executors were to pay no money to his cousin [nephew] William nor to his creditors except by a decree in Chancery and by a Statute of Bankruptcy taken out against him because his Executors:

“can never know all Mr Doughty’s creditors. Some are broke, some are dead, some gone beyond the sea, some abscond themselves and some conceal themselves and [their] debts”.

It seems that no one but our William Doughty knew his kinsmen better than he and, for reasons best known to himself, he put on record for every family member to digest that his wealth had been obtained and increased “by God’s blessing, his own industry and his voyages into Spain, Italy, France, Holland and elsewhere”.

History shows that our William Doughty had been the main beneficiary from a wealthy member of Norfolk’s landed gentry – his father. The fact that the son increased his own wealth largely on the back of overseas trade sheds an interesting light upon the close relationship that must have existed between the landed and mercantile classes in late 17th century Norfolk. Whilst William’s Will shows his privileged start in life it also highlights the contrasting fate of his namesake and was clearly thankful that he had invested his talents so wisely and that the fruits of his labour and investments were to be passed on for the benefit of Norwich’s poor.

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Portrait of an older William Doughty

William Doughty died on 29 March 1688 and his body was buried in St Andrews Church without any pomp, sermon or mourning, for he stipulated that his executors were not to spend more than £40 on his funeral. Almost three months later on the 23 June Alderman Barnham, one of the Trustees, delivered a copy of Doughty’s Will to the Court of the Mayoralty who instructed the Town Clerk to record all the relevant details. The Trustees then purchased an orchard in the St Saviours parish as the site for the new Hospital, and also lands in a dozen or so separate Norfolk parishes by way of endowment. Once these purchases had been completed, they set about building the St Saviours Hospital, exactly as stipulated in Doughty’s Will – 32 almshouses on four sides of a square of approximately 30 yards interior measure – 8 houses on each side. On completion, the Trustees then had the particulars of the Founder’s Will and intentions engraved on two stone tablets which were probably set on either side of the entrance to the Hospital. These tablets were to be preserved when the Hospital was renovated in the 19th Century when a second floor was added, thus doubling the number of ‘chambers’. The tablets can now be seen in the stairwell of the North-West corner of the square. One tablet gives the particulars of William Doughty’s Will, the other:

“The Orders of This Place”

The Master of this Place is every Saturday Morning to pay to each poor Person two Shillings, & daily and equally to deliver the Coales to them, & to see good Orders kept, & when any Dye to Acquaint the Court therewith immediately, and to do the same if any disorderly; for the due Performance whereof, the said Master shall retain Weekly for his Paines, 4s, besides his dwelling (in which he must constantly inhabit) and the said Poor People must constantly dwell in this Place, and so wear their Coates or Gowns, and live peacably with the Master, and with one another, as becomes Christians, neither Cursing, Swearing, keeping bad Hours, nor being Drunk.

On 6 June 1694, six years after William Doughty’s death, the Court approached the Trustees regarding their duty to hand control of the Hospital over to the City of Norwich, as stipulated in the Founder’s Will. The Trustees response was to say that they were not in a position to comply since they had yet to fulfil their responsibilities to allocate all the chambers (houses) to suitable almspersons. They had indeed appointed a number of these but more work was needed; nevertheless, they had been fortunate to install one William Sydner as Master of the Hospital. Not completely satisfied with this response, the Court left the matter until December of the same year when it consulted its law officers, the City Recorder and Steward as to whether the City then had the right of “putting in the Poor” itself. Whatever the legal advice the Court received, it took just over four years for the Trustees of the Hospital to declare themselves ready to hand over the controls. By the same time, 10 April 1698, the Mayor, Sheriffs and Community had by then obtained a Royal Licence from King William III which granted them the right to purchase lands and tenements, not exceeding a yearly value of £1,000 to support the Hospital. The licence, granted on 21 February 1698, allowed the Corporation to obtain lands at Wolterton, Erpingham, Colby, Wickmer, ingworth and Blickling, plus two Manors at Hellington and Calthorpe and a messuage in Burston.

But, the question of who was responsible for allocating almspersons remained in dispute, and remained so until the following October when the Court theatened legal action if the Trustees “put in” any more almspersons without the City’s consent. That move by the Court appeared to work because in the December the Master, for the first time, reported direct to the Court the death of a resident and the Court appointed the replacement. From that moment, all deaths and replacements were regularly recorded in the Court’s books. The Court also handled matters of discipline; as when in April 1700 the Master, William Sydner and the officers of St Saviours parish lodged a complaint against seven of the almspersons for “miscarriages and misbehaviour”. When the accused were brought before the Court one of them, a Thomas Thurlow, compounded his offence by using ‘opprobrious’ (scornful) words to the Mayor. Thurlow was discharged from the Hospital, along with two others; afterwards, one named Daniel Wright apologised and was re-admitted on a promise that he would be on his best behaviour.

The first Master of the Hospital, William Sydner, died in the spring of 1701 and was replaced by the 60 year old William Doughty, unanimously elected by the Court! Surely, this was the ‘impecunious’ cousin/nephew of the Founder who had been in prison for debt. In its defence, the Court may have felt that it was discharging a debt of gratitude to the Doughty family in appointing him. However, it might well be that cousin Doughty’s dilatory habits contributed to the Hospital’s financial difficulties which were soon to arise. Certainly by the October of 1702, money was needed to buy clothes for the poor; in order to cover this expense the Court decided to sell timber from the Calthorpe Estate, near Aylsham, which was one of the Hospital’s endowments. Other actions taken by the Court were to stop admissions until further notice and to appoint a future Mayor, Robert Bene, to be the Hospital’s Treasurer, on the understanding that he would continue to advance any money required but would be payed interest when advances exceeded £100. It would seem that at this point, William Doughty gave up his responsibilities and avoided any possible disciplinary by allegedly dying. Certainly by the September of 1704, a Robert Bendish was appointed Master in his place. This went some way towards rectifying the situation, but the financial problems continued and were not helped by some dubious dealings. In 1707 it emerged that one of the original Executors of William’s Estate , Robert Doughty – a kinsman, had used his position to admit his son, and on his son’s death his daughter, to copyhold lands at Calthorpe without paying the requisite fines to the Hospital. In January 1707, the Mayoral Court ordered that, in consequence, Robert Doughty should pay a fine of £10 to the Corporation, but by the December of the same year the matter was still not resolved.

TO BE RESUMED

Sources:

 

 

From Motley Crew To A Monument!

The Wrestlers Inn, the termination point for the `Flying Coach on Steel Springs’ run by Job Smith between Gt. Yarmouth and Norwich, was a well established hostelry. It had the reputation as “the most considerable hostelry in the town” by the time James Sharman was born in 1785. The Inn’s popularity continued to grow to a point when Lord Nelson, having landed in Great Yarmouth on, 6th November 1800 from his victory at the Battle of the Nile stayed at the Wrestlers Inn; he was accompanied by a small party which included Lady Hamilton.

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Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1800, National Maritime Museum. Visible on his cocked hat is the aigrette presented by the Ottoman Sultan as a reward for the victory at the Nile.

It is said that, standing at an open window of the Inn, Nelson addressed an excited crowd “I myself am a Norfolk man, and I glory in being so”. On his departure, Mrs Suckling the Inn’s proprietor asked Nelson if he would allow her to call the Inn the “Nelsons Arms” in future. “That would be absurd” said the hero “seeing as I have but one”. As a result of this remark, the Wrestler Inn became the “Nelson Hotel ” and remained so for the next 20 years, reverting to its previous name around 1820 – one year after its 1799 ‘pressed’ waiter became ‘Keeper’ of Yarmouth’s Nelson Monument on the South Denes.

*********

John Suckling, Licensee of the Wrestler Inn since 1791, took young Sharman into his employ as a ‘waiter’ – let us just say, for a matter of convenience not fact, that this would have been in early 1799 when James Sharman was 14 years old. Sometime later that year this young lad, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, was press-ganged into the Royal Navy. Had this unfortunate incident not occured when it did then the young Sharman might well have served on Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson  during his visit to the Inn on 6th November 1800. Unfortunately it did happen, Sharman was press ganged and the probability was that he was not the only one being grabbed for naval service. Almost certainly, the Press Gang would have targeted other ‘strong healthy-looking persons’ in Yarmouth. The only concession probably offered to Sharman would have been a choice between voluntary or forced servitude.

Sharman ( The Press Gang, John Collet, c_1760's, from The Foundling Museum_detai1)
Detail from ‘The Press Gang’ by John Collet, c1760’s, from The Foundling Museum

Sharman had been forced into service by a Crown practice that did allow for the navy to take British subjects into service. There were, of course, certain restrictions laid down by the Government on this practice but anything that stood in the way of ‘a result’ was often ignored; the Royal Navy had a constant need for able bodied seamen to man its fleet. The groups of men that made up the Press Gangs came from amongst sailors, or civilians hired for the purpose. They would roam the countryside, concentrating on areas near the naval ports and the coastal counties, searching for men to compel into the service. If no man-of-war sailor was available, fishermen and merchant sailors were preferred, but any strong healthy-looking person might be taken. Norfolk was not excempt from the practice.

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The Press Gang at work.

One of the ‘escape clauses’ available to those taken by a press gang was to have access to ‘prominent associates’ ashore and, importantly, the means by which to contact them before the ship sailed. On the basis of such help, the individual would be released. Other means by which release would be granted was if the men taken had communicable diseases or too infirm to serve. The rest would be given a choice between voluntary or forced servitude. Records indicate that the Royal Navy in the 18th Century consisted of 47% volunteers, 24% impressed men and another list of 29% volunteers. The last probably included those who volunteered for service after being forced on board, although no one can be certain about this.

It would be pure supposition to say that Sharman must have ‘volunteered’ at some early point, but he did go on to record a lengthy period of service before being invalided out some years later; he also appeared to have modestly risen in rank. However, at the outset of his new career and, on the basis of his age, he must have been classed as a “ship’s boy” when he joined his first ship. As things turned out that was HMS Weazle, a new 214 tonne sloop-of-war sailing ship with a size of 77 x 26 ft. It had been built by the firm of King in Dover in 1799 and she had 16 cannons. It is not known at what point in the ship’s five year life he actually joined the Weazle but on the 1st March 1804, the ship was wrecked off Cabritta Point near Gibraltar. At the time she was under the command of Lieutenant William Layman (acting) when, during a storm, it ran aground and was smashed to pieces with the loss of one man out of a crew of 70.

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By a twist of fate, Sharman then found himself amongst the motley crew of HMS Victory, as proved by his entry in the surviving Ship’s Muster. He was be under the command of Captain Thomas Hardy and, allegedly, given the rank of ‘Able Seaman’. This rank was certainly a leg up from first being a ship’s boy, landsman and then ordinary seaman; it is a further indication that Sharman had established himself as a willing ‘volunteer’ in His Majesty’s Navy and no longer a ‘pressed man’. As an ‘able seaman’ he must have demonstrated to the ship’s satisfaction that he could perform several skilled tasks on the ship. As a result, he would have been paid a bit more than an ordinary seaman and, if possible, assigned to a position consistent with his skills. There were 212 experienced ‘able seamen’ amongst a total motley crew of 821 from mixed nationalities who made up HMS Victory’s manpower at the Battle of Trafalgar.

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The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the starboard mizzen shrouds of the VictoryJ. M. W. Turner (oil on canvas, 1806–1808)

It has been said that Able Seaman, James Sharman, survived Trafalgar largely unscathed by the experience, leaving the ship’s employ sometime after it had returned to Portsmouth. He took away with him the seeds of what would, in time, become a common belief that it was he who helped carry the fatally wounded Horatio Nelson below decks to the cockpit during the battle. Be that as it may, Sharman went on to have three more ship postings before eventually being discharged through illness and entering the Greenwich Hospital for Seamen. Understandably, he was not happy and on the recommendation of his former Captain Hardy, Sharman was to be appointed “Keeper of the Pillar” in 1817. This post was created to look after a proposed edifice in honour of Horatio Nelson which was to be built on the South Denes on the outskirts of Yarmouth.

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View of the Nelson ‘Pillar’ Monument at South Denes, Yarmouth by JMW Turner © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

During the course from conception through to planning and fundraising, the proposed ‘Pillar’ went through more than one name change. An original suggestion was for something along the lines of ‘Norfolk Naval Pillar’ before opting for ‘The Norfolk Column’ – to think that nowadays, it is referred to as the ‘Britannia Monument’ following restoration in 2005. But back in the early 19th Century, the South Denes on which this pillar/column/monument would be built was still an open, grassy area between the sea beach and the River Yare. This was where fishermen hung out their nets to dry, cattle grazed and public hangings took place. It was also used by the East Norfolk Militia for its military manoeuvres, and also where its officers laid down a proper race course for themselves. The site also became a popular venue for assembled “fashionable personages” to be seen! Maybe it was not envisaged at that time but a few years after Nelson’s death, a Royal Naval Hospital was built on the Denes and, later still, incorporated into a large military barracks.

The idea of raising a monument of sorts to Norfolk’s Nelson was first put forward in the late 1790s after Nelson’s great victory at Aboukir Bay or, in other words Battle of the Nile in 1798. However, this suggestion was not carried through at the time, but was certainly revived after his death at his greatest triumph, the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. We are told that a first proposal was not to have a monument in Yarmouth at all, but on Castle Hill in Norwich, which would not have pleased those in Yarmouth. In fact, it was in 1814 when a group of Norfolk businessmen, with Yarmouth interests, finally set up a committee to collect money for the project, having decided that the open spaces of Yarmouth’s South Denes would be the most appropriate setting – right in the centre of the race course.

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The Racecourse at South Denes, Yarmouth

It was an area well known to Nelson, rich in military and naval connections and an excellent site for a physical beacon “to guide future generations of navigators towards the harbour mouth” they would say. It would be built in the centre of the recently-established officers’ race course, as soon as subscriptions had reached £7000. That was when the committee in charge finally met in Thetford to choose from 44 different proposals, from which they opted for the Doric design put forward by the prominent London architect William Wilkins. Wilkins was a native of Norfolk and an architect who had designed the Shire Hall in Norwich, London’s National Gallery and Downing College, Cambridge.

The foundation stone of the Nelson’s Monument – aka Norfolk Pillar, the Norfolk Naval Pillar and Britannia Monument – was laid on 15 August, 1817. It was a moment when there “were great huzzahs and goings-on” – 12 years after the death of Norfolk’s favourite son and Britain’s greatest naval hero. During the next two years the column rose to its full height of 144 foot (44 metres), standing clear on the South Denes beach but slightly shorter than the 169 foot (52 metre) memorial to Nelson in Trafalgar Square which, incidentally, followed some 20 years later. Yarmouth’s monument was in the style of a Doric column topped by six caryatid figures that supported a statue of Britannia proudly atop a globe inscribed with the motto from Nelson’s coat of arms ‘Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat’, translating as ‘Let him who has merited it take the palm’. Britannia holds an olive branch in her outstretched right hand, a trident in her left, and looks inland, some say, towards Burnham Thorpe in North Norfolk, Nelson’s birthplace. At its base are inscriptions commemorating Nelson’s victories at St Vincent in 1797, Aboukir on the Nile in 1798, Copenhagen in 1801, and Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. On the western front a Latin inscription reads:

‘This great man Norfolk boasts her own, not only as born there of a respectable family, and as there having received his early education, but her own also in talents, manners and mind’.

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The Column showing Sharman’s Cottage – later to become a beer house.

The work was completed in 1819 when a fully recovered James Sharman, commenced his duties as “Keeper of the Pillar” – but not before the opening ceremony was out of the way. That affair, marked by “an elegant ball” for three hundred and fifty persons of rank and respectability”. One can assume that ‘common seamen’, including Sharman maybe, would not have been amongst its guests? Be that as it may, we do know that from his first day in charge, Sharman was to remain Keeper for nearly 50 years, living in a cottage nearby that had been built for him. Then in 1827, some ten years after being appointed, Sharman undertook a brave rescue of several sailors from the Brigantine Hammond which was shipwrecked on the beach near his cottage. It was the famous author, Charles Dickens, who read a newspaper report of this exploit whilst writing David Copperfield, which is partly set in Yarmouth. He must have been clearly intrigued because he made the effort to visit Sharman in his cottage and, from this experience, Dickens was said to have based the book’s character, Ham Peggotty, on Sharman. Also, during his visit and talks with the old sea-dog, Dickens was to hear Sharman’s account of his collecting wood from shipwrecks and building a shelter for himself. As the driftwood from wrecked boats tended to be curved, the shelter resembled an upturned boat – again, reminiscent of Peggotty’s boat house in David Copperfield.

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Illustrations by Phiz and Barnard of Peggoty’s Boat-House in David Copperfield

But, Sharman was reputed to be something of a ‘colourful character’. Apparently and throughout his life in Yarmouth, he never tired of recounting the exploits of his hero, Nelson, and telling yarns of his own adventures. Who’s to say, he did not spin a tale or two when speaking to Dickens, Similarly, was it Sharman who gave birth to the claim that it was he who carried Nelson down to HMS Victory’s cockpit during Trafalgar! Surely, no one could possibly put it past him, particularly when trying to encourage extra tips from those ‘regaled’ visitors to ‘his’ Monument.

But one event that Sharman could not have made up and must have witnessed occurred in 1863, when an acrobat called Charles Marsh climbed up to stand on Britannia’s shoulders. Sadly, he missed his footing while climbing down and plunged to his death before the horrified crowd gathered below.

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The present “Britannia Monument” back in 1851

James Sharman died in 1867 at the age of 82 years. He was entitled to a Royal Naval funeral and funds were available to finance it but due to an oversight he was borne to his grave, in the Old Cemetery in Yarmouth, accompanied only by members of his family and without anyone from the navy being present. His gravestone, which includes the words ‘HMS Victory’ is now badly laminating and may well have become illegible.

Sharman ( With Medals)
James Sharman

As for his ‘Pillar’? Well, It has ended up being surrounded by commercial and industrial buildings. But despite this, and with the restorations of 2005, there is still grandeur and fascination with it – “a monument to a Norfolk man who bestrode his epoch and commanded the sea”. In 1817, an ‘Able Seaman’ from Yarmouth by the name of James Sharman was allowed the opportunity to looked after his master’s Monument.

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The Death of Nelson by Daniel Maclise (Houses of Parliament, London

THE END

FOOTNOTE:

Towards the latter part of James Sharman’s 50 years in charge of Nelson’s (Britannia) Monument, the cottage that he lived in became a beer house with him as Landlord. This beer house later became a public house called the ‘Monument House’ followed by being re-named the Nelson Hotel.

James Sharman’s General Service Medal with Trafalgar Bar was sold at auction in 2012 for £27,000!

Sources:

The Nation Museum, Royal Navy: http://www.hms-victory.com

Photos: Royal Navy National Museum & Google Images.

Nelsons Monument: http://www.nelsonsmonument.org.uk

http://www.owlcation.com

http://www.waymarking.com

Visit Norfolk: http://www.visitnorfolk.co.uk

Wikipedia

What Julian of Norwich said to Margery Kempe

Julian of Norwich is variously commemorated on the 8th or the 13th of May, the alternatives being the two dates given in different manuscript sources for the beginning of her revelations. I like Julian very much – who doesn’t! – and have posted about her a number of times. Today I thought I’d post something a little different: not an extract from her book, but an account of a conversation with her. This shows her acting almost as a spiritual director, as anchorites were occasionally called on to do, and gives us her words filtered through the impressions of a woman whose spirituality was very different from her own.

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Depiction of Margery Writing?

Some time around the year 1413, a few years before the likely date of Julian’s death, Margery Kempe came to pay her a visit in her cell in Norwich To give you some sense of their relative ages, Margery Kempe was born around the same year (1373) that Julian had her first revelations, at the age of thirty. I think many of us would be glad to have the opportunity to talk to Julian of Norwich, although I like to think that if I was lucky enough to get that chance I wouldn’t do what Margery Kempe did – which was, not surprisingly, talk about Margery Kempe. (To be fair to her, I suppose she had gone there for advice…) Kempe’s account of Julian’s words to her is suspiciously focused on the things Kempe was obsessed with, as a laywoman struggling to find validation for her own form of intense religion devotion: the importance of trusting to personal inspiration, chastity, the holiness of devout tears (Kempe was notorious for bursting into noisy tears during Mass, much to the annoyance of her neighbours), and counsel which essentially says ‘if people don’t like you, you must be doing something right’.

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Stained glass from St Julian’s church, Norwich

The following text is from Julian of Norwich, and my translation follows below:

“And than sche was bodyn be owyr Lord for to gon to an ankres in the same cyté whych hyte Dame Jelyan. And so sche dede and schewyd hir the grace that God put in hir sowle of compunccyon, contricyon, swetnesse and devocyon, compassyon wyth holy meditacyon and hy contemplacyon, and ful many holy spechys and dalyawns that owyr Lord spak to hir sowle, and many wondirful revelacyons whech sche schewyd to the ankres to wetyn yf ther wer any deceyte in hem, for the ankres was expert in swech thyngys and good cownsel cowd gevyn.

The ankres, heryng the mervelyows goodnes of owyr Lord, hyly thankyd God wyth al hir hert for hys visitacyon, cownselyng this creatur to be obedyent to the wyl of owyr Lord God and fulfyllyn wyth al hir mygthys whatevyr he put in hir sowle yf it wer not ageyn the worshep of God and profyte of hir evyn cristen, for, yf it wer, than it wer nowt the mevyng of a good spyryte but rathyr of an evyl spyrit. The Holy Gost mevyth nevyr a thing ageyn charité, and, yf he dede, he wer contraryows to hys owyn self, for he is al charité. Also he mevyth a sowle to al chastnesse, for chast levars be clepyd the temple of the Holy Gost, and the Holy Gost makyth a sowle stabyl and stedfast in the rygth feyth and the rygth beleve. And a dubbyl man in sowle is evyr unstabyl and unstedfast in al hys weys. He that is evyrmor dowtyng is lyke to the flood of the see, the whech is mevyd and born abowte wyth the wynd, and that man is not lyche to receyven the gyftys of God.

What creatur that hath thes tokenys he muste stedfastlych belevyn that the Holy Gost dwellyth in hys sowle. And mech mor, whan God visyteth a creatur wyth terys of contrisyon, devosyon, er compassyon, he may and owyth to levyn that the Holy Gost is in hys sowle. Seynt Powyl seyth that the Holy Gost askyth for us wyth mornynggys and wepyngys unspekable, that is to seyn, he makyth us to askyn and preyn wyth mornynggys and wepyngys so plentyuowsly that the terys may not be nowmeryd. Ther may non evyl spyrit gevyn thes tokenys, for Jerom seyth that terys turmentyn mor the devylle than don the peynes of helle. God and the devyl ben evyrmor contraryows, and thei schal nevyr dwellyn togedyr in on place, and the devyl hath no powyr in a mannys sowle. Holy Wryt seyth that the sowle of a rytful man is the sete of God, and so I trust, syster, that ye ben. I prey God grawnt yow perseverawns. Settyth al yowr trust in God and feryth not the langage of the world, for the mor despyte, schame, and repref that ye have in the world the mor is yowr meryte in the sygth of God. Pacyens is necessary unto yow for in that schal ye kepyn yowr sowle.

Mych was the holy dalyawns that the ankres and this creatur haddyn be comownyng in the lofe of owyr Lord Jhesu Crist many days that thei were togedyr”.

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Julian in Norwich Cathedral

Translation:

 “And then she was bidden by our Lord to go to an anchoress in the same city [Norwich] who was called Dame Julian. And she did so, and displayed to her the graces that God had put in her soul of compunction, contrition, sweetness and devotion, compassion with holy meditation and high contemplation, and full many holy speeches and conversations that our Lord had spoken to her soul, and many wonderful revelations, which she told to the anchoress to learn if there was any deceit in them; for the anchoress was an expert in such things and could give good counsel.

 The anchoress, hearing the marvellous goodness of our Lord, highly thanked God with all her heart for his visiting, counselling this creature [Kempe] to be obedient to the will of our Lord God and fulfil with all her might whatever he put in her soul, as long as it was not contrary to the worship of God and the benefit of her fellow-Christians; for, if it was, then it was not the inspiration of a good spirit but of an evil spirit. The Holy Ghost never inspires anything which is contrary to charity; if he did, he would contradict his very self, for he is all charity. Also he inspires a soul to all chastity, for people who live chastely are called the temple of the Holy Ghost, and the Holy Ghost makes a soul stable and steadfast in the true faith and the true belief. And a man who is duplicitous in soul is ever unstable and unsteadfast in all his ways. He who always doubts is like the flood of the sea, which is moved and borne about with the wind, and that man is not likely to receive the gifts of God.

The creature who receives these signs must steadfastly believe that the Holy Ghost dwells in his soul. And much more, when God visits a creature with tears of contrition, devotion, or compassion, he may and ought to believe that the Holy Ghost is in his soul. Saint Paul says that the Holy Ghost asks for us with mourning and weeping beyond saying, that is to say, he makes us to ask and pray with mourning and weeping so plenteously that the tears may not be counted. No evil spirit can give these tokens, for Jerome says that tears torment the devil more than the pains of hell. God and the devil are always opposite to each other and never dwell together in one place, and the devil has no power in a man’s soul. Holy Writ says that the soul of a righteous man is the seat of God, and so I believe, sister, that you are. I pray God grant you perseverance. Set all your trust in God and do not fear what the world says to you, for the more scorn, shame, and reproof that you have in the world, the more is your merit in the sight of God. Patience is necessary to you, for in that you shall preserve your soul.

Much was the holy conversation that the anchoress and this creature had, communing in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ many days that they were together”.

Margery Kempe (Julian) 4
Norwich Cathedral

THE END

 

Sources: 

A Clerk Of Oxford: https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margery_kempe

http://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/julian-of-norwich.html

http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/kemp1frm.htm

Google Photo

 

 

The Mysticism and Madness of Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe must have cut quite a figure on the pilgrimage circuits of Medieval Europe: a married woman dressed in white, weeping incessantly, and holding court with some of the greatest religious figures of her time along the way. She leaves the tales of her life as a mystic with us in the form of her autobiography, “The Book”. This work gives us an insight into the way in which she regarded her mental anguish as a trial sent to her by God, and leaves modern readers contemplating the line between mysticism and madness.

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Medieval pilgrimage

Margery Kempe was born in Bishop’s Lynn (now known as King’s Lynn), around 1373. She came from a family of wealthy merchants, with her father an influential member of the community. At twenty years old, she married John Kempe – another respectable inhabitant of her town; although not, in her opinion, a citizen up to the standards of her family. She fell pregnant shortly after her marriage and, after the birth of her first child, experienced a period of mental torment which culminated in a vision of Christ.Shortly afterwards, Margery’s business endeavours failed and Margery began to turn more heavily towards religion. It was at this point she took on many of the traits that we now associate with her today – inexorable weeping, visions, and the desire to live a chaste life.

It was not until later in life – after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, multiple arrests for heresy, and at least fourteen pregnancies – that Margery decided to write “The Book”. This is often thought of as the oldest example of an autobiography in the English language, and was indeed not written by Margery herself, but rather dictated – like most women in her time, she was illiterate.

It can be tempting for the modern reader to view Margery’s experiences through the lens of our modern understanding of mental illness, and to cast aside her experiences as those of someone suffering from “madness” in a world in which there was no way to understand this. However, this one dimensional view robs the reader of a chance to explore what religion, mysticism, and madness meant to those living in the medieval period. Margery tells us her mental torment begins following the birth of her first child. This could indicate she suffered from postpartum psychosis – a rare but severe mental illness which first appears after the birth of a child.

Margery Kempe 1
From the Book of Margery Kempe © British Library, Add MS 61823, fol 49v

Indeed, many elements of Margery’s account match with symptoms experienced with postpartum psychosis. Margery describes terrifying visions of fire-breathing demons, who goad her to take her own life. She tells us how she rips at her flesh, leaving a lifelong scar on her wrist. She also sees Christ, who rescues her from these demons and gives her comfort. In modern times, these would be described as hallucinations – the perception of a sight, sound or smell which is not present.

Another common feature of postpartum psychosis is tearfulness. Tearfulness was one of Margery’s “trademark” features. She recounts stories of uncontrollable bouts of weeping which land her in trouble – her neighbours accuse her of crying for attention, and her weeping leads to friction with her fellow travellers during pilgrimages.

Delusions can be another symptom of postpartum psychosis. A delusion is a strongly held thought or belief which is not in keeping with a person’s social or cultural norms. Did Margery Kempe experience delusions? There can be no doubt that visions of Christ speaking to you would be considered a delusion in Western society today.This, though, was not the case in the 14th century. Margery was one of several notable female mystics in the la te medieval period. The most well-known example at the time would have been St Bridget of Sweden, a noblewoman who dedicated her life to becoming a visionary and pilgrim following the death of her husband.

Margery Kempe (Vision) 1
Revelations of St Bridget of Sweden, 15th Century.

Given that Margery’s experience echoed that of others in contemporary society, it is difficult to say that these were delusions – they were a belief in keeping with the social norms of the day.

Although Margery may not have been alone in her experience of mysticism, she was sufficiently unique to cause concern within the Church that she was a Lollard (an early form of proto-Protestant), although each time she had a run-in with the church she was able to convince them this was not the case. It is clear though, that a woman claiming to have had visions of Christ and embarking on pilgrimages was sufficiently unusual to arouse suspicion in clerics of the time. For her own part, Margery spent a great deal of time worried that her visions may have been sent by demons rather than by God, seeking advice from religious figures, including Julian of Norwich (a famous anchoress of this period). However, at no point does she appear to consider that her visions may be the result of mental illness. Since mental illness in this period was often thought of as a spiritual affliction, perhaps this fear that her visions may have been demonic in origin was Margery’s way of expressing this thought.

Margery Kempe (Demons) 1
15th Century depiction of Demons – Artist unknown.

When considering the context in which Margery would have viewed her experience of mysticism, it is vital to remember the role of the Church in medieval society. The establishment of the medieval church was powerful to an extent almost incomprehensible to the modern reader. Priests and other religious figures held authority equitable to temporal lords and so, if priests were convinced Margery’s visions came from God, this would have been viewed as an undeniable fact. Further to this, in the medieval period there was a strong belief that God was a direct force on everyday life – for example, when the plague first fell on the shores of England it was generally accepted by society that this was God’s will. By contrast, when Spanish influenza swept Europe in 1918 “Germ Theory” was used to explain the spread of disease, in place of a spiritual explanation. It is very possible that Margery genuinely never considered that these visions were anything other than a religious experience.

Margery Kempe (Carving) 1
Margery Kempe from Kings Lynn. Carving in the Church of St Margaret in Kings Lynn.

Margery’s book is a fascinating read for many reasons. It allows the reader an intimate glimpse into the everyday life of an “ordinary” woman of this time – ordinary insofar as Margery was not born into nobility. It can be rare to hear a woman’s voice in this time period, but Margery’s own words come through loud and clear, written though they were by another’s hand. The writing is also unselfconscious and brutally honest, leading the reader to feel intimately involved in Margery’s story. However, the book can be problematic for modern readers to understand. It can be very difficult to take a step away from our modern perceptions of mental health and to immerse ourselves in the medieval experience of unquestioning acceptance of mysticism.

In the end, over six hundred years after Margery first documented her life, it does not really matter what the real cause of Margery’s experience was. What matters is the way she, and the society around her, interpreted her experience, and the way this can aid the modern reader’s understanding of perceptions of religion and health in this period.

 

THE END

 

Original Sources:

1. Historic – UK: www.historic-uk.com

2. Lucy Johnston (Author), – a doctor working in Glasgow. “I have a special interest in history and historical interpretations of illness, particularly in the medieval period”.

3. Feature Photograph: From the Book of Margery Kempe © British Library

4. Other Photographs: Google Photos