There is today, overlooking Norwich, a gem of a place which is free of urbanisation – although it is completely surrounded by roads, traffic, concrete and bricks. It is an area where there is freedom for trees, bracken, brambles, grass and weeds to grow, freedom for feet to ramble and for dogs to do what they normally do when let off the lead. This place once formed part of a much greater expanse of heathland that extended from the north-eastern bank of the River Wensum at Norwich, towards the villages of Salhouse and Rackheath way out in the County. It was once a large area maintained by grazing, but without such husbandry the trees grew tall and thick to produce woodland, now much frequented by walkers. Today, this area covers a mere 200 acres but is much appreciated by Norwich people as a welcome piece of open space. It is an island of green, known today as Mousehold Heath but in far off days was called Thorpe Wood.
Within it, Long Valley in particular makes one feel that Norwich is far away and that the only exciting thing that would happen below the deciduous canopy of Mousehold is for Robert Kett to emerge with the city’s authority in hot pursuit. The wood’s deciduous canopy also does more than cushion objects of our imagination, it muffles the noise of vehicles on those roads that run circles round the area, including that odd little field or two set amongst the trees. It is a wood veined with sand and flint edged pathways that have been cut through ridges by centuries of feet; nice pathways, many of them through birches growing in shallow areas either side. Pick the right one, but avoiding bramble, rough undergrowth, burrs and ticks and a largely forgotten chapel will emerge in the mind and where one can get lost in time. This is where ‘ St William’s Chapel in the Wood’ lays.
The Chapel site covers just a small area, towards the edge of present-day Mousehold Heath – a short distance to the south-west of the junction of Gurney Road and Heartsease Lane. It was originally dedicated to St Catherine de Monte, way back in those far off days following the Norman Conquest; at that time, it served as a parochial chapel for the Norwich Cathedral Priory. Later, in fact on the 27 April 1168, it was re-dedicated to honour a new ‘martyr’ on the block – the boy William. Fast forward to some 380 years later and we find that this chapel was amongst those religious establishments dissolved by Henry VIII; and whilst the exact date of its demise is unknown, the last offering was recorded in 1506, and by 1556 the site had been leased out by the Dean as ‘The Chapel-Yard called St William in the Wood’. But that piece of information is something of a distraction at the moment; we need to retrace our steps back to 22nd March 1144. On that date, a despicable act, supposedly, took place at the site of the chapel – It was Easter and not the best time for a murder!
Get the detail right and the place will be a stark reminder of a disturbing and unpleasant moment that, they say, took place here. But take care; the way history works is not to run into the past in convenient straight lines. With stories, indeed with and all historical accounts, it is best to visualise them as being in twisted flight, crisscrossing through time on a journey which, inevitably, turns the past into a foreign country – where ‘they did things differently there’. This is true of the Chapel’s story and, as with other historical stories, it doesn’t have one starting point but many. What we know or think we know about this story, is that parts of it will certainly be inaccurate, simply twisted by whatever common thought or agenda was in place when it was written. The story of St William’s Chapel and much that surrounds it is a case in point, laying as it does below undergrowth, trees and canopy. For the details of this story we have Thomas of Monmouth to thank!
It’s a safe thing to say that most people in Norwich are vaguely aware of William of Norwich, helped no doubt by a report in 2004 about 17 bodies being found in a medieval well in Norwich, during the development of the Chapelfield Shopping Centre (see Footnote below). That report was clearly written for readers who like Time-Team programmes with their trowel and forensic archaeology. However, these sort of people may not be aware of all the detail which, in William’s case, confirms that he was a victim of what some believe was a ritualised murder. Further, he was only a young lad of about 12 years of age who was an apprentice skinner and tanner, the first recorded apprentice in English history so they say. He certainly died somewhere in Norwich on or around 22nd of March 1144 and it was on the 25th March that his body was found, mutilated on the heath close to, if not on the spot where the Chapel stood. Clearly, if he had been murdered elsewhere then his body would probably have been carried to the heath by horse to be disposed of.
Nobody truly knows who did the foul deed, or where, or even why; but, as ever, blame was quickly apportioned by the populace, egged on by the religious authorities and William’s family. Their collective finger pointed directly at the Jews of Norwich who, by the way, were protected by the Sheriff in the King’s name. Now, this is where politics vie with the powers of the church for front row seats, not forgetting that in the 12th century the King was Stephen. He not only had the church to deal with but also his cousin Matilda; they were both grandchildren of William the Conqueror and amongst all the others competing for a dominant position in ‘The Anarchy – which, basically, was a rather nasty tribal squabble about who controls England – not forgetting Normandy of course. Add to this the question of Jews, who started to come over in 1066, had French as their mother language – and settled in Norwich – big trouble was afoot..
Thomas of Monmouth and his version of events:
Enter Thomas, and here we can only presume that he was born in Monmouth, only because he is identified by that town’s name. Having been “respectably educated” he first arrived in Norwich in 1150 and wasted no time in investigating the murder of William. First, he set about interviewing as many of the surviving ‘witnesses’ as possible. These included people who Thomas had already identified as being “converted Jews”; they provided him with inside information about events within the Jewish community. According to Thomas, one particular ‘convert’, called Theobald of Cambridge, told him that there was a written prophecy which stated that the Jews would regain control of Israel if they sacrificed a Christian child each year. Every year, Jewish leaders met in Narbonne to decide who would be asked to perform the sacrifice; in 1144, the Jews of Norwich were assigned that task.
This, and much more, was written up in his multi-volume Latin account of the crime, titled ‘The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich’ which Thomas started shortly after his arrival in Norwich in 1150, and completed Volume 7 by 1173. Since most information about William’s life comes only from Thomas’s writings, it is difficult to distinguish the facts of the case from the story of martyrdom created around it by Thomas. It was he who devoted himself to the promotion of William to sainthood; he did this by collecting evidence of his holiness and by arguing that he had been martyred by the Jews in a ‘ritual’ murder. As things turned out, Thomas of Monmouth was ultimately unsuccessful in getting William of Norwich canonized as a saint, but did succeed in creating a cult around him in Norwich. From the outset, Thomas contended that he had received visions from the founding Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga, who had died in 1119. According to Thomas, Losinga told him that William’s body should be moved into the Chapter House of the monastery, but Thomas had to battle with the sceptical Prior Elias, who was unconvinced of William’s sanctity. However, the body of William was in fact moved within the same year of Thomas’s arrival in Norwich. That year of 1150 was also the year in which Elias died, and by then the cult of William was established.
Circumstances Leading up to the Murder:
Thomas confirmed that William had been born on 2 February 1132 and that his parents were a local Anglo-Saxon couple, Wenstan and Elviva. Later, William was apprenticed to a skinner and tanner of hides, often visiting homes in and around Norwich, including those in the Jewish quarter to the east of Norwich Castle. Shortly before his murder, William’s mother was approached by a man who claimed to be a cook, working for the Archdeacon of Norwich. He offered William a job in the Archdeacon’s kitchens and William’s mother was paid three shillings to let him go. William later visited his aunt in the company of this same man but she was apparently suspicious and asked her daughter to follow the two after they left. William and this man were eventually seen entering the house of a local Jew. This was the last time William was seen alive. It was Holy Tuesday.
According to Thomas, the man who claimed to be a cook had been employed by the Jews to entice William into the house where the sacrifice would occur. William was initially treated well, but was then bound, gagged and suspended in a cruciform position in a room where he was tortured and murdered in a manner imitating the Crucifixion of Jesus: the Jews lacerated his head with thorns and pierced his side.
“having shaved his head, they stabbed it with countless thorn points, and made the blood come horribly from the wounds they made…….. some of those present judged him to be fixed to a cross in mockery of the Lord’s Passion………..”
Thomas supports this claim further by saying that another converted Jew told him that there was an argument over how to dispose of the body. He also says that a Christian servant woman glimpsed the child through a chink in a door. Then, another man is said to have confessed on his deathbed, years after the events, that he saw a group of Jews transporting a body on a horse in the woods.
On the 22th March 1144, William’s mutilated body was found near the chapel site by a local nun who did not initially contact anyone. Then a forester, named Henry de Sprowston, came across it. He noted injuries which suggested a violent death and the fact that the boy appeared to have been gagged with a wooden ‘teasel’ and was wearing just a jacket and shoes. Was this a sexual assault?
After consultation with the local priest it was decided to bury the body on Easter Monday, two day hence; the position of the grave to be where the body was found. In the meantime, some curious folk came to look at the body, a few recognising William. The next day, being Easter Sunday, members of William’s family arrived to confirm, amongst other things, the identity of the body; one member was said to be a priest. The following day, with proper ceremony, William was buried. Beyond this, Thomas devotes most of his book not to the crime, but to the evidence for William’s sanctity, including mysterious lights seen around the body itself and miraculous cures affected on local devotees. Thomas admits that some of the clergy, notably the Prior, Elias, were opposed to the cult on the grounds that there was little evidence of William’s piety or martyrdom. Thomas actively promoted the claims by providing evidence of visions of William and miracles.
The Christians of Norwich, having quickly blamed local Jews for the crime, then demanded justice from the local ecclesiastical court. Members of the Jewish community were asked to attend the court and submit to a trial by ordeal, but the local sheriff, John de Chesney, advised them that the ecclesiastical court had no jurisdiction over them, as they were not Christians. He then took the Jews into protection in the castle. After the situation had calmed down, they returned to their homes. In the meantime, William’s body had been moved to the monks’ cemetery. Later, it would be moved to progressively more prestigious places in the Cathedral, being placed in the Chapterhouse in 1150 and close to the High Altar in 1151.
As part of this promotion, images of William, as a martyr, were created for some churches, generally in the vicinity of Norwich. A panel of painted oak, depicting both William and Agatha of Sicily, is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; William is shown holding a hammer and with three nails in his head. The panel was formerly part of a rood screen at the Norwich Church of St John Maddermarket. The screen was commissioned by Ralph Segrym who died in 1472, a merchant who became a Member of Parliament and Mayor of Norwich. Another rood screen in St Mary’s church, Worstead also depicts him holding nails. One in Loddon depicts William being crucified.
As it was, William’s death was never satisfactorily solved and the local authorities would therefore not convict anyone, simply because there was no proof. There the matter apparently rested, that is until a Thomas of Monmouth came along, some six years later, and got caught up in the clergy’s idea of establishing a cult around the death of William with a motive which must have been partly pecuniary. It was William de Turbeville, Bishop of Norwich between 1146 and 74 who encouraged Thomas of Monmouth to write his book as a precursor to the church achieving its aim. It turned out to be an extensive hagiography work; Volume 7 being completed in 1173. Clearly, it was designed to deify the boy and to blame the Norwich Jews for what became Britain’s first ‘Blood Libel’. For those who would like a Googled explanation of Blood Libel, it comes from the idea that Jews use the blood of the murdered, usually Christian, children in Passover rituals to make bread – no more need be said!
As a result of the feelings generated by the William ritual murder story and subsequent intervention by the authorities on behalf of the accused, the growing suspicion of collusion between the ruling class and Jews fuelled the general anti-Jewish and anti-King Stephen mood of the population. After Thomas of Monmouth’s version of William’s death circulated a number of other unsolved child murders were attributed to Jewish conspiracies, including: This evolved into the so-called blood libel.
The horrific death of William of Norwich at the hands of an unknown became an appalling beginning for future propaganda exercises in many other parts of Britain and across Europe which used murdered children by unknowns, some of whom, as with William, became the subject of veneration. Proof of William’s veneration can be found in Norwich Cathedral, in a small chapel less than a stone’s throw from the choir stalls. It’s not an exciting place, wood lined and with a few chairs; seemingly out of place within the Cathedral’s splendour but comfortably near the tombs of old bishops. As someone said elsewhere, this is where the story starts to get really nasty. William is said to be buried here, after being moved several times in the church’s attempt to get William away from Thorpe Wood and nearer the high alter. The answer is all very simple; saints bring pilgrims and pilgrims bring money.
In 2004, the remains of 17 bodies were found at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich. They were discovered during an excavation of a site in the City’s centre, ahead of the construction of Chapelfield Shopping Centre.
According to the scientists, carrying out the investigation, the skeletons dated back to the 12th or 13th Centuries, at a time when Jewish people were facing persecution in Norwich and, indeed, throughout Europe. In their opinion, the most likely explanation for them being down the well were that they were Jewish and probably murdered or forced to commit suicide. Pictures taken at the time of excavation suggested the bodies were thrown down the well together, head first.
Using a combination of DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies in their investigation, the team established that eleven of the 17 skeletons were those of children aged between 2 and 15; the remaining six were adult men and women. Out of the total found, seven skeletons were successfully tested and five of them had a DNA sequence suggesting they were likely to be members of a single Jewish family.
A close examination of the adult bones showed fractures caused by the impact of hitting the bottom of the well. But the same damage was not seen on the children’s bones, suggesting they were thrown in after the adults who cushioned the fall of their bodies.
The team had considered the possibility of death by disease but the bone examination also showed no evidence of diseases.
Medieval Jewish History
1066: The Norman Conquest opens the way to Jewish immigration. The monarchy needs to borrow money and Christians are forbidden to lend money at interest. London, Lincoln and York become centres for substantial Jewish populations.
1100s: Resentment against the Jewish community grows over their perceived wealth and belief they killed Jesus. The “blood libels” – Jews are accused of the ritual murder of Christian children.
1190: Many Jewish people massacred in York. In Norwich they flee to the city’s castle for refuge. Those who stay in their homes are butchered.
1230s: Executions in Norwich after an allegation a Christian child was kidnapped.
1272: Edward I comes to the throne and enforces extra taxes on the Jewish community.
1290: Edward I expels the Jews en masse after devising a new form of royal financing using Christian knights to fill the coffers.