The best ghost stories are often discovered by chance. So it was with a certain anonymous Catholic priest in Yorkshire who, in early 2014, happened to come across an old journal. In that journal was a reprint of a story, dated 1736 and titled ‘A Strange Occurrence’. That story, later retold in the book ‘Recollections of Norwich 50 Years Ago’, was written by a Frederick Higbane who, in 1736, had visited Norwich from London and had encountered a ‘ghost’ of a martyred priest at Norwich Cathedral’s mighty Erpingham Gate. It is indeed a curious tale and begins:
“Business chanced to take me many years ago to the ancient city of Norwich where I stayed at a very old Inn, situated in a street called, if my memory serves me right, Maudlin (Magdalen) Street. The room I occupied was a very old-fashioned one. Over the fireplace was a portrait, painted on the wall itself, of a very pale man with black hair, dressed in some sort of ecclesiastical garb and bearing the look of a Jesuit or Romish priest……There was something about this picture that affected me very strongly……Next morning I asked the landlord whose portrait it might be, and he could not enlighten me…..” In the evening the author, Frederick Higbane, then took a walk around Norwich Cathedral:
“I was walking near one of the great gates, which led to the Cathedral, when I suddenly observed a man clothed like a clergyman standing in the angle of a wall directly in front of me. Owing to the dusk I could not see him well until I was close up against him. Then I saw him perfectly clearly, and to my horror his face was terribly swelled, and a rope was drawn tight around his neck. Protruding from his breast was a knife, such as formerly used by executioners for dismembering the bodies of criminals. I could not think why his facial appearance seemed so familiar to me, and then there suddenly flashed across my mind – yes, the portrait in my bedchamber at the inn. For some moments I gazed with the utmost horror, not unmixed with fear, at this awful sight. For a while the figure spoke no words, then I heard a mournful sigh – or was it a groan? Then, as I withdrew, the figure vanished”.
Returning to the inn, believed to be The Maid’s Head which is very close to the Cathedral and Erpingham Gate, Frederick Higbane took another look at the portrait to reassure himself that the vision he had seen was the same man. Then, taking the evidence of the portrait, Higbane further enquired of the landlord if there was a Catholic priest in Norwich and he was directed to a priest in the city.
“To him, therefore I went…….. telling him my strange adventure, he took me into his house and showed me a portrait of the same man. On my inquiring who it might be, he replied “It is the Rev. Thomas Tunstall, a priest, who was executed for the Catholic Faith in 1616 at the gates of the very street in which your inn is situated.” “Why I should have apparently seen his apparition, neither he nor I could form any idea.”
Thomas Tunstall took the College oath at Douay on 24 May 1607 and received minor orders at Arras on 13 June 1609, and the subdiaconate at Douay on 24 June following. His subsequent ordination is not recorded but he left college as a priest on 17 August 1610. What ever he got up to from that date and when he moved to England is something of a mystery, but whatever it was came to the notice of the authorities and he was almost immediately arrested after landing on grounds of his faith. He spent four or five years in various prisons until he succeeded in escaping from Wisbech Castle by rope. However, he sustained injuries to his hands in the process and sought medical help from Lady Alice L’Estrange in Kings Lynn, Norfolk. Unfortunately, her husband, Sir Hamon, reported him to the authorities and he was recaptured and committed to Norwich Gaol.
At the next assizes in July 1616, he was tried and condemned on the 12th of that month. The following day, Thomas Tunstall was hanged, drawn and quartered, and his body displayed at various points in the city before being taken down by Catholics and later placed in an altar at Bath. A contemporary report recounts:
“The on lookers, who were very numerous, and amongst them many persons of note, were all sensibly affected with the sight of his death; many shed tears, all spoke kindly and compassionately of him, and appeared edified with his saint-like behaviour. His head was placed on St Benedict’s gate, in Norwich, according to his request; his quarters on the walls of the city. The judge who condemned him died before he had finished his circuit, and most of the jury came to untimely ends, or great misfortunes.”
Now, there is a contemporary portrait of Fr Thomas Tunstall, the martyr, at Stonyhurst in Lancashire. It is not known if this painting is the same one as that which hung in Frederick Higbane’s room in the inn on Maudlin (Magdalene) Street, Norwich in 1736, but, as far as it is known, there are no other images of this martyr. Stonyhurst acquired the portrait in 1828. It is small; approximately 5 inches by 4 inches and is enclosed by a wooden frame. The image shows him as a man still young with abundant black hair and dark moustache. However, it is unlike most paintings of English martyrs which usually show them robed. This portrait presents Tunstall in just his shirt. All these facets do, indeed, indicate a contemporary, if not eye-witness representation of the Martyr – as he may have been at the execution?
Thomas Tunstall was martyred just outside the Erpingham Gate in 1616 and was beatified by Puis XI in 1929.