It is a fact that many folk in the distant past could neith read nor write; couple this with the fact that folklore stories have long drifted in and out of print, meaning that each generation relied on the tongue for telling tales which it was hoped would be remembered and passed on, from generation to generation. As part of this process, and to maintain the interest of liseners, these stories were often elaborated and embellished; an essential part of the spoken tradition which wanted to perpetuate whatever lay behind each tale. The following story is just one example where the detail has been given just that treatment over time, appearing in print in as many and varied versions as would the same tale told verbally – so maybe past chronicle authors and story-telling bards have a lot to answer for! But we have to go with what we have, so the question is ‘How much of a story is fact and how much is fiction’, remembering that all legends have a degree of truth in them; but one thing is certain – we will never know. The only thing the reader can do is to pick through content and decide where a degree of licence may have been applied and where facts possibly rest.
This story is about the beginnings of Erpingham Gate, a great Norwich gateway which takes the visitor from Tombland into the Cathedral Close and directly towards the main entrance to Norwich Cathedral. More importantly, it is about the person who, it was said, paid for its construction, Sir Thomas Erpingham – and about whom a legend, myth – whatever you might call it – found root around the time of 1422 when Gate was built. But first, some facts:
Sir Thomas Erpingham was born in 1357 in the Norfolk village of Erpingham, some 17 miles north of Norwich. His family had been in the village since the Norman Conquest and were part of the local gentry who came to be the holders of the manor in the early thirteenth century, taking the place name of Erpingham as their surname. After the death of his father, Sir Thomas went into the service of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and fought alongside Gaunt’s son (Henry Bolingbroke) across Europe and the Middle East. Bolingbroke later became King Henry IV and Sir Thomas was made his chamberlain. In 1400 Sir Thomas became a Knight of the Garter and received many estates in Norfolk and Suffolk. He used his position at court to promote the interests of Norwich and in 1404, the king gave Norwich its new charter, making it the County and City of Norwich. Sir Thomas was a generous patron and one of his legacies can still be seen most clearly in his entrance gate to Norwich Cathedral.
Sir Thomas went on to have an impressive military and political career beyond the confines of Norfolk. He was a staunch supporter of the Lancastrian dynasty and part of Henry V’s inner circle, he was instrumental in the king’s political and military successes. In 1415, Sir Thomas went with Henry V to Agincourt where he is thought to have been in charge of the archers, riding out in front of the English lines giving the order to strike the French. Sir Thomas became a hero to many and was immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V, where one Act takes us through the English and French camps on the eve of the battle, portrayed as a steadfast and loyal ‘old hero’. However, whilst he was considered ‘good’ in Shakespeare’s play, there was a piece of folklore that grew amongst the populace following the completion of the Gate. Its theme depicted the process of Sir Thomas paying for the building of the Erpingham Gate as an act of personal penance – for a seedy episode during his life!
When it comes to legends, you would think that their themes would rely more on history books and the information, if not facts therein. In the case of Erpingham, this legend, of which we speak, would have made reference to the fact that Sir Thomas was against Henry le Dispencer, Bishop of Norwich. For instance, in efforts to turn the City of Norwich against the Bishop, Sir Thomas managed to persuade the City’s authorities to endorse a list of accusations against the Despenser, who sympathised with the deposed Richard II and became implicated in a rebellion against Henry IV. As it was, the house of Despenser had a long-standing enmity with the House of Lancaster – and ultimately Sir Thomas. When the King Richard II was disposed of, Bishop Henry le Despenser was disgraced. Add to this the fact that it was Sir Thomas Erpingham who, when in exile with Henry Bolingbroke, helped the future Henry V to secure the throne, whilst capturing Richard and offering ‘advice’ that because Richard was a possible threat, he should be removed! With the Bishop of Norwich disgraced, Erpingham became even more influential in Norfolk.
The result of these acts was that a serious breach of trust opened up between Erpingham and Bishop le Despenser, the repercussions of which may have been felt by both Sir Thomas and the Church beyond the year of 1406 when Despenser died. We do not know! However, if this legend ever found root beyond Dispenser and the next two Bishops of Norwich – Alexander Tottington (1407 to 1413) and Richard Courteney (1413 to 1415) – then it must have been with John Wakering (or Wakeryng) who was Bishop of Norwich from 1415 and until 1425. It was during this period in office when the Erpingham Gate was built. So, was any sort of reconciliation between the Church and Sir Thomas settled during Wakering’s period in charge?
Whenever it was, if the wound was ever to be healed then Sir Thomas needed to make some sort of financial gesture to the Church – because that was what they liked! As things turned out, it was said that he came up with a two-pronged solution that, with God’s help, would satisfy both the Church and his belief that heaven awaited those who donated generously to the church; he also must have hoped that his earthly bones would eventually be laid to rest in the Cathedral when his time came. They say that this was the basis on which Sir Thomas Erpingham built his Gate. When Sir Thomas did die in 1428, his bones were indeed buried in the north side of the Chancel (or presbytery) of the Cathedral, along with his two wives.
That was one version of the legend; but it would seem that the populace much preferred another version of the legend that tells quite a different story – and with much less historical content. This one goes along the lines having a Friar in the opening scene – we’ll call him Brother John for the purpose of this version – who clearly lusts after Sir Thomas Erpingham’s wife, Joan. We do not know which Joan the tale refers to; both of Thomas’s wifes carried the same name for he married a Joan, daughter of Sir William Clopton of Clopton, Suffolk, then married a second Joan, daughter of Sir Richard Walton sometime around 1411. No matter, for this legend tells us that during Mass, Brother John slipped a note into Joan’s hand. Curiousity alone dictated that she would read it at the first opportunty, her subsequent blushes apparently telling Sir Thomas all he needed to know of the note’s content. But, being a faithful wife, she still insisted that her husband read it word for word, knowing that he would take matters into his own hands and take steps to remove the problem that lurked beneath a religious habit! Sir Thomas did just that – and so cunningly; first by noting the time and place suggested by Brother John for his meeting with Joan, both perfect for his plans. The meeting would take place at dusk when disguise was so much easier, and the place would be a quiet spot by the River Wensum – a short but convenient walk away from the Cathedral, Whitefriars Priory and the busy part of the City. We of course, do not know if this friar came from the Blackfriar fraternity, or that of the Whitefriars stood next to the Cathedral in Pockthorpe with the River Wensum in between. Sir Thomas then decided to dress in one of his wife’s more favoured dresses before leaving with his faithful servant to the ‘trysting’ rendezvous which some believed was downstream from the rear of Whiefriars and just short of Cow Tower – again, we cannot be certain.
Once there, Sir Thomas, now further disguised with a silk scarf tied over his head, stood beneath a tree at the water’s edge and gazed across the water to the bank opposite; waiting, but at the same time listening intently for sounds of any movement behind him. In the meantime, his servant concealed both himself and Thomas’s horse under cover a short distance away. It was not long before (alias) ‘Lady Erpingham’ heard advancing footsteps behind him and then felt stumpy fingers begin to move over his hip. “Thank you for coming – my love”. Brother John got no further with his obvious intentions for, almost in a single movement, Sir Thomas reached for a metal object hidden beneath the waist of the dress, swung round and struck Brother John firmly on the side of his bald head. The Friar fell first on his knees and then face downwards towards the river-edge reeds. He was dead.
The recipient of the legend is led to believe that it was never Sir Thomas’s intention to kill his victim, but only to give him a heavy lesson which he would never forget – such was his anger……..“How do we get rid of this lecher” he eventually asked his servant, who had come to his master’s assistance immediately he saw the Friar hit the ground. His reply was quick and straight forward. “He has no blood showing, just a dent my Lord. The best we can do is to return him to the Priory grounds”. With the help of Thomas’s horse they took the body the short distance to the Priory’s boundary wall. There, the two men lifted it over the wall and propped Brother John up in a sitting position – as if the Friar was asleep.
The corpse had not been there long, after Sir Thomas, servant and horse had quietly departed, when another Friar, in this instance a Brother Richard who was a very pious man, noticed Brother John – apparantly asleep when he should have been at prayers! Seeing this known womaniser lazely avoiding his religious duties caused Richard to pick up a stone and throw it in the direction of John. It so happened, that his aim was good, too good in fact; the stone hit the side of Brother John’s head, causing him to keel over, once again hitting the ground. Believing that he had actually killed Brother John and in doing so sinned, Richard took a further step towards further weakness; he lifted the body and rolled it over the wall where it fell to lay outside the Priory boundary. He then quietly called on the services of his own pony and left the Whitefriars and what he thought was his crime scene.
Now it so happened that Sir Thomas Erpingham’s personal servant again rode past the Whitefriar’s outer wall on an errand for his master. He could not help noticing, with some puzzlement, the body lying on the wrong side of the wall from where he and Sir Thomas had first left it. Maybe it was a degree of panic, if not a cool calculated decision, that caused the servant to climb down from his horse and replace his elevated position with that of the corpse which by then was stiff with rigor martis. He managed to get former John into an upright position, his feet into the stirrups and his wrists tied to the reins before firmly slapping the horse’s rump into a gallop.
As for Brother Richard, he thought that he had left his unfortunate experience behind him as he too rode out of Norwich, all be it at a much slower pace. But then he heard the sound of galloping hooves approaching towards him from the rear. He instictively turned his head to see the ‘gastly figure’ of Brother John approaching fast on a horse which. When alongside Richard’s pony it pulled up causing the dead friar to fall off to beneath the ponty’s feet. Richard was absolutely terrified – feeling the guilt of what he thought he had done. It was nothing less than divine intervention he thought and decided, there and then, that he must confess! He immediately turned his pony and made his way back to the Bishop and told him all that he knew.
Inevitably perhaps, Friar Richard was sentenced to be hanged for his apparent sins, but as he stood on the gallows, praying for forgiveness and waiting for the immident drop into oblivion if not heaven, Sir Thomas came on to the scene and forced his way through a crowd eager to witness what was a public strangulation. He shouted “Hangman – stop!” as he climbed the scaffold steps, removing the implements of execution and then descending the steps with the Friar. Sir Thomas, the most powerful knight in Norfolk at the time, sought out the Bishop and did not hesitate to kneel before him to admit that he, Thomas, was the one who had killed Friar John. He told the of circumstances surrounding the Mass and his thoughts and planning which led up to the murder along that part of the River Wensum which runs past Whitefriars, towards Cow Tower, Bishops Bridge and beyond. The Bishop listened, then contemplated and decided that the act of this killing was manslaughter…….the sentence was not to be death for such a distinguished person of the County, but one of a penance which Sir Thomas had to agree to if he was ever to be forgiven and find his place in heaven. What was agreed was for him to pay the costs of building what was to become known as the Erpingham Gate.
FOOTNOTE: The Erpingham Gate was erected between 1420 and 1435, in a style which matches the west front of the cathedral itself. The exterior of the gate has a small statue of Sir Thomas above, although this was apparently only put in place in the 17th century – some speculate that it came from Sir Thomas’s tomb in the Cathedral’s Presbytery. The interior side of the Gate also displays the Erpingham coat of arms. There are no less than 24 Christian Saints carved in the archway – 12 male and 12 female – a nice example of equal treatment some 600 years before the Equality Act. (Would this have had anything to do with the fact that Sir Thomas had two wives?).
About the time when the Erpingham Gate was being built, other work associated with the rebuilding of the church of the Dominican Friars and a new East window for the church of the Augustinian Friars was taking place. History does suggest that Sir Thomas donated even more of his money to projects such as these. What is not clear is whether, or not Sir Thomas, following his death in 1428 ever left any of his funds to William Alnwick, who was the Bishop of Norwich between 1426 and 1436. This Bishop continued with further enhancements within the Cathedral precincts by altering and improving the Cathedral itself – as well as his Palace!
We are told that much of the rebuilding of the Dominican friary in Norwich was financed by Sir Thomas Erpingham and his son Robert, who became a friar there. The gate that bears his name is thought to have been built at his cost, a gift to the cathedral, ca.1420. The upper portion, surrounding the canopy within which Sir Thomas’s statue is recessed and faced with flint in Norfolk style. Below it, surrounding the Perpendicular arch, the outward face of the gateway is highly decorated with figures of saints. The turrets on the buttresses at either side also bear sculptures, as well as the heraldic devices of Erpingham and the families of his two wives, and each turret is topped by the statue of a priest. The word yenk (“think”) is engraved at various places on the gateway, and is a request for viewers to remember (and say a prayer for) the donor.
The date of the building of the gate is not known for certain, but it must have taken place after his second marriage (1411). The style suggests the 1420s, and it seems likely the gate would have been given at a time when Erpingham’s thoughts were turning to his death and afterlife – by this time he would have been in his sixties. There were certainly stories that he built the gate as a penance for a sin he had committed – different versions suggest a homicide, his role in the disgrace of Bishop Despenser, his support of heretics – or even gratitude for surviving Agincourt; but there is no real foundation for any of these. If anything, the highly decorated gate is an assertion of orthodoxy at a time when Lollardy was posing a challenge to the established order and at a time when Sir Thomas might have been concerned with his spiritual future.
Erpingham died in 1428 and was buried inside Norwich cathedral, in a tomb built in advance, alongside his two wives; a chantry was established there in his name. His testament did not forget the city in whose affairs he had always shown an interest. He left sums of money to the cathedral and the Prior and monks there, as well as to the church of St. Martin at Palace; his armour too he left to the cathedral. He also bequeathed money to the sisters and poor inmates of St. Giles’ hospital, Bishopgate, and lesser sums to prisoners in the gaols of Norwich castle and the city Guildhall, as well as to hermits within the city.
The construction of the gate may have been an act intended to win favour from the Cathedral in which he hoped to be buried, to win favour from God, and to establish a memorial to himself. The armour in which he is depicted in the statue may have been that which was bequeathed to the cathedral. Although his will makes no reference to the gate, it is possible he commissioned it shortly before his death, with the work finished posthumously by his executors, or it may even have been entirely a project of his executors. His testament focused on pious and charitable bequests and left the rest of his worldly goods to his executors’ disposition – they may have felt the gateway a suitable application of that wealth, and certainly it has stood the test of time. It has been argued that his statue is not the right size for its niche and may have been moved there from his tomb, replacing some other statue on a religious theme.
Wikipedia – on Sir Thomas Erpingham, Henry V and the Bishops of the time.
Hugh Lupton, Norfolk Folk Tales, The History Press, 2013
Banner Heading © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
George Plunkett – by kind permission of Jonathan Plunkett.