By Haydn Brown.
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 into 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 there was a section of it that was called Thorpe Wood.
Within it, Long Valley 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 authorities 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 around 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 you will find the site of a largely forgotten chapel; here the mind can get lost in time for that place is where the ‘St William’s Chapel in the Wood’ once stood.
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 for we need to retrace our steps back to March 1144. In that month, a despicable act was said to have taken place at, or near, the site of the chapel – It was Easter and not the best time for a murder – or a place to dump a body!
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 through the past in straight lines. As with many stories, and particularly with historical accounts, it is best to visualise them as being twisted flights, criss-crossing through time and place on a journey which runs the risk of turning the past into a ‘foreign country’ – where that which is written is far from factual – and the truth. The St William’s Chapel story may well fit into this category and, as with other historical stories, it doesn’t have one starting point. What we know or think we know about this story, is that parts of it are probably inaccurate, simply twisted by whatever thought or political/religious agenda was in place when the scribes pen was at work. Here we have Thomas of Monmouth to thank!
It is probably 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 skeleton bodies which were 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 sorts of people may not be aware of all the detail which, in William’s case, seems to suggest to some that he was a victim of 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. We are told that he 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 the Jews who started to come over in 1066, who had French as their mother language – and settled in Norwich. Big trouble was afoot!
Brother Thomas and his Version of Events:
Enter Thomas of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk who resided in the cathedral priory in Norwich, having been “respectably educated” before he first arrived in Norwich around the year 1150. It would appear that very shortly after his arrival in the city Brother Thomas, (we’ll call him that from now on), began his long-winded investigating into the so-called ‘murder’ of the boy William. He began by taking notes in preparation for a narrative about William, and a plea for the boy’s martyrdom that he finally completed more than twenty years later, titled “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich”. This account ended up as a multi-volume series with the final Volume 7 being completed around 1173. The first two volumes details William’s life and sufferings, with the remaining five volumes recounting the miracles the proposed saint was said to have performed after his death. According to E.M. Rose, in his book ‘The Murder of William of Norwich’ “Brother Thomas maintained that William was worthy of veneration and claimed him as an important patron for Norwich Cathedral”. but his claim was based on a writing that was nothing more than a treatise that was “an imaginative, emotional appeal rather than a presentation of forensic evidence”. It is thought that the original manuscript no longer survives, but a unique single contemporary copy resides in the Cambridge University Library.
In his quest, Brother Thomas claims to have set about interviewing as many of the surviving ‘witnesses’ as possible. These included people who he had already identified as being “converted Jews”; they, he would claim, provided him with inside information about events within the Jewish community. According to Brother 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.
Since most information about William’s life and the resulting murder inquiry comes from Brother Thomas, 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; even his opening sentence of Volume 1 reflects that both he, and presumably some of his contemporaries, believed that William’s death was preordained:
“The mercy of the divine goodness desiring to display itself to the parts about Norwich, or rather to the whole of England, and to give it in these new times a patron, granted that a boy should be conceived in his mother’s womb without her knowing that he was to be numbered among the illustrious martyrs”.
Was Brother Thomas proud that his adopted city of Norwich should be blessed with a suitable candidate for sainthood, despite the apparent horrible circumstances surrounding the young boy’s death? That’s how it may have been, but Thomas’s final narrative went on to build a case for William’s holiness based on the collected evidence, and arguing that he had been martyred by the Jews in a ‘ritual’ murder.
As things turned out, Brother Thomas was ultimately unsuccessful in getting William of Norwich canonized as a saint; however, but did succeed, for a time at least, in creating a cult around him in Norwich. But right from the outset of his endeavours, 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 had told him in a vision that William’s body should be moved into the Chapter House of the monastery; however, Thomas had to battle with the sceptical Prior Elias, who was unconvinced of William’s sanctity. The body of William was in fact moved in 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:
Brother Thomas stated that William had been born on 2 February 1132 and that his parents, Wenstan and Elviva, were a local Anglo-Saxon couple living on the outskirts of Norwich. His father died while William was still very young and it was left to Elviva, who had learned much from her own father, a priest, to educate William. Then, when William was eight years old, he was taken to a skinner, near his home, to learn a trade. Brother Thomas says:
“In a short time, he far surpassed lads of his own age in the crafts aforesaid, and he equalled some who had been his teachers”.
In time, William moved into the city to join the workshop of a prosperous master of the skin, fur and leather trade; an important industry in Norwich, which served the demand for clothing, shoes and bed coverings. Leather was the most hard-wearing fabric available, so leather jerkings, breeches, aprons and caps were the normal wear for most manual workers. It was the custom for young unmarried employees to live with their master, often being obliged to sleep on the shop floor in order to help protect the property from break-ins and thefts. The area that William moved into was the Jewry, to the east of Norwich Castle, which suggests that both Jews and Gentiles were accustomed to working and trading alongside each other.
In his book, Norwich – The Biography, Christopher Reeve writes:
“It could be imagined that William would be well liked by his fellow workers and neighbours, and also by the customers, some of whom would have preferred to deal with him when they brought their orders in for leather goods. If it was true that William had settled in so well then what happened next was all the more shocking……. the Jewish community believed that they would never gain freedom, or be able to return to their homeland unless they made an annual sacrifice of a Christian, so as to mock Christ. Where Thomas got this idea from is not known…….[or] whether or not he himself had a prejudice against Jews. Maybe it was simple malicious gossip from those who might have envied Jewish prosperity in the city”.
Shortly before his murder, William’s mother, Elviva, 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 paid William’s mother three shillings to let him go. This must have been a very good offer for it came with the opportunity to earn more money and better prospects than if he stayed in the skin trade. William must have been delighted but, it is said, his mother had her doubts and asked her son not to go; however, William was determined and the messenger’s words were compelling to both mother and son, sweetened by a reward of ‘three shillings’ in return for the mother’s agreement. William later visited his aunt in the company of this same man but she was apparently suspicious when she heard the news and told her own daughter to follow William and this messenger after they left. The daughter was able to report that they returned to the area when William worked and went into a house belonging to Eleazar the Jew. This was the last time William was seen alive. It was Holy Tuesday.
According to Brother 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. There, 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…………”
Brother Thomas said that the body was concealed until the Good Friday and claimed further that another converted Jew told him that there was an argument over how to dispose of the body afterwards. Nevertheless, two members from amongst those who had tortured William, did place his body in a sack and take it to the best hiding place they could think of – Thorpe Woods on Mousehold Heath. Unfortunately for them, as they entered the wood they met, we are told, Erlward, a Burgess and a citizen of note, who was returning from the church of St Mary Magdalen nearby. He challenged the two men, suspicious that they were up to no good. At this, the two Jews ‘in their terror…… made off at full gallop and rushed into the thick of the wood’.
Christopher Reeve again writes:
“It is said that Erlward did nothing further except continue on his way to his own home in the city. With the coast clear, the two Jews returned and simply hung the sack holding William’s body on a tree and galloped home, still in panic. Aware that there was now a witness to the disposal of the body, the Jewish leaders decided that they needed to obtain the protection of the City Sheriff, John de Caineto, who as the King’s representative, was obliged to act on the Jew’s behalf for they were his source of ready money. In return for a willing bribe offered by the Jews, de Caineto instructed Aelward not to divulge anything he might have seen in Thorpe Wood”.
Unfortunately, in that March of 1144 at least three persons had already discovered William’s mutilated body; one, a peasant, plus two prominent citizens – Lady Legarda and Henry de Sprowston, a forester and keeper of the Bishop’s stables. It seems that Lady Legarda, a Norman aristocratic nun, was the first to come across the cadaver, tangled as it was in the undergrowth and quite near a thoroughfare in Thorpe Woods. We are told that she took no responsibility in informing the authorities, as was required; instead, she quietly said prayers over the corpse before retreating to her convent. Later that day, the peasant also ignored the body, despite being well aware of his responsibility to report the find to the powers-to-be. Then, on 25 March 1144, Holy Saturday, Henry de Sprowston was riding through the woods in the course of his duties as guardian of all that was owned there by his ecclesiastical employers, the Norwich bishop and monks. Possibly to deflect attention from his own illicit activities, the same peasant [apparently] led Henry de Sprowston to the cadaver, but neither person recognised it as anyone they knew; what was clear however was that it was a young boy. The forester, because of his standing, instigated an inquiry into the death and while nothing came out of his investigation, the boy was identified as that of William, the apprentice leatherworker and son of Wenstan and Elviva.
It was noted at the time that William’s injuries suggested a violent death and that the boy appeared to have been gagged with a wooden ‘teasel’ and was wearing just a jacket and shoes. Maybe they speculated that this had been a sexual assault? After consultation with the local priest, it was decided to bury the body two days hence, on Easter Monday; the position of the grave would be where the body was found. In the meantime, some curious folk came to look at the body, a few recognising William. Then, the following day, being Easter Sunday, William’s uncle, brother and cousin arrived to confirm the identity of the dead youth before he was buried, but with proper but minimal ceremony and no elaborate marker. That was on Easter Monday.
Information about William and the resulting homicide inquiry comes only from Brother Thomas’s account which claimed to have pieced together what actually happened during that fateful Holy Week of 1144. Thomas seems to have set out to prove that William had been killed for his faith and therefore deserved to be ordained as a saint. He devoted 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. However, Thomas actively promoted the claims by providing evidence of visions of William and miracles.
As for the Christians of Norwich, they 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. The above image shows a panel of painted oak, depicting both William and Agatha of Sicily, and 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 Brother Thomas 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 174 who encouraged Brother Thomas 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’ – 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 Brother Thomas’s version of William’s death circulated a number of other unsolved child murders were attributed to Jewish conspiracies: – 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!
According to Emily M. Rose in her book ‘The Murder of William of Norwich’:
“William of Norwich, in particular, has received a considerable amount of attention, ever since the full text of his story was discovered in a Suffolk parish library at the end of the 19th– century by the antiquarian M. R. James, who edited and published an influential translation with Augustus Jessopp, an honorary canon of Norwich Cathedral. Brother Thomas’s ‘Life and Passion has now been re-translated for a modern readership, including passages that the fastidious Victorian translators passed over.”
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.
Reeve, Christopher, Norwich – The Biography, Amberley Publishing, 2014.
Rose, E. M., The Murder of William of Norwich, Oxford University Press, 2015.
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