Living, as we are, in the post-Victorian period, our notion of Christmas has inevitably been informed by Charles Dickens and his peers, who solidified the modern version of Christmas as a time of generous gift-giving, charity, and copious food and drink. But, as the presence of ghosts in many of Dickens’s Christmas stories indicates, the modern idea of Christmas is also a time for reflection on the past. As an Anglo-Saxonist, I naturally think back to the early medieval period, and recently asked myself, how did they celebrate Christmas? Christmas is, after all, an Anglo-Saxon word – Cristesmæsse, a word first recorded in 1038 – and so would there be any resemblance to Christmas in 2016? The surprising results of my investigation are presented below.
The precise date of Christ’s birth was decided as 25th December by Pope Julius I in the fourth century, long before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England. The original Germanic invaders – Angles, Saxons, and Jutes – were not Christian, but were still engaged in celebrations on the 25th December. According to Bede, writing in the eighth century:
‘They began the year with December 25, the day we now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through. (De temporum ratione)’.
This was the festival known as Yule, still celebrated by Neo-Pagans across the world, and remembered indirectly by those indulging in a Yule Log this Christmas. Whilst details of the festival – like almost all aspects of Anglo-Saxon paganism – are murky, we can still pick out a few details from Bede’s account of the celebration.
The festival has some association with fertility and, as Bede implies with characteristic moral reticence, possibly involved ceremonial copulation. We can see here a link between Yule and Christmas: the pagans were celebrating birth, just as Jesus’s birth from Mary, a mortal woman, is celebrated by Christians on the same day. This common aspect to Yule and Christmas is important to observe: a mandate of the early Roman church, converting the pagans of Europe, was to pursue a policy of continuity, to ease the change from one religion to another amongst the recent converts. As such, deciding on 25th December as the date of Christ’s birth was a tactical ploy by the Roman Church.
The need for evolution rather than revolution in the conversion of pagans was specifically mentioned by Pope Gregory the Great in his instructions to the missionaries he sent to convert the Anglo-Saxons in 597. Speaking of the recycling of pagan religious sites, he explained: ‘we hope that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God’. As well as in the implicit association of Yule and Christmas, we can see this process of adoption in the many ancient churches built on the sites of pagan shrines and incorporating the Yew tree, a sacred object to the pagans.
So, with the date of Christmas decided, and old festivals rebranded (though, of course, with less sex), what did the post-597 Anglo-Saxons do at Christmas? The first thing to note is that Christmas did not have the same importance in the church calendar as it does today. Far more important to the Anglo-Saxon Church was the festival of Easter, the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Christmas gradually grew in importance from the time of Charlemagne, the great Frankish king, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800 at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Nevertheless, there were established Christmas traditions by this time, which were continued through the Anglo-Saxon period. The fullest account of Anglo-Saxon Christmas is given by Egbert of York (d. 766), a contemporary of Bede: ‘the English people have been accustomed to practise fasts, vigils, prayers, and the giving of alms both to monasteries and to the common people, for the full twelve days before Christmas’.
Whilst the requirement for fasting couldn’t be further from the more secular 21st century Christmas traditions of ceaseless gluttony, we can see the rudiments of later festive customs. Firstly, the more overt religious significance of the date – ‘vigils [and] prayers’ – is in part reflected in the modern day, when many people’s sole (begrudging) visit to church occurs on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day itself. Perhaps most interesting in this early iteration of the Christmas period is Egbert’s mention of alms-giving, in which we can see the predecessor of modern Christmas presents, a tradition probably started in imitation of the Three Wise Men bringing the infant Christ Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Alms were charitable relief given to the poor, without expectation of payment. Although we are now more indiscriminate in our festive gift-giving, and rarely take socio-economics into the equation, this is the start of the tradition of Christmas presents. We can link, also, the traditional festive fundraising of organisations such as the Salvation Army to Egbert’s discussion of charitable acts at Christmas.
The final Saxon Christmas tradition we can reconstruct is the Christmas holiday. Alfred the Great was greatly influenced by the Frankish Court – his stepmother, Judith, was great-granddaughter of Charlemagne – and seems to have shared their view of the importance of Christmas as a festival. In one of Alfred’s laws, holiday was strictly to be taken by all but those engaged in the most important of occupations from Christmas Day to Twelfth Night. It has been suggested that Alfred’s rigorous observance of his own law left him vulnerable to his Viking adversaries, who defeated him in battle on 6th January, 878: the day after Twelfth Night. Based on what we have already discussed, we can assume this was not because of overindulgence in food and drink. Christmas Day and Boxing Day are still bank holidays today, and schoolchildren around the country enjoy a similar length of break at Christmas to Alfred’s Saxon subjects.
So, Christmas for the Anglo-Saxons was a mixed-bag. Although most were given almost a fortnight off work, they were expected to fast for the period, and only poorer members of society would be given any presents. Nevertheless, in a time when economic hardship was the norm, and most people had to work painfully long hours in the fields, the Christmas holiday would be a time for celebration, and it is no wonder people were in a charitable mood. It is easy to see how the traditions of charity, rest and gift-giving developed into the unrestrained indulgence of today. Gesælige Cristesmæsse!
“I graduated from my AHRC-funded DPhil from Magdalen College, Oxford, in August 2016, and I am now pursuing a career as a freelance historical writer. I specialise in the early medieval period, and my publications include peer-reviewed articles in ‘The Journal Medieval Religious Cultures’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon England’.”
St Peter’s Church, North Burlingham, Norfolk has long been in ruin and what remains shows that it was mostly Perpendicular with the nave and chancel dating from the 15th century. There is a suggestion that, even further back in time, the church’s origins rest in Late Saxon times. The church was heavily restored in 1874 by the Burroughs family but its once proud round tower, with octagonal tope, collapsed in 1906 and the church was abandoned in 1936 in favour of St Andrew’s close by……… Many people over the years since then have visited the ruins of St Peter’s and, no doubt intrigued, have taken photographs and written interesting accounts; not least the following by Simon Knott who, in November 2007, paid his own personal visit:
“It was Historic Churches bike ride day 2007. We had been to Hemblington, explaining our plans for the day to the nice lady on welcoming duty, and to a gentleman cyclist who had just checked in. “Don’t forget that there is a ruined church at North Burlingham”, he said. We hadn’t forgotten, and already had plans to track it down, but we wondered if access to it was possible. “Certainly”, said the nice man. “I own it. It’s in my back garden. I give you Permission”
If only it was always that easy. Thanking him profusely, we headed on back down to the A47. North Burlingham is bypassed these days, but not by much, and the thunder of traffic was very noticeable after the peace of Witton and Hemblington. It is not a huge parish, but was obviously busy enough to maintain two churches well in the second half of the 19th century, when both underwent major restorations. St Andrew, a couple of hundred yards to the west, is a big, late medieval building with a huge tower, but St Peter was more typical of the area, a smaller, older church with a round tower.
It was the tower that led to the demise of the building. One night in 1906, it collapsed into the nave. At first, the gap was merely boarded up, but, not surprisingly, this was found to be unsatisfactory, and in 1936 the remains of the congregation finally decamped up the road to St Andrew. The building has been left to decay since then, pretty much, quietly returning back to nature. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It is hard to see beyond its restoration, but this must have been a little Norman church, perhaps with a 13th century chancel.
We stepped into what must have become a completely Victorianised building in the 1870s. Now, little remains. Victorian tiling forms an aisle up the middle to the off-centre chancel arch. The roof timbers are mostly still in place, although completely unsafe. There are broken ledger stones, and you can see into the vault beneath the chancel floor.
There was an elegant, quiet dignity about the building on this beautiful sunny day. The elder and ivy filtered the light as if they were stained glass windows, and although the building is now nothing but a faltering shell, it was quite possible to repopulate it in the mind’s eye with 19th century furnishings and people. There are quaint niches either side of the east window in a Decorated style, and I wondered if this was a suggestion that St Peter had been quite High Church in its 19th century heyday, perhaps as an alternative to Lower worship at St Andrew’s.
There was plenty of time for the furnishings and treasures to be removed, of course, and they have been mostly reinstated up the road at St Andrew. There you will find the pretty rood screen, now filling the mouth of the tower arch. Also there are the memorials, including two medieval brasses.
The medieval benches went across the A47 to Blofield, and other furnishings went to Earlham and Lingwood. The bells are in the keeping of the Norfolk Museum Service, along with so many extraordinary treasures in the great storage warehouse at Gressenhall.
Norfolk has many ruined churches. I have already visited fifty or so of them, and there are plenty more to come. But there was something particularly atmospheric about the interior and setting of this particular ruin. It would be impossible to find such a place sinister or eerie, for it is organic and harmonious. As if to accentuate this oneness with nature, a dead barn owl lay on the nave floor. It seemed not inappropriate. It was, as Tom observed, a good ruin.
We wandered through and around to the north side of the church. Here, hauntingly, there are surviving gravestones, dotted among the trees. The latest appeared to date from the 1920s or so, a cross for James William Oliver, who died aged 17 months. If he had lived, he would have been 85 this year. I wondered if anyone ever came here to remember him. There was something particularly poignant about these forgotten headstones, so close to the busy road but utterly unknown.
We came round the west end, to find the remains of the round tower virtually indistinguishable from the uneven flinty earth about them. Light shone through from the nave and out of the former tower arch, now a pergola for hanging ivy. As I watched, a blackbird alighted on the ledge, the light spangling his feathers. He opened his mouth and gave a throaty warble for a moment – then saw us…… and was gone.
Many more have visited the site of St Peters Church since Simon Knott first wrote about it and many more will assuredly come, to admire, speculate, imagine what once was, to take their photographs and videos (see below) and report on social media.
Like Pam Shortis who wrote on Facebook in 2017:
“This place never really loses its mystique. As Larkin put it”:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round”.
Also in 2017 Jean Walker-Baylis briefly noted:
“From 1945 to 1965 I lived at North Burlingham, this photo of the ruins was taken 1955”.
Then there was Roella Trughill in the summer of 2018:
“I visited here today! I was searching high and low for it! A couple staying in a caravan on The Church Farm Site said they had seen it through a hedge so off I went in search of it! I met a man and asked how I could access it but he said it was in someone’s garden so he went and knocked on their door and asked if I could photograph it and they kindly said yes! I asked how they came to own the church Ruin and she said that someone was going to turn it into a private house so she wrote to the church commission and they said she could buy it for a nominal sum”!
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Landscapes – Isn’t it so easy and comfortable to think of them as unchanging?
Far easier, I would suggest than trying to imagine them as anything different from what we see before us. Yes, man-made structures come and go over time and that much of the ground that we are capable of walking on is constantly subject to change. But nature itself must be included in any blame-game – and, sometimes she has a lot to answer for. Take the case of Cromer for instance, a lovely town on the north-east corner of Norfolk which has, to my mind, always been there. More significantly for this story, the view that the town commands overlooking the North Sea appears to have never changed; neither has its coastline. Here, I would be wrong on all three counts for I have read historical accounts by those who are far more knowledgeable than I.
It’s a safe bet that few visitors who scan the sea just beyond Cromer Pier realise that the remnants of a village rests there; down and amongst nature’s debris, shifting sands and whatever else that drowns or lives in the depths. Those who use telescopic cameras and binoculars would be no wiser, for nothing can be seen of the lost village of Shipden; no towers at low tide and no peeling of bells when a storm rages – nothing. But, back in the 14th century and further back still, beyond 1066, it was safe on dry land although, admittedly, in constant threat. Shipden was even relaxed in knowing that there was no town of Cromer leaning on its back; there was just open ground and woodland that rose up to higher ground. The seeds of Cromer had not been cast; time was just waiting for Shipden to be removed to make way.
As events ultimately turned out, it was Shipden-juxta-Crowmere that disappeared beneath the waves, along with the land that held and surrounded it. That village was not alone in vanishing for the area north of present-day Cromer which now treads water, wasn’t exactly lucky in past survival stakes. To say that the Cromer area was spoilt for lost villages was due to the nature of the coast thereabouts and not down to the usual suspects as plague, pestilence, poor farmland or landlords who enclosed both open common land in order to accommodate their sheep at the expense of working tenants. No, the Norfolk coast also lost villages to the actions of the sea.
Standing on the high ground at Cromer, East or West Runton or towards Overstrand in the other direction, visitors have to image land that slopes gradually down to the sea to meet an entirely different coastline. It would be a coastline with much shallower cliffs, if any at all. At the end where sea meets shore, there once stood, close to Shipden, two other villages of Foulness and Clare and confirmed by 17th Century maps. I have read from more knowledgeable writers than I that Foulness jutted out into the sea, just to the north of Overstrand – a good enough reason for adding ‘ness’ to its placename – and I agree! I also was told that Foulness had its own lighthouse, some 500 metres further out than the current one at Cromer; and also, it was only from the early 18th century that this beacon finally began to collapse from the effect of storms and tides.
For those visitors unaware of Shipden and where it once stood, they need to look straight out to sea beyond the end of the Pier and for a distance of some 400 yards; it is in this approximate position that the remains of Shipden lays. To think that three entries of its existence were made in the Domesday Book of 1086; its records showing that at that period of time, the village housed 117 people, some of whom made up four and a half plough teams with more making use of three acres of meadow close by and enough woodland for 36 swine. Shipden also accommodated the Gunton Manor House which, up until 1066, was owned by the Abbott of St Benets at Holm, who previously had enjoyed:
“half a carucate to find provision for the monks, with one villain, 3 bordarers, and one carucate in demean, half a carucate of the tenants, and one acre of meadow valued at 10s. 8d”.
“The town of Cromer is not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, that being included, and accounted for under the town of Shipden, the Lordships of which extended into what is now Cromer”.
Immediately following Doomsday a Godric was Steward of the Manor at Shipden which had, like most other things, come into the hands of William the Conqueror and consisted of:
“one carucate of land, 4 villains and 4 borderers, 1 carucate in demean, and 1 among the tenants, with half an acre of meadow, and paunage for 8 swine”.
“In the 3rd year of the reign of Edward I (1272 to 1307) Sir Nicholas de Weyland was lord; he married Julian, daughter and heir of Robert Burnel, and held it by the service of one pair of white gloves, and performing services to the capital lord”.
In the 12th year of the same King’s reign, Sir Nicholas was granted a Patent for a ‘Mercat’ – Scottish for a market. It was also decreed that this market would be held on Saturdays for the benefit of the fishermen and villagers. The King’s Patent also allowed for a ‘free warren and a Fair, so one can safely assume that villagers also had fun from time to time. Shipden, unsurprisingly, boasted a harbour and, from 1391, a jetty.
The turn of the 14th Century saw the signs of growing anxiety amongst the small population of Shipden. It was sometime then when John de Lodbrok, Rector of the church, John Broun, a patron, together with parishioners took it upon themselves to petition Edward III (1312 – 1377). They wanted a new church to replace the existing one which “could not be defended” for part of the churchyard had already been wasted “by the flux and reflux of the sea…….that it threatened to ruin the church”. Whatever the process entailed along its submission path and whatever difficulties and delays it may have faced, the petition clearly met with success. On April 15 in one unknown year in the 14th Century “the King grants license that an acre of land in the said village be granted to the said John, Rector, to build thereon a new church, and for a churchyard”.
“John Barnet, official of the Court of Canterbury, and sub-delegate of Pope Urban, appropriated this church of Shypden by the Sea, in 1383, reserving to the Bishop of Norwich an annual pension of 13s. 4d. and to the Cathedral, or Priory of Norwich 3s. 4d”.
Shipden was able, for a time at least, to retain its two churches; one serving Shipden-juxta-Felbrigg and the other Crowmere. However, later that same century, but in the time of Richard II (1377 – 1399) a “Patent was granted for 5 years, for certain duties to be paid for”, including “the erection of a Pier to protect the village against the sea”. Again, this project was to be doomed to failure and within a short period of time Crowmere and its churchyard was destroyed by the sea. Ultimately, the complete village of Shipden was to follow the same fate when the sea rose up further. The population was then forced to retreat inland, away from the advancing coastline and closer towards a position of guaranteed safety. That would be where the present town of Cromer now stands – a position much, much loftier in its outlook. Here, the populace finally settle and where the town’s fathers were to build a new church. Overseeing that task would be Sir William Beauchamp and the Prior of the Carthusians (or Charter House, London) who, having secured a piece of land safely above the late Shipden and adjoining to the Rectory, set about building the present Cromer church, which would be dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul.
From that point in time, Cromer grew and was, for a time, fashionable for Victorian and Edwardian tourists. A pier was built in 1901, extending its friendly hand towards the old Shipden landscape underwater; hotels, shops and homes crowded round the Church. Below the town, it’s foundations were unpinned by a promenade which afforded visitors the facility to walk on level ground. On the seaward side, concrete walls were to form the present front line against an unpredictable sea which still makes inroads from time to time and damages man-made obstacles. How long, one wonders, before this town has to retreat – to Felbrigg?
There is an old chestnut of a story that still goes round and round; it’s so much in the public domain that it would be somewhat petty for anyone to claim copyright; writers must be allowd to have their own take on it. For the reader, the gist of this story is as follows:
On the 9th of August 1888 a steam driven pleasure boat named the ‘Victoria’, picked up around 100 passengers from Great Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier for a 35-mile journey up the coast to Cromer; all on board must have been eager to seek out whatever delights Cromer had to offer – the weather was set fair! As for the Captain, he could have been well pleased that his boat was on yet another one of Victoria’s regularly and stress free trips between the two coastal towns. He could also have been in a favourable state of mind when he decided that, on reaching his destination, he would again anchor up at the 70 yard long “plain wooden” jetty, directly opposite the imposing Hotel de Paris. No one could predict nine years hence, not even the Captain, that a coal boat would smash into that same jetty and wreck it beyond repair, leaving Cromer without a pier until the present metal one was built in 1901. As for the passengers, they waited for the moment when the boat would tie up and they, as fun seekers, would be free to wander around town at will until 3 o’clock when they would have been instructed to be back on board and ready to return to the brighter lights of Yarmouth. What could possibly go wrong!
Whilst the Captain was approaching the jetty and about to start the process of manoeuvring the boat alongside, there was a sudden sound of metal against rock; the boat’s hull had hit a hard immovable object to such an extent that it had punctured a hole in the boat’s port side. The impact and resulting effects of a lurch startled more than a few; fortunately, for those in pretty dresses and smart attire the boat wasn’t sinking; it was just firmly stuck but, nevertheless, taking in a lot of water. Sensibly, but very inconveniently, everyone was taken off by a flotilla of small boats and ferried to the jetty to be later relayed back to Yarmouth by steam train.
As for the Victoria, she was firmly stuck on a stony object that the local fishermen knew as Church Rock; the alleged remains of Shipden’s 45ft high church tower which still stuck up proud from the sea bed. It was well known that extremely low tides had the potential to reveal some of the tower and sections of house walls. That day, the tide was low enough to bring both boat and the still submerged rock on to a collision course. That collision came and what excitement there had been – just evaporated. The boat was abandoned to those who would set up winches in an attempt to haul the Victoria free – and salvage her! However, such was the boat’s weight that the wet tow ropes used could not do the job, and the Victoria stayed in her position for some weeks until, in the end; she was removed by blowing up both her and the rock with dynamite. This action was on the advice of Trinity House, aimed at preventing further accidents of this type in the future. As someone once joked a paraphrase a century later – “To lose a village may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose a please steamer as well looks like carelessness”.
Invariably, when church towers drown, folk will say that the bells can still be heard; Shipden’s church bells of old seem not to be the exception for locals would still be overheard saying that the lost village’s bells will toll below the waves when the North Sea is angry. That is as it may be, but whatever other remains are down below in the depths just off Cromer Pier, they are still and quiet – waiting to be discovered – just like the few salvaged items, such as a hinge from the Victoria’s bronze rudder that was brought up sometime during the late 1980’s by the Yarmouth’s Sub-Aqua Club. Its members had, that day, the added experience of “swimming along a street in Shipden, 40ft below the sea where people had once walked”.
As far as one can see on the surface, there are no medieval dwellings existing in Cromer today. The only one that seems to have any real material evidence, apart from the church itself, is the former Hanover House (previously Shipden House) – but all the evidence is covered up. For information on the detail of this listed building see the following:
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God’s own County of Norfolk is blessed with many religious establishments – large, small, dissolved into ruins or still conducting holy practices as they should; most of these religious establishments even have a history worth talking about. However, it is the investigation of this history which, from time to time, snaps one out of any tendency to be naive about the fact that misdeeds and misdemeanours are not only possible in these places but probable! In a previous blog ‘A Most Disorderly Abbey’, the Premonstratensian Canons of Langley Abbey in the south of the County were given the treament of exposure. This blog targets the Benedictine monks of Binham in the north of the same County. Fortunately, we are talking of the past!
The Priory Church of ‘St Mary and the Holy Cross’ in Binham is simply classed as the Binham Village parish church (see above), but the ruins, precinct walls and gatehouse that surround it tell quite a different story. This is the site of a once grand and wealthy Benedictine monastery known as Binham Priory. It was founded in 1091 as a cell of St Albans Abbey by Peter de Valognes and his wife Albreda. Peter was a nephew of William the Conqueror (1066-1087) who gave Peter de Valoines the land in the west and north of Norfolk, including the entire village of Binham. According to the Domesday Book the land in and around the village was originally owned by a freeman named Esket. The Priory subsequently built was endowed with the entire manor of Binham, making the Prior the ‘Lord of the Manor’, together with the tithes of 13 other churches in Norfolk.
For over 400 years, Binham Priory used to be home to a community of monks. This community was always small, with 14 monks at its peak in 1320, dropping to 11 in 1381 and by the time of the Priory’s suppression in 1539 the community had been reduced to just six monks and the Priory’s annual income low at £140. However, despite its small numbers, the Priory managed to establish a history of almost continuous scandal with many of its Priors proving to be unscrupulous and irresponsible.
About 1212, the Priory was besieged by Robert Fitzwalter because the Abbot of St Albans had removed the Prior. Fitzwalter claimed, by way of a forged ‘Deed of Patronage’, that the Prior could not be moved without his consent. The result of this seige resulted in the monks being forced to eat bran and drink water from the drain-pipes. When King John heard about it he swore ‘By God’s feet, either I or Fitzwalter must be King of England’ and he sent an armed force to relieve the Priory. Fitzwalter fled for his life. Then there followed the deaths of about twelve monks of Binham, as recorded in an Obituary of St Albans from 1216 to 1253; it included the story of Alexander de Langley, one-time Prior of Wymondham who became insane through overstudy. When his outbursts of frenzy could no longer be tolerated, he was flogged and kept in solitary confinement at Binham until his death. He was buried in chains in the churchyard.
In 1317 William de Somerton became Prior of Binham and was to spend vast sums on the pursuit of alchemy, selling during his time in charge – two chalices, six copes, three chasubles, seven gold rings, silk cloths, silver cups and spoons and the silver cup and crown – not quite what you would expect of a holy man! For this, William was suspended before the altar. In addition, the Abbot, Hugh of St Albans was making exorbitant demands on Binham Priory so that it was difficult to buy food for the monks there. This did not go down well and when Abbot Hugh proposed to visit Binham, the Prior and his friends the Earl of Leicester and Sir Robert Walpole forcibly resisted the visitation. Edward I ordered the arrest of de Somerton and the monks, who at this time numbered thirteen. Six monks were imprisoned but de Somerton escaped to Rome. Eventually he was reinstated but in 1335 debts again caused him to flee, leaving a deficit of £600.
If all this was not enough, there existed continual quarrelling with the Abbot of St Albans Abbey, wasting money on expensive lawsuits, the charge of ‘scandalous behaviour’ levied at the Binham’s community. Then there was the ‘irresponsibility’, such as when, in 1433, the Prior and the monks resisted the visit of the Bishop of Norwich whilst the village people, who were on bad terms with the Priory at the time, made the Bishop welcome. One could, of course, go on and on in this vein, but no self respecting Tale of an Abbey or Priory would be complete without a reference, or two about myths or ghosts. Binham Priory is no exception. But before we go there, let us satisfy possible curiousity about the fabric of the monastery, its structure and architectural quality without the emotive topic of behaviour.
The Church: The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross is so named because the Priory was dedicated to St Mary, and its Church to the Holy Cross. What remains today is the former Nave of that Priory Church which is now simply the Village Parish Church.
Originally, the Priory Church was a cruciform building with a central crossing tower (now fallen), supported on massive piers. The monks sat in wooden stalls facing one another in the area immediately beneath the tower. This area was separated off from the public Nave by a stone screen. East of the tower would have been the Presbytery, where the high altar was located.
As a Benedictine foundation the Nave has always been used as the village church, identified as such today by the presence of a font, which would not have been needed by a monastic congregation. Nearby are the remains of the rood screen which was originally located where the east wall of the church now stands. This screen was painted over after the Reformation, but traces of medieval painting of saints can still be seen showing through. The present east end was formed by extending the original pulpitum, a low wall which divided the lay area from the monastic area.
Church Exterior: The church was built of local flint and Barnack limestone, brought from Northamptonshire by river and sea in barges, and travelling up the river Stiffkey. Its construction spanned close to 150 years from when it started in the 1090s. Thereafter, the buildings were adapted and extended throughout the medieval period. Bear in mind that most medieval churches looked very different from how they appear today; they were usually covered, both inside and out, with lime-washed plaster. Traces of this can still be seen on the west front.
The Church’s west front is not the earliest part of the Church, but it is the first thing you see as you approach; it is beautiful and, to the informed, of great architectural interest. According to Matthew Paris, the thirteenth century monk and chronicler, this facade was built between 1226 and 1244 when Richard de Parco was Prior. For the less informed of you, the Facade is divided into three parts, the centre part containing the large west window, which could be the earliest example of bar tracery in England in which the design is made up of slender shafts and shaped stones continuing and branching out from the mullions to form a decorative pattern. This was first used at Rheims in 1211 and at Westminster Abbey some time after 1245. Before this date, the space between lancets placed together, was pierced with an open pattern, cut directly through the masonry — known as ‘plate tracery’. The window must have been magnificent before it fell into disrepair and was bricked up in 1809; maybe to avoid the cost of reglazing? Below the window is the Early English arcaded screen, with much dog-tooth ornament, in the centre of which is the main portal. This doorway is flanked on each side by five shafts, topped by crocket capitals beautifully carved from a single stone — each a masterpiece.
The bell-cote is a later addition. The domed interior is constructed of brick. An indenture of 1432 made between the Prior and the parishioners ordered that:
‘they have one bell, of the weight of eight hundred pounds or under, purchased at the cost and charge of the said tenants and parishioners, to hang in the further-most western part of the said parish church, that is to say above the roof of the church next the gable, and without any detriment to or lessening of the walls or windows of the said church, to warn and call the said parishioners to divine service, so that they may hear it and be present’.
The north and south walls correspond with the former aisles which were pulled down. The south aisle disappeared soon after the dissolution of the monasteries but the north aisle survived until 1809.The windows in the north aisle are the original windows but re-set.
The Cloisters: The remains of the monastic buildings are extensive. They were arranged around the central cloister, a garden court that was enclosed on all four sides by covered walkways. These gave access to the principal rooms used by the monks in their daily life, including the chapter house (where they met daily to discuss business) and refectory or dining hall. Rebuilt several times during the life of the priory, by the 16th century the cloisters were lit by large windows opening onto the central garden. After the closure of the priory, some of the glass was moved to the nave wall of the church.
The Precinct: Binham Priory is one of the few monastic foundations in Norfolk where the precinct surrounding the priory buildings remains essentially intact, including part of its boundary wall. This monastic precinct, built on the Benedictine plan was once a glorious collection of buildings, built around the open garth and its cloisters. One could imagine it as being a smaller version of Norwich Cathedral. Great wealth was always lavished on such buildings, with the master masons perhaps coming from Normandy. As for the ruins of the gatehouse beyond, it dates mostly from the 15th century and still serves today as the main entrance to the site. South of the cloister area are the earthwork remains of the priory’s surviving agricultural buildings, including what was probably a large barn or granary. One supposes that the outer court contained other buildings such as storehouses and workshops. Beyond these earthworks, bordering the stream, is the site of the priory’s mill and fishponds and the monks’ cemetery lays beyond the east end of the church. What stories could they tell if given the opportunity?
Suppression: At the dissolution in 1539, the King’s examiner Sir Robert Ryche had no difficulty in finding a pretext for suppression: As they levied fines, ‘not naymyng the Abbot of Saynt Albanys, and granted leases under their own seal, not naymyng the Abbot.’ The site and possessions were granted to Sir Thomas Paston, a local man and an important royal servant by Henry VIII, in the 33rd year of his reign and four hundred and fifty years after the Priory’s foundation. The Paston Letters relate that the sum of 13/7½ d being paid to Sir Thomas in 1533 for ‘rubble and stone from Binham Priory’ which was used to build a large house in the High St at Wells, and his grandson Edward Paston pulled down some of the monastic buildings intending to build himself a house on the site, at the southern corner of the refectory. However a workman was killed by a fall of masonry and this was considered a bad omen. The workmen refused to continue and the house was built at Appleton instead. Stone from the Priory was even sold and reused in many local Binham houses, particularly around doors and windows.
Myths associated with Binham Priory: Places such as Binham Priory, in times of ignorance and superstition, inevitably spawned legends and myths of its own – not forgetting that we are in Norfolk and here it seems obligatory for any famous place to boast a tale, or two. Frequently, such tales are about tunnels, quite a favourite topic; so too are ghostly spectres. Binham is not the sort of historical place to be left out; indeed, it has a monk and a tunnel. Maybe this is the moment to mention them.
1.The Hooded Monk:
The stranger, choosing nightime to stand amongst the fragments of old walls of Binham Priory, would not find it difficult to visualise such eerie surroundings as a perfect setting for a mythical ghost story. The same is true for those who venture inside. Take the inhabitants of Binham for instance who have, in the past, discussed a report of the appearance of the “ghostly” black-hooded monk in the Nave of the Priory Church.
The story goes that a newspaper reporter once interviewed the Vicar, Rev. C. F. Carroll, on the matter and the story told to him was offered ‘in the strictest confidence’ by a lady of position, and that he, the Vicar, would only repeat it if persons’ names were kept out of any published story.
“Some time ago this woman was present at an evening service of mine in the Parish Church, where she saw a figure on a ledge near the church door. She watched the phantom form, which resembled a Benedictine monk wearing a black cowl, walk slowly along the ledge for the full length of the church before disappearing. During its journey this spectre, for that is what this lady said it was, climbed some spiral steps, which were only there for the duration of this spectacle. The ledge itself is several feet from the floor of the church and, as you can see, there appears to be ample room for one to walk thereon”.
“I do believe that such an occurence is possible, but I would not go so far as to state that it had not taken place. The lady can be, in my opinion, imaginative at times but she was certain that she had seen the monk-like figure, so much so that she felt compelled to tell me – and remember. There were many other people at that service and it might have been that the other members of the congregation did not have the faculty to see in such a way. At any spiritualistic seance, for instance, it is only some people who may see a spirit appear; and, of course, you would know that illustrations on that point can be found in Biblical stories; such as the sory of St. Paul seeing the vision and the men who were accompanying him failing to see it. I must also say that on other occasions, villagers have stated that they have seen the figure of a Benedictine monk near the entrance to the Priory – the Gaol Gate.”
After leaving the Vicar, the newspaper reporter interviewed a lady in the village, not the one referred to earlier by the way. She related a story which was similar to that told to the Rev C. F. Carroll. She said that some years ago she was sitting with the choir when during the sermon she saw a dark figure, just like a monk; it was on a ledge in the church. Thinking that she was “seeing double” or that her eyes were playing tricks, she purposely looked away for a few seconds before again looking at the ledge; she saw that the figure was still there. Puzzled but wanting further confirmation, she once more turned her gaze away, but when she looked at the ledge for the third time there was no thing there. This same lady added, as if there may be some possible connection, that she and others had been warned that no one should go near the Gaol Gate at midnight. Why, it was never said but, from another source, the reporter was informed that the “Porter” was reputed to walk about near that gate, inside of which there had once been a gaol – and there had also been chambers for a Porter!
2. The Fiddler of Binham Priory: Myths about entering into the earth through a tunnel that takes you to another place or different land are common across the world. Such tunnels, connecting us to such ‘underworlds’ or ‘Hades’, can be found in Greek and Roman myths, as well as in German and Eastern European folktales. In Britain, these myths are often associated with musician’s tunnels such as those in Northamptonshire, Culross, Fife with its piper, Richmond Castle with its drummer and Norfolk with its own fiddler, as depicted in tales Blakeney, nearby, and Binham Priory. In these tales, the musician enters a passage under the ground and is always followed above the ground by people listening to his music, which suddenly stops. It is very strange that he has a dog with him, and that this dog always gets out of the tunnel but the man is never seen again. The myth is often connected to a ‘barrow’ – which, to the uninitiated, is an underground burial place.
Now, Binham Priory seems to be an ideal place for the Norfolk version of this particular myth or legend, simply because of the ‘barrow’ named Fiddler’s Hill, a burial mound nearby which dates from the early Bronze Age, and nowadays a popular picnic spot. Of course, this tale needs a fiddler, a dog and tunnel, and what better than to have one leading to and from Walsingham Abbey, some three miles away. Certainly, local people thought so and their tale goes, broadly, along the following lines – bearing in mind that one can come across more than a few variants of the same tale (see below):
A spectre of a monk called “The Black Monk” haunted the grounds around Binham Priory during the hours between dusk and dawn. The monk emerged each night from a tunnel that linked the Benedictine Priory of Binham to the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingam some three miles away. One day a fiddler and his dog sauntered into the village of Binham and upon hearing about this spectre offered to explore the tunnel to see what caused the monk to haunt this particular spot. Before entering the passage he advised the sizeable crowd of locals who had gathered to see him off, that he would play his fiddle as he went so that the villagers could follow his progress above ground. Now, again, bear in mind that we are talking of a time when candles and lanterns were the main weapons against the night, or to battle subterranean gloom.
So it was that with this in mind the Fiddler called his dog to heel and lighting his way by means of a small lantern of his own, suspended on a rod so that he could free his hands for playing, he and his small dog entered the tunnel and the villagers followed listening to his jigs and reels, the strains of which were clearly audible. They knew that a fiddle plays a piercing and true sound which easily vibrates through the layers of soil. So they were able to follow, Lollygaggers (idlers), dawdlers, street vendors and interested onlookers – some with their own dogs which were, possibly, sensing a ‘hunt’.
However, when the fiddler reached a point where two roads crossed, his music suddently stopped. The villagers looked around at each other in consternation. Why, they thought would he stop? Maybe he was just taking a rest? They waited, but the sound never returned. There was talk of digging down, but everyone held off despite the possibly that this could be an emergency. If the truth were to be known, the villagers were, in fact, too scared to enter the tunnel themselves, for they had no candles or lanterns – being on the surface. So they just retraced their steps back to Binham and waited, for quite a long time as it turned out.
Eventually, the poor Fiddler’s little dog emerged from the tunnel, shivering and whining with his tail between his legs – but there was no sign of the Fiddler. Later that night a violent storm broke out, and the following morning the villagers woke to find that the passage entrance had been completely demolished. The spectre, in the form of a monk dressed in a black habit of the Benedictine Order that had founded Binham Priory in 1091, continued to wander the tunnel thereafter. It was believed that it was this Black Monk which spirited the fiddler away……..Over the years the hill where the fiddler disappeared became known as Fiddlers Hill, in memory of the brave Fiddler……..and always remember the final twist in this story?….. In 1933 when the road was widened around Fiddlers Hill, three skeletons were found one of which was a dog!…..They do say that still, during dark nights, you can sometimes hear a solitary violin playing along the fields between Walsingham and Binham Priory..
A further story goes that a tunnel also ran between Blakeney Guildhall and Binham Priory; again, a fiddler was the only person brave enough to enter. Along with his dog, he too once set off while the Mayor and Corporation of Blakeney followed above ground, guided by the sound of the fiddle. When the fiddle music stopped they too believed that the Devil had taken him and the dog.
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In 2018 the following article by Ben Johnson, appeared in the Historic – UK Website. Readers of this Blog, who might have missed the article or do not wish to click on the originator’s link above, can read it for themselves here. Apologies for a few minor tweaks to the original article, and for leaving out the advertising and other extraneous matter which only detracts from an interesting article. Read on:
Wessex, also known as the Kingdom of the West Saxons, was a large and influential Anglo-Saxon kingdom from 519 to 927AD. From its humble beginnings through to the most powerful kingdom in the land, we trace its history from Cerdic, the founder of Wessex, through to his distant descendants Alfred the Great and Æthelstan who were responsible for defeating invading Viking hordes and uniting Anglo-Saxon England under a single banner.
Cerdic c. 520 to c. 540:
As with many of the early Anglo-Saxon kings, little is known about Cerdic other than that written in the 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. According to the Chronicles, Cerdic left Saxony (in modern day north-west Germany) in 495 and arrived shortly afterwards on the Hampshire coast with five ships. Over the next two decades, Cerdic engaged the local Britons in a protracted conflict and only took the title of ‘King of Wessex’ after his victory at the Battle of Cerdic’s Ford (Cerdicesleag) in 519, some 24 years after arriving on these shores.
Of course, it is worth remembering that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were written around 350 years after Cerdic’s supposed reign and therefore its accuracy should not be taken as verbatim. For example, ‘Cerdic’ is actually a native Briton name and some believe that during the last days of the Romans, Cerdic’s family were entrusted with a large estate to protect, a title known as an ‘ealdorman’. When Cerdic came to power he was then thought to have taken a rather aggressive approach towards the other ealdormans in the region, and as a consequence started to accumulate more and more lands, eventually creating the Kingdom of Wessex.
Cynric c.540 to 560: Described as both the son and grandson of Cerdic, Cynric spent much of his early years in power trying to expand the Kingdom of Wessex westwards into Wiltshire. Unfortunately he came up against fierce resistance from the native Britons and spent most of his reign attempting to consolidate the lands that he already held. He did manage some small gains however, namely at the battle of Sarum in 552 and at Beranbury (now known as Barbury Castle near Swindon) in 556. Cynric died in 560 and was succeeded by his son Ceawlin.
Ceawlin 560 to either 571 or c. 591: By the time iof Ceawlin’s reign, most of southern England would have been under Anglo-Saxon control. This was reinforced by the Battle of Wibbandun in 568 which was the first major conflict between two invading forces (namely the Saxons of Wessex and the Jutes of Kent). Later conflicts saw Ceawlin focus his attention back to the native Britons to the west, and in 571 he took Aylesbury and Limbury, whilst by 577 he had taken Gloucester and Bath and had reached the Severn Estuary. It is around this time that the eastern portion of Wansdyke was built (a large defensive earthwork between Wiltshire and Bristol), and many historians believe that it was Ceawlin who ordered its construction.
The end of Ceawlin’s reign is shrouded in mystery and the details are unclear. What is known is that in 584 a large battle took place against the local Britons in Stoke Lyne, Oxfordshire. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles writes:
This year Ceawlin … fought with the Britons on the spot that is called Fretherne … And Ceawlin took many towns, as well as immense booty and wealth. He then retreated to his own people.
It is strange that Ceawlin would win such an important battle and then simply retreat back towards the south. Instead, what is now thought to have happened is that the Ceawlin actually lost this battle and in turn lost his overlordship of the native Britons. This then led to a period of unrest in and around the Kingdom of Wessex, leading to an eventual uprising against Ceawlin in 591 or 592 (this uprising was thought to have been led by Ceawlin’s own nephew, Ceol!). This uprising would later be known as the Battle of Woden’s Burg.
Ceol 591 – 597: After deposing his uncle at the Battle of Woden’s Burg, Ceol ruled Wessex for the next five years. During this time there are no records of any major battles or conflicts, and little else is known about him except that he had a son called Cynegils.
Ceolwulf 597 – 611: After Ceol’s death in 597, the throne of Wessex went to his brother Ceolwulf. This was because Ceol’s son, Cynegils, was too young to rule at the time. Little is known about Ceolwulf , and the only reference to him in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is that ‘he constantly fought and conquered, either with the Angles, or the Welsh, or the Picts, or the Scots.’
Cynegils (and his son Cwichelm) 611 – 643:
After Ceolwulf’s death in 611, the throne of Wessex fell to Ceol’s son Cynegils (pictured to the right) who was previously too young to inherit the throne. Cynegils’ long reign started with a great victory over the Welsh in 614, but the fortunes of Wessex were soon to take a turn for the worse.
Concerned about the rise of Northumbria in the north, Cynegils ceded the northern half of his kingdom to his son, Cwichelm, effectively creating a buffer state in the process. Cynegils also forged a temporary alliance with the Kingdom of Mercia who were equally concerned about the growing power of the Northumbrians, and this alliance was sealed by the marriage of Cynegils’ youngest son to the sister of King Penda of Mercia.
In 626, the hot-headed Cwichelm launched an unsuccessful assassination attempt on King Edwin of Northumbria. Rather annoyed by this, Edwin subsequently sent his army to confront Wessex and both sides clashed at the Battle of Win & Lose Hill in the Derbyshire Peak District. With the Mercians at their side, Wessex had a far larger army than the Northumbrians but were nevertheless defeated due to poor tactics. For example, Northumbria had dug into Win Hill and when the Wessex forces started moving forward, they were met by a barrage of boulders that had been rolled from above.
This was a humiliating defeat for both Cynegils and Cwichelm, and they subsequently retreated back within their own borders. The following years saw the Mercians take advantage of the weakened Wessex by taking the towns of Gloucester, Bath and Cirencester. To stop a further Mercian advance, it is thought that the western portion of Wansdyke was built by Cynegils during this time.
The final blow came in 628 when Mercia and Wessex clashed at the Battle of Cirencester. The Mercians were overwhelmingly victorious and took control of the Severn Valley and parts of Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire. As a result Wessex was now considered a second rate kingdom, although a truce was made with Northumbria in 635 which helped it to at least maintain its own borders.
Cynegils eventually died in 643 and his mortuary chest can still be seen in Winchester Cathedral today.
Cenwalh 643 – 645: King Penda of Mercia 645- 648: Cenwalh 648 – 673:
Cenwalh was Cynegils youngest son and had previously been married off to King Penda of Mercia’s (pictured to the right) sister in order to seal an alliance between the two kingdoms. However, upon succeeding to the throne in 643, Cenwalh decided to discard his wife and remarry a local woman called Seaxburh, much to the annoyance of King Penda.
‘…for he put away the sister of Penda, king of the Mercians, whom he had married, and took another wife; whereupon a war ensuing, he was by him expelled his kingdom…’
As a result, Mercia declared war on Wessex, drove Cenwalh into exile for three years, and took control of his lands. In essence, Wessex had become a puppet state of Mercia. Whilst in exile in East Anglia, Cenwalh converted to Christianity and when he finally managed to reclaim the throne of Wessex in 648, he commissioned the first ever Winchester Cathedral. Little else is known about the remainder of Cenwalh’s reign as most written texts covering this time period are focused around Mercian history.
Seaxburh 673 – 674: Seaburgh, wife of Cenwalh, succeeded to the throne after the death of her husband in 673 and was the first and only queen to ever rule over Wessex. However it is now thought that Seaxburh acted more as a figurehead for a united Wessex, and that any real and executive power was held by the various sub-kings of the land.
Æscwine 674 – c. 676: Upon the death of Seaxburh in 674, the throne of Wessex fell to her son, Æscwine. Although the sub-kings of Wessex still held the real power during this time, Æscwine nevertheless rallied his kingdom in defence again the Mercians at the Battle of Bedwyn in 675. This was an overwhelming victory for the Wessex army.
Centwine c. 676 to c. 685: Centwine, uncle of Æscwine, took the throne in 676 although very little is known about his reign. It is thought that he was a pagan in his early years (whereas his predecessors had been predominantly Christian), although he did convert sometime in the 680s. He is also said to have won ‘three great battles’ including one against the rebellious Britons, although once again most of the power in Wessex during this time was held by the sub-kings. It is widely believed that Centwine abdicated the throne in c. 685 to become a monk.
Cædwalla 659 – 688: Thought to be a distant descendant of Cerdic, and almost certainly hailing from a house of nobility, to say that Cædwalla had an eventful life would be an understatement! In his youth he was driven out of Wessex (perhaps by Cenwalh in an effort to expel troublesome sub-royal families) and by the time he was 26 he had gathered enough support to begin invading Sussex and building his own kingdom. During this time he also obtained the throne of Wessex, although it is not known how this feat was accomplished.
During his time as King of Wessex he suppressed the authority of the sub-kings in an effort to consolidate his own power, and then went on to conquer the kingdoms of Sussex and Kent, as well as the Isle of Wight where he is said to have committed acts of genocide and forced the local population to renounce their Christian faith.
In 688 Cædwalla turned to Christianity and subsequently abdicated after being wounded during a campaign in the Isle of Wight. He spent his last few weeks alive in Rome where he was also baptised. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles writes:
‘[Cædwalla] went to Rome, and received baptism at the hands of Sergius the pope, who gave him the name of Peter; but in the course of seven nights afterwards, on the twelfth day before the calends of May, he died in his crisom-cloths, and wasburied in the church of St. Peter.’
Ine 689 – c. 728: After the abdication of Cædwalla in 688, it is widely believed that Wessex descended into a period of internal strife and infighting between the various sub-kings. After several months a nobleman called Ine emerged victorious and secured the crown for himself, beginning 37 years of uninterrupted reign.
Ine inherited an extremely powerful kingdom stretching from the Severn Estuary through to the shorelines of Kent, although the eastern portions of the kingdom were notoriously rebellious and Ine struggled to maintain control of them. Instead, Ine turned his attention to the native Britons in Cornwall and Devon and managed to gain a large amount of territory to the west.
Ine is also known for his widescale reforms of Wessex which included an increased focus on trade, introducing coinage throughout the kingdom, as well as issuing a set of laws in 694. These laws covered a wide range of topics from damage caused by straying cattle to the rights of those convicted of murder, and are seen as an important milestone in the development of English society.
Interestingly, these laws also referred to the two types of people that lived in Wessex at the time. The Anglo-Saxons were known as the Englisc and lived mainly in the eastern portions of the kingdom, whilst the newly annexed territories in Devon were mainly populated by the native Britons.
Towards the end of his reign Ine became week and feeble and decided to abdicate in 728 in order to retire to Rome (at this time it was thought that a trip to Rome would aid one’s ascension to heaven).
Æthelheard c. 726 – 740: Thought to have been the brother-in-law of Ine, Æthelheard’s claim to the throne was contested by another nobleman called Oswald. The struggle for power lasted for around a year, and although Æthelheard eventually prevailed this was only through assistance from neighbouring Mercia.
For the next fourteen years, Æthelheard struggled to maintain his northern borders against the Mercians and lost a considerable amount of territory in the process. He also battled continuously against the growing hegemony of this northern neighbour, who after supporting him to the throne demanded that Wessex fall under their control.
Cuthred 740 – 756: Æthelheard was succeeded by his brother, Cuthred, who inherited the throne at the height of Mercian dominance. At this time, Wessex was seen as a puppet state of Mercia and for the first twelve years of Cuthred’s reign he helped them in numerous battles against the Welsh. However, by 752 Cuthred was tired of Mercian overlordship and went to battle to regain independence for Wessex. To the surprise of everyone he won!
‘This year, the twelfth of his reign, Cuthred, king of the West-Saxons, fought at Burford with Ethelbald, king of the Mercians, and put him to flight.’
Sigeberht 756 – 757: Poor old Sigeberht! After succeeding Cuthred (thought to have been his cousin), he ruled for only a year before being stripped of the throne by a council of nobles for ‘unrighteous deeds’. Perhaps out of sympathy he was then given sub-king status over Hampshire, but after deciding to murder one of his own advisors he was subsequently exiled to the Forest of Andred and then killed in a revenge attack.
Cynewulf 757 – 786: Supported to the throne by Æthelbald of Mercia, Cynewulf may well have spent his first few months in power acting as a sub-king for the Mercians. However, when Æthelbald was assassinated later that year, Cynewulf saw an opportunity to assert an independent Wessex and even managed to expand his territory into the southern counties of Mercia.
Cynewulf was able to hold many of these Mercian territories until 779, when at the Battle of Bensington he was defeated by King Offa and forced to retreat back to his own lands. Cynewulf was eventually murdered in 786 by a nobleman that he had exiled many years earlier.
Beorhtric 786 – 802: Beorhtric, thought to have been a distant descendant of Cerdic (the founder of Wessex), had a rather eventful time as King. He succeeded to the throne with the backing of King Offa of Mercia, who no doubt saw his ascendancy as an opportunity to influence West Saxon politics. Beorhtric also married one of King Offa’s daughters, a lady called Eadburh, probably to gain further support from his more powerful neighbour to the north.
If legend is to believed, Beorhtric died through accidental poisoning by none other than his wife, Eadburh. After being exiled to Germany for her crime, she was subsequently ‘hit on’ by Charlemagne with a rather peculiar chat up line. Apparently Charlemagne entered her chambers with his son and asked “Which do you prefer, me or my son, as a husband?”. Eadburh replied that due to his younger age she would prefer his son, to which Charlamagne famously said “Had you chosen me, you would have had both of us. But, since you chose him, you shall have neither.”
After this rather embarrassing affair, Eadburh decided to turn to nunnery and planned to live the rest of her life in a German convent. However, soon after taking her vows she was found having sex with another Saxon man and was duly expelled. Eadburh spent the rest of her days begging on the streets of a Pavia in northern Italy.
Egbert 802 – 839:
One of the most famous of all the West Saxon kings, Egbert was actually exiled by his predecessor Beorhtric sometime in the 780s. Upon his death however, Egbert returned to Wessex, took the throne and reigned for the next 37 years.
Strangely, the first 20 or so years of his kingship are not very well documented although it is thought that he spent most of this time trying to keep Wessex independent from Mercia. This struggle for independence came to a head in 825 when the two sides met at the Battle of Ellandun near modern day Swindon.
Surprisingly, Egbert’s forces were victorious and the Mercians (led by Beornwulf) were forced to retreat back to the north. Riding high from his victory, Egbert sent his army south-east to annex Surrey, Sussex, Essex and Kent, all of which were under either direct or indirect Mercian control at the time. In the space of a year, the balance of power in Anglo-Saxon England had completely shifted and by 826 Wessex was seen as the most powerful kingdom in the country.
Egbert’s dominance of southern England continued for the next four years, with another major victory against Mercia in 829 which allowed him to completely annex the territory and claim all of southern Britain up to the River Humber. Egbert also was able to receive the submission of the Kingdom of Northumbria at the end of 829, leading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to call him ‘Ruler of Britain’ (although a more accurate title would have been ‘Ruler of England’ as both Wales and Scotland were still fiercely independent!).
Only one year after annexing Mercia for himself, the exiled King Wiglaf organised a revolt and drove the army of Wessex back into their own territory. However, the Mercians never reclaimed their lost territories of Kent, Sussex and Surrey and Wessex was still to be considered the most powerful kingdom in southern England.
When Egbert died in 839 he was succeeded by his only son, Æthelwulf.
Æthelwulf, 839 – 858:
Æthelwulf was already the king of Kent before his ascension to the throne of Wessex, a title awarded to him by his father in 825. Keeping to this family tradition, when Egbert died in 839 Æthelwulf subsequently handed Kent to his own son, Æthelstan, to rule it on his behalf.
Not much is known about Æthelwulf’s reign except that he an extremely religious man, prone to the occasional gaffe, and rather unambitious, although he did fairly well at keeping the invading Vikings at bay (namely at Carhampton and Ockley in Surrey, the latter of which was said to have been ‘ the greatest slaughter of heathen host ever made’.) Æthelwulf was also said to have been rather fond of his wife, Osburh, and together they bore six children (five sons and a daughter).
In 853 Æthelwulf sent his youngest son, Alfred (later to become King Alfred the Great) to Rome on a pilgrimage. However after the death of his wife in 855, Æthelwulf decided to join him in Italy and on his return the following year met his second wife, a 12 year old girl called Judith, a French princess.
Quite to his surprise, when Æthelwulf finally returned to British shores in 856 he found that his oldest surviving son, Æthelbald, had stolen the kingdom from him! Although Æthelwulf had more than enough support of the sub-kings to reclaim the throne, his Christian charity led him to cede the western half of Wessex to Æthelbald in an attempt to keep the kingdom from breaking out into civil war.
When Æthelwulf died in 858 the throne of Wessex unsurprisingly fell to Æthelbald.
Æthelbald 858 – 860: Little is known about Æthelbald’s short reign except that he married his father’s widow, Judith, who at the time was only 14! Æthelbald died ages 27 at Sherborne in Dorset from an unknown ailment or disease.
Æthelberht 860 – 865: Æthelberht, brother of Æthelbald and third eldest son of Æthelwulf, succeeded to the throne of Wessex after his brother died without having fathered any children. His first order of business was to integrate the Kingdom of Kent into Wessex, whereas previously it had been merely a satellite state.
Æthelberht is said to have presided over a time of relative peace, with the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms too preoccupied with Viking invasions to worry about domestic rivalries. Wessex was not immune from these Viking incursions either, and during his reign Æthelberht saw off the Danish invaders from a failed storming of Winchester as well as repeated incursions to the eastern coast of Kent.
Like his brother before him, Æthelberht died childless and the throne was passed to his brother, Æthelred.
Æthelred 865 – 871:
Æthelred’s six years as King of Wessex began with a great Viking army storming the east of England. This ‘Great Heathen Army’ quickly overran the independent Kingdom of East Anglia and had soon defeated the mighty Kingdom of Northumbria. With the Vikings turning their sights southwards, Burgred King of Mercia appealed to Æthelred for assistance and he subsequently sent an army to meet the Vikings near Nottingham. Unfortunately this was to be a wasted trip as the Vikings never showed up, and Burgred was instead forced to ‘buy off’ the Danish horde to avoid them invading his lands.
With Northumbria and East Anglia now under Viking control, by the winter of 870 the Great Heathen Army turned their sights on Wessex. January, February and March of 871 saw Wessex engage the Vikings on four separate occasions, winning just one of them.
Alfred the Great 871 – 899: The only English monarch to have ever been bestowed the title of ‘Great’, Alfred is widely acknowledged as one of the most important leaders in English history.
Before King Æthelred died in 871, he signed an agreement with Alfred (his younger brother) which stated that when he died the throne would not pass to his eldest son. Instead, due the increasing Viking threat from the north, the throne would pass to Alfred who was a much more experienced and mature military leader.
The first of King Alfred’s battles against the Danes was in May 871 in Wilton, Wiltshire. This was to be a catastrophic defeat for Wessex, and as a consequence Alfred was forced to make peace with (or more likely buy off) the Vikings in order to prevent them from taking control of the Kingdom.
For the next five years there was to be an uneasy peace between Wessex and the Danish, with the Viking horde setting up base in Mercian London and focusing their attention on other parts of England. This peace remained in place until a new Danish leader, Guthrum, came to power in 876 and launched a surprise attack on Wareham in Dorset. For the next year and a half, the Danish tried unsuccessfully to take Wessex, but in January 878 their fortunes were to change as a surprise attack on Chippenham pushed Alfred and the Wessex army back into a small corner of the Somerset Levels.
Defeated, short on troops and with morale at an all time low, Alfred and his remaining forces hid from the enemy forces in a small town in the marshes called Athelney. From here, Alfred started sending out messengers and scouts to rally local militia from Somerset, Devon, Wiltshire and Dorset.
By May 878 Alfred had gathered enough reinforcements to launch a counter offensive against the Danes, and on the 10th May (give or take a few days!) he defeated them at the Battle of Edington. Riding high from victory, Alfred continued with his army northwards to Chippenham and defeated the Danish stronghold by starving them into submission. As part of the terms for surrender, Alfred demanded that Wulfred convert to Christianity and two weeks later the baptism took place at a town called Wedmore in Somerset. This surrender is consequently known as ‘The Peace of Wedmore’.
The Peace of Wedmore led to a period of relative peace in England, with the south and west of England being ceded to the Anglo-Saxons and the north and east to the Danish (creating a kingdom known as Danelaw). However, this was to be an uneasy peace and Alfred was determined not to risk his kingdon again. He subsequently embarked on a modernisation of his military, focused around a ‘Burgal system’. This policy was to ensure that no place in Anglo-Saxon England would be more than 20 miles from a fortified town, allowing reinforcements to flow easily throughout the kingdom. Alfred also ordered the construction of a new, larger and much improved navy to counter Danish seapower.
Alfred also embarked on a series of academic reforms, and recruited the most prestigious scholars from the British Isles to set up a court school for noble-born children as well as ‘intellectually promising boys of lesser birth’. He also made literacy a requirement for anyone in government, as well as ordering the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to be written.
When King Guthrum died in 890, a power-vacuum opened up in Danelaw and a set of fueding sub-kings started fighting over power. This was to mark the beginning of another six years of Danish attacks on the Anglo-Saxons, although with Alfred’s newly improved defenses these attacks were almost entirely repelled. Things came to a head in 897, when after a series of failed raiding attempts the Danish army effectively disbanded, with some retiring to Danelaw and some retreating back to mainland Europe.
Alfred died a few years later in 899 having secured the future of Anglo-Saxon England.
Edward the Elder 899 – 924:
In 899 the throne of Wessex fell to Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, although this was disputed by one of Edward’s cousins called Æthelwold. Determined to expel Edward from power, Æthelwold sought the help of the Danes to the east and by 902 his army (along with Viking help) had attacked Mercia and had reached the Wiltshire borders. In retaliation Edward successfully attacked the Danish kingdom of East Anglia but then, on ordering his troops back to Wessex, some of them refused and continued northwards (probably for more loot!). This culminated in the Battle of the Holme, where the East Anglian Danes met the stragglers of the Wessex army and subsequently defeated them. However, the Danes also suffered some heavy losses during the battle and both the king of East Anglia and Æthelwold, pretender to the Wessex throne, lost their lives.
After the Battle of the Holme, Edward the Elder spent the rest of his years in almost constant clashes with the Danes to the north and east. With the help of the Mercian army (who had long been under the indirect control of Wessex), Edward was even able to defeat the Danish in East Anglia, leaving them with only the kingdom of Northumbria. On the death of Edward’s sister, Æthelflæd of Mercia in 918, Edward also brought the Kingdom of Mercia under the direct control of Wessex and from this point on, Wessex was the only kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. By the end of his reign in 924, Edward had almost completely removed any threat of Viking invasion, and even the Scots, Danes and Welsh all referred to him as ‘Father and lord’
‘This year Edward was chosen for father and for lord
by the king of the Scots, and by the Scots, and King Reginald,
and by all the North-humbrians, and also the king of the
Strath-clyde Britons, and by all the Strath-clyde Britons.’
Ælfweard July – August 924: Reigning only for around 4 weeks and probably never crowned, all we know about Ælfweard is a single sentence from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles:
This year died King Edward at Farndon in Mercia; and
Ælfweard his son died very soon after this, in Oxford. Their
bodies lie at Winchester.
Æthelstan August 924 – 27th October 939: Æthelstan, the first ever King of England, took the Wessex throne in 924 after his elder brother’s death. However, although he was very popular in Mercia, Æthelstan was less well liked in Wessex as he had been raised and schooled outside of the kingdom. This meant that for the first year of his reign he had to rally the support of the sub-kings of Wessex, including one particularly vocal opposition leader called Alfred. Although he succeed in doing this, it meant that he was not crowned until the 4th September 925. Interesting, the coronation was held in Kingston upon Thames on the historic border between Mercia and Wessex.
By the time of his coronation in 925 the Anglo-Saxons had retaken much of England leaving only southern Northumbria (centered around the capital of York) in the hands of the Danish. This small corner of the old Danelaw had a truce with the Anglo-Saxons which prevented them from going to war with each other, but when the Danish king Sihtric died in 927, Æthelstan saw an opportunity to take this final vestige of Danish territory.
The campaign was swift, and within a few months Æthelstan had taken control of York and received the submission of the Danish. He then called for a gathering of kings from throughout Britain, including those from Wales and Scotland, to accept his overlordship and acknowledge him as King of England. Wary of the power that a united England would have, the Welsh and Scottish agreed under the proviso that fixed borders should be put in place between the lands.
For the next seven years there was relative peace throughout Britain until in 934 Æthelstan decided to invade Scotland. There is still a great deal of uncertainly over why he decided to do this, but what is known is that Æthelstan was supported by the Kings of Wales and that his invading army reached as far as Orkney. It is thought that the campaign was relatively successful, and that as a consequence both King Constantine of Scotland and Owain of Strathclyde accepted Æthelstan’s overlordship.
This overlordship lasted for two years until in 937 when both Owain and Constantine, along with the Danish king Guthfrith of Dublin, marched against Æthelstan’s army in an attempt to invade England. This was to be one of the greatest battles in British history: The Battle of Brunanburh (follow the link for our full article about the battle).
By the time of Æthelstan’s death in 939 he had defeated the Vikings, united the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England under a single banner, and had repeatedly forced both the Welsh and Scottish kings to accept his overlordship of Britain. Æthelstan was therefore the last king of Wessex and the first king of England.
It is not uncommon for tales of apparitions to have grown up around the sites of former monestries. In the turbulent years of the Middle Ages, and either side, monks were thought to have had supernatural powers and were associated with mysticism and superstition in people’s minds. It is not surprising therefore that several tales about villainous monks at St Benets Abbey have circulated over these years – and indeed, still flourish.
Mostly these tales have been linked to political and religious intrigues and double-crossings; many of which were simply part and parcel of powerful establishments. One example relating to St Benets is when, in an attempt to transform the Abbey into a pilgrimage centre to rival Walsingham and Bromholm, the monks there invented the cult of St Margaret of Holm who, according to a medieval chronicler, was strangled nearby in Little Wood at Hoveton St John in 1170. This barbarous act recalls to mind the crucifixion of the boy saint William of Norwich in 1144 (see here for separate Blog), which was within living memory of those monks at St Benets!
St Benets, or to give it its full name of St Benedict’s-at-Holm (or Hulm) Abbey, has been a Norfolk Broad’s landmark for almost 1000 years. Situated on the banks of the river Bure, the Abbey has long been reduced to just the ruins of the former gatehouse, into which an 18th century farmer built a windmill. This strange ruin, as small as it is, holds many stories and hides more than a few mysteries.
The tales which have survived the test of time include attacks by the Normans then, 300 year’s later, the Peasants Uprising when the Abbey was stormed and its deeds and charters destroyed. There are also those mythical stories and legends relating to images and sometimes terrible things that had once been a part of this once sacred place and have since been periodically returned by what may well be magical means! They include the recurring story of a monk from St Benets who, on quiet evenings, can still be seen rowing between the Abbey and Ranworth in a little boat, accompanied by a dog. It is said that he is quite harmless and concentrates only on his regular task of maintaining the rood screen in Ranworth church. Then there is the Dragon which once terrorised the village of Ludham and ended its life at the Abbey. The Legend of the Seal is another tale dating back to the days of King Henry I when a legacy of ancient carvings depicting the story were built into either side of gatehouse entrance and can still to be seen today. However, let us not be carried away in directions that would take us away from the following Tale – an apparition which has its roots firmly at St Benets. Just Remember! in common with all orthodox ruined abbeys and priories, St Benets and its surviving gatehouse is still believed to be haunted!
This tale is known as ‘The Shrieking Monk‘ and it is believed to be that of Ethelwold (some say Essric?), the young bailiff monk who basely betrayed the Abbey in the hope of becoming its Abbot. This spectre has a fearful significance – and it screams! Like many, it has an anniversary date for appearances, but it is just as likely to be seen at other times of the year when ‘conditions are just right’. They say that it is possible to experience this particular spectre in the late autumn, on All Hallows Eve, or winter on dark nights between midnight and early dawn, particularly if the dawn is shrouded in a heavy mist and there is a distinct chill in the air. Even today, few would care to pass the old ruin when such conditions are abroad – particularly when they hear the tale of a certain Ludham marshman who perished one night near the ruined gatehouse of St Benets. Apparantly, according to William Dutt’s ‘Highways and Byways in East Anglia’ (1901) – this marshman was on his way home from his bullocks. As he draws near the gatehouse and sees something in the shadows that ‘started screeching like a stuck pig’. Some years later this story was further elaborated when retold by the Stalham folklorist, W H Cooke; he call it ‘The Shrieking Monk’. It tells how this monk terrified a local wherryman one foggy night – All Hallows Eve and he rushes away to seek the safety of his wherry which is moored nearby; he slips in the early morning mud and falls into the Bure and is drowned!
Following in the tradition of gilding each ghost story in its re-telling; here, we again go back to those Norman times and to the moment when William the Conqueror was, apparently, experiencing great difficulty with taking St Benet’s Abbey. This version of the story again surrounds William’s difficulty and the monk Ethelwold who falls to temptation , opens the Abbey gates to the Normans – but subsequently is executed. Imagine now the Abbey materialising out of thin air, along with the obligitory mist; the present ruinous Mill transforming itself into a stone tower from where the execution referred to took place.
We are told that the Monks of St Benedict’s successfully withstood attacks from King William’s men for months on end and could have held out for much longer had it not been for the act of treachery by Ethelwold, the young bailiff monk. The strong walls of the Abbey had proved impregnable and there was enough food to feed those inside for at least twelve months; some also believed that a trust in God by the Abbot and the rest of the Abbey’s monks also played an important part in staving off the enemy. Unfortunately for all concerned, the young monk held aspirations which did not match his low position in the church. His aspirations, if legend and myth are to be believed, also made him a prime candidate to be bribed.
The Norman army deployed around the Abbey had been on the verge of giving up on their task but the general in charge decided that maybe a different tactic might work, having identified the monk as a possible solution. What was needed was for a messenger to be sent to the Abbey with a letter urging the Abbot to surrender, but at the same time to, surreptitiously, slip a tempting offer to this particular monk. This plan was put into operation and a messenger was despatched on horse back, carrying a white flag to guarantee entry. Once inside and before meeting the Great Abbot to hand over the general’s letter, the messenger managed to hand a separate note to Ethelwold, asking him at the same time to, somehow, return with him to meet with the General; a safe audience would be guaranteed.
On receiving the general’s letter, the Abbot bluntly refused to contemplate his demand and quickly sought a volunteer to convey his decision back to the other side. Unsurprisingly, Ethelwold, the highly flatterable monk, stepped forward and offered his services; he by then being totally intrigued by the general’s attention in him. This monk’s ego and aspirations were further enhanced when on arrival he was told by the general that he, Ethelwold, was obviously destined for a better career than that of a humble bailiff monk. Now, if only he would help the general’s soldiers take over the Abbey he, the humble monk, would be elavated to Abbot of St Benedict’s Abbey – for LIFE – a gift that would be far beyond the menial’s wildest dreams! The general added that the young brother had absolutely nothing to lose, for if the Abbey held out, despite impressive defensive walls and generous stocks of provisions, the army would attack in even greater force and inflict a terrible result on the religeous order. But, if this “Abbot Elect” would just open the gatehouse doors that same night, everyone would be spared.
Although clearly naive, Ethelwold was not without a degree of intelligence. Surely, he questioned himself, the other brethren would punish him if he was ever found out; they would certainly not accept him as their Abbot? He was not even an ordained priest – for heaven’s sake! Even here, the general had anticipated such doubts but seemed to have no difficulty in convincing the monk that by using his new elevated rank of ‘conqueror of the Abbey’ the brethren would accept their new Abbot, in pain of losing the present incumbent and anyone else of a rebellious nature. With this assurance, the now traitor returned to St Benet’s in both excitement and with not a little fear. Ethelwold was naturally welcomed back and praised for his bravery in delivering the Abbot’s letter of refusal; whilst he held a burdensome secret.
The final days of May that year were full of sunshine, bridging the final days of spring to the start of summer; the evenings were however deceptive with one culminating in a sudden dissolved dusk displaced by a very chilly, dark and eerie night. The bell in the Abbey tower rang out eleven times, each ring echoing across the night ladened marches whilst Ethelwold’s heart pounded at an ever increasing pace as he waited for the final chord. This was followed by the sound of three knocks on the gatehouse door; the expected visitors had arrived! The nervous bailiff slowly withdrew the well lubricated bolts and was about to slowly release the door quietly when it was flung open and the monk was brushed aside as soldiers burst through and set about their task. Very quickly the monks realised a betrayal and offered no resistence because shedding blood was abhorrent to their beliefs; any arms were put aside and a truce quickly agreed, followed by an order that all must essemble in the Abbey Church the following morning.
There, on a morning that reflected the prevailing mood of the defeated, the young ‘Abbot Elect’ was paraded in with great ceremony and in front of the assembly was anointed and then dressed in cope and mitre. The Abbot’s crovier was placed in his hand, followed by a pronouncement that the once monk was now the Abbot of St Benedict’s-at-Holm – for LIFE! To complete the ceremony, the new Abbot was escorted the length of the Abbey by Normans in ceremonial armoured attire and banners flying – but with no applause except for that coming from the Normans. The defeated audience watched in total silence. The new Abbot was, however, full of himself and he ignored a part of the spectacle that was clearly of no importance to him. That changed all too quickly; the Abbot’s face, so flushed with utter pride one moment, turned deathly white as his hands were suddenly thrust behind his back and tied unceremoniously. Still dressed in his glittering robes, this ‘newly annointed abbot’ was dragged off – Norman’s abhor treachery!
Ethelwold, shrouded by a realisation that he had been completely fooled and foolish, cried for mercy but his cries were ignored. His march from the throne to an open window in the bell tower was further ignominious. There, he was hoisted up on to a makeshift gibbet made of a simple stout pole protruding out from the widow that faced a still misty river and marsh beyond. Then, no sooner had the noose been placed around the unfortunate’s head, when he was pushed to swing in full view of those who had gathered below. Those who were further away and out of sight of this summary execution would have their chance to witness the result. They would understand the stark message that was directed to everyone under to authority of Norman rule; all who dared to be treacherous for personal and selfish gain would meet the same fate! The church authority may also have considered the outcome appropriate and that the individual who had fallen from both window sill and grace, was now in the process of being judged by his Maker.
This story makes you wonder! – How many of us today, would choose to manouver their boats along the river Bure in early morning mist or walk the same path past the ruined Abbey, and concern themselves with apparitions? – particularly if the morning, from midnight onwards, happens to be misty? How many out on the 25th May would quicken their stride or increase water speed – just in case! Maybe all it takes is to be alone in the dark or in an early mist, a mist that was thought to be rising, but drops again suddenly at the same moment as the temperature takes on a deeper chill……! One thing is certain; all that is needed beyond these conditions is for a lone lapwing to swoop close by and send forth its pre-emptive cry of what might follow!
Sources: Dutt, W., Highways and Byways in East Anglia, 1901
Cooke, W.H., The Shrieking Monk, 1911
Tolhurst, P., This Hollow Land, Black Dog Books, 2018
Photos: Wikipedia, Google, Spinney Abbey.