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.
It was Simon Knott, way back in 2009, who referred to All Saints Church in the village of Horsford as being “an oasis of calm” – and so it still is.
For those travelling from afar, Horsford lies to the north of Norwich and close by the City’s new Broadland Northway, formerly the Northern Distributor Road. Although close to the orbit of Norwich and the busy A140 Cromer Road, All Saints Church sits quietly amidst an equally silent graveyard. The church is set comfortably back from Church Street, with the southern side of its churchyard resting in between. Quite close to the south facing walls of the church runs a side entrance path to the building’s front porch; this same path is also, unbeknown to some, a public footpath which runs right through the grounds of All Saints and seems to disappear beyond.
Turning up on one of the hottest days in July was not the best of choices for walking round the churchyard. But, everywhere was bathed in strong light and, together with equally dark shadows, enabled a few striking photograph to be taken – who would want to miss such an opportunity? However, relief came with entry into the church itself, through a porch which is not the oldest part of the church, having been first built in 1493, the year when an Appeal for funds went out to not only complete the reconstruction of the Tower but also to include a south facing porch which would face directly towards the Church Street entrance gate. Reconstruction of the Tower itself had first begun in 1456, but it seems that immediately from this date the work had been frequently been interrupted for long periods, which included necessary ‘repairs’ – one can only imagine of what.
The 1493 Appeal did, however, ensure that both the Porch and Tower were completed within a sensible time thereafter; this work may also have coincided with alterations made to the roof height of the Nave. The Tower was certainly ready to have bells hung in it by 1506. as witnessed by a bequest for the provision of a bell. Today, the Tower has one remaining bell which is still rung to herald the beginning of Sunday services; it is inscribed: Anno Domini 1565 I.B – which stands for John Brend. Rather unusual for a tower of this date is that it appears to have been designed without a door in its west side and that its West window had previously been raised in the early 14th century; one may guess that the reason for doing so was probably to bring more light into the rear of the Nave.
Inside the Porch are some 16th century capitals with angels on either side of the entrance arch and its roof was, like the rest of the church at that time, a thatched one. I later discovered that, in the Victorian era, the Porch was in such a sorry state that, in 1884, the Rev. Josiah Ballance had it rebuilt and re-roofed with tiles as a memorial to his deceased wife, Margaret.
On entering through a modest but still attractive door and into the rear end of the Nave, the coolness there was a welcome friend and the light streaming though the south windows showed that this church is certainly not a gloomy place.
A walk around the inside of the Church, together with a few enquiries, told me that the building of the Nave was started soon after 1100 and was made of well-coursed flint work. From outside it is possible to see, particularly at the east end of the Nave (not the Chancel), a number of the low courses in the south wall where there are regularly banded unknapped flints. This, I was told, was evidence of a building technique commonly used in the 11th and 12th Centuries that was generally abandoned later in the middle-ages for less-coursed flint-rubble construction. Just inside the South Door, by the Chancel, is the 13th Century Trefoil Piscina with its ‘Holy Water’ Stoup, a stone basin which would be used in the Mass – in use until the 16th Century Reformation.
Outside, on the south wall, the height of the original Norman Nave is shown by a a line of knapped flint work, just below the later brick and flint courses which were laid so that the pitch and height of the Nave’s thatched roof matched that of the Chancel. In the late 14th Century, the earlier headed windows were heightened and the roof again raised by adding the brick and flint courses. When, in the 19th Century, the Nave’s thatched roof was removed, the walls had to be raised by a further 50cm in order to support the timbers for a new slate roof. More recently, in 1980 to be exact, these slates were replaced by re-cycled tiles.
As for the Chancel, this was probably built at the same time as the Nave; an example of an early English rustic structure, with a thatched roof and once neatly plastered walls but now flaking in places and requiring some loving care. Outside, the date of 1703, picked out in a naive style with red tiles in the flint of the gable, indicates that repairs were done that year to the East Gable and to the coping of the Chancel. Past speculation suggested that these repairs were necessary as a result of the 1703 storm, one of the two great storms of that century which destroyed much of the fishing fleet along the Norfolk coast and much inland.
There is still a hint of a curve in the Chancel’s sanctuary area which may be the remnants of a pre-Norman, early 11th Century Apse. On the south side there is a ‘low-side window’. This is the term for a small window or opening always built in the south wall of a chancel that is positioned lower than other windows in the church, usually at eye level or lower. I was told that these were not originally glazed, but shuttered. There is also scholastic conjecture over their original function, some thinking that they were intended to allow those outside the church to get a glimpse of the altar, or even of the Eucharist, as they walked past; others thinking that they were simple ventilation devices; and others reckoning that they would have been used for the distribution of a dole. Where they do appear, some say in about 100 churches in Norfolk, they are always in the same position.
During renovation work in 1956, a vault was discovered by the then Vicar and Churchwardens. It was beneath the floor directly in front of the south side kneeling rail. Apparently, in the Vault were several lead coffins of the Day family; it was decided that these should be left undisturbed, the Vault being resealed and the floor reinstated. The positions of the Altar in the Sanctuary and its Communion Rail were also altered in 1956, following the discovery of the Day Vault. The step was extended westwards, thereby creating a second higher dais for the Altar. The original Altar table was placed in the east end of the North Aisle to create a Lady Chapel and, because its top had been badly worm-eaten, a new top (all be it a second-hand one) was attached to its legs. A new main Altar was made by All Saint’s devoted Churchwarden, Harry Sole who was a highly skilled joiner employed by R. G. Carter Ltd. He also made a frontal cupboard, which stands on the left-hand side of the Chancel. In addition, he made the Bishop’s Chair and the Oak Credence Table and the Vicar’s Prayer Desk, which stands before the Screen in the Nave of the Church.
Probably the star of the Church is set into the south wall of the Nave, close to and at right-angle to the Screen. It must be East Anglia’s best example of a 19th Century window by the grandly named Royal Bavarian Institute for Stained Glass and made by the famous F. X. Zettler workshop of Munich. The window depicts and remembers three sisters, Edith, Dorothea and Nona Day, who died of consumption in 1891, 1892 and 1893 in Davos and Cairo. One sister stands on the far shore of the Jordan, welcoming her sisters across to an imaginary paradise, which is clearly more Bavarian than Middle Eastern. This is a wonderful stain-glass window, despite the sisters’ halos being rather unconvincing .
The memorials in various parts of the Church, mainly commemorate the Barrett-Lennard families of Horsford Manor and the Day Families. The Barrett-Lennards first arrived in the area at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 – with Sir Richard Barrett-Lennard being the last of the line.
The North Aisle of All Saints Church existed in 1458, for it is mentioned as having been provided with donations for its construction in Wills of that year. Then, in the 1860’s, because the aisle wall and the pillars were leaning northwards, drastic remedial work had to be done under the guidance of the Rev. Josiah Ballance. The core of the arcades, made of brick with plaster over, is of the 15th Century but the present appearance of the aisle and its pillars is due to this timely restoration. The East window of the aisle contains the only medieval glass in the Church. In 1986/7 this window was re-glazed, with the addition of the medieval glass, and dedicated as a memorial to Harry Sole by his widow, Rosetta.
Looking around All Saints, it is clear that over the years and certainly during recent post-war years, this Church has never lost its nerve or its confidence to get things done. A feature at the west end of the Nave is yet another example. Here, there is a relatively new gallery with a metal spiral stairway, built in 1993 to house an organ which had been acquired from Horsham St Faith. The previous organ had been at the East end of the North Aisle until 1956: when the Lady Chapel Altar was installed there, the organ was moved to the the west end of that Aisle before being replaced by the one now in the west end Gallery of the Nave. A gallery, by the way, which is in a thoroughly modern asymmetrical style but mindful of church tradition. It is a style which should take All Saints confidently into the future. A heartening thought!
The Font, which I found at the back right-hand corner of the Nave, is of Purbeck stone from Dorset. It is distinctly early Norman, the style being similar to those of the early 12th Century by being square with simple, unlaced, arcading with a plain support pillar at each corner. Again, my informant told me that the central drain and its column could have been added towards the end of that century. Apparently, medieval fonts were made in three sections: base, support and bowl, so alterations posed no problem. This one in All Saints was possibly damaged during the Reformation and may have been removed from its church – which may not have been this one at that time. Then, after it had been rescued, it was placed in All Saints, possibly during its 19th Century repair and restoration work. The arcading did show signs of having been repaired with cement, when meant that the lead lining had to be re-inserted.
During medieval times, Holy Water was kept in the Font, being renewed each Sunday. Its purpose was not only for use at Baptisms, which usually took place before the baby was three days old (the mother would not attend this ceremony), but also for blessing ‘bewitched’ premises or animals, for giving comfort to the sick, or for those who were dying. For the sick and dying it was the priest who would use the holy water when administrating the last rites after their confession and witnessing their ‘last well and testament‘.
However, so I was informed, anyone could use the water if it was agreed that the need was urgent. Unfortunately, for the church at least, pagan habits lingered on and the water would often be ‘stolen‘ for use in magic and other sorcery. Consequently, in the 13th Century, the church ordered all Fonts to be secured by a cover and, after 1287, a strong lock had to be added. The usual method was to cover the entire top of the Font with a wooden disc, fastened in place by means of an iron bar which was locked to staples driven into the rim. It was those iron staples which may have caused the initial damage to All Saint’s Font. The present wooden cover, though, was made in 1934! Until 1956, this Church’s Font stood on the west side of the most westerly pillar between the Nave and the North Aisle. There is a radiator in that position now, but the mark of where the Font once rested against the pillar can still be seen.
The Church Chest sits besides the Font. On its lid are the initials H.S. and R.C. along with C.Ws., presumably indicating they were once the ‘Churchwardens’. Its date is, apparently, unknown but it still has two padlock. In the past it had three: one for the incumbent and one for each Churchwarden; this was a simple security measure necessary in earlier times when money collected for the Poor Rate would be kept in the Chest ready for distribution to the ‘deserving poor of the Horsford Parish’.
Unlike Simon Knott in 2009, I arrived here, at Rackheath’s All Saints Church, nine years later in the height of a dry and hot summer’s day when butterflies were in abundance and flying insects were out to get you. Everything seemed parched, even the wheat, barley and oil seed rape in the surrounding fields looked as if they were quietly crying out to be harvested.
My journey had been via the A1151, Norwich to Wroxham Road, which runs through the parish of Rackheath, dividing it in two. Having left the more southerly New Rackheath, originally known as Rackheath Parva, behind me, I headed in a northerly direction towards a much smaller settlement which was originally known as Rackheath Magna in the 12th century. My destination was the church that many had photographed and some had sketched or written about – this was my first visit.
At a road junction just short of the Green Man public house I turned left, prompted by a brown Heritage ‘Ancient Church’ signpost which points down what is Swash Lane. Thereafter, there are no more signs, you have to look beyond your bonnet and look out for the church’s bell tower, which lies straight ahead, beyond a three-way junction – you take the centre option, along a narrow, grass-centred lane which runs out at the Church gate. I learnt that All Saints is open during daylight hours, and if not, the Keyholder can be contacted on 01603 782044.
I was barely three miles from the edge of Norwich and even less from the City’s Northern Distributor Road. Even in summer, All Saints is still a lonely church, sitting as it does on its personal rise above the surrounding fields. Its only company was yellow ragwort, fern and gravestones – none in conversation with each other. Everything was still and quiet – except for the occasional rustle at ground level, hedgerow and tree canopy as I wandered around.
I was informed earlier that the church had once been near the centre of the settlement once known as Rackheath Magna. However, following the Great Plaque of 1665, when with so many deaths and abandonment of properties, the church found itself ‘on its own’ so to speak. As for the general fabric of this isolated Church, it is early 14th century but does have earlier features. It was built with knapped brick and flint with limestone dressings, including a 13th century series of arches with octagonal pillars. The roof is slated with black-glazed pantiles on a simple south facing porch with a 12th-century sundial in the gable end over the porch door arch.
Like many churches in the 19th century, All Saints underwent its own alterations around 1840 which included the installation of its unusual underfloor heating system. Other notable features still on show include numerous brass plaques and monuments commemorating wealthy individuals from the parish; particularly members of the Pettus and then the Stracey families – the latter’s Baronetcy being created on 15 December 1818 for Edward Stracey with the former Rackheath Hall, now well-appointed flats and apartments, being built in 1852-4 for Humphrey Stracey.
During its recent past All Saints church fell into disuse and disrepair, causing the parishioners of this lonely community to go elsewhere for their services. The church was made redundant in the 1970s and the Norfolk Churches Trust acquired the lease in February 1981. I was further informed that, together with restorations instigated by the Victoria and Albert Museum and taken up enthusiastically by the local community, this church was saved from an ignominious fate. By 1985, the church had secured replacement windows and flooring with many original fittings returned to pride of place inside the building. All this meant that the church managed to survive, once again functioning in the parish as a place worth visiting and supporting for the potential it can offer as a place of meeting and possible worship, provided of course that further attention can be afforded.
Certainly during my visit, the outside needed attention whilst inside, there was an uncomfortable sparseness. Almost alone on a table next to the entrance door was a Notice which gave a brief outline of the church’s history and a personal account which I recognised as one written by Simon Knott, some nine years ago – it is worth re-publishing and is as follows:
“It did not help that I came here on one of the gloomiest, coldest days of February 2009, but this must always seem a remote spot. And yet, it is rather a charming one. All Saints was declared redundant long ago, back in the 1970s, and that should be no surprise. This is a huge parish, and the main village it serves is more than a mile off. The opening of a modern chapel of ease there must have sounded the death knell for All Saints.
Now, the liturgical life of this building is over, and the silence fills its days out here in what feels like the middle of nowhere. In fact, we are barely three miles from the outer edge of Norwich suburbia, but you wouldn’t know it. This lonely little church sits on its bluff above the fields, with only its gravestones for company, reached by a narrow track along the edge of a field, which peters out as it reaches the church gate.
And all around the woods and fields roll, the gently hilly landscape of the country above the winding rivers of the Broads. The church does not seem an intrusion in this landscape. Rather, there is something entirely organic about it, as if it has grown from the land it serves, or as if has been left here for us to find by a former civilisation; which is nearly true, of course. Thanks to the sterling work of the Norfolk Churches Trust, this church is open all day, every day, when most around here are not.
This must be an ancient site. Ridges in the adjacent fields show that there was a settlement here, probably until well into the 19th Century, but now everybody lives down on the other side of the Norwich to Wroxham road. Rackheath Hall was home to first the Pettus family and then the Straceys, and above all else this church is their mausoleum. The first sign of this is in the graveyard, where the Straceys’ sombre matching crosses stand, fenced off still, to the east of the Church.
The Stacey family graves on the east side of All Saints.
Copyright H. Brown 2018
Nothing much happened here in the way of building work in the late Middle Ages, and what you see today is pretty much all of the Decorated period. The south aisle is rather curious, because the roofline cuts into the clerestory, suggesting that it may have been refashioned after medieval times, possibly to serve as a memorial aisle for the Pettus family.
You step into a building which is full of light, thanks to the clear glass in the aisle and east window. Everything is white and clean; and, ironically, it all feels beautifully cared for. There were large displays of red flowers decorating the font and windowsills when I came here on a cold February day. The interior was spotless, unlike that of several working churches which I had visited earlier in the day. It was breathtakingly cold, and the great expanses of wall memorials in the aisle and on the north side of the nave really made it feel as if this might be the mausoleum of a lost civilisation.
The Pettus memorials are elegant and lovely, and surprisingly grand in such an outpost, although they also serve as a reminder that, until barely three hundred years ago, if we had been here we would have found ourselves just outside the second city of the Kingdom. The most striking is to Thomas Pettus, who in 1723 was:
“taken from the tender embraces of his most indulgent parents that he might receive the rewards promised in another life to a most engaging friendly behaviour, a most strict and filial obedience, a most sincere, regular and early piety in this.”
From a quarter of a century earlier, but looking the work of another quarter of a century before that, the bold memorial to Thomas Pettus’s grandfather is a rather more serious and sombre proposition.
Copyright H. Brown 2018
Copyright H. Brown 2018
The Stracey memorials are more workaday, and form a kind of catalogue, one of the most complete records in stone of a Norfolk family’s fortunes over the ups and downs of several centuries. Probably the most beautiful is a 1930s monument to Mary Elizabeth Brinkley, in that flowery development of Jazz Modern which was popular at the time, possibly as a kitschy reaction to the severe lines of cinemas and public buildings of the age. Noting that she was a great-great-grand-daughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, it concludes with an equally flowery epitaph, which observes in part that “from out of the murk and mistiness of life her dreams arise, most cool and delicate, and circle her like white and azure flowers”. This is credited to Eleanour Norton, an obscure poet best known for the mawkish k, which was popular in the years leading up to the First World War.
Finally, several 20th Century brasses recall the familiar heartbreak of this intensely rural parish. Horace Arthur Symonds of Hall Farm, Rackheath, died of his wounds on March 3rd 1916, and is buried at Etaples near Le Touquet in northern France. “The Saints of God! Their conflict past, and Life’s Long Battle won at last, no more they need the shield or sword, and cast them down before the Lord”. The epitaph is curiously militiaristic, suggesting that the memorial was erected while the conflict is still in progress, and before the reflectiveness which followed the Armistice.
Rather more prosaic, and more moving because of it, are two brass plaques by the south doorway. The first is that to Herbert John Harmer, who died in October 1916, and Robert James Charlish, who died in July 1917. They were both just twenty years old. This Monument is erected by Mr Stephen Sutton their former employer, reads the inscription. England Stands for Honour, God Defend the Right.
Beneath it you’ll find eleven year old Muriel FJ Bidwell, Chorister of this church who was mortally injured by a motor car, and entered Paradise 10th December 1925. I knew to look for this because earlier in the day, at another church, I had met an old man who had grown up in Rackheath. As an infant, he had attended Muriel Bidwell’s funeral. She had been playing in a puddle at a corner in the road, and the car had skidded and crushed her. The lesson of this had obviously been made very plain to the children of Rackheath at the time, and now in his late eighties he had never forgotten it”.
All photographs in this blog are copyright H.Brown.
FOOTNOTE: (Post-publication Postscript)
Both before and during the writing of this article I knew of a present-day darker side to the Site on which All saints Church sits; I say Site since the building itself, and what it still stands for, is an innocent bystander.
For this reason I chose not to mention anything so as not to distract readers from the article’s central theme and premise. However, since publication, and having received positive feedback and generous comment, a very small minority chose to vent their feelings, via Social Media on this ‘darker side’ and, in one case, to express ‘puzzlement’ as to why I had failed to make mention of such things. Now, I sense that those who are reading this may be lost as to what I refer to – let the following comments, submitted by this minority, lay things on the line – names have been erased:
“ I Visited here a few months ago, a weekday afternoon, and was disgusted to find it littered with condoms and wipes around the back and several men gathering in there vehicles in the front. The police confirmed it is a known gay meeting site”.
“It is indeed, yet, despite such a well-known site for such activity, no mention of this seedy subculture [is] within the article”.
“………To my knowledge there have been at least two previous posts regarding this church, one of which was by me, and each time it [was] mentioned that there was evidence of activity in the area that could worry visitors. One member mentioned he was approached by a man who made a suggestive comment……….Anyone visiting this church should know in advance that they may encounter people who are not there to enjoy the fruits of the spirit….”
“……….it is FACT, backed up by local knowledge, that this poor old building has become the victim of this rather seedy subculture- for how many years, I do not know, but it has almost become a part of the building’s latter history”…….My friend was approached by someone and luckily fended him off, however, it caught him off guard and will no doubt catch out others- some of which may be more vulnerable……. I am just the wrong side of 30 and still look about 18 and so could be seen as desirable to a homosexual male ‘predator’…….I go out visiting these locations and often end up engaging in conversation with like-minded members of the public who speak to me. I do not expect to be sexually harassed nor do I expect a confrontation. I would never visit this location alone and would choose my timing carefully….. I encourage others to do the same”.
Broadcasting all this saddens me; but more upsetting is the fact that my article triggered a response that was completely unnecessary – the writers should have chosen another, and more relevant Forum. However, in light of their ‘concerns’, I feel a duty to now make mention of the matter, along with the following advice:
Anyone visiting this church should be aware of what local knowledge says – that they may (not will) encounter people who are not there to enjoy the same pursuits. Go with company and choose carefully the time of any visit.
P.S. (2): To help maintain a sense of balance and some sort of sensible perspective on all this, I must add that I visited the Church during a morning period when, for the whole time I was there to gather material for my article, there was no one else present – stillness and peace was all around and I felt quite safe – Job Done!
Faced with an unfamiliar city, the temptation for many visitors is to head straight for the city centre. This is particularly true in Norwich and for those who arrive by train – the station forecourt seems to point you towards the bridge over the river which will lead to Prince of Wales Road the shops, castle, museum and much more. Those who resist this temptation and take the river path instead will find, just a stone’s throw away to the right, a real gem of the city’s history – Pull’s Ferry, sitting pretty on the River Wensum and one of the most famous landmarks in Norwich.
Pull’s Ferry is a 15th century medieval Watergate but it came centuries after a more ancient waterway was dug by monks. You see – both before and during the medieval period, transportation was a persistent problem, especially the transportation of heavy building materials. Roads were poor – if they existed at all, so bulk item were, of necessity, transported by boat. So it was in Norwich. Before any work could begin on building the proposed Priory and the 11th century Cathedral such a canal was needed to bring the materials direct on to the site. As well as stone, there was timber from the Baltic and iron from Sweden. But it was not only building materials that came via the canal; peat would also arrive, from what were to become the present-day Norfolk Broads, to be used as fuel in the Priory kitchens. However, it seems that over the centuries, the heavy stone used to build this holy place received most, if not all, of the publicity. Maybe this was because it’s journey was so long and arguably hazardous – for it came from France.
To be precise, this stone came from the quarries near Caen and would travel up and across the channel and onwards along the rivers Yare and Wensum to the Norwich building site that was to become both a Priory and Cathedral. This new Seat for a Bishop would serve as the central church for the Norwich Diocese, the work starting in 1096 and completed sometime between 1121 and 1145. During all this time, there was no port at Yarmouth and because sea-going ships were comparatively small they were able to make such a complete journey from France to Norwich. This must have certainly made the rivers Yare and Wensum places of great activity, because not only was materials being brought in for the Cathedral, but also for the Castle too.
The present short dyke which connects the river to Pulls Ferry itself is all that remains of the waterway which existed until 1772 when it was filled in and built upon. Before then, this same waterway flowed under the arch of the Watergate and deep into the Cathedral Close; having given its assistance to construction, it was the means by which river traffic was able to bring on-going goods and materials right up to the Cathedral and the accommodation thereabouts.
It was in the 15th century that the arched Watergate was built across this canal; it is this same structure that is the most obvious historical feature of Pulls Ferry today. The Watergate served to guard the approach to the Cathedral, and it was not until the Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in the 16th century that the current Ferry House was built in 1647, thus incorporating the Watergate. The house itself was both an inn and the home for the ferryman who transported people across the Wensum. The first ferryman was named Thomas Howes, or Holmes but Ferry House was never named after him. Instead, it had been known as Sandlins or Sandling’s Ferry, a name that it would keep for at least 200 years, presumably after a 17th century predecessor. Certainly, at the time that Blomefield was writing his ‘Topographical History of Norfolk’ in the 18th century it was still called Sandling’s Ferry.
A Little Anecdote!
On the 13th July 1758, a short but severe thunderstorm wrought its fury on a house standing alone on the causeway near Sandling’s Ferry in the city of Norwich. Lightning struck off the roof tiles and pierced the house where it ‘tipt off the top of an old chair…… snapt the two heads of the bed posts, rent the curtains, drove against the wall…… forced out an upright of a window frame a yard long and sent it a right line into a nearby ditch’. This shaft of electricity peeled plaster off the walls and melted a row of pewter dishes. ‘An ancient woman’ sitting in a passageway was scorched all over, ‘her skin almost universally red and inflamed…… her shift burnt brown, stocking singed…… her shoe struck off’. The lightning missed:
……. another woman, sitting knee to knee with her companion as it shot along the passage. Those nearby heard a violent explosion and thought the whole house would collapse. It turned red, as if on fire, but it remained standing and the whole smelled as if fumigated with brimstone matches.
(Cooper, S., ‘Account of a Storm of Thunder and Lightning’,
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 1683-1775)
Then along came 28 year-old John Pull to become ferryman and publican for the next 45 years – between 1796 and 1841; probably the last licensee to do so. Apparently Pull got married the year after he took the post, to Ann Haywood who lived for only a few years, dying in 1800. The couple had a son, John, in 1798, who was baptised at St John Timberhill. John Pull married again in January 1802, to Ann Steers. A child was born to the couple in the June, which suggests that it was either very premature, or the marriage was one of necessity! But, there were tragic consequences – that child died only a week after being baptised. The Pulls, however, went on to have five more children but only three survived beyond childhood. Ann Pull ‘the second’ died in 1837 at the age of 52, and her husband, John Pull, followed in 1841, aged 73.
The pub closed sometime before 1900, and the building became derelict. As for the ferry, this operated until 1943, although with Bishops Bridge only a stone’s throw away one wonders why there was ever a need for a ferry. The answer may lay in the historical fact that Bishops Bridge had been a toll bridge into the Middle Ages and that Pulls Ferry was a cheaper way for foot passengers to cross the river. However, by the middle of the 20th century all other ways of crossing from Norwich were free. It should also not be forgotten, if one ever knew at all, that before the building of Riverside Walk, the way to the Bishops Bridge involved a lengthy walk through the Cathedral Close. But, it still seems difficult to imagine who would have used the ferry, unless they actually lived or worked in the Close – particularly since the ferry could not have been free. Maybe, and some possibly think this, the ferry was kept open by the request of the Cathedral Dean and Chapter?
Ultimately, both house and archway were saved by a bequest from Camilla Doyle and money raised by Norwich Girl Guides Association; that was in 1947. Over the next two years, restoration was undertaken by builders R. G. Carter and the architect Cecil Upcher. Today, Pulls Ferry and Ferry House remains privately owned; the only reminder of the history of the site is a small plaque at the top of the drive leading down to the ferry. Whilst there is a footpath along the river from the railway station Bishop Bridge which passes directly by Pulls Ferry, the best view of it is from the opposite side of the river, on Riverside Road. This view has been used in so many tourist brochures that Pulls Ferry has long been one of the ‘signature’ views of Norwich. It goes back over 900 years.
Now, it’s difficult to imagine that at the start of the 19th century the land opposite Pulls ferry was largely countryside but, like all things urban, much of this saw the start of building projects which grew apace during the next fifty years. Along came Riverside Road, the Norwich gas works, Rosary Cemetery and, inevitably, the Railway Station, turning this once tranquil area into a suburb of the city centre with all its noise and activity. Between Riverside Road and the river bank opposite Pulls is now the Norwich Yacht Station, much used by Broads and river holiday visitors. Painters and photographers ever since have recorded a more industrial river bank, with boat building yards, a mustard factory and much else besides.
On the scenic north-east Norfolk coast road is the village of Bacton, Norfolk, England, better known these days for its gas terminal bringing in a vital source of energy. However, in medieval times it was a very different continental import which put this place on the map. On the edge of the village, leading to a modern farm, stands the gateway to Bromholm Priory, once a centre of pilgrimage for royalty and a place renowned for healing the sick and bringing the dead back to life. But for centuries the Priory has not simply been a spectacular ruin but one that has retained a hint at majesty long since claimed by time. It also holds a secret, one which concerns a holy relic, once said to be so powerful that it could raise the dead. But, before more is said on that, we must really go back to the very beginning of Bromholm Priory and to the William de Glanville (circa. 1090 to +1135).
William de Glanville was born about 1090 in Bacton and was to hold the title of Lord of Bromholm & Bacton. It was he who, in 1113 founded Bromholm Priory which, over time became known as ‘Baketon’ Priory, Bacton Abbey, Bromeholme Priory, Broomholm Priory but more consistently as Bromholm Priory. From the outset, William made the Priory subordinate to the Clunic Monastry at Castle-Acre and dedicated it to St Andrew, probably on account of its nearness to the sea, which rolls on in full view. He also endowed Bromholm with lands in and around Bacton and ‘Ceswick’, where there was also a smaller Clunic priory, dedicated to St Sepulchre, which was founded by a previous G. de Glanville and valued at £149.19s and 1/2d per annum. Bromholm itself was designed for seven or eight Cluniac monks who came from the Priory of Castle Acre. After William’s death, around 1135 his eldest son, Bartholomew de Glanville confirmed the grant his father had made to Bromholm and added considerably more grants of his own to it. He also bequeathed further lands to the Priory his death around 1167 –
‘all given in honour of God, the Virgin Mary, and St. Andrew, for the health of his own soul, his father’s, and the souls of all his friends living and dead’.
King Henry I (1100 to 1135) was also a benefactor of Bromholm Priory, for he granted the Manor of Burgh to the Priory, free of any charges but reserving the advowson (the right of presentation of a candidate to a benefice or church office) to both the Crown and the Dowager Alice, widow of Roger de Burge, for her life. In return for this royal bounty, the Priory released to the King a rent-charge of 5 marks a year from their exchequer which the King had granted. Other donors of this period included Sarah, widow of Joceline de Burge of Yarmouth; John de Annok and Milisentia, his wife who donated certain buildings in Yarmouth ; Agnes de Rollerby, Elstan Kemp of Lowestoft; Walter de Blundeston donated Lambcote and a marsh there; Richard, the son of Ralph de Paston, gave rent in Paston and Gilbert, son of Nicholas de Repps, who gave rent in Reppe.
Stephen of Blois followed as a supporter of Bromholm Priory; he was a nephew of Henry I. It was Henry I who championed Stephen, having accepted him into his Court at a very young age. Under Henry, Stephen rose in prominence and was granted extensive lands in both England and France and became one of the wealthiest persons in England. Following the battle of Tinchebray in 1106, Henry I confiscated the lands belonging to William of Mortain and the ‘Honour of Eye’, a large lordship previously held by Robert Malet of Norfolk; within this lordship was the Manor of Bromholm. In 1113, Stephen was granted both the titles and the honour of these and this allowed him to add his confirmation of the donation which William de Glanville had made to the monks of Bromholm that same year. Significantly, Stephen narrowly escaped drowning with Henry’s son and heir, William Adelin, when the ‘White Ship’ sank in 1120; this freak accident eventually opened the way for Stephen to become king.
At Bromholm, as elsewhere, the Cluniac monks were governed by a set of rules or customs based on the Rule of St Benedict but modified to permit a closer prescription of the daily routine of monastic observance. Cluniac monks did not participate in conventional manual labour; instead they undertook work such as the copying of manuscripts in order to fulfil the work requirement of the Benedictine Rule. Cluniac monasticism in Europe originated in 910 with the foundation of the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy. One hundred and sixty-seven years later the Lewes Priory, Sussex was the first to be founded England. This was followed over the years by an eventual total of thirty-three new Cluniac priories of varying sizes being established in both England and Wales. This constituted the largest number of Cluniac foundations in any country outside France.
Despite the grants and favours bestowed on Bromholm in its early years, the Priory was little more than a staging post on the pilgrim’s route to Walsingham for the first 90 years, or so, of its existence. Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk and chronicler (c.1200-59) was to describe Bromholm as being at that time ‘very poor, and altogether destitute of buildings’ But in 1205 the Priory’s fortunes changed, thanks to a tiny wooden cross no bigger than a man’s hand which, it was said, was a relic of the True Cross on which Jesus died. Soldiers of the Fourth Crusade had ransacked Constantinople in 1204, bringing back a horde of treasure, both spiritual and secular. A local priest who had been with the emperor in Constantinople brought back the two pieces of wood which he offered to the Cluniac monks at Bromholm on condition that he and his sons were admitted to the priory. The monastery, poor in worldly goods but rich in faith, believed the priest and agreed to his terms – his cross, said to have been made by St Helena from the part of the cross to which Christ’s hands and feet were nailed. It was set up in the church and proved to be Bromholm’s salvation; certainly, the brethren there believed that from the acquisition of this valuable relic the greatest profit would accrue to Bromholm. Matthew Paris’s illuminated medieval manuscript ‘Chronica Majona’ contained information about the cross which drew from Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover in his annals for 1223 it reads:
“In the same year divine miracles became frequent occurrences at Bromholm, to the glory and honour of the life-giving cross on which the saviour of the world suffered for the redemption of humankind”.
Matthew Paris also gives his own delightful account of how the monks of Bromholm became possessed of the relic:
“The substance is that Baldwin, Count of Flanders, was from a Count made Emperor of Constantinople, at which place he reigned with vigour for many years. It happened that at one time he was dreadfully harassed by infidel kings, against whom he marched without deliberation, and on this occasion neglected to take with him the Cross of our Lord and other relics, which were always carried before him by the Patriarchs and Bishops whenever he did battle with the enemies of the Cross. This carelessness cost him dear, for when he charged the enemy with his small army, paying no regard to the multitude of the foe, which exceeded his own followers by tenfold, he and his men were surrounded by the enemies of the Cross and slain or made prisoners. The few who escaped knew nothing of what happened to the Emperor, or whither he had gone. A certain chaplain of English extraction who, with his clerks, performed Divine Service in the Emperor’s chapel, had charge of the Emperor’s relics, rings, and other effects. When this chaplain heard of his lord’s death (for all said he was dead), he left the city of Constantinople privately with all the Emperor’s effects, and came to England. On his arrival here he went to St. Albans and sold to a certain monk there a cross set in silver and gold, two fingers of St. Margaret, and some gold rings and jewels, all of which are now held in great veneration by the monks of St. Albans.
The chaplain then drew from his mantle a wooden cross, and showed it to some of the monks, averring on his oath that it was a genuine piece of the true Cross on which Christ suffered. His assertion being disbelieved by them, he departed with his priceless treasure. This chaplain had two children, about whose support and preservation he was most anxious. He offered the Cross to several monasteries. Having endured repulse from the rich in many places, he at length came to a chapel called Bromholm, very poor at that time and destitute of proper buildings. There he sent for the Prior and some of the brethren, and showed them the cross, which was constructed of two pieces of wood placed across one another, and almost as wide as a man’s hand. The chaplain implored the brethren to receive him into the monastery and their order with this cross and other relics which he had with him, as well as his two young children.
The prior and brethren were delighted to possess such a treasure, and by the intervention of the Lord, who always protects honourable poverty, put faith in the words of the monk, and with due reverence received the Cross of our Lord, and carried it into the oratory, and with all devotion preserved it in the most honourable place there ; and immediately Divine miracles began to be wrought in that monastery to the praise and glory of the life-giving Cross ; for the dead were restored to life, the blind recovered sight, and the lame walked, the skin of lepers was cleansed, and those possessed of devils were released from them, and any sick who approached the Cross were made whole”.
John Capgrave (21 April 1393 – 12 August 1464 later recorded that “that no fewer than thirty-nine persons were raised from the dead and nineteen blind were restored to sight by the virtues of the Cross of Bromholm.” Pilgrims came from near and far, including distant countries to pay reverence it; as a direct result the monastery became abundantly rich by reason of the gifts and offerings made to it by these pilgrims.
The work ‘Vision of Piers Plowman’, written by William Langland (c 1370-1390) – or rather, some think it was written by ……. alludes to the pilgrimages to the cross in his vision: “But wender to Walsingham, and my wif Alis And byd the Roode of Bromholm bring me out of dette.” The cross is more clearly mentioned in The Reeve’s Tale, the third of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written in the 1380’s – Miller Symkyn lives near Cambridge and steals the wheat and meal brought to him for grinding. Two students set out to get revenge for their college steward who fell victim to Symkyn and orchestrate a farce-like situation involving wives, daughters and bed-hopping. At one point the miller’s wife is woken when her husband falls: “‘Help!’ she screamed, ‘Holy Cross of Bromeholme keep us! Lord into thy hands!’
The 13th and 14th centuries were good for Bromholm Priory, the shrine becoming a fashionable venue from being patronised by Henry III (28 October 1216 – 16 November 1272), Edward I (20 November 1272 – 7 July 1307), Edward II (8 July 1307 – 20 January 1327) and Edward III 1 February 1327 – 21 June 1377) who also paid tribute to the glorious cross of Bromholm and received, in return, an honourable mention in the Vision of Piers Plowman. These kingly visits were expensive affairs, and were often made in search of ready money.
It was, in fact, barely 28 years after the relic first arrived at Bromholm in 1205 that King Henry III made his first royal visit to this coastal retreat. He was so impressed that he granted the monks many additional privileges, including a two-day fair to be held at Bromholm on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, plus a weekly market on Mondays – as well as some welcome tax breaks. It would also appear that earlier benefactions were confirmed by Henry III during his 1233 visit the Priory.
During the time when Bromholm was accruing its wealth, there appears to have been some dispute between the monks of Bromholm and Castle Acre. The Priory of Castle Acre claimed over lordship on Bromholm, which was, as stated above, at first only a cell of Castle Acre. At an early period it was agreed between the two convents that Bromholm should raise the rents of the fee-farm of Wilton, which they held for the monks of Castle Acre, ten shillings a year; the monks of Castle Acre on their part were to remit and quit all other claims whatsoever which they had upon the monks of Bromholm in the form of ” aids” and “recognitions.” Later, a further controversy seems to have arisen between the Priors of Lewes and Acre and the Prior of Bromholm as to the choice of a Prior for Bromholm in succession. It was Pope Gregory XI., in 1229, who decreed that the matter should be resolved by the Abbot of Osolveston and the Deans of Stamford and Rutland. These decided that the Prior of Acre should nominate six monks, three of Acre and three of Bromholm, from whom the Monastery of Bromholm should choose one for its Prior. Then, after many years of arguments and negotiation, Pope Celestine granted complete emancipation of Bromholm from Acre in 1298. From this date, little information can be gathered respecting the Monastery of Bromholm, except the acquisitions of property in various places. The records of these gifts are faithfully recorded in the chartulary of the house, which may still be seen in good condition in the Public Library at Cambridge.
Nevertheless, the scope of Bromholm during its years of plenty must have been impressive, having been considerably enlarged as a result of the acquisition of the relic. As well as a church there would have been buildings for the monks and their servants. A monastery was a self-sufficient business as well as a religious entity. No doubt the priory would have been lavishly decorated – but it was not to be without its problems, not least of which was its proximity to the sea. Records show that during the reign of Richard II (22 June 1377 – 29 September 1399), the Priory was in crisis. In 1385 a legal document shows that the priory lands had been much wasted by the sea and their house recently burned, and that if not relieved they would shortly have to cease divine service. By that time there were just 18 brethren at the priory, down from 25 brethren at Bromholm in 1298; despite reduced numbers, they were still responsible for conducting five daily masses, three of which were sung and two were said throughout.
Clearly at this time, a wealthy patron was becoming necessary – and low and behold he happened to be just down the road in the form of a Clement Paston who, together with his family, came from the nearby village of that same name. Born in 1350 to William Paston and Elizabeth Staleham. Clement Paston married Beatrice Somerton and had one child. From this point, the Paston family became great patrons of Bromholm Priory and it was its Prior who was to be a witness to Clement’s Will of 1419, the year of his death.
History has taught us that it was by hard work and assiduous land purchases that the Pastons were to build a dynasty that would thrive in Norfolk for more than three centuries. But, it was John Paston senior (1421–1466; Clement’s grandson), who was to take the ultimate gamble during the 15th Century, which saw the family rise through the ranks. During this period, members of the Paston family, notibly Richard, son of Ralph, was still supporting the Priory by way of giving annual payments to the Priory for repairs. As for John Paston, he befriended the ailing Lord Fastolff, and eventually found himself as the knight’s lawyer. Somewhat suspiciously, John Paston was the main beneficiary of Fastolff’s Will after he died, starting a feud between him and Fastolff’s ‘cheated’ heirs. The Paston family gained land and riches, but began years of disputes, both in and out of the courts. Sir John Snr died himself in 1466, leaving these unsettled matters in the hands of his wife and children.
When John Paston died in London in 1466, in the midst of his fruitless efforts to recover Caistor Castle from the Duke of Norfolk, his body was brought back to Norfolk and buried lavishly at Bromholm Priory. The expenses of his interment are recorded in a quaint roll of accounts penned by Blomfield who, as the author of the “History of Caistor Castle” gives a very interesting sketch of the information contained in the roll, thus :
“For three days one man was engaged in flaying beasts. Provision was made for 13 barrels of beer, 27 ditto of ale, one barrel of beer of the great assyze [no doubt extra strong], a runlet of wine of 15 gallons.” This amount of liquor did not seem sufficient, for we read of five coombs of malt at one time and ten at another being brewed up for the great occasion. Meat, too, was in proportion to the drink ; there were huge supplies of geese, chickens, capons, 1,300 eggs, 20 gallons of milk, 8 of cream, 41 pigs, 49 calves – 10 neat slain. What a wake the priory was able to present! bread seemed to be at a discount, for it apparently bears the same proportion to the meat. Many pounds of wax were also made into candles to burn over the grave, and no less than 20 pounds worth of gold—a very large sum in those days—was changed into small coins for showering among the attendant throng, and 26 marks in copper being used for the same purpose in London. A barber was occupied five days in smartening up the monks, and the “reke of the torches at the dirge “was so dense that two panes had to be broken to let the fumes escape. According to Henry Harrod (1857), John Paston was buried at the east end of the priory church, either in the north or south aisle of the choir. The Prior had a ” frogge of worstede,” or cope, presented to him on the occasion, and the tomb was covered with cloth of gold.
But the time was approaching when the party would be over for Bromholm, in more ways than one; the writing was on the wall for the Priory’s claim to fame. A decline crept upon it over a number of years, long before Clement and John Paston’s demise. It was in 1424 that Sir Hugh Pie, a protestant chaplain from Norwich, was tried before the Bishop of Norwich for having thrown the Bromholm relic on a fire. In The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe of 1424, it says that Pie was brought before the Bishop on July 5 1424:
“for holding these opinions following: that people ought not to go on pilgrimage, that the people ought not to give alms……that the image of the cross and other images are not to be worshipped.” Pie denied the charges “……
whereupon he had a day appointed to purge himself by the witness of three lay-man, and three priests. That so done, he was sworn as the other before, and so dismissed.” Two years later, the Bishop recalled Pie regarding the death of William White, who had been burned at the stake for heresy and had been associated with White, a fellow Lollard. Pie was reprieved yet again, but Bromholm Priory had lost its miraculous attraction and never again attracted wealthy visitors keen to part with gifts in return for touching wood.
Bromholm Priory was dissolved in 1536, one of the smaller religious houses which surrendered tamely to Secretary of State Thomas Cromwell and his commissioners; its yearly value estimated at £109 0s. 8d. At that time there were just four religious brethren and 33 servants and although demoralised, its Prior, Lakenham, was probably happy with his guaranteed pension. As for Cromwell, he had the land and, questionably, a claim that he had the fragments of the True Cross – the eventual fate of the relic remains a mystery to this day. During the following year of 1537, Robert Southwell, solicitor to the Court of Augmentation was granted Bromholm Priory by royal warrant, along with all its manors, lands, advowsons, and pensions. He wrote to Thomas Cromwell saying that he had delivered the cross of Bromholm to the late prior of Pentney! As with most dissolved monasteries the valuable materials were stripped, its fine bells probably going towards making Henry VIII’s cannon, the rest left to rot or be used as local building material. On June 5, 1547, the King granted the site, with the manor lands, appropriated rectory, and patronage of the vicarage to Thomas Wodehouse, Esq. of Waxham and the buildings shared the usual fate of becoming the quarry of the neighbourhood.
The grant given to Thomas Wodehouse is thus shortly noticed in the fee.
Farm-Roll of the County of Norfolk remaining in the Augmentation Office. Seal and Arms of the Monastery or Priory of Bromholm.
” The seal of the Prior,” says Blomfield, ” is round and large, and about 3 inches in diameter of red ware, the impress being the west end of the church. Under an arch in the centre is the figure of St. Andrew, seated, a glory round his head and a cross in his elevated right hand, supposed to represent the cross or rood of the priory. Above, in the arch, is the bust of the Virgin, with the infant Jesus in her arms.” The legend, ” Sigillum Prioris et conventus Sci. Andree De Bromhold.”
Whatever was left of Bromholm Priory a century later is said to have been bombarded by Oliver Cromwell’s artillery from nearby Butt Hill during the Civil War. A favourite tale about Butt Hill was that when the Priory was under siege, the attacking force carted earth from Bacton Green to make the mound, upon which they stood their cannon to bombard the Priory. However, they found that the mound was sited too close, and a local woman betrayed the Priory by telling the artillery that its weakest part was on the western side. They therefore moved their cannon further west, to the rather low but natural eminence of Butt Hill from which they successfully struck the Priory and took it. Along the southern edge of Butt Hill runs Bloodslat (or Bloodslade) Lane, where attackers and defenders are supposed to have met in a skirmish so fierce that they fought in blood “up to their ankles”. Another version of the story claims that it is linked to Oliver Cromwell and his forces that were besieging the priory – Who knows?.
Little also is known of the post-dissolution history of the Bromholm. Finds of Elizabethan and later coins which were concentrated north of the Priory church and west of the trackway to the main gatehouse indicated commercial use of the site, possibly the continuation of a market. Any use of the old Priory appears to have quickly decreased in the early 17th century, after which it became a farm. By the time of Buck’s View of 1738 the buildings had become ruinous. The north transept was used as a dovecote and is depicted with a pyramidal roof surmounted by a lantern. The east window in the chapter house still remained at this date, as did part of the west end of the church as high as the clerestory. In 1834 the priory was being used as ‘a quarry for agricultural buildings and edifices’ by Col. Wodehouse (Woodward, S., Correspondence vol. II folio 67v, 1834, p. 59). The Tithe Apportionment of 1845 makes it clear that most of the monastic precinct was under full cultivation.
When Henry Harrod, FSA, visited the ruins in 1854, he saw the corn waving high over the position of the altar. He described the south side of the north transept, which originally opened into the main body of the church, as being bricked up, along with most of the windows, and wooden floors put in. The transept was used as storage for agricultural implements and wood, and the lower part was appropriated for a cart-shed. According to Harrod, the original building at Bromholm was very small and no portion of it remained (Gleanings Among the Castles and Convents of Norfolk, 1857, p. 220). The oldest building to survive was the remains of the north transept which dated to the late 12th century. We know that early in the 13th the priory was considerably enlarged as a result of the acquisition of the relic and Harrod produced a plan of its layout in 1854 that incorporated a plan made by Mr Spurdens in 1822 depicting the foundations when they were much more distinct.
This shows that Bromholm had a typical Cluniac layout, very similar to that at Castle Acre Priory. At the north end was the priory church with the tower flanked by north and south transepts and the choir at the east end with north and south aisles. To the south of the south transept there was a slype (a covered passageway) and then the chapterhouse. Adjoining the chapterhouse on the south side was the dormitory, and on the west side was the cloister. The refectory was parallel to the cloister on its south side. Spurden marked an enclosure to the east of the chapterhouse and thought it was the cemetery. This is likely as the cemetery is in this position at Castle Acre. In 1935 a stone coffin containing a skeleton was found nearby in the east field. The main entrances were through the north and west gatehouses which both date to the 15th century. Harrod found the gatehouse in fairly good repair, but only a few building fragments remained on farmland of the north and south transepts and parts of the chapterhouse, dormitory and refectory.
Given the Priory’s proximity to the coast, it was heavily fortified during the Second World War. A gun emplacement was built into the ruin of the north transept and a loopholed wall was built to the north of the farmhouse. A pillbox was built at the north end of the garden to Abbey Farmhouse, it was a variant of the Type 22 pillbox. These are hexagonal in shape with walls around 30-60cm thick. The internal measurement between opposite walls is around 3m and usually there are rifle loops in five of the six walls and an entrance in the sixth.
It is highly likely that the flint rubble and red brick used to camouflage the pillbox were salvaged from old priory or farm buildings on the site. On the west side of the pillbox is the base of a spigot mortar which has been displaced as it would normally be in a pit and surrounded by ammunition lockers. Various other spigot mortar bases were also established around the site to create a line of defence. Sections of the priory have collapsed since the 1960s, notably the window at the east end of the south wall of the chapter house and the arch in the east wall of the chapterhouse. More of the dormitory also remained, at least as rough masonry, with walls extending to their original two-storey height in some places and one particularly well preserved window. The priory precinct is currently under arable cultivation.
Legend has it that from the ruins of the priory runs a tunnel to the site of Gimingham Hall, four miles along the coast. Midway between the two, the tunnel is said to be divided by a huge pair of golden gates. Another passage apparently leads from the hall to the sea. With all these things, there is also rumoured to be the remains of a secret tunnel linking the priory with St Margaret’s Church, complete with golden gates in existence. Take your pick!
The present location of Bromholm Priory is at Abbey Farm, Bacton, Norfolk, NR12 0HA. Unfortunately, the ruins are on private land and therefore not, generally, open to the public.
According to Blomfield: “Such is, as far as can be traced, the history of the monastery, which it is hoped will lead many to visit the interesting old ruin, and do what in them lies to preserve from further decay the work of ages when men’s hearts burned with the religious fervour, happily, though slowly, reviving in this present age. Every year serves to dispel the absurd notion that the examination and preservation of these old religious houses will foster or create a desire to return to forms of superstitious usage. But as Bishop Stanley so elegantly puts it: “We do not dream of retracing our steps to carry back humanity to the darker periods of history ; we seek to glean from them all that is good, and to go forward with a swifter, firmer foot.”
All of us can imagine the medieval world. Our imagination was created by our upbringing, the books we read, and the films we saw. Imagining the Middle Ages is an act that usually starts in childhood, and changes slowly as we grow older. From the brightly coloured pages of a child’s history book to the visceral panoramas of the latest season of Game of Thrones, how we see the Middle Ages changes. In most cases, however, the fundamental perspective remains the same: it’s an elite view of the medieval past, a Middle Ages composed of princes and kings, of knights and fair damsels in distress. It is a vision of the past that includes the splendour of great cathedrals and the brooding darkness of mighty castles. A past of banquets and battles. But it has little bearing upon reality.
The problem with our view of the Middle Ages is that it excludes the vast majority of people who lived in it, so it’s a highly partial and misleading picture of that world. Just like today, most medieval people did not belong to top 5 per cent of society, they weren’t kings, princes, knights, or damsels. Most men, women and children were commoners. It is no coincidence that this other, everyday, 95 per cent of the population was the one who did most of the work.
Putting aside farming, food processing and survival, it was these workers who were responsible for actually building most of what we think of when the Middle Ages come to mind. These are the people who built the magnificent medieval cathedrals, the craftsmen who constructed the dour and monumental castles. The workers whose blood and sweat bonds together the stones of every medieval church. They are the men whose deft fingers filled window spaces with blindingly bright stained glass. These are the people who built the Middle Ages. Yet we really know very little about them.
The voices of medieval commoners are largely silent. The science of archaeology tells us something about their general health, about what they wore, where they lived, and what they ate. Modern techniques such as isotope analysis can even tell us details such as where they grew up. The wonders of modern science have their limitations, however. Archaeology and isotope analysis cannot tell us what these people felt and thought, what they dreamed of and feared, what they thought was funny or what they held dear.
Most medieval documents come with the same limitations. Occasionally, the lower classes turn up in the odd surviving document, account book or legal proceedings but, with low levels of literacy throughout much of the Middle Ages, these documents are usually the work of third parties. They were written and compiled by the priests, scribes and lawyers of the elite. They refer to the lower orders, but are most certainly not in their own words. Even where they turn up in the bright borders of illuminated manuscripts, it is alongside the fantasy beasts and grotesques of the medieval imagination rather than as a reflection of reality. Their voice – the voice of the medieval commoner, of the vast majority of medieval people – is largely lost.
The past seven or eight years have seen a massive rise in one particular area of medieval studies – an area that has the potential to give back a voice to the silent majority of the medieval population. Specialists have been studying medieval church graffiti for many decades. But new digital imaging technologies, and the recent establishment of numerous volunteer recording programmes, have transformed its scope and implications. The study of early graffiti has become commonplace. The first large-scale survey began in the English county of Norfolk a little over six years ago. Norfolk is home to more than 650 surviving medieval churches – more than in any other area in England. The results of that survey have been astonishing.
To date, the Norfolk survey has recorded more than 26,000 previously unknown medieval inscriptions. More recent surveys begun in other English counties are revealing similar levels of medieval graffiti. A survey of Norwich Cathedral found that the building contained more than 5,000 individual inscriptions. Some of them dated as far back as the 12th century. It has also become clear that the graffiti inscriptions are unlike just about any other kind of source in medieval studies. They are informal. Many of the inscriptions are images rather than text. This means that they could have been made by just about anyone in the Middle Ages, not just princes and priests. In fact, the evidence on the walls suggests that they were made by everyone: from the lord of the manor and parish priest, all the way down to the lowliest of commoners. These newly discovered inscriptions are giving back individual voices to generations of long-dead medieval churchgoers. The inscriptions number in the hundreds of thousands, and they are opening an entire new world of research.
Today, graffiti is seen as both destructive and anti-social. It is widely regarded as vandalism, not as something to be encouraged on ancient monuments and historic sites. That attitude is largely a modern one. Until recent centuries, people of just about every level of society carved graffiti into ancient buildings. It simply wasn’t seen as something to be condemned. The Coliseum in Rome, or Bodiam Castle in England, to take just two examples of key European heritage sites, are covered in centuries-worth of graffiti. Many of these inscriptions were created by members of the upper classes undertaking a ‘Grand Tour’ at the end of their education, and date to the 18th and 19th century. In the same tradition, early visitors to the Egyptian pyramids didn’t even need to carve the graffiti themselves – they could hire someone to do it for them. Graffiti was seen as something that was both accepted and acceptable.
Medieval masons, the people who actually built these monuments, left the earliest markings to be found on any medieval church or cathedral. The traditional story is that each individual mason would have his own personal mark, which he’d inscribe wherever he’d worked. These angular marks, known today as ‘mason’s marks’, acted as a form of quality control. They also allowed the ‘master mason’, who doubled as architect and paymaster, to calculate how much each of his workmen was due to be paid. Masons today continue this old practice of marking their work, but their marks are more discreet, hidden away between stones and in darkened corners. Occasionally, the medieval masons left something more.
Their pragmatic approach to the construction of these stone monuments meant that the walls themselves sometimes served as drawing boards. In a few cases, such as at Binham Priory in Norfolk or Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, intricate working drawings can be found etched into the stones. The designs at Binham all appear to relate to the building of the priory’s great west front in the 1240s. It is one of the earliest marvels of gothic window design to be built in England. The nameless master-mason who undertook the work was apparently unfamiliar and uncomfortable with this innovative style. Step by step, he worked out the specifics of the design on the walls of the half-finished priory church. Sadly, the great west window, which acted as a centrepiece to the design, structurally failed in the late 18th century. It then had to be bricked up – and remains so today. From the mason’s inscriptions, however, we have a clear indication of how this groundbreaking design would have looked.
Witch marks were, simply, prayers made solid in stone
Many of the markings discovered in medieval churches are all but identical. A survey of a church in northern England will reveal the same graffiti motifs and markings as those found in a church on the English South Coast. Even more remarkably, the same medieval markings recorded in most English churches are in churches across the whole of western Europe. Essentially, everywhere the medieval Christian church thrived, medieval Europeans inscribed their places of worship with the same graffiti marks. Known as ‘ritual protection marks’, medieval people believed that these symbols warded off evil influences. Today they are more commonly called ‘witch marks’.
Witch marks make up about a third of all recorded inscriptions. This means that we have many, many thousands of examples of them. Some churches, such as that at Cowlinge in Suffolk, can contain many dozens of witch marks. It is a rare church that doesn’t contain at least a small collection. These markings make clear the differences between the medieval and modern concepts of graffiti. Much modern graffiti tends to be collections of names and dates, examples of people ‘leaving their mark’ upon a place.
However, witch marks belong to the world of faith and spirituality. They were not a replacement for the orthodox prayers of the Christian church. As much as the Church might have disapproved, people used them in association, as supplements to orthodox prayers. They enhanced the spiritual, and symbolised God’s protection from the powers of evil. They were, simply, prayers made solid in stone.
What makes the witch marks even more powerful is that they were also personal. The religion of medieval England was one of hierarchy, with parishioners’ own worship and interactions being organised and mediated by the parish priest. The priest, in turn, was subservient to the local bishop and, eventually, to the Pope himself. The prayers in the stonework altogether bypass that hierarchy, and it’s a hierarchy from which almost all other historical sources from the medieval world originate. These are personal interactions and statements by everyday members of the parish congregation with ‘their’ God. There is no need of intercession by priests, bishops or the Pope. In that way, they reveal things that the official, learned histories of medieval religion never can. These are not actions based deep in medieval theology and scholarly argument. They are acts of personal faith and belief, reflecting real people’s hopes, dreams and fears.
Many of the other images on the walls were born of an agricultural society. We see windmills, horses and geese – fixtures of peasant life. These are things that they saw every day, that were important to them, and essential to their ability to feed themselves and their families. The walls are also covered in the mundane: images of the people themselves, their faces and hands. In some cases, they left full-length portraits. Staring at the medieval walls long enough will sometimes result in the walls staring back.
Beasts and dragons are also included in the graffiti. They are strange and misshapen creatures, who seemingly walked, or flew, straight off the decorative borders of an illuminated manuscript. There are images of knights on horseback, heraldry and coats of arms, suggesting that the graffiti was either created by those from the knightly classes, or perhaps those who aspired to be. The walls are full of the peoples’ hopes. They also contain their darkest fears.
Take, for example, angels and demons: the medieval church was awash with images of them. Angels were carved into the elaborate roof timbers, their wings outstretched soaring high above the congregation. Angels flew in the bright wall paintings that once adorned almost every medieval church, passing news to the Virgin Mary or leading the souls of the departed heavenward. Angels guarded the ends of dark wooden pews and pale stone fonts, carved there, bearing shields emblazoned with the arms of saints.
The demons are there, too. Grotesque beasts painted on the walls above the chancel arch, casting the souls of the damned down into the everlasting sufferings of hell. Comic demons sitting beneath the carved seats of the choir-stalls, bared backsides raised to noisily salute the clergy who perched upon them. Demons in coloured glass dance in the windows.
Demons were very real, and to be feared. This fear drove people to carve their counter-curses into the walls of the parish church.
But while the medieval church was formally adorned with angels and demons, when it comes to the graffiti on the walls, there are only demons – many dozens of them, from the grotesque to the comic, dancing across the angel-free stonework.
Why are there no angels? The reason is quite simple. The graffiti on the walls shows only what those who made it thought was real and immediate. Angels were heavenly beings. They littered the pages of the Bible, but could not be expected to play a part in the lives of the people in the world. Demons, on the other hand, were very real indeed. It was demons who were responsible for any sudden illness or unexplained death. Demons brought down a blight upon the harvest crops. Demons unbalanced the mind of the simpleton, and brought on the terrifying storms that could lay waste a whole year’s crop in a single afternoon. Demons were real and to be feared. This fear drove medieval people to carve their counter-curses into the walls of the parish church.
Of all the graffiti being recorded in English churches, text inscriptions are actually rather rare. They make up only about 5 per cent of all the discovered markings: again, a distinct difference with modern graffiti. The rarity is in part a result of the low rates of contemporary literacy, but it is also testimony to the power of images over the written word. Many of the text inscriptions are difficult to read even by long-practiced historians. Generation after generation of wear and abrasion has left them in a sorry state. Even those that can still be made out are sometimes less than illuminating. The poor level of education among some parish priests, and the use of shortcuts and contractions, is reflected in the sometimes appalling attempts at Latin found on the walls. In many cases, the Latin is so bad that the only person who could probably have read it was the very same person who wrote it. Sometimes the writing on the walls simply can’t be read.
So what are these ancient markings on our medieval churches? Are they simply the random scribblings and doodles of bored choirboys, or do they have a deeper significance? Is there a meaning to some of them beyond the obvious? Beyond the simple statement of ‘I was here’? Recent research suggests that, yes, they are very important.
One of the most striking types of medieval graffiti is that of medieval ships. These small images are among the best-studied of all the graffiti, and are beginning to shed light on the mystery of exactly why they were made. When the modern surveys began, it was widely presumed that ship graffiti was confined to coastal churches: simple images created by local people of the ships they saw every day. However, research has shown that ship graffiti is found just about anywhere in the country. There are examples from Wiltshire and Leicestershire, about as far from the sea as one can get in mainland England. Even more intriguing, all the examples of ship graffiti, even those found many miles inland, appear to show sea-going vessels. The church at Blakeney, on the north Norfolk coast in the east of England, can help to explain why there is so much graffiti of these little ships.
Blakeney’s church is covered in early graffiti inscriptions, and they are spread fairly evenly throughout the building. All the dozens of examples of ship graffiti, however, are to be found clustered in one clear and distinct area. Without exception, all of the images were inscribed on the pillars of the south arcade – and most are on the single pillar that sits at the eastern end. According to maritime historians, the images were created over a period of 200-300 years. Despite this, each little ship respects the space of those around them, never crossing over one another. This tells us that the earlier ships were still clearly visible when the later images were created centuries later.
People sat in the dark, praying for the safety of a long-drowned ship, and etched their fears and demons into the walls.
It is, however, their location that holds the real clue to their meaning. The eastern pillar into which they are carved sits opposite the side altar in the south aisle. From the historical record we know that this altar was dedicated to a church’s patron saint. In the case of Blakeney, that was Saint Nicholas. Now better known for his association with children and Christmas, throughout the Middle Ages St Nicholas was regarded as the patron of ‘those in peril upon the sea’. The ship graffiti is clustered around the St Nicholas altar for a reason. Historians and archaeologists believe that each of these little ships was a ‘votive’ offering – quite literally, a prayer carved into the stonework. Exactly what that prayer was, we might never know. Was it a prayer of thanksgiving for a voyage safely undertaken, or a prayer for safe passage on a voyage yet to be made? The fact that some of the ships appear damaged has led some to suggest that these might be prayers for ships, crews and loved ones that never made it home.
This is the true value of searching out these ancient inscriptions on the wall. These little prayers and etchings offer one of the few avenues into the hopes and feelings of those who left their mark many centuries ago. It is not a world of knights, princes and kings. It is a world of real, fallible human beings. People who sat in the dark, praying for the safety of a long-drowned ship, and etched their fears and demons into the walls. Quite simply, the medieval graffiti gives us back the lost voices of the medieval world.
Written by Matthew Champion: He is a British historian and archaeologist who is interested in architectural investigation, heritage planning and the environment, and is the author of Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches.
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Following their introduction into the British Isles by the Normans, rabbits were farmed in manmade warrens call “Coneygarths”, whose so-called “pillow mounds” encouraged the species to burrow and facilitate their capture. The construction of pillow mounds represents a remarkable long-lived form of animal husbandry, which in some places remained in use until the early 20th century. The vast majority of known pillow mounds are thought to be post-medieval and consequently the landscapes of extant rabbit warrens are a reflection of post-medieval warrening experience rather than that preceeded it.
Further, although former warrens are geographically widespread across England and Wales, their remains are more prevalent in western upland areas because the growth of arable practices in Eastern England during post-medieval period removed many of that regions former warrens. Despite this, chancery records reveals numerous references to rabbits and rabbit warrens in Eastern England compared to elsewhere. They also imply that the warrens in Eastern England were able to produce a surplus of rabbits that suported an export trade and supplied the Royal Court at Westminister, something that warrens in the remainder of England were less able to do.
The rabbit was rare in medieval England and much sought after for both its meat and its fur by landlord and poacher alike. Today the rabbit is regarded as prolific, destructive and of little value but this modern reputation belies historical experience where or much of its history the rabbit was a rare and highly prized commodity. The animal, believed to be indigenous during a previous interglacial period, was considered extinct until deliberately (re)introduced via France in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its value lay both in its meat and fur and, as someone noted in the 17th century:
‘no host could be deemed a good housekeeper that hath not plenty of these at all times to furnish his table’.
The rabbit’s fur was used as clothing as well as on clothing and, although neither the most fashionable nor valuable, rabbit fur became very popular in the 13th century. Yet in the beginning when first introduced, the rabbit found the English climate inhospitable and needed careful rearing and cosseting inside specially created warrens such as ‘pillow mounds’. For the next five centuries the vast majority of England’s rabbit population lived protected within these confines, and it was not until the 18th century that it successfully broke out and colonised a much wider area and through numbers devalued its worth.
Back in the 17th century the rabbit was still regarded as an important cash crop. In the Middle Ages rabbit warrens represented almost the sole source of supply for rabbits and their scarcity made them a valuable and fiercely guarded commodity. Indeed, the collapse of the grain market in the later 14th and 15th centuries encouraged some landlords to develop their warrens as an alternative source of income, to the extent that rabbiting can be classed as an unlikely but successful late medieval growth industry.
Throughout the Middle Ages the right to hunt and kill any beast or game was a special privilege granted by the king, so that all hunting was carefully controlled and restricted. Hunting in the extensive royal forests was the privilege of the king alone, but outside these areas the Crown was prepared to sell exclusive hunting rights by means of a charter of free-warren. In effect, the recipient of this charter was granted the sole right to kill the beasts of warren, which basically consisted of the pheasant, partridge, hare and rabbit, within a specified area. Hence the right to keep and kill rabbits was the exclusive privilege of the owner of free-warren and it was therefore illegal for anybody else to attempt to do so. Free-warren was consequently a valuable privilege, jealously guarded by its owner.
Whereas the modern rabbit has developed a resilience to the damp British climate, its medieval predecessor felt this aversion more keenly so areas of dry and sandy soil were chosen; also, gradients were preferred so as to facilitated both drainage and the dispersal of burrowed soil. Significantly the largest concentration of warrens in East Anglia was in Breckland, a region of undulating heathland, low rainfall and deep, porous sands, in other words an ideal habitat for the rabbit.
Most warrens in East Anglia had been founded by the late 13th century, many by church landlords. The Bishoprics of Ely created warrens at Brandon and Freckenham respectively; Bury St Edmunds Abbey did likewise at Mildenhall and so did West Acre Priory at Wicken and Custhorpe in Norfolk. The Prior and Convent of Ely were granted free-warren in Lakenheath. It is believed that the rabbit was a particularly favoured delicacy of the Abbot of St Edmunds who had a warren created at his country retreat in Elmswell and at Long Melford, whilst both West Acre and West Dereham Priories also established their own warrens nearby. Various lay landlords were also prominent in this new experiment, notably at Methwold, Thetford, Tunstead and Gimingham. It is difficult to ascertain the exact area of these early warrens, although the largest swept down the western edge of Breckland from Thetford through Wangford to Eriswell. By the end of the Middle Ages such warrens had probably grown to occupy the 1000 acres plus they were to reach at their zeniths.
The distinctive clustering of warrens indicates that the rabbit did not colonize a wide geographical area and even in central parts of East Anglia it remained a rare beast. This might surprise a modern reader familiar with the animal’s ubiquity and sex drive, but the medieval rabbit was fragile and uncomfortable in its new, cold environment and under constant threat from predators and harsh winter conditions. Consequently, low fertility and high mortality rates restricted natural increase, even within the relative safety of the warren. This placed severe restrictions on long distance migrations, although undoubtedly some fledgling warrens were spawned in the vicinity of the early warrens, and these were then exploited by eager landlords.
The exploitation of warrens was a highly skilled business and most warreners were full-time manorial officials, paying them handsome wages but often stipulating their exact duties and reserving the right of dismissal if their work was unsatisfactory. Besides financial remuneration, most warreners enjoyed other perks such as extra pasture rights and flee accommodation within the warren lodge. The pressures of their work were largely seasonal and peaked with cullings in the autumn when the rabbit’s fur was thickest. Extra help was often required in this busy period, as at Lakenheath in I384 when seven men were hired for twenty weeks.
The most common method of trapping was with ferrets and nets, the ferrets being released into specific burrows to drive the rabbits above ground and into nets tended by trappers. Most warreners reared their own ferrets, although sometimes a ferreter was hired at considerable expense. For much of the year, however, the warrener worked alone to guard his rabbits against hunger and predators and even to seek ways to encourage breeding. Surprisingly perhaps, the early rabbits were reluctant burrowers, which prompted some warreners to construct artificial burrows or ‘pillow mounds’. Over time, rabbits got the message!
Pillow mounds were designed to provide dry, well-ventilated burrows in which the rabbit could breed comfortably; the very existence of these ‘aids’ just emphasize both the animal’s unease in the damp climate and the need to mother the animal carefully. Warreners needed to take positive steps to curtail rabbit’s high mortality rates, particularly with any shortage of winter food, although on the heathlands gorse provided a cheap and convenient source. Other than that, oats were regularly fed to rabbits. Warreners also waged a perpetual war against the rabbit’s natural predators and poachers. The fox, stoat, weasel, wildcat and polecat stalked with ruthless efficiency, so that Brandon, Lakenheath and Kennett warrens were set with numerous traps and snares ‘for nocturnal predators’.
The real threat from both predators and poachers eventually resulted in the construction of a wooden watchtower at Lakenheath warren in I365 and a stone lodge in Methwold by I413, followed by Thetford. These lodges were features of medieval Breckland and the one at Thetford still stands. Most date from the late 14th century and reflected the threat posed by poachers and the determination of landlords to protect increasingly valuable assets. These remarkable buildings also absorbed much of the capital invested in warrens for they were expensive to build and maintain. Brandon lodge was completed in the I380’s and stood at two storeys high and was protected by slit windows and flint walls three feet thick. At Elmswell in the early 16th century, the warren lessee was allowed over one-sixth the value of the lease each year to spend on upkeep. Rabbit rearing was otherwise a relatively inexpensive business, with the major expenditure on labour.
Output from most warrens remained low until the later 14th century. Cullings varied wildly from year to year, but seldom exceeded a couple of hundred. The sale price of the rabbit reflected its scarcity and for a century after its introduction to East Anglia it cost at least 3d each, which was equivalent to the wage of almost two days’ unskilled labour. Rabbits proved most acceptable gifts to friends, favourites and eminents and the Prior of Ely sent sixty to Edward III in I345.
Prior to the Black Death of 1348-9, rabbit production was a distinctly low output concern geared primarily towards household consumption. It presented some commercial opportunities in the luxury goods market, but its mass marketing potential was restricted by its high price and the low incomes of most Englishmen. The early warrens often represented a net financial loss in many years, emphasizing that rabbits were essentially an indulgence enjoyed only by the very wealthy. However, the drastic reduction in the human population after the mid-14th century Black Death heralded a remarkable change in fortunes for commercial rabbiting. This was brought about by rapid gains in living standards and the purchasing power for many people. This increased purchasing power induced changes in taste and fashion and opened up a new market for goods previously considered as nonessential. Hence in the late 14th century there was considerable growth in output of goods with relatively high value, such as woollen cloth, cutlery, leather goods, pewter and wine.
Commercial rabbit rearing benefited from the changing economic conditions in a number of ways. First, the labour costs of rabbit keeping were low compared to grain farming and this enhanced its attractiveness to landlords in a period of rising wages. Furthermore, cullings could be sharply increased without a big rise in labour inputs, so that unit costs in rabbit production fell appreciably in the 14th century. Secondly, the demand for meat rose, and although there are no grounds for supposing that the rabbit suddenly became the meat of the masses, it certainly descended the social scale. Lastly, demand for better clothing increased and chroniclers commented on the rising standard of dress amongst the masses. Being a low-value fur, rabbit was most likely to benefit from any expansion in the mass clothing market. The common grey rabbit was most numerous in East Anglian warrens and was used for warmth rather than for display. On the other hand, Methwold, Wretham and some coastal warrens specialised in the rarer silver- grey and black rabbits. These were much more fashionable as an adornment on clothing and, apparently, Henry VII possessed night attire tailored with black rabbit fur which bore a close resemblance to the more expensive ermine and was much in demand as an imitation. By mid-century the rabbit had replaced the Russian squirrel as the basic fur of north-west Europe, and the growth of exports from London points to England’s role as a major supplier. London was not the only port to benefit, for at Blakeney in the 16th century rabbit skins were the fourth-largest export commodity. The Low Countries remained an important market, but Norfolk ports also sent furs to Danzig and the Baltic.
The rabbit trade between East Anglia and London also remained prosperous for some considerable time. Methwold warren was a regular supplier to the London market and a London merchant was fined for importing East Anglian rabbits during the close season imposed by the Poulters. Throughout the Middle Ages this Guild had fixed the price of rabbits on the London market and in the 15th century one would fetch between 3d and 4d. Even after the relatively high costs of transport and labour, the net profit on one trip was still considerable.
The rabbit undoubtedly made a significant impact upon those areas to which it was introduced. East Anglian soils display a wide variety of type and composition, from fertile clays to thin, acidic sands, and in the Middle Ages these sands presented a formidable obstacle to cultivation. Rabbits were valuable precisely because they provided an opportunity to make productive use of the poorest soils, and indeed some warrens were founded on soils described as fit only for rabbits. Furthermore, as areas of poor soil were most likely to suffer the brunt of the declining grain market in the later Middle Ages, then rabbiting offered a welcome source of alternative income in a difficult period. The industry presented a range of employment opportunities, not all of them legal, and as output increased so did the occupational spin-offs. The position of warrener was itself financially rewarding, whilst helping with the trapping or guarding of rabbits could provide a useful source of supplementary income at the very least.
The preparation of furs was a skilled and specialized task, and towns and villages near the warren areas harboured a number of skinners and barkers dependent on the local rabbit and sheep trades. They were prominent in medieval Thetford and Bury St Edmunds. The rabbit industry also encouraged other specialists in the clothing trades, such as listers and glove-makers . It is also probable that the fur was sometimes shorn from the skin and then felted, again for use in clothing. Of course, the amount of specialist craftwork generated by the rabbit industry locally should not be overstated, for the largest warrens tended to send their produce directly to London, and so some of the benefit accrued to London skinners and poulters. However, this trade, though largely seasonal, did then provide much needed stimulus to the boatmen and carriers of the region. As the mass of the peasantry was legally excluded from taking the rabbit, any benefit to them from the growth of the industry would appear negligible. However, it is suspected that many peasants living in the vicinity of warrens secured a reasonable supply of rabbits illegally, either for domestic consumption or for distribution through the black market. The incidence of poaching increases rapidly from the mid-fourteenth century, reflecting both the growth in rabbits and of poaching itself.
The attraction of poaching was its simplicity and its profitability. Most warrens were situated on vast and isolated tracts of heathland, some distance from the nearest village and were therefore exposed and palpably difficult to protect. In addition, the rabbit prefers to leave its burrow and graze nocturnally, thus presenting poachers with excellent cover from the protective gaze of warren officials and with easier pickings on the ground. With no necessity to drive the colony from its burrows, they merely surrounded the unsuspecting animals with dogs. The stout warren lodges provided a base for the warreners’ operations against the poachers and welcome protection in case of danger, but they fought a losing battle.
Many of the peasants who lived in the rabbit-producing regions must have poached at some stage during their lives and most of the reported cases involved one-off offenders. However, the countless references to the use of nets, ferrets and dogs largely indicated planned operations within the rabbit-warren itself, and often the perpetrators of these deeds are common or habitual poachers. It is also apparent that no-one was beyond reproach, judging by the number of petty clerics involved in poaching. In 1435 the parson of Cressingham was fined for poaching at Swaffham and Augustinian canons from Blythburgh Priory were regular unwanted visitors to Westwood warren. In 1425 one of their number, Thomas Sherman, was described in the court roll as ‘a poaching canon’. ”
Most of these regular poachers reared their own ferrets and dogs, and made their own nets. Greyhounds were popular, and were certainly favoured by the Blythburgh canons. However, rough heathland terrain proved demanding and other poachers preferred the more hardy lurcher, a cross between the greyhound and the collie. Court officials kept a watchful eye over these men, and John Brette of Flempton (Surf) was fined because ‘he kept a certain dog in order to kill the lord’s rabbits’. Some poachers, such as Geoffrey Sewale of Walberswick, preferred to set traps in the warrens but for many, ferreting remained the most popular. Indeed, they were in such demand on the Suffolk Sandlings in the 15th century that one Blythburgh canon ran a profitable business in leasing his well-trained ferrets to other poachers, presumably for a suitable fee.
By the later Middle Ages poaching had become a sufficiently serious and lucrative business for poachers to organize themselves into gangs. These were not merely some haphazard extension of individual operations, but represented a deliberate and carefully planned pooling of knowledge and resources. Their activities were characterized by efficiency and ruthlessness and they entered warrens heavily armed and equipped with a comprehensive range of poaching accessories. Their success undoubtedly prompted manorial officials to try and catch them with incriminating evidence even before they entered the warrens. The homes of an East Suffolk gang were scrutinized by court officials from Walberswick, who allegedly found four men keeping lurchers ‘in their tenements’, one man keeping ferrets and a net in his house’, and another with a supply of ‘haypenne’ nets. A Thetford gang of the 1440s, equally well equipped but more elusive, was reportedly operating in Downham warren attired with ‘soldiers tunics, steel helmets, bows and arrows’, whilst others were armed ‘with cudgels and staffs’. In September I444 this formidable bunch attacked and wounded three members of a rival gang from Elveden and without licence abducted and unjustly imprisoned them in the town of Thetford’.
Many of these Breckland gangs were comprised of skilled craftsmen, notably bakers, weavers, fishermen, and hostelers, and with their wide range of contacts hostelers may have been particularly important in co-ordinating activities. It is also possible that some warreners played a double game, for their expertise and local knowledge would have been invaluable. A Robert Fisher, a warrener living in Thetford, certainly poached in nearby Downham warren in 1446. With or without inside help, most poaching gangs included a number of men drafted from outside the locality. Court rolls always listed those culprits known to them, but often complained that these were joined by many other unknown men’. Such anonymity reduced the courts’ chances of breaking up gangs, and provided the gangs themselves with a wider range of dispersal points for their illicit gains.
It is possible that the rise in poaching was motivated by a sense of social grievance as much as by economic necessity. Resistance to the feudal order was endemic in late medieval East Anglia and court rolls repeatedly record refusals to perform manorial offices, labour services and the like. Occasionally this flared into violent protest, and most commentators have noted the vehemence of the I381 revolt in the region. The criminal activities of the poaching gangs were primarily directed against the ‘privilege of feudal order’ and so might have been championed and condoned by other peasants.
The rabbit was undoubtedly a very tangible embodiment of feudal privilege and status and therefore an ideal medium for social protest. The Smithfield rebels of I38I explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt hares in the field. The physical damage caused by maurauding rabbits was certainly a source of friction and was amongst the grievances cited in Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk in 1549. Unfortunately, conclusive proof that poaching was a major form of social protest is elusive. Its increase in the later 14th century certainly corresponded with a rise in social tensions, but also with a rise in the demand for the rabbit. Indeed, there was little sense of camaraderie or social unity between those Thetford and Elveden gangs in the I440s.
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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 – but it did!
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, went. 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, folks will say that the bells can still be heard; Shipden’s church bells of old seem not to be the exception for locals may 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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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 in particular makes one feel that Norwich is far away and that the only exciting thing that would happen below the deciduous canopy of Mousehold is for Robert Kett to emerge with the city’s 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 round the area, including that odd little field or two set amongst the trees. It is a wood veined with sand and flint edged pathways that have been cut through ridges by centuries of feet; nice pathways, many of them through birches growing in shallow areas either side. Pick the right one, but avoiding bramble, rough undergrowth, burrs and ticks and the site of a largely forgotten chapel will emerge; 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 22nd March 1144. On that date, a despicable act, supposedly, took place at the site of the chapel – It was Easter and not the best time for a murder!
Get the detail right and the place will be a stark reminder of a disturbing and unpleasant moment that, they say, took place here. But take care; the way history works is not to run to 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 actual events – and, indeed, sometimes the truth. The St William’s Chapel story may well fit into this catagory 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 common thought or agenda was in place when it was first written. 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 bodies being found in a medieval well in Norwich, during the development of the Chapelfield Shopping Centre (see Footnote below). That report was clearly written for readers who like Time-Team programmes with their trowel and forensic archaeology. However, these sort of people may not be aware of all the detail which, in William’s case, confirms that he was a victim of what some believed was a ritualised murder. Further, he was only a young lad of about 12 years of age who was an apprentice skinner and tanner, the first recorded apprentice in English history so they say. He certainly died somewhere in Norwich on or around 22nd of March 1144 and it was on the 25th March that his body was found, mutilated on the heath close to, if not on the spot where the Chapel stood. Clearly, if he had been murdered elsewhere then his body would probably have been carried to the heath by horse to be disposed of.
Nobody truly knows who did the foul deed, or where, or even why; but, as ever, blame was quickly apportioned by the populace, egged on by the religious authorities and William’s family. Their collective finger pointed directly at the Jews of Norwich who, by the way, were protected by the Sheriff in the King’s name. Now, this is where politics vie with the powers of the church for front row seats, not forgetting that in the 12th century the King was Stephen. He not only had the church to deal with but also his cousin Matilda; they were both grandchildren of William the Conqueror and amongst all the others competing for a dominant position in ‘The Anarchy‘ – which, basically, was a rather nasty tribal squabble about who controls England – not forgetting Normandy of course. Add to this the question of the Jews who started to come over in 1066, who had French as their mother language – and settled in Norwich. Big trouble was afoot!
Thomas of Monmouth and his version of events: Enter the Monk, Thomas of Monmouth – here we can only presume that he was born in Monmouth because he is always identified by that town’s name. Having been “respectably educated” he first arrived in Norwich in 1150 and entered the Benedictine Priory there, probably staying until around 1174. It would appear that, whilst at the Priory, Thomas wasted no time in investigating the murder, some years earlier, of the boy William. First, he set about interviewing as many of the surviving ‘witnesses’ as possible. These included people who Thomas had already identified as being “converted Jews”; they provided him with inside information about events within the Jewish community. According to Thomas, one particular ‘convert’, called Theobald of Cambridge, told him that there was a written prophecy which stated that the Jews would regain control of Israel if they sacrificed a Christian child each year. Every year, Jewish leaders met in Narbonne to decide who would be asked to perform the sacrifice; in 1144, the Jews of Norwich were assigned that task.
This, and much more, was written up in his multi-volume Latin account of the crime, titled ‘The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich’ which Thomas of Monmouth started shortly after his arrival in Norwich in 1150, and completed Volume 7 by 1173. It is thought that the original manuscript no longer survives, but a unique copy is in the Cambridge University Library.
Since most information about William’s life comes only from Thomas’s writings, it is difficult to distinguish the facts of the case from the story of martyrdom created around it by Thomas. It was he who devoted himself to the promotion of William to sainthood; even his opening sentence of Volume 1 reflects that both he, and presumably 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”.
One cannot help feeling that Thomas seemed proud that his adopted city of Norwich should be blessed with a new saint, despite the apparent horrible circumstances surrounding the young boy’s death. Having set the tone, his writing 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, Thomas of Monmouth was ultimately unsuccessful in getting William of Norwich canonized as a saint, but did succeed in creating a cult around him in Norwich. From the outset, Thomas contended that he had received visions from the founding Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga, who had died in 1119. According to Thomas, Losinga told him that William’s body should be moved into the Chapter House of the monastery, but Thomas had to battle with the sceptical Prior Elias, who was unconvinced of William’s sanctity. However, the body of William was in fact moved within the same year of Thomas’s arrival in Norwich. That year of 1150 was also the year in which Elias died, and by then the cult of William was established.
Circumstances Leading up to the Murder: Thomas states 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. Thomas of Monmouth 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 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 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………..”
Thomas says that the body was concealed until the Good Friday and claims 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 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, two prominent citizens had already discovered William’s mutilated body as they strolled through the woods on the 22th March 1144; they were Lady Legarda and Henry de Sprowston, keeper of the Bishop’s stables. They noted the injuries which suggested to them 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? – before passing the matter over to others who, after consultation with the local priest, 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, members of William’s family arrived to confirm the identity of the body before William was buried, with proper ceremony, on Easter Monday.
Beyond this, Thomas devotes most of his book not to the crime, but to the evidence for William’s sanctity, including mysterious lights seen around the body itself and miraculous cures affected on local devotees. Thomas admits that some of the clergy, notably the Prior Elias, were opposed to the cult on the grounds that there was little evidence of William’s piety or martyrdom. 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. A panel of painted oak, depicting both William and Agatha of Sicily, is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; William is shown holding a hammer and with three nails in his head. The panel was formerly part of a rood screen at the Norwich Church of St John Maddermarket. The screen was commissioned by Ralph Segrym who died in 1472, a merchant who became a Member of Parliament and Mayor of Norwich. Another rood screen in St Mary’s church, Worstead also depicts him holding nails. One in Loddon depicts William being crucified.
As it was, William’s death was never satisfactorily solved and the local authorities would therefore not convict anyone, simply because there was no proof. There the matter apparently rested, that is until a Thomas of Monmouth came along, some six years later, and got caught up in the clergy’s idea of establishing a cult around the death of William with a motive which must have been partly pecuniary. It was William de Turbeville, Bishop of Norwich between 1146 and 74 who encouraged Thomas of Monmouth to write his book as a precursor to the church achieving its aim. It turned out to be an extensive hagiography work; Volume 7 being completed in 1173. Clearly, it was designed to deify the boy and to blame the Norwich Jews for what became Britain’s first ‘Blood Libel’ – the idea that Jews use the blood of the murdered, usually Christian, children in Passover rituals to make bread – no more need be said!
The Aftermath: As a result of the feelings generated by the William ritual murder story and subsequent intervention by the authorities on behalf of the accused, the growing suspicion of collusion between the ruling class and Jews fuelled the general anti-Jewish and anti-King Stephen mood of the population. After Thomas of Monmouth’s version of William’s death circulated a number of other unsolved child murders were attributed to Jewish conspiracies:- This evolved into the so-called blood libel.
The horrific death of William of Norwich at the hands of an unknown became an appalling beginning for future propaganda exercises in many other parts of Britain and across Europe which used murdered children by unknowns, some of whom, as with William, became the subject of veneration. Proof of William’s veneration can be found in Norwich Cathedral, in a small chapel less than a stone’s throw from the choir stalls. It’s not an exciting place, wood lined and with a few chairs; seemingly out of place within the Cathedral’s splendour but comfortably near the tombs of old bishops. As someone said elsewhere, this is where the story starts to get really nasty. William is said to be buried here, after being moved several times in the church’s attempt to get William away from Thorpe Wood and nearer the high alter. The answer is all very simple; saints bring pilgrims and pilgrims bring money.
In 2004, the remains of 17 bodies were found at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich. They were discovered during an excavation of a site in the City’s centre, ahead of the construction of Chapelfield Shopping Centre.
According to the scientists, carrying out the investigation, the skeletons dated back to the 12th or 13th Centuries, at a time when Jewish people were facing persecution in Norwich and, indeed, throughout Europe. In their opinion, the most likely explanation for them being down the well were that they were Jewish and probably murdered or forced to commit suicide. Pictures taken at the time of excavation suggested the bodies were thrown down the well together, head first.
Using a combination of DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies in their investigation, the team established that eleven of the 17 skeletons were those of children aged between 2 and 15; the remaining six were adult men and women. Out of the total found, seven skeletons were successfully tested and five of them had a DNA sequence suggesting they were likely to be members of a single Jewish family.
A close examination of the adult bones showed fractures caused by the impact of hitting the bottom of the well. But the same damage was not seen on the children’s bones, suggesting they were thrown in after the adults who cushioned the fall of their bodies.
The team had considered the possibility of death by disease but the bone examination also showed no evidence of diseases.
Medieval Jewish History: 1066: The Norman Conquest opens the way to Jewish immigration. The monarchy needs to borrow money and Christians are forbidden to lend money at interest. London, Lincoln and York become centres for substantial Jewish populations.
1100s: Resentment against the Jewish community grows over their perceived wealth and belief they killed Jesus. The “blood libels” – Jews are accused of the ritual murder of Christian children.
1190: Many Jewish people massacred in York. In Norwich they flee to the city’s castle for refuge. Those who stay in their homes are butchered.
1230s: Executions in Norwich after an allegation a Christian child was kidnapped.
1272: Edward I comes to the throne and enforces extra taxes on the Jewish community.
1290: Edward I expels the Jews en masse after devising a new form of royal financing using Christian knights to fill the coffers.
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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 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.
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 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.
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?
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.