The oldest part of Hellesdon is along Low Road, on the outskirts of Norwich and away from the vast, and all too familiar, Hellesdon housing estates on the other side of the Drayton Road. The village and its parish church lay in the settlement of Lower Hellesdon, beyond the former Hellesdon Hospital; this relatively small area still preserves something of its former rural character, despite its proximity to both the estates and modern Costessey. It is indeed fortunate to be on the fringe of the present-day Hellesdon community; for if it were to be in its centre then the original village would, by now, be suffocated by what must be a case of over development – a continuing trend one would suspect, that can only get worst. On the face of it – and so far, the village and its parish church of St Mary’s are indeed the fortunate ones!
St Mary’s is not the grandest or prettiest church to be found in Norfolk, indeed, some might feel that it is somewhat odd – from an architectural point of view that is! St Mary’s is small but tall for its size – if that makes sense? Furthermore, most parts appear disproportionate to the other. Take the southern facing porch for instance; it appears too tall for such a squat Saxon Nave, and with quite small and simple windows which let light enter the very small room over the main porch entrance; this, in turn, allows access into the body of the church. Entry to the small elevated room above the porch is via an external stair turret, as seen to the left of the porch. As for the lead-covered bell turret; well, this struggles in its attempt to look like a spire, above the short ‘stumpy’ Nave which, in turn, is not helped by the addition of a north aisle – all be it having been built way back in the 14th century.
St Mary’s has, in the distance past, been referred to as the ‘church without land’ and is recorded as far back as in the Domesday Book of 1086. It is also believed, by some at least, that the old church or chapel that stood on this site marked the spot where King Edmund was interred and martyred in 869. One version of the story goes like this:
In 985, Abbo of Fleury, who at Ramsey Abbey (Cambridgeshire) compiled the ‘Life of St Edmund’, in which he writes of hearing the Archbishop relate a story that came from a young man who had heard it from a very old man who claimed to have been King Edmund’s armour bearer at the time of his death. On his capture, Edmund was whipped and tied to a tree, and shot with arrows. He was then beheaded and his head thrown into a bramble thicket in Hegelisdun Wood – hence the association with Hailesduna, present-day Hellesdon? The King’s head was later found, guarded by a wolf, and according to the story, the body was buried in a small chapel built nearby for the purpose. The site of the chapel is believed, again by some, to be where the present church of St Mary’s stands. However, some suggest otherwise, with Lyng (only a few miles away) offered up as one possibility!
Joe Mason wrote a blog back in 2015 when he said: “……..I must outline some of the story concerning the king’s [Edmund] death. This tale was written down by a French monk about a hundred years after the events described took place. In the manuscript [see previous quote] the location that was attacked by the invading Danes was a few miles downstream from Lyng at Hellesdon. This event is commemorated on the village sign at Lower Hellesdon, but for some unfathomable reason it is not believed by any academic historians. I think they must live in their ivory towers and have never got their feet muddy in Norfolk……The monk goes on to say that the King was buried a few miles away from Hellesdon, and a humble chapel was erected over his tomb [at Lyng?]. The king’s body did not stay in Norfolk very long, and well before a century had passed his body was re-interred at the place now known as Bury St Edmunds. The king’s body lay in Norfolk for less than 75 years and to this day everyone is unsure where…..”
Joseph C. W. Mason’s latest book ‘St Edmund and the Vikings 869–1066’ (see the above link) says so much more on the subject.
Not to put too finer a point on it – this story remains one of dispute, depending whether you live in Norfolk or Suffolk. But Hellesdon did stake its claim when images of St Mary’s Church, the dead body of King Edmund, and the wolf that stood guard over Edmund, found their way on to the village sign.
It used to be thought that the whole of the present church was 14th century, but now historians recognise that both the Nave and Chancel are much earlier – possibly between 1040 and 1120. The clue lies in the fact that both these parts of the church are built with whole flints laid in mortar, whereas the walls of the 14th century North Aisle are built of ‘knapped’ flints – whole flints having been cut to reveal flat shiny Surfaces.
St Mary’s may well have languished in insignificancy, or even faded completely from history, had it not been for a group of 14th century benefactors. One happened to be John de Heylesdon, he being a local man who became a citizen and merchant of London; he was supported by his wife Joan. Then there were John’s parents, Richard de Heylesdon and Beatrice; following close behind was Walter de Berney, yet another local man who also became a citizen and merchant of London – but he reaching the heights of Sheriff there in 1360.
The church might also be grateful to John de Heylesdon for its bell, which is the oldest surviving in Norwich and an item which, along with the contruction of the bellcote and steeple, was probably funded by de Heylesdon. This belief in his generosity is supported by the fact that this solitary bell is inscribed “JOHNES DE HEYLESDON ME FECIT FIERI IN HONORE MATRS CRESTI WILELLMVS DE NORWYCO ME FECIT” – Translated as ‘John de Helesdon caused me to be in honore of the Mother of Christ. William of Norwich made me’. As for its sound; well, this has been familiar to the Hellesdon community for generations, but it is probably very likely that few have ever actually seen it as access to the bellcote is very restricted, and in this day and age deemed perilous.
According to Freda M. Wilkins-Jones, who compiled a very readable booklet, titled ‘Notes on the History of St Mary’s Church, Hellesdon’ (and from which the historical content of this blog is largely based – incidentally, copies of which can be purchased at the church for a mere £2 donation); also included reference to another incumbent of St Mary’s:
“In 1362/63 the three men [mentioned above] obtained the manor and advowson – the right to present a clergyman to the living. It appears that Richard de Heylesdon had died by 1379 when the other two men presented Richard de Taseburgh to the living. They could have followed the example of other church benefactors and replaced the old building [St Mary’s] with one entirely new. However, it seems they loved the building, which even then, was old and contented themselves by making additions to it.”
These additions came in the form of a newly constructed north aisle and, it is believed, a two-storey porch on the south side of the chancel. Credit for these must clearly go to John de Heylesdon and his group of fellow benefactors. The addition to the 14th century north aisle runs the entire length of the church and, in effect, doubles its size. Of course, at the time of construction, little thought could have been given to the aesthetic nature of having an additional wing on only one side of the church, along with a disproportionate sized porch on the opposite south side; these only contribute to the overall ‘odd’ appearance of the present-day building.
On the outside, St Mary’s is pleasantly surrounded on all four sides by a neatly kept churchyard, broken only by one path on the north side which connects the church proper with the church hall, a less than well-kept car park, but a neatly kept churchyard extention beyond. On the south side a path connects the front entrance to a war memorial on the right, a small parking area with graves beyond, and the front porch to the left.
Into the porch and one is met with a neat, clean and plain looking enclosure which because of its simplicity has something of a calming effect as one prepares to enter into the nave beyond. On the porch ceiling are two bosses of a man and a woman – who are they the visitor might well ask. No one really knows, but one could reasonably speculate that they are perhaps the portraits of John and Joan de Heylesdon who, together with other benefactors, came to the rescue of St Mary’s centuries ago.
Again, according to Freda M. Wilkins-Jones: “the construction of the porch partly obstructed one of the original nave windows which, when viewed from the churchyard shows that part of the window was filled in. What is not so obvious is that the other part of that window still exists, as an alcove in the room over the porch. This small but charming room, with its lovely views of the southern part of the churchyard and the Wensum Valley beyond, its fireplace and chimney with its ‘squint’ (which at one time gave a view of the high altar) is now used by the Sunday School. There can be few Sunday Schools priviledged to have accommodation of such character.”
Stepping inside, one can see a well-kept interior which, nevertheless, is somewhat austere, given its narrowness and height. It begs the question as to what does this church really need in this day and age? But this question doesn’t detract from some of the attractive aspects of this church. Take the low-sided window in the south wall of the chancel for instance one of around fifty such windows to survive in Norfolk Churches. We are told that in medieval times it would have had a wooden shutter through which, during the daily celebration of Mass, a handbell would be rung so that those working at their tasks in the fields, or their homes, could pause, cross themselves and so take part in the service. Fortunately, this particular window has not been filled in; however, in 1858 when this window was unglazed, thieves entered through it, after which, it was glazed but the shutter and ironwork retained. Sometime thereafter the wooden shutter itself was removed and in 1953 a beautiful stain-glass window was installed, depicting the Virgin Mary and Child; this replaced the window damaged by bombing in 1942. Despite this, in 1987 it was vandalised, but was quickly repaired with an external transparent screen being mounted to prevent further assaults.
The present two-manual organ on the north side of the church was built by F. Browne and came from St Mary’s Church in Eastwell, Kent in 1949. Initially, the organ console was placed in the north aisle itself so that the organist sat with his back to the congregation. The carved lattace screen depicting the Benedicite was positioned to mask the organ pipes. The console was later moved to its present position so that the organist now sits behind a stone screen with his back to the chancel and the choir. For a while, the Benedicite screen looked somewhat isolated until an oak-sided altar and furnishings were place below the screen in 1970.
John de Heylesdon was granted his wish to be buried in St Mary’s, alongside the tomb of his parents which was originally situated in what was then the Chantry; it and three other tombstones remained there until 1949 when they were moved into the main north aisle proper in order to make way for the organ. Set in the floor of the north aisle and protected by a blue carpet are the brasses to the memory of John de Heylesdon and Joan his wife; theirs is written in Latin; that of his parents are written in Norman French.
Despite what has been said about this church, it remains lovely place for many and, thank goodness, it has a special character of its own which needs preserving; the church is unique and clearly provides an invaluable service to the Hellesdon community – all be it from its fringes. With this in mind, would the thoughts of a visitor be admissible? Such as one who suggests that the powers-to-be may have a mind to consider the replacement of its Victorian pews with ‘flexible’ seating more in keeping with present-day needs.
Those who may feel that this suggestion would be sacrilege should ponder on the fact that many church pews date from just the 19th century before when, churches and their interiors were more open and flexible in their use. It is only over the last 150 years or so that congregations have had to experience rigid pews; this period of time has been but minuscule in the context of the time church worship has been in existence. So, has the time come to get rid of pews? Certainly, with St Mary’s, the present access along the central aisle, together with the amount of space in and around the point where the nave meets the chancel, suggests possible problems for the likes of wedding ceremonies and funerals – heaven forbid that any pall-bearer should ever trip over!
This article originates via the Wikipedia, free encyclopaedia site and Wikiwand. The original Article, Notes, References and Sources can be accessed (Here) and from the ‘Source’ below. It is reproduced here in mainly unamended form, but without any of the advertising and extraneous content, which detracts from an interesting read. See also the ‘NOTICE’ at the foot of this page:
The Battle of North Walsham was a medieval battle fought on 25 or 26 June 1381, near the town of North Walsham in the English county of Norfolk, in which a large group of rebellious local peasants was confronted by the heavily armed forces of Henry le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich. The battle is significant for being the last occurrence of any major resistance during the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
Despenser succeeded in suppressing the rebellion that broke out throughout East Anglia that summer. His force at first consisted of his own retinue, but numbers swelled as aristocrats saw both his victories and the harsh retribution meted out to the rebels. He moved across East Anglia towards Norwich and then onwards to North Walsham to deal with the rebels, led by Geoffrey Litster, the so-called ‘King of the Commons’. At North Walsham the rebels were decisively defeated by Despenser’s men. Medieval chroniclers differ in their accounts of exactly what happened at North Walsham. After the battle, Litster was captured and executed by Despenser, but the records of the time and subsequent histories disagree on the fate of his rebel army.
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was a major rebellion that spread throughout medieval England during the summer of that year. Its causes are complex. The drop-in population caused by the Black Death, which arrived in England in 1348, resulted in an acute labour shortage and consequently, higher wages. The Statute of Labourers (1351) was a law enacted during the first parliament of Edward III, to make labour laws and their intended enforcement more precise and detailed, and also to allow the government to control wages. It had the effect of making life more difficult for peasants, but more profitable for the wealthy landowners. Further discontent erupted from the behaviour of those nobles who ruled on behalf of the boy-king Richard II, and also from the position of the church; as many priests were ill-educated, and the bishops and abbots themselves were landowners, it was generally hated by the common people. Feelings were stirred up by rebellious priests such as John Ball, who criticised the church wherever the common people flocked to him to listen to his words.
The Revolt began in Essex, following the introduction of a succession of highly unpopular poll taxes levied against the English population. In 1377 the expense of the Hundred Years’ War had caused the government to introduce a poll tax of four pence. By 1380 this had tripled, but as many refused to pay, revenues dropped. The imposition of a third poll tax in 1381 prompted unrest in Essex and Kent, which then spread all over England. According to the Anonimalle Chronicle, the ‘evil actions’ of the commons in both Essex and Kent were ‘because of the exceptionally severe tenths and fifteenths and other subsidies lightly conceded in parliaments and extortionately levied from the poor people’. Most serious of all were events that occurred in London on 13–15 June. During the summer, rebels from Kent and Essex marched to London and, once admitted to the city, managed to capture the Tower of London. King Richard, who had promised to agree to all the demands of the peasants, met the rebels outside the city, where the peasants’ leader, Wat Tyler, was killed and the rebellion was ended. Once they were defeated it became clear to the rebels that they had failed to gain Richard’s support. Whilst the king was at Waltham, in Essex, a proclamation was issued condemning the rebels and denying that he had ever approved of their actions. At Waltham, Richard refused to ratify the promises he made, as he believed they had been extorted by force, adding, “Villeins ye are still, and villeins ye shall remain”, and threatening vengeance upon those who had rebelled.
The rebellions in Essex, Kent and London spread to many other English counties. In Norfolk, the rebellion started on 14 June, when a group of rebels from Suffolk reached the county, and spread westwards towards the Fens and north-eastwards towards Norwich and Yarmouth. As in other parts of the country there was widespread unrest, during which property and official documents were destroyed and several individuals were summarily executed.
Henry le Despenser (c. 1341–1406) was an English nobleman who in his early life had been a soldier in Italy, and who in 1370 became Bishop of Norwich. He obtained a reputation as the ‘Fighting Bishop’ after playing his part in suppressing the Norfolk rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt, and later embarking on an ill-fated enterprise for Pope Urban VI, who in 1382 employed him to lead a crusade in Flanders against the supporters of the anti-pope Clement VII. For his defeat at the siege of Ypres (1383), Despenser was impeached in Parliament, attainted and deprived of his lands. He later regained his lands and favour with King Richard II of England. In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire and the military campaign that followed resulted in Richard’s abdication. Despenser remained true to Richard: he was subsequently imprisoned, but was afterwards reconciled with the new king. Henry le Despenser died in his diocese at North Elmham on 23 August 1406.
Little is known of Geoffrey Litster (also named by medieval chroniclers as Iohanne Lyttestere and Jekke Litster), a moderately wealthy dyer from the village of Felmingham in Norfolk. He is first recorded in the returns made by the collectors of the 1379 poll tax in Norfolk. As peasants, he and his men would have been both untrained and unequipped to fight Despenser’s fully armed and trained force. Geoffrey Litster was captured after the battle and executed soon afterwards at North Walsham.
Events in Norfolk Before the Battle: During the summer of 1381, insurrection spread from the south-east of the country to other parts of England, including the diocese of Norwich, where the rebellion lasted less than a fortnight. On 14 June a group of rebels reached Thetford, and from there the revolt spread over south-western Norfolk towards the Fens. At the same time the rebels, led by Geoffrey Litster, moved across the north-eastern part of the county and tried to raise support throughout the local area. Over the next few days, the rebels converged on Norwich, Lynn and Swaffham. Norwich, then one of the largest and most important cities in the realm, was taken and occupied by Litster and his followers, who caused considerable damage to the property and possessions of anyone they perceived as an enemy (such as poll tax collectors and important officials) once they managed to enter the city. The Norwich rebels then travelled to Yarmouth, destroying legal records and landowners’ possessions, while other insurgents moving across north-east Norfolk destroyed court rolls and taxation documents. There were numerous incidents of pillage and extortion across the whole county.
The Anonimalle Chronicle gives a clear account of the unrest in East Anglia. On hearing of the rebellion, Henry le Despenser acted swiftly, moving through Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk from his home in Burley, Rutland. His armed force initially consisted of his personal retinue, but ultimately became a much larger force consisting of many knights and other men who had previously not dared to confront the rebels. According to the historian Edgar Powell, Henry Dispenser undertook the task of dealing with the revolt in his diocese and punishing the rebels. He was involved in crushing rebellions at Peterborough and elsewhere, before moving on to suppress the revolts in Cambridge. The authorities were alerted to the call in Norfolk for men to join the revolt in the name of Litster. On 17 June the rebels from the north and east of the county assembled on Mousehold Heath, outside Norwich: shortly afterwards, Sir Robert Salle, who had come out of the city to speak with the commons, was killed. According to Thomas Walsingham, the knight died soon after he was ‘knocked on the head by a rustic who was one of his own serfs’. The rebels then entered Norwich and wreaked havoc, destroying property and killing several prominent citizens. Other houses and church properties within the county (such as at Yarmouth) were attacked by the rebels at this time.
Geoffrey Litster was at Thorpe Market on 21 June and by the next day Despenser had reached nearby Felmingham. Hearing that the rebels were close, Despenser travelled the short distance from Felmingham to North Walsham Heath, where he encountered Litster and his men.
The Battle of North Walsham and its aftermath (1381): There are no eyewitness accounts of the battle that was fought at North Walsham on 25 or 26 June 1381. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham related that there was a fierce engagement at North Walsham Heath, south of the town, in which “the warlike Bishop” led a successful attack on the rebels’ entrenched position. The Escheators’ Inquisitions for the period that name Litster also included the names of rebels from North Walsham who were killed, giving strong evidence that the rebels suffered a severe defeat.
According to Thomas Walsingham, the rebels were routed as they fled through woodland and cut down as they were found. Writing in the 19th century, Walter Rye quoted a local man, “They dew say a’mazin’ lot of men are buried in that pightle.” The local belief that the parish church at North Walsham was the scene of a bloodbath after the battle cannot be substantiated using historical documents. According to The Book of Illustrious Henries, written by the 15th-century historian John Capgrave, very little fighting took place. The chronicler related that:
“But by the good management of the Bishop, and of other men who had assembled there, the whole people surrendered, rejoicing that they might withdraw in peace. Jack Litster himself, leaping over a wall, hid himself in a corn-field”.
Inevitably the rebels’ ‘king’ was found. Walsingham and Capgrave agree that after Geoffrey Litster’s capture, he was taken to North Walsham and was there hung, drawn and quartered. According to Capgrave’s chronicle:
“The traitor was sought and found; he was captured and beheaded; and, divided into four parts, he was sent through the country to Norwich, Yarmouth, and Lynn, and to the site of his mansion; that rebels and insurgents against the peace might learn by what end they will finish their career”.
Walsingham wrote an account of the mercy shown by the bishop to Litster during his execution:
“After hearing his confession and absolving him by virtue of his office, he followed him to the gallows, showing, although he had overcome him, a deed of kindness and piety, for he supported his head lest it should be bruised by the ground when he was being drawn to the hanging”.
Litster’s widow Agnes was later pursued by the authorities and was made to settle his outstanding debts (for the sum of 33 shillings and nine pence).
Commemoration of the Battle:
The site of the battle is one of only five battlefields in Norfolk that are recognised by Norfolk County Council. The battle was commemorated by three medieval stone crosses: one is on private land; another (now a stump) was relocated by North Walsham Urban District Council in 1932 and can be found near the roadside by the town’s water towers; the third cross was moved and used as a parish boundary marker. It is situated on Toff’s Loke, off Norwich Road.
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The Norfolk Broads may look natural, but they are a man-made phenomenon, the result of inundated peat diggings. Amazingly, this fact was not realised until the 1950s, when Dr Joyce Lambert’s research revealed that the sides of the deep lakes were vertical and not gently sloping as would be expected of a naturally formed lake. This, coupled with the historical evidence of peat demand for fuel, proved irrefutable. Another clue was that the area’s names are not Anglo-Saxon or Norse. They are named after people or landmarks, meaning they originated later.
Imagine a time where there are no mod cons, no electricity and certainly no mechanical diggers – just man power and a need to survive in what would have been difficult and unforgiving times. By the time of Domesday, around 1086, East Anglia was the most densely populated part of Britain, with a prosperous economy founded upon a stable agricultural regime. At this point, water levels in the Broadland estuary would have been sufficiently low to enable widespread exploitation of the wetlands, but very little wood was to be found on the Broadland uplands and much of the remaining floodplain woodland would have already been cleared for timber and particularly for firewood. Peat cutting, or ‘turbary’ provided a readily available alternative.
The extraction of peat would have been a difficult and unpleasant task, requiring great physical effort. Yet it was a prosperous industry and provided fuel for both individual families and manors, with a greater proportion being sold. It is estimated that more than 900 million cubic feet of peat would have been extracted.
The work: Peat extraction was a very hard and unpleasant task; the deeper, more compacted peat has a higher calorific value and is a superior fuel to that unearthed from the surface layers, but the effort of cutting blocks of peat from pits which were constantly filling with water would have been enormous.
R.F.Carrodus researched 19th century rural practices around the Horning area and found that the traditional broadland turf, certainly at that time was three and a half inches square, and two or three feet long; he also eatimated that to dig up a thousand turves a day was regarded as a good day’s work, although some people claimed to be able to dig twenty turves a minute. The geographer C.T.Smith who did all the original work on the medieval records about the broads, followed Carrodus. He took the size of a medieval turf as a quarter of a cubic foot for the purposes of rough calculations about how long it would have taken how many men to dig out the basins of the broads.
Some people would have been cutting fuel for their own individual domestic consumption, however much of the peat, or ‘turf’ was likely to have been from demesne turbaries, which were owned by the church or by the manor. The peat produced in these turbaries was sometimes used within the manor or priory, but a large proportion was sold.
The decline of the peat cutting industry: Wage labour was used, but for the most part the turbaries are likely to have been worked by bond tenants as part of the mandatory labour service owned to the lord of the manor. For example, the bond tenants of Stalham Hall in the 13th Century owed their lord 23 days labour per annum in the turbaries, and were likely to have been required to work in the fields in addition to this. Records made in 1328 indicate that the tenants were required to undertake 14 days labour in the pits, or to pay 14d. in lieu.
The industry peaked in the 13th Century, but increasing water levels and floods made extraction from the submerged turbaries more difficult, and more costly; by 1350 there were visible signs of decline.
The account rolls for properties held by Norwich Cathedral Priory at Martham date from 1261. Up until the early 15th Century, the Martham turf accounts were made more or less systematically and show annual revenues for turf sales of between 3s. 2d. and 14s. 2d. for the period between 1299 and 1340. From 1341 onwards there was no revenue from turf sales, although peat was still cut for domestic use. In 1349, the accounts show that the cost of producing turves rose dramatically, from a previous 50 year high of 9d. per 1000 turves to 20d. per 1000.
The accounts of the Norwich (Whitefriars) Priory show that peat was the main fuel in the cathedral kitchens in the first half of the 14th century. Turf consumption began to fall after 1350, although the Priory continued to rely on turf as the main source of fuel until around 1384. After this date, however, other fuels, such as wood, are increasingly mentioned in the accounts, and after 1440 there are no further references to peat as a fuel.
The reasons for this shift are almost certainly economic ones: there was either a greatly increased availability of other fuels which could be more easily obtained, or the cost of producing peat had risen to such an extent that alternatives had to be sought.
Towards the end of the 14th Century, the relative sea level had risen to the extent that the peat workings were being flooded on a regular basis. Where flooding was not too severe, it may have been possible to bale the cuttings, but once flooded, the deep turbaries could not be adequately drained with the technology then available and it was probably nearly impossible to continue to extract peat from the flooded workings in the traditional manner.
Alternative techniques for removing peat from the flooded pits were devised: for example dredging the soft peat, or ‘mora’, from the bottom of the flooded pits and shaping it into blocks. Where there was sufficient labour available, the industry continued for a time on this basis, however the impact of another factor meant that this labour was no longer in cheap, and plentiful, supply.
The advent of the plague: Bubonic plague, otherwise termed the ‘greate death’, because it affected everyone, whether rich or poor, young or old, arrived in England by ship in June 1348. ‘Black Death’ was a later name for the disease, thought to refer to the dark swellings, or ‘buboes’ at the lymph nodes. Those infected with the disease died within 4 days of detecting the first signs of swellings in armpit or groin.
Others were inflicted with the pneumonic form of the disease, which affected the lungs. In either case, very few recovered. Within 18 months of the advent of the plague, almost half the population of the country was dead. It is impossible to comprehend the scale of the personal devastation and panic which would have swept the country.
“alas this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders”. William Dene
Food shortages caused by famine may have exacerbated the impact of the plague, with perhaps a higher mortality rate among the famine-weakened population than might otherwise have occurred. East Anglia was seemingly particularly hard-hit by plague, perhaps because of the high population density. A prayer in the church of St Edmunds in the market town of Acle, written by the rector at the time, refers to the “brute beast plague that rages hour by hour”.
In the months following the first outbreak of plague, houses would have been empty, crops stood unharvested in the fields, and animals were left untended; the workers who undertook these tasks struck down by the disease.
“for want of watching…….animals died in uncountable numbers in the fields and byways and hedges” Henry Knighton
The impact of the Black Death: Corresponding to the first outbreak of the plague the peat cutting industry seems to have undergone a rather sudden decline, even thought the natural resources of Broadland was by no means close to exhaustion at this time and large tracts of uncut peat fen still existed in many of the river valleys.
It is possible that some of these surface resources were not exploited because of ownership constraints or because there was some other significant and conflicting economic use of the land, for example reed or sedge cutting. However, because of the enormous scale of the peat cutting industry, the value of the excavated peat, and the rapidity of the change, it is probable that there was some more substantive factor which caused the decline.
The decline in the peat cutting industry almost certainly had its underlying cause in natural phenomena, but these were greatly exacerbated by the changing economic and social circumstances which came about as a result of the Black Death.
A major impact of the plague was severe labour shortage and because of this between 1350 and 1500 average wages in England rose dramatically. The economic impact of this on peat cutting, which was labour intensive, was devastating. While it would have been possible, if less economically viable, to continue to excavate peat in the face of rising sea levels and increased flooding by more labour intensive methods such as dredging the wet peat and shaping it into blocks, the loss of almost half of the labour force would have rendered any labour intensive tasks unworkable, and moreover, many of those who organised and supervised the work were dead.
The plague shifted the balance of economic power in favour of the workforce: labour became scarce and it became increasingly difficult to coerce the peasant classes into carrying out their traditional tasks on behalf of the manor. While not the single most important factor in the decline of the peat industry, the plague certainly reduced the economic viability of peat extraction from the deep cuttings to a point where it was no longer possible.
Peat continued to be cut from surface deposits on a smaller scale until the beginning of the 20th Century to supplement, and locally to replace, firewood as a source of fuel, but the deeper turbaries were never again exploited, and the industry which was instrumental in creating the Broadland landscape we know today was never fully revived.
Great Yarmouth boasts one of the most distinctive and unusual of any coats-of-arms to be found and its origin goes back to a decisive but long-forgotten naval battle, plus a King’s gratitude to a town that gave so generously of its ships and men for what turned out to be the 1340 Battle of Sluys and the start of the Hundred Year’s War.
With no dedicated fleet of warships King Edward III had to assemble hundreds of merchant vessels, called Cogs, for his assault on northern France; the majority of these were supplied by Great Yarmouth. This assault was the precursor to what became known as The Hundred Years War. It is said that Great Yarmouth provided King Edward III with a total of 1,075 mariners and 43 ships, whereas London only provided 25 ships. The fierce sea battle that ensued at Sluys, then the best harbour in Europe, saw the English overwhelm a combined force and destroying French naval capability for some years. This victory allowed the King to land with little opposition and head off an invasion of England. Afterwards, Edward was gracious enough to not only hail the contribution of men and ships from Yarmouth, but also to allow the town to half its own coat-of-arms of three silver herrings and add his own three lions; thus elevating Great Yarmouth’s standing and creating an arresting heraldic emblem.
The Cause of the Hundred Year War:
Since the Norman Conquest of 1066, English monarchs had held titles and lands within France, the possession of which made them vassals to the kings of France. The status of the English king’s French fiefs was a major source of conflict between the two monarchies throughout the Middle Ages. French monarchs systematically sought to check the growth of English power, stripping away lands as the opportunity arose. Over the centuries, English holdings in France had varied in size, but by 1337 only Gascony in south western France and Ponthieu in northern France were left. The Gascons had their own language and customs and a large proportion of the red wine that they produced was shipped to England in a profitable trade. This trade provided the English king with much of his revenue. The Gascons preferred their relationship to be with the distant English king who left them alone, rather than with a French king who would interfere in their affairs. Following a series of disagreements between Philip VI of France and Edward III of England, on 24 May 1337 Philip’s Great Council in Paris agreed that the Duchy of Aquitaine, effectively Gascony, should be taken back into Philip’s hands on the grounds that Edward was in breach of his obligations as a vassal. This marked the start of the Hundred Years’ War, which was to run one hundred and sixteen years.
The Opposing Forces: Initially the French had the superior fleet, their galleys were ideal for swift passage across the Channel under sail or oars, could penetrate shallow harbours and were highly manoeuvrable and ideal for raiding or ship-to-ship combat. The huge French fleet was supplemented by galleys from Genoa and they were able to disrupt English commercial shipping, particularly that of the Gascon wine and the Flemish wool trades, as well as raiding the south and eastern coasts of England at will.
There was no English Royal Navy in the 14th Century and the English did not have a purpose-built navy. The principle type of English merchant vessel was the Cog, which was clinker-built, fitted with a single mast and a square-rigged single sail, and had a deep draught and round hull. They ranged from about 15 to 25 meters (49 to 82 feet) in length, had a beam of 5 to 8 meters (16 to 26 feet) and the largest could carry up to about 200 tons. Edward requisitioned a number of these ships from the merchant fleet and converted them into warships by adding wooden “castles” at the bow and stern, and a crow’s nest platform at the masthead, from which archers could use bows or drop stones on to enemy craft alongside. The high freeboard of the Cog made it superior in close combat to the French galley allowing the English to look down on their French adversaries.
Edward III assembled his fleet in the River Orwell and River Stour near Harwich. He made the Cog ‘Thomas’ his flagship and set sail on 22 June 1340 and was approaching Sluys by the afternoon of the following day. The English fleet anchored off Blankenberge and that evening King Edward sent Sir Reginald Cobham, Sir John Chandos, and Sir Stephen Lambkin to reconnoitre the French fleet. They found the French fleet anchored at the entrance of the Zwin estuary and ranged in three tightly packed lines that included the great cog Christopher, a captured English prize.
The French fleet is believed to have been around 200 ships; Edward in a letter to his son counts 180 sails and contemporary French documents record the fleet size as 204 vessels. Part of the fleet consisted of Genoese galleys serving as mercenaries under the command of Admiral Pietro Barbavera and the French fleet was under the command of the Breton knight Hugues Quiéret, admiral for the king of France, and Nicolas Béhuchet, the Constable of France.
The size of the English fleet is not accurately known as no contemporary records exist. It is believed that the English fleet that set sail from the Orwell consisted of 160 ships and that these were joined by the northern squadron led by Sir Robert Morley. In addition, King Edward’s Flemish allies are also reported to have joined the battle and it is thought therefore that the English fleet was somewhere between 120 and 320 ships in total.
The Battle: Forget ships that fired cannons from a distance, this was close-up combat of the most savage kind with boats lining up against each other so that men-at-arms could hack at their adversaries, throwing the survivors overboard. In fact, the task force of merchant ships, called Cogs, were not designed for warfare or manned by naval personnel. This made being a seafarer in the middle ages a risky and violent business, at a time when the King required maritime towns, such as Great Yarmouth, to maintain ships on standby for battle.
King Edward sent these ships against the French in groups of three; two ships were crammed with archers and the third full of men-at-arms. The English ships with the archers would close on a French vessel and the archers would rain arrows down on the enemy’s decks. The English archers, with their long bows, could accurately shoot 20 arrows per minute at a range of up to 270 metres (300 yards), whereas the Genoese crossbowmen could only manage two bolts per minute and had a lot shorter range. While the enemy vessel was so engaged, the ship carrying the men-at-arms would come alongside and the men-at-arms would board and seize it. Because of how tightly the French vessels were packed together, the battle became essentially a land battle at sea.
The English managed to board and seize many French vessels after fiercely contested hand-to-hand fighting. The Genoese crossbowmen managed to successfully board and capture two English ships. French sources asserted that Nicolas Béhuchet wounded King Edward III during the fighting, but there was no evidence, other than a legendary one, that a personal encounter between King Edward and the French commander. It is, however, a fact that the King was indeed wounded during the battle by either an arrow or a crossbow bolt.
Nicolas Béhuchet’s tactics proved disastrous for the French, as it allowed the English to attack their left flank while leaving the rest of the fleet paralyzed. In a letter to his son, King Edward said that the enemy made a noble defence “all that day and the night after”. By the end of the battle, the French fleet had been broken at the cost of only two English ships captured, and the water was reported to be thick with blood and corpses. The number of English losses is unknown, the French are thought to have lost between 16,000 and 18,000 and virtually all of their vessels were captured.
The Aftermath of the Battle: After the battle King Edward went on to lay siege to Tournai, a Flemish city that had been loyal to Philip VI of France. Edward and his forces reached Tournai on 23 July 1340 and laid siege trapping, apart from the inhabitants, a sizable French garrison inside. The siege dragged on and Philip VI with a relieving army drew closer, while Edward was running out of funds to keep his army in the field. At the same time, Tournai was running out of food. It was King Edward’s mother-in-law, Jeanne of Valois (who was also Philip’s sister), who visited King Edward in his tent on 22 September and begged for peace. She had already made the same plea in front of Philip VI and consequently a truce, known as the Truce of Espléchin, was made on 25 September 1340 – thus bringing the siege to an end without anyone losing face.
Dating back to the late 15th century, the first Monday after Epiphany marks the start of ploughing for spring sown crops and was once the traditional day of agricultural workers returning after the Christmas period. Historic documents however, tell of plough candles being lit in churches during January in the 13th century.
Customs of the day varied nationwide, but the most common feature was a plough (blessed in church the previous day) to be hauled from house to house in rural communities. As the continued, an army of villagers collected money for the parish during a passing street procession. Apart from dancers and musicians, an old woman called “the Bessy” or a boy dressed as such and a man in the role of the ‘Plough Fool’ often headed of the procession. Some participants paraded a Straw Bear and not surprisingly, the event also attracted much drinking, merriment and mirth throughout the day. In Eastern England, ploughs were taken around by Plough Monday mummers and Molly Dancers and were sometimes even used as a threat. If householders refused to donate to the money collectors, their front paths would be ploughed up!
A festive Plough Pudding was also eaten on the day. Originating and also ‘invented’ in Norfolk, this was a suet pastry-topped boiled pudding filled with pork sausage meat, chopped bacon and onions with sage and sugar added. It could be eaten alone, or served with boiled potatoes, vegetables and gravy. One recipe suggested a Cooking time of 3 hrs 30 minutes, but today’s microwaves would reduce that!! A similar item is still sold today by major supermarkets.
At its height, Plough Monday was most commonly celebrated in the East Midlands and East Anglia, until the English Reformation caused its slow decline. In 1538, Henry VIII forbade “plough lights” to be lit in churches, before Edward VI condemned the “conjuring of ploughs”. Ceremonies revived during the reign of Mary only to decline again during Elizabeth I’s reign. Some processions survived into the 19th century and in 1810, a farmer took his case to Derby Assizes, claiming that refusal to donate money, those pulling the plough, immediately ploughed up his drive, his lawn and a bench, causing twenty pounds worth of damage. Plough Monday customs continued to decline but were revived in some towns in the 20th, with remaining events mainly involving Molly Dancers. Some Plough Monday events were still recorded in the 1930’s before a “folk revival” in the ’60s and ’70s partly returned it to some communities.
This year however, being 2019, Plough Monday falls on the 7th January – which means, for this year at least, it clashes with St. Distaff’s Day!!
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!
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 about 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 – but not ‘as the crow flies’. Certainly, local people fell for the tale which 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 they could follow his progress. Now 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, 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. 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 the tunnel. Along with his dog, he too set off while (in this version) 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 escaped!
Unlike Simon Knott in 2009, I arrived here, at Rackheath’s All Saints Church, ten 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.
Photo: H. Brown.
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 was unaware of a present-day so-called ‘darker side’ of the Site on which All Saints Church sits; I say Site since the building itself, and what it still stands for, would be an innocent bystander. It was only after publication that I was ‘enlightened’!
Unsurprisingly therefore it was not possible for me to have broached the subject and even if I had known of this so-called ‘darker side’ I would not have mentioned anything, since the topic is irrelevant and a distraction from the article’s central theme and premise. So, it has been only since publication, and having received positive feedback and generous comment, that a very small minority chose to broadcast, via Social Media (where else would they!) their views and, in one case, to express ‘puzzlement’ as to why I had failed to make mention of such things – the answer to that is above.
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”[Again, I have explained above – this guy failing to engage his brain before sounding off!!]
“………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 in the context of my blog – the writers should have chosen another, and more relevant Forum. However, in light of their so-called ‘concerns’, I feel a duty now to make mention of the matter, along with the following advice:
Take note of these possibly anecdotal comments and should you wish to visit All Saints Church then simple go there, but do so with company you trust – you can then make your own judgements.
P.S: 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, gathering material for my article, no other person was there. Stillness and peace was all around and I felt quite safe – Job Done!
Whifflers and Snap Dragons are still about – but not in the rolls that they once had! Nowadays, the ‘whiffler’ name is confined to one public house on the Norwich Ring Road at Hellesdon, to a road opposite the pub and to an open air theatre in the shadows of Norwich Castle. This is not to overlook its use with the present-day enthusiasts who keep the character alive in the public’s consciousness by appearing in public processions and local events from time to time.
‘Whifflers’ went out of use in much of England long ago, but survived in East Anglia, thriving particularly in Norwich. It was the Whifflers, supported by Snap, who played such a major role in past Norwich Civic Ceremonies.
The origin of the word ‘Whiffler’ is 16th century and comes from the word ‘wifle’ for battle-axe and came from the Old English ‘wifel’ of Germanic origin: it was applied to attendants at processions who carried weapons to clear the way through crowds. It was a word which was once in general use and appeared in Shakespeare’s play Henry V;
“The deep-mouth’d Sea, /Which like a mighty Whiffler ’fore the King, / Seems to prepare his way”.
The Norwich Dragon, known affectionately as ‘Snap’, is preserved in a remarkable present-day collection at Norwich Castle Museum. This collection totals three old snapdragons which are more or less complete; one is the last of the Civic Snaps with the other two being later copies.
Snap was designed and constructed to be carried by one man, using straps over his shoulders. The form of the body is barrel-shaped, formed around a horizontal pole (head at one end, tail at the other) and two small wings concealing the man’s face. His hands are left free to operate the head and hinged lower jaw (this makes a loud click when it shuts, hence ‘Snap’.
In an old and long established Civic ceremonial, which persisted until the mid 19th century, included Snap who acted as the herald for the grand annual Guild Day procession which was held at the inauguration of a new Mayor. This cavorting dragon was a source of amusement and entertainment for the crowds who watched these processions. However, in earlier times, Snap took on a more religious significance as part of a pageant performed by the Guild of St. George in Norwich.
St. George riding on horse-back and fighting the dragon was the centre-piece of these Processions, with a third figure representing the maiden who was, supposingly, rescued by St. George. She was recorded as ‘The Lady’, ‘The Maid’ or ‘The Margaret’ – “the lady of the Gild“ and believed to be based on Saint Margaret of Antioch. A Sword bearer, carrying the Guild sword led the procession with priests, the City Waits, Cantors from the Cathedral and the City and Guild officials following.
In Norwich’s Great Hospital, St Helen’s Church, has a fine example of the devil depicted as a dragon. It is said the a dragon swallowed St Margaret of Antioch but her cross irritated the dragon, allowing her to break free.
The Guild of St. George 1385-1731
The history of the Snap was inextricably linked to that of The Guild of St George, founded in 1385; its aims were religious, charitable and social: to honour St. George, to keep his feast day, to pray for its members past and present and to offer alms to the poor and needy within the Guild. The principal event for the Guild was the feast day ceremony held annually on 23 April which began as a simple religious celebration of the feast day of St. George. The event grew steadily in size and importance as the Guild’s relationship with the City Corporation deepened. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, the event was no longer a civic religious ceremony but a civic secular ceremony which celebrated the coming to office of the new Mayor. For this no expense was spared.
Although the form of the procession changed over the centuries, Snap the dragon remained as part of the pageantry for over 400 years. The earliest reference to him comes from the minutes of the Guild Assembly of 1408 at which it was agreed:
‘to furnish priests with copes, and the George shall go in procession and make a conflict with the Dragon, and keep his estate both days’.
In 1585 the two separate celebrations, that of Guild Day in April and that of the swearing in of the new Mayor of Norwich in June, were combined to create one grand event on the Tuesday before Midsummer’s Eve. Over the next 150 years the pattern of the Guild Day celebrations remained the same but the scale and splendour of the occasion increased, gradually reaching its height at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
The three pictures above are copies of postcards published by the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage trust which are taken from glass roundels in the Dragon Hall, Norwich – http://www.dragonhall.org/
Then came 1645 and a setback which interrupted Snap Dragon’s progress: the Puritan government ordered that at the next procession there must be ‘no beating of drums or sounds of trumpets, no Snap-Dragon or fellows dressed up in Fools Coats and Caps; no standard with the George thereon, nor no hanging of Tapestry Cloth and Pictures in any of the streets’. However, in 1660, the monarchy was restored and all the old ways returned – including Snap and Whifflers. Their appearances continued and, in time, Norwich became quite famous for the scale and spectacle of its processions. However, the Guild found it expedient to make certain modifications to the form of the ceremony. They agreed that on the following feast day ‘. . .
“there shall be neither George nor Margaret; but for pastime, the Dragon to come and shew himself as in other years”.
A local historian, Benjamin Mackerell, has left us a description of the Guild Day festivities in the early years of the 18th century,
“On Guild Day the old Mayor, Sheriffs, Aldermen, the St George’s Company and Common Councillors met at eight o’clock in the morning at the house of the newly elected Mayor where they enjoyed sugar rolls and wine. The whole street (formerly the whole parish) where the new Mayor lived was decorated. The street was strewn with green sashes and planted with trees. The outsides of the houses were hung with tapestries and pictures, particularly the new Mayor’s house. From here the dignitaries then paraded on horseback to the house of the retiring Mayor where a substantial breakfast of pasties, roast beef, boiled legs of mutton and wine were provided. The procession then set out for the cathedral. The way was cleared by six Whifflers and two Dick Fools accompanied by the Dragon. The Dragon, carried by a Man in the body of it, gave great diversion to the common People: they always seemed very much to fear it when it was near them, but always looked upon it with pleasure when it was a little distance from them’.
As for the Whifflers, they were dressed in a distinctive costume of scarlet satin breeches, white satin jerkin and a hat decorated with a cockade of feathers and ribbons. They carried swords which they brandished and tossed in the air. Helping them were the Dick Fools, who wore painted canvas coats with red and yellow cloth caps adorned with fox or cats’ tails and small bells”.
With the demise of the St. George’s Company (formerly the Guild) in 1731, Guild Day continued, but on a much more modest scale. Although the Company was disbanded Snap the dragon, Dick Fools and Whifflers were kept on and their wages paid by the Corporation. Pagan Snap became Civic Snap, the property of the local authority and appeared on Guild Day when the Lord Mayor was inaugurated. Then, with the passing of the Municipal Corporation Reform Act of 1835 much pageantry of corporate boroughs disappeared and that year saw the last Guild Day Ceremony.
It was George Borrow, writing in 1857 in his book ‘The Romany Rye’ who lamented their passing in these words:
“The last of the whifflers hanged himself about a fortnight ago ….. from pure grief that there was no further demand for the exhibition of his art…….since the discontinuance of Guildhall banquets”.
There was, however, one final outing of the Whifflers and Snap in 1846. It was during the ‘crowning’ of Jeremiah Colman, the mustard manufacturer, when two Whifflers met a royal Duke off the train at Trowse Station and led him and the procession up Bracondale Hill into the city. The two of them taking it in turns to run ahead, leaping and twirling their two handed swords.
It was fortuitous that the Whifflers lasted into the age of photography so it is still possible to see the costume that they wore with breeches and white socks tied with fancy garters, a bowler styled hat with a cockade to the left hand. The whole uniform was completed by a white jacket. Maybe it was on the 1846 occasion that the following Whiffler photograph was taken?
As for Snap, he continued to appear occasionally up to around 1850 after which he was adopted by the Pockthorpe Guild, more as a publicity gimmick than anything else. By the 1880’s much of the mock pomp of the past had gone and the appearance of the Snap had degenerated into just a boisterous money-raising stunt for the Guild which used it alongside members carrying collection boxes. Even so, Snap continued to cause much hilarity when used to chase people with the intention of grabbing their hats or caps between its jaws and returning them only after a penny ransom had been paid. Young boys would taunt the Snap by running close by and chanting
‘Snap, Snap, steal a boy’s cap, give him a penny and he’ll give it back’.
Although much of the pageantry disappeared after the passing of the Municipal Corporation Reform Act of 1835, a defiant tradition emerged: the people of Pockthorpe, a part of Norwich outside its walls and over the water, created their own dragon and their own mocking, subversive imitation of the Lord Mayor’s street procession. So the tradition of faux Snap terrorizing the people of Norwich continued in the district of Pockthorpe and in the nearby village of Costessey. This 1887 photograph of the Costessey Guild Day suggests the fun that accompanied the election of the ‘mayor’.
These annual revelries continued until early in the twentieth century, according to oral history, up to the First World War, but Snap lived on. In the 1930s, ‘Snapdragon’, was a magazine aimed at raising money in aid of hospitals. Then, the Festival of Britain in 1951 saw the Pockthorpe dragon come to life again for a procession of ‘Norwich Through the Ages’. Co-incidently, it was around this time that another very dilapidated dragon was found, this time in the Backs Bar in Norwich.
These Snap Dragons are the remnants of a medieval pageant play banned at the reformation (saints being denigrated as icons of papism). Snap meant something, for though its official role ceased in 1835 it persisted in a community based in both city and outskirts. Since the mid 1980s Snap occasionally accompanies the Lord Mayor, and at least three have materialised from the community, so the dragons clearly do still have significance for Norwich.
It was publicity that led to curiosity and from that the dragons found themselves conserved and are now on proud display in Norwich Castle. The publication of an important book about ‘Snap The Norwich Dragon’ by Richard Lane in 1976 led to Snap’s reappearance in the Lord Mayor’s Procession in the early 1980s and since that time the dragon has become well loved again, very visible in the culture of the city – and joined by newcomers.
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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.”
Charles Green: ‘The History, Antiquities and Geology of Bacton in Norfolk’ (Simpkin, Marshall & Co, 1842), p.8-10.
B. Gerish: ‘Norfolk Folklore Collections’ (unpublished, 1916-18), Vol.4, p.14-15.
‘Eastern Daily Press’, Dec.15th 1953.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items of ‘general interest’ only. It endeavours, where required, to obtain permission to use other copyright owner’s material; however, for various reasons, identification of, and means of communicating with, owners can sometimes be difficult or impossible to establish. Nevertheless, please rest assured that the appropriate ‘credits’ are always given in our articles, and no violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.
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.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items of ‘general interest’ only. It endeavours, where required, to obtain permission to use other copyright owner’s material; however, for various reasons, identification of, and means of communicating with, owners can sometimes be difficult or impossible to establish. Nevertheless, please rest assured that the appropriate ‘credits’ are always given in our articles, and no violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.