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.
This is not a new story – just a resume. The ‘Strangers’ of Norwich; are well documented.
The arrival of the “Strangers” from the Low Countries in the 16th century was the result of the persecution of Dutch Calvinists by the Catholic Spanish rulers of that region of Europe. The Duke of Alva had ruthlessly pursued them as heretics and many were raped, murdered or burnt at the stake and they became refugees looking for a new home. These ‘Strangers’ were broadly welcomed in this area of Eastern England and there were two main reasons why. Under Elizabeth I, England was a Protestant country and it had not been long previously that Mary I had persecuted “heretics” in a similar manner as Alva. The second reason was that, with their skills in weaving, the new immigrants were of immense economic value. Having first settled in Sandwich, Kent, in 1565, the City of Norwich elders recognised their worth and invited them to the city because of their renowned skills in textile. Much of the prosperity of Norfolk after this period can be traced to this influx of these ‘Strangers’.
The arrival of the Strangers was described by W. Moens in his book The Walloons & their Church at Norwich (1888):
“Invited by the Duke of Norfolk and the Corporation of Norwich, the strangers on obtaining letters patent from the Crown, came to Norwich in 1665 from Sandwich, where they first settled, and soon increasing in numbers restored to the city, by the manufacture of their various fabrics, that prosperity which had been lost by the ravages caused by the mortality from the black death at the close of the 14th century.
In 1566 an accord was made by the Duchess of Parma with those of the reformed religion in the Netherlands, who, on attaching their signatures to the terms before the magistrates of the various towns, were allowed to attend the Services of their own ministers. Many returned from England to the Low Countries on this concession, but in the following year faith was broken with them, and the unscrupulous severity of the Duke of Alva’s rule caused a flight of all who could escape the vigilance of the authorities. … The details of the conditions under which foreigners were formerly allowed to settle in this country and to follow their trades are interesting and very different from the custom of the present day, when they are on the same footing as natives, but from their frugal habits are able to (and do) work at rates, which in many eases bring misery and ruin to whole districts…. The old custom of hostage, revived by the grant of 1576 to William Tipper, compelled to reside with appointed hosts who received payment for their entertainment and who supervised and received a percentage on their purchases and sales. The Corporation of Norwich purchased this right in 1578 for the sum of £70 13s. 4d., but did not exercise it against the strangers. The strangers paid double subsidies or taxes on the value of their personal property; they paid their own ministers, by whom they had to be furnished with a voucher before permission to reside in the city was granted to them, all their names being registered; they had to pay all the expenses of their churches and the entire support of their poor besides twenty pence in the pound on their rentals, towards the pay of the parish clergy. … As in the present time in London, where the old jealousy against foreigners seems to be reviving, there was always a party in the Corporation of Norwich opposed to the strangers, but the manifest benefits derived by the city from their manufactures and trade always induced a large majority of the Council to watch over and protect them.
The strangers at Norwich from the first were placed under a strict and special rule; a book of orders was drawn up by the Corporation and settled by a committee of the Privy Council, From time to time these articles were varied, but it was not long before they were allowed in a measure to fall into abeyance, on account of the prosperity brought to the city by the successful trade of the strangers.”
However, Norwich was not free from xenophobia. As early as 1144, the death of a boy, named William, had led to accusations of ritual murder by Jews and sparked anti-Semitic rioting. In 1567 the Mayor of Norwich, Thomas Whall, made inflammatory statements, which sound all too familiar today, that the Walloons had “sucked the living away from the English” and greater restrictions were placed upon them. Interestingly, when a crowd tried to foment attacks on the ‘Strangers’ in 1570, it was the ring-leaders of the anti-Stranger faction who were executed.
In 1578, Queen Elizabeth I made a state visit to Norwich, which may have been a specific attempt to demonstrate her support for the ‘Strangers’. The Dutch community presented her with a pageant and a silver-gilt cup worth £50. Although there were further difficulties and conflicts between their community and the established population of Norwich, it was probably the beginning of their assimilation and, as with most influxes of immigrants and refugees, they gradually disappeared as a separate entity. In 1633-4, the Norwich rate book listed many names which were probably Dutch or Flemish in origin. By 1830, the Norwich poll book includes very few: possibly only Adrian Decleve (goldsmith) and John De Vear (draper).
A Solution to a Problem:
Strong trading links had existed between Norwich and the Low Countries before the 16th century, evident from very early Wills of Dutch and Flemish people already settled here. But, it was in the 16th Century that immigrants in the Low Countries were officially encouraged to move to the City.
Ever since the Middle Ages, Norwich had been at the centre of an extensive textile inductry in woollens and worsted. By the 16th Century, however, this industry was in crisis, with competition coming from cheaper and better quality merchandise from Flanders – a region in the south west of the Low Countries now split between Belgium, France and the Netherlands. It was the skilled immigrants from these Countries which could provide a solution to the economic crisis here. At a time when skills were handed down through apprenticeships, the Strangers could teach local workers to produce new types of cloth, giving fresh impetus to Norwich’s flagging inductry.
So it was that in 1565, the Norwich City authorities sent a representative to Queen Elizabeth I, asking for permission for immigrant workers to settle in Norwich. Later that year, the Queen responded by issuing a royal “Letters Patent”, allowing “thirtye duchemen” and their households – totalling no more that 300 people – to settle within Norwich’s city walls. Twenty-four of the householders admitted were Dutch and six were Walloons – the latter a Romance ethnic people native to Belgium, principally its southern region of Wallonia, who spoke French and Walloon. Walloons remain a distinctive ethnic community within Belgium.
The Strangers also had their own pressing motives for emigranting. The anti-Protestant policies of their Habsburg ruler, Philip II of Spain, together with economic hardship and war, forced many people to leave the Low Countries. Between 50,000 and 300,000 refugees sought religious freedom elsewhere, many of whom came to Protestant England, settling in towns like London, Southampton, as well as Norwich.
Victims of Success:
The Stranger community grew rapidly from the original 30 households. By 1620, there were around 4,000 Dutch and Walloons living in Norwich, comprising a quarter of the city’s population. They had an impact on all aspects of Norwich life. They rejuvenated the local economy, and by the end of the 16th Century the city was prospering again. English textile apprentices learnt new skills and techniques; the ” New Draperies” produced proved lucrative exports to Europe and the East. By 1600, Norwich weavers were even facing a shortage of yarn and labour. On the whole, the Strangers integrated well with the local community. With no restrictions on their residency, they were not deliberately “ghettoised”. They rebuilt the whole area north of the River Wensum that had been devastated by a great fire in 1507, leaving their mark on the city’s landscape.
Over the years, strong personal links were forged between the two communities: wealthy Strangers married into the Norwich elite, they sent their children to the local grammar school and they formed business partnerships with local merchants. But, the Dutch and Walloons did not lose their own identity and culture. The Stranger churches were important as centres of communication and social care, and immigrants continued to donate money to them, despite also having to support English parishes.
Dutch and Frence schools were established in the area, and strong links were maintained with their native countries, especially through trade. In the second generation, ties were strengthened as Stranger children returned to Holland to attend University.
Local Friction Nevertheless:
Despite general harmony, there were some teething troubles. When the immigrants first moved into the area, they were subject to detailed restrictions – from controls over what they were allowed to buy and sell, to an 8pm curfew intended to stop drunkeness and disorder. Frictions and disputes between the Strangers and indigenous locals sometimes erupted. Many Strangers refused to pass on their skills to English apprentices, arguing that they had enough of their own children to set to work. Locals were often upset when immigrants set up business in other trades, such as tailoring and shoe-making because this created unwanted competition.
From this fragile start, relations gradually improved. A number of “politic men”, or arbiters, were appointed and they negotiated agreements between the authorities and the Strangers. Immigrants in Norwich were offered citizenship rights before those of any other town, and the corporation made full use of the Stranger skills and expertise. The Dutch printer, Anthony de Solempne, was employed to publish official orders and decrees. While in 1596, during a period of poor harvest, the authorities turned to a Stranger, Jacques de Hem, to help them secure provisions from Europe.
During the Elizabethan era, foreigners became more numerous on the Nation’s streets. The government’s response to this wavered between control and welcome. Restrictive policies were needed to minimise tensions between Stranger and local communities, but very different policies were necessary if the English economy was to benefit from the skills and technologies of immigrants. Influence by both religion and international politics, the Crown’s attitude towards foreigners was constantly shifting and this can be seen filtering down in the treatment of the Norwich Strangers.
Initially, under Elizabeth I, the Strangers were allowed to hold their services at Blackfiars’ Hall and St Mary the Less in relative freedom, but in the 1630’s they suffered under Archbishop Laud, who ordered them to attend only English services. Matthew Wren, Bishop of Norwich, was one of Laud’s committed followers, and frequently quarrelled with the Stranger community. He accused one congregation of Strangers of damaging the Bishop’s Chapel, where they held their meetings. But, above all, Wren worried that locals might start attending Stranger services and weaken the English church.
The Stranger’s reputation was not helped by evidence that radical religious books were being smuggled into Norwich from the Low Countries, or by the flow of English Puritans to Rotterdam in the 1630’s led by William Bridge, where they established a ‘Gathered Church’ – “A church which asserts the autonomy of the local congregation……its members believe in a covenant of loyalty and mutual edification, emphasising the importance of discerning God’s will whilst ‘gathered’ together in a Church meetins”.
Even if the Strangers were not involved in these activities, as religious separatists they still viewed with suspicion by the authorities. The government also feared that immigrant communities were a threat to public order and security by assisting foreign powers to invade. In 1571, the authorities searched Stranger’s homes for armour and weaponry,and in the unsettled years before the Civil War, it was feared they might be disloyal to the Crown. However, the relationship between the Norwich Strangers and the English was generally stable. Personal ties were formed through marriage and friendship. Some English even became godparents and guardians to Stranger children.
Overall, the story of the Strangers in Norwich was a very successful one and not only helped the local economy but also of added to the cultural variety and vibrancy of the community in which they settled. These immigrants were to become so well integrated into the local community that they were no longer “Strangers”.
Today, there are a few obvious reminders of the Strangers of old. They did bring with them a love of canary breeding, which soon caught on with the locals. It was not long before there was a new breed of bird known as the “Norwich Canary”. Bizarrely maybe, this is their most visible legacy – for who doesn’t know in Norfolk that the Norwich football team is the “Canaries”!
It does not take too much imagination to create a 15th or 16th century scene where the condemned are seen walking from their place of imprisonment in Norwich Castle or the City’s Guildhall jail, through the streets and past the Cathedral towards Bishopsbridge and the place of execution beyond. Unquestionably, the route taken would be thronged with the inquisitive, those who were sympathetic, others who were downright hostile and some who were simply curious but with no feelings one way or the other. The parade of unfortunates would eventually preceed over the ancient Bridge and into a chalk pit on the other side of the river Wensum. There the faggots would be piled high and ready. The Church, having handed over the condemned to the secular authorities, would step out of the limelight whilst the executions took place – burning the condemned ‘at the stake’. The Church’s preferred way was to claim the authority to sentence but not kill – it kept things neat and tidy! As for those on the wrong side of the Church’s principles and laws well, they were disposed of. In Norwich they went to the chalk pits, for no other reason than for their religious beliefs. The name for these unfortunates was ‘Lollards’.
Just Who Were The Lollards?
We cannot understand who the Lollards were without first looking at John Wycliffe and who he was; born sometime in the 1320’s, becoming young Curate at Ludgershall in Wiltshire and dying there of natural causes on 31st December, 1384. He was buried in the churchyard.
Wycliffe was an English Christian theologian who became popular for translating the Bible into vernacular (common) English in 1382. During this time, the Bible was usually only available in Latin, the language used by the Church and the Upper Classes. Many regular men and women were therefore not able to read the Bible for themselves. Wycliffe wanted to change that and he did so by translating the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) into the people’s common language. As professor of theology at Oxford University, Wycliffe also challenged the Catholic Church on numerous points of doctrine. He felt that the Church was too institutionalised and had become corrupt. He promoted a personal type of Christianity – one that emphasised piety, humility and simplicity.
After Wycliffe had been dead for about 40 years, the Church declared him a heretic and afraid that his grave would become a religious shrine, Richard Fleming, Bishop of Lincoln and acting on the instructions of Pope Martin V, ordered officials to exhume the bones, burn them, and scatter the ashes on the River Swift. Thereafter, events saw the beginning of what was to be a conserted persecution of Lollardy over a large area of England.
The Lollards were part of a movement that existed from the mid-14th century and up to the English Reformation, inspired, if not led, by John Wycliffe, a Roman Catholic theologian who was dismissed from the University of Oxford in 1381 for criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. The Lollards’ demands, in line with Wycliffe’s thinking, were primarily for the reform of Western Christianity and in this they had much in common with the Protestants who would follow more than a century later. Amongst the many beliefs held by the Lollards, was that the Catholic Church’s practices of baptism and confession were unnecessary for salvation. They also considered that praying to saints and honouring their images was a form of idolatry. Oaths, fasting, and prayers for the dead were thought to have no scriptural basis and they had a poor opinion of the trappings of the Catholic church, including holy bread, holy water, bells, organs, and church buildings.
Definition of the ‘Lollard’ Label: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name Lollard is most likely derived from Middle Dutch lollaerd (“mumbler, mutterer”) and from the verb lollen (“to mutter, mumble”). It appears to be a derisive expression applied to those without an academic background, educated (if at all) only in English, who were known to follow the teachings of John Wycliffe in particular; they were certainly considerably energised by his translation of the Bible into the English language. By the mid-15th century, “lollard” had come to mean a heretic in general. The lesser known use of the more neutral term “Wycliffite” was generally applied to those of similar opinions, but having an academic background.
Lollard Influence – and the Consequences! Although the Lollard’s influence spread to Lincolnshire to the north and to both the midlands and Wales to the west, the greatest concentration was in the south and East Anglia with Norfolk as an influential hub. These were the heartlands of the large agricultural Estates within which were the bulk of the restlest peasantry – the working classes of the future industrialised England. They, inherently, voiced grievances and complained, not only about religious issues but life in general. It was therefore a short step for them to be labelled troublemakers by the authorities. By the late 14th Century, the unrestful peasants became embroilled in the Peasants Revolt, led by Wat Tyler (1381), As a result, Lollardism became associated with tradesmen, peasants, public disorder, licence and excess; these were excuses subsequently used to suppress the movement. Notebly, King Henry IV was persuaded by the Church to pass the 1401 Statute “De Heretics Comburendo” (The Necessity of Burning Heretics). This Act did not, specifically, ban the Lollards, but (a) probibited the translating or owning heretical versions of the Bible and (b) authorised death by burning for all heretics.
By 1395, the Lollards had their own ministers and were winning popular support but were to be subjected to extreme measures of persecution. Throughout England they, increasingly, were hunted down, imprisoned, tortured and frequently burnt at the stake as heretics. Clearly, the religious and secular authorities were strongly opposed to the them and a primary early opponent was Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was ably assisted by none other than Henry le Despenser of Norwich of whom the Chronicler, Thomas Walsingham praised for his zeal! In 1410, John Badby, a layman and craftsman who refused to renounce his Lollardy was burnt at the stake; he was the first layman to suffer capital punishment in England for the crime of heresy. John Foxes Acts and Monuments, popularly known as Foxes Martyrs, tells many of their stories although with a strong anti-Catholic bias.
The Norwich Heresy Trials of 1428 to 1431: These trials saw fifty-one men and nine women prosecuted for heresy – four were priests: John Midelton, vicar of Halvergate; John Cupper, vicar of Tunstall; Robert Cavell, parish chaplain of Bungay; and Master Robert Berte of Bury St Edmunds, chaplain. This, and mush more, is contained in a surviving manuscript from the Westminster Diocesan Archives MS. B.2, which is considered to be perhaps the most important record of heresy trials in the British Isles before the Reformantion. This manuscript is also of local interest because it is by far the most important record of Lollardy in East Anglia. It shows the extent of heresy at an early date in this area, which produced few known Lollards, before John Oldcastle’s Revolt – or after 1431 when the trials ended. The evidence also clearly offsets East Anglia’s reputation as an exceptionally ‘High Church’ area in the late Middle Ages and helps to explain why the eastern region became a Puritan stronghold.
Thus we learn, from the Norwich Heresy Trials Manuscript, of William White, a priest from Kent who had moved to Ludham to preach dissent; also of fellow Lollard’s John (or William?) Waddon and Hugh Pye. White’s trial took place on 13 September 1428, followed by those of Wadden and Pye; all three were burnt at Lollard’s Pit later that month. How bravely they met their fate is not known but it was reported that some people had a habit of emptying the contents of their chamber pots over the condemed as they walked along Bishopsgate.
Then there was Margery Baxter from Martham who was put on trial in October 1429. A Johanna Clifland testified against Baxter stating, amongst other things, that she had expressed a variety of unorthodox sentiments, including speaking out against the traditions of sanctioned marriage, fasting for religious days, and the swearing of religious oaths. Johanna Clifland accused Baxter of telling a friend that the bread consecrated in the mass was not the very body of Christ:
“You believe ill because, if every such sacrament is God and the true body of Christ, there are countless gods because a thousand and more priests every day make a thousand such gods and afterwards eat these gods and, having eaten them, discharge them through their posteriors into repulsively smelling toilets, where you can find plenty of such gods if you want to look. Therefore, know for certain that that which you call the sacrament of the altar will never by the grace of God be my God, for such a sacrament was falsely made and deceitfully ordained by priests in the church to induce idolatry in simple people because this sacrament is only material bread”.
Baxter also went on to argue that “the images which stand in the churches come from the Devil so that the people worshipping those images commit idolatry”. Then, echoing foundational Lollard beliefs, Baxter also opposed the wealth of Catholic clergymen and the practice of confession to church officials. However, despite such statements and confessions, Margery Baxter was sentenced not to be burnt, but to receive four Sunday floggings as she walked barefoot around her parish church.
It was the case that not all of the Norwich accused were condemed to be burnt at Lollards Pit. Nearly half the total tried ended up, like Margery Baxter, being flogged in either their parish churches or the adjoining cemeteries or, in the local market places on market day. Occasionally, sentences would be carried out in Norwich, in its market place or in the Cathedral church or Cloisters. Clearly the ecclesiastical authorities were eager to make the penances known to the public. Frequently, a penitent was given precise instructions that he, or she, was to appear bare-footed, bare-headed and clad in simple clothing, carrying a candle which they had to offer at the high altar of their parish church as soon as they had completed their penance.
Persecution of heretics in Norwich tailed away after 1431 but was to return in 1531 when the Reformation (1517 – 1648) ensured further persecutions in Norwich – they had, of course, continued in other areas of England during this ‘tailed off’ period during when there was a general respite of about forty five years (1440 – 1485) as a consequence of the ‘War of the Roses’, but thereafter the attacks on the Lollards entered another bloody phase. As for the reign of Henry VII (1485 – 1509), it had hardly got going before burnings began again in London and Canterbury. Despite these renewed pressures, the Lollard movement struggled on into the 16th Century and were to be still burnt at the stake during the reign of Henry VIII (1509 – 1547). In 1519, seven people were burnt in Coventry and within the next few years there were six burnt in Kent and five in the Eastern Counties. The stern measures employed by both the Church and State effectively drove the Lollards underground.
One of the first trials in Norwich during 1531 was that of Thomas Bilney, a Norfolk man born near Dereham; he was a Cambridge academic and, like William White before him, was convinced the Church had to be reformed. Arrested, and taken before Cardinal Wolsey, he had recanted his beliefs; but, characteristic of some who recant when initially faced with execution, returned to preaching heresy in the streets and fields. Bishop Richard NIX or NYKKE, (circa 1447–1535) of Norwich had him re-arrested and, thereafter, took a leading part in the execution of Thomas Bilney – who, by the way, had belonged to Nix’s old college. It was said, with some justice, that Nix burnt Bilney on his own authority, without waiting for the royal warrant. There was no mercy. Bilney was typically tried and convicted by the Church but given to the agents of the State for execution.
On the morning of his execution, Bilney was unwavering from his fate. A crowd had gathered in the streets of Norwich as he walked resolutely to the fire. Some thought that the weak and frail man would probably recant again. But as the fagots were piled around him, Bilney raised himself to his full height and said in a firm voice, “Good people, I am come hither to die.” After reciting Psalm 143, he took off his outer garments and was bound to the stake. As the torch was applied to the wood, Bilney did not flinch. The flames burned high around his face, but a strong wind blew them away. Bilney stood firm as the pile was ignited a second and then a third time. The third time, the fire burned in full strength. Whatever pain the noble martyr felt appeared bearable, for Bilney held his head high as the flames rose in full intensity around him. He cried out one brief phrase in Latin, “Jesu, credo.” – “Jesus, I believe.” With that dying prayer of faith, Bilney sunk downward into the fire, and the flames consumed all that was mortal”.
The climax to burning at the stake came during the reign of Mary (1553-58). Up to 50 people died during this time, under the religious conservative Bishop Hopton. In 1557 pewterers wife Elizabeth Cooper and Simon Miller, of Kings Lynn, were executed. Cooper had interrupted a service at St Andrews to retract her earlier recantation of Protestantism. As the two went to Lollards Pit, a Cecily Ormes declared her support for them.
Cecily Ormes was the wife of Mr. Edmund Ormes, worsted weaver of St. Lawrence, Norwich. At the death of Miller and Elizabeth Cooper she had said that “she would pledge them of the same cup they drank of”. For these words the civil authorities, often loath to arrest heretics, had no choice but to take her to the chancellor, who would have discharged her if she had promised to go to church and to keep her belief to herself. As she would not consent to this, the chancellor urged that he had shown more lenity to her than any other person, and was unwilling to condemn her, because she was an ignorant foolish woman; to this she replied, (perhaps with more shrewdness than he expected,) that however great his desire might be to spare her sinful flesh, it could not equal her inclination to surrender it up in so great a quarrel. The chancellor then pronounced the fiery sentence, and September 23, 1558, she was taken to Lollard Pit at eight o’clock in the morning.
After declaring her faith to the people, she laid her hand on the same stake at which Miller and Cooper had been burnt and said, “Welcome, thou cross of Christ.” Her hand was sooted in doing this and she at first wiped it only to again welcomed and embraced the stake. After the tormentors had unhurriedly built up the faggots and kindled the fire, she prayed then crossed her hands upon her breast, and ‘looking upwards with the utmost serenity, she withstood the fiery furnace. Her hands continued gradually to rise until the sinews were dried, and then they fell. She uttered no sigh of pain, but yielded her life’.
Note: There used to be a local rumour that had Sir Thomas Erpingham listed as a Lollard, for which his ‘penance’ was to build the Erpingham gate, entrance to the Cathedral precinct in Norwich!
Why did Norwich choose that particular ‘Pit’ site? What was to become known as the ‘Lollard’s Pit’ had long been associated with the Church being, as it was in the distant past, held by the Bishop of Norwich. For generations Norwich’s citizens had used the area, along with part of the then vast expanse of Mousehold Heath beyond as something approaching an industrial site. Early chalk workings were dug out there to provide foundations for the nearby Cathedral; hence the creation of a Pit in the first place. Also, its position was, conveniently, just outside the city walls and therefore a good place to dispose of those who had been cast out by the Church. The approach to it was directly along Bishopsgate. linking the Cathedral and city centre with the Pit which lay opposite Bishop’s Bridge.
Today all traces of that particular chalk pit where Lollard supporters were burned is long gone. Today, the only clue of where it once was is the Lollards Pit Public House on Norwich’s busy Riverside Road. It marks the approximate position of the old chalk pits.
The aftermath: For many years after the exercutions ended the area surrounding Lollards Pit was shunned by local people, many of whom feared evil connotations. Later it became a tannery, where wherrymen used to load and unload cargo, also it was a convenient place to dump the City’s rubbish and later it was used as a camp for gipsies. In modern times, as the area became more developed, local children would play there, unbothered by the ghosts of the past.
Today the Lollards Pit (formerly the Bridge House) pub has a plaque fixed to its wall marking the site of the infamous pit. Inevitably, it is sometimes claimed that eerie ghostly screams may be heard in the pub late at night. Claims also refer to terrified witnesses having seen ghostly black figures in the pub’s corridor and on one occasion, a shocking apparition of a woman engulfed in flames was claimed to have been seen before she quickly vanished into thin air; this suggests that, maybe, spirits are not confined to the bottles on the other side of the bar!
On the other side of Riverside Road, on the riverbank, is another commemorative plaque which hails the executed as martyrs, naming up to a dozen who died so horribly in Lollards Pit centuries ago.
FOOTNOTE: No one is absolutely sure where the Lollard’s Pit was situated; Some argue that it was not by the ‘Lollards Pit’ Public House but under the site of the old Gasometer on Gas Hill, others say it does indeed lay beneath the back bar of the Pub, whilst others put the case for it being below the site once occupied by Godfrey’s Store – or even underneath Chalk Hill House on Rosary Road. All close to one another.
This position is an ancient hereditary office within the English navy. In medieval times, the Lord High Admiral of the Wash was a nobleman with responsibility for defending and protecting the entire coastal area of the Wash.
The post was first granted to the Le Strange family (still associated today with Old Hunstanton) in the 13th century but in the 16th century, the post became obsolete when protection and defence duties around the area were taken over by the Royal Navy. However, somebody forgot to formally abolish the post so even today, it still remains in title as a hereditary dignity, but with absolutely no responsibilities nor privileges of any kind!
So when Henry Styleman Le Strange died in 1862 he was already Lord of the manor of Hunstanton – and other Manors, but also held the wonderful title of Hereditary Lord High Admiral of the Wash. But in more official times, this title had also allowed its holder the right to claim possession of anything out to sea for the distance a man on horseback could throw a spear from the High Water mark!
The Lord High Admiral of the Wash no longer resides at Hunstanton Hall. Nor does he control all shipping and smuggling around the Wash, as the Le Strange family had originally been commanded to do all those centuries earlier. The current Admiral inherited the title from his mother, yet still lives in Hunstanton. Technically, he still owns all the land between the High Tide mark and the distance he can throw a spear.
JOHN BALE (1495-1563), was born in the little village of Cove, near Dunwich in Suffolk, on 21 Nov. 1495. The village was so named after the deCove family who had held land there in the 13th century – today, the place is named Covehithe) because the village once had a hithe, or quay, for loading and unloading small vessels.
Covehithe’s nearby beach and ruined, St Andrew’s Church.
Photos: (c) Paul Dobraszczyk
Bale’s parents were of humble rank and at the age of twelve he was sent to the Carmelite Whitefriars Monastery at Norwich, where he was educated, and thence he passed to Jesus College, Cambridge. He was at first an opponent of the new learning, and was a zealous Roman catholic, but was converted to protestantism by the teaching of Lord Wentworth. He then laid aside his monastic habit, renounced his vows, and caused great scandal by taking a wife, of whom nothing is known save that her name Dorothy. This step exposed him to the hostility of the clergy, and he only escaped punishment by the powerful protection of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex.
Bales held the living of Thornden in Suffolk, and in 1534 was convened before the archbishop of York to answer for a sermon, denouncing Romish uses, which he had preached at Doncaster. Bale is said to have attracted Cromwell’s attention by his dramas, which were moralities, or scriptural plays setting forth the reformed opinions and attacking the Roman party. The earliest of Bale’s plays was written in 1538, and its title is sufficiently significant of its general purport. It is called ‘A Brefe Comedy or Enterlude of Johan Baptystes Preachynge in the Wyldernesse; openynge the craftye Assaults of the Hypocrytes (i.e. the friars) with the glorious Baptyme of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Harleian Miscellany, vol. i.). Bale wrote several plays of a similar character. They are not remarkable for their poetical merits, but are vigorous attempts to convey his own ideas of religion to the popular mind. When Bale was bishop of Ossory, he had some of his plays acted by boys at the market-cross of Kilkenny on Sunday afternoons.
Cromwell recognised in Bale a man who could strike hard, and Bale continued to make enemies by his unscrupulous outspokenness. The fall of Cromwell brought a religious reaction, and Bale had too many enemies to stay unprotected in England. He fled in 1540 with his wife and children to Germany, and there he continued his controversial writings. Chief amongst them in importance were the collections of Wycliffite martyrologies, ‘A brief Chronicle concerning the Examination and Death of Sir John Oldcastle, collected by John Bale out of the books and writings of those Popish Prelates which were present,’ London, 1544; at the end of which was ‘The Examination of William Thorpe,’ which Foxe attributes to Tyndale. In 1547 Bale published at Marburg ‘The Examination of Anne Askewe.’ Another work which was the fruit of his exile was an exposure of the monastic system entitled ‘ The Actes of Englyshe Votaryes,’ 1546.
On the accession of Edward VI in 1547 Bale returned to England and shared in the triumph of the more advanced reformers. He was appointed to the rectory of Bishopstoke in Hampshire, and published in London a work which he had composed during his exile, ‘The Image of bothe Churches after the most wonderfull and heavenlie Revelacion of Sainct John’ (1550). This work may be taken as the best example of Bale’s polemical power, showing his learning, his rude vigour of expression, and his want of good taste and moderation.
In 1551 Bale was promoted to the vicarage of Swaffham in Norfolk, but he does not appear to have resided there. In August 1552 Edward VI came to Southampton and met Bale, whom he presented to the vacant see of Ossory. In December Bale set out for Ireland, and was consecrated at Dublin on 2 Feb. 1553. From the beginning Bale showed himself an uncompromising upholder of the reformation doctrines. His consecration gave rise to a controversy. The Irish bishops had not yet accepted the new ritual. The ‘Form of Consecrating Bishops,’ adopted by the English parliament, had not received the sanction of the Irish parliament, and was not binding in Ireland. Bale refused to be ordained by the Roman ritual, and at length succeeded in carrying his point, though a protest was made by the Dean of Dublin during the ceremony.
Bale has left an account of his proceedings in his diocese in his ‘Vocacyon of John Bale to the Byshopperycke of Ossorie’ (Harleian Miscellany, vol. vi.). His own account shows that his zeal for the reformation was not tempered by discretion. At Kilkenny he tried to remove ‘idolatries,’ and thereon followed ‘angers, slaunders, conspiracies, and in the end slaughters of men.’ He angered the priests by denouncing their superstitions and advising them to marry. His extreme measures everywhere aroused opposition. When Edward VI’s death was known, Bale doubted about recognising Lady Jane Grey, and on the proclamation of Queen Mary he preached at Kilkenny on the duty of obedience.
But the catholic party at once raised its head. The mass was restored in the cathedral, and Bale thought it best to withdraw to Dublin, whence he set sail for Holland. He was taken prisoner by the captain of a Dutch man-of-war, which was storm driven into St. Ives in Cornwall. There Bale was apprehended on a charge of high treason, but was released. The same fortune befell him at Dover. When he arrived in Holland he was again imprisoned, and only escaped by paying £300 – about £80,000 in today’s terms. From Holland he made his way to Basel, where he remained in quiet till the accession of Elizabeth in 1559. He again returned to England an old and worn-out man. He did not feel himself equal to the task of returning to his turbulent diocese of Ossory, but accepted the post of prebendary of Canterbury, and died in Canterbury in 1563.
Bale was a man of great theological and historical learning, and of an active mind. But he was a coarse and bitter controversialist and awakened equal bitterness amongst his opponents. None of the writers of the reformation time in England equalled Bale’s sharpness and forthrightness. He was known as ‘Bilious Bale’. His controversial spirit was a hindrance to his learning, as he was led away by his prejudices into frequent mis-statements. The most important work of Bale was a history of English literature, which first appeared in 1548 under the title ‘Illustrium Majoris Britanniae Scriptorum Summarium in quinque centurias divisum.’ It is a valuable catalogue of the writings of the authors of Great Britain chronologically arranged. Bale’s second exile gave him time to carry on his work till his own day, and two editions were issued in Basel, 1557-1559. This work owes much to the ‘Collectanea’ and ‘Commentarii’ of John Leland, and is disfigured by misrepresentations and inaccuracies. Still its learning is considerable, and it deserves independent consideration, as it was founded on an examination of manuscripts in monastic libraries, many of which have since been lost.
The plays of Bale are doggerel, and are totally wanting in decorum. A few of them are printed in Dodsley’s ‘Old Plays,’ vol. i., and in the ‘Harleian Miscellany,’ vol. i. The most interesting of his plays, ‘Kynge Johan’, was printed by the Camden Society in 1838. It is a singular mixture of history and allegory, the events of the reign of John being transferred to the struggle between protestantism and popery in the writer’s own day. His controversial writings were very numerous, and many of them were published under assumed names. Tanner (Bibl. Brit.) gives a catalogue of eighty-five printed and manuscript works attributed to Bale, and Cooper (Athenae Cantabrigienses) extends the number to ninety.
Creighton, Mandell. “John Bale.”
The Dictionary of National Biography. Vol III. Leslie Stephen, Ed.
London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1885. 41-42.
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!!
Some 500 years ago, Christmas was the time where communities outside of politics came together to celebrate; in the Tudor court, greater emphasis was placed on what we call today – networking! Generally however, it was a time to be with the family, visit neighbours and entertain your tenants or social equals. It was also a time for fasting and on Christmas Eve you were not permitted to eat meat, cheese or eggs. On Christmas day, after three masses were said, the genealogy of Christ was sung and all present would hold lighted tapers before departing for home and enjoying “their first unrestricted meal since Advent Sunday, which was four weeks earlier”. It was also a time for rest when all work on the land stopped, with the only exception being to look after the animals. Spinning, the prime occupation for women at the time, was banned and ceremonial flowers were placed on the wheels to prevent their use. All Work recommenced on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night.
However, the root of this particular midwinter ritual go back long before the birth of Christ for midwinter had always been a time for merry making by the masses. We have to go back to the shortest day, which falls on 21st December. After this date the days lengthened and the return of spring, the season of life, was eagerly anticipated. It was therefore a time to celebrate both the end of the autumn sowing and the fact that the ‘life giving’ sun had not deserted them. Bonfires were lit to help strengthen the ‘Unconquered Sun’.
For Christians the world over this period celebrates the story of the birth of Jesus, in a manger, in Bethlehem. The scriptures however make no mention as to the time of year yet alone the actual date of the nativity. Even our current calendar which supposedly calculates the years from the birth of Christ, was drawn up in the sixth century by Dionysius, an ‘innumerate’ Italian monk to correspond with a Roman Festival.
Until the 4th century Christmas could be celebrated throughout Europe anywhere between early January through to late September. It was Pope Julius I who happened upon the bright idea of adopting 25th December as the actual date of the Nativity. The choice appears both logical and shrewd – blurring religion with existing feast days and celebrations. Any merrymaking could now be attributed to the birth of Christ rather than any ancient pagan ritual.
One such blurring may involve the Feast of Fools, presided over by the Lord of Misrule. The feast was an unruly event, involving much drinking, revelry and role reversal. The Lord of Misrule, normally a commoner with a reputation of knowing how to enjoy himself, was selected to direct the entertainment. The festival is thought to have originated from the benevolent Roman masters who allowed their servants to be the boss for a while.
The Church entered the act by allowing a choirboy, elected by his peers, to be a Bishop during the period starting with St Nicholas Day (6th December) until Holy Innocents Day (28th December). Within the period the chosen boy, symbolising the lowliest authority, would dress in full Bishop’s regalia and conduct the Church services. Many of the great cathedrals adopted this custom including York, Winchester, Salisbury Canterbury and Westminster. Henry VIII abolished Boy Bishops, however a few churches, including Hereford and Salisbury Cathedrals, continue the practice today.
The burning of the Yule Log is thought to derive from the midwinter ritual of the early Viking invaders, who built enormous bonfires to celebrate their festival of light. The word ‘Yule’ has existed in the English language for many centuries as an alternative term for Christmas. Traditionally, a large log would be selected in the forest on Christmas Eve, decorated with ribbons, dragged home and laid upon the hearth. After lighting it was kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas. It was considered lucky to keep some of the charred remains to kindle the log of the following year.
Whether the word carol comes from the Latin caraula or the French carole, its original meaning is the same – a dance with a song. The dance element appears to have disappeared over the centuries but the song was used to convey stories, normally that of the Nativity. The earliest recorded published collection of carols is in 1521, by Wynken de Worde which includes the Boars Head Carol.
Carols became very popular during Tudor time and were seen as a way of celebrating Christmas and spreading the word of the nativity. Winken de Worde’s ‘Christmasse Carolles’, published in 1521, is the earliest recorded published collection and includes the Boars Head Carol describing the ancient tradition of sacrificing a boar and presenting its head at a yuletide feast; the head being garnished with rosemary and bay before being presented to diners. However, celebrations came to an abrupt end in the seventeenth century when the Puritans banned all festivities including Christmas. Surprisingly carols remained virtually extinct until the Victorians reinstated the concept of an ‘Olde English Christmas’ which included traditional gems such as While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night and The Holly and the Ivy as well as introducing a plethora of new hits – Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem – to mention but a few.
Twelve Days of Christmas:
The twelve days of Christmas themselves (25th December- 6th January) were all celebrated but not equally. The main three days of celebration being Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Epiphany or Twelfth Night. Nevertheless, these twelve days would have been a most welcome break for the workers on the land, which in Tudor times would have been the majority of the people. All work, except for looking after the animals, would stop, restarting again on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night. The ‘Twelfths’ had strict rules, one of which banned spinning, the prime occupation for women. Flowers were ceremonially placed upon and around the wheels to prevent their use. During the Twelve Days, people would visit their neighbours sharing and enjoying the traditional ‘minced pye’. The pyes would have included thirteen ingredients, representing Christ and his apostles, typically dried fruits, spices and of course a little chopped mutton – in remembrance of the shepherds.
Serious feasting would have been the reserve of royalty and the gentry. Turkey was first introduced into Britain in about 1523 with Henry VIII being one of the first people to eat it as part of the Christmas feast. The popularity of the bird grew quickly, and soon, each year, large flocks of turkeys could be seen walking to London from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire on foot; a journey which they may have started as early as August.
A Tudor Christmas Pie was indeed a sight to behold but not one to be enjoyed by a vegetarian. The contents of this dish consisted of a Turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon. All of this was put in a pastry case, called a coffin and was served surrounded by jointed hare, small game birds and wild fowl.
Wassailing: This popular Christmas tradition was practiced throughout all levels of society and derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Waes-hael’, meaning ‘be whole’ or ‘be of good health’. Essentially it involved a wassail bowl and a communal drink.
Although most of the descriptions of how wassail was performed date from post Tudor times, there is one surviving description from the reign of Henry VII. It paints a very formal picture; the steward and treasurer were present with their staves of office and then the steward enters with the wassail bowl, calling out “wassell, wassell, wassell” and the court responds with a song. The bowl was a large wooden container holding as much as a gallon of punch made of hot-ale, sugar, spices and apples with a crust of bread at the bottom. The most important person in the household would take a drink and then pass it on. The crust of bread at the bottom of the wassail bowl was reserved for the most important person in the room, the origin of a modern day ‘toast’ when celebrating. Some believe that most wassails of the time were probably more fun and less grand. Today, communal drinking may sound alien, but it was very common in Tudor times.
The Norfolk Broads is Britain’s largest protected wetland and one of Europe’s most popular inland waterways. The area is managed as a national park and it is claimed that it attracts more than a million visitors each year from all over the World. Before the ‘Broads’ were known as such, its waterways made up an essential transport network for peat, thatching reed and marsh hay. Today, the ‘Broads’ is used for recreation, including such activities as sailing, motor cruising, fishing and enjoying the wildlife. Then there are the opportunities to visit the lovely villages that find themselves embraced by the Norfolk Broads, along with their medieval country churches.
Ranworth is just one such place with its Staithe, which is run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, fronting Malthouse Broad and aptly named after nearby malt houses. There are great waterside views around Ranworth and within the village with its pretty thatched cottages which makes for ‘chocolate box’ opportunities for photographers and painters.
Nearby, on higher ground, stands St Helens Church below which is a large nature reserve winding its way through woodland to the Norfolk Wildlife Conservation Centre; a floating thatched building right on the edge of what is Ranworth Broad . This is the information centre for the Broads and its history, including models of local scenes depicting peat digging, thatching and duck shooting. On the upper floor of the building there are facilities, including binoculars and telescopes, for bird watching.
This church, set on high ground and overlooking the village and the broads beyond, is well worth a visit for its furnishings, views from its tower, its history and its myths. There have been previous churches on the site but the present one on view was completed as far back as about 1450. Furnished by prosperous wool merchants, its walls were painted with biblical stories, its windows rich in stained glass and a great cross suspended above an elaborate rood screen.
Unfortunately, many of the church’s medieval treasures were damaged or destroyed during the Reformation, although a surprising amount did survive. The building itself also fell into a long period of decline and disrepair and it was only in the late 1890s that the church was restored to what can be seen today. Much of the original rood screen with its medieval paintings still survives, along with its stylized white roses of York painted on the back of the screen, one of the finest in England. The church also has a 15th century illuminated manuscript, the Ranworth Antiphoner kept in a steel case and on view to visitors.
The Church Tower
The tower dominates the Ranworth skyline and it would seem that visitors love to climb the eighty-nine spiral steps and two ladders to the top of the flint-lined tower for the wonderful views over the landscape. It is easy to understand why when from its heights, on clear days, one can see five Norfolk Broads and the impressive wind turbines of the wind farm at West Somerton.
In fact, much of the Norfolk Broads river system is visible, interlaced with boats that weave their way in a constantly changing pattern of light through farmland and marshes that grow traditional Norfolk thatching reed. A recent survey using a calibrated telescope listed nearly two hundred sites in the Cromer–Norwich–Great Yarmouth area, including 116 churches, numerous windmills and wind drainage pumps, Happisburgh lighthouse and even the top of Norwich Cathedral.
They say that, when conditions and timings are right, Brother Pacificus may be seen rowing either towards, or away from, the Church. For those who master the climb up 89 steps and two ladders to the roof of the the tower but fail to see Pacificus on the water below – just turn around and look up to the weathervain!
Ranworth Church and Patron Saints
Early Christians used the word ‘saint’ for all the faithful. In time though, a saint came to be a person of outstanding devotion. The earliest saints acclaimed by common consent were the apostles, John the Baptist, the Holy family and the first martyrs. As the Christian church became more structured, bishops took control of canonisations within their own dioceses. It was not until 1170 though that Pope Alexander III insisted that only the Pope could canonise.
Portrayals of saints dominated Christian art until the Reformation when many icons were destroyed. It is miraculous that so much of the rood screens in Ranworth and any of the lovely Upton screen survived the ravages of the 1500s when reformers believed that portrayals of human beings might tempt congregations to treat them as idols. The reformers’ passion led them to daub all bare flesh, feet, hands and faces with tar.
Ranworth Church is dedicated to St Helen, a popular patron of ancient English churches with perhaps 135 dedicated to her throughout the country. Some accounts say that she was a princess, the daughter of King Coel, King of the Britons and was born in Colchester where she is the patron saint of the City. Others say that she was born in York although most historians have it that she was born in 242 AD in Bithynia, an area of Asia Minor near the Bosporus Sea. She married a Roman general, Constantius Chlorus, and became the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome. Despite her status as empress, she helped the poor and distressed and was known for her charitable acts. Helen had a great influence on her son Constantine.
Helen became a Christian late in her life and it wasn’t until she was an old lady that she made her famous pilgrimage from Rome to Jerusalem to find the cross on which Christ was crucified. The story is that she uncovered three crosses under a temple on Mount Calvary that she had ordered to be torn down on seeing smoke issuing from the ground. Helen recognised the one True Cross when it touched a dead man that miraculously resurrected. Helen built a basilica on Mount Calvary for the sacred relic and later, built two other famous churches in Palestine that celebrate the nativity and the ascension. She returned from the Holy Land in her 80s and died in Rome in 328.
Saint Helen, known also as Helena, is celebrated on August 18th and is the patron saint of treasure hunters, nail-makers and is invoked against theft and fire. She is usually shown holding a cross, just as she is outside Ranworth Church.
The Ranworth Antiphoner, the Church’s Illuminated Manuscript:
Those who do visit Ranworth Church should not leave before heading over to the cabinet just to the side of the main door; usually it has a cloth protecting its ancient contents – it is the Ranworth Antiphoner.
In medieval times, services were held 7 times a day and these would consist of prayers said or sung from a book of psalms. Lines were read alternately, ‘antiphonally’, between the priest and the choir. Ranworth Church still has one of its two Medieval Latin ‘antiphonies’; the other earlier and smaller one is in the British Library. The book dates from the 1400s and has 285 vellum (animal skin) pages illustrated with gleaming colour pictures and gold leaf edging.
In 1549, when services were first published in English in the Book of Common Prayer, antiphoners were banned. Ranworth’s somehow survived, reappearing in the reign of Mary Tudor when changes were made to its calendar (e.g. the feast of Thomas a Becket, which had been scratched out during Henry VIII’s time, was reinstated). The Holdych family whose family dates appear in the margins of the calendar probably hid the book during Elizabethan times. The Antiphoner eventually became part of a collection offered for sale at the beginning of the 20th century. Its link to Ranworth was soon traced and the Parish raised the money to buy it. The book is now on show inside a unique security case made by the inmates of Norwich Prison. Unfortunately maybe for some but the case cannot be opened to meet requests, but the pages are turned occasionally to display the illuminations and the plainchant music that the church choir sometimes sings.
The Rood Screen
The painted rood screen in St Helen’s Ranworth dates from the early 1400s. The Great Rood that was once above the screen was destroyed in the Reformation.
The Rood (from the Anglo-Saxon for cross) is a large crucifix usually placed above the entrance to the choir in medieval churches. Some were very large, carved richly in wood and painted or gilded. By the 13th or 14th centuries, the great rood had become a feature of almost every church. The rood, however, was often eclipsed by the screen over which it was placed. Paintings of apostles and saints including St George and St Michael both slaying dragons, survive on the screen in St Helen’s Ranworth.
LOCAL MYTHS 1 (Brother Pacificus):
Ranworth and Ranworth Broad are said to be haunted by a friendly ghost named Brother Pacificus. The early bird may be in the best position to catch a glimpse of the monk, though he may also be sighted on quiet summer evenings. Wearing his habit, he may be seen rowing a small boat across the Broad with a small dog standing in the prow.
The story goes that during the 1530’s the brothers at nearby St Benets Abbey undertook the work of restoring the rood screen of St Helen’s Church, Ranworth. Brother Pacificus was entrusted with the task so early each morning that he would row his boat across the Broad from the Abbey to the church in order to carry out the restoration work on the screen. He was always accompanied by his little dog. At the end of the day he would return by the same route.
One evening upon his return the Abbey, Brother Pacificus found to his horror that his brother monks had been murdered by the King’s Troops as part of the dissolution of the monasteries, ordered by Henry VIII. Devastated, Pacificus was to linger for years amidst the blackened ruins where he eventually died. The local villagers who knew of his devotion to Ranworth took his body across the Bure and lovingly laid it to rest in the shadow of St Helen’s, a church that he clearly loved and for which he had worked so hard.
To some, he still returns to carry out his work, accompanied by his little dog. They say that he also comes back to pray. Sometimes in the early hours of morning, when it is just light, his little boat may be seen moored up to the bank and sometimes his little dog asleep in it, just waiting. Inside, the aged monk will be kneeling in an attitude of prayer before the centre opening of the rood-screen, but with the approach of anyone he will simply fade into nothingness. On the other hand and if left alone, he may be seen returning at nightfall to his boat and rowing back to St Benet’s with his little dog sitting up perkily in the stern.
It is best not to laugh at such happenings as that which confronted Pacificus and his journeys to and from Ranworth centuries ago. For note, it is on record that a certain Reverend James Brewster, D.D. of Baliol, whilst on holiday in 1930 and about to enter a narrow waterway leading to Ranworth Broad, saw a boat being rowed towards him. Pulling into the side to make room, the visitor waited for it to pass by; as he did so he noticed that the rower was a monk in a black habit and although clearly aged, had the kindest face he had not previously seen on any man. The Benedictine smiled his thanks as he passed and before dissolving into nothing just a short distance on. Dr Brewster thought that there had been a small white dog in the boat, but he couldn’t be sure. Apparently, he was so moved by this experience that he felt he had to make enquiries hereabouts. At Horning he was simply laughed at whilst in Ranworth he was to learn:
‘That what he saw was our monastic friend, Brother Pacificus, going home after his labours and there is no real or known reason why it should not have been.’
LOCAL MYTHS 2 (Colonel Sydney and the Devil):
Summer visitors to the lovely Ranworth Broad may find it hard to imagine this beautiful spot being the scene of one of Norfolk’s spookiest legends, but so it is. In July the nights are warm and balmy, but the scene of this story is a wintry one, December 31 1770 to be precise. This tale is worth telling to children on the boats that chug the Broads there – they won’t forget it easily, and it may well keep them from venturing on deck in the dark. Ranworth then as now was an out of the way place, the church tower dominating the landscape. The east wind of the winter blows across the marshes and broads with seemingly little in its way from the cold North Sea.
In 1770 Colonel Thomas Sydney resided in Ranworth Old Hall. The former soldier was such a foul character that in spite of his wealth and position he was struck from the list of JPs. Sydney was a rake-hell: a drunkard whose already evil temper got worse when he was in his cups; a gambler; and perhaps worst of all for the English, a bad loser. Not that he got much practice at losing, for he was a noted sportsman, and his neighbours were wary of getting on his wrong side by besting him in a contest.
At the New Year’s Eve hunt meeting that year Sydney challenged a neighbour to a race, matching their horses over the fields. But much to the Colonel’s surprise his neighbour outpaced him, heading it seemed for an easy win. Not so damn likely thinks the Colonel, who draws his pistol and shoots the neighbour’s horse from under him. The frightened animal rears and sends its rider flying, his neck cracking just as the beast’s hooves trample the body. The evil owner of the Old Hall wins, and devil take the hindmost – though here he can claim the winner too.
With his neighbours too scared to act against him Sydney has no compunction about appearing at the hunt ball he is holding that very night, dressed in his finery, his brain still more befuddled by continued drinking. He roars at the top of his voice, totally without shame.
Crash go the doors to the Old Hall. At the threshold stands a tall and slender figure, dressed all black that merges his shape with the night behind him. No features of the face beneath the elegant black hat are visible. Sydney’s mouth gapes, for once he is silenced. The figure approaches and throws the helpless Colonel across his shoulder, marches him outside, and throws the frozen figure across his saddle. The head of the Wild Hunt has come to claim his own. With studied ease the devil mounts his black steed, and in a second he, the horse, and the terrified captive are racing across Ranworth Broad, steam rising from the water wherever a hellish hoof touches. Sydney finds his voice now, screams, begs, curses, but not a jot of difference will it make to his awful fate. He is bound for the pit. Colonel Sydney was never seen again, at least not alive. But every year on New Year’s Eve, or so it is said, the devil rides across Ranworth Broad, Colonel Sydney held across his saddle.
Every summer, Queen Elizabeth I would leave her great palaces, which were all in or around London, and embark on a tour of her country. These tours were called ‘Progresses’ and, apparently, the Queen enjoyed them very much – who wouldn’t when the hosts would feel ‘obliged’ to lavish small fortunes on providing, accommodation, banquets and entertainment. These ‘soirees’ were a kind of fun holiday for her, a refreshing change from all the tensions of court life, and were a wonderful way for her to meet her ordinary subjects. The official line at the time was that her people enjoyed these Progresses too, as it was a chance for them to see their beloved Queen. Over the course of her reign, Queen Elizabeth visited many cities, towns and villages in England.
A Royal Progress took a lot of preparation and money the Queen’s ministers, courtiers, and servants did not share her enthusiasm for them. In fact, all the work involved, and all the dangers public travel constituted for the Queen, caused them a lot of headaches! But for others. all the work entailed was worth it for they always felt that these Progresses were great successes. The Queen would leave in procession from one of her palaces, seated on a horse or in a litter or coach, and her courtiers would accompany her, followed by hundreds of carts carrying their goods. So it was when Queen Elizabeth I decreed that she wished to visit Norwich – but only after pursuing her Royal Progress to ‘various houses of standing throughout Suffolk’. This journey was termed her ‘Eastern Progress’. The following is just a brief glimpse of her final destination – Norwich:
On the 16th August in the year of 1578, the Queen, having departed Suffolk, began her ‘Royal Progress’ in Norwich. Arrangements had been made in the City for Her Majesty and her London train of followers to stay for five days with the Queen lodging at the Bishop’s Palace. The Mayor of Norwich greeted the royal party at Hartford Bridge and escorted the Queen and her entourage into the City.
Preparations for this visit had started in June when St Stephen’s Gate was refurbished, streets were repaired and tidied, and the wall of St John’s Maddermarket churchyard was rebuilt (see above). Pageants, shows and feasts had been planned for her entertainment, principally allied to the trade and manufacturing of the City. In the Cathedral, a series of eleven large coats of arms were painted on the north wall of the cloister and a magnificent throne was prepared for her opposite the tomb of her great-grandfather, Sir William Boleyn. His tomb bears the Boleyn arms which could well have been a poignant reminder to the Queen – her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed on the orders of her father, Henry VIII!
After five exhausting days of being feted, entertained and lectured, Queen Elizabeth I departed the City on the 22nd August, 1578. It was said that ‘the Norwich orators, unquestionably to the last, sought to inflict yet another endless oration – what one commentator called “grovelling rubbish” – on the Queen’, as her Norwich visit came to an end. Anxious to avoid another long speech, she instructed her Lord Chamberlain to tell the Mayor, politely but firmly, that Her Majesty would prefer to have the manuscript of the speech in order that she might enjoy it at her leisure! The manuscript was handed over and ‘was no doubt put to some laudable culinary, or other, use later in the day’.
Wherever she had gone, the streets had been packed so densely that the onlookers could barely move. On one occasion, a ‘comely bachelor’, dressed as King Gurguntius, the mythical founder of Norwich and builder of the earliest Norwich Castle, had addressed her for some considerable time. Then a boy in a silk turban, who stood on a platform along the route, delivered yet more orations which was followed by ‘delicate music’.
The following account of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Norwich in 1578 comes from Agnes Strickland’s 1844 Book titled ” Lives of Queens of England from the Norman Conquest…Volume 6″:
Her Majesty spent ten days at various seats in Suffolk, and having been received on the borders of Norfolk by the Cavaliers of the County of Norfolk, approached Norwich, as near as Braken Ash, on the 16th of August. At the western boundary of the City of Norwich, at Harford Bridge, the Mayor of Norwich welcomed the Queen with a long Latin speech, which he recited in a manner that did great credit to mayors in general. The purpose of it was to offer a cup of silver, with a cover, containing 100 pounds in gold. Lifting the cover, the Mayor said to Her Majesty, “Here is one hundred pounds of pure gold. It is said that as one of the Queen’s footmen advanced to take it, the Queen said to him, thinking he might not have understood the learned Mayor’s Latin, “Look to it, there is a hundred pound.”
When the Royal procession had advanced “within a flight-shot of the metropolis of the east of England, and in a spot commanding a good view of the Castle of Blancheflower (now Norwich Castle), which stands like a mural crown above the city of Norwich, a pageant arrested the attention of the Queen”. Here, a person representing King Gurgunt who, traditionally, was said to have built Norwich Castle and the founding of Cambridge University, explained in verse his ancient doings in Norwich. Then another Pageant met her at St. Stephen’s Gates, “from whence, says the annals of the City, “an enormous muck-hill had been recently removed for the occasion.” There followed a series of “allegories which bestowed their tediousness on the Queen”, before the Queen arrived at the only Pageant of real interest to her – some elements of which are said to still be displayed at Norwich elections, and other grand occasions, to this day. This particular Pageant was called “The Stranger’s Pageant,” a show depicting Queen Philippa’s industrious Flemish Colony,- “ a separate and peculiar people in Norwich”. This was performed on a stage, where seven looms were actively at work with their separate weavers. Over the first loom was written the “Weaving of Worsted;” over the second, the “Weaving of Russels,” a sort of Norwich crape. Among the other looms were “the weaving of lace and of fringe, and several other manufactures which it would be vain to seek as Norwich produced”.
Upon the stage stood, at one end, “eight small women-children” spinning worsted yarn; at the other end, as many knitting of worsted hose; – and in the midst a ‘pretty boy’ stood forth, and stayed Her Majesty’s Progress with an address in verse, declaring, that in this small show, the city’s wealth was seen.”
“From combed wool we draw this slender thread,
(Showing the spinners.)
From thence the looms have dealing with the same;
(Showing the weaving in progress.)
And thence again, in order do proceed
These several works, which skilful art doth frame;
And all to drive dame Need into her cave,
Our heads and hands together laboured have.
We bought before, the things that now we sell,
These slender imps, their work doth pass the waves.
(Showing the women-children, spinners, and knitters.)
God’s peace and thine we hold, and prosper well,
Of every mouth, the hands, the charges saves.
Thus, through thy help and aid of power Divine,
Doth Norwich live, whose hearts and goods are thine.”
Elizabeth had the good sense to be particularly pleased with this Pageant; “she desired to examine the knitting and yarn of the ‘small women-children’. “She perused the looms attentively and returned great thanks for this show”.
A grand pageant thwarted the entrance of the marketplace from St Stephen’s-street.” Here the Queen was addressed by seven female worthies, among which were Debora, Judith, Esther, the City of Norwich and Queen Martia who described herself thus:
“I am that Martia bright, who sometime ruled this land,
As queen, for thirty-three years space, gat licence at the hand
Of that Gurguntius king, my husband’s father dear,
Who built this town and castle, both, to make our homage here;
Which homage, mighty queen, accept,—the realm and right are thine;
The crown, the sceptre, and the sword, to thee we do resign.”
Thus Elizabeth was welcomed at various stations in Norwich till she reached the Cathedral, where she attended ‘Te Deum’ and, finally, arrived at the Bishop’s Palace; where she sojourned during her stay at Norwich.
On the Monday morning, “a very excellent boy,” representing Mercury, was driven at full speed through the city in a fantastic car, painted with birds and clouds, the horses being dressed out with wings; and Mercury himself appeared in an azure satin jerkin, and a mantle of gold cloth. He was driven into the “preaching green,” on the north side of the Bishop’s Palace, where the queen, looking out of her bed-chamber window, beheld him jump off his car and approach the window in such a sort, that Her Majesty “was seen to smile at the boldness of the boy.” He looked at the Queen with courage and audacity, then bowed down his head, “shaked his rod,” and commenced an unmercifully long string of verses; but the gist of his message was, “that if Her Highness pleased to take the air that day, there were shows and devices to be seen abroad.” Unfortunately, it rained hard, and the Queen did not venture out.
The next day, Her Majesty was engaged to hunt in Sir Henry Jerningham’s park at Costessey. As she passed out of St. Bennet’s Gates, master Mercury and all the heathen deities were stationed there with speeches, and presents of small value. Among others, Jupiter gave her a riding rod made of whale’s fin. Venus presented her with a white dove. The little creature was so tame, that, when cast off, it made directly to the Queen, and sat before her all the time as quietly as if it listened to the speeches.
The Queen, and the French ambassadors who were in her train, dined on Wednesday with the young Earl of Surrey, heir of her victim the beheaded Duke of Norfolk. His residence was not at the famous Duke’s Palace, in Norwich (now utterly destroyed), but at a conventual structure by the water-side, at present in good preservation; not very large, but suitable to the altered fortunes of the young Heir of Howard.
The queen left Norwich on the Friday, and as she bade an affectionate farewell to Norwich; she Knighted the Mayor, and told him “she would never forget his city.” When on her departure, she looked back, and with water in her eyes and shaking her riding whip, said, “Farewell, Norwich!”
Two days later, on the 24th August, the joy and festivity of the Queen’s visit to the City of Norwich was succeeded by the most severe of afflictions. Her Majesty’s London train of followers had brought disease with them. The Norwich Roll recorded ‘her majesty’s carriage being many of then infected, left the plague behind them, which afterwards so increased and continued, as it raged above a year and three-quarters after’ Some 2,335 natives, including ten Aldermen and ‘alien strangers’, died of it between the August and February of the following year.
During the infection, it was ordered that anyone coming from an infected house should carry, in his hand, a small white wand, 2 feet in length: no such person should appear at any Court, or public place, or be present at any Sermon. The following inscription should be put over the door of every infected house: ‘Lord Have Mercy on Us’ and there it must remain until the house has been clear of the infection for one month at least. No person who had been afflicted should appear abroad until it had been entirely healed for the space of twenty days.
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!