Three East Anglian Witch Hunts

The 16th century was a time of religious upheaval caused, in part, by the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. As the aftershocks of religious division extended across Europe, fear spread that the Day of Judgment was nigh. Catholics viewed the rift as a sign that the antichrist was increasing his works in the world, while Protestants saw the corruption of the Catholic church as proof that the devil was near.

Fuelling concerns about the pernicious influence of magic and the devil was the revolution of print, which saw an influx of written texts from the continent, such as the Malleus Maleficarum (c1486), urging people to take decisive action in the battle with witches and magic. It was against this emotionally charged backdrop that Henry VIII introduced the first English statutes addressing witchcraft in 1542, followed by new, stricter, legislation by Elizabeth I in 1563 and James I in 1604. No one was safe from an accusation of witchcraft, even clergymen. However, marginalised women bore the brunt of the accusations – particularly elderly spinsters, widows, and those living alone. In fact, 80 per cent of those tried in Britain were women.

Begging, a standard method of survival, lay at the root of many witchcraft allegations, and beggars were often blamed for misfortunes that occurred after they were refused help. More often than not, accusations of witchcraft resulted from neighbourly disagreements, inextricably bound to a deep-rooted fear of malevolent magic and the devil.

Witchcraft (Matthew Hopkins)
Matthew Hopkins

As stories of continental trials spread and as the new witchcraft laws filtered down through society, some took it upon themselves to lead the witch hunts, gathering evidence before trial as self-proclaimed ‘witchfinder generals’. The most notorious of these in England was a Puritan called Matthew Hopkins who launched an unprecedented campaign of terror against suspected English witches during the 1640s. These led to some 300 trials and the deaths of around 100 people in eastern England. Hopkins was by no means the only witch detector, but his reputation spread far and wide and he had a profound impact on those around him. One source from the time commented: “It is strange to tell what superstitious opinions, affections, relations, are generally risen amongst us, since the Witchfinders came into the Countrey.”


Although the use of torture to extract a confession was illegal in England, less ‘formalWitchcraft (Water Test)’ types of torture were often used by men such as Hopkins at a local level, often presided over by a magistrate or local constable. One such method was sleep deprivation, whereby the accused would be forced to walk back and forth until exhausted and then denied rest. Another, more public and informal type of trial was ‘swimming’ the accused to prove their guilt. The victim’s right thumb would be tied to their left big toe and they would be thrown into a nearby pond or river. If they sank, they were innocent; if they floated, they had been rejected by the water as a servant of the devil, in a type of reverse baptism.

As a capital offence, witchcraft trials in England were held before a judge and a jury under the common law system, during which evidence against the accused was presented. Court records reveal extraordinary stories of witches flying out of windows on broomsticks or cavorting with satanic imps. There are many theories to explain why the accused related such fantastical stories to open-mouthed juries – some historians cite mental health disorders; others attribute it to attention-seeking.

Contrary to popular belief, witch trials were not a foregone conclusion for only 25 per cent of those tried across the period were found guilty and executed. It has been said that the total number of people tried for witchcraft in England throughout the period was no more than 2,000.

By the late 17th century – thanks to a combination of judicial scepticism, low prosecution rates and the costs of pursuing a case through the courts – the number of accusations of witchcraft had plummeted. Many people turned instead to ‘cunning folk’ (‘wise’ men and women who practiced ‘good’ witchcraft) and healers to combat the malevolent forces they believed to be at large. Witchcraft was finally decriminalised in Britain in 1736 – though people were still being accused of it as late as the 19th century.

Three East Anglian Places Where History Happened:

1) Brandeston village, Suffolk

As the witch hunting momentum grew, self-appointed ‘witchfinder generals’ sprung up around Britain, devoted to extracting confessions of guilt. Matthew Hopkins, the most notorious of these, was responsible for one fifth of the total number of executions in England over the period. One of his targets, John Lowes, was the elderly vicar of Brandeston who was accused of witchcraft in 1642.

Witchcraft (Framlingham Castle)
Framlingham Castle

After being ‘swum’ in the moat at Framlingham Castle, and proclaimed guilty after floating to the surface, Hopkins “kept [Lowes] awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath… till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”. Ultimately, Lowes ‘confessed’ to sending imps to sink a ship near Harwich and allegedly proclaimed that he “was joyfull to see what power his imps had”. Lowes was hanged at Bury St Edmunds in August 1645.

Witchcraft (John Lowe)

All Saints Church has a plaque dedicated to Lowes and an image of his hanging is depicted on the village sign.

2) Sible Hedingham, Essex

Right through to the 19th century, magic and witchcraft were still very much a part of everyday life, and although trials by swimming were frowned upon in the eyes of the law, they continued to be used by the population at large long after the repeal of the witchcraft statutes in 1736.

The last recorded case of swimming in England occurred in the village of Sible Hedingham in 1863 when an elderly man by the name of Dummy was dragged from the taproom in The Swan public house to a nearby brook. The man, who was deaf and dumb, gained a living by telling fortunes and was a figure of curiosity in the village. He was accused of bewitching the wife of the beerhouse owner, Emma Smith, who complained that she had been ill for some ten months.

After Dummy refused to ‘remove the curse’, Smith struck him “several times” with a stick and pushed him into the brook, encouraged by other villagers, in particular master carpenter Samuel Stammers. Dummy died a few days later from shock and pneumonia caused by the constant immersion and ill treatment, and both Smith and Stammers were sentenced to six months’ hard labour.

Witchcraft (Dummy's Cert)
Dummy’s Death Certificate

Although no longer a working pub, The Swan Inn still stands, and the stream in which Dummy was swum flows nearby.

3) Tring Hertfordshire

Long after the Witchcraft Act of 1736, people continued to administer their own justice on those they suspected of being witches.

Sometime in 1745, a Ruth Osborne went to a farmer by the name of Butterfield, who kept a dairy at Gubblecut, near Tring, in Hertfordshire, and begged for some buttermilk. Butterfield, with his brutal refusal, angered the old woman, who went away muttering that the Pretender would pay him out. In the course of the next year or so a number of the farmer’s calves became distempered, and he himself contracted epileptic fits. In the meantime he gave up dairy-farming and took a public-house.

The wiseacres who he met there attributed his misfortunes to witchcraft, and advised Butterfield to apply to a cunning woman or white witch for a cure. An old woman was fetched from Northampton and confirmed the suspicion already entertained against Ruth Osborne and her husband John.

Notice was given by the crier at the adjoining towns of Winslow, Hemel Hempstead, and Leighton Buzzard, that witches were to be tried by ducking at Longmarstone on 22 April 1751.

Witchcraft (ducking_notice)

A large and determined mob mustered at Tring on the day specified, and forced the parish overseer and master of the workhouse by threats to reveal the hiding-place of the unfortunate couple in the vestry of the church, where those officers had placed them for better security.

Witchcraft (Ruth Osborne)

The Osbornes were then stripped, and, with their hands tied to their toes, were thrown into Longmarstone pool. After much ducking and ill-usage the old woman was thrown upon the bank, quite naked and almost choked with mud, and she expired in the course of a few minutes. Her dead body was tied to her husband, who was alleged to have died shortly afterwards from the cruel treatment he received, but who ultimately recovered, though he was unable to give evidence at the trial.

The authorities determined to overawe local sympathy with the rioters, and to make a salutary example. At the coroner’s inquest the jury brought in a verdict of wilful murder against one Thomas Colley, a chimney sweep, and against twenty-one other known and unknown persons. Colley had taken a leading part in the outrage, and had collected money from the rabble for ‘the sport he had shown them in ducking the old witch.’ He was tried at Hertford assizes on 30 July 1751, before Sir Thomas Lee, and his plea that he went into the pond as a friend to try and save Mrs. Osborne being unsupported by evidence, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

“Good People I beseech you all to take Warning, by an Unhappy Man’s Suffering, that you be not deluded into so absurd & wicked a Conceit, as to believe that there are any such Beings upon Earth as Witches.

It was that Foolish and vain Imagination, heightened and inflamed by the strength of Liquor, which prompted me to be instrumental (with others as mad-brained as myself) in the horrid & barbarous Murther of Ruth Osborn, the supposed Witch; for which I am now so deservedly to suffer Death.

I am fully convinced of my former Error and with the sincerity of a dying Man declare that I do not believe there is such a Thing in Being as a Witch: and I pray God that none of you thro’ a contrary Persuasion, may hereafter be induced to think that you have a Right in any shape to persecute, much less endanger the Life of a Fellow-Creature.

I beg of you all to pray to God to forgive me & to wash clean my polluted Soul in the Blood of Jesus Christ my Saviour & Redeemer.

      So Exhorteth you all the Dying

                                 Thomas Colley

Signed at Hertford Augst the 23rd 1751”

He was escorted from Hertford gaol to St. Albans and the next morning, 24 Aug., was executed at Gubblecut Cross in Tring, and afterwards hanged in chains on the same gallows.

“The infatuation of the greatest part of the country people was so great that they would not be spectators of his death; yet many thousands stood at a distance to see him go, grumbling and muttering that it was a hard case to hang a man for destroying an old wicked woman that had done so much harm by her witchcraft”.

Witchcraft (Half Moon Pub)
Half Moon Public House, Wilstone

The inquest into Ruth’s death was held at the Half Moon pub in the village of Wilstone, The pub still stands, as does the church of St Peter and St Paul at Tring.

Witchcraft (St Peter & St Paul)
The Church of St peter & St Paul, Tring


A Snapshot of Norwich’s History (Part 1)

The Arrival of the Anglo-Saxons

The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons represents the very start of the history of Norwich. During the Roman period Norwich was likely to have been little more than a cross roads, situated in the Tombland area of the city, with at most a farm and a few houses. The major Roman settlement was called Venta Icenorum and was situated a few miles to the South of modern day Norwich. Saxon incursions into East Anglia and their eventual dominance over the Romans in the early 5th century AD, led to the first settlers in what we now know of as Norwich.

Norwich (Saxon Pot)

One of the ‘Star’ objects – A Saxon Pot, excavated from Spong Hill, North Elmham, Norfolk.

It was an ideal place to build a settlement; the river afforded the settlers easy access to the sea as well as the ability to secure food from fishing. The soil was of a good quality for agriculture and there was a ready supply of good timber. It is important to remember that Norwich did not start as one settlement, in this period it was 5 or 6 villages that eventually merged into one. The name of one of these villages was Norwic which became the name of the city that developed.

The Norman Conquest 

The Norman Conquest of 1066 had drastic implications for the country as a whole; this can be seen in Norwich where it certainly left its mark. Any visitor to the city cannot fail to notice the Cathedral which at 315ft is the highest building in the city, nor can they fail to spot the Castle sitting atop its mound, still dominating the city skyline over 1000 years after it was built.

The building of the Cathedral was the initiative of the first Bishop of Norwich Herbert Losinga, who came to Norwich from a monastery in Normandy. It was probably built over a previous Anglo-Saxon settlement and Roman road. Work commenced in 1096, but was incomplete at the time of Losinga’s death and his successor Bishop Everard oversaw the completion of the work.

Norwich (Norwich Cathedral)

The present spire is the Cathedral’s fourth the first was destroyed in riots in 1272, the second in a storm in 1361 and the third by lightening in 1463.

The Castle would originally have been built of earth and wood, the stone building dates from the late 11th century or early 12th century and is one of the largest Norman keeps in England.

Norwich (Castle)

Norwich (Bishops Bridge)

Norwich (Brittos Arms)

Norwich (Guildhall)

The Normans used massive amounts of peat for fuel, this was dug from various locations in Norfolk. The removal of this peat created large craters in the ground (the Cathedral took 320,000 tons a year!) this coupled with a rise in sea levels led to the formation of the Norfolk Broads.



Norwich (st-gregorys)

The Construction of the City Walls

Work begun on the city walls in 1297, but it was not until 1343 that construction was complete. The walls were 3ft thick and 20ft high with battlements, in front of the walls was a bank and a ditch. The ditch was 25ft deep and 60ft wide and offered further protection. The walls acted as an important part of the cities defence, it was beyond the capabilities of the authorities to maintain law and order everywhere, but within the city walls their power could be exercised more easily.

Norwich (carrow-bridge)

Taxes, levies and tolls were due to be paid for many different reasons, and so the city walls served another important function as they restricted the movement of goods and people allowing the authorities to ensure they gathered the correct taxes and tolls. The city walls survive in various places in Norwich:

Norwich (black-tower)

Norwich (black-tower-wall)

Towards the end of Riverside Road and across the Wensum sits Cow Tower, this played a pivotal role in the defence of the city, (it was partly destroyed during Kett’s rebellion.) Another ruined tower and section of wall is visible further along Barrack Street, then at the end of Magdalen Street and opposite the Artichoke pub there is small section of wall remaining.

Norwich (chapelfield wall)

Over 800 years after their construction the city is still defined by its walls. If you mention that something is within the city walls to a local, they will instantly know the geographic area you mean. Despite the wall only surviving in fragments and not being a continuous structure it still persists as an invisible demarcation of what is in the city centre and what is outside.

Kett’s Rebellion

The history of mankind is a history of rebellion, from the peasant’s revolt, to the French Revolution and even recent events like the springs in the Middle East have seen people who believe they are being oppressed revolt against their oppressors. Perhaps the biggest such occurrence to ever hit Norwich was Kett’s rebellion. It started in the summer of 1549, as a minor disturbance in nearby Wymondham, but spiralled into a sequence of events that led to a national crisis for King Edward VI.

Peasants begun pulling down fencing around enclosed fields (the process of enclosure involved taking away common land and physically enclosing it for exclusive use by the landowner). One local landowner (John Flowerdew) alarmed at what was happening and fearful for his own land bribed them to attack his rival Robert Kett’s fences. This backfired drastically as Kett joined the protestors, helping them rip down his own fences before leading them to attack Flowerdew’s. Kett then marched the growing army of men (10,000) to Norwich, where they were refused entry. So they camped on Mousehold Heath for 7 weeks.

Norwich (oak-of-reformation)

Kett and his advisors produced a document entitled ‘29 articles of complaint, concerning economic matters’. It included one particularly revolutionary statement asking that ‘We pray that all bonded men may be made free’. Although serfdom had been largely in decline in England since the Peasants Revolt, the final serfs were not freed until 1574.

Despite being offered a pardon in exchange for dispersing Kett’s men raided the city, imprisoning the mayor and 5 other leading citizens. The government responded by sending 1,400 men and a battle was fought at Bishopgate in the full glare of the Cathedral on the 1st August. The government troops were forced out of the city and for that day at least Kett was victorious. At this point many of the cities nobles fled to London with the retreating army, leaving Kett in total control of the city.

Clearly the government could not let this situation persist, so they sent a huge force of 12,000 troops and before August was over the rebels had been forced out of the city. From Mousehold Heath Kett’s men attacked the city from the top of what is now Gas Hill, partially destroying Cow Tower. Finally a further retreat to Dussindale saw them defeated by the government troops.

Norwich (bishopgate)

300 men were executed and Kett himself was captured in Swannington 25 miles to the north of Norwich. Both Robert Kett and his brother William were sent to face trial in London, where they were kept in the Tower of London. The trial was a formality and they were both found guilty. Robert Kett was hanged from Norwich castle with his body left hanging for months as a message to would be revolters. His brother William Kett suffered a similar fate being hanged from Wymondham Abbey and left for all to see.

For hundreds of years Robert Kett was portrayed and remembered as a traitor, but during the 19th century his reputation received a reprieve and people begun to increasingly think of him as a folk hero rather than a traitor. This is the reputation Kett retains today, a hero who stood up for the common people of Norfolk against the oppression of the ruling elites.

To find out more about Kett’s Rebellion, why not visit his home town of Wymondham when in town? Visit Wymondham abbey where Robert’s brother William was hung (the Kett family coat of arms is displayed inside) and visit Wymondham Heritage Museum for displays relating to Kett’s rebellion.

Norwich (ketts-oak)

The Strangers

In 1565 the areas that are modern day Holland and Belgium were a colony under the control of the Spanish. Spain was a Catholic country which conflicted with the largely Protestant local population, the result was religious persecution inflicted by the Spanish on the locals.

This meant many were keen to flee religious persecution. Coincidently at the same time the city of Norwich was facing economic difficulties and was receptive to the idea of Dutch weavers migrating, as it would strengthen Norwich’s textile industry and because new skills and techniques could be passed onto the local populace.

In 1565 the city initially allowed 30 households of refugees to migrate to Norwich. Many more followed and by 1579 there were 6,000 of them, the cities population was only 16,000 so they represented over one third of the total population.

The Strangers were allowed to live in Norwich with relatively few restrictions placed upon them, however in 1570 members of the gentry led by John Throgmorton staged a failed rebellion against the migrants failing to attract sufficient popular support. For his part in the rebellion, Throgmorton was hanged, drawn and quartered. A few years previously (1567) the then mayor, Thomas Whall had placed some restrictions on the strangers claiming that they were taking away local jobs.

Norwich (norwich-city-the-nest)

Most of the new migrants were weavers; this is where their influence is best seen. The expertise and innovations they brought over was pivotal in helping Norwich become famous for its textile industry. By the middle of the 18th century the quality of products produced were unrivalled anywhere in the world. The strength of Norwich textiles carried on until the Industrial Revolution when other cities with a greater access to cheap labour overtook Norwich, but the city diversified and continued to be a significant textile producer. It was only in the 1970s that textiles finally stopped being produced in the city.

Norwich (chamberlin)


If you are interested in the history of Norwich’s textile industry and the influence of the Strangers then why not pay the City a visit and go to Norwich’s Bridewell Museum where there are some excellent displays charting the its history. Norwich has such a rich and fascinating history so please see Part 2!!

Based on text written by Wayne Kett

The Rabbit in East Anglia


Following their introduction into the British Isles by the Normans, rabbits were farmed in manmade warrens call “Coneygarths”, whose so-called “pillow mounds” encouraged the species to burrow and facilitate their capture. The construction of pillow mounds represents a remarkable long-lived form of animal husbandry, which in some places remained in use until the early 20th century. The vast majority of known pillow mounds are thought to be post-medieval and consequently the landscapes of extant rabbit warrens are a reflection of post-medieval warrening experience rather than that preceeded it.

Further, although former warrens are geographically widespread across England and Wales, their remains are more prevalent in western upland areas because the growth of arable practices in Eastern England during post-medieval period removed many of that regions former warrens. Despite this, chancery records reveals numerous references to rabbits and rabbit warrens in Eastern England compared to elsewhere. They also imply that the warrens in Eastern England were able to produce a surplus of rabbits that suported an export trade and supplied the Royal Court at Westminister, something that warrens in the remainder of England were less able to do.

The rabbit was rare in medieval England and much sought after for both its meat and its fur by landlord and poacher alike. Today the rabbit is regarded as prolific, destructive and of little value but this modern reputation belies historical experience where or much of its history the rabbit was a rare and highly prized commodity. The animal, believed to be indigenous during a previous interglacial period, was considered extinct until deliberately (re)introduced via France in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its value lay both in its meat and fur and, as someone noted in the 17th century:

 ‘no host could be deemed a good housekeeper that hath not plenty of these at all times to furnish his table’.

The rabbit’s fur was used as clothing as well as on clothing and, although neither the most fashionable nor valuable, rabbit fur became very popular in the 13th century. Yet in the beginning when first introduced, the rabbit found the English climate inhospitable and needed careful rearing and cosseting inside specially created warrens such as ‘pillow mounds’. For the next five centuries the vast majority of England’s rabbit population lived protected within these confines, and it was not until the 18th century that it successfully broke out and colonised a much wider area and through numbers devalued its worth.

Back in the 17th century the rabbit was still regarded as an important cash crop.  In the Middle Ages rabbit warrens represented almost the sole source of supply for rabbits and their scarcity made them a valuable and fiercely guarded commodity. Indeed, the collapse of the grain market in the later 14th and 15th centuries encouraged some landlords to develop their warrens as an alternative source of income, to the extent that rabbiting can be classed as an unlikely but successful late medieval growth industry.


Throughout the Middle Ages the right to hunt and kill any beast or game was a special privilege granted by the king, so that all hunting was carefully controlled and restricted. Hunting in the extensive royal forests was the privilege of the king alone, but outside these areas the Crown was prepared to sell exclusive hunting rights by means of a charter of free-warren. In effect, the recipient of this charter was granted the sole right to kill the beasts of warren, which basically consisted of the pheasant, partridge, hare and rabbit, within a specified area. Hence the right to keep and kill rabbits was the exclusive privilege of the owner of free-warren and it was therefore illegal for anybody else to attempt to do so. Free-warren was consequently a valuable privilege, jealously guarded by its owner.

Whereas the modern rabbit has developed a resilience to the damp British climate, its medieval predecessor felt this aversion more keenly so areas of dry and sandy soil were chosen; also, gradients were preferred so as to facilitated both drainage and the dispersal of burrowed soil. Significantly the largest concentration of warrens in East Anglia was in Breckland, a region of undulating heathland, low rainfall and deep, porous sands, in other words an ideal habitat for the rabbit.

rabbit warreners
Rabbit Warreners

Most warrens in  East Anglia had been founded by the late 13th century, many by church landlords. The Bishoprics of Ely created warrens at Brandon and Freckenham respectively; Bury St Edmunds Abbey did likewise at Mildenhall and so did West Acre Priory at Wicken and Custhorpe in Norfolk. The Prior and Convent of Ely were granted free-warren in Lakenheath. It is believed that the rabbit was a particularly favoured delicacy of the Abbot of St Edmunds who had a warren created at his country retreat in Elmswell and at Long Melford, whilst both West Acre and West Dereham Priories also established their own warrens nearby. Various lay landlords were also prominent in this new experiment, notably at Methwold, Thetford, Tunstead and Gimingham. It is difficult to ascertain the exact area of these early warrens, although the largest swept down the western edge of Breckland from Thetford through Wangford to Eriswell. By the end of the Middle Ages such warrens had probably grown to occupy the 1000 acres plus they were to reach at their zeniths.

Medieval Rabbit Warren1
Medieval Rabbit Warren

The distinctive clustering of warrens indicates that the rabbit did not colonize a wide geographical area and even in central parts of East Anglia it remained a rare beast. This might surprise a modern reader familiar with the animal’s ubiquity and sex drive, but the medieval rabbit was fragile and uncomfortable in its new, cold environment and under constant threat from predators and harsh winter conditions. Consequently, low fertility and high mortality rates restricted natural increase, even within the relative safety of the warren. This placed severe restrictions on long distance migrations, although undoubtedly some fledgling warrens were spawned in the vicinity of the early warrens, and these were then exploited by eager landlords.

The exploitation of warrens was a highly skilled business and most warreners were full-time manorial officials, paying them handsome wages but often stipulating their exact duties and reserving the right of dismissal if their work was unsatisfactory. Besides financial remuneration, most warreners enjoyed other perks such as extra pasture rights and flee accommodation within the warren lodge. The pressures of their work were largely seasonal and peaked with cullings in the autumn when the rabbit’s fur was thickest. Extra help was often required in this busy period, as at Lakenheath in I384 when seven men were hired for twenty weeks.

Women Ferreting
Women Ferreting

The most common method of trapping was with ferrets and nets, the ferrets being released into specific burrows to drive the rabbits above ground and into nets tended by trappers. Most warreners reared their own ferrets, although sometimes a ferreter was hired at considerable expense. For much of the year, however, the warrener worked alone to guard his rabbits against hunger and predators and even to seek ways to encourage breeding. Surprisingly perhaps, the early rabbits were reluctant burrowers, which prompted some warreners to construct artificial burrows or ‘pillow mounds’. Over time, rabbits got the message!

Rabbit Pillow Mound Diagram
Rabbit Pillow Mound

Pillow mounds were designed to provide dry, well-ventilated burrows in which the rabbit could breed comfortably; the very existence of these ‘aids’ just emphasize both the animal’s unease in the damp climate and the need to mother the animal carefully. Warreners needed to take positive steps to curtail rabbit’s high mortality rates, particularly with any shortage of winter food, although on the heathlands gorse provided a cheap and convenient source. Other than that, oats were regularly fed to rabbits. Warreners also waged a perpetual war against the rabbit’s natural predators and poachers. The fox, stoat, weasel, wildcat and polecat stalked with ruthless efficiency, so that Brandon, Lakenheath and Kennett warrens were set with numerous traps and snares ‘for nocturnal predators’.

Warren Lodges:

Thetforn Warren Lodge
Theford Warren Lodge

The real threat from both predators and poachers eventually resulted in the construction of a wooden watchtower at Lakenheath warren in I365 and a stone lodge in Methwold by I413, followed by Thetford. These lodges were features of medieval Breckland and the one at Thetford still stands. Most date from the late 14th century and reflected the threat posed by poachers and the determination of landlords to protect increasingly valuable assets. These remarkable buildings also absorbed much of the capital invested in warrens for they were expensive to build and maintain. Brandon lodge was completed in the I380’s and stood at two storeys high and was protected by slit windows and flint walls three feet thick. At Elmswell in the early 16th century, the warren lessee was allowed over one-sixth the value of the lease each year to spend on upkeep. Rabbit rearing was otherwise a relatively inexpensive business, with the major expenditure on labour.

Mildenhall Warren Lodge


Output from most warrens remained low until the later 14th century. Cullings varied wildly from year to year, but seldom exceeded a couple of hundred. The sale price of the rabbit reflected its scarcity and for a century after its introduction to East Anglia it cost at least 3d each, which was equivalent to the wage of almost two days’ unskilled labour. Rabbits proved most acceptable gifts to friends, favourites and eminents and the Prior of Ely sent sixty to Edward III in I345.

Prior to the Black Death of 1348-9, rabbit production was a distinctly low output concern geared primarily towards household consumption. It presented some commercial opportunities in the luxury goods market, but its mass marketing potential was restricted by its high price and the low incomes of most Englishmen. The early warrens often represented a net financial loss in many years, emphasizing that rabbits were essentially an indulgence enjoyed only by the very wealthy. However, the drastic reduction in the human population after the mid-14th century Black Death heralded a remarkable change in fortunes for commercial rabbiting. This was brought about by rapid gains in living standards and the purchasing power for many people. This increased purchasing power induced changes in taste and fashion and opened up a new market for goods previously considered as nonessential. Hence in the late 14th century there was considerable growth in output of goods with relatively high value, such as woollen cloth, cutlery, leather goods, pewter and wine.

Thetford Warren Old Map
Old Map of Thetford Rabbit Warren Area

Commercial rabbit rearing benefited from the changing economic conditions in a number of ways. First, the labour costs of rabbit keeping were low compared to grain farming and this enhanced its attractiveness to landlords in a period of rising wages. Furthermore, cullings could be sharply increased without a big rise in labour inputs, so that unit costs in rabbit production fell appreciably in the 14th century. Secondly, the demand for meat rose, and although there are no grounds for supposing that the rabbit suddenly became the meat of the masses, it certainly descended the social scale. Lastly, demand for better clothing increased and chroniclers commented on the rising standard of dress amongst the masses. Being a low-value fur, rabbit was most likely to benefit from any expansion in the mass clothing market. The common grey rabbit was most numerous in East Anglian warrens and was used for warmth rather than for display. On the other hand, Methwold, Wretham and some coastal warrens specialised in the rarer silver- grey and black rabbits. These were much more fashionable as an adornment on clothing and, apparently, Henry VII possessed night attire tailored with black rabbit fur which bore a close resemblance to the more expensive ermine and was much in demand as an imitation. By mid-century the rabbit had replaced the Russian squirrel as the basic fur of north-west Europe, and the growth of exports from London points to England’s role as a major supplier. London was not the only port to benefit, for at Blakeney in the 16th century rabbit skins were the fourth-largest export commodity. The Low Countries remained an important market, but Norfolk ports also sent furs to Danzig and the Baltic.

The rabbit trade between East Anglia and London also remained prosperous for some considerable time. Methwold warren was a regular supplier to the London market and a London merchant was fined for importing East Anglian rabbits during the close season imposed by the Poulters. Throughout the Middle Ages this Guild had fixed the price of rabbits on the London market and in the 15th century one would fetch between 3d and 4d. Even after the relatively high costs of transport and labour, the net profit on one trip was still considerable.


The rabbit undoubtedly made a significant impact upon those areas to which it was introduced. East Anglian soils display a wide variety of type and composition, from fertile clays to thin, acidic sands, and in the Middle Ages these sands presented a formidable obstacle to cultivation. Rabbits were valuable precisely because they provided an opportunity to make productive use of the poorest soils, and indeed some warrens were founded on soils described as fit only for rabbits. Furthermore, as areas of poor soil were most likely to suffer the brunt of the declining grain market in the later Middle Ages, then rabbiting offered a welcome source of alternative income in a difficult period. The industry presented a range of employment opportunities, not all of them legal, and as output increased so did the occupational spin-offs. The position of warrener was itself financially rewarding, whilst helping with the trapping or guarding of rabbits could provide a useful source of supplementary income at the very least.

The preparation of furs was a skilled and specialized task, and towns and villages near the warren areas harboured a number of skinners and barkers dependent on the local rabbit and sheep trades. They were prominent in medieval Thetford and Bury St Edmunds. The rabbit industry also encouraged other specialists in the clothing trades, such as listers and glove-makers . It is also probable that the fur was sometimes shorn from the skin and then felted, again for use in clothing. Of course, the amount of specialist craftwork generated by the rabbit industry locally should not be overstated, for the largest warrens tended to send their produce directly to London, and so some of the benefit accrued to London skinners and poulters. However, this trade, though largely seasonal, did then provide much needed stimulus to the boatmen and carriers of the region. As the mass of the peasantry was legally excluded from taking the rabbit, any benefit to them from the growth of the industry would appear negligible. However, it is suspected that many peasants living in the vicinity of warrens secured a reasonable supply of rabbits illegally, either for domestic consumption or for distribution through the black market. The incidence of poaching increases rapidly from the mid-fourteenth century, reflecting both the growth in rabbits and of poaching itself.


The attraction of poaching was its simplicity and its profitability. Most warrens were situated on vast and isolated tracts of heathland, some distance from the nearest village and were therefore exposed and palpably difficult to protect. In addition, the rabbit prefers to leave its burrow and graze nocturnally, thus presenting poachers with excellent cover from the protective gaze of warren officials and with easier pickings on the ground. With no necessity to drive the colony from its burrows, they merely surrounded the unsuspecting animals  with dogs. The stout warren lodges provided a base for the warreners’ operations against the poachers and welcome protection in case of danger, but they fought a losing battle.


Many of the peasants who lived in the rabbit-producing regions must have poached at some stage during their lives and most of the reported cases involved one-off offenders. However, the countless references to the use of nets, ferrets and dogs largely indicated planned operations within the rabbit-warren itself, and often the perpetrators of these deeds are common or habitual poachers. It is also apparent that no-one was beyond reproach, judging by the number of petty clerics involved in poaching. In 1435 the parson of Cressingham was fined for poaching at Swaffham and Augustinian canons from Blythburgh Priory were regular unwanted visitors to Westwood warren. In 1425 one of their number, Thomas Sherman, was described in the court roll as ‘a poaching canon’.


Most of these regular poachers reared their own ferrets and dogs, and made their own nets. Greyhounds were popular, and were certainly favoured by the Blythburgh canons. However, rough heathland terrain proved demanding and other poachers preferred the more hardy lurcher, a cross between the greyhound and the collie.  Court officials kept a watchful eye over these men, and John Brette of Flempton (Surf) was fined because ‘he kept a certain dog in order to kill the lord’s rabbits’.  Some poachers, such as Geoffrey Sewale of Walberswick, preferred to set traps in the warrens but for many, ferreting remained the most popular. Indeed, they were in such demand on the Suffolk Sandlings in the 15th century that one Blythburgh canon ran a profitable business in leasing  his well-trained ferrets to other poachers, presumably for a suitable fee.

By the later Middle Ages poaching had become a sufficiently serious and lucrative business for poachers to organize themselves into gangs. These were not merely some haphazard extension of individual operations, but represented a deliberate and carefully planned pooling of knowledge and resources. Their activities were characterized by efficiency and ruthlessness and they entered warrens heavily armed and equipped with a comprehensive range of poaching accessories. Their success undoubtedly prompted manorial officials to try and catch them with incriminating evidence even before they entered the warrens. The homes of an East Suffolk gang were scrutinized by court officials from Walberswick, who allegedly found four men keeping lurchers ‘in their tenements’, one man keeping ferrets and a net in his house’, and another with a supply of ‘haypenne’ nets.  A Thetford gang of the 1440s, equally well equipped but more elusive, was reportedly operating in Downham warren attired with ‘soldiers tunics, steel helmets, bows and arrows’, whilst others were armed ‘with cudgels and staffs’. In September I444 this formidable bunch attacked and wounded three members of a rival gang from Elveden and without licence abducted and unjustly imprisoned them in the town of Thetford’.


Many of these Breckland gangs were comprised of skilled craftsmen, notably bakers, weavers, fishermen, and hostelers, and with their wide range of contacts hostelers may have been particularly important in co-ordinating activities. It is also possible that some warreners played a double game, for their expertise and local knowledge would have been invaluable. A Robert Fisher, a warrener living in Thetford, certainly poached in nearby Downham warren in 1446. With or without inside help, most poaching gangs included a number of men drafted from outside the locality. Court rolls always listed those culprits known to them, but often complained that these were joined by many other unknown men’. Such anonymity reduced the courts’ chances of breaking up gangs, and provided the gangs themselves with a wider range of dispersal points for their illicit gains.

It is possible that the rise in poaching was motivated by a sense of social grievance as much as by economic necessity. Resistance to the feudal order was endemic in late medieval East Anglia and court rolls repeatedly record refusals to perform manorial offices, labour services and the like. Occasionally this flared into violent protest, and most commentators have noted the vehemence of the I381 revolt in the region. The criminal activities of the poaching gangs were primarily directed against the ‘privilege of feudal order’ and so might have been championed and condoned by other peasants.

The rabbit was undoubtedly a very tangible embodiment of feudal privilege and status and therefore an ideal medium for social protest. The Smithfield rebels of I38I explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt hares in the field. The physical damage caused by maurauding rabbits was certainly a source of friction and was amongst the grievances cited in Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk in 1549. Unfortunately, conclusive proof that poaching was a major form of social protest is elusive. Its increase in the later 14th century certainly corresponded with a rise in social tensions, but also with a rise in the demand for the rabbit. Indeed, there was little sense of camaraderie or social unity between those Thetford and Elveden gangs in the I440s.



Reglimpsing Norwich’s ‘Lollards Pit’

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 would hand over the condemned to the secular authorities who, in turn, would set about burning them ‘at the stake’ for nothing other than for their religious beliefs. The name for these unfortunates were ‘Lollards’.

Just Who Were The Lollards?

Lollards Pit (John-Wycliffe)We cannot understand who the Lollards were without first looking at who John Wycliffe was. John Wycliffe was born sometime in the 1320’s and died in 1384; 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 want 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. He died of natual causes in 1384. After he had been dead for about 40 years, the Church declared him a heretic and his body dug up and burned.

Lollards Pit (John-Wycliffes-preachers-the-Lollards)
John Wycliffe preaching to Lollards

They 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.

Lollards Pit (John-Wycliffes-remains-exhumed-burned-poured-in-River-Swift)
John Wycliffe’s remains were later dug up and thrown into the river Swift – its source at Upper Bruntingthorpe, Leicestershire.

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.

Lollards Pit (Influence Map)
Lollardy Influence:  Blue = Districts affected by Lollardy before the death of Richard III. Red = Districts to which Lollardy spread in the 15th Century. 

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. Thus we also learn of William White, a priest from Kent who moved to Ludham to preach dissent, along with fellow Lollard’s Hugh Pye and John Waddon. White was executed in September, 1428; how bravely he met his fate is not known but it was reported that some people emptied the contents of their chamber pots over him as he walked along Bishopsgate.

Lollards Pit (Thos Bilney)1Persecution of heretics tailed away after that, until 1531 when the Reformation began disturbing things once more with the burnings of Cecily Ormes and Elizabeth Cooper, artisans wives, who’s utterances virtually condemned themselves to death. Then there was Thomas Bilney, a Norfolk man born near Dereham; he was a Cambridge academic and, like White before him, was convinced the Church had to be reformed. Arrested, and taken before Cardinal Wolsey, he recanted his beliefs; but, characteristic of some who recanted when initially faced with execution, he returned to preaching heresy in the streets and fields. Bishop Nix of Norwich had him rearrested and this time there was no mercy. Like all other heretics Bilney was typically tried and convicted by the Church but given to the agents of the State for execution.

Thomas Bilney on his Way to the Stake
Thomas Bilney being walked to the Stake at Lollards Pit, Norwich

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 was 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.

Lollards Pit (Thos Bilney Stake)2
Illustration depicting the burning of Thomas Bilney at Lollards Pit. Norwich.


It is said that this memorial, erected by the Protestant Alliance, is to be found by the door of the Surrey Chapel, on the corner of Botolph Street and St Crispin’s in Norwich. This Plaque was replaced by the one (in the Footnote below) which was erected on the Riverside gardens by Bishops Bridge which is a short distance away from the supposed site of the Lollard’s pit.

Thereafter, there was a respite for about forty five years (1440 – 1485) as a consequence of the ‘War of the Roses’, but thereafter the attacks on the them entered another bloody phase. As for the reign of Henry VII (1485 – 1509), it had hardly got going before burnings began again in London, Canterbury and at the Pit at Norwich. Despite these renewed pressures, the Lollard movement struggled on into the 16th Century but were still being 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 ther were six burnt in Kent and five in the Eastern Counties, including Norwich. The stern measures employed by both the Church and State effectively drove the Lollards underground.


71821781-2FD6-40A9-95CA-5D31142E7FE0The 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, Cecily Ormes, wife of a weaver from St Lawrences parish, declared her support for them. She would “pledge on the same cup that they drank on”, she shouted. The civil authorities, often loath to arrest heretics, had no choice; Ormes spent a year in prison sticking to her guns before being executed in September, 1558, shortly before the death of Queen Mary when the burnings ended.

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!

Lollards Pit (Erpingham Gate)
Erpingham Gate, Norwich

Why did Norwich choose the Pit site?

What was to become known as the ‘Lollard’s Pit’ had long been associated with the Church being, as it was at the time, held by the Bishop of Norwich. For generations Norwich’s citizens had used the area, along with the then vast expanse of Mousehold Heath beyond. It was somewhat of an industrial site with early chalk workings 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. Today all traces of that particular chalk pit where Lollard supporters were burned is long gone; the site is now occupied by the Lollards Pit public house and car park on Norwich’s busy Riverside Road.

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.

Lollards Pit (Pub)
The Lollards Pit Public House, Norwich. Opposite Bishopsbridge over which convicted ‘heretics’ walked to be burned at the ‘Pit’.

Today the Lollards Pit (formerly the Bridge House) pub has a blue plaque fixed to its wall marking the site of the infamous pit. Inevitably, it is now 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 spirits are not confined to the bottles on the other side of the bar!

Lollards Pit (Plaque)

One final point: 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.

Lollards Pit (Plaque)3


No one is absolutely sure where the Lollard’s Pit was situated; Some argue it was under the site of the old Gasometer on Gas Hill, some say it lies beneath the back bar of the ‘Lollards Pit’ Public House, 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.

Interestingly, With regard to Thomas Bilney; he did not consider himself to be a Protestant. “He was to the last perfectly orthodox on the power of the Pope, the sacrifice of the Mass, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the authority of the church.” Thomas Bilney did however preach, just as the Lollards did, against Saint and Relic veneration, disapproved of the practice of pilgrimage and did not believe in the mediation of the Saints. He may also have rejected the teachings of Martin Luther. So why did the ‘Protestant’ Alliance sponser the above memorial?


Norfolk’s Multi-Talented Fixer!

In 1485, the first Tudor king did something unusual: he invited a new wave of lowborn henchmen to England’s court. What they lacked in breeding, these men made up for in talent. Sir Thomas Lovell was one of them!……..

Lovell 1
Illustration by Sarah Young based on contemporary portraits.
(Norfolk’s Sir Thomas Lovell is featured at top left-hand corner.)

In 1497 Perkin Warbeck, the pretender to Henry VII’s throne, claimed that the Tudor king had “none in favour and trust about his person” but men “of simple birth”, whose advice led him into “misrule and mischief”. In some respects, Warbeck – who was hanged by the king after attempting to raise a rebellion – was wrong for Henry did, in fact, take counsel from great churchmen and trusted nobles. But, for all that, there was more than a kernel of truth to Warbeck’s allegations. Henry was increasingly relying on a group of ‘upstart’ advisers who had used their considerable skills to rise to the top of the political ladder from comparatively humble origins. In doing so, the King was transforming the way his nation was governed.

These ‘upstart’ advisors included:
1. The “virtuous warrior” Sir Edward Poynings (1459-1521)

Lovell (EdwardPoyings)
2. The “ruthless financier” Sir Henry Wyatt (1460-1524)

Lovell (HenryWyatt)
3. The “enforcer” Edmund Dudley (1462-1510)

Lovell (EdmundDudley)
4. The “prince’s man” Sir Henry Marney (1447-1523)

Lovell (HenryMarney)
5. The “multi-talented” Sir Thomas Lovell (1449-1524) from Norfolk.

Lovell (ThomasLovell)

Collectively these men, by their ideas and actions, gave Henry’s Government much of its distinctive tone as he sought to re-establish stability following a Civil War that had brought him – ‘a claimant with mere dribbles of royal blood’ – to the throne.

Many of these so called ‘upstarts’ were lawyers who stressed the need for the king to secure “good governance and rule” through “true justice”, thus imposing his power, through the law, on to even the greatest of his subjects. They met this aim by relentless work on local commissions of the peace and in the King’s Council. Many others had financial skills, which were useful in developing the machinery by which Henry more than doubled the crown’s income over the course of his reign. They raised money from crown lands, customs on trade and more efficient taxes. They helped Henry spend it in ways that enhanced his power: magnificent building and pageantry, diplomatic alliance-building and, when necessary, war. They also had the ruthless skill and the absolute loyalty to the king to enforce his control over those he did not trust. From gaol-keeping and treason trials to the network of financial penalties in which Henry tied up many of his subjects to ensure their obedience, these new men were the agents of the King’s control.

What was worse for some, however, was that these men prospered while others squirmed. When Henry died in 1509, resentment boiled over and two of his “henchmen”, Edmund Dudley and Sir Richard Empson, were arrested and executed. But many of their colleagues were to remain at the heart of the new regime, working with Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey to build an ever stronger Tudor state – not least amongst them was Sir Thomas Lovell!

The multi-talented fixer: Sir Thomas Lovell


All the new men (above) were versatile, but few ranged as widely as Thomas Lovell (c1449–1524). He was a Lincoln’s Inn lawyer from a minor Norfolk gentry family. Throughout his career he was active in seeing that justice was done and travelling around a large part of England to oversee the activities of the justices of the peace. He co-ordinated royal income and expenditure as treasurer of the chamber and chancellor of the exchequer. He was a diplomat and a courtier, managing court finance as treasurer of the household and marshalling the crowds at the wedding of Henry VII’s son Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon in 1501. He took charge of state prisoners as lieutenant of the Tower of London. He even tidied up history for Henry, organising the building of Richard III’s tomb and Henry’s memorial almshouses at Westminster.

At court and in the counties Lovell was also the supreme networker and leading noblemen and bishops valued his friendship. His wife was close to the queen, Elizabeth of York. The king stayed regularly at his palatial home, Elsings in Enfield, where his 89 servants in their light tawny orange livery coats served up well over a thousand gallons of wine each year. Sir Thomas was also the acknowledged patron of those who governed a string of Midlands towns.

Three Lord Mayors of London attended Lovell’s funeral and the grocers’ company was to keep his portrait in their Hall decades after his death. Lovell was also a thoughtful promoter of university-educated clergy.

His connections equipped him to serve the king. A list survives from 1508 of those sworn to fight in Lovell’s retinue, a force 1,365 strong. They were the leaders of small town and village society, yeoman clothiers from Halifax, mayors and churchwardens from Walsall, rich farmers from Oxfordshire. Lovell’s links with them gave him and the king the grip on local affairs they needed, not just to raise an army, but to build a stronger regime.

Lovell had no children, but his masterful marriage-broking and the careful division of the lands he had bought ensured that his nephews and nieces remained entrenched in the Norfolk gentry and also the Peerage.


Lovell in History

With the exception of his involvement in Lincoln’s Inn from 1464 to around 1482, little is known of the early life of Thomas Lovell. He played a part in the rebellion of the Duke of Buckingham against King Richard III (1483), most likely with the Marquis of Dorset, stepson of the late King Edward IV (hinting that Lovell once loyally served the house of York but, like many others, did not approve of Richard III’s usurpation of the throne from Edward IV’s young son). When Henry Tudor invaded England in 1485 with intentions of deposing Richard III and putting himself on the throne, Lovell threw his support behind the obscure Welsh claimant and fought for him at the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Richard III was killed and Tudor was subsequently crowned as King Henry VII. During the new regime, Lovell was one of Henry’s most trusted and competent advisers, serving in political, financial and military affairs. He was speaker of the House of Commons; successively treasurer of the king’s chamber and household; and he fought at the Battle of Stoke (1487) and at Blackheath (1497). As a reward, Lovell was created a Knight of the Garter (1500). During this time period Lovell was also able to build up a fairly vast fortune through salaries from his many offices and brought economic and political stability to the realm through his work with numerous other councillors. Lovell remained a highly influential figure into the reign of Henry VIII, where he continued to serve as a councillor, financial reformer and military strategist (playing a part in the French expeditions). By this point, Lovell was slowly retiring from public service but still sporadically participated in governmental affairs right up to his death in 1524 as a man of over seventy.

Lovell in Shakespeare (Appears in: Henry VIII)

Sir Thomas Lovell is a minor character within Henry VIII. He is present at Buckingham’s trial and execution and at the festivities at Wolsey’s palace. Later in the play, Lovell is accosted by Bishop Gardiner while he is on his way to inform the king that Queen Anne is in labour but may not survive the birthing process. Gardiner, in turn, claims that he wishes the child well but hopes Anne perishes; he also condemns two of the king’s primary advisers, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer. In reality, Lovell died in 1524, nine years prior to Anne Boleyn giving birth to Princess Elizabeth and most certainly before either Cromwell or Cranmer came to anything close to a place of power. It is unclear why Shakespeare chooses to use a dead man in this situation when any other living person could have easily been substituted.