It was Saturday, the 6th July 2019; a day which turned wet. It should have been a day when we walked beside the river Bure near Wroxham; instead, we paid a visit to St Mary’s Church. We did so because It was holding its ‘Alphabet of Flowers Festival’, and a degree of extra support, particularly from ones who do not attend such places regularly, would not go amiss. It was well worth it.
For those who do not know St Mary’s Church, it stands on the southern bank of the River Bure, and has been there for at least 900 years – possibly more! Present-day visitors, those with water flowing beneath the keel, would hardly see it as they proceed up river; but should they tie up at Caen Meadow and exit through the meadow’s gates, turning left and walking east for two, or maybe three, hundred yards along Church Lane, they would discover this little gem of a church. So too would those approaching from the opposite direction; those who managed to find their way over the stone railway bridge and away from the sometimes-impossible traffic grid-locked A1151 which cuts Wroxham in two. But any time other than this weekend would mean that they would miss the event that we so much enjoyed!
This is all rather unfortunate, so too is the fact that St Mary’s really does stand in a secluded spot, away from the hustle and bustle that surrounds the River Bure, the boatyards that line the riverside and the small housing estate that faces the church gates. Maybe, for these reasons, or even a lack of real effort on the part of visitors, most never seem to make their way there – this weekend or, indeed any other time. All this is a real shame, for the St Mary’s Church is a wonderful historic building, full of interest despite being set in a quiet and almost a secluded spot.
The present church made its appearance in the 12th century, though much of the building is in the 15th century Perpendicular style; however, you can still see 12th-century stonework in the nave. The south aisle was apparently rebuilt in brick in the 19th century, but the striking west tower is 15th century, with beautifully tracery sound holes and flushwork panels on the parapets. Most of the windows are also 15th century, though most were restored in the Victorian period.
The most interesting historic feature is the magnificent south doorway, a gem of Norman architecture and carving. It dates from the 11th Century and is carved in what Simon Knott described as “a style more typical of Herefordshire”. There are monsters carved into the columns along with what are known as a ‘Sheila na Gigs’ – representations of a lady in an immodest pose. It was, again, Simon Knott who once asked the question: “What’s that doing in a church porch?…….. to which his best guess was that it was a reminder that “man born of woman has but a short time to live! [for] All of us are mortal and by coming into church and becoming one of the baptized one may escape both the foul fiends and death!”. The doorway holds a 15th-century oak door with an even earlier 13th-century iron latch plate. Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner once called the doorway ‘barbaric and glorious’. He was right.
Within the body of the church are 16th-century arcades and the remains of the medieval rood loft stair. The Victorians were also enlightened enough to employ the great William Wailes, England’s most accomplished and visionary stained-glass manufacturer of the time, to refurbish the church windows; but the parish destroyed one of them in the 1960s. The large east window dates from the Victorian restoration of 1851. Inside, the church boasts some wonderful monuments, mainly from the Victorian period, but included are some 18th century memorials. Among these are those relating to John Wace (d.1795) and Daniel Collyer (d. 1774). It is said that the church also has one great treasure, that of a medieval alabaster relief of the Holy Family. This must have been acquired from somewhere else, maybe by an enthusiastic 19th century Rector who took a fancy to it. Unfortunately, it is one treasure that is locked away in the vestry, so no one sees it.
The most impressive monument, however, is the Trafford Mausoleum outside in the churchyard which stands to the north-west of the tower and is almost large enough to be a church in its own right. It was designed by Anthony Salvin in 1827 for the Trafford family of Wroxham Hall (now vanished). Salvin designed the mausoleum on Early English style, beloved of Victorian Gothic architects, and he exhibited the mausoleum plans at the Royal Academy in London in 1830. The plans were enthusiastically reviewed in Gentleman’s Magazine, which called the mausoleum a ‘pleasing and exquisite miniature chapel’. Salvin’s design was widely copied and inspired the design of many later mausolea throughout the 19th century. He made a serious attempt to emulate 13th-century Gothic design, with ornately carved pinnacles, buttresses, plate tracery, and blind arcading along the building exterior.
The mausoleum was built by Margaret Trafford as a memorial to her husband Sigismund Trafford Southwell, High Sheriff of Norfolk in 1818 who died in 1827. Sigismund Trafford fought at the Battle of Waterloo, and his letters home are an invaluable historical resource. It was Margaret Trafford who was granted permission to build a Roman Catholic burial vault and mausoleum in St Mary’s churchyard and commissioned Anthony Salvin, then an aspiring young architect, to design the building. The mausoleum, which also houses later generations of the family, is usually closed to the public, but has been known to open for annual Heritage Open Days events in September.
As a complete aside to any history of St Mary’s and, of course, the current flower festival – the Trafford family once owned Trafford Park in Manchester, the home of Manchester United’s Old Trafford Football Stadium and the Old Trafford cricket ground, used by the Lancashire County Cricket Club and venue for international test matches.
As for the St Mary’s Alphabet of Flowers, we only have memories and the photographs for, hopefully, others to enjoy. Each followed in order through the alphabet from ‘Arch’ through to the last exhibit titled ‘Zen’.
There is something quite eerie about ravens, and there is something equally eerie about church ruins; seeing both together can, for the more imaginative, be quite chilling. None more so than when approaching the old church ruins of St Felix at Babingley, on the royal estate in Norfolk.
Babingley is a small hamlet which includes an abandoned village which adjoins the St Felix church ruin, standing as it does some 6 miles north of Kings Lynn and surrounded by fields and marsh, near the junction of the B1439 and the A149. Silence still manages to pervade the place and ivy masters its walls if not cut back. The added presence of jackdaws whirling above and swapping places between the church tower and nearby trees makes for drama. Make no mistake, this is the type of isolated spot that rides the surrounding fields well, particularly on bright winter days before the annual ploughing is spring carpeted and lambing begins. Best to witness the place when there is a chill in the air – for it has history and a legend!
Babingley has long claimed itself as the landing place of St Felix of Burgundy, in AD 631, who came to convert the East Angles to Christianity. It is said that he was invited by the Wuffings (or Wuffingas or Uffingas), the royal East Anglian family,. Others, like Wikipedia, is more specific by stating that Felix travelled from his homeland of Burgundy, first to Canterbury before being sent by Honorius to Sigeberht of East Anglia‘s kingdom. He travelled by sea and on arrival via Babingley, Sigeberht gave him a See at Dommoc . According to Bede, Felix helped Sigeberht to establish a school in his kingdom “where boys could be taught letters”. Felix of Burgundy was also known as Felix of Dunwich. He became a saint and the first bishop of the East Angles.
“all the province of East Anglia from long-standing unrighteousness and unhappiness”.
Felix may have been a priest at one of the monasteries in Francia founded by the Irish missionary Columbanus – the existence of a Bishop of Châlons with the same name may not be a coincidence!
A Clerk of Oxford further states :”Working with the aid of the ill-fated King Sigeberht, he [Felix] established churches, a school, and an episcopal See at a place called Dommoc (perhaps to be identified with the town of Dunwich, which has since disappeared almost entirely into the sea). Felix had help from the newly-founded church of Canterbury, and was consecrated as bishop by Honorius, the last surviving member of the Gregorian mission to England………Bede, in etymological mood, tells us (in Historia Ecclesiastica, II.15)”:
“Bishop Felix… came to Archbishop Honorius from the Burgundian region, where he had been raised and ordained, and, by his own desire, was sent by him to preach the word of life to the nation of the Angles. Nor did he fail in his purpose; for, like a good farmer, he reaped a rich harvest of believers. In accord with the meaning of his own name, he freed the whole province from its ancient iniquity and infelicity (infelicitate), brought it to the faith and works of righteousness, and guided it to eternal felicity (perpetuae felicitatis)”.
Felix was Bishop for seventeen years, until his death on 8 March 647/8. His relics were preserved at Soham [ Soham Abbey], but the shrine and community there were destroyed in the ninth century by a Viking raid. In the eleventh century Cnut gave permission for the monks of Ramsey Abbey to take possession of Felix’s relics…… There’s a memorable story in Ramsey’s own chronicle, the Chronicon Abbatiae Ramesiensis, which claims that when the Ramsey monks were sailing home with Felix’s relics through the Fens they were pursued by the monks of Ely, also in a boat, eager to have the precious relics themselves. A miraculous fog descended, in which the Ely monks lost their way, and our Ramsey heroes were able to escape with the relics. Rivalry between Ramsey and Ely, two great Fenland monasteries, is a regular feature of their medieval history, and since Soham is closer to Ely than it is to Ramsey you can see why the Ely monks might feel a little aggrieved! It’s a great story (though generically typical), but even the Ramsey chronicler who records it expresses doubts about its veracity – with engaging frankness, he says ‘the reader is not required to believe the story, provided that he feels it to be certain that every part of the relics of St Felix were translated to the Church of Ramsey, and honourably deposited there’. As indeed there’s no reason to doubt.”
So, maybe Felix did come to Babingley, but why arrive at the extremity of East Anglia and about as far as you can be from the former royal capital at Rendlesham and Dommoc, on the other side of the modern Walton; surely, Dunwich would have been a better bet? On second thoughts, we best leave this latter question behind; for if Babingley was never the place where St Felix set foot on his arrival in Norfolk then Babingley would never have had its legend – thus so:
Babingley has, like many Norfolk villages, a timber ‘village signpost’; this one was carved by Mark Goldsworthy and it depicts the curious tale of the ‘brave Bishop Beaver of Babingley’. The signpost stands amongst rhododendrons in a nearby wood clearing.
Like all charming legends, this one says that when St Felix arrived at the Wash, he headed for the River Babingley which was, at this time, still navigable. As he sailed up the river, looking for a suitable place to land, a violent storm occurred and St Felix’s ship floundered in the water. Fortunately for him, together with the rest of the crew, beavers existed in East Anglia at the time; and thanks to these creatures, everyone on the boat was saved from drowning and taken to safety – at Babingley. In gratitude, the Felix consecrated the chief of the beavers by making him a Bishop in thanks for saving his life and allowing him to deliver Christianity to the region of what became East. This act is remembered on the Babingley village signpost which shows a beaver in a bishop’s mitre grasping a crook.
The ruined church of which we speak was a rebuilt 14th-century edition, dedicated to St Felix and was used for worship until the early 19th century. It sits, surrounded by the trees which house those ravens, in a field some 200 metres north of the River Babingley and is now part of the nearby royal Sandringham. The ruin today comes with its 15th century south porch addition, built in the main of grey Sandringham stone and carstone with limestone dressings. The church once consisted of a nave, north and south aisles with two-bay arcade, chancel, and west tower and has undergone a number of alterations. The north aisle was demolished and its arcade blocked; the chancel arch bricked up and a Decorated Gothic window from the south side of the chancel re-set in the brickwork. Its ruined state goes back a long way – in a 1602 survey the chancel was described as ‘decaying’ and by 1752, ‘dilapidated’.
In 1845, William Whites’ History, Gazetter and Directory stated that “the tower and nave are in tolerable repair, but the chancel is in ruins” According to Pevsner, repairs were attempted four years later in 1849 but the introduction of the mission church just off the main road in 1880 was the final nail in the old St Felix’s coffin as it had its roof removed. As a ‘sop’ to its once proud place, the church yard continued to be used into the 20th century. Now, bar for the 15th century porch, the church is completely open to the skies, covered in ivy and teased by those ravens. However, it can take pride in the fact that, since March 1951, it is now Grade I listed!
FOOTNOTE: You can now spread your wings and, with the aid of the video below, take a birdseye view of the old St Felix Church at Babingley, and those ravens – if you can spot them far below!
On the 26 June 2015 Emily Sarah of the Norfolk Record Office wrote that the final of the National Twelve Bell Striking Contest would take place at St Peter Mancroft Church on the following day, when 10 of the best teams of ringers from across the country, plus several hundred visiting ringers visited the city.
The Norfolk Record Office holds the records for no fewer than four ringers’ societies, all based at St Peter Mancroft’s, the earliest of which was the Norwich Ringers’ Purse founded in 1716. Members paid weekly contributions and, in return, received financial support when they fell sick. The purse also supported families of deceased ringers.
The most recent ringers’ society is the Guild of Ringers, which was founded in 1907, after a bitter dispute between the vicar and churchwardens on the one hand and the ringers on the other. At one point, the belfry was closed, the vicar got rid of all the old ringers and a new band was formed. Even then, prospective new ringers had to demonstrate that they could ring three distinct methods on twelve bells before they were admitted. Ringing a method means pulling your rope so that your bell follows all the other bells in the tower in turn, with a constantly changing pattern and at different speeds, all done by memory.
The most common method is Plain Bob Doubles, rung on five bells, usually with a sixth bell, called the tenor behind, always in the final place to keep a good sense of rhythm. Ringing the same method on eleven bells would be called Plain Bob Cinques. On twelve bells, it would be Plain Bob Maximus.
Ringing on 11 or 12 bells is very difficult, demanding years of practice and intense concentration so that the bells all sound absolutely in time. If anyone makes a mistake, the bells will clash and the resulting cacophony would be heard all over Norwich. It is said that the best ringers can ring to a precision of 3/100ths of a second.
Over the years, St Peter’s has acquired a total of 14 bells (though it is normally regarded as a ring of 12) plus a Sanctus bell, which is rung during the communion service. The largest number of bells in one tower in England is 16, at Birmingham St Martin.
The first true peal, lasting three hours and eighteen minutes on Plain Bob Triples (seven bells), was rung at St Peter’s on 2 May 1715. A peal is often rung to celebrate a special occasion, such as a birthday.
The Norfolk Record Office holds a short article on campanology from the Mancroft Review of 1971. This is mainly an appeal for more ringers to join the regular band, but it also describes the learning process:
‘Beginners are not taught at Mancroft, but on the six [bells] at St George, Colegate. There the bells are not so heavy and the ropes are just 40 feet long, compared to Mancroft’s 70 feet. But beware … campanology is a disease! Once you learn, you will get hooked.’
It is a fact that many folk in the distant past could neith read nor write; couple this with the fact that folklore stories have long drifted in and out of print, meaning that each generation relied on the tongue for telling tales which it was hoped would be remembered and passed on, from generation to generation. As part of this process, and to maintain the interest of liseners, these stories were often elaborated and embellished; an essential part of the spoken tradition which wanted to perpetuate whatever lay behind each tale. The following story is just one example where the detail has been given just that treatment over time, appearing in print in as many and varied versions as would the same tale told verbally – so maybe past chronicle authors and story-telling bards have a lot to answer for! But we have to go with what we have, so the question is ‘How much of a story is fact and how much is fiction’, remembering that all legends have a degree of truth in them; but one thing is certain – we will never know. The only thing the reader can do is to pick through content and decide where a degree of licence may have been applied and where facts possibly rest.
This story is about the beginnings of Erpingham Gate, a great Norwich gateway which takes the visitor from Tombland into the Cathedral Close and directly towards the main entrance to Norwich Cathedral. More importantly, it is about the person who, it was said, paid for its construction, Sir Thomas Erpingham – and about whom a legend, myth – whatever you might call it – found root around the time of 1422 when Gate was built. But first, some facts:
Sir Thomas Erpingham was born in 1357 in the Norfolk village of Erpingham, some 17 miles north of Norwich. His family had been in the village since the Norman Conquest and were part of the local gentry who came to be the holders of the manor in the early thirteenth century, taking the place name of Erpingham as their surname. After the death of his father, Sir Thomas went into the service of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and fought alongside Gaunt’s son (Henry Bolingbroke) across Europe and the Middle East. Bolingbroke later became King Henry IV and Sir Thomas was made his chamberlain. In 1400 Sir Thomas became a Knight of the Garter and received many estates in Norfolk and Suffolk. He used his position at court to promote the interests of Norwich and in 1404, the king gave Norwich its new charter, making it the County and City of Norwich. Sir Thomas was a generous patron and one of his legacies can still be seen most clearly in his entrance gate to Norwich Cathedral.
Sir Thomas went on to have an impressive military and political career beyond the confines of Norfolk. He was a staunch supporter of the Lancastrian dynasty and part of Henry V’s inner circle, he was instrumental in the king’s political and military successes. In 1415, Sir Thomas went with Henry V to Agincourt where he is thought to have been in charge of the archers, riding out in front of the English lines giving the order to strike the French. Sir Thomas became a hero to many and was immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V, where one Act takes us through the English and French camps on the eve of the battle, portrayed as a steadfast and loyal ‘old hero’. However, whilst he was considered ‘good’ in Shakespeare’s play, there was a piece of folklore that grew amongst the populace following the completion of the Gate. Its theme depicted the process of Sir Thomas paying for the building of the Erpingham Gate as an act of personal penance – for a seedy episode during his life!
When it comes to legends, you would think that their themes would rely more on history books and the information, if not facts therein. In the case of Erpingham, this legend, of which we speak, would have made reference to the fact that Sir Thomas was against Henry le Dispencer, Bishop of Norwich. For instance, in efforts to turn the City of Norwich against the Bishop, Sir Thomas managed to persuade the City’s authorities to endorse a list of accusations against the Despenser, who sympathised with the deposed Richard II and became implicated in a rebellion against Henry IV. As it was, the house of Despenser had a long-standing enmity with the House of Lancaster – and ultimately Sir Thomas. When the King Richard II was disposed of, Bishop Henry le Despenser was disgraced. Add to this the fact that it was Sir Thomas Erpingham who, when in exile with Henry Bolingbroke, helped the future Henry V to secure the throne, whilst capturing Richard and offering ‘advice’ that because Richard was a possible threat, he should be removed! With the Bishop of Norwich disgraced, Erpingham became even more influential in Norfolk.
The result of these acts was that a serious breach of trust opened up between Erpingham and Bishop le Despenser, the repercussions of which may have been felt by both Sir Thomas and the Church beyond the year of 1406 when Despenser died. We do not know! However, if this legend ever found root beyond Dispenser and the next two Bishops of Norwich – Alexander Tottington (1407 to 1413) and Richard Courteney (1413 to 1415) – then it must have been with John Wakering (or Wakeryng) who was Bishop of Norwich from 1415 and until 1425. It was during this period in office when the Erpingham Gate was built. So, was any sort of reconciliation between the Church and Sir Thomas settled during Wakering’s period in charge?
Whenever it was, if the wound was ever to be healed then Sir Thomas needed to make some sort of financial gesture to the Church – because that was what they liked! As things turned out, it was said that he came up with a two-pronged solution that, with God’s help, would satisfy both the Church and his belief that heaven awaited those who donated generously to the church; he also must have hoped that his earthly bones would eventually be laid to rest in the Cathedral when his time came. They say that this was the basis on which Sir Thomas Erpingham built his Gate. When Sir Thomas did die in 1428, his bones were indeed buried in the north side of the Chancel (or presbytery) of the Cathedral, along with his two wives.
That was one version of the legend; but it would seem that the populace much preferred another version of the legend that tells quite a different story – and with much less historical content. This one goes along the lines having a Friar in the opening scene – we’ll call him Brother John for the purpose of this version – who clearly lusts after Sir Thomas Erpingham’s wife, Joan. We do not know which Joan the tale refers to; both of Thomas’s wifes carried the same name for he married a Joan, daughter of Sir William Clopton of Clopton, Suffolk, then married a second Joan, daughter of Sir Richard Walton sometime around 1411. No matter, for this legend tells us that during Mass, Brother John slipped a note into Joan’s hand. Curiousity alone dictated that she would read it at the first opportunty, her subsequent blushes apparently telling Sir Thomas all he needed to know of the note’s content. But, being a faithful wife, she still insisted that her husband read it word for word, knowing that he would take matters into his own hands and take steps to remove the problem that lurked beneath a religious habit! Sir Thomas did just that – and so cunningly; first by noting the time and place suggested by Brother John for his meeting with Joan, both perfect for his plans. The meeting would take place at dusk when disguise was so much easier, and the place would be a quiet spot by the River Wensum – a short but convenient walk away from the Cathedral, Whitefriars Priory and the busy part of the City. We of course, do not know if this friar came from the Blackfriar fraternity, or that of the Whitefriars stood next to the Cathedral in Pockthorpe with the River Wensum in between. Sir Thomas then decided to dress in one of his wife’s more favoured dresses before leaving with his faithful servant to the ‘trysting’ rendezvous which some believed was downstream from the rear of Whiefriars and just short of Cow Tower – again, we cannot be certain.
Once there, Sir Thomas, now further disguised with a silk scarf tied over his head, stood beneath a tree at the water’s edge and gazed across the water to the bank opposite; waiting, but at the same time listening intently for sounds of any movement behind him. In the meantime, his servant concealed both himself and Thomas’s horse under cover a short distance away. It was not long before (alias) ‘Lady Erpingham’ heard advancing footsteps behind him and then felt stumpy fingers begin to move over his hip. “Thank you for coming – my love”. Brother John got no further with his obvious intentions for, almost in a single movement, Sir Thomas reached for a metal object hidden beneath the waist of the dress, swung round and struck Brother John firmly on the side of his bald head. The Friar fell first on his knees and then face downwards towards the river-edge reeds. He was dead.
The recipient of the legend is led to believe that it was never Sir Thomas’s intention to kill his victim, but only to give him a heavy lesson which he would never forget – such was his anger……..“How do we get rid of this lecher” he eventually asked his servant, who had come to his master’s assistance immediately he saw the Friar hit the ground. His reply was quick and straight forward. “He has no blood showing, just a dent my Lord. The best we can do is to return him to the Priory grounds”. With the help of Thomas’s horse they took the body the short distance to the Priory’s boundary wall. There, the two men lifted it over the wall and propped Brother John up in a sitting position – as if the Friar was asleep.
The corpse had not been there long, after Sir Thomas, servant and horse had quietly departed, when another Friar, in this instance a Brother Richard who was a very pious man, noticed Brother John – apparantly asleep when he should have been at prayers! Seeing this known womaniser lazely avoiding his religious duties caused Richard to pick up a stone and throw it in the direction of John. It so happened, that his aim was good, too good in fact; the stone hit the side of Brother John’s head, causing him to keel over, once again hitting the ground. Believing that he had actually killed Brother John and in doing so sinned, Richard took a further step towards further weakness; he lifted the body and rolled it over the wall where it fell to lay outside the Priory boundary. He then quietly called on the services of his own pony and left the Whitefriars and what he thought was his crime scene.
Now it so happened that Sir Thomas Erpingham’s personal servant again rode past the Whitefriar’s outer wall on an errand for his master. He could not help noticing, with some puzzlement, the body lying on the wrong side of the wall from where he and Sir Thomas had first left it. Maybe it was a degree of panic, if not a cool calculated decision, that caused the servant to climb down from his horse and replace his elevated position with that of the corpse which by then was stiff with rigor martis. He managed to get former John into an upright position, his feet into the stirrups and his wrists tied to the reins before firmly slapping the horse’s rump into a gallop.
As for Brother Richard, he thought that he had left his unfortunate experience behind him as he too rode out of Norwich, all be it at a much slower pace. But then he heard the sound of galloping hooves approaching towards him from the rear. He instictively turned his head to see the ‘gastly figure’ of Brother John approaching fast on a horse which. When alongside Richard’s pony it pulled up causing the dead friar to fall off to beneath the ponty’s feet. Richard was absolutely terrified – feeling the guilt of what he thought he had done. It was nothing less than divine intervention he thought and decided, there and then, that he must confess! He immediately turned his pony and made his way back to the Bishop and told him all that he knew.
Inevitably perhaps, Friar Richard was sentenced to be hanged for his apparent sins, but as he stood on the gallows, praying for forgiveness and waiting for the immident drop into oblivion if not heaven, Sir Thomas came on to the scene and forced his way through a crowd eager to witness what was a public strangulation. He shouted “Hangman – stop!” as he climbed the scaffold steps, removing the implements of execution and then descending the steps with the Friar. Sir Thomas, the most powerful knight in Norfolk at the time, sought out the Bishop and did not hesitate to kneel before him to admit that he, Thomas, was the one who had killed Friar John. He told the of circumstances surrounding the Mass and his thoughts and planning which led up to the murder along that part of the River Wensum which runs past Whitefriars, towards Cow Tower, Bishops Bridge and beyond. The Bishop listened, then contemplated and decided that the act of this killing was manslaughter…….the sentence was not to be death for such a distinguished person of the County, but one of a penance which Sir Thomas had to agree to if he was ever to be forgiven and find his place in heaven. What was agreed was for him to pay the costs of building what was to become known as the Erpingham Gate.
FOOTNOTE: The Erpingham Gate was erected between 1420 and 1435, in a style which matches the west front of the cathedral itself. The exterior of the gate has a small statue of Sir Thomas above, although this was apparently only put in place in the 17th century – some speculate that it came from Sir Thomas’s tomb in the Cathedral’s Presbytery. The interior side of the Gate also displays the Erpingham coat of arms. There are no less than 24 Christian Saints carved in the archway – 12 male and 12 female – a nice example of equal treatment some 600 years before the Equality Act. (Would this have had anything to do with the fact that Sir Thomas had two wives?).
About the time when the Erpingham Gate was being built, other work associated with the rebuilding of the church of the Dominican Friars and a new East window for the church of the Augustinian Friars was taking place. History does suggest that Sir Thomas donated even more of his money to projects such as these. What is not clear is whether, or not Sir Thomas, following his death in 1428 ever left any of his funds to William Alnwick, who was the Bishop of Norwich between 1426 and 1436. This Bishop continued with further enhancements within the Cathedral precincts by altering and improving the Cathedral itself – as well as his Palace!
We are told that much of the rebuilding of the Dominican friary in Norwich was financed by Sir Thomas Erpingham and his son Robert, who became a friar there. The gate that bears his name is thought to have been built at his cost, a gift to the cathedral, ca.1420. The upper portion, surrounding the canopy within which Sir Thomas’s statue is recessed and faced with flint in Norfolk style. Below it, surrounding the Perpendicular arch, the outward face of the gateway is highly decorated with figures of saints. The turrets on the buttresses at either side also bear sculptures, as well as the heraldic devices of Erpingham and the families of his two wives, and each turret is topped by the statue of a priest. The word yenk (“think”) is engraved at various places on the gateway, and is a request for viewers to remember (and say a prayer for) the donor.
The date of the building of the gate is not known for certain, but it must have taken place after his second marriage (1411). The style suggests the 1420s, and it seems likely the gate would have been given at a time when Erpingham’s thoughts were turning to his death and afterlife – by this time he would have been in his sixties. There were certainly stories that he built the gate as a penance for a sin he had committed – different versions suggest a homicide, his role in the disgrace of Bishop Despenser, his support of heretics – or even gratitude for surviving Agincourt; but there is no real foundation for any of these. If anything, the highly decorated gate is an assertion of orthodoxy at a time when Lollardy was posing a challenge to the established order and at a time when Sir Thomas might have been concerned with his spiritual future.
Erpingham died in 1428 and was buried inside Norwich cathedral, in a tomb built in advance, alongside his two wives; a chantry was established there in his name. His testament did not forget the city in whose affairs he had always shown an interest. He left sums of money to the cathedral and the Prior and monks there, as well as to the church of St. Martin at Palace; his armour too he left to the cathedral. He also bequeathed money to the sisters and poor inmates of St. Giles’ hospital, Bishopgate, and lesser sums to prisoners in the gaols of Norwich castle and the city Guildhall, as well as to hermits within the city.
The construction of the gate may have been an act intended to win favour from the Cathedral in which he hoped to be buried, to win favour from God, and to establish a memorial to himself. The armour in which he is depicted in the statue may have been that which was bequeathed to the cathedral. Although his will makes no reference to the gate, it is possible he commissioned it shortly before his death, with the work finished posthumously by his executors, or it may even have been entirely a project of his executors. His testament focused on pious and charitable bequests and left the rest of his worldly goods to his executors’ disposition – they may have felt the gateway a suitable application of that wealth, and certainly it has stood the test of time. It has been argued that his statue is not the right size for its niche and may have been moved there from his tomb, replacing some other statue on a religious theme.
(Yes, this is recycled information – Historical tales are often like that!)
Matthew Hopkins’s has gone down in history as the notorious ‘Witchfinder General’; a title, by the way, thought to have been given to Hopkin’s – by himself! It is also believed that he was responsible for the executions of around 200-300 women and men between 1644 and 1647. Whilst this score might seem small compared to those in Europe, it constituted around 60% of the combined total number of executions in England during 160 years prior to 1647. The gruesome spree of executions for witchcraft in Europe (then the Holy Roman Empire of Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Lorraine, Austria including Czech lands – Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia) were estimated to have reached around 30,000.
Matthew Hopkins was born in 1620 and in truth, very little is known of him before 1644 when his witch trials began, and there are no surviving contemporary documents concerning him or his family. We know, of course, that he was born in Great Wenham, Suffolk and was the fourth son of six children. His father, James Hopkins, was a Puritan clergyman and vicar of St John’s of Great Wenham, in Suffolk. In the early 1640’s Hopkins moved to Manningtree, Essex, a town on the River Stour, about 10 miles (16 km) from Wenham. According to tradition Hopkins used his recently acquired inheritance of a hundred marks to establish himself as a gentleman and to buy the Thorn Inn in Mistley. From the way that he presented evidence in trials, Hopkins is commonly thought to have been trained as a lawyer, but there is scant evidence to suggest this was the case – he probably had a gift for ‘oratory’.
According to his book ‘The Discovery of Witches’, Hopkins began his career as a witch-finder after he overheard various women discussing their meetings with the Devil in March 1644 in Manningtree; it is not know if this led to any accusations of the women concerned. What is fact, is that the first accusations which did lead to a trial were made by John Stearne – and it was Matthew Hopkins who was appointed to assist him in the investigations. The trial itself was held in Chelmsford, Essex in 1645, where twenty-three women were accused of witchcraft and tried by Justices of the Peace, presided over by the Earl of Warwick. Four of these died in prison and nineteen were convicted and hanged. The Chelmsford witch trial established Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne as Witchfinders, and it was from this point that they went on to claim that they had received an official commission from Parliament to further uncover and prosecute witches. On the back of this claim the two, full of enthusiasm and accompanied by assistants, were to travel from town to village in the Eastern region to execute their commission.
In 1644, Matthew Hopkins was 24 years of age when he joined forces with a John Stearne; and together, the pair certainly proved to be prolific. But it was Hopkins who stood out as the man who possessed the firmest belief in what he was doing – numbers indicate his zeal cannot simply be explained away by the generous rewards he was given by those grateful for his services. This zeal may well have found its roots in Hopkins’ childhood and adolescence, but, frustratingly for those interested in his motives and his mind-set, there is very little known about his background, other than a few parish records; these throw little light on the influences that made Hopkins the man he was.
Matthew Hopkins, together with his associate, John Stearne, is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 women between the years 1644 and 1646. It has been estimated that all of the English witch trials between the early 15th and late 18th centuries resulted in fewer than 500 executions for witchcraft. Therefore, presuming the number executed as a result of “investigations” by Hopkins and his colleague is at the lower end of the various estimates, their efforts accounted for about 60 per cent of the total. In their short crusade Hopkins and Stearne sent to the gallows more people than all the other witch-hunters in England of the previous 160 years.
Following the Lancaster Witch Trial of 1634, William Harvey, physician to King Charles I of England, had been ordered to examine four women accused of witchcraft at a time when belief in witches was nearly universal and to deny their existence was heresy-worthy and punishable. To his credit he considered scientific principles and the women were found innocent. However, from this trial there came a requirement to have material proof of being a witch. Matthew Hopkins’s thinking here was not necessarily to prove any of the accused had committed acts of “maleficium”,- magical acts intended to cause harm or death to persons or property, – but the fact they had made a covenant with the Devil. This is the difference between Hopkin’s approach and that of the Justice of the Peace who investigated the Pendle Witches in 1612. By making covenant with the Devil, witches became heretics to Christianity, which became the greatest of their crimes and sins. Within continental and Roman Law witchcraft was ‘crimen exceptum’: a crime so foul that all normal legal procedures were superseded. Because the Devil was not going to “confess”, it was necessary to gain a confession from the human involved.
Methods of investigation:
Matthew Hopkins’ methods of investigating witchcraft drew inspiration from the ‘Daemonologie of King James’ which was directly cited in Hopkins’ pamphlet, ‘The Discovery of Witches.’ He also took note of the best selling legal handbook of the day, Dalton’s ‘Counterey Justice’, in which Magistrates were advised “not alwaies to expect direct evidence [from witches], seeing all their works are the works of darknesse” Further, torture was actually illegal in England at the time of Hopkins and, surprisingly perhaps, depriving someone of sleep for days on end was not considered to be torturing them! Hopkins was careful to stay within the law – and fortunately for him this still enabled him to utilise many methods that would fill most people with horror. Often the accused would be “watched” for days on end to see if ‘imps’ or ‘familiars’ would appear and suckle on the suspect’s blood. It seems to be a common thread that when someone had been “watched” for a few days they were very much more willing to confess. Also, the reports of the watchers’ findings often spoke of the “Witches Teat” being found in, on or around the private parts of the accused. For such pure souls, the Puritans seemed to be rather obsessed with private parts! Then, on occasion, the accused would be “walked”, forcibly exercised to the point of exhaustion to encourage confession.
Another of Hopkin’s methods was the infamous “swimming” test, based on the idea that as witches had renounced their baptism, water would reject them. Hopkins was, in fact, warned against using this method without receiving the permission of the accused first. The problem with ordeal by water was that the test was regarded as a superstition: by law it was an assault to swim a witch – and if he or she drowned it was murder. However from the early to mid 17th century the object of the witch trial changed from proving maleficium to that of proving a pact with the Devil; this resulted in the swimming test becoming more widespread. It involved tying the hapless suspect, usually right thumb to left toe, and left thumb to right toe and lowering into water. All those who “swam” (floated) were considered to be witches. Those who sank and drowned were innocent!
Hopkins and his assistants also looked for the Devil’s mark. This was a mark that all witches or sorcerers were supposed to possess that was said to be dead to all feeling and would not bleed – although in reality it was usually a mole, birthmark or an extra nipple or breast. If the suspected witch had no such visible marks, invisible ones could be discovered by pricking, the witch finder therefore employed “witch prickers” to prick the accused with knives and special needles, looking for such marks, and places where the accused would feel no pain, normally after the suspect had been shaved of all body hair. It has been claimed that Hopkins had a trick up his sleeve when it came to this one. It was thought that a witch would have areas on her body that would not bleed – either because they were the place where the devil had kissed her to seal their pact, or because this was the spot from which she suckled her ‘familiars’. The woman would be pricked with a needle, and if the skin did not bleed, then this was proof of her guilt. Hopkins may well have had a special pin made with a retractable blade – the point retracting into the handle when it met resistance. This way, he could quickly establish a suspect’s guilt.
It was also believed that the witch’s ‘familiar’, an animal such as a cat or dog, or mole or insect or even a child, would drink the witch’s blood from a “witches teat”, as a baby drinks milk from the nipple. Local women would be employed to search the accused female witches. One belief was that’ familiars’ suckled the witch to remind him or her of their ‘fealty’ to the devil, a dark parallel to holy communion. Sometimes the ‘familiar’ would suckle blood and in exchange would perform acts of harm, for example killing off livestock belonging to those the witch bore a grudge to.
The confessions of those accused of witchcraft were strikingly similar. Often the ladies are seduced by the devil and repeatedly took him into their beds. They will have ‘familiars’ [spirit animals] which will do their bidding which is invariably to the ill of their neighbours. The ‘familiars’ will kill livestock or neighbours children or the neighbours themselves or make people ill. Never is it recorded that the familiars better the circumstances of the witch only worsen the circumstances of his or her ‘enemies’. Such are the similarities between the many confessions that it is tempting to think that the words were put into the mouths of the accused by the inquisitor.
Hopkins’s first victim is thought to have been 80-year-old Elizabeth Clarke. This poor woman was ripe for suspicion – she was old, poor, and was missing a leg. She was kept awake for three days, and under this extreme stress, understandably broke down – admitting to having had carnal relations with the devil. It seems ridiculous to us now – but all those years ago this would have been believed. Poor Elizabeth implicated others, and was hanged – the first of many.
The Social, Political and Religious Background:
The witch-fever that gripped East Anglia for around 14 months between 1645 & 1646 happened at a historic & tumultuous time in English history. England was in the midst of a bloody civil war between the forces of King Charles I and the forces of Parliament. The country was in chaos, the normal workings of the state were not functioning. Circuit courts were not running normally and justice was being administered in a disjointed way at a local level. Before the war had started the eastern counties were solidly Puritan, rabidly anti-Catholic and ever vigilant for heresies. As the war progressed and times grew harder fear and suspicion of neighbours mounted and scores were settled by accusations of witchcraft. Matthew Hopkins and his associates were adept at turning local gossip and innuendo into formal accusations of witchcraft.
The towns and villages of the Eastern Counties had lost most of their able men who were off fighting in the war. The farms were not being worked; crops were rotting in the fields without sufficient folk to harvest them. The weather was unseasonably bad. The poor were dirt poor and the folk whom they normally relied upon for charity and alms were stretched by the straightened circumstances of the war and not able to give. Resentments grew. Many of those accused of witchcraft were from the beggar class or were old widows who took alms from the parishes but did not give alms. Add to this the widespread Calvinist belief in the elect, the idea that it is a predestined choice of God who will go to heaven and who is damned to hell. It was the idea that some folk are born to sin and some are born to be pure. Some folk are born to be heretics and some are born to be doctrinally pure. Some folk are born to be witches and some folk are born to be witch finders. It was a time of real fanaticism. Ignorance and dogmatic belief in the scripture went hand in hand with genuine belief in the supernatural.
Many folk genuinely believed that it was the end times: signs and portents and omens were widely reported in pamphlets:
“Have there not been strange Comets seen in the air, prodigies, sights on the seas, marvellous tempests and storms on the land? Have not nature altered her course so much that woman framed of pure flesh and blood bringeth forth ugly and deformed monsters?”
On the 21st May 1646 a meteorite fell in a cornfield in Swaffham, Norfolk, setting it ablaze. Hailstones the size of pigeons eggs fell from the sky. Hysterics said it was judgement day. On the same day in Newmarket, Suffolk, a vision of three men fighting in the sky was seen suggesting war in the three kingdoms of England, Scotland & Ireland. The war between the Puritan Roundheads and the Royalists was interpreted widely as a war between Christ and the Devil. The civil war was punishment for the Nation’s sins.
The witch-hunts undertaken by Hopkins and aided by Stearne mainly took place in the Counties of Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, and also beyond East Anglia in the counties of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. This is a large area of England. A lot of ground was covered. At times Hopkins and Stearne worked together, at other times they worked independently. They hunted for witches throughout the area of strongest Puritan and Parliamentarian influences which formed the powerful and influential Eastern Counties from 1644 to 1647.
In times of peace witch trials would take place at County Assizes, the accused would be tried by juries of strangers directed by professional judges. At this time of the Civil War the assize system in East Anglia collapsed. It was this judicial vacuum that Matthew Hopkins filled with a massive witch hunt. To undertake this and at such a scale, both Hopkins and Stearne would have required some form of letters of safe conduct to be able to travel throughout the counties. In fact, they were often invited to towns & villages to do their witchhunt.
Hopkins and Stearne, accompanied by the women who performed the pricking, watching and searching techniques were soon travelling over Eastern England, in demand from the puritan townsfolk eager to root out evil in their midst. Together with their female assistants, they were well paid for their work, and it is quite possible that the money itself was a motivating factor, although Hopkins states in his pamphlet ‘A Discovery Of Witchcraft’ that “his fees were to maintain his company with three horses”, and that he took “twenty shillings a town”. The records at Stowmarket show their costs to the town to have been £28 and three-pence, plus his travelling expenses – the usual daily wage at the time was sixpence. He used his apparent commission from Parliament to persuade the local community to levy a special tax.
In Suffolk, Hopkins discovered that the church minister of Brandeston, John Lowes an old man of seventy ‘was naught but a foul witch’. It appears that Lowes had been a quarrelsome old man and was sorely disliked by many in his parish. At first he stoutly denied his guilt, but a confession was gained when he was subjected to Hopkins’s most approved method of using his watchers who,
“kept him awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath. After a brief rest, they then ran him again. And thus they did for several days and nights together, till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”. It was in this state of mind that Lowes finally confessed, “he had covenanted with the devil, suckled ‘familiars’, being Tom, Flo, Bess and Mary, for five years, and had bewitched cattle. He had also caused a ship to sink off Harwich with the loss of fourteen lives”.
As well documented as this infamous trial at Bury St. Edmond was, it is also perhaps, the best illustration of just how the prejudice and hysteria against witches during those times, affected even the High Court’s and justices of the land. No record or suggestion was ever made to check whether a ship had floundered off Harwich.
A later pamphlet by Stearne stated that Lowes “was joyfull to see what power his imps had”. Lowes later retracted his confession, but this didn’t save him, and since he was not allowed a clergyman to read the burial service for him, he recited it himself on his way to the scaffold at Bury St Edmunds on the 27th August 1645.
After the Bury St. Edmond witch trials, people began to question the alleged commission from Parliament. The Moderate Intelligencer, a parliamentary paper published during the English Civil War expressed, in an editorial of 11th September 1645, unease with the affairs in Bury. A special judicial commission was formed, the “Commission of Oyer and Terminer”. Its task was to deal specifically with the backlog of witchcraft trials in eastern England, and Hopkins was ordered to stop his Swimming activities. This apart, witch trials now began in earnest and such was the state of witchcraft hysteria in the Eastern Counties, another 18 were tried in quick succession and hanged. No sooner had these sessions began, than they were quickly abandoned because the Royalist forces of the rebellion were approaching Bedford and Cambridge. When, however, they eventually restarted, another fifty witches were executed.
With his career as the Witch-Finder General firmly established, Hopkins and his faithful band of assistants, travelled at break-neck speed throughout the Region to urge on these trials with fatal rapidity. By the 26th of July 1646 he was in Norfolk where another twenty witches met their fate. In September he was in Yarmouth by special demand of the authorities, and was recalled there again in December – it is not known how many died there as a result of Hopkins’s two visits. He also visited Ipswich and shortly after Aldeburgh before moving on to Stowmarket. Along the way he also stopped at King’s Lynn and many other small towns and villages, but wherever they went fear and apprehension followed.
However, time was running out for Hopkins, as he overextended himself with his zeal and possible greed. Toward the end of 1946, the tide began to turn against him. At a time when most people feared him, criticism was launched against him by the courageous efforts of an old country parson, “John Gaule” the Vicar of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire. Hearing that Hopkins was preparing to visit his part of the country, Gaule preached openly against him from the pulpit and started collecting evidence of his excessive methods and use of torture. Gaule published his findings and his condemnation of Hopkins in a book called “Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft” (London, 1646). The book was well written and convincing, and public opinion was aroused against the abuses it exposed:
“Every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a robber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice or scolding tongue, having a rugged coat on her back, a skull cap on her head, a spindle in her hand & a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspect but pronounced for a witch”
By the end of 1646 Hopkins’s credibility and activities were petering out. In Norfolk, Hopkins was questioned by Justices of the Assizes, about the torturing and fees. Hopkins was asked if methods of investigation did not make the finders themselves witches, and if with all his knowledge did he not also have a secret, or had used “unlawful courses of torture”. It was rumoured that Matthew Hopkins had ‘The Devils Book’, a directory of all the witches in England. Then, in early 1647, Matthew Hopkins parted company with his faithful assistants and retired back to Manningtree where his infamous career had started. There, he published his book “The Discovery Of Witches” in May of that year, which was a rebuttal of the enquiries he had been subjected to in Norfolk.
Matthew Hopkins died on August 11th 1647 from suspected Tuberculosis. Histories which say that he was lynched or swum are likely to be wide of the mark as far as accuracy is concerned. In life, he brought fear, suffering, pain and death to many, and it can only be hoped that when he faced his own inevitable end, he felt at least some small remorse for what he had done – However, was it maybe the case that his religious mania comforted him as he passed away in his own comfortable bed; a comfort and place that was denied to his poor victims.
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.
The story of 19th century bodysnatchers, who stole corpses from graveyards to help surgeons further their understanding of anatomy, have been well documented in history books. Otherwise known as resurrectionists, those who chose to undertake such work were hired by surgeons, across the country, to steal bodies from graveyards. Fresh corpses and bodies of children fetched the highest prices.
Bodysnatchers in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk was a case in point. Like everywhere else, these ‘gentlemen’ would have had to work quickly to avoid being caught. Their methods would have been to hastily dig away the soil from the head of a grave, force open the coffin with a crowbar and drag out the corpse by the shoulders. The body then stripped and the clothes and shroud bundled back into the coffin before the earth was filled back in. Most of the time, the relatives would not even realise the body of their loved one had been taken.
The risks were enormous for if body snatchers were caught in the act they probably would have faced mob justice. Desecrating the dead was seen by many as a crime worse than murder and it is known that some of the unluckier bodysnatchers were beaten to death. But, for many, the risks were worth it for trade in dead bodies was brisk and many of the poorest in society were worth more dead than alive. Ironically, the industry that dealt in the dead was driven by the men most concerned with keeping people alive. The 19th century was the golden age of anatomy, where surgeons would uncover the wonders of the human body and perform operations never before considered possible.
There was, of course, one problem; there were seldom enough cadavers around as a direct result of how the law was framed. You see, it was only the bodies of hanged criminals that were allowed to be used by surgeons and anatomists for dissection and research; and it all hinged on the Judge directing such a procedure when a sentence was passed.
To be dissected in public after execution was considered a fate worse than death. Most people believed their body would be resurrected on the day of judgment; a difficult prospect if it has been cut up into little pieces, each pickled in jars and often spread around the country. As a result, even the most brutal judges were reluctant to hand all but the very worst criminals to the surgeon for, after the dissection of any body, the unwanted remains would not be permitted to be buried in consecrated ground. This meant that such sentences were relatively rare and so, there was this scarcity. As a result, desperate surgeons and ‘enterprising’ individuals inevitably came together to fill the gap.
Graveyards were raided across the country, but particularly in and around London and Edinburgh which were prominent centres of medical learning. Fresh graves were re-opened at night and the corpses stolen, with surgeons making little secret of the fact that they would pay good money for prime cadavers. The robbers were aided by the fact that to steal a corpse was not a felony – but rather a misdemeanour. Provided the robbers were careful not to also steal items of goods from the grave the worst that could happen was for them, if caught, to be given a fine or a short prison sentence.
Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1841), surgeon to George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria, was quite open about his use of corpses obtained from body snatchers, because the practice helped him to develop the first procedure for tying of an abdominal aorta to cure aneurysm. He boasted,
“There is no person, whatever his position in life might be, whose body after death could not be obtained. The Law enhances the price and does not prevent exhumation”.
Sir Astley Cooper, born the son of the one-time Vicar of St Nicholas Minster in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, really did push the boundaries of medical science and became a household name – when he died in 1841, his funeral drew huge crowds. However, says Druin Burch, author of Cooper’s biography – ‘Digging Up The Dead’:
“Constrained by a limited number of corpses to study, surgeons had little choice but to get hold of them by other means. They paid the grave robbers to do their dirty work for them and asked few questions but some of the more adventurous students, including the young Cooper, probably did some of the body snatching themselves.”
Cooper would have found expeditions to the graveyards a mischievous thrill, for as a boy, he liked practical jokes; he once dressed himself as Satan and convinced the drunk wife of the sexton to sell her his soul. He later chose surgery as his career and, with the help of his uncle, William Cooper, secured an apprenticeship under Sir Henry Cline, a renowned surgeon at St Thomas’s hospital in London. At first, he was a lazy student but one day Cline, annoyed that Cooper was paying little attention to his work, smuggled a human arm home from the hospital and dumped it on the kitchen table in front of his apprentice, challenging him to dissect it:
“The skill and industry with which Astley dissected the arm astonished the apprentice and the teacher,” again says Burch. “Astley was transformed. For the first time in his life, he found himself taking an interest in his work.”
Cooper was also taught by John Hunter and in the winter of 1787 he visited the anatomy department at the University of Edinburgh. In 1789 he was appointed demonstrator in anatomy at St Thomas’ and in 1783 he gave lectures in anatomy for the Company of Surgeons. He didn’t look back and became obsessed with cutting up bodies, gaining a reputation as a brilliant surgeon. His teachers were some of the best in the world but they stressed the importance of hands-on experience and encouraged Cooper to investigate human anatomy first hand. It was a lesson he happily took to heart.
“Neither filth nor stench nor risk now deterred Astley,” says Burch. “He would dissect until the strain of hunching over a stinking corpse made him physically sick.”
Now it was the same Sir Astley Cooper who accepted the body snatching services of Thomas Vaughan, a former stonemason from London who was renting a house in Row Six of the town’s renowned Rows. It is not known how, when and where the two men came into contact, if indeed they ever did? Maybe, because of the delicate nature of such an arrangement, there was an ‘intermediary’ instead; and indeed, was Vaughan despatched from London to undertake Sir Astley’s request? What is known is that, in 1827, Vaughan and probably two other suspected accomplices (said to be William and Robert Baker from Beccles) stole 10 bodies from Yarmouth’s Minster churchyard. Vaughan, it was said, had planned to steal these bodies over a period of 19 days; the complete consignment included two children, one young woman and a 67-year-old man.
Each body was put in a sack, then carried to houses in Row 6 where he lived and concealed behind locked doors. Row 6 became known as ‘Snatchbody Row’; the bodysnatchers themselves nicknamed ‘sack-em-up men’. Within a short time, these bodies were then packaged into crates which, it was claimed, were labelled “Glass: Handle with Care”, then stacked on carts and transported to London, via Norwich. Their destination was reported to be a room close to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, from where surgeons would choose a corpse and pay Vaughan 10 to 12 guineas for each body. Other reports suggested that, in total, more than 20 bodies were stolen from the St Nicholas Minster in 1827, which would indicate that probably others, apart from Thomas Vaughan and his accomplices, were also operating in the area.
The Papers, then and since, made much from this ‘scoop’, relying on the details extracted from police briefings, plus interviews with those personally affected be the crimes. They reported, for instance, that the scene in St Nicholas’s churchyard after the robberies was grim, and that coffins were “splintered like kindling and rotting corpses strewn on the grass”. The Norfolk Chronicle newspaper of the time reported that the actions of the resurrectionists caused “great excitement” in the town, while the churchyard at St Nicholas was seen to resemble “a ploughed field.” Another report in the Norfolk Chronicle stated:
“……. wives were seen searching for the remains of their deceased husbands; husbands for those of their wives; and parents for their children. Bodies of the number of 20 or more were found to have been removed and the grief of those whose search was in vain can better be imagined than described.”
Later reports elaborated further on the facts – and probably speculated much! Like an more recent article that suggested that:
“George Beck was the first to realise that something was awry. He had lost his beloved wife, Elizabeth, on Halloween of 1827 and she had been laid to rest on 4th November, clothed in a shroud and a gown. Grief-stricken, George went to visit his wife’s grave a few days later, only to discover that the grave had been quite obviously disturbed. He called the police and he and local constable, Peter Coble, laboriously exhumed the coffin, only to find to their horror that it was empty – all that was left was Elizabeth’s shroud.
During the bitterly cold weeks of November and December, Constable Coble kept watch over the cemetery in the vain hope that the bodysnatchers……. would return once again with their gruesome shopping list. Townspeople became aware of the grim vigil and fear turned to fury. Enraged relatives flooded to the graveyard and the graves of the most recently deceased were disinterred – there was an outcry when more empty coffins were discovered and it became apparent that the bodysnatchers had struck again.”
Vaughan was caught quite quickly and sent for trial. He was sentenced to six months in prison for his crime, but no mention was made of his accomplices. His costs were said to have been paid by the surgeons, and his wife cared for while he was behind bars. Inevitably perhaps, Vaughan never learned his lesson for he returned to bodysnatching, was caught and eventually transported to Australia – his mistake being that on this occasion he stole the victim’s clothes as well as the corpse. As for Sir Astley Cooper well, he finally ended up having his statue erected in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
In 2011, a blue plaque was commissioned by the Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeological Society to highlight the 19th century crimes in Great Yarmouth where men were paid to steal bodies for surgeons to further their understanding of anatomy. It was unveiled on the gates of St Nicholas Church, Church Plain, Yarmouth, from where more than 20 bodies were snatched in 1827.
At the unveiling of the Blue Plaque, the St Nicolas’ church curate Reverend James Stewart, said that it was important that despite the grisly crimes that were committed, the past activities in the churchyard should be marked for their historical importance.
“Necessary evil is a very dangerous thing to be talking about, but these things providentially took place because science moved on as a result……….But we also have to think of those that were disturbed from their immortal sleep, that had not expected they would be taken at cover of night and to be experimented on.”
It was on the 4th February 1810 when John Fransham, known as Hornbutton Jack, was buried in the churchyard of St George Colgate, in the city of Norwich. He was born early in 1730 to parents Thomas and Isidora Fransham, and his father was sexton or parish clerk in the same parish of Colgate. Young John was baptised at St George’s on the 19th March 1730. Although clever, John was denied a proper early education when his patron died – but he was retain his love of classical antiquity.
John Fransham (1730–1810) was a freethinker who showed precocity at elementary school level. At a young age he wrote sermons, which the Rector of St. George’s thought good enough to submit to the Dean. With the aid of a relative and an Attorney, said to be Isaac Fransham (1660–1743), John was able to study for the church; however, with the death of this relative, John Fransham found himself apprenticed to a cooper at Wymondham ‘for a few weeks’, at the age of fifteen. By writing sermons for clergymen he made a little money, but could not support himself, and it was said that he went barefoot for nearly three years. John Taylor, D.D., the presbyterian theologian, gave him gratuitous instruction. A legacy allowed him to buy a pony – not to ride, but to ‘make a friend of’ as he told a physician who had been consulted by his father; he thought him to be ‘out of his wits’.
As long as the money lasted, Fransham took lessons from W. Hemingway, a land surveyor. He then wrote to an attorney named Marshall, but was never articled. One of Marshall’s clerks, a John Chambers later to be Recorder of Norwich, took great pains with Fransham who, at the same time, struck up the acquaintance of Joseph Clover the veterinary surgeon. He employed John Fransham to take horses to be shod, and taught him mathematics in return for the young man’s help in classics.
In 1748 John Fransham joined a company of strolling players where, it is said, he took the parts of Iago and Shylock. The players got no pay and lived on turnips; Fransham left them on finding that the turnips were stolen. He sailed from Great Yarmouth for North Shields, intending to study at the Scottish universities and visit the highlands. But at Newcastle-on-Tyne he enlisted in the Old Buffs, was soon discharged as bandy-legged, and made his way back to Norwich with three halfpence and a plaid. After this he worked with Daniel Wright, a freethinking journeyman weaver. The two friends sat facing each other, so that they could carry on discussions amid the rattle of their looms.
After Wright’s death, about 1750, Fransham devoted himself to teaching. For two or three years he was tutor in the family of Leman, a farmer at Hellesdon, just a few miles north of Norwich. He then taught Latin, Greek, French, and mathematics to pupils in the City, when he only taught for two hours a day, giving him time to act as an ‘amanuensis’ – a literary or artistic assistant who takes dictation or copies manuscripts – to Samuel Bourn (1714–1796). He became a member of a society for philosophical experiment, founded by Peter Bilby. With his reputation growing as a successful preliminary tutor for the universities, he reluctantly took as many as twenty pupils, despite being of the opinion that no man could do justice to more than eight. His terms rose from a shilling a week to 15s. a quarter; out of this slender income he saved money and collected two hundred books towards a projected library. If he found a bargain at a bookstall he would insist on paying the full value as soon as he knew it.
In 1767 he spent nine months in London, carrying John Leedes, a former pupil, through his Latin examination at the College of Surgeons. In London he also formed a slight acquaintance with the Queen’s under-librarian, who introduced him to Foote in ‘The Devil upon Two Sticks’ (1768). By this time, Fransham had developed the habit of wearing a plaid, which suggested a green jacket with large horn buttons, a broad hat, drab shorts, coarse worsted stockings, and large shoes. His boys called him ‘Old Hornbuttoned Jack.’
The Chute family had two houses, one in the country at South Pickenham and one in Norwich. Whilst Fransham was back in Norwich, around 1771, the Chutes allowed him to sleep at their City house where his sister, Mrs. Bennett, was housekeeper; he was also at liberty to use their library. The following year Fransham taught the children of Samuel Cooper D.D. at Brooke Hall, Norfolk, on the terms of having board and lodging from Saturday till Monday. However, he soon gave up this engagement as the walk to and from Brooke, of over six miles there and back to Norwich, was too much for him. When Cooper obtained an improved position at Great Yarmouth, Fransham was advised by his friend. Thomas Robinson, a schoolmaster at St. Peter’s Hungate, to write and ask for a guinea. The difficulty was that Fransham had never written a letter in his life, and after he had copied Robinson’s draft, did not even know how to fold it. Cooper sent him 5 pence – About £9 in today’s terms.
The death of young Chute, of which Fransham thought he had had a warning in a dream, threw him on his own resources once again. He reduced his allowance to a farthing’s worth of potatoes a day; however, the experiment of him sleeping on Mousehold Heath in his plaid brought on a violent cold and was not repeated. For nearly three years, from about 1780, Fransham dined every Sunday with Counsellor Cooper, a relative of the clergyman who had introduced him to Dr. Parr. From about 1784 to about 1794 he lodged with his friend, Thomas Robinson but eventually to lodge with Jay, a baker in St. Clement’s. Whilst living there, Fransham would never allow the floor of his room to be wetted or the walls whitewashed for fear of damp; and to have his bed made more than once a week was something that he considered to be ‘the height of effeminacy.’ In 1805 Fransham was asked for assistance by a distant relative, a Mrs. Smith. He took her as his housekeeper, hiring a room and a garret, which was a small top-floor and somewhat small dismal room, in St. George’s Colegate. When she left him in 1806 he seems to have resided for about three years with his sister, who had become a widow. Then leaving her, Fransham made his last move to a garret in Elm Hill. In 1807 or 1808 he made the acquaintance of Michael Stark (d. 1831), a Norwich dyer, and became tutor to his sons, of whom the youngest was James Stark, the artist.
Fransham has been called a pagan and a polytheist, chiefly on the strength of his hymns to the ancient gods, his designation of chicken-broth as a sacrifice to Æsculapius, and his describing a change in the weather as Juno’s response to supplication. His love for classical antiquity led him to prefer the Greek mathematicians to any of the moderns, to reject the doctrine of ‘fluxions’, and to despise algebra. Convinced of the legendary origin of all theology, he esteemed the legends of paganism as the most venerable, and put upon them a construction of his own. He thought that Taylor, the platonist, took them in a sense ‘intended for the vulgar alone.’ Hume was to him the ‘prince of philosophers;’ he read Plato with admiration, but among the speculations of antiquity the arguments of Cicero, author of ‘De Natura Deorum,’ were high in his thinking. He annotated a copy of Chubb’s posthumous works, apparently for republication as a vehicle of his own ideas. In a note to Chubb’s ‘Author’s Farewell,’ he put forward the hypothesis of a multiplicity of ‘artists’ as explaining the ‘infinitely various parts of nature.’ In his manuscript ‘Metaphysicorum Elementa’ he defines God as – wait for it!
‘ens non dependens, quod etiam causa est omnium cæterorum existentium.’ He thinks it obvious that space fulfils the terms of this definition, and hence concludes ‘spatium solum esse Deum,’ adding ‘Deus, vel spatium, est solidum.’
His chief quarrel with the preachers of his time was that they allowed vicious and cruel customs to go unreproved. Asked at an election time for whom he would be inclined to vote, he replied, ‘I would vote for that man who had humanity enough to drive long-tailed horses.’ He was fond of most animals, but disliked dogs, as ‘noisy, mobbish, and vulgar,’ and in his ‘Aristopia, or ideal state,’ he provided for their extermination.
Fransham brought under complete control a temper which in his early years was ungovernable. He rose at five in summer, at six in winter; a strict teetotaller, he ate little animal food, living chiefly on tea and bread-and-butter. To assure himself of the value of health, he would eat tarts till he got a headache, which he cured with strong tea. For his amusement he played a ‘hautboy’ [an archaic form of oboe], but burned the instrument to make tea. Replacing this with a ‘bilbocatch’ he persevered until he had caught the ball on the spike 666,666 times – but not in succession you understand; he could never exceed a sequence of two hundred. His dread of fire led him constantly to practise the experiment of letting himself down from an upper story by a ladder. In money matters he was extremely exact, but could bear losses with equanimity. He had saved up 100 libra, which he was induced to lodge with a merchant, who became bankrupt just after Fransham had withdrawn three-quarters of its value to buy books. In response to his friends’ expressions of condolence, he replied that he had been lucky enough to gain three-quarters of the total lodged with the unfortunate merchant.
At the latter end of 1809 he was attacked by a cough; then in January 1810 he took to his bed and was carefully nursed, but declined medical aid. When dying he said that if he could live his days again he would go more into female society. He had a fear of being buried alive and gave some odd instructions as to what was to be done to prove him ‘dead indeed.’ On 1 Feb. 1810 he expired and was buried on 4 Feb. in the churchyard of St. George of Colegate; his gravestone bears a Latin inscription. A caricature likeness of him has been published; his features have been thought to resemble those of Erasmus, while his double-tipped nose reminded his friends of the busts of Plato. He left ninety-six guineas to his sister; his books and manuscripts were left to Edward Rigby, M.D. (d. 1821); some of them passed into the possession of William Stark, and a portion of these is believed to have perished in a fire; William Saint, his pupil and biographer, seems to have obtained his mathematical books and most of his mathematical manuscripts.
Jewson, C. B., Jacobin City: A Portrait of Norwich 1788 – 1802, Blackie & Sons, 1975.
We are in the centre of Norwich, in that part of St Peter Mancroft’s churchyard that sits on the north side the Church. This half the whole churchyard, which extends on both sides of the church, is the larger and does not seem to suffer the unfavourable associations that the northern side of church graveyards usually have to put up with. It is the side which is the nearest to the market place and divided by a path which allows visitors to enter the church through the northern side door.
Here is an ‘altar’ styled tomb – in fact the only tomb in the whole of the Church’s churchyard still standing upright and proud; most other headstones have long been laid flat at ground level. This particular tomb is a finely carved family sort of tomb, one of those big box-shaped ones now, in the present-day, being slowly destroyed by moss and the constant weathering from the trees that overhang it. At one end, facing full on to the path that takes visitors into the church, is an inscription which refers to the main family member, that of John Harrison Yallop. At the other end of the tomb, facing the Forum, is an oval cartouche, within which is the following inscription:
is dedicated to the
Talents and Virtues of
Sophia Ann Goddard
15th March 1801 aged 25
The Former shone with superior
Lustre and Effect
in the great School of Morals,
while the Latter
inform’d the private Circle of Life
with Sentiment, Taste, and Manners
that still live in the memory
Of Friendship and
(Photos above: Haydn Brown 2019.)
This inscription is intriguing, it suggests that there is a real story hereabouts; maybe there are several stories, all interlinked one would assume. In the absence of any facts to the contrary, it must be assumed that Miss Goddard’s remains found their way into this Yallop family tomb shortly after her funeral in 1801; John Yallop followed thirty-four years later when it might have been previously arranged that he would rejoin Sophia there. As to answering the question as to why she, a Goddard, would join these family members; well, at the time of her death she had been betrothed to John Harrison Yallop.
One thing needs to be agreed between writers on the subject of whether this is a Yallop or Bolingbroke tomb! This article favours it being a Yallop family tomb, despite references to the Bolingbroke name. Mary Yallop, John’s sister married Nathaniel Bolingbroke and both are there – John does speak of ‘his brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke’ at some later date. The other references to the Bolingbroke name are two older members – so, the matter is debateable! The other point is, that with the exception of John Yallop, nowhere does it say that the others are ‘buried’ in the tomb; the inscriptions are headed simply ‘In Memory’; the exception to this heading is, of course, the notable inscription dedicated to the young actress with whom John Harrison Yallop fell in love.
Strange therefore that there is no reference on the tomb to John Yallop’s wife of some fourteen years, Mary Ann Yallop (nee’ Watts) who died in 1833 – two years before her husband. Not so strange when we discover that, their marriage, in 1819, became an empty relationship. In 1820 John completed building his fine house at Eaton Grange but he did not live much there. More oddly still, his wife did not live there either. In the words of R.H. Mottram, in his book The Speaking Likeness:
“He bought a neighbouring property and installed her in it, either from some deep emptiness that she, good if ordinary woman as she must have been – or why did he marry her? – could never fill. She died while he was in his sixties, so that her separate establishment cannot have been a mere provision made for her widowhood. He himself migrated to Brighton where he died in June 1835……”
From this, we could reach the understandable assumption that the information detailed on her husband’s grave, in St Peter Mancroft’s churchyard, shows that John Harrison Yallop never lost the love he had for Sophia Ann Goddard. Also, it would seem to indicate that he preferred to be accompanied in the afterlife with those he felt the most closest to on earth. Sophia Ann Goddard was the strongest contender for this distinction since the inscription dedicated to her is an affectionate reminder of his love for this actress – the wording would clearly suggest so!
Sophia Ann Goddard was born in 1776, her parents were Florimond and Sophia Goddard, of whom nothing more is known. It may not be safe to suggest that Miss Goddard was educated and brought up in south eastern area of England but she did make her first stage appearance at Margate, Kent in July 1797 at twenty-one years of age. Within a month of her debut, the Monthly Mirror reported from Margate that:
“A Miss Goddard, about whom the papers have been very busy, has played several characters with some promise; but her friends have certainly over-rated here talents”
By the 10th November 1797 it had been announced from Margate that Miss Goddard had made her first appearance in London as Laetitia Hardy in Mrs Centlivre’s ‘The Belle’s Stratagem’ at Dury Lane Theatre, a role which she was to repeat with much success in Norwich in a later year. London was enthusiastic, the critics less so according to the Monthly Mirror of November of that year, declaring:
“This young lady has fallen sacrifice to the art of puffing. She has been placed at the head of the school before she has imbibed the rudiments of knowledge………….[her talents were] “not of a primary nature”
Evidently, the Dury Lane Theatre management agreed with the newspaper, for her next performance of Letitia Hardy, on the 14th November 1797, was her last appearance in a London theatre. Undaunted, according to a much later provincial newspaper, Sophia Ann returned to Margate to continue her desire for success with determination. She appeared to be nothing, if not, a trier and was soon making progress – all be it the hard way:
“Puppy teeth were cut, experience gained while her talents pointed for the first tune, with certainty, at a capability that extended far beyond mere good looks and a pleasing personality”.
Within the year, the Monthly Mirror itself was forced to admit that “Miss Goddard, about whom the papers have been very busy, played several characters with promise”. By December 1798 she had chosen Norwich where she first secured lodgings with a Mrs Curtis of St Gregory’s parish; the same lodgings which had been used by another famous actress, Mrs Sarah Siddons (nee’ Kemble) in 1788. Sophia Ann then joined the ‘stock company’ of actors and actresses at the Theatre Royal; and it was here where she soon became a popular and favourite actress, particulary amongst the County’s gentry. It was also said at the time that she was ‘a particularly graceful dancer’ as well. But it was for her acting that Miss Goddard received most admiration. Her acting of Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice‘ was particularly well received, whilst it was reported of her performance in Jane Shore by the Norwich Mercury on 12th January, 1799:
“Miss Goddard to greater advantage that we ever remember to have seen her. The last scene was given to such effect that she loses nothing by comparison with Mrs Siddons, whom we recollect in the same character.”
For the next sixteen months, or so, life appeared to be full for Sophia Ann. She the leading feminine ‘box-office draw’ and playing all the stock leads of the day, often opposite John Brunton, the celebrated actor-manager who, incidently, was a Norwich born man who was to create a family acting dynasty of his own. Sophia Ann also combined her career at the Norwich Theatre Royal with other theatres included on the East Anglia Circuit; all this along with socialising with her many friends and admirers, one of whom was the 38 year-old John Harrison Yallop.
It could well be assumed, from the inscription that ultimately appeared on John Yallop’s grave, that he became besotted with Miss Goddard. One can imagine him rushing round to the stage door after one particular and early performance by Sophia Ann, in an attempt to persuade the person in charge of the Stage Door to allow him admission so that he could ‘introduce’ himself. The ploy must have worked because the two were soon engaged with plans to marry. Unfortunately, time would reveal all too soon that Miss Goddard was not only ill, but her health was deteriorating fast. She died of consumption on the 15th March 1801 at the age of only 25 years. This brought an abrupt end to the couple’s relationship and she would miss out on a marriage to someone who was an ‘up and coming’ man of distinction in Norwich; someone who would become rich and, in some ways, a powerful influence in local and national politics.
Unlike Miss Goddard, John Harrison Yallop had been born in the City of Norwich, the son of William Yallop who was a ‘Glover’. It is unclear, whether it was before or after Miss Goddard’s death, when John Yallop became a partner in the firm of Dunham & Yallop, goldsmiths which was situated on the corner of Davey Place and The Walk. Sir John had a house in Willow Lane, just off St Giles and a short walk from the shop opposite the market place where the business traded in jewellery, precious metals and stones. Having been appointed an agent for the Government Lottery of that day, the shop also sold its tickets to subscribers. On one occasion, so the story goes, John Yallop had two tickets left, one he returned, the other he bought – and won! With the proceeds, which was considerable, he built himself the fine country house, Eaton Grange, on the Newmaket Road in 1820 – the same house mentioned above and where he seldom lived. It is now a Girl’s High School.
John Yallop and his partner were to branch out into selling tea, coffee and cocoa and advertised these and every other commodity which they held on their premises – they called them ‘comestibles’. From their well positioned shop, on the Gentleman’s Walk, they formed a good connection with the public that purchased for the household. It was also on the ‘Walk’ where the gentlemen would rather pass up and down on the shop side so as to avoid the clamour and soiled pavements of the market stalls. JohnYallop also became an important money lender in Norwich; one of his debtors included his brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke, the very one who married Mary, his sister. It is interesting to note that when debtors were imprisoned at the suit of a money lender, that creditor was responsible for paying for the upkeep of the debtor. Records show that John Yallop paid for the upkeep of an unnamed imprisoned debtor. One wonders who that was?
Four years after Miss Goddard’s death, John Yallop was elected to the position of Sheriff of Norwich in 1805 and again in 1809, so he was on his way up both socially and professionally and politically. Then in 1815 he attained the public office of Mayor; it was also around this time that he met a Mary Ann Watts and married her in 1819 before he was again elected as Mayor in 1831. While he was Mayor, back in 1815, he travelled to London with his ‘brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke’ to present the City’s petition in favour of Parliamentary Reform to King William IV; this resulted in John Yallop being awarded a Knighthood. At the time it was said to have been quite an event which resulted in an amusing ditty being written which began:
“To the King, the Blues wished to present an address
By the Mayor – and their sense of reform to express”
The ditty goes on to describe how the Mayor and “Old Natty” coached to London, each hoping for a knighthood – but only one received it!
As for Sophia Ann Goddard, she died on the 15th March 1801 and was buried on 20th in the churchyard of St Peter Mancroft Church, which was very close to the theatre. in Norwich. The burial register identified her as a single woman from the Parish of St Stephens. Her Obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine of March 1801 reported that:
“15th March: Died in St Stephen’s Parish, Norwich, Miss Sophia Ann Goddard, who came forward with so much success at Dury Lane Theatre a few years ago. This lady obtained a considerable reputation on the Norwich stage, and was so much improved in theatrical merit that her talents would doubless have soon made their way to a secure establishment on the London boards. Her figure was elegant, her understanding excellent, her manners were amiable and her character in all respects was highly meritorious. She was in the prime of life, and promised more than any other performer now on the stage to suceed to that line of character which was so admirably sustained by the present Countess of Derby [Elizabeth Farren]“. “
The officiating Vicar of Miss Goddard’s funeral was the Reverend Peele who, pronounced the last sad but dignified sentences of her burial service before the slow, muted procession emerged on its short journey to the chosen plot on the northern edge of the church where she would be put to rest. There doesn’t appear to have been any definite mention of John Harrison Yallop being present at the time, but surely, as the main mourner it would have been inconceivable that he would be absent. It could also be imagined that he would have walked in procession alongside Mr Hindes, the theatre manager now that John Brunton was no longer in charge. They would have been joined by the actors of the day, such as Mr and Mrs Chestnut, Mrs Rivett, Mr George Bennett and his wife Harriet Morland, the daughter of an ancient family in Westmorland (parents: Jacob Morland of Killington, Dorothy Brisco of Kendal, and sister, Lady Shackerley of Somerford Hall). Both were actors in the Norwich Company of Comedians. Then there may have been Mr Lindoe.
FOOTNOTE: The small portrait of Miss Sophia Ann Goddard, said to be by John Thirtle, was reproduced in a St Peter Mancroft publication in the 1950’s, namely the St Peter Mancroft Celebratory Programme for 1455 to 1955. The present location of that portrait, which perhaps at one time belonged John Harrison Yallop, and the Bolingbroke family, is unknown.
The final words here are left to R H Mottram, a great nephew of John Harrison Yallop. He wrote in his book ‘The Speaking Likeness’:
“But there is something else which has made me want to tell this true story, with such filling-in of the gaps that local history does not scruple to leave in a local record. The story of John Harrison Yallop and his Sophia might well be dismissed as an ordinary, pretty tragedy making its limited appeal, too usual in its features to be noteworthy. But, it is not like that at all, and Sophia’s very pathetic demise happens to make all the difference”.
What was it that took place, once the brief [burial] ceremony just outside the porch of the Church of St Peter Mancroft was concluded? John Harrison Yallop turned away, sorrowful enough, heartbroken one may well believe, when one gazes at the miniature of a beautiful young woman, her appearance enhanced by the training in presentation she had received. Some friend, or member of the family that surrounded him, one hopes took his arm and led him home”.
When next you are near St Peter Mancroft in Norwich, go to that tomb on the northern side of the church. Pause, look and imagine as to what really transpired during the all too brief relationship between a provincial businessman come politician and a young, beautiful actress.
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.