There are parts of South Norfolk that, even today, can seem remote – like those that have a maze of lanes, particularly between Diss and Thetford where the villages hide. It is surprising therefore that one of those villages, Fersfield, holds an important place in the history of Norfolk; but not necessarily because of the village itself, or its parish church. Fersfield is famous because of an 18th century incumbent of its church, St Andrew’s
The church of St Andrews at Fersfield sits where some of those lanes mentioned come together, its truncated, pencil-like tower a beacon across the fields and farmlands. According to Simon Knott (2018):
” The capped tower is reminiscent of Culpho and Thornham Parva in Suffolk, and probably dates from the early 14th century. If so, it is probably later than the bulk of the church against which it sits. There were further improvements: money in the late 15th century brought a fairly imposing south aisle and porch, and the chancel is entirely Victorian, I think. But it all works well together, especially when seen from the south-east.”
This church is depicted on the village sign at Fersfield, and stands next to it. At the brick base of the sign is a metal plaque which reads:
“This sign was given by the people, to the people of the village of Fersfield. 31st July 1988.” Then, in two columns the plaque includes the names of ten individuals before concluding. ‘Between the faces lies our village history.”
Taking this as a guide, it is clear that the residents of Fersfield have every right to celebrate the village’s past. More importantly however is that it was at Fersfield where the first major work on the history of the entire county of Norfolk was written; its author was Francis Blomefield, the 18th century incumbent of St Andrew’s Church who happened to have been born in the village on 23 July 1705.
Francis Blomefield was the eldest son of Henry and Alice Blomefield, who were yeoman farmers nearby. Later biographies record that he developed a fascination for visiting churches as a child, when he began recording their monumental inscriptions, covering Norfolk, Suffolk and later Cambridgeshire. At the same time he began his education at Diss and Thetford Grammar Schools; then, in April 1724, he was admitted to Caius College, Cambridge from where he graduated BA in 1727 and MA in 1728. While at college, he also began keeping genealogical and heraldic notes relating to local families; then, soon after leaving university in 1727 he was ordained a priest whilst continuing with collecting materials for an account of the antiquities of Cambridgeshire.
On 13 September 1729 Francis Blomefield was ordained as an Anglican minister when he was ‘presented by his father, Henry Blomefield, Gent’. His first appointment was a very brief affair as rector of Hargham before moving on to become rector of Fersfield, his father’s family living. According to Simon Knott, it was at Fersfield where:
“……. he would spend the rest of his life. He was not always a well man, and although he visited many of the churches himself, the bulk of his work involved sending questionnaires to Rectors of other churches. Because of this, and because Blomefield himself did not always understand what he was seeing or reading about, the survey needs to be used with care. Moreover, Blomefield did not finish it. I always tend to think of 18th century antiquarians as be whiskered old men sitting with quill pens at high desks, but Blomefield contracted smallpox and died at the age of 47. His work was completed by friends, most notably Charles Parkin and William Whittingham.”
It was on 1 September 1732, when Francis Blomefield married Mary Womack, the daughter of a former rector of Fersfield. They had three daughters, two of whom survived him. It was also in 1732 when the project of collecting materials for an account of the antiquities of Cambridgeshire was deferred when he was given access to Peter Le Neve’s huge collection of materials for the history of Norfolk by Le Neve’s executor “Honest Tom” Martin.
It is said that during a visit to Oxnead Hall in 1735, Blomefield found a vast number of written correspondences among the papers of the country house. Of the discovery, Blomefield wrote in May 1735:
“There are innumerable letters, of good consequence in history, still lying among the loose papers all which I layd (sic) up in a corner of the room on an heap, which contains several sacksful, but as they seemed to have some family affairs of one nature or other intermixed in them I did not offer to touch any of them…”
This collection, known today as the ‘Paston Letters’, is now regarded as one of national significance. These papers date from the period of the Wars of the Roses and the Black Death and reveal details of everyday life of a notable East Anglian family.
Before his untimely death, on 16 January 1752, Blomefield wrote just three volumes of his ‘An Essay towards the Topographical History of the County of Norfolk’. Determined to protect and control the production of this work, he also installed a printing press in his own home. The first volume, covering his own Parish of Fersfield among others, was completed on 25th December 1739. He was nearing completion of his third volume – having reached page 678 – when he contracted the deadly smallpox during a visit to London. He died in Fersfield on 16th January 1752 aged 47. The Rev. Charles Parkin, the rector at Oxborough and a friend and fellow history enthusiast, was the first to continue Blomefield’s work. He not only completed Blomefield’s third volume but went on to write two further volumes. This initial set of three was subsequently published in various forms.
This portrait of Francis Blomefield is positioned on the south side of St. Anne’s chapel in St. Andrew’s Church, allowing him a pleasing opportunity to look down on a memorial which he himself took great pains to conserve. In his own words, from Volume 1 of his work:
“In the south side of St. Anne’s chapel, in the south isle, under the window, in an arch in the wall, lies an effigies of a knight, armed capà-pié, cut out of one piece of oak, which being in a dirty condition, I had it taken out and washed very clean…..… After removing the seats that stood before it, I caused it to be painted in the same colours, as near as could be, and added this inscription:
‘Sir Robert du Bois, Knt. Son of Sir Robert, and Grandson of Sir Robert du Bois, Knt. Founder of this Isle, Lord of this Manor, and Patron of this Church, died in 1311, aged 43 Years.’
He, the most famous medieval survival is the man in a glass case and represents someone who was probably responsible for the rebuilding of the church’s tower. He lies with his legs uncrossed, a rather surprised buck at his feet. Nearby is a relatively plain Norman font. After his own visit to St Andrew’s in 2018, Simon Knott also wondered:
“…… how much Blomefield would recognise his own church if he came back to it today. The furnishings are all modern, and the feel is of a pleasantly light space of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His memorial is in the rebuilt chancel, a fairly simple ledger stone set, not inappropriately, beneath the kind of 17th century panelling which must have been familiar to him. Less happy is the clumsy reredos, which looks as if some of the panelling had been left over and cobbled together with a picture of the Last Supper…… Even today, St Andrew is not without Antiquarian interest. Above Blomefield’s memorial in the east window are three roundels of glass, all of which are continental, I think. They depict St Andrew, St Gregory, and the eagle of St John. They were probably placed here by the Victorians at the time of the rebuilding. Curiously, Blomefield records quite a lot of medieval glass at Fersfield, mostly from the narrative of the Blessed Virgin, which is now all gone……… But despite the modern ambience, this is a church in which to recall the 18th century. The south aisle contains more Blomefield memorials, curly ones on the walls and simple ledgers on the floor. And, looking down on them all, the great royal arms of Queen Anne dated 1703, two years before Francis Blomefield was born.”
Of Francis Blomefield, it has been said that he was one of a generation of 18th century historians who ultimately saved that past belonging to Norfolk churches from being consigned to oblivion – with no thanks to the 16th century Anglicans and 17th century Puritans who seemed ‘hell-bent’ in doing just that. He was a giant among Norfolk antiquarians!
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.
Who was Adam Easton? Well, in a nutshell, he was a man who helped change the course of English history. A 14th century scholar, said to be born to a family of peasants at Easton in Norfolk, England, who rose to become the most powerful Englishman in the Catholic Church, second only to the pope. So why (except for a few scholars of 14th century church history) have many never heard of him – even in Norfolk itself?
Well, Adam was born in the village of Easton in Norfolk, just half a dozen miles to the west of Norwich. Almost certainly the son of peasants, he was taken in and educated by the church. After applying to join the monastery of St Leonards on the Hill overlooking the river Wensum, he was spotted for his potential and moved downhill to the mother Benedictine monastery attached to Norwich Cathedral.
As one of the brightest scholars of his generation, Adam was sent by the Norwich Monastery to study at Oxford. There, the Benedictines had their own college, Gloucester College – today known as Worcester College. There, the monks were split into houses, sharing quarters with those monks sent from the same monastery. Some of the old buildings of Gloucester College still survive as ‘the cottages’ and can be seen in the grounds of Worcester College today (see left in photo. below)……. Meanwhile his friend and fellow student from Norwich, Thomas Brinton, was enjoying life at the papal court or curia, in Avignon and Rome acting for the Benedictine Order in England.
Adam himself soon moved to Avignon and the papal court also, there to replace the same Thomas Brinton as a proctor acting on behalf of the English Benedictines. However, his first major task there did not make him popular in his country of birth; it was to send a message from the Pope telling the English King to restrain the activities of his men at arms in Italy. Fortunately, on his way back to London his route took him through Canterbury where he met with the Archbishop, Simon Langham. Langham was also a Benedictine monk from Westminster Abbey and he persuaded Adam to enter his service. From this moment until Langham’s death, Adam’s fortunes were linked to that of his new master.
It was while at Oxford, that Adam first came across fellow student John Wycliffe. They shared a common interest in attacking the successful and increasingly wealthy Friars. Adam owned copies of the writings of both William of St Amour and Richard FitzRalph attacking the Friars and Wycliffe had certainly read both works himself. Adam may even have loaned Wycliffe his own copies while they were at Oxford. Yet increasingly, in the years that followed, the broad thrust of Wycliffe’s life was to attack not just the Friars, but every aspect of the Church, both spiritual and temporal. He raged against the hierarchy, wealth and the power over secular life that the Church had established – he was far from alone.
Yet the Church had other things to worry about and just as Wycliffe produced his most vociferous attack in 1376, the Pope packed up the papal Court in Avignon to return to Rome and try and re-establish his secular authority over the states of central Italy that had risen in open rebellion against him. The fact that once again fiscal matters seemed to be governing the fate of the Church rather than matters spiritual gave extra poignancy to Wycliffe’s attacks.
Adam now found himself in strident opposition to his former fellow student. He may not have approved of everything the pope was doing, he may have had doubts about the motives behind the Pope’s return to Rome, but he was now entrenched in the same church hierarchy that Wycliffe attacked. He planned his defence of the Church in two stages. The first was vicious but effective, simply to identify the key elements of Wycliffe’s philosophy that could be identified as heretical, and get him condemned by the Church both in England and Rome. The second and perhaps the more interesting part of the enterprise was to try and set out in writing, through argument and debate, a definitive defence of the power of the Church. This became the vast Defence of Ecclesiastical Power and it was a volume that would have a profound impact in denying the truth of Wycliffe’s argument.
Cardinal Adam Easton, following the death of Simon Langham, really began to find his feet, and his reputation, as a scholar and canon lawyer, grew at the Roman Court or Curia. But then the smooth progress of his life was interrupted by the unexpected death of Gregory XI in 1377. This would mean the one thing that the papacy had dreaded for 100 years and more – an election in the full view of the Roman mob. The honourable way in which Adam defended this election and the selection of Urban VI marked him out. The way he spoke out against the (mostly French) defectors, who finding Urban less generous than they hoped, went off and selected a new (French) pope who might help them more, made the Norwich monk one of the most ardent supporters of Urban VI. The reward for his fidelity was not long in coming.
Downfall and Restoration of Adam Easton: In 1385 as the actions of Urban VI became ever more irrational, he moved his court to the castle above the dusty town of Nocera in Campania. Adam was involved with several other senior cardinals, in a plot to restrict the power of the Pope. However, the plotters were betrayed and the full wrath of the demented pontiff fell upon their shoulders. The situation was made even more uncomfortable when Charles Duzazzo arrived with his army and laid siege to the castle.
However, following the demise of Pope Urban VI, the Cardinals loyal to Rome immediately elected the youthful Neapolitan, Pietro Tomaselli who took the name Boniface IX. One of the first acts of Boniface as Pope was to restore Adam to freedom, readmit him to the college of cardinals and restore his power within the Papal Curia. Adam rapidly established himself with a court in Rome and lived close to his titular church of St Cecilia. The 14th century house (pictured left) opposite the church may well have been the sort of establishment the cardinal would have run. Today the colonnade on to the street is bricked in but it gives a flavour of how Adam’s residence might have looked over the plotters were betrayed and the full wrath of the demented pontiff fell upon their shoulders. The situation was made even more uncomfortable when Charles Duzazzo arrived with his army and laid siege to the castle.
Once Adam had been restored to a position of eminence in the Church, he set about building up his wealth and those of his followers in Rome. In this confused time with two popes to choose from, many of the benefices that he would try to get his hands on were contended. This led to a morass of legal disputes which, at least, helped in keeping track of Adam’s activities in his later years.
Around 1394 Adam, having established a court near his titular church of St Cecilia, several English and German churchmen attached themselves to him and he was obliged to lobby hard to get livings for them from Pope Boniface – not least, if they had funds of their own whereby they could set themselves up at Adam’s court without costing him a fortune! Now, an essential ingredient of a successful cardinal’s court, was permission for his ‘hangers-on’ to gain a benefice without actually suffering the inconvenience of having to visit it, or worse still live in it. This meant they could make a living from the fruits of the vicarage, without the necessity of having to do the work, whilst remaining at the centre of Church power, be it Rome or Avignon. As to the cure of souls, they could pay a clerk to do that out of their profits as absentee landlords!
This system was also good for the cardinal as he would be saved the expense of having to pay a salary to his courtiers from out of his own pocket. The courtiers in turn had a good chance of getting a lucrative benefice, as their master, the cardinal had plenty of incentive to get them one. Once they had an income, they could attend on the cardinal and concentrate on studies in his libraries or else working as part of the papal administration, without needing a salary. The fact that Adam was granted this privilege in 1394, suggests that this was the first time that he ran a substantial court in Rome. His was a small world at the centre of power, the image (above left) shows the tower of St Ceclia in the foreground and the great dome of the Vatican in the distance. These two buildings formed the boundaries of Adam’s world, and that of his courtiers, in the final stages of his life.
After his restoration by Boniface IX in 1389, Adam tried to regain the income from his two benefices, Somersham in Huntingdonshire and the deanery at York. Unfortunately, Richard II (left) had provided his own candidates to occupy the benefices whilst Adam was been languishing in prison. Although it appears that neither of Richard’s men had yet succeeded in getting hold of the fruits of the benefices, neither was inclined to surrender his claim just because Adam had been released. Both men were courtiers and close confidantes of their king, John Boore who was awarded Somersham and Edmund Stafford the deanery of York, and relied upon Richard’s support in maintaining their position.
By 1394 increasingly heated correspondence passed between the King, Adam, Pope Boniface and Stafford. Meanwhile Adam appears to have been successful in holding on to the cash but Stafford must have felt he would be completely out of favour with his religious superiors. So, when Richard decided that he would like to appoint Stafford as bishop of Exeter he must have feared the worst. Boniface would never accept the appointment without the ‘say so’ of the Cardinal of England.
However, Adam was quite prepared to separate the principle of the authority of the Church over matters clerical, from the authority of the monarch over matters clerical. Stafford had been granted York by his sovereign, but York was not in his sovereign’s gift. By contrast when Richard put forward Stafford for the Bishopric of Exeter, he began by seeking papal approval. There was for an advocate of Adam’s standing, a very clear distinction between the two sets of circumstances. However, much to Stafford’s surprise his appointment was confirmed and he could hardly restrain his gratitude to the English Cardinal. He duly served as Bishop of Exeter until his death and his tomb (below) can still be seen in Exeter Cathedral.
By 1394 Adam was gradually building his portfolio of livings as he was appointed to more and more churches around Europe and in the process, he started to accumulate considerable wealth. In the text below, taken from ‘The Segreto Archivo’, the Pope grants Adam the Church of Hasselt (pictured below) in Belgium which fell vacant when one of Adam’s own courtiers died:
By 1396 Adam was starting to enjoy considerable wealth and prestige and Boniface IX was proving very generous to his senior cardinal. When a significant benefice came up in Ferrara, Adam was given the fruits. 200 gold florins was quite a significant sum and the Benedictine priory an appropriate reward for a Benedictine Cardinal. The monastery no longer stands today but there the parish church of St Agnes (pictured left) stands on the same site.
Easton’s Death etc: As with so much of Adam’s history, the details surrounding his death are not entirely clear. That he died peacefully of old age is not in dispute, the more interesting question is when? The date is not without significance for the events surrounding the usurpation of Henry IV…… Adam died in Rome, his adopted city, aged around 70. There is some confusion about the date of his death not least because of the inscription on his tomb which can still be seen in the Church of St Cecilia in Trastavere, Rome. An inscription can be found on the tomb today suggesting Adam died in 1398. But the tomb used to have a canopy over it, removed in the 17th century and that tells a rather different story! The inscription on the canopy of Adam’s tomb is preserved in a drawing made of his tomb before the canopy was removed. The drawing can still be found in the Vatican Library records. Roughly translated the Latin inscription read:
“Skilled in all things, renowned father Adam. The great theologian, who was cardinal of England, which was his fatherland, the title of St Cecilia was given to him. He died and ascended to heaven in the year 1397, in the month of September.”
In 1641, Felice Contelori wrote about Adam and once again we have to acknowledge two things. Firstly, that even in the 17th Century Adam was still regarded as one of the more venerated of the cardinals and secondly that already, just 250 years after his death his life story was becoming confused – to say the least.
“On Saturday the 18th day of December in the year 1389 Boniface IX created cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, among the undersigned were: restored to the dignity of Cardinal, Adam of England Bishop of London with the title of St Cecilia. He died on 20th September in the year 1397.”
As stories about Adam’s life were passed on within the Church, within Rome and at a considerable distance from the place of Adam’s birth and early life, so the written record of his life became obscure and increasingly distorted. By 1714 George Eggs was able to write, somewhat implausibly, that Adam was a Welshman who was brought up in Norwich! It is the rare facts that form a common thread in the eulogies of Adam and his work that have enabled some sort of factual historical record to emerge from the biographies of the cardinals in which he is so often featured. Here, even the inscription on his tomb has moved on and his date of death is now shown as November 1397!
In 1792, Cardella, the 18th century Italian historian, also wrote a well renowned history of some of the more reputable Cardinals of the Catholic Church, its title ‘Memorie de Cardinali’. His entry on Adam is fascinating in that it contains a detail of Adam’s legend that is not found anywhere else! Perhaps though it is a tribute to the enduring enigma of Adam’s story, that the account by Cardella contains many factual errors and creates nearly as many questions as it answers. This is also the only biographical account that mentions Adam’s body being uncorrupted when the tomb was moved. It comes from Volume II:
“Adam Easton was born, according to the distinguished Auberius, Ughiello and, most reliably Godwin, to humble parents, in the English county of Herefordshire! He was admitted to the order of St Benedict, where, having distinguished himself at the monastery of Norwich in both piety and learning, he became public professor of theology at the University of Oxford and was nominated by Richard II to be bishop of London, or according to others, of Hereford. At the request of the same monarch, he was created priest cardinal of St Cecilia.
He was suspected of conspiring against the Pope, was taken in chains to the city of Nocera in 1385, together with 5 other cardinals and cruelly tortured. The basis for this suspicion was certain letters written in code (a skill in which he excelled) to Charles Durazzo, King of Naples, which were intercepted by Cardinal Medesimo. The most skilled codebreakers were unable to penetrate their meaning. Some assert that he had spread rumours about the Pope’s cruelty and rich living, others that he had not revealed the plot against Urban, of which he was aware. Whatever it was, one certainty is that despite various requests from the above-mentioned king he was put under the supervision of an official of French nationality and stripped of his office of cardinal.
However , Boniface IX restored him to the honours he had lost and as well as holding him in high esteem, sent glowing letters in his favour to the English parliament, in which he called him a great priest, worthy of the office of officiating cardinal…….He (Adam) produced a prodigious number of works, mainly about the divine scriptures and the others included a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin…….He was able to do this with both ease and erudition because of his exceptionally high level of competence in oriental languages. Almost all the authors are agreed in writing that the subsequent Urban both understood and expressed the innocence of that Cardinal.
He did not reach old age, but ended his days gloriously in Rome in 1398 as can be read in the epitaph on his tomb in the church of St Cecilia…….. after 20 years office as cardinal, he remained buried in the tomb to which he was entitled. Then 200 years after his death, the floor of the church was dug up on the order of Cardinal Sfondrati to create a new pavement and the confessional, as they call it of that virgin and martyr [St Cecilia], and they discovered the body of that devout cardinal, whole and uncorrupted. This is confirmed by the chronicles of the time. The body was carried, with grand ceremonial, to the left side of the aforementioned church, where one can see the ancient tomb with the statue representing the cardinal in his priestly robes, lying on the sepulchral urn. Together with a brief epitaph, there is a representation of his family crest.
It is to the great credit of this pious and learned cardinal that he is praised with sincerity by Bale and Godwin, both heterodox and implacably opposed to the religious orders. The eulogy which these two writers make of Cardinal Easton is reported in full by Ziegelbaver in part 3 of his history of the Benedictine order, page 187ff, in which he gives us an exact catalogue of the many works written by him.”
Readers please note the following (including the NTM&M Notice at foot:
Most of the above detail is from our Source (below) and contains original material that illustrate events in Adam Easton’s life; much is illustrated with 14th century art from across Europe. However, the images are illustrative of the text themes only; they are NOT necessarily exact of persons or events within the text!
Cardinals of the Catholic Church Brilliant site listing all the cardinals of the Catholic Church by date of appointment. For many an in-depth biography is also provided together with useful links to other historical information. This is a really valuable tool, for the historian.
Julian of Norwich and 14th century spirituality This site contains a great deal of very interesting material, book reviews and theories about the world of Adam Easton and more particularly, Julian of Norwich and the other female mystics of the 14th century. It will be evident that the author of that site, Julia Bolton Holloway is not always in agreement with the content of the site from which the above ‘NTM & More’ version comes. However, it is always useful to compare conflicting theories and accounts and her site offers a number of interesting and detailed perspectives and deserves much more than a cursory glance.
Biography of Adam Easton Entitled the Most Ungrateful Englishman, this is to date the only substantive biography of Adam Easton, published by Corpus Publishing of Lydney in Gloucestershire.
Wikipedia entry The Wikipedia entry on the subject of Adam Easton, the entry does contain a few errors but is a good synopsis for all of that.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.
Francis Howes was born at Morningthorpe, Norfolk, on 29 February 1776 and baptised at St John’s, Morningthorpe on 3 March 1776. Apart from his entry into the church, he was to become a classical scholar.
Francis was the fourth surviving son of the Revd Thomas Howes (1732–1796), ‘Lord of the Manor of Morningthorpe’ and Rector of St Edmunds, Fritton and St Andrews, Illington. Thomas was grandson of a much earlier Thomas Howes who had first acquired Morningthorpe Hall following the death of his own father in law, John Roope, who died without male heirs in 1686. For generations thereafter the Howes family were born at Morningthorpe.
Francis Howes mother was Susan Longe (1732-1822), the daughter of Francis Longe of Spixworth (1689-1735), also in Norfolk. Susan had married Francis Howes’s father, Thomas, on 11 Jan 1758 at St Peter’s church, Spixworth, Norfolk. Her elder brother had already married Thomas’s sister, Tabitha Howes, at the same Spixworth church in 1747 – brother and sister married sister and brother! Francis Howes eldest surviving brother, John (1758–1787), entered Gray’s Inn but died young. Two other brothers of his, Thomas (1770–1848) and George (1772–1855), took holy orders, the latter taking over in 1808 as Vicar of Gazeley cum Kentford, Suffolk and then as Rector of St Peter’s at Spixworth, the related Longe family home.
Francis Howes was first educated at Norwich Grammar School in 1790 under Dr Samuel Parr and then entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1794 and graduating with a BA in 1798 as ‘Eleventh Wrangler’, then proceeding to a MA in 1804. Between 1799 and 1800 he had obtained the ‘Members Prize’. His chief college friend was John Williams, the judge, who subsequently made him an allowance of £100 per annum.
Francis Howes is said to have ‘married early’ but in fact was of full age, having married Sarah Smithson (1773–1863) on 19 March 1802 in St Nicholas Chapel, King’s Lynn. It has been speculated that this comment ‘married early’ was probably because his family disapproved of the match; the bride’s late father had been a member of St John’s College, Cambridge – but as a cook, not as a Fellow! (Universal British Directory, 2, c.1792, 493). Francis and Sarah had a reported nine children of whom their sons were Thomas George (b. 1807), later rector of Belton, Suffolk; John (1808–1837), parish clerk; and Charles (1813–1880), fellow and chaplain of Dulwich College. Three of their six daughters married clergymen – a strong theme throughout the generations of the Howes.
Francis Howes was ordained Deacon on 21 December 1800 and priest on 9 August 1801. He was to accumulate a number of clergy appointments thereafter. He was appointed Vicar of Shillington, Bedfordshire, in 1801 and was to hold it until 1816, although it appears that he never lived there. Francis’s sons were baptised in Acle, Norfolk, from where his first books were dated. He was also Vicar of Wickham Skeith, Suffolk, from 1809 until his death, and Rector of Buckenham, with Hassingham, Norfolk, from 1811 to 1814. In 1814 he moved to St George Colegate, Norwich, as parish chaplain, a position which he held until 1831 when he was appointed Vicar of Bawburgh, Norfolk, remaining in this post until 1829. But in 1815 he was also appointed a minor canon of Norwich Cathedral, moving to Lower Close, St Mary in the Marsh, Norwich, where he lived for the rest of his life. He received the rectories of Alderford and Attlebridge in March 1826 and in 1829 was made Rector of Framingham Pigot, Norfolk, retaining them until his death in 1844:
The diocese of Norwich was notorious for pluralism and absentee clergy, but the Bishop of the time, Henry Bathurst, always pointed out that the majority of parishes were small and produced a low income.
As for scholastic writings of Francis Howes, some translations were from Latin into English verse and printed privately for him in 1801; they were included in his Miscellaneous Poetical Translations (1806). His translation of The Satires of A. Persius Flaccus (1809) was unsuccessful. Although he claimed that his translation of Horace’s Satires was ‘shortly’ to be published, The Epodes and Secular Ode of Horace did not appear until 1841 and The First Book of Horace’s Satires in 1842; both were privately printed in Norwich. It was only after his death when his son, Charles, gathered his translations from Horace and published them in The Epodes, Satires, and Epistles of Horace (1845); all the translations were written in heroic couplets, on which Francis Howes’s reputation was to rest. In 1892, John Conington praised these translations, noting that they had been forgotten by the public:
“very good, unforced, idiomatic, felicitous … I should be glad if any notice which I may be fortunate enough to attract should … extend to a predecessor who, if he had published a few years earlier, when translations were of more account, could scarcely have failed to rank high among the cultivators of this branch of literature.”
Howes, also composed epitaphs for monuments in Norwich Cathedral and spent his last years transcribing the diaries of his eccentric but cultured neighbour Sylas Neville. Neville was born in 1741, apparently in London. In 1768-9 he came to Great Yarmouth and settled at Scratby Hall. The years 1772-6 were then spent mainly in Edinburgh where he qualified as a doctor of medicine; the years 1777-80 were spent in foreign travel, mainly in Italy. On his return, and after visits to London, Edinburgh etc., he settled at Norwich in 1783 and there spent the rest of his life, intending to practise medicine but in fact subsisting increasingly on charity and the proceeds of begging letters. He was also to mutilate his diaries and letters later in his life, apparently in an attempt to remove compromising or politically embarrassing matter. Many of these excised passages were later restored by Francis Howes after Neville’s death in 1840 when his papers passed to Howes; he, in turn, transcribed some of the diaries, along with some of the correspondence – but afterwards destroying the originals! From Howes’ son the papers passed to the antiquary Hargrave Harrison then, on his death in 1896, they were purchased by L.G. Bolingbroke; from his family they went to Basil Cozens-Hardy.
Revd Francis Howes died at Lower Close, St Mary in the Marsh, Norwich, Norfolk on 26 March 1844 and was buried in the west cloister of Norwich Cathedral near his son John. According to the Norwich Mercury on 30 March 1844:
“Mr Howes was known as a ripe and spund [sic] classical scholar having addressed himself to this branch of learning from its earliest growth. He was not less distinguished for the benevolence of his disposition, the sweetness of his temper and the urbanity of his manners. The Editor of this Journal, who pays this tribute to his worth, passed through the Free School of this City upon the same form as him, and testifies with a mournful satisfaction to the early development of these his true qualities, to which they who knew him in later life will be ready to do the same justice, as well as to the liberality of his principles, and of his firmness in their assertion.”
Francis Howes widow died on 3 January 1863, aged 89 years.
James Mursell Phillippo was a missionary, born simply James Phillippo in East Dereham, Norfolk, on 14 October 1798; he was the eldest son of Peter Phillippo, a locally well-known master builder and part-proprietor of an iron foundry, and his wife, Sarah, née Banyard.
Jame’s mother, was the daughter of a respectable and wealthy tradesman and farmer and was serious in her religious beliefs. As for her son, James, he was considered not to be a diligent student, but was intellectually talented enough to win prizes for his extraordinary memory and his ability to recite poetry or long passages from books. At about seven years of age he was sent locally to the Rev. Samuel Green’s Baptist school where he quickly became known for little more than being disobedient and mischievous for which he was frequently punished. Subsequently, James was sent to a Grammar School at Scarning until the age of around thirteen years, from where he left formal schooling completely and went, initially, into his father’s building business.
Before long he moved on to live with his grandfather who, more than likely, tried to encourage James to take an interest in both farming and trade. Unsurprisingly perhaps, James preferred to become ‘very involved with worldly pleasures, forgetting his mother’s teaching’. However, after two near fatal accidents he began to re-evaluate the direction in which his life was clearly heading and started attending a local Baptist chapel. A clue to this almost sudden change in James’s interests and possible ambitions would be found in the fact that, as a child, he had read Robinson Crusoe and Captain Cook’s voyages; he was being increasingly drawn to missionary work. According to his 1874 Autobiography, his induction into the Baptist faith allowed him to ‘experience conversion and cast his lot ‘with the despised people of God’!
According to the Dereham Baptist Church: “He had a desire to go to the Baptist Church at about the age of 15 on attending he was directed to a seat near the pulpit. After a number of visits and under the conviction of sins, he accepted Christ has his Saviour. He took religious instruction with Rev. Samuel Green and in 1816 he invited his family to the Dereham Baptist Church to witness his baptism. They went with some reluctance. His father was a staunch member of the Parish Church and had threatened to disown him. A considerable number of the town attended the service. James’ family continued to attend the church, and his mother also became a Baptist. After working for his father for a while James became a book keeper, printer and bookbinder before he felt the call of missionary work and applied for training.”
James Phillippo Makes his Move!: James, having made up his mind to apply to enter the field of missionary resigned from his post, which at that moment was in Elsing. His Pastor there, the same Rev. Samuel Green of James’s early school days, was also about to leave the Dereham Baptist Church for a Pastorate in Huntingdonshire; he wrote a letter of introduction, on behalf of James, to the Rev. Kinghorn of Norwich, stating its object and recommending that James Phillippo should meet with him. Kinghorn clearly agreed for the Rev Green loaned James a horse to travel to Norwich for the meeting. But James was fearful that he would not be accepted, and it was said that:
“…… he prayed earnestly to God during the whole of the journey, a distance of fourteen or fifteen miles, sometimes dismounting from his horse to pray at places along the road or in a field.”
It was also said that on arrival, “Rev Kinghorn soon put James at ease and gave him every encouragement”. He also promised to write to the Baptist Missionary Society on his behalf, and suggested that James make a direct application to the Society himself.
James Phillippo applied to the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) in 1819, addressed to its Secretary, the Rev. John Dyer. However, several months passed without hearing anything from the Society and James filled in the time by visiting his friends in different parts of the county, and taking on preaching engagements and attending different religious meetings at Aylsham, Foulsham, Fakenham, Burnham Market, including Dereham. He was met with encouragement from both ministers and people, with one proposal being made by some members of the Dereham church – which happened to be without a Pastor (and James was still a member of that church) to be their Pastor. This proposal came to nothing. James was also advised to go into business; his advisors arguing that his prospects of a missionary life were evidently closed. Whilst this option was pursued, it failed from, apparently, “mysterious causes.” Then a situation was offered him in Norwich which did not require permanency of residence; he accepted and joined the Norwich Church under the Pastorate of his venerable friend, the Rev Kinghorn. After a lapse of two or three months, during which time James’s hopes of missionary work had all but expired, he began to receive ‘an occasional hint’ from Kinghorn.
Acceptance: In 1819 James was invited to London to meet Baptist Missionary Society Committee, but he then had second thoughts about leaving his employment, friends and going abroad – however, there was no time for hesitation! As events turned out, his meeting with the BMS committee was postponed until the evening of the day arranged for the interview. There, in the waiting room beforehand, he met a young man who asked if he was “the young man from Norfolk”. After receiving James’s reply in the affirmative, he rose from his chair and grasped James’s hand with great warmth and said “my name is Mursell, I am come for the same purpose from Gloucestershire, how glad I am to meet you.” Thus, James established a lifelong friendship with Thomas Mursell; and such was the strength of this friendship that both men sealed it by exchanging surnames for Christian [forenames] names- the Dereham preacher becoming James Mursell Phillippo.
Jamaica Bound; James was accepted into the Society and began his studies in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire in 1821 with the Revd William Gray, minister of the Baptist church there; this was followed by further study at Horton College, Bradford in preparation for the missionary life: ‘This world is not a place of repose for a faithful soldier of the cross’ he was to tell his parents. Whilst at Bradford, he also visited the Revd Thomas Morgan in Birmingham and, again, a lifelong connection was established. Then In 1823 it was reported that “Mr. Phillippo also has pursued his studies under the patronage of the Missionary Society, and is expected soon to go to Jamaica”. Later that year James received confirmation that the committee had indeed fixed on the Island of Jamaica as the place of his labours. The time fixed for the departure was the month of November, and the period was short! – he had, while a student at Chipping Norton, met with a lady with whom a strong affection ensued – her name was Miss Hannah Selina Cecil.
After finishing college, James followed the BMS recommendation that missionaries must be married before going abroad; this was quite common for ‘a soon-to-be missionary’. He married now fellow missionary, Hannah Selina Cecil in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire and almost immediately the couple sailed to Jamaica under the auspices of the BMS; James had expected to go to India but the BMS was responding to requests from Jamaica for support for embattled Baptists struggling with a deeply hostile plantocracy. The couple sailed from Gravesend, Kent, on Wednesday, 29 October 1823, leaving all their family and friends behind – possibly forever. They both knew that there was a strong possibility that they would not survive the tropics for long; for it was not an exaggeration to say that the Caribbean, as with Africa, was the “graveyard of the white man”. Fevers, heat and humidity killed many colonists, sometimes within weeks of arriving at their new home.
Overview of the Arrival of British Baptists in Jamaica; James Phillippo had been appointed to the mission in Spanish Town, the capital of the island; however, at this point in his story it is important to know why the British Baptists went to Jamaica in the first place. It is a fact that Jamaica’s mission had been first set up in 1783 by George Liele, a converted freed slave and an ordained minister of the Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, USA. It was he, and not the British, who laid the foundation for Baptist ministries throughout the island. However, the British Baptist Missionary Society in England was not to recognise this Jamaican Baptist ministry until 1814, when a John Rowe came to the island as the first English Baptist missionary. This was the Society’s eventual response to an appeal from George Liele for help – Baptist work on the island had grown rapidly since its foundation! It was from 1814 when a series of British Baptist missionaries were to arrived and work on the island.
What was seldom admitted by many was that British help brought an underlying tension between ‘native’ Baptists on the one hand, and the British missionaries on the other. Many native congregations were to become part of the ‘Jamaica Native Baptist Missionary Society’ (JNBMS) because:
“of perceived maltreatment by the English Baptists ……. to redress the sidelining of male persons of African descent who could have augmented the pastoral ministry ……. these Africans also perceived educational snobbery towards them and took umbrage.”
After the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865, that implicated some native Baptists, there was a reaction “the white missionary began to distance itself even more from the worship forms and patterns of the black (Native) pastors.” The fact of the matter was that English missionaries who went to Jamaica never made peace with the “Africanness” of their African-descended congregants, even though when they arrived, Baptist witness was already flourishing among the enslaved in the colony. Native Baptists and their influences were sidelined, and the British understanding and practices of ministry prevailed, ensuring that thereafter “Baptist worship, polity and organization had a distinctly British look and feel to it”.
As the missionary church expanded, additional ministers were recruited from England. One of these missionaries, the Reverend Christopher Kitching, started the mission station in Spanish Town in December 1818. Its first Baptist Church was built on an area once occupied by an old military barracks and where James and Hannah Phillippo were to first settle after their arrival. In the meantime, the Rev Thomas Gooden was selected as the church’s minister in 1819 and, as James Phillippo was to find out, Protestant ministers had to obtain a licence to preach. The Rev Gooden received his licence shortly after he arrived and preached his first sermon on June 11 1819. He continued as Pastor of the church until 1824, when he was succeeded by the man whose name remains indelibly in Baptist annals – Rev James Mursell Phillippo.
Overview of the Situation; James and Hannah Phillippo arrived in Jamaica in 1823, at a time of great transition. Britain had banned the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, and in 1823 propositions to abolish slavery itself were brought to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, but were initially rejected and with little hope of success. Despite Parliament’s failure to pass the legislation, British mission workers in Jamaica, especially Baptists, were criticised by planters and the white population, the press, and the colonial government for being in league with the anti-slavery camp, with the “intention of effecting our ruin.” The plantation owners were strongly against missionaries preaching the gospel to the slaves. They were upset that the nonconformist missionaries (chiefly Baptist, Wesleyan and Methodist) were educating slaves and teaching them the Bible, believing that this made the slaves discontented with their station. Some opponents reacted by burning down missionary churches and schools for slaves. It was a cold fact that in 1807 there were 350,000 slaves in Jamaica. By 1823, there were still more than 300,000 slaves remaining on the island; the law prohibited them from practicing any form of religion. Nonetheless, when Phillippo arrived in Jamaica in 1823, he was to set out to build places of worship and to preach Christianity to the slaves.
The home allocated to James and Hannah on their arrival must have come as a terrible shock. To start with, it was in the former military barracks mentioned above, surrounded by a brick wall. Their house itself was very small with two stories and only one filthy room on each floor. The inner walls had been painted black to ease the failing sight of the previous missionary, Rev Kitching, who had died of yellow fever in December 1819 – a prevalent disease that claimed the lives of many missionaries. James and Hannah set to work with a level of optimism which youth often brings in abundance; and soon they made themselves a workable home. Clearly, Hannah was every bit as much a missionary as was James. The couple’s home was the place where hospitality was always available and, as a missionary’s wife, it was Hannah’s job to receive callers and visitors and serve them refreshments. Later the ground floor of the house became their first school, the couple living above and working side by side in the school room. It was during this period of ‘settling in’, but particulary at the moment when James first arrived on the island, that he was horrified by the ‘heathenish processions’ that took place at Carnivals.
James, in particular, energetically set about also establishing a Sunday school and Bible classes and applying for the necessary licence to preach. This he finally received in 1825 after much resistance from the planters who objected to the provision of religious teaching for the enslaved. Nevertheless, the British Missionary Society granted Phillippo permission to preach to the slaves. In fact, he was never free from persecution during this period of extreme tension on the island when hopes of emancipation had been raised by reports of the strong anti-slavery movement in Britain. Although the authorities regularly threatened him with imprisonment and he received death threats from planters, he continued. together with Thomas Burchell and William Knibb, to set up new chapels, schools, Sunday schools and Bible classes. James preached to slaves in villages where his preaching ban was not common knowledge. The slaves reacted enthusiastically to his preaching and crowds of them came to church. His congregation was drawn almost entirely from the enslaved, who were very receptive to the Baptist message of the possibilities of salvation for all, irrespective of colour. By 1828 he had established a number of out-stations together with schools and classes for adults and children.
Pressure of Work takes its Toll; Suffering from ill health and exhausted from overwork James sailed for England in 1831 with his wife and two children, one of whom died on the voyage. He missed the major rebellion in Jamaica that Christmas which was followed by extreme retaliation against the rebels and attacks on the Baptist missionaries who were blamed for the uprising. His brother missionary William Knibb came to England in the wake of the rebellion and broke his vow to the BMS not to speak out politically, declaring that slavery and Christianity could not co-exist. James too spoke publicly in England and Wales. He returned to Jamaica in 1834 and was greeted with huge enthusiasm by the emancipated. He wrote “I was in a new world surrounded by a new order of beings”. The planters continued to harass their ‘apprentices’ and James raised money in Britain to establish ‘Free Villages’ where the emancipated could live in what he imagined as utopian religious communities, peopled with industrious and domesticated freedmen and women, under the watchful eye of their pastor.
Slavery had been a key issue for a long time, not just in Jamaica, but throughout the British Empire. Although the slave trade had been abolished in England in 1807, the country was still permitted to own slaves in the Colonies. As a missionary who had campaigned fearlessly, both in Jamaica and England, for the abolition of slavery it was only natural that James would take a leadership role in the housing of the newly freed slaves. He knew that many slaves would be emancipated, although they would be left with neither home nor source of income; he, therefore, envisaged a village where newly freed slaves could live and work. In support of his ideals, he bought twenty-five acres of land ten miles north of Spanish Town in the St Catherine Hills, there, he founded Sligo Ville, the first Free Village.
Full freedom was finally won on 1 August 1838 and James Phillippo took pride of place with the governor in the celebrations in Spanish Town. These were heady days when the Baptist missionaries enjoyed a level of authority and prestige which was not to last. In 1843, after another period in England, he published ‘Jamaica: its Past and Present State’, which provided a triumphalist account of the ‘great experiment’ of emancipation. This was in part a response to the tide of criticism of the reluctance of the emancipated to work on the plantations. The 1840s brought new kinds of troubles as James’s patriarchal stance towards his chapels and his people was challenged and enthusiasm waned. He experienced depression and spiritual doubts in the wake of these difficulties but maintained his educational and pastoral activities with support from England and acted as a mediator between the peasantry, the plantocracy, and the colonial authorities. In 1856 he travelled to the USA and Cuba with two sons and wrote of the continuing horrors of slavery there. In the wake of the Rebellion at Morant Bay in 1865 and the brutal reaction of Governor Eyre, the Baptist missionaries were once more under attack and were anxious to separate themselves from any association with ‘Native Baptists’ and demonstrate their loyalty to the crown.
The Phillippo’s Final Years: The death of Hannah in 1874 at the age of 82, and a partner in everything, was a severe blow to James and he could no longer bear to live in the mission-house; the fact that he did so was because of his dedication to his long-chosen work, epitomised by him continuing in his missionary work until he retired. However, in 1877 he did make, what was to be his final visit to England – at the age of 79 years; this was all part of his several fare-well visits to friends in various parts of the country. James Phillippo wrote that he was unwilling:
“….. to leave for my adopted home without a last look at, and bidding a final farewell to, my dear old native town, I went over to Dereham, accompanied by my brother. It was Saturday, the market day, when I might chance to meet old acquaintances from the country, as well as in the town.
We went to the Corn Exchange, wandered about the streets, called at some of the old houses, with whose tenants I was once so familiar; and at one or two of the principal inns, but, on my part, without the slightest recognition, except in one instance by a distant relative, though only twenty years had passed since my last visit. That visit, however, was so brief that it may be said I had been absent from Dereham fifty years. Equally disappointed was I in the result of my inquiries after the notabilities of my boyish days. Most of the old families had almost entirely passed away, root and branch.
The tenants of the house where I was born looked incredulous when I stated the fact, and requested permission to look around. The lower story was now occupied as a large ironmonger’s store, and I should have been at a loss to identify it but for the sign of the ‘ Bull’ opposite. Yes; there was the ‘ Bull,’ unaltered in form and size and noble bearing as eighty years ago. All else seemed changed. The streets looked narrower, distances much shorter, the houses smaller, though externally more attractive; the old Baptist. and Independent chapels superseded by new ones, more conspicuous, larger, and ornamental.
Improvements were everywhere considerable, especially in the suburbs, where. Beautiful villa residences had sprung up, rendering the dear old place still more worthy of the eulogy of the author of ‘Lavengro'[George Burrows]:
‘Pretty Dereham! thou model of an English country town!’
Fatigued with my perambulations, and straitened for time, I reached the station just previously to the starting of the train, in which my brother and myself took places for Norwich. But I was a stranger at home, and was sad.”
James retired on Sunday July 7, 1878 and moved to a small cottage outside Kingston, to be cared for by his daughter. He lasted less than a year thereafter and there must have been little doubt that his missionary work, coupled with a long, hard life in an unfriendly climate had finally worn him out. He died on 11 May 1879 at the age of 81 years and was buried alongside his wife, Hannah and their son, in the Phillippo Baptist Church churchyard. Two tablets were placed in the Church building dedicated to James’s memory. Also located on the Church grounds is a stone slab which marks the spot where some of the shackles of slavery are buried. The slab is inscribed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Church. James and Hannah had nine children, five of whom died in childhood.
Postscript: Jamaica had been James Mursell Phillippo’s adopted home and he was well respected by the Jamaican people at all social levels. His sons followed their father in finding colonial routes to upward mobility, becoming professionally trained in England – one becoming a doctor, another a lawyer who was to hold significant posts across the Empire. Over the course of his working life James Phillippo had baptized over 5000 men and women, been associated with the establishment of 25 stations, 17-day schools, and a college to train ‘native’ pastors. He was hailed at his funeral as ‘the Moses of Jamaica’.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.
On reclaimed marshland where the most frequent visitors are birds, the site of St Andrew’s Church at Wickhampton was once covered by sea, now it stands as a lonely beacon on the haunting expanse of Halvergate marsh. It is a place which inspires calm – unlike the story attached to the stone effigies it guards. Many childhood generations have been told the heartrending and cautionary tale of two local brothers who took extreme measures to resolve their differences; it warns against sibling wars.
This tale has to start in the chancel of St Andrew’s Church where there is an interesting pair of 13th century effigies, representing Sir William and Isabella Gerbygge; the couple lie in single beds awaiting Judgement Day. Sir William served as a Bailiff of Great Yarmouth in the 1270s and died about 1280. One fascinating feature of Sir William is that he is shown holding a heart in his hands. This has given rise to several interpretations. The most romantic interpretation is that Sir George is showing his love for his wife. A more religious interpretation is that he is holding his heart up to God in prayer. Another, rather intriguing interpretation is that the heart tells the story of Sir William’s two sons who tore each other’s hearts out.
It was during the reign of Edward I that Wickhampton, on the marshes near Breydon Water, was a place of fishing, fine hunting and with a farm and a church; the neighbouring village of Halvergate was rich in arable land and seen as the better of the two villages for it boasted many fine farms and a fine church.
Sir William Gerbygge owned both villages and he and his two sons, Gilbert, the elder son, and William managed the estate. It was a fine estate, the rich farmland produced bountiful crops, while livestock thrived on the damp verdant pastures, which also provided hay for the winter months. Wildlife abounded, providing fine sport and hunting. The sons were very fortunate, a fact that Sir William was forever reminding them. But the brothers were quarrelsome and jealous and their father often had to reproach them.
Gilbert, the elder son, wanted the better of the inheritance and his possessive gaze took in all that was good, frequently using the word “my”, to the annoyance of his brother and the villagers. But William was strong and had a sharp mind, frequently quarrelling with his brother and driving his father to his wits end to know how best to distribute his lands after his death. He eventually left Wickhampton to William and the better of the two villages, Halvergate, to Gilbert. He made known of his Will and prayed for peace as he breathed his last. But, after his death, there would be little peace. At first Gilbert and William wanted to at least give the impression that they were both pleased with their respective inheritances; when they met, they would make a point of shaking hands – which was noted by the quiet villagers with a cynical nod as they could see the storm clouds gathering. In fact, the two brothers were to spend years arguing over their respective lands, with neither brother conceding; gradually, the dispute became bitter and finally, became violent.
It happened at ploughing time of one particular year, when the folk looked forward to another good season. There was a field, just north of Wickhampton church which projected far into the boundary of Halvergate, and Gilbert saw this as an opportunity. He called to his brother who happened to be close by, “That field should be mine. It is an obvious mistake, made when the boundaries were drawn”. William replied coolly “You already have enough…….no mistake was made”. But the impetuous Gilbert, angry that he could not sway his younger brother, jumped from his saddle, rushed over to William and pulled him from his horse. “I will have my way” he shouted, striking William with his bare hands.
The two brothers then attacked each other with increasing ferocity that frightened the folk who had gathered around to watch the fight. Gilbert and William tore at each other with bare hands, at the edge of the field over which they disagreed. They grasped for hair to pull out by its roots, ears to rent, fingers, legs, arms and noses which were scratched, pulled and twisted with unreasoning and inhuman fury. The differences, pent up over the years, were released as they became snarling and snorting animals. The villagers dared not to intervene.
As the blood began to flow and the fighting became ever more intense, a demonic fury gripped the two brothers. Their finger nails appeared to grow longer, their teeth became fangs, their eyes widened and the villagers gazed on in silence. The brothers tore at each other’s throats and breasts with devilish roars in what became their final fight. Then, strange as it would appear and precisely at the same point in time, the brothers tore the hearts from each other with their bare hands in a final burst of malice. They lay upon the ground, lifeless – as one would expect! The awestruck onlookers then saw a divine figure overhead, some said it was an angel, others said no – it was God who was so appalled by the brother’s behaviour that he instantly turned them both to stone to atone for such sins and as a warning to others. God also ensured that the stone fingers of each brother would remain clutching the heart of the other. Local villagers bore the stone corpses – together with the clutched hearts – into the church to serve as a reminder of the perils of fighting. As for the brothers’ lands; they were renamed Wicked Hampton, now shortened to Wickhampton, and Hell Fire Gate, now known as Halvergate. Legend also has it that, over time, one brother’s heart has been worn away leaving just one grasping a heart with the other next to him.
But there is more to St Andrew’s church than a legend, standing as it does in a secluded rural location on the wide open Halvergate marshes where the Yare Valley seems to contain any excitement it may have of reaching the sea. We are still four miles from the coast and there is nothing hereabouts until you reach Yarmouth except – the haunting flatness. Five-hundred years ago, St Andrews stood on the edge of a wide inlet, but the silting up of the estuary over the years left its tower as a beacon for nothing else other river boats.
The dedication of the church to St Andrew seems appropriate; he is the patron saint of fishermen, and Wickhampton is said to have been a fishing community which supported a population of around 500 inhabitants and had direct access to the river Yare. The church was built in the 13th century, but it seems very likely that an earlier church stood on the same spot for at least several hundred years before that. The earliest part of the church is the 13th century tower. The nave was rebuilt around 1340, and the chancel and south porch were added in the 15th century.
That said, the most interesting historic feature of St Andrews church is a series of 14th century wall paintings which are simply staggering, and the detail is remarkable. They were hidden by plaster at the Reformation and only came to light again during restoration in 1840 by the Diocesan architect Richard Phipson, someone criticised for over doing it! However, many wallpaintings of this kind were lost when liturgical patterns changed in the 15th century, a full century before the Reformation when perpendicular windows often destroyed such decorations when punched through them. But the three main subjects at Wickhampton are pretty well complete. They sit on the north wall with the largest, at the extreme westend, being the best surviving depiction in Norfolk of the Three Living and Three Dead. The theme was a common one in medieval art; the frailty of human life and the certainty of mortality. Three kings are shown hunting, and they meet three skeletons in a wood. They give the kings a warning,
‘As you are now, so once were we. as we are now, so shall you be.’
The final wall painting shows The Seven Acts of Mercy and The Resurrection, which illustrates people Feeding the Hungry, Giving Drink to the Thirsty, Clothing the Naked, Visiting the Prisoner, Receiving the Stranger, Visiting the Sick, and Burying the Dead. In a largely illiterate society, these images acted as as colourful reminder to churchgoers of the sort of behaviour that was expected of medieval Christians. The message is driven home in the final scene, showing Christ raising his hand in a gesture of blessing.
According to Simon Knott: The Seven Works of Mercy were, and are, a Catholic catechetical tool, designed to help the faithful follow the teachings of Christ with regard to strangers as set forth in Chapter 25 of St Matthew’s Gospel. By meditating on these images, the worshippers could ensure they were carrying out this advice in their daily lives. The faithful are called upon to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to give shelter to the homeless, to visit the sick, to comfort the prisoner, and to bury the dead. The way in which meditative images could be used to follow their example give us an insight into the way in which medieval Christianity was practiced in the days before congregational worship became the norm. The illustrations at Wickhampton are stunning in their simplicity and emotion. The Burying of the Dead panel in particular deserves to be as well-known as any 14th century Christian image in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and yet here it is, in an isolated church on the edge of a wild Norfolk marshland.
There are, of course, other features of historic interest in the church beyond the wall paintings. The pulpit is late Elizabethan, while the benches in the nave are Victorian, in the style of the Jacobean period. A single original Jacobean bench end survives in the chancel. In the nave hangs a royal coat of arms to George I, dated 1737. The organ came from Freethorpe Manor and is housed in an 1810 mahogany cabinet made by George Pike. Near the south door is an ancient parish chest. In its traditional place opposite the entrance is a painting of St Christopher carrying the Christ Child. You can still see swarms of fish around St Christopher’s feet, perhaps another sign of Wickhampton’s once-thriving fishing industry.
To visit Wickhampton church will provide an unforgettable experience. The church seems stranded, lost in time, with no obvious village left to serve, but the superb wall paintings speak of a long and rich past, now lost, when this rural backwater was a busy place, full of life, and providing the roots of a possible sibling feud – one which led to a legend!
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K.
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Nearly four centuries separate the desecration, or violent disrespect, of two churches that once stood along Ber Street, in Norwich – namely the church of St Michael-at-Thorn and the church of St Batholomew. Read on:
Norwich’s ‘Berstrete’ was named after the Anglo-Saxon road which was the Northern Conesford sub-leet’s backbone. It ran along a ridge above a long slope which ran down to the river on the western side of the ridge; below, the Great Cockey ran through a natural valley. In time, the road became Ber Street, placing itself between present-day Queens Road and King Street. Ber Street formed one of two major routes into Norwich that ran through the Conesford area; the second was the Royal Conesford Way – the present-day King Street. Today, Ber Street is a fragmented mix of historical buildings and post-war WW2 industrial buildings; the result of a 1950/60’s slum clearance scheme which followed extensive war bomb damage.
Back in the Middle Ages, Norwich and Bristol were judged to be second to London in size. Consequently, Norwich still had 36 parish churches in its city centre when the Reformation took place; a couple were quickly demolished, but most lingered on into the 21st century. Over the centuries, the function of some parishes fell into disuse, but a surprising number were still parish churches of the Church of England within the minds of many Norwich people.
Any mention of Ber Street would be incomplete without mention of its medieval Gate, one of a series of gates that, together with an almost continuous wall, surrounded the city. Early references to Ber Street Gate, which was built on a corner of the city wall which runs southeast and southwest from the gate, are contained in documents from the reign of Henry III in the second and third quarters of the 13th century. The gate itself was demolished in 1808 but the street remained busy and densely populated and was known locally as “Blood and Guts Street”, due to its many slaughterhouses and butcher shops; also, because cattle were driven down the road into the city.
1. The church of St Michael-at-Thorn:
St Michael at Thorn was once the most central of Norwich churches but was lost in the World-War-Two blitz of January 1942. When it did exist, it stood about 200 metres south of St John Timberhill at the edge of the Ber St ridge, and overlooking the Wensum valley. Next to the church, on its south side, Thorn Lane led steeply downhill into King Street, but since the area was redeveloped in the early 1960s it now terminates at Rouen Rd. From the 1840s onwards the whole area between Ber Street and King Street was densely populated and consisted of many yards and courts leading off from Ber Street. This whole area was known locally as the ‘Village on the Hill’ and the three roads of Mariners Lane, Horns Lane and Thorn Lane, led into the district. It became the settlement for a small Italian community.
St Michael at Thorn was described by Ian Hannah as being only ‘partly built in 1430 but largely modern’. Completed, it consisted of a square west tower, nave with north aisle, a south porch, and a chancel. The original tower collapsed in 1886 and was rebuilt the following year. Sillett’s ‘Norwich Churches’, published in 1828, showed that the style of the Victorian work followed very closely to that of the old.
The historian Francis Blomefield, writing of St Michael at Thorn, said that it: “was anciently a Rectory appendant to the Castle, until the Conqueror gave it to FitzWalter along with St Martin at the Bale.” The church of St Martins, also known as St Martin-in-Balliva, once stood on a triangular piece of ground close by the entrance to Golden Ball Street – near to, what once was, the principal entrance to the barbican of the Castle. The apparent strange title of this church stemmed from it having been built within the bailey, which once was the outer courtyard of the castle. St Martins church was demolished in 1562 when the parish was united to that of St Michael at Thorn; and in the latter’s church registers, which date from that year, are records of burials of many of the criminals who were executed on the Castle hill. In 1926 a chapel in St Michael’s was dedicated to the patron saint of the Bale to perpetuate this association with St Martin’s.
With regard to the dedication – or rather the “surname” – of St Michael’s church, Blomefield mentions that it is:
“called in antient evidences, St Michael in Ber Street, and ad Spinas or at the Thorns, and even to this day, a very large Thorn remains growing in the Churchyard. I find it also in the most ancient Deeds called St Michael Super Montem, or St Miles on the Hill from its situation”.
Prior to the church tower collapsing in 1886, it contained only one bell; but John L’Estrange noted in 1874 that: “There were three bells here until about 1838, when the two largest were sold, to help to build a hideous north aisle, recently replaced by a much comelier structure. They are now the ‘first’ and ‘second’ bells at Bale, near Holt”. [making up a ring of 4 bells there, the oldest of which was cast c. 1440. This is the ‘second’ bell from St Michaels, and bears the inscription ‘Nobis Succurre Michael Raphael Gabriel Quaesumus’, – ‘Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, help us’. On the ‘first’ bell from St Michael’s is the inscription “Pack and Chapman of London Fecit 1777. John Spratt and Henry Warns Ch. Wardens.]”
The main entrance to St Michael’s was through the porch and south doorway; the latter was Norman probably the oldest remaining part of the building. Following its survival of the WW2 blitz, the doorway was dismantled and re-erected in St Julian’s church nearby, forming the inner doorway to Mother Julian’s cell.
When the doorway was ‘in situ’ at the former St Michaels, it was described as having a shaft on either side supporting a round-headed arch with cable and zig-zag ornaments, with one of the billets of an outer moulding carved into a queer little animal; then, according to White’s Norfolk directory of 1833, the door was then still in possession of its ancient ironwork. As for interior fittings, only an ancient octagonal font with shields survived the centuries. All the Victorian reconstruction woodwork was modern, including a fine roodscreen surmounted with a St Michael’s cross.
The bombs that fell in that January of 1942 left only the tower of St Michael’s standing, but removing a section of the parapet and the spirelets; the church itself was gutted, leaving only the eastern gable and the other walls at a lower level. Up to the day the church was lost, thorn trees grew in the churchyard, though perhaps not the same ones to which Blomefield referred. It was said that by the time the war ended, the thorn bushes that gave the graveyard its character and the church its name had quickly regrown through the rubble. The name of Thorn Lane is comparatively modern, for two centuries previously it was known as Sandgate, and it is a matter of speculation whether or not it was named after the nature of the soil there; in time the Lane was probably named after the thorns then flourishing in the neighbouring St Michael’s.
In the 1950’s, with redevelopment plans well formulated in the minds of the authorities, there was no way that St Michael was going to be rebuilt – or its tower kept as a landmark. St Michael’s was too close to other working churches to be needed, and was set in an area earmarked for industrial and commercial building. As things turned out, the site was completely erased with the church ruins, tower and thorn trees completely removed for the laying out of a car park for Archant House, the Eastern Daily Press building.
Simon Knott said in 2005: “It gives an idea of the ferocity of the blitz, as well as of the completeness of post-war Norwich planning, when I tell you that the two images below were taken from exactly the same spot. Robert Ladbrooke made his leisurely sketch in the 1820s. Some 180 years later, I risked my life and limbs to stand in the middle of Ber Street to take the same view of the site as it is today. I am obviously closer in time to the destruction of St Michael at Thorn than Mr Ladbrooke, but not a single building in this modern view, apart from perhaps those on the far horizon, was here when the church was”.
The Church of St Bartholomew: Southern Conesford was the long, straggly suburb to the south of Northern Conesford and the Norwich medieval city within the walls, but with an independent life of its own. The two Conesford sub-leets were amalgamated by mid-14th century, the likely result of a reduced population (and therefore the number of tithings) in the area. Subsequently, large areas of land were acquired by the Augustinians and Franciscans for their friary precincts. Conesford, as a whole, had nine medieval parish churches, as well as several monasteries, and was home to important merchants – the Pastons’ Norwich house was in Conesford, down on the the ‘Royal Conesford Way’ (King Street), the main road to London. Parallel to it, but high on the ridge to the west, sat Ber Street, leading out of the city centre to the Berstrete Gate in the city walls.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, this part of Norwich became home to warehouses and factories, a slum area of workshops and back-to-back terraces. As if in anticipation of this future development, St Bartholomew was desecrated in 1549 and abandoned; its two bells transferred to St John de Sepulchre – situated at the junction of Ber Street and Finkelgate. St Bartholomew itself once sat barely 100 metres south of St Michael at Thorn, its advowson belonging to the prior of Wymondham.
The church was to be used as a factory; then gradually, other buildings were built on to it, until almost nothing at all of the medieval exterior showed, and few would have ever known that the former church was there. All that was visible was part of the south wall of the nave. It was about this time when George Plunkett sketched, in his own hand, Claude Messent’s plan of the building as it was in 1931. Nineteenth-century houses had been built into the west end; the nave and chancel were part of Snellings factory, and against the north wall was a slaughterhouse.
George Plunkett’s fascination with Norwich churches led him to be ‘on the spot’ when the Norwich City Corporation began to clear the site in the summer of 1939. They really need not have bothered – and would have saved some money had they known that, two or three years later, the Luftwaffe would have done the job for them. As it was, the ramshackle lean-to buildings were torn away by the Corporation and the heart of a medieval church revealed – the blocked-up chancel arch, the Tudor arched interior window splays, and a brick south doorway. But now everything has gone and all that survived from the clearance is the rump of the tower which sits beside the Ber Street pavement. Unlike St Michael at Thorn, it was not a victim of war time bombing. Today, modern sheltered housing occupies the area where the St Bartholomew, the factory and the slaughterhouse once stood.
(The remains of St Bartholomew’s Church).
A few yards south along Ber Street from the site of St Michaels at Thorn a portion of St Bartholomew’s 15th century church tower still stands, its flint, brick and some stone dressings preserved among a block of new dwellings. To think that it was only brought to light in the 1930’s; in a sense, its preservation offers slight compensation for the total loss and disapperance of St Michael’s.
Finally, Simon Knott again adds: “St Bartholomew should not be confused with Norwich’s other medieval church of the same name. The other one was the parish church for Heigham, the area to the west of Pottergate and St Benedict, and is also a ruin today – but unlike the long-suffering St Bartholomew of Ber Street, the Heigham church really was gutted in the blitz”.
There is today, overlooking Norwich, a gem of a place which is free of urbanisation – although it is completely surrounded by roads, traffic, concrete and bricks. It is an area where there is freedom for trees, bracken, brambles, grass and weeds to grow, freedom for feet to ramble and for dogs to do what they normally do when let off the lead. This place once formed part of a much greater expanse of heathland that extended from the north-eastern bank of the River Wensum at Norwich, towards the villages of Salhouse and Rackheath way out into the County. It was once a large area maintained by grazing, but without such husbandry the trees grew tall and thick to produce woodland, now much frequented by walkers. Today, this area covers a mere 200 acres but is much appreciated by Norwich people as a welcome piece of open space. It is an island of green, known today as Mousehold Heath but in far off days there was a section of it that was called Thorpe Wood.
Within it, Long Valley makes one feel that Norwich is far away and that the only exciting thing that would happen below the deciduous canopy of Mousehold is for Robert Kett to emerge with the city’s authorities in hot pursuit. The wood’s deciduous canopy also does more than cushion objects of our imagination, it muffles the noise of vehicles on those roads that run circles around the area, including that odd little field or two set amongst the trees. It is a wood veined with sand and flint edged pathways that have been cut through ridges by centuries of feet; nice pathways, many of them through birches growing in shallow areas either side. Pick the right one, but avoiding bramble, rough undergrowth, burrs and ticks and you will find the site of a largely forgotten chapel; here the mind can get lost in time for that place is where the ‘St William’s Chapel in the Wood’ once stood.
The Chapel site covers just a small area, towards the edge of present-day Mousehold Heath – a short distance to the south-west of the junction of Gurney Road and Heartsease Lane. It was originally dedicated to St Catherine de Monte, way back in those far off days following the Norman Conquest; at that time, it served as a parochial chapel for the Norwich Cathedral Priory. Later, in fact on the 27 April 1168, it was re-dedicated to honour a new ‘martyr’ on the block – the boy William. Fast forward to some 380 years later and we find that this chapel was amongst those religious establishments dissolved by Henry VIII; and whilst the exact date of its demise is unknown, the last offering was recorded in 1506, and by 1556 the site had been leased out by the Dean as ‘The Chapel-Yard called St William in the Wood’. But that piece of information is something of a distraction for we need to retrace our steps back to March 1144. In that month, a despicable act was said to have taken place at, or near, the site of the chapel – It was Easter and not the best time for a murder – or a place to dump a body!
Get the detail right and the place will be a stark reminder of a disturbing and unpleasant moment that, they say, took place here. But take care; the way history works is not to run through the past in straight lines. As with many stories, and particularly with historical accounts, it is best to visualise them as being twisted flights, criss-crossing through time and place on a journey which runs the risk of turning the past into a ‘foreign country’ – where that which is written is far from factual – and the truth. The St William’s Chapel story may well fit into this category and, as with other historical stories, it doesn’t have one starting point. What we know or think we know about this story, is that parts of it are probably inaccurate, simply twisted by whatever thought or political/religious agenda was in place when the scribes pen was at work. Here we have Thomas of Monmouth to thank!
It is probably a safe thing to say that most people in Norwich are vaguely aware of William of Norwich, helped no doubt by a report in 2004 about 17 skeleton bodies which were found in a medieval well in Norwich, during the development of the Chapelfield Shopping Centre (see Footnote below). That report was clearly written for readers who like Time-Team programmes with their trowel and forensic archaeology. However, these sorts of people may not be aware of all the detail which, in William’s case, seems to suggest to some that he was a victim of a ritualised murder. Further, he was only a young lad of about 12 years of age who was an apprentice skinner and tanner, the first recorded apprentice in English history so they say. We are told that he died somewhere in Norwich on or around 22nd of March 1144 and it was on the 25th March that his body was found, mutilated on the heath close to, if not on the spot where the Chapel stood. Clearly, if he had been murdered elsewhere then his body would probably have been carried to the heath by horse to be disposed of.
Nobody truly knows who did the foul deed, or where, or even why; but, as ever, blame was quickly apportioned by the populace, egged on by the religious authorities and William’s family. Their collective finger pointed directly at the Jews of Norwich who, by the way, were protected by the Sheriff in the King’s name. Now, this is where politics vie with the powers of the church for front row seats, not forgetting that in the 12th century the King was Stephen. He not only had the church to deal with but also his cousin Matilda; they were both grandchildren of William the Conqueror and amongst all the others competing for a dominant position in ‘The Anarchy’ – which, basically, was a rather nasty tribal squabble about who controls England – not forgetting Normandy of course. Add to this the question of the Jews who started to come over in 1066, who had French as their mother language – and settled in Norwich. Big trouble was afoot!
Brother Thomas and his Version of Events: Enter Thomas of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk who resided in the cathedral priory in Norwich, having been “respectably educated” before he first arrived in Norwich around the year 1150. It would appear that very shortly after his arrival in the city Brother Thomas, (we’ll call him that from now on), began his long-winded investigating into the so-called ‘murder’ of the boy William. He began by taking notes in preparation for a narrative about William, and a plea for the boy’s martyrdom that he finally completed more than twenty years later, titled “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich”. This account ended up as a multi-volume series with the final Volume 7 being completed around 1173. The first two volumes details William’s life and sufferings, with the remaining five volumes recounting the miracles the proposed saint was said to have performed after his death. According to E.M. Rose, in his book ‘The Murder of William of Norwich’ “Brother Thomas maintained that William was worthy of veneration and claimed him as an important patron for Norwich Cathedral”. but his claim was based on a writing that was nothing more than a treatise that was “an imaginative, emotional appeal rather than a presentation of forensic evidence”. It is thought that the original manuscript no longer survives, but a unique single contemporary copy resides in the Cambridge University Library.
In his quest, Brother Thomas claims to have set about interviewing as many of the surviving ‘witnesses’ as possible. These included people who he had already identified as being “converted Jews”; they, he would claim, provided him with inside information about events within the Jewish community. According to Brother Thomas, one particular ‘convert’, called Theobald of Cambridge, told him that there was a written prophecy which stated that the Jews would regain control of Israel if they sacrificed a Christian child each year. Every year, Jewish leaders met in Narbonne to decide who would be asked to perform the sacrifice; in 1144, the Jews of Norwich were assigned that task.
Since most information about William’s life and the resulting murder inquiry comes from Brother Thomas, it is difficult to distinguish the facts of the case from the story of martyrdom created around it by Thomas. It was he who devoted himself to the promotion of William to sainthood; even his opening sentence of Volume 1 reflects that both he, and presumably some of his contemporaries, believed that William’s death was preordained:
“The mercy of the divine goodness desiring to display itself to the parts about Norwich, or rather to the whole of England, and to give it in these new times a patron, granted that a boy should be conceived in his mother’s womb without her knowing that he was to be numbered among the illustrious martyrs”.
Was Brother Thomas proud that his adopted city of Norwich should be blessed with a suitable candidate for sainthood, despite the apparent horrible circumstances surrounding the young boy’s death? That’s how it may have been, but Thomas’s final narrative went on to build a case for William’s holiness based on the collected evidence, and arguing that he had been martyred by the Jews in a ‘ritual’ murder.
As things turned out, Brother Thomas was ultimately unsuccessful in getting William of Norwich canonized as a saint; however, but did succeed, for a time at least, in creating a cult around him in Norwich. But right from the outset of his endeavours, Thomas contended that he had received visions from the founding Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga, who had died in 1119. According to Thomas, Losinga had told him in a vision that William’s body should be moved into the Chapter House of the monastery; however, Thomas had to battle with the sceptical Prior Elias, who was unconvinced of William’s sanctity. The body of William was in fact moved in the same year of Thomas’s arrival in Norwich. That year of 1150 was also the year in which Elias died, and by then the cult of William was established.
Circumstances Leading up to the Murder:
Brother Thomas stated that William had been born on 2 February 1132 and that his parents, Wenstan and Elviva, were a local Anglo-Saxon couple living on the outskirts of Norwich. His father died while William was still very young and it was left to Elviva, who had learned much from her own father, a priest, to educate William. Then, when William was eight years old, he was taken to a skinner, near his home, to learn a trade. Brother Thomas says:
“In a short time, he far surpassed lads of his own age in the crafts aforesaid, and he equalled some who had been his teachers”.
In time, William moved into the city to join the workshop of a prosperous master of the skin, fur and leather trade; an important industry in Norwich, which served the demand for clothing, shoes and bed coverings. Leather was the most hard-wearing fabric available, so leather jerkings, breeches, aprons and caps were the normal wear for most manual workers. It was the custom for young unmarried employees to live with their master, often being obliged to sleep on the shop floor in order to help protect the property from break-ins and thefts. The area that William moved into was the Jewry, to the east of Norwich Castle, which suggests that both Jews and Gentiles were accustomed to working and trading alongside each other.
In his book, Norwich – The Biography, Christopher Reeve writes:
“It could be imagined that William would be well liked by his fellow workers and neighbours, and also by the customers, some of whom would have preferred to deal with him when they brought their orders in for leather goods. If it was true that William had settled in so well then what happened next was all the more shocking……. the Jewish community believed that they would never gain freedom, or be able to return to their homeland unless they made an annual sacrifice of a Christian, so as to mock Christ. Where Thomas got this idea from is not known…….[or] whether or not he himself had a prejudice against Jews. Maybe it was simple malicious gossip from those who might have envied Jewish prosperity in the city”.
Shortly before his murder, William’s mother, Elviva, was approached by a man who claimed to be a cook, working for the Archdeacon of Norwich. He offered William a job in the Archdeacon’s kitchens and paid William’s mother three shillings to let him go. This must have been a very good offer for it came with the opportunity to earn more money and better prospects than if he stayed in the skin trade. William must have been delighted but, it is said, his mother had her doubts and asked her son not to go; however, William was determined and the messenger’s words were compelling to both mother and son, sweetened by a reward of ‘three shillings’ in return for the mother’s agreement. William later visited his aunt in the company of this same man but she was apparently suspicious when she heard the news and told her own daughter to follow William and this messenger after they left. The daughter was able to report that they returned to the area when William worked and went into a house belonging to Eleazar the Jew. This was the last time William was seen alive. It was Holy Tuesday.
According to Brother Thomas, the man who claimed to be a cook had been employed by the Jews to entice William into the house where the sacrifice would occur. There, William was initially treated well, but was then bound, gagged and suspended in a cruciform position in a room where he was tortured and murdered in a manner imitating the Crucifixion of Jesus: the Jews lacerated his head with thorns and pierced his side.
“having shaved his head, they stabbed it with countless thorn points, and made the blood come horribly from the wounds they made……… some of those present judged him to be fixed to a cross in mockery of the Lord’s Passion…………”
Brother Thomas said that the body was concealed until the Good Friday and claimed further that another converted Jew told him that there was an argument over how to dispose of the body afterwards. Nevertheless, two members from amongst those who had tortured William, did place his body in a sack and take it to the best hiding place they could think of – Thorpe Woods on Mousehold Heath. Unfortunately for them, as they entered the wood they met, we are told, Erlward, a Burgess and a citizen of note, who was returning from the church of St Mary Magdalen nearby. He challenged the two men, suspicious that they were up to no good. At this, the two Jews ‘in their terror…… made off at full gallop and rushed into the thick of the wood’.
Christopher Reeve again writes:
“It is said that Erlward did nothing further except continue on his way to his own home in the city. With the coast clear, the two Jews returned and simply hung the sack holding William’s body on a tree and galloped home, still in panic. Aware that there was now a witness to the disposal of the body, the Jewish leaders decided that they needed to obtain the protection of the City Sheriff, John de Caineto, who as the King’s representative, was obliged to act on the Jew’s behalf for they were his source of ready money. In return for a willing bribe offered by the Jews, de Caineto instructed Aelward not to divulge anything he might have seen in Thorpe Wood”.
Unfortunately, in that March of 1144 at least three persons had already discovered William’s mutilated body; one, a peasant, plus two prominent citizens – Lady Legarda and Henry de Sprowston, a forester and keeper of the Bishop’s stables. It seems that Lady Legarda, a Norman aristocratic nun, was the first to come across the cadaver, tangled as it was in the undergrowth and quite near a thoroughfare in Thorpe Woods. We are told that she took no responsibility in informing the authorities, as was required; instead, she quietly said prayers over the corpse before retreating to her convent. Later that day, the peasant also ignored the body, despite being well aware of his responsibility to report the find to the powers-to-be. Then, on 25 March 1144, Holy Saturday, Henry de Sprowston was riding through the woods in the course of his duties as guardian of all that was owned there by his ecclesiastical employers, the Norwich bishop and monks. Possibly to deflect attention from his own illicit activities, the same peasant [apparently] led Henry de Sprowston to the cadaver, but neither person recognised it as anyone they knew; what was clear however was that it was a young boy. The forester, because of his standing, instigated an inquiry into the death and while nothing came out of his investigation, the boy was identified as that of William, the apprentice leatherworker and son of Wenstan and Elviva.
It was noted at the time that William’s injuries suggested a violent death and that the boy appeared to have been gagged with a wooden ‘teasel’ and was wearing just a jacket and shoes. Maybe they speculated that this had been a sexual assault? After consultation with the local priest, it was decided to bury the body two days hence, on Easter Monday; the position of the grave would be where the body was found. In the meantime, some curious folk came to look at the body, a few recognising William. Then, the following day, being Easter Sunday, William’s uncle, brother and cousin arrived to confirm the identity of the dead youth before he was buried, but with proper but minimal ceremony and no elaborate marker. That was on Easter Monday.
Information about William and the resulting homicide inquiry comes only from Brother Thomas’s account which claimed to have pieced together what actually happened during that fateful Holy Week of 1144. Thomas seems to have set out to prove that William had been killed for his faith and therefore deserved to be ordained as a saint. He devoted most of his book not to the crime, but to the evidence for William’s sanctity, including mysterious lights seen around the body itself and miraculous cures affected on local devotees. Thomas admits that some of the clergy, notably the Prior Elias, were opposed to the cult on the grounds that there was little evidence of William’s piety or martyrdom. However, Thomas actively promoted the claims by providing evidence of visions of William and miracles.
As for the Christians of Norwich, they quickly blamed local Jews for the crime, then demanded justice from the local ecclesiastical court. Members of the Jewish community were asked to attend the court and submit to a trial by ordeal, but the local sheriff, John de Chesney, advised them that the ecclesiastical court had no jurisdiction over them, as they were not Christians. He then took the Jews into protection in the castle. After the situation had calmed down, they returned to their homes. In the meantime, William’s body had been moved to the monks’ cemetery. Later, it would be moved to progressively more prestigious places in the Cathedral, being placed in the Chapterhouse in 1150 and close to the High Altar in 1151.
As part of this promotion, images of William, as a martyr, were created for some churches, generally in the vicinity of Norwich. The above image shows a panel of painted oak, depicting both William and Agatha of Sicily, and is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; William is shown holding a hammer and with three nails in his head. The panel was formerly part of a rood screen at the Norwich Church of St John Maddermarket. The screen was commissioned by Ralph Segrym who died in 1472, a merchant who became a Member of Parliament and Mayor of Norwich. Another rood screen in St Mary’s church, Worstead also depicts him holding nails. One in Loddon depicts William being crucified.
As it was, William’s death was never satisfactorily solved and the local authorities would therefore not convict anyone – simply because there was no proof. There the matter apparently rested, that is until a Brother Thomas came along, some six years later, and got caught up in the clergy’s idea of establishing a cult around the death of William with a motive which must have been partly pecuniary. It was William de Turbeville, Bishop of Norwich between 1146 and 174 who encouraged Brother Thomas to write his book as a precursor to the church achieving its aim. It turned out to be an extensive hagiography work; Volume 7 being completed in 1173. Clearly, it was designed to deify the boy and to blame the Norwich Jews for what became Britain’s first ‘Blood Libel’ – the idea that Jews use the blood of the murdered, usually Christian, children in Passover rituals to make bread – no more need be said!
The Aftermath: As a result of the feelings generated by the William ritual murder story and subsequent intervention by the authorities on behalf of the accused, the growing suspicion of collusion between the ruling class and Jews fuelled the general anti-Jewish and anti-King Stephen mood of the population. After Brother Thomas’s version of William’s death circulated a number of other unsolved child murders were attributed to Jewish conspiracies: – This evolved into the so-called Blood Libel.
The horrific death of William of Norwich at the hands of an unknown became an appalling beginning for future propaganda exercises in many other parts of Britain and across Europe which used murdered children by unknowns, some of whom, as with William, became the subject of veneration. Proof of William’s veneration can be found in Norwich Cathedral, in a small chapel less than a stone’s throw from the choir stalls. It’s not an exciting place, wood lined and with a few chairs; seemingly out of place within the Cathedral’s splendour but comfortably near the tombs of old bishops. As someone said elsewhere, this is where the story starts to get really nasty. William is said to be buried here, after being moved several times in the church’s attempt to get William away from Thorpe Wood and nearer the high alter. The answer is all very simple; saints bring pilgrims and pilgrims bring money!
According to Emily M. Rose in her book ‘The Murder of William of Norwich’:
“William of Norwich, in particular, has received a considerable amount of attention, ever since the full text of his story was discovered in a Suffolk parish library at the end of the 19th– century by the antiquarian M. R. James, who edited and published an influential translation with Augustus Jessopp, an honorary canon of Norwich Cathedral. Brother Thomas’s ‘Life and Passion has now been re-translated for a modern readership, including passages that the fastidious Victorian translators passed over.”
In 2004, the remains of 17 bodies were found at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich. They were discovered during an excavation of a site in the City’s centre, ahead of the construction of Chapelfield Shopping Centre.
According to the scientists, carrying out the investigation, the skeletons dated back to the 12th or 13th Centuries, at a time when Jewish people were facing persecution in Norwich and, indeed, throughout Europe. In their opinion, the most likely explanation for them being down the well were that they were Jewish and probably murdered or forced to commit suicide. Pictures taken at the time of excavation suggested the bodies were thrown down the well together, head first.
Using a combination of DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies in their investigation, the team established that eleven of the 17 skeletons were those of children aged between 2 and 15; the remaining six were adult men and women. Out of the total found, seven skeletons were successfully tested and five of them had a DNA sequence suggesting they were likely to be members of a single Jewish family.
A close examination of the adult bones showed fractures caused by the impact of hitting the bottom of the well. But the same damage was not seen on the children’s bones, suggesting they were thrown in after the adults who cushioned the fall of their bodies.
The team had considered the possibility of death by disease but the bone examination also showed no evidence of diseases.
Medieval Jewish History:
1066: The Norman Conquest opens the way to Jewish immigration. The monarchy needs to borrow money and Christians are forbidden to lend money at interest. London, Lincoln and York become centres for substantial Jewish populations.
1100s: Resentment against the Jewish community grows over their perceived wealth and belief they killed Jesus. The “blood libels” – Jews are accused of the ritual murder of Christian children.
1190: Many Jewish people massacred in York. In Norwich they flee to the city’s castle for refuge. Those who stay in their homes are butchered.
1230s: Executions in Norwich after an allegation a Christian child was kidnapped.
1272: Edward I comes to the throne and enforces extra taxes on the Jewish community.
1290: Edward I expels the Jews en masse after devising a new form of royal financing using Christian knights to fill the coffers.
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The church of St Clement, Outwell, was started in the 13th century and expanded in the 14th and 15th centuries when the roof was raised and its carvings installed. The church was built of limestone from the Lincolnshire Wold and mostly likely came to site by the river. The church stands amid the fens and dykes below the Wash, between the rivers Nene and Great Ouse, close to the Cambridgeshire border. It was a prosperous place in the second quarter of the 15th century from when it remains a somewhat curious church that demands attention.
St Clements is a church thick with angels. They flock about the roof beams, more than 100 of them, some bearing musical instruments, others the instruments of the Passion. If you look carefully at the above photo, you can see what is now known as the “unknown” glories, the carved buttresses, while in between and over head are the angels, with more angels in the south aisle and the Lynn Chapel off the north aisle. Then there are the demons which are very difficult to see for the roof is so dark that the visitor may miss these and even the large dark angels. The following two demons are exceptions:
There are 12 demons carvings and they were, in a sense, ‘lost’….but not really….in fact, they have been there all the time but, because of the poor light entering the roof area, the carvings are almost impossible to see. However, on one particular day in 2012 they were indeed ‘found’ by an historian who was studying the medieval glass…… so now they are famous!….having been safely ‘in situ’ for nye on 600 years. Apparently. they are carved the wrong way round, with the demon overcoming each of the smaller apostles, when it should be the other way round. Pevsner’s guide to Norfolk says they stand below canopies, but it’s more interesting than that. What has been revealed is that figures of Apostles, delicately carved with emblematic detail, stand under larger looming heads-and-shoulders of semi-human and demonic figures, bearing the weight of the roof. What does this juxtaposing of holiness and the infernal mean?
The placing of the figures was planned. The Apostles stand in pairs. Time and death-watch beetle have done away with most of the identifying symbols once held by the Apostles. But one pair, on opposite sides of the nave, are still easy to name: St John, holding a chalice, and St James, with his pilgrim satchel and staff. The horn-headdressed lady looms over the more sensitively carved sculpture of St James with staff and satchel. Leaning over St John is a furry-chested, beak-faced devil of the kind you might see in a manuscript illumination (or, at the time, perhaps in drama). Over St James leans another unsettling figure: a large-featured woman with an exaggerated horned headdress and, in place of hands, taloned paws.
Why put such things together in a church? – but why not, for the aspect in play can be found in creation itself. Commenting on the Book of Proverbs, the 13th‑century spiritual writer John of Forde wrote that: “The Wisdom of God played before the Father’s face over the whole expanse of the earth.” God played with the monster Leviathan too, the Psalm says. There was indeed a medieval fondness for monsters which presupposed the reliance of humanity’s creativity on the primary creation by God. As St Anselm, the philosopher (Archbishop of Canterbury 1093-1109) saw it, men could mentally rearrange elements of God’s creation and so make an artistic image such as the horn-headdressed woman with clawed paws!
At Outwell, then, the dignity of the Apostles is pointed up by the mirror‑image ludicrous figures grinning above them. But, as already been stated, the carved figures are hard to see. When they were made, the brightest light was from distant candles or reflected daylight, and their details could seldom have been clear. Yet, no doubt, the local yeomen, newly prosperous, the Beaupres and the Haultofts, would have been proud to pay for carved figures of the Apostles to join the angels aloft, and not have thought it out of place to have a few demons and chimeras thrown in.
Some other images of St Clements Church, Outwell, Norfolk
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K.
In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use other people’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with that person or owner), contact can sometimes be difficult if not impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim or suggest ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. If there is any violation of copyright or trademark material, it is unintentional.
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Richard Caister could be described as a medieval maverick cleric who preached and wrote in the vernacular a century before the Protestant Reformation. However, it is more than likely that not many people today would recognise his name if asked; or be aware of his deeds, character or reputation.
It was timely therefore that between February and October of 2020, St Stephen’s Church in Norwich, (where this late priest and poet was based in the latter part of his life), celebrated the 600th Anniversary of his life and work. The church did so by hosting several events, including family craft workshops and musical performances. These events were supported by associated historical tours of the city and variously timed lectures at the Forum and the Norfolk Record Office.
Not everyone could possibly have shared in these celebrations, but for those who missed the events but remain interested in the man, the period in which he lived and those with whom he was associated with, here is an adapted summary of his life based (in part) on the information compiled by St Stephens Church.
We can never be absolutely certain of Richard Caister’s place of birth or the actual date, only that he was born either in Caister St Edmund or Caister-on-Sea sometime around the middle of the 14th century. He was apparently styled ‘master’ but there is no clear evidence that he studied at a university; but it is said that in 1385, possibly on 1 October, a part of his head was ‘tonsured’ – left bare on top by the shaving off of the hair – he had been made a cleric. It was at that moment when he was admitted to Merton Priory in Surrey where he received his education in preparation for an ordained ministry. It is probable that, after being ordained, he spent some 10 years as a monk of the Norwich Cathedral Priory. Certainly, in 1397, he become vicar of St Mary’s Church in Sedgeford, near Kings Lynn, having been presented to the benefice by the Prior of the Norwich Cathedral Priory. Richard Caister served Sedgeford for five years; its location described by Simon Knott in 2006 thus:
“Sedgeford is one of those surprisingly secluded villages not far from the Wash, with busy Hunstanton and Sandringham just over the hill. Many East Anglian churches are at the highest point in their parishes, which isn’t saying a lot, but this big church is down in a dip in the valley below the road, and you would never notice it unless you were deliberately looking for it. The nave seems vast with those great clerestory windows, and the round tower appears to grow out of it, the aisles extending westwards to wrap around it.”
In 1402 Richard Caister was transferred to St Stephen’s Church in Norwich, where he remained until his death on April 4, 1420. He was buried in the chancel of the Church; an indication of the high regard he was held at the time. According to Norman P. Tanner:
“Margery Kempe [see below] provides a glowing portrait of him as vicar of St Stephen’s. He was, she indicates, a generous and apostolic parish priest, and a noted and effective preacher. He acted as her confessor in Norwich and supported her against her critics, including the officials of the bishop……… Following his death in 1420, perhaps on 29 March, his reputation for holiness developed into a minor cult. Margery Kempe went to pray at his grave in St Stephen’s Church, to thank him for the recovery of a friend from sickness: between 1429 and 1500 a number of bequests were left in wills for people to make pilgrimages to his grave, or for offerings to be left at it. He appears to have been a radical and evangelical priest, one in a succession as vicars of St Stephen’s parish, though Bale’s claim that he was an enthusiastic Wycliffite, albeit a secret one, seems unfounded……… Books on the ten commandments, the beatitudes, and the meditations of St Bernard, and also some homilies, were attributed to him. His only extant work, however, is the hymn ‘Jesu, lord, that madest me’, which seems to have been very popular, surviving in numerous manuscripts (though eight of its twelve stanzas come from an earlier poem).”
Richard Caistor’s Will was probably written within a few days of his death; it is remarkable, especially for a man who had been incumbent in one of the most valuable livings in Norwich for some eighteen years. The Will is very brief and contains no requests for masses or prayers to be said for his soul. Instead, he seems to have wanted his ‘unspecified wealth’, apart from £10 that was to be spent on buying two antiphonaries for his church, to be given to the poor, with preference being given to those of his parish on the grounds that “the goods of the church, according to canon law, belong to the poor”
Two significant Contemporaries of Caister: One of Caister’s contemporaries was Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). She is, of course, known for her book The Revelations of Divine Love, which is a masterpiece of 14th century vernacular theology and also the earliest surviving book in the English language written by a woman.
There are no documents in existence which says that Richard Caister and Julian of Norwich ever met. However, it seems inconceivable that this was never so, when their geographical proximity of St Julian’s and St Stephen’s Churches were practically next door to each other. Also, having both a mutual friend in Margery Kempe, would strongly suggest that the lives of Julian and Richard may well have overlapped at times. However, more significantly than that suggestion, is the fact that both of them wrote in the vernacular. By doing so, both opened spiritual and theological matters to ordinary lay people, as distinct to only the clergy which believed, certainly in Caister’s time, that the English language was not an appropriate vehicle to consider or broadcast theological matters; such matters needed to be presented in the language of the Church – Latin.
Margery Kempe (1373-1438) was another significant contemporary of Caister and the author of The Book of Margery Kempe, which is considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language; she was also a Christian mystic whose work gives a careful spiritual and social commentary of England. Kempe became very close to Caister; in their first meeting, Caister listened to Margery Kempe speak about the love of God and her spiritual experiences. Margery Kempe also recorded that while some considered her to be insane or under the influence of demons, Richard Caister defended her, open to the idea that God may inspire a woman. Caister became Margery Kempe’s confessor and even defended her in a hearing before the formidable Bishop Henry le Despenser. From the website of present-day St Stephen’s Church, we learn that:
“……. after Caister’s death and burial, Margery Kempe writes that she was moved to journey to St Stephen’s to pray for the healing of a priest who was close to her. She writes of a powerful spiritual encounter of the goodness of God during this time of prayer at the chancel of St Stephen’s Church, where Caister was buried. The priest for whom she was praying was healed. It is most likely for this reason that Caister’s burial place became a shrine for pilgrimage throughout the latter half of the 15th century.”
The Character of Caister and his Ministry: Caister had a reputation for being a man of significant learning who was assiduous in his pastoral duties, particularly in his preaching and in his concern for the poor of his parish. The pilgrim badges that accompanied the shrine of Richard Caister frequently depict him preaching from the pulpit, wearing either clerical or academic dress’.
John Pits, (1560 – 17 October 1616) was an English Roman Catholic scholar and writer who was born in Alton, Hampshire. He provides a character sketch of Richard Caister.
“He was a man simple and upright, and no mean scholar. In his sermons he used not so much to attack men’s vices with bitter words, as to deplore them with tears of sympathy, and to exhort all to flee from their sins and to have pity upon their own souls. With the ignorant multitude he willingly adopted a familiar style, and used to mingle with the crowds to hold outdoor meetings. The simplest folk he loved the best, as being most like himself, saying that of such is the kingdom of heaven. He is said to have had the spirit of prophecy, and both during his life and after his death to have been renowned for many miracles”
Then there was Francis Blomefield who, in his History of Norfolk (volume 4), adds to this description that Caister was “a man of greatest learning and what was exceedingly remarkable in those days, a constant preacher of God’s word in English to his parishioners”.
Religious Dissent in the 14th and 15th Centuries: Caister lived in a turbulent period in the life of the Church in England, for there existed a particular element of non-conformist thought, known of today as “Lollardy“; this movement became increasingly powerful across England in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The book “Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards (1395)” indicates a set of ideas held in common at the time, and strongly criticises clerical practice, the doctrine of transubstantiation, pilgrimage, plus rejecting the necessity of the mediation of God’s forgiveness through the Church via confession of sins to a priest. However, at the heart of Lollardy was the insistence for access to the scriptures in the English language – not Latin.
Thomas Arundel (1353 – 19 February 1414) was an English clergyman who served as Lord Chancellor during the reign of Richard II, as well as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1397 and from 1399 until his death, an outspoken opponent of the Lollards. In 1409 he promulgated a piece of ecclesiastical legislation, called the ‘Constitutions’ which was designed to establish control over religious thought and speech in England; it established controls over access to the scriptures in the English language:
“No one should translate any text of holy scripture on his own authority into the English language or any other under pain of excommunication, until that translation was approved by the local diocesan council”.
Alongside this, the Constitutions outlawed the criticism of clergy in the context of sermons and limited the topics upon which clergy could educate their parishioners. In a very influential essay Nicholas Watson argued that the goal of Arundel’s Constitutions was to restrict the development of religious thought in the English language; this led to the ‘watering-down’ of a growing and creative tradition of vernacular theology in England, as represented by Julian of Norwich.
Then there was the 15th century Nicholas Love; the Carthusian prior of Mount Grace Priory. He translated and adapted Pseudo-Bonaventure’s ‘Meditations on the Life of Christ’ into English and named it ‘Mirror of the Blessed Jesus (1410)’. His was not merely a translation of one of the most popular Latin works of Franciscan devotion on the life and passion of Christ, but an expanded version with additions against the John Wycliffite (Lollard). Specifically, Love argued that Latin was the true language of theological thought and spiritual devotion. As such, the lay person remained in an unchangeable state of dependency on the Latin-speaking clergy. His version was submitted to Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, around the year 1410 for approval. This submission was in accordance with strictures that forbade any new biblical translation written since the time of John Wycliffe, “in any form whatsoever, unless the translation was submitted to the local bishop for approval.” Arundel not merely approved the ‘Mirror of the Blessed Jesus’, but commanded its propagation; the work survives in sixty-four manuscripts; nineteen of these contain a note of Arundel’s official approval along with a note that this work is a “confutation of heretics or lollards”. Love’s work appears to have been the most popular new piece of literature in 15th-century England and was published at least ten times between 1484 and 1606. It provides an instructive insight into the character of the Church at the time, in contrast to which Richard Caister’s own ‘Metrical Prayer’ can be better understood. In short, it is a fascinating document written at that turbulent time and does, arguably, contains some themes consistent with Lollardy.
Lollardy was particularly influential in Norfolk at the turn of the 15th century. The Bishop of Norwich, the then Henry le Despenser, was also a fierce an opponent of Lollardy. According to Thomas Walsingham, (Rolls Series, Vol. ii., p.188):
“He swore, and did not repent, that if any of that perverse sect [Lollards] should presume to preach in his diocese, he should either be given to the flames or deprived of his head”.
The Legacy of Richard Caister: Richard Caister was closely associated with the linguist, philosopher and theologian John Wycliffe who was an important influence on Lollardy and is thought of as a forerunner of Protestantism in England. Then there was Bishop John Bale (himself a man with strong protestant sympathies) who, in his work ‘Illustrious Writers of Great Britain’ (printed c1549-1559), wrote:
“Richard Caister, of the County of Norfolk, and coming from near Norwich itself, a man learned and pious for his age, and Vicar at the Church of St Stephen in that City, [he was] called ‘the Good’, lead an apostolic and innocent life in great simplicity of spirit. Miracles are narrated of this man, but many are void of all truth. Nevertheless, he was distinguished for remarkable sanctity and a prophetic spirit. He favoured the Wycliffite (or rather the Christian) doctrine strongly, but secretly, for fear of the Papists, having had experience of their tyranny in others. The scandalous example of the clergy he deplored with humble reproof in sermons, since otherwise he was not able to cure it. Many other proofs of piety did the good man display, and amongst other things he wrote in his native tongue”.
Whether or not Richard Caister really held Wycliffite views is not clear. In the case of Bishop Bale, (who was quite partisan towards Protestantism and could stretch his views of people towards his own ways of thinking), Richard Caister’s own Metrical Prayer does indicate, at least, some sympathy with ideas associated with Wycliffe and Lollardy; but, of course, did not suffer the same fate as others in the Diocese of Norwich who were more explicitly loyal to Wycliffe’s thought, such as William Sawtrey, and payed the price!
Nobody goes to St Peter and St Paul, Tunstall by accident for it stands in a landscape of narrow, high-hedged lanes and a rolling landscape that dips to meet the rivers, the aspect becoming flatter and bleaker the further east one goes. Apart from the little ferry at Reedham, there is no way of crossing the Yare and so this area remains isolated and the visitor really is on the far side of the back of the beyond. The church is a mile from Halvergate, along a straight, narrow lane where there is couple of houses. That’s it, pretty much, except that further east of Tunstall, and for almost five miles, there is nothing but the marshes where there are no roads, houses, people; that is until the river can be crossed, changing from almost quiet and isolated world to the brash and noisy Great Yarmouth which sits slap bang on the coast.
When this church first built, it served a coastal village which overlooked a great estuary, serving as a beacon for shipping. But the estuary was eventually drained to become grazing land, and the church found itself inland with a tower which has long been a ruin. What remains of it now overlooks an empty and equally shattered nave, open to the elements and a shadow of what it once was in Catholic England before Protestant Reformation asserted itself. What was once a big church soon found out that there would never be enough parishioners to fill it and so it and the parish in which it stood was absorbed into the larger Halvergate and the building here fell into disuse.
We know from a crude plaque above the entrance that the chancel was restored by the Jenkinson family early in the 18th century and that the chapel was extended eastwards and a pretty window added in the 1860s. Since then nothing seems to have been touch and the ruin is, today, maintained by the local community and supported by a charitable trust. Visitors are, of course, welcome but they should expect nothing more than a church interior which is rather dark, gloomy and with little historical interest; the sky taking the place of the roof. But of course, according to Simon Knott:
“that doesn’t matter. You come here for the atmosphere, a sense of the presence of God – out here where the land takes over, the silence, and perhaps, a very rustic feeling of what it might have been like to live in 19th century rural Norfolk.”
Inevitably perhaps, remote churches are particularly prone to fall victim to ghostly tales and myths by superstitious folk who look for meaning in everything around them. Tunstall church and its past small community were no exception. How many stories might there have been about such a place as Tunstall – no one knows. However, at least two versions of one tale survived the passage of time and these have been told and re-told probably countless times; each teller putting his or her slant on the detail; probably that’s why here we have two versions. The first goes something like this:
There was once a fierce fire at the Church of St Peter and St Paul at Tunstall. We know not when – but it did. We are told that as the flames brushed close to the stone walls and the church building began to crack and collapse, its parishioners feared that nothing would remain of the church that they loved; a church that had been a beacon for ships on the edge of a long-lost estuary which was replaced by the lonely marshland that now stretches towards Great Yarmouth.
Although the fire ravaged the church its bells were left unscathed, even after falling on to the floor below; some people saw some meaning behind what was to them a minor miracle – their bell actually escaped the blaze. The topic became the re-hot epicentre of a fierce row that erupted between the local Parson and the St Peter & St Paul’s churchwardens; both parties battling over who should have them.
Now the story goes on to relate that while this argument raged, the Devil took the opportunity settle the matter in his favour. He slipped effortlessly into the still smouldering and red-smoking timbers of the bell chamber and spirited the bells away. But not without the Parson noticing, for he was a godly man. He hastily began to exorcise the Devil as this heathen creature, together with his loot, began to dissolve into the distance: “Stop, in the name of God!” called the Parson, “Curse thee!” cried the Devil as he sank into the earth, towards his underworld. In his wake a boggy pool of water, known nowadays as ‘Hell Hole’, appeared on the surface and remains there to this day. It is still said that in the summertime, ominous bubbles can sometimes be seen rising to the surface; past folk attributed this phenomenon to the stolen bells which they said were still sinking on their endless journey through a bottomless passage to hell.
A second version of the same tale has both the parish priest and the churchwardens planning separately to steal the bells, sell them and pocket the spoils. Turning up at the same time both parties clashed as each tried to take the bells for themselves. Again, as they quarrelled, a gigantic black form materialised, seized the bells and disappeared with them. The priest and the churchwardens immediately forgot their row and joined together to chase whatever this fiend was, but just as they appeared to be gaining on this almost ghostly creature, it vanished into the earth, still clutching the bells. Again, behind it, a dark pool appeared from which bubbles rose for many years thereafter, marking the spot where the bells disappeared and less than a mile west of Tunstall.
Less than a mile west of Tunstall is a long strip of marshy woodland called, in part, ‘Hell Carr’, and near this alder clump was the boggy pool known as ‘Hell Hole’. They do say that sometimes, on quiet nights, the sound of muffled bells can still be heard drifting across the bogs and marshland towards the church from whence they were stolen.
In Roman times the River Bure flowed into a large estuary extending from Acle to present-day Great Yarmouth; Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk shows the then coastal villages of Tunstall, Halvergate and Wickhampton on a spur of higher ground that was surrounded by Moulton Bog (west), Acle Wet Common (north) and the Halvergate Marshes (east). According to old records the church had fallen into disrepair by 1704; the chancel arch was bricked up in 1705 and a plaque above the doorway into the chancel informs that it was rebuilt by Mrs Elizabeth Jenkinson. More repairs were carried out in 1853. In 1980 the church was declared redundant and a Trust was formed to help repair and maintain what remains of the church: the chancel is still intact and visitors are welcome.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.