William In The Wood

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 in 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 was called Thorpe Wood.

St William (Site)2

Within it, Long Valley in particular 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 authority 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 round 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 a largely forgotten chapel will emerge in the mind and where one can get lost in time. This is where ‘ St William’s Chapel in the Wood’ lays.

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 at the moment; we need to retrace our steps back to 22nd March 1144. On that date, a despicable act, supposedly, took place at the site of the chapel – It was Easter and not the best time for a murder!

St William (Lidar-Mousehold-overlay)1
An ariel view of most of Mousehold Heath, showing the site position (hightlighted centre right) of St Williams Chapel. (Photograph with overlay is the property of Nick Stone and his Invisible Works website)

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 into the past in convenient straight lines. With stories, indeed with and all historical accounts, it is best to visualise them as being in twisted flight, crisscrossing through time on a journey which, inevitably, turns the past into a foreign country – where ‘they did things differently there’. This is true of the Chapel’s story and, as with other historical stories, it doesn’t have one starting point but many. What we know or think we know about this story, is that parts of it will certainly be inaccurate, simply twisted by whatever common thought or agenda was in place when it was written. The story of St William’s Chapel and much that surrounds it is a case in point, laying as it does below undergrowth, trees and canopy. For the details of this story we have Thomas of Monmouth to thank!

It’s 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 bodies being 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 sort of people may not be aware of all the detail which, in William’s case, confirms that he was a victim of what some believe was 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. He certainly 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.

St William (Chapel Site)1
“Every year, at Narbonne in Spain, where the Jews are held in high regard, lots are cast in order to determine the country where the sacrifice will take place. In the capital city of that country, another lot is drawn to determine the town or city, and it just so happens that at this particular time the lot has fallen on the Jews of Norwich, and all the synagogues in England have signified, by letter or message, their consent that the killing should take place here”.

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 Jews, who started to come over in 1066, had French as their mother language – and settled in Norwich – big trouble was afoot..

Thomas of Monmouth and his version of events:

Enter Thomas, and here we can only presume that he was born in Monmouth, only because he is identified by that town’s name. Having been “respectably educated” he first arrived in Norwich in 1150 and wasted no time in investigating the murder of William. First, he set about interviewing as many of the surviving ‘witnesses’ as possible. These included people who Thomas had already identified as being “converted Jews”; they provided him with inside information about events within the Jewish community. According to 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.

St William (norwich-city-walls 14C)

This, and much more, was written up in his multi-volume Latin account of the crime, titled ‘The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich’ which Thomas started shortly after his arrival in Norwich in 1150, and completed Volume 7 by 1173. Since most information about William’s life comes only from Thomas’s writings, 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; he did this by collecting evidence of his holiness and by arguing that he had been martyred by the Jews in a ‘ritual’ murder. As things turned out, Thomas of Monmouth was ultimately unsuccessful in getting William of Norwich canonized as a saint, but did succeed in creating a cult around him in Norwich. From the outset, 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 told him that William’s body should be moved into the Chapter House of the monastery, but Thomas had to battle with the sceptical Prior Elias, who was unconvinced of William’s sanctity. However, the body of William was in fact moved within 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:

Thomas confirmed that William had been  born on 2 February 1132 and that his parents were a local Anglo-Saxon couple, Wenstan and Elviva. Later, William was apprenticed to a skinner and tanner of hides, often visiting homes in and around Norwich, including those in the Jewish quarter to the east of Norwich Castle. Shortly before his murder, William’s mother 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 William’s mother was paid three shillings to let him go. William later visited his aunt in the company of this same man but she was apparently suspicious and asked her daughter to follow the two after they left. William and this man were eventually seen entering the house of a local Jew. This was the last time William was seen alive. It was Holy Tuesday.

According to 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. 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………..” 

Thomas supports this claim further by saying that another converted Jew told him that there was an argument over how to dispose of the body. He also says that a Christian servant woman glimpsed the child through a chink in a door. Then, another man is said to have confessed on his deathbed, years after the events, that he saw a group of Jews transporting a body on a horse in the woods.

On the 22th March 1144, William’s mutilated body was found near the chapel site by a local nun who did not initially contact anyone. Then a forester, named Henry de Sprowston, came across it. He noted injuries which suggested a violent death and the fact that the boy appeared to have been gagged with a wooden ‘teasel’ and was wearing just a jacket and shoes. Was this a sexual assault?

After consultation with the local priest it was decided to bury the body on Easter Monday, two day hence; the position of the grave to be where the body was found. In the meantime, some curious folk came to look at the body, a few recognising William. The next day, being Easter Sunday, members of William’s family arrived to confirm, amongst other things, the identity of the body; one member was said to be a priest. The following day, with proper ceremony, William was buried. Beyond this, Thomas devotes 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. Thomas actively promoted the claims by providing evidence of visions of William and miracles.

The Christians of Norwich, having 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.

St William (With St Adatha)
Depicting St Agatha holding Pincers and a Breast and St William of Norwich with nails in his head. This Panel is from a rood screen originally in the Chapel of St Mary in St John’s Church, Maddermarket, Norwich. It was commissioned by Ralph Segrym, – later Mayor of Norwich and who is buried beneath the nave of the Church. It was painted in Norwich by an unidentified artist in 1450. The screen was removed (date unknown) and is now believed to reside in the V & A museum London.

As part of this promotion, images of William, as a martyr, were created for some churches, generally in the vicinity of Norwich. A panel of painted oak, depicting both William and Agatha of Sicily, 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 Thomas of Monmouth 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 74 who encouraged Thomas of Monmouth 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’. For those who would like a Googled explanation of Blood Libel, it comes from 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 Thomas of Monmouth’s version of William’s death circulated a number of other unsolved child murders were attributed to Jewish conspiracies, including:  This evolved into the so-called blood libel.

St William (Harold-of-Gloucester)
Harold is one of a small group of 12th century English Saints of strikingly similar characteristics: they were all young boys, all mysteriously found dead and all hailed as martyrs to alleged anti-Christian practices among Jews. Contemporary assumptions made about the circumstances of their deaths evolved into the blood libel.
St William (Robert_of_Bury)
15th century illumination depicting the martyrdom of St. Robert of Bury. Top left, a woman seems to be placing Robert’s body in a well; top right, it is lying next to a tree with an archer standing by. The precise meaning of these scenes is unknown. At bottom, a monk prays to Robert’s soul.
St William (Little Hugh)
Hugh of Lincoln (1246 – 1255) was an English boy, whose death was apparently an act of Jewish ritual murder. Hugh is known as Little Saint Hugh to distinguish him from Saint Hugh, otherwise Hugh of Lincoln. The style is often corrupted to Little SirHugh. The boy disappeared on 31 July, and his body was discovered in a well on 29 August.

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The Tradition of Easter Eggs

The egg has long been a symbol of rebirth and fertility. Going back as far as thousands of years, a simple bird’s egg might be given as a gift, often gaudily painted to celebrate the colours and vibrancy that came  with the season of the spring, when the sun god stirred to life again – all long before Christianity.

Easter (Eggs)2

In 1307 Edward I’s household accounts included an entry that said: 18 pence for 459 eggs to be boiled and dyed or covered with gold leaf and distributed to the royal household. (If you want to create your own golden egg, wrap an egg in onion skins, secure firmly with string or rubber bands and then simmer in a pan of water for up to an hour – by which time the egg should be marbled gold.) Then again, you might prefer a more expensive alternative, such as the flawless jewelled eggs created in the nineteenth century by Carl Faberge for the Russian Czar and Czarina, constructed of enamelled platinum shells which each contained a small golden egg.

A Faberge Egg

 

Such a rare and priceless gift is unlikely to find its way into most of our hands this Easter day. But chocolate eggs will be widely held, with many fingers grown sticky and brown – and this melting quality of the confection is what led to the possibility of chocolate taking the form of eggs.

 

Price List for Early Cadbury Easter Eggs

 

The first chocolate eggs were only developed in the early 19th century when, originally in France and Germany, a blend was created that could be shaped. In England, John Cadbury made his first solid eggs in 1842, but it was not until many years later, after a press was successfully used to separate the cocoa butter from the bean, that a finer chocolate was available, and being easy to melt and mould the result was the Cadbury Easter egg of 1875. The first eggs were made of smooth plain chocolate and the insides were filled with dragees but many more designs followed on, with icing and marzipan flowers, and boxes and ribbons to decorate: now become the annual indulgence which is a tradition for all.

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A Miscellaneous Georgian Easter!

By Joanne Major

We herewith present an (admittedly) random selection of Easter snippets from the early 19th century newspapers; a true Easter miscellany.

On the 25th March, 1802, The Treaty of Amiens, which signalled peace between Great Britain and the French Republic, was signed. It was also the signal for a proposed long school holiday for the Eton schoolboys. Do any of our readers know if the Prince of Wales’ request was granted?

His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has interceded with the Head Master of Eton School for extending the Easter holidays of the Etonians a week longer than usual, in consequence of the Peace.

(Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 26th April, 1802)

The following year, with the truce breaking down, and Britain about to declare war on France, while a few of the nobility remained in London, battle-lines were being drawn elsewhere.

The fine weather, and the Easter holidays, scatter a few of our fashionables around the Metropolis, that they may inhale a little fresh air, preparatory to the suffocating routs and balls of May. The SALISBURYS are gone to Hatfield; the ABERCORNS to Stanmore; the DERBYS to the Oaks; the MORTON PITTS to Corfe Castle; Earl ROMNEY to the Mote, near Maidstone; Lord and Lady HOBART to Roehampton; and Lord HAWKESBURY will take the air between Combe and Downing-street, though he may not always be able to take his breath.

(Morning Post, 5th April, 1803)

Tuesday evening a most furious battle took place between a Chimney Sweep and a Jack Ass Driver, at a small fair which is held on the Easter Holidays at the end of Tottenham-court-road. After half and hour’s hard and obstinate fighting, both being beat to that degree that neither was able to stand, they were forced to give up any farther contest.

(Hampshire Chronicle, 18th April, 1803)

The Epping Hunt, or the ‘Cockney Hunt’ was traditionally held on Easter Monday.

Epping Hunt – Monday, at an early hour, the industrious sons of Spitalfields, Bethnal-green, and Whitechapel, disdaining the somnific powers, rose at the blush of Aurora, and prepared for the far-farmed Epping hunt, big with the fate of Cockneys. The road from town to the sportive scene was thronged by hunters of every description. Some were heavily dressed, and others as bare of covering as Meleager when he killed the Calydonian boar. The gallant troop displayed all the colours of gay Iris, and the sable bearings of a chimney-sweeper were often blazoned by the powderings of a barber’s apron. The cattle were composed of horses, asses, and mules, all high in bone and low in flesh; and the pack displayed every class of the canine species, from the bull to the lap-dog.After having regaled with copious libations of geneva, the motley group arrived at The Eagle, Snaresbrook, and other houses contiguous to the forest. A fine stag had been previously carried from a stable. His horns were sawed off, as usual, except the front antlers, which were braided with ribbands, and he was turned out to the mercy of his pursuers, near Buckets-hill. Finding himself at liberty, he dashed into Fairmaid Bottoms and sought refuge in the forest. The scent was then given, and off went the Cockneys,

“Like wind and tide meeting.”

In a few moments the ground was covered with hats, wigs, and the bodies of fat Citizens. Riders were seen looking for their horses, and horses for their riders. The vendors of gin and eatables, who stood prepared for the scene, immediately rushed in to dispose of their ware, and glasses of cordial consoled the downcast hunters for bruises and pain. Several Nimrods, who had pursued the sport of the day in taxed carts, were overthrown with the loss of their wheels, and the confusion which prevailed produced considerable mirth, at the expence of tailors, tallow-chandlers, weavers, and soap boilers, who had not been able to restrain the fury of their vicious kicking donkeys, and mischievous cart-horses. The stag, as usual, escaped from the fury of its unqualified pursuers, and many of the hunters who had lost their horses returned on foot to the Bald-faced Stag, to celebrate their lucky escape from the perils of the chace. After sacrificing at the shrine of the Jolly God, they returned to town.

(Oxford University and City Herald, 8th April, 1809)

At the other end of the social spectrum, Easter Sunday was a chance to promenade in Hyde Park, dressed in your finery, but beware an importune April shower!

HYDE PARK

Owing, no doubt, to the extreme coldness of the weather, the Park yesterday was not so prolific in the display of the Spring fashions as was expected, and is as usual on Easter Sunday. Custom, assuredly, is the arbiter of fashion; but the closer such adheres to nature the better. Long waists, and tight stays, although much worn, are not deserving of panegyric. Natures always looks most beautiful as herself, without capricious whimsicalities of stiff ornament. Among the newest articles in the female costume, we noticed the Polish dress, or pelisse, composed of slate coloured sarsenet; it is made open in front, with a gold bordering, and gold buttons. The bonnet, boots, and redicule, were made of the same materials. Among the fashionable equipages were those belonging to the Duchesses of GRAFTON and LEEDS; Marchionesses of WELLESLEY, LANSDOWNE, and HEADFORT; Ladies CASTLEREAGH, CLONMELL, KINGSTON, MEXBOROUGH, D. SMITH, MANSFIELD, and SEFTON. A sudden storm of hail and snow, about half-past three o’clock, destroyed all the fair beauties of the scene in a moment. The company, male and female, who were in the pedestrian promenade, scampered off at the first approach of the enemy, to seek refuge under any covering, however humble, so that it afforded them a secure retreat from the pitiless element. The Park was completely deserted during the after part of the day.

(Morning Post, 3rd April, 1809)

Easter was also a time for Balls; the ones held at the Mansion House in London being particularly spectacular:

The decorations and alterations making at the Mansion-house for the Easter ball are extremely splendid. A carpeting is made to imitate a gravel walk, and each side of the avenues leading to the Egyptian-hall will be ornamented with orange trees, and flowering shrubs.

The Prince of Wales has accepted the invitation of the Lord Mayor to dine and the Mansion-house on Easter Monday. This will be the first public visit ever made by his Royal Highness into the City, and the only instance, for many reigns, of an Heir Apparent going there on such occasion.

(Bury and Norwich Post, 14th April, 1802)

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Yesterday John Hawkins, an extra constable, was charged before the LORD MAYOR with concealing a diamond drop, which he found at the Mansion House on Monday night, at the Easter Ball, the property of the Duchess of GORDON, being part of a pair of elegant diamond ear-rings worn by her Grace that day, value above five hundred guineas, and for the recovery of which a reward was advertised.

Mrs. HORSFALL, of the Mansion House Coffee-house, stated, that she saw a constable have such an article in his possession that night, which he said he had picked up in the Mansion House, and described the man, from which circumstance he was discovered. The prisoner at first denied it, but the diamond drop being found, he pretended not to know the value of it. His Lordship, conceiving that he detained it with a felonious intent, fully committed him to take his trial for the same.

(Morning Post, 11th April, 1806)

And if you were attending such a Ball, then, as a fashionable lady, you would need to look your best.

THE EASTER BALL and GALA will be particularly grand in Honour of the Regency, and as the Ladies will appear with extreme lustre on this occasion, it certainly accounts for the present great demand for HUBERT’S ROSEATE POWDER, which effectually removes superfluous hairs on the face, neck and arms, and highly improves the whiteness, delicacy and softness of the skin, thus bestowing a new charm on natural beauty. – May be had of the Proprietor, 23 Russell-street, Covent-Garden; Rigge, 35, and Overton, 47, Bond-street; Dunnett, 3, Cheapside; Davison, 59, Fleet-street, Thorn, 45, Oxford-street; Bowling and Co. 38, Blackman-street, Borough; Harding and Co. 89, Pall-mall; and of all Perfumers. – 4s. and 7s.

(Morning Chronicle, 8th April, 1811)

And we end with the best Easter Gift, (although personally, as chocoholic’s, we’d rather have an Easter egg . . . ), and an Irish Easter cake.

The best Easter Gift, a present to a young Lady, is a Ticket in TOMKINS’S Picture Lottery; which are selling in New Bond-street at Three Guineas each; and a red ticket and a black ticket are sure to gain a prize.

(Morning Post, 25th April, 1821)

CURIOUS CUSTOM – In Ireland, at Easter, a cake, with a garland of meadow flowers, is elevated upon a circular board upon a pike, apples being stuck upon pegs around the garland. Men and women then dance round, and they who hold out longest win the prize.

(Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 17th December, 1825)

THE END

The Pagan Origins of Easter

Is it worth mentioning that Easter is both a festival for western Christian religions and a holiday for both those with an ecumenical bent and for those of a more secular disposition? Maybe not for we know that for many it is a win win situation, the best of both worlds as they say.

The religious know that Easter is a celebration in honour of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, as described in the New Testament as having occurred three days after his crucifixion at Calvary. It is also the weekend when children excitedly wait for the Easter bunny to arrive, along with the delivery of their chocolate egg treat.

Easter is, as everyone knows, is a ‘movable feast’ which corresponds with the first Sunday following the full moon after the March equinox. It therefore occurs on different dates around the world because western churches use the Gregorian calendar, while eastern churches use the Julian calendar. So where did this ‘movable feast’ begin, and what are the origins of the traditions and customs celebrated on this important day around the world?

Christian’s today celebrate Easter Sunday as the resurrection of Jesus. Image source.

Most historians, including Biblical scholars, agree that Easter was originally a pagan festival and the word Easter is of Saxon origin, namely, Eastra, the goddess of spring, in whose honour sacrifices were offered at Passover time each year. By the eighth century Anglo–Saxons had adopted the name to designate the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. However, even among those who maintain that Easter has pagan roots, there is some disagreement over which pagan tradition the festival emerged from. Here we will explore some of those perspectives.

Resurrection as a symbol of rebirth

One theory that has been put forward is that the Easter story of crucifixion and resurrection is symbolic of rebirth and renewal and retells the cycle of the seasons, the death and return of the sun.

According to some, the Easter story comes from the Sumerian legend of Damuzi (Tammuz) and his wife Inanna (Ishtar), an epic myth called “The Descent of Inanna” found inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets dating back to 2100 BC. When Tammuz dies, Ishtar is grief–stricken and follows him to the underworld. In the underworld, she enters through seven gates, and her worldly attire is removed. “Naked and bowed low” she is judged, killed, and then hung on display. In her absence, the earth loses its fertility, crops cease to grow and animals stop reproducing. Unless something is done, all life on earth will end.

After Inanna has been missing for three days her assistant goes to other gods for help. Finally one of them Enki, creates two creatures who carry the plant of life and water of life down to the Underworld, sprinkling them on Inanna and Damuzi, resurrecting them, and giving them the power to return to the earth as the light of the sun for six months. After the six months are up, Tammuz returns to the underworld of the dead, remaining there for another six months, and Ishtar pursues him, prompting the water god to rescue them both. Thus were the cycles of winter death and spring life.

The Descent of Inanna. Image source.

Drawing parallels between the story of Jesus and the epic of Inanna “does not mean that there wasn’t a real person, Jesus, who was crucified, but rather that the story about it is structured and embellished in accordance with a pattern that was very ancient and widespread.”

The Sumerian goddess Inanna is known outside of Mesopotamia by her Babylonian name, “Ishtar”. In ancient Canaan, Ishtar is known as Astarte, and her counterparts in the Greek and Roman pantheons are known as Aphrodite and Venus. In the 4th Century, when Christians identified the exact site in Jerusalem where the empty tomb of Jesus had been located, they selected the spot where a temple of Aphrodite (Astarte/Ishtar/Inanna) stood. The temple was torn down and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built, the holiest church in the Christian world.

The story of Inanna and Damuzi is just one of a number of accounts of dying and rising gods that represent the cycle of the seasons and the stars. For example, the resurrection of Egyptian Horus; the story of Mithras, who was worshipped at Springtime; and the tale of Dionysus, resurrected by his grandmother. Among these stories are prevailing themes of fertility, conception, renewal, descent into darkness, and the triumph of light over darkness or good over evil.

Easter as a celebration of the Goddess of Spring

A related perspective is that, rather than being a representation of the story of Ishtar, Easter was originally a celebration of Eostre, goddess of Spring, otherwise known as Ostara, Austra, and Eastre. One of the most revered aspects of Ostara for both ancient and modern observers is a spirit of renewal.

Easter (Ostara)
Eostre, goddess of Spring, otherwise known as Ostara, Austra or Eastre.

Celebrated at Spring Equinox on March 21, Ostara marks the day when light is equal to darkness, and will continue to grow. As the bringer of light after a long dark winter, the goddess was often depicted with the hare, an animal that represents the arrival of spring as well as the fertility of the season. The idea of resurrection was ingrained within the celebration of Ostara: “Ostara, Eástre and seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of up-springing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the christian’s God.

Most analyses of the origin of the word ‘Easter’ maintain that it was named after a goddess mentioned by the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede, who wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, translated in Bede’s time as “Paschal month”) was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”.

The origins of Easter customs

The most widely-practiced customs on Easter Sunday relate to the symbol of the rabbit (‘Easter bunny’) and the egg.  As outlined previously, the rabbit was a symbol associated with Eostre, representing the beginning of Springtime. Likewise, the egg has come to represent Spring, fertility and renewal.  In Germanic mythology, it is said that Ostara healed a wounded bird she found in the woods by changing it into a hare. Still partially a bird, the hare showed its gratitude to the goddess by laying eggs as gifts.

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Ostara/Eostre

The Encyclopedia Britannica clearly explains the pagan traditions associated with the egg: “The egg as a symbol of fertility and of renewed life goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who had also the custom of colouring and eating eggs during their spring festival.” In ancient Egypt, an egg symbolised the sun, while for the Babylonians, the egg represents the hatching of the Venus Ishtar, who fell from heaven to the Euphrates.

Relief with Phanes, c. 2nd century A.D. Orphic god Phanes emerging from the cosmic egg, surrounded by the zodiac. Image source.

In many Christian traditions, the custom of giving eggs at Easter celebrates new life. Christians remember that Jesus, after dying on the cross, rose from the dead, showing that life could win over death. For Christians the egg is a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection, as when they are cracked open, they stand for the empty tomb. Regardless of the very ancient origins of the symbol of the egg, most people agree that nothing symbolises renewal more perfectly than the egg – round, endless, and full of the promise of life.

While many of the pagan customs associated with the celebration of Spring were at one stage practised alongside Christian Easter traditions, they eventually came to be absorbed within Christianity, as symbols of the resurrection of Jesus.  The First Council of Nicaea (325) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the March equinox.

Whether it is observed as a religious holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or a time for families in the northern hemisphere to enjoy the coming of Spring and celebrate with egg decorating and Easter bunnies, the celebration of Easter still retains the same spirit of rebirth and renewal, as it has for thousands of years.

Text after April Holloway

March Hares & Witches

The Customs and Traditons of Spring

The ‘Spring’ or ‘Vernal Equinox’, which was once called ‘Ostara’, occurs on either 20th, 21st or 22nd March when the sun enters ‘Aries’ according to the Earth’s orbit and the insertion of leap years. The Spring Equinox marks the time when the sun crosses the celestial equator northwards or the ‘half way point’ resulting in equal twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night. At the equinox the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west after which the daylight hours grow increasingly longer until the sun reaches its highest point in the sky at the ‘Summer Solstice’, which occurs in June. 

The Oestra Hare in folklore and tradition

Have you ever wondered how the symbol of the rabbit became associated with the Easter Festival? The origin of the Easter Bunny probably goes back to the festival’s connection with the pagan goddess Eostre.

Eostre (sometimes spelt Oestre) was a fertility goddess from whom we derive the word “oestrogen” and she is closely associated with fertility symbols such as eggs. The rabbit is known as a highly fertile creature and hence an obvious choice for Easter symbolism.

In fact the use of the rabbit is probably a mistake – the Easter “bunny” is more likely to have been a hare, since it is the hare that is usually considered the sacred creature of Eostre.

Pagan fertility festivals at the time of the Spring equinox were common. It was believed that at this time, when day and night were of equal length, male and female energies were also in balance.

The hare is often associated with moon goddesses; the egg and the hare together represent the god and the goddess respectively.  The earliest known reference to our modern Easter Bunny tradition appears to be from 16th century Germany. In the 18th century, German settlers to America brought the tradition with them. The Bunny was known by them as Oschter Haws (a corruption of the German Osterhase ) and brought gifts of chocolate, sweets and Easter Eggs to good children. Often children would make up nests for Oschter Haws, sometimes using their Easter bonnets, and the Bunny would leave his treats there. 

Witch Hares

It is because of this strong connection with pagan traditions that Hares were strongly associated with witches and witchcraft in Christian times. People claimed that a witch could shape shift her form at night and become a hare. These solitary creatures, rarely seen, sometimes standing on their hind legs like a person, aroused suspicion. When in distress they uttered a strange, almost human-like cry, which gave the animal a supernatural quality. For its behaviour would mimic that of a supposed witch. In this form she stole milk or food, or destroyed crops. Others insisted that hares were only witches’ familiars.

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Georgians Socialising at Easter

With Easter almost here, how about we share with you some snippets about the way Georgians spent their Easter as shown in  a few extracts from the newspapers of the day – partying being the most obvious! Let us begin with a letter of complaint, clearly, from someone who didn’t appreciate many of the celebrations that took place during the year and felt it appropriate to vent annoyance to the editor of the Whitehall Evening Post – focusing on a section about Easter…..…

Whitehall Evening Post (1770), August 2, 1783 – August 5, 1783

Some things customary refer simply to the idea of feasting, according to the season and occasion. Of these, perhaps, are lambs-wool on Christmas eve; furmety on Mothering Sunday; Braggot (which is a mixture of ale, sugar and spices) at the festival of Easter … lamb at Easter to the Paschal Lamb. This, perhaps, may be the case also with respect to pancakes on Shrove Tuesday; unless that shall be supposed to allude to ‘the egg at Easter’ an emblem of the rising up out of the grave; in the same manner as the chick, entombed as it were in the egg, is in due time brought to life. So also the flowers, with which many churches are ornamented on Easter-day, are most probably intended as emblems of the resurrection having just risen from the earth during the severity of winter, they seem to have been buried.

 A custom, which ought to be abolished as improper and indecent, prevails in many places of lifting, as it is called, on Easter Monday and Tuesday. Is this a memorial of Christ being raised from the grave? There is, at least some appearance of it; as there seems to be trace of the decent of the Holy Ghost on the heads of the Apostles in what passes at Whitsuntide fair in some parts of Lancashire; where one person hold a stick over the head of another, whilst a third, unperceived, strikes the stick, and thus gives a smart blow to the first. But this, probably is only local.

 The Hampshire Chronicle, Sunday, March 31, 1788

Of the multitude of customs and ceremonies which formerly commanded attention at this season, but very few are preserved; it is however, universally considered as a time appropriate to recreation and innocent festivity. Amongst the common people it is even now a custom in the North to rise early, in order to see the sun dance. We suppose this o have arisen from some metaphorical expression in the sacred writings. Boys carry a vessel of water into the fields, that the sun may seem to dance from the tremulous motion of the water.

Georgian Easter (eggs)
Pasche Eggs

Paper eggs, properly pasche eggs, are stained of different colors and covered with gold leaf, and given to young children in the North of England as a fairing. This is a relic of Popish superstition; an egg being considered a type of the resurrection. This custom prevails in Russia; a long account may be seen in Hackluyt’s voyages. Dr. Chandler also in his travels in Asia Minor says ‘they made us presents of coloured eggs and cakes of Easter bread’.

(It was a family tradition to make pasche eggs for Easter by binding the flowers to eggs with strips of sheeting then boiling the eggs in onion skins.  The flowers would act as a resist, creating prints on the hardboiled eggs.) – To continue:

Durand says, that on Easter Tuesday wives used to beat their husbands, on the day following when husbands beat their wives.

 

Thomas Girtin (1775ー1802) Durham Cathedral and Castle(c.1800)

In the city of Durham the following custom is still preserved: On one day the men take off the women’s shoes, which are only to be redeemed by a small present. On another day the women take off the men’s in a like manner.

Tansy

In Yorkshire tansy puddings and cakes are made, which custom Seldon, in his ‘Table Talk‘, has referenced to the bitter herbs which the Jews greatly use at this season. At Newcastle, on Easter Monday a great match is always played at hand ball for a great tansy cake.

Many other incidents might be enumerated, most of which are obsolete, and many generally forgotten; we sincerely however regret, that the memory of anything should be lost, which, by introducing innocent merriment, strengthens the sweet bond of social life.

 The Hampshire Chronicle, Monday, April 28, 1794

Westminster Abbey and Bridge from Horseferry, Lambeth, British School; Government Art Collection

Greenwich

The belles and beaux, from the fineness of the weather, exceeded far, very far, any number that ever were seen at that favourite spot. From six to eight o’clock, on their return to London, it was one continued throng of holiday people of all ranks and descriptions, from Greenwich park to Westminster bridge. There was no resisting the torrent; and many an honest young woman who was so yesterday morning, will have fatal cause to repent, before this day twelvemonth, the frolic of tumbling down the hill in the park – drunkenness, riots, battles and thefts, as usual, dignified the proceedings. Not less than one hundred thousand persons were present.

Londoners Gypsying (The Family Holiday Party, in Epping Forest, near London) by Charles Robert Leslie, 1820; The Geffrye, Museum of the Home

Epping Forest

At ten in the morning, at least ten thousand equestrians and pedestrians were upon the forest: every species of vehicle from the hand cart and buggy to the light waggon and splendid chariot was there. At one, the stag, bedecked with ribbons was turned out on Fairmaid Bottom – and then the fun began, with running, riding, crossing, jostling, tumbling, hooting, shouting, screaming and howling; which formed the scene that may be seen, but cannot possibly be described, and that indeed never before was exhibited but in a nation of madmen. At four, the stag was at bay in a thicket, near the Royal Oak and was taken and put in a cart and with continual shouts was brought to the starting house in order to afford fresh sport in future.

Easter Monday, or, The cockney hunt Rowlandson 1807 Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

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Traditions of a Joyous Easter

Easter traditionally is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after his death and is considered to be one of the most important Christian dates in the calendar. In Christianity, the celebration of Easter (or Eastertide) and the giving of Easter eggs symbolises the empty tomb of Jesus, or the stone of the tomb over his cave.

Looking further back, Pagans believe that the name ‘Easter’ is derived from ‘Eostre’, the name of the Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess. Eostre’s feast day was held on the first full moon following the vernal equinox, a similar calculation to Easter among Western Christians. On this day, the goddess Eostre is believed by her followers to mate with the solar god, conceiving a child who would be born 9 months later on Yule, the winter solstice.

Two of Eostre’s most important symbols were the hare because of its fertility, and the egg, which symbolised new life. Ancient people also reportedly saw a hare in the full moon. The Easter Bunny nowadays carries on the theme, representing fertility and life. From both a Christian and Pagan perspective, eggs in general are a traditional symbol of fertility and rebirth.

Western Christianity

Easter is preceded by Lent, a period of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter, which begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts forty days. The week before Easter, known as Holy Week, includes Palm Sunday and also Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Many Christians abstained from eating meat during the Lenten season prior to Easter. Easter was the first chance to enjoy eggs and meat after the long abstinence. Easter celebrations were reported widely in the Victorian press. Here we see The Illustrated London News of 1844 reporting the Pope washing the feet of poor Priests on Maundy Thursday and on Palm Sunday.

Holy Thursday – The Pope washing the feet of poor priests
The Holy Week in Rome – Palm Sunday
Easter Sunday – The Pope blessing the people from the portico of St. Peter’s.
Palm Sunday in Spitalfields

Hot Cross Buns

The Hot Cross Bun is traditionally eaten on Good Friday in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, but is now popular all year round. In many historically Christian countries, buns are traditionally eaten hot or toasted during Lent, beginning with the evening of Shrove Tuesday (the evening before Ash Wednesday) to midday Good Friday, with the ‘cross’ standing as a symbol of the Crucifixion.

In English folklore, there are many superstitions regarding this particular bun. Buns baked or served on Good Friday were believed to last through the year, and giving someone a piece of hot cross bun were said to help people recover from illness. Sharing a hot cross bun with someone will ensure a lasting friendship throughout the year, and buns taken on a sea voyage will protect against a shipwreck. Finally, if a hot cross bun is hung in the kitchen, this will protect against fires and ensure all bread turns out in a perfect condition!

Easter Lily

For many, these beautiful trumpet-shaped white flowers symbolize purity, virtue, innocence, hope and life— the true themes of Easter.

Easter Eggs

John Cadbury

The earliest Easter eggs were hen or duck eggs decorated in bright colours with vegetable dye and charcoal. A notation in the household accounts of Edward I of England showed an expenditure of eighteen pence for 450 eggs to be gold-leafed and coloured for Easter gifts. The 17th and 18th centuries saw the manufacture of egg-shaped toys, given as Easter gifts.

Germany first made chocolate eggs for Easter in the 19th century. The French closely followed in the new tradition. As techniques for mass-producing chocolate were still some way off, the first chocolate eggs were a painstaking process. Nowadays, 90 million chocolate eggs are sold each year in the UK. Recent statistics show each child receives an average of 8.8 Easter eggs per year! Sales at Easter time make up 10% of UK chocolate sales for the whole year.

One of the major businesses behind the development of chocolate Easter Eggs in Britain was Cadbury’s. Cadbury’s was founded almost 200 years ago. The Cadbury family themselves were a fairly affluent family of Quakers from the West Country. John Cadbury opened the first Cadbury shop in Bull Street Birmingham in 1824, selling cocoa and drinking chocolate that he prepared himself. The Cadbury tea, coffee and cocoa business was initially run by the brothers, John and Benjamin Cadbury. Their father was a linen draper as can be found in the comprehensive details in the nonconformist collection on TheGenealogist. The records contain a copy of the index of John Cadbury’s birth record, as well as a certificate for his birth.

John Cadbury’s birth record in the index
John Cadbury’s birth certificate
The Cadbury Brother’s in White’s
1849 Directory for Birmingham

John Cadbury made his first ‘French eating chocolate’ in 1842, but it was not until 1875 that the first Cadbury Easter eggs were produced, by his sons, Richard and George Cadbury who had taken over the business. The earliest eggs were made with dark chocolate and had a smooth, plain surface. They were filled with sugar-coated drops. Later the Cadbury Easter eggs were decorated and had their plain shells enhanced with chocolate piping and marzipan flowers.

The mass production of Easter Eggs was only developed on a larger scale with the invention of a method for making the chocolate flow into moulds. Once this was developed the industry was in a position to market the chocolate Easter Eggs to a mass market.

We can find the Cadbury Brothers listed in the Directories collections on TheGenealogist. The 1849 White’s Directory for Birmingham shows the Cadbury Brothers as they build up their tea and coffee business.

Here the business features in an advert in The Illustrated London News in 1878. The developments in cocoa and chocolate are documented in great detail!

Extract from The Illustrated London News

Happy Easter!