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
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Overview: It is possible to take the story of roofless buildings, grass-covered streets and redundant houses back to the decline of Roman cities and villas in Britain during the fourth and fifth centuries; or, indeed, the abandonment of the farms founded to replace them in the countryside during the Anglo-Saxon period. However, those that were deserted from around 1300 until fairly recent times hold more interest, if only because a few have left traces of their existence in the modern landscape, and some can be visited. A good example is the lost village of Godwick in Norfolk.
By the year 1100, Whilst concentrations of houses and people in villages with between 12 and 50 dwellings had developed in many parts of Britain by the year 1100, here in East Anglia most people lived in hamlets or scattered farms. Generally, villages such as these thrived through the cultivation of grain in open fields, and gradually grew in size until about 1300. Then, they began to run into trouble when the rural population fell in the 14th century. This meant that less grain was needed whilst at the same time prices dropped. This problem was made worst when the peasant occupiers tried to adjust their farming by bringing in more animals which, in turn, lead to disputes with neighbours over so called grazing rights. As a result, some families moved out and their heirs failed to take over their parents’ holdings of land. Sometimes, the balance tipped completely over to pasture, making the cultivators redundant.
It must have been from around 1380 and until the early 16th century when many villages were either deserted or reduced to a survivable level. Here, many reasons came into play. Sometimes the problems were internal, from maybe ambitious peasants who took over their neighbours’ land, drove hundreds of sheep over the common fields, and discouraged newcomers from moving in. All this made for communities to become quarrelsome and fractious, often dooming them to failure. Then there were lords of the village, or their agents such as the farmers who managed the lord’s own share of the village fields; they killed off some villages by expanding their own flocks and herds, forcing tenants out, or buying up land. In many cases, after a period of decay, the landlord removed the remaining vestiges of a once-thriving community in order to profit from the wool and meat that could be reared on the site.
The problems of outward migration, land being concentrated in fewer hands and lords pursuing higher profits only made matters worse for villages. Then, to cap it all, along came the owners of stately homes who launched their own attacks on villages which they considered to be in the wrong place. Here, the gentry were often blamed for removing villages that ‘spoilt the view’ when creating their landscape parks. However, in their defence, some of the villages that were removed were often in poor health by the time this landscaping was taking place.
Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village” published in 1770, condemned rural depopulation, the enclosure of common land and the pursuit of excessive wealth. After describing a nameless deserted village as ‘Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain”, Goldsmith then decries its current parlous state, abandoned by villagers, its buildings ruined:
“Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall;
And trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,
Far, far away thy children leave the land
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.’
So, what remains of these deserted villages? Occasionally a ruined building marks the site. Yet these are usually part of a castle, manor house or church as they would have been the only stone structures in the village. A typical peasant house may have had a low, stone foundation wall, but was built mainly of timber and wattle and daub, with a thatched roof, which either decayed or was carried away to be recycled when the village was abandoned. Yet today all is not lost. The sites of houses are usually visible as grassed-over foundations or platforms on which the building stood. Roads and lanes as sunken hollow ways can sometimes be seen, while the boundaries of the enclosures (tofts) in which the houses stood are sometimes marked by banks and ditches.
Once the village had gone, the lord often built a mansion on or near the site. It is in the fields surrounding these mansions that you can sometimes identify the grassed-over banks and hollows of walkways, flower beds and water features which formed part of the garden that occupied the site of the village. Look closely and you might see the prospect mounds (for visitors to view the garden) or the pillow mounds for rabbit warrens. Reminds one of Godwick.
The History of Godwick: Godwick today is a deserted village in the county of Norfolk. Its location is south of Fakenham between the villages of Tittleshall and Whissonsett. There are several hundred deserted or ‘shrunken’ medieval villages in Norfolk, but most sites have long been destroyed by ploughing, the pressures of two world wars or other agricultural uses. Only a few still have impressive surface remains; the earthworks at Godwick being one of the best preserved. It can be found in an area that became pasture in the 16th Century, not long after the last few villagers departed, and remained being grazed by sheep ever since; this has meant that the ground has never been disturbed from deep ploughing or flattened for cultivation. Today it is one of the best surviving examples in the county and the only one open to the public.
The place-name ‘Godwick’ derives from Old English and probably means ‘Goda’s farm’ and objects found in the surrounding fields suggest that the village was founded in the Anglo-Saxon period. In 1086 Godwick was held by Ralph de Tosny and he granted it to West Acre Priory, in whose hands it remained until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. It then passed between families until it was bought by Sir Edward Coke in 1590 and remained in the Coke family until they sold it to the current owners in the 1950s. Throughout the Middle Ages Godwick was a stable community, but fell out of use in the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, being almost completely abandoned by 1586, when the Old Hall was built and gardens and a park laid out around it. The Great Barn was built in 1597 with the church tower converted into a folly soon afterwards. Both were an important part of a very early landscape park.
All Saints church at Godwick was abandoned when the village died but Godwick remained a distinct parish in its own right until absorbed into that of Tittleshall. To be exact, Wellingham, Tittleshall and Godwick were consolidated into one parish in 1630 and in 1845 the combined parish of Tittleshall-Cum-Godwick contained 615 inhabitants, 124 houses and 3360 acres of land – about 300 acres of which was woods and wastes – nearly all of which belonged to the Earl of Leicester (Coke). The joint benefices were valued, at that time, at £871 per annum. Godwick itself consisted of only two farms. St Mary’s church at Tittleshall sheds light on a dark history as it contains monuments to Norfolk’s famous Coke family. Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice under James I and originator of the Coke family fortune, enshrined into law in 1628 the dictum that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’.
Godwick’s decline and fall: Whilst the 12th and 13th centuries saw a gradual increase in Norfolk’s population, with people seeking new areas to settle, Godwick’s population was never to become large, mainly because the heavy clay soils thereabout were difficult to cultivate. Then the Black Death reached Norfolk in 1349 and may have killed over a third of the County’s population. However, this epidemic was not solely to blame for the fall in numbers, either throughout Norfolk or in Godwick itself; that began in previous decades with poor harvests, agricultural problems, and a colder, wetter climate. Many village abandonments – although not Godwick – were the result of clearance of depleted villages by greedy landowners who wanted land put to grass. Others just faded slowly away, which seems to have been the case with Godwick.
It had always been a small place and, although a relatively stable community, was never a prosperous one. In 1086, only 14 peasants were recorded in the Domesday Book and the village paid a modest amount of taxation in 1334, which declined as the community continued to shrink in the 15th century. In 1428 there were less than 10 households in Godwick and by 1508 a survey showed that of 18 properties on the north side of the main street, 11 were empty and three had no land holdings attached. The same survey showed that a church lay to the south and there was also a watermill with a millpond. By 1525 only five households paid tax when the village was, in reality, already ceasing to exist. By 1595 further decay left Godwick virtually deserted. Its final stages of decay were recorded in an estate map of 1596 when only three or four houses remained and the church tower had collapsed.
The land had been bought in the 1580s by Edward Coke. By 1585 he had built a large manor house in Godwick, as shown on a map of the village in 1596; by this time there was almost nothing left of the original village. The manor house was adjoined by a huge brick barn. The barn still stands, although the manor house was demolished in 1962, but can still be seen in outline. The barn was restored and is now used for wedding receptions.
The Church of All Saints was demolished early in the 17th Century, apart from the 13th Century tower which was retained by Coke as a folly – it is the only original building left. The churchyard looks a little raised now with the village’s medieval inhabitants still buried beneath.
Again, Goldsmith words are a suitable epitaph for the demise of a once vibrant village:
‘No more the farmer’s news, the barber’s tale,
No more the woodman’s ballad shall prevail;
No more the smith his dusky brow shall clear,
Relax his ponderous strength, and lean to hear;
The host himself no longer shall be found
Careful to see the mantling bliss go round;
Nor the coy maid, half willing to be prest,
Shall kiss the cup to pass it to the rest.’
Present Site Description: What remains of the medieval village today, consists of a long sunken hollow way running east to west with two other roads running off to the south. This defines the main village street, with the banks and ditches defining the closes in which houses stood. These well-preserved earthworks are not often seen in Norfolk, mainly because so many sites have been ploughed up in modern times. Along both sides of the street can be seen banks and ditches separating individual house plots. About ten of these still remain to be seen. The long street itself indicates that the elongated plan – the one-street village – was an established feature in East Anglia. Another recurring feature is the early modern garden visible around the existing house, with a deep hollow way and a series of rectangular enclosures. This reflects the effects of the wealthy landowner on the landscape after the village had gone.
The church ruin stands within a similar enclosure at an angle between the streets. At the eastern end of the site, the village street runs along what was a dam to hold back a millpond; a small watermill once stood at the far end. The line of the dam is now covered by farm buildings. The 13th-century church tower had been raised as a brick and flint folly when the church was pulled down in the 17th century. This folly may well have formed part of a scheme of landscape architecture for the later Godwick Manor. In 1981 a remaining part of the church tower survived a collapse and inspection of it found evidence of a Norman church amongst the rubble. Also, still to be seen on the site is a large 13th-century red-brick barn with an elaborate façade, built over the line of the street. During the reign of Charles II, 200 men were garrisoned there and although access is barred, it is possible to walk round it and enjoy its beautiful windows.
In 1585, in the middle of the deserted village, Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice and Attorney General to Elizabeth I, built a fine brick manor house. The ruins of that house, which was E-shaped with an impressive two-storey porch and windows, were pulled down in 1962. Its square outline can still just about be picked out as slight humps in the grass. It had a walled yard and entrance to the north, and around the Hall a pattern of formal gardens and enclosures was laid out. Admiral Sir William Hoste, whilst born at Ingoldisthorpe, lived as a very young child at Godwick Manor. The Manor had been leased from Thomas Coke, the eventual 1st Earl of Leicester of Holkham Hall by his father, the Reverend Dixon Hoste (1750–1805) who was rector of Tittleshall and Godwick at the time.
The Godwick earthworks are a Scheduled Ancient Monument and there is an agreement between the present owner and English Heritage over the opening and the management of the site, which is open between April and September from 9:30 am until dusk and visitors are free to wander in the daytime, though dogs should be kept on leads and the Country Code observed. On site there are information panels with displays of aerial photographs, maps and interpretation plans of this lost village. Visitors are warned that it is an offence to disturb the site or use metal detectors without the written permission of English Heritage.
So, there you have it. Amateur historians and landscape enthusiasts can freely walk in the sunken remains of the Godwick village streets, trace outlines of medieval buildings, and marvel at the spectral ruins of the church still standing.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), 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.
Legend has it that a tunnel once ran between Greyfriars Priory and the curious and somewhat mysterious Red Mount Chapel in Kings Lynn. Another tunnel, now bricked-up, was also thought to have connected the Priory to the White Hart pub, both in St. James Street. The pub itself is supposed to be haunted by a monk. While the Red Mount Chapel is a unique structure, about which opinion has always been divided; nothing is left of the 13th century Franciscan Priory except the lofty Greyfriars Lantern Tower.
Now, for some reason, the ramblings of the Yorkshire soothsayer Mother Shipton (c.1488-1561) used to be very popular with the country folk of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. And somehow, the old Fenmen reckoned that she was responsible for the prophecy and belief that, when royalty visited the Theatre Royal in St. James’ Street, the Greyfriars Lantern Tower mentioned above would collapse on to it. Since the Theatre wasn’t even opened until 1815, one has to wonder how Mother Shipton’s name ever got attached to this myth. The slight lean that the tower had for years was corrected in 2006, while the Theatre Royal, which burned down in 1936 and was then rebuilt, is now a bingo hall. While the Queen has visited King’s Lynn many times, it seems unlikely that she will ever pop in for a game of bingo.
The structure of the Red Mount Chapel is, unsurprisingly, of red brick; it is octagonal and buttressed, with an inner rectangular core that projects above the roof. It consists not of one chapel, but two – one possibly of 13th century vintage, the other being the ‘Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount’, built by Robert Corraunce upon the steep-sided artificial mound in about 1485. This second chapel was probably put there to house a holy relic of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and tradition tells of pilgrims halting at this place on their way to Walsingham. Despite the beginnings of the Red Mount Chapel being set around the 1300’s, there is reason to believe that an earlier edifice also stood here; this thought is even more probable because the mound itself was once known as Guanock Hill – ‘guanock’ or ‘gannock’ being an old local word meaning a beacon.
A tunnel is said to lead from the Red Mount to a door in the gatehouse at Castle Rising, some four miles to the north-east. This castle was built in the 12th century by William de Albini, and a considerable amount of the structure still remains today. In 1331 Isabella, the widow of King Edward II, was brought to the castle by her son and ‘allegedly’ imprisoned for her part in Mortimer’s rebellion. However, she wasn’t even under house arrest because she travelled quite freely in this country and abroad. It has been said that she was jailed there until her death in 1358, then buried in Rising church. Thus, Edward III was believed to have used the tunnel on many occasions to secretly visit his mother. However, she actually died at Hertford Castle and was almost certainly buried at Greyfriars in London.
The historian of Lynn, Mr. E. M. Beloe, dug at the Red Mount and found that the supposed tunnel came to a halt after only a few feet, at an outer door which had long been buried beneath the soil of the mound. The door in the castle was likewise no more than one of two entrances to an inner stairway. As in other subterranean tales, a drunken fiddler and his dog are said to have tried to explore the tunnel, and were never seen again!
Another tunnel supposedly comes to Lynn from the site of the former medieval bishop’s palace where Gaywood Hall now stands, in an eastern suburb of the town. A brick arch uncovered in a trench along Blackfriars Road was claimed by one old man to be evidence of this, while another is said to have dug up a tunnel on the same line during the last century, but veering towards the Red Mount. A sewer and a covered-up reservoir may have been the basis for this tale.
The so-called ‘Exorcist’s House’ stands in Chapel Lane, next to St. Nicholas’ church and is of 17th century vintage; possibly it once was a medieval Bishop’s House in which an exorcist, who was employed by the church clergy, once lived. Some believe that a subterranean passage – allegedly used by the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins – runs from there to the 17th century St. Anne’s House – now demolished.
In St. James Street is the White Hart pub, radically rebuilt in the mid-19th century, but dating from at least 200 years earlier. A shadowy, hooded figure that haunts the pub is said to be a ghostly monk, who has passed through a legendary tunnel from St. Margaret’s church in the Saturday Market Place.
Today, the medieval St. George’s Guildhall in King Street is the home to an arts centre, coffee shop, and other businesses, but beneath it is an actual tunnel (now stopped-up and dry), through which merchants brought goods from their boats on the nearby Great Ouse river. Vaulted under crofts exist here and beneath former medieval warehouses along King Street as far as the Tuesday Market Place, but it seems to be rumoured only because other tunnels honeycomb the area.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), 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.
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!
Anglo-Saxon tradition dictated that at the beginning of each year, the lord of the manor would greet the assembled multitude with the toast waes hael, meaning“be well” or “be in good health”, to which his followers would reply drink hael, or “drink well”, and so the New Year celebrations would start with a glass or two, or perhaps even a drop more! It is likely that such celebrations were being enjoyed many years before Christianity began to spread throughout Britain from around 600 onwards.
Depending upon the area of the country where you lived, the wassail drink itself would generally consist of a warmed ale, wine or cider, blended with spices, honey and perhaps an egg or two, all served in one huge bowl and passed from one person to the next with the traditional “wassail” greeting.
The Wassailing celebrations generally take place on the Twelfth Night, 5th January, however the more traditional still insist in celebrating it on ‘Old Twelvey’, or the 17th January, the correct date; that is before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar messed things up in 1752.
There are two distinct variations of wassailing. One involves groups of merrymakers going from one house to another, wassail bowl in hand, singing traditional songs and generally spreading fun and good wishes. The other form of wassailing is generally practiced in the countryside, particularly in fruit growing regions, where it is the trees that are blessed.
The practice of house-wassailing continued in England throughout the Middle Ages, adapting as a way by which the feudal lord of the manor could demonstrate charitable seasonal goodwill to those who served him, by gifting money and food in exchange for the wassailers blessing and songs;
“Love and joy come to you,
and to you your wassail to;
and God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.”
The house-wassailing tradition has evolved into what we now recognise as carolling, where groups of people go from door-to-door singing Christmas carols. Some aspects of the original practise however can still be detected in the words of these carols; listen carefully as the wassailers demands begin, “now give us some figgy pudding”, and then as those demands turn to threats “and we won’t go until we’ve got some”.
The wassailing, or blessing of the fruit trees, involves drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they will provide a bountiful harvest in the autumn. This ancient custom is still practised across the country today, and is particularly popular in the cider producing areas of England, such as Somerset, Devon, Herefordshire, Kent and Sussex.
The celebrations vary from region to region, but generally involve a wassail King and Queen leading the assembled group of revellers, comprising the farmers, farm workers and general villagers, in a noisy procession from one orchard to the next. In each orchard the wassailers gather round the biggest and best tree, and as a gift to the tree spirits, the Queen places a piece of wassail soaked toast into its branches, accompanied by songs such as;
“Apple tree, apple tree we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sacks fills…”
The wassailers then move on to the next orchard; singing, shouting, banging pots and pans, and even firing shotguns, generally making as much noise as possible in order to both waken the sleeping tree spirits, and also to frighten off any evil demons that may be lurking in the branches.
Whilst the term “Christmas” first became part of the English language in the 11th century as an amalgamation of the Old English expression “Christes Maesse”, meaning “Festival of Christ”, the influences for this winter celebration pre-date this time significantly.
Winter festivals have been a popular fixture of many cultures throughout the centuries. A celebration in expectation of better weather and longer days as spring approached, coupled with more time to actually celebrate and take stock of the year because there was less agricultural work to be completed in the winter months, has made this time of year a popular party season for centuries.
Whilst mostly synonymous with Christians as the holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus (the central figure of Christianity), celebrating on the 25th December was a tradition that was borrowed, rather than invented, by the Christian faith and is still celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike today. Indeed the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, in honour of Saturn the Harvest God, and the Scandinavian festival of Yule and other Pagan festivals centred on the Winter Solstice were celebrated on or around this date. As Northern Europe was the last part of the continent to embrace Christianity, the pagan traditions of old had a big influence on the Christian Christmas celebrations.
The official date of the birth of Christ is notably absent from the Bible and has always been hotly contested. Following the instigation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the latter part of the 4th century, it was Pope Julius I who eventually settled on 25 December. Whilst this would tie in with the suggestions of the 3rd century historian Sextus Julius Africanus that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox of 25 March, the choice has also been seen as an effort to ‘Christianise’ the pagan winter festivals that also fell on this date. Early Christian writers suggested that the date of the solstice was chosen for the Christmas celebrations because this is the day that the sun reversed the direction of its cycle from south to north, connecting the birth of Jesus to the ‘rebirth’ of the sun.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas was not as popular as Epiphany on 6 January, the celebration of the visit from the three kings or wise men, the Magi, to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Indeed, Christmas was not originally seen as a time for fun and frolics but an opportunity for quiet prayer and reflection during a special mass. But by the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) Christmas had become the most prominent religious celebration in Europe, signalling the beginning of Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas as they are more commonly known today.
The medieval calendar became dominated by Christmas events starting forty days prior to Christmas Day, the period we now know as Advent (from the Latin word adventus meaning “coming”) but which was originally know as the “forty days of St. Martin” because it began on 11 November, the feast day of St Martin of Tours.
Although gift giving at Christmas was temporarily banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins, it was soon popular again as the festive season in the Middle Ages became a time of excess dominated by a great feast, gifts for rich and poor and general indulgence in eating, drinking, dancing and singing.
Many monarchs chose this merry day for their coronation. This included William the Conqueror, whose coronation on Christmas Day in 1066 incited so much cheering and merriment inside Westminster Abbey that the guards stationed outside believed the King was under attack and rushed to assist him, culminating in a riot that saw many killed and houses destroyed by fire.
Some well known modern Christmas traditions have their roots in the Medieval celebrations:
Christmas or Xmas? Although many people frown upon the seemingly modern abbreviation of Xmas, X stands for the Greek letter chi, which was the early abbreviation for Christ or the Greek ‘Khristos’. The X also symbolises the cross on which Christ was crucified.
Mince Pies were originally baked in rectangular cases to represent the infant Jesus’ crib and the addition of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg was meant to symbolise the gifts bestowed by the three wise men. Similarly to the more modern mince pies we see today, these pies were not very large and it was widely believed to be lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas. However, as the name suggests, mince pies were originally made of a variety of shredded meat along with spices and fruit. It was only as recently as the Victorian era that the recipe was amended to include only spices and fruit.
Carol singers. Some of us enjoy the sound of carollers on our doorsteps but the tradition for carol singers going door to door is actually a result of carols being banned in churches in medieval times. Many carollers took the word carol literally (to sing and dance in a circle) which meant that the more serious Christmas masses were being ruined and so the Church decided to send the carol singers outside.
Anyone for humble pie? While the most popular choice for Christmas dinner today is undoubtedly turkey, the bird was not introduced to Europe until after the discovery of the Americas, its natural home, in the 15th century. In medieval times goose was the most common option. Venison was also a popular alternative in medieval Christmas celebrations, although the poor were not allowed to eat the best cuts of meat. However, the Christmas spirit might entice a Lord to donate the unwanted parts of the family’s Christmas deer, the offal, which was known as the ‘umbles’. To make the meat go further it was often mixed with other ingredients to make a pie, in this case the poor would be eating ‘umble pie’, an expression we now use today to describe someone who has fallen from their pedestal to a more modest level.
The Christmas crib
Boxing Day has traditionally been seen as the reversal of fortunes, where the rich provide gifts for the poor. In medieval times, the gift was generally money and it was provided in a hollow clay pot with a slit in the top which had to be smashed for the money to be taken out. These small clay pots were nicknamed “piggies” and thus became the first version of the piggy banks we use today. Unfortunately, Christmas Day was also traditionally a “quarter day”, one of the four days in the financial year on which payments such as ground rents were due, meaning many poor tenants had to pay their rent on Christmas Day!
Whilst the excitement and frivolities of Christmas make it easy to forget the more serious aspects of the festival, it can also be argued that the tradition started by the wise men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh continues today, although with perhaps slightly fewer exotic gifts!
Text written by Ben Johnson. (Courtesy of HistoryUK)
Stories from Medieval times have shaped our understanding of this classic Christmas figure.
There are many sides to the beloved figure of Santa Claus – a giant of pop culture, he also has “miraculous” powers and ties to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Santa’s blend of religion and popular culture is, however, not modern at all. Several of Santa’s modern features, such as his generosity, miracle-working, and focus on morality (being “naughty or nice”), were part of his image from the very beginning. Others, like the reindeer, came later.
The original Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a fourth century Bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) with a reputation for generosity and wonder-working. St Nicholas became an important figure in eighth century Byzantium before hitting pan-European stardom around the 11th century. He became a focus not just for religious devotion, but Medieval dramas and popular festivals – some popular enough to be suppressed during the Reformation.
The Naughty List: St Nicholas had his own version of the naughty list, including the fourth century “arch-heretic” Arius, whose views annoyed the saint so much he supposedly smacked Arius in the face in front of Emperor Constantine and assembled bishops at Nicaea.
An even more surprising listee is the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis. In popular Byzantine stories, Nicholas acted like a one-man wrecking crew, personally pulling down her temples, and even demolishing the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s almost a shame, as they probably would have agreed about the importance of reindeer.
The idea of St Nicholas’ conflict with Artemis probably relates to religious change in Anatolia, where the goddess was hugely popular. Historically, the temple was sacked earlier, by a band of Gothic raiders in the 260s, but hagiographers had other ideas. Perhaps these furious northmen even count as Santa’s earliest “helpers”. He was after all (as part of his extensive saintly portfolio) the patron of the Varangians, the Viking bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors.
Fast travelling: Santa’s greatest miracle is intrinsic to modern Christmases: his ability to reach all the children on Earth in one night. NORAD, the US and Canadian air defence force, has tracked Santa’s sleigh since the 1950s, presumably trying to figure out the secret of his super speed. But really, they just need to check their ancient sources.
St Nicholas had a history of teleporting about on his own — often showing up in the nick of time when people ask for his help. As the patron saint of sailors, he often did this out at sea. In one story, sailors in a wild storm in the eastern Mediterranean cried out for the already-famous wonderworker’s help. With the mast cracking and sails coming loose, a white-bearded man suddenly appeared and helped them haul the ropes, steady the tiller, and brought them safe to shore. Rushing up the hill to the local church to give thanks, the sailors were astonished to see Nicholas was already there, in the middle of saying mass.
Suddenly appearing to save people became a favourite trick in accounts of the saint’s life and in folklore. He once saved three innocents from execution, teleporting behind the executioner and grabbing his sword, before upbraiding the judges for taking bribes.
There’s also the tale of Adeodatus, a young boy kidnapped by raiders and made the cupbearer of an eastern potentate. Soon after, St Nicholas appeared out of nowhere, grabbed the cupbearer in front of his startled master, and zipped him back home. Artists depicting this story stage the rescue differently, but the Italian artists who have St Nicholas swoop in from the sky, in full episcopal regalia, and grab the boy by the hair are worth special mention.
The flying reindeer: None of the old tales have Saint Nicholas carrying around stacks of gifts when teleporting, which brings us to the reindeer, who can pull the sleigh full of millions of presents. The popular link between Santa Claus and gifting came through the influence of stores advertising their Christmas shopping in the early 19th century. This advertising drew on the old elf’s increasing popularity, with the use of “live” Santa visits in department stores for children from the late 1800s.
Santa Claus became connected to reindeer largely through the influence of the 1823 anonymous poem, A visit from St Nicholas. In this poem, “Saint Nicholas” arrives with eight tiny reindeer pulling a sleigh full of toys. The reindeer have the miraculous ability to fly.
The origins of the animals’ flight may link back to the Saami reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. Here, the herders were said to feed their reindeer a type of red-and-white mushroom with psychedelic properties, known as fly agaric fungi (Amanita muscaria). The mushrooms made the reindeer leap about, giving the impression of flying. The herders would then collect and consume the reindeer’s urine, with its toxins made safe by the reindeer’s metabolism. The reindeer herders could then possibly imagine the miraculous flight through the psychedelic properties of the mushroom.
The ninth reindeer, Rudolph, was created as part of a promotional campaign for the department store Montgomery Ward by Robert Lewis May in 1939. May himself was a small, frail child, who empathised with underdogs. In May’s story, Rudolph Shines Again (1954), the little reindeer is helped by an angel to save some lost baby rabbits, once again blending Santa’s religious and popular sides.
And … invisible polar bears: A number of modern depictions have connected Santa with polar bears, such as the 1994 film The Santa Clause. It seems likely the association grew as Santa’s home became accepted as the North Pole — though in one of the oldest stories, St Nicholas saves three Roman soldiers, one of whom is named Ursus (“Bear” in Latin).
Polar bears are undoubtedly useful companions for secretive Santa, and don’t even need his powers to move about unseen – the special properties of their fur mean they are hidden even from night-vision goggles.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas (1976), written by the Lord of the Rings’ author to his children, features the (mis)adventures of the North Polar Bear. Like St. Nick, the North Polar Bear isn’t shy about getting physical with those he perceives as wrong-doers. In one letter, the North Polar Bear saves Santa, his elves, and Christmas from a murderous group of goblins.
So, with Santa Claus once again coming your way, remember — ancient or modern – it’s better to be on the “nice” side of this teleporting saint and his motley crew of miracle-workers.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. See the following ‘Source’ link.
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.
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The oldest part of Hellesdon is along Low Road, on the outskirts of Norwich and away from the vast, and all too familiar, Hellesdon housing estates on the other side of the Drayton Road. The village and its parish church lay in the settlement of Lower Hellesdon, beyond the former Hellesdon Hospital; this relatively small area still preserves something of its former rural character, despite its proximity to both the estates and modern Costessey. It is indeed fortunate to be on the fringe of the present-day Hellesdon community; for if it were to be in its centre then the original village would, by now, be suffocated by what must be a case of over development – a continuing trend one would suspect, that can only get worst. On the face of it – and so far, the village and its parish church of St Mary’s are indeed the fortunate ones!
St Mary’s is not the grandest or prettiest church to be found in Norfolk, indeed, some might feel that it is somewhat odd – from an architectural point of view that is! St Mary’s is small but tall for its size – if that makes sense? Furthermore, most parts appear disproportionate to the other. Take the southern facing porch for instance; it appears too tall for such a squat Saxon Nave, and with quite small and simple windows which let light enter the very small room over the main porch entrance; this, in turn, allows access into the body of the church. Entry to the small elevated room above the porch is via an external stair turret, as seen to the left of the porch. As for the lead-covered bell turret; well, this struggles in its attempt to look like a spire, above the short ‘stumpy’ Nave which, in turn, is not helped by the addition of a north aisle – all be it having been built way back in the 14th century.
St Mary’s has, in the distance past, been referred to as the ‘church without land’ and is recorded as far back as in the Domesday Book of 1086. It is also believed, by some at least, that the old church or chapel that stood on this site marked the spot where King Edmund was interred and martyred in 869. One version of the story goes like this:
In 985, Abbo of Fleury, who at Ramsey Abbey (Cambridgeshire) compiled the ‘Life of St Edmund’, in which he writes of hearing the Archbishop relate a story that came from a young man who had heard it from a very old man who claimed to have been King Edmund’s armour bearer at the time of his death. On his capture, Edmund was whipped and tied to a tree, and shot with arrows. He was then beheaded and his head thrown into a bramble thicket in Hegelisdun Wood – hence the association with Hailesduna, present-day Hellesdon? The King’s head was later found, guarded by a wolf, and according to the story, the body was buried in a small chapel built nearby for the purpose. The site of the chapel is believed, again by some, to be where the present church of St Mary’s stands. However, some suggest otherwise, with Lyng (only a few miles away) offered up as one possibility!
Joe Mason wrote a blog back in 2015 when he said: “……..I must outline some of the story concerning the king’s [Edmund] death. This tale was written down by a French monk about a hundred years after the events described took place. In the manuscript [see previous quote] the location that was attacked by the invading Danes was a few miles downstream from Lyng at Hellesdon. This event is commemorated on the village sign at Lower Hellesdon, but for some unfathomable reason it is not believed by any academic historian. I think they must live in their ivory towers and have never got their feet muddy in Norfolk……The monk goes on to say that the King was buried a few miles away from Hellesdon, and a humble chapel was erected over his tomb [at Lyng?]. The king’s body did not stay in Norfolk very long, and well before a century had passed his body was re-interred at the place now known as Bury St Edmunds. The king’s body lay in Norfolk for less than 75 years and to this day everyone is unsure where…..”
Joseph C. W. Mason’s latest book ‘St Edmund and the Vikings 869–1066’ (see the above link) says so much more on the subject.
Not to put too finer a point on it – this story remains one of dispute, depending whether you live in Norfolk or Suffolk. But Hellesdon did stake its claim when images of St Mary’s Church, the dead body of King Edmund, and the wolf that stood guard over Edmund, found their way on to the village sign.
It used to be thought that the whole of the present church was 14th century, but now historians recognise that both the Nave and Chancel are much earlier – possibly between 1040 and 1120. The clue lies in the fact that both these parts of the church are built with whole flints laid in mortar, whereas the walls of the 14th century North Aisle are built of ‘knapped’ flints – whole flints having been cut to reveal flat shiny Surfaces.
St Mary’s may well have languished in insignificancy, or even faded completely from history, had it not been for a group of 14th century benefactors. One happened to be John de Heylesdon, he being a local man who became a citizen and merchant of London; he was supported by his wife Joan. Then there were John’s parents, Richard de Heylesdon and Beatrice; following close behind was Walter de Berney, yet another local man who also became a citizen and merchant of London – but he reaching the heights of Sheriff there in 1360.
The church might also be grateful to John de Heylesdon for its bell, which is the oldest surviving in Norwich and an item which, along with the contruction of the bellcote and steeple, was probably funded by de Heylesdon. This belief in his generosity is supported by the fact that this solitary bell is inscribed “JOHNES DE HEYLESDON ME FECIT FIERI IN HONORE MATRS CRESTI WILELLMVS DE NORWYCO ME FECIT” – Translated as ‘John de Helesdon caused me to be in honore of the Mother of Christ. William of Norwich made me’. As for its sound; well, this has been familiar to the Hellesdon community for generations, but it is probably very likely that few have ever actually seen it as access to the bellcote is very restricted, and in this day and age deemed perilous.
According to Freda M. Wilkins-Jones, who compiled a very readable booklet, titled ‘Notes on the History of St Mary’s Church, Hellesdon’ (and from which the historical content of this blog is largely based – incidentally, copies of which can be purchased at the church for a mere £2 donation); also included reference to another incumbent of St Mary’s:
“In 1362/63 the three men [mentioned above] obtained the manor and advowson – the right to present a clergyman to the living. It appears that Richard de Heylesdon had died by 1379 when the other two men presented Richard de Taseburgh to the living. They could have followed the example of other church benefactors and replaced the old building [St Mary’s] with one entirely new. However, it seems they loved the building, which even then, was old and contented themselves by making additions to it.”
These additions came in the form of a newly constructed north aisle and, it is believed, a two-storey porch on the south side of the chancel. Credit for these must clearly go to John de Heylesdon and his group of fellow benefactors. The addition to the 14th century north aisle runs the entire length of the church and, in effect, doubles its size. Of course, at the time of construction, little thought could have been given to the aesthetic nature of having an additional wing on only one side of the church, along with a disproportionate sized porch on the opposite south side; these only contribute to the overall ‘odd’ appearance of the present-day building.
On the outside, St Mary’s is pleasantly surrounded on all four sides by a neatly kept churchyard, broken only by one path on the north side which connects the church proper with the church hall, a less than well-kept car park, but a neatly kept churchyard extention beyond. On the south side a path connects the front entrance to a war memorial on the right, a small parking area with graves beyond, and the front porch to the left.
Into the porch and one is met with a neat, clean and plain looking enclosure which because of its simplicity has something of a calming effect as one prepares to enter into the nave beyond. On the porch ceiling are two bosses of a man and a woman – who are they the visitor might well ask. No one really knows, but one could reasonably speculate that they are perhaps the portraits of John and Joan de Heylesdon who, together with other benefactors, came to the rescue of St Mary’s centuries ago.
Again, according to Freda M. Wilkins-Jones: “the construction of the porch partly obstructed one of the original nave windows which, when viewed from the churchyard shows that part of the window was filled in. What is not so obvious is that the other part of that window still exists, as an alcove in the room over the porch. This small but charming room, with its lovely views of the southern part of the churchyard and the Wensum Valley beyond, its fireplace and chimney with its ‘squint’ (which at one time gave a view of the high altar) is now used by the Sunday School. There can be few Sunday Schools priviledged to have accommodation of such character.”
Stepping inside, one can see a well-kept interior which, nevertheless, is somewhat austere, given its narrowness and height. It begs the question as to what does this church really need in this day and age? But this question doesn’t detract from some of the attractive aspects of this church. Take the low-sided window in the south wall of the chancel for instance one of around fifty such windows to survive in Norfolk Churches. We are told that in medieval times it would have had a wooden shutter through which, during the daily celebration of Mass, a handbell would be rung so that those working at their tasks in the fields, or their homes, could pause, cross themselves and so take part in the service. Fortunately, this particular window has not been filled in; however, in 1858 when this window was unglazed, thieves entered through it, after which, it was glazed but the shutter and ironwork retained. Sometime thereafter the wooden shutter itself was removed and in 1953 a beautiful stain-glass window was installed, depicting the Virgin Mary and Child; this replaced the window damaged by bombing in 1942. Despite this, in 1987 it was vandalised, but was quickly repaired with an external transparent screen being mounted to prevent further assaults.
The present two-manual organ on the north side of the church was built by F. Browne and came from St Mary’s Church in Eastwell, Kent in 1949. Initially, the organ console was placed in the north aisle itself so that the organist sat with his back to the congregation. The carved lattace screen depicting the Benedicite was positioned to mask the organ pipes. The console was later moved to its present position so that the organist now sits behind a stone screen with his back to the chancel and the choir. For a while, the Benedicite screen looked somewhat isolated until an oak-sided altar and furnishings were place below the screen in 1970.
John de Heylesdon was granted his wish to be buried in St Mary’s, alongside the tomb of his parents which was originally situated in what was then the Chantry; it and three other tombstones remained there until 1949 when they were moved into the main north aisle proper in order to make way for the organ. Set in the floor of the north aisle and protected by a blue carpet are the brasses to the memory of John de Heylesdon and Joan his wife; theirs is written in Latin; that of his parents are written in Norman French.
Despite what has been said about this church, it remains lovely place for many and, thank goodness, it has a special character of its own which needs preserving; the church is unique and clearly provides an invaluable service to the Hellesdon community – all be it from its fringes. With this in mind, would the thoughts of a visitor be admissible? Such as one who suggests that the powers-to-be may have a mind to consider the replacement of its Victorian pews with ‘flexible’ seating more in keeping with present-day needs.
Those who may feel that this suggestion would be sacrilege should ponder on the fact that many church pews date from just the 19th century before when, churches and their interiors were more open and flexible in their use. It is only over the last 150 years or so that congregations have had to experience rigid pews; this period of time has been but minuscule in the context of the time church worship has been in existence. So, has the time come to get rid of pews? Certainly, with St Mary’s, the present access along the central aisle, together with the amount of space in and around the point where the nave meets the chancel, suggests possible problems for the likes of wedding ceremonies and funerals – heaven forbid that any pall-bearer should ever trip over!
This article originates via the Wikipedia, free encyclopaedia site and Wikiwand. The original Article, Notes, References and Sources can be accessed (Here) and from the ‘Source’ below. It is reproduced here in mainly unamended form, but without any of the advertising and extraneous content, which detracts from an interesting read. See also the ‘NOTICE’ at the foot of this page:
The Battle of North Walsham was a medieval battle fought on 25 or 26 June 1381, near the town of North Walsham in the English county of Norfolk, in which a large group of rebellious local peasants was confronted by the heavily armed forces of Henry le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich. The battle is significant for being the last occurrence of any major resistance during the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
Despenser succeeded in suppressing the rebellion that broke out throughout East Anglia that summer. His force at first consisted of his own retinue, but numbers swelled as aristocrats saw both his victories and the harsh retribution meted out to the rebels. He moved across East Anglia towards Norwich and then onwards to North Walsham to deal with the rebels, led by Geoffrey Litster, the so-called ‘King of the Commons’. At North Walsham the rebels were decisively defeated by Despenser’s men. Medieval chroniclers differ in their accounts of exactly what happened at North Walsham. After the battle, Litster was captured and executed by Despenser, but the records of the time and subsequent histories disagree on the fate of his rebel army.
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was a major rebellion that spread throughout medieval England during the summer of that year. Its causes are complex. The drop-in population caused by the Black Death, which arrived in England in 1348, resulted in an acute labour shortage and consequently, higher wages. The Statute of Labourers (1351) was a law enacted during the first parliament of Edward III, to make labour laws and their intended enforcement more precise and detailed, and also to allow the government to control wages. It had the effect of making life more difficult for peasants, but more profitable for the wealthy landowners. Further discontent erupted from the behaviour of those nobles who ruled on behalf of the boy-king Richard II, and also from the position of the church; as many priests were ill-educated, and the bishops and abbots themselves were landowners, it was generally hated by the common people. Feelings were stirred up by rebellious priests such as John Ball, who criticised the church wherever the common people flocked to him to listen to his words.
The Revolt began in Essex, following the introduction of a succession of highly unpopular poll taxes levied against the English population. In 1377 the expense of the Hundred Years’ War had caused the government to introduce a poll tax of four pence. By 1380 this had tripled, but as many refused to pay, revenues dropped. The imposition of a third poll tax in 1381 prompted unrest in Essex and Kent, which then spread all over England. According to the Anonimalle Chronicle, the ‘evil actions’ of the commons in both Essex and Kent were ‘because of the exceptionally severe tenths and fifteenths and other subsidies lightly conceded in parliaments and extortionately levied from the poor people’. Most serious of all were events that occurred in London on 13–15 June. During the summer, rebels from Kent and Essex marched to London and, once admitted to the city, managed to capture the Tower of London. King Richard, who had promised to agree to all the demands of the peasants, met the rebels outside the city, where the peasants’ leader, Wat Tyler, was killed and the rebellion was ended. Once they were defeated it became clear to the rebels that they had failed to gain Richard’s support. Whilst the king was at Waltham, in Essex, a proclamation was issued condemning the rebels and denying that he had ever approved of their actions. At Waltham, Richard refused to ratify the promises he made, as he believed they had been extorted by force, adding, “Villeins ye are still, and villeins ye shall remain”, and threatening vengeance upon those who had rebelled.
The rebellions in Essex, Kent and London spread to many other English counties. In Norfolk, the rebellion started on 14 June, when a group of rebels from Suffolk reached the county, and spread westwards towards the Fens and north-eastwards towards Norwich and Yarmouth. As in other parts of the country there was widespread unrest, during which property and official documents were destroyed and several individuals were summarily executed.
Henry le Despenser (c. 1341–1406) was an English nobleman who in his early life had been a soldier in Italy, and who in 1370 became Bishop of Norwich. He obtained a reputation as the ‘Fighting Bishop’ after playing his part in suppressing the Norfolk rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt, and later embarking on an ill-fated enterprise for Pope Urban VI, who in 1382 employed him to lead a crusade in Flanders against the supporters of the anti-pope Clement VII. For his defeat at the siege of Ypres (1383), Despenser was impeached in Parliament, attainted and deprived of his lands. He later regained his lands and favour with King Richard II of England. In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire and the military campaign that followed resulted in Richard’s abdication. Despenser remained true to Richard: he was subsequently imprisoned, but was afterwards reconciled with the new king. Henry le Despenser died in his diocese at North Elmham on 23 August 1406.
Little is known of Geoffrey Litster (also named by medieval chroniclers as Iohanne Lyttestere and Jekke Litster), a moderately wealthy dyer from the village of Felmingham in Norfolk. He is first recorded in the returns made by the collectors of the 1379 poll tax in Norfolk. As peasants, he and his men would have been both untrained and unequipped to fight Despenser’s fully armed and trained force. Geoffrey Litster was captured after the battle and executed soon afterwards at North Walsham.
Events in Norfolk Before the Battle: During the summer of 1381, insurrection spread from the south-east of the country to other parts of England, including the diocese of Norwich, where the rebellion lasted less than a fortnight. On 14 June a group of rebels reached Thetford, and from there the revolt spread over south-western Norfolk towards the Fens. At the same time the rebels, led by Geoffrey Litster, moved across the north-eastern part of the county and tried to raise support throughout the local area. Over the next few days, the rebels converged on Norwich, Lynn and Swaffham. Norwich, then one of the largest and most important cities in the realm, was taken and occupied by Litster and his followers, who caused considerable damage to the property and possessions of anyone they perceived as an enemy (such as poll tax collectors and important officials) once they managed to enter the city. The Norwich rebels then travelled to Yarmouth, destroying legal records and landowners’ possessions, while other insurgents moving across north-east Norfolk destroyed court rolls and taxation documents. There were numerous incidents of pillage and extortion across the whole county.
The Anonimalle Chronicle gives a clear account of the unrest in East Anglia. On hearing of the rebellion, Henry le Despenser acted swiftly, moving through Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk from his home in Burley, Rutland. His armed force initially consisted of his personal retinue, but ultimately became a much larger force consisting of many knights and other men who had previously not dared to confront the rebels. According to the historian Edgar Powell, Henry Dispenser undertook the task of dealing with the revolt in his diocese and punishing the rebels. He was involved in crushing rebellions at Peterborough and elsewhere, before moving on to suppress the revolts in Cambridge. The authorities were alerted to the call in Norfolk for men to join the revolt in the name of Litster. On 17 June the rebels from the north and east of the county assembled on Mousehold Heath, outside Norwich: shortly afterwards, Sir Robert Salle, who had come out of the city to speak with the commons, was killed. According to Thomas Walsingham, the knight died soon after he was ‘knocked on the head by a rustic who was one of his own serfs’. The rebels then entered Norwich and wreaked havoc, destroying property and killing several prominent citizens. Other houses and church properties within the county (such as at Yarmouth) were attacked by the rebels at this time.
Geoffrey Litster was at Thorpe Market on 21 June and by the next day Despenser had reached nearby Felmingham. Hearing that the rebels were close, Despenser travelled the short distance from Felmingham to North Walsham Heath, where he encountered Litster and his men.
The Battle of North Walsham and its aftermath (1381): There are no eyewitness accounts of the battle that was fought at North Walsham on 25 or 26 June 1381. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham related that there was a fierce engagement at North Walsham Heath, south of the town, in which “the warlike Bishop” led a successful attack on the rebels’ entrenched position. The Escheators’ Inquisitions for the period that name Litster also included the names of rebels from North Walsham who were killed, giving strong evidence that the rebels suffered a severe defeat.
According to Thomas Walsingham, the rebels were routed as they fled through woodland and cut down as they were found. Writing in the 19th century, Walter Rye quoted a local man, “They dew say a’mazin’ lot of men are buried in that pightle.” The local belief that the parish church at North Walsham was the scene of a bloodbath after the battle cannot be substantiated using historical documents. According to The Book of Illustrious Henries, written by the 15th-century historian John Capgrave, very little fighting took place. The chronicler related that:
“But by the good management of the Bishop, and of other men who had assembled there, the whole people surrendered, rejoicing that they might withdraw in peace. Jack Litster himself, leaping over a wall, hid himself in a corn-field”.
Inevitably the rebels’ ‘king’ was found. Walsingham and Capgrave agree that after Geoffrey Litster’s capture, he was taken to North Walsham and was there hung, drawn and quartered. According to Capgrave’s chronicle:
“The traitor was sought and found; he was captured and beheaded; and, divided into four parts, he was sent through the country to Norwich, Yarmouth, and Lynn, and to the site of his mansion; that rebels and insurgents against the peace might learn by what end they will finish their career”.
Walsingham wrote an account of the mercy shown by the bishop to Litster during his execution:
“After hearing his confession and absolving him by virtue of his office, he followed him to the gallows, showing, although he had overcome him, a deed of kindness and piety, for he supported his head lest it should be bruised by the ground when he was being drawn to the hanging”.
Litster’s widow Agnes was later pursued by the authorities and was made to settle his outstanding debts (for the sum of 33 shillings and nine pence).
Commemoration of the Battle:
The site of the battle is one of only five battlefields in Norfolk that are recognised by Norfolk County Council. The battle was commemorated by three medieval stone crosses: one is on private land; another (now a stump) was relocated by North Walsham Urban District Council in 1932 and can be found near the roadside by the town’s water towers; the third cross was moved and used as a parish boundary marker. It is situated on Toff’s Loke, off Norwich Road.
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