The Pedlar of Swaffham.

Our thanks to Jim Moon of ‘Hypnogoria’ who, somewhere amongst his many blogs, wrote the following – it is his take on a very famous and popular Norfolk myth – whoops! – tale.

Pedlar of Swaffham (Village Sign)
The Swaffham Village Sign.

In the county of Norfolk, between King’s Lynn in the west and Norwich in the east lies the market town of Swaffham. However, while the town and its market have been a centre for agriculture since the 14th century, the town is perhaps better known as being home to an oft-told folk tale. It’s a tale of a good man and good fortune, and frequently is mentioned when the subject of prophecies and dreams come up. It’s a tale that has been told many times, and its earliest incarnation is found in an old tome entitled ‘An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk’ by Francis Blomefield (William Miller, London, 1805-10). In Volume 11 of this truly compendious essay, we have a letter by Sir William Dugdale, dated 29 January 1652, and in it he relates the following Tale:

Pedlar of Swaffham (Essay)

“That dreaming one night if he went to London he should certainly meet with a man upon London Bridge which would tell him good news; he was so perplext in his mind, that till he set upon his journey he could have no rest; to London therefore he hasts and walk’d upon the Bridge for some hours where being espyed by a Shopkeeper and asked what he wanted, he answered you may well ask me that question for truly (quoth he) I am come hither upon a very vain errand and so told the story of his dream which occasioned the journey.  Whereupon the Shopkeeper reply’d alas good friend! should I have heeded dreams, I might have proved myself as very a fool as thou hast; for ‘tis not long since that I dreamt, that at a place called Swaffham Market in Norfolk dwells one John Chapman a pedlar who hath a tree in his backside under which is buried a pot of money.  Now therefore, if I should have made a journey thither to dig for such hidden treasure, judge you whether I should not have been counted a fool. To whom the pedlar cunningly said “Yes verily, I will therefore return home and follow my business, not heeding such dreams henceforward.”  But when he came home (being satisfied that his dream was fulfilled) he took occasion to dig in the place and accordingly found a large pot full of money which he prudently conceal’d, putting the pot amongst the rest of his brass.”

Pedlar of Swaffham 3
The Pedlar of Swaffham
The oak benches in the nave of The Church of St Peter and St Paul, Swaffham date from the middle of the nineteenth century. The carved finials on the front pew ends in this church represent John Chapman, otherwise known as the Pedlar of Swaffham. Photo: Copyright David Dixon.

“After a time, it happen’d that one who came to his house and beholding the pot observed an inscription upon it which being in Latin, he interpreted it, that under that there was an other twice as good.  Of that inscription the Pedlar was before ignorant or at least minded it not, but when he heard the meaning of it he said, “‘tis very true, in the shop where I bought this pot stood another under it, which was twice as big”; but considering that it might tend to further his profit to dig deeper in the same place where he found that, he fell again to work and discover’d such a pot, as was intimated by the inscription, full of old coine: notwithstanding all which he so conceal’d his wealth, that the neighbours took no notice of it.  But not long after the inhabitants of Swaffham resolving to reedify their church, and having consulted with the workmen about the charge they made a levy wherein they taxed the Pedlar according to no other rate than what they had formerly done.  But he knowing his own ability came to the church and desired the workmen to shew him their model, and to tell him what they esteemed the charge of the North Isle would amount to, which when they told him he presently undertook to pay them for building it, and not only that but of a very tall and beautiful tower steeple.”

Now this tale has become famous the world over, and is much celebrated in the the town itself, lending its name, in the past, to the Pedlar’s Hall Cafe and inspiring the carved wooden village sign (above) for the town. However curiously, Swaffham isn’t the only place that has a tale like this. Indeed, an almost identical tale is told of Upsall Castle in North Yorkshire. In ‘The Vale of Mowbray: A Historical and Topographical Account of Thirsk and Its Neighbourhood’ by William Grainge (Simpkin, Marshall & Co. 1859) we have a story he entitles “Crocks of Gold”:

“Many years ago there resided in the village of Upsall, a man who dreamed three nights successively that if he went to London, he would hear of something greatly to his advantage. He went, travelling the whole distance from Upsall to London on foot, arrived he took his station on the bridge where he waited until his patience was very nearly exhausted and the idea that he had acted a very foolish part began to rise in his mind. At length he was accosted by a Quaker, who kindly inquired what he was waiting there so long for. After some hesitation, he told his dreams. The Quaker laughed at his simplicity, and told him he had had that night a very curious dream himself, which was that if he went to dig under a certain bush in Upsall Castle in Yorkshire, he will find a pot of gold; but he did not know where Upsall was, and inquired of the Countryman if he knew, who seeing some advantage in secrecy pleading ignorance of the locality; and then thinking his business in London was completed, returned immediately home, dug beneath the bush, and there he found a pot filled with gold, and on the cover an inscriptions in a language he did not understand. The pot and cover were however reserved at the village inn; where one day, a bearded stranger like a Jew, made his appearance, saw the pot, and read the inscription, the plain English at which was –

“Look lower where this stood
Is another twice as good”

The man of Upsall hearing this, resumed his spade, returned to the bush, dug deeper, and found another pot filled with gold far more valuable than the first: encouraged by this, he dug deeper still, and found another yet more valuable.”

This story has been related of other places, but Upsall appears to have as good a claim to this yielding of hidden treasures as the best of them. Here we have the constant tradition of the inhabitants, and the identical but yet remains beneath which the treasure was found; an Elder, near the north-west corner of the ruins. Now you will notice that this text boldly mentions that the tale is told in other places, and indeed it is. For to travel further north in the United Kingdom, we find it retold yet again and at an earlier date. In ‘The Popular Rhymes of Scotland’ by Robert Chambers (W. Hunter, 1826), we learn the history of Dundonald Castle:

Pedlar of Swaffham (Scotland)
‘The Popular Rhymes of Scotland’ by Robert Chambers (W. Hunter, 1826).

“Donald, the builder, was originally a poor man, but had the faculty of dreaming lucky dreams. Upon one occasion he dreamed, thrice in one night, that if he were to go to London Bridge, he would become a wealthy man. He went accordingly, saw a man looking over the parapet of the bridge, whom he accosted courteously, and, after a little conversation, intrusted with the secret of the occasion of his visiting London Bridge. The stranger told him that he had made a very foolish errand, for he himself had once had a similar vision, which directed him to go to a certain spot in Ayrshire, in Scotland, where he would find a vast treasure, and, for his part, he had never once thought of obeying the injunction. From his description of the spot, the sly Scotsman at once perceived that the treasure in question must be concealed in no other place than his own humble kail-yard at home, to which he immediately repaired in full expectation of finding it. Nor was he disappointed; for, after destroying many good and promising cabbages, and completely cracking credit with his wife, who esteemed him mad, he found a large potful of gold coin, with the proceeds of which he built a stout castle for himself, and became the founder of a flourishing family.”

Pedlar of Swaffham (London Bridge)
London Bridge

Chambers, much like Grainge, goes on to remark “This absurd story is localised in almost every district of Scotland, always referring to London Bridge”. And indeed, not only does the tale recur in other Scottish tales, but it appears in various other places in England and Wales too. Furthermore if we hop over the Channel to Europe, we find it flourishing there too, although of course with some other national landmark standing in for dear old London Bridge. The most famous example perhaps is found in the collections of folk tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm:

“Some time ago a man dreamed that he should go to the bridge at Regensburg where he would become rich. He went there, and after spending some fourteen days there a wealthy merchant, who wondered why was spending so much time on the bridge, approached him and asked him what he was doing there. The latter answered, “I dreamed that I was to go to the bridge at Regensburg, where I would become rich.“What?” said the merchant, “You came here because of a dream? Dreams are fantasies and lies. Why I myself dreamed that there is a large pot of gold buried beneath that large tree over there.” And he pointed to the tree. “But I paid no attention, for dreams are fantasies.” Then the visitor went and dug beneath the tree, where he found a great treasure that made him rich, and thus his dream was confirmed” (from Deutsche Sagen (1816/1818), Vol. 1, No. 212)

Pedlar of Swaffham (Grimm)

However, the trail does not end there. Even earlier and further south, we discover an identical tale in that famous anthology of ancient tales ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ (AKA Arabian Nights). The 14th tale is called The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream and goes like this:

“Once there lived in Baghdad a wealthy man who lost all his means and was thus forced to earn his living by hard labor. One night a man came to him in a dream, saying, “Your fortune is in Cairo; go there and seek it.” So he set out for Cairo. He arrived there after dark and took shelter for the night in a mosque. As Allah would have it, a band of thieves entered the mosque in order to break into an adjoining house. The noise awakened the owners, who called for help. The Chief of Police and his men came to their aid. The robbers escaped, but when the police entered the mosque, they found the man from Baghdad asleep there. They laid hold of him and beat him with palm rods until he was nearly dead, then threw him into jail. Three days later, the Chief of Police sent for him and asked “Where do you come from?” “From Bagdad” he answered. ” And what brought you to Cairo?” asked the Chief.

“A man came to me in a dream and told me to come to Cairo to find my fortune,” answered the man from Baghdad “But when I came here, the promised fortune proved to be the palm rods you so generously gave to me.””You fool,” said the Chief of Police, laughing until his wisdom teeth showed. “A man has come to me three times in a dream and has described a house in Baghdad where a great sum of money is supposedly buried beneath a fountain in the garden. He told me to go there and take it, but I stayed here. You, however, have foolishly journeyed from place to place on the faith of a dream which was nothing more than a meaningless hallucination.” He then gave him some money saying, “This will help you return to your own country.”The man took the money. He realized that the Chief of Police had just described his own house in Baghdad, so he forthwith returned home, where he discovered a great treasure beneath the fountain in his garden. Thus, Allah gave him abundant fortune and brought the dream’s prediction to fulfillment”.

Now we cannot be sure of the exact age of the many tales collected in this volume, for scholars believe the first versions of the collection appeared in Arabic in the early parts of the 8th century, with various additional tales being added over the next few centuries. However, what we do know is that this particular story of a most fortunate dream appears in as part of a poem by the 13th century Persian poet, Jalal al-Din Rumia, who is best known in the West as simply Rumi. In his epic collection The Masnavi, we have the poem ‘In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad’.

So then, here we have a tale retold in many places and at many times, indeed it is one of those small number of tales that seems to recur everywhere. And folklorists have a catalogue of such stories – this one is commonly referred to as ‘The Treasure at Home’, and under the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales it is number ATU 1646. Now given that we have several important literary landmarks for the story, it is widely though that this very popular tale was spread throughout Europe thanks the massive popularity of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’, and was adapted to fit local geography and history as it was retold in different places.

However, the first European edition of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ was a French version translated by Antoine Galland that appeared 1704, and was first translated into English in 1706. We should also note at this point that the works of Rumi were not translated until considerably later, with the first English translations appearing in the late 19th century. However, if you have been paying attention to the dates, we find that while the ‘Arabian Nights’ theory could well account for the versions referenced by Grainge and Chambers, the oldest English version, comes from a letter written in the 1650s.

Now while we cannot rule out this old Arabic tale been spread orally across Europe before its printed incarnations, it is certainly intriguing that the Swaffham version predates other European versions by a good century or more. Furthermore Sir William makes clear that it was already an old tale when he set it down in his letter, and this is supported by the fact that the original Swaffham version has a sequel built in that many other version do not – the business of the inscription and a second pot of gold. For this kind of embroidery is typical of a tale been around for a good while, gaining additional details and extra subplots as it is retold by different generations.

Pedlar of Swaffham (Chapman & Dog)
John Chapman and his dog

Stranger still is the fact that our hero is actually given a name – John Chapman – something very unusual for a folk tale. But even more intriguingly, there is some historical evidence to back up the story, for John Botewrigh, the Rector of Swaffham between 1435 and 1474 made an inventory of building and repair work done to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. And this tome is now known as the’Swaffham Black Book’, and in it we discover that in the mid-15th century the North Aisle of the church was rebuilt. And what is more, this renovation work was paid for by a fellow named John Chapman. And as part of this building work, new pews were installed and two of them are of particular interest for us: for their carved ends show a pedlar and his dog. Furthermore, local tradition suggests that a third which shows a lady, is a representation of the shopkeeper in the story.

Pedlar of Swaffham (Church)
The Church of St Peter and St Paul, Swaffham
This is one of the finest medieval churches in East Anglia. It was built between the years of 1454-1465 on the remains of the previous church which had partly collapsed. The tower was added between 1507 and 1510.
The church, which is built of Barnack stone, brick and flint, is in the Perpendicular style. It has the traditional cruciform plan of chancel, nave and transepts with north and south aisles and a square tower. Its total length is 173 feet from west to east. The church is a grade I listed building (English Heritage Building).

 Of course, none of that can displace the fact that a version of the tale was circulating in the East some centuries before, but certainly the pews and Chapman’s name appearing in the ‘Swaffham Black Book’ does suggest that the story of his good fortune may have been doing the rounds while the goodly gent was still alive. Obviously, Chapman, who served as a churchwarden, was a wealthy man, for construction work never comes cheap, particular in earlier times when a major building project may take years to complete. And given that in the 15th century, Swaffham was home to a thriving market, one wonders whether the tale had found its way to rural Norfolk thanks to travelling merchants, the very kind of folks Chapman would have been trading with.

Furthermore, in history we have many examples of less than virtuous men who in later life decide to bankroll various projects for their local churches. And usually these generous and charitable projects are seemingly done as a kind of penance for their earlier sins and misdeeds. Therefore it is tempting to speculate that the tale of Chapman’s fortune may well have been deliberately adopted to disguise the real origin of his wealth. And rather than repaying the good Lord for his luck by refurbishing his local church, as many versions of the tale suggest, he may well have been atoning for making a lot of money through less than virtuous means…

THE END.

Sources:
https://plus.google.com/+JimMoonHypnogoria
https://thehistoryanorak.blogspot.com/2016/01/the-pedlar-of-swaffham.html
https://calumimaclean.blogspot.com/2014/12/dreaming-of-fortune-at-london-bridge.html
Feature Image: Is an illustration by John D. Batten

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.

 

Wickhampton: St Andrews and a Legend!

On reclaimed marshland where the most frequent visitors are birds, the site of St Andrew’s Church at Wickhampton was once covered by sea, now it stands as a lonely beacon on the haunting expanse of Halvergate marsh. It is a place which inspires calm – unlike the story attached to the stone effigies it guards. Many childhood generations have been told the heartrending and cautionary tale of two local brothers who took extreme measures to resolve their differences; it warns against sibling wars.

Wickhampton Legend4 (St Andrews)
St Andrews, Wickhampton, Norfolk.

This tale has to start in the chancel of St Andrew’s Church where there is an interesting pair of 13th century effigies, representing Sir William and Isabella Gerbygge; the couple lie in single beds awaiting Judgement Day. Sir William served as a Bailiff of Great Yarmouth in the 1270s and died about 1280. One fascinating feature of Sir William is that he is shown holding a heart in his hands. This has given rise to several interpretations. The most romantic interpretation is that Sir George is showing his love for his wife. A more religious interpretation is that he is holding his heart up to God in prayer. Another, rather intriguing interpretation is that the heart tells the story of Sir William’s two sons who tore each other’s hearts out.

Wickhampton Legend1

It was during the reign of Edward I that Wickhampton, on the marshes near Breydon Water, was a place of fishing, fine hunting and with a farm and a church; the neighbouring village of Halvergate was rich in arable land and seen as the better of the two villages for it boasted many fine farms and a fine church.

Sir William Gerbygge owned both villages and he and his two sons, Gilbert, the elder son, and William managed the estate. It was a fine estate, the rich farmland produced bountiful crops, while livestock thrived on the damp verdant pastures, which also provided hay for the winter months. Wildlife abounded, providing fine sport and hunting. The sons were very fortunate, a fact that Sir William was forever reminding them. But the brothers were quarrelsome and jealous and their father often had to reproach them.

Wickhampton Legend6

Gilbert, the elder son, wanted the better of the inheritance and his possessive gaze took in all that was good, frequently using the word “my”, to the annoyance of his brother and the villagers. But William was strong and had a sharp mind, frequently quarrelling with his brother and driving his father to his wits end to know how best to distribute his lands after his death. He eventually left Wickhampton to William and the better of the two villages, Halvergate, to Gilbert. He made known of his Will and prayed for peace as he breathed his last. But, after his death, there would be little peace. At first Gilbert and William wanted to at least give the impression that they were both pleased with their respective inheritances; when they met, they would make a point of shaking hands – which was noted by the quiet villagers with a cynical nod as they could see the storm clouds gathering. In fact, the two brothers were to spend years arguing over their respective lands, with neither brother conceding; gradually, the dispute became bitter and finally, became violent.

It happened at ploughing time of one particular year, when the folk looked forward to another good season. There was a field, just north of Wickhampton church which projected far into the boundary of Halvergate, and Gilbert saw this as an opportunity. He called to his brother who happened to be close by, “That field should be mine. It is an obvious mistake, made when the boundaries were drawn”. William replied coolly “You already have enough…….no mistake was made”. But the impetuous Gilbert, angry that he could not sway his younger brother, jumped from his saddle, rushed over to William and pulled him from his horse. “I will have my way” he shouted, striking William with his bare hands.

Wickhampton Legend7
Conflict!

The two brothers then attacked each other with increasing ferocity that frightened the folk who had gathered around to watch the fight. Gilbert and William tore at each other with bare hands, at the edge of the field over which they disagreed. They grasped for hair to pull out by its roots, ears to rent, fingers, legs, arms and noses which were scratched, pulled and twisted with unreasoning and inhuman fury. The differences, pent up over the years, were released as they became snarling and snorting animals. The villagers dared not to intervene.

As the blood began to flow and the fighting became ever more intense, a demonic fury gripped the two brothers. Their finger nails appeared to grow longer, their teeth became fangs, their eyes widened and the villagers gazed on in silence. The brothers tore at each other’s throats and breasts with devilish roars in what became their final fight. Then, strange as it would appear and precisely at the same point in time, the brothers tore the hearts from each other with their bare hands in a final burst of malice. They lay upon the ground, lifeless – as one would expect! The awestruck onlookers then saw a divine figure overhead, some said it was an angel, others said no – it was God who was so appalled by the brother’s behaviour that he instantly turned them both to stone to atone for such sins and as a warning to others. God also ensured that the stone fingers of each brother would remain clutching the heart of the other. Local villagers bore the stone corpses – together with the clutched hearts – into the church to serve as a reminder of the perils of fighting. As for the brothers’ lands; they were renamed Wicked Hampton, now shortened to Wickhampton, and Hell Fire Gate, now known as Halvergate. Legend also has it that, over time, one brother’s heart has been worn away leaving just one grasping a heart with the other next to him.

 

But there is more to St Andrew’s church than a legend, standing as it does in a secluded rural location on the wide open Halvergate marshes where the Yare Valley seems to contain any excitement it may have of reaching the sea. We are still four miles from the coast and there is nothing hereabouts until you reach Yarmouth except – the haunting flatness. Five-hundred years ago, St Andrews stood on the edge of a wide inlet, but the silting up of the estuary over the years left its tower as a beacon for nothing else other river boats.

The dedication of the church to St Andrew seems appropriate; he is the patron saint of fishermen, and Wickhampton is said to have been a fishing community which supported a population of around 500 inhabitants and had direct access to the river Yare. The church was built in the 13th century, but it seems very likely that an earlier church stood on the same spot for at least several hundred years before that. The earliest part of the church is the 13th century tower. The nave was rebuilt around 1340, and the chancel and south porch were added in the 15th century.

That said, the most interesting historic feature of St Andrews church is a series of 14th century wall paintings which are simply staggering, and the detail is remarkable. They were hidden by plaster at the Reformation and only came to light again during restoration in 1840 by the Diocesan architect Richard Phipson, someone criticised for over doing it! However, many wallpaintings of this kind were lost when liturgical patterns changed in the 15th century, a full century before the Reformation when perpendicular windows often destroyed such decorations when punched through them. But the three main subjects at Wickhampton are pretty well complete. They sit on the north wall with the largest, at the extreme westend, being the best surviving depiction in Norfolk of the Three Living and Three Dead. The theme was a common one in medieval art; the frailty of human life and the certainty of mortality. Three kings are shown hunting, and they meet three skeletons in a wood. They give the kings a warning,

‘As you are now, so once were we. as we are now, so shall you be.’

Wickhampton Legend (Wall Painting_Simon K)2b
Three kings are hunting and meet three skeletons in a wood. They give the kings a warning. Photo: Simon K Flickr.
Wickhampton Legend (Wall Painting)2a
The Three Living Kings.
Wickhampton Legend (Wall Painting)2
The Three Skeletons.

The final wall painting shows The Seven Acts of Mercy and The Resurrection, which illustrates people Feeding the Hungry, Giving Drink to the Thirsty, Clothing the Naked, Visiting the Prisoner, Receiving the Stranger, Visiting the Sick, and Burying the Dead. In a largely illiterate society, these images acted as as colourful reminder to churchgoers of the sort of behaviour that was expected of medieval Christians. The message is driven home in the final scene, showing Christ raising his hand in a gesture of blessing.

Wickhampton Legend (Wall Painting)1
The Seven Acts of Mercy and The Resurrection

According to Simon Knott: The Seven Works of Mercy were, and are, a Catholic catechetical tool, designed to help the faithful follow the teachings of Christ with regard to strangers as set forth in Chapter 25 of St Matthew’s Gospel. By meditating on these images, the worshippers could ensure they were carrying out this advice in their daily lives. The faithful are called upon to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to give shelter to the homeless, to visit the sick, to comfort the prisoner, and to bury the dead. The way in which meditative images could be used to follow their example give us an insight into the way in which medieval Christianity was practiced in the days before congregational worship became the norm. The illustrations at Wickhampton are stunning in their simplicity and emotion. The Burying of the Dead panel in particular deserves to be as well-known as any 14th century Christian image in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and yet here it is, in an isolated church on the edge of a wild Norfolk marshland.

There are, of course, other features of historic interest in the church beyond the wall paintings. The pulpit is late Elizabethan, while the benches in the nave are Victorian, in the style of the Jacobean period. A single original Jacobean bench end survives in the chancel. In the nave hangs a royal coat of arms to George I, dated 1737. The organ came from Freethorpe Manor and is housed in an 1810 mahogany cabinet made by George Pike. Near the south door is an ancient parish chest. In its traditional place opposite the entrance is a painting of St Christopher carrying the Christ Child. You can still see swarms of fish around St Christopher’s feet, perhaps another sign of Wickhampton’s once-thriving fishing industry.

To visit Wickhampton church will provide an unforgettable experience. The church seems stranded, lost in time, with no obvious village left to serve, but the superb wall paintings speak of a long and rich past, now lost, when this rural backwater was a busy place, full of life, and providing the roots of a possible sibling feud – one which led to a legend!

THE END

Sources:
www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/wickhampton/wickhampton.htm
https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/norfolk/churches/wickhampton.htm

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. 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.

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 into the County. It was once a large area maintained by grazing, but without such husbandry the trees grew tall and thick to produce woodland, now much frequented by walkers. Today, this area covers a mere 200 acres but is much appreciated by Norwich people as a welcome piece of open space. It is an island of green, known today as Mousehold Heath but in far off days there was a section of it that was called Thorpe Wood.

St William (Mousehold)
A scene on Mousehold Heath; here formerly known as Thorpe Wood. Image: © Copyright Evelyn Simak

Within it, Long Valley makes one feel that Norwich is far away and that the only exciting thing that would happen below the deciduous canopy of Mousehold is for Robert Kett to emerge with the city’s authorities in hot pursuit. The wood’s deciduous canopy also does more than cushion objects of our imagination, it muffles the noise of vehicles on those roads that run circles around the area, including that odd little field or two set amongst the trees. It is a wood veined with sand and flint edged pathways that have been cut through ridges by centuries of feet; nice pathways, many of them through birches growing in shallow areas either side. Pick the right one, but avoiding bramble, rough undergrowth, burrs and ticks and you will find the site of a largely forgotten chapel; here the mind can get lost in time for that place is where the ‘St William’s Chapel in the Wood’ once stood.

St William (Site)1
Site of St. William’s Chapel in the  Wood. Image: © Copyright Evelyn Simak

The Chapel site covers just a small area, towards the edge of present-day Mousehold Heath – a short distance to the south-west of the junction of Gurney Road and Heartsease Lane. It was originally dedicated to St Catherine de Monte, way back in those far off days following the Norman Conquest; at that time, it served as a parochial chapel for the Norwich Cathedral Priory. Later, in fact on the 27 April 1168, it was re-dedicated to honour a new ‘martyr’ on the block – the boy William. Fast forward to some 380 years later and we find that this chapel was amongst those religious establishments dissolved by Henry VIII; and whilst the exact date of its demise is unknown, the last offering was recorded in 1506, and by 1556 the site had been leased out by the Dean as ‘The Chapel-Yard called St William in the Wood’. But that piece of information is something of a distraction for we need to retrace our steps back to March 1144. In that month, a despicable act was said to have taken place at, or near, the site of the chapel – It was Easter and not the best time for a murder – or a place to dump a body!

Church Site 002
A ‘bird’s eye view’ of most of Mousehold Heath, showing the approximate position of the St William’s Chapel site. Illustration: Haydn Brown

Get the detail right and the place will be a stark reminder of a disturbing and unpleasant moment that, they say, took place here. But take care; the way history works is not to run through the past in straight lines. As with many stories, and particularly with historical accounts, it is best to visualise them as being twisted flights, criss-crossing through time and place on a journey which runs the risk of turning the past into a ‘foreign country’ – where that which is written is far from factual – and the  truth. The St William’s Chapel story may well fit into this category and, as with other historical stories, it doesn’t have one starting point. What we know or think we know about this story, is that parts of it are probably inaccurate, simply twisted by whatever thought or political/religious agenda was in place when the scribes pen was at work. Here we have Thomas of Monmouth to thank!

It is probably a safe thing to say that most people in Norwich are vaguely aware of William of Norwich, helped no doubt by a report in 2004 about 17 skeleton bodies which were found in a medieval well in Norwich, during the development of the Chapelfield Shopping Centre (see Footnote below). That report was clearly written for readers who like Time-Team programmes with their trowel and forensic archaeology. However, these sorts of people may not be aware of all the detail which, in William’s case, seems to suggest to some that he was a victim of a ritualised murder. Further, he was only a young lad of about 12 years of age who was an apprentice skinner and tanner, the first recorded apprentice in English history so they say. We are told that he died somewhere in Norwich on or around 22nd of March 1144 and it was on the 25th March that his body was found, mutilated on the heath close to, if not on the spot where the Chapel stood. Clearly, if he had been murdered elsewhere then his body would probably have been carried to the heath by horse to be disposed of.

Nobody truly knows who did the foul deed, or where, or even why; but, as ever, blame was quickly apportioned by the populace, egged on by the religious authorities and William’s family. Their collective finger pointed directly at the Jews of Norwich who, by the way, were protected by the Sheriff in the King’s name. Now, this is where politics vie with the powers of the church for front row seats, not forgetting that in the 12th century the King was Stephen. He not only had the church to deal with but also his cousin Matilda; they were both grandchildren of William the Conqueror and amongst all the others competing for a dominant position in ‘The Anarchy’ – which, basically, was a rather nasty tribal squabble about who controls England – not forgetting Normandy of course. Add to this the question of the Jews who started to come over in 1066, who had French as their mother language – and settled in Norwich. Big trouble was afoot!

Brother Thomas and his Version of Events:
Enter Thomas of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk who resided in the cathedral priory in Norwich, having been “respectably educated” before he first arrived in Norwich around the year 1150. It would appear that very shortly after his arrival in the city Brother Thomas, (we’ll call him that from now on), began his long-winded investigating into the so-called ‘murder’ of the boy William. He began by taking notes in preparation for a narrative about William, and a plea for the boy’s martyrdom that he finally completed more than twenty years later, titled “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich”. This account ended up as a multi-volume series with the final Volume 7 being completed around 1173. The first two volumes details William’s life and sufferings, with the remaining five volumes recounting the miracles the proposed saint was said to have performed after his death. According to E.M. Rose, in his book ‘The Murder of William of Norwich’ “Brother Thomas maintained that William was worthy of veneration and claimed him as an important patron for Norwich Cathedral”. but his claim was based on a writing that was nothing more than a treatise that was “an imaginative, emotional appeal rather than a presentation of forensic evidence”. It is thought that the original manuscript no longer survives, but a unique single contemporary copy resides in the Cambridge University Library.

Life of William 002
An example of a page from the sole surviving text of ‘The Life and Passion of St William of Norwich’ by Thomas of Monmouth which appears in a 12th-century manuscript held by Cambridge University Library, Ref: Add MS 3037, f. 1 – 771.

In his quest, Brother Thomas claims to have set about interviewing as many of the surviving ‘witnesses’ as possible. These included people who he had already identified as being “converted Jews”; they, he would claim, provided him with inside information about events within the Jewish community. According to Brother Thomas, one particular ‘convert’, called Theobald of Cambridge, told him that there was a written prophecy which stated that the Jews would regain control of Israel if they sacrificed a Christian child each year. Every year, Jewish leaders met in Narbonne to decide who would be asked to perform the sacrifice; in 1144, the Jews of Norwich were assigned that task.

Since most information about William’s life and the resulting murder inquiry comes from Brother Thomas, it is difficult to distinguish the facts of the case from the story of martyrdom created around it by Thomas. It was he who devoted himself to the promotion of William to sainthood; even his opening sentence of Volume 1 reflects that both he, and presumably some of his contemporaries, believed that William’s death was preordained:

“The mercy of the divine goodness desiring to display itself to the parts about Norwich, or rather to the whole of England, and to give it in these new times a patron, granted that a boy should be conceived in his mother’s womb without her knowing that he was to be numbered among the illustrious martyrs”.

Was Brother Thomas proud that his adopted city of Norwich should be blessed with a suitable candidate for sainthood, despite the apparent horrible circumstances surrounding the young boy’s death? That’s how it may have been, but Thomas’s final narrative went on to build a case for William’s holiness based on the collected evidence, and arguing that he had been martyred by the Jews in a ‘ritual’ murder.

St William (Loddon Screen)1
Holy Trinity church, Loddon: One of the rood screen panels, depicting a rosary sequence from the birth of the Blessed Virgin to the Presentation in the Temple, with the addition of one unrelated panel – seen here – depicting the martyrdom of a local saint, St William of Norwich, whose dead body was found in 1144 on Mousehold Heath.

As things turned out, Brother Thomas was ultimately unsuccessful in getting William of Norwich canonized as a saint; however, but did succeed, for a time at least, in creating a cult around him in Norwich. But right from the outset of his endeavours, Thomas contended that he had received visions from the founding Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga, who had died in 1119. According to Thomas, Losinga had told him in a vision that William’s body should be moved into the Chapter House of the monastery; however, Thomas had to battle with the sceptical Prior Elias, who was unconvinced of William’s sanctity. The body of William was in fact moved in the same year of Thomas’s arrival in Norwich. That year of 1150 was also the year in which Elias died, and by then the cult of William was established.

St William (Jewish-cartoon-norwich)
Jewish Cartoon, Norwich
“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”.

Circumstances Leading up to the Murder:
Brother Thomas stated that William had been born on 2 February 1132 and that his parents, Wenstan and Elviva, were a local Anglo-Saxon couple living on the outskirts of Norwich. His father died while William was still very young and it was left to Elviva, who had learned much from her own father, a priest, to educate William. Then, when William was eight years old, he was taken to a skinner, near his home, to learn a trade. Brother Thomas says:

“In a short time, he far surpassed lads of his own age in the crafts aforesaid, and he equalled some who had been his teachers”.

In time, William moved into the city to join the workshop of a prosperous master of the skin, fur and leather trade; an important industry in Norwich, which served the demand for clothing, shoes and bed coverings. Leather was the most hard-wearing fabric available, so leather jerkings, breeches, aprons and caps were the normal wear for most manual workers. It was the custom for young unmarried employees to live with their master, often being obliged to sleep on the shop floor in order to help protect the property from break-ins and thefts. The area that William moved into was the Jewry, to the east of Norwich Castle, which suggests that both Jews and Gentiles were accustomed to working and trading alongside each other.

St William (norwich-city-walls 14C)

In his book, Norwich – The Biography, Christopher Reeve writes:

“It could be imagined that William would be well liked by his fellow workers and neighbours, and also by the customers, some of whom would have preferred to deal with him when they brought their orders in for leather goods. If it was true that William had settled in so well then what happened next was all the more shocking……. the Jewish community believed that they would never gain freedom, or be able to return to their homeland unless they made an annual sacrifice of a Christian, so as to mock Christ. Where Thomas got this idea from is not known…….[or] whether or not he himself had a prejudice against Jews. Maybe it was simple malicious gossip from those who might have envied Jewish prosperity in the city”.

Shortly before his murder, William’s mother, Elviva, was approached by a man who claimed to be a cook, working for the Archdeacon of Norwich. He offered William a job in the Archdeacon’s kitchens and paid William’s mother three shillings to let him go. This must have been a very good offer for it came with the opportunity to earn more money and better prospects than if he stayed in the skin trade. William must have been delighted but, it is said, his mother had her doubts and asked her son not to go; however, William was determined and the messenger’s words were compelling to both mother and son, sweetened by a reward of ‘three shillings’ in return for the mother’s agreement. William later visited his aunt in the company of this same man but she was apparently suspicious when she heard the news and told her own daughter to follow William and this messenger after they left. The daughter was able to report that they returned to the area when William worked and went into a house belonging to Eleazar the Jew. This was the last time William was seen alive. It was Holy Tuesday.

According to Brother Thomas, the man who claimed to be a cook had been employed by the Jews to entice William into the house where the sacrifice would occur. There, William was initially treated well, but was then bound, gagged and suspended in a cruciform position in a room where he was tortured and murdered in a manner imitating the Crucifixion of Jesus: the Jews lacerated his head with thorns and pierced his side.

“having shaved his head, they stabbed it with countless thorn points, and made the blood come horribly from the wounds they made……… some of those present judged him to be fixed to a cross in mockery of the Lord’s Passion…………”

St William (Little Hugh)
Hugh of Lincoln (1246 – 1255) was an English boy, whose death was apparently (as with William) 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 Sir Hugh. The boy disappeared on 31 July, and his body was discovered in a well on 29 August.

Brother Thomas said that the body was concealed until the Good Friday and claimed further that another converted Jew told him that there was an argument over how to dispose of the body afterwards. Nevertheless, two members from amongst those who had tortured William, did place his body in a sack and take it to the best hiding place they could think of – Thorpe Woods on Mousehold Heath. Unfortunately for them, as they entered the wood they met, we are told, Erlward, a Burgess and a citizen of note, who was returning from the church of St Mary Magdalen nearby. He challenged the two men, suspicious that they were up to no good. At this, the two Jews ‘in their terror…… made off at full gallop and rushed into the thick of the wood’.

St William (Site)2
Site of St. William’s Chapel in the  Wood. Image: © Copyright Evelyn Simak

Christopher Reeve again writes:

“It is said that Erlward did nothing further except continue on his way to his own home in the city. With the coast clear, the two Jews returned and simply hung the sack holding William’s body on a tree and galloped home, still in panic. Aware that there was now a witness to the disposal of the body, the Jewish leaders decided that they needed to obtain the protection of the City Sheriff, John de Caineto, who as the King’s representative, was obliged to act on the Jew’s behalf for they were his source of ready money. In return for a willing bribe offered by the Jews, de Caineto instructed Aelward not to divulge anything he might have seen in Thorpe Wood”.

Unfortunately, in that March of 1144 at least three persons had already discovered William’s mutilated body; one, a peasant, plus two prominent citizens – Lady Legarda and Henry de Sprowston, a forester and keeper of the Bishop’s stables. It seems that Lady Legarda, a Norman aristocratic nun, was the first to come across the cadaver, tangled as it was in the undergrowth and quite near a thoroughfare in Thorpe Woods. We are told that she took no responsibility in informing the authorities, as was required; instead, she quietly said prayers over the corpse before retreating to her convent. Later that day, the peasant also ignored the body, despite being well aware of his responsibility to report the find to the powers-to-be.  Then, on 25 March 1144, Holy Saturday, Henry de Sprowston was riding through the woods in the course of his duties as guardian of all that was owned there by his ecclesiastical employers, the Norwich bishop and monks. Possibly to deflect attention from his own illicit activities, the same peasant [apparently] led Henry de Sprowston to the cadaver, but neither person recognised it as anyone they knew; what was clear however was that it was a young boy. The forester, because of his standing, instigated an inquiry into the death and while nothing came out of his investigation, the boy was identified as that of William, the apprentice leatherworker and son of Wenstan and Elviva.

St William (Eye c1500)
Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Eye, Suffolk: A 15th Century ‘rood screen’ painting of St William – complete with his” martyrs marks “and carrying a cross.

It was noted at the time that William’s injuries suggested a violent death and that the boy appeared to have been gagged with a wooden ‘teasel’ and was wearing just a jacket and shoes. Maybe they speculated that this had been a sexual assault? After consultation with the local priest, it was decided to bury the body two days hence, on Easter Monday; the position of the grave would be where the body was found. In the meantime, some curious folk came to look at the body, a few recognising William. Then, the following day, being Easter Sunday, William’s uncle, brother and cousin arrived to confirm the identity of the dead youth before he was buried, but with proper but minimal ceremony and no elaborate marker. That was on Easter Monday.

Information about William and the resulting homicide inquiry comes only from Brother Thomas’s account which claimed to have pieced together what actually happened during that fateful Holy Week of 1144. Thomas seems to have set out to prove that William had been killed for his faith and therefore deserved to be ordained as a saint. He devoted most of his book not to the crime, but to the evidence for William’s sanctity, including mysterious lights seen around the body itself and miraculous cures affected on local devotees. Thomas admits that some of the clergy, notably the Prior Elias, were opposed to the cult on the grounds that there was little evidence of William’s piety or martyrdom. However, Thomas actively promoted the claims by providing evidence of visions of William and miracles.

As for the Christians of Norwich, they quickly blamed local Jews for the crime, then demanded justice from the local ecclesiastical court. Members of the Jewish community were asked to attend the court and submit to a trial by ordeal, but the local sheriff, John de Chesney, advised them that the ecclesiastical court had no jurisdiction over them, as they were not Christians. He then took the Jews into protection in the castle. After the situation had calmed down, they returned to their homes. In the meantime, William’s body had been moved to the monks’ cemetery. Later, it would be moved to progressively more prestigious places in the Cathedral, being placed in the Chapterhouse in 1150 and close to the High Altar in 1151.

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. The above image shows a panel of painted oak, depicting both William and Agatha of Sicily, and is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; William is shown holding a hammer and with three nails in his head. The panel was formerly part of a rood screen at the Norwich Church of St John Maddermarket. The screen was commissioned by Ralph Segrym who died in 1472, a merchant who became a Member of Parliament and Mayor of Norwich. Another rood screen in St Mary’s church, Worstead also depicts him holding nails. One in Loddon depicts William being crucified.

As it was, William’s death was never satisfactorily solved and the local authorities would therefore not convict anyone – simply because there was no proof. There the matter apparently rested, that is until a Brother Thomas came along, some six years later, and got caught up in the clergy’s idea of establishing a cult around the death of William with a motive which must have been partly pecuniary. It was William de Turbeville, Bishop of Norwich between 1146 and 174 who encouraged Brother Thomas to write his book as a precursor to the church achieving its aim. It turned out to be an extensive hagiography work; Volume 7 being completed in 1173. Clearly, it was designed to deify the boy and to blame the Norwich Jews for what became Britain’s first ‘Blood Libel’ – the idea that Jews use the blood of the murdered, usually Christian, children in Passover rituals to make bread – no more need be said!

The Aftermath:
As a result of the feelings generated by the William ritual murder story and subsequent intervention by the authorities on behalf of the accused, the growing suspicion of collusion between the ruling class and Jews fuelled the general anti-Jewish and anti-King Stephen mood of the population. After Brother Thomas’s version of William’s death circulated a number of other unsolved child murders were attributed to Jewish conspiracies: – This evolved into the so-called Blood Libel.

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.

The horrific death of William of Norwich at the hands of an unknown became an appalling beginning for future propaganda exercises in many other parts of Britain and across Europe which used murdered children by unknowns, some of whom, as with William, became the subject of veneration. Proof of William’s veneration can be found in Norwich Cathedral, in a small chapel less than a stone’s throw from the choir stalls. It’s not an exciting place, wood lined and with a few chairs; seemingly out of place within the Cathedral’s splendour but comfortably near the tombs of old bishops. As someone said elsewhere, this is where the story starts to get really nasty. William is said to be buried here, after being moved several times in the church’s attempt to get William away from Thorpe Wood and nearer the high alter. The answer is all very simple; saints bring pilgrims and pilgrims bring money!

According to Emily M. Rose in her book ‘The Murder of William of Norwich’:

“William of Norwich, in particular, has received a considerable amount of attention, ever since the full text of his story was discovered in a Suffolk parish library at the end of the 19th– century by the antiquarian M. R. James, who edited and published an influential translation with Augustus Jessopp, an honorary canon of Norwich Cathedral. Brother Thomas’s ‘Life and Passion has now been re-translated for a modern readership, including passages that the fastidious Victorian translators passed over.”

FOOTNOTE:
In 2004, the remains of 17 bodies were found at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich. They were discovered during an excavation of a site in the City’s centre, ahead of the construction of Chapelfield Shopping Centre.
According to the scientists, carrying out the investigation, the skeletons dated back to the 12th or 13th Centuries, at a time when Jewish people were facing persecution in Norwich and, indeed, throughout Europe. In their opinion, the most likely explanation for them being down the well were that they were Jewish and probably murdered or forced to commit suicide. Pictures taken at the time of excavation suggested the bodies were thrown down the well together, head first.

St William (Bones)

Using a combination of DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies in their investigation, the team established that eleven of the 17 skeletons were those of children aged between 2 and 15; the remaining six were adult men and women. Out of the total found, seven skeletons were successfully tested and five of them had a DNA sequence suggesting they were likely to be members of a single Jewish family.

A close examination of the adult bones showed fractures caused by the impact of hitting the bottom of the well. But the same damage was not seen on the children’s bones, suggesting they were thrown in after the adults who cushioned the fall of their bodies.

The team had considered the possibility of death by disease but the bone examination also showed no evidence of diseases.

St William (Reburial of bones)1
Seventeen suspected victims of religious persecution, found at the bottom of a Norwich well were buried an estimated 800 years after their deaths in a service in the Jewish Cemetery in Earlham Cemetery, Norwich. Minister Alex Bennett adds soil to the grave. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Medieval Jewish History:

1066: The Norman Conquest opens the way to Jewish immigration. The monarchy needs to borrow money and Christians are forbidden to lend money at interest. London, Lincoln and York become centres for substantial Jewish populations.

1100s: Resentment against the Jewish community grows over their perceived wealth and belief they killed Jesus. The “blood libels” – Jews are accused of the ritual murder of Christian children.

1190: Many Jewish people massacred in York. In Norwich they flee to the city’s castle for refuge. Those who stay in their homes are butchered.

1230s: Executions in Norwich after an allegation a Christian child was kidnapped.

1272: Edward I comes to the throne and enforces extra taxes on the Jewish community.

1290: Edward I expels the Jews en masse after devising a new form of royal financing using Christian knights to fill the coffers.

THE END

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_of_Norwich
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Life_and_Miracles_of_St._William_of_Norwich
http://www.historyinanhour.com/2010/11/25/blood-libel-and-the-murder-of-william-of-norwich/
http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~pardos/ArchiveWilliam.html
Reeve, Christopher, Norwich – The Biography, Amberley Publishing, 2014.
Rose, E. M., The Murder of William of Norwich, Oxford University Press, 2015.

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.

Admirals of our Norfolk Coast!

To understand what the title and this particular blog is all about, it is best to first explain the title and responsibilities of an ‘Admiral’ – before going on to write about two archaic posts which were held by distinguished persons responsible for our Norfolk coastline:

Meanings Behind the use of ‘Admiral’:
The title ‘Admiral’, as most people understand it today is quite different to the original name. Today, it refers to the title and rank of a senior naval officer, often referred to as a flag officer, who commands a fleet or group of ships of a navy or who holds an important naval post on shore. The term is sometimes also applied to the commander of a fleet of merchant vessels or fishing ships.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the title of Admiral has an ancient lineage. It apparently originated before the 12th century with Muslim Arabs, who combined amīr (“commander”), the article al, and baḥr (“sea”) to make amīr al-baḥr. Shortened to amiral, the title was adopted for naval use by the Sicilians. The French copied the word from the Genoese during the Seventh Crusade of 1248 to 1254. The Latin word admirabilis (“admirable”) may have contributed to the designation Admiral for the commander of the Cinque Ports in England before the end of the 13th century.

Admirals (Ship)
A ship of the 16th century. Photo: Pinterest.

Henry VIII is known as the father of the English navy and from the Tudor period, England produced many eminent naval officers. By 1620 the word Admiral was used in England to denote a commander at sea. In that year the fleet was formed into three squadrons with the admiral commanding the centre squadron, his ships flying red ensigns. The vice admiral in the van squadron flew white ensigns, and the rear admiral flew blue ensigns in his squadron. The British navy became the Royal Navy after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660.

The ’Lord High Admiral of the Wash’:
This position is an ancient hereditary office within the English navy goes back to medieval times when the title holder was a nobleman with responsibility for defending and protecting the entire coastal area of the Wash in Norfolk. The post was first granted to the Le Strange family (still associated today with Old Hunstanton) in the 13th century. However, in the 16th century and reign of Henry VIII, the post became obsolete when protection and defence duties around the area were taken over by the Royal Navy. Apparently, at that time, nobody thought of formally abolishing the post so even today, it still remains in title a hereditary dignity – but with absolutely no responsibilities nor privileges of any kind what so ever!

Admirals (henry_styleman_le_strange)
Henry Styleman Le Strange. Photo: Wikipedia.

When Henry Styleman Le Strange died in 1862 he was already Lord of the manor of Hunstanton – and other Manors, but also held the wonderful title of Hereditary Lord High Admiral of the Wash. But in more official times, this title had also allowed its holder the right to claim possession of anything out to sea for the distance a man on horseback could throw a spear from the High-Water mark!

Admirals1
The Admiral Surveys his Norfolk coast! Photo: Christopher Weston.

The Lord High Admiral of the Wash no longer resides at Hunstanton Hall. Nor does he control all shipping and smuggling around the Wash, as the Le Strange family had originally been commanded to do all those centuries earlier. The current Admiral inherited the title from his mother, yet still lives in Hunstanton. Technically, he still owns all the land between the High Tide mark and the distance he can throw a spear.

The ‘Vice Admiral of the Coast’:
Again, during Henry Vlll’s reign in the 16th century, ‘vice-admiralties of the coast’ posts were established in each of the twenty maritime counties of England, the North and South of Wales, and the four provinces of Ireland. Hence, each jobholder became formally a ‘Vice Admiral of the Coast’ within the county or area for which they had been appointed and while holding office, were required to act as deputies of the Lord High Admiral. This, the highest post, was always held by a nobleman who was not a seaman and did not command at sea except on rare occasions; the position was as head of departments that administered naval affairs and included responsible for providing ships for war which, through the duty usually brought large fees to the holder – he, by the way, also had jurisdiction in certain legal cases. The current title holder of Lord High Admiral is Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh. As for the lower “Vice-Admiral”, he was responsible for naval administration in his County; this included deciding the lawfulness of prizes captured by privateers, dealing with salvage claims for wrecks, acting as a judge and implementing the role of the Impress Service (relating to men forced into military service by Press Gangs).

The earliest recorded appointment to the post was in 1536, when William Gonson (1482-1544) became Vice Admiral of the combined Norfolk & Suffolk coastal areas. Gonson was born in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire in England he was the son of Christopher Gonson and Elizabeth (nee: Trussell). He married Bennett Walters and together they had six sons and four daughters. (One of his sons, Benjamin Gonson, would go on to hold a career in the English navy and also became Treasurer of the Navy). William Gonson eventually fell from grace and committed suicide in 1544 leaving the navy disorganized in the region. It took two years for Henry VIII to reorganize control and develop what became later known as ‘The Navy Board’. William Gonson was probably, along with William of Wrotham, and Sir Robert de Crull of the 13th and 14th centuries, one of the three most important administrators of naval affairs of the English Navy prior to 1546.

Admirals (John Wodehouse)
On of the last recorded Vice Admirals of the Coast in Norfolk,  John Wodehouse (1771-1846), painted by Thomas Phillips (1770–1845)
Norwich Civic Portrait Collection, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

From around 1560, the ‘Vice Admiral of the Coast’ acquired a more public profile than previously and in the second half of the 16th century, increasingly received orders from the Privy Council.  In 1561, instructions were given by the Crown but in 1660, their functions were controlled by the Admiralty Board. The last recorded Vice Admiral of the Coast in Norfolk, was the 2nd Baron Wodehouse, John Wodehouse (1771-1846), who was also Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk between 1821 and 1846. Soon after this, records indicate the office and its requirements as described above, became extinct.

THE END

Sources:
Christopher Weston, Norfolk Archives.
https://www.britannica.com/topic/admiral
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_High_Admiral_of_the_Wash
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_vice-admirals_of_the_coast

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.

2020: The Year of Richard Caister

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. Timely therefore that between February and October of this year, 2020, St Stephen’s Church in Norwich (where this late priest and poet was based in the latter part of his life) will celebrate the 600th Anniversary of his life and work through several events hosted by the Church itself, including family craft workshops and musical performances. These events are to be supported by associated historical tours of the city and variously timed lectures at the Forum and the Norfolk Record Office. Not everyone could possibly share in these celebrations, but for those who may still be interested in the man, the period in which he lived and those with whom he associated, here is an adapted summary of his life based (in part) on the information compiled by St Stephens Church.

Richard Caister (St Stephens)
St Stephens Church, Norwich and host for the 600th Anniversary of its late Vicar, Richard Caister. Photo: Jamie (flickr).

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:

Richard Caister (Sedgeford)
St Mary The Virgin Church at Sedgeford. Photo: Blosslyn.

“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.

Richard Caister (Julian of Norwich)
A sculpture giving an imagined depiction of Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)

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.

Richard Caister (Margery Kempe)2

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’.

Richard Caister (Pilgrim Badges)2
A medieval pilgrim badge, worn by someone who would have visited Richard Caister’s burial spot in St Stephen’s Church in Norwich in the 15th century. Photo: Pinterest (Museum of London)

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.

Richard Caister (Thomas Arundel)
Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury. Copy of a 15th century portrait. Image: Lambeth Palace.

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.

Richard Caister (Love's Mirror)2
The ‘Mirror of the Blessed Jesus. This version printed by William Caxton, Westminster: circa. 1490. Image: University of Glasgow.

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.

Richard Caister (Henry_le_Despenser)
Henry le Despenser (c.1341-1406) a 14th-century carving of him on a misericord in a chancel stall in St. Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn. Photo: Wikipedia.

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 (John Bale)
John ‘Bilious’ Bale. Image: Wikipedia.

“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”.

Richard Caister (John Wycliffe)
John Wycliffe. Image: Wikimedia.

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!

Richard Caister (William Sawtre)

FOOTNOTE:
The Richard Caister Project, hosted by St Stephen’s Church, Norwich, sets out to tell the story of Richard Caister. At the forefront of this story is the suitability of all (not just the professionally religious) for spiritual and theological discourse, a commitment which is still at the core of the ministry of Christ at St Stephen’s today. There will be an exhibition in the Church building, workshops for young people and series of talks throughout 2020 – ‘The Caister Talks’, delivered by a diverse range of experts, including Professor Richard Rex (Cambridge University), Laura Varnam (Oxford University) and prolific local historian Frank Meeres. There will be performances over the year including an evening of poetry with the internationally renowned poet and priest Reverend Dr Malcolm Guite. To close the year, there will be a celebration service at St Stephen’s Church, at which Bishop Graham Usher will preach.

Two planned lectures on “Richard Caister are:

16 January 2020, at The Auditorium in the Forum, Millennium Plain, Norwich NR2 1TF and hosted by the Norwich Society. 

6 May 2020, at The Green Room, Norfolk Record Office, The Archive Centre, Martineau Lane, Norwich NR1 2DQ and hosted by the Norfolk Record Office

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Sources on which this Blog is based:
https://www.ststephensnorwich.org

The Story of Richard Caister


https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-4349
https://www.juliancentre.org/about/about-julian-of-norwich.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margery_Kempe#Pilgrimage
https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Lollardy
https://philpapers.org/rec/WATCAC-4
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wycliffe
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bale
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Sawtrey
https://www.networknorwich.co.uk/Articles/558444/Network_Norwich_and_Norfolk/Regional_News/Norwich/Events_mark_6th_centenary_of_Norwich_medieval.aspx

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered informative and of an educational nature, and considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always included in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

6. Christmas: Wassailing!

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.

Wassailing1

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.

Wassailing2

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”.

Wassailing3

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.

THE END

Source:
https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Wassailing/
Photo used for Feature Heading is via Wikipedia

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

2. Christmas: Medieval Style!

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.
Medieval Christmas (Boar)

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.
Medieval Christmas (reveling)

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.
Medieval Christmas

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.

Medieval-Christmas (mince pies)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.

Medieval Christmas (Singers)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.

Medieval Christmas (Humble Pie)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

Medieval Christmas (christmas crib)
Originated in 1223 in medieval Italy when Saint Francis of Assisi explained the Christmas Nativity story to local people using a crib to symbolise the birth of Jesus. Photo: HistoricUK[

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)

THE END

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

 

What Shaped Our Understanding of Santa?

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.

Christmas Myths1
Portrait of Saint Nicholas of Myra. First half of the 13th century. Image: Wikimedia

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.

Christmas Myths2
Saint Nicholas saves a ship. Circa 1425. Image: Wikimedia

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.

Christmas Myths3
The fly agaric, a mushroom which produces toxins that can cause humans to hallucinate. Flickr/Björn, CC BY-SA

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.

Christmas Myths4
Reindeer in Lapland. Photo: Flickr/Steve K, CC BY

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.

Christmas Myths5
Polar bears have fur that is invisible to night vision goggles. Photo: Shutterstock

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.

THE END

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. See the following ‘Source’ link.

https://theconversation.com/teleporting-and-psychedelic-mushrooms-a-history-of-st-nicholas-santa-and-his-helpers-107884

1381: The Peasants’ Final Battle!

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:

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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.

Battle_of_North_Walsham (The Fighting Bishop)4
14th-century carving of Henry le Despenser, misericord in a chancel stall in St. Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn

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.

Background:

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.

Battle_of_North_Walsham (Peasant's Revolt)3
The Black Death played a key part in producing the conditions for the Peasants’ Revolt. Fragment of a miniature from The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis (Bibliothèque royale de Belgique).

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.

The Leaders:

Battle_of_North_Walsham (Blason)2
Arms of Henry le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich: Quarterly 1st & 4th: Argent; 2nd & 3rd: Gules, a fret or, over all a bend sable (Despencer, paternal arms) a bordure argent of bishop’s mitres or (for difference)

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.

Battle_of_North_Walsham (Site)1
The site of the Battle, near the town of North Walsham.

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).[29]

Commemoration of the Battle:

Battle_of_North_Walsham (ancient_cross)6
One of three medieval crosses near the site of the battle.
Battle_of_North_Walsham (modern_sculptue)7
A modern sculpture in the Memorial Park, North Walsham, carved in 1999 by Mark Goldsworthy from the trunk of a 120-year-old oak tree. It commemorates the 1381 Battle of North Walsham and the end of Peasants’ Revolt. Photo: Wikiwand.

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.

Battle_of_North_Walsham (Sign)8
North Walsham’s town sign contains a mosaic depicting the Peasants’ Revolt.

THE END

Source:
https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Battle_of_North_Walsham

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A Tale of Norfolk Peat Cutting

The Norfolk Broads may look natural, but they are a man-made phenomenon, the result of inundated peat diggings. Amazingly, this fact was not realised until the 1950s, when Dr Joyce Lambert’s research revealed that the sides of the deep lakes were vertical and not gently sloping as would be expected of a naturally formed lake. This, coupled with the historical evidence of peat demand for fuel, proved irrefutable. Another clue was that the area’s names are not Anglo-Saxon or Norse. They are named after people or landmarks, meaning they originated later.

Peat Cutting (Barton Broad)
A View of Barton Broad –  The secong largest Broad in Norfolk. Photo: Broads Authority.  “As you approach the entrance to Barton Broad, the bottom becomes muddy, and the broad itself is full of mud; there being large hills where the water is not more than two feet deep. The navigable channels wind between these hills, and are marked out by posts.”       G. Christopher Davies 1882

Imagine a time where there are no mod cons, no electricity and certainly no mechanical diggers – just man power and a need to survive in what would have been difficult and unforgiving times. By the time of Domesday, around 1086, East Anglia was the most densely populated part of Britain, with a prosperous economy founded upon a stable agricultural regime. At this point, water levels in the Broadland estuary would have been sufficiently low to enable widespread exploitation of the wetlands, but very little wood was to be found on the Broadland uplands and much of the remaining floodplain woodland would have already been cleared for timber and particularly for firewood. Peat cutting, or ‘turbary’ provided a readily available alternative.

The extraction of peat would have been a difficult and unpleasant task, requiring great physical effort. Yet it was a prosperous industry and provided fuel for both individual families and manors, with a greater proportion being sold. It is estimated that more than 900 million cubic feet of peat would have been extracted.

The work:
Peat extraction was a very hard and unpleasant task; the deeper, more compacted peat has a higher calorific value and is a superior fuel to that unearthed from the surface layers, but the effort of cutting blocks of peat from pits which were constantly filling with water would have been enormous.

R.F.Carrodus researched 19th century rural practices around the Horning area and found that the traditional broadland turf, certainly at that time was three and a half inches square, and two or three feet long; he also eatimated that to dig up a thousand turves a day was regarded as a good day’s work, although some people claimed to be able to dig twenty turves a minute. The geographer C.T.Smith who did all the original work on the medieval records about the broads, followed Carrodus. He took the size of a medieval turf as a quarter of a cubic foot for the purposes of rough calculations about how long it would have taken how many men to dig out the basins of the broads.

Peat Cutting (Hand Tools)
Examples of old peat cutting tools which would have been very similar to those used for extracting peat from the Norfolk Broads. Photo: Norfolk Broads Forum.

Some people would have been cutting fuel for their own individual domestic consumption, however much of the peat, or ‘turf’ was likely to have been from demesne turbaries, which were owned by the church or by the manor. The peat produced in these turbaries was sometimes used within the manor or priory, but a large proportion was sold.

The decline of the peat cutting industry:
Wage labour was used, but for the most part the turbaries are likely to have been worked by bond tenants as part of the mandatory labour service owned to the lord of the manor. For example, the bond tenants of Stalham Hall in the 13th Century owed their lord 23 days labour per annum in the turbaries, and were likely to have been required to work in the fields in addition to this. Records made in 1328 indicate that the tenants were required to undertake 14 days labour in the pits, or to pay 14d. in lieu.

Peat Cutting (stalham hall 1910)
Stalham Hall in 1910. Photo: Public Domain.

The industry peaked in the 13th Century, but increasing water levels and floods made extraction from the submerged turbaries more difficult, and more costly; by 1350 there were visible signs of decline.

The account rolls for properties held by Norwich Cathedral Priory at Martham date from 1261. Up until the early 15th Century, the Martham turf accounts were made more or less systematically and show annual revenues for turf sales of between 3s. 2d. and 14s. 2d. for the period between 1299 and 1340. From 1341 onwards there was no revenue from turf sales, although peat was still cut for domestic use. In 1349, the accounts show that the cost of producing turves rose dramatically, from a previous 50 year high of 9d. per 1000 turves to 20d. per 1000.

The accounts of the Norwich (Whitefriars) Priory show that peat was the main fuel in the cathedral kitchens in the first half of the 14th century. Turf consumption began to fall after 1350, although the Priory continued to rely on turf as the main source of fuel until around 1384. After this date, however, other fuels, such as wood, are increasingly mentioned in the accounts, and after 1440 there are no further references to peat as a fuel.

Peat Cutting (Norwich Priory)1
‘Cowgate Norwich’ by David Hodgson 1860. The Norwich (Whitefriars) Priory stood on the eastern side, between the church of St James, Pockthorpe (seen above – but now the Puppet Theatre) and the River Wensum. Norwich Catherdral now sits on the opposite bank of the river. Photo: Norwich Museum Service.

The reasons for this shift are almost certainly economic ones: there was either a greatly increased availability of other fuels which could be more easily obtained, or the cost of producing peat had risen to such an extent that alternatives had to be sought.

Towards the end of the 14th Century, the relative sea level had risen to the extent that the peat workings were being flooded on a regular basis. Where flooding was not too severe, it may have been possible to bale the cuttings, but once flooded, the deep turbaries could not be adequately drained with the technology then available and it was probably nearly impossible to continue to extract peat from the flooded workings in the traditional manner.

Alternative techniques for removing peat from the flooded pits were devised: for example dredging the soft peat, or ‘mora’, from the bottom of the flooded pits and shaping it into blocks. Where there was sufficient labour available, the industry continued for a time on this basis, however the impact of another factor meant that this labour was no longer in cheap, and plentiful, supply.

The advent of the plague:
Bubonic plague, otherwise termed the ‘greate death’, because it affected everyone, whether rich or poor, young or old, arrived in England by ship in June 1348. ‘Black Death’ was a later name for the disease, thought to refer to the dark swellings, or ‘buboes’ at the lymph nodes. Those infected with the disease died within 4 days of detecting the first signs of swellings in armpit or groin.

Peat Cutting (Black Death)2

Others were inflicted with the pneumonic form of the disease, which affected the lungs. In either case, very few recovered. Within 18 months of the advent of the plague, almost half the population of the country was dead. It is impossible to comprehend the scale of the personal devastation and panic which would have swept the country.

“alas this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders”.                  William Dene

Food shortages caused by famine may have exacerbated the impact of the plague, with perhaps a higher mortality rate among the famine-weakened population than might otherwise have occurred. East Anglia was seemingly particularly hard-hit by plague, perhaps because of the high population density. A prayer in the church of St Edmunds in the market town of Acle, written by the rector at the time, refers to the “brute beast plague that rages hour by hour”.

Peat Cutting (Black Death)1

In the months following the first outbreak of plague, houses would have been empty, crops stood unharvested in the fields, and animals were left untended; the workers who undertook these tasks struck down by the disease.

“for want of watching…….animals died in uncountable numbers in the fields and byways and hedges”                                                                         Henry Knighton

Peat Cutting (blackdeath)

The impact of the Black Death:
Corresponding to the first outbreak of the plague the peat cutting industry seems to have undergone a rather sudden decline, even thought the natural resources of Broadland was by no means close to exhaustion at this time and large tracts of uncut peat fen still existed in many of the river valleys.

It is possible that some of these surface resources were not exploited because of ownership constraints or because there was some other significant and conflicting economic use of the land, for example reed or sedge cutting. However, because of the enormous scale of the peat cutting industry, the value of the excavated peat, and the rapidity of the change, it is probable that there was some more substantive factor which caused the decline.

The decline in the peat cutting industry almost certainly had its underlying cause in natural phenomena, but these were greatly exacerbated by the changing economic and social circumstances which came about as a result of the Black Death.

A major impact of the plague was severe labour shortage and because of this between 1350 and 1500 average wages in England rose dramatically. The economic impact of this on peat cutting, which was labour intensive, was devastating. While it would have been possible, if less economically viable, to continue to excavate peat in the face of rising sea levels and increased flooding by more labour intensive methods such as dredging the wet peat and shaping it into blocks, the loss of almost half of the labour force would have rendered any labour intensive tasks unworkable, and moreover, many of those who organised and supervised the work were dead.

Peat Cutting (Plague;_carting)

The plague shifted the balance of economic power in favour of the workforce: labour became scarce and it became increasingly difficult to coerce the peasant classes into carrying out their traditional tasks on behalf of the manor. While not the single most important factor in the decline of the peat industry, the plague certainly reduced the economic viability of peat extraction from the deep cuttings to a point where it was no longer possible.

Peat continued to be cut from surface deposits on a smaller scale until the beginning of the 20th Century to supplement, and locally to replace, firewood as a source of fuel, but the deeper turbaries were never again exploited, and the industry which was instrumental in creating the Broadland landscape we know today was never fully revived.

THE END

Sources:
http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/record-details?MNF13517-Medieval-and-later-peat-cuttings-along-the-River-Bure&Index=12654&RecordCount=57338&SessionID=96471cb8-4d59-417f-9e74-5691538ea143
http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/12836/1/309607.pdf
http://www.broadsmaker.com/home
http://www.broadsmaker.com/a_brief_overview_of_the_historical_evidence
https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=norfolk+peat+cutting&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjf7Jj_kMfbAhXUTcAKHdxuBl8QsAQINw&biw=1680&bih=818
http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/work/england/norfolk/

Also: C.T.Smith. Part II of “The making of the Broads, “The historical evidence”, a reconsideration of their origin in the light of new evidence.”,  Lambert et.al., R.G.S., 1960.

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.