Hidden from the busy roads around Holt is a hint of a prosperous past; a past that comes in the form of a ruin of a once-magnificent manor house which was originally the home to the Heydon family. This ruin is a hidden gem, now owned by English Heritage; the guardians of not only what remains of brick, stone, flint and mortar, but of a place that boasts a very curious caretaker – that of a spectral sentry!
It is Baconsthorpe Castle of which I speak, a peaceful place standing proud in the middle of open meadows and farmland with an impressive moat and lake offering an image of its lost grandeur which once was lent to this gentle corner of Norfolk. What meets the eye is also a stony reminder of how far one can fall from grace.
The Heydons began building work on the fortified manor house in 1450, adding extensions as their wealth grew. The person who started the whole project was lawyer, Sir John Heydon who was born the son of William Baxter, a peasant in Heydon. It is thought that Sir John changed his family surname to his village name to disguise his humble beginnings. In time, Sir John Heydon was appointed Recorder of Norwich in 1431, but soon became so unpopular with townsmen that he was dismissed as Recorder by May 1437; he was also accused of giving the City’s documents to Norwich Cathedral priory during a dispute. It was clear that John was, by nature and profession, an unscrupulous lawyer, hard man and opportunist; as an old Norfolk rhyme states: “There never was a Paston poor, or a Heydon a coward.” It also seemed to matter not to John that there was always a possibility that he may need those around him to help him see off enemies! One of these was Lord Moleynes whom John was to incite when he laid claim to the Paston Estate at Gresham, a claim that resulted in Margaret Paston and a dozen retainers being attacked by a mob of around 1,000. John also clashed with the Paston’s patron, Sir John Fastoff in disputes of property.
If turbulent relationships was not enough, John Heydon, during the intensive Wars of the Roses, often switched political allegiances to serve his own means. However and despite being also linked to extortion, duplicity and underhand tactics, John Heydon proved to be an astute survivor. At least two of those close to him were beheaded but John managed to not only stay alive but managed to retain his seat in Baconsthorpe, his property portfolio and his wealth.
The Heydons lived at Baconsthorpe for 200 years, their fortune built on the wool industry. But the family were poor estate managers and Christopher Heydon, who died in 1579, left his son William with growing debts. It was him and his eldest son Christopher who were the ones who wrought the family’s downfall; both were hot-tempered and clashed badly. Christopher lived at Saxlingham Hall with his wife Lady Mirabel. William was forced to sell off parts of the manor house.
In the late 16th or early 17th century, an ornamental mere was created to the east of the moat and formal gardens were created, but by the mid-17th century, the insolvency of successive Heydons forced them to demolish most of the castle and sell the stone, some of which ended up at Felbrigg Hall. The remains of the castle was sold to merchant Daniel Bridges in 1673. The gatehouse was eventually converted into a private dwelling and occupied until 1920 when it collapsed and the building left to decay.
There is so much more to the history of the Heydons and all of it would be very interesting but, unfortunately, there is not enough space here to document it. However, there is another side to Baconsthorpe that not many know about; it may surprise and intrigue you. It is that when visitors come to the castle and wander through the shattered remains to the moat, some will witness the silence broken by the unmistakeable sound of stones breaking the still waters – stones clearly thrown from some height! This and the sight of ripples spreading to either side and along the moat may well cause confusion with a few, but on turning inward to the ruin they will see clearly from where the stones were thrown. Not only that, but they would not fail to catch sight of a ghostly sentry or medieval soldier standing on the castle walls, throwing these stones – as if to pass the time maybe? A few visitors may well be startled but, always remember, no one has ever reported feeling threatened by this stone-throwing spirit!
So be at ease, for this experience is only a further reminder that a spectral sentry was, at one moment in the distant past, detailed to be on guard at Baconsthorpe. There is every possibility, as things stand, that this lone soul may well stay there until such time as a counter order is issued from the appropriate authority for him to stand down. Until then……………….!
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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
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.
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.
It is a fact that many folk in the distant past could neith read nor write; couple this with the fact that folklore stories have long drifted in and out of print, meaning that each generation relied on the tongue for telling tales which it was hoped would be remembered and passed on, from generation to generation. As part of this process, and to maintain the interest of liseners, these stories were often elaborated and embellished; an essential part of the spoken tradition which wanted to perpetuate whatever lay behind each tale. The following story is just one example where the detail has been given just that treatment over time, appearing in print in as many and varied versions as would the same tale told verbally – so maybe past chronicle authors and story-telling bards have a lot to answer for! But we have to go with what we have, so the question is ‘How much of a story is fact and how much is fiction’, remembering that all legends have a degree of truth in them; but one thing is certain – we will never know. The only thing the reader can do is to pick through content and decide where a degree of licence may have been applied and where facts possibly rest.
This story is about the beginnings of Erpingham Gate, a great Norwich gateway which takes the visitor from Tombland into the Cathedral Close and directly towards the main entrance to Norwich Cathedral. More importantly, it is about the person who, it was said, paid for its construction, Sir Thomas Erpingham – and about whom a legend, myth – whatever you might call it – found root around the time of 1422 when Gate was built. But first, some facts:
Sir Thomas Erpingham was born in 1357 in the Norfolk village of Erpingham, some 17 miles north of Norwich. His family had been in the village since the Norman Conquest and were part of the local gentry who came to be the holders of the manor in the early thirteenth century, taking the place name of Erpingham as their surname. After the death of his father, Sir Thomas went into the service of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and fought alongside Gaunt’s son (Henry Bolingbroke) across Europe and the Middle East. Bolingbroke later became King Henry IV and Sir Thomas was made his chamberlain. In 1400 Sir Thomas became a Knight of the Garter and received many estates in Norfolk and Suffolk. He used his position at court to promote the interests of Norwich and in 1404, the king gave Norwich its new charter, making it the County and City of Norwich. Sir Thomas was a generous patron and one of his legacies can still be seen most clearly in his entrance gate to Norwich Cathedral.
Sir Thomas went on to have an impressive military and political career beyond the confines of Norfolk. He was a staunch supporter of the Lancastrian dynasty and part of Henry V’s inner circle, he was instrumental in the king’s political and military successes. In 1415, Sir Thomas went with Henry V to Agincourt where he is thought to have been in charge of the archers, riding out in front of the English lines giving the order to strike the French. Sir Thomas became a hero to many and was immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V, where one Act takes us through the English and French camps on the eve of the battle, portrayed as a steadfast and loyal ‘old hero’. However, whilst he was considered ‘good’ in Shakespeare’s play, there was a piece of folklore that grew amongst the populace following the completion of the Gate. Its theme depicted the process of Sir Thomas paying for the building of the Erpingham Gate as an act of personal penance – for a seedy episode during his life!
When it comes to legends, you would think that their themes would rely more on history books and the information, if not facts therein. In the case of Erpingham, this legend, of which we speak, would have made reference to the fact that Sir Thomas was against Henry le Dispencer, Bishop of Norwich. For instance, in efforts to turn the City of Norwich against the Bishop, Sir Thomas managed to persuade the City’s authorities to endorse a list of accusations against the Despenser, who sympathised with the deposed Richard II and became implicated in a rebellion against Henry IV. As it was, the house of Despenser had a long-standing enmity with the House of Lancaster – and ultimately Sir Thomas. When the King Richard II was disposed of, Bishop Henry le Despenser was disgraced. Add to this the fact that it was Sir Thomas Erpingham who, when in exile with Henry Bolingbroke, helped the future Henry V to secure the throne, whilst capturing Richard and offering ‘advice’ that because Richard was a possible threat, he should be removed! With the Bishop of Norwich disgraced, Erpingham became even more influential in Norfolk.
The result of these acts was that a serious breach of trust opened up between Erpingham and Bishop le Despenser, the repercussions of which may have been felt by both Sir Thomas and the Church beyond the year of 1406 when Despenser died. We do not know! However, if this legend ever found root beyond Dispenser and the next two Bishops of Norwich – Alexander Tottington (1407 to 1413) and Richard Courteney (1413 to 1415) – then it must have been with John Wakering (or Wakeryng) who was Bishop of Norwich from 1415 and until 1425. It was during this period in office when the Erpingham Gate was built. So, was any sort of reconciliation between the Church and Sir Thomas settled during Wakering’s period in charge?
Whenever it was, if the wound was ever to be healed then Sir Thomas needed to make some sort of financial gesture to the Church – because that was what they liked! As things turned out, it was said that he came up with a two-pronged solution that, with God’s help, would satisfy both the Church and his belief that heaven awaited those who donated generously to the church; he also must have hoped that his earthly bones would eventually be laid to rest in the Cathedral when his time came. They say that this was the basis on which Sir Thomas Erpingham built his Gate. When Sir Thomas did die in 1428, his bones were indeed buried in the north side of the Chancel (or presbytery) of the Cathedral, along with his two wives.
That was one version of the legend; but it would seem that the populace much preferred another version of the legend that tells quite a different story – and with much less historical content. This one goes along the lines having a Friar in the opening scene – we’ll call him Brother John for the purpose of this version – who clearly lusts after Sir Thomas Erpingham’s wife, Joan. We do not know which Joan the tale refers to; both of Thomas’s wifes carried the same name for he married a Joan, daughter of Sir William Clopton of Clopton, Suffolk, then married a second Joan, daughter of Sir Richard Walton sometime around 1411. No matter, for this legend tells us that during Mass, Brother John slipped a note into Joan’s hand. Curiousity alone dictated that she would read it at the first opportunty, her subsequent blushes apparently telling Sir Thomas all he needed to know of the note’s content. But, being a faithful wife, she still insisted that her husband read it word for word, knowing that he would take matters into his own hands and take steps to remove the problem that lurked beneath a religious habit! Sir Thomas did just that – and so cunningly; first by noting the time and place suggested by Brother John for his meeting with Joan, both perfect for his plans. The meeting would take place at dusk when disguise was so much easier, and the place would be a quiet spot by the River Wensum – a short but convenient walk away from the Cathedral, Whitefriars Priory and the busy part of the City. We of course, do not know if this friar came from the Blackfriar fraternity, or that of the Whitefriars stood next to the Cathedral in Pockthorpe with the River Wensum in between. Sir Thomas then decided to dress in one of his wife’s more favoured dresses before leaving with his faithful servant to the ‘trysting’ rendezvous which some believed was downstream from the rear of Whiefriars and just short of Cow Tower – again, we cannot be certain.
Once there, Sir Thomas, now further disguised with a silk scarf tied over his head, stood beneath a tree at the water’s edge and gazed across the water to the bank opposite; waiting, but at the same time listening intently for sounds of any movement behind him. In the meantime, his servant concealed both himself and Thomas’s horse under cover a short distance away. It was not long before (alias) ‘Lady Erpingham’ heard advancing footsteps behind him and then felt stumpy fingers begin to move over his hip. “Thank you for coming – my love”. Brother John got no further with his obvious intentions for, almost in a single movement, Sir Thomas reached for a metal object hidden beneath the waist of the dress, swung round and struck Brother John firmly on the side of his bald head. The Friar fell first on his knees and then face downwards towards the river-edge reeds. He was dead.
The recipient of the legend is led to believe that it was never Sir Thomas’s intention to kill his victim, but only to give him a heavy lesson which he would never forget – such was his anger……..“How do we get rid of this lecher” he eventually asked his servant, who had come to his master’s assistance immediately he saw the Friar hit the ground. His reply was quick and straight forward. “He has no blood showing, just a dent my Lord. The best we can do is to return him to the Priory grounds”. With the help of Thomas’s horse they took the body the short distance to the Priory’s boundary wall. There, the two men lifted it over the wall and propped Brother John up in a sitting position – as if the Friar was asleep.
The corpse had not been there long, after Sir Thomas, servant and horse had quietly departed, when another Friar, in this instance a Brother Richard who was a very pious man, noticed Brother John – apparantly asleep when he should have been at prayers! Seeing this known womaniser lazely avoiding his religious duties caused Richard to pick up a stone and throw it in the direction of John. It so happened, that his aim was good, too good in fact; the stone hit the side of Brother John’s head, causing him to keel over, once again hitting the ground. Believing that he had actually killed Brother John and in doing so sinned, Richard took a further step towards further weakness; he lifted the body and rolled it over the wall where it fell to lay outside the Priory boundary. He then quietly called on the services of his own pony and left the Whitefriars and what he thought was his crime scene.
Now it so happened that Sir Thomas Erpingham’s personal servant again rode past the Whitefriar’s outer wall on an errand for his master. He could not help noticing, with some puzzlement, the body lying on the wrong side of the wall from where he and Sir Thomas had first left it. Maybe it was a degree of panic, if not a cool calculated decision, that caused the servant to climb down from his horse and replace his elevated position with that of the corpse which by then was stiff with rigor martis. He managed to get former John into an upright position, his feet into the stirrups and his wrists tied to the reins before firmly slapping the horse’s rump into a gallop.
As for Brother Richard, he thought that he had left his unfortunate experience behind him as he too rode out of Norwich, all be it at a much slower pace. But then he heard the sound of galloping hooves approaching towards him from the rear. He instictively turned his head to see the ‘gastly figure’ of Brother John approaching fast on a horse which. When alongside Richard’s pony it pulled up causing the dead friar to fall off to beneath the ponty’s feet. Richard was absolutely terrified – feeling the guilt of what he thought he had done. It was nothing less than divine intervention he thought and decided, there and then, that he must confess! He immediately turned his pony and made his way back to the Bishop and told him all that he knew.
Inevitably perhaps, Friar Richard was sentenced to be hanged for his apparent sins, but as he stood on the gallows, praying for forgiveness and waiting for the immident drop into oblivion if not heaven, Sir Thomas came on to the scene and forced his way through a crowd eager to witness what was a public strangulation. He shouted “Hangman – stop!” as he climbed the scaffold steps, removing the implements of execution and then descending the steps with the Friar. Sir Thomas, the most powerful knight in Norfolk at the time, sought out the Bishop and did not hesitate to kneel before him to admit that he, Thomas, was the one who had killed Friar John. He told the of circumstances surrounding the Mass and his thoughts and planning which led up to the murder along that part of the River Wensum which runs past Whitefriars, towards Cow Tower, Bishops Bridge and beyond. The Bishop listened, then contemplated and decided that the act of this killing was manslaughter…….the sentence was not to be death for such a distinguished person of the County, but one of a penance which Sir Thomas had to agree to if he was ever to be forgiven and find his place in heaven. What was agreed was for him to pay the costs of building what was to become known as the Erpingham Gate.
FOOTNOTE: The Erpingham Gate was erected between 1420 and 1435, in a style which matches the west front of the cathedral itself. The exterior of the gate has a small statue of Sir Thomas above, although this was apparently only put in place in the 17th century – some speculate that it came from Sir Thomas’s tomb in the Cathedral’s Presbytery. The interior side of the Gate also displays the Erpingham coat of arms. There are no less than 24 Christian Saints carved in the archway – 12 male and 12 female – a nice example of equal treatment some 600 years before the Equality Act. (Would this have had anything to do with the fact that Sir Thomas had two wives?).
About the time when the Erpingham Gate was being built, other work associated with the rebuilding of the church of the Dominican Friars and a new East window for the church of the Augustinian Friars was taking place. History does suggest that Sir Thomas donated even more of his money to projects such as these. What is not clear is whether, or not Sir Thomas, following his death in 1428 ever left any of his funds to William Alnwick, who was the Bishop of Norwich between 1426 and 1436. This Bishop continued with further enhancements within the Cathedral precincts by altering and improving the Cathedral itself – as well as his Palace!
We are told that much of the rebuilding of the Dominican friary in Norwich was financed by Sir Thomas Erpingham and his son Robert, who became a friar there. The gate that bears his name is thought to have been built at his cost, a gift to the cathedral, ca.1420. The upper portion, surrounding the canopy within which Sir Thomas’s statue is recessed and faced with flint in Norfolk style. Below it, surrounding the Perpendicular arch, the outward face of the gateway is highly decorated with figures of saints. The turrets on the buttresses at either side also bear sculptures, as well as the heraldic devices of Erpingham and the families of his two wives, and each turret is topped by the statue of a priest. The word yenk (“think”) is engraved at various places on the gateway, and is a request for viewers to remember (and say a prayer for) the donor.
The date of the building of the gate is not known for certain, but it must have taken place after his second marriage (1411). The style suggests the 1420s, and it seems likely the gate would have been given at a time when Erpingham’s thoughts were turning to his death and afterlife – by this time he would have been in his sixties. There were certainly stories that he built the gate as a penance for a sin he had committed – different versions suggest a homicide, his role in the disgrace of Bishop Despenser, his support of heretics – or even gratitude for surviving Agincourt; but there is no real foundation for any of these. If anything, the highly decorated gate is an assertion of orthodoxy at a time when Lollardy was posing a challenge to the established order and at a time when Sir Thomas might have been concerned with his spiritual future.
Erpingham died in 1428 and was buried inside Norwich cathedral, in a tomb built in advance, alongside his two wives; a chantry was established there in his name. His testament did not forget the city in whose affairs he had always shown an interest. He left sums of money to the cathedral and the Prior and monks there, as well as to the church of St. Martin at Palace; his armour too he left to the cathedral. He also bequeathed money to the sisters and poor inmates of St. Giles’ hospital, Bishopgate, and lesser sums to prisoners in the gaols of Norwich castle and the city Guildhall, as well as to hermits within the city.
The construction of the gate may have been an act intended to win favour from the Cathedral in which he hoped to be buried, to win favour from God, and to establish a memorial to himself. The armour in which he is depicted in the statue may have been that which was bequeathed to the cathedral. Although his will makes no reference to the gate, it is possible he commissioned it shortly before his death, with the work finished posthumously by his executors, or it may even have been entirely a project of his executors. His testament focused on pious and charitable bequests and left the rest of his worldly goods to his executors’ disposition – they may have felt the gateway a suitable application of that wealth, and certainly it has stood the test of time. It has been argued that his statue is not the right size for its niche and may have been moved there from his tomb, replacing some other statue on a religious theme.
The Wash is a large bay on the east coast of England that lies between the counties of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. It is one of the largest estuaries in the United Kingdom and is fed by the rivers Witham, Welland, Steeping, Nene and the Great Ouse. Collecting 15% of the water that drains from the countries lands it is the second largest inter-tidal, uncovered when the tide is out, mudflats in Great Britain.
People have lived on the surrounding fertile land for centuries and it was this stretch of water that the Vikings used as a major route to invade East Anglia between 865 and the start of the Norman Conquest. The Wash was given the name of Metaris Aestuarium, meaning the reaping/mowing/cutting off estuary during the first century by Claudius Ptolemy, a Roman astrologer and mathematician. The Romans built large embankments that protected the land and prevented flooding, but they had all but disappeared by the end of the fifth century. In later years Dutch engineers began a large scale land reclamation and drainage project, this has continued on and off over the years.
It is the Wash that plays host to an interesting and somewhat speculative incident in history, the story of how, in 1216, King John lost England’s crown jewels in the murky water of the estuary.
John was not a popular king, previous to his unfortunate accident he had lost much of England’s lands in France, been excommunicated and forced to sign the Magna Carta. The following year the king broke his word, this action was the starting point of the First Barons’ War. John travelled around the country to oppose the rebel forces, directing a two-month siege of Rochester Castle. Later retreating from the French invasion, John took a safe route around the marshy area of the Wash to avoid the rebel held area of East Anglia. In the October of 1216, John travelled from Spalding in Lincolnshire to a town where he was well liked, Bishops Lynn, now Kings Lynn in Norfolk a town that he had previously granted a royal charter.
It was here that he was taken ill with dysentery and decided not to continue the journey. According to Kings Lynn’s Borough Council, it was on the 12th of October that the king left the town, taking the route via Wisbech sending his baggage, plus the jewels on what he thought was the quicker route across the mouth of the Wash. The Wash was much wider than it is today, the sea reached as far as Wisbeach and the inland town of Long Sutton was on the coast and was then a port. Up to three thousand of the kings entourage were carrying the royal wardrobe and the whole of the kingdoms treasury. At low tide the conditions of the causeway were wet and muddy and the wagons moved too slowly and sank into the mud engulfing the kings most valuable possessions. The men of the train struggled with the trunks whilst others pulled at the horses to encourage movement but eventually everything was covered by the incoming tide. The accident probably took place between the tiny hamlet of Walpole Cross Keys and what we now call Sutton Bridge that crosses the River Nene.
But what of the kings treasure? Is it buried centuries deep under Sutton Bridge?
The kings journey continued to Swineshead Abby, near Boston in Lincolnshire, were his health became worse and where legend has it that he was poisoned by a monk called Brother Simon who stole the jewels and made his way out of England with Europe as his destination. Another interesting take on the loss of the king’s treasurers is that they were not lost at all and that the king was using the jewels as security, arranging for their ‘loss’ before they arrived at their destination and using the Wash as a ruse. There seems to be no written documentation to give credence to these two facts so they must remain what they probably are, just tall tales.
On the run from the barons, the loss of the kingdoms ‘treasury’ may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, which affected his health and state of mind. It was either on his journey or during his one night stay at Sleaford Castle that he heard of the loss of the treasure, his health continued to deteriorate and following his arrival at Newark Castle, the king died on the 18th or 19th October 1216. He didn’t live to see his English barons switch their allegiance taking the side of the new king, his nine year old son Henry.
John is yet another English king who has suffered from bad press over the years, he was no hero, he was vengeful and untrusting and is it any wonder, as a child he received no support from warring parents, no support from a self obsessed brother and as king no support from his people, what chance did he have? W L Warren in his book ‘King John’ seems to sum up fairly accurately the cause of his troubled reign.
“talented in some respects, good at administrative detail, but suspicious, unscrupulous, and mistrusted. His crisis-prone career was sabotaged repeatedly by the half-heartedness with which his vassals supported him—and the energy with which some of them opposed him.”
Since 1216 there has been nearly eight hundred years of silt deposited over all the gold and silver plate, the coins and the jewelry and it is highly unlikely that this treasure will ever be found. Nottingham University did undertake some work trying to discover the causeway that King John’s royal train may have passed over. No doubt, other interested parties will search in the future and maybe they may well find something. But intriguing questions remain – did this event ever happen at all; and did ‘Bad’ King John ‘arrange’ for his treasure tto disappear for reasons only he knew?
There are two contemporary accounts, one by Roger of Wendover, an English chronicler who died in 1236 and one by Ralph of Coggeshall, an English monk and chronicler who died in 1227. Both were writing at the time of the loss. Roger of Wendover writes rather melodramatically and calls it a major disaster, he writes:
‘the ground opened up in the midst of the waves, and bottomless whirlpools sucked in everything’
Ralph of Coggeshall refers to it as more of a misadventure, stating that it was not the whole of the royal baggage train that was lost but the vanguard who carried household items, church and holy relics, but not the whole of the treasury. Indeed, some valuable items, belonging to the king of England, did get lost in the Wash, but not treasure as some would imagine. There was no large chest overflowing with coins, necklaces and gold goblets, only kitchen equipment and finery collected from churches. As Coggeshall suggested maybe the real treasure was in second train that never started its journey across the Wash which eventually ended its days thrown in among the new king, Henry III’s treasury
FOOTNOTE: In the mid fourteenth century there was a Norfolk gentleman by the name of Robert Tiptoft. He, quite suddenly so they say, became very wealthy as a result of finding the King’s treasure and not handing it back to the crown where it rightfully belonged. Now, here lays another Tale!
During the medieval period the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was the second most popular destination for pilgrims in England after Canterbury. It was also one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims across Europe. Pilgrims flocked to visit the small Norfolk village of Little Walsingham, and the pilgrims’ route from the European continent took them through the port of King’s Lynn.
One popular gathering place for pilgrims en route to Little Walsingham was the Red Mount Chapel in King’s Lynn. The chapel was built in 1485 as a wayside chapel for pilgrims landing at King’s Lynn; a place to stop and pray before undertaking the overland journey to Walsingham, or to pray before leaving England after a visit to the shrine. It was known as the Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount The Walks.
It was built by Robert Currance from June 1483. In 1485 the Benedictine prior of St Margaret’s (now King’s Lynn Minster) was granted a lease on the land. The upper chapel was added in 1506, possibly by Simon Clerk and John Wastel, the mason responsible for King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.
The Benedictine Priory was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1537. Surprisingly, the chapel was not destroyed, though it was later robbed of tiles and bricks for building materials. In 1586 it was converted into a study for the vicar of St Margaret’s church. During the Civil War it was used to store gunpowder, and during an outbreak of plague in 1665 it was used a a charnel house. Around 1780 the chapel was used as a stable, then in 1783 it was converted into an astronomical observatory.
The chapel narrowly survived a bombing raid in 1942 when German bombs fell in The Walks nearby. After the war it was used briefly as a place for inter-denominational worship but this ceased when the local Catholic church found the terms of the lease too costly. Now restored, the Chapel is opened to the public during summer months.
The Red Mount Chapel only served as a religious building for just about 50 years of its history.
WHAT TO SEE
The striking chapel is one of the most peculiar late medieval Gothic structures in England. It is built to an octagonal plan, and stands three storeys high. It is supported by buttresses rising two storeys, and each buttress is pierced by a hole that forms a statue niche. It is made of two concentric drums, rising over a barrel-vaulted cellar. Brick staircases run inside the wall formed by the two drums. The two staircases run counter-wise to each other, arriving at the chapel antechamber from opposite directions.
The bottom two storeys are made of red brick, but the top storey is built from stone. It was probably added several decades after the base.
There is a priest’s room and two chapels, a lower chapel and an upper chapel. The upper chapel is decorated with a stunning fan-vaulted ceiling in ornate late Perpendicular Gothic style. The ceiling has been likened to the famous vaulted ceiling at King’s College Chapel, which is not surprising if the same master mason was involved in both.
On the internal walls is graffiti dating back to 1639 and by the entrance door is a plaque reading, ‘Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount 1485‘. The chapel stands atop a mysterious mound thought to be the remains of an early Norman motte and bailey fortification.
The Red Mount Chapel forms part of King’s Lynn’s ‘Pilgrimage Trail’, following the route taken by medieval pilgrims. Modern pilgrims still take the route followed by pilgrims centuries before.
The chapel is open two days a week from spring through autumn, with an extra day at the height of summer. When closed, the Chapel’s unusual exterior structure can be viewed from within King’s Lynn public park known as The Walks, a short stroll from the historic town centre.
A very short distance away is a preserved section of medieval town walls and the Guannock Gate, part of the town’s medieval defences. The gate and the town wall held firm against a Civil War siege by Parliamentary soldiers. The Parliamentary army could not breach the defences, but lack of supplies eventually forced the Royalist defenders of King’s Lynn to surrender.
Red Mount Chapel Address: The Walks, London Road, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England
Great Yarmouth boasts one of the most distinctive and unusual of any coats-of-arms to be found and its origin goes back to a decisive but long-forgotten naval battle, plus a King’s gratitude to a town that gave so generously of its ships and men for what turned out to be the 1340 Battle of Sluys and the start of the Hundred Year’s War.
With no dedicated fleet of warships King Edward III had to assemble hundreds of merchant vessels, called Cogs, for his assault on northern France; the majority of these were supplied by Great Yarmouth. This assault was the precursor to what became known as The Hundred Years War. It is said that Great Yarmouth provided King Edward III with a total of 1,075 mariners and 43 ships, whereas London only provided 25 ships. The fierce sea battle that ensued at Sluys, then the best harbour in Europe, saw the English overwhelm a combined force and destroying French naval capability for some years. This victory allowed the King to land with little opposition and head off an invasion of England. Afterwards, Edward was gracious enough to not only hail the contribution of men and ships from Yarmouth, but also to allow the town to half its own coat-of-arms of three silver herrings and add his own three lions; thus elevating Great Yarmouth’s standing and creating an arresting heraldic emblem.
The Cause of the Hundred Year War:
Since the Norman Conquest of 1066, English monarchs had held titles and lands within France, the possession of which made them vassals to the kings of France. The status of the English king’s French fiefs was a major source of conflict between the two monarchies throughout the Middle Ages. French monarchs systematically sought to check the growth of English power, stripping away lands as the opportunity arose. Over the centuries, English holdings in France had varied in size, but by 1337 only Gascony in south western France and Ponthieu in northern France were left. The Gascons had their own language and customs and a large proportion of the red wine that they produced was shipped to England in a profitable trade. This trade provided the English king with much of his revenue. The Gascons preferred their relationship to be with the distant English king who left them alone, rather than with a French king who would interfere in their affairs. Following a series of disagreements between Philip VI of France and Edward III of England, on 24 May 1337 Philip’s Great Council in Paris agreed that the Duchy of Aquitaine, effectively Gascony, should be taken back into Philip’s hands on the grounds that Edward was in breach of his obligations as a vassal. This marked the start of the Hundred Years’ War, which was to run one hundred and sixteen years.
The Opposing Forces: Initially the French had the superior fleet, their galleys were ideal for swift passage across the Channel under sail or oars, could penetrate shallow harbours and were highly manoeuvrable and ideal for raiding or ship-to-ship combat. The huge French fleet was supplemented by galleys from Genoa and they were able to disrupt English commercial shipping, particularly that of the Gascon wine and the Flemish wool trades, as well as raiding the south and eastern coasts of England at will.
There was no English Royal Navy in the 14th Century and the English did not have a purpose-built navy. The principle type of English merchant vessel was the Cog, which was clinker-built, fitted with a single mast and a square-rigged single sail, and had a deep draught and round hull. They ranged from about 15 to 25 meters (49 to 82 feet) in length, had a beam of 5 to 8 meters (16 to 26 feet) and the largest could carry up to about 200 tons. Edward requisitioned a number of these ships from the merchant fleet and converted them into warships by adding wooden “castles” at the bow and stern, and a crow’s nest platform at the masthead, from which archers could use bows or drop stones on to enemy craft alongside. The high freeboard of the Cog made it superior in close combat to the French galley allowing the English to look down on their French adversaries.
Edward III assembled his fleet in the River Orwell and River Stour near Harwich. He made the Cog ‘Thomas’ his flagship and set sail on 22 June 1340 and was approaching Sluys by the afternoon of the following day. The English fleet anchored off Blankenberge and that evening King Edward sent Sir Reginald Cobham, Sir John Chandos, and Sir Stephen Lambkin to reconnoitre the French fleet. They found the French fleet anchored at the entrance of the Zwin estuary and ranged in three tightly packed lines that included the great cog Christopher, a captured English prize.
The French fleet is believed to have been around 200 ships; Edward in a letter to his son counts 180 sails and contemporary French documents record the fleet size as 204 vessels. Part of the fleet consisted of Genoese galleys serving as mercenaries under the command of Admiral Pietro Barbavera and the French fleet was under the command of the Breton knight Hugues Quiéret, admiral for the king of France, and Nicolas Béhuchet, the Constable of France.
The size of the English fleet is not accurately known as no contemporary records exist. It is believed that the English fleet that set sail from the Orwell consisted of 160 ships and that these were joined by the northern squadron led by Sir Robert Morley. In addition, King Edward’s Flemish allies are also reported to have joined the battle and it is thought therefore that the English fleet was somewhere between 120 and 320 ships in total.
The Battle: Forget ships that fired cannons from a distance, this was close-up combat of the most savage kind with boats lining up against each other so that men-at-arms could hack at their adversaries, throwing the survivors overboard. In fact, the task force of merchant ships, called Cogs, were not designed for warfare or manned by naval personnel. This made being a seafarer in the middle ages a risky and violent business, at a time when the King required maritime towns, such as Great Yarmouth, to maintain ships on standby for battle.
King Edward sent these ships against the French in groups of three; two ships were crammed with archers and the third full of men-at-arms. The English ships with the archers would close on a French vessel and the archers would rain arrows down on the enemy’s decks. The English archers, with their long bows, could accurately shoot 20 arrows per minute at a range of up to 270 metres (300 yards), whereas the Genoese crossbowmen could only manage two bolts per minute and had a lot shorter range. While the enemy vessel was so engaged, the ship carrying the men-at-arms would come alongside and the men-at-arms would board and seize it. Because of how tightly the French vessels were packed together, the battle became essentially a land battle at sea.
The English managed to board and seize many French vessels after fiercely contested hand-to-hand fighting. The Genoese crossbowmen managed to successfully board and capture two English ships. French sources asserted that Nicolas Béhuchet wounded King Edward III during the fighting, but there was no evidence, other than a legendary one, that a personal encounter between King Edward and the French commander. It is, however, a fact that the King was indeed wounded during the battle by either an arrow or a crossbow bolt.
Nicolas Béhuchet’s tactics proved disastrous for the French, as it allowed the English to attack their left flank while leaving the rest of the fleet paralyzed. In a letter to his son, King Edward said that the enemy made a noble defence “all that day and the night after”. By the end of the battle, the French fleet had been broken at the cost of only two English ships captured, and the water was reported to be thick with blood and corpses. The number of English losses is unknown, the French are thought to have lost between 16,000 and 18,000 and virtually all of their vessels were captured.
The Aftermath of the Battle: After the battle King Edward went on to lay siege to Tournai, a Flemish city that had been loyal to Philip VI of France. Edward and his forces reached Tournai on 23 July 1340 and laid siege trapping, apart from the inhabitants, a sizable French garrison inside. The siege dragged on and Philip VI with a relieving army drew closer, while Edward was running out of funds to keep his army in the field. At the same time, Tournai was running out of food. It was King Edward’s mother-in-law, Jeanne of Valois (who was also Philip’s sister), who visited King Edward in his tent on 22 September and begged for peace. She had already made the same plea in front of Philip VI and consequently a truce, known as the Truce of Espléchin, was made on 25 September 1340 – thus bringing the siege to an end without anyone losing face.
Dating back to the late 15th century, the first Monday after Epiphany marks the start of ploughing for spring sown crops and was once the traditional day of agricultural workers returning after the Christmas period. Historic documents however, tell of plough candles being lit in churches during January in the 13th century.
Customs of the day varied nationwide, but the most common feature was a plough (blessed in church the previous day) to be hauled from house to house in rural communities. As the continued, an army of villagers collected money for the parish during a passing street procession. Apart from dancers and musicians, an old woman called “the Bessy” or a boy dressed as such and a man in the role of the ‘Plough Fool’ often headed of the procession. Some participants paraded a Straw Bear and not surprisingly, the event also attracted much drinking, merriment and mirth throughout the day. In Eastern England, ploughs were taken around by Plough Monday mummers and Molly Dancers and were sometimes even used as a threat. If householders refused to donate to the money collectors, their front paths would be ploughed up!
A festive Plough Pudding was also eaten on the day. Originating and also ‘invented’ in Norfolk, this was a suet pastry-topped boiled pudding filled with pork sausage meat, chopped bacon and onions with sage and sugar added. It could be eaten alone, or served with boiled potatoes, vegetables and gravy. One recipe suggested a Cooking time of 3 hrs 30 minutes, but today’s microwaves would reduce that!! A similar item is still sold today by major supermarkets.
At its height, Plough Monday was most commonly celebrated in the East Midlands and East Anglia, until the English Reformation caused its slow decline. In 1538, Henry VIII forbade “plough lights” to be lit in churches, before Edward VI condemned the “conjuring of ploughs”. Ceremonies revived during the reign of Mary only to decline again during Elizabeth I’s reign. Some processions survived into the 19th century and in 1810, a farmer took his case to Derby Assizes, claiming that refusal to donate money, those pulling the plough, immediately ploughed up his drive, his lawn and a bench, causing twenty pounds worth of damage. Plough Monday customs continued to decline but were revived in some towns in the 20th, with remaining events mainly involving Molly Dancers. Some Plough Monday events were still recorded in the 1930’s before a “folk revival” in the ’60s and ’70s partly returned it to some communities.
This year however, being 2019, Plough Monday falls on the 7th January – which means, for this year at least, it clashes with St. Distaff’s Day!!
Before factory-made cloth was invented, spinning was considered one of the most demanding female chores as before the Spinning Wheel arrived, this activity was slowly and tediously done on a Drop Spindle. One pound of woollen yarn might take a week to spin and a pound of heavy cotton yarn, several weeks. Women of all ages spun threads and when normal activities resumed, they would also spin at home in the evenings, after daytime working in the factory. Spinning was the only way to turn raw wool, cotton or flax, into thread, before it became cloth.
Several times recently, readers have enjoyed descriptions of certain dates connected with historic events, famous people and more. We’ve just had New Year’s Day and next month, comes St Valentine’s Day. But there are other “named” days relating to unusual, forgotten or bygone customs and the following is one example:-
In England, as well as other European countries the days from Christmas through Twelfth Night were once considered a time of rest from the labours of spinning. The maidens returned to their work on St. Distaff’s Day, January 7th. This day was also known as Rock Day, which is derived from the German word rocken, which means both distaff and woman’s. Robert Herrick’s poem about St Distaff’s Day comes from the anthology, Hesperides, and was published in 1647:
St. Distaff’s day, or the morrow after Twelfth-Day
(from Hesperides by Rober Herrick)
Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on S. Distaffs day:
From the Plough soone free your teame;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Bring in pailes of water then,
Let the Maides bewash the men.
Give S. Distaffe all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.
The general suggestion of the poem seems to be that men and women should go back to work after the Christmas break but should do so lightly and with some playfulness thrown in before settling in for the long haul. The command ”Partly worke and partly play/ Ye must on S. Distaffs day” is probably a fair observation on the actual state of affairs, given that Plough Monday games (on the Monday after Epiphany) are well attested in many rural areas, especially East Anglia. Little it seemed was therefore taken too seriously on the first day back at work; it became a joke holiday and they called it St. Distaff’s Day. Of course, there never was a real St. Distaff, the “distaff” was, in fact, a principal spinning tool – a rod on to which flax was tied and from which, thread was pulled.
Although women resumed work on January 7th, men still stayed free until Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany (6th Jan). If that fell on a Tuesday, they wouldn’t return until Monday, 12th January! As it was, the Plough Monday celebrations were a great deal more popular in the days leading up to the 19th century when England still had a sizable rural, agricultural population. A large number of rural customs that flourished in England in the mid-19th century were dying or dead by the beginning of the 20th as people migrated from the country to cities and lost their ties to rural life. Antiquarians and, later, folklorists and anthropologists took to the task of recording the remains of these customs, as well as hunting down snippets of information from archives. As for the plough-boys when the festival was at its height, well they used this discrepancy to no good by playing pranks on the busy spinners. The most popular of these pranks was to set fire to the tow and flax which was awaiting processing. The spinners in turn would quench the fire with buckets of water, drenching both fire and firebug.
Large and small St Distaff’s Day gatherings of the fibre-based community were held nationwide on 7th January, with little work being done that day. Records suggest that in England, St. Distaff’s Day was only ‘celebrated’ between the 13th and 17th centuries.
Whilst the term “Christmas” first became part of the English language in the 11th century as an amalgamation of the Old English expression “Christes Maesse”, meaning “Festival of Christ”, the influences for this winter celebration pre-date this time significantly.
Winter festivals have been a popular fixture of many cultures throughout the centuries. A celebration in expectation of better weather and longer days as spring approached, coupled with more time to actually celebrate and take stock of the year because there was less agricultural work to be completed in the winter months, has made this time of year a popular party season for centuries.
Whilst mostly synonymous with Christians as the holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus (the central figure of Christianity), celebrating on the 25th December was a tradition that was borrowed, rather than invented, by the Christian faith and is still celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike today. Indeed the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, in honour of Saturn the Harvest God, and the Scandinavian festival of Yule and other Pagan festivals centred on the Winter Solstice were celebrated on or around this date. As Northern Europe was the last part of the continent to embrace Christianity, the pagan traditions of old had a big influence on the Christian Christmas celebrations.
The official date of the birth of Christ is notably absent from the Bible and has always been hotly contested. Following the instigation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the latter part of the 4th century, it was Pope Julius I who eventually settled on 25 December. Whilst this would tie in with the suggestions of the 3rd century historian Sextus Julius Africanus that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox of 25 March, the choice has also been seen as an effort to ‘Christianise’ the pagan winter festivals that also fell on this date. Early Christian writers suggested that the date of the solstice was chosen for the Christmas celebrations because this is the day that the sun reversed the direction of its cycle from south to north, connecting the birth of Jesus to the ‘rebirth’ of the sun.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas was not as popular as Epiphany on 6 January, the celebration of the visit from the three kings or wise men, the Magi, to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Indeed, Christmas was not originally seen as a time for fun and frolics but an opportunity for quiet prayer and reflection during a special mass. But by the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) Christmas had become the most prominent religious celebration in Europe, signalling the beginning of Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas as they are more commonly known today.
The medieval calendar became dominated by Christmas events starting forty days prior to Christmas Day, the period we now know as Advent (from the Latin word adventus meaning “coming”) but which was originally know as the “forty days of St. Martin” because it began on 11 November, the feast day of St Martin of Tours.
Although gift giving at Christmas was temporarily banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins, it was soon popular again as the festive season in the Middle Ages became a time of excess dominated by a great feast, gifts for rich and poor and general indulgence in eating, drinking, dancing and singing.
Many monarchs chose this merry day for their coronation. This included William the Conqueror, whose coronation on Christmas Day in 1066 incited so much cheering and merriment inside Westminster Abbey that the guards stationed outside believed the King was under attack and rushed to assist him, culminating in a riot that saw many killed and houses destroyed by fire.
Some well known modern Christmas traditions have their roots in the Medieval celebrations:
Christmas or Xmas? Although many people frown upon the seemingly modern abbreviation of Xmas, X stands for the Greek letter chi, which was the early abbreviation for Christ or the Greek ‘Khristos’. The X also symbolises the cross on which Christ was crucified.
Mince Pies were originally baked in rectangular cases to represent the infant Jesus’ crib and the addition of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg was meant to symbolise the gifts bestowed by the three wise men. Similarly to the more modern mince pies we see today, these pies were not very large and it was widely believed to be lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas. However, as the name suggests, mince pies were originally made of a variety of shredded meat along with spices and fruit. It was only as recently as the Victorian era that the recipe was amended to include only spices and fruit.
Carol singers. Some of us enjoy the sound of carollers on our doorsteps but the tradition for carol singers going door to door is actually a result of carols being banned in churches in medieval times. Many carollers took the word carol literally (to sing and dance in a circle) which meant that the more serious Christmas masses were being ruined and so the Church decided to send the carol singers outside.
Anyone for humble pie? While the most popular choice for Christmas dinner today is undoubtedly turkey, the bird was not introduced to Europe until after the discovery of the Americas, its natural home, in the 15th century. In medieval times goose was the most common option. Venison was also a popular alternative in medieval Christmas celebrations, although the poor were not allowed to eat the best cuts of meat. However, the Christmas spirit might entice a Lord to donate the unwanted parts of the family’s Christmas deer, the offal, which was known as the ‘umbles’. To make the meat go further it was often mixed with other ingredients to make a pie, in this case the poor would be eating ‘umble pie’, an expression we now use today to describe someone who has fallen from their pedestal to a more modest level.
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 less exotic gifts!
All of us can imagine the medieval world. Our imagination was created by our upbringing, the books we read, and the films we saw. Imagining the Middle Ages is an act that usually starts in childhood, and changes slowly as we grow older. From the brightly coloured pages of a child’s history book to the visceral panoramas of the latest season of Game of Thrones, how we see the Middle Ages changes. In most cases, however, the fundamental perspective remains the same: it’s an elite view of the medieval past, a Middle Ages composed of princes and kings, of knights and fair damsels in distress. It is a vision of the past that includes the splendour of great cathedrals and the brooding darkness of mighty castles. A past of banquets and battles. But it has little bearing upon reality.
The problem with our view of the Middle Ages is that it excludes the vast majority of people who lived in it, so it’s a highly partial and misleading picture of that world. Just like today, most medieval people did not belong to top 5 per cent of society, they weren’t kings, princes, knights, or damsels. Most men, women and children were commoners. It is no coincidence that this other, everyday, 95 per cent of the population was the one who did most of the work.
Putting aside farming, food processing and survival, it was these workers who were responsible for actually building most of what we think of when the Middle Ages come to mind. These are the people who built the magnificent medieval cathedrals, the craftsmen who constructed the dour and monumental castles. The workers whose blood and sweat bonds together the stones of every medieval church. They are the men whose deft fingers filled window spaces with blindingly bright stained glass. These are the people who built the Middle Ages. Yet we really know very little about them.
The voices of medieval commoners are largely silent. The science of archaeology tells us something about their general health, about what they wore, where they lived, and what they ate. Modern techniques such as isotope analysis can even tell us details such as where they grew up. The wonders of modern science have their limitations, however. Archaeology and isotope analysis cannot tell us what these people felt and thought, what they dreamed of and feared, what they thought was funny or what they held dear.
Most medieval documents come with the same limitations. Occasionally, the lower classes turn up in the odd surviving document, account book or legal proceedings but, with low levels of literacy throughout much of the Middle Ages, these documents are usually the work of third parties. They were written and compiled by the priests, scribes and lawyers of the elite. They refer to the lower orders, but are most certainly not in their own words. Even where they turn up in the bright borders of illuminated manuscripts, it is alongside the fantasy beasts and grotesques of the medieval imagination rather than as a reflection of reality. Their voice – the voice of the medieval commoner, of the vast majority of medieval people – is largely lost.
The past seven or eight years have seen a massive rise in one particular area of medieval studies – an area that has the potential to give back a voice to the silent majority of the medieval population. Specialists have been studying medieval church graffiti for many decades. But new digital imaging technologies, and the recent establishment of numerous volunteer recording programmes, have transformed its scope and implications. The study of early graffiti has become commonplace. The first large-scale survey began in the English county of Norfolk a little over six years ago. Norfolk is home to more than 650 surviving medieval churches – more than in any other area in England. The results of that survey have been astonishing.
To date, the Norfolk survey has recorded more than 26,000 previously unknown medieval inscriptions. More recent surveys begun in other English counties are revealing similar levels of medieval graffiti. A survey of Norwich Cathedral found that the building contained more than 5,000 individual inscriptions. Some of them dated as far back as the 12th century. It has also become clear that the graffiti inscriptions are unlike just about any other kind of source in medieval studies. They are informal. Many of the inscriptions are images rather than text. This means that they could have been made by just about anyone in the Middle Ages, not just princes and priests. In fact, the evidence on the walls suggests that they were made by everyone: from the lord of the manor and parish priest, all the way down to the lowliest of commoners. These newly discovered inscriptions are giving back individual voices to generations of long-dead medieval churchgoers. The inscriptions number in the hundreds of thousands, and they are opening an entire new world of research.
Today, graffiti is seen as both destructive and anti-social. It is widely regarded as vandalism, not as something to be encouraged on ancient monuments and historic sites. That attitude is largely a modern one. Until recent centuries, people of just about every level of society carved graffiti into ancient buildings. It simply wasn’t seen as something to be condemned. The Coliseum in Rome, or Bodiam Castle in England, to take just two examples of key European heritage sites, are covered in centuries-worth of graffiti. Many of these inscriptions were created by members of the upper classes undertaking a ‘Grand Tour’ at the end of their education, and date to the 18th and 19th century. In the same tradition, early visitors to the Egyptian pyramids didn’t even need to carve the graffiti themselves – they could hire someone to do it for them. Graffiti was seen as something that was both accepted and acceptable.
Medieval masons, the people who actually built these monuments, left the earliest markings to be found on any medieval church or cathedral. The traditional story is that each individual mason would have his own personal mark, which he’d inscribe wherever he’d worked. These angular marks, known today as ‘mason’s marks’, acted as a form of quality control. They also allowed the ‘master mason’, who doubled as architect and paymaster, to calculate how much each of his workmen was due to be paid. Masons today continue this old practice of marking their work, but their marks are more discreet, hidden away between stones and in darkened corners. Occasionally, the medieval masons left something more.
Their pragmatic approach to the construction of these stone monuments meant that the walls themselves sometimes served as drawing boards. In a few cases, such as at Binham Priory in Norfolk or Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, intricate working drawings can be found etched into the stones. The designs at Binham all appear to relate to the building of the priory’s great west front in the 1240s. It is one of the earliest marvels of gothic window design to be built in England. The nameless master-mason who undertook the work was apparently unfamiliar and uncomfortable with this innovative style. Step by step, he worked out the specifics of the design on the walls of the half-finished priory church. Sadly, the great west window, which acted as a centrepiece to the design, structurally failed in the late 18th century. It then had to be bricked up – and remains so today. From the mason’s inscriptions, however, we have a clear indication of how this groundbreaking design would have looked.
Witch marks were, simply, prayers made solid in stone
Many of the markings discovered in medieval churches are all but identical. A survey of a church in northern England will reveal the same graffiti motifs and markings as those found in a church on the English South Coast. Even more remarkably, the same medieval markings recorded in most English churches are in churches across the whole of western Europe. Essentially, everywhere the medieval Christian church thrived, medieval Europeans inscribed their places of worship with the same graffiti marks. Known as ‘ritual protection marks’, medieval people believed that these symbols warded off evil influences. Today they are more commonly called ‘witch marks’.
Witch marks make up about a third of all recorded inscriptions. This means that we have many, many thousands of examples of them. Some churches, such as that at Cowlinge in Suffolk, can contain many dozens of witch marks. It is a rare church that doesn’t contain at least a small collection. These markings make clear the differences between the medieval and modern concepts of graffiti. Much modern graffiti tends to be collections of names and dates, examples of people ‘leaving their mark’ upon a place.
However, witch marks belong to the world of faith and spirituality. They were not a replacement for the orthodox prayers of the Christian church. As much as the Church might have disapproved, people used them in association, as supplements to orthodox prayers. They enhanced the spiritual, and symbolised God’s protection from the powers of evil. They were, simply, prayers made solid in stone.
What makes the witch marks even more powerful is that they were also personal. The religion of medieval England was one of hierarchy, with parishioners’ own worship and interactions being organised and mediated by the parish priest. The priest, in turn, was subservient to the local bishop and, eventually, to the Pope himself. The prayers in the stonework altogether bypass that hierarchy, and it’s a hierarchy from which almost all other historical sources from the medieval world originate. These are personal interactions and statements by everyday members of the parish congregation with ‘their’ God. There is no need of intercession by priests, bishops or the Pope. In that way, they reveal things that the official, learned histories of medieval religion never can. These are not actions based deep in medieval theology and scholarly argument. They are acts of personal faith and belief, reflecting real people’s hopes, dreams and fears.
Many of the other images on the walls were born of an agricultural society. We see windmills, horses and geese – fixtures of peasant life. These are things that they saw every day, that were important to them, and essential to their ability to feed themselves and their families. The walls are also covered in the mundane: images of the people themselves, their faces and hands. In some cases, they left full-length portraits. Staring at the medieval walls long enough will sometimes result in the walls staring back.
Beasts and dragons are also included in the graffiti. They are strange and misshapen creatures, who seemingly walked, or flew, straight off the decorative borders of an illuminated manuscript. There are images of knights on horseback, heraldry and coats of arms, suggesting that the graffiti was either created by those from the knightly classes, or perhaps those who aspired to be. The walls are full of the peoples’ hopes. They also contain their darkest fears.
Take, for example, angels and demons: the medieval church was awash with images of them. Angels were carved into the elaborate roof timbers, their wings outstretched soaring high above the congregation. Angels flew in the bright wall paintings that once adorned almost every medieval church, passing news to the Virgin Mary or leading the souls of the departed heavenward. Angels guarded the ends of dark wooden pews and pale stone fonts, carved there, bearing shields emblazoned with the arms of saints.
The demons are there, too. Grotesque beasts painted on the walls above the chancel arch, casting the souls of the damned down into the everlasting sufferings of hell. Comic demons sitting beneath the carved seats of the choir-stalls, bared backsides raised to noisily salute the clergy who perched upon them. Demons in coloured glass dance in the windows.
Demons were very real, and to be feared. This fear drove people to carve their counter-curses into the walls of the parish church.
But while the medieval church was formally adorned with angels and demons, when it comes to the graffiti on the walls, there are only demons – many dozens of them, from the grotesque to the comic, dancing across the angel-free stonework.
Why are there no angels? The reason is quite simple. The graffiti on the walls shows only what those who made it thought was real and immediate. Angels were heavenly beings. They littered the pages of the Bible, but could not be expected to play a part in the lives of the people in the world. Demons, on the other hand, were very real indeed. It was demons who were responsible for any sudden illness or unexplained death. Demons brought down a blight upon the harvest crops. Demons unbalanced the mind of the simpleton, and brought on the terrifying storms that could lay waste a whole year’s crop in a single afternoon. Demons were real and to be feared. This fear drove medieval people to carve their counter-curses into the walls of the parish church.
Of all the graffiti being recorded in English churches, text inscriptions are actually rather rare. They make up only about 5 per cent of all the discovered markings: again, a distinct difference with modern graffiti. The rarity is in part a result of the low rates of contemporary literacy, but it is also testimony to the power of images over the written word. Many of the text inscriptions are difficult to read even by long-practiced historians. Generation after generation of wear and abrasion has left them in a sorry state. Even those that can still be made out are sometimes less than illuminating. The poor level of education among some parish priests, and the use of shortcuts and contractions, is reflected in the sometimes appalling attempts at Latin found on the walls. In many cases, the Latin is so bad that the only person who could probably have read it was the very same person who wrote it. Sometimes the writing on the walls simply can’t be read.
So what are these ancient markings on our medieval churches? Are they simply the random scribblings and doodles of bored choirboys, or do they have a deeper significance? Is there a meaning to some of them beyond the obvious? Beyond the simple statement of ‘I was here’? Recent research suggests that, yes, they are very important.
One of the most striking types of medieval graffiti is that of medieval ships. These small images are among the best-studied of all the graffiti, and are beginning to shed light on the mystery of exactly why they were made. When the modern surveys began, it was widely presumed that ship graffiti was confined to coastal churches: simple images created by local people of the ships they saw every day. However, research has shown that ship graffiti is found just about anywhere in the country. There are examples from Wiltshire and Leicestershire, about as far from the sea as one can get in mainland England. Even more intriguing, all the examples of ship graffiti, even those found many miles inland, appear to show sea-going vessels. The church at Blakeney, on the north Norfolk coast in the east of England, can help to explain why there is so much graffiti of these little ships.
Blakeney’s church is covered in early graffiti inscriptions, and they are spread fairly evenly throughout the building. All the dozens of examples of ship graffiti, however, are to be found clustered in one clear and distinct area. Without exception, all of the images were inscribed on the pillars of the south arcade – and most are on the single pillar that sits at the eastern end. According to maritime historians, the images were created over a period of 200-300 years. Despite this, each little ship respects the space of those around them, never crossing over one another. This tells us that the earlier ships were still clearly visible when the later images were created centuries later.
People sat in the dark, praying for the safety of a long-drowned ship, and etched their fears and demons into the walls.
It is, however, their location that holds the real clue to their meaning. The eastern pillar into which they are carved sits opposite the side altar in the south aisle. From the historical record we know that this altar was dedicated to a church’s patron saint. In the case of Blakeney, that was Saint Nicholas. Now better known for his association with children and Christmas, throughout the Middle Ages St Nicholas was regarded as the patron of ‘those in peril upon the sea’. The ship graffiti is clustered around the St Nicholas altar for a reason. Historians and archaeologists believe that each of these little ships was a ‘votive’ offering – quite literally, a prayer carved into the stonework. Exactly what that prayer was, we might never know. Was it a prayer of thanksgiving for a voyage safely undertaken, or a prayer for safe passage on a voyage yet to be made? The fact that some of the ships appear damaged has led some to suggest that these might be prayers for ships, crews and loved ones that never made it home.
This is the true value of searching out these ancient inscriptions on the wall. These little prayers and etchings offer one of the few avenues into the hopes and feelings of those who left their mark many centuries ago. It is not a world of knights, princes and kings. It is a world of real, fallible human beings. People who sat in the dark, praying for the safety of a long-drowned ship, and etched their fears and demons into the walls. Quite simply, the medieval graffiti gives us back the lost voices of the medieval world.
Written by Matthew Champion: He is a British historian and archaeologist who is interested in architectural investigation, heritage planning and the environment, and is the author of Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches.
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