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.
Julian of Norwich is variously commemorated on the 8th or the 13th of May, the alternatives being the two dates given in different manuscript sources for the beginning of her revelations. I like Julian very much – who doesn’t! – and have posted about her a number of times. Today I thought I’d post something a little different: not an extract from her book, but an account of a conversation with her. This shows her acting almost as a spiritual director, as anchorites were occasionally called on to do, and gives us her words filtered through the impressions of a woman whose spirituality was very different from her own.
Some time around the year 1413, a few years before the likely date of Julian’s death, Margery Kempe came to pay her a visit in her cell in Norwich To give you some sense of their relative ages, Margery Kempe was born around the same year (1373) that Julian had her first revelations, at the age of thirty. I think many of us would be glad to have the opportunity to talk to Julian of Norwich, although I like to think that if I was lucky enough to get that chance I wouldn’t do what Margery Kempe did – which was, not surprisingly, talk about Margery Kempe. (To be fair to her, I suppose she had gone there for advice…) Kempe’s account of Julian’s words to her is suspiciously focused on the things Kempe was obsessed with, as a laywoman struggling to find validation for her own form of intense religion devotion: the importance of trusting to personal inspiration, chastity, the holiness of devout tears (Kempe was notorious for bursting into noisy tears during Mass, much to the annoyance of her neighbours), and counsel which essentially says ‘if people don’t like you, you must be doing something right’.
The following text is from Julian of Norwich, and my translation follows below:
“And than sche was bodyn be owyr Lord for to gon to an ankres in the same cyté whych hyte Dame Jelyan. And so sche dede and schewyd hir the grace that God put in hir sowle of compunccyon, contricyon, swetnesse and devocyon, compassyon wyth holy meditacyon and hy contemplacyon, and ful many holy spechys and dalyawns that owyr Lord spak to hir sowle, and many wondirful revelacyons whech sche schewyd to the ankres to wetyn yf ther wer any deceyte in hem, for the ankres was expert in swech thyngys and good cownsel cowd gevyn.
The ankres, heryng the mervelyows goodnes of owyr Lord, hyly thankyd God wyth al hir hert for hys visitacyon, cownselyng this creatur to be obedyent to the wyl of owyr Lord God and fulfyllyn wyth al hir mygthys whatevyr he put in hir sowle yf it wer not ageyn the worshep of God and profyte of hir evyn cristen, for, yf it wer, than it wer nowt the mevyng of a good spyryte but rathyr of an evyl spyrit. The Holy Gost mevyth nevyr a thing ageyn charité, and, yf he dede, he wer contraryows to hys owyn self, for he is al charité. Also he mevyth a sowle to al chastnesse, for chast levars be clepyd the temple of the Holy Gost, and the Holy Gost makyth a sowle stabyl and stedfast in the rygth feyth and the rygth beleve. And a dubbyl man in sowle is evyr unstabyl and unstedfast in al hys weys. He that is evyrmor dowtyng is lyke to the flood of the see, the whech is mevyd and born abowte wyth the wynd, and that man is not lyche to receyven the gyftys of God.
What creatur that hath thes tokenys he muste stedfastlych belevyn that the Holy Gost dwellyth in hys sowle. And mech mor, whan God visyteth a creatur wyth terys of contrisyon, devosyon, er compassyon, he may and owyth to levyn that the Holy Gost is in hys sowle. Seynt Powyl seyth that the Holy Gost askyth for us wyth mornynggys and wepyngys unspekable, that is to seyn, he makyth us to askyn and preyn wyth mornynggys and wepyngys so plentyuowsly that the terys may not be nowmeryd. Ther may non evyl spyrit gevyn thes tokenys, for Jerom seyth that terys turmentyn mor the devylle than don the peynes of helle. God and the devyl ben evyrmor contraryows, and thei schal nevyr dwellyn togedyr in on place, and the devyl hath no powyr in a mannys sowle. Holy Wryt seyth that the sowle of a rytful man is the sete of God, and so I trust, syster, that ye ben. I prey God grawnt yow perseverawns. Settyth al yowr trust in God and feryth not the langage of the world, for the mor despyte, schame, and repref that ye have in the world the mor is yowr meryte in the sygth of God. Pacyens is necessary unto yow for in that schal ye kepyn yowr sowle.
Mych was the holy dalyawns that the ankres and this creatur haddyn be comownyng in the lofe of owyr Lord Jhesu Crist many days that thei were togedyr”.
“And then she was bidden by our Lord to go to an anchoress in the same city [Norwich] who was called Dame Julian. And she did so, and displayed to her the graces that God had put in her soul of compunction, contrition, sweetness and devotion, compassion with holy meditation and high contemplation, and full many holy speeches and conversations that our Lord had spoken to her soul, and many wonderful revelations, which she told to the anchoress to learn if there was any deceit in them; for the anchoress was an expert in such things and could give good counsel.
The anchoress, hearing the marvellous goodness of our Lord, highly thanked God with all her heart for his visiting, counselling this creature [Kempe] to be obedient to the will of our Lord God and fulfil with all her might whatever he put in her soul, as long as it was not contrary to the worship of God and the benefit of her fellow-Christians; for, if it was, then it was not the inspiration of a good spirit but of an evil spirit. The Holy Ghost never inspires anything which is contrary to charity; if he did, he would contradict his very self, for he is all charity. Also he inspires a soul to all chastity, for people who live chastely are called the temple of the Holy Ghost, and the Holy Ghost makes a soul stable and steadfast in the true faith and the true belief. And a man who is duplicitous in soul is ever unstable and unsteadfast in all his ways. He who always doubts is like the flood of the sea, which is moved and borne about with the wind, and that man is not likely to receive the gifts of God.
The creature who receives these signs must steadfastly believe that the Holy Ghost dwells in his soul. And much more, when God visits a creature with tears of contrition, devotion, or compassion, he may and ought to believe that the Holy Ghost is in his soul. Saint Paul says that the Holy Ghost asks for us with mourning and weeping beyond saying, that is to say, he makes us to ask and pray with mourning and weeping so plenteously that the tears may not be counted. No evil spirit can give these tokens, for Jerome says that tears torment the devil more than the pains of hell. God and the devil are always opposite to each other and never dwell together in one place, and the devil has no power in a man’s soul. Holy Writ says that the soul of a righteous man is the seat of God, and so I believe, sister, that you are. I pray God grant you perseverance. Set all your trust in God and do not fear what the world says to you, for the more scorn, shame, and reproof that you have in the world, the more is your merit in the sight of God. Patience is necessary to you, for in that you shall preserve your soul.
Much was the holy conversation that the anchoress and this creature had, communing in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ many days that they were together”.
Margery Kempe must have cut quite a figure on the pilgrimage circuits of Medieval Europe: a married woman dressed in white, weeping incessantly, and holding court with some of the greatest religious figures of her time along the way. She leaves the tales of her life as a mystic with us in the form of her autobiography, “The Book”. This work gives us an insight into the way in which she regarded her mental anguish as a trial sent to her by God, and leaves modern readers contemplating the line between mysticism and madness.
Margery Kempe was born in Bishop’s Lynn (now known as King’s Lynn), around 1373. She came from a family of wealthy merchants, with her father an influential member of the community. At twenty years old, she married John Kempe – another respectable inhabitant of her town; although not, in her opinion, a citizen up to the standards of her family. She fell pregnant shortly after her marriage and, after the birth of her first child, experienced a period of mental torment which culminated in a vision of Christ.Shortly afterwards, Margery’s business endeavours failed and Margery began to turn more heavily towards religion. It was at this point she took on many of the traits that we now associate with her today – inexorable weeping, visions, and the desire to live a chaste life.
It was not until later in life – after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, multiple arrests for heresy, and at least fourteen pregnancies – that Margery decided to write “The Book”. This is often thought of as the oldest example of an autobiography in the English language, and was indeed not written by Margery herself, but rather dictated – like most women in her time, she was illiterate.
It can be tempting for the modern reader to view Margery’s experiences through the lens of our modern understanding of mental illness, and to cast aside her experiences as those of someone suffering from “madness” in a world in which there was no way to understand this. However, this one dimensional view robs the reader of a chance to explore what religion, mysticism, and madness meant to those living in the medieval period. Margery tells us her mental torment begins following the birth of her first child. This could indicate she suffered from postpartum psychosis – a rare but severe mental illness which first appears after the birth of a child.
Indeed, many elements of Margery’s account match with symptoms experienced with postpartum psychosis. Margery describes terrifying visions of fire-breathing demons, who goad her to take her own life. She tells us how she rips at her flesh, leaving a lifelong scar on her wrist. She also sees Christ, who rescues her from these demons and gives her comfort. In modern times, these would be described as hallucinations – the perception of a sight, sound or smell which is not present.
Another common feature of postpartum psychosis is tearfulness. Tearfulness was one of Margery’s “trademark” features. She recounts stories of uncontrollable bouts of weeping which land her in trouble – her neighbours accuse her of crying for attention, and her weeping leads to friction with her fellow travellers during pilgrimages.
Delusions can be another symptom of postpartum psychosis. A delusion is a strongly held thought or belief which is not in keeping with a person’s social or cultural norms. Did Margery Kempe experience delusions? There can be no doubt that visions of Christ speaking to you would be considered a delusion in Western society today.This, though, was not the case in the 14th century. Margery was one of several notable female mystics in the la te medieval period. The most well-known example at the time would have been St Bridget of Sweden, a noblewoman who dedicated her life to becoming a visionary and pilgrim following the death of her husband.
Given that Margery’s experience echoed that of others in contemporary society, it is difficult to say that these were delusions – they were a belief in keeping with the social norms of the day.
Although Margery may not have been alone in her experience of mysticism, she was sufficiently unique to cause concern within the Church that she was a Lollard (an early form of proto-Protestant), although each time she had a run-in with the church she was able to convince them this was not the case. It is clear though, that a woman claiming to have had visions of Christ and embarking on pilgrimages was sufficiently unusual to arouse suspicion in clerics of the time. For her own part, Margery spent a great deal of time worried that her visions may have been sent by demons rather than by God, seeking advice from religious figures, including Julian of Norwich (a famous anchoress of this period). However, at no point does she appear to consider that her visions may be the result of mental illness. Since mental illness in this period was often thought of as a spiritual affliction, perhaps this fear that her visions may have been demonic in origin was Margery’s way of expressing this thought.
When considering the context in which Margery would have viewed her experience of mysticism, it is vital to remember the role of the Church in medieval society. The establishment of the medieval church was powerful to an extent almost incomprehensible to the modern reader. Priests and other religious figures held authority equitable to temporal lords and so, if priests were convinced Margery’s visions came from God, this would have been viewed as an undeniable fact. Further to this, in the medieval period there was a strong belief that God was a direct force on everyday life – for example, when the plague first fell on the shores of England it was generally accepted by society that this was God’s will. By contrast, when Spanish influenza swept Europe in 1918 “Germ Theory” was used to explain the spread of disease, in place of a spiritual explanation. It is very possible that Margery genuinely never considered that these visions were anything other than a religious experience.
Margery’s book is a fascinating read for many reasons. It allows the reader an intimate glimpse into the everyday life of an “ordinary” woman of this time – ordinary insofar as Margery was not born into nobility. It can be rare to hear a woman’s voice in this time period, but Margery’s own words come through loud and clear, written though they were by another’s hand. The writing is also unselfconscious and brutally honest, leading the reader to feel intimately involved in Margery’s story. However, the book can be problematic for modern readers to understand. It can be very difficult to take a step away from our modern perceptions of mental health and to immerse ourselves in the medieval experience of unquestioning acceptance of mysticism.
In the end, over six hundred years after Margery first documented her life, it does not really matter what the real cause of Margery’s experience was. What matters is the way she, and the society around her, interpreted her experience, and the way this can aid the modern reader’s understanding of perceptions of religion and health in this period.
Landscapes – Isn’t it so easy and comfortable to think of them as unchanging?
Far easier, I would suggest than trying to imagine them as anything different from what we see before us. Yes, man-made structures come and go over time and that much of the ground that we are capable of walking on is constantly subject to change. But nature itself must be included in any blame-game – and, sometimes she has a lot to answer for. Take the case of Cromer for instance, a lovely town on the north-east corner of Norfolk which has, to my mind, always been there. More significantly for this story, the view that the town commands overlooking the North Sea appears to have never changed; neither has its coastline. Here, I would be wrong on all three counts for I have read historical accounts by those who are far more knowledgeable than I.
It’s a safe bet that few visitors who scan the sea just beyond Cromer Pier realise that the remnants of a village rests there; down and amongst nature’s debris, shifting sands and whatever else that drowns or lives in the depths. Those who use telescopic cameras and binoculars would be no wiser, for nothing can be seen of the lost village of Shipden; no towers at low tide and no peeling of bells when a storm rages – nothing. But, back in the 14th century and further back still, beyond 1066, it was safe on dry land although, admittedly, in constant threat. Shipden was even relaxed in knowing that there was no town of Cromer leaning on its back; there was just open ground and woodland that rose up to higher ground. The seeds of Cromer had not been cast; time was just waiting for Shipden to be removed to make way.
As events ultimately turned out, it was Shipden-juxta-Crowmere that disappeared beneath the waves, along with the land that held and surrounded it. That village was not alone in vanishing for the area north of present-day Cromer which now treads water, wasn’t exactly lucky in past survival stakes. To say that the Cromer area was spoilt for lost villages was due to the nature of the coast thereabouts and not down to the usual suspects as plague, pestilence, poor farmland or landlords who enclosed both open common land in order to accommodate their sheep at the expense of working tenants. No, the Norfolk coast also lost villages to the actions of the sea.
Standing on the high ground at Cromer, East or West Runton or towards Overstrand in the other direction, visitors have to image land that slopes gradually down to the sea to meet an entirely different coastline. It would be a coastline with much shallower cliffs, if any at all. At the end where sea meets shore, there once stood, close to Shipden, two other villages of Foulness and Clare and confirmed by 17th Century maps. I have read from more knowledgeable writers than I that Foulness jutted out into the sea, just to the north of Overstrand – a good enough reason for adding ‘ness’ to its placename – and I agree! I also was told that Foulness had its own lighthouse, some 500 metres further out than the current one at Cromer; and also, it was only from the early 18th century that this beacon finally began to collapse from the effect of storms and tides.
For those visitors unaware of Shipden and where it once stood, they need to look straight out to sea beyond the end of the Pier and for a distance of some 400 yards; it is in this approximate position that the remains of Shipden lays. To think that three entries of its existence were made in the Domesday Book of 1086; its records showing that at that period of time, the village housed 117 people, some of whom made up four and a half plough teams with more making use of three acres of meadow close by and enough woodland for 36 swine. Shipden also accommodated the Gunton Manor House which, up until 1066, was owned by the Abbott of St Benets at Holm, who previously had enjoyed:
“half a carucate to find provision for the monks, with one villain, 3 bordarers, and one carucate in demean, half a carucate of the tenants, and one acre of meadow valued at 10s. 8d”.
“The town of Cromer is not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, that being included, and accounted for under the town of Shipden, the Lordships of which extended into what is now Cromer”.
Immediately following Doomsday a Godric was Steward of the Manor at Shipden which had, like most other things, come into the hands of William the Conqueror and consisted of:
“one carucate of land, 4 villains and 4 borderers, 1 carucate in demean, and 1 among the tenants, with half an acre of meadow, and paunage for 8 swine”.
“In the 3rd year of the reign of Edward I (1272 to 1307) Sir Nicholas de Weyland was lord; he married Julian, daughter and heir of Robert Burnel, and held it by the service of one pair of white gloves, and performing services to the capital lord”.
In the 12th year of the same King’s reign, Sir Nicholas was granted a Patent for a ‘Mercat’ – Scottish for a market. It was also decreed that this market would be held on Saturdays for the benefit of the fishermen and villagers. The King’s Patent also allowed for a ‘free warren and a Fair, so one can safely assume that villagers also had fun from time to time. Shipden, unsurprisingly, boasted a harbour and, from 1391, a jetty.
The turn of the 14th Century saw the signs of growing anxiety amongst the small population of Shipden. It was sometime then when John de Lodbrok, Rector of the church, John Broun, a patron, together with parishioners took it upon themselves to petition Edward III (1312 – 1377). They wanted a new church to replace the existing one which “could not be defended” for part of the churchyard had already been wasted “by the flux and reflux of the sea…….that it threatened to ruin the church”. Whatever the process entailed along its submission path and whatever difficulties and delays it may have faced, the petition clearly met with success. On April 15 in one unknown year in the 14th Century “the King grants license that an acre of land in the said village be granted to the said John, Rector, to build thereon a new church, and for a churchyard”.
“John Barnet, official of the Court of Canterbury, and sub-delegate of Pope Urban, appropriated this church of Shypden by the Sea, in 1383, reserving to the Bishop of Norwich an annual pension of 13s. 4d. and to the Cathedral, or Priory of Norwich 3s. 4d”.
Shipden was able, for a time at least, to retain its two churches; one serving Shipden-juxta-Felbrigg and the other Crowmere. However, later that same century, but in the time of Richard II (1377 – 1399) a “Patent was granted for 5 years, for certain duties to be paid for”, including “the erection of a Pier to protect the village against the sea”. Again, this project was to be doomed to failure and within a short period of time Crowmere and its churchyard was destroyed by the sea. Ultimately, the complete village of Shipden was to follow the same fate when the sea rose up further. The population was then forced to retreat inland, away from the advancing coastline and closer towards a position of guaranteed safety. That would be where the present town of Cromer now stands – a position much, much loftier in its outlook. Here, the populace finally settle and where the town’s fathers were to build a new church. Overseeing that task would be Sir William Beauchamp and the Prior of the Carthusians (or Charter House, London) who, having secured a piece of land safely above the late Shipden and adjoining to the Rectory, set about building the present Cromer church, which would be dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul.
From that point in time, Cromer grew and was, for a time, fashionable for Victorian and Edwardian tourists. A pier was built in 1901, extending its friendly hand towards the old Shipden landscape underwater; hotels, shops and homes crowded round the Church. Below the town, it’s foundations were unpinned by a promenade which afforded visitors the facility to walk on level ground. On the seaward side, concrete walls were to form the present front line against an unpredictable sea which still makes inroads from time to time and damages man-made obstacles. How long, one wonders, before this town has to retreat – to Felbrigg?
There is an old chestnut of a story that still goes round and round; it’s so much in the public domain that it would be somewhat petty for anyone to claim copyright; writers must be allowd to have their own take on it. For the reader, the gist of this story is as follows:
On the 9th of August 1888 a steam driven pleasure boat named the ‘Victoria’, picked up around 100 passengers from Great Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier for a 35-mile journey up the coast to Cromer; all on board must have been eager to seek out whatever delights Cromer had to offer – the weather was set fair! As for the Captain, he could have been well pleased that his boat was on yet another one of Victoria’s regularly and stress free trips between the two coastal towns. He could also have been in a favourable state of mind when he decided that, on reaching his destination, he would again anchor up at the 70 yard long “plain wooden” jetty, directly opposite the imposing Hotel de Paris. No one could predict nine years hence, not even the Captain, that a coal boat would smash into that same jetty and wreck it beyond repair, leaving Cromer without a pier until the present metal one was built in 1901. As for the passengers, they waited for the moment when the boat would tie up and they, as fun seekers, would be free to wander around town at will until 3 o’clock when they would have been instructed to be back on board and ready to return to the brighter lights of Yarmouth. What could possibly go wrong – but it did!
Whilst the Captain was approaching the jetty and about to start the process of manoeuvring the boat alongside, there was a sudden sound of metal against rock; the boat’s hull had hit a hard immovable object to such an extent that it had punctured a hole in the boat’s port side. The impact and resulting effects of a lurch startled more than a few; fortunately, for those in pretty dresses and smart attire the boat wasn’t sinking; it was just firmly stuck but, nevertheless, taking in a lot of water. Sensibly, but very inconveniently, everyone was taken off by a flotilla of small boats and ferried to the jetty to be later relayed back to Yarmouth by steam train.
As for the Victoria, she was firmly stuck on a stony object that the local fishermen knew as Church Rock; the alleged remains of Shipden’s 45ft high church tower which still stuck up proud from the sea bed. It was well known that extremely low tides had the potential to reveal some of the tower and sections of house walls. That day, the tide was low enough to bring both boat and the still submerged rock on to a collision course. That collision came and what excitement there had been, went. The boat was abandoned to those who would set up winches in an attempt to haul the Victoria free – and salvage her! However, such was the boat’s weight that the wet tow ropes used could not do the job, and the Victoria stayed in her position for some weeks until, in the end; she was removed by blowing up both her and the rock with dynamite. This action was on the advice of Trinity House, aimed at preventing further accidents of this type in the future. As someone once joked a paraphrase a century later – “To lose a village may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose a please steamer as well looks like carelessness”.
Invariably, when church towers drown, folks will say that the bells can still be heard; Shipden’s church bells of old seem not to be the exception for locals may still be overheard saying that the lost village’s bells will toll below the waves when the North Sea is angry. That is as it may be, but whatever other remains are down below in the depths just off Cromer Pier, they are still and quiet – waiting to be discovered – just like the few salvaged items, such as a hinge from the Victoria’s bronze rudder that was brought up sometime during the late 1980’s by the Yarmouth’s Sub-Aqua Club. Its members had, that day, the added experience of “swimming along a street in Shipden, 40ft below the sea where people had once walked”.
As far as one can see on the surface, there are no medieval dwellings existing in Cromer today. The only one that seems to have any real material evidence, apart from the church itself, is the former Hanover House (previously Shipden House) – but all the evidence is covered up. For information on the detail of this listed building see the following: