Breccles Hall: A Ghostly Tale!

Apart from an ‘Introduction’, The story contained herein is a Myth! – maybe based on a traditional story – for the Hall was reputed to have had a ghost! It is a story that may once have been widely held but more than probably false or, at best, a misrepresentation of what may have been a truth sometime in the distant past. You decide!……..

Introduction to the locality;
According the the MyNorwich site: The name Breckles is thought to come from Brec a laes meaning ‘the meadow by newly cleared land’. In the Middle Ages Breckles was actually called Breccles Magna, Great Breccles and had two sister villages to either side of it, Stow Breccles and Breccles Parva (Little Breckles). Breccles Parva is one of the lost villages of Norfolk and is thought to be on the current Shropham Hall estate.

Archaeological finds of flint tools and weapons, as well as other artefacts, show that the area around Breckles has a long association with people and settlement. Within the square mile, are the sites of a medieval moated farm, earthworks associated with the medieval village, plus evidence of a possible Anglo-Saxon settlement. A Saxo-Norman Church still stands in the village with a magnificent round tower, Norman font and Medieval rood screen.

There is also a fabulous Elizabethan manor house, Breccles Hall, which retains the medieval spelling of the name and has its own colourful history. The Hall was host to several visits from important people including Elizabeth I; Queen Mary and Winston Churchill, as well as having its very own ghost. More recently Breckles played its part during the Second World War with its decoy airfield and had its fair share of interesting characters like John Stubbing who lived to the ripe old age of 107.

Our Story;
“If you visit the Elizabethan manor of Breccles Hall, [at Breckles] in Norfolk, do not go at midnight, for it is just possible that you might see a ghostly sight so terrible, so frightful, that men they say, die looking on it; men like Jim Mace, poacher, drunkard, and boaster:

Breccles Hall3_Historic England
Entrance to Breccles Hall

One Christmas time in the early years of the last century, bombastic Jim was boozing with his pals in the local public house near Breccles Hall. It was late at night; outside crisp snow glistened in the steely light of a sharp-edged moon. In the hedges and trees fat partridges, bred by the local gentry as fodder for their guns and their tables, roosted silent and safe. And in the dark of his cottage the deaf old gamekeeper lay snoring in his bed.

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Breccles Hall.

As the merry night wore on, Jimmy and his cronies drank themselves silly. And their conversation grew as silly as they looked. They joked, and thought themselves mighty wits, though what they said, whether it had humour or not, no one sober could have told, for their speech by now was slurred beyond recognition. But all that party roared at every slobbered word, and each man cheered and stamped his feet. And between jokes they argued the toss, and boasted of their prowess as poacher or fighter, tale teller or wag, and each man thought himself that much grander than the next.

Until suddenly a poaching pal of Jimmy’s, the biggest swollen head of them all, upped to his feet. ”Jimmy and me,” he burbled, ”Jimmy and me is going’ ter have a brace o them fat partridge birds for Christmas. We’ll take our guns an’ shoot them down and that old keeper, why, he’s too deaf ter hear.” ”Now just you listen ter me, my boy,” said an old chap who had been sitting nearby, ”you just remember the coach and four.” For a blank faced moment, Jimmy’s pal stared at the old man, first to focus his eyes upon the old fellow, and then to make sense of the words in his drink-soaked brain.

Breccles Hall (Coach)
The ghostly coach and four. Image: Art Station.

Everybody knew about the ghostly coach and four that was said to come galloping down the Breccles Hall road at midnight now and then, when the hall was left unoccupied. Silently it came, speeding along till it stopped at the Hall door. And as it came, every window in the empty house lit up brightly, and inside, if you dared to look, which few had done, you saw a ball in full swing, the dancers swirling around the floor with gay abandon, though never a sound from mouth or gadding foot was heard. The coach would stop; footmen climb down, the coach door open. Then out would step a beautiful lady. And it was she, they say you must avoid, for she would look a man in the eyes and he’d drop dead where he stood.

The sozzled poacher knew the story, like everyone else in the bar that night. But the beer made him proud and fearless and full of hot courage. ”Tis nowt,” he said, scorning the old chap’s words. ”The Halls empty tonight,” – the old man mused quietly. But Jimmy’s pal wasn’t to be put off. With a nod, he pushed his way out of the pub, Jimmy close behind. ”We shall shoot all them ghosties an’ all!” he said as he left, and laughed.

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So Jimmy and his mate set off, full of Dutch courage. They called at Jimmy’s cottage and picked up a gun and a bag, and off they went into the nipping frost, searching the hedges for game. Drunk they might have been, but their shots found a mark or two and before long their bag was bulging and their craving satisfied. Till Jimmy remembered the empty Hall. ”Let us two go and rouse them boggarts,” he said, and his pal readily agreed; so off they went towards the house.

When they reached the mansion, the place was as quiet as the grave and black as the fireback. It towered over them, deep shadows where the windows were, like jet black eyes, and the snow-covered roof like a white wig. Jimmy stumbled up to the windowpane and tried to peer into the inner darkness. ”Don’t see no bogies,” he said, and he sounded almost disappointed. ”Try the door boy.” And he felt his way along the wall until he found the front door, a huge affair, and he rattled it against its locks. No sooner had he done so and then the village clock chimed out twelve strokes as clear as crystal, ringing on the freezing air of the still night. And as the last stroke sounded, round the corner of the Hall drive swept a coach and four. Its horses stepped high, but their pounding hooves struck no noise from the ground. Its lamps shone like yellow stars; its two footmen and the driver in front sat stiff and still as tailors’ dummies, their unblinking eyes glancing neither right nor left. Instantly, every window in the house lit up, ablaze with light, and the great front door, which jimmy only a moment before had shaken against its locks, swung wide open.

Cramped to the spot by fear and astonishment, the two men watched as the coach came closer and drew in by the door no more than a couple of feet from where they watched. Down the footmen climbed, just as everybody said they did, opened the carriage door, unfolded the steps and then stood back one to either side.

A second’s dreadful pause. Then from the coach, gracefully as only a woman can, came the most dazzlingly lovely lady the poor stricken poachers had ever seen in their simple lives. Her jewels winked from neck and arms and hands; her dress, flimsy as dawn mist, billowed about her. Down the carriage steps she came, reached the ground and raised her head. She looked straight into the transfixed eyes of Jimmy Mace!

Breccles Hall3 (Scream)
Screaming man by Joe Rego 2012.

For a while the world seemed to stop turning through space and time, to lose all meaning. Then slowly Jimmy opened his mouth and let out a long, stark piercing howl that sliced to the nerve of the silent winter night. That anguished cry brought Jimmy’s pal to his senses, and sobered him in a trice, and sent running off madly towards the village as if all the devils in hell were at his scampering heels. When he reached the houses, he ran from one to the next, calling frantically for help. But soon as he told his tale not a man would return with him to the Hall.

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St Margaret’s Church, Breckles. Photo: Simon Knott

Next morning, however, the parson and some of the villagers did go there. Not a sign of the coach could they find, not a hoof print in the soft snow, not a wheel track anywhere. But lying in front of the main locked door of the magnificent old house was Jimmy Mace’s body, dead frozen, and with such a look of dread etched upon his face, that few men present could bear the sight. The mysterious, beautiful ghostly lady of Breccles Hall had gained another victim.

THE END

The above was written by Alice Cooper and posted on the following site on November 8, 2006 – the site, with many such tales to tell: https://jongilbert.proboards.com/thread/286/ghostly-tales-breccles-hall

Other Sources for Our Post:

http://www.breckels.org/village/blome.html
http://www.mynorwich.co.uk/breckles-of-the-past/

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

Secret Tunnels: Kings Lynn.

Legend has it that a tunnel once ran between Greyfriars Priory and the curious and somewhat mysterious Red Mount Chapel in Kings Lynn. Another tunnel, now bricked-up, was also thought to have connected the Priory to the White Hart pub, both in St. James Street. The pub itself is supposed to be haunted by a monk. While the Red Mount Chapel is a unique structure, about which opinion has always been divided; nothing is left of the 13th century Franciscan Priory except the lofty Greyfriars Lantern Tower.

Tunnels (Greyfriars Priory)
Greyfriars Lantern Tower

Now, for some reason, the ramblings of the Yorkshire soothsayer Mother Shipton (c.1488-1561) used to be very popular with the country folk of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. And somehow, the old Fenmen reckoned that she was responsible for the prophecy and belief that, when royalty visited the Theatre Royal in St. James’ Street, the Greyfriars Lantern Tower mentioned above would collapse on to it. Since the Theatre wasn’t even opened until 1815, one has to wonder how Mother Shipton’s name ever got attached to this myth. The slight lean that the tower had for years was corrected in 2006, while the Theatre Royal, which burned down in 1936 and was then rebuilt, is now a bingo hall. While the Queen has visited King’s Lynn many times, it seems unlikely that she will ever pop in for a game of bingo.

Tunnels (Red Mount Chapel)
The Red Mount Chapel in Kings Lynn. Photo: EDP.

The structure of the Red Mount Chapel is, unsurprisingly, of red brick; it is octagonal and buttressed, with an inner rectangular core that projects above the roof. It consists not of one chapel, but two – one possibly of 13th century vintage, the other being the ‘Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount’, built by Robert Corraunce upon the steep-sided artificial mound in about 1485. This second chapel was probably put there to house a holy relic of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and tradition tells of pilgrims halting at this place on their way to Walsingham. Despite the beginnings of the Red Mount Chapel being set around the 1300’s, there is reason to believe that an earlier edifice also stood here; this thought is even more probable because the mound itself was once known as Guanock Hill – ‘guanock’ or ‘gannock’ being an old local word meaning a beacon.

Tunnels (Castle Rising)
Castle Rinsing, Norfolk. Photo: EDP.

A tunnel is said to lead from the Red Mount to a door in the gatehouse at Castle Rising, some four miles to the north-east. This castle was built in the 12th century by William de Albini, and a considerable amount of the structure still remains today. In 1331 Isabella, the widow of King Edward II, was brought to the castle by her son and ‘allegedly’ imprisoned for her part in Mortimer’s rebellion. However, she wasn’t even under house arrest because she travelled quite freely in this country and abroad. It has been said that she was jailed there until her death in 1358, then buried in Rising church. Thus, Edward III was believed to have used the tunnel on many occasions to secretly visit his mother. However, she actually died at Hertford Castle and was almost certainly buried at Greyfriars in London.

The historian of Lynn, Mr. E. M. Beloe, dug at the Red Mount and found that the supposed tunnel came to a halt after only a few feet, at an outer door which had long been buried beneath the soil of the mound. The door in the castle was likewise no more than one of two entrances to an inner stairway. As in other subterranean tales, a drunken fiddler and his dog are said to have tried to explore the tunnel, and were never seen again!

Tunnels (Gaywood Hall)
Gaywood Hall

Another tunnel supposedly comes to Lynn from the site of the former medieval bishop’s palace where Gaywood Hall now stands, in an eastern suburb of the town. A brick arch uncovered in a trench along Blackfriars Road was claimed by one old man to be evidence of this, while another is said to have dug up a tunnel on the same line during the last century, but veering towards the Red Mount. A sewer and a covered-up reservoir may have been the basis for this tale.

Tunnels (Exorcist House)
The ‘Exorcist’s House’ which stands in Chapel Lane, Kings Lynn.

The so-called ‘Exorcist’s House’ stands in Chapel Lane, next to St. Nicholas’ church and is of 17th century vintage; possibly it once was a medieval Bishop’s House in which an exorcist, who was employed by the church clergy, once lived. Some believe that a subterranean passage – allegedly used by the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins – runs from there to the 17th century St. Anne’s House – now demolished.

Tunnels (St Annes House)
17th century St. Anne’s House which once stood in St Annes Street, Kings Lynn.

In St. James Street is the White Hart pub, radically rebuilt in the mid-19th century, but dating from at least 200 years earlier. A shadowy, hooded figure that haunts the pub is said to be a ghostly monk, who has passed through a legendary tunnel from St. Margaret’s church in the Saturday Market Place.

Tunnels (St Margarets)
In December 2011, The Bishop of Norwich dedicated The Priory and Parish Church of St Margaret as King’s Lynn Minster. Photo: King’s Lynn Minster

Today, the medieval St. George’s Guildhall in King Street is the home to an arts centre, coffee shop, and other businesses, but beneath it is an actual tunnel (now stopped-up and dry), through which merchants brought goods from their boats on the nearby Great Ouse river. Vaulted under crofts exist here and beneath former medieval warehouses along King Street as far as the Tuesday Market Place, but it seems to be rumoured only because other tunnels honeycomb the area.

Tunnels (Guildhall)
St. George’s Guildhall in King Street, Kings Lynn. Photo: EDP.

THE END

Sources:
Walter Rye: ‘Norfolk Songs, Stories & Sayings’ (Goose & Son, 1897), pp.85-6.
‘The East Anglian Magazine’, Vol.2, p.461.
http://www.paranormaldatabase.com/hotspots/kingslynn.php
http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk-King’s Lynn
www.kingslynn-forums.co.uk-tunnel2
Ann Weaver: ‘The Ghosts of King’s Lynn’ in KL Magazine, Issue 1, Oct. 2010, p.51.
http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/down_in_the_secret_tunnel_under_king_s_lynn_arts_centre_1_1325374
Source:  Arthur Randell (ed. Enid Porter: ‘Sixty Years a Fenman’ (R & K P, 1966). P.102-3.
www.hiddenea.com

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

8. Christmas: Debunking Myths!

Christmas is a strange time of the year, when people merrily do all sorts of bizarre things. Try explaining to a judge in June that you were allowed to kiss somebody without warning because there was a parasitic shrub hanging from the ceiling!

How many times have you heard somebody say: “You know it’s all pagan, of course?”, as though the barely recorded history of pagan activities in north-west Europe was something, they happen to be terribly familiar with. Trees? Trees are pagan, don’t you know? No. Trees are just there. They’re trees and there’s nothing pagan about them.

The truth is, we usually have no idea of the origin of these curious traditions. So here, as a public service, are 10 myths of Christmas.

1 Coca-Cola designed the modern Santa Claus as part of an advertising campaign
This is one you always hear at dinner parties. It makes the speaker sound rather clever and cynical. Except it’s tosh. Coca-Cola did start using Santa in advertising in 1933. But Santa had been portrayed almost exclusively in red from the early 19th century and most of his modern image was put together by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s. Even if you were to confine your search to Santa in soft drinks adverts, you would find a thoroughly modern Santa Claus in the posters for White Rock that came out in 1923.

Christmas Myths (Coca Cola)
No, Coca-Cola did not brand Santa in their corporate red and white.  Photograph: Rex Features.

2 Jingle Bells is the essence of Christmas
Except it’s not. Jingle Bells was written by James Pierpont in 1857. Pierpont was American and the song (originally called One Horse Open Sleigh) is about Thanksgiving, and about winter fun and frolics more generally. How un-Christmassy it is can be gleaned from the other verses, which never make it into a British carol concert. Verse two goes like this:

A day or two ago
I tho’t I’d take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side.
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we – we got upshot.


3 The Bible tells us there were three wise men
No, it doesn’t. Matthew 2:1 tells us that “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem”. Did you notice the word “three”? Nor did I. They brought gifts with them: “they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh”; yet the Bible never says how many magi there were, only that they were plural. There could have been two or 200. Magi, by the way, were Zoroastrians. There were believed to be well-versed in mysterious arts, hence our modern word “magic”.

Christmas Myths (Magi)
The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1500 by Andrea Mantegna. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

4 Christmas is just a Christian version of the Roman festival of Saturnalia
Saturnalia was originally held on 17 December. Later it was expanded until it lasted all the way up to 23 December. But it never shared a date with Christmas. There was a Roman festival on 25 December, the festival of Sol Invictus. But there were Roman festivals on most days of the year (more than 200 of them) and Sol Invictus is not recorded before Christmas and neither it nor Saturnalia have much in common with it.

5 Good King Wenceslas
That name is only three words long and there are two problems with it. Though Wenceslas existed, he wasn’t a king and he wasn’t called Wenceslas. His name was Vaclav and he was duke, not king, of Bohemia (in the modern-day Czech Republic) in the 10th century. He may have been good. However, it’s equally likely that people looked back on him with rose-tinted glasses after he was succeeded by his brother, Boleslaus the Cruel. Boleslaus really earned his name, not least by killing Vaclav to take the throne. Soon, legends of Vaclav’s goodness had grown so popular that he was posthumously declared king by Otto the Great.

debunking-myths-king-wenceslas
Good King Wenceslas

6 Kissing under the mistletoe comes from the Vikings
The story goes that after the Norse god Baldr was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe, his mother, the unfortunately named goddess Frigg, swore that the plant should never harm anybody else and that instead it should encourage kissing. This, though, isn’t found anywhere in Norse mythology. Well, the mistletoe arrow is, but Frigg’s response has nothing to do with kissing and everything to do with torturing Baldr’s killer for all eternity. It seems to have been little-known in 1719, when Sir John Colebatch wrote a whole book on the plant and the customs associated with it. But it was well-known enough in 1786 to appear in a popular song from the now-forgotten musical Two to One.

Christmas Myths (Mistletoe Kissing)
Kissing under the Mistletoe

7 Christmas starts earlier every year
There’s nothing in the Bible about the date of Jesus’s birth, but the earliest calculation, made in the second century, reckoned it was in March. So we’re nine months late on the whole.

8 Hark the Herald Angels Sing
That’s not the first line of the hymn; that’s not even a line of the hymn, at least according to the man who wrote it. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that began “Hark how all the welkin rings/Glory to the king of kings”. Another preacher called George Whitefield then published a version with the line we all know now. Wesley responded by saying that people were welcome to republish his hymns “provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able.”

debunking-myths-shepherds-and-angels
Angels & Shepherds.

9 Advent begins on 1 December
Advent begins on the nearest Sunday to St Andrew’s Day on the 30 November. So, this year, Advent began on 2 December. The idea that it starts on the same day every year was put about by the manufacturers of Advent calendars, so that they could use the same design each year and sell off old stock.

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Advent Calendar. Photo: Doing History in Public.

10 Prince Albert invented the Christmas tree (or at least imported it to Britain)
This one would have surprised Queen Victoria, who had a Christmas tree as a child. So did the sizeable German immigrant population in Manchester in the early 19th century. Victoria and Albert popularised the Christmas tree when they were pictured with one in the Illustrated London News in 1848. There was also one Christmas tree recorded in England in 1444, but nobody knows what it was doing there.

THE END
Written by Mark Forsyth. Courtesy of The Guardian Newspaper. Mark is the author of ‘A Christmas Cornucopia’ and ‘The Curious Origins of Our Yuletide Traditions’, published by Viking Penguin.

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

5. Christmas: Victorian Style!

It’s hard to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated. Many businesses did not even consider it a holiday. However, by the end of the century it had become the biggest annual celebration and took on the form that we recognise today.

For thousands of years people around the world have enjoyed midwinter festivals. With the arrival of Christianity, pagan festivals became mixed with Christmas celebrations. One of the leftovers from these pagan days is the custom of bedecking houses and churches with evergreen plants like mistletoe, holly and ivy. Apparently, as well as their magical connection in protecting us from evil spirits, they also encourage the return of spring. No era in history however, has influenced the way in which we celebrate Christmas, quite as much as the Victorians.

Victorian Christmas (Gifts)2
Enter a caption

Before Victoria‘s reign started in 1837 nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus or Christmas Crackers. No Christmas cards were sent and most people did not have holidays from work. The wealth and technologies generated by the industrial revolution of the Victorian era changed the face of Christmas forever. Sentimental do-gooders like Charles Dickens wrote books like “Christmas Carol”, published in 1843, which actually encouraged rich Victorians to redistribute their wealth by giving money and gifts to the poor – Humbug! These radical middle class ideals eventually spread to the not-quite-so-poor as well.

Dicken's Christmas Carol 5
From ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. Image: Wikimedia

The holidays:
The wealth generated by the new factories and industries of the Victorian age allowed middle class families in England and Wales to take time off work and celebrate over two days, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Boxing Day, December 26th, earned its name as the day servants and working people opened the boxes in which they had collected gifts of money from the “rich folk”. Those new fangled inventions, the railways allowed the country folk who had moved into the towns and cities in search of work to return home for a family Christmas.

The Scots have always preferred to postpone the celebrations for a few days to welcome in the New Year, in the style that is Hogmanay. Christmas Day itself did not become a holiday in Scotland until many years after Victoria’s reign and it has only been within the last 20-30 years that this has been extended to include Boxing Day.

The Gifts:
At the start of Victoria’s reign, children’s toys tended to be handmade and hence expensive, generally restricting availability to those “rich folk” again. With factories however came mass production, which brought with it games, dolls, books and clockwork toys all at a more affordable price. Affordable that is to “middle class” children. In a “poor child’s” Christmas stocking, which first became popular from around 1870, only an apple, orange and a few nuts could be found.
Victorian Christmas (Gifts)

Father Christmas / Santa Claus:
Normally associated with the bringer of the above gifts, is Father Christmas or Santa Claus. The two are in fact two entirely separate stories. Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival, normally dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. The stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) came via Dutch settlers to America in the 17th Century. From the 1870’s Sinter Klass became known in Britain as Santa Claus and with him came his unique gift and toy distribution system – reindeer and sleigh.

Victorian Father Christmas 1
Father Christmas.

Christmas Cards:
The “Penny Post” was first introduced in Britain in 1840 by Rowland Hill. The idea was simple, a penny stamp paid for the postage of a letter or card to anywhere in Britain. This simple idea paved the way for the sending of the first Christmas cards. Sir Henry Cole tested the water in 1843 by printing a thousand cards for sale in his art shop in London at one shilling each. The popularity of sending cards was helped along when in 1870 a halfpenny postage rate was introduced as a result of the efficiencies brought about by those new fangled railways.

Victorian Christmas Card 1
Christmas Card, designed by J.C. Horsley for Sir Henry Cole, 1843. Photo: Victoria & Albert Museum, No. L.3293-1987

Turkey Time:
Turkeys had been brought to Britain from America hundreds of years before Victorian times. When Victoria first came to the throne however, both chicken and turkey were too expensive for most people to enjoy. In northern England roast beef was the traditional fayre for Christmas dinner while in London and the south, goose was favourite. Many poor people made do with rabbit. On the other hand, the Christmas Day menu for Queen Victoria and family in 1840 included both beef and of course a royal roast swan or two. By the end of the century most people feasted on turkey for their Christmas dinner. The great journey to London started for the turkey sometime in October. Feet clad in fashionable but hardwearing leather the unsuspecting birds would have set out on the 80-mile hike from the Norfolk farms. Arriving obviously a little tired and on the scrawny side they must have thought London hospitality unbeatable as they feasted and fattened on the last few weeks before Christmas!

Victorian Christmas (Turkey)2
Enter a caption

The Christmas Tree:
The Victorian age placed great importance on family, so it follows that Christmas was celebrated at home. For many, the new railway networks made this possible. Those who had left the countryside to seek work in cities could return home for Christmas and spend their precious days off with loved ones. Family life was epitomised by the popular Queen Victoria, her husband Albert and their nine children. One of the most important Christmas traditions, the decorated Christmas tree, was a custom introduced to Britain by Prince Albert.

Victorian Christmas (Tree)
Engraving from the Illustrated London News showing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert around the Christmas tree, 1848, England © British Library Board. P.P.7611.

The idea of an indoor Christmas tree originated in Germany, where Albert was born. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a tree bedecked with ornaments. The popularity of decorated Christmas trees grew quickly, and with it came a market for tree ornaments in bright colours and reflective materials that would shimmer and glitter in the candlelight. Mechanisation and the improved printing process meant decorations could be mass-produced and advertised to eager buyers. The first advertisements for tree ornaments appeared in 1853. Victorians would often combine their sparkly bought decorations with candles and homemade edible treats, tied to the branches with ribbon.

Today, candles on the Christmas tree have been replaced by fairy lights, printed cards may be substituted with e-cards and we’re more likely to find plastic knick-knacks in our crackers than jewellery. Our Christmas customs continue to be shaped by technological advancements and modern changes in society. How many of us do our Christmas shopping online, or Skype our families across the world on Christmas Day? But these new traditions are still rooted in the spirit of the Victorian Christmas – an integral part of the Christmas we celebrate today.

The Crackers:
Invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in 1846. The original idea was to wrap his sweets in a twist of fancy coloured paper, but this developed and sold much better when he added love notes (motto’s), paper hats, small toys and made them go off BANG!
Victorian Christmas (Cracker)

Christmas Cards:
One of the most significant seasonal traditions to emerge from the Victorian era is the Christmas card. It was Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the V&A, who introduced the idea of the Christmas card in 1843. Cole commissioned the artist J.C. Horsley to design a festive scene for his seasonal greeting cards and had 1000 printed – those he didn’t use himself were sold to the public. Later in the century, improvements to the chromolithographic printing process made buying and sending Christmas cards affordable for everyone.

Victorian Christmas (Christmas Cards)
Christmas card, published by C. Goodall & Son, 19th Century, England. Museum no. Buday/1/1/25. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Carol Singers:
Carol Singers and Musicians “The Waits” visited houses singing and playing the new popular carols;

1843 – O Come all ye Faithful
1848 – Once in Royal David’s City
1851 – See Amid the Winters Snow
1868 – O Little Town of Bethlehem
1883 – Away in a Manger

Victorian Carol Singers 1

THE END

Source:
https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/A-Victorian-Christmas/
www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml
https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/victorian-christmas-traditions

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

2. Christmas: Medieval Style!

Whilst the term “Christmas” first became part of the English language in the 11th century as an amalgamation of the Old English expression “Christes Maesse”, meaning “Festival of Christ”, the influences for this winter celebration pre-date this time significantly.
Medieval Christmas (Boar)

Winter festivals have been a popular fixture of many cultures throughout the centuries. A celebration in expectation of better weather and longer days as spring approached, coupled with more time to actually celebrate and take stock of the year because there was less agricultural work to be completed in the winter months, has made this time of year a popular party season for centuries.

Whilst mostly synonymous with Christians as the holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus (the central figure of Christianity), celebrating on the 25th December was a tradition that was borrowed, rather than invented, by the Christian faith and is still celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike today. Indeed the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, in honour of Saturn the Harvest God, and the Scandinavian festival of Yule and other Pagan festivals centred on the Winter Solstice were celebrated on or around this date. As Northern Europe was the last part of the continent to embrace Christianity, the pagan traditions of old had a big influence on the Christian Christmas celebrations.
Medieval Christmas (reveling)

The official date of the birth of Christ is notably absent from the Bible and has always been hotly contested. Following the instigation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the latter part of the 4th century, it was Pope Julius I who eventually settled on 25 December. Whilst this would tie in with the suggestions of the 3rd century historian Sextus Julius Africanus that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox of 25 March, the choice has also been seen as an effort to ‘Christianise’ the pagan winter festivals that also fell on this date. Early Christian writers suggested that the date of the solstice was chosen for the Christmas celebrations because this is the day that the sun reversed the direction of its cycle from south to north, connecting the birth of Jesus to the ‘rebirth’ of the sun.

In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas was not as popular as Epiphany on 6 January, the celebration of the visit from the three kings or wise men, the Magi, to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Indeed, Christmas was not originally seen as a time for fun and frolics but an opportunity for quiet prayer and reflection during a special mass. But by the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) Christmas had become the most prominent religious celebration in Europe, signalling the beginning of Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas as they are more commonly known today.

The medieval calendar became dominated by Christmas events starting forty days prior to Christmas Day, the period we now know as Advent (from the Latin word adventus meaning “coming”) but which was originally know as the “forty days of St. Martin” because it began on 11 November, the feast day of St Martin of Tours.
Medieval Christmas

Although gift giving at Christmas was temporarily banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins, it was soon popular again as the festive season in the Middle Ages became a time of excess dominated by a great feast, gifts for rich and poor and general indulgence in eating, drinking, dancing and singing.

Many monarchs chose this merry day for their coronation. This included William the Conqueror, whose coronation on Christmas Day in 1066 incited so much cheering and merriment inside Westminster Abbey that the guards stationed outside believed the King was under attack and rushed to assist him, culminating in a riot that saw many killed and houses destroyed by fire.

Some well known modern Christmas traditions have their roots in the Medieval celebrations:

Christmas or Xmas? Although many people frown upon the seemingly modern abbreviation of Xmas, X stands for the Greek letter chi, which was the early abbreviation for Christ or the Greek ‘Khristos’. The X also symbolises the cross on which Christ was crucified.

Medieval-Christmas (mince pies)Mince Pies were originally baked in rectangular cases to represent the infant Jesus’ crib and the addition of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg was meant to symbolise the gifts bestowed by the three wise men. Similarly to the more modern mince pies we see today, these pies were not very large and it was widely believed to be lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas. However, as the name suggests, mince pies were originally made of a variety of shredded meat along with spices and fruit. It was only as recently as the Victorian era that the recipe was amended to include only spices and fruit.

Medieval Christmas (Singers)Carol singers. Some of us enjoy the sound of carollers on our doorsteps but the tradition for carol singers going door to door is actually a result of carols being banned in churches in medieval times. Many carollers took the word carol literally (to sing and dance in a circle) which meant that the more serious Christmas masses were being ruined and so the Church decided to send the carol singers outside.

Medieval Christmas (Humble Pie)Anyone for humble pie? While the most popular choice for Christmas dinner today is undoubtedly turkey, the bird was not introduced to Europe until after the discovery of the Americas, its natural home, in the 15th century. In medieval times goose was the most common option. Venison was also a popular alternative in medieval Christmas celebrations, although the poor were not allowed to eat the best cuts of meat. However, the Christmas spirit might entice a Lord to donate the unwanted parts of the family’s Christmas deer, the offal, which was known as the ‘umbles’. To make the meat go further it was often mixed with other ingredients to make a pie, in this case the poor would be eating ‘umble pie’, an expression we now use today to describe someone who has fallen from their pedestal to a more modest level.

The Christmas crib

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

Boxing Day has traditionally been seen as the reversal of fortunes, where the rich provide gifts for the poor. In medieval times, the gift was generally money and it was provided in a hollow clay pot with a slit in the top which had to be smashed for the money to be taken out. These small clay pots were nicknamed “piggies” and thus became the first version of the piggy banks we use today. Unfortunately, Christmas Day was also traditionally a “quarter day”, one of the four days in the financial year on which payments such as ground rents were due, meaning many poor tenants had to pay their rent on Christmas Day!

Whilst the excitement and frivolities of Christmas make it easy to forget the more serious aspects of the festival, it can also be argued that the tradition started by the wise men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh continues today, although with perhaps slightly fewer exotic gifts!

Text written by Ben Johnson. (Courtesy of HistoryUK)

THE END

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

 

What Shaped Our Understanding of Santa?

Stories from Medieval times have shaped our understanding of this classic Christmas figure.

There are many sides to the beloved figure of Santa Claus – a giant of pop culture, he also has “miraculous” powers and ties to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Santa’s blend of religion and popular culture is, however, not modern at all. Several of Santa’s modern features, such as his generosity, miracle-working, and focus on morality (being “naughty or nice”), were part of his image from the very beginning. Others, like the reindeer, came later.

The original Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a fourth century Bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) with a reputation for generosity and wonder-working. St Nicholas became an important figure in eighth century Byzantium before hitting pan-European stardom around the 11th century. He became a focus not just for religious devotion, but Medieval dramas and popular festivals – some popular enough to be suppressed during the Reformation.

The Naughty List:
St Nicholas had his own version of the naughty list, including the fourth century “arch-heretic” Arius, whose views annoyed the saint so much he supposedly smacked Arius in the face in front of Emperor Constantine and assembled bishops at Nicaea.

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

An even more surprising listee is the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis. In popular Byzantine stories, Nicholas acted like a one-man wrecking crew, personally pulling down her temples, and even demolishing the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s almost a shame, as they probably would have agreed about the importance of reindeer.

The idea of St Nicholas’ conflict with Artemis probably relates to religious change in Anatolia, where the goddess was hugely popular. Historically, the temple was sacked earlier, by a band of Gothic raiders in the 260s, but hagiographers had other ideas. Perhaps these furious northmen even count as Santa’s earliest “helpers”. He was after all (as part of his extensive saintly portfolio) the patron of the Varangians, the Viking bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors.

Fast travelling:
Santa’s greatest miracle is intrinsic to modern Christmases: his ability to reach all the children on Earth in one night. NORAD, the US and Canadian air defence force, has tracked Santa’s sleigh since the 1950s, presumably trying to figure out the secret of his super speed. But really, they just need to check their ancient sources.

St Nicholas had a history of teleporting about on his own — often showing up in the nick of time when people ask for his help. As the patron saint of sailors, he often did this out at sea. In one story, sailors in a wild storm in the eastern Mediterranean cried out for the already-famous wonderworker’s help. With the mast cracking and sails coming loose, a white-bearded man suddenly appeared and helped them haul the ropes, steady the tiller, and brought them safe to shore. Rushing up the hill to the local church to give thanks, the sailors were astonished to see Nicholas was already there, in the middle of saying mass.

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

Suddenly appearing to save people became a favourite trick in accounts of the saint’s life and in folklore. He once saved three innocents from execution, teleporting behind the executioner and grabbing his sword, before upbraiding the judges for taking bribes.

There’s also the tale of Adeodatus, a young boy kidnapped by raiders and made the cupbearer of an eastern potentate. Soon after, St Nicholas appeared out of nowhere, grabbed the cupbearer in front of his startled master, and zipped him back home. Artists depicting this story stage the rescue differently, but the Italian artists who have St Nicholas swoop in from the sky, in full episcopal regalia, and grab the boy by the hair are worth special mention.

The flying reindeer:
None of the old tales have Saint Nicholas carrying around stacks of gifts when teleporting, which brings us to the reindeer, who can pull the sleigh full of millions of presents. The popular link between Santa Claus and gifting came through the influence of stores advertising their Christmas shopping in the early 19th century. This advertising drew on the old elf’s increasing popularity, with the use of “live” Santa visits in department stores for children from the late 1800s.

Santa Claus became connected to reindeer largely through the influence of the 1823 anonymous poem, A visit from St Nicholas. In this poem, “Saint Nicholas” arrives with eight tiny reindeer pulling a sleigh full of toys. The reindeer have the miraculous ability to fly.

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

The origins of the animals’ flight may link back to the Saami reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. Here, the herders were said to feed their reindeer a type of red-and-white mushroom with psychedelic properties, known as fly agaric fungi (Amanita muscaria). The mushrooms made the reindeer leap about, giving the impression of flying. The herders would then collect and consume the reindeer’s urine, with its toxins made safe by the reindeer’s metabolism. The reindeer herders could then possibly imagine the miraculous flight through the psychedelic properties of the mushroom.

The ninth reindeer, Rudolph, was created as part of a promotional campaign for the department store Montgomery Ward by Robert Lewis May in 1939. May himself was a small, frail child, who empathised with underdogs. In May’s story, Rudolph Shines Again (1954), the little reindeer is helped by an angel to save some lost baby rabbits, once again blending Santa’s religious and popular sides.

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

And … invisible polar bears:
A number of modern depictions have connected Santa with polar bears, such as the 1994 film The Santa Clause. It seems likely the association grew as Santa’s home became accepted as the North Pole — though in one of the oldest stories, St Nicholas saves three Roman soldiers, one of whom is named Ursus (“Bear” in Latin).

Polar bears are undoubtedly useful companions for secretive Santa, and don’t even need his powers to move about unseen – the special properties of their fur mean they are hidden even from night-vision goggles.

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

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas (1976), written by the Lord of the Rings’ author to his children, features the (mis)adventures of the North Polar Bear. Like St. Nick, the North Polar Bear isn’t shy about getting physical with those he perceives as wrong-doers. In one letter, the North Polar Bear saves Santa, his elves, and Christmas from a murderous group of goblins.

So, with Santa Claus once again coming your way, remember — ancient or modern – it’s better to be on the “nice” side of this teleporting saint and his motley crew of miracle-workers.

THE END

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

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

Tunstall: For Whom The Bells Toll!

Nobody goes to St Peter and St Paul, Tunstall by accident for it stands in a landscape of narrow, high-hedged lanes and a rolling landscape that dips to meet the rivers, the aspect becoming flatter and bleaker the further east one goes. Apart from the little ferry at Reedham, there is no way of crossing the Yare and so this area remains isolated and the visitor really is on the far side of the back of the beyond. The church is a mile from Halvergate, along a straight, narrow lane where there is couple of houses. That’s it, pretty much, except that further east of Tunstall, and for almost five miles, there is nothing but the marshes where there are no roads, houses, people; that is until the river can be crossed, changing from almost quiet and isolated world to the brash and noisy  Great Yarmouth which sits slap bang on the coast.

Tunstall (Halvergate Marshes)2
Part of the Halvergate Marshes. Photo: NFU.

When this church first built, it served a coastal village which overlooked a great estuary, serving as a beacon for shipping. But the estuary was eventually drained to become grazing land, and the church found itself inland with a tower which has long been a ruin. What remains of it now overlooks an empty and equally shattered nave, open to the elements and a shadow of what it once was in Catholic England before Protestant Reformation asserted itself. What was once a big church soon found out that there would never be enough parishioners to fill it and so it and the parish in which it stood was absorbed into the larger Halvergate and the building here fell into disuse.

Tunstall (Halvergate Marshes)1
Looking northwest along one of the many drains that traverse the Halvergate marshes, towards Yarmouth. Photo: © Copyright Evelyn Simak

We know from a crude plaque above the entrance that the chancel was restored by the Jenkinson family early in the 18th century and that the chapel was extended eastwards and a pretty window added in the 1860s. Since then nothing seems to have been touch and the ruin is, today, maintained by the local community and supported by a charitable trust. Visitors are, of course, welcome but they should expect nothing more than a church interior which is rather dark, gloomy and with little historical interest; the sky taking the place of the roof. But of course, according to Simon Knott:

“that doesn’t matter. You come here for the atmosphere, a sense of the presence of God – out here where the land takes over, the silence, and perhaps, a very rustic feeling of what it might have been like to live in 19th century rural Norfolk.”

Tunstall (Plaque 1705)
Photo: A commemorative plaque at the church of St Peter & St Paul, Tunstall. It sits above a doorway in the bricked-up chancel wall. Photo: © Copyright Evelyn Simak

Inevitably perhaps, remote churches are particularly prone to fall victim to ghostly tales and myths by superstitious folk who look for meaning in everything around them. Tunstall church and its past small community were no exception. How many stories might there have been about such a place as Tunstall – no one knows. However, at least two versions of one tale survived the passage of time and these have been told and re-told probably countless times; each teller putting his or her slant on the detail; probably that’s why here we have two versions.  The first goes something like this:

Tunstall (StPeterStPaulsChurch)2
St Peter and St Paul Church, Tunstall. Photo: ANTONY KELLY

There was once a fierce fire at the Church of St Peter and St Paul at Tunstall. We know not when – but it did. We are told that as the flames brushed close to the stone walls and the church building began to crack and collapse, its parishioners feared that nothing would remain of the church that they loved; a church that had been a beacon for ships on the edge of a long-lost estuary which was replaced by the lonely marshland that now stretches towards Great Yarmouth.

Tunstall (StPeterStPaulsChurch)5
The Ruins of St Peter & St Pauls, Tunstall. Photo: Norfolk Churches.

Although the fire ravaged the church its bells were left unscathed, even after falling on to the floor below; some people saw some meaning behind what was to them a minor miracle – their bell actually escaped the blaze. The topic became the re-hot epicentre of a fierce row that erupted between the local Parson and the St Peter & St Paul’s churchwardens; both parties battling over who should have them.

Tunstall (StPeterStPaulsChurch-)3
The Ruins of St Peter & St Pauls, Tunstall. © Copyright Evelyn Simak.

Now the story goes on to relate that while this argument raged, the Devil took the opportunity settle the matter in his favour. He slipped effortlessly into the still smouldering and red-smoking timbers of the bell chamber and spirited the bells away. But not without the Parson noticing, for he was a godly man. He hastily began to exorcise the Devil as this heathen creature, together with his loot, began to dissolve into the distance: “Stop, in the name of God!” called the Parson, “Curse thee!” cried the Devil as he sank into the earth, towards his underworld. In his wake a boggy pool of water, known nowadays as ‘Hell Hole’, appeared on the surface and remains there to this day. It is still said that in the summertime, ominous bubbles can sometimes be seen rising to the surface; past folk attributed this phenomenon to the stolen bells which they said were still sinking on their endless journey through a bottomless passage to hell.

Tunstall (StPeterStPaulsChurch)4
The Ruins of St Peter & St Pauls, Tunstall. Photo: Norfolk Churches.

A second version of the same tale has both the parish priest and the churchwardens planning separately to steal the bells, sell them and pocket the spoils. Turning up at the same time both parties clashed as each tried to take the bells for themselves. Again, as they quarrelled, a gigantic black form materialised, seized the bells and disappeared with them. The priest and the churchwardens immediately forgot their row and joined together to chase whatever this fiend was, but just as they appeared to be gaining on this almost ghostly creature, it vanished into the earth, still clutching the bells. Again, behind it, a dark pool appeared from which bubbles rose for many years thereafter, marking the spot where the bells disappeared and less than a mile west of Tunstall.

Less than a mile west of Tunstall is a long strip of marshy woodland called, in part, ‘Hell Carr’, and near this alder clump was the boggy pool known as ‘Hell Hole’. They do say that sometimes, on quiet nights, the sound of muffled bells can still be heard drifting across the bogs and marshland towards the church from whence they were stolen.

Footnote:

In Roman times the River Bure flowed into a large estuary extending from Acle to present-day Great Yarmouth; Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk shows the then coastal villages of Tunstall, Halvergate and Wickhampton on a spur of higher ground that was surrounded by Moulton Bog (west), Acle Wet Common (north) and the Halvergate Marshes (east). According to old records the church had fallen into disrepair by 1704; the chancel arch was bricked up in 1705 and a plaque above the doorway into the chancel informs that it was rebuilt by Mrs Elizabeth Jenkinson. More repairs were carried out in 1853. In 1980 the church was declared redundant and a Trust was formed to help repair and maintain what remains of the church: the chancel is still intact and visitors are welcome.

THE END

Sources:
www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/tunstall/tunstall.htm
http://www.greatyarmouthmercury.co.uk/news/weird-norfolk-the-devil-and-the-bells-of-tunstall-church-1-5204927
http://www.geograph.org.uk/
Photos:
https://aeroengland.photodeck.com/media/bf8f7a83-31bf-4da9-bffc-3aa43fc88afc-aerial-photograph-of-st-peter-st-paul-s-church-ruin-tunstal
http://www.geograph.org.uk/

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

A Quest for Edmund of East Anglia.

Part 1 – The Basic Mythology:

‘Saxon’ – ‘King’ – ‘Martyr’ – ‘Patron saint of East Anglia’ – ‘First patron saint of England’. All of these epithets can be applied to Edmund (or Eadmund), but for someone whose holy memory and cult of worship grew to enormous proportions in the early Middle Ages, very little is known of him. All that we know for sure is that he came to the throne of East Anglia some time before 865 AD, fought against the invading Danes, was killed by them in the winter of 869, and within 20 years, was being hailed as a saint. But it didn’t take long for miracles, stories and legends to gather about his memory, and many of these have made their mark on the landscape of East Anglia, from Hunstanton in the north-west of Norfolk, to Hollesley on Suffolk’s south-east coast. A conglomeration of all the basic myths about Edmund, many of which are still told today, would probably run something like this:

Once, East Anglia was ruled by a good and wise king named Offa. But the Christian Offa was childless, and resolved to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there to offer prayers in the hope of being blessed with a son and heir. On his journey across Europe, he stayed for a while with his kinsman Alcmund, a prince of Old Saxony, and was much impressed by the nobility and piety of Alcmund’s 12-year-old son, Edmund. On the return trip almost a year later Offa fell ill, and seeing that he was about to die, commanded his council to recognise Edmund as his true successor. This they did, and with his father’s consent, called upon Edmund to take up the throne. The young lad and the late king’s nobles set sail for the eastern shores of East Anglia, but the strong winds of a storm blew them off course, sweeping them around the coast and finally beaching them on the sands at ‘Maidenbury’, now known as Hunstanton.

After a year spent in secluded contemplation and religious devotion, Edmund – by then still only 14 years old – was crowned by Bishop Humbert on Christmas Day, at a place now called Bures St. Mary in Suffolk, some say after having been elected king by consent of the populace. For a decade, Edmund grew in virtue and stature among his adopted people, being widely loved for his wisdom, strength and Christian kindliness. Then a prince of the Danes named Lothbroc or Lodbrog, out sailing alone off the coast of Denmark, was swept across the North Sea by a storm. His small craft was blown along the river Yare till it reached Reedham, where Edmund had his royal seat at that time. Although Lothbroc was well received into the court, Edmund’s chief huntsman, Bern, became jealous of the favour and honour the Dane was enjoying, and murdered him one day in some woods, when they were out hunting alone. The crime being later discovered, Bern was punished by being set adrift in Lothbroc’s own boat, which by chance was eventually washed up in the Dane’s own kingdom. Bern blamed the murder on Edmund, at which Lothbroc’s sons, Hinguar and Hubba, vowed to take their vengeance on the king.

The heathen and barbaric Danes landed with their armies first in the north, and while Hubba wrought destruction across Northumbria, Hinguar came to East Anglia, secretly entering a city, slaughtering all its people, and burning it to the ground. Other battles and sieges followed, including one where Edmund escaped his enemies by using a ford known only to him. Then Hubba came with another army to join his brother Hinguar, and they met the king in battle somewhere near Thetford, the Danes winning the day. Edmund fled 20 miles east to his royal town of ‘Haegelisdun’, now known as Hoxne in Suffolk, with his foes following. Some say that Edmund threw down his weapons, vowing to stay true to his people and his faith, and he was seized in his own hall. Many say that he hid beneath a bridge, but was betrayed by a newly-married couple who saw the golden glint of his spurs reflected by moonlight in the water, and gave him up to the Danes. They called on him to yield up his treasures and his kingdom, to reject Christ, and to bow down before them, but Edmund refused to submit, saying that he alone must die for his people and his God.  Dragging him out to a field, they beat him and scourged him with whips, then tied him to a tree and fired dozens of arrows into him.

Even then the young king defied them, calling upon God for help, so they struck off his head and threw it into deep brambles in a nearby wood, leaving his body where it had fallen. After the heathens had departed, to begin their terrible rule of the land, Edmund’s folk came out of hiding, and found the mutilated corpse of their lord still bound to the tree – but where was the saintly head? Although they searched by day and night for weeks, nothing could be found until a voice came out of the wood, calling “Here, here, here!” Following the voice, they found that it was coming from the lips of the severed head itself, which was being cradled between the paws of a huge grey wolf. The people gently retrieved the head and took it back to the town, the wolf walking tamely behind until it was sure that all was safe, then disappearing back into the forest. Behind them, a miraculous freshwater spring broke through the soil where the beloved head had lain. With huge sorrow and reverence the head was placed back upon its shoulders, the body of the king buried in a grave, and a simple wooden chapel hastily erected over the spot.

Over the years miraculous healings occurred at the little chapel, including a pillar of light emerging from the grave that restored sight to a blind man. As peace returned to the land pilgrims began to make their way there, and Edmund’s fame and saintliness spread. In time, the martyred king’s body was transferred to a new and grander church built for it some miles away at ‘Beodricesworth’, the town that would later become Bury St. Edmunds. But when the grave was opened, not only was Edmund’s body found to be incorrupt, but all the wounds on his body had healed, and all that was left to show where his head had been severed was a thin red crease on the neck.

More miracles followed over the centuries at the new shrine, and as his fame spread, so did princes, kings and a host of other pilgrims come to the abbey that was built around him, to give him honour and pray for his blessing. Although his exact place of burial is now unknown, it’s said that Edmund’s body still lies somewhere under the abbey ruins, even now whole and incorrupt, and a treasure buried with him.

The next section looks at how this mythology came into being, through the writings of Saxon and medieval scribes.

Part 2 – The Chronology of Legend:

865 AD: We know from contemporary coinage that by this time, Edmund is ruler of East Anglia, having followed a king named Æthelweard. This means that he is the one responsible for placating the ‘Great Heathen Army’ of the Danes with a gift of horses when they arrive late in this year, as told in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’:

“…and the same year came a large heathen army into England, and fixed their winter-quarters in East Anglia, where they were soon horsed, and the inhabitants made peace with them”.

Edmund (Anglo Saxon Chronicle)
A specimen page from the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’  – this one refering to Peterborough. Photo: Wikipedia.

But four years later the Danes are back, and after a triumphant slaughter in Northumbria, and an unsatisfactory peace at Nottingham, this time either they or Edmund decide that things aren’t going to go the same way again:

869 AD: “In this year the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and there fixed their winter-quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought with them; but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king, and conquered all that land”.

That entry in the ‘Chronicle’ was written just before 890, which is at about the same time that commemorative coins begin to be issued, and for another 20 years, inscribed ‘Sc Eadmund rex’, showing that Edmund is already being recognised as a saint, well within the lifetimes of those who have known him.

893 AD: Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ is believed by most scholars to have been written in about this year, again within living memory of Edmund. According to the Welsh monk, “Edmund the most glorious king of the East-Angles” begins his reign on Christmas Day in 854, when he is only 14 years old. But it isn’t until exactly one year later that Edmund is consecrated as king by Bishop Humbert, “in the royal town called Burva, in which at that time was the royal seat”. Asser relies heavily on the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ for many of his facts, and so follows the line that Edmund dies in battle. Although the death of a Christian king in combat with ‘the heathens’ was in itself enough to claim sainthood, it’s another 90 years before the notion of a solitary martyrdom for Edmund is written down.

Edmund (Assers Life of King Alfred)
A specimen page from Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’. Photo: The British Library.

985-7 AD: Between these dates the monk Abbo of Fleury writes his ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’, which is where the meat of the mythology begins. Abbo dedicates the work to Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, from whom he heard the story himself when Dunstan was an old man. The archbishop had heard it in his youth from a very old man who had claimed to be Edmund’s own armour-bearer at the time of his death, and thus an eye-witness to the events. Here, about 116 years had passed, and it is possible for two memories to cover such a period; most scholars seem to have accepted that this tale as truthful – if embroidered in the telling and retelling! In the ‘Passio’, Edmund is said to be of ‘ancient Saxon’ stock, which others later take to mean that he comes from Old Saxony in Germany – but Abbo would surely have highlighted the fact if a foreigner was taking the East Anglian throne’.

For the first time names are given to the main Danish protagonists: Inguar and Hubba (known from other sources as Ivar and Ubbi). After they conquer Northumbria, Hubba stays behind while Inguar takes a fleet east round the coast, then lands “by stealth” at a city in East Anglia and burns it to the ground, killing all its inhabitants. Slaughtering other men round about to deplete Edmund’s forces, Inguar then tortures a few to reveal the king’s whereabouts:

“Eadmund, it happened, was at that time staying at some distance from the city, in a township which in the native language is called Hægelisdun, from which also the neighbouring forest is called by the same name”.

Now we are told about the famous tale of how Edmund rejects Inguar’s terms, is seized in his hall, beaten, lashed to a tree, shot full of arrows, and beheaded even as he cries out to Christ.

Edmund (Death)
The death of Edmund. Photo: Public Domain.

“And so, on the 20th November, as an offering to God of sweetest saviour, Eadmund, after he had been tried in the fire of suffering, rose with the palm of victory and the crown of righteousness, to enter as king and martyr the assembly of the court of heaven”.

The story of the wolf and the speaking head follows, the bringing together of the head and the body, and the building nearby of a rough chapel over the grave. Abbo adds that the body is found to be whole and incorrupt many years later, when it is translated to “a church of immense size” newly constructed for it at ‘Bedrices-gueord’ (Bury St. Edmunds), where many miracles are attributed to the saintliness of the young martyr – who, according to the chronology, is 28 when he dies.

Although the basic story of the martyrdom is usually felt to be truthful, there are contradictions between Abbo’s account and the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ (such as the omission of any battle), which some later scribes have used as an opportunity to create further snippets of the mythology. The late Professor Dorothy Whitelock felt that Abbo may have melded the events of 865 and 869 into one narrative, so the burning of a city may well belong to the earlier incursion by the Danes. And the absence of a specific final battle may simply have been because Edmund’s armour-bearer was only asked about the martyrdom itself.

Late 11th century: Soon after 1095, Hermann of Bury’s ‘Liber de Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi’ says that Edmund is first buried at a place called ‘Suthtuna’ (Sutton), close to the site of his death. He also relates that Edmund’s body is moved to Bury during the reign of Æthelstan (924-39), while later scholarship has pinned it down to around 903-905.

1101: The foundation charter of Norwich Priory grants to that establishment the church at Hoxne, along with a chapel of St. Edmund in the same place, “ubi idem martyr interfectus est”: “where the same martyr was killed”. Thus the identification ‘Hægelisdun’ = Hoxne comes about for the first time. Although some historians believe the claim to be invented, to give the Priory greater status through association, it does at least show that the Hoxne tradition has been around for over 900 years.

Early 12th century: The ‘Annals of St. Neots’ are written, probably at Bury, and introduce the idea that Hinguar and Hubba are the sons of a Dane called Lodebroch.

c.1133: From the ‘Íslendingabók’ by Ari the Wise: “Ívarr, Ragnarsson Loðbrókar, lét drepa Eadmund inn Helga Englakonung” – Ivarr, son of Ragnar Loðbrók, ordered to be killed Edmund the saint, King of the Angles”.

1135-40: Geoffrey of Gaimar is one of those ‘later scribes’ mentioned above who uses the gaps and inconsistencies in Abbo’s work to add to the Edmund legends. In his ‘L’Estoire des Engleis’, he recounts a battle lost by Edmund (not recorded by Abbo), after which the king flees to a castle and is besieged. As he emerges secretly, he is recognised and held until Ywar (Hinguar) and Ube (Hubba) arrive, and is then martyred.

1148-56: The ‘De Infantia Sancti Eadmundi’ of Geoffrey of Wells says that it is King Offa of East Anglia who chooses Edmund to succeed him, that he comes from Old Saxony, and lands at ‘Maydenebure’ (Hunstanton) where 12 springs burst from the ground as he kneels to pray. The major problem here is that there has never been a ‘King Offa of East Anglia!’ Geoffrey tells how Edmund founded a royal dwelling at Hunstanton, then spends a year in seclusion at Attleborough in Norfolk, learning the Psalter by heart. The ‘De Infantia’ now brings in the powerful Dane Lodebrok who, hearing of the fame of Edmund, taunts his three pirate sons to achieve as much. These sons are named as Hinguar, Ubba and Wern (a mistake for Bern, or Beorn), who then invade East Anglia and kill Edmund, the tale following Abbo’s version.

c.1180: The metrical biography ‘La Vie Seint Edmund le Rei’ by Denis Piramus states that Edmund was elected king at Caistor St. Edmund in Norfolk (the year before his coronation), and gives the name of Orford in Suffolk as the town that was destroyed by Hinguar.

Early 13th century: The chronicle of Roger of Wendover helps to shape the mythology further by introducing the story of Lothbroc coming to Reedham in Norfolk, being killed by Bern (here Edmund’s huntsman, not one of Lothbroc’s three sons), then Hinguar and Hubba killing Edmund in vengeance. The king meets the Danes in battle “not far from the town of Thetford”, and after they have fought to a bloody standstill, he takes the remainder of his forces “to the royal vill of Hæilesdune”. This place, he says, “is now called Hoxen by the natives”. Although he then gives Abbo’s account of the martyrdom, Roger says it was Bern who caused the king’s head to be thrown into the wood.

c.1220: A St. Albans text incorporated into a chronicle usually attributed to John of Wallingford is the first to give Edmund’s father a name – Alcmund – but this is a complete mix-up with the father of King Egbert of Wessex. Nevertheless, the name sticks.

c.1370-80: A collection of material on St. Edmund is included in a manual for the instruction of novice monks, in a manuscript (MS 240) currently held in the Bodleian Library, probably compiled by the Bury monk Henry Kirkstede. In it, Edmund is again from Old Saxony, but is said to have been born in Nuremberg (which isn’t in Saxony!) In a variation of Geoffrey of Gaimar’s tale of Edmund taking refuge in one of his castles, here the king is betrayed by an old blind man, a mason who had helped to build the castle. In this, the Danes bribe the mason to show them a weak spot in the defences, allowing them to enter, after which Edmund manages to escape.

In this manuscript it is also noted that, to escape the Danes, Edmund crosses a river at a hidden ford called ‘Dernford’, and is thus able to rejoin his main army and fall upon and rout his enemies. Although this is no more than a fragment, mixed in with many other later apocryphal tales about the saint, at least one researcher thinks it may represent a much older tradition, set at a real (though unknown) location. It may be either the origin of, or a variation upon, a similar escape at ‘Bernford’, the earliest written record of which I have found (so far) dates from 1790. Now, the basic mythology is in place. The next section is another chronology, this time looking at the few historical facts we actually know, both of Edmund’s life, and what happened to his body after death.

Part 3 – History As We Know It:

841 AD: Edmund is born. The Danes make their first raid into East Anglia. Æthelweard is king at this time.
854 AD: Edmund succeeds to the throne of East Anglia on Christmas Day.
855 AD: Edmund is consecrated as king, again on Christmas Day, at ‘Burva’.
865 AD: A ‘Great Heathen Army’ of the Danes arrives in England by ship, sets up its winter camp somewhere in East Anglia, and is bought off with a gift of horses. It’s quite possible that various battles occur before peace is brokered.
866-868 AD: The Danes leave for Northumbria, capture York, campaign in Mercia, force Nottingham to sue for peace, then go back to York for the winter.
869AD: The Danes ride back across Mercia to East Anglia, where they winter at Thetford. King Edmund fights with them, perhaps more than once at unknown locations, dies at ‘Hægelisdun’ on November 20th, and is buried there or nearby. The Danes take over East Anglia.
c.903-5 AD: Edmund’s body is translated to a church at ‘Beodricesworth’ (Bury St. Edmunds).
c.956 AD: Bishop Theodred of London inspects Edmund’s body and confirms it is still incorrupt.
1010: A Danish force lands at Ipswich. For safety, Edmund’s body is taken to London and kept there for three years.
1013: On its journey back from London, the body travels through Stapleford, where the local lord is allegedly cured by a miracle.
1014: King Sweyn Forkbeard threatens to sack Bury unless a ransom is paid, but dies suddenly, supposedly struck down by a vision of St. Edmund.
1020: King Cnut orders a new stone church to be built at Bury, to be staffed by monks, which begins Bury’s rise to power as one of England’s most important abbeys.
1060: Abbot Leofstan of Bury pulls at Edmund’s head to see if it really is still attached to the body, but suffers a stroke and loses the use of his hands.
1095: Edmund’s body is translated into the new church, and is confirmed as still being incorrupt.
1101: The church and chapel at Hoxne are granted to Norwich Priory, as being the place where Edmund was killed i.e. ‘Hægelisdun’.
1198: Edmund’s body is moved into a new and grander shrine at Bury. A golden angel is described as being upon the coffin, and Abbot Samson touches the incorrupt body.
1217: After the French are called in to help fight against King John, and instead try to take the country, they claim to have taken Edmund’s body and other relics to Toulouse.
1465: The abbey church and shrine at Bury are badly damaged by fire.
1538: At the Dissolution of the monasteries, the King’s Commissioners take from the abbey large amounts of gold, silver and valuables, but find the shrine “very cumbrous to deface”. There is no mention of the saint’s body or relics.
1901: Relics from Toulouse are returned to England and lodged at Arundel, where they still lie. Scholars reject them as the genuine remains of Edmund.

The next section looks at Edmund’s presence in the legendary landscape of East Anglia.

Part 4 – The Landscape of St. Edmund:

Landfall:
As Edmund almost certainly did not come from Old Saxony, and he is very unlikely to have arrived by ship in 854 at Hunstanton. Some have said that the legend may have come about because of the existence of an old chapel dedicated to the saint there. But the chapel (TF675419), which now consists of no more than a short section of wall complete with archway, is said to have been built in 1272, while the first record of the legend originates with Geoffrey of Wells more than 100 years earlier. The actual site of his landing, ‘Maydenebure’ or ‘Maidenbury’, is unknown, but is usually believed to have been either at what is now St. Edmund’s Point, very near to the chapel, or less likely, Gore Point, a little further round the coast at Holme-next-the-Sea.

Edmund (St Edmunds Point)
St Edmund’s Point, Hunstanton. Photo: © Copyright Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Although the healing springs that burst from the ground where the king-to-be knelt to pray are supposed to have been twelve in number, not all records agree. As White’s ‘History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk’ says in 1845: “A well in the parish also bears the name of the name of the Royal martyr; but is sometimes called the Seven Springs”. Where these springs (or well) used to be is uncertain. But the sweetness of their water was supposed to have given rise to the town’s name: the ‘Honey-Stone Town’. ‘Honeystone’, however, is the local name for the native rich brown carstone that makes up much of the area’s remarkable ‘striped’ cliffs. The real origin of the name of the town is far more prosaic: the ‘tún’ or village of a Saxon called Húnstán. Local legend will have none of it though. It says that Edmund not only built a royal dwelling there, but he founded the town itself. The town sign proudly shows the crowned king standing tall, and behind him the wolf that guarded his sacred head after death (though some reckon it’s not a wolf at all, but Black Shuck himself, East Anglia’s own phantom hound!)

Edmund (hunstanton-wolf)
The wolf who guarded St Edmund’s Head. Photo: Daniel Tink.

Although Geoffrey of Wells reported that, after landing here, Edmund spent a year in contemplation at Attleborough, about 40 miles away, other tales say that it was at Hunstanton itself that he spent a year in a tower (or, in a minor local variation, in the chapel, which some believed Edmund himself built). Still others, probably misreading the place-name, claim the honour for Aldeburgh in Suffolk.

Royal Seats:
Attleborough crops up again as the place where Edmund was supposedly acclaimed or elected king after his arrival, a mythical event that only occurs in the medieval tales. With little historical accuracy, White’s ‘Directory’ for 1854 tells us that, in Saxon times, the town was “the seat of Offa and Edmund”, successively Kings of the East Angles, who fortified it against the predatory incursions of the Danes. These fortifications may still be traced in the ridge called Burn Bank“. In fact this embanked earthwork, which may indeed be Saxon in date (though probably very early), is named Bunn’s Bank, and fragments of it run for about two miles around the edges of Attleborough, Old Buckenham and Besthorpe parishes. Local people, who are proud of the alleged association with Edmund and have named several areas of Attleborough after him, are convinced that the king had the bank built as a defence against the invading Danes.

Another place claimed for the site of Edmund’s mythical election as king is Caistor St. Edmund, just south of Norwich. Specifically, the Roman town of Venta Icenorum, which was built just after the failed Boudiccan revolt in 70 AD, as a way of controlling the local Iceni population. Some like to say that this was another of Edmund’s royal seats (a ‘palace’ according to Edmund Gillingwater) – but while the Saxons would have been attracted by the 20 foot high flint and brick-faced wall that was built around the settlement at the end of the 2nd century, the stone would have been robbed out soon after the Romans left, and there’s little sign of habitation after 500 AD. The suffix of the village (and thus the dedication of the church) can be explained by the fact that both manor and church were granted to Bury St. Edmunds abbey by Edward the Confessor.

Picture by Mike Page shows :-
The site of the Roman Town of Venta Icenorum in Norfolk .Photo: NHMF.

Quite why Reedham on the river Yare, at the southern end of the Norfolk Broads, was chosen by Roger of Wendover in the early 13th century to be another of Edmund’s royal seats, I cannot imagine. This is the place where Ragnar Lothbroc supposedly made land after being blown across the North Sea, and where he was murdered by Edmund’s huntsman, Bern. The antiquaries of the 19th century used to think that Reedham was once a ‘Roman station’, and that on this tongue of land above the river there used to stand a ‘pharos’ or Roman lighthouse – but it was all wishful thinking, not born out by the archaeology.

As well as Hunstanton, Bures, Attleborough, Caistor and Reedham supposedly being royal ‘vills’, some tales tell that Edmund’s main seat was at Rendlesham, not far from Woodbridge in Suffolk. Certainly there was once a royal house here, that belonged to the early Saxon kings of East Anglia known as the Wuffingas. The dynasty reached the height of its power in the time of Rædwald, who died in about 625 AD, and who may well be the king commemorated in the famous ship burial among the mounds of the royal cemetery at nearby Sutton Hoo. But the Wuffingas died out with King Ælfwald in about 749, and there’s no evidence that Rendlesham was occupied by royalty then, let alone 100 years later in Edmund’s day.

The Coronation Chapel:
As far back as 893 AD we’re told by Asser that Edmund was consecrated as king at ‘Burva’, the royal seat at that time (which incidentally contradicts the assertion above that Attleborough was the fictional Offa’s seat). No one actually knows for sure where this place was, but by long tradition – possibly dating back to the 12th century – ‘Burva’ has been identified with the village of Bures St. Mary, on the river Stour south of Sudbury in Suffolk, which appears in Domesday Book as ‘Bura’. An old hilltop chapel above the village is locally believed to be the site of Edmund’s coronation, while there is a ‘St. Edmund’s Hill’ a mile or so to the north.

Defences:
Both history and legend are silent on the activities of Edmund after his coronation. But with the arrival of the Danes in East Anglia, his name starts being attached to more localities throughout the region.

Running across Newmarket Heath, and in part forming the boundary between Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, is the Devil’s Dyke. Possibly of Romano-British or early Saxon date, this huge bank and ditch can be traced for 7½ miles from Wood Ditton to Reach. Although some tales say it was built by giants, the main legend says that one day the Devil arrived, uninvited of course, at a wedding being held in the church at Reach. As the unwelcome guest was being chased away, his fiery tail dug an enormous groove in the earth, and the dyke was formed. But this is a late piece of local folklore. In Norman times it was known as ‘Reach Dyke’, then in the Middle Ages, the ‘Great Ditch’ (Miceldic), or ‘St. Edmund’s Dyke’. Although it gained the latter name because it marked the limit of jurisdiction of the abbots of Bury St. Edmunds, many believed that Edmund himself ordered the earthwork to be built as a defence against the Danes, and gave it the name ‘Holy Edmund’s Fortifications’.

 Castles & Battles:
There was a time in antiquarian studies when just about every ditch, earthwork and ancient burial mound in Norfolk and Suffolk, irrespective of its actual date, was supposed to mark the place where Saxon fought Dane. Plenty of them are recorded on this site, such as Drayton, Lyng, Warham, Glemsford and Nacton. Even the 15th century monk John Lydgate, biographer of Edmund, said of his own Suffolk origins that he was:

 “Born in a village which is called Lydgate
By olde time a famous castel towne
In Danes time it was beate downe
Time when S. Edmund martir made and King
Was slain at Oxne, record of writing”.

Orford on the Suffolk coast is claimed by Denis Piramus in about 1180 to be the town destroyed by Hinguar, arriving to avenge his father Ragnar’s death. Indeed, one local legend has the Danes making a landing at Orford, fighting with Edmund, then pursuing the king to Staverton Park near Butley, where a savage battle ensued. But some later tales have claimed that it was actually Norwich, now Norfolk’s capital city, that was burned to the ground. (This may be a confusion with the historical burning of Norwich by King Sweyn Forkbeard in 1004).

An early medieval story tells how Edmund, fleeing from the Danes after a battle, sought refuge in one of his castles, and was there besieged, only to be betrayed by an old blind mason. Local traditions have identified this castle with both Old Buckenham (near Attleborough in Norfolk) and Framlingham in east Suffolk, from which Edmund then escapes and flees to Hoxne, where he is caught and slain. The Normans erected a castle at Buckenham, from which the stone was taken in the 12th century to build a priory. Only a fragment remains of this near the manor house. But the castle was raised within an existing rectangular earthwork that looks more Roman than anything, but could well be early Saxon in date. At Framlingham on the other hand, much remains of the magnificent keepless but curtain-walled castle built by Roger Bigod in about 1200. This was on the site of an earlier Bigod castle that Henry II had demolished in 1174 – but local tradition (with little authority) says that there was a fortification on the site as far back as the late 6th century, supposedly built by King Rædwald himself.

Edmund (Thetford_Priory)
Thetford Priory

On the southern edge of Thetford can be found the remains of the 12th century Benedictine Nunnery of St. George. Before that, legend says it was a priory of canons, founded in the reign of King Cnut (1014-35) in memory of those who fell nearby in a great battle between Edmund and the Danes. This may or may not be the same battle – the king’s last – as that recorded for Rushford, where the Seven Hills mounds mark the graves of the slain on Snarehill, just outside Thetford.

Also of interest here is a passage that I found in Allan Jobson’s 1971 book ‘Suffolk Villages’. Speaking of Columbine Hall at Stowupland, the moated enclosure of which was popularly “thought to date from Danish times”, he tells of an ‘old illustration’ found there, showing “the head of St. Edmund, set on a rayed background”. Upon this illustration was an inscription, which read: “Head of St. Edmund. Formerly in the Abbey, Bury St. Edmunds. Beheaded by the Danish invaders Juga and Hubla at Eyberdun, now Hoxne in 870 A.D. at a great battle below Columbyne Hall in the valley of the Gipping”. I don’t know the age or provenance of this illustration, nor whether it still exists – but it’s certainly very odd. The implication seems to be that ‘Eyberdun’ is some weird transliteration of ‘Hægelisdun’, though how it reached that stage, I can’t imagine. When the inscription says that Edmund was beheaded at Hoxne, “at a great battle…”, I’m pretty sure that’s an error for “after a great battle…” otherwise it makes no sense. Hoxne is nowhere near the Gipping valley.

A legendary battle at Lyng in Norfolk is supposed to have been fought between Edmund and the Danes, with Edmund retreating to Castle Acre. At this spot is the ‘Great Stone’ which bleeds when pricked; the blood is that from the battle.

A battle that Edmund is supposed to have won is said to have occurred somewhere between Barnby and Carlton Colville, a little west of Lowestoft in Suffolk, and a long way outside the areas normally associated with the king. Gillingwater (below) says that it was the battle at ‘Bloodmere-field’, now Bloodmoor Hill at nearby Gisleham, but this is nowadays said to have been between the Angles and the Romano-British, several centuries earlier. There is actually no evidence that a battle took place there in any era.

 The Hidden Ford:
At Barnby there is also the Suffolk legend that Edmund escaped his foes, then defeated them at ‘Bloodmere-field’ by using a secret ford unknown to them. The earliest reference to this tradition that I can find comes from Edmund Gillingwater’s 1790 book, ‘An Historical Account of the Ancient Town of Lowestoft’. Here he localises the spot to “a ford (which was called Berneford, from Berno), and now called Barnby…” The idea was that the ford was named after Edmund’s huntsman, Bern, who had betrayed him and caused the Danes to invade (and who was probably invented as a result of a misidentification with Lothbroc’s son Bern/Beorn). Incidentally, Lothingland, the district in which Lowestoft stands, was once thought to have been named after Lothbroc himself. This tiny village of Barnby on the river Waveney actually derives its name from ‘Biarni’s homestead’, and is one of the few major Scandinavian place-names in Suffolk. It definitely doesn’t owe its origin to any mythical or historical ‘Bern’ or ‘Beorn’.

However, in Part 2 (above) I mentioned that a minor 14th century tale had Edmund surprising and defeating his enemies by using a ford called Dernford. ‘Dern’ is an Old English word meaning ‘hidden’, so the implication is that this site is a ‘hidden ford’, either known to few people, or hidden topographically. It’s tempting to suggest two possibilities here: (1) that someone who didn’t know the word’s meaning, or who misheard it, may instead have given rise to the Barnby legend as a way of explaining the otherwise mysterious name of ‘Dernford’; or (2) that the ‘Bernford’ name came first, with its direct link to the Lothbroc legend. The fact that it was ‘hidden’ may have caused someone to record it as a ‘derne ford’, and interpret it as an actual place-name. My own guess is that the first possibility is the more likely of the two. Exactly which battle was won here may well never be known. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ only says that Edmund fought the Danes – which could refer to a single decisive conflict, or to a series of encounters, including the period when the Danes first wintered in East Anglia in 865, before peace was bought with a gift of horses.

Some years ago, an archaeologist speculated that Dernford, a Saxon manor and mill in the parish of Sawston just outside Cambridge, was the very spot where Edmund fought this battle. But in fact, there were at least four more ‘Dernford’s in East Anglia (actually all in Suffolk), and far closer to the accepted orbit of Edmund than Cambridge. One was in the parish of Foxhall, about 4½ miles from Sutton Hoo, where Domesday Book says was once a manor called ‘Derneford’ (later Darnford), presumably at a crossing of the Mill River. Another is 10 miles to the north-east of Sutton Hoo, where Dernford Hall sits beside the river Alde, in the little village of Sweffling. The third is about 5½ miles south-east of Stowmarket in Suffolk, where ‘Derneford’ recorded in Domesday Book later became Darnford, possibly referring to a ‘hidden’ crossing of the river Gipping. The fourth I’m grateful to Keith Briggs for bringing to my attention, located in the parish of Cookley, south-west of Halesworth.

The Place of Death:
Speculation on the actual site of Edmund’s final battle, his martyrdom and first resting place will be held until the last chapter of this investigation. Tradition, however, has several suggestions.

Edmund (Honxe geograph_adrian-cable)
The stone cross at Hoxne in Suffolk commemorates the death of St Edmund the Martyr, a former king of East Anglia, in AD870. Photo: Geograph/Adrian Cable

Hoxne, of course, is the favourite, its claim to being ‘Hægelisdun’ dating back to at least 1101. With its chapel, healing spring, bridge and memorial of the tree on which Edmund died, this little village has become a focus for traditions of East Anglia’s own saint and martyr. With ‘Hægelisdun’ becoming ‘Hailesdune’ in later texts, someone created the notion that Edmund was slain at ‘The Hail’ at Southwold. This unlikely location is supposed to be a small hill on the seabed that once displayed the remains of a chapel to the saint. As with much of the coast hereabouts, the shoreline was once considerably further out than now.

Old Newton north of Stowmarket – specifically, a field called ‘The Pits’ – is another candidate in folklore for the site of Edmund’s martyrdom, cropping up again in Part 5 in conjunction with other local legends. More recently I’ve learned that Wissett near Halesworth also has a local tale of Edmund being captured and slain at a spot known as King’s Danger. Along with the lore that Edmund’s reign centered around Rendlesham goes a localised belief that – contrary to all historical and archaeological evidence – the king lies buried under one of the unexcavated mounds at Sutton Hoo.

The Burial Gate:
If Edmund was really martyred at Hoxne, and if his body was really translated from there to ‘Beodricesworth’ in about 903 AD, then the procession would have travelled along the approximate route of what is now the A143 to Bury. Of all the villages the cortege would have passed through or close to, a memory of the event only seems to have been retained in one place. The name of the parish, Burgate (south-west of Diss), is derived in popular imagination from the ‘burial gate’, a spot where the body of the saint lay for one night on its journey to the new shrine at Bury St. Edmunds. But this is just a piece of poor etymology of course, as the name really means ‘the gate of a burg, or fortified place’, probably referring to the nearby Iron Age earthworks.

Shrine of the Saint:
And so we come to Edmund’s (probable) final resting place – ‘Beodricesworth’, where King Sigeberht established a small monastery in about 633 AD, which had become ‘Sancte Eadmundes Byrig’ 400 years later, and is now Suffolk’s second town, Bury St. Edmunds. Exactly what became of the saint’s shrine after the Dissolution, we don’t know; and the remains of the abbey nowadays are not very extensive, and quite frankly rather dull. But in its day it was a powerful focus of pilgrimage, and the abbey second only to Glastonbury in wealth and influence.

Edmund (StEdmundsburyAbbey)
St Edmundsbury Abbey, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Photo: Wikipedia.

The treasure still waiting to be found with his mortal remains has already been noted, as have some of the miracles associated with the king. But in the Middle Ages, even the invocation of his name was sometimes enough to produce miraculous results. An 8 year old boy from Cockfield apparently cut himself very badly with a knife, but when a prayer to Edmund was offered, the bleeding stopped instantly. A young labourer broke his neck in a fall, but recovered with the saint’s help. And when a boy drowned in a moat at Great Whelnetham, he came back to life when Edmund’s name was invoked.

In common with many other saints, not only Edmund’s body was preserved at his shrine. The parings of his nails and locks of his hair, plus his shirt, banner and sword were kept there. Although they were probably destroyed at the Dissolution (or perhaps in the fire of 1465), some like to say that, along with the king’s body, they still exist somewhere. And there is supposedly an ‘ancient prophecy’ that, before the end of the world, all the relics of St. Edmund will be returned to Bury.

Part 5 – The Last Mystery: Where Did Edmund Die?

According to History as we know it, the only fact we have concerning the death of King Edmund is that in 869, the Danes were wintering at Thetford, Edmund fought them, and was slain. So says the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ in about 890. End of story! However, 95 years later Abbo of Fleury tells us that Edmund was martyred at a township called ‘Hægelisdun’, with a nearby forest or wood of the same name, which was “at some distance” from the unidentified city that Inguar had burned. Although told at third-hand, this information supposedly comes from an eye-witness, and is generally accepted by scholars. But, where was ‘Hægelisdun’?

Hægelisdun – The Candidates:

Hoxne: For centuries Hoxne (pronounced ‘Hoxon’) was the only contender, and the inhabitants still think it so. The identification with the site of Edmund’s martyrdom in the Norwich Priory charter of 1101 may have been for ecclesiastical or political purposes, or it may have been confirming an existing local tradition. We may never know. But it’s telling that, although a chapel of St. Ethelbert is noted at Hoxne in Bishop Theodred’s will of 950, there’s no mention at all of Edmund.

Certainly, by that date, only 80 years after Edmund’s death, Hoxne was considered the ‘see’ or bishopric for Suffolk, and Theodred had his episcopal seat there. Research has uncovered the fact that there were once actually two medieval chapels dedicated to Edmund at Hoxne. One, at Cross Street, was to commemorate the place of his death, while the other was in a wood less than a mile away, in an area then known as ‘Sowood’ or ‘Sutwode’. Bungalow Farm now stands on the approximate site. In about 1100 that existing chapel of St. Ethelbert was rededicated to Edmund, and in about 1226 a small priory in his honour was established next to the chapel. But while these may be interesting facts, and may point to a tradition of religious importance attaching to the village, they are a long way from proving Hoxne to have been ‘Hægelisdun’.

The local tales of the healing spring and the Goldbrook Bridge are medieval or later additions to the mythos. The association of a particular tree at Hoxne with the tale of St. Edmund may be even more recent. When the oak fell in 1848, and people started claiming it to be the very tree to which the king was bound, a local man made it plain to the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ that he’d known the area for over 50 years, and no tree in Hoxne had ever been popularly connected with St. Edmund’s legend. Indeed, he said at the time that this particular tree was in fact known as Belmore’s Oak.

Despite this, the association was confirmed in many minds when John Smythies, a correspondent of the ‘Bury Post’, visited the fallen tree, and discovered embedded in its wood “a piece of curved iron, possibly an arrowhead”. A later writer said that it was actually a flint arrowhead (not very Danish!), while others claimed there were several. In truth there was only one, which for many years after could be seen displayed in the museum at Bury St. Edmunds. However, x-ray examination in more recent times has shown this rusty lump to be either a piece of fence wire, or a bent nail.

What about Abbo’s mention of “the neighbouring forest [which] is called by the same name [as ‘Hægelisdun’]”? Woodland in medieval Suffolk was actually quite sparse, most having been cleared in prehistoric times. But Hoxne Wood, though damaged by replanting, is indeed a remnant of this old forestation. The main objection to Hoxne being ‘Hægelisdun’ is the name. Hoxne had already been recorded as ‘Hoxne’ in the ‘Cartularium Saxonicum’ in 950 – more than 30 years before Abbo even wrote his ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’. But Abbo of course was merely passing on a name that originated with Edmund’s armour-bearer perhaps 60 years earlier. So could ‘Hoxne’ have developed from ‘Hægelisdun’ between 869 and 950?

Although it is unique (and uncertain) in etymological terms, the best estimate for the meaning of ‘Hoxne’ is a derivation from the O.E. ‘hóhsinu’ meaning ‘heel-sinew’, from the resemblance of the land to the hough or hock of a horse (the northern part of the village stands on a spur or ridge above the rivers Dove and Waveney). We can safely ignore the 19th century antiquaries who theorised that ‘Hægelisdun’ meant ‘hill of eagles’. ‘Hægel’ is a Saxon personal name known from other locations such as Hailsham, Hayling and Hazeleigh (see also below under Maldon), and ‘Hægelisdun’ quite clearly means the ‘dún’ or hill of Hægel. Even without the written record, there’s no way that ‘Hoxne’ could be derived from ‘Hægelisdun’.

Actually, it’s surprising that 18th and 19th century antiquaries didn’t latch on to the town of Harleston as a possibility, as it’s only 5 miles from Hoxne, on the Norfolk side of the river Waveney. But the early forms of the name show that it derives from ‘Heroluestuna’ – the homestead of Herewulf. No ‘Hægelisdun’ here.

Hellesdon: Now a north-west suburb of Norwich, Hellesdon (pronounced ‘Hellsdun’) has long been the favourite of place-name experts and historians for the site of ‘Hægelisdun’. It appears in Domesday Book as ‘Hailesduna’, which is exactly the form one would have expected ‘Hægelisdun’ to have evolved into. Even in the mythology, by the time of Roger of Wendover in the early 13th century, the site of the martyrdom was being written as ‘Hæilesdune’. But once again, there are no traditional or cultic associations with St. Edmund. And quite frankly, we don’t know the origin of the name ‘Hellesden’. It could be named after a person or the actual Norfolk village for all we know, or it could be a corruption of something else entirely. Recent research by Dr. Keith Briggs has certainly shown that the identification with ‘Hægelisdun’ is far from a certainty. (See also under Maldon below.)

But the name is the only thing Hellesdon has going for it. There are no chapels, no legends, no traditions of association with Edmund, and no records of old woodland in the area. About a mile away, further up the valley of the river Wensum, is Bloods Dale at Drayton, where Dane is said to have fought Saxon – but no hint of a connection with the king’s last battle or death. Nevertheless, it has been theorised by Joseph Mason in his ‘St. Edmund’s Norfolk’ of 2012 that Edmund was indeed slain at Bloods Dale, then buried in what is now King’s Grove at Lyng.

Edmund (Bloods Dale)
View across Bloods Dale. The name Bloods Dale is believed to derive from a battle between the Danes and the Saxons that was fought here. An early Saxon cremation cemetery was unearthed in the mid-19th century and thirteen skeletons of unknown date were found during the construction of the railway line, a little further to the west. Photo: © Copyright Evelyn Simak and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Bradfield St. Clare: About 5 miles south-east of Bury St. Edmunds is the scattered parish of Bradfield St. Clare. Just south of Pitcher’s Green within the parish has been found, on the 1840 Tithe Map, the medieval field name of ‘Hellesden Ley’, which is the new favourite location of ‘Hægelisdun’. Its position, close to Bury and only about 15 miles from the Danish winter quarters at Thetford, are in its favour, as are several ‘Kingshall’ place-names a couple of miles to the north at Rougham (where Bury owned a ‘Kingshalle’ manor before the Conquest). It has also been suggested that the presence of a building called ‘Bradfield Hall’ within the former Bury Abbey, and that the abbey cellarer paid rent for some small parcels of land in St. Clare, denote a close historical connection. Also, within the parish are several areas of lost or existing medieval woodland, including Bradfield Woods and Monkspark Wood.

Hollesley: Situated near the coast of Suffolk south-east of Woodbridge, Hollesley (pronounced ‘Hoseley’) is nowadays mostly known for being the location of a Young Offenders Institution. The earliest written form of the name is ‘Holeslea’, probably meaning the wood or clearing of someone named Hól or Hóla – and is clearly not a candidate for ‘Hægelisdun’. But because of its position within a few miles of Orford, Rendlesham and Sutton Hoo, that hasn’t stopped the locals from claiming it as the place where Edmund met his end.

Some have tried to strengthen the claim for the area by pointing to Domesday Book where is mentioned a small manor called ‘Halgestou’. At the time of Domesday it was held by the mother of the founder of Eye priory, Robert Malet, and was later variously known as ‘Haleghestowe’ and ‘Holstow’. Although the exact spot is unknown, W. G. Arnott in 1946 believed that it was on the east side of Shottisham, close to Hollesley. Personally, I wonder if it couldn’t be that spot now marked as ‘Holy Stile’, a meeting of roads and tracks roughly halfway between the two villages. It wouldn’t take much for local usage to corrupt ‘Holstow’ into ‘Holy Stile’.

The argument requires that Abbo wrote the name wrongly in the first place, transposing two of the consonants. Thus, instead of ‘Hægelisdun’, he should have written ‘Hæligesdun’, which would then (they say) mean ‘holy place’. But the linguistic twisting doesn’t stop there. One researcher wrote “No place-name expert would argue about Hæligesdun being spelled Halgestou, allowing for the lapse of time and change of circumstance (dun or stou both mean place)”. Well actually they would, and they don’t. One thing there’s no argument about is the existence of ancient woodland in the area, with Staverton Park and the Thicks just to the north, near Butley.

Maldon: More recently, another contender for ‘Hægelisdun’ has been compellingly put forward by Dr. Keith Briggs. He points to the place-name ‘Halesdunam’ which appears in Domesday Book at Hazeleigh, near Maldon in Essex. Disregarding the Latinization gives us the name ‘Halesdun’, appearing after 1272 as ‘Hailisduna’. The location may refer to a hill near Hazeleigh or, it has been suggested, to the hill that named Maldon itself: ‘mæl-dún’ or ‘hill with a monument/cross’. Dr. Briggs posits that the cross may have actually been a monument to the martyrdom of Edmund, but memory of its significance was later lost or suppressed. Edmund may have been here, far from his home territory, to aid an Essex ally in their defence against the Danes.

The name Hazeleigh itself translates as ‘Hægel’s wood’, but otherwise the location and lack of surviving traditions or other connections to Edmund for me mitigate against Maldon being the actual site of ‘Hægelisdun’. Nevertheless etymologically, ‘Halesdunam’ is as valid as Hellesdon, and probably more so than ‘Hellesden Ley’ at Bradfield. (See: ‘Was Hægelisdun in Essex?’ by Keith Briggs, in ‘Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History’, Vol. XLII, part 3, 2011, pp.277-291.) But there’s a second facet to this investigation, introduced by Hermann of Bury just after 1095. While ‘Hægelisdun’ is, according to Abbo, where Edmund died, Hermann (probably a mistake for an archdeacon named Bertrann) tells us that Edmund was first buried “in a little village named ‘Suthtuna’, close to the scene of his martyrdom…”

Suthtuna: The tales in Hermann’s ‘Liber de Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi’ come partly from “an old book” and partly from “the tradition of our elders”. Hermann would certainly have known of Abbo’s ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’, but doesn’t mention ‘Hægelisdun’ at all. The conclusion nevertheless is that the two places were quite close together.

‘Suthtuna’ comes from O.E. ‘Súþ-tún’, meaning southern homestead or village, and has resulted in the very common English place-name ‘Sutton’. But in East Anglia, this has survived in only one village-name in Norfolk, and one in Suffolk. The Norfolk instance is an out-of-the-way little hamlet next to Stalham in the Broads, and can almost certainly be discounted.

  • The Suffolk one is a different matter, and is the only one that appears in Domesday Book actually written as ‘Suthtuna’. This is the large (and mostly empty) parish of Sutton near Woodbridge, within which stands the Saxon royal cemetery at Sutton Hoo, and which takes us back to the whole Rendlesham/Hollesley/‘Halgestou’

At 34 miles as the crow flies from the Danish winter quarters at Thetford, this seems an unlikely place for Edmund to have been buried. And despite the Saxon connections, the absence of a convincing ‘Hægelisdun’ still leaves this an improbable location for the action of the legend.

  • The existence of a place called Sutton Hall in Bradfield St. Clare parish has been introduced as further proof that this is the true burial place of Edmund. It can be found about ¾ of a mile south of the field once called ‘Hellesden Ley’, and stands next to a medieval moated enclosure. Here also the cellarer of Bury Abbey paid rent for some land.
  • At Hoxne, we have the traditions, but no actual ‘Hægelisdun’. Neither do we have a Sutton – but there was something quite close, and which could possibly have evolved from ‘Suthtuna’. According to the Wills of the Archdeaconry of Suffolk, dating from the mid-15th century, there was once a hamlet called ‘Suddon’ within the parish, and still exists as the area now called South Green.
  • Further away from Hoxne, 7 miles south in the parish of Kenton, is the manor of Suddon Hall, but of this I can find no further information. It’s just under 2 miles from Bloody Field at Debenham, where the name of Edmund has been ‘tacked on’ to a legendary Saxon vs. Dane battlefield.

So far we’ve considered possible locations for Edmund’s martyrdom and burial – but what about the site of his final battle with the Danes? Historically, we have absolutely nothing to go on.

 Consider the words of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ for 869 AD:

“In this year the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and there fixed their winter-quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought with them; but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king, and conquered all that land”.

It is unlikely that Edmund would have launched an attack directly at the Danes entrenched behind the Iron Age and Saxon defences at Thetford itself. Some have suggested that the king attacked them before they even reached Thetford, but to my mind that sequence of events cannot be gained from the ‘Chronicle’.

The most enduring local legend is that at Rushford,  where the final conflict allegedly took place on the slopes of Snarehill just outside Thetford, to the south-east. It’s possible that Edmund somehow drew the Danish forces out from behind their defenses to this range of low hills – but the tale probably came about because of the existence of many burial mounds spread along the ridge which are, however, bell barrows of the Bronze Age. Whether he fought them once or several times, any of the battles, including the last, could have been many miles from Thetford.

The Mystery Remains:

So, there are several clusters of possibility, but no definitive answer. To summarise:

HOXNE: 900 years of tradition and religious association, plus medieval woodland, but no ‘Hægelisdun’, and only a possible ‘Sutton’.
HELLESDON: A fairly convincing ‘Hægelisdun’, but that’s all.
BRADFIELD ST. CLARE: A definite ‘Sutton’, a possible ‘Hægelisdun’, a couple of other suggestive place-names and medieval woodland, but no  traditional associations.
HOLLESLEY area: Here is a positive ‘Sutton’, and the remains of ancient woodland, but a highly dubious ‘Hægelisdun’, an association with Saxon kings that is too early, an unlikely location, and a weak (and probably recent) tradition of Edmund.
OLD NEWTON area: An Edmund legend and other relevant traditions, medieval woodland, but no ‘Hægelisdun’ or ‘Sutton’.
WISSETT: A very minor Edmund tradition, with no other evidence.
MALDON: A convincing ‘Hægelisdun’, an ancient wood of similar name, and a plausible historical reason for Edmund to be here, but no ‘Sutton’, and no surviving traditions.

*****

I suspect that, among historians, Bradfield St. Clare and perhaps Hellesdon will continue to be the favoured locations for the events of St. Edmund’s death and burial. I doubt however that anything will shake the belief of Hoxne residents that their village is the one true site. Maybe someday, someone trawling through medieval manuscripts or charters, wills or maps, will come across another ‘Hægelisdun’, with a ‘Suthtuna’ nearby, and make the connection. But there would still be the question of tradition. Such a series of events would, I think, have left an indelible mark of legend on the landscape. If not Hoxne, Hollesley, or Old Newton, then where? The mystery of Edmund – king, martyr, and saint of East Anglia – remains!

THE END

Source:
http://www.hiddenea.com/edmund1.htm
The text (excluding minor tweaks for editorial reasons) is ‘(c) Mike Burgess’ and used by kind permission of him.

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The Quest For Tom Hickathrift!

In 1981, Hidden East Anglia’s  ‘Lantern’ magazine carried M.W. Burgess’s article ‘Hoax of the Broads’ which was highly critical of Charles Sampson’s popular book ‘Ghosts of the Broads’, published and reprinted by Jarrold & Sons Ltd in 1973, 1976 and 1979. In 2015, when Mike Burgess began writing about the various legends of Tom Hickathrift (updated in 2018), he again referred to Samson’s ‘extremely dubious tale’ of the giant, and stated that East Anglia can lay claim to only one traditional giant – that of the giant of the Norfolk Marshland.

Tom Hickathrift is mentioned many times in local folklore, and it is only fairly recently that Mike Burgess set about making his own serious attempt to follow up the dozens of different threads of the Hickathrift legend, in an attempt to discover the giant’s true origins. Burgess was modest when saying: “That is my quest – but I have a feeling that this will only lay the foundations for a much deeper study”. Here is the result of his endeavours, which he titled ‘The Quest of Tom Hickathrift’:

 The Land of the Giant: 

The majority of the action in the Hickathrift tales takes place in the far western corner of Norfolk, in a rough triangle bordered by King’s Lynn, Wisbech and Downham Market, and more specifically in that area marked nowadays on the map as ‘Marshland Fen’. Upon the western edge of this region is ‘The Smeeth’, a name that once applied to the whole Marshland (and probably derives from an Old English word meaning ‘smooth’).

Hickathrift2

This was, in olden days, a fine pastureland about 2 miles or so across and of 1200 acres in extent. Over 30,000 sheep and cattle were grazed here by the ‘Seven Towns of Marshland’ to whom the plain was common – namely Tilney, Terrington, Clenchwarton, Walpole, West Walton, Walsoken and Emneth. In 1923 the area was made into the new parish of Marshland St. James, and the Smeeth is now (or at least was, when I went there in 1980 and ’81) a straggling collection of both private and council houses, with a school, pub and small church, all strung out along Smeeth Road. Somewhere in this region of the Marshland, or so the legends say, was born Tom Hickathrift, “in the reign before William the Conqueror”, the son of a poor labourer also called Thomas Hickathrift. His father died not long after Tom was born, and his poor old mother was forced to work day and night to support him, since he was very lazy, and ate a huge amount:

“for he was in height”, says one story, “when he was but ten years of age, about eight feet, and in thickness five feet, and his hand was like unto a shoulder of mutton; and in all parts from top to toe, he was like unto a monster, and yet his great strength was not known”.

The Tales Surrounding Hickathrift & their Sources:   

Hickathrift1The earliest printed mention of the giant Hickathrift occurs in a massive book by John Weever, entitled ‘Ancient Funerall Monuments’, dated to 1631 (1). Weever reports a tradition of the Smeeth that once upon a time, a great conflict broke out between the inhabitants of the Seven Towns and their Landlord, over the rights and boundaries of the Smeeth, and the villagers were definitely getting the worst of the battle. At this time, Tom had got himself a job carting beer for a King’s Lynn brewer, and he often had to drive his cart over the Marshland to Wisbech.

Along comes Tom to the scene of the battle and, in Weever’s words:

“perceiving that his neighbours were faint-hearted, and ready to take flight, he shooke the Axell-tree from the cart, which he used instead of a sword, and tooke one of the cart-wheeles which he held as a buckler; with these weapons….he set upon the….adversaries of the Common, encouraged his neighbours to go forward, and fight valiantly in defence of their liberties; who being animated by his manly prowesse, they….chased the Landlord and his companie, to the utmost verge of the said Common; which from that time they have quietly enjoyed to this very day”.

Later antiquarian writers such as Spelman in about 1640 (2), Cox in 1720 (3), and Blomefield in 1808 (4) follow Weever almost to the letter, apart from William Dugdale (5) who is the ‘joker in the pack’, and who will be mentioned again shortly. However, a significant divergence in story line occurs in the early Chapbooks, those slender pamphlets for consumption by the ‘peasantry’ that pedlars hawked on the village streets. The earliest still in existence is in the Pepysian Library at Cambridge, printed between 1660 and 1690, and bearing the title ‘The History of Thomas Hickathrift’. (6)

This Chapbook relates how Tom used to drive his brewer’s cart between Lynn and Wisbech, but because of a fierce giant or ogre that dwelt in the Marshland, had to make a long detour around. One day Tom became fed up with this, and on his next journey resolved to test the ogre’s might. From his cave, the giant saw Tom coming and leapt out to meet the trespasser, saying “Do you not see how many heads hang upon yonder tree that have offended my law! But thy head shall hang higher than all the rest for an example”. To which Tom then gave the classic riposte “A turd in your teeth for your news, for you shall not find me like one of them”.

Hickathrift3

The giant, enraged, dashed back into his cave for his gigantic club, while Tom up-ended his cart and took the axle and wheel for a sword and shield. With these weapons, and after a mighty battle, Tom beat the twelve-foot high ogre into the ground and sliced off his head. After this deed Tom became the hero of the Marshland, and was henceforth known to all as ‘Master’ Hickathrift (a formerly distinct title that lost its significance in the 17th century).

These two alternate themes – the defeat of the Landlord and the slaying of the giant, both with wheel and axle – parallel one another until about the beginning of the 20th century, when the Landlord version is forgotten and only the giant-slaying remains. The question is, which tradition came first or, were there two very similar but separate tales existing from the very beginning?  From experience, I would say that the former is the real problem, but that is easily solvable. Although the 17th century Pepysian chapbook is the oldest still surviving, we can be fairly certain that there was an earlier version, probably from the 16th century – or at least the internal literary evidence seems to point that way. And of course, the substance of the Chapbook is derived from popular oral tradition of indeterminate age, as is the substance of the passage in Weever.

But, it is the process of folklore to embellish tales, to enlarge, and thus the tyrant Landlord must have come first; enlarged and aggrandised by the Chapbook writers who were catering for a less discerning audience than that held by such as John Weever. For the same reason, the Landlord has vanished from current Hickathrift tradition, leaving only the wicked giant to be overcome by our hero. Here, we mention Sir William Dugdale again, because of the curious role reversal that he created in his 1662 work ‘The History of Imbanking…’.(5) where, somehow, he managed to twist the Weever story about – making Hickathrift himself into the zealous owner of the Smeeth common land, mightily defending himself with wheel and axle against the quarrelling villagers. This is a most peculiar reversal, and can only be explained by a hasty and inaccurate reading of the legend as told by Weever.

Whilst the antiquarians have no more to say about Hickathrift’s exploits, the Chapbooks, on the other hand, have a great deal more to tell; for instance. After his slaying of the Marshland ogre, Tom went into the cave and found there all the monster’s ill-gotten hoard of gold and silver, enough to make him a rich man for life. “Tom took possession of the giant’s cave”, says the Chapbook:

“….by consent of the whole company, and every one said he deserved twice as much more; Tom pulled down the cave, built him a fine house where the cave stood; and the ground that the giant kept by force and strength, some of which he gave to the poor for their common, the rest he made pastures of and divided the most part into tillage, to maintain him and his mother Jane Hickathrift”.

He then made a deer park round about, and near his house built a church of St. James “because he killed the giant on that day……” (which at the time of writing was August 6th). Whether or not this part of the tale influenced the naming of the parish in 1923 I do not know, but perhaps it is significant that there has never been another church of St. James in the whole of the Fenland district.

With his newfound wealth and respectability, Tom travelled far and wide throughout the Marshland, sometimes with his pack of hounds, to such festivities as “cudgel-play, bear-baiting, foot-ball, and the like”. One such event, although a minor one in the course of the story, will be seen to gain a greater significance later on. He rode one day to where some men were laying wagers upon a football game, but he was a stranger to them and not allowed to join in; “but Tom soon spoiled their sport; for he meeting the foot-ball, took it such a kick that they never found their ball more; they could see it fly, but whither none could tell……” The participants became angry at this, but Tom simply grabbed up a “great spar” from a ruined house, and flattened the lot of them.  Then, on his way home he encountered four armed robbers. Once more in summary fashion he slew two and wounded the others, taking £200 from them for his trouble. But he later came upon a stout tinker barring his path, and since neither would yield to the other, they battled with staves (reminiscent, of course, of the meeting between Robin Hood and Little John). They were evenly matched, until Tom threw down his staff, invited the tinker to his home, and they became the best of friends.

Hickathrift (Tom & Tinker)4
Tom meets Tinker.

At this point the earliest Chapbook versions end, leaving later versions to attach more. A typical example of this would be ‘A Pleasant and Delightful History of Thomas Hickathrift’, printed around 1750. It was not the only one, many others were produced all through the 18th and 19th centuries – all, apparently, based on the text of the above version. This continues the exploits of both Tom and the Tinker – whose name was given as Henry Nonsuch, telling how they were called to the Isle of Ely to help put down a rebellion. The two men defeated 10,000 (one reference says 2000) men all by themselves with naught but clubs as weapons; and when Tom’s club broke, he “seized upon a lusty, stout raw-boned miller, and made use of him for a weapon, till at length he cleared the field……” The King was so pleased with them that he promptly knighted Tom, and gave the Tinker a pension for life. As Sir Thomas Hickathrift, he then turned for home, only to find his aged mother dying.

After this Tom’s thoughts turned towards marriage, and he began to court a “rich young widow” of Cambridge named Sarah Gedyng. After trouncing a rival in love, Tom came up against two hired Troopers whom he simply tucked under his arms until, humiliated, they swore never to trouble anyone again. But even as Tom rode to his wedding, along came his rival with twenty-one hired ruffians to stop him – but to no avail. Tom just took up a sword and sliced an arm or a leg off every one, then hired a nearby farmer’s dung-cart to carry them home. At his wedding feast, which was held in his own home, an amusing and rather bizarre episode took place. At the end of the proceedings he discovered a silver cup missing, but which was found on an old woman named Strumbolow. While the other guests were all for chopping her to pieces for her theft, Tom devised a rather novel method of punishment:

“He bored a hole through her nose, and tied a string thereto, then tied her hands behind her back, and ordered her to be stripped naked, commanding the rest of the old women to stick a candle in her fundament, and then lead her by the nose through the streets and lanes of Cambridge, which comical sight caused a general laughter”.

Not long after this, word came to the King that a foul giant, with many great bears and lions in attendance, had invaded the Isle of Thanet in Kent, and posed a dire threat to the rest of his Kingdom. Without more ado he made Tom the Governor of Thanet, and Tom went off to combat the invader, a far more terrible ogre than any he had faced before. For the giant was “mounted upon a dreadful dragon, beating upon his shoulder a club of iron; having but one eye, which was placed in the middle of his forehead, and larger than a barber’s bason [basin], and seemed to appear like a flaming fire; his visage was grim and tawny, his back and shoulders like snakes of prodigious length, the bristles of his beard like rusty wire……” Nevertheless it didn’t take Tom long to deal with his opponent, first of all running his “two-handed sword of ten feet long in between the giant’s brawny buttocks, and out at his belly……and then pulling it out again, at six or seven blows he separated his head from his trunk….”

With no more ado he suffered the dragon likewise, then he and Henry the Tinker went out and dispatched the rest of the ravening beasts. But alas! The Tinker was slain by one of the lions. Tom then went home, but died in less than three weeks out of grief for his friend. And there the Chapbooks end their tale.

However, the legends of Tom Hickathrift do not end; more were added over the years, enlarging and twisting various episodes, until much is scarcely recognisable from the original. Probably one of the earliest additions is related by H. J. Hillen in about 1891. A local of the Smeeth told him that when Tom had slain the Marshland ogre, he decided to cut out the giant’s tongue. Then shortly after Tom had departed, along came a rogue who severed the head and took it to the King for a reward. Just as the King was about to open the royal purse, up popped Tom with the tongue and claimed the reward for himself. “The imperdant rarscal”, said the old local, “rushed scraamin’ away, getting’ a jolly sight more kicks than ha’pence!” (8) This additional fragment is not original to the neighbourhood however, being simply a variant on the old folk-motif of ‘The False Claimant’.

Hickathrift (Tom & Tree)5

The earliest incident in the Chapbooks, by which Tom’s great strength is revealed, is when he hoists on to his shoulder a colossal weight of straw, far more than any other man can carry. This has been altered in oral tradition so that, for a joke, the bundle of straw has huge rocks hidden inside it, but Tom still lifts it without fuss. Likewise, the four-armed robbers that he dispatches become a large band of highwaymen whom he drives out of East Anglia. The chapter where Tom kicks a football out of sight has gained a wider audience, so that a Suffolk man can tell, in 1965, of “Old Icklethrift”, who kicked a ball “from Beccles to Bungay”. (9) One source doesn’t like the idea of our hero dying from grief, so makes him simply return home, “where he passed the remainder of his days in great content….” (10)

Legends in the Landscape:  

  1. The Mound:

One of the most interesting adjuncts to the Hickathrift myth was an earthen mound, which stood at the Smeeth in a field south of the village crossroads, not far from the former Smeeth Road railway station. The first printed mention of this mound seems to be Miller and Skertchly in 1878, (13) taking their information from Jonathon Peckover of Wisbech. They speak of “a mound with the marks of an entrenchment visible around it. This is called the giant’s grave, and the people of the neighbourhood have a tradition that it is hollow”.

The next reference quoted in G. L. Gomme’s edition of one of the chapbooks in 1884, (11) and taken from the ‘Journal’ of the British Archaeological Association from 1879., in an article entitled ‘Fen Tumuli’, by the above-mentioned Jonathon Peckover. (12) It reads:

“Another mound, close to the Smeeth Road Station, between Lynn and Wisbech, has also a traditional interest. It is called the giant’s grave, and the inhabitants relate that there lie the remains of the giant slain by Hickathrift, with the cart wheel and axletree. The mound has not been examined. It lies in the corner of the field, with a slight depression round it, and has now only an elevation of a few feet. A cross was erected upon it, and is to be seen in the neighbouring churchyard of Terrington St. John’s, bearing the singular name of ‘Hickathrift’s candlestick’.”

 Hillen (8) terms it “a low tumulus (somewhat levelled on one side) with distinct marks of an entrenchment”. Dutt in 1909 (14) considered it “an artificial mound, possibly a barrow”. Because caves (occupied by ogres or otherwise) are pretty unlikely in the Marshland, I would venture that this was indeed an ancient burial mound, possibly with a visible entrance, or more likely a collapsed section, that gave people the idea that a giant lived there. In the same field, ‘Hicifric’s’ or ‘Hickathrift’s Field’, was a rough hollow or dry pond with some form of low bank around it. A former owner of Hickathrift Farm (which still stands opposite) said in 1955 (15) that there were two hollows “locally known as Giant Hickathrift’s Bath and Feeding-bowl”. But the pond with the bank round it was usually called ‘Hickathrift’s Hand-basin or Wash-basin’.

Hickathrift (Field)
‘Hickathrift’s Field in 2010. Photo: Mike Burgess.

Basil Cozens-Hardy in 1934 (16) claimed it to be truly a “Scandinavian doom-ring”. Here, it seems likely that he derived this idea from the Kelly’s ‘Directory of Norfolk’ for 1925, (17) where the ‘doom-ring’ was said to be “the ‘moot’ place twice each year of the earliest inhabitants, and of their descendants down to the close of the 18th century, of the Seven Towns of Marshland”. Cozens-Hardy gave the added information that at midsummer the ‘commoners’ met at the earthen mound, while at Easter they gathered at St. John’s Gate a little to the north.  In March 1929, the ponds were filled in with earth from the mound, and the field (in the angle between Smeeth Road and School Road) ploughed up to make ready for the building of council houses. On my first visit to the site in 1980 I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the field was still rough and open, but things have (of course) changed since then. Now mostly built over, only a small portion of the field remains, behind the primary school, although the name ‘Hickathrift’s Field’ still survives. A photo of the field as it was in 2010 can be found here.

  1. The perplexing matter of the Crosses:

Above, it was stated that an ancient stone cross, once standing upon the ‘Giant’s Grave’ mound, had been moved to the churchyard at Terrington St. John. Miller and Skertchly (13) agree with this, as do Porter in 1969 (18) and various other commentators. However, Cozens-Hardy stated in 1934 that, when soil was being carted from the mound to fill in the ponds, “a large pedestal, 2’9” square and 1’9” high with stop-angles was unearthed. Two feet of the shaft, now pointed, survive. The cross has been moved into the hedge next to the main road….”

How could it be that a cross, which had been stated 65 years before as having been moved several miles to another village, is suddenly found in the very place it was supposed to have been taken from?  To complicate matters, Terrington St. John actually has a portion of a stone cross also known as ‘Hickathrift’s Candlestick’, which stands just outside the north door of the church. But I have seen an old photograph of the Smeeth Cross taken just after it was rediscovered in 1929, and it is definitely not the same one.

Hickathrift (Stone)1
Remains of a ‘stone cross’ at Terrington. Photo: Mike Burgess.

 

The issue becomes even more complex when Cozens-Hardy says of the St. John cross that:

“some time in the middle of the 19th century when the late William Cockle, who was a churchwarden of St. John’s church, gave it to the late David Ward, who removed it to his residence in Terrington St. Clement, which subsequently became known as Hamond Lodge, and is now known as Terrington Court, where it is still. It appears to consist of the socket stone with other fragments piled upon it….”

Hickathrift (Terrington Cross)1
Terrington Court Cross. Photo: Mike Burgess.

Thus the next question becomes: how is this cross still at St. John’s when it was moved to St. Clement’s over a century ago? The 1980 owner of Terrington Court stated at the time that “there are at least two stones in the grounds of the Court that would appear to be part of a medieval cross……One source says they were moved from the churchyard at Terrington St. John, and another source says that they were brought from the marshes having been a medieval mark at one end of a marsh crossing…” (19)  But as far as he knew, the fragments had no particular local name.

So what do we have so far? We have:

*A cross called ‘Hickathrift’s Candlestick’ that turns up at the Smeeth, when it should be at Terrington St. John.
*A cross of the same name at St. John that should be at Terrington St. Clement.
*Fragments of a cross at St. Clement, with no name, that may have come from               either St. John or the marshes.

What a muddle! But hold on, there’s more to come!

Hillen (8) declares that the Smeeth Cross “is said to have been removed to Tilney All Saints churchyard……” where it rests outside the south porch. And, indeed, there is a ‘Hickathrift’s Candlestick’ in Tilney churchyard – in fact there are two! That near the south porch leaning precariously in its socket stone has four or five distinct indentations on the top of the shaft which legend says are the marks of giant Tom’s fingers. They are of course simply holes where a crosspiece or capital was once fitted. When I first saw it, the second cross-shaft had become detached from its base, and was propped against the wall just inside the churchyard gate. Now, in 2018, it has been set upright into a rough block, but again close to the wall. It bears upon the shaft the weathered remains of various armorial shields. Neither of these has been removed from elsewhere, as records show them to have always been at Tilney.

Hickathrift (Candlestick_Tilney_All_Saints)
‘Hickathrift’s Candlestick’. Photo: Mike Burgess.

But back to the Smeeth Cross though: A further clue to the unravelling of the mystery turned up in the ‘Sunday Express’ of May 14th 1950, where the following is found:

“A quaint stone monument at the bottom of Mr. Harry Bodgers’ new council house did not please Mrs. Bodgers at all. So Mr. Bodgers dug it up and buried it. But he didn’t know that the stone had been a landmark in the village of Marshland Smeeth (sic), Norfolk, for 500 years. It was known as Hickathrift’s Candlestick, weighed three-quarters of a ton, and was named after a legendary giant. Now the Ministry of Works may be approached for an order to have the monument exhumed”.

As far as I know, there was no follow-up to this in the newspaper. Although I haven’t been able to pinpoint Mr. Bodgers’ house, there seems little doubt that this “quaint stone monument” was in fact the Smeeth Cross. In the ‘Eastern Daily Press’ for December 12th 1964, a Mr. Colman Green reported that the cross was still visible, and learned a new name for it from a local farm hand: ‘Hickathrift’s Collar-stud’!

I’m pleased to say that I’ve now managed to uncover virtually the whole recent history of the Smeeth Cross (although a little must be admitted as reasonable supposition).

Prior to the mid – or late 19th century the cross was clearly visible on the summit of the ‘Giant’s Grave’ mound at the Smeeth. Then, through the action of time and weather it was covered up by earth and vegetation, and people thought it had been lost or taken away. Antiquaries, discovering that there were others known by the same name at Terrington St. John and Tilney All Saints, surmised that it had been removed to one of these two places. The 18th century historian Tom Martin recorded three churchyard crosses at Terrington St. John, and as only one is now visible, it seems likely that it was one or possibly two of these that were taken to Terrington Court.

In 1929 during clearance work the Smeeth Cross was uncovered, still upon the mound. It was damaged by the workmen and pushed to one side, where Mr. Bodgers’ garden was soon to be made. He buried it in 1950, but it turns out that sometime in the ‘50s or early ‘60s a part of the base was rescued and taken to the Wisbech and Fenland Museum. There it stayed until June 6th 1979, when it was given back to the villagers of Marshland St. James and they, in belated celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, incorporated the remaining fragment into the base of the new village sign, where it stands to this day, at the crossroads known as ‘Hickathrift’s Corner’.

Hickathrift (Village_Sign)
The village sign. Photo: Mike Burgess.

3) Tom and the Stone Football:

The incident where Tom kicks a football out of sight has already been mentioned. But this seems to have merged, or been confused, with another episode where he throws a hammer five or six furlongs into a river. The results of this amalgamation are almost as confusing as the problem of the various crosses!

The earliest written variant occurs in Hillen (8) in about 1891 where, although he seems unsure whether the missile is a hammer or a ball, he has altered the furlongs into miles, and says that Tom hurled it six miles from the Smeeth, to actually hit the church at Tilney All Saints. And, he says, “the credulous villagers still point out the actual spot, in the chancel-end of their church, where the hammer (or ball) struck the wall….” Only a year later in 1892, Murray, (20) speaking of the church at Walpole St. Peter, says “there are two circular holes in the north and south walls of the chancel opposite to each other, which tradition says were made by a ball kicked by (Hickathrift)….” So, already we have a divergence in the tales. In 1955 Mr. W. S. Parsons (21) adds another dimension, by reporting that Tom “announced that he would kick a stone ball and that wherever it fell he would be buried. He kicked the ball from Tilney St. Lawrence and it hit the wall of Tilney All Saints church, roughly two miles away. The impact caused a crack in the church wall which, it was said, could not be permanently repaired….”

Next with a variant is T. C. Lethbridge in his 1957 book ‘Gogmagog’ (22). He announces that Tom “threw a missile…through the wall of Walpole St. Peter’s church, where a small hole is still shown….” In 1966 Randell and Porter (23) say that Tom threw a stone three miles from a river to Tilney All Saints, and was buried where it fell. From the same source comes the claim that Tom beat the Devil in a game of football in the churchyard at Walpole St. Peter, but during the match Satan kicked the stone ball at our hero, missed, and the ball went through the church wall. A compendium of legends in 1973 (24) gets the notion that Tom actually fought the Devil at Walpole, from where Roberts (25) probably originated his claim that “Tom wrestles the Devil…and wins”.

Once again, we seem to have two parallel traditions arising from one or two similar incidents in the early Chapbooks, but this time they may be roughly ‘coeval’. The vagueness of the targets in the ball-kicking and hammer-throwing episodes is, I think, sufficient to account for the basic variations. Also, at Walpole, the two small round holes are probably where the ends of vanished tie beams of the church structure protruded through the walls. But at Walpole St. Peter there is another object, which I think served to attract the associations with Tom the giant.

'Hickathrift (Effigy_Walpole_St._Peter_Church)
A figure of a ‘Satyr’ – called ‘Hickathrift’ by ‘the country people’. Photo. Mike Burgess.

The first reference to it is in Murray in 1892, (20) where he mentions “a figure of a satyr supposed to be Roman, called by the country people ‘Hickathrift’, the traditional local giant, (which) is built into the outer wall at the junction of the chancel and north aisle….” Roberts (25) is overstating things somewhat when he calls it “a monstrous, carven stone giant’s effigy (a la Cerne Abbas)….” as the little figure is only 21” high from head to toe! It is a very weathered image of crumbling sandstone on the north side of the church, and stands upon a corbel supporting a rood-stair window. Its identification with Hickathrift is somewhat suspect though, as it is of very indeterminate sex. Indeed, the architectural historian Pevsner (26) calls it “a small caryatid figure, probably Roman”. The point being that a caryatid is a female figure used as a pillar or support.

 4) Hickathrift’s Grave:

If we assume that the Walpole incidents are but variations on a basic theme, we’re left with the fundamental action, common to many folk-tales, of the hero standing somewhere (probably at the Smeeth), and throwing or kicking a stone for some distance, saying that where it lands he wants to be buried. And in this case, the burial site is confirmed by almost every writer from Weever in 1631 onwards as being the churchyard at Tilney All Saints.

Hickathrift (Grave_Tilney_All_Saints)
Hickathrift’s Grave? Photo: Mike Burgess.

From about the 1950s, the inquisitive tourist has been shown a stone in the churchyard that is claimed to mark the grave of Tom Hickathrift the giant. It lies a few feet from the east end of the church, and is a simple plain slab of unadorned granite on an east-west axis, whose exact shape was hard to discern because of the dense undergrowth around and over it. Now, it has been cleared, and has been labelled as an aid to visitors. There have been various estimates of the stone’s length over the years, such as “no more than seven feet”, “nearly eight feet”, and “eight feet long”. Having accurately measured it, I can safely say that the stone was originally exactly 7’6” long, but now has a 3” split across the middle that has forced the two halves apart. This is supposed to be the very stone that Hickathrift threw from all those miles away!

However, if we go right back to 1631 and John Weever, we find: “In the churchyard is a ridg’d Altar, Tombe or Sepulchre of a wondrous antique fashion upon which an Axell-tree and a cart-wheele are insculped; Under the Funerall Monument, the Towne-dwellers say that one Hikifricke lies interred”. Likewise Dugdale in 1662 (5) refers to the gravestone “whereupon the form of a cross is so cut as that the upper part thereof by reason of the flourishes…sheweth to be somewhat circular, which they will, therefore, needs have to be the wheel and the shaft the axletree”.

How then is it that the present gravestone bears no resemblance whatsoever to this earlier carven ‘Sepulchre’? The main point is that up to about 1810 the grave was complete – that is, consisting of both a coffin and a coffin lid or cover, but after that date the two had become separated. In 1803, Blomefield (4) describes “the stone coffin” and the sculptured lid together. By the time of Sir Francis Palgrave’s investigation around 1814 (29) things had changed. He ascertained “the present state of Tom’s sepulchre. It is a stone soros (coffin), of the usual shape and dimensions; the sculptured lid or cover no longer exists”. Exactly where it had gone at that time I don’t know, but it certainly existed then and still does. In 1883 along came William White (30) who noted: “In the churchyard is part of a stone coffin, said to have contained the remains of Hickathrift….”

Hickathrift (Coffin Lid_Tilney_All_Saints)2
Photo: Mike Burgess.

Note the words “part of a stone coffin” – because Hillen in 1891 also uses them: “Until recently a part of a stone coffin, said to contain the remains of the Fenland hero, might have been seen to the north of the church. It measures 7’4” outside, and 6’10” inside; whilst the breadth at the head was 2 ½ feet, and at the feet 1’3”……” But he also mentions the lid having been “deposited at the west end of the north nave-aisle”, actually within the church itself. The following year Murray (20) (possibly just taking his cue from Hillen) also says that “here until recently was a grave slab with a cross and circle round it….” The slab is now in the church, at the west end of the north nave aisle.

From then until Parsons in 1955 (21) only the coffin lid, inside the church, is ever mentioned, but Parsons is the first to commit to print the existence of the current gravestone. It will be noticed in the accompanying drawings that not only do none of the items conform to the eight-foot stature of the chapbook giant, but also that none is exactly the same size as the others.

Hickathrift (Coffin Lid_Parts)

 What seems to have happened is that from the early days of the 17th century, there was a large stone coffin with a curiously ornamented lid that was associated with the burial of the legendary giant Tom Hickathrift. Some time afterward the coffin and lid became separated, and the coffin vanished from sight (buried, broken up, who knows?) But there must have been a second (perhaps lid-less) coffin, even larger, that came to be thought of as the giant’s. I say must have been, because the coffin as described by Hillen (7’4” long outside) is far too large for the 6’5” lid to have fitted it. I have it on expert advice (31) that the lid should have: “fitted it (the coffin) exactly. Usually most coffins and their lids were carved at the same quarry and transported as a single order. I would expect an entirely different lid to cover (this) coffin…”

Around the 1880s this larger coffin was breaking up, and ten years later it had vanished completely, the carved lid having been taken inside the church for safekeeping. Thus, sometime in the first half of the 20th century, a massive slab of granite was found or made, and placed over the remains of whoever it was that was thought to be the giant. Indeed, because it matches to within two inches the length of the coffin, it may have been specifically tailored to suit the conditions of the legend. But whichever the case may be, the gravestone that people are now shown as being Hickathrift’s is no more than a relatively modern replacement, perhaps no more than 80 or 90 years old.

Now, what about those odd carvings on the coffin lid? They are done in relief, and much weathered, but all the designs can still be seen quite clearly – which is more than can be said for the days of Weever et al, since they consistently mention only one “round cross upon a staff”. This is what Blomefield had to say on the subject in 1808:

“the cross, said to be a representation of the cart-wheel, is a cross-pattée on the summit of a staff, which staff is styled an axle-tree; such crosses-pattée on the head of a staff, were emblems, or tokens, that some Knight Templar was therein interred, and many such are to be seen at this day in old churches”.

One or two antiquaries agreed with this observation, with Gomme (32) even going so far as to speak of “one Hickafric, supposed to be a Knight Templar”! However, according to (31) “there is no evidence that the crosses pattée denote a Templar grave”. The central design, the four curving arms, “it has been suggested were intended to represent the scarves or infulae attached to processional crosses. From the shape of this device the cumbrous name of ‘Omega-slabs’ has been given to them, and their area of distribution…suggests that they were products from the Midland quarries” (33). This Omega pattern is, apparently, quite common in eastern England. If we assume that neither the large coffin, the lid, nor the granite slab actually held or covered the remains of a legendary giant, then just whom did they hold or cover?

The Origins of Tom Hickathrift:   

As far as the coffin and the slab go, we can surely never know whom they covered – but what about the elaborate lid? ‘Kelly’s Directory’ of 1925 says the tomb is of “the Saxon giant Hycathrift, who accompanied Richard Coeur de Lion on the crusades”. This is almost as bad as claiming that Tom was a Knight Templar, but it at least gives us a clue. Then Hillen gives us a reasonable name to go with the coffin lid: “Probably the tomb is that of Sir Frederick de Tylney, who was renowned for his great strength and stature. He was knighted by Richard 1, whilst fighting in the Holy Land. Though killed at Acre, the knight’s body was brought home for interment”. If we put Kelly’s and Hillen’s remarks together, we get the result that Hickathrift = Sir Frederick de Tylney – but it isn’t as simple as that! In about 1814 Sir Francis Palgrave (29) writes:

“Mr. Thomas Hickathrift, afterwards Sir Thomas Hickathrift, knight, is praised by Mr. Thomas Hearne as a ‘famous champion’. The honest antiquary has identified this well-known knight with the far less celebrated Sir Frederick de Tylney, Baron of Tylney in Norfolk, the ancestor of the Tylney family, who was killed at Acon (Acre) in Syria, in the reign of Richard Coeur de Lion. Hycophric or Hycothrift, as the mister-wight observes, being probably a corruption of Frederick. This happy exertion of etymological acumen is not wholly due to Hearne, who only adopted a hint given by Mr. Peter Le Neve, whileome of the College of Arms”.

To this Gomme in 1884 added the comment: “There does not seem to be the slightest evidence for Hearne’s identification any more than there is for his philological conclusions…” Thomas Hearne lived from 1678 to 1735, while Peter Le Neve, a prolific and thorough antiquary, was born in 1661, and died in 1729. I’ve as yet been unable to track down the precise sources where either mentions Hickathrift.

Although the etymological transformation of ‘Frederick’ into ‘Hickathrift’ (or a variant) is indeed suspect, perhaps it should be noted that there is some superficial resemblance: “Frederick – Old German Frithuric, a compound of frithu ‘peace’ and ric ‘ruler’…occasionally found in the 12th century, but on the whole uncommon until the 17th century.” (34) According to Camden, Frederick is a very early name, “which hath been now a long time a Christian name in the ancient family of Tilney, and lucky to their house as they report” (35). But exactly who was this Sir Frederick, and what influence has he had upon the growth of the Hickathrift legend?

Blomefield mentions an ancient book which had once belonged to Sir Frederick de Tilney, and which in 1727 was in the hands of the afore-mentioned Peter Le Neve. Blomefield took his extract from Weever, and this was as far as I could go for quite some time. Now I’ve found that Weever probably obtained his information from Hakluyt’s 16th century ‘English Voyages’, where he says:

“This booke pertained in times past unto Sir Frederick Tilney, of Boston, in the Countie of Lincolne, who was knighted at Acon (Acre) in the land of Jurie, in the third yeere of the reigne of King Richard the first, AD 1192. This knight was of a tall stature, and strong of body, who resteth interred with his forefather at Tirrington (sic), neere unto a towne in Marshland called by his own name Tilney. The just height of this knight is there kept in safe custody until this very day”. (36)

Confusion sets in once more when we note that Hillen, Palgrave and Mee (37) say that Sir Frederick was slain at the siege of Acre (which actually ended in July 1191) and his body brought home, while Hakluyt (or rather the lost ‘Tilney book’), Cox, Thompson (38) and Rye also casually add that he was buried at Terrington St. John in 1189; that is, two years before he died! But whenever and however he died, if he was buried at Terrington, then the Tilney coffin lid cannot be his. In fact, Dr. Butler of Leeds University (31) says that this lid is a mid-12th century stone, and unlikely to be as late as the 1190s.

“The family of Tilney”, says Thompson (38) “is of Norman origin, but derives its name from the Town of Tilney, in the county of Norfolk, and was one of the most ancient of knights’ degree in England”. The first of the family was one Frodo who came to this country just before the Conquest, and held many lordships in this area. His brother Baldwin later came to be the third Abbot of Bury St. Edmunds, while his great-grandson was the Sir Frederick involved here. He was, says Thompson, “a man of more than ordinary strength and stature, and had his chief residence at Boston. He attended King Richard 1, anno 1190, into the Holy Land, was with him at the siege of Acon, where he is said to have performed prodigies of valour, and was there knighted for his services…”

Although no written confirmation exists of his burial at either Terrington or Tilney, I find it more than a strange coincidence that the same small area of the Norfolk Marshland should hold both the traditions of a powerful, heroic giant, and the record of an actual, historically large man famed for his stature, his strength, and his “prodigies of valour”. However, even the most incredible legend often has a germ of truth at its root, and in my opinion Sir Frederick de Tilney is the likeliest basis upon which the character and myth of Tom Hickathrift have grown. This idea has however long been ignored in favour of other explanations. John Weever drew a parallel between Tom’s defeat of the Landlord’s forces, and the exploits of a 10th century Scot named Hay, forbear of the Earls of Errol. Apparently, in the year 942, Hay and his two sons came upon a battle between the Scots and the Danes, and to spur on his fainthearted countrymen, took up an ox-yoke or a plough-beam and waded into the fray, driving off the Danes in dismay, to the greater glory of King Kenneth 1 of Scotland. How historically true this tale maybe I don’t know, but the parallel with Hickathrift is obvious.

Miller and Skertchly in 1878 voiced “the opinion of some of the people of Marshland that the story is allegorical, that the giant whom Hickathrift subdued represents the sea, the wheel and axle, the weapons for banking it out, and that the name of Hickathrift is derived from ‘Hitch’ and ‘Thrive’; the hero then was some early encloser of the Fens who became powerful by continually moving his banks further out…” While the last part of that sentence bears thinking about, the etymology is rather dubious – but I’ll come back to that. Perhaps the favourite theory has been that Tom the giant is simply another form of the ancient sun god. Dutt, (40) who thought little of the idea, tells us that:

“……there are ‘authorities’, made mad by too much learning, who would have us believe that Hickafric driving along in his cart is nothing more or less than a form of the sun-god; that the wheels and the axle are the symbols of the sun and its rays; and that the great fight between Hickafric and the invaders of the Smeeth is symbolic of the sun drying-up the waters of a great flood”.

Of this ilk was T. C. Lethbridge (22) who speculated that Tom was a Celtic god of the Iceni people, from his resemblance to Taranis ‘the thunderer’ whose symbol was the sacred wheel, and who was equated with both Mars and Jupiter. His original name being forgotten, the Saxons then called him ‘Hiccafrith’ – a name of Lethbridge’s own invention – which he says (with what justification I do not know) means “the trust of the Hiccas, or Iceni”. Lethbridge also comes up with the notion (which appears nowhere in the tales) that Tom was “humanised in the Middle Ages into a man who fought a Dane…” Gomme (11) compares Tom’s exploits with those of the Scandinavian hero Grettir the Strong, but derives parallels that are only superficial at best. As there’s little meat in these theories, let’s turn back to the question of Tom’s name. For a start, “Thomas is found in England before the Norman Conquest only as a priest’s name”, (34) so he and his father cannot have been born, as the Chapbooks say, “in the reign before William the Conqueror”. But his surname is a very different matter – it is certainly unusual!

So far I’ve come across 17 different versions of Hickathrift, including Hikifrick, Hikifrike, Hic-ka-thrift, Hycophric, Hicifric, Icklethrift and Hycathrift. One would expect, in common or dialectal usage, a transposition of those final consonants. Thus, Hickathrift should become Hickafrith – but apart from Lethbridge’s invented ‘Hiccafrith’ – this has not occurred. The printed version – which even as far back as the Pepysian Chapbook was Hickathrift – must have exerted wide influence.

A suggested derivation from ‘hitch’ and ‘thrive’ is untenable, but I can offer little in place of it. If we take the syllables separately, we have first to deal with the stem ‘hick-‘ or ‘ick-‘, which is a constant. If it does indeed originate with the tribal name ‘Iceni’, it would be a rare survival indeed. Perhaps ‘hick’, a by-form of ‘Richard’, meaning a farmer or countryman. Or maybe ‘hycgan’, Old English for ‘think’, or perhaps OE ‘ic’ meaning ‘I’. Then again, ‘Hicel’, ‘Icel’, ‘Yecel’ and ‘Ica’ are all well-attested Anglo-Saxon personal names.  As for the second syllable ‘-thrift’ or ‘-frick’, how about OE ‘þryccan’: ‘oppress’, or OE ‘fraec’: ‘bold, gluttonous’, or ‘frecne’: ‘terrible’, or even perhaps OE ‘þraec’ from Old Norse ‘þrekr’: ‘force, courage’. The possibilities are well nigh endless, but the justification for any of them, in any combination, is tenuous. It is, I think, best to simply accept the name Hickathrift as curious (with perhaps a connection to ‘Frithuric/Frederick’), and leave it at that.

Hickathrift (sun-inn-saffron-walden)
Pargetted facades of the former ‘Sun Inn’ in Church Street at Saffron Walden in Essex. Photo: Beautiful England Photos.

Before giving any conclusions, I have to mention one more site linked with Tom that, as with the tale of him kicking a ball from Beccles to Bungay, is decidedly way beyond the area that is normally his. I refer to the plasterwork figures to be seen on one of the many pargetted facades of the former ‘Sun Inn’ in Church Street at Saffron Walden in Essex. The two figures, supposedly of Tom and the Wisbech giant in conflict, are modelled in bold relief in the plaster, part side view, part full-face.  Between them is a large raised ring, presumed to be the sun in the title of the former inn. Despite what tourists are always told, I have grave doubts that this scene is anything whatever to do with the Hickathrift legend. I can find no reference before the 1930s for the identification – indeed one source actually calls the figures ‘Gog and Magog’. Also, the figures as modelled do not match the tale of the chapbooks. For one thing, both effigies are portrayed as the same height, whereas the Wisbech ogre was supposed to be about four feet taller than Tom. Also, although his opponent wields the traditional heavy club, ‘Hickathrift’ is provided with a sword and an ordinary, rather small, shield, rather than the wheel and axle of the main legend. The building itself dates from about the 16th century, but the pargetting is known to be at least a century later. The style of clothing given seems to fit anywhere between the 10th and 17th centuries. Just what or whom the scene might portray is anyone’s guess, but I suspect that the identification with the tales of Hickathrift is a relatively modern occurrence.

Birth of a Legend: 

To sum it all up then, this is what I think to be the convoluted origin of the legend of Tom Hickathrift:

Hickathrift (Tilney)
This features ‘The Return of the Crusader’ by Karl Friedrich Lessing, and an illustration from Jack The Giant Killer. Photo: Ancient Origins.

First of all, we have Sir Frederick de Tilney, a giant of a man with great strength, a knight who performs “prodigies of valour” for his king, and most important of all, a strong local identity. Although his main home is at Boston in Lincolnshire, perhaps he is responsible for the embanking of various Fens in the Marshland, and perhaps he even champions the villagers in a dispute with their local landlord over common-rights. When he dies, maybe in battle, he is buried very close to home, and the memory of his stature and valour does not fade. After a time, the ‘wicked landlord’ is altered in popular imagination into an evil ogre who menaces the Marshland, and Sir Frederick becomes Hickathrift, to do battle with him. Other exploits are added from time to time and make their way into the popular Chapbooks, some probably borrowed from other champions, and some from the stock of legend current among the Scandinavian peoples, who have a strong inheritance in this area. As Professor Tolkien might have put it (41) Tom, Hay, Grettir, Sir Frederick and all the adventures adhering to them, are put into the Pot and stirred well into the mythological Soup.

There is an ancient mound or burial barrow of unknown origin nearby, and like many such sites, the folk think it hollow, and name it the ‘giant’s grave’. Whose grave is it though? Well it can’t be Tom’s because he’s buried at Tilney – or was it Terrington? So it must be the grave of the evil ogre that Tom killed, and if so, that must be where his cave stood and Tom later built his house. And of course, there’s an ancient cross on top, that looks something like a candlestick – or when the shaft has gone, like an old-fashioned collar stud! And there are others too, at Tilney and Terrington, so they must be Tom’s as well. One has even got his finger marks on the top!

At Walpole the little figure on the church wall is noticed – and who else can it be but our hero Tom? A monument to something he did there, maybe? Well, we know he was very fond of challenging all-comers to a game of football, and whoever he played against played dirty, kicking the ball at Tom like that, but missing and shooting it straight through the church wall. Knowing Tom, it was probably Old Nick himself!

By now, Sir Frederick and his place of burial are completely forgotten, but at Tilney, the huge coffin and the carved lid are noticed – and just look at those carvings! Well, they just have to be a pair of wheels and the axle between them, just as the stories say. And that has to be old Tom’s grave, just look at the size of it! And of course, there’s the hole or patch in the wall just above it – so this is where that football went to when he kicked it out of sight! From such apparently unrelated objects and incidents, I believe, the myth of Tom Hickathrift the giant has grown. While other traditional themes may have crept in over the centuries to enlarge the tale, to me, Sir Frederick de Tilney is the likeliest progenitor for Hickathrift’s character – a strong man for a strong legend.

THE END

References:

  1.  Weever, John: ‘Ancient Funerall Monuments’ (1631), pp.818, 866-7.
    2.  Spelman, Sir Henry: ‘Icenia, sive Norfolciae Descripto Topographica’ (c.1640), quoted in Gibson, Bishop (ed.): ‘Reliquiae Spelmannianae’ (1698), p.138.
    3.  Cox, Rev. Thomas: ‘Magna Brittania – Norfolk’ (Nutt, 1720), p.297.
    4.  Blomefield, Francis: ‘History of Norfolk’ (Miller, 1808), Vol.9, pp.79-80.
    5.  Dugdale, Sir William: ‘History of Imbanking Divers Fens & Marshes’ (1662), pp.244-5.
    6.  Anon: ‘The History of Thomas Hickathrift’ (c.1660-90), in the Pepysian Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.
    7.  Anon: ‘A Pleasant & Delightful History of Thomas Hickathrift’ (Angus & Son, c.1750).
    8.  Hillen, H. J.: The Hillen Mss. (unpublished, c.1891), in ‘The Legendary Folklore of Norfolk’, Bradfer-Lawrence X1d, Norfolk Record Office.
    9.  Pendle, A.: letter in the ‘East Anglian Magazine’ (July 1965), Vol.24, p.322.
    10. Marlowe, Christopher: ‘Legends of the Fenland People’ (Palmer, 1926), pp.x-xi, 49-56.
    11. Gomme, G. L. (ed.): ‘The History of Thomas Hickathrift’, Chap-books & Folk-lore Tracts, 1st Series 1884); also the Villon Society (1885).
    12. Jonathon Peckover: ‘Fen Tumuli’ in ‘The Journal of the British Archaeological Association’, Vol. 35 (1879), p.11. (Many thanks to Dr. Maureen James for this reference).
    13. Miller, S. H. & Skertchly, S. B. J.: ‘The Fenland Past & Present’ (Longmans, Green & Co, 1878), pp.488-9.
    14. Dutt, W. A.: ‘The Norfolk & Suffolk Coast’ (Unwin, 1909), p.398.
    15. Wortley, Elizabeth.: letter in the ‘East Anglian Magazine’ (Sept. 1955), Vol.14, p.656.
    16. Cozens-Hardy, Basil: ‘Norfolk Crosses’, in ‘Norfolk Archaeology’ (1934), Vol.25, pp.324-6.
    17. Kelly (ed.): ‘Directory of Norfolk’ (Kelly’s directories Ltd, 1925), p.519
    18. Porter, Enid: ‘Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore’ (R. & K. Paul, 1969), pp.188-9.
    19. Ian Clayton Caldwell of Terrington Court to me (Oct. 8th 1980).
    20. Murray (ed.): ‘Handbook of the Eastern Counties’ (John Murray, 1892), pp.322-3.
    21. Parsons, W. S.: letter in the ‘East Anglian Magazine’ (1955), Vol. 14, p.475.
    22. Lethbridge, T. C.: ‘Gogmagog: the Buried Gods’ (R. & K. Paul, 1957), pp.15, 168-9.
    23. Randell, A. (Enid Porter, ed.): ‘Sixty Years a Fenman’ (R. & K. Paul, 1966), pp.79-81.
    24. Various: ‘Folklore, Myths & Legends of Britain’ (Readers’ Digest Assoc., 1973), pp.252-3.
    25. Roberts, Anthony: ‘Sowers of Thunder’ (Rider & Co., 1978), pp.72-3.
    26. Pevsner, N.: ‘Buildings of England: North-West Norfolk’ (Penguin, 1962), p.438.
    27. Porter, Enid: ‘Folklore of East Anglia’ (Batsford, 1974), pp.96-7.
    28. Bord, Janet & Colin: ‘The Secret Country’ (Paladin, 1978), pp.87-9.
    29. Palgrave, Sir Francis, in the ‘Quarterly Review’ (c.1814), Vol.21, pp.102-3.
    30. White, William: ‘History, Gazetteer & Directory of Norfolk’ (Simpkin, Marshall & Co, 1883), p.743.
    31. L. A. S. Butler of Leeds University to me (Sept. 29th 1980).
    32. Gomme, G. L. (ed.): ‘Topographical History of Norfolk…’ (Stock, 1896), p.15.
    33. Burgess, Frederick: ‘English Churchyard Memorials’ (Lutterworth Press, 1963), p.105.
    34. Withycombe, E. G.: ‘Oxford Dictionary of English Christian names’ (O. U. Press, 1971), pp.116, 266.
    35. Camden, William: ‘Remains Concerning Britain’ (1605), 1870 edition pub. By John Russell Smith, p.769.
    36. Hakluyt, Richard: ‘The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics & Discoveries of the English Nation’ (1589 & 1599), Vol.2.
    37. Mee, Arthur: ‘The King’s England: Norfolk’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1940), p.407.
    38. Thompson, Pishey: ‘History & Antiquities of Boston’ (Longman & Co., 1856), pp.373-5.
    39. Rye, Walter: ‘Norfolk Families’ (2nd edition 1913), pp.910-14.
    40. Dutt, W. A.: ‘Highways & Byways in East Anglia’ (Macmillan, 1923), pp.284-5.
    41. Tolkien, J. R. R.: ‘On Fairy-stories’, in ‘Tree & Leaf’ (Allen & Unwin, 1964), p.30.

M W Burgess has also expressed his: “grateful thanks for the assistance and information received from the following”:

Mr. W. J. Chambers of Saffron Walden.
Rev. C. N. Bales of Marshland St. James.
Rev. A. J. Clements of Tilney All Saints.
Mr. L. V. Grinsell of Bristol.
Mr. & Mrs. Ian Clayton Caldwell of Terrington Court.
Ms. Rosalinda M. C. Hardiman, former Curator of the Wisbech & Fenland Museum.
The Folklore Society.
Miss I. B. McClure of the British Archaeological Association.
Norwich Local Studies Library & the Norfolk Record Office.
Mr. E. Dowman, Assistant to the York Herald of the College of Arms.
Mr. A. J. Camp, Director of the Society of Genealogists.
Mr. F. H. Thompson, General Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Lincoln Central Library, & Lincoln Castle Archives.
Mr. J. Graham-Campbell, Secretary of the Society for Medieval Archaeology.
Dr. L. A. S. Butler, Head of the Dept. of Archaeology at the University of Leeds.
Dr. Maureen James, folklorist, historian and storyteller.

Source Website:
https://www.hiddenea.com/quest1.htm
The text (excluding minor tweaks for editorial reasons) by kind permission Mike Burgess. Photographs (except those attributed elsewhere) are also by kind permision of Mike Burgess.

NOTICE: This is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which endeavours, where required, to obtain permission to use other copyright owner’s material. However, for various reasons, identification of, and means of communicating with, owners can sometimes be difficult or impossible to establish. Nevertheless, rest assured: No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intended here.

A Glimpse at Babingley, Norfolk.

There is something quite eerie about ravens, and there is something equally eerie about church ruins; seeing both together can, for the more imaginative, be quite chilling. None more so than when approaching the old church ruins of St Felix at Babingley, on the royal estate in Norfolk.

Babingley is a small hamlet which includes an abandoned village which adjoins the St Felix church ruin, standing as it does some 6 miles north of Kings Lynn and surrounded by fields and marsh, near the junction of the B1439 and the A149. Silence still manages to pervade the place and ivy masters its walls if not cut back. The added presence of jackdaws whirling above and swapping places between the church tower and nearby trees makes for drama. Make no mistake, this is the type of isolated spot that rides the surrounding fields well, particularly on bright winter days before the annual ploughing is spring carpeted and lambing begins. Best to witness the place when there is a chill in the air – for it has history and a legend!

St Felix (Babingley)2
The ruined church of St Felix
The church of St Felix is situated on an overgrown island surrounded by a pasture and cultivated fields. The church once used to be adjoined by the now lost village of Babingley. It fell into disrepair, perhaps due to its isolated location, and despite attempts to salvage what was left during the 19th century the building was soon abandoned for good. Closer to the main road (now the A149) the Chapel of St Felix was built as a replacement in the 1880s but it too fell into disuse and now serves the British Orthodox community. The ruin can be reached via a footpath and a gate which leads across a pasture. Babingley is one of several locations claiming that the landfall of St Felix happened here (on the occasion of the saint’s invitation by the Wuffings, the then East Anglian royal family).
© Copyright Evelyn Simak and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Babingley has long claimed itself as the landing place of St Felix of Burgundy, in AD 631, who came to convert the East Angles to Christianity. It is said that he was invited by the Wuffings (or Wuffingas or Uffingas), the royal East Anglian family,. Others, like Wikipedia, is more specific by stating that Felix travelled from his homeland of Burgundy, first to Canterbury before being sent by Honorius to Sigeberht of East Anglia‘s kingdom. He travelled by sea and on arrival via Babingley, Sigeberht gave him a See at Dommoc . According to Bede, Felix helped Sigeberht to establish a school in his kingdom “where boys could be taught letters”. Felix of Burgundy was also known as Felix of Dunwich. He became a saint and the first bishop of the East Angles.

St Felix (Map)1
The kingdom of East Anglia during the early Saxon period. Image: Wikipedia.

Almost all that is known about St Felix originates from The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed by Bede in about 731, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bede praised Felix for delivering:

“all the province of East Anglia from long-standing unrighteousness and unhappiness”.

Felix may have been a priest at one of the monasteries in Francia founded by the Irish missionary Columbanus – the existence of a Bishop of Châlons with the same name may not be a coincidence!

St Felix (Norwich Cathedral)1
St Felix, Norwich Cathedral. Photo: Copyright owner unidentified at present.

A Clerk of Oxford further states :”Working with the aid of the ill-fated King Sigeberht, he [Felix] established churches, a school, and an episcopal See at a place called Dommoc (perhaps to be identified with the town of Dunwich, which has since disappeared almost entirely into the sea). Felix had help from the newly-founded church of Canterbury, and was consecrated as bishop by Honorius, the last surviving member of the Gregorian mission to England………Bede, in etymological mood, tells us (in Historia Ecclesiastica, II.15)”:

“Bishop Felix… came to Archbishop Honorius from the Burgundian region, where he had been raised and ordained, and, by his own desire, was sent by him to preach the word of life to the nation of the Angles. Nor did he fail in his purpose; for, like a good farmer, he reaped a rich harvest of believers. In accord with the meaning of his own name, he freed the whole province from its ancient iniquity and infelicity (infelicitate), brought it to the faith and works of righteousness, and guided it to eternal felicity (perpetuae felicitatis)”.

Felix was Bishop for seventeen years, until his death on 8 March 647/8. His relics were preserved at Soham [ Soham Abbey], but the shrine and community there were destroyed in the ninth century by a Viking raid. In the eleventh century Cnut gave permission for the monks of Ramsey Abbey to take possession of Felix’s relics…… There’s a memorable story in Ramsey’s own chronicle, the Chronicon Abbatiae Ramesiensis, which claims that when the Ramsey monks were sailing home with Felix’s relics through the Fens they were pursued by the monks of Ely, also in a boat, eager to have the precious relics themselves. A miraculous fog descended, in which the Ely monks lost their way, and our Ramsey heroes were able to escape with the relics. Rivalry between Ramsey and Ely, two great Fenland monasteries, is a regular feature of their medieval history, and since Soham is closer to Ely than it is to Ramsey you can see why the Ely monks might feel a little aggrieved! It’s a great story (though generically typical), but even the Ramsey chronicler who records it expresses doubts about its veracity – with engaging frankness, he says ‘the reader is not required to believe the story, provided that he feels it to be certain that every part of the relics of St Felix were translated to the Church of Ramsey, and honourably deposited there’. As indeed there’s no reason to doubt.”

St Felix (Norwich_Cath)3
St Felix. Norwich Cathedral. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

So, maybe Felix did come to Babingley, but why arrive at the extremity of East Anglia and about as far as you can be from the former royal capital at Rendlesham and Dommoc, on the other side of the modern Walton; surely, Dunwich would have been a better bet? On second thoughts, we best leave this latter question behind; for if Babingley was never the place where St Felix set foot on his arrival in Norfolk then Babingley would never have had its legend – thus so:

St Felix (Babingley-Village Sign)2
The Babingley village signpost, carved by Mark Goldsworthy. Photo: (c) STEPHEN TULLETT via EDP.

Babingley has, like many Norfolk villages, a timber ‘village signpost’; this one was carved by Mark Goldsworthy and it depicts the curious tale of the ‘brave Bishop Beaver of Babingley’. The signpost stands amongst rhododendrons in a nearby wood clearing.

St Felix (River Babingley)
Bridge over the Babingley River, Norfolk.
This bridge once carried the main coast road from King’s Lynn to Hunstanton.
© Copyright Andy Peacock and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Like all charming legends, this one says that when St Felix arrived at the Wash, he headed for the River Babingley which was, at this time, still navigable. As he sailed up the river, looking for a suitable place to land, a violent storm occurred and St Felix’s ship floundered in the water. Fortunately for him, together with the rest of the crew, beavers existed in East Anglia at the time; and thanks to these creatures, everyone on the boat was saved from drowning and taken to safety – at Babingley. In gratitude, the Felix consecrated the chief of the beavers by making him a Bishop in thanks for saving his life and allowing him to deliver Christianity to the region of what became East. This act is remembered on the Babingley village signpost which shows a beaver in a bishop’s mitre grasping a crook.

St Felix (Babingley)2a
St Felix’s blocked chancel arch
The nave was, at some stage completely blocked off from the chancel by a still intact wall with a window in it (perhaps to be used for some other purpose for some time).
© Copyright Evelyn Simak and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The ruined church of which we speak was a rebuilt 14th-century edition, dedicated to St Felix and was used for worship until the early 19th century. It sits, surrounded by the trees which house those ravens, in a field some 200 metres north of the River Babingley and is now part of the nearby royal Sandringham. The ruin today comes with its 15th century south porch addition, built in the main of grey Sandringham stone and carstone with limestone dressings. The church once consisted of a nave, north and south aisles with two-bay arcade, chancel, and west tower and has undergone a number of alterations. The north aisle was demolished and its arcade blocked; the chancel arch bricked up and a Decorated Gothic window from the south side of the chancel re-set in the brickwork. Its ruined state goes back a long way – in a 1602 survey the chancel was described as ‘decaying’ and by 1752, ‘dilapidated’.

St Felix (Babingley)1
An 1825 lithograph of the old St Felix church: © National Trust at Felbrigg Hall  / Sue James

In 1845, William Whites’ History, Gazetter and Directory stated that “the tower and nave are in tolerable repair, but the chancel is in ruins” According to Pevsner, repairs were attempted four years later in 1849 but the introduction of the mission church just off the main road in 1880 was the final nail in the old St Felix’s coffin as it had its roof removed. As a ‘sop’ to its once proud place, the church yard continued to be used into the 20th century. Now, bar for the 15th century porch, the church is completely open to the skies, covered in ivy and teased by those ravens. However, it can take pride in the fact that, since March 1951, it is now Grade I listed!

FOOTNOTE: You can now spread your wings and, with the aid of the video below, take a birdseye view of the old St Felix Church at Babingley, and those ravens – if you can spot them far below!

THE END

Sources:
www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/babingleyruin/babingleyruin.htm
www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/babingley/babingley.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babingley
https://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/religious-sites/33818-st-felix-babingley-norfolk-august-2016-a.html#.XNGgfvZFxPY
https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/weird-norfolk-brave-bishop-beaver-babingley-st-felix-1-5523978
https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2012/03/st-felix-suffolk-lyonesse-and-ramsey.html
www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/record-details?MNF3257-Babingley-deserted-medieval-settlement-and-multi-period-finds

Banner Heading: The Ruins od Babingley Church, Kings Lynn, Norfolk by Edward Seago 1910-1974. Photo: Copyright owner unidentitfied at present.