Which is the Real Syderstone Ghost?

Amy Robsart:

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Thomas Francis Dicksee (d.1895); Amy Robsart

The death of Amy Robsart on the 8th September 1560 is an Elizabethan mystery that has caused controversy and speculation for over 458 years with historians still debating whether it was accident, suicide or murder……and if it was murder, who ordered the deed?

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The small but picturesque village of Syderstone is situated in the county of Norfolk in the United Kingdom; midway between Kings Lynn and Norwich and about five miles west of the town of Fakenham.  It is about ten miles inland from the North Norfolk coast. Although small, Syderstone dates back well over a thousand years and pre-dates the Domesday Book of 1066 in which the village is recorded.  Its original Anglo Saxon name was Sidsterne; meaning “large estate”, from the Old English “sid” for an area broad or extensive and “sterne” meaning property.

Syderstone (Main Street)

In the 16th century Syderstone Hall was the home of Sir John Robsart, a wealthy gentleman-farmer, Sheriff of Norfolk and also Suffolk. He had a daughter named Amy, whose initials, by the way, are still to be seen on the churchyard gate and over the entrance to the Norman church tower. Amy was born in 1532 and in 1549, just before she was 18, married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, at Sheen (Richmond) Palace. The young King Edward VI, no less, was present at their wedding. As for Robert Dudley, the bridegroom, he also happened to be the son of the powerful John Dudley, Earl of Warwick.

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Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicesters-Visit to his Wife Amy Robsart at Cumnor Place

On her accession in November 1558 Elizabeth I made Robert Dudley ‘Master of the Horse’, an important post which brought him in close contact with Queen Elizabeth I. It also meant that Dudley’s periods of absence from his wife, Amy, would increase further from those he was already committed to. In any case, it was not customary for courtiers’ wives to live at Court and Elizabeth, for her part, would also have wanted to keep Amy out of the way – for she was strongly attracted by Robert, who was “a magnificent, princely looking man”.

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Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, dancing with Elizabeth I, c.1580.

Both Elizabeth and Dudley were much together so it was inevitable that there would be a great deal of gossip about the affair…….which Amy must have known about! Within a year of Dudley’s appointment, rumours were indeed rife that the Queen was smitten with him – and it seemed that the feelings were mutual. In March 1560 the Spanish Ambassador wrote about the possibility of Dudley divorcing his wife! It would seem that Amy’s continued existence may have been something that he could have done without? Certainly, his actions indicated that his thoughts were elsewhere for amongst other things, he began to neglect Amy. He sent her to live at Cumnor Place, a ramshackled two-story house about 4 miles from Oxford and formerly a 14th-century country house of the abbots of Abingdon. 

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Cumnor Place where Amy Robsart was sent to live – formerly a 14th-century country house of the abbots of Abingdon. 
There, under the care and watchful eye of Anthony Forster, a sort of ‘dependent’ of Dudley and with few servants, Amy dragged out a lonely miserable life. Ten years after her marriage to Dudley, her situation came to a climax!
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William Frederick Yeames; The death of Amy Robsart (1877)

On September 8th 1560 and still only twenty eight years of age, Amy was found dead at the foot of a staircase at Cumnor Place. Apparently, Amy had insisted that her servants attended Abingdon Fair leaving her alone in the house; when they returned they found her dead – from head injuries and a broken neck. She appeared to have fallen down the stairs?

At the time there was speculation as to whether she had fallen accidentally, had been murdered or even committed suicide, although this latter point was dismissed by those who thought of another reason for Amy’s ‘desperation’ and death. It appears that in April, 1559 seventeen months before her death, the Spanish Ambassador reported that people talked of Elizabeth and Dudley’s friendship so freely that:

“they go so far as to say his wife has a malady in one of her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert.”

It was argued that this was cancer and had spread to the bones of Amy’s spine, which could have caused her neck to break spontaneously from any jolt or fall. Clearly, many subsequent historians were to speculate about her death, perhaps more furiously than contemporaries. However, the one suspicion that stood out from all others, was the belief that Amy had been murdered so that Robert Dudley could marry Elizabeth I – a suspicion which became the subject of Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Kenilworth”.

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Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, c. 1564. In the background are the devices of the Order of Saint Michael and the Order of the Garter; Robert Dudley was a knight of both.

Amy Dudley, nee Robsart, was buried in the chancel of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, her body having been first taken to Gloucester (Worcester) College – where there is a relatively modern tablet recording her burial. Eighty poor men and women were said to have marched in procession, followed by members of the University, a choir and heralds. Her funeral cost Robert £500; but he was not present.

Syderstone (Amy Robsart Tomb)

Possibly, no one will ever know how Amy died but the jurors were there and their view may be as near to the truth as one can get. As for Dudley, the Queen blew hot and cold in her attitude towards him. Of course she never married him, nor anyone else, though Dudley married again. However, she gave him Kenilworth Castle and large areas of North Wales. He commanded the army at Tilbury when Elizabeth made her famous speech on August 9th 1588 just after the Spanish fleet had been defeated. Later that month Robert set off for Kenilworth on his way to a cure at some spa or other. There was some belief at the time that Amy’s ghost was supposed to have met him in the park there saying that “in ten days he’d be with her”. As it turned out, Dudley stayed a night at Lord Norreys’ home at Rycote, and while there wrote a letter to Elizabeth. She had afterwards wrote on it “his last letter”, for he got no further than Cornbury Park, where he died!

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Tomb of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester and his wife Lettice Knollys.
Church of St Mary in Warwick.

If others are to be believed, it was chiefly the people of Cumnor who remembered Amy’s mournful end. Apparently, according to them, Amy’s ghost haunted Cumnor Place, made people fear to go near it and “destroyed the peace of the village”. The ghost had to be exorcised by nine clergymen from Oxford who claimed to have drowned it in a pond in the adjoining close – and the water never again froze over the spot! Clearly, that did not work because it was claimed thereafter that the ghost of Amy Robsart walked the grounds each Christmas – for almost 250 years. Her pale shape also appeared near the staircase where she had died, and when she returned every Christmas she also stared ‘tragically and accusingly’ at all who still lived in the Hall.

After Cumnor Place was demolished in 1810 Amy’s ghost moved to her parents home at Syderstone Hall in Norfolk – so it was said! Well, that must have been true because poltergeist activity was reported there………and many of the locals said so and believed that it was the ghost of Amy! How come? Were the villagers there ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ as it were? Not only that, the folk there were also to claim that she continued to appear at the Old Hall until that too was also demolished. Apparently, Amy’s ghost would appear by the staircase, re-inacting in exactly the same way its actions at Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire……..and with exactly the same story, villagers would claim that Amy’s ghost also walked the grounds of Syderstone Hall at Christmas time. But some around the County went a step further with claims that Amy’s ghost also revisited her childhood home of Rainthorpe Hall, Tasburg near Norwich on the anniversary of her death. There, she appeared in the garden with a gentleman who may be either her half brother, John Appleyard or her husband Robert Dudley. A somewhat cynical historian of Berkshire, William Clarke, wrote that when he visited Cumnor in 1817, after the building was pulled down, “there were no traditions current about it among the villagers”. Well, these ‘traditions’ of myths and ghosts soon sprang up plentifully in both Oxfordshire and Norfolk after the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Kenilworth’ in 1821!

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Rainthorpe Hall, Tasburg near Norwich

Were these beliefs behind the folks of Syderstone not wanting to lose Amy when its Old Hall too was demolitished? – for it was said after this event that her ghost moved to the Parsonage nearby.

Parsonage Hauntings:

In 1833, Reverend Stewart and his family were well settled in the Parsonage. On the 8 May of the same year the Bury and Norwich Post carried a story about a series of daily hauntings at the Parsonage. The original letter that sparked this story came from the same Revd J. Stewart, the Rector of Syderstone at the time, around whom this story revolves, and concerns what he refers to as ‘The House of Mystery’.

According the Revd Stewart, this particular ghost had taken up residence at his Parsonage and liked to move around, though nothing in the house was ever disturbed. It also varied its activity such that:

sometimes it was a low moaning which the Rev. says reminds him very much of the moans of a soldier on being whipped; and sometimes it is like the sounding of brass, the rattling of iron or the clashing of earthenware or glass’. The noises frightened the household to such an extent that ‘the maids … were actually incapable of motion’ and some of the staff were so scared they ran away’.

The Revd Stewart opened his house to all and sundry, so that they could satisfy themselves of the goings on, including no less than four local priests – Revd & Mrs Spurgin, Revds Goggs, Lloyd & Titlow, plus a local surgeon, Mr Banks, on one particular night. It seemed that they were not disappointed, with a display that started:

like the clawing of a voracious animal after its prey’ and included knocking, ‘some of which were as loud as those of a hammer on the anvil, lasted from between eleven and twelve o’clock until near two hours after sunrise’. One is quoted as saying ‘We had a variety of thoughts and explanations passing in our minds before we were on the spot, but we left it all equally bewildered’.

All those present on the night felt compelled to contact the paper, stating that their investigations, and subsequent independent examinations, were unable to find the cause. But, the one thing on which they could all agree; this was not any kind of deception on the part of Revd Stewart or his family. A section of the actual newspaper article is as follows:

“The following circumstance has been creating great alarm in the neighbourhood of Fakenham for the last six weeks. In Syderstone Parsonage lives the Rev. Mr. Steward, Curate, and Rector of Thwaighte. The house has a modern appearance, and not at all calculated for concealment. About six weeks since an unaccountable knocking was heard in it in the middle of the night. The family became alarmed, not being able to discover the cause. Since then it has gradually been becoming more violent until it has now arrived at such a frightful pitch that one of the servants has left through absolute terror, and the family, we understand, intend removing as early as possible.”

Syderstone (Newspaper)

Three weeks after this first article, on 29 May 1833, the same paper carried a story describing how a number of investigators (all named in the article) had gone to witness the phenomenon for themselves.

“The first commencement was in the bed-chamber of Miss Stewart, and seemed like the clawing of a voracious animal after its prey. Mrs. Spurgeon was at the moment leaning against the bed post, and the effect on all present was like a shock of electricity. The bed was on all sides clear from the wall; — but nothing was visible. Three powerful knocks were then given to the sideboard, whilst the hand of Mr. Goggs was upon it. The disturber was conjured to speak, but answered only by a low hollow moaning; but on being requested to give three knocks, it gave three most tremendous blows apparently in the wall. The noises, some of which were as loud as those of a hammer on the anvil, lasted from between 11 and 12 o’clock until near two hours after sunrise.”

Having described a number of events and the baffled reaction of the visiting gentlemen, the article ends by calling the haunting an “unaccountable mystery”. Then, on 12 June, a letter from one of those present, Reverend Samuel Titlow, was published drawing attention to a few inaccuracies, as he saw it, of the previous letter.

“The noises were not loud; they commenced in the bed room of Miss Steward and the female servants, and the time of the commencement was, as we had been prepared to expect, exactly at half past one o’clock a.m. It is true that knocks seemed to be given, or were actually given, on the side-board of a bed in an adjoining room, where two little boys were sleeping, whilst Mr. Goggs’ hands were upon it, but they were not ” powerful knock. If the writer of the paragraph had been present with us, he would not have said that we were terrified, as if we had experienced ” a shock of electricity;” but rather, that though there was no want of proper decorum, we were all in good humour”

He seemed convinced that there was nothing supernatural behind the events, also adding that he couldn’t believe that a ghost would appear:

“for trifling purposes, or accompanied with trifling effects.”

On 22 June, the Norfolk Chronicle carried a number of witness statements regarding the hauntings going back many years. These statements had been submitted to the magistrates as Affidavits, but since it was not clear if the magistrate could legally accept Affidavits on a subject of this nature, they were published in the local paper. The earliest event described was from 1785, when a Rev Mantle moved in to the parish. He immediately boarded up two rooms, and there was one occasion when his sister saw something “which had greatly terrified her”.

Revd Stewart was able to attribute the origin of his ghost to some 60 years previous, to about the time when this Revd Mantle had moved in – he with an emerging reputation for vice and drunkenness, having ‘formed an intimacy with a very dissipated circle of gentleman farmers’ one of whom had ‘an improper admiration of Mrs Mantle’ and ‘seduced the curate into the vilest debaucheries’. Indeed, Revd Mantle would have to be held upright during burial ceremonies ‘lest he should fall into the grave on top of the corpse’.

Needless to say, the Revd Mantle died in a miserable state but, before being buried, ‘strange noises began to be heard in the parsonage’. It was these noises which greeted Revd Stewart and his family and, at the time these articles were written, ‘the ‘noises’ occasionally recur and my ‘diary’ occasionally progresses until it has, now, assumed rather a formidable appearance’.

The Phantom Highwayman Etc. Etc:

 So, it seems, Amy Robsart and the one that haunts the Parsonage are not the only ghosts of Syderstone. It is further claimed that the village is also haunted by a phantom highwayman, who has been seen on his ghostly mount, silently galloping towards the village green…….and as recently as 2017 a local resident, stated:

I live in Syderstone and was aware of these spectral stories. But, there are a few more as we also have, a lady in Rectory Gardens – [her name is also Amy by the way] – and something on a local track named Burnham Green Lane. “My normally amenable Labrador was extremely reluctant to walk up there at dusk last summer – heckles up”!

Answers on a postcard please!

THE END

A Most Scandalous Priory!

God’s own County of Norfolk is blessed with many religious establishments – large, small, dissolved into ruins or still conducting holy practices as they should; most of these religious establishments even have a history worth talking about. However, it is the investigation of this history which, from time to time, snaps one out of any tendency to be naive about the fact that misdeeds and misdemeanours are not only possible in these places but probable! In a previous blog ‘A Most Disorderly Abbey’, the Premonstratensian Canons of Langley Abbey in the south of the County were given the treament of exposure. This blog targets the Benedictine monks of Binham in the north of the same County. Fortunately, we are talking of the past!

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The Priory Church of ‘St Mary and the Holy Cross’ in Binham is simply classed as the Binham Village parish church (see above), but the ruins, precinct walls and gatehouse that surround it tell quite a different story. This is the site of a once grand and wealthy Benedictine monastery known as Binham Priory. It was founded in 1091 as a cell of St Albans Abbey by Peter de Valognes and his wife Albreda. Peter was a nephew of William the Conqueror (1066-1087) who gave Peter de Valoines the land in the west and north of Norfolk, including the entire village of Binham. According to the Domesday Book the land in and around the village was originally owned by a freeman named Esket. The Priory subsequently built was endowed with the entire manor of Binham, making the Prior the ‘Lord of the Manor’, together with the tithes of 13 other churches in Norfolk.

For over 400 years, Binham Priory used to be home to a community of monks. This community was always small, with 14 monks at its peak in 1320, dropping to 11 in 1381 and by the time of the Priory’s suppression in 1539 the community had been reduced to just six monks and the Priory’s annual income low at £140. However, despite its small numbers, the Priory managed to establish a history of almost continuous scandal with many of its Priors proving to be unscrupulous and irresponsible.

About 1212, the Priory was besieged by Robert Fitzwalter because the Abbot of St Albans had removed the Prior. Fitzwalter claimed, by way of a forged ‘Deed of Patronage’, that the Prior could not be moved without his consent. The result of this seige resulted in the monks being forced to eat bran and drink water from the drain-pipes. When King John heard about it he swore ‘By God’s feet, either I or Fitzwalter must be King of England’ and he sent an armed force to relieve the Priory. Fitzwalter fled for his life. Then there followed the deaths of about twelve monks of Binham, as recorded in an Obituary of St Albans from 1216 to 1253; it included the story of Alexander de Langley, one-time Prior of Wymondham who became insane through overstudy. When his outbursts of frenzy could no longer be tolerated, he was flogged and kept in solitary confinement at Binham until his death. He was buried in chains in the churchyard.

In 1317 William de Somerton became Prior of Binham and was to spend vast sums on the pursuit of alchemy, selling during his time in charge – two chalices, six copes, three chasubles, seven gold rings, silk cloths, silver cups and spoons and the silver cup and crown – not quite what you would expect of a holy man! For this, William was suspended before the altar. In addition, the Abbot, Hugh of St Albans was making exorbitant demands on Binham Priory so that it was difficult to buy food for the monks there. This did not go down well and when Abbot Hugh proposed to visit Binham, the Prior and his friends the Earl of Leicester and Sir Robert Walpole forcibly resisted the visitation. Edward I ordered the arrest of de Somerton and the monks, who at this time numbered thirteen. Six monks were imprisoned but de Somerton escaped to Rome. Eventually he was reinstated but in 1335 debts again caused him to flee, leaving a deficit of £600.

 If all this was not enough, there existed continual quarrelling with the Abbot of St Albans Abbey, wasting money on expensive lawsuits, the charge of ‘scandalous behaviour’ levied at the Binham’s community. Then there was the ‘irresponsibility’, such as when, in 1433, the Prior and the monks resisted the visit of the Bishop of Norwich whilst the village people, who were on bad terms with the Priory at the time, made the Bishop welcome. One could, of course, go on and on in this vein, but no self respecting Tale of an Abbey or Priory would be complete without a reference, or two about myths or ghosts. Binham Priory is no exception. But before we go there, let us satisfy possible curiousity about the fabric of the monastery, its structure and architectural quality without the emotive topic of behaviour.

The Church:

The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross is so named because the Priory was dedicated to St Mary, and its Church to the Holy Cross. What remains today is the former Nave of that Priory Church which is now simply the Village Parish Church.

Originally, the Priory Church was a cruciform building with a central crossing tower (now fallen), supported on massive piers. The monks sat in wooden stalls facing one another in the area immediately beneath the tower. This area was separated off from the public Nave by a stone screen. East of the tower would have been the Presbytery, where the high altar was located.

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Reconstruction of the church presbytery in about 1500, looking towards the rood- screen with the nave beyond. © Historic England (illustration by Jill Atherton)

As a Benedictine foundation the Nave has always been used as the village church, identified as such today by the presence of a font, which would not have been needed by a monastic congregation. Nearby are the remains of the rood screen which was originally located where the east wall of the church now stands. This screen was painted over after the Reformation, but traces of medieval painting of saints can still be seen showing through. The present east end was formed by extending the original pulpitum, a low wall which divided the lay area from the monastic area.

Church Exterior

The church was built of local flint and Barnack limestone, brought from Northamptonshire by river and sea in barges, and travelling up the river Stiffkey. Its construction spanned close to 150 years from when it started in the 1090s. Thereafter, the buildings were adapted and extended throughout the medieval period. Bear in mind that most medieval churches looked very different from how they appear today; they were usually covered, both inside and out, with lime-washed plaster. Traces of this can still be seen on the west front.

The Church’s west front is not the earliest part of the Church, but it is the first thing you see as you approach; it is beautiful and, to the informed, of great architectural interest. According to Matthew Paris, the thirteenth century monk and chronicler, this facade was built between 1226 and 1244 when Richard de Parco was Prior. For the less informed of you, the Facade is divided into three parts, the centre part containing the large west window, which could be the earliest example of bar tracery in England in which the design is made up of slender shafts and shaped stones continuing and branching out from the mullions to form a decorative pattern. This was first used at Rheims in 1211 and at Westminster Abbey some time after 1245. Before this date, the space between lancets placed together, was pierced with an open pattern, cut directly through the masonry — known as ‘plate tracery’. The window must have been magnificent before it fell into disrepair and was bricked up in 1809; maybe to avoid the cost of reglazing? Below the window is the Early English arcaded screen, with much dog-tooth ornament, in the centre of which is the main portal. This doorway is flanked on each side by five shafts, topped by crocket capitals beautifully carved from a single stone — each a masterpiece.

The bell-cote is a later addition. The domed interior is constructed of brick. An indenture of 1432 made between the Prior and the parishioners ordered that:

‘they have one bell, of the weight of eight hundred pounds or under, purchased at the cost and charge of the said tenants and parishioners, to hang in the further-most western part of the said parish church, that is to say above the roof of the church next the gable, and without any detriment to or lessening of the walls or windows of the said church, to warn and call the said parishioners to divine service, so that they may hear it and be present’.

The north and south walls correspond with the former aisles which were pulled down. The south aisle disappeared soon after the dissolution of the monasteries but the north aisle survived until 1809.The windows in the north aisle are the original windows but re-set.

The Cloisters:

The remains of the monastic buildings are extensive. They were arranged around the central cloister, a garden court that was enclosed on all four sides by covered walkways. These gave access to the principal rooms used by the monks in their daily life, including the chapter house (where they met daily to discuss business) and refectory or dining hall. Rebuilt several times during the life of the priory, by the 16th century the cloisters were lit by large windows opening onto the central garden. After the closure of the priory, some of the glass was moved to the nave wall of the church.

A reconstruction of the cloister as it may have appeared in 1500, looking north-east towards the church crossing tower © Historic England (illustration by Jill Atherton)

The Precinct:

Binham Priory is one of the few monastic foundations in Norfolk where the precinct surrounding the priory buildings remains essentially intact, including part of its boundary wall. This monastic precinct, built on the Benedictine plan was once a glorious collection of buildings, built around the open garth and its cloisters. One could imagine it as being a smaller version of Norwich Cathedral. Great wealth was always lavished on such buildings, with the master masons perhaps coming from Normandy. As for the ruins of the gatehouse beyond, it dates mostly from the 15th century and still serves today as the main entrance to the site. South of the cloister area are the earthwork remains of the priory’s surviving agricultural buildings, including what was probably a large barn or granary. One supposes that the outer court contained other buildings such as storehouses and workshops. Beyond these earthworks, bordering the stream, is the site of the priory’s mill and fishponds and the monks’ cemetery lays beyond the east end of the church. What stories could they tell if given the opportunity?

An engraving of Binham Priory in about 1738 by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck

Suppression:

At the dissolution in 1539, the King’s examiner Sir Robert Ryche had no difficulty in finding a pretext for suppression: As they levied fines, ‘not naymyng the Abbot of Saynt Albanys, and granted leases under their own seal, not naymyng the Abbot.’ The site and possessions were granted to Sir Thomas Paston, a local man and an important royal servant by Henry VIII, in the 33rd year of his reign and four hundred and fifty years after the Priory’s foundation. The Paston Letters relate that the sum of 13/7½ d being paid to Sir Thomas in 1533 for ‘rubble and stone from Binham Priory’ which was used to build a large house in the High St at Wells, and his grandson Edward Paston pulled down some of the monastic buildings intending to build himself a house on the site, at the southern corner of the refectory. However a workman was killed by a fall of masonry and this was considered a bad omen. The workmen refused to continue and the house was built at Appleton instead. Stone from the Priory was even sold and reused in many local Binham houses, particularly around doors and windows.

Myths associated with Binham Priory: 

Places such as Binham Priory, in times of ignorance and superstition, inevitably spawned legends and myths of its own –  not forgetting that we are in Norfolk and here it seems obligatory for any famous place to boast a tale, or two. Frequently, such tales are about tunnels, quite a favourite topic; so too are ghostly spectres. Binham is not the sort of historical place to be left out; indeed, it has a monk and a tunnel. Maybe this is the moment to mention them.

1.The Hooded Monk:

When the night is dark and dismal the stranger standing amongst the fragments of old walls of Binham Priory would not find it difficult to visualise his eerie surroundings as a setting for a ghost story. The inhabitants of Binham have long discuss a report of the appearance of the “ghost”; of a black-hooded monk in the Nave of the Priory Church.

It seems that a newspaper reporter interviewed the Vicar, Rev. C. F. Carroll, on the matter. It was said at the time that the story told to him was offered in the strictest confidence by a lady of position, and that he, the Vicar, would only repeat it if persons’ names were kept out of any published story.

“Some time ago this woman was present at an evening service of mine in the Parish Church, where she saw a figure on a ledge near the church door. She watched the phantom form, which resembled a Benedictine monk wearing a black cowl, walk slowly along the ledge for the full length of the church before disappearing. During its journey this spectre, for that is what this lady said it was, climbed some spiral steps, which were only there for the duration of this spectacle. The ledge itself is several feet from the floor of the church and, as you can see, there appears to be ample room for one to walk thereon”.

“I do believe that such an occurence is possible, but I would not go so far as to state that it had not taken place. The lady can be, in my opinion, imaginative at times but she was certain that she had seen the monk-like figure, so much so that she felt compelled to tell me – and remember. There were many other people at that service and it might have been that the other members of the congregation did not have the faculty to see in such a way. At any spiritualistic seance, for instance, it is only some people who may see a spirit appear; and, of course, you would know that illustrations on that point can be found in Biblical stories; such as the sory of St. Paul seeing the vision and the men who were accompanying him failing to see it. I must also say that on other occasions, villagers have stated that they have seen the figure of a Benedictine monk near the entrance to the Priory – the Gaol Gate.”

After leaving the Vicar, the newspaper reporter interviewed a lady in the village, not the one referred to earlier by the way. She related a story which was similar to that told to the Rev C. F. Carroll. She said that some years ago she was sitting with the choir when during the sermon she saw a dark figure, just like a monk; it was on a ledge in the church. Thinking that she was “seeing double” or that her eyes were playing tricks, she purposely looked away for a few seconds before again looking at the ledge; she saw that the figure was still there. Puzzled but wanting further confirmation, she once more turned her gaze away, but when she looked at the ledge for the third time there was no thing there. This same lady added, as if there may be some possible connection, that she and others had been warned that no one should go near the Gaol Gate at midnight. Why, it was never said but, from another source, the reporter was informed that the ” Porter ” was reputed to walk about near that gate, inside of which there had once been a gaol – and there had also been chambers for a Porter!

2. The Fiddler of Binham Priory:

Myths about entering into the earth through a tunnel that takes you to another place or different land are common across the world. Such tunnels, connecting us to such ‘underworlds’ or ‘Hades’, can be found in Greek and Roman myths, as well as in German and Eastern European folktales. In Britain, these myths are often associated with musician’s tunnels such as those in Northamptonshire, Culross, Fife with its piper, Richmond Castle with its drummer and Norfolk with its own fiddler, as depicted in tales Blakeney, nearby, and Binham Priory. In these tales, the musician enters a passage under the ground and is always followed above the ground by people listening to his music, which suddenly stops. It is very strange that he has a dog with him, and that this dog always gets out of the tunnel but the man is never seen again. The myth is often connected to a ‘barrow’ – which, to the uninitiated, is an underground burial place.

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The ancient Barrow called ‘Fiddlers Hill’ – between the villages of Bingam and Walsingham in Norfolk.

Now, Binham Priory seems to be an ideal place for the Norfolk version of this particular myth or legend, simply because of the ‘barrow’ named Fiddler’s Hill, a burial mound nearby which dates from the early Bronze Age, and nowadays a popular picnic spot. Of course, this tale needs a fiddler, a dog and tunnel, and what better than to have one leading to and from Walsingham Abbey, some three miles away. Certainly, local people think so and their tale goes along the following lines:

A spectre of a monk called “The Black Monk” haunted the grounds around Binham Priory during the hours between dusk and dawn. The monk emerged each night from a tunnel that linked the Benedictine Priory of Binham to the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingam some three miles away. One day a fiddler and his dog sauntered into the village of Binham and upon hearing about this spectre offered to explore the tunnel to see what caused the monk to haunt this particular spot. Before entering the passage he advised the sizeable crowd of locals who had gathered to see him off, that he would play his fiddle as he went so that the villagers could follow his progress above ground. Now, bear in mind that we are talking of a time when candles and lanterns were the main weapons against the night, or to battle subterranean gloom.

So it was with this in mind that the Fiddler called his dog to heel and lighting his way by means of a small lantern of his own, suspended on a rod so that he could free his hands for playing, he and his small dog entered the tunnel and the villagers were able to hear the strains of his music and followed his path. They knew that a fiddle plays a piercing and true sound and felt sure that its sound would vibrate upwards through the layers of soil. So they all followed, Lollygaggers (idlers), dawdlers, street vendors, interested onlookers – and the odd dog.

However, when the fiddler reached the place, at a point where two roads crossed, his music suddently stopped. The villagers looked around at each other in consternation. Why, they thought would he stop? Maybe he was just taking a rest? They waited, but the sound never returned. There was talk of digging down, but everyone held off despite the possibly that this could be an emergency. If the truth were to be known, the villagers were, in fact, too scared to enter the tunnel themselves, for they had no candles or lanterns – on the basis that, being on the surface, they would not need such items. So they just retraced their steps back to Binham and waited, for quite a long time as it turned out.

Eventually, the poor Fiddler’s little dog emerged from the tunnel, shivering and whining with his tail between his legs – but there was no sign of the Fiddler. Later that night a violent storm broke out, and the following morning the villagers woke to find that the passage entrance had been completely demolished. Over the years the hill where the fiddler disappeared became known as Fiddlers Hill, in memory of the brave Fiddler……..and remember the final twist to this story?….. In 1933 when the road was widened around Fiddlers Hill, three skeletons were found one of which was a dog!

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A diagram of ‘Fiddlers Hill’ showing, approximately, where the road was altered – removing part of the barrow,

They do say that on still, dark nights, you can still hear a solitary violin playing along the fields between Walsingham and Binham Priory.

THE END

Why We Are All Mad About Hares!

We have long been fascinated by the hare – Britain’s fastest land mammal, surrounded by myth and infamous for their ‘mad’ March courtship rituals. This Blog explores and explodes the mythology surrounding this iconic lagomorph.

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Brown hares boxing, a spring mating ritual which actually lasts much longer than just March. 

Hares have never failed to fascinate. Hare mythology has had an important role in our legends, stories and history ever since the Roman first introduced them to Britain, from the otherworldly White Hare of Cornish legend to the time Alice attended the Mad Hatter’s tea party courtesy of Lewis Carroll. And yet, hares are not confined to the pages of legend, myth and history. To see a pair boxing is to witness a spring rite of passage, but did you know that hares remain mad long after March?

Hare Mythology:

In her bestselling novel of 1930, The Edwardians, the writer Vita Sackville-West evoked essentially unchanging English country life. Around the house at the centre of the novel – a loosely fictionalised version of her ancestral home, Knole – she imagined a parkland setting unchanged over many centuries: “The background was the same: the grey walls, the flag on the tower, the verdure of the trees, the hares and the deer feeding on the glades.” Like a vignette from a medieval hunting tapestry, the creatures that animate Sackville-West’s vision of timeless pastoralism are the quarry of the chase: deer and hare.

Half human half hare figure sculptures by Sophie Ryder displayed outside the Pump Rooms and Abbey in Bath.

The brown hare is Britain’s fastest land mammal. Propelled by those powerful hind legs which define its shape as surely as its long, black-tipped ears, the hare has been known to run at speeds exceeding 40mph. Added to its shyness, this astonishing turn of speed accounts for the apparent elusiveness of the hare. Sighted only rarely in some areas for much of the year, it retains a mystique long forfeited by rabbits.

In hare mythology, the hare is a creature with pagan, sacred and mystic associations, by turns benign, cunning, romantic or, most famously, in its March courtship rituals, mad. It is largely silent, preferring to feed at night or, in summer, as the last light fades from the day, a shadowy existence which adds to its mysteriousness in hare mythology. In Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit stories the character of Hare is superior and strutting, occasionally pernickety, always aloof – a rendering for children of the animal’s natural reserve as well his appropriateness as a denizen of that world of aristocratic entitlement evoked by Sackville-West. For example, it is Hare who keeps Grey Rabbit up to scratch in the matter of housekeeping: “Where’s the milk, Grey Rabbit?” asked Hare. “We can’t drink tea without milk.”

Local Legend:

In hare mythology and folklore, hares are invested with a similar remoteness. The otherworldly White Hare, which in Cornish legend wove a path between the fishing smacks of the county’s harbours at sundown, was thought to be either a warning of imminent tempest or the spirit of a broken-hearted maiden determined to haunt her faithless lover (a tempest of a different variety) and, in both cases, a sight to inspire foreboding and trepidation. In 1883, in the Folk-Lore Journal, William Black wrote that, “From India we learn that it is as unlucky to meet a hare as it is to meet a one-eyed man, an empty water-pot, a carrier without a load, a fox, a jackal, a crow, a widow, or a funeral.”

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In Michael Fishwick’s “The White Hare”, local legend has it that a woman who dies abandoned by her lover can return in rabbit form to seek revenge.

Such superstition surrounding hare mythology appears not to have been confined to India. A book on British folklore published in 1875 recognised the status of the hare as an associate of disaster, and recommended repeating, “Hare before, Trouble behind: Change ye, Cross, and free me.” In Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, published in 1920, Lady Gregory recorded one of the most famous legends from hare mythology, despite its origins being not in Ireland but in Somerset. It concerned the trial for witchcraft in 1663 of an old woman called Julian Cox. A witness at the trial stated: “A huntsman swore that he went out with a pack of hounds to hunt a hare, and not far from Julian Cox’s house he at last started a hare: the dogs hunted her very close… till at last the huntsman perceiving the hare almost spent and making towards a great bush, he ran on the other side of the bush to take her up and preserve her from the dogs; but as soon as he laid hands on her it proved to be Julian Cox, who had her head grovelling on the ground and her globes (as he expressed it) upward. He knowing her, was so affrighted that his hair on his head stood on end; and yet he spake to her and ask’d her what brought her there; but she was so far out of breath that she could not make him any answer; his dogs also came up full cry to recover the game and smelled at her and so left off hunting any further. And the huntsman and his dogs went home presently sadly affrighted.”

Hares In Britain:

The Romans are credited with introducing brown hares to Britain more than 2,000 years ago. If we are to believe the story of the Iceni queen Boudica consulting the entrails of a hare as an augury of victory in her uprising against the Romans in AD61, the animals had established themselves quickly. Their preference then as now was for open country and grassland, downs and flat marshlands. In succeeding centuries, farmland, particularly arable land, also proved popular with hares. Their chosen habitat is one that offers shelter in the form of long grass or heather; food in the form of herbs, grasses and cereal crops; and the broad expanses which afford a canvas for hares’ remarkable speed. Before the advent of hare coursing and beagling, that speed was exercised principally in escaping foxes, the hare’s principal natural predator. More recently, despite the greater speed of the sighthounds used for coursing, hares frequently outwitted their pursuers by their ability to turn and corner with unrivalled agility.

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Mad hare days: March is the start of the mating season.

As with so many forms of British wildlife, today’s hares are threatened by changing agricultural practice. Larger fields with a single cereal crop a year curtail hares’ year-round food supply while offering them diminished cover, and their forms – shallow depressions in the ground – offer limited shelter and, potentially, a degree of exposure and vulnerability. A survey in 2008 estimated current brown hare numbers in Britain in the region of 800,000, a figure which represents a consistent if gradual decline since the Sixties. Unlike rabbits, hares are resistant to myxomatosis and have suffered no equivalent cull.

Merchandising The Hare:

If few town-based people are fortunate enough to see a hare in the wild, there can be no Britons unfamiliar with its appearance. Today hare mythology has extended and the hare motif is to be found on fabric, wallpaper, cushions, lampshades and ties; it has been used as a letterhead, a heraldic device and in the design of stock pins, cuff-links, brooches and charms for bracelets.

Stained glass in Long Melford, Suffolk, thought to suggest the indivisibility of the Trinity.

Hare mythology and particularly the ubiquity of hares in children’s fiction and television programmes ensures a continual stream of merchandising. Hares remain a popular subject with sculptors and visual artists. Their spring-time “boxing”, a mating ritual in which unreceptive females fend off amorous males, lends itself to a degree of anthropomorphism which appeals to an art-buying public largely ignorant of the truth behind this “mad” March ritual, once thought to be a fight between males. Ceramic and porcelain hares have been made by the Munich-based Nymphenburg factory, the Lomonosov factory in St Petersburg and by Meissen. Contemporary animaliers, such as sculptors Rupert Till and Sophie Ryder and ceramicist Elaine Peto, explore a continuing fascination with these enigmatic creatures.

For an earlier arts audience hare mythology and the hare itself possessed a similar magnetism. An image of three running hares formed into a circle has been found in medieval churches, cathedrals and even inns across Britain. A floor tile dated to around 1400, found in the nave of Chester Cathedral, depicts a trio of hares separated by trefoil-shaped vegetation. Joined at their tips, their ears form a triangle, each hare apparently with two ears, though the tile artist has drawn only three in total.

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Wooden boss at Sampford Courtenay, Devon.

Varying in sophistication and elaboration, this icononography characterises all the “three hares” of church architecture in Britain, from a late-15th-century carved wooden boss in the chapel at Cotehele in Cornwall to a stained glass roundel at Holy Trinity church, Long Melford in Suffolk, and a painted stone boss in the Lady Chapel of St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire.

Research has failed to unearth any contemporary account of the symbolism of this recurring image, formerly dismissed as a popular signature among masons and carpenters. It is more likely that the intertwined imagery was intended to suggest the indivisibility of the Trinity. Another possible explanation is an association with the Virgin Mary, since hares were believed to possess hermaphrodite powers and therefore the ability to reproduce without loss of virginity. It is a far cry from the Romans’ perception of hares as symbolic of lust, abundance and fecundity: Pliny the Elder advocated a diet of hare as a means of increasing sexual attractiveness and also claimed that hare meat had the power to cure sterility.

The Current Outlook:

If Pliny is right, the outlook for Britain’s birth rate is dim. Jugged hare, in which hare is stewed in wine and juniper berries and served with the last-minute addition of its own blood, has virtually disappeared from our tables. A recent survey conducted by a television cookery programme found that virtually no British youngsters recognised the dish and just as few would be willing to try it. The recipe is attributed to Hannah Glasse, who included it in The Art of Cookery, published in 1747: today it is chiefly confined to the ultra-traditional menus of London’s clubland.

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It’s difficult to decide who’s sane at the Hatter’s tea party.

With hare coursing banned in England and Wales in 2004, and fewer hares on British tables than at any point over the past three centuries, the chances of spotting boxing hares have never been so good. Here’s a tip for the tardy: the mating season of the hare is not confined to March; this “mad March” ritual is actually played out over a period of seven months from February to August, a treat for the sharp of eye. But, Lewis Carroll aside, none of the participants has been known to follow courtship with a tea party.

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The “Mad March” ritual is actually played out over a period of seven months from February to August.

The body text is attributed to ‘The Field’ Magazine.

THE END

Deterring Witches

Today we use locks, burglar alarms and timer-set lighting to protect our homes, but 300 to 400 years ago householders were not just worried about human intruders. They believed their homes were also at risk from supernatural forces – evil spirits, ill luck, ghosts and witches. Strong magic was therefore needed in a world beset by disease, failed harvests, disastrous fires and unexplained deaths. So, wherever evil might enter a building they buried magic charms, be it in doorways, up chimneys and beneath fireplaces; they even protected roof spaces with dead animals and would ‘brick up’ a bottle full of urine, human hair and nails – of which witches and bad fairies were known to be frightened! Importantly, all these spells against supernatural harm were concealed in secrecy, because secrecy was part of ‘charm’s’ power to protect against demons, witches and curses.

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The brick with magical symbols found at Earlham Hall, Norwich.

Today, witch bottles and mummified animals are still being discovered during renovations and demolitions, In Hethersett, near Norwich in Norfolk, a bottle with iron pins and nails was found buried beneath a cottage fireplace. A dead cat was concealed in a room in King’s Lynn, a horse skull was hidden under the doorstep of a house in Thuxton, near Dereham, and a jar of urine, human hair and nails was unearthed in King Street, Norwich.

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horse skull hidden under the doorstep of a house in Thuxton, near Dereham, Norfolk

The practice of trying to turn away evil with magic charms and potions is called apotropaios and was common for centuries. The “apotropaic” terminology comes from the Greek term “apotropaios,” meaning “averting evil.” Witches or their evil conjured spirits were thought to attempt to enter homes via doorways, hearths, and windows, and hide in shadows made by the nooks and crannies of the house. It was believed that once they had entered the property, witches and evil spirits would want to attack the inhabitants, or ruin the most valuable possessions of the owner. Tudor proprietors took a proactive approach to the issue, and carved the apotropaic marks near where items of value were storedIn Britain it was particularly prevalent during the peak period of the witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries, but was still seen into the 20th century.

These protective measures were taken inside all types and sizes of buildings, irrespective of the status of their occupants. Marks have been found in lowly cottages and high status buildings including the Tower of London. It seemed that homes, businesses, churches and grand houses all had a need of protection.

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The Red Cat of the Red Cat Hotel in North Wootton.

Animals were believed to have special powers, Particularly dead cats, sometimes positioned as if hunting. Cats were also believed to have a sixth sense and might have been hidden as a sacrifice to ward off bad luck and black magic. During the 17th Century, it was common in England to bury mummified cats in the walls or ceilings to deter witches or evil spirits from entering the property. Remains of a cat were found in at the Dukes Head Hotel in Kings Lynn, in room 10 during October 2011.

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Mummified Cat

It was largely in the Middle Ages that the black cat became affiliated with evil. Because cats are nocturnal and roam at night, they were believed to be supernatural servants of witches, or even witches themselves. Partly because of the cat’s sleek movements and eyes that ‘glow’ at night, they became the embodiment of darkness, mystery, and evil, possessing frightening powers. If a black cat walked into the room of an ill person, and the person later died, it was blamed on the cat’s supernatural powers. If a black cat crossed a person’s path without harming them, this indicated that the person was then protected by the devil. Often times, a cat would find shelter with older women who were living in solitude. The cat became a source of comfort and companionship, and the old woman would curse anyone who mistreated it. If one of these tormentors became ill, the witch and her familiar were blamed.

Witches (Bottle)Witch bottles a common counter spell against illness caused by witchcraft was to put the sick person’s urine (and sometimes also hair and fingernails clippings) in a bottle with nails, pins, or threads, cork it tightly, and either set it to heat by the hearth or bury it in the ground. This, as Joseph Blagrave wrote in 1671, ‘will endanger the witches’ life, for … they will be grievously tormented, making their water with great difficulty, if any at all’ (The Astrological Practice of Physick (1671). Usually buried beneath the hearth or near entrances to buildings, their recipe was still known in a Norfolk village in 1939:

“Take a stone bottle, make water in it, fill it with your own toe-nails and finger-nails, iron nails and anything which belongs to you. Hang the bottle over the fire and keep stirring it. The room must be in darkness; you must not speak or make a noise. The witch will come to your door and make a lot of noise and beg you to open the door and let her in. If you do not take any notice, but keep silent, the witch will burst. The strain on the mind of the person when the witch is begging to be let in is usually so great that the person often speaks and the witch is set free.” (E. G. Bales, Folk-Lore 50 (1939), 67).

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A 16th-century Bellarmine jar found on the site of The Forum in Norwich.

Witch bottles are usually found beneath hearths or front-doors, but have also been uncovered from beneath floors and inside walls. Around 200 have been recorded in England, dating back to the 16th century. More than half are grey stoneware bottles and jars called bellarmine, decorated with the faces of grim-looking bearded men. As well as the ingredients mentioned above, they sometimes contained small bones, thorns, pieces of wood and heart-shaped scraps of fabric.

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A witch bottle found in Bury St Edmunds, containing the remains of rusty iron objects

Witches (Candle)‘Candle Smoke Marks’ have been found on ceilings, often in bedrooms or hallways near bedrooms. They consist of magical symbols written on the ceiling with the smoke from a candle. There were also spells written in words on rolls of paper, or scratched in pictures and diagrams on walls.

But perhaps the most common hidden charms of all were old shoes – almost always patched and repaired, usually single, often a child’s. Sometimes other items were hidden with the shoes, such as coins, pipes, spoons, pots, toys, goblets, food, knives, gloves, chicken and cat bones. This superstition dates back at least as far as the 14th century when Buckinghamshire rector, and unofficial English saint, John Schorn is said to have trapped the devil in a boot – something which is depicted on several Norfolk rood screens. More than 1,200 examples have been recorded with one of the earliest found so far hidden in Winchester Cathedral in 1308. And the practise survived into the 20th century. Strange as it may seem, modern shoes are regularly encountered; there was an example not so long ago of a Nike trainer being found in the roof of a central London bank and the clues seemed to indicate that it had been deliberately placed there.

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The lonesome shoe at St. John’s, Cambridge University was discovered while staff members were removing panels to install electrical cables in the Senior Combination Room located in the College’s Tudor-era Second Court. This building was constructed between 1598 and 1602 and was originally home to the Master of the College. However, experts believe it was placed behind the panels between the end of the 17th century and mid-way through the 18th.

In homes, shoes were often placed on a ledge inside a chimney where it was thought they would trap bad spirits. Nothing unusual here; hidden charms were generally placed at entry and exit points, including the hearth which would have been open to the sky. Any supernatural harm circling the house would, hopefully, be put off trying to gain access.

It has been found that some houses had shoes, bottles, marks and cats, all from the same period, hidden together, evidence that there was a very strong urge to protect the property and occupants. Others have been found with many layers of protection, such as the three witch-bottles found mortared into the hearth of a grand house in Essex, at a time when the mistress was known to have been very ill. Maybe it was believed that she was bewitched!

Many hidden charms will still be concealed in buildings so, anyone keen to search for magic charms in their own houses, should try under floorboards or above lintels near doors, in walls and roofs, and around hearths and chimneys. Simply shining the beam of a torch obliquely across hearths or door lintels could reveal ritual marks carved into the stone.

It is known that buildings from the 17th and 18th century are frequently found to contain hidden charms. By their very nature, these charms are concealed so they are often only found by luck or during repairs or demolition. Many, of course, will have vanished without trace into builders skips or the antiques trade so they may have been far more common that we imagine.

Objects such as witch-bottles, dried cats, concealed shoes, horse skulls and written charms – amongst others – have all been found in buildings in Norfolk and throughout East Anglia. These are mainly found during demolition, restoration or sometimes just by exploring the nooks and crannies of a building.

It is a fact that secrecy and mystery still surrounds many of hidden charms, even after they are discovered. Unlike superstitions such as up-turned horseshoes, which are displayed openly, it was thought that magic lost its potency if uncovered and even modern-day householders often don’t want items removed or even discussed – perhaps because a vestige of those old beliefs still remains. It is quite common for extremely sensible, non-superstitious and professional people to suddenly become very superstitious and acutely tuned-in to the supernatural when they find these objects in their home. It is said that one home-owner refused to allow the contents of a bottle found in his home to be examined and insisted that it be re-buried with a small ritual with some nuns. Others have insisted that concealed shoes are returned to their find-spot and that cats be re-concealed.

THE END

The Haunting in Glasshouse Row!

The old ‘Yarmouth Independent’ newspaper carried a two-part article in its January 6th and 13th 1894 editions, entitled ‘Tales and Traditions of Old Yarmouth – A House of Mystery’ This story concerned the haunting in an old housed in Glasshouse Row, so named because the glass works of the celebrated William Absolon had been located there a long, long time ago.

The ‘Rows’ of Great Yarmouth, of which few remain complete, were an unique gridwork of very narrow streets which covered almost all of the old town. They were very narrow streets, most only measering a few feet in width and to quote from the article “most possessed the same quaint, gloomy and somewhat dingy characteristics in common”.

Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) said of them:

“A Row is a long, narrow lane or alley and quite straight, or as nearly as maybe, with houses on each side, both of which you can sometimes touch at once with the finger tips of each hand by stretching out your arms to their full extent. Now and then the houses overhang and even join above your head, converting the Row so far into a tunnel or tubular passage. Many picturesque old bits of domestic architecture is to be found among the Rows. In some Rows there is little more than a blank wall for the double boundary. In others, the houses retreat into tiny square courts (Crown Court was one -see below) where washing and clear starching was done.”

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Unfortunately, a great proportion of these rows were destroyed by bombing during World War 2; subsequent planning and rebuilding has more or less obliterated the rest. However, during the period in which this story is set, the Rows were probably in their hey-day containing, no doubt, a complete cross-section of the Great Yarmouth population. The Row with which this story is concerned was named Glasshouse Row, so named because a glass factory once stood in, or close to, its precincts. Glasshouse Row extended from George Street to North Quay in the east/west direction.

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Diagram of Glasshouse Row and its immediate surroundings. The actual haunted house can not be located since it, and indeed most of this area was destroyed in 1941 and later rebuilt with flats which crossed the line of the old Glasshouse Row.

In 1797 there stood in the middle of this Row an ancient house which for many years had the doubtful reputation of being haunted. Such was its reputation that it had remained more or less unlived  in for many years, what few tenents had been brave enough to rent  the property invariably moved out again within weeks, if not days.

All sorts of stories circulated as to the nature of the haunting. The general concensus of opinion was that, many years previously, someone had been murdered within its walls although opinions differed as to who exactly was responsibly for the haunting. Some said it was a guilty spirit of the murderer that wandered the house, whilst others maintained that it was the restless spirit of the victim which could not rest because its body was buried in unhallowed ground. Yet another section of opinion said that the spirits of both the murderer and his victim haunted the place and that they periodically re-inacted the grim tragedy. Whatever the true story,  the reputation of the place was enough to keep even the most stouted hearted away.

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A typical Row

The lack of tenants and upkeep certainly seemed to have shown on the old building. The windows became broken, the roof tiles became dislodged to allow rain to pour in through gaping holes. The woodwork became rotten and the whole placed was completely devoid of paint. All in all, the house presented quite a very sorry sight, with the only occupants for any length of time being a colony of rats.

The building continued in this derelict state for a number of years, until the owner died and it changed hands. The new owner, who one suspects went into the deal without doing his homework, soon became anxious to get rid of his newly acquired ‘white elephant’, which because of its reputation was more of a liability that an asset; so he put it up for sale. Needless to say, no queue formed to purchase the house and many months passed before one person eventually became interested. The owner was approached by this middle-aged man of an austere appearance and with a brusque manner, his name was David Browne…….. They haggled of course but Browne being a very determined fellow managed to secure the property for a very low price and, although not ignorant of the building’s reputation, considered that he had secured the best bargin. With little ado, he had the house repaired and furnished and within a short time he and his family had moved in. The family consisted of Browne, his wife, daughter of about 12 years of age and an aging mother – a kindly old lady who was devoted to her son.

During the first few weeks of their occupancy all went well and Browne could not help but congratulate himself on what appeared to be a shrewed purchase. However, this period of tranquility was not to last for much longer, as subsequent events soon proved. After a residency of about two months, the family began to be constantly annoyed by the sound of doors being slammed violently shut. Even if they were shut were closed tight, unseen hands would quietly open them and violently slam them shut. At first, the slammings were attributed to draughts so steps were taken to make the whole house draught free. However, instead of curing the problem the precautions taken only led to the opposite effect. Now, instead of the doors slamming occasionally as before, they slammed constantly in quick succession. If this was not enough, there came the occassionally the tramping of heavy feet ascending the stairs, followed by the heavy ‘thud’ of something hitting the floor overhead. At other times, light hesitant footsteps would be heard stealthily pattering about the house, accompanied by a soft ‘rustling’ sound like that of a long skirt brushing the floor. The door of the room in which the family were sitting in would invariably be thrown open and some invisible presence would enter, walk around the room, pause for a seconds to seemingly ‘examine’ the trespassers and then depart leaving behind an air of sinister ‘creepiness’.

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Naturally, all this soon left its mark on the family, especially the female members who were becoming more and more frightened. Browne himself, being a hard-headed man, would not openly admit that anything strange was happening, although deep inside he knew that there was more to this strange phenomena than could be explained – and he was more than uneasy! This nagging realisation was gradually to cause him much worry as to the best way to deal with whatever or whoever was causing the disturbances. He went to the former owner, but received little sympathy and certainly no help. At this point his anxiety increased to a point of desperation and he decided to visit one Nancy Green, an elderly woman who had the reputation locally of being something of a ‘witch’. She concocted love-potions for women, could find lost articles and cured those who considered that they had been bewitched and, above all, was known far and wide for her power over evil spirits. It was also reumoured that she could work evil against people – if the price was right!In fact, she was shunned by the majority of the populace whose only respect for her stemmed from fear. Such then was the person who Browne, in his desperation, consulted. Her house was situated in Crown Court.

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A modern touch to what used to be a typical Row courtyard where washing and dyeing was carried out.

David Browne knocked loudly on Nancy Green’s front door and, after what seemed to be an eternity to his mind, the door opened and Nancy invited him in. She then startled her visiter by first telling him exactly what the nature of his visit was about and then saying that she was unable to help as she had no control over evil spirits. Then as if teasing Browne she went on to say that she did have something else to tell him, but then silence – she said no more. Minutes ticked by and Nancy continued to show absolutely no interest in resuming any conversation with Browne. This impasse in any form of sensible communication with the woman soon became impossible for him and the little patience that he had normally snapped! Browne demanded to know what it was that she had to tell him and, receiving nothing but a silent stare, cursed her. “Damned you woman, you are nothing but a charlatan and a cheat!” Nancy’s response was to look him straight in the eye and break her self imposed period of silence by calmly telling him that when he arrived home he would find one member of his family Dead!

Browne’s immediate response to what he thought was a threat was to laugh – so Nancy thought. Then he called her a liar and left for home, unable not to ponder on what the woman had said. The sight that met him as he approached his front door was to see his wife in tears. She told him that in his absence his very own mother had collapsed and died……………………..!

The period of burial and mourning passed, but surprisingly perhaps, Browne made no immediate attempt to move his family out of the house in Glasshouse Row; in fact, the days passed into weeks and the weeks grew to five months during which time the whole house remained quiet and free from disturbances. But, any thought that the house would remain in this ‘normal’ state was cruelly shattered by a series of events that was triggered by piercing screams one night. These were followed by first a single thud overhead which reminded Browne and his wife of similar passed thuds which helped prompt him to visit Nancy Green. On this ocassion, they saw to their horror the gaunt figure of a very old man, wearing a long white night shirt and red flannel night-cap. He gazed at the couple for some seconds before sighing and disappearing through the bedroom door. The screams stopped…….

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Yarmouth Rows (Wizened Old Lady)7…..A further period of peace and tranquility descended on the house which made Browne think that the appearance of the old man had been the culmination of a whole  haunting and that maybe it was now finished. With this thought and some discussion, the family decided to stay in the house a while longer. Big mistake! Once more those piercing screams were again heard, only this time accompanied by a succession of loud crashes. Browne was to discover that, in the adjoining bedroom from which the screams were heard, every article of furniture, apart from the bed, was piled up in one corner, whilst the bed had been moved from its usual position to the centre of the room. Sitting at the head of the bed was a little wizened old lady, dressed in a black silk dress. She was intently occupied with a pack of cards which were spread out on the bed. She appeared to be completely unaware of Browne’s presence and continued rearranging the cards whilst muttering to herself. It was as if she was trying to see if the cards would foretell something! At length she gave a low chuckle, gathered the cards together and glided to the far end of the room and vanished. Browne was spell-bound and woundered if it was just his imagination, until he saw again the stacked up furniture. This was the final straw which convinced him that they should move out.

David Browne wasted no time in vacating the house but unsurprisingly he failed to sell it and it was left empty; Browne, in fact, thought that he had arrived at a point where he would never sell it, simply because stories of the Browne family’s misfortunes had spread throughout the neighbourhood and beyond. However and somewhat inexplicably, the notorious Nancy Green turned up out of the blue as it were and asked Browne for his permission to live in the house as a rented tenant; she gave no explanation. At first he was more that a little reluctant to have any more dealings with her but eventually, after some thought, agreed; probably because he knew that it would be impossible to find anyone else to take on the premises. No one knows why Nancy wanted to live in that particular house in Glasshouse Row. Did she have some past connection with not only the house……but maybe with that which caused its doors to slam, maybe the old man in the nigh-shirt who sighed…… and maybe, just maybe…the old lady who appeared to be able to ‘read’ cards? Of course, everything would be pure speculation with no human knowing this side of the divide. But, what was to become known to everyone hereabouts, was that in less than one month from moving in, Nancy Green was found dead, her facial appearance frozen in contorted terror!

Everything that happened after this, including the movements of David Brown and his family, was never-ever recorded. It was, however, suggested in the orginal Newspaper Article, that the house had been ‘exorcised’ and in the 25 years preceeding the 1894 Article, no further hauntings of the house were heard of…. but we don’t know what the future holds….do we!

FOOTNOTE: Today, very little remains of Glasshouse Row, certainly not that area in which the haunted house once stood. In fact most of it, running westwards from George Street, has long gone and replaced by a block of flats which extends across the original path of the Row at one point. Dare the question be asked as to whether there has been any reports of hauntings in. or near, these modern flats? Answers on a postcard please!

THE END

 

 

British Folklore: Ten Dragons

Although Beowulf and Saint George are the most famous dragon slayers in British mythology, even they cannot defeat all the dragons that appear in the larger folklore of England, Wales, and Scotland. Many of these dragons, or “worms” as they are frequently called, have stories which link them with fixed locations throughout the UK. As such, a large portion of Britain’s dragons are part of local folktales that have been handed down over centuries.

1 The Red And White Dragons

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Photo via Wikimedia

The image of the dragon is an integral part of Welsh identity. As evidence of this, a red dragon is emblazoned on the country’s flag as a symbol of Welsh pride and nationalism. This dragon, along with a white dragon, appear in The Mabinogion—one of the earliest examples of British prose literature and an important collection of Welsh mythology. Compiled sometime between the 12th and 13th centuries, the Mabinogion contains numerous tales that have become famous across the world, such as some of the earliest accounts of the Celtic leader King Arthur. “Lludd and Llefelys,” another famous tale, details the important war between the red dragon and the invading white dragon.

In the story, the foreign white dragon is so fearsome that its cries cause women to miscarry and its mere presence is enough to kill livestock and ruin crops. Determined to rid his kingdom of this menace, King Lludd of Britain visits his brother Llefelys in France. Llefelys tells his brother to prepare a pit filled with mead and cover it with cloth. After Lludd completes this task, the white dragon begins to drink from the pit and falls into a drunken stupor. With the monster asleep, Lludd captures the dragon and imprisons it in Dinas Emrys, a wooden hillock in Wales.

One of the more common interpretations of this story is that the red dragon represents the native Celtic inhabitants of Britain while the white dragon is a symbol of the Germanic Anglo-Saxons who began invading England in the fifth century. A related idea is that the white dragon is the symbol of the Saxon warlord Vortigern while the red dragon is the flag of King Arthur’s forces. Either way, “Lludd and Llefelys” does show a close relationship between Celtic Britain and Gaul (today’s France), which may make this story’s origins even older than the fifth century.

2 Dragon Of Loschy Hill

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“The Dragon of Loschy Hill” is a tragic Yorkshire tale that is recounted by Reverend Thomas Parkinson in his 1888 book Yorkshire Legends and Traditions. According to Parkinson’s account, a large dragon once haunted a wooded area later known as Loschy’s Hill in the parish of Stonegrave. As the dragon terrified local villagers, a brave knight named Peter Loschy decided to kill the beast once and for all. While wearing a special suit of armor that featured several razor blades, Loschy and a trusted dog set out to find the dragon.

Feeling confident that the knight would be just another meal, the dragon wrapped itself around Loschy’s armor and tried to squeeze the human into eternal submission. Loschy’s armour gave the dragon numerous cuts, but all of them healed quickly. Although stunned by the dragon’s supernatural powers, Loschy managed to cut off pieces of the dragon’s skin with his sword. His dog then carried the pieces to Nunnington Church. Loschy and his dog managed to dismember the dragon so thoroughly that it could not regenerate. Loschy was so overjoyed that he didn’t realize that his face was coated in the dragon’s poison. Upon licking his master’s face, the faithful dog ingested the poison and died. In turn, the poison fumes became too much for Loschy, and he died by his dog’s side. As a show of gratitude, the villagers of Stonegrave buried Loschy next his dog in Nunnington Church, where stone engravings retell the story for all to see.

3 Sockburn Worm

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Photo credit: Timothy Dawson

The Sockburn worm is a wyvern, not a dragon. Although a relative of the dragon, northern European folklore depicts wyverns as smaller creatures with the head of a dragon, the body of a snake, the wings of a bat, and two legs that protrude above a long, serpentlike tail. Despite being smaller than dragons, wyverns were known for being exceptionally vicious. The Sockburn worm was no different.

Not long after the Norman Conquest, the Sockburn worm began terrorizing the country surrounding the River Tees in County Durham. The Sockburn worm used its ability to fly and its poisonous breath to wreak havoc all across the Sockburn Peninsula. Realizing that the wyvern must be killed to save the realm, a knight named Sir John Conyers visited a church and offered up the life of his only son to God in preparation for the battle. A document known as the Bowes Manuscript asserts that Conyers not only killed the wyvern but earned land and a title because of his heroism.

Some historians have suggested that the Sockburn worm represents a marauding Danish warrior while others see Conyers as a Norman knight who helped to legitimize Anglo-French rule in the northeast. Whatever the truth, the weapon that Conyers supposedly used to kill the Sockburn worm is still on display in the Durham Cathedral and is called the Conyers falchion.

4 Mester Stoor Worm

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Photo credit: M.H. Squire

Located in the far north of Scotland, the Orkney Islands have an ancient history that stretches all the way back to the Stone Age. During the ninth century, Orkney fell prey to numerous Viking raids from Norway. Ultimately, the islands were settled by Scandinavians who helped to annex the islands for Norwegian and later Dano-Norwegian kings. As the Orkneys offered a way for Germanic and Celtic cultures to interact, the islands became home to unique folklore. As part of that folklore, the Mester stoor worm remains a thoroughly Orcadian tale.

As the legend goes, the Mester stoor worm was a gigantic sea serpent that could wrap itself around the entire world. When it moved, the Mester stoor worm caused earthquakes and other natural disasters. Owing to the monster’s poisonous breath and its habit of smashing ships to pieces, most knights steered clear of the creature. One day, a powerful wizard promised the king that the sea beast could be killed if the king gave up his daughter to the wizard. Not wanting to lose his daughter, the king offered the entire kingdom to any brave warrior who killed the Mester stoor worm.

An unlikely hero emerged by the name of Assipattle, a slow-witted farm boy who killed the dragon by guiding a ship into the dragon’s stomach. There, Assipattle applied burning peat to the dragon’s liver, which eventually caused an explosion that forever rid the world of the Mester stoor worm. According to the legend, the dead beast did bring about a positive change, for the dragon’s scattered teeth created the Orkney Islands.

5 Bignor Hill Dragon

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Photo credit: Simon Carey

Not much is known about the Bignor Hill dragon. Its name appears only sporadically in the historical record, yet the few clues about the beast are quite tantalizing. In the 19th century, The Gentleman’s Magazine recorded that the local inhabitants of Bignor Hill, an area in Sussex dotted with Roman roads, believed that an ancient Celtic dragon lived on top of a nearby hill.

Some folktales spoke of the surrounding hills as being part of the dragon’s skinfolds while others pointed out that the dragon’s den was close to a ruined Roman villa. This later tale is interesting because it may highlight an interpretation of the Bignor Hill dragon as some sort of holdout from the Roman occupation of Britain, which introduced the Roman religion on the island. The notion that the dragon is of Celtic origin likewise points to a Christian demonization of pagan practices.

Although the origins of the Bignor Hill dragon are unknown, Sussex is awash in dragon tales, making it a treasure trove of dragon folklore.

6 Lyminster Knucker

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Lyminster, Sussex, was once home to a knucker. Based on the Old English word nicor, which means “water dragon,” knuckers are predominately found in knuckerholes, ponds that are present throughout Sussex. The Lyminster knucker lived in one such knuckerhole near the major church of Lyminster. The knucker began its reign of terror by snatching away livestock. Then the water dragon began dragging away all the young girls from the village until the only maiden left was the king’s daughter. With few options left, the king of Sussex offered his daughter as the prize for anyone who could slay the dragon.

Three different versions of the legend record three different heroes. One legend has it that a wandering knight killed the dragon before taking the princess as his wife. In another version, a local man named Jim Puttock kills the dragon by feeding it poisoned pudding. A third version says that a man named Jim Pulk slays the dragon with poisoned pudding but forgets to wash the dragon’s poison off his skin and dies as a result. These competing versions merely highlight the importance of the Lyminster knucker story to Sussex folklore. St. Mary Magdalene’s Church in Lyminster is still known as the home of the “Slayer’s Slab“—a tomb that supposedly houses the bones of the man who killed the Lyminster knucker.

7 Laidly Worm Of Spindleston Heugh

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Photo credit: Joseph Jacobs

“The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh” began as a Northumbrian ballad that was passed down through song in northern England. The story begins with the king of Northumbria, who lived inside Bamburgh Castle with his wife and children. When the first queen died, the king took a malicious witch as his bride. The king’s strong son, Childe Wynd, is out to sea, so there is no one in the castle who can stop the witch’s evil plans. Jealous of the beautiful Princess Margaret, the witch turns the young girl into a dragon. The princess remains that way until Childe Wynd returns and kisses the dragon. The prince’s kiss breaks the spell, which allows the prince to claim the throne. As revenge, Childe Wynde curses the witch and turns her into a toad.

This is just one version of this classic tale. In another version, the castle is called Bamborough and the witch’s curse is far worse. Princess Margaret becomes an uncontrollably hungry dragon that must feast upon the area livestock. However, both versions draw inspiration from the Icelandic saga of the shape-shifter Alsol and her lover Hjalmter.

8 The Mordiford Wyvern

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The story of Maud and the Mordiford wyvern is a rather unusual legend. Set in the Herefordshire village of Mordiford, the story concerns a young girl named Maud who finds a baby wyvern while out walking one morning. Maud takes the small creature back to her home as a pet and feeds it milk regularly. As the creature grows older, it develops a taste for human flesh and begins dining on the Mordiford villagers. Despite its cruelty, the wyvern remains loyal to Maud and refuses to eat her. However, even Maud cannot get the wyvern to stop its killing spree. It makes its home on a nearby ridge and its constant movements back and forth create the Serpent Path, a twisting road that ends at a local river.

Several versions of the creature’s demise exist. In one, the scion of the Garston family manages to kill the beast after a fierce ambush. Another version says that a condemned criminal killed the wyvern to escape capital punishment.

9 The Dragon Of Longwitton

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For a time, the inhabitants of Longwitton, Northumberland, were barred from three holy wells. This was not because the water was poisoned but rather because a fearsome dragon kept them away. A hero did not appear until a knight named Sir Guy, Earl of Warwick accepted the task of killing the dragon. For three days, Sir Guy and the dragon fought each other. During that time, Sir Guy grew disenchanted because each cut and stab did nothing to the dragon. Once struck, the dragon simply used magic to heal its own wounds. On the third day, Sir Guy noticed that the dragon kept its tail inside one of the wells throughout the battle. Realizing that the sacred waters allowed the dragon to constantly heal itself, Sir Guy persuaded the dragon to move away from the wells entirely, thereby leaving it vulnerable. Once away from the holy waters, Sir Guy easily managed to kill the creature.

More detailed versions of the story proclaim that the waters were known for their healing properties throughout Northumbria, and as such, the dragon coveted the wells for its own purposes. In some tales, the brave knight also uses a magic ointment to protect himself from the dragon’s breath.

1 Worm Of Linton

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Photo credit: Pasicles

According to 12th-century stories from the Scottish Borders, the Linton worm lived in the “Worm’s Den”—a hill near the village of Linton in Roxburghshire. At dusk and dawn, the dragon left its den to prey upon sheep, cows, and people. All the weapons used against the creature proved useless, and before long, Linton had been reduced to a wasteland.

When word of the dragon reached the ears of William (or John) de Somerville, the Laird of Lariston, the courageous knight decided to act. Riding north, de Somerville noticed that the dragon frequently consumed everything that stood in its way. However, when faced with something too large to swallow, the dragon would lie still with its mouth open. Realizing that this made the dragon vulnerable, de Somerville had a blacksmith create an iron spear with a wheel on its tip. De Somerville placed burning peat on top of the wheel. When he journeyed inside the worm’s mouth on horseback, he placed the fire inside of the dragon, creating a fatal wound. In its death throes, the Linton worm’s thrashing body created the many hills that today populate the region. For his actions, Linton Church (or Kirk) created a carved stone to record the story for posterity.

In some versions, the death of the Linton worm occurred during the reign of King William the Lion, who ruled Scotland from 1143 until 1214. Supposedly, King William greeted de Somerville as “my gallant Saint George” to enhance the nobleman’s confidence. Also, besides the carved stone in Linton Church, de Somerville’s victory is supposedly commemorated by the de Somerville coat of arms, which features a green, fire-breathing dragon on top of the tympanum.

By Benjamin Welton

The Pagan Origins of Easter

Is it worth mentioning that Easter is both a festival for western Christian religions and a holiday for both those with an ecumenical bent and for those of a more secular disposition? Maybe not for we know that for many it is a win win situation, the best of both worlds as they say.

The religious know that Easter is a celebration in honour of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, as described in the New Testament as having occurred three days after his crucifixion at Calvary. It is also the weekend when children excitedly wait for the Easter bunny to arrive, along with the delivery of their chocolate egg treat.

Easter is, as everyone knows, is a ‘movable feast’ which corresponds with the first Sunday following the full moon after the March equinox. It therefore occurs on different dates around the world because western churches use the Gregorian calendar, while eastern churches use the Julian calendar. So where did this ‘movable feast’ begin, and what are the origins of the traditions and customs celebrated on this important day around the world?

Christian’s today celebrate Easter Sunday as the resurrection of Jesus. Image source.

Most historians, including Biblical scholars, agree that Easter was originally a pagan festival and the word Easter is of Saxon origin, namely, Eastra, the goddess of spring, in whose honour sacrifices were offered at Passover time each year. By the eighth century Anglo–Saxons had adopted the name to designate the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. However, even among those who maintain that Easter has pagan roots, there is some disagreement over which pagan tradition the festival emerged from. Here we will explore some of those perspectives.

Resurrection as a symbol of rebirth

One theory that has been put forward is that the Easter story of crucifixion and resurrection is symbolic of rebirth and renewal and retells the cycle of the seasons, the death and return of the sun.

According to some, the Easter story comes from the Sumerian legend of Damuzi (Tammuz) and his wife Inanna (Ishtar), an epic myth called “The Descent of Inanna” found inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets dating back to 2100 BC. When Tammuz dies, Ishtar is grief–stricken and follows him to the underworld. In the underworld, she enters through seven gates, and her worldly attire is removed. “Naked and bowed low” she is judged, killed, and then hung on display. In her absence, the earth loses its fertility, crops cease to grow and animals stop reproducing. Unless something is done, all life on earth will end.

After Inanna has been missing for three days her assistant goes to other gods for help. Finally one of them Enki, creates two creatures who carry the plant of life and water of life down to the Underworld, sprinkling them on Inanna and Damuzi, resurrecting them, and giving them the power to return to the earth as the light of the sun for six months. After the six months are up, Tammuz returns to the underworld of the dead, remaining there for another six months, and Ishtar pursues him, prompting the water god to rescue them both. Thus were the cycles of winter death and spring life.

The Descent of Inanna. Image source.

Drawing parallels between the story of Jesus and the epic of Inanna “does not mean that there wasn’t a real person, Jesus, who was crucified, but rather that the story about it is structured and embellished in accordance with a pattern that was very ancient and widespread.”

The Sumerian goddess Inanna is known outside of Mesopotamia by her Babylonian name, “Ishtar”. In ancient Canaan, Ishtar is known as Astarte, and her counterparts in the Greek and Roman pantheons are known as Aphrodite and Venus. In the 4th Century, when Christians identified the exact site in Jerusalem where the empty tomb of Jesus had been located, they selected the spot where a temple of Aphrodite (Astarte/Ishtar/Inanna) stood. The temple was torn down and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built, the holiest church in the Christian world.

The story of Inanna and Damuzi is just one of a number of accounts of dying and rising gods that represent the cycle of the seasons and the stars. For example, the resurrection of Egyptian Horus; the story of Mithras, who was worshipped at Springtime; and the tale of Dionysus, resurrected by his grandmother. Among these stories are prevailing themes of fertility, conception, renewal, descent into darkness, and the triumph of light over darkness or good over evil.

Easter as a celebration of the Goddess of Spring

A related perspective is that, rather than being a representation of the story of Ishtar, Easter was originally a celebration of Eostre, goddess of Spring, otherwise known as Ostara, Austra, and Eastre. One of the most revered aspects of Ostara for both ancient and modern observers is a spirit of renewal.

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Eostre, goddess of Spring, otherwise known as Ostara, Austra or Eastre.

Celebrated at Spring Equinox on March 21, Ostara marks the day when light is equal to darkness, and will continue to grow. As the bringer of light after a long dark winter, the goddess was often depicted with the hare, an animal that represents the arrival of spring as well as the fertility of the season. The idea of resurrection was ingrained within the celebration of Ostara: “Ostara, Eástre and seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of up-springing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the christian’s God.

Most analyses of the origin of the word ‘Easter’ maintain that it was named after a goddess mentioned by the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede, who wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, translated in Bede’s time as “Paschal month”) was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”.

The origins of Easter customs

The most widely-practiced customs on Easter Sunday relate to the symbol of the rabbit (‘Easter bunny’) and the egg.  As outlined previously, the rabbit was a symbol associated with Eostre, representing the beginning of Springtime. Likewise, the egg has come to represent Spring, fertility and renewal.  In Germanic mythology, it is said that Ostara healed a wounded bird she found in the woods by changing it into a hare. Still partially a bird, the hare showed its gratitude to the goddess by laying eggs as gifts.

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Ostara/Eostre

The Encyclopedia Britannica clearly explains the pagan traditions associated with the egg: “The egg as a symbol of fertility and of renewed life goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who had also the custom of colouring and eating eggs during their spring festival.” In ancient Egypt, an egg symbolised the sun, while for the Babylonians, the egg represents the hatching of the Venus Ishtar, who fell from heaven to the Euphrates.

Relief with Phanes, c. 2nd century A.D. Orphic god Phanes emerging from the cosmic egg, surrounded by the zodiac. Image source.

In many Christian traditions, the custom of giving eggs at Easter celebrates new life. Christians remember that Jesus, after dying on the cross, rose from the dead, showing that life could win over death. For Christians the egg is a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection, as when they are cracked open, they stand for the empty tomb. Regardless of the very ancient origins of the symbol of the egg, most people agree that nothing symbolises renewal more perfectly than the egg – round, endless, and full of the promise of life.

While many of the pagan customs associated with the celebration of Spring were at one stage practised alongside Christian Easter traditions, they eventually came to be absorbed within Christianity, as symbols of the resurrection of Jesus.  The First Council of Nicaea (325) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the March equinox.

Whether it is observed as a religious holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or a time for families in the northern hemisphere to enjoy the coming of Spring and celebrate with egg decorating and Easter bunnies, the celebration of Easter still retains the same spirit of rebirth and renewal, as it has for thousands of years.

Text after April Holloway

March Hares & Witches

The Customs and Traditons of Spring

The ‘Spring’ or ‘Vernal Equinox’, which was once called ‘Ostara’, occurs on either 20th, 21st or 22nd March when the sun enters ‘Aries’ according to the Earth’s orbit and the insertion of leap years. The Spring Equinox marks the time when the sun crosses the celestial equator northwards or the ‘half way point’ resulting in equal twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night. At the equinox the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west after which the daylight hours grow increasingly longer until the sun reaches its highest point in the sky at the ‘Summer Solstice’, which occurs in June. 

The Oestra Hare in folklore and tradition

Have you ever wondered how the symbol of the rabbit became associated with the Easter Festival? The origin of the Easter Bunny probably goes back to the festival’s connection with the pagan goddess Eostre.

Eostre (sometimes spelt Oestre) was a fertility goddess from whom we derive the word “oestrogen” and she is closely associated with fertility symbols such as eggs. The rabbit is known as a highly fertile creature and hence an obvious choice for Easter symbolism.

In fact the use of the rabbit is probably a mistake – the Easter “bunny” is more likely to have been a hare, since it is the hare that is usually considered the sacred creature of Eostre.

Pagan fertility festivals at the time of the Spring equinox were common. It was believed that at this time, when day and night were of equal length, male and female energies were also in balance.

The hare is often associated with moon goddesses; the egg and the hare together represent the god and the goddess respectively.  The earliest known reference to our modern Easter Bunny tradition appears to be from 16th century Germany. In the 18th century, German settlers to America brought the tradition with them. The Bunny was known by them as Oschter Haws (a corruption of the German Osterhase ) and brought gifts of chocolate, sweets and Easter Eggs to good children. Often children would make up nests for Oschter Haws, sometimes using their Easter bonnets, and the Bunny would leave his treats there. 

Witch Hares

It is because of this strong connection with pagan traditions that Hares were strongly associated with witches and witchcraft in Christian times. People claimed that a witch could shape shift her form at night and become a hare. These solitary creatures, rarely seen, sometimes standing on their hind legs like a person, aroused suspicion. When in distress they uttered a strange, almost human-like cry, which gave the animal a supernatural quality. For its behaviour would mimic that of a supposed witch. In this form she stole milk or food, or destroyed crops. Others insisted that hares were only witches’ familiars.

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British Folklore: Benefiting from Modern Culture

The future of folklore is bright, says David Barnett. It might not be all about fairies and goblins, but the art of story telling and traditional legends is alive and the country’s best-loved tales are rebooted for the 21st century.

The Arthurian legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have existed for more than a millennium James Archer

Gather round, children, for I tell you a story of things lost, or perhaps about to be. Bide a while as I stir the embers of our fire and gaze into its dancing flames, contemplating the old tales of our people. Folklore, myth and legend, the glue that holds the disparate tribes of these islands together, the narratives that pre-date written history, that try to make sense of the world at the same time as hinting at the other, at places and things that reside beyond the veil of night. About to be lost, all of it – Well, that’s if Center Parcs is to be believed.

OK, that’s enough. Turn the light on and unmute the TV. Center Parcs, did you say? The company that provides woodland lodge holidays for those of us who like the idea of getting back to nature but don’t want to eschew heated swimming pools and well-Tarmaced paths?

Indeed. Center Parcs has commissioned a study into what they call the future of British folklore, to mark the company’s 30 years having sites at Sherwood Forest and Elvedon, Norfolk, places obviously redolent in the folk legends of Britain thanks of course to its associations with the mythical outlaw Robin Hood and Black Shuck etc.

The survey reveals that almost a quarter of those asked could not even name one story from folklore. While 80 per cent of respondents were familiar with Robin Hood, when presented with a list of other classic folklore tales and characters – the report mentions King Arthur, Jack the Giant Killer and the Loch Ness Monster among them – on average those questioned could only recognise two.

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Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet were prominent among Robin Hood’s band of merry men (Hulton Archive/Getty)

And despite two-thirds of respondents believing that traditional stories help fire children’s imaginations, about the same number (64 per cent) said they had no intention of passing on folklore tales to their own children, and a fifth said they didn’t really remember being told the stories in the first place.

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Of course, Center Parcs has a dog in this fight (this being about folklore, a spectral dog, of course; maybe even Norfolk’s Black Shuck or Yorkshire’s Gytrash), and wants to encourage special family time of sharing folklorish tales, and if that’s at one of their parcs then all the better. And they’ve teamed up with the Folklore Society to create a map of the UK locating some of the country’s best-loved tales.

Jeremy Harte, a committee member of The Folklore Society, said, “Countries aren’t just made up of rocks and rivers. They’re also made up of the stories we tell each other, about the places we know. There are stories about heroes and heroines like Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest and Lady Godiva in Coventry, tales of mermaids around the coasts, giant warriors on the mountains and hidden treasure in the earth. These tales give a special character to our homes, and poetry to our landscape.

“However, we’ve seen from this research that our rich folkloric tradition may be slipping through our fingers, which is deeply saddening and an issue we are passionate about tackling alongside Center Parcs. While there is a wealth of information about folklore on various tourist, council and heritage organisation sites, there clearly may be a decline in stories being passed from generation to generation in the traditional way. By curating this map, we hope to remind people of the fabled history in their local areas, and hope to see these stories re-told for generations to come.”

But are we really in danger of losing the old tales? It almost goes without saying that children today have more distractions than ever before, and we are regularly told that not enough of us are reading to our children, thus losing that perfect bedtime opportunity to impart the classic stories, or variations of them.  But while the days of gathering around the hearth to share stories on a dark and stormy night might be long gone, folklore still seeps into our daily lives, and rather than technology killing off folklore, it’s actually revitalising it.

Go on to Twitter today and search the #FolkloreThursday hashtag and you’ll find hundreds of posts from people sharing old stories, photographs, drawings, local legends… it’s a hugely popular weekly event on the social network, with an international reach.

Dee Dee Chainey is one of the co-founders of #FolkloreThursday, and she says: “What we’ve actually seen is a massive increase in interest in folklore over the last two years since it began. I’m amazed to say that we still find the hashtag trending most weeks, testament to its popularity, and we now have a community of almost 16,000 people – and these are just the ones on Twitter.

“There are many more on Facebook, and others who don’t use social media at all that we’ve been able to reach out to through our newsletter and website, which serves as an online folklore magazine with contributors ranging from local community folklore groups, museums, and best-selling writers and artists from around the UK and the world.

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Many people are not familiar with the legend of Nessie !! (Keystone/Getty)

“Each Thursday, people come together to explore folklore and tales from their own communities on #FolkloreThursday, as well as learn about traditions from all over the world. We’ve been hugely excited to see people spending all week researching folklore from around Britain as well as globally, and asking their parents and grandparents about their old traditions, just so they can come on Twitter that week and share them.

“It’s been lovely to see people from the global community engaging with us, too – we’ve now got people coming on from the US, India, Japan, South America and the Arabian Gulf, all sharing their folklore, and listening to stories and traditions from the UK, which is where #FolkloreThursday started – it’s now a global thing.

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‘Maleficent’ is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story from the wicked stepmother’s point of view (Walt Disney Studios/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock)

“It’s great to see everyone coming together to share centuries of stories, and a wealth of tradition, and using it to create a really exciting conversation, that has no boundaries, and easily transcends differences and division, to really bring people together, and show us how we’re all so similar, and yet so wonderfully different at the same time.”

And we shouldn’t worry about our children missing out on the classic stories; they get them, but just in different forms. Chainey says, “While watching out for fairies in the barrows of the land might be a thing of the past, almost all of us have heard of Sleeping Beauty’s endless sleep, a story that was revamped and told from the side of the villain in the film Maleficent with Angelina Jolie.

“While Disney has been accused of ‘prettifying’ fairy tales, we’ve all seen parades of little girls dressed as Belle from Beauty and the Beast, which teaches about inner beauty. The popularity of more obscure folklore is also rife: we only need to think of Frozen, inspired by ‘The Snow Queen’, Tangled, which modernises and reinterprets ‘Rapunzel’ or Moana, which touches on folklore from Polynesia. People are flocking to cinemas with their children to watch these versions of time-old tales.”

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The tale of ‘The Snow Queen’ received a reboot in ‘Frozen’ (Rex/Shutterstock)

Literature still mines myths, legends and fairy tales; from Angela Carter to Philip Pullman, from Joanne Harris to Neil Gaiman – both of who have recently retold Norse myths, for example. Chainey also cites authors Carrie Ann Noble and Jackie Morris, and adds: “They are more popular than ever, and they’re using folklore to explore contemporary issues like the plight of refugees in their work. Storytelling, too, is far from a dying art, and people are clamouring around to hear traditional tales from all over the world. Jan Blake is a fantastic teller of diverse stories, and she’s seen huge success over recent years – the importance of folktales is not going unnoticed, evidenced by her TEDx talks on the power of telling traditional stories.”

​Chainey has no beef with the Center Parcs research, and she and her co-founders of #FolkloreThursday do work closely with The Folklore Society. “It’s excellent to see the traditional tales of Britain being brought to life with a folklore map of Britain, and the project from Center Parcs and The Folklore Society is admirable, and certainly something that many people will really enjoy engaging with,” she says. But she takes issue with the prophecies of doom for folklore, and certainly thinks there’s life in the old black dog yet.

“These stories are still relevant, as by listening and retelling them we explore social norms, and through engaging with them, we form our own identities and work out where we stand in our communities; in essence, traditional tales help us reflect on what it means to be human,” says Chainey. “By telling stories from our communities, and delving into the stories and traditions of other cultures, we can explore the similarities that run through the global community, and learn to appreciate the differences, and appreciate each person and community in all of their glorious humanity, each a melting pot of traditions, stories, and things that make them wonderfully unique.

“Folklore is not just something old and dead; it’s not all about goblins and fairies, and certainly not restricted to the stories we tell. Folklore is very much alive, and stretches to the food we eat and customs we teach our own children: It’s the food our grandparents taught us to make at the kitchen table that we now pass on, it’s the songs and games our children learn from their friends in the school yard, it’s the little traditions each family observes at their festivals – whether that’s kissing under the mistletoe, or having something old, new, borrowed and blue at a wedding.”

By David Barnet

Great Yarmouth’s Very own ‘Old Shuck’!

Both the source of this story and its author is unknown to me; it came into my hands via an old ‘Gestetner’ printed copy which was also undated and unsigned – I suspect though that the contents were written in the 1970/80’s, but please don’t ask me why. Having read it several times and arrived at my own conclusions, I thought I should broadcast it to a wider audience in the hope that such a tale will interest others. In doing so, I should say that the detail is unabridged and with persons’ names retained – as they appeared in the original. What litle editing has been done was aimed at ‘tweaking’ the grammer and syntax. Other than that I can only point out that I am merely the messenger here – so don’t shoot me!

“That enigmatic, legendary creature, in the form of a large black dog, crops up over and over again in the annals of East Anglian Folklore. From Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast, down through the region, through Broadland and the heart of Norfolk, through the Waveney Valley and down further along the Suffolk coast and into Essex – this creature has, from time immemorial, struck fear and terror into the hearts of our forebears. His name may vary between “Old Shuck”, “Black Shuck”, “Owd Snarley-how”, “Hateful-Thing”, “Galley-Trot” or “Shug-monkey”, but this infamous creature is known throughout East Anglia.

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Almost everything about ‘Old Shuck’, as he is most commonly known, is a mystery. Even the derivation of his name comes, according to some, from the old Anglo-Saxon word “Scucca”, meaning Satan or Devil; from the less imaginative, the name comes from the local worf “Shucky” meaning ‘shaggy’ – no doubt referring to the creature’s long, un-kept coat. Likewise, his origins are now veiled in the cloak of time. Here again, opinions differ, some say that he is Odin’s ‘dog of war’, brought over by the Vikings; while others, more practical minded people, say that the dog’s origins go back to the days of smuggling. It is, apparantly, true that tales of Old Shuck were put about to keep people indoors after dark, to keep them out of the way while the smugglers went about their clandestine activities. Even the descriptions of Old Shuck’s appearance do not remain consistent. Here he is a large black nebulous creature silently padding along the hedgerows, while over there he is a huge, one-eyed creature with a mournful howl and rattling chains.  Yet, despite all these ambiguities, not every aspect of him is quite so diverse. On one point, most of the numerous legends agree; he bodes death or misfortune to those who are unfortunate enough to see him. On another, no matter what his forgotton origins were, belief in him still is deeply rooted in the minds of East Anglians.

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In this, so called, enlightened and technological age it is easy to sit back and scoff at such stories as superstitious nonsense, or the imaginings of backward and ignorant minds. But, what happens when, in the midst of our marvellous technology, someone who is neither superstitious or ignorant but an educated and trained observer claims to have seen “Old Shuck”. Add to this, that he had never previously heard stories of Old Shuck, having only recently moved to these parts and we come up with a mystery as curious and enigmatic as Old Shuck himself!

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HM Coastguard lookout at South Pier, Gorleston near Yarmouth.

This is what happened in 1972 when a Mr Graham Grant, then aged 34 and an Officer with HM Coastguard, was keeping a lone virgil one rough windy night at the lookout station on the South Pier at Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth on the east coast of Norfolk. Mr Grant describes what happened”:

“…….while on duty at the Coastguard Headquarters on the Gorleston South Pier on April 19th 1972; dawn had just broken so I started to scan the coastline to the south of my station, then to the north. Both coaslines were clear but I did observe a black dog a quarter of a mile to the north of me on Yarmouth beach and at the time thought nothing of it. A scan out to sea confirmed that my area was clear for the time being, so I turned my eyes once again to the dog. It was running up and down the beach as if looking for someone; it was about 50 yards from the sea. The nearest description of the dog I can give is as follows: It was a large black hound-like animal, standing about 3 feet from head to feet. I did not notice its eyes at the time but I feel sure that it had two. Old Shuck has been reported with one eye, like a cyclops; I feel sure that if the animal had had only one eye it would have stuck in my mind without a doubt. Its mouth was open like any dog that has been running and I noticed nothing outstanding about its teeth. I observed the animal for some two minutes or more, never taking my eyes off it.

Then it just faded away as if a veil of silk had been drawn over it. At first I thought that it had dropped into a hole, but on looking more broadly at the beach with my big 30 x 80 glasses, this was out of the question. Bulldozers had been on the beach the day before to move the sand away from the sea wall and the beach was as flat as a pancake, plus the fact that the wind had levelled the sand so that the beach looked like a tennis court – no question of a hole. Also, the Coastguard Lookout is 26 feet above sea-level so at all times I was looking down on to the beach. The time of 04.48 was my last sighting of the animal, but I remained observing the area until 05.55 hours with negative results. My feelings at the time were a little mixed for I was a trained observer and have excellent vision and I told myself that things like this just do not happen. I was also very curious……..”

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“That was how Mr Grant described what happened on that stormy April morning. Remember, he was unaware of the ‘Shuck’ legends at the time as he had been transferred to Gorleston from the Isle of Sheppey that previous summer. However, this is by no way the end of this story, for Mr Grant happened to mention this experience to another member of the Coastguard staff, a Mr Harold Cox, who came from Cromer and who knew of the Old Shuck legends. What happened next was also described by Mr Grant”:

“……. after telling Mr Cox the story, he asked me if I was worried about the foreboding story that goes with the sighting of Old Shuck and explained that if anyone sees Old Shuck, some bad luck or misfortune will come to his family or friends the following year. I told him that this did not worry me too much (I wanted to know the story) and so he told me all about Old Shuck……”

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“At that time, Mr Grant was completely unconcerned with tales of ill-luck and misfortune, but soon afterwards something happened to make him change his mind; once again, Mr Grant takes up the story”:

“…….. Old Shuck was sighted by myself on the 19th April 1972. Mr Cox, who told me the story of Old Shuck, died of heart failure during the last week of June that same year. He collapsed in the same chair from which he told me the story; he was in his 50’s. In February 1973, my father died at home in Yorkshire, four weeks after I had told him the story – Heart Failure!……..”

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The Shuck with yellow eyes!

“There is one further point worthy of note which ties in with this story. Southdown Road, which runs parallel to the river and almost opposite to where Mr Grant had his experience, has long been associated with the ‘Shuck’ legend. This roadway was originally an ancient trackway linking Gorleston and Great Yarmouth. According to the legend, the Shuck that haunts this road is a rather more spectacular creature than that seen by Mr Grant. One account describes it as a hugh black, shaggy animal with large yellow eyes that glow like hot coals; around its neck hings a chain. The account goes on to describe how, if straw is laid across its path, the animal rattles its chains and howls in a loud and terrifying manner! Although this account is far removed from Mr Grant’s, it is still interesting to speculate on whether, or not, there might possibly be some connection between these two creatures.

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Those then are the facts passed on to me. It is up to readers to draw their own conclusions. Is there something in these legends after all? – or something we can all put down to imagination, coincidence or believing only that which we want to believe? Finally, perhaps the last word on Old Shuck should come from Mr Grant himself and whose experience left a deep impression on him:”

“………Now, when the wind blows from the north and is blowing a gale, I do not look on to the sands of Yarmouth beach for very long…………..”

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THE END