Unlike Simon Knott in 2009, I arrived here, at Rackheath’s All Saints Church, nine years later in the height of a dry and hot summer’s day when butterflies were in abundance and flying insects were out to get you. Everything seemed parched, even the wheat, barley and oil seed rape in the surrounding fields looked as if they were quietly crying out to be harvested.
My journey had been via the A1151, Norwich to Wroxham Road, which runs through the parish of Rackheath, dividing it in two. Having left the more southerly New Rackheath, originally known as Rackheath Parva, behind me, I headed in a northerly direction towards a much smaller settlement which was originally known as Rackheath Magna in the 12th century. My destination was the church that many had photographed and some had sketched or written about – this was my first visit.
At a road junction just short of the Green Man public house I turned left, prompted by a brown Heritage ‘Ancient Church’ signpost which points down what is Swash Lane. Thereafter, there are no more signs, you have to look beyond your bonnet and look out for the church’s bell tower, which lies straight ahead, beyond a three-way junction – you take the centre option, along a narrow, grass-centred lane which runs out at the Church gate. I learnt that All Saints is open during daylight hours, and if not, the Keyholder can be contacted on 01603 782044.
I was barely three miles from the edge of Norwich and even less from the City’s Northern Distributor Road. Even in summer, All Saints is still a lonely church, sitting as it does on its personal rise above the surrounding fields. Its only company was yellow ragwort, fern and gravestones – none in conversation with each other. Everything was still and quiet – except for the occasional rustle at ground level, hedgerow and tree canopy as I wandered around.
I was informed earlier that the church had once been near the centre of the settlement once known as Rackheath Magna. However, following the Great Plaque of 1665, when with so many deaths and abandonment of properties, the church found itself ‘on its own’ so to speak. As for the general fabric of this isolated Church, it is early 14th century but does have earlier features. It was built with knapped brick and flint with limestone dressings, including a 13th century series of arches with octagonal pillars. The roof is slated with black-glazed pantiles on a simple south facing porch with a 12th-century sundial in the gable end over the porch door arch.
Like many churches in the 19th century, All Saints underwent its own alterations around 1840 which included the installation of its unusual underfloor heating system. Other notable features still on show include numerous brass plaques and monuments commemorating wealthy individuals from the parish; particularly members of the Pettus and then the Stracey families – the latter’s Baronetcy being created on 15 December 1818 for Edward Stracey with the former Rackheath Hall, now well-appointed flats and apartments, being built in 1852-4 for Humphrey Stracey.
During its recent past All Saints church fell into disuse and disrepair, causing the parishioners of this lonely community to go elsewhere for their services. The church was made redundant in the 1970s and the Norfolk Churches Trust acquired the lease in February 1981. I was further informed that, together with restorations instigated by the Victoria and Albert Museum and taken up enthusiastically by the local community, this church was saved from an ignominious fate. By 1985, the church had secured replacement windows and flooring with many original fittings returned to pride of place inside the building. All this meant that the church managed to survive, once again functioning in the parish as a place worth visiting and supporting for the potential it can offer as a place of meeting and possible worship, provided of course that further attention can be afforded.
Certainly during my visit, the outside needed attention whilst inside, there was an uncomfortable sparseness. Almost alone on a table next to the entrance door was a Notice which gave a brief outline of the church’s history and a personal account which I recognised as one written by Simon Knott, some nine years ago – it is worth re-publishing and is as follows:
“It did not help that I came here on one of the gloomiest, coldest days of February 2009, but this must always seem a remote spot. And yet, it is rather a charming one. All Saints was declared redundant long ago, back in the 1970s, and that should be no surprise. This is a huge parish, and the main village it serves is more than a mile off. The opening of a modern chapel of ease there must have sounded the death knell for All Saints.
Now, the liturgical life of this building is over, and the silence fills its days out here in what feels like the middle of nowhere. In fact, we are barely three miles from the outer edge of Norwich suburbia, but you wouldn’t know it. This lonely little church sits on its bluff above the fields, with only its gravestones for company, reached by a narrow track along the edge of a field, which peters out as it reaches the church gate.
And all around the woods and fields roll, the gently hilly landscape of the country above the winding rivers of the Broads. The church does not seem an intrusion in this landscape. Rather, there is something entirely organic about it, as if it has grown from the land it serves, or as if has been left here for us to find by a former civilisation; which is nearly true, of course. Thanks to the sterling work of the Norfolk Churches Trust, this church is open all day, every day, when most around here are not.
This must be an ancient site. Ridges in the adjacent fields show that there was a settlement here, probably until well into the 19th Century, but now everybody lives down on the other side of the Norwich to Wroxham road. Rackheath Hall was home to first the Pettus family and then the Straceys, and above all else this church is their mausoleum. The first sign of this is in the graveyard, where the Straceys’ sombre matching crosses stand, fenced off still, to the east of the Church.
The Stacey family graves on the east side of All Saints.
Copyright H. Brown 2018
Nothing much happened here in the way of building work in the late Middle Ages, and what you see today is pretty much all of the Decorated period. The south aisle is rather curious, because the roofline cuts into the clerestory, suggesting that it may have been refashioned after medieval times, possibly to serve as a memorial aisle for the Pettus family.
You step into a building which is full of light, thanks to the clear glass in the aisle and east window. Everything is white and clean; and, ironically, it all feels beautifully cared for. There were large displays of red flowers decorating the font and windowsills when I came here on a cold February day. The interior was spotless, unlike that of several working churches which I had visited earlier in the day. It was breathtakingly cold, and the great expanses of wall memorials in the aisle and on the north side of the nave really made it feel as if this might be the mausoleum of a lost civilisation.
The Pettus memorials are elegant and lovely, and surprisingly grand in such an outpost, although they also serve as a reminder that, until barely three hundred years ago, if we had been here we would have found ourselves just outside the second city of the Kingdom. The most striking is to Thomas Pettus, who in 1723 was:
“taken from the tender embraces of his most indulgent parents that he might receive the rewards promised in another life to a most engaging friendly behaviour, a most strict and filial obedience, a most sincere, regular and early piety in this.”
From a quarter of a century earlier, but looking the work of another quarter of a century before that, the bold memorial to Thomas Pettus’s grandfather is a rather more serious and sombre proposition.
Copyright H. Brown 2018
Copyright H. Brown 2018
The Stracey memorials are more workaday, and form a kind of catalogue, one of the most complete records in stone of a Norfolk family’s fortunes over the ups and downs of several centuries. Probably the most beautiful is a 1930s monument to Mary Elizabeth Brinkley, in that flowery development of Jazz Modern which was popular at the time, possibly as a kitschy reaction to the severe lines of cinemas and public buildings of the age. Noting that she was a great-great-grand-daughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, it concludes with an equally flowery epitaph, which observes in part that “from out of the murk and mistiness of life her dreams arise, most cool and delicate, and circle her like white and azure flowers”. This is credited to Eleanour Norton, an obscure poet best known for the mawkish k, which was popular in the years leading up to the First World War.
Finally, several 20th Century brasses recall the familiar heartbreak of this intensely rural parish. Horace Arthur Symonds of Hall Farm, Rackheath, died of his wounds on March 3rd 1916, and is buried at Etaples near Le Touquet in northern France. “The Saints of God! Their conflict past, and Life’s Long Battle won at last, no more they need the shield or sword, and cast them down before the Lord”. The epitaph is curiously militiaristic, suggesting that the memorial was erected while the conflict is still in progress, and before the reflectiveness which followed the Armistice.
Rather more prosaic, and more moving because of it, are two brass plaques by the south doorway. The first is that to Herbert John Harmer, who died in October 1916, and Robert James Charlish, who died in July 1917. They were both just twenty years old. This Monument is erected by Mr Stephen Sutton their former employer, reads the inscription. England Stands for Honour, God Defend the Right.
Beneath it you’ll find eleven year old Muriel FJ Bidwell, Chorister of this church who was mortally injured by a motor car, and entered Paradise 10th December 1925. I knew to look for this because earlier in the day, at another church, I had met an old man who had grown up in Rackheath. As an infant, he had attended Muriel Bidwell’s funeral. She had been playing in a puddle at a corner in the road, and the car had skidded and crushed her. The lesson of this had obviously been made very plain to the children of Rackheath at the time, and now in his late eighties he had never forgotten it”.
All photographs in this blog are copyright H.Brown.
FOOTNOTE: (Post-publication Postscript)
Both before and during the writing of this article I knew of a present-day darker side to the Site on which All saints Church sits; I say Site since the building itself, and what it still stands for, is an innocent bystander.
For this reason I chose not to mention anything so as not to distract readers from the article’s central theme and premise. However, since publication, and having received positive feedback and generous comment, a very small minority chose to vent their feelings, via Social Media on this ‘darker side’ and, in one case, to express ‘puzzlement’ as to why I had failed to make mention of such things. Now, I sense that those who are reading this may be lost as to what I refer to – let the following comments, submitted by this minority, lay things on the line – names have been erased:
“ I Visited here a few months ago, a weekday afternoon, and was disgusted to find it littered with condoms and wipes around the back and several men gathering in there vehicles in the front. The police confirmed it is a known gay meeting site”.
“It is indeed, yet, despite such a well-known site for such activity, no mention of this seedy subculture [is] within the article”.
“………To my knowledge there have been at least two previous posts regarding this church, one of which was by me, and each time it [was] mentioned that there was evidence of activity in the area that could worry visitors. One member mentioned he was approached by a man who made a suggestive comment……….Anyone visiting this church should know in advance that they may encounter people who are not there to enjoy the fruits of the spirit….”
“……….it is FACT, backed up by local knowledge, that this poor old building has become the victim of this rather seedy subculture- for how many years, I do not know, but it has almost become a part of the building’s latter history”…….My friend was approached by someone and luckily fended him off, however, it caught him off guard and will no doubt catch out others- some of which may be more vulnerable……. I am just the wrong side of 30 and still look about 18 and so could be seen as desirable to a homosexual male ‘predator’…….I go out visiting these locations and often end up engaging in conversation with like-minded members of the public who speak to me. I do not expect to be sexually harassed nor do I expect a confrontation. I would never visit this location alone and would choose my timing carefully….. I encourage others to do the same”.
Broadcasting all this saddens me; but more upsetting is the fact that my article triggered a response that was completely unnecessary – the writers should have chosen another, and more relevant Forum. However, in light of their ‘concerns’, I feel a duty to now make mention of the matter, along with the following advice:
Anyone visiting this church should be aware of what local knowledge says – that they may (not will) encounter people who are not there to enjoy the same pursuits. Go with company and choose carefully the time of any visit.
P.S. (2): To help maintain a sense of balance and some sort of sensible perspective on all this, I must add that I visited the Church during a morning period when, for the whole time I was there to gather material for my article, there was no one else present – stillness and peace was all around and I felt quite safe – Job Done!
St Peter’s Church, North Burlingham, Norfolk has long been in ruin and what remains shows that it was mostly Perpendicular with the nave and chancel dating from the 15th century. There is a suggestion that, even further back in time, the church’s origins rest in Late Saxon times. The church was heavily restored in 1874 by the Burroughs family but its once proud round tower, with octagonal tope, collapsed in 1906 and the church was abandoned in 1936 in favour of St Andrew’s close by……… Many people over the years since then have visited the ruins of St Peter’s and, no doubt intrigued, have taken photographs and written interesting accounts; not least the following by Simon Knott who, in November 2007, paid his own personal visit:
“It was Historic Churches bike ride day 2007. We had been to Hemblington, explaining our plans for the day to the nice lady on welcoming duty, and to a gentleman cyclist who had just checked in. “Don’t forget that there is a ruined church at North Burlingham”, he said. We hadn’t forgotten, and already had plans to track it down, but we wondered if access to it was possible. “Certainly”, said the nice man. “I own it. It’s in my back garden. I give you Permission”
If only it was always that easy. Thanking him profusely, we headed on back down to the A47. North Burlingham is bypassed these days, but not by much, and the thunder of traffic was very noticeable after the peace of Witton and Hemblington. It is not a huge parish, but was obviously busy enough to maintain two churches well in the second half of the 19th century, when both underwent major restorations. St Andrew, a couple of hundred yards to the west, is a big, late medieval building with a huge tower, but St Peter was more typical of the area, a smaller, older church with a round tower.
It was the tower that led to the demise of the building. One night in 1906, it collapsed into the nave. At first, the gap was merely boarded up, but, not surprisingly, this was found to be unsatisfactory, and in 1936 the remains of the congregation finally decamped up the road to St Andrew. The building has been left to decay since then, pretty much, quietly returning back to nature. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It is hard to see beyond its restoration, but this must have been a little Norman church, perhaps with a 13th century chancel.
We stepped into what must have become a completely Victorianised building in the 1870s. Now, little remains. Victorian tiling forms an aisle up the middle to the off-centre chancel arch. The roof timbers are mostly still in place, although completely unsafe. There are broken ledger stones, and you can see into the vault beneath the chancel floor.
There was an elegant, quiet dignity about the building on this beautiful sunny day. The elder and ivy filtered the light as if they were stained glass windows, and although the building is now nothing but a faltering shell, it was quite possible to repopulate it in the mind’s eye with 19th century furnishings and people. There are quaint niches either side of the east window in a Decorated style, and I wondered if this was a suggestion that St Peter had been quite High Church in its 19th century heyday, perhaps as an alternative to Lower worship at St Andrew’s.
There was plenty of time for the furnishings and treasures to be removed, of course, and they have been mostly reinstated up the road at St Andrew. There you will find the pretty rood screen, now filling the mouth of the tower arch. Also there are the memorials, including two medieval brasses.
The medieval benches went across the A47 to Blofield, and other furnishings went to Earlham and Lingwood. The bells are in the keeping of the Norfolk Museum Service, along with so many extraordinary treasures in the great storage warehouse at Gressenhall.
Norfolk has many ruined churches. I have already visited fifty or so of them, and there are plenty more to come. But there was something particularly atmospheric about the interior and setting of this particular ruin. It would be impossible to find such a place sinister or eerie, for it is organic and harmonious. As if to accentuate this oneness with nature, a dead barn owl lay on the nave floor. It seemed not inappropriate. It was, as Tom observed, a good ruin.
We wandered through and around to the north side of the church. Here, hauntingly, there are surviving gravestones, dotted among the trees. The latest appeared to date from the 1920s or so, a cross for James William Oliver, who died aged 17 months. If he had lived, he would have been 85 this year. I wondered if anyone ever came here to remember him. There was something particularly poignant about these forgotten headstones, so close to the busy road but utterly unknown.
We came round the west end, to find the remains of the round tower virtually indistinguishable from the uneven flinty earth about them. Light shone through from the nave and out of the former tower arch, now a pergola for hanging ivy. As I watched, a blackbird alighted on the ledge, the light spangling his feathers. He opened his mouth and gave a throaty warble for a moment – then saw us…… and was gone.
Many more have visited the site of St Peters Church since Simon Knott first wrote about it and many more will assuredly come, to admire, speculate, imagine what once was, to take their photographs and videos (see below) and report on social media.
Like Pam Shortis who wrote on Facebook in 2017:
“This place never really loses its mystique. As Larkin put it”:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round”.
Also in 2017 Jean Walker-Baylis briefly noted:
“From 1945 to 1965 I lived at North Burlingham, this photo of the ruins was taken 1955”.
Then there was Roella Trughill in the summer of 2018:
“I visited here today! I was searching high and low for it! A couple staying in a caravan on The Church Farm Site said they had seen it through a hedge so off I went in search of it! I met a man and asked how I could access it but he said it was in someone’s garden so he went and knocked on their door and asked if I could photograph it and they kindly said yes! I asked how they came to own the church Ruin and she said that someone was going to turn it into a private house so she wrote to the church commission and they said she could buy it for a nominal sum”!
The cold fact of the case is that George Granville Barker was born in Loughton, near Epping Forest in Essex, England in 1913; he was the elder brother of the painter Kit Barker. George was raised by his Irish mother and English father in Battersea, London and was educated at an L.C.C. school and at Regent Street Polytechnic. Having left school at an early age he pursued several odd jobs before settling on a career in writing.
Having said that – George Barker’s birthplace is not a place of pilgrimage, simply because Barker is one of those forgotten poets – well at least for the last decade or so. During all that time and possibly to the present day, hardly anyone has read him, most of his work is out of print, and has been barely mentioned in literary histories. Yet he was no minor poet. His work was passionate, intellectually challenging and highly original. At 22, Barker was a literary phenomenon. T.S. Eliot declared him a genius and Yeats thought him the finest poet of his generation.
Apparently, many critics thought the young Barker a better poet than the young Dylan Thomas, who had called Barker’s poems “masturbatory monologues”, a term which may have been a clue to the possibility that Thomas was madly jealous. Barker’s output never flagged for he regarded poetry as a full-time occupation and, save for a few visiting university lectureships, never had anything resembling a full-time job. He composed poetry until the day he died.
If you like your poets to be wild, irresponsible and dangerous then Barker would make you feel ecstatic! He was a prodigious drinker, womaniser and an habitual user of Methedrine and Benzedrine. He never owned a home – his sole attempt at property purchase ended when a fraudulent estate agent absconded with his entire savings – and he scarcely had a fixed address. As a young man, he accidentally stabbed his brother’s eye out while they were fencing, an episode that haunted him all his life. Also, for years, he was at the heart of the bohemian crowd in London’s Soho. He fathered 15 children by four different women. One of them, the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart, determined to marry him and bear his children when she discovered his poetry in a London bookshop in the 1930’s – long before she met him.
He quarrelled bitterly and sometimes violently with friends as well as lovers and once threw one of his works on the fire – because, he said, his then partner had read it with a sneer. When a visitor tried to rescue it, he hit him over the head with a shovel. The same partner threw an ashtray at him and broke his teeth. Another bit his upper lip so firmly he required 40 stitches. A third partner, who left him for his nephew, was so terrified of the consequences that she settled and married in Birmingham. In America Barker wrote pornography with Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. His poems, read on the BBC Third Programme, were criticised for obscenity, and he never lost the capacity to cause outrage. Brought up a Catholic by his Irish mother, he took confession not long before he died, for the first time in 30 years. He had broken every commandment, he told the priest, except the sixth, “thou shalt not kill”.
So why did he fall so out of fashion. Why, despite settling for the last 24 years of his life in the idylic hamlet of Itteringham, Norfolk, just 15 miles or so miles from Norwich, the University of East Anglia and pioneer of creative writing courses, never invited him to take a single class? His second wife Elspeth once said:
“he never did anything to promote himself, never went to literary parties, and was too difficult and argumentative to belong to anything like a literary school”. He was, she said, “a very perverse poet who would often bugger up a perfectly good poem with a pun in the last line”.
By the mid-1950s, he was out of tune with the age. “He remained “mystical and mythical” when the new mood among poets stressed common sense,” wrote his biographer, Robert Fraser. Despite his neglect of church attendance, and frequent assertions that he didn’t believe in God, Barker feared hellfire and damnation; he was “a very superstitious Catholic,” observed Elspeth. Even at the age of nine and inspired by Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”, he first resolved to be a poet: “While other urchins were blowing up toads with pipes of straw stuck in the arse, So was I, but I also wrote odes.”
Barker was also conscious that “I had been cast a little low in the social register.” and, after he left school at 15, was never very comfortable with better-educated writers. Writing of Auden he said “behind the poetry I discern a clumsy interrogatory finger questioning me about my matriculation certificate, my antecedents and my annual income”.
Discovering his girlfriend Jessica was pregnant, he married at 20. Since she, too, was from a Catholic family, the child was born in secret and given up for adoption, another source of lifelong guilt. Though they lived apart from the mid-1940s, she and Barker never divorced. Only when Jessica died, two years before Barker’s own death, did he marry Elspeth, his last love.
Barker had little time for politics and was apparently only dimly aware that Japan was allied with the fascist powers when he agreed to take a university lectureship there, starting in March 1940. His lectures were attended by only three students.
Then, when receiving fan mail from the affluent and well-connected Elizabeth Smart, Barker appealed to her for financial help in escaping to America. She readily agreed and so came about their first meeting, which forms the celebrated opening passage of “By Grand Central Station”, a fictional re-creation of their turbulent and passionate affair. Barker’s account of it was less nuanced: “I stepped down into your lap, just as truly as I stepped down from my mother, and I have loved you completely and perfectly from that moment.” Cynics would say Barker really fell in love with the freedom of classless America and that Smart was an infatuated groupie. But their on-off affair ranged over four countries and 18 years, and produced four children.
Barker didn’t formally leave most of his women. Rather, he drifted off, seeming to believe they should wait patiently in the kitchen while his absences grew longer. “Poets are terrifying people to live with,” wrote one daughter, then 15. “They rush off at odd moments and are neither seen nor heard of for months. Then . . . they suddenly appear on the threshold as if nothing had ever happened.”
From 1959, Barker lived in Italy with Dede Farrelly, estranged wife of his friend John Farrelly. Then he met Elspeth Langlands, a 22-year-old from the Scottish Highlands, on a visit to London in 1963. “He asked me what I thought of his most recent volume,” she recalled, “and I said I hadn’t enjoyed it as much as some of his earlier ones. He flew into a rage.” But his relationship with Dede was deteriorating and, when Elspeth arrived in Italy with a young painter called Tony Kingsmill, Barker prised her away.
From 1967 he settled with Elspeth at Bintree House in Itteringham, Norfolk, a flint and brick house which lies just off the main street – close to the River Bure. The couple were able to acquire the house with financial support from the novelist Graham Greene who was a long-term admirer of Barker’s poetry. In her essay ‘Thoughts in a Garden’, Elspeth Barker describes the watery location of the house.
‘Mine is a riverine garden, and even indoors one is aware of this, not just by gazing through the window but by simply sitting still, committing words to paper in the intense cold, while a great numbness seeps up through feet and lower limbs. Hemlock and the death of Socrates come forward in the mind. The tiled floor is laid straight on the earth in the manner of 17th century folk, and beneath this floor and a thin layer of earth lie the black sullen waters of an underground lake.’
They had five children and, for the first time, Barker lived with a family more or less uninterruptedly. According to Elspeth he became disciplined enough to stay off drink and rise at six to start work. She flushed the drugs down the lavatory; only on Saturday nights, when it was open house for friends and relatives, did he indulge and fight as of old. “People wanted to sit next to him,” Elspeth recalled. “Then they knew they wouldn’t have anything thrown at them.” It seemed that he prided himself on being an outsider.”
It seems the Barker was a notoriously uneven writer and in describing the difficulties in writing his own biography, he was quoted as saying, “I’ve stirred the facts around too much ……. It simply can’t be done.” In 1969 his visit to All Saints Church, in the village in Thurgarton and only a short distance from Itteringham, inspired George Barker to write one of his finest later poems “At Thurgarton Church” (see below). The poem concerned Barker’s sense of sin and his fear of Judgement day.
On his grave at St Mary’s Church in Itteringham, Norfolk, a stone book – erected by a young bank robber whom Barker had befriended – states: “No Compromise”. It was a phrase Barker often used, and it is a good epitaph for both his extraordinary life and his attitude to poetry.
At Thurgarton Church
by George Barker
To the memory of my father:
At Thurgarton Church the sun
burns the winter clouds over
the gaunt Danish stone
and thatched reeds that cover
the barest chapel I know.
I could compare it with
the Norse longboats that bore
burning the body forth
in honour from the shore
of great fjords long ago.
The sky is red and cold
overhead, and three small
sturdy trees keep a hold
on the world and the stone wall
that encloses the dead below.
I enter and find I stand
in a great barn, bleak and bare.
Like ice the winter ghosts and
the white walls gleam and flare
and flame as the sun drops low.
And I see, then, that slowly
the December day has gone.
I stand in the silence, not wholly
believing I am alone.
Somehow I cannot go.
Then a small wind rose, and the trees
began to crackle and stir
and I watched the moon by degrees
ascend in the window till her
light cut a wing in the shadow.
I thought: the House of the Dead.
The dead moon inherits it.
And I seem in a sense to have died
as I rise from where I sit
and out into darkness go.
I know as I leave I shall pass
where Thurgarton’s dead lie
at those old stones in the grass
under the cold moon’s eye.
I see the old bones glow.
No, they do not sleep here
in the long holy night of
the serene soul, but keep here
a dark tenancy and the right of
rising up to go.
Here the owl and soul shriek with
the voice of the dead as they turn
on the polar spit and burn
without hope and seek with
out hope the holy home below.
Yet to them the mole and
mouse bring a wreath and a breath
of the flowering leaves of the soul, and
it is from the Tree of Death
the leaves of life grow.
The rain, the sometime summer
rain on a memory of roses
will fall lightly and come
among them as it erases
summers so long ago.
And the voices of those
once so much loved will flitter
over the nettled rows
of graves, and the holly tree twitter
like friends they used to know.
And not far away the
icy and paralysed stream
has found it also, that day the
flesh became glass and a dream
with no where to go.
Haunting the December
fields their bitter lives
entreat us to remember
the lost spirit that grieves
over these fields like a scarecrow.
That grieves over all it ever
did and all, all not
done, that grieves over
its cross-purposed lot:
to know and not to know.
The masterless dog sits
outside the church door
with dereliction haunting its
heart that hankers for
the hand that loved it so.
Not in a small grave
outside the stone wall
will the love that it gave
ever be returned, not for all
time or tracks in the snow.
More mourned the death of the dog
than our bones ever shall
receive from the hand of god
this bone again, or all
that high hand could bestow.
As I stand by the porch
I believe that no one has heard
here in Thurgarton Church
a single veritable word
save the unspoken No.
The godfathered negative
that responds to our mistaken
incredulous and heartbroken
desire above all to live
as though things were not so.
Desire to live as though the
two-footed clay stood up
proud never to know the
tempests that rage in the cup
under a rainbow.
Desire above all to live
as though the soul was stone,
believing we cannot give
or love since we are alone
and always will be so.
That heartbroken desire
to live as though no light
ever set the seas on fire
and no sun burned at night
or Mercy walked to and fro.
The proud flesh cries: I am not
caught up in the great cloud
of my unknowing. But that
proud flesh had endowed
us with the cloud we know.
To this the unspoken No
of the dead god responds
and then the whirlwinds blow
over all the things and beyond
and the dead mop and mow.
And there in the livid dust
and bones of death we search
until we find as we must
outside Thurgarton Church
only wild grasses blow.
I hear the old bone in me cry
and the dying spirit call:
I have forfeited all
and once and for all must die
and this is all that I know.
For now in a wild way we
know that justice is served
and that we die in the clay we
dread, desired, and deserved,
awaiting no Judgement Day.
On the scenic north-east Norfolk coast road is the village of Bacton, Norfolk, England, better known these days for its gas terminal bringing in a vital source of energy. However, in medieval times it was a very different continental import which put this place on the map. On the edge of the village, leading to a modern farm, stands the gateway to Bromholm Priory, once a centre of pilgrimage for royalty and a place renowned for healing the sick and bringing the dead back to life. But for centuries the Priory has not simply been a spectacular ruin but one that has retained a hint at majesty long since claimed by time. It also holds a secret, one which concerns a holy relic, once said to be so powerful that it could raise the dead. But, before more is said on that, we must really go back to the very beginning of Bromholm Priory and to the William de Glanville (circa. 1090 to +1135).
William de Glanville was born about 1090 in Bacton and was to hold the title of Lord of Bromholm & Bacton. It was he who, in 1113 founded Bromholm Priory which, over time became known as ‘Baketon’ Priory, Bacton Abbey, Bromeholme Priory, Broomholm Priory but more consistently as Bromholm Priory. From the outset, William made the Priory subordinate to the Clunic Monastry at Castle-Acre and dedicated it to St Andrew, probably on account of its nearness to the sea, which rolls on in full view. He also endowed Bromholm with lands in and around Bacton and ‘Ceswick’, where there was also a smaller Clunic priory, dedicated to St Sepulchre, which was founded by a previous G. de Glanville and valued at £149.19s and 1/2d per annum. Bromholm itself was designed for seven or eight Cluniac monks who came from the Priory of Castle Acre. After William’s death, around 1135 his eldest son, Bartholomew de Glanville confirmed the grant his father had made to Bromholm and added considerably more grants of his own to it. He also bequeathed further lands to the Priory his death around 1167 –
‘all given in honour of God, the Virgin Mary, and St. Andrew, for the health of his own soul, his father’s, and the souls of all his friends living and dead’.
King Henry I (1100 to 1135) was also a benefactor of Bromholm Priory, for he granted the Manor of Burgh to the Priory, free of any charges but reserving the advowson (the right of presentation of a candidate to a benefice or church office) to both the Crown and the Dowager Alice, widow of Roger de Burge, for her life. In return for this royal bounty, the Priory released to the King a rent-charge of 5 marks a year from their exchequer which the King had granted. Other donors of this period included Sarah, widow of Joceline de Burge of Yarmouth; John de Annok and Milisentia, his wife who donated certain buildings in Yarmouth ; Agnes de Rollerby, Elstan Kemp of Lowestoft; Walter de Blundeston donated Lambcote and a marsh there; Richard, the son of Ralph de Paston, gave rent in Paston and Gilbert, son of Nicholas de Repps, who gave rent in Reppe.
Stephen of Blois followed as a supporter of Bromholm Priory; he was a nephew of Henry I. It was Henry I who championed Stephen, having accepted him into his Court at a very young age. Under Henry, Stephen rose in prominence and was granted extensive lands in both England and France and became one of the wealthiest persons in England. Following the battle of Tinchebray in 1106, Henry I confiscated the lands belonging to William of Mortain and the ‘Honour of Eye’, a large lordship previously held by Robert Malet of Norfolk; within this lordship was the Manor of Bromholm. In 1113, Stephen was granted both the titles and the honour of these and this allowed him to add his confirmation of the donation which William de Glanville had made to the monks of Bromholm that same year. Significantly, Stephen narrowly escaped drowning with Henry’s son and heir, William Adelin, when the ‘White Ship’ sank in 1120; this freak accident eventually opened the way for Stephen to become king.
At Bromholm, as elsewhere, the Cluniac monks were governed by a set of rules or customs based on the Rule of St Benedict but modified to permit a closer prescription of the daily routine of monastic observance. Cluniac monks did not participate in conventional manual labour; instead they undertook work such as the copying of manuscripts in order to fulfil the work requirement of the Benedictine Rule. Cluniac monasticism in Europe originated in 910 with the foundation of the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy. One hundred and sixty-seven years later the Lewes Priory, Sussex was the first to be founded England. This was followed over the years by an eventual total of thirty-three new Cluniac priories of varying sizes being established in both England and Wales. This constituted the largest number of Cluniac foundations in any country outside France.
Despite the grants and favours bestowed on Bromholm in its early years, the Priory was little more than a staging post on the pilgrim’s route to Walsingham for the first 90 years, or so, of its existence. Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk and chronicler (c.1200-59) was to describe Bromholm as being at that time ‘very poor, and altogether destitute of buildings’ But in 1205 the Priory’s fortunes changed, thanks to a tiny wooden cross no bigger than a man’s hand which, it was said, was a relic of the True Cross on which Jesus died. Soldiers of the Fourth Crusade had ransacked Constantinople in 1204, bringing back a horde of treasure, both spiritual and secular. A local priest who had been with the emperor in Constantinople brought back the two pieces of wood which he offered to the Cluniac monks at Bromholm on condition that he and his sons were admitted to the priory. The monastery, poor in worldly goods but rich in faith, believed the priest and agreed to his terms – his cross, said to have been made by St Helena from the part of the cross to which Christ’s hands and feet were nailed. It was set up in the church and proved to be Bromholm’s salvation; certainly, the brethren there believed that from the acquisition of this valuable relic the greatest profit would accrue to Bromholm. Matthew Paris’s illuminated medieval manuscript ‘Chronica Majona’ contained information about the cross which drew from Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover in his annals for 1223 it reads:
“In the same year divine miracles became frequent occurrences at Bromholm, to the glory and honour of the life-giving cross on which the saviour of the world suffered for the redemption of humankind”.
Matthew Paris also gives his own delightful account of how the monks of Bromholm became possessed of the relic:
“The substance is that Baldwin, Count of Flanders, was from a Count made Emperor of Constantinople, at which place he reigned with vigour for many years. It happened that at one time he was dreadfully harassed by infidel kings, against whom he marched without deliberation, and on this occasion neglected to take with him the Cross of our Lord and other relics, which were always carried before him by the Patriarchs and Bishops whenever he did battle with the enemies of the Cross. This carelessness cost him dear, for when he charged the enemy with his small army, paying no regard to the multitude of the foe, which exceeded his own followers by tenfold, he and his men were surrounded by the enemies of the Cross and slain or made prisoners. The few who escaped knew nothing of what happened to the Emperor, or whither he had gone. A certain chaplain of English extraction who, with his clerks, performed Divine Service in the Emperor’s chapel, had charge of the Emperor’s relics, rings, and other effects. When this chaplain heard of his lord’s death (for all said he was dead), he left the city of Constantinople privately with all the Emperor’s effects, and came to England. On his arrival here he went to St. Albans and sold to a certain monk there a cross set in silver and gold, two fingers of St. Margaret, and some gold rings and jewels, all of which are now held in great veneration by the monks of St. Albans.
The chaplain then drew from his mantle a wooden cross, and showed it to some of the monks, averring on his oath that it was a genuine piece of the true Cross on which Christ suffered. His assertion being disbelieved by them, he departed with his priceless treasure. This chaplain had two children, about whose support and preservation he was most anxious. He offered the Cross to several monasteries. Having endured repulse from the rich in many places, he at length came to a chapel called Bromholm, very poor at that time and destitute of proper buildings. There he sent for the Prior and some of the brethren, and showed them the cross, which was constructed of two pieces of wood placed across one another, and almost as wide as a man’s hand. The chaplain implored the brethren to receive him into the monastery and their order with this cross and other relics which he had with him, as well as his two young children.
The prior and brethren were delighted to possess such a treasure, and by the intervention of the Lord, who always protects honourable poverty, put faith in the words of the monk, and with due reverence received the Cross of our Lord, and carried it into the oratory, and with all devotion preserved it in the most honourable place there ; and immediately Divine miracles began to be wrought in that monastery to the praise and glory of the life-giving Cross ; for the dead were restored to life, the blind recovered sight, and the lame walked, the skin of lepers was cleansed, and those possessed of devils were released from them, and any sick who approached the Cross were made whole”.
John Capgrave (21 April 1393 – 12 August 1464 later recorded that “that no fewer than thirty-nine persons were raised from the dead and nineteen blind were restored to sight by the virtues of the Cross of Bromholm.” Pilgrims came from near and far, including distant countries to pay reverence it; as a direct result the monastery became abundantly rich by reason of the gifts and offerings made to it by these pilgrims.
The work ‘Vision of Piers Plowman’, written by William Langland (c 1370-1390) – or rather, some think it was written by ……. alludes to the pilgrimages to the cross in his vision: “But wender to Walsingham, and my wif Alis And byd the Roode of Bromholm bring me out of dette.” The cross is more clearly mentioned in The Reeve’s Tale, the third of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written in the 1380’s – Miller Symkyn lives near Cambridge and steals the wheat and meal brought to him for grinding. Two students set out to get revenge for their college steward who fell victim to Symkyn and orchestrate a farce-like situation involving wives, daughters and bed-hopping. At one point the miller’s wife is woken when her husband falls: “‘Help!’ she screamed, ‘Holy Cross of Bromeholme keep us! Lord into thy hands!’
The 13th and 14th centuries were good for Bromholm Priory, the shrine becoming a fashionable venue from being patronised by Henry III (28 October 1216 – 16 November 1272), Edward I (20 November 1272 – 7 July 1307), Edward II (8 July 1307 – 20 January 1327) and Edward III 1 February 1327 – 21 June 1377) who also paid tribute to the glorious cross of Bromholm and received, in return, an honourable mention in the Vision of Piers Plowman. These kingly visits were expensive affairs, and were often made in search of ready money.
It was, in fact, barely 28 years after the relic first arrived at Bromholm in 1205 that King Henry III made his first royal visit to this coastal retreat. He was so impressed that he granted the monks many additional privileges, including a two-day fair to be held at Bromholm on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, plus a weekly market on Mondays – as well as some welcome tax breaks. It would also appear that earlier benefactions were confirmed by Henry III during his 1233 visit the Priory.
During the time when Bromholm was accruing its wealth, there appears to have been some dispute between the monks of Bromholm and Castle Acre. The Priory of Castle Acre claimed over lordship on Bromholm, which was, as stated above, at first only a cell of Castle Acre. At an early period it was agreed between the two convents that Bromholm should raise the rents of the fee-farm of Wilton, which they held for the monks of Castle Acre, ten shillings a year; the monks of Castle Acre on their part were to remit and quit all other claims whatsoever which they had upon the monks of Bromholm in the form of ” aids” and “recognitions.” Later, a further controversy seems to have arisen between the Priors of Lewes and Acre and the Prior of Bromholm as to the choice of a Prior for Bromholm in succession. It was Pope Gregory XI., in 1229, who decreed that the matter should be resolved by the Abbot of Osolveston and the Deans of Stamford and Rutland. These decided that the Prior of Acre should nominate six monks, three of Acre and three of Bromholm, from whom the Monastery of Bromholm should choose one for its Prior. Then, after many years of arguments and negotiation, Pope Celestine granted complete emancipation of Bromholm from Acre in 1298. From this date, little information can be gathered respecting the Monastery of Bromholm, except the acquisitions of property in various places. The records of these gifts are faithfully recorded in the chartulary of the house, which may still be seen in good condition in the Public Library at Cambridge.
Nevertheless, the scope of Bromholm during its years of plenty must have been impressive, having been considerably enlarged as a result of the acquisition of the relic. As well as a church there would have been buildings for the monks and their servants. A monastery was a self-sufficient business as well as a religious entity. No doubt the priory would have been lavishly decorated – but it was not to be without its problems, not least of which was its proximity to the sea. Records show that during the reign of Richard II (22 June 1377 – 29 September 1399), the Priory was in crisis. In 1385 a legal document shows that the priory lands had been much wasted by the sea and their house recently burned, and that if not relieved they would shortly have to cease divine service. By that time there were just 18 brethren at the priory, down from 25 brethren at Bromholm in 1298; despite reduced numbers, they were still responsible for conducting five daily masses, three of which were sung and two were said throughout.
Clearly at this time, a wealthy patron was becoming necessary – and low and behold he happened to be just down the road in the form of a Clement Paston who, together with his family, came from the nearby village of that same name. Born in 1350 to William Paston and Elizabeth Staleham. Clement Paston married Beatrice Somerton and had one child. From this point, the Paston family became great patrons of Bromholm Priory and it was its Prior who was to be a witness to Clement’s Will of 1419, the year of his death.
History has taught us that it was by hard work and assiduous land purchases that the Pastons were to build a dynasty that would thrive in Norfolk for more than three centuries. But, it was John Paston senior (1421–1466; Clement’s grandson), who was to take the ultimate gamble during the 15th Century, which saw the family rise through the ranks. During this period, members of the Paston family, notibly Richard, son of Ralph, was still supporting the Priory by way of giving annual payments to the Priory for repairs. As for John Paston, he befriended the ailing Lord Fastolff, and eventually found himself as the knight’s lawyer. Somewhat suspiciously, John Paston was the main beneficiary of Fastolff’s Will after he died, starting a feud between him and Fastolff’s ‘cheated’ heirs. The Paston family gained land and riches, but began years of disputes, both in and out of the courts. Sir John Snr died himself in 1466, leaving these unsettled matters in the hands of his wife and children.
When John Paston died in London in 1466, in the midst of his fruitless efforts to recover Caistor Castle from the Duke of Norfolk, his body was brought back to Norfolk and buried lavishly at Bromholm Priory. The expenses of his interment are recorded in a quaint roll of accounts penned by Blomfield who, as the author of the “History of Caistor Castle” gives a very interesting sketch of the information contained in the roll, thus :
“For three days one man was engaged in flaying beasts. Provision was made for 13 barrels of beer, 27 ditto of ale, one barrel of beer of the great assyze [no doubt extra strong], a runlet of wine of 15 gallons.” This amount of liquor did not seem sufficient, for we read of five coombs of malt at one time and ten at another being brewed up for the great occasion. Meat, too, was in proportion to the drink ; there were huge supplies of geese, chickens, capons, 1,300 eggs, 20 gallons of milk, 8 of cream, 41 pigs, 49 calves – 10 neat slain. What a wake the priory was able to present! bread seemed to be at a discount, for it apparently bears the same proportion to the meat. Many pounds of wax were also made into candles to burn over the grave, and no less than 20 pounds worth of gold—a very large sum in those days—was changed into small coins for showering among the attendant throng, and 26 marks in copper being used for the same purpose in London. A barber was occupied five days in smartening up the monks, and the “reke of the torches at the dirge “was so dense that two panes had to be broken to let the fumes escape. According to Henry Harrod (1857), John Paston was buried at the east end of the priory church, either in the north or south aisle of the choir. The Prior had a ” frogge of worstede,” or cope, presented to him on the occasion, and the tomb was covered with cloth of gold.
But the time was approaching when the party would be over for Bromholm, in more ways than one; the writing was on the wall for the Priory’s claim to fame. A decline crept upon it over a number of years, long before Clement and John Paston’s demise. It was in 1424 that Sir Hugh Pie, a protestant chaplain from Norwich, was tried before the Bishop of Norwich for having thrown the Bromholm relic on a fire. In The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe of 1424, it says that Pie was brought before the Bishop on July 5 1424:
“for holding these opinions following: that people ought not to go on pilgrimage, that the people ought not to give alms……that the image of the cross and other images are not to be worshipped.” Pie denied the charges “……
whereupon he had a day appointed to purge himself by the witness of three lay-man, and three priests. That so done, he was sworn as the other before, and so dismissed.” Two years later, the Bishop recalled Pie regarding the death of William White, who had been burned at the stake for heresy and had been associated with White, a fellow Lollard. Pie was reprieved yet again, but Bromholm Priory had lost its miraculous attraction and never again attracted wealthy visitors keen to part with gifts in return for touching wood.
Bromholm Priory was dissolved in 1536, one of the smaller religious houses which surrendered tamely to Secretary of State Thomas Cromwell and his commissioners; its yearly value estimated at £109 0s. 8d. At that time there were just four religious brethren and 33 servants and although demoralised, its Prior, Lakenham, was probably happy with his guaranteed pension. As for Cromwell, he had the land and, questionably, a claim that he had the fragments of the True Cross – the eventual fate of the relic remains a mystery to this day. During the following year of 1537, Robert Southwell, solicitor to the Court of Augmentation was granted Bromholm Priory by royal warrant, along with all its manors, lands, advowsons, and pensions. He wrote to Thomas Cromwell saying that he had delivered the cross of Bromholm to the late prior of Pentney! As with most dissolved monasteries the valuable materials were stripped, its fine bells probably going towards making Henry VIII’s cannon, the rest left to rot or be used as local building material. On June 5, 1547, the King granted the site, with the manor lands, appropriated rectory, and patronage of the vicarage to Thomas Wodehouse, Esq. of Waxham and the buildings shared the usual fate of becoming the quarry of the neighbourhood.
The grant given to Thomas Wodehouse is thus shortly noticed in the fee.
Farm-Roll of the County of Norfolk remaining in the Augmentation Office. Seal and Arms of the Monastery or Priory of Bromholm.
” The seal of the Prior,” says Blomfield, ” is round and large, and about 3 inches in diameter of red ware, the impress being the west end of the church. Under an arch in the centre is the figure of St. Andrew, seated, a glory round his head and a cross in his elevated right hand, supposed to represent the cross or rood of the priory. Above, in the arch, is the bust of the Virgin, with the infant Jesus in her arms.” The legend, ” Sigillum Prioris et conventus Sci. Andree De Bromhold.”
Whatever was left of Bromholm Priory a century later is said to have been bombarded by Oliver Cromwell’s artillery from nearby Butt Hill during the Civil War. A favourite tale about Butt Hill was that when the Priory was under siege, the attacking force carted earth from Bacton Green to make the mound, upon which they stood their cannon to bombard the Priory. However, they found that the mound was sited too close, and a local woman betrayed the Priory by telling the artillery that its weakest part was on the western side. They therefore moved their cannon further west, to the rather low but natural eminence of Butt Hill from which they successfully struck the Priory and took it. Along the southern edge of Butt Hill runs Bloodslat (or Bloodslade) Lane, where attackers and defenders are supposed to have met in a skirmish so fierce that they fought in blood “up to their ankles”. Another version of the story claims that it is linked to Oliver Cromwell and his forces that were besieging the priory – Who knows?.
Little also is known of the post-dissolution history of the Bromholm. Finds of Elizabethan and later coins which were concentrated north of the Priory church and west of the trackway to the main gatehouse indicated commercial use of the site, possibly the continuation of a market. Any use of the old Priory appears to have quickly decreased in the early 17th century, after which it became a farm. By the time of Buck’s View of 1738 the buildings had become ruinous. The north transept was used as a dovecote and is depicted with a pyramidal roof surmounted by a lantern. The east window in the chapter house still remained at this date, as did part of the west end of the church as high as the clerestory. In 1834 the priory was being used as ‘a quarry for agricultural buildings and edifices’ by Col. Wodehouse (Woodward, S., Correspondence vol. II folio 67v, 1834, p. 59). The Tithe Apportionment of 1845 makes it clear that most of the monastic precinct was under full cultivation.
When Henry Harrod, FSA, visited the ruins in 1854, he saw the corn waving high over the position of the altar. He described the south side of the north transept, which originally opened into the main body of the church, as being bricked up, along with most of the windows, and wooden floors put in. The transept was used as storage for agricultural implements and wood, and the lower part was appropriated for a cart-shed. According to Harrod, the original building at Bromholm was very small and no portion of it remained (Gleanings Among the Castles and Convents of Norfolk, 1857, p. 220). The oldest building to survive was the remains of the north transept which dated to the late 12th century. We know that early in the 13th the priory was considerably enlarged as a result of the acquisition of the relic and Harrod produced a plan of its layout in 1854 that incorporated a plan made by Mr Spurdens in 1822 depicting the foundations when they were much more distinct.
This shows that Bromholm had a typical Cluniac layout, very similar to that at Castle Acre Priory. At the north end was the priory church with the tower flanked by north and south transepts and the choir at the east end with north and south aisles. To the south of the south transept there was a slype (a covered passageway) and then the chapterhouse. Adjoining the chapterhouse on the south side was the dormitory, and on the west side was the cloister. The refectory was parallel to the cloister on its south side. Spurden marked an enclosure to the east of the chapterhouse and thought it was the cemetery. This is likely as the cemetery is in this position at Castle Acre. In 1935 a stone coffin containing a skeleton was found nearby in the east field. The main entrances were through the north and west gatehouses which both date to the 15th century. Harrod found the gatehouse in fairly good repair, but only a few building fragments remained on farmland of the north and south transepts and parts of the chapterhouse, dormitory and refectory.
Given the Priory’s proximity to the coast, it was heavily fortified during the Second World War. A gun emplacement was built into the ruin of the north transept and a loopholed wall was built to the north of the farmhouse. A pillbox was built at the north end of the garden to Abbey Farmhouse, it was a variant of the Type 22 pillbox. These are hexagonal in shape with walls around 30-60cm thick. The internal measurement between opposite walls is around 3m and usually there are rifle loops in five of the six walls and an entrance in the sixth.
It is highly likely that the flint rubble and red brick used to camouflage the pillbox were salvaged from old priory or farm buildings on the site. On the west side of the pillbox is the base of a spigot mortar which has been displaced as it would normally be in a pit and surrounded by ammunition lockers. Various other spigot mortar bases were also established around the site to create a line of defence. Sections of the priory have collapsed since the 1960s, notably the window at the east end of the south wall of the chapter house and the arch in the east wall of the chapterhouse. More of the dormitory also remained, at least as rough masonry, with walls extending to their original two-storey height in some places and one particularly well preserved window. The priory precinct is currently under arable cultivation.
Legend has it that from the ruins of the priory runs a tunnel to the site of Gimingham Hall, four miles along the coast. Midway between the two, the tunnel is said to be divided by a huge pair of golden gates. Another passage apparently leads from the hall to the sea. With all these things, there is also rumoured to be the remains of a secret tunnel linking the priory with St Margaret’s Church, complete with golden gates in existence. Take your pick!
The present location of Bromholm Priory is at Abbey Farm, Bacton, Norfolk, NR12 0HA. Unfortunately, the ruins are on private land and therefore not, generally, open to the public.
According to Blomfield: “Such is, as far as can be traced, the history of the monastery, which it is hoped will lead many to visit the interesting old ruin, and do what in them lies to preserve from further decay the work of ages when men’s hearts burned with the religious fervour, happily, though slowly, reviving in this present age. Every year serves to dispel the absurd notion that the examination and preservation of these old religious houses will foster or create a desire to return to forms of superstitious usage. But as Bishop Stanley so elegantly puts it: “We do not dream of retracing our steps to carry back humanity to the darker periods of history ; we seek to glean from them all that is good, and to go forward with a swifter, firmer foot.”
All of us can imagine the medieval world. Our imagination was created by our upbringing, the books we read, and the films we saw. Imagining the Middle Ages is an act that usually starts in childhood, and changes slowly as we grow older. From the brightly coloured pages of a child’s history book to the visceral panoramas of the latest season of Game of Thrones, how we see the Middle Ages changes. In most cases, however, the fundamental perspective remains the same: it’s an elite view of the medieval past, a Middle Ages composed of princes and kings, of knights and fair damsels in distress. It is a vision of the past that includes the splendour of great cathedrals and the brooding darkness of mighty castles. A past of banquets and battles. But it has little bearing upon reality.
The problem with our view of the Middle Ages is that it excludes the vast majority of people who lived in it, so it’s a highly partial and misleading picture of that world. Just like today, most medieval people did not belong to top 5 per cent of society, they weren’t kings, princes, knights, or damsels. Most men, women and children were commoners. It is no coincidence that this other, everyday, 95 per cent of the population was the one who did most of the work.
Putting aside farming, food processing and survival, it was these workers who were responsible for actually building most of what we think of when the Middle Ages come to mind. These are the people who built the magnificent medieval cathedrals, the craftsmen who constructed the dour and monumental castles. The workers whose blood and sweat bonds together the stones of every medieval church. They are the men whose deft fingers filled window spaces with blindingly bright stained glass. These are the people who built the Middle Ages. Yet we really know very little about them.
The voices of medieval commoners are largely silent. The science of archaeology tells us something about their general health, about what they wore, where they lived, and what they ate. Modern techniques such as isotope analysis can even tell us details such as where they grew up. The wonders of modern science have their limitations, however. Archaeology and isotope analysis cannot tell us what these people felt and thought, what they dreamed of and feared, what they thought was funny or what they held dear.
Most medieval documents come with the same limitations. Occasionally, the lower classes turn up in the odd surviving document, account book or legal proceedings but, with low levels of literacy throughout much of the Middle Ages, these documents are usually the work of third parties. They were written and compiled by the priests, scribes and lawyers of the elite. They refer to the lower orders, but are most certainly not in their own words. Even where they turn up in the bright borders of illuminated manuscripts, it is alongside the fantasy beasts and grotesques of the medieval imagination rather than as a reflection of reality. Their voice – the voice of the medieval commoner, of the vast majority of medieval people – is largely lost.
The past seven or eight years have seen a massive rise in one particular area of medieval studies – an area that has the potential to give back a voice to the silent majority of the medieval population. Specialists have been studying medieval church graffiti for many decades. But new digital imaging technologies, and the recent establishment of numerous volunteer recording programmes, have transformed its scope and implications. The study of early graffiti has become commonplace. The first large-scale survey began in the English county of Norfolk a little over six years ago. Norfolk is home to more than 650 surviving medieval churches – more than in any other area in England. The results of that survey have been astonishing.
To date, the Norfolk survey has recorded more than 26,000 previously unknown medieval inscriptions. More recent surveys begun in other English counties are revealing similar levels of medieval graffiti. A survey of Norwich Cathedral found that the building contained more than 5,000 individual inscriptions. Some of them dated as far back as the 12th century. It has also become clear that the graffiti inscriptions are unlike just about any other kind of source in medieval studies. They are informal. Many of the inscriptions are images rather than text. This means that they could have been made by just about anyone in the Middle Ages, not just princes and priests. In fact, the evidence on the walls suggests that they were made by everyone: from the lord of the manor and parish priest, all the way down to the lowliest of commoners. These newly discovered inscriptions are giving back individual voices to generations of long-dead medieval churchgoers. The inscriptions number in the hundreds of thousands, and they are opening an entire new world of research.
Today, graffiti is seen as both destructive and anti-social. It is widely regarded as vandalism, not as something to be encouraged on ancient monuments and historic sites. That attitude is largely a modern one. Until recent centuries, people of just about every level of society carved graffiti into ancient buildings. It simply wasn’t seen as something to be condemned. The Coliseum in Rome, or Bodiam Castle in England, to take just two examples of key European heritage sites, are covered in centuries-worth of graffiti. Many of these inscriptions were created by members of the upper classes undertaking a ‘Grand Tour’ at the end of their education, and date to the 18th and 19th century. In the same tradition, early visitors to the Egyptian pyramids didn’t even need to carve the graffiti themselves – they could hire someone to do it for them. Graffiti was seen as something that was both accepted and acceptable.
Medieval masons, the people who actually built these monuments, left the earliest markings to be found on any medieval church or cathedral. The traditional story is that each individual mason would have his own personal mark, which he’d inscribe wherever he’d worked. These angular marks, known today as ‘mason’s marks’, acted as a form of quality control. They also allowed the ‘master mason’, who doubled as architect and paymaster, to calculate how much each of his workmen was due to be paid. Masons today continue this old practice of marking their work, but their marks are more discreet, hidden away between stones and in darkened corners. Occasionally, the medieval masons left something more.
Their pragmatic approach to the construction of these stone monuments meant that the walls themselves sometimes served as drawing boards. In a few cases, such as at Binham Priory in Norfolk or Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, intricate working drawings can be found etched into the stones. The designs at Binham all appear to relate to the building of the priory’s great west front in the 1240s. It is one of the earliest marvels of gothic window design to be built in England. The nameless master-mason who undertook the work was apparently unfamiliar and uncomfortable with this innovative style. Step by step, he worked out the specifics of the design on the walls of the half-finished priory church. Sadly, the great west window, which acted as a centrepiece to the design, structurally failed in the late 18th century. It then had to be bricked up – and remains so today. From the mason’s inscriptions, however, we have a clear indication of how this groundbreaking design would have looked.
Witch marks were, simply, prayers made solid in stone
Many of the markings discovered in medieval churches are all but identical. A survey of a church in northern England will reveal the same graffiti motifs and markings as those found in a church on the English South Coast. Even more remarkably, the same medieval markings recorded in most English churches are in churches across the whole of western Europe. Essentially, everywhere the medieval Christian church thrived, medieval Europeans inscribed their places of worship with the same graffiti marks. Known as ‘ritual protection marks’, medieval people believed that these symbols warded off evil influences. Today they are more commonly called ‘witch marks’.
Witch marks make up about a third of all recorded inscriptions. This means that we have many, many thousands of examples of them. Some churches, such as that at Cowlinge in Suffolk, can contain many dozens of witch marks. It is a rare church that doesn’t contain at least a small collection. These markings make clear the differences between the medieval and modern concepts of graffiti. Much modern graffiti tends to be collections of names and dates, examples of people ‘leaving their mark’ upon a place.
However, witch marks belong to the world of faith and spirituality. They were not a replacement for the orthodox prayers of the Christian church. As much as the Church might have disapproved, people used them in association, as supplements to orthodox prayers. They enhanced the spiritual, and symbolised God’s protection from the powers of evil. They were, simply, prayers made solid in stone.
What makes the witch marks even more powerful is that they were also personal. The religion of medieval England was one of hierarchy, with parishioners’ own worship and interactions being organised and mediated by the parish priest. The priest, in turn, was subservient to the local bishop and, eventually, to the Pope himself. The prayers in the stonework altogether bypass that hierarchy, and it’s a hierarchy from which almost all other historical sources from the medieval world originate. These are personal interactions and statements by everyday members of the parish congregation with ‘their’ God. There is no need of intercession by priests, bishops or the Pope. In that way, they reveal things that the official, learned histories of medieval religion never can. These are not actions based deep in medieval theology and scholarly argument. They are acts of personal faith and belief, reflecting real people’s hopes, dreams and fears.
Many of the other images on the walls were born of an agricultural society. We see windmills, horses and geese – fixtures of peasant life. These are things that they saw every day, that were important to them, and essential to their ability to feed themselves and their families. The walls are also covered in the mundane: images of the people themselves, their faces and hands. In some cases, they left full-length portraits. Staring at the medieval walls long enough will sometimes result in the walls staring back.
Beasts and dragons are also included in the graffiti. They are strange and misshapen creatures, who seemingly walked, or flew, straight off the decorative borders of an illuminated manuscript. There are images of knights on horseback, heraldry and coats of arms, suggesting that the graffiti was either created by those from the knightly classes, or perhaps those who aspired to be. The walls are full of the peoples’ hopes. They also contain their darkest fears.
Take, for example, angels and demons: the medieval church was awash with images of them. Angels were carved into the elaborate roof timbers, their wings outstretched soaring high above the congregation. Angels flew in the bright wall paintings that once adorned almost every medieval church, passing news to the Virgin Mary or leading the souls of the departed heavenward. Angels guarded the ends of dark wooden pews and pale stone fonts, carved there, bearing shields emblazoned with the arms of saints.
The demons are there, too. Grotesque beasts painted on the walls above the chancel arch, casting the souls of the damned down into the everlasting sufferings of hell. Comic demons sitting beneath the carved seats of the choir-stalls, bared backsides raised to noisily salute the clergy who perched upon them. Demons in coloured glass dance in the windows.
Demons were very real, and to be feared. This fear drove people to carve their counter-curses into the walls of the parish church.
But while the medieval church was formally adorned with angels and demons, when it comes to the graffiti on the walls, there are only demons – many dozens of them, from the grotesque to the comic, dancing across the angel-free stonework.
Why are there no angels? The reason is quite simple. The graffiti on the walls shows only what those who made it thought was real and immediate. Angels were heavenly beings. They littered the pages of the Bible, but could not be expected to play a part in the lives of the people in the world. Demons, on the other hand, were very real indeed. It was demons who were responsible for any sudden illness or unexplained death. Demons brought down a blight upon the harvest crops. Demons unbalanced the mind of the simpleton, and brought on the terrifying storms that could lay waste a whole year’s crop in a single afternoon. Demons were real and to be feared. This fear drove medieval people to carve their counter-curses into the walls of the parish church.
Of all the graffiti being recorded in English churches, text inscriptions are actually rather rare. They make up only about 5 per cent of all the discovered markings: again, a distinct difference with modern graffiti. The rarity is in part a result of the low rates of contemporary literacy, but it is also testimony to the power of images over the written word. Many of the text inscriptions are difficult to read even by long-practiced historians. Generation after generation of wear and abrasion has left them in a sorry state. Even those that can still be made out are sometimes less than illuminating. The poor level of education among some parish priests, and the use of shortcuts and contractions, is reflected in the sometimes appalling attempts at Latin found on the walls. In many cases, the Latin is so bad that the only person who could probably have read it was the very same person who wrote it. Sometimes the writing on the walls simply can’t be read.
So what are these ancient markings on our medieval churches? Are they simply the random scribblings and doodles of bored choirboys, or do they have a deeper significance? Is there a meaning to some of them beyond the obvious? Beyond the simple statement of ‘I was here’? Recent research suggests that, yes, they are very important.
One of the most striking types of medieval graffiti is that of medieval ships. These small images are among the best-studied of all the graffiti, and are beginning to shed light on the mystery of exactly why they were made. When the modern surveys began, it was widely presumed that ship graffiti was confined to coastal churches: simple images created by local people of the ships they saw every day. However, research has shown that ship graffiti is found just about anywhere in the country. There are examples from Wiltshire and Leicestershire, about as far from the sea as one can get in mainland England. Even more intriguing, all the examples of ship graffiti, even those found many miles inland, appear to show sea-going vessels. The church at Blakeney, on the north Norfolk coast in the east of England, can help to explain why there is so much graffiti of these little ships.
Blakeney’s church is covered in early graffiti inscriptions, and they are spread fairly evenly throughout the building. All the dozens of examples of ship graffiti, however, are to be found clustered in one clear and distinct area. Without exception, all of the images were inscribed on the pillars of the south arcade – and most are on the single pillar that sits at the eastern end. According to maritime historians, the images were created over a period of 200-300 years. Despite this, each little ship respects the space of those around them, never crossing over one another. This tells us that the earlier ships were still clearly visible when the later images were created centuries later.
People sat in the dark, praying for the safety of a long-drowned ship, and etched their fears and demons into the walls.
It is, however, their location that holds the real clue to their meaning. The eastern pillar into which they are carved sits opposite the side altar in the south aisle. From the historical record we know that this altar was dedicated to a church’s patron saint. In the case of Blakeney, that was Saint Nicholas. Now better known for his association with children and Christmas, throughout the Middle Ages St Nicholas was regarded as the patron of ‘those in peril upon the sea’. The ship graffiti is clustered around the St Nicholas altar for a reason. Historians and archaeologists believe that each of these little ships was a ‘votive’ offering – quite literally, a prayer carved into the stonework. Exactly what that prayer was, we might never know. Was it a prayer of thanksgiving for a voyage safely undertaken, or a prayer for safe passage on a voyage yet to be made? The fact that some of the ships appear damaged has led some to suggest that these might be prayers for ships, crews and loved ones that never made it home.
This is the true value of searching out these ancient inscriptions on the wall. These little prayers and etchings offer one of the few avenues into the hopes and feelings of those who left their mark many centuries ago. It is not a world of knights, princes and kings. It is a world of real, fallible human beings. People who sat in the dark, praying for the safety of a long-drowned ship, and etched their fears and demons into the walls. Quite simply, the medieval graffiti gives us back the lost voices of the medieval world.
Written by Matthew Champion: He is a British historian and archaeologist who is interested in architectural investigation, heritage planning and the environment, and is the author of Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches.
If you walk out from Wisbech northwards along the Walton Road there are some trees – on one side or the other – but the dominant impression of the flat land is as a sea of wheat. After about half an hour, the horizon ahead is broken by a church tower with pinnacled corners. Its silhouette in the distance looks like a long-eared owl. It’s still another three furlongs or so till you reach the church of St Mary, West Walton, but not until you’re round the bend by the village is it clear that there is something very odd about the tower. It is quite a way from the church, under which several springs are said to rise. The tower needed firmer footings.
This bell tower is a triumph of Early English architecture – tall lancet window openings, without decorative tracery. It dates from the mid 13th century. The fenland sky is visible through the arches on the four sides of the ground storey. The next two storeys are progressively taller – the first pierced by three lancets on each side, and the second by pairs below a super-arch. The parapet and the owl-ear pinnacles are two centuries later, but I don’t mind that.
Walking through the archway of the tower into the churchyard is not the end of a pleasant morning’s stroll. There’s impressive stuff to see inside. But first you can pause and see how odd the church looks with no hint of tower or spire. The nave is high and the chancel lower but long.
From a distance, between the nave windows and the pitched lead roof, a row of small round-headed windows is tucked beneath the eaves, punctuating blind arcading at a rate of one window every three arches.
The church looks not so much like a barn as like the airship hangar at Cardington in Bedfordshire, as it appears across the flat fields as the train goes by. Of course St Mary isn’t as vast as that, but the first glimpse inside the south door is pretty impressive.
Before turning the handle of that door, it is impossible not to be distracted by the Tudor stepped parapet of brick plonked on top of the Early English stone archway of the deep porch. Did the builders of this addition mean it to be rendered and so be less like a sore thumb?
Anyway, the impression of the church interior from the doorway is strong, but not simple. The feeling is of space. This is partly because no pews or chairs cover the wide stone-paved floor of the rear of the nave, and partly because the nave and the aisles each side are lit by daylight from the later perpendicular windows.
There is something else to notice about the wide arches between nave and aisles. They appear alive. Each column supporting an arch looks as if it had four scaffolding poles enclosing it. These are thin shafts of polished Purbeck marble, completely detached from the column and embraced halfway up by linked collars of stone. These detached shafts plunge upward into capitals of stiff-leaf carving. That is the technical name, but they look not at all stiff here, but like a sort of foam of vegetation caught in the act of bursting into the air. I’d wanted to see this church because of some splendid photographs by Matthew Byrne in his new book, English Parish Churches and Chapels.
The bell tower at St Mary, West Walton, is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. The church itself, like all those in the book, has benefited from a grant from the National Churches Trust. It needs more help to deal with subsidence. Otherwise, such marvels, in their hundreds, as English medieval churches, will not much longer stand.
Julian of Norwich is variously commemorated on the 8th or the 13th of May, the alternatives being the two dates given in different manuscript sources for the beginning of her revelations. I like Julian very much – who doesn’t! – and have posted about her a number of times. Today I thought I’d post something a little different: not an extract from her book, but an account of a conversation with her. This shows her acting almost as a spiritual director, as anchorites were occasionally called on to do, and gives us her words filtered through the impressions of a woman whose spirituality was very different from her own.
Some time around the year 1413, a few years before the likely date of Julian’s death, Margery Kempe came to pay her a visit in her cell in Norwich To give you some sense of their relative ages, Margery Kempe was born around the same year (1373) that Julian had her first revelations, at the age of thirty. I think many of us would be glad to have the opportunity to talk to Julian of Norwich, although I like to think that if I was lucky enough to get that chance I wouldn’t do what Margery Kempe did – which was, not surprisingly, talk about Margery Kempe. (To be fair to her, I suppose she had gone there for advice…) Kempe’s account of Julian’s words to her is suspiciously focused on the things Kempe was obsessed with, as a laywoman struggling to find validation for her own form of intense religion devotion: the importance of trusting to personal inspiration, chastity, the holiness of devout tears (Kempe was notorious for bursting into noisy tears during Mass, much to the annoyance of her neighbours), and counsel which essentially says ‘if people don’t like you, you must be doing something right’.
The following text is from Julian of Norwich, and my translation follows below:
“And than sche was bodyn be owyr Lord for to gon to an ankres in the same cyté whych hyte Dame Jelyan. And so sche dede and schewyd hir the grace that God put in hir sowle of compunccyon, contricyon, swetnesse and devocyon, compassyon wyth holy meditacyon and hy contemplacyon, and ful many holy spechys and dalyawns that owyr Lord spak to hir sowle, and many wondirful revelacyons whech sche schewyd to the ankres to wetyn yf ther wer any deceyte in hem, for the ankres was expert in swech thyngys and good cownsel cowd gevyn.
The ankres, heryng the mervelyows goodnes of owyr Lord, hyly thankyd God wyth al hir hert for hys visitacyon, cownselyng this creatur to be obedyent to the wyl of owyr Lord God and fulfyllyn wyth al hir mygthys whatevyr he put in hir sowle yf it wer not ageyn the worshep of God and profyte of hir evyn cristen, for, yf it wer, than it wer nowt the mevyng of a good spyryte but rathyr of an evyl spyrit. The Holy Gost mevyth nevyr a thing ageyn charité, and, yf he dede, he wer contraryows to hys owyn self, for he is al charité. Also he mevyth a sowle to al chastnesse, for chast levars be clepyd the temple of the Holy Gost, and the Holy Gost makyth a sowle stabyl and stedfast in the rygth feyth and the rygth beleve. And a dubbyl man in sowle is evyr unstabyl and unstedfast in al hys weys. He that is evyrmor dowtyng is lyke to the flood of the see, the whech is mevyd and born abowte wyth the wynd, and that man is not lyche to receyven the gyftys of God.
What creatur that hath thes tokenys he muste stedfastlych belevyn that the Holy Gost dwellyth in hys sowle. And mech mor, whan God visyteth a creatur wyth terys of contrisyon, devosyon, er compassyon, he may and owyth to levyn that the Holy Gost is in hys sowle. Seynt Powyl seyth that the Holy Gost askyth for us wyth mornynggys and wepyngys unspekable, that is to seyn, he makyth us to askyn and preyn wyth mornynggys and wepyngys so plentyuowsly that the terys may not be nowmeryd. Ther may non evyl spyrit gevyn thes tokenys, for Jerom seyth that terys turmentyn mor the devylle than don the peynes of helle. God and the devyl ben evyrmor contraryows, and thei schal nevyr dwellyn togedyr in on place, and the devyl hath no powyr in a mannys sowle. Holy Wryt seyth that the sowle of a rytful man is the sete of God, and so I trust, syster, that ye ben. I prey God grawnt yow perseverawns. Settyth al yowr trust in God and feryth not the langage of the world, for the mor despyte, schame, and repref that ye have in the world the mor is yowr meryte in the sygth of God. Pacyens is necessary unto yow for in that schal ye kepyn yowr sowle.
Mych was the holy dalyawns that the ankres and this creatur haddyn be comownyng in the lofe of owyr Lord Jhesu Crist many days that thei were togedyr”.
“And then she was bidden by our Lord to go to an anchoress in the same city [Norwich] who was called Dame Julian. And she did so, and displayed to her the graces that God had put in her soul of compunction, contrition, sweetness and devotion, compassion with holy meditation and high contemplation, and full many holy speeches and conversations that our Lord had spoken to her soul, and many wonderful revelations, which she told to the anchoress to learn if there was any deceit in them; for the anchoress was an expert in such things and could give good counsel.
The anchoress, hearing the marvellous goodness of our Lord, highly thanked God with all her heart for his visiting, counselling this creature [Kempe] to be obedient to the will of our Lord God and fulfil with all her might whatever he put in her soul, as long as it was not contrary to the worship of God and the benefit of her fellow-Christians; for, if it was, then it was not the inspiration of a good spirit but of an evil spirit. The Holy Ghost never inspires anything which is contrary to charity; if he did, he would contradict his very self, for he is all charity. Also he inspires a soul to all chastity, for people who live chastely are called the temple of the Holy Ghost, and the Holy Ghost makes a soul stable and steadfast in the true faith and the true belief. And a man who is duplicitous in soul is ever unstable and unsteadfast in all his ways. He who always doubts is like the flood of the sea, which is moved and borne about with the wind, and that man is not likely to receive the gifts of God.
The creature who receives these signs must steadfastly believe that the Holy Ghost dwells in his soul. And much more, when God visits a creature with tears of contrition, devotion, or compassion, he may and ought to believe that the Holy Ghost is in his soul. Saint Paul says that the Holy Ghost asks for us with mourning and weeping beyond saying, that is to say, he makes us to ask and pray with mourning and weeping so plenteously that the tears may not be counted. No evil spirit can give these tokens, for Jerome says that tears torment the devil more than the pains of hell. God and the devil are always opposite to each other and never dwell together in one place, and the devil has no power in a man’s soul. Holy Writ says that the soul of a righteous man is the seat of God, and so I believe, sister, that you are. I pray God grant you perseverance. Set all your trust in God and do not fear what the world says to you, for the more scorn, shame, and reproof that you have in the world, the more is your merit in the sight of God. Patience is necessary to you, for in that you shall preserve your soul.
Much was the holy conversation that the anchoress and this creature had, communing in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ many days that they were together”.
Landscapes – Isn’t it so easy and comfortable to think of them as unchanging?
Far easier, I would suggest than trying to imagine them as anything different from what we see before us. Yes, man-made structures come and go over time and that much of the ground that we are capable of walking on is constantly subject to change. But nature itself must be included in any blame-game – and, sometimes she has a lot to answer for. Take the case of Cromer for instance, a lovely town on the north-east corner of Norfolk which has, to my mind, always been there. More significantly for this story, the view that the town commands overlooking the North Sea appears to have never changed; neither has its coastline. Here, I would be wrong on all three counts for I have read historical accounts by those who are far more knowledgeable than I.
It’s a safe bet that few visitors who scan the sea just beyond Cromer Pier realise that the remnants of a village rests there; down and amongst nature’s debris, shifting sands and whatever else that drowns or lives in the depths. Those who use telescopic cameras and binoculars would be no wiser, for nothing can be seen of the lost village of Shipden; no towers at low tide and no peeling of bells when a storm rages – nothing. But, back in the 14th century and further back still, beyond 1066, it was safe on dry land although, admittedly, in constant threat. Shipden was even relaxed in knowing that there was no town of Cromer leaning on its back; there was just open ground and woodland that rose up to higher ground. The seeds of Cromer had not been cast; time was just waiting for Shipden to be removed to make way.
As events ultimately turned out, it was Shipden-juxta-Crowmere that disappeared beneath the waves, along with the land that held and surrounded it. That village was not alone in vanishing for the area north of present-day Cromer which now treads water, wasn’t exactly lucky in past survival stakes. To say that the Cromer area was spoilt for lost villages was due to the nature of the coast thereabouts and not down to the usual suspects as plague, pestilence, poor farmland or landlords who enclosed both open common land in order to accommodate their sheep at the expense of working tenants. No, the Norfolk coast also lost villages to the actions of the sea.
Standing on the high ground at Cromer, East or West Runton or towards Overstrand in the other direction, visitors have to image land that slopes gradually down to the sea to meet an entirely different coastline. It would be a coastline with much shallower cliffs, if any at all. At the end where sea meets shore, there once stood, close to Shipden, two other villages of Foulness and Clare and confirmed by 17th Century maps. I have read from more knowledgeable writers than I that Foulness jutted out into the sea, just to the north of Overstrand – a good enough reason for adding ‘ness’ to its placename – and I agree! I also was told that Foulness had its own lighthouse, some 500 metres further out than the current one at Cromer; and also, it was only from the early 18th century that this beacon finally began to collapse from the effect of storms and tides.
For those visitors unaware of Shipden and where it once stood, they need to look straight out to sea beyond the end of the Pier and for a distance of some 400 yards; it is in this approximate position that the remains of Shipden lays. To think that three entries of its existence were made in the Domesday Book of 1086; its records showing that at that period of time, the village housed 117 people, some of whom made up four and a half plough teams with more making use of three acres of meadow close by and enough woodland for 36 swine. Shipden also accommodated the Gunton Manor House which, up until 1066, was owned by the Abbott of St Benets at Holm, who previously had enjoyed:
“half a carucate to find provision for the monks, with one villain, 3 bordarers, and one carucate in demean, half a carucate of the tenants, and one acre of meadow valued at 10s. 8d”.
“The town of Cromer is not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, that being included, and accounted for under the town of Shipden, the Lordships of which extended into what is now Cromer”.
Immediately following Doomsday a Godric was Steward of the Manor at Shipden which had, like most other things, come into the hands of William the Conqueror and consisted of:
“one carucate of land, 4 villains and 4 borderers, 1 carucate in demean, and 1 among the tenants, with half an acre of meadow, and paunage for 8 swine”.
“In the 3rd year of the reign of Edward I (1272 to 1307) Sir Nicholas de Weyland was lord; he married Julian, daughter and heir of Robert Burnel, and held it by the service of one pair of white gloves, and performing services to the capital lord”.
In the 12th year of the same King’s reign, Sir Nicholas was granted a Patent for a ‘Mercat’ – Scottish for a market. It was also decreed that this market would be held on Saturdays for the benefit of the fishermen and villagers. The King’s Patent also allowed for a ‘free warren and a Fair, so one can safely assume that villagers also had fun from time to time. Shipden, unsurprisingly, boasted a harbour and, from 1391, a jetty.
The turn of the 14th Century saw the signs of growing anxiety amongst the small population of Shipden. It was sometime then when John de Lodbrok, Rector of the church, John Broun, a patron, together with parishioners took it upon themselves to petition Edward III (1312 – 1377). They wanted a new church to replace the existing one which “could not be defended” for part of the churchyard had already been wasted “by the flux and reflux of the sea…….that it threatened to ruin the church”. Whatever the process entailed along its submission path and whatever difficulties and delays it may have faced, the petition clearly met with success. On April 15 in one unknown year in the 14th Century “the King grants license that an acre of land in the said village be granted to the said John, Rector, to build thereon a new church, and for a churchyard”.
“John Barnet, official of the Court of Canterbury, and sub-delegate of Pope Urban, appropriated this church of Shypden by the Sea, in 1383, reserving to the Bishop of Norwich an annual pension of 13s. 4d. and to the Cathedral, or Priory of Norwich 3s. 4d”.
Shipden was able, for a time at least, to retain its two churches; one serving Shipden-juxta-Felbrigg and the other Crowmere. However, later that same century, but in the time of Richard II (1377 – 1399) a “Patent was granted for 5 years, for certain duties to be paid for”, including “the erection of a Pier to protect the village against the sea”. Again, this project was to be doomed to failure and within a short period of time Crowmere and its churchyard was destroyed by the sea. Ultimately, the complete village of Shipden was to follow the same fate when the sea rose up further. The population was then forced to retreat inland, away from the advancing coastline and closer towards a position of guaranteed safety. That would be where the present town of Cromer now stands – a position much, much loftier in its outlook. Here, the populace finally settle and where the town’s fathers were to build a new church. Overseeing that task would be Sir William Beauchamp and the Prior of the Carthusians (or Charter House, London) who, having secured a piece of land safely above the late Shipden and adjoining to the Rectory, set about building the present Cromer church, which would be dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul.
From that point in time, Cromer grew and was, for a time, fashionable for Victorian and Edwardian tourists. A pier was built in 1901, extending its friendly hand towards the old Shipden landscape underwater; hotels, shops and homes crowded round the Church. Below the town, it’s foundations were unpinned by a promenade which afforded visitors the facility to walk on level ground. On the seaward side, concrete walls were to form the present front line against an unpredictable sea which still makes inroads from time to time and damages man-made obstacles. How long, one wonders, before this town has to retreat – to Felbrigg?
There is an old chestnut of a story that still goes round and round; it’s so much in the public domain that it would be somewhat petty for anyone to claim copyright; writers must be allowd to have their own take on it. For the reader, the gist of this story is as follows:
On the 9th of August 1888 a steam driven pleasure boat named the ‘Victoria’, picked up around 100 passengers from Great Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier for a 35-mile journey up the coast to Cromer; all on board must have been eager to seek out whatever delights Cromer had to offer – the weather was set fair! As for the Captain, he could have been well pleased that his boat was on yet another one of Victoria’s regularly and stress free trips between the two coastal towns. He could also have been in a favourable state of mind when he decided that, on reaching his destination, he would again anchor up at the 70 yard long “plain wooden” jetty, directly opposite the imposing Hotel de Paris. No one could predict nine years hence, not even the Captain, that a coal boat would smash into that same jetty and wreck it beyond repair, leaving Cromer without a pier until the present metal one was built in 1901. As for the passengers, they waited for the moment when the boat would tie up and they, as fun seekers, would be free to wander around town at will until 3 o’clock when they would have been instructed to be back on board and ready to return to the brighter lights of Yarmouth. What could possibly go wrong – but it did!
Whilst the Captain was approaching the jetty and about to start the process of manoeuvring the boat alongside, there was a sudden sound of metal against rock; the boat’s hull had hit a hard immovable object to such an extent that it had punctured a hole in the boat’s port side. The impact and resulting effects of a lurch startled more than a few; fortunately, for those in pretty dresses and smart attire the boat wasn’t sinking; it was just firmly stuck but, nevertheless, taking in a lot of water. Sensibly, but very inconveniently, everyone was taken off by a flotilla of small boats and ferried to the jetty to be later relayed back to Yarmouth by steam train.
As for the Victoria, she was firmly stuck on a stony object that the local fishermen knew as Church Rock; the alleged remains of Shipden’s 45ft high church tower which still stuck up proud from the sea bed. It was well known that extremely low tides had the potential to reveal some of the tower and sections of house walls. That day, the tide was low enough to bring both boat and the still submerged rock on to a collision course. That collision came and what excitement there had been, went. The boat was abandoned to those who would set up winches in an attempt to haul the Victoria free – and salvage her! However, such was the boat’s weight that the wet tow ropes used could not do the job, and the Victoria stayed in her position for some weeks until, in the end; she was removed by blowing up both her and the rock with dynamite. This action was on the advice of Trinity House, aimed at preventing further accidents of this type in the future. As someone once joked a paraphrase a century later – “To lose a village may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose a please steamer as well looks like carelessness”.
Invariably, when church towers drown, folks will say that the bells can still be heard; Shipden’s church bells of old seem not to be the exception for locals may still be overheard saying that the lost village’s bells will toll below the waves when the North Sea is angry. That is as it may be, but whatever other remains are down below in the depths just off Cromer Pier, they are still and quiet – waiting to be discovered – just like the few salvaged items, such as a hinge from the Victoria’s bronze rudder that was brought up sometime during the late 1980’s by the Yarmouth’s Sub-Aqua Club. Its members had, that day, the added experience of “swimming along a street in Shipden, 40ft below the sea where people had once walked”.
As far as one can see on the surface, there are no medieval dwellings existing in Cromer today. The only one that seems to have any real material evidence, apart from the church itself, is the former Hanover House (previously Shipden House) – but all the evidence is covered up. For information on the detail of this listed building see the following:
There is today, overlooking Norwich, a gem of a place which is free of urbanisation – although it is completely surrounded by roads, traffic, concrete and bricks. It is an area where there is freedom for trees, bracken, brambles, grass and weeds to grow, freedom for feet to ramble and for dogs to do what they normally do when let off the lead. This place once formed part of a much greater expanse of heathland that extended from the north-eastern bank of the River Wensum at Norwich, towards the villages of Salhouse and Rackheath way out in the County. It was once a large area maintained by grazing, but without such husbandry the trees grew tall and thick to produce woodland, now much frequented by walkers. Today, this area covers a mere 200 acres but is much appreciated by Norwich people as a welcome piece of open space. It is an island of green, known today as Mousehold Heath but in far off days was called Thorpe Wood.
Within it, Long Valley in particular makes one feel that Norwich is far away and that the only exciting thing that would happen below the deciduous canopy of Mousehold is for Robert Kett to emerge with the city’s authority in hot pursuit. The wood’s deciduous canopy also does more than cushion objects of our imagination, it muffles the noise of vehicles on those roads that run circles round the area, including that odd little field or two set amongst the trees. It is a wood veined with sand and flint edged pathways that have been cut through ridges by centuries of feet; nice pathways, many of them through birches growing in shallow areas either side. Pick the right one, but avoiding bramble, rough undergrowth, burrs and ticks and a largely forgotten chapel will emerge in the mind and where one can get lost in time. This is where ‘ St William’s Chapel in the Wood’ lays.
The Chapel site covers just a small area, towards the edge of present-day Mousehold Heath – a short distance to the south-west of the junction of Gurney Road and Heartsease Lane. It was originally dedicated to St Catherine de Monte, way back in those far off days following the Norman Conquest; at that time, it served as a parochial chapel for the Norwich Cathedral Priory. Later, in fact on the 27 April 1168, it was re-dedicated to honour a new ‘martyr’ on the block – the boy William. Fast forward to some 380 years later and we find that this chapel was amongst those religious establishments dissolved by Henry VIII; and whilst the exact date of its demise is unknown, the last offering was recorded in 1506, and by 1556 the site had been leased out by the Dean as ‘The Chapel-Yard called St William in the Wood’. But that piece of information is something of a distraction at the moment; we need to retrace our steps back to 22nd March 1144. On that date, a despicable act, supposedly, took place at the site of the chapel – It was Easter and not the best time for a murder!
Get the detail right and the place will be a stark reminder of a disturbing and unpleasant moment that, they say, took place here. But take care; the way history works is not to run into the past in convenient straight lines. With stories, indeed with and all historical accounts, it is best to visualise them as being in twisted flight, crisscrossing through time on a journey which, inevitably, turns the past into a foreign country – where ‘they did things differently there’. This is true of the Chapel’s story and, as with other historical stories, it doesn’t have one starting point but many. What we know or think we know about this story, is that parts of it will certainly be inaccurate, simply twisted by whatever common thought or agenda was in place when it was written. The story of St William’s Chapel and much that surrounds it is a case in point, laying as it does below undergrowth, trees and canopy. For the details of this story we have Thomas of Monmouth to thank!
It’s a safe thing to say that most people in Norwich are vaguely aware of William of Norwich, helped no doubt by a report in 2004 about 17 bodies being found in a medieval well in Norwich, during the development of the Chapelfield Shopping Centre (see Footnote below). That report was clearly written for readers who like Time-Team programmes with their trowel and forensic archaeology. However, these sort of people may not be aware of all the detail which, in William’s case, confirms that he was a victim of what some believe was a ritualised murder. Further, he was only a young lad of about 12 years of age who was an apprentice skinner and tanner, the first recorded apprentice in English history so they say. He certainly died somewhere in Norwich on or around 22nd of March 1144 and it was on the 25th March that his body was found, mutilated on the heath close to, if not on the spot where the Chapel stood. Clearly, if he had been murdered elsewhere then his body would probably have been carried to the heath by horse to be disposed of.
Nobody truly knows who did the foul deed, or where, or even why; but, as ever, blame was quickly apportioned by the populace, egged on by the religious authorities and William’s family. Their collective finger pointed directly at the Jews of Norwich who, by the way, were protected by the Sheriff in the King’s name. Now, this is where politics vie with the powers of the church for front row seats, not forgetting that in the 12th century the King was Stephen. He not only had the church to deal with but also his cousin Matilda; they were both grandchildren of William the Conqueror and amongst all the others competing for a dominant position in ‘The Anarchy – which, basically, was a rather nasty tribal squabble about who controls England – not forgetting Normandy of course. Add to this the question of Jews, who started to come over in 1066, had French as their mother language – and settled in Norwich – big trouble was afoot..
Thomas of Monmouth and his version of events:
Enter Thomas, and here we can only presume that he was born in Monmouth, only because he is identified by that town’s name. Having been “respectably educated” he first arrived in Norwich in 1150 and wasted no time in investigating the murder of William. First, he set about interviewing as many of the surviving ‘witnesses’ as possible. These included people who Thomas had already identified as being “converted Jews”; they provided him with inside information about events within the Jewish community. According to Thomas, one particular ‘convert’, called Theobald of Cambridge, told him that there was a written prophecy which stated that the Jews would regain control of Israel if they sacrificed a Christian child each year. Every year, Jewish leaders met in Narbonne to decide who would be asked to perform the sacrifice; in 1144, the Jews of Norwich were assigned that task.
This, and much more, was written up in his multi-volume Latin account of the crime, titled ‘The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich’ which Thomas started shortly after his arrival in Norwich in 1150, and completed Volume 7 by 1173. Since most information about William’s life comes only from Thomas’s writings, it is difficult to distinguish the facts of the case from the story of martyrdom created around it by Thomas. It was he who devoted himself to the promotion of William to sainthood; he did this by collecting evidence of his holiness and by arguing that he had been martyred by the Jews in a ‘ritual’ murder. As things turned out, Thomas of Monmouth was ultimately unsuccessful in getting William of Norwich canonized as a saint, but did succeed in creating a cult around him in Norwich. From the outset, Thomas contended that he had received visions from the founding Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga, who had died in 1119. According to Thomas, Losinga told him that William’s body should be moved into the Chapter House of the monastery, but Thomas had to battle with the sceptical Prior Elias, who was unconvinced of William’s sanctity. However, the body of William was in fact moved within the same year of Thomas’s arrival in Norwich. That year of 1150 was also the year in which Elias died, and by then the cult of William was established.
Circumstances Leading up to the Murder:
Thomas confirmed that William had been born on 2 February 1132 and that his parents were a local Anglo-Saxon couple, Wenstan and Elviva. Later, William was apprenticed to a skinner and tanner of hides, often visiting homes in and around Norwich, including those in the Jewish quarter to the east of Norwich Castle. Shortly before his murder, William’s mother was approached by a man who claimed to be a cook, working for the Archdeacon of Norwich. He offered William a job in the Archdeacon’s kitchens and William’s mother was paid three shillings to let him go. William later visited his aunt in the company of this same man but she was apparently suspicious and asked her daughter to follow the two after they left. William and this man were eventually seen entering the house of a local Jew. This was the last time William was seen alive. It was Holy Tuesday.
According to Thomas, the man who claimed to be a cook had been employed by the Jews to entice William into the house where the sacrifice would occur. William was initially treated well, but was then bound, gagged and suspended in a cruciform position in a room where he was tortured and murdered in a manner imitating the Crucifixion of Jesus: the Jews lacerated his head with thorns and pierced his side.
“having shaved his head, they stabbed it with countless thorn points, and made the blood come horribly from the wounds they made…….. some of those present judged him to be fixed to a cross in mockery of the Lord’s Passion………..”
Thomas supports this claim further by saying that another converted Jew told him that there was an argument over how to dispose of the body. He also says that a Christian servant woman glimpsed the child through a chink in a door. Then, another man is said to have confessed on his deathbed, years after the events, that he saw a group of Jews transporting a body on a horse in the woods.
On the 22th March 1144, William’s mutilated body was found near the chapel site by a local nun who did not initially contact anyone. Then a forester, named Henry de Sprowston, came across it. He noted injuries which suggested a violent death and the fact that the boy appeared to have been gagged with a wooden ‘teasel’ and was wearing just a jacket and shoes. Was this a sexual assault?
After consultation with the local priest it was decided to bury the body on Easter Monday, two day hence; the position of the grave to be where the body was found. In the meantime, some curious folk came to look at the body, a few recognising William. The next day, being Easter Sunday, members of William’s family arrived to confirm, amongst other things, the identity of the body; one member was said to be a priest. The following day, with proper ceremony, William was buried. Beyond this, Thomas devotes most of his book not to the crime, but to the evidence for William’s sanctity, including mysterious lights seen around the body itself and miraculous cures affected on local devotees. Thomas admits that some of the clergy, notably the Prior, Elias, were opposed to the cult on the grounds that there was little evidence of William’s piety or martyrdom. Thomas actively promoted the claims by providing evidence of visions of William and miracles.
The Christians of Norwich, having quickly blamed local Jews for the crime, then demanded justice from the local ecclesiastical court. Members of the Jewish community were asked to attend the court and submit to a trial by ordeal, but the local sheriff, John de Chesney, advised them that the ecclesiastical court had no jurisdiction over them, as they were not Christians. He then took the Jews into protection in the castle. After the situation had calmed down, they returned to their homes. In the meantime, William’s body had been moved to the monks’ cemetery. Later, it would be moved to progressively more prestigious places in the Cathedral, being placed in the Chapterhouse in 1150 and close to the High Altar in 1151.
As part of this promotion, images of William, as a martyr, were created for some churches, generally in the vicinity of Norwich. A panel of painted oak, depicting both William and Agatha of Sicily, is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; William is shown holding a hammer and with three nails in his head. The panel was formerly part of a rood screen at the Norwich Church of St John Maddermarket. The screen was commissioned by Ralph Segrym who died in 1472, a merchant who became a Member of Parliament and Mayor of Norwich. Another rood screen in St Mary’s church, Worstead also depicts him holding nails. One in Loddon depicts William being crucified.
As it was, William’s death was never satisfactorily solved and the local authorities would therefore not convict anyone, simply because there was no proof. There the matter apparently rested, that is until a Thomas of Monmouth came along, some six years later, and got caught up in the clergy’s idea of establishing a cult around the death of William with a motive which must have been partly pecuniary. It was William de Turbeville, Bishop of Norwich between 1146 and 74 who encouraged Thomas of Monmouth to write his book as a precursor to the church achieving its aim. It turned out to be an extensive hagiography work; Volume 7 being completed in 1173. Clearly, it was designed to deify the boy and to blame the Norwich Jews for what became Britain’s first ‘Blood Libel’. For those who would like a Googled explanation of Blood Libel, it comes from the idea that Jews use the blood of the murdered, usually Christian, children in Passover rituals to make bread – no more need be said!
As a result of the feelings generated by the William ritual murder story and subsequent intervention by the authorities on behalf of the accused, the growing suspicion of collusion between the ruling class and Jews fuelled the general anti-Jewish and anti-King Stephen mood of the population. After Thomas of Monmouth’s version of William’s death circulated a number of other unsolved child murders were attributed to Jewish conspiracies, including: This evolved into the so-called blood libel.
The horrific death of William of Norwich at the hands of an unknown became an appalling beginning for future propaganda exercises in many other parts of Britain and across Europe which used murdered children by unknowns, some of whom, as with William, became the subject of veneration. Proof of William’s veneration can be found in Norwich Cathedral, in a small chapel less than a stone’s throw from the choir stalls. It’s not an exciting place, wood lined and with a few chairs; seemingly out of place within the Cathedral’s splendour but comfortably near the tombs of old bishops. As someone said elsewhere, this is where the story starts to get really nasty. William is said to be buried here, after being moved several times in the church’s attempt to get William away from Thorpe Wood and nearer the high alter. The answer is all very simple; saints bring pilgrims and pilgrims bring money.
In 2004, the remains of 17 bodies were found at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich. They were discovered during an excavation of a site in the City’s centre, ahead of the construction of Chapelfield Shopping Centre.
According to the scientists, carrying out the investigation, the skeletons dated back to the 12th or 13th Centuries, at a time when Jewish people were facing persecution in Norwich and, indeed, throughout Europe. In their opinion, the most likely explanation for them being down the well were that they were Jewish and probably murdered or forced to commit suicide. Pictures taken at the time of excavation suggested the bodies were thrown down the well together, head first.
Using a combination of DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies in their investigation, the team established that eleven of the 17 skeletons were those of children aged between 2 and 15; the remaining six were adult men and women. Out of the total found, seven skeletons were successfully tested and five of them had a DNA sequence suggesting they were likely to be members of a single Jewish family.
A close examination of the adult bones showed fractures caused by the impact of hitting the bottom of the well. But the same damage was not seen on the children’s bones, suggesting they were thrown in after the adults who cushioned the fall of their bodies.
The team had considered the possibility of death by disease but the bone examination also showed no evidence of diseases.
Medieval Jewish History
1066: The Norman Conquest opens the way to Jewish immigration. The monarchy needs to borrow money and Christians are forbidden to lend money at interest. London, Lincoln and York become centres for substantial Jewish populations.
1100s: Resentment against the Jewish community grows over their perceived wealth and belief they killed Jesus. The “blood libels” – Jews are accused of the ritual murder of Christian children.
1190: Many Jewish people massacred in York. In Norwich they flee to the city’s castle for refuge. Those who stay in their homes are butchered.
1230s: Executions in Norwich after an allegation a Christian child was kidnapped.
1272: Edward I comes to the throne and enforces extra taxes on the Jewish community.
1290: Edward I expels the Jews en masse after devising a new form of royal financing using Christian knights to fill the coffers.
From the time of Augustine’s mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasteries and Abbeys formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. These religious communities, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline.
Monasteries, Abbeys, call them what you like, were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. The County of Norfolk was no different in how it’s religious communities were organised and run.
Principally, two Abbeys stand out in Norfolk but only one is the subject of this blog, that of Langley Abbey. It, along with the other Norfolk Abbey of Wendling, were both communities of Premonstratensian Canons. Langley was founded on the 19th Febtruary 1195 by Roger fitz Roger of Clavering and dedicated in honour of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin; whereas the Abbey of Wendling, Langley’s daughter house, was dedicated to St. Mary and founded about 1265 by William de Wendling, one of the king’s justices. That is by way of explaining that the Premonstratensian order was not confined to Langley; indeed, the Order spread throughout the land mass which is now Europe, crossed the English Channel and found roots throughout England. The Order was, in time, to also cross the ocean and develop in America – but that is another story.
Both Norwich Cathedral and Langley Abbey were built during the century after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and both, just as all cathedrals of William the Conquerer, were constructed using Caen stone delivered by boat from France. The site chosen to build Langley Abbey was situated on the south bank of the River Yare approximately mid-way between Lowestoft and Norwich. It was positioned on the extreme edge of a gravel terrace but stretched on to the peat of the marsh lands. It’s present day ruins occupy the same spot.
The area in which Langley Abbey sits is a strangely remote part of East Anglia, the uncompromising rivers have long dictated the landscape, and the modern roads now rushing through to Norwich do so without much regard for the villages and hamlets lost in the rolling meadows and copses beyond. Langley is on the southern side of the river Yare, opposite the sugar beet factory and although its silos and chimneys appear from time to time above the rise, Langley is a quiet place. It remains one of the small, ancient parishes created very early on in the colonisation of this island by the English.
When first built, Langley Abbey housed between fifteen and twenty canons who were known as ‘white canons’, not monks in the strict sense of that name. They made up a community of priests who lived together under a Rule, modelling themselves on the Cistercian values of austerity and seclusion. What they lacked in personal wealth was offset by their Abbey which was impressive. It’s position and appearance, in Caen stone and flint, would have stood out for miles around and, in all probability, was the biggest building outside of Norwich. It was an awe-inspiring landmark at the heart of a thriving medieval community and once housed some of the most important religious leaders in Norfolk. What more did it need to make a mark on the landscape and show that the land around, and probably beyond, was completely under the control of the Abbey. The idea was clearly to blow people’s minds with amazing imagery!
During its first 100 years the wealth of Langley Abbey was almost entirely derived from contributions, grants and appropriations from more than 80 Parishes in the Diocese. During this period, when times were good, the number of Canons probably increased to over 20 with the gross income of the Abbey being estimated at about £178. Along with the daily duties and religious services, the Canons also took on the role of parish priests to the surrounding villages. This was a time when Norwich, just upriver, was one of the largest and most important cities in medieval England and Langley Abbey would have held a very prestigious position.
The surviving building that exists today formed part of the west range of the Abbey and, along with other areas of the abbey, was rebuilt and redesigned during the 14th century. The surviving Cellarium, as the name suggests, was a store room for food, wine and other goods and is thought to have possibly been used as the Abbots personal cellar. A narrow, spiral stone staircase leads up to what is believed to have been to Abbots private quarters.
Very little is reported of life at Langley Abbey until 1475, when Bishop Richard Redman was appointed Commisary-General of the Premonstratensian Order in England, which meant that he was responsible for the 29 larger English houses. Sadly for him, the abbey, which was to stand for over three hundred years, had a reputation for being one of the most wayward monasteries in England; it appears that disorderly conduct and corruption were rife! Apart from all the other indiscretions, there was a scandal when the presiding Abbot, who was responsible for the collection of funds for the crusades in the Norwich diocese, seemingly embezzled the £200 of taxes gathered in the the local area – claiming that he hadn’t received them.
Bishop Redman was charged to investigate this and all other reports of ‘wrong doing’; a task that was to occupy his mind and time for over 25 years. He made his first of many visits to Langley on 1 July, 1475 to sort things out. That was a short visit, leaving on 3 July but making sure that he dined at Beccles at the expense of Langley Abbey – perks of his position no doubt!
The Abbey was again visited by this bishop three years later, on the same day of the month. On that occasion he met with Nicholas, Langley’s Abbot who was bowed down by age and sickness, the reason given for the Abbey’s bad discipline. The outcome to their meeting was for Prior John Bristow to receive unspecified discipline and for two of Langley’s canons to be appointed to ‘look after the spiritualities and temporalities of the house’. Thomas Russell was sentenced to forty days bread and water and banished to another house for three years ‘for evil living’. Two others were apostate for going out without leave and also sentenced to forty days of penance. The practice of locking any rooms so as to prevent the entrance of the superior was also forbidden. All recreation outside the precincts would be stopped until the next General Chapter when the Prior would attend report as to whether the new rules were being observed.
Little seemed to change after Redman departed for during his next visit to Langley on 20 August, 1482 there was again much scandal reported. John Myntynge the Abbot, John Bristow the Prior and fifteen others, including a novice and an apostate, were in attendance. The Abbot was accused of some incompetence and waste with the result that his powers were temporarily transferred to two of the canons under the Abbot of Wendling. Seemingly distressing to some was the diktat that ‘common taverns near the monastery’ were not to be visited and no one was to leave the precincts of the Abbey, save those responsible for services in churches. The injunctions did not end there for there were also a variety of minor and usual orders included.
Did all this work? Well, during his tour in the early summer of 1486, four years later, Bishop Redman, having reached Langley at supper time on 27 June, seemed pleased. Then. two years later, when Langley’s Abbot Walter Alpe, Prior John Shelton and thirteen other canons were present, Redman found matters going ‘excellently well’ – but not quite, despite being informed that the Abbey’s debt had been reduced from £200 to £100. Being the Commissary-General of the Premonstratensian Order in England and maybe a person wanting his present felt further, Redman highlighted other ‘irregularities’ and left behind him further injunctions; they were banns against absence for hunting and fishing by night under pain of the greater excommunication.
Redman, it seems, must have developed a taste for maintaining discipline at Langley for he was again there In 1491 to attend the serious case of Canon Thomas Ludham who, in a quarrel, had cut off a man’s right hand; he was sentenced to forty days penance and to perpetual imprisonment. Redman made further visits in1494 and 1497, reaching Langley at supper time the 20th June. He held his meeting with the Abbot the next day, but did not leave until the 23rd, when he slept at Norwich – once more at the expense of Langley. This unusually long stay of Redman and his retinue may have been intended as a kind of punishment for the laxity he had found at Langley; on the other hand, one should not forget Redman’s track record for his acceptance of ‘hospitality’.
In the year 1500 William Curlew was elected Abbot of Langley, but was obliged to resign in 1502 for some ‘delinquencies which are not named’. On 10th December, 1502, Robert Abbot of Alnwick, as father-abbot of Langley, being too aged and infirm to ride, wrote to Richard the Bishop of Ely, giving him full authority to act in his name and to conduct an election of a new Abbot for Langley. He told the Bishop in his letter that the house of Langley was in sore financial straits, being much in debt and not having sufficient for its domestic needs or, indeed, for the spiritual benefices that it held. Robert also anticipated difficulties as to the election and authorised the Bishop to excommunicate anyone who might be rebellious. It would seem that yet a another new Abbot would solve Langley’s probelems.
For writers, like present-day Karen Maitland, Langley’s clear reputation could and would be exploited, all in the cause of developing a good plot – as in her book THE RAVEN’S HEAD , of which we shall sample an extract:
“There are some people who appear friendly, even charming, like the neighbour spraying his roses who cheerily calls ‘good morning’. But behind the chintz curtains he is adding that deadly pesticide to his wife’s tea, as he did for his three previous wives whose bones now fertilise those same roses. And, like people, places too can present an innocent face, while concealing a heart of malice.
Langley Abbey in Norfolk is one. If you see it in summer with the sun glinting from its ruined walls, snuggled in the tender green grass, it presents a romantic setting. It could be one of those follies the landed gentry liked to build in their magnificent gardens, where ladies sipped wine and listened to lovers reading poems or played at being shepherds and shepherdesses among the daisies.
But creep up on Langley on a winter’s evening and you will glimpse its dark soul. The ruins rise like giant gravestones in the darkness as the bone-white mist from the marshes slithers through them. The stones are so cold, so silent that every night-sound echoes from them – the rat-rustle of dried grass, the gallows-creak of the branches of a tree, the drip and gurgle of icy black water.
Was it that desolation, those nameless terrors that drove the medieval White Canons out of their abbey every night to hunt, drink or seek comfort in the arms of village women, anything to escape those great oppressive stones?
For centuries, Langley corrupted those who entered its walls. The Premonstratensians or Norbertines, who founded this abbey in 1195, belonged to one of the strictest religious orders. They were ordained priests who had dedicated their lives to serving the community, but had also subjected themselves to living under austere monastic rule. Yet, as each new generation arrived the muddy ooze seeped into their veins; the marsh-agues gnawed their bones, and malevolence choked their souls. Every virtuous abbot sent to reform them was instead sucked into their mire.
But what lay at the heart of Langley’s darkness? Henry VIII’s recorders unearthed financial corruption, sexual ‘incontinence’ and violence against fellow clerics. But imagine if there was something worse concealed behind those walls, something far more sinister? Don’t be deceived by Langley; don’t be taken in by its sweet, innocent face. Like any poisoner, Langley knows where the bones are buried. The question is, can we find them?
The 1500’s were obviously a seminal period for the Abbey and Langley Abbey’s dissolution took place in 1536, which meant that what assets it had were seized. It is understood that by the time of suppression in 1536 the numbers of the community were falling and the inventory of church goods showed nothing of value and the chattels were equally of little value. An obvious decline did not stop there; the buildings were also ruinous and in a state of decay. Twelve years later, the Abbey site was acquired by John Berney, Esq, when it was primarily seen as a quarry for stone and a reclamation yard for other materials. Reports from the time made if stark that the destruction of the Abbey was very thorough. The site and estate remained in the Berney family until the middle of the 18th Century when they passed to the Beauchamp Proctor family where they remained until the early 20th Century.
Little remains of this once magnificent and large Langley Abbey but extensive archaeological excavations in the 1920s by Elliston Erwood produced a detailed plan of how the Abbey was laid out. The fact that monastic buildings of that era generally conformed to a similar set of rules enabled the illustration below to be produced which shows how the Abbey is likely to have looked when it was first built.
The vaulted former Cellarium is still standing and there are remains of the church, barn and fishponds. The western range has recently been restored and now houses a full-scale model of the original monastic layout plus interpretation boards telling the fascinating story from foundation to dissolution.
But despite being a site of enormous historical and cultural importance, Langley Abbey has been shut away from the eyes of the public for hundreds of years. Now the remains of this 12th century abbey, near Loddon, has undergone restoration and is open as a fascinating Norfolk tourist attraction.