From amongst all the major gales that have imposed themselves on to Norfolk over the years, the 1st September gale of 1833 must rank as the worst. That storm ranged wide over the North Sea and as far south as the English Channel when it wrecked hundreds of ships in the North Sea alone. Out of this undefined figure, over 60 ships were driven on to the County’s coastline alone. Areas inland weren’t safe either; the spires of St Margaret’s and St Nicholas Churches in Kings Lynn were blown down and forty wagon-loads of wreckage were removed from the beaches of Hunstanton and Snettisham. On the following Sunday, 8th September Bell’s ‘Life in London’ looked back at, what was referred to as ‘the great gale’, and recalled:
“……the loss of life and property in all parts of the country presents a dreadful catalogue of calamities, which must fill the minds of our readers with horror………On Monday, the public mind was shocked by the description of the disaster of the most appalling description, and everyday since has produced some new account equally heart-rending”
It was from the accounts written at the time that the public learned of dead bodies floating ashore throughout the storm ” from one end of the Norfolk coast to the other”. Cromer, which sits at the top right-hand edge of Norfolk, collected eighty-four bodies from its beach over two days. They were buried in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul’s Church. East Anglian reports following the storm emphasised the damage to homes, fields and orchards. According to the Cambridge Chronicle, the rain and tide-swollen Ouze River breached its banks and:
“……such was the immense body and impetuosity of the water, that in a few hours, upwards of 1,500 acres of land were laid under water……many acres of standing corn are irretrievably lost and many head of cattle drowned……The damage sustained by the lamentable event has not yet been ascertained, but it is much to be feared that it is to a considerable extent, nor is there any prospect that the water can be got off before the next spring”
Similar accounts from the coast naturally focused on the destruction of ships,crew lives lost and infrastructure damaged. The Times, no less, referred to the coast around Lynn as ‘strewn with vessels, parts of vessels, boats and goods’ Also, in a report unusual for its concern for human life lost, referred to:
” The brig Margaret, Captain Osire……went down on Saturday afternoon, near Whiting Sands and all hands perished. By this awful circumstance there are four women left without husbands, and 22 fatherless children. Better luck attended the crew of the Brig ‘Waterloo’, like ‘Margaret’ carrying a load of coal. After Waterloo went down, the crew ascended the rigging at eight o’clock on Sunday night, and remained lashed in that perilous situation, the sea breaking over them mountains high till one o’clock the next day when they were taken off by fishermen, several of whom manned their boats and succeeded in rescuing eight individuals.”
But, probably. the most tragic tale was that of the Earl of Wemyss, Leith’s Old Shipping Company’s Packet Ship. In common with the Amphitrite, its tragedy became indelibly imprinted in the public’s minds, in part because it revealed men’s failure to behave in an honourable way. The crew and male passengers on board the ,Earl of Wemyss, en route from London to Leith in Scotland, survived the gale off Brancaster, Norfolk, but that the 6 women, one man and 4 children on board drowned. This news was met with the public’s disbelief and anger.
The ships owned by the ‘Old Shipping Company’ of Leith were called ‘White Siders’ to distinguish them from the ships of other trading lines which had a different strip of colour painted on their hulls; the ‘Old Shipping Company’ ships had a white strip. All these companies carried passengers, freight and hauled convicts sentenced to transportation or the home-based hulks from Edinburgh to London, thirty at a time. It was on the 29th August 1833 that the Earl of Weymss (pronounced ‘weemz’) set out from London on a return journey to Scotland. In command was a Captain Henry Nesbit; not the same Captain Nesbit who, almost thirty years earlier had been master of the Old Shipping Company’s smack Queen Charlotte when she was attacked by a French privateer. The successful defence of the Charlotte earned Nesbit a £105 reward from the owners. In 1833 Captain Nesbit of the Earl of Wemyss did not appear to be like the hero of 1804!
Ahead of Captain Nesbit was a 400-mile. plus, passage that could take as little as a few days or as much as 2 weeks. It was stated later, at an inquiry at the Hare Arms in Docking into the ship’s disaster, that the Earl of Wemyss had carried 19 passengers on board, 8 men and 11 women and children, but the Captain’s count did not include some passengers not travelling business class in the salons, but travelling economy in steerage. A substantial amount of cargo was also on board, including bales of hops from Kent. After the wreck, men worked for hours to unload the ship’s hold of the then sodden bales and goods packed inside – apparently, none of it insured.
It was said that late in the afternoon of the Saturday, “a northeaster blew up in the North Sea and continued to freshen until it became a hurricane” However, this was later contradicted by others who were on board who said that the gale had been blowing since 6.00 am that morning, when the ship was off the Spurn Light. By midday on that Saturday the Earl of Wemyss was out of control on seas – “like mountains of snow”, all her canvas was shredded and her stern boat gone. By the Saturday night the ship had lost both anchors in a failed attempt to wait out the storm and found itself aground off Brancaster, Norfolk. An effort early morning of the Sunday to launch another boat failed and soon afterwards the Earl of Wemyss flooded with water from storm-driven seas breaking over the un protected skylights and breaking through the glass, drowning everyone in the women’s cabin below. Those still living rushed out on to the open deck and stated later at a Magistrate’s Inquiry:
” where we found the captain, crew, and steerage passengers secured to the rigging and the winch, We lashed ourselves in the same manner and continued there with the sea breaking over us for about four hours.”
Two weeks later when the Inquiry, convened by the Home Office, took place at the Hare’s Arms in Docking, its brief was to determine ” whether there had been any loss of life by culpable negligence, or loss of property by dishonesty.” Captain Nesbit’s incompetence was made manifest through him missing at least two opportunities to save his passengers. One was a chance to wade ashore early on the Sunday morning when a lull at low water passed, when he misread a nautical almanac and also confused the flow of the tide with its ebb. He then offered ‘fatal advice’ that sent his female passengers and children into their berths. He failed to protect his ship’s four skylights and their chutes through the main deck and into the space below, thus setting up the circumstances for the drownings of the women and children. They were: Mrs. Hamilton, her son, and a lady ; Mrs. Pyne, her daughter, and child ; Mrs. Carmack ; Miss Susanna Roche and a child—all cabin passengers; total, 9. Mrs. Rymer and child, steerage.
The Reverend Holloway of Brancaster testified that Captain Nesbit told him that the ladies were already dead in their cabin and there was no point in rescuing them as they had been there for over four hours. When the bodies were recovered, they were taken to the Church. The Reverend Holloway believed that if the skylights had been battened down the ladies would have been saved – and if they had been rescued earlier their belongings may also have been saved. Statements referring to the dead said that “whilst their bodies were yet warm” they had been stripped of their valuables by Joseph Newman Reeve, son-in-law of the Brancaster Lord of the Manor. Reeve claimed that he had asked people to help get the bodies out of the ship and took the jewellery to “protect them from ‘revolting indignities’ – such as having their fingers cut off to get the rings off them” Reeve claimed that he had kept everything safely; although others claimed he had refused to give the things back and said that they belonged to the Lord of the Manor, who was entitled to everything cast up on the shore. Reeve admitted that he had unwisely opened one bag, belonging the Mrs Pyne, without witnesses, but said that others gave him jewellery to look after.
Reeve was tried in March 1834 at the Norwich assizes before a Judge Vaughan, but escaped conviction on two charges of felony thanks to being represented in court by Sir James Scarlett, a local MP and a famously competent lawyer. He might also have been helped by the still general belief in England, that coastal residents were “the lawful heirs of all drowned persons” and so entitled to the property providence had cast at their feet. A further trial at the Norwich summer assizes in the July of 1834, of the ship’s steward, cook and a local farmer who had been in charge of the wreck, included some very damaging evidence about people who had offered to lie to protect Reeve – but this evidence was dismissed and the jury of the second trial also gave a ‘not guilty’ verdict. Captain Nesbit was dismissed from his role and was ejected by his Guild and all that is left of the wreck of the Earl of Wemyss is a weathered gravestone inscription in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Brancaster:
Sacred to the memory of Susanna Roche, aged
32 years and also to her nephew, Alexander David
Roche, aged 4 years who were unfortunately
drowned with many others in the cabin of the
Earl of Wemyss, Leith Packet which was
stranded on this coast during the dreadful gale
on September 1st 1833 on its passage from London.
Which melancholy affair has been doubly afflicting
for the relatives of the deceased from the fact that no
attempt was ever made to rescue them from their
situation, and in continuation of such inhuman
conduct their persons were stripped of every
valuable and their property plundered.
The tale of the Leith Packet ship Earl of Wemyss combined all the elements to interest readers: evidence of incompetence at sea, the death of innocents and a suspicion of crimes inflicted on the dead. The reason for such persistent coverage by the press was that all the dead came from the same propertied class as did the readers of The Times and The Scotsman. On May 6th, 1834 the rebuilt Earl of Wemyss went back into service, carrying passengers and cargo from Scotland to London, under the command of a Captain Brown. Eventually the ship was replaced in the packet service by steam. The Wemyss, now twenty-five years old, could still be seen at sea 15 years later sailing between Aberdeen and the Baltic.
Mentioned in the Domesday Book of AD 1080, Wolterton (near Calthorpe and Itteringham) was listed as both Ultertuna and Wivetuna, having 4 smallholders on the land with ½ a plough team on 16 acres. Land valued at 16 shillings (80p) was also held by the Abbot of St. Benedict at Holme before 1066 but at the survey it was valued at 20 shillings (£1). The main landholder was the Norman nobelman, William de Warenne. Always a small village, Wolterton’s Lay Subsidy records for 1332 and 1334 indicate it was well below average in size. The parish was subsequently consolidated with Wickmere.
In 1725, the estate was purchased by the first Baron Walpole. The original Hall burnt down and was rebuilt by Horatio Walpole (second Baron), who employed the Yorkshire-born architect Thomas Ripley and work began on the red-brick house in 1727. The interior featured state rooms containing Gobelins tapestries while the surrounding 150-acre parkland within the 500-acre private estate was landscaped to include a lake and avenue of oak and beech trees.
During the 1700’s, it became ‘fashionable’ for Lords of the Manor to remove any property on their estates, which they either considered an eyesore or which spoilt their view. Known as Emparkment, this ‘option’ was exercised on estates nationwide including Felbrigg, Holkham and Houghton amongst others in Norfolk. A similar fate also affected Wolterton which also gradually became abandoned, leaving only the church tower, north of the Hall. A local map of 1733 shows the deserted settlement lying slightly north of the church. This had previously contained several houses clustered around a village green. The remaining Wolterton inhabitants – located near St Margaret’s church – were removed as part of the redesigning programme. Their settlement was located around a rectangular green where today, a visible hollow way still remains. Field walkers and metal detectorists have discovered medieval and post-medieval pottery, coins and metalwork on the site.
Wolterton’s “demise” seems to have begun in 1722, when Horatio Walpole started buying land in the parish and began planning a new mansion, surrounded by an ornamental park. Neither church, village nor Tudor Manor-House (which burnt down in 1724 and remains demolished), were included in the new scheme. It then seems rapid progress followed within a decade for in 1737, the Rev. George England arrived in Wolterton, to become its last ever priest. Consolidation of the parish with nearby Wickmere soon followed the same year, before Wolterton’s last church marriage was held in 1740. Between 1742-46, cottages were demolished (except for the parsonage) and dispersed away from the church. The last recorded burial was in 1747 and the final baptism, in 1765. Records also indicate that by the mid 1700’s, the church aisle, porch and vestry had already been demolished and in 1797, a local contractor (William Ward) was paid to demolish both the nave and chancel, leaving almost nothing.
By 1741, Wolterton Hall was being rebuilt by Horatio Walpole whose brother Sir Robert Walpole – then Britain’s first Prime Minister – was simultaneously building Houghton Hall. It’s also likely that Horatio removed much of the church stonework after St.Margaret’s had faithfully served local men and women of centuries past. But the last churchyard burials coincided with construction of the new estate, although records suggest some services were still held at Wolterton for a short time after Consolidation. The churches and buildings historian Nikolaus Pevsner claimed the living was consolidated with Wickmere in 1737, hence construction of the Hall involved moving a village that was in the way. More houses were demolished with only the tower left as a ‘view’ from the house.
Since St Margaret’s demise, Walpole family members have been interred in a vault at St Andrew’s Church, in nearby Wickmere. So today, Wolterton’s medieval church of St Margaret’s is just a ruin with only its late Saxon round tower – refaced in brick during the 14th century – remaining. Made of knapped flint with brick and stone dressings, it became a Grade II listed building on 4th October 1960 and interestingly, the official Listing Schedule places the building in Wickmere, Norwich, NR11. William Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk marked it as a ruin. It’s tempting to think rubble from the church plus its foundations might still lie under remaining mounds. Archaeologically, they remain unexcavated but are protected, as an Ancient Monument.
In the 1830’s, the lake was enhanced by adding an island planted with cedar trees. The present Hall and estate had once been occupied by an earlier Manor House, owned by Sir Henry Spelman (1562 – 1641), born in Congham near Kings Lynn. He was an Englsh antiquarian, noted for detailed collections of medieval records, particularly of church councils. Whites Directory of Norfolk (1845) records Wolterton only had 43 souls.
It seems likely that some church contents still live on, after being moved to Wickmere which today, has a huge ‘Armada’ Chest and painted panel, attached to its pulpit. The font seems to have moved to Mannington Church. Two bells were still in Wolterton’s Tower in 1807 (says the Church Terrier). The Latin inscription on one bell – (‘Robert Plummer made me in honour of St Margaret’) – suggests it was of pre-Reformation date.
Former public lanes in the original parish were moved beyond its boundaries leaving the tower in isolation. Wolterton Park and gardens were laid out in grand manner around 1730, from plans made by the King’s Garden Designer and Royal Gardener, Charles Bridgeman (1690–1738). After Horatio Walpole became a Baron in 1756 the grounds were extended to form a North Park, where the tower still remains, its ruin retained as a romantic ‘eye-catcher’ in the landscape as was then fashionable. This may have preserved it from random demolition for its materials.
Remains of the churchyard were cleared in the early 1800s and the tombstones sold off in Norwich by Lord Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford (1752-1822) including the Scamler memorials. Local folklore however, tells us that the coffins of later Earls were firstly driven several times around the churchyard before being conveyed for burial in the family vault in Wickmere Church. This was to placate the disturbed spirits of the departed!!
It was Simon Knott, way back in 2009, who referred to All Saints Church in the village of Horsford as being “an oasis of calm” – and so it still is.
For those travelling from afar, Horsford lies to the north of Norwich and close by the City’s new Broadland Northway, formerly the Northern Distributor Road. Although close to the orbit of Norwich and the busy A140 Cromer Road, All Saints Church sits quietly amidst an equally silent graveyard. The church is set comfortably back from Church Street, with the southern side of its churchyard resting in between. Quite close to the south facing walls of the church runs a side entrance path to the building’s front porch; this same path is also, unbeknown to some, a public footpath which runs right through the grounds of All Saints and seems to disappear beyond.
Turning up on one of the hottest days in July was not the best of choices for walking round the churchyard. But, everywhere was bathed in strong light and, together with equally dark shadows, enabled a few striking photograph to be taken – who would want to miss such an opportunity? However, relief came with entry into the church itself, through a porch which is not the oldest part of the church, having been first built in 1493, the year when an Appeal for funds went out to not only complete the reconstruction of the Tower but also to include a south facing porch which would face directly towards the Church Street entrance gate. Reconstruction of the Tower itself had first begun in 1456, but it seems that immediately from this date the work had been frequently been interrupted for long periods, which included necessary ‘repairs’ – one can only imagine of what.
The 1493 Appeal did, however, ensure that both the Porch and Tower were completed within a sensible time thereafter; this work may also have coincided with alterations made to the roof height of the Nave. The Tower was certainly ready to have bells hung in it by 1506. as witnessed by a bequest for the provision of a bell. Today, the Tower has one remaining bell which is still rung to herald the beginning of Sunday services; it is inscribed: Anno Domini 1565 I.B – which stands for John Brend. Rather unusual for a tower of this date is that it appears to have been designed without a door in its west side and that its West window had previously been raised in the early 14th century; one may guess that the reason for doing so was probably to bring more light into the rear of the Nave.
Inside the Porch are some 16th century capitals with angels on either side of the entrance arch and its roof was, like the rest of the church at that time, a thatched one. I later discovered that, in the Victorian era, the Porch was in such a sorry state that, in 1884, the Rev. Josiah Ballance had it rebuilt and re-roofed with tiles as a memorial to his deceased wife, Margaret.
On entering through a modest but still attractive door and into the rear end of the Nave, the coolness there was a welcome friend and the light streaming though the south windows showed that this church is certainly not a gloomy place.
A walk around the inside of the Church, together with a few enquiries, told me that the building of the Nave was started soon after 1100 and was made of well-coursed flint work. From outside it is possible to see, particularly at the east end of the Nave (not the Chancel), a number of the low courses in the south wall where there are regularly banded unknapped flints. This, I was told, was evidence of a building technique commonly used in the 11th and 12th Centuries that was generally abandoned later in the middle-ages for less-coursed flint-rubble construction. Just inside the South Door, by the Chancel, is the 13th Century Trefoil Piscina with its ‘Holy Water’ Stoup, a stone basin which would be used in the Mass – in use until the 16th Century Reformation.
Outside, on the south wall, the height of the original Norman Nave is shown by a a line of knapped flint work, just below the later brick and flint courses which were laid so that the pitch and height of the Nave’s thatched roof matched that of the Chancel. In the late 14th Century, the earlier headed windows were heightened and the roof again raised by adding the brick and flint courses. When, in the 19th Century, the Nave’s thatched roof was removed, the walls had to be raised by a further 50cm in order to support the timbers for a new slate roof. More recently, in 1980 to be exact, these slates were replaced by re-cycled tiles.
As for the Chancel, this was probably built at the same time as the Nave; an example of an early English rustic structure, with a thatched roof and once neatly plastered walls but now flaking in places and requiring some loving care. Outside, the date of 1703, picked out in a naive style with red tiles in the flint of the gable, indicates that repairs were done that year to the East Gable and to the coping of the Chancel. Past speculation suggested that these repairs were necessary as a result of the 1703 storm, one of the two great storms of that century which destroyed much of the fishing fleet along the Norfolk coast and much inland.
There is still a hint of a curve in the Chancel’s sanctuary area which may be the remnants of a pre-Norman, early 11th Century Apse. On the south side there is a ‘low-side window’. This is the term for a small window or opening always built in the south wall of a chancel that is positioned lower than other windows in the church, usually at eye level or lower. I was told that these were not originally glazed, but shuttered. There is also scholastic conjecture over their original function, some thinking that they were intended to allow those outside the church to get a glimpse of the altar, or even of the Eucharist, as they walked past; others thinking that they were simple ventilation devices; and others reckoning that they would have been used for the distribution of a dole. Where they do appear, some say in about 100 churches in Norfolk, they are always in the same position.
During renovation work in 1956, a vault was discovered by the then Vicar and Churchwardens. It was beneath the floor directly in front of the south side kneeling rail. Apparently, in the Vault were several lead coffins of the Day family; it was decided that these should be left undisturbed, the Vault being resealed and the floor reinstated. The positions of the Altar in the Sanctuary and its Communion Rail were also altered in 1956, following the discovery of the Day Vault. The step was extended westwards, thereby creating a second higher dais for the Altar. The original Altar table was placed in the east end of the North Aisle to create a Lady Chapel and, because its top had been badly worm-eaten, a new top (all be it a second-hand one) was attached to its legs. A new main Altar was made by All Saint’s devoted Churchwarden, Harry Sole who was a highly skilled joiner employed by R. G. Carter Ltd. He also made a frontal cupboard, which stands on the left-hand side of the Chancel. In addition, he made the Bishop’s Chair and the Oak Credence Table and the Vicar’s Prayer Desk, which stands before the Screen in the Nave of the Church.
Probably the star of the Church is set into the south wall of the Nave, close to and at right-angle to the Screen. It must be East Anglia’s best example of a 19th Century window by the grandly named Royal Bavarian Institute for Stained Glass and made by the famous F. X. Zettler workshop of Munich. The window depicts and remembers three sisters, Edith, Dorothea and Nona Day, who died of consumption in 1891, 1892 and 1893 in Davos and Cairo. One sister stands on the far shore of the Jordan, welcoming her sisters across to an imaginary paradise, which is clearly more Bavarian than Middle Eastern. This is a wonderful stain-glass window, despite the sisters’ halos being rather unconvincing .
The memorials in various parts of the Church, mainly commemorate the Barrett-Lennard families of Horsford Manor and the Day Families. The Barrett-Lennards first arrived in the area at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 – with Sir Richard Barrett-Lennard being the last of the line.
The North Aisle of All Saints Church existed in 1458, for it is mentioned as having been provided with donations for its construction in Wills of that year. Then, in the 1860’s, because the aisle wall and the pillars were leaning northwards, drastic remedial work had to be done under the guidance of the Rev. Josiah Ballance. The core of the arcades, made of brick with plaster over, is of the 15th Century but the present appearance of the aisle and its pillars is due to this timely restoration. The East window of the aisle contains the only medieval glass in the Church. In 1986/7 this window was re-glazed, with the addition of the medieval glass, and dedicated as a memorial to Harry Sole by his widow, Rosetta.
Looking around All Saints, it is clear that over the years and certainly during recent post-war years, this Church has never lost its nerve or its confidence to get things done. A feature at the west end of the Nave is yet another example. Here, there is a relatively new gallery with a metal spiral stairway, built in 1993 to house an organ which had been acquired from Horsham St Faith. The previous organ had been at the East end of the North Aisle until 1956: when the Lady Chapel Altar was installed there, the organ was moved to the the west end of that Aisle before being replaced by the one now in the west end Gallery of the Nave. A gallery, by the way, which is in a thoroughly modern asymmetrical style but mindful of church tradition. It is a style which should take All Saints confidently into the future. A heartening thought!
The Font, which I found at the back right-hand corner of the Nave, is of Purbeck stone from Dorset. It is distinctly early Norman, the style being similar to those of the early 12th Century by being square with simple, unlaced, arcading with a plain support pillar at each corner. Again, my informant told me that the central drain and its column could have been added towards the end of that century. Apparently, medieval fonts were made in three sections: base, support and bowl, so alterations posed no problem. This one in All Saints was possibly damaged during the Reformation and may have been removed from its church – which may not have been this one at that time. Then, after it had been rescued, it was placed in All Saints, possibly during its 19th Century repair and restoration work. The arcading did show signs of having been repaired with cement, when meant that the lead lining had to be re-inserted.
During medieval times, Holy Water was kept in the Font, being renewed each Sunday. Its purpose was not only for use at Baptisms, which usually took place before the baby was three days old (the mother would not attend this ceremony), but also for blessing ‘bewitched’ premises or animals, for giving comfort to the sick, or for those who were dying. For the sick and dying it was the priest who would use the holy water when administrating the last rites after their confession and witnessing their ‘last well and testament‘.
However, so I was informed, anyone could use the water if it was agreed that the need was urgent. Unfortunately, for the church at least, pagan habits lingered on and the water would often be ‘stolen‘ for use in magic and other sorcery. Consequently, in the 13th Century, the church ordered all Fonts to be secured by a cover and, after 1287, a strong lock had to be added. The usual method was to cover the entire top of the Font with a wooden disc, fastened in place by means of an iron bar which was locked to staples driven into the rim. It was those iron staples which may have caused the initial damage to All Saint’s Font. The present wooden cover, though, was made in 1934! Until 1956, this Church’s Font stood on the west side of the most westerly pillar between the Nave and the North Aisle. There is a radiator in that position now, but the mark of where the Font once rested against the pillar can still be seen.
The Church Chest sits besides the Font. On its lid are the initials H.S. and R.C. along with C.Ws., presumably indicating they were once the ‘Churchwardens’. Its date is, apparently, unknown but it still has two padlock. In the past it had three: one for the incumbent and one for each Churchwarden; this was a simple security measure necessary in earlier times when money collected for the Poor Rate would be kept in the Chest ready for distribution to the ‘deserving poor of the Horsford Parish’.
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”.