It was Saturday, the 6th July 2019; a day which turned wet. It should have been a day when we walked beside the river Bure near Wroxham; instead, we paid a visit to St Mary’s Church. We did so because It was holding its ‘Alphabet of Flowers Festival’, and a degree of extra support, particularly from ones who do not attend such places regularly, would not go amiss. It was well worth it.
For those who do not know St Mary’s Church, it stands on the southern bank of the River Bure, and has been there for at least 900 years – possibly more! Present-day visitors, those with water flowing beneath the keel, would hardly see it as they proceed up river; but should they tie up at Caen Meadow and exit through the meadow’s gates, turning left and walking east for two, or maybe three, hundred yards along Church Lane, they would discover this little gem of a church. So too would those approaching from the opposite direction; those who managed to find their way over the stone railway bridge and away from the sometimes-impossible traffic grid-locked A1151 which cuts Wroxham in two. But any time other than this weekend would mean that they would miss the event that we so much enjoyed!
This is all rather unfortunate, so too is the fact that St Mary’s really does stand in a secluded spot, away from the hustle and bustle that surrounds the River Bure, the boatyards that line the riverside and the small housing estate that faces the church gates. Maybe, for these reasons, or even a lack of real effort on the part of visitors, most never seem to make their way there – this weekend or, indeed any other time. All this is a real shame, for the St Mary’s Church is a wonderful historic building, full of interest despite being set in a quiet and almost a secluded spot.
The present church made its appearance in the 12th century, though much of the building is in the 15th century Perpendicular style; however, you can still see 12th-century stonework in the nave. The south aisle was apparently rebuilt in brick in the 19th century, but the striking west tower is 15th century, with beautifully tracery sound holes and flushwork panels on the parapets. Most of the windows are also 15th century, though most were restored in the Victorian period.
The most interesting historic feature is the magnificent south doorway, a gem of Norman architecture and carving. It dates from the 11th Century and is carved in what Simon Knott described as “a style more typical of Herefordshire”. There are monsters carved into the columns along with what are known as a ‘Sheila na Gigs’ – representations of a lady in an immodest pose. It was, again, Simon Knott who once asked the question: “What’s that doing in a church porch?…….. to which his best guess was that it was a reminder that “man born of woman has but a short time to live! [for] All of us are mortal and by coming into church and becoming one of the baptized one may escape both the foul fiends and death!”. The doorway holds a 15th-century oak door with an even earlier 13th-century iron latch plate. Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner once called the doorway ‘barbaric and glorious’. He was right.
Within the body of the church are 16th-century arcades and the remains of the medieval rood loft stair. The Victorians were also enlightened enough to employ the great William Wailes, England’s most accomplished and visionary stained-glass manufacturer of the time, to refurbish the church windows; but the parish destroyed one of them in the 1960s. The large east window dates from the Victorian restoration of 1851. Inside, the church boasts some wonderful monuments, mainly from the Victorian period, but included are some 18th century memorials. Among these are those relating to John Wace (d.1795) and Daniel Collyer (d. 1774). It is said that the church also has one great treasure, that of a medieval alabaster relief of the Holy Family. This must have been acquired from somewhere else, maybe by an enthusiastic 19th century Rector who took a fancy to it. Unfortunately, it is one treasure that is locked away in the vestry, so no one sees it.
The most impressive monument, however, is the Trafford Mausoleum outside in the churchyard which stands to the north-west of the tower and is almost large enough to be a church in its own right. It was designed by Anthony Salvin in 1827 for the Trafford family of Wroxham Hall (now vanished). Salvin designed the mausoleum on Early English style, beloved of Victorian Gothic architects, and he exhibited the mausoleum plans at the Royal Academy in London in 1830. The plans were enthusiastically reviewed in Gentleman’s Magazine, which called the mausoleum a ‘pleasing and exquisite miniature chapel’. Salvin’s design was widely copied and inspired the design of many later mausolea throughout the 19th century. He made a serious attempt to emulate 13th-century Gothic design, with ornately carved pinnacles, buttresses, plate tracery, and blind arcading along the building exterior.
The mausoleum was built by Margaret Trafford as a memorial to her husband Sigismund Trafford Southwell, High Sheriff of Norfolk in 1818 who died in 1827. Sigismund Trafford fought at the Battle of Waterloo, and his letters home are an invaluable historical resource. It was Margaret Trafford who was granted permission to build a Roman Catholic burial vault and mausoleum in St Mary’s churchyard and commissioned Anthony Salvin, then an aspiring young architect, to design the building. The mausoleum, which also houses later generations of the family, is usually closed to the public, but has been known to open for annual Heritage Open Days events in September.
As a complete aside to any history of St Mary’s and, of course, the current flower festival – the Trafford family once owned Trafford Park in Manchester, the home of Manchester United’s Old Trafford Football Stadium and the Old Trafford cricket ground, used by the Lancashire County Cricket Club and venue for international test matches.
As for the St Mary’s Alphabet of Flowers, we only have memories and the photographs for, hopefully, others to enjoy. Each followed in order through the alphabet from ‘Arch’ through to the last exhibit titled ‘Zen’.
There is something quite eerie about ravens, and there is something equally eerie about church ruins; seeing both together can, for the more imaginative, be quite chilling. None more so than when approaching the old church ruins of St Felix at Babingley, on the royal estate in Norfolk.
Babingley is a small hamlet which includes an abandoned village which adjoins the St Felix church ruin, standing as it does some 6 miles north of Kings Lynn and surrounded by fields and marsh, near the junction of the B1439 and the A149. Silence still manages to pervade the place and ivy masters its walls if not cut back. The added presence of jackdaws whirling above and swapping places between the church tower and nearby trees makes for drama. Make no mistake, this is the type of isolated spot that rides the surrounding fields well, particularly on bright winter days before the annual ploughing is spring carpeted and lambing begins. Best to witness the place when there is a chill in the air – for it has history and a legend!
Babingley has long claimed itself as the landing place of St Felix of Burgundy, in AD 631, who came to convert the East Angles to Christianity. It is said that he was invited by the Wuffings (or Wuffingas or Uffingas), the royal East Anglian family,. Others, like Wikipedia, is more specific by stating that Felix travelled from his homeland of Burgundy, first to Canterbury before being sent by Honorius to Sigeberht of East Anglia‘s kingdom. He travelled by sea and on arrival via Babingley, Sigeberht gave him a See at Dommoc . According to Bede, Felix helped Sigeberht to establish a school in his kingdom “where boys could be taught letters”. Felix of Burgundy was also known as Felix of Dunwich. He became a saint and the first bishop of the East Angles.
“all the province of East Anglia from long-standing unrighteousness and unhappiness”.
Felix may have been a priest at one of the monasteries in Francia founded by the Irish missionary Columbanus – the existence of a Bishop of Châlons with the same name may not be a coincidence!
A Clerk of Oxford further states :”Working with the aid of the ill-fated King Sigeberht, he [Felix] established churches, a school, and an episcopal See at a place called Dommoc (perhaps to be identified with the town of Dunwich, which has since disappeared almost entirely into the sea). Felix had help from the newly-founded church of Canterbury, and was consecrated as bishop by Honorius, the last surviving member of the Gregorian mission to England………Bede, in etymological mood, tells us (in Historia Ecclesiastica, II.15)”:
“Bishop Felix… came to Archbishop Honorius from the Burgundian region, where he had been raised and ordained, and, by his own desire, was sent by him to preach the word of life to the nation of the Angles. Nor did he fail in his purpose; for, like a good farmer, he reaped a rich harvest of believers. In accord with the meaning of his own name, he freed the whole province from its ancient iniquity and infelicity (infelicitate), brought it to the faith and works of righteousness, and guided it to eternal felicity (perpetuae felicitatis)”.
Felix was Bishop for seventeen years, until his death on 8 March 647/8. His relics were preserved at Soham [ Soham Abbey], but the shrine and community there were destroyed in the ninth century by a Viking raid. In the eleventh century Cnut gave permission for the monks of Ramsey Abbey to take possession of Felix’s relics…… There’s a memorable story in Ramsey’s own chronicle, the Chronicon Abbatiae Ramesiensis, which claims that when the Ramsey monks were sailing home with Felix’s relics through the Fens they were pursued by the monks of Ely, also in a boat, eager to have the precious relics themselves. A miraculous fog descended, in which the Ely monks lost their way, and our Ramsey heroes were able to escape with the relics. Rivalry between Ramsey and Ely, two great Fenland monasteries, is a regular feature of their medieval history, and since Soham is closer to Ely than it is to Ramsey you can see why the Ely monks might feel a little aggrieved! It’s a great story (though generically typical), but even the Ramsey chronicler who records it expresses doubts about its veracity – with engaging frankness, he says ‘the reader is not required to believe the story, provided that he feels it to be certain that every part of the relics of St Felix were translated to the Church of Ramsey, and honourably deposited there’. As indeed there’s no reason to doubt.”
So, maybe Felix did come to Babingley, but why arrive at the extremity of East Anglia and about as far as you can be from the former royal capital at Rendlesham and Dommoc, on the other side of the modern Walton; surely, Dunwich would have been a better bet? On second thoughts, we best leave this latter question behind; for if Babingley was never the place where St Felix set foot on his arrival in Norfolk then Babingley would never have had its legend – thus so:
Babingley has, like many Norfolk villages, a timber ‘village signpost’; this one was carved by Mark Goldsworthy and it depicts the curious tale of the ‘brave Bishop Beaver of Babingley’. The signpost stands amongst rhododendrons in a nearby wood clearing.
Like all charming legends, this one says that when St Felix arrived at the Wash, he headed for the River Babingley which was, at this time, still navigable. As he sailed up the river, looking for a suitable place to land, a violent storm occurred and St Felix’s ship floundered in the water. Fortunately for him, together with the rest of the crew, beavers existed in East Anglia at the time; and thanks to these creatures, everyone on the boat was saved from drowning and taken to safety – at Babingley. In gratitude, the Felix consecrated the chief of the beavers by making him a Bishop in thanks for saving his life and allowing him to deliver Christianity to the region of what became East. This act is remembered on the Babingley village signpost which shows a beaver in a bishop’s mitre grasping a crook.
The ruined church of which we speak was a rebuilt 14th-century edition, dedicated to St Felix and was used for worship until the early 19th century. It sits, surrounded by the trees which house those ravens, in a field some 200 metres north of the River Babingley and is now part of the nearby royal Sandringham. The ruin today comes with its 15th century south porch addition, built in the main of grey Sandringham stone and carstone with limestone dressings. The church once consisted of a nave, north and south aisles with two-bay arcade, chancel, and west tower and has undergone a number of alterations. The north aisle was demolished and its arcade blocked; the chancel arch bricked up and a Decorated Gothic window from the south side of the chancel re-set in the brickwork. Its ruined state goes back a long way – in a 1602 survey the chancel was described as ‘decaying’ and by 1752, ‘dilapidated’.
In 1845, William Whites’ History, Gazetter and Directory stated that “the tower and nave are in tolerable repair, but the chancel is in ruins” According to Pevsner, repairs were attempted four years later in 1849 but the introduction of the mission church just off the main road in 1880 was the final nail in the old St Felix’s coffin as it had its roof removed. As a ‘sop’ to its once proud place, the church yard continued to be used into the 20th century. Now, bar for the 15th century porch, the church is completely open to the skies, covered in ivy and teased by those ravens. However, it can take pride in the fact that, since March 1951, it is now Grade I listed!
FOOTNOTE: You can now spread your wings and, with the aid of the video below, take a birdseye view of the old St Felix Church at Babingley, and those ravens – if you can spot them far below!
On the 26 June 2015 Emily Sarah of the Norfolk Record Office wrote that the final of the National Twelve Bell Striking Contest would take place at St Peter Mancroft Church on the following day, when 10 of the best teams of ringers from across the country, plus several hundred visiting ringers visited the city.
The Norfolk Record Office holds the records for no fewer than four ringers’ societies, all based at St Peter Mancroft’s, the earliest of which was the Norwich Ringers’ Purse founded in 1716. Members paid weekly contributions and, in return, received financial support when they fell sick. The purse also supported families of deceased ringers.
The most recent ringers’ society is the Guild of Ringers, which was founded in 1907, after a bitter dispute between the vicar and churchwardens on the one hand and the ringers on the other. At one point, the belfry was closed, the vicar got rid of all the old ringers and a new band was formed. Even then, prospective new ringers had to demonstrate that they could ring three distinct methods on twelve bells before they were admitted. Ringing a method means pulling your rope so that your bell follows all the other bells in the tower in turn, with a constantly changing pattern and at different speeds, all done by memory.
The most common method is Plain Bob Doubles, rung on five bells, usually with a sixth bell, called the tenor behind, always in the final place to keep a good sense of rhythm. Ringing the same method on eleven bells would be called Plain Bob Cinques. On twelve bells, it would be Plain Bob Maximus.
Ringing on 11 or 12 bells is very difficult, demanding years of practice and intense concentration so that the bells all sound absolutely in time. If anyone makes a mistake, the bells will clash and the resulting cacophony would be heard all over Norwich. It is said that the best ringers can ring to a precision of 3/100ths of a second.
Over the years, St Peter’s has acquired a total of 14 bells (though it is normally regarded as a ring of 12) plus a Sanctus bell, which is rung during the communion service. The largest number of bells in one tower in England is 16, at Birmingham St Martin.
The first true peal, lasting three hours and eighteen minutes on Plain Bob Triples (seven bells), was rung at St Peter’s on 2 May 1715. A peal is often rung to celebrate a special occasion, such as a birthday.
The Norfolk Record Office holds a short article on campanology from the Mancroft Review of 1971. This is mainly an appeal for more ringers to join the regular band, but it also describes the learning process:
‘Beginners are not taught at Mancroft, but on the six [bells] at St George, Colegate. There the bells are not so heavy and the ropes are just 40 feet long, compared to Mancroft’s 70 feet. But beware … campanology is a disease! Once you learn, you will get hooked.’
It is a fact that many folk in the distant past could neith read nor write; couple this with the fact that folklore stories have long drifted in and out of print, meaning that each generation relied on the tongue for telling tales which it was hoped would be remembered and passed on, from generation to generation. As part of this process, and to maintain the interest of liseners, these stories were often elaborated and embellished; an essential part of the spoken tradition which wanted to perpetuate whatever lay behind each tale. The following story is just one example where the detail has been given just that treatment over time, appearing in print in as many and varied versions as would the same tale told verbally – so maybe past chronicle authors and story-telling bards have a lot to answer for! But we have to go with what we have, so the question is ‘How much of a story is fact and how much is fiction’, remembering that all legends have a degree of truth in them; but one thing is certain – we will never know. The only thing the reader can do is to pick through content and decide where a degree of licence may have been applied and where facts possibly rest.
This story is about the beginnings of Erpingham Gate, a great Norwich gateway which takes the visitor from Tombland into the Cathedral Close and directly towards the main entrance to Norwich Cathedral. More importantly, it is about the person who, it was said, paid for its construction, Sir Thomas Erpingham – and about whom a legend, myth – whatever you might call it – found root around the time of 1422 when Gate was built. But first, some facts:
Sir Thomas Erpingham was born in 1357 in the Norfolk village of Erpingham, some 17 miles north of Norwich. His family had been in the village since the Norman Conquest and were part of the local gentry who came to be the holders of the manor in the early thirteenth century, taking the place name of Erpingham as their surname. After the death of his father, Sir Thomas went into the service of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and fought alongside Gaunt’s son (Henry Bolingbroke) across Europe and the Middle East. Bolingbroke later became King Henry IV and Sir Thomas was made his chamberlain. In 1400 Sir Thomas became a Knight of the Garter and received many estates in Norfolk and Suffolk. He used his position at court to promote the interests of Norwich and in 1404, the king gave Norwich its new charter, making it the County and City of Norwich. Sir Thomas was a generous patron and one of his legacies can still be seen most clearly in his entrance gate to Norwich Cathedral.
Sir Thomas went on to have an impressive military and political career beyond the confines of Norfolk. He was a staunch supporter of the Lancastrian dynasty and part of Henry V’s inner circle, he was instrumental in the king’s political and military successes. In 1415, Sir Thomas went with Henry V to Agincourt where he is thought to have been in charge of the archers, riding out in front of the English lines giving the order to strike the French. Sir Thomas became a hero to many and was immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V, where one Act takes us through the English and French camps on the eve of the battle, portrayed as a steadfast and loyal ‘old hero’. However, whilst he was considered ‘good’ in Shakespeare’s play, there was a piece of folklore that grew amongst the populace following the completion of the Gate. Its theme depicted the process of Sir Thomas paying for the building of the Erpingham Gate as an act of personal penance – for a seedy episode during his life!
When it comes to legends, you would think that their themes would rely more on history books and the information, if not facts therein. In the case of Erpingham, this legend, of which we speak, would have made reference to the fact that Sir Thomas was against Henry le Dispencer, Bishop of Norwich. For instance, in efforts to turn the City of Norwich against the Bishop, Sir Thomas managed to persuade the City’s authorities to endorse a list of accusations against the Despenser, who sympathised with the deposed Richard II and became implicated in a rebellion against Henry IV. As it was, the house of Despenser had a long-standing enmity with the House of Lancaster – and ultimately Sir Thomas. When the King Richard II was disposed of, Bishop Henry le Despenser was disgraced. Add to this the fact that it was Sir Thomas Erpingham who, when in exile with Henry Bolingbroke, helped the future Henry V to secure the throne, whilst capturing Richard and offering ‘advice’ that because Richard was a possible threat, he should be removed! With the Bishop of Norwich disgraced, Erpingham became even more influential in Norfolk.
The result of these acts was that a serious breach of trust opened up between Erpingham and Bishop le Despenser, the repercussions of which may have been felt by both Sir Thomas and the Church beyond the year of 1406 when Despenser died. We do not know! However, if this legend ever found root beyond Dispenser and the next two Bishops of Norwich – Alexander Tottington (1407 to 1413) and Richard Courteney (1413 to 1415) – then it must have been with John Wakering (or Wakeryng) who was Bishop of Norwich from 1415 and until 1425. It was during this period in office when the Erpingham Gate was built. So, was any sort of reconciliation between the Church and Sir Thomas settled during Wakering’s period in charge?
Whenever it was, if the wound was ever to be healed then Sir Thomas needed to make some sort of financial gesture to the Church – because that was what they liked! As things turned out, it was said that he came up with a two-pronged solution that, with God’s help, would satisfy both the Church and his belief that heaven awaited those who donated generously to the church; he also must have hoped that his earthly bones would eventually be laid to rest in the Cathedral when his time came. They say that this was the basis on which Sir Thomas Erpingham built his Gate. When Sir Thomas did die in 1428, his bones were indeed buried in the north side of the Chancel (or presbytery) of the Cathedral, along with his two wives.
That was one version of the legend; but it would seem that the populace much preferred another version of the legend that tells quite a different story – and with much less historical content. This one goes along the lines having a Friar in the opening scene – we’ll call him Brother John for the purpose of this version – who clearly lusts after Sir Thomas Erpingham’s wife, Joan. We do not know which Joan the tale refers to; both of Thomas’s wifes carried the same name for he married a Joan, daughter of Sir William Clopton of Clopton, Suffolk, then married a second Joan, daughter of Sir Richard Walton sometime around 1411. No matter, for this legend tells us that during Mass, Brother John slipped a note into Joan’s hand. Curiousity alone dictated that she would read it at the first opportunty, her subsequent blushes apparently telling Sir Thomas all he needed to know of the note’s content. But, being a faithful wife, she still insisted that her husband read it word for word, knowing that he would take matters into his own hands and take steps to remove the problem that lurked beneath a religious habit! Sir Thomas did just that – and so cunningly; first by noting the time and place suggested by Brother John for his meeting with Joan, both perfect for his plans. The meeting would take place at dusk when disguise was so much easier, and the place would be a quiet spot by the River Wensum – a short but convenient walk away from the Cathedral, Whitefriars Priory and the busy part of the City. We of course, do not know if this friar came from the Blackfriar fraternity, or that of the Whitefriars stood next to the Cathedral in Pockthorpe with the River Wensum in between. Sir Thomas then decided to dress in one of his wife’s more favoured dresses before leaving with his faithful servant to the ‘trysting’ rendezvous which some believed was downstream from the rear of Whiefriars and just short of Cow Tower – again, we cannot be certain.
Once there, Sir Thomas, now further disguised with a silk scarf tied over his head, stood beneath a tree at the water’s edge and gazed across the water to the bank opposite; waiting, but at the same time listening intently for sounds of any movement behind him. In the meantime, his servant concealed both himself and Thomas’s horse under cover a short distance away. It was not long before (alias) ‘Lady Erpingham’ heard advancing footsteps behind him and then felt stumpy fingers begin to move over his hip. “Thank you for coming – my love”. Brother John got no further with his obvious intentions for, almost in a single movement, Sir Thomas reached for a metal object hidden beneath the waist of the dress, swung round and struck Brother John firmly on the side of his bald head. The Friar fell first on his knees and then face downwards towards the river-edge reeds. He was dead.
The recipient of the legend is led to believe that it was never Sir Thomas’s intention to kill his victim, but only to give him a heavy lesson which he would never forget – such was his anger……..“How do we get rid of this lecher” he eventually asked his servant, who had come to his master’s assistance immediately he saw the Friar hit the ground. His reply was quick and straight forward. “He has no blood showing, just a dent my Lord. The best we can do is to return him to the Priory grounds”. With the help of Thomas’s horse they took the body the short distance to the Priory’s boundary wall. There, the two men lifted it over the wall and propped Brother John up in a sitting position – as if the Friar was asleep.
The corpse had not been there long, after Sir Thomas, servant and horse had quietly departed, when another Friar, in this instance a Brother Richard who was a very pious man, noticed Brother John – apparantly asleep when he should have been at prayers! Seeing this known womaniser lazely avoiding his religious duties caused Richard to pick up a stone and throw it in the direction of John. It so happened, that his aim was good, too good in fact; the stone hit the side of Brother John’s head, causing him to keel over, once again hitting the ground. Believing that he had actually killed Brother John and in doing so sinned, Richard took a further step towards further weakness; he lifted the body and rolled it over the wall where it fell to lay outside the Priory boundary. He then quietly called on the services of his own pony and left the Whitefriars and what he thought was his crime scene.
Now it so happened that Sir Thomas Erpingham’s personal servant again rode past the Whitefriar’s outer wall on an errand for his master. He could not help noticing, with some puzzlement, the body lying on the wrong side of the wall from where he and Sir Thomas had first left it. Maybe it was a degree of panic, if not a cool calculated decision, that caused the servant to climb down from his horse and replace his elevated position with that of the corpse which by then was stiff with rigor martis. He managed to get former John into an upright position, his feet into the stirrups and his wrists tied to the reins before firmly slapping the horse’s rump into a gallop.
As for Brother Richard, he thought that he had left his unfortunate experience behind him as he too rode out of Norwich, all be it at a much slower pace. But then he heard the sound of galloping hooves approaching towards him from the rear. He instictively turned his head to see the ‘gastly figure’ of Brother John approaching fast on a horse which. When alongside Richard’s pony it pulled up causing the dead friar to fall off to beneath the ponty’s feet. Richard was absolutely terrified – feeling the guilt of what he thought he had done. It was nothing less than divine intervention he thought and decided, there and then, that he must confess! He immediately turned his pony and made his way back to the Bishop and told him all that he knew.
Inevitably perhaps, Friar Richard was sentenced to be hanged for his apparent sins, but as he stood on the gallows, praying for forgiveness and waiting for the immident drop into oblivion if not heaven, Sir Thomas came on to the scene and forced his way through a crowd eager to witness what was a public strangulation. He shouted “Hangman – stop!” as he climbed the scaffold steps, removing the implements of execution and then descending the steps with the Friar. Sir Thomas, the most powerful knight in Norfolk at the time, sought out the Bishop and did not hesitate to kneel before him to admit that he, Thomas, was the one who had killed Friar John. He told the of circumstances surrounding the Mass and his thoughts and planning which led up to the murder along that part of the River Wensum which runs past Whitefriars, towards Cow Tower, Bishops Bridge and beyond. The Bishop listened, then contemplated and decided that the act of this killing was manslaughter…….the sentence was not to be death for such a distinguished person of the County, but one of a penance which Sir Thomas had to agree to if he was ever to be forgiven and find his place in heaven. What was agreed was for him to pay the costs of building what was to become known as the Erpingham Gate.
FOOTNOTE: The Erpingham Gate was erected between 1420 and 1435, in a style which matches the west front of the cathedral itself. The exterior of the gate has a small statue of Sir Thomas above, although this was apparently only put in place in the 17th century – some speculate that it came from Sir Thomas’s tomb in the Cathedral’s Presbytery. The interior side of the Gate also displays the Erpingham coat of arms. There are no less than 24 Christian Saints carved in the archway – 12 male and 12 female – a nice example of equal treatment some 600 years before the Equality Act. (Would this have had anything to do with the fact that Sir Thomas had two wives?).
About the time when the Erpingham Gate was being built, other work associated with the rebuilding of the church of the Dominican Friars and a new East window for the church of the Augustinian Friars was taking place. History does suggest that Sir Thomas donated even more of his money to projects such as these. What is not clear is whether, or not Sir Thomas, following his death in 1428 ever left any of his funds to William Alnwick, who was the Bishop of Norwich between 1426 and 1436. This Bishop continued with further enhancements within the Cathedral precincts by altering and improving the Cathedral itself – as well as his Palace!
We are told that much of the rebuilding of the Dominican friary in Norwich was financed by Sir Thomas Erpingham and his son Robert, who became a friar there. The gate that bears his name is thought to have been built at his cost, a gift to the cathedral, ca.1420. The upper portion, surrounding the canopy within which Sir Thomas’s statue is recessed and faced with flint in Norfolk style. Below it, surrounding the Perpendicular arch, the outward face of the gateway is highly decorated with figures of saints. The turrets on the buttresses at either side also bear sculptures, as well as the heraldic devices of Erpingham and the families of his two wives, and each turret is topped by the statue of a priest. The word yenk (“think”) is engraved at various places on the gateway, and is a request for viewers to remember (and say a prayer for) the donor.
The date of the building of the gate is not known for certain, but it must have taken place after his second marriage (1411). The style suggests the 1420s, and it seems likely the gate would have been given at a time when Erpingham’s thoughts were turning to his death and afterlife – by this time he would have been in his sixties. There were certainly stories that he built the gate as a penance for a sin he had committed – different versions suggest a homicide, his role in the disgrace of Bishop Despenser, his support of heretics – or even gratitude for surviving Agincourt; but there is no real foundation for any of these. If anything, the highly decorated gate is an assertion of orthodoxy at a time when Lollardy was posing a challenge to the established order and at a time when Sir Thomas might have been concerned with his spiritual future.
Erpingham died in 1428 and was buried inside Norwich cathedral, in a tomb built in advance, alongside his two wives; a chantry was established there in his name. His testament did not forget the city in whose affairs he had always shown an interest. He left sums of money to the cathedral and the Prior and monks there, as well as to the church of St. Martin at Palace; his armour too he left to the cathedral. He also bequeathed money to the sisters and poor inmates of St. Giles’ hospital, Bishopgate, and lesser sums to prisoners in the gaols of Norwich castle and the city Guildhall, as well as to hermits within the city.
The construction of the gate may have been an act intended to win favour from the Cathedral in which he hoped to be buried, to win favour from God, and to establish a memorial to himself. The armour in which he is depicted in the statue may have been that which was bequeathed to the cathedral. Although his will makes no reference to the gate, it is possible he commissioned it shortly before his death, with the work finished posthumously by his executors, or it may even have been entirely a project of his executors. His testament focused on pious and charitable bequests and left the rest of his worldly goods to his executors’ disposition – they may have felt the gateway a suitable application of that wealth, and certainly it has stood the test of time. It has been argued that his statue is not the right size for its niche and may have been moved there from his tomb, replacing some other statue on a religious theme.
The story of 19th century bodysnatchers, who stole corpses from graveyards to help surgeons further their understanding of anatomy, have been well documented in history books. Otherwise known as resurrectionists, those who chose to undertake such work were hired by surgeons, across the country, to steal bodies from graveyards. Fresh corpses and bodies of children fetched the highest prices.
Bodysnatchers in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk was a case in point. Like everywhere else, these ‘gentlemen’ would have had to work quickly to avoid being caught. Their methods would have been to hastily dig away the soil from the head of a grave, force open the coffin with a crowbar and drag out the corpse by the shoulders. The body then stripped and the clothes and shroud bundled back into the coffin before the earth was filled back in. Most of the time, the relatives would not even realise the body of their loved one had been taken.
The risks were enormous for if body snatchers were caught in the act they probably would have faced mob justice. Desecrating the dead was seen by many as a crime worse than murder and it is known that some of the unluckier bodysnatchers were beaten to death. But, for many, the risks were worth it for trade in dead bodies was brisk and many of the poorest in society were worth more dead than alive. Ironically, the industry that dealt in the dead was driven by the men most concerned with keeping people alive. The 19th century was the golden age of anatomy, where surgeons would uncover the wonders of the human body and perform operations never before considered possible.
There was, of course, one problem; there were seldom enough cadavers around as a direct result of how the law was framed. You see, it was only the bodies of hanged criminals that were allowed to be used by surgeons and anatomists for dissection and research; and it all hinged on the Judge directing such a procedure when a sentence was passed.
To be dissected in public after execution was considered a fate worse than death. Most people believed their body would be resurrected on the day of judgment; a difficult prospect if it has been cut up into little pieces, each pickled in jars and often spread around the country. As a result, even the most brutal judges were reluctant to hand all but the very worst criminals to the surgeon for, after the dissection of any body, the unwanted remains would not be permitted to be buried in consecrated ground. This meant that such sentences were relatively rare and so, there was this scarcity. As a result, desperate surgeons and ‘enterprising’ individuals inevitably came together to fill the gap.
Graveyards were raided across the country, but particularly in and around London and Edinburgh which were prominent centres of medical learning. Fresh graves were re-opened at night and the corpses stolen, with surgeons making little secret of the fact that they would pay good money for prime cadavers. The robbers were aided by the fact that to steal a corpse was not a felony – but rather a misdemeanour. Provided the robbers were careful not to also steal items of goods from the grave the worst that could happen was for them, if caught, to be given a fine or a short prison sentence.
Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1841), surgeon to George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria, was quite open about his use of corpses obtained from body snatchers, because the practice helped him to develop the first procedure for tying of an abdominal aorta to cure aneurysm. He boasted,
“There is no person, whatever his position in life might be, whose body after death could not be obtained. The Law enhances the price and does not prevent exhumation”.
Sir Astley Cooper, born the son of the one-time Vicar of St Nicholas Minster in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, really did push the boundaries of medical science and became a household name – when he died in 1841, his funeral drew huge crowds. However, says Druin Burch, author of Cooper’s biography – ‘Digging Up The Dead’:
“Constrained by a limited number of corpses to study, surgeons had little choice but to get hold of them by other means. They paid the grave robbers to do their dirty work for them and asked few questions but some of the more adventurous students, including the young Cooper, probably did some of the body snatching themselves.”
Cooper would have found expeditions to the graveyards a mischievous thrill, for as a boy, he liked practical jokes; he once dressed himself as Satan and convinced the drunk wife of the sexton to sell her his soul. He later chose surgery as his career and, with the help of his uncle, William Cooper, secured an apprenticeship under Sir Henry Cline, a renowned surgeon at St Thomas’s hospital in London. At first, he was a lazy student but one day Cline, annoyed that Cooper was paying little attention to his work, smuggled a human arm home from the hospital and dumped it on the kitchen table in front of his apprentice, challenging him to dissect it:
“The skill and industry with which Astley dissected the arm astonished the apprentice and the teacher,” again says Burch. “Astley was transformed. For the first time in his life, he found himself taking an interest in his work.”
Cooper was also taught by John Hunter and in the winter of 1787 he visited the anatomy department at the University of Edinburgh. In 1789 he was appointed demonstrator in anatomy at St Thomas’ and in 1783 he gave lectures in anatomy for the Company of Surgeons. He didn’t look back and became obsessed with cutting up bodies, gaining a reputation as a brilliant surgeon. His teachers were some of the best in the world but they stressed the importance of hands-on experience and encouraged Cooper to investigate human anatomy first hand. It was a lesson he happily took to heart.
“Neither filth nor stench nor risk now deterred Astley,” says Burch. “He would dissect until the strain of hunching over a stinking corpse made him physically sick.”
Now it was the same Sir Astley Cooper who accepted the body snatching services of Thomas Vaughan, a former stonemason from London who was renting a house in Row Six of the town’s renowned Rows. It is not known how, when and where the two men came into contact, if indeed they ever did? Maybe, because of the delicate nature of such an arrangement, there was an ‘intermediary’ instead; and indeed, was Vaughan despatched from London to undertake Sir Astley’s request? What is known is that, in 1827, Vaughan and probably two other suspected accomplices (said to be William and Robert Baker from Beccles) stole 10 bodies from Yarmouth’s Minster churchyard. Vaughan, it was said, had planned to steal these bodies over a period of 19 days; the complete consignment included two children, one young woman and a 67-year-old man.
Each body was put in a sack, then carried to houses in Row 6 where he lived and concealed behind locked doors. Row 6 became known as ‘Snatchbody Row’; the bodysnatchers themselves nicknamed ‘sack-em-up men’. Within a short time, these bodies were then packaged into crates which, it was claimed, were labelled “Glass: Handle with Care”, then stacked on carts and transported to London, via Norwich. Their destination was reported to be a room close to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, from where surgeons would choose a corpse and pay Vaughan 10 to 12 guineas for each body. Other reports suggested that, in total, more than 20 bodies were stolen from the St Nicholas Minster in 1827, which would indicate that probably others, apart from Thomas Vaughan and his accomplices, were also operating in the area.
The Papers, then and since, made much from this ‘scoop’, relying on the details extracted from police briefings, plus interviews with those personally affected be the crimes. They reported, for instance, that the scene in St Nicholas’s churchyard after the robberies was grim, and that coffins were “splintered like kindling and rotting corpses strewn on the grass”. The Norfolk Chronicle newspaper of the time reported that the actions of the resurrectionists caused “great excitement” in the town, while the churchyard at St Nicholas was seen to resemble “a ploughed field.” Another report in the Norfolk Chronicle stated:
“……. wives were seen searching for the remains of their deceased husbands; husbands for those of their wives; and parents for their children. Bodies of the number of 20 or more were found to have been removed and the grief of those whose search was in vain can better be imagined than described.”
Later reports elaborated further on the facts – and probably speculated much! Like an more recent article that suggested that:
“George Beck was the first to realise that something was awry. He had lost his beloved wife, Elizabeth, on Halloween of 1827 and she had been laid to rest on 4th November, clothed in a shroud and a gown. Grief-stricken, George went to visit his wife’s grave a few days later, only to discover that the grave had been quite obviously disturbed. He called the police and he and local constable, Peter Coble, laboriously exhumed the coffin, only to find to their horror that it was empty – all that was left was Elizabeth’s shroud.
During the bitterly cold weeks of November and December, Constable Coble kept watch over the cemetery in the vain hope that the bodysnatchers……. would return once again with their gruesome shopping list. Townspeople became aware of the grim vigil and fear turned to fury. Enraged relatives flooded to the graveyard and the graves of the most recently deceased were disinterred – there was an outcry when more empty coffins were discovered and it became apparent that the bodysnatchers had struck again.”
Vaughan was caught quite quickly and sent for trial. He was sentenced to six months in prison for his crime, but no mention was made of his accomplices. His costs were said to have been paid by the surgeons, and his wife cared for while he was behind bars. Inevitably perhaps, Vaughan never learned his lesson for he returned to bodysnatching, was caught and eventually transported to Australia – his mistake being that on this occasion he stole the victim’s clothes as well as the corpse. As for Sir Astley Cooper well, he finally ended up having his statue erected in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
In 2011, a blue plaque was commissioned by the Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeological Society to highlight the 19th century crimes in Great Yarmouth where men were paid to steal bodies for surgeons to further their understanding of anatomy. It was unveiled on the gates of St Nicholas Church, Church Plain, Yarmouth, from where more than 20 bodies were snatched in 1827.
At the unveiling of the Blue Plaque, the St Nicolas’ church curate Reverend James Stewart, said that it was important that despite the grisly crimes that were committed, the past activities in the churchyard should be marked for their historical importance.
“Necessary evil is a very dangerous thing to be talking about, but these things providentially took place because science moved on as a result……….But we also have to think of those that were disturbed from their immortal sleep, that had not expected they would be taken at cover of night and to be experimented on.”
When studying a map of Norfolk & Suffolk, the number of coastal locations including those with ports or harbours, soon becomes apparent. Some have past connections with very famous people or famous events, an obvious example perhaps being Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk, now inland but once, also a port and the birthplace of Horatio Nelson. Or Burnham Overy perhaps, where Nelson first learned to sail a boat, but a few miles further down is Wells-next-the Sea, now a noted fishing port but once regularly visited by colliers, coasters and grain-carrying vessels as well. But how many people know of John Fryer, born in Wells on 15th August 1753 and why he became a famous name in Norfolk’s history?
Educated locally, John Fryer then acquired a keen interest in the sea, joining the Royal Navy at an early age and becoming a Master of the Third Rate, in 1781. He was then serving aboard HMS Camel, a 44-gunner vessel (previously named HMS Mediator). After a few more years at sea, Fryer moved to the HMAV Bounty, subsequently made famous by the mutiny aboard her, on 28 April 1789 which has since been commemorated by books, films, and popular songs.
The Bounty began life as the collier Bethia, built in 1784 at Blaydes shipyard in Hull and costing £1,950. But on 26th May 1787, she was purchased by the Royal Navy for £ 2,600, for a single mission during which she would travel from Britain to Tahiti and collect some breadfruit plants. These would be transported to the West Indies, where hopefully, they would grow well enough and also become a cheap source of food, for the slaves there. So during 1787, the Bethia was refitted at Deptford and renamed Bounty, as a relatively small three-masted and fully-rigged sailing ship of 215 tons. After conversion, she mounted only four4-pounders (2 kg cannon) and ten swivel guns. Her ‘great cabin’ was converted to house the potted breadfruit plants, and gratings were added to the upper deck, for ventilation and her complement would be 46 officers and men.
Meanwhile on 20th August 1787, John Fryer was appointed Sailing Master of the Bounty by the Admiralty, with Fletcher Christianas Master’s Mate and William Bligh as Captain. Little happened until 23rd December 1787, when the ship sailed from Britain for Tahiti. Then on 10th January 1788, Captain William Bligh put his crew on three watches, giving one of them to Christian and on 2nd March, ordered that Christian be promoted to Acting Lieutenant. Some speculated this fuelled the ill-will which later developed between Fryer and Bligh. When the voyage began, Bligh highly approved of John Fryer, his Sailing Master: “The Master is a very good man, and gives me every satisfaction.” he said. But his feelings soon changed, most likely because the Master was not a ‘yes-man’. He had strong opinions of his own and although he was not as sensitive to insults as Christian, Fryer was conscious of his dignity and competence and made Bligh aware in no uncertain terms, that he would not take things “lying down.” Despite this, John Fryer remained loyal, accompanying Bligh to Timor, but during the outward voyage, Bligh demoted the ship’s sailing master, John Fryer, replacing him with Fletcher Christian. This seriously damaged their relationship and Fryer would later claim Bligh’s act was entirely personal.
When the Bounty and 46 crew sailed from Timor, the unusual consignment greatly reduced the officers’ cabin space and almost added ‘an arboretum’ to the quarter deck undermining Bligh’s power to command as the space he controlled as captain had also been affected. Modification of the ship even meant there were too many men in too little space for too long a period of time. Tension increased en route and finally boiled over when the prospect of life in a Tahitian paradise seemed possible/ After this, came the famous “Mutiny on the Bounty” of 28th April 1789, led by Fletcher Christian against the commanding officer William Bligh. But John Fryer was the only officer who forcefully attempted talking Christian out of his hasty decision. When that failed, he made an earnest, but equally unsuccessful attempt to mediate between Christian and Bligh.
Finally, he was among those who forcefully demanded the loyalists be given the Bounty’s launch instead of one of two other boats which were unseaworthy. At one point Christian pressed his bayonet against Fryer’s chest, saying he would run him through if he advanced one inch further. John Fryer had the interesting position of being a strong critic of both William Bligh and mutiny leader, Fletcher Christian, even at one time accusing Bligh of favouring Christian. Despite his anger at Bligh, Fryer did not support the mutiny. Bligh’s account of this vilified Fryer (vilified means to slander or speak ill of someone), who merely gave fair evidence at Bligh’s court-martial. Edward Christian, Fletcher’s brother, was assisted by Fryer in publishing a counterweight to Bligh’s version.
Bounty had finally reached Tahiti on 26 October 1788, after ten months at sea and following the famous mutiny, eighteen mutineers finally set Captain Bligh and 18 of the 22 crew loyal to him afloat in a small boat. The mutineers then variously settled on Pitcairn Island or in Tahiti and eventually, Fletcher Christian took the vessel to an isolated South Pacific island, which they reached in Jan 1790. There, they burned her to avoid detection and to prevent desertion. Interestingly, as a direct result of this, a colony was established and inhabitants of the 1¾ square mile Pitcairn Islands inhabitants are therefore direct descendants of the mutineers and their former Tahitian wives. Even the present-day islanders now speak a dialect, said to be a hybrid of Tahitian and 18th century English. But no reason explaining why the Mutiny ever happened at all, was ever offered. Historically, Bligh and his remaining crew of 18 made an epic and eventful journey in the small boat to Timor in the Dutch East Indies where they spent five months. Subsequently, Bligh returned to England and reported the mutiny.
On retiring from the Royal Navy on 6th April 1812, John Fryer returned to his home town of Wells-Next-the-Sea where he died on 26th May, 1817 – ironically, also the same year as the death of Captain Bligh. He was buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas at Wells but in 2000, his gravestone was moved into the main church building, on the south side. Meanwhile in the churchyard and replacing his original grave site, is now a plaque to John Fryer, Master of the Bounty.
Images related to John Fryer to be found at Wells-Next-the-Sea, Norfolk. (c) Jamie Beckford.
That Fryer received no promotions after the Mutiny is incorrect. He rose to the rank of Post Captain and served as Commander of at least 3 ships: HMS Serapis, 1801, HMS William, 1804, and HMS Abundance, 1806. Although a Master, the title was only considered a courtesy. In more recent times, Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed him in the 1984 film ’The Bounty’. A biography of Fryer was edited by Owen Rutter in 1939: John Fryer of the Bounty (Golden Cockerel Press)
We are in the centre of Norwich, in that part of St Peter Mancroft’s churchyard that sits on the north side the Church. This half the whole churchyard, which extends on both sides of the church, is the larger and does not seem to suffer the unfavourable associations that the northern side of church graveyards usually have to put up with. It is the side which is the nearest to the market place and divided by a path which allows visitors to enter the church through the northern side door.
Here is an ‘altar’ styled tomb – in fact the only tomb in the whole of the Church’s churchyard still standing upright and proud; most other headstones have long been laid flat at ground level. This particular tomb is a finely carved family sort of tomb, one of those big box-shaped ones now, in the present-day, being slowly destroyed by moss and the constant weathering from the trees that overhang it. At one end, facing full on to the path that takes visitors into the church, is an inscription which refers to the main family member, that of John Harrison Yallop. At the other end of the tomb, facing the Forum, is an oval cartouche, within which is the following inscription:
is dedicated to the
Talents and Virtues of
Sophia Ann Goddard
15th March 1801 aged 25
The Former shone with superior
Lustre and Effect
in the great School of Morals,
while the Latter
inform’d the private Circle of Life
with Sentiment, Taste, and Manners
that still live in the memory
Of Friendship and
(Photos above: Haydn Brown 2019.)
This inscription is intriguing, it suggests that there is a real story hereabouts; maybe there are several stories, all interlinked one would assume. In the absence of any facts to the contrary, it must be assumed that Miss Goddard’s remains found their way into this Yallop family tomb shortly after her funeral in 1801; John Yallop followed thirty-four years later when it might have been previously arranged that he would rejoin Sophia there. As to answering the question as to why she, a Goddard, would join these family members; well, at the time of her death she had been betrothed to John Harrison Yallop.
One thing needs to be agreed between writers on the subject of whether this is a Yallop or Bolingbroke tomb! This article favours it being a Yallop family tomb, despite references to the Bolingbroke name. Mary Yallop, John’s sister married Nathaniel Bolingbroke and both are there – John does speak of ‘his brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke’ at some later date. The other references to the Bolingbroke name are two older members – so, the matter is debateable! The other point is, that with the exception of John Yallop, nowhere does it say that the others are ‘buried’ in the tomb; the inscriptions are headed simply ‘In Memory’; the exception to this heading is, of course, the notable inscription dedicated to the young actress with whom John Harrison Yallop fell in love.
Strange therefore that there is no reference on the tomb to John Yallop’s wife of some fourteen years, Mary Ann Yallop (nee’ Watts) who died in 1833 – two years before her husband. Not so strange when we discover that, their marriage, in 1819, became an empty relationship. In 1820 John completed building his fine house at Eaton Grange but he did not live much there. More oddly still, his wife did not live there either. In the words of R.H. Mottram, in his book The Speaking Likeness:
“He bought a neighbouring property and installed her in it, either from some deep emptiness that she, good if ordinary woman as she must have been – or why did he marry her? – could never fill. She died while he was in his sixties, so that her separate establishment cannot have been a mere provision made for her widowhood. He himself migrated to Brighton where he died in June 1835……”
From this, we could reach the understandable assumption that the information detailed on her husband’s grave, in St Peter Mancroft’s churchyard, shows that John Harrison Yallop never lost the love he had for Sophia Ann Goddard. Also, it would seem to indicate that he preferred to be accompanied in the afterlife with those he felt the most closest to on earth. Sophia Ann Goddard was the strongest contender for this distinction since the inscription dedicated to her is an affectionate reminder of his love for this actress – the wording would clearly suggest so!
Sophia Ann Goddard was born in 1776, her parents were Florimond and Sophia Goddard, of whom nothing more is known. It may not be safe to suggest that Miss Goddard was educated and brought up in south eastern area of England but she did make her first stage appearance at Margate, Kent in July 1797 at twenty-one years of age. Within a month of her debut, the Monthly Mirror reported from Margate that:
“A Miss Goddard, about whom the papers have been very busy, has played several characters with some promise; but her friends have certainly over-rated here talents”
By the 10th November 1797 it had been announced from Margate that Miss Goddard had made her first appearance in London as Laetitia Hardy in Mrs Centlivre’s ‘The Belle’s Stratagem’ at Dury Lane Theatre, a role which she was to repeat with much success in Norwich in a later year. London was enthusiastic, the critics less so according to the Monthly Mirror of November of that year, declaring:
“This young lady has fallen sacrifice to the art of puffing. She has been placed at the head of the school before she has imbibed the rudiments of knowledge………….[her talents were] “not of a primary nature”
Evidently, the Dury Lane Theatre management agreed with the newspaper, for her next performance of Letitia Hardy, on the 14th November 1797, was her last appearance in a London theatre. Undaunted, according to a much later provincial newspaper, Sophia Ann returned to Margate to continue her desire for success with determination. She appeared to be nothing, if not, a trier and was soon making progress – all be it the hard way:
“Puppy teeth were cut, experience gained while her talents pointed for the first tune, with certainty, at a capability that extended far beyond mere good looks and a pleasing personality”.
Within the year, the Monthly Mirror itself was forced to admit that “Miss Goddard, about whom the papers have been very busy, played several characters with promise”. By December 1798 she had chosen Norwich where she first secured lodgings with a Mrs Curtis of St Gregory’s parish; the same lodgings which had been used by another famous actress, Mrs Sarah Siddons (nee’ Kemble) in 1788. Sophia Ann then joined the ‘stock company’ of actors and actresses at the Theatre Royal; and it was here where she soon became a popular and favourite actress, particulary amongst the County’s gentry. It was also said at the time that she was ‘a particularly graceful dancer’ as well. But it was for her acting that Miss Goddard received most admiration. Her acting of Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice‘ was particularly well received, whilst it was reported of her performance in Jane Shore by the Norwich Mercury on 12th January, 1799:
“Miss Goddard to greater advantage that we ever remember to have seen her. The last scene was given to such effect that she loses nothing by comparison with Mrs Siddons, whom we recollect in the same character.”
For the next sixteen months, or so, life appeared to be full for Sophia Ann. She the leading feminine ‘box-office draw’ and playing all the stock leads of the day, often opposite John Brunton, the celebrated actor-manager who, incidently, was a Norwich born man who was to create a family acting dynasty of his own. Sophia Ann also combined her career at the Norwich Theatre Royal with other theatres included on the East Anglia Circuit; all this along with socialising with her many friends and admirers, one of whom was the 38 year-old John Harrison Yallop.
It could well be assumed, from the inscription that ultimately appeared on John Yallop’s grave, that he became besotted with Miss Goddard. One can imagine him rushing round to the stage door after one particular and early performance by Sophia Ann, in an attempt to persuade the person in charge of the Stage Door to allow him admission so that he could ‘introduce’ himself. The ploy must have worked because the two were soon engaged with plans to marry. Unfortunately, time would reveal all too soon that Miss Goddard was not only ill, but her health was deteriorating fast. She died of consumption on the 15th March 1801 at the age of only 25 years. This brought an abrupt end to the couple’s relationship and she would miss out on a marriage to someone who was an ‘up and coming’ man of distinction in Norwich; someone who would become rich and, in some ways, a powerful influence in local and national politics.
Unlike Miss Goddard, John Harrison Yallop had been born in the City of Norwich, the son of William Yallop who was a ‘Glover’. It is unclear, whether it was before or after Miss Goddard’s death, when John Yallop became a partner in the firm of Dunham & Yallop, goldsmiths which was situated on the corner of Davey Place and The Walk. Sir John had a house in Willow Lane, just off St Giles and a short walk from the shop opposite the market place where the business traded in jewellery, precious metals and stones. Having been appointed an agent for the Government Lottery of that day, the shop also sold its tickets to subscribers. On one occasion, so the story goes, John Yallop had two tickets left, one he returned, the other he bought – and won! With the proceeds, which was considerable, he built himself the fine country house, Eaton Grange, on the Newmaket Road in 1820 – the same house mentioned above and where he seldom lived. It is now a Girl’s High School.
John Yallop and his partner were to branch out into selling tea, coffee and cocoa and advertised these and every other commodity which they held on their premises – they called them ‘comestibles’. From their well positioned shop, on the Gentleman’s Walk, they formed a good connection with the public that purchased for the household. It was also on the ‘Walk’ where the gentlemen would rather pass up and down on the shop side so as to avoid the clamour and soiled pavements of the market stalls. JohnYallop also became an important money lender in Norwich; one of his debtors included his brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke, the very one who married Mary, his sister. It is interesting to note that when debtors were imprisoned at the suit of a money lender, that creditor was responsible for paying for the upkeep of the debtor. Records show that John Yallop paid for the upkeep of an unnamed imprisoned debtor. One wonders who that was?
Four years after Miss Goddard’s death, John Yallop was elected to the position of Sheriff of Norwich in 1805 and again in 1809, so he was on his way up both socially and professionally and politically. Then in 1815 he attained the public office of Mayor; it was also around this time that he met a Mary Ann Watts and married her in 1819 before he was again elected as Mayor in 1831. While he was Mayor, back in 1815, he travelled to London with his ‘brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke’ to present the City’s petition in favour of Parliamentary Reform to King William IV; this resulted in John Yallop being awarded a Knighthood. At the time it was said to have been quite an event which resulted in an amusing ditty being written which began:
“To the King, the Blues wished to present an address
By the Mayor – and their sense of reform to express”
The ditty goes on to describe how the Mayor and “Old Natty” coached to London, each hoping for a knighthood – but only one received it!
As for Sophia Ann Goddard, she died on the 15th March 1801 and was buried on 20th in the churchyard of St Peter Mancroft Church, which was very close to the theatre. in Norwich. The burial register identified her as a single woman from the Parish of St Stephens. Her Obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine of March 1801 reported that:
“15th March: Died in St Stephen’s Parish, Norwich, Miss Sophia Ann Goddard, who came forward with so much success at Dury Lane Theatre a few years ago. This lady obtained a considerable reputation on the Norwich stage, and was so much improved in theatrical merit that her talents would doubless have soon made their way to a secure establishment on the London boards. Her figure was elegant, her understanding excellent, her manners were amiable and her character in all respects was highly meritorious. She was in the prime of life, and promised more than any other performer now on the stage to suceed to that line of character which was so admirably sustained by the present Countess of Derby [Elizabeth Farren]“. “
The officiating Vicar of Miss Goddard’s funeral was the Reverend Peele who, pronounced the last sad but dignified sentences of her burial service before the slow, muted procession emerged on its short journey to the chosen plot on the northern edge of the church where she would be put to rest. There doesn’t appear to have been any definite mention of John Harrison Yallop being present at the time, but surely, as the main mourner it would have been inconceivable that he would be absent. It could also be imagined that he would have walked in procession alongside Mr Hindes, the theatre manager now that John Brunton was no longer in charge. They would have been joined by the actors of the day, such as Mr and Mrs Chestnut, Mrs Rivett, Mr George Bennett and his wife Harriet Morland, the daughter of an ancient family in Westmorland (parents: Jacob Morland of Killington, Dorothy Brisco of Kendal, and sister, Lady Shackerley of Somerford Hall). Both were actors in the Norwich Company of Comedians. Then there may have been Mr Lindoe.
FOOTNOTE: The small portrait of Miss Sophia Ann Goddard, said to be by John Thirtle, was reproduced in a St Peter Mancroft publication in the 1950’s, namely the St Peter Mancroft Celebratory Programme for 1455 to 1955. The present location of that portrait, which perhaps at one time belonged John Harrison Yallop, and the Bolingbroke family, is unknown.
The final words here are left to R H Mottram, a great nephew of John Harrison Yallop. He wrote in his book ‘The Speaking Likeness’:
“But there is something else which has made me want to tell this true story, with such filling-in of the gaps that local history does not scruple to leave in a local record. The story of John Harrison Yallop and his Sophia might well be dismissed as an ordinary, pretty tragedy making its limited appeal, too usual in its features to be noteworthy. But, it is not like that at all, and Sophia’s very pathetic demise happens to make all the difference”.
What was it that took place, once the brief [burial] ceremony just outside the porch of the Church of St Peter Mancroft was concluded? John Harrison Yallop turned away, sorrowful enough, heartbroken one may well believe, when one gazes at the miniature of a beautiful young woman, her appearance enhanced by the training in presentation she had received. Some friend, or member of the family that surrounded him, one hopes took his arm and led him home”.
When next you are near St Peter Mancroft in Norwich, go to that tomb on the northern side of the church. Pause, look and imagine as to what really transpired during the all too brief relationship between a provincial businessman come politician and a young, beautiful actress.
The Norfolk Broads is Britain’s largest protected wetland and one of Europe’s most popular inland waterways. The area is managed as a national park and it is claimed that it attracts more than a million visitors each year from all over the World. Before the ‘Broads’ were known as such, its waterways made up an essential transport network for peat, thatching reed and marsh hay. Today, the ‘Broads’ is used for recreation, including such activities as sailing, motor cruising, fishing and enjoying the wildlife. Then there are the opportunities to visit the lovely villages that find themselves embraced by the Norfolk Broads, along with their medieval country churches.
Ranworth is just one such place with its Staithe, which is run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, fronting Malthouse Broad and aptly named after nearby malt houses. There are great waterside views around Ranworth and within the village with its pretty thatched cottages which makes for ‘chocolate box’ opportunities for photographers and painters.
Nearby, on higher ground, stands St Helens Church below which is a large nature reserve winding its way through woodland to the Norfolk Wildlife Conservation Centre; a floating thatched building right on the edge of what is Ranworth Broad . This is the information centre for the Broads and its history, including models of local scenes depicting peat digging, thatching and duck shooting. On the upper floor of the building there are facilities, including binoculars and telescopes, for bird watching.
This church, set on high ground and overlooking the village and the broads beyond, is well worth a visit for its furnishings, views from its tower, its history and its myths. There have been previous churches on the site but the present one on view was completed as far back as about 1450. Furnished by prosperous wool merchants, its walls were painted with biblical stories, its windows rich in stained glass and a great cross suspended above an elaborate rood screen.
Unfortunately, many of the church’s medieval treasures were damaged or destroyed during the Reformation, although a surprising amount did survive. The building itself also fell into a long period of decline and disrepair and it was only in the late 1890s that the church was restored to what can be seen today. Much of the original rood screen with its medieval paintings still survives, along with its stylized white roses of York painted on the back of the screen, one of the finest in England. The church also has a 15th century illuminated manuscript, the Ranworth Antiphoner kept in a steel case and on view to visitors.
The Church Tower
The tower dominates the Ranworth skyline and it would seem that visitors love to climb the eighty-nine spiral steps and two ladders to the top of the flint-lined tower for the wonderful views over the landscape. It is easy to understand why when from its heights, on clear days, one can see five Norfolk Broads and the impressive wind turbines of the wind farm at West Somerton.
In fact, much of the Norfolk Broads river system is visible, interlaced with boats that weave their way in a constantly changing pattern of light through farmland and marshes that grow traditional Norfolk thatching reed. A recent survey using a calibrated telescope listed nearly two hundred sites in the Cromer–Norwich–Great Yarmouth area, including 116 churches, numerous windmills and wind drainage pumps, Happisburgh lighthouse and even the top of Norwich Cathedral.
They say that, when conditions and timings are right, Brother Pacificus may be seen rowing either towards, or away from, the Church. For those who master the climb up 89 steps and two ladders to the roof of the the tower but fail to see Pacificus on the water below – just turn around and look up to the weathervain!
Ranworth Church and Patron Saints
Early Christians used the word ‘saint’ for all the faithful. In time though, a saint came to be a person of outstanding devotion. The earliest saints acclaimed by common consent were the apostles, John the Baptist, the Holy family and the first martyrs. As the Christian church became more structured, bishops took control of canonisations within their own dioceses. It was not until 1170 though that Pope Alexander III insisted that only the Pope could canonise.
Portrayals of saints dominated Christian art until the Reformation when many icons were destroyed. It is miraculous that so much of the rood screens in Ranworth and any of the lovely Upton screen survived the ravages of the 1500s when reformers believed that portrayals of human beings might tempt congregations to treat them as idols. The reformers’ passion led them to daub all bare flesh, feet, hands and faces with tar.
Ranworth Church is dedicated to St Helen, a popular patron of ancient English churches with perhaps 135 dedicated to her throughout the country. Some accounts say that she was a princess, the daughter of King Coel, King of the Britons and was born in Colchester where she is the patron saint of the City. Others say that she was born in York although most historians have it that she was born in 242 AD in Bithynia, an area of Asia Minor near the Bosporus Sea. She married a Roman general, Constantius Chlorus, and became the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome. Despite her status as empress, she helped the poor and distressed and was known for her charitable acts. Helen had a great influence on her son Constantine.
Helen became a Christian late in her life and it wasn’t until she was an old lady that she made her famous pilgrimage from Rome to Jerusalem to find the cross on which Christ was crucified. The story is that she uncovered three crosses under a temple on Mount Calvary that she had ordered to be torn down on seeing smoke issuing from the ground. Helen recognised the one True Cross when it touched a dead man that miraculously resurrected. Helen built a basilica on Mount Calvary for the sacred relic and later, built two other famous churches in Palestine that celebrate the nativity and the ascension. She returned from the Holy Land in her 80s and died in Rome in 328.
Saint Helen, known also as Helena, is celebrated on August 18th and is the patron saint of treasure hunters, nail-makers and is invoked against theft and fire. She is usually shown holding a cross, just as she is outside Ranworth Church.
The Ranworth Antiphoner, the Church’s Illuminated Manuscript:
Those who do visit Ranworth Church should not leave before heading over to the cabinet just to the side of the main door; usually it has a cloth protecting its ancient contents – it is the Ranworth Antiphoner.
In medieval times, services were held 7 times a day and these would consist of prayers said or sung from a book of psalms. Lines were read alternately, ‘antiphonally’, between the priest and the choir. Ranworth Church still has one of its two Medieval Latin ‘antiphonies’; the other earlier and smaller one is in the British Library. The book dates from the 1400s and has 285 vellum (animal skin) pages illustrated with gleaming colour pictures and gold leaf edging.
In 1549, when services were first published in English in the Book of Common Prayer, antiphoners were banned. Ranworth’s somehow survived, reappearing in the reign of Mary Tudor when changes were made to its calendar (e.g. the feast of Thomas a Becket, which had been scratched out during Henry VIII’s time, was reinstated). The Holdych family whose family dates appear in the margins of the calendar probably hid the book during Elizabethan times. The Antiphoner eventually became part of a collection offered for sale at the beginning of the 20th century. Its link to Ranworth was soon traced and the Parish raised the money to buy it. The book is now on show inside a unique security case made by the inmates of Norwich Prison. Unfortunately maybe for some but the case cannot be opened to meet requests, but the pages are turned occasionally to display the illuminations and the plainchant music that the church choir sometimes sings.
The Rood Screen
The painted rood screen in St Helen’s Ranworth dates from the early 1400s. The Great Rood that was once above the screen was destroyed in the Reformation.
The Rood (from the Anglo-Saxon for cross) is a large crucifix usually placed above the entrance to the choir in medieval churches. Some were very large, carved richly in wood and painted or gilded. By the 13th or 14th centuries, the great rood had become a feature of almost every church. The rood, however, was often eclipsed by the screen over which it was placed. Paintings of apostles and saints including St George and St Michael both slaying dragons, survive on the screen in St Helen’s Ranworth.
LOCAL MYTHS 1 (Brother Pacificus):
Ranworth and Ranworth Broad are said to be haunted by a friendly ghost named Brother Pacificus. The early bird may be in the best position to catch a glimpse of the monk, though he may also be sighted on quiet summer evenings. Wearing his habit, he may be seen rowing a small boat across the Broad with a small dog standing in the prow.
The story goes that during the 1530’s the brothers at nearby St Benets Abbey undertook the work of restoring the rood screen of St Helen’s Church, Ranworth. Brother Pacificus was entrusted with the task so early each morning that he would row his boat across the Broad from the Abbey to the church in order to carry out the restoration work on the screen. He was always accompanied by his little dog. At the end of the day he would return by the same route.
One evening upon his return the Abbey, Brother Pacificus found to his horror that his brother monks had been murdered by the King’s Troops as part of the dissolution of the monasteries, ordered by Henry VIII. Devastated, Pacificus was to linger for years amidst the blackened ruins where he eventually died. The local villagers who knew of his devotion to Ranworth took his body across the Bure and lovingly laid it to rest in the shadow of St Helen’s, a church that he clearly loved and for which he had worked so hard.
To some, he still returns to carry out his work, accompanied by his little dog. They say that he also comes back to pray. Sometimes in the early hours of morning, when it is just light, his little boat may be seen moored up to the bank and sometimes his little dog asleep in it, just waiting. Inside, the aged monk will be kneeling in an attitude of prayer before the centre opening of the rood-screen, but with the approach of anyone he will simply fade into nothingness. On the other hand and if left alone, he may be seen returning at nightfall to his boat and rowing back to St Benet’s with his little dog sitting up perkily in the stern.
It is best not to laugh at such happenings as that which confronted Pacificus and his journeys to and from Ranworth centuries ago. For note, it is on record that a certain Reverend James Brewster, D.D. of Baliol, whilst on holiday in 1930 and about to enter a narrow waterway leading to Ranworth Broad, saw a boat being rowed towards him. Pulling into the side to make room, the visitor waited for it to pass by; as he did so he noticed that the rower was a monk in a black habit and although clearly aged, had the kindest face he had not previously seen on any man. The Benedictine smiled his thanks as he passed and before dissolving into nothing just a short distance on. Dr Brewster thought that there had been a small white dog in the boat, but he couldn’t be sure. Apparently, he was so moved by this experience that he felt he had to make enquiries hereabouts. At Horning he was simply laughed at whilst in Ranworth he was to learn:
‘That what he saw was our monastic friend, Brother Pacificus, going home after his labours and there is no real or known reason why it should not have been.’
LOCAL MYTHS 2 (Colonel Sydney and the Devil):
Summer visitors to the lovely Ranworth Broad may find it hard to imagine this beautiful spot being the scene of one of Norfolk’s spookiest legends, but so it is. In July the nights are warm and balmy, but the scene of this story is a wintry one, December 31 1770 to be precise. This tale is worth telling to children on the boats that chug the Broads there – they won’t forget it easily, and it may well keep them from venturing on deck in the dark. Ranworth then as now was an out of the way place, the church tower dominating the landscape. The east wind of the winter blows across the marshes and broads with seemingly little in its way from the cold North Sea.
In 1770 Colonel Thomas Sydney resided in Ranworth Old Hall. The former soldier was such a foul character that in spite of his wealth and position he was struck from the list of JPs. Sydney was a rake-hell: a drunkard whose already evil temper got worse when he was in his cups; a gambler; and perhaps worst of all for the English, a bad loser. Not that he got much practice at losing, for he was a noted sportsman, and his neighbours were wary of getting on his wrong side by besting him in a contest.
At the New Year’s Eve hunt meeting that year Sydney challenged a neighbour to a race, matching their horses over the fields. But much to the Colonel’s surprise his neighbour outpaced him, heading it seemed for an easy win. Not so damn likely thinks the Colonel, who draws his pistol and shoots the neighbour’s horse from under him. The frightened animal rears and sends its rider flying, his neck cracking just as the beast’s hooves trample the body. The evil owner of the Old Hall wins, and devil take the hindmost – though here he can claim the winner too.
With his neighbours too scared to act against him Sydney has no compunction about appearing at the hunt ball he is holding that very night, dressed in his finery, his brain still more befuddled by continued drinking. He roars at the top of his voice, totally without shame.
Crash go the doors to the Old Hall. At the threshold stands a tall and slender figure, dressed all black that merges his shape with the night behind him. No features of the face beneath the elegant black hat are visible. Sydney’s mouth gapes, for once he is silenced. The figure approaches and throws the helpless Colonel across his shoulder, marches him outside, and throws the frozen figure across his saddle. The head of the Wild Hunt has come to claim his own. With studied ease the devil mounts his black steed, and in a second he, the horse, and the terrified captive are racing across Ranworth Broad, steam rising from the water wherever a hellish hoof touches. Sydney finds his voice now, screams, begs, curses, but not a jot of difference will it make to his awful fate. He is bound for the pit. Colonel Sydney was never seen again, at least not alive. But every year on New Year’s Eve, or so it is said, the devil rides across Ranworth Broad, Colonel Sydney held across his saddle.
It is not uncommon for tales of apparitions to have grown up around the sites of former monestries. In the turbulent years of the Middle Ages, and either side, monks were thought to have had supernatural powers and were associated with mysticism and superstition in people’s minds. It is not surprising therefore that several tales about villainous monks at St Benets Abbey have circulated over these years – and indeed, still flourish.
Mostly these tales have been linked to political and religious intrigues and double-crossings; many of which were simply part and parcel of powerful establishments. One example relating to St Benets is when, in an attempt to transform the Abbey into a pilgrimage centre to rival Walsingham and Bromholm, the monks there invented the cult of St Margaret of Holm who, according to a medieval chronicler, was strangled nearby in Little Wood at Hoveton St John in 1170. This barbarous act recalls to mind the crucifixion of the boy saint William of Norwich in 1144 (see here for separate Blog), which was within living memory of those monks at St Benets!
St Benets, or to give it its full name of St Benedict’s-at-Holm (or Hulm) Abbey, has been a Norfolk Broad’s landmark for almost 1000 years. Situated on the banks of the river Bure, the Abbey has long been reduced to just the ruins of the former gatehouse, into which an 18th century farmer built a windmill. This strange ruin, as small as it is, holds many stories and hides more than a few mysteries.
The tales which have survived the test of time include attacks by the Normans then, 300 year’s later, the Peasants Uprising when the Abbey was stormed and its deeds and charters destroyed. There are also those mythical stories and legends relating to images and sometimes terrible things that had once been a part of this once sacred place and have since been periodically returned by what may well be magical means! They include the recurring story of a monk from St Benets who, on quiet evenings, can still be seen rowing between the Abbey and Ranworth in a little boat, accompanied by a dog. It is said that he is quite harmless and concentrates only on his regular task of maintaining the rood screen in Ranworth church. Then there is the Dragon which once terrorised the village of Ludham and ended its life at the Abbey. The Legend of the Seal is another tale dating back to the days of King Henry I when a legacy of ancient carvings depicting the story were built into either side of gatehouse entrance and can still to be seen today. However, let us not be carried away in directions that would take us away from the following Tale – an apparition which has its roots firmly at St Benets. Just Remember! in common with all orthodox ruined abbeys and priories, St Benets and its surviving gatehouse is still believed to be haunted!
This tale is known as ‘The Shrieking Monk‘ and it is believed to be that of Ethelwold (some say Essric?), the young bailiff monk who basely betrayed the Abbey in the hope of becoming its Abbot. This spectre has a fearful significance – and it screams! Like many, it has an anniversary date for appearances, but it is just as likely to be seen at other times of the year when ‘conditions are just right’. They say that it is possible to experience this particular spectre in the late autumn, on All Hallows Eve, or winter on dark nights between midnight and early dawn, particularly if the dawn is shrouded in a heavy mist and there is a distinct chill in the air. Even today, few would care to pass the old ruin when such conditions are abroad – particularly when they hear the tale of a certain Ludham marshman who perished one night near the ruined gatehouse of St Benets. Apparantly, according to William Dutt’s ‘Highways and Byways in East Anglia’ (1901) – this marshman was on his way home from his bullocks. As he draws near the gatehouse and sees something in the shadows that ‘started screeching like a stuck pig’. Some years later this story was further elaborated when retold by the Stalham folklorist, W H Cooke; he call it ‘The Shrieking Monk’. It tells how this monk terrified a local wherryman one foggy night – All Hallows Eve and he rushes away to seek the safety of his wherry which is moored nearby; he slips in the early morning mud and falls into the Bure and is drowned!
Following in the tradition of gilding each ghost story in its re-telling; here, we again go back to those Norman times and to the moment when William the Conqueror was, apparently, experiencing great difficulty with taking St Benet’s Abbey. This version of the story again surrounds William’s difficulty and the monk Ethelwold who falls to temptation , opens the Abbey gates to the Normans – but subsequently is executed. Imagine now the Abbey materialising out of thin air, along with the obligitory mist; the present ruinous Mill transforming itself into a stone tower from where the execution referred to took place.
We are told that the Monks of St Benedict’s successfully withstood attacks from King William’s men for months on end and could have held out for much longer had it not been for the act of treachery by Ethelwold, the young bailiff monk. The strong walls of the Abbey had proved impregnable and there was enough food to feed those inside for at least twelve months; some also believed that a trust in God by the Abbot and the rest of the Abbey’s monks also played an important part in staving off the enemy. Unfortunately for all concerned, the young monk held aspirations which did not match his low position in the church. His aspirations, if legend and myth are to be believed, also made him a prime candidate to be bribed.
The Norman army deployed around the Abbey had been on the verge of giving up on their task but the general in charge decided that maybe a different tactic might work, having identified the monk as a possible solution. What was needed was for a messenger to be sent to the Abbey with a letter urging the Abbot to surrender, but at the same time to, surreptitiously, slip a tempting offer to this particular monk. This plan was put into operation and a messenger was despatched on horse back, carrying a white flag to guarantee entry. Once inside and before meeting the Great Abbot to hand over the general’s letter, the messenger managed to hand a separate note to Ethelwold, asking him at the same time to, somehow, return with him to meet with the General; a safe audience would be guaranteed.
On receiving the general’s letter, the Abbot bluntly refused to contemplate his demand and quickly sought a volunteer to convey his decision back to the other side. Unsurprisingly, Ethelwold, the highly flatterable monk, stepped forward and offered his services; he by then being totally intrigued by the general’s attention in him. This monk’s ego and aspirations were further enhanced when on arrival he was told by the general that he, Ethelwold, was obviously destined for a better career than that of a humble bailiff monk. Now, if only he would help the general’s soldiers take over the Abbey he, the humble monk, would be elavated to Abbot of St Benedict’s Abbey – for LIFE – a gift that would be far beyond the menial’s wildest dreams! The general added that the young brother had absolutely nothing to lose, for if the Abbey held out, despite impressive defensive walls and generous stocks of provisions, the army would attack in even greater force and inflict a terrible result on the religeous order. But, if this “Abbot Elect” would just open the gatehouse doors that same night, everyone would be spared.
Although clearly naive, Ethelwold was not without a degree of intelligence. Surely, he questioned himself, the other brethren would punish him if he was ever found out; they would certainly not accept him as their Abbot? He was not even an ordained priest – for heaven’s sake! Even here, the general had anticipated such doubts but seemed to have no difficulty in convincing the monk that by using his new elevated rank of ‘conqueror of the Abbey’ the brethren would accept their new Abbot, in pain of losing the present incumbent and anyone else of a rebellious nature. With this assurance, the now traitor returned to St Benet’s in both excitement and with not a little fear. Ethelwold was naturally welcomed back and praised for his bravery in delivering the Abbot’s letter of refusal; whilst he held a burdensome secret.
The final days of May that year were full of sunshine, bridging the final days of spring to the start of summer; the evenings were however deceptive with one culminating in a sudden dissolved dusk displaced by a very chilly, dark and eerie night. The bell in the Abbey tower rang out eleven times, each ring echoing across the night ladened marches whilst Ethelwold’s heart pounded at an ever increasing pace as he waited for the final chord. This was followed by the sound of three knocks on the gatehouse door; the expected visitors had arrived! The nervous bailiff slowly withdrew the well lubricated bolts and was about to slowly release the door quietly when it was flung open and the monk was brushed aside as soldiers burst through and set about their task. Very quickly the monks realised a betrayal and offered no resistence because shedding blood was abhorrent to their beliefs; any arms were put aside and a truce quickly agreed, followed by an order that all must essemble in the Abbey Church the following morning.
There, on a morning that reflected the prevailing mood of the defeated, the young ‘Abbot Elect’ was paraded in with great ceremony and in front of the assembly was anointed and then dressed in cope and mitre. The Abbot’s crovier was placed in his hand, followed by a pronouncement that the once monk was now the Abbot of St Benedict’s-at-Holm – for LIFE! To complete the ceremony, the new Abbot was escorted the length of the Abbey by Normans in ceremonial armoured attire and banners flying – but with no applause except for that coming from the Normans. The defeated audience watched in total silence. The new Abbot was, however, full of himself and he ignored a part of the spectacle that was clearly of no importance to him. That changed all too quickly; the Abbot’s face, so flushed with utter pride one moment, turned deathly white as his hands were suddenly thrust behind his back and tied unceremoniously. Still dressed in his glittering robes, this ‘newly annointed abbot’ was dragged off – Norman’s abhor treachery!
Ethelwold, shrouded by a realisation that he had been completely fooled and foolish, cried for mercy but his cries were ignored. His march from the throne to an open window in the bell tower was further ignominious. There, he was hoisted up on to a makeshift gibbet made of a simple stout pole protruding out from the widow that faced a still misty river and marsh beyond. Then, no sooner had the noose been placed around the unfortunate’s head, when he was pushed to swing in full view of those who had gathered below. Those who were further away and out of sight of this summary execution would have their chance to witness the result. They would understand the stark message that was directed to everyone under to authority of Norman rule; all who dared to be treacherous for personal and selfish gain would meet the same fate! The church authority may also have considered the outcome appropriate and that the individual who had fallen from both window sill and grace, was now in the process of being judged by his Maker.
This story makes you wonder! – How many of us today, would choose to manouver their boats along the river Bure in early morning mist or walk the same path past the ruined Abbey, and concern themselves with apparitions? – particularly if the morning, from midnight onwards, happens to be misty? How many out on the 25th May would quicken their stride or increase water speed – just in case! Maybe all it takes is to be alone in the dark or in an early mist, a mist that was thought to be rising, but drops again suddenly at the same moment as the temperature takes on a deeper chill……! One thing is certain; all that is needed beyond these conditions is for a lone lapwing to swoop close by and send forth its pre-emptive cry of what might follow!
Sources: Dutt, W., Highways and Byways in East Anglia, 1901
Cooke, W.H., The Shrieking Monk, 1911
Tolhurst, P., This Hollow Land, Black Dog Books, 2018
Photos: Wikipedia, Google, Spinney Abbey.
St. Nicholas’ church in East Dereham, Norfolk has a tower detached from the building. It is said the bells were originally hung in the 13th century lantern tower rising from the centre, but they became too heavy for the structure and were removed to the bell-tower in the churchyard, specially built in the 16th century. In 1797 it was used as a temporary gaol for French prisoners on their way from Great Yarmouth. One tried to escape by hiding in a tree, but was shot and buried in the graveyard (his memorial is near St. Withburga’s Well.)
By tradition the tower was once attached to the church, but the builder forgot to use the proper mortar and it was never watertight. The parson ordered the tower to be pitched all over, but while it was still hot and sticky, all the birds of Dereham (some say a flock of starlings) flew over to see what the fuss was. They landed on the tower, but on finding their feet stuck, kicked up a commotion and fluttered their wings so hard that they flew away with the tower. But before they’d flown far, their feet came unstuck and the tower fell where it stands.
R. H. Mottram: ‘East Anglia’ (Chapman & Hall, 1933), pp.179-80.
Noel Boston & Eric Puddy: ‘Dereham’ (G. A. Coleby, 1952), pp. 148-9.
Eastern Daily Press & Norfolk Churches