Ber Street’s Two Lost Churches.

Nearly four centuries separate the desecration, or violent disrespect, of two churches that once stood along Ber Street, in Norwich – namely the church of St Michael-at-Thorn and the church of St Batholomew. Read on:

Norwich’s ‘Berstrete’ was named after the Anglo-Saxon road which was the Northern Conesford sub-leet’s backbone. It ran along a ridge above a long slope which ran down to the river on the western side of the ridge; below, the Great Cockey ran through a natural valley. In time, the road became Ber Street, placing itself between present-day Queens Road and King Street. Ber Street formed one of two major routes into Norwich that ran through the Conesford area; the second was the Royal Conesford Way – the present-day King Street. Today, Ber Street is a fragmented mix of historical buildings and post-war WW2 industrial buildings; the result of a 1950/60’s slum clearance scheme which followed extensive war bomb damage.

Back in the Middle Ages, Norwich and Bristol were judged to be second to London in size. Consequently, Norwich still had 36 parish churches in its city centre when the Reformation took place; a couple were quickly demolished, but most lingered on into the 21st century. Over the centuries, the function of some parishes fell into disuse, but a surprising number were still parish churches of the Church of England within the minds of many Norwich people.

City Medieval Towers (Illustration)
An artist’s impression of the complete Norwich City walls and gates in the 14th century. Ber Street (Berstrete) Gate is depicted centre at foot, with the two churches referred to in this post towards the Castle.
Image courtesy of Aviva Group Archive

Any mention of Ber Street would be incomplete without mention of its medieval Gate, one of a series of gates that, together with an almost continuous wall, surrounded the city. Early references to Ber Street Gate, which was built on a corner of the city wall which runs southeast and southwest from the gate, are contained in documents from the reign of Henry III in the second and third quarters of the 13th century. The gate itself was demolished in 1808 but the street remained busy and densely populated and was known locally as “Blood and Guts Street”, due to its many slaughterhouses and butcher shops; also, because cattle were driven down the road into the city.

Two Ber Street Churches1
The outside of Ber Street Gate from the south by H Ninham from an early-18th century drawing by John Kirkpatrick.  Image: Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.
Two Ber Street Churches2
The inside of Ber Street Gate from the north by H Ninham from an early-18th century drawing by John Kirkpatrick.  Image: Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

1. The church of St Michael-at-Thorn:
St Michael at Thorn was once the most central of Norwich churches but was lost in the World-War-Two blitz of January 1942. When it did exist, it stood about 200 metres south of St John Timberhill at the edge of the Ber St ridge, and overlooking the Wensum valley. Next to the church, on its south side, Thorn Lane led steeply downhill into King Street, but since the area was redeveloped in the early 1960s it now terminates at Rouen Rd. From the 1840s onwards the whole area between Ber Street and King Street was densely populated and consisted of many yards and courts leading off from Ber Street. This whole area was known locally as the ‘Village on the Hill’ and the three roads of Mariners Lane, Horns Lane and Thorn Lane, led into the district. It became the settlement for a small Italian community.

St Michael's (Church)1
The south side of the former church of St Michael at Thorn from Ber Street. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1938-03-18.

St Michael at Thorn was described by Ian Hannah as being only ‘partly built in 1430 but largely modern’. Completed, it consisted of a square west tower, nave with north aisle, a south porch, and a chancel. The original tower collapsed in 1886 and was rebuilt the following year. Sillett’s ‘Norwich Churches’, published in 1828, showed that the style of the Victorian work followed very closely to that of the old.

The historian Francis Blomefield, writing of St Michael at Thorn, said that it: “was anciently a Rectory appendant to the Castle, until the Conqueror gave it to FitzWalter along with St Martin at the Bale.” The church of St Martins, also known as St Martin-in-Balliva, once stood on a triangular piece of ground close by the entrance to Golden Ball Street – near to, what once was, the principal entrance to the barbican of the Castle. The apparent strange title of this church stemmed from it having been built within the bailey, which once was the outer courtyard of the castle. St Martins church was demolished in 1562 when the parish was united to that of St Michael at Thorn; and in the latter’s church registers, which date from that year, are records of burials of many of the criminals who were executed on the Castle hill. In 1926 a chapel in St Michael’s was dedicated to the patron saint of the Bale to perpetuate this association with St Martin’s.

With regard to the dedication – or rather the “surname” – of St Michael’s church, Blomefield mentions that it is:

“called in antient evidences, St Michael in Ber Street, and ad Spinas or at the Thorns, and even to this day, a very large Thorn remains growing in the Churchyard. I find it also in the most ancient Deeds called St Michael Super Montem, or St Miles on the Hill from its situation”.

Prior to the church tower collapsing in 1886, it contained only one bell; but John L’Estrange noted in 1874 that: “There were three bells here until about 1838, when the two largest were sold, to help to build a hideous north aisle, recently replaced by a much comelier structure. They are now the ‘first’ and ‘second’ bells at Bale, near Holt”. [making up a ring of 4 bells there, the oldest of which was cast c. 1440. This is the ‘second’ bell from St Michaels, and bears the inscription ‘Nobis Succurre Michael Raphael Gabriel Quaesumus’, – ‘Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, help us’. On the ‘first’ bell from St Michael’s is the inscription “Pack and Chapman of London Fecit 1777. John Spratt and Henry Warns Ch. Wardens.]”

St Michael's (South Door)
St Michael at Thorn south Norman doorway, later re-erected in nearby St Julian’s church. Image: (c) George Plunkett1938-03-18

The main entrance to St Michael’s was through the porch and south doorway; the latter was Norman probably the oldest remaining part of the building. Following its survival of the WW2 blitz, the doorway was dismantled and re-erected in St Julian’s church nearby, forming the inner doorway to Mother Julian’s cell.

Reinstalled Doorway_Simon Knott)2
The former south doorway of St Michael at Thorn church as it appears in the nearby St Julian’s Church. Image: Siman Knott 2005.

When the doorway was ‘in situ’ at the former St Michaels, it was described as having a shaft on either side supporting a round-headed arch with cable and zig-zag ornaments, with one of the billets of an outer moulding carved into a queer little animal; then, according to White’s Norfolk directory of 1833, the door was then still in possession of its ancient ironwork. As for interior fittings, only an ancient octagonal font with shields survived the centuries. All the Victorian reconstruction woodwork was modern, including a fine roodscreen surmounted with a St Michael’s cross.

St Michael's (Interior East)
St Michael at Thorn’s 1869 interior east view, along with the then modern oak rood screen surmounted by a St Michael’s cross. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1937-08-12.

The bombs that fell in that January of 1942 left only the tower of St Michael’s standing, but removing a section of the parapet and the spirelets; the church itself was gutted, leaving only the eastern gable and the other walls at a lower level. Up to the day the church was lost, thorn trees grew in the churchyard, though perhaps not the same ones to which Blomefield referred. It was said that by the time the war ended, the thorn bushes that gave the graveyard its character and the church its name had quickly regrown through the rubble. The name of Thorn Lane is comparatively modern, for two centuries previously it was known as Sandgate, and it is a matter of speculation whether or not it was named after the nature of the soil there; in time the Lane was probably named after the thorns then flourishing in the neighbouring St Michael’s.

St Michael's (Tower before Demolition)
The St Michael at Thorn tower before demolition It survived air raids in 1942 but the tower was demolished ten years later. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1952-07-31.

In the 1950’s, with redevelopment plans well formulated in the minds of the authorities, there was no way that St Michael was going to be rebuilt – or its tower kept as a landmark. St Michael’s was too close to other working churches to be needed, and was set in an area earmarked for industrial and commercial building. As things turned out, the site was completely erased with the church ruins, tower and thorn trees completely removed for the laying out of a car park for Archant House, the Eastern Daily Press building.

Simon Knott said in 2005: “It gives an idea of the ferocity of the blitz, as well as of the completeness of post-war Norwich planning, when I tell you that the two images below were taken from exactly the same spot. Robert Ladbrooke made his leisurely sketch in the 1820s. Some 180 years later, I risked my life and limbs to stand in the middle of Ber Street to take the same view of the site as it is today. I am obviously closer in time to the destruction of St Michael at Thorn than Mr Ladbrooke, but not a single building in this modern view, apart from perhaps those on the far horizon, was here when the church was”.

The Church of St Bartholomew:
Southern Conesford was the long, straggly suburb to the south of Northern Conesford and the Norwich medieval city within the walls, but with an independent life of its own. The two Conesford sub-leets were amalgamated by mid-14th century, the likely result of a reduced population (and therefore the number of tithings) in the area. Subsequently, large areas of land were acquired by the Augustinians and Franciscans for their friary precincts. Conesford, as a whole, had nine medieval parish churches, as well as several monasteries, and was home to important merchants – the Pastons’ Norwich house was in Conesford, down on the the ‘Royal Conesford Way’ (King Street), the main road to London. Parallel to it, but high on the ridge to the west, sat Ber Street, leading out of the city centre to the Berstrete Gate in the city walls.

Conesford

In the 18th and 19th centuries, this part of Norwich became home to warehouses and factories, a slum area of workshops and back-to-back terraces. As if in anticipation of this future development, St Bartholomew was desecrated in 1549 and abandoned; its two bells transferred to St John de Sepulchre – situated at the junction of Ber Street and Finkelgate. St Bartholomew itself once sat barely 100 metres south of St Michael at Thorn, its advowson belonging to the prior of Wymondham.

The church was to be used as a factory; then gradually, other buildings were built on to it, until almost nothing at all of the medieval exterior showed, and few would have ever known that the former church was there. All that was visible was part of the south wall of the nave. It was about this time when George Plunkett sketched, in his own hand, Claude Messent’s plan of the building as it was in 1931. Nineteenth-century houses had been built into the west end; the nave and chancel were part of Snellings factory, and against the north wall was a slaughterhouse.

St Barts (Diagram)
George Plunkett’s sketch of Claude Messent’s plan of St Bartholomew Church as it was in 1931. Image: (c) George Plunkett.

George Plunkett’s fascination with Norwich churches led him to be ‘on the spot’ when the Norwich City Corporation began to clear the site in the summer of 1939. They really need not have bothered – and would have saved some money had they known that, two or three years later, the Luftwaffe would have done the job for them. As it was, the ramshackle lean-to buildings were torn away by the Corporation and the heart of a medieval church revealed – the blocked-up chancel arch, the Tudor arched interior window splays, and a brick south doorway. But now everything has gone and all that survived from the clearance is the rump of the tower which sits beside the Ber Street pavement. Unlike St Michael at Thorn, it was not a victim of war time bombing. Today, modern sheltered housing occupies the area where the St Bartholomew, the factory and the slaughterhouse once stood.

(The remains of St Bartholomew’s Church).

St Bartholomew (Nave Blocked Window)
St Bartholomew’s Nave blocked window 
Secularised after the Reformation, the church nave and part of the chancel remained, largely hidden from view by slaughterhouses and other buildings. Brought to light in the 1930’s, it offered slight compensation for the loss of St Michael at Thorn. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1939-05-18
St Bartholomew (Nave South Wall)
A section of St Bartholomew’s Nave South Wall incorporated into a warehouse which once stood at rear of 82 Ber Street. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1937-08-07.
St Bartholomew (Gabled Wall)
St Bartholomew’s west side gabled wall which
divided the Nave from Chancel. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1939-05-18.
St Bartholomew (South Doorway)
St Bartholomew’s south doorway arch. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1965-05-01.

A few yards south along Ber Street from the site of St Michaels at Thorn a portion of St Bartholomew’s 15th century church tower still stands, its flint, brick and some stone dressings preserved among a block of new dwellings. To think that it was only brought to light in the 1930’s; in a sense, its preservation offers slight compensation for the total loss and disapperance of St Michael’s.

St Bartholomew1
The ruined tower of St Bartholomew’s church, Norwich.
A short stump of the tower is all that remains today and it is so overgrown that one could walk past it without noticing what it is – were it not for the plaque attached to its wall. Image:© Copyright Evelyn Simak.

Finally, Simon Knott again adds: “St Bartholomew should not be confused with Norwich’s other medieval church of the same name. The other one was the parish church for Heigham, the area to the west of Pottergate and St Benedict, and is also a ruin today – but unlike the long-suffering St Bartholomew of Ber Street, the Heigham church really was gutted in the blitz”.

THE END

Sources:
www.georgeplunkett.co.uk/Norwich/ber.htm
https://www.norwich.gov.uk/site/custom_scripts/citywalls/29/report.php
www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/norwichmichaelthorn/norwichmichaelthorn.htm
www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/norwichbartholomew/norwichbartholomew.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ber_Street,_Norwich

All George Plunkett images are by kind permission of Jonathan Plunkett.

The Fate of HMS Invincible – 1801

Before we proceed with what happened to the Royal Naval ship HMS Invincible some 219 years ago take particular note of Hammond’s Knoll, a 6-mile (9.7 km) long sandbank off the coast of Norfolk, England, just off Happisburgh. This is an innocent sandbank below high water when the sea behaves itself; but when the weather is foul and the tide is low, it is best to stay alert and be on guard – it can be dangerous. At low water, the sandbank has only a depth of about 6 fathoms at each end, and 3 fathoms in the centre. Nowadays, the Hammond’s Knoll is marked by lighted buoys at its north and east ends – this was not the case on the 16th March in the year of our Lord 1801.

Invincible (Hammonds Knoll)
The East Anglian coast is recognised as dangerous when the weather and sea choose to be foul. Many ships have been lost to gales over the centuries – some say the number runs into thousands. Storms in this part of the world seem frequent and ferocious either side of Autumn and Spring, wrecking and shifting the many sandbanks and shoals as they rage. In winter months particularly, the prevailing off-shore westerly wind would, more than likely, become a north-easterly, thrashing down from Scandinavia and the Artic. battering the lee shoreline. Ships which managed to sail a safe course through those ever shifting sands would still risk being smashed by the wave’s force, overwhelmed or driven ashore.

In the days of sail, the sea lanes up and down the eastern coast were far busier than they are today. Any storm would, as likely as not, have created a havoc of torn canvas, tangled ropes, broken masts and dead bodies. No ship, whether they be on Government business or commercial trading, were immune from possible disaster. Even the large fishing fleets that once thrived on herring could be lost; in fact, in 1789 around 130 fishing smacks and coasters were wrecked between Southwold and Cromer – one of more than a few such instances. With so many storms over the years the losses have been many, with coastal churchyards well used with graves and memorials for those who did not come home safely. These included resting places for members of the Royal Navy.

Britain once prided itself on having the greatest navy in the world and her sea battles were renowned, but East Anglian seas were even a challenge to military ships. Amongst those who did fall foul of the seas off Happisburgh, two stand out; the first was HMS Peggy which, in short, was wrecked on 19th December 1770 with thirty-two of its men losing their lives. They were buried in Happisburgh churchyard while their ship, the Peggy, was to remain on the beach for many years thereafter.

Invincible (HMS Peggy)
The wreck of the HMS Peggy

The HMS Invincible disaster was the other instance of a Royal Naval ship going down. She was a 74-gun, Ramilles Class third-rate ship, thirty-six years old in the spring of 1801 and battle-wearied, but nevertheless a stirring sight when fully rigged.

 

Invincible 1
HMS Invincible

Launched at Deptford in March 1765, the HMS Invincible had served in the American War of Independence. Her battle honours included Cape St Vincent 1780, Chesapeake 1781, St Kitts 1782 and the Glorious First of June in 1794, where she was badly damaged and lost fourteen men. In 1797, she took part in the invasion of Trinidad which captured that island from the Spanish. So by 1801, HMS Invincible, which had a proud record of service, was back in British waters. By March of that year, and with the war against France in a protracted state, fear remained that the French would seize the powerful Danish navy and use it against Britain. Therefore the British Baltic fleet, led by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and with Nelson as his second-in-command, was directed to sail to Copenhagen and make sure the Danish fleet could not fall into French hands.

 

Invincible (Hyde Parker)
Admiral Sir Hyde Parker (1739–1807) after the painting by Romney

HMS Invincible was to be part of this fleet so it was ordered to sail from Chatham, with its crew of around 600, and meet up with the fleet of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker which was already in the Sound preparing for the planned attack on the Danish fleet – to be known later as the Battle of Copenhagen 1801. HMS Invincible sailed on its journey under the flag of Rear-Admiral Thomas Totty.

Invincible (Copenhagan)
Painting of the Battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801. National Maritime Museum

During its way north, Invincible, with the ship’s newly appointed, thirty-fout year old, Captain John Rennie, put into Yarmouth to collect final orders and stock up with ordnance, stores and ammunition. She was by then a 1,631 ton war ship, as prepared as she could be for the battle ahead. Her state of readiness meant that on the 16th March she was able to leave Yarmouth Roads and, with a master and pilot aboard, set a course towards the notorious area of shifting sandbars off Happisburgh on the north-east coast of Norfolk.

The Master and Pilot clearly thought that they could navigate through the shoals safely, but a rising wind and the strong tide forced the ship off course. Within an very short time, at 2.30pm to be precise, she struck the sandbank of Hammond’s Knoll where the effect of wind and waves tore down the masts and began to break up the ship. The crew did all they could to save the ship. They jettisoned provisions and when the mizzen mast went they cut away the mast, hoping that the ship would float off the sands at high water. Whilst all this was going on, Invincible repeatedly fired a distress signal with its guns. For a while, it looked as if the crew’s efforts of jettisoning every they could would work for the Invincible moved slightly into deeper water. But, as she did so an even heavier swell and stronger wind caused the ship to lose its rudder. Unmanageable, she was driven back on to the sandbank. There she remained whilst the only thing left for the crew to usefully do was to man the pumps and try to keep as much of the ship as possible above water.

Invincible (Ship in Storm)

The wreck was only a few miles offshore and its distress signal, by way of frequent firing of the guns, was eventually answered by the collier Hunter, on her way into Yarmouth – but unfortunately she, for one reason or another, ignored the Invincible’s plight. Only the Yarmouth smack The Nancy, fishing for cod under its skipper, Daniel Grigson, came to Invincible’s aid. He offered whatever assistance he could. However, by midnight, it was clear to all on the royal naval ship that nothing could be done to save it and the order was for two of her boats to be lowered with Totty, the Purser, four midshipmen and some seamen in one and seamen in the other. They made it safely to The Nancy and then made a second run only for one of the boats to capsize as it approached The Nancy for the second time. Those men who had been thrown into the water were, fortunately, picked up by a Collier which had also answered the distress signal from the Invincible.

Invincible (Rescue)2
To the Rescue!

Both The Nancy and the Collier remained on rescue watch throughout that Monday night to pick up survivors, although neither were able to offer any assistance to Invincible herself. Then, after dawn had broken, the final act of this tragedy was played out. Those on the rescue ships were nothing more than spectators to the death throes of the Invincible as she shifted gradually into deeper water before slowly sinking. As she lowered herself below the surface waves, those on its forecastle made a last desperate attempt to survive by leaping into the sea before trying to get on board the last of the ship’s launches. Some made it but others were beaten back by those safely on board who feared that the launch itself would also capsize if overloaded. The weapons they used to repel greater numbers were the launche’s oars.

When the Invincible finally disappered into the depths, it took with her about 400 crew. Out of a full complement of 600 and, bizarrely, 50 passengers despite the fact that the ship was scheduled to go to war, one hundred and ninety persons were saved. Not included in this number of survivors was Captain Rennie who, duty bound, was the last man to leave his post; when he did so he was not only wet and extremy cold but suffering from exhaustion. He tried to swim to a launch but gave up. At that final moment before he drowned he seemingly had accepted his fate when he lifted his hands and place them over his face before sinking calmly beneath the water. Rear-Admiral Thomas Totty reported Rennie’s loss in his Report for the Court-martial which was to follow, calling him ‘a truly zealous and intelligent Officer’. That same Report also described the last moments of the HMS Invincible :

“At daylight on Tuesday morning, I observed that the Invincible had not a single Boat, either alongside or astern of her, and the tide ran so strong that it was impossible to get the fishing Smack to her, but the moment the tide slacked … she stretched under the Invincible’s stern, endeavouring by all possible means to work up and get alongside of her; but before that could be accomplished the Ship went down in thirteen fathoms Water, and out of 600 persons that belonged to the Invincible they have not been above 190 saved and now living; several who were picked up by the launch died very soon afterwards. I am extremely grieved to inform you that Captain Rennie was among the number of those drowned; by his death the service has lost a truly zealous and intelligent Officer … The horror of the scene at the Moment the Ship went down far exceeds all power of description.”

Amongst those who had reached The Nancy, and were later landed at Great Yarmouth, were those who were still to die as a result of the experience. In total, more than 400 were lost, compared to the 256 who were to die at the Battle of Copenhagen. On his way home from his triumph, Nelson still made time to visit “his men” from the Invincible lying injured in Great Yarmouth hospital.

For days after the wreck, bodies were washed up all along the coast. Most were brought on carts to Happisburgh churchyard, where they were buried in a huge, unmarked communal mound grave in unconsecrated ground to the north of the church. Of all those lost only six received a proper burial in the Holy Trinity & All Saints churchyard at Winterton the 20th day of March, 1801. Their names unknown

Invincible (St Marys Church)
St Mary’s Church, Happisborough.

But the story of the Invincible did not end there because an attempt was made by a Mary Cator in 1913 to erect a memorial as a reminder to the lives lost. She raised money by subscription but when it was found that there was no official record that proved that bodies from the Invincible were buried in the mound, she returned the money raised. Then in 1924, Mary Cator’s persistence to ensure that an appropriate memorial existed in St Mary’s churchyard paid off. This was the year when the church bells were re-hung and Mary gave a treble bell on which was inscribed ‘In memory of Nelson’s men wrecked off Haisboro in 1801‘. A memorial at last! – but the story did not even end there.

Invincible (Dedication)
The unconsecrated land where the dead were buried was later incorporated into Happisburgh churchyard, then in 1988, the remains of many of the Invincible’s crew were located by chance in their original mass grave during the digging of a new drainage channel. There was found a disordered mass of bones less than three feet below the surface. These remains were reburied with proper rites; then, ten years later, in 1998, a memorial stone was erected to their memory by the Ship’s Company of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, together with members of the Nelson Society,, the Happisburgh parochial church council and a descendant of Captain John Rennie. This was a final recognition of all those who had died on HMS Invincible in 1801, summed up by St Mary’s Rector, Reverend Doctor Richard Hines as being: “interpreted as a gesture of Christian faith that even in their most desperate moments those who perished out in the cold North sea did not perish beyond the love and presence of Almighty God” The Memorial’s inscription came from Revelation and reads ‘And the sea gave up the dead that were in it’.

Invincible (Memorial)
HMS Invincible Memorial at St Mary’s Churchyard at Happisburgh, Norfolk Photo: © Lynda Smith – 2004

Transcript of Memorial Lettering:

On 16 March 1801, HMS INVINCIBLE
was wrecked of Happisburgh when
on her way to join the fleet with
Admiral Nelson at Copenhagen.
The day following, the Ship sank with
the loss of some four hundred lives.
One hundred and nineteen members
of the Ship’s Company lie buried here.
“And the sea gave up the dead
that were in it…..”
Revelation 26:13

This memorial stone was given jointly
by the Parochial Church Council and
The Officers and Ship’s Company of
HMS Invincible. 1998.

FOOTNOTE:
The compulsory court martial that followed Invincible’s sinking was held on the HMS Ruby at Sheerness. It absolved the Amiral and the Captain (posthumously) of culpability in the disaster, but posthumously blamed the harbour pilot and the ship’s master, both of whom had been engaged to steer the ship through the reefs and shoals of the dangerous region – they should have known the location of Hammond Knoll, especially since it was daytime and in sight of land.

The only amusing side to this story concerns the many casks that were seen floating on the sea after the HMS Invincible went down. Some 150 were brought ashore by the customs officers and were found to contain brandy. Others casks escaped and were to be picked up by delighted villagers; many of whom drank themselves into oblivion – one even died from his excesses!

THE END

Sources:
The Loss of HMS Invincible in 1801

http://www.axfordsabode.org.uk/pdf-docs/invinc01.pdf


http://www.happisburgh.org/history/sea/losses-at-sea
https://rna-norwich.org.uk/2017/03/hms-invincible-memorial-service-2017/

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Norfolk: Angels & Demons Looming!

The church of St Clement, Outwell,  was started in the 13th century and expanded in the 14th and 15th centuries when the roof was raised and its carvings installed.  The church was built of limestone from the Lincolnshire Wold and mostly likely came to site by the river. The church stands amid the fens and dykes below the Wash, between the rivers Nene and Great Ouse, close to the Cambridgeshire border. It was a prosperous place in the second quarter of the 15th century from when it remains a somewhat curious church that demands attention.

St Clements (Inner Roof)

St Clements is a church thick with angels. They flock about the roof beams, more than 100 of them, some bearing musical instruments, others the instruments of the Passion. If you look carefully at the above photo, you can see what is now known as the “unknown” glories, the carved buttresses, while in between and over head are the angels, with more angels in the south aisle and the Lynn Chapel off the north aisle. Then there are the demons which are very difficult to see for the roof is so dark that the visitor may miss these and even the large dark angels. The following two demons are exceptions:

St Clements (Carving)2There are 12 demons carvings and they were, in a sense, ‘lost’….but not really….in fact, they have been there all the time but, because of the poor light entering the roof area, the carvings are almost impossible to see. However, on one particular day in 2012 they were indeed ‘found’ by an historian who was studying the medieval glass…… so now they are famous!….having been safely ‘in situ’ for nye on 600 years. Apparently. they are carved the wrong way round, with the demon overcoming each of the smaller apostles, when it should be the other way round. Pevsner’s guide to Norfolk says they stand below canopies, but it’s more interesting than that. What has been revealed is that figures of Apostles, delicately carved with emblematic detail, stand under larger looming heads-and-shoulders of semi-human and demonic figures, bearing the weight of the roof. What does this juxtaposing of holiness and the infernal mean?

img_2440The placing of the figures was planned. The Apostles stand in pairs. Time and death-watch beetle have done away with most of the identifying symbols once held by the Apostles. But one pair, on opposite sides of the nave, are still easy to name: St John, holding a chalice, and St James, with his pilgrim satchel and staff. The horn-headdressed lady looms over the more sensitively carved sculpture of St James with staff and satchel. Leaning over St John is a furry-chested, beak-faced devil of the kind you might see in a manuscript illumination (or, at the time, perhaps in drama). Over St James  leans another unsettling figure: a large-featured woman with an exaggerated horned headdress and, in place of hands, taloned paws.

Why put such things together in a church? – but why not, for the aspect in play can be found in creation itself. Commenting on the Book of Proverbs, the 13th‑century spiritual writer John of Forde wrote that: “The Wisdom of God played before the Father’s face over the whole expanse of the earth.” God played with the monster Leviathan too, the Psalm says. There was indeed a medieval fondness for monsters which presupposed the reliance of humanity’s creativity on the primary creation by God. As St Anselm, the philosopher (Archbishop of Canterbury 1093-1109) saw it, men could mentally rearrange elements of God’s creation and so make an artistic image such as the horn-headdressed woman with clawed paws!

St Clements (Carved Demon)

At Outwell, then, the dignity of the Apostles is pointed up by the mirror‑image ludicrous figures grinning above them. But, as already been stated, the carved figures are hard to see. When they were made, the brightest light was from distant candles or reflected daylight, and their details could seldom have been clear. Yet, no doubt, the local yeomen, newly prosperous, the Beaupres and the Haultofts, would have been proud to pay for carved figures of the Apostles to join the angels aloft, and not have thought it out of place to have a few demons and chimeras thrown in.

Some other images of St Clements Church, Outwell, Norfolk

Sources:
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/2017/08/05/sacred-mysteriesmonsters-looming-norfolk-roof-timbers/
https://blosslynspage.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/demons-apostles-and-angels-at-st-clements-church/
https://roofangels2.format.com/gallery-5
https://www.geograph.org.uk/
http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/outwell/outwell.htm

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

2020: The Year of Richard Caister

Richard Caister could be described as a medieval maverick cleric who preached and wrote in the vernacular a century before the Protestant Reformation. However, it is more than likely that not many people today would recognise his name if asked; or be aware of his deeds, character or reputation. Timely therefore that between February and October of this year, 2020, St Stephen’s Church in Norwich (where this late priest and poet was based in the latter part of his life) will celebrate the 600th Anniversary of his life and work through several events hosted by the Church itself, including family craft workshops and musical performances. These events are to be supported by associated historical tours of the city and variously timed lectures at the Forum and the Norfolk Record Office. Not everyone could possibly share in these celebrations, but for those who may still be interested in the man, the period in which he lived and those with whom he associated, here is an adapted summary of his life based (in part) on the information compiled by St Stephens Church.

Richard Caister (St Stephens)
St Stephens Church, Norwich and host for the 600th Anniversary of its late Vicar, Richard Caister. Photo: Jamie (flickr).

We can never be absolutely certain of Richard Caister’s place of birth or the actual date, only that he was born either in Caister St Edmund or Caister-on-Sea sometime around the middle of the 14th century. He was apparently styled ‘master’ but there is no clear evidence that he studied at a university; but it is said that in 1385, possibly on 1 October, a part of his head was ‘tonsured’ – left bare on top by the shaving off of the hair – he had been made a cleric. It was at that moment when he was admitted to Merton Priory in Surrey where he received his education in preparation for an ordained ministry. It is probable that, after being ordained, he spent some 10 years as a monk of the Norwich Cathedral Priory. Certainly, in 1397, he become vicar of St Mary’s Church in Sedgeford, near Kings Lynn, having been presented to the benefice by the Prior of the Norwich Cathedral Priory.  Richard Caister served Sedgeford for five years; its location described by Simon Knott in 2006 thus:

Richard Caister (Sedgeford)
St Mary The Virgin Church at Sedgeford. Photo: Blosslyn.

“Sedgeford is one of those surprisingly secluded villages not far from the Wash, with busy Hunstanton and Sandringham just over the hill. Many East Anglian churches are at the highest point in their parishes, which isn’t saying a lot, but this big church is down in a dip in the valley below the road, and you would never notice it unless you were deliberately looking for it. The nave seems vast with those great clerestory windows, and the round tower appears to grow out of it, the aisles extending westwards to wrap around it.”

In 1402 Richard Caister was transferred to St Stephen’s Church in Norwich, where he remained until his death on April 4, 1420. He was buried in the chancel of the Church; an indication of the high regard he was held at the time. According to Norman P. Tanner:

“Margery Kempe [see below] provides a glowing portrait of him as vicar of St Stephen’s. He was, she indicates, a generous and apostolic parish priest, and a noted and effective preacher. He acted as her confessor in Norwich and supported her against her critics, including the officials of the bishop……… Following his death in 1420, perhaps on 29 March, his reputation for holiness developed into a minor cult. Margery Kempe went to pray at his grave in St Stephen’s Church, to thank him for the recovery of a friend from sickness: between 1429 and 1500 a number of bequests were left in wills for people to make pilgrimages to his grave, or for offerings to be left at it. He appears to have been a radical and evangelical priest, one in a succession as vicars of St Stephen’s parish, though Bale’s claim that he was an enthusiastic Wycliffite, albeit a secret one, seems unfounded……… Books on the ten commandments, the beatitudes, and the meditations of St Bernard, and also some homilies, were attributed to him. His only extant work, however, is the hymn ‘Jesu, lord, that madest me’, which seems to have been very popular, surviving in numerous manuscripts (though eight of its twelve stanzas come from an earlier poem).”

Richard Caistor’s Will was probably written within a few days of his death; it is remarkable, especially for a man who had been incumbent in one of the most valuable livings in Norwich for some eighteen years. The Will is very brief and contains no requests for masses or prayers to be said for his soul. Instead, he seems to have wanted his ‘unspecified wealth’, apart from £10 that was to be spent on buying two antiphonaries for his church, to be given to the poor, with preference being given to those of his parish on the grounds that “the goods of the church, according to canon law, belong to the poor”

Two significant Contemporaries of Caister:
One of Caister’s contemporaries was Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). She is, of course, known for her book The Revelations of Divine Love, which is a masterpiece of 14th century vernacular theology and also the earliest surviving book in the English language written by a woman.

Richard Caister (Julian of Norwich)
A sculpture giving an imagined depiction of Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)

There are no documents in existence which says that Richard Caister and Julian of Norwich ever met. However, it seems inconceivable that this was never so, when their geographical proximity of St Julian’s and St Stephen’s Churches were practically next door to each other. Also, having both a mutual friend in Margery Kempe, would strongly suggest that the lives of Julian and Richard may well have overlapped at times. However, more significantly than that suggestion, is the fact that both of them wrote in the vernacular. By doing so, both opened spiritual and theological matters to ordinary lay people, as distinct to only the clergy which believed, certainly in Caister’s time, that the English language was not an appropriate vehicle to consider or broadcast theological matters; such matters needed to be presented in the language of the Church – Latin.

Richard Caister (Margery Kempe)2

Margery Kempe (1373-1438) was another significant contemporary of Caister and the author of The Book of Margery Kempe, which is considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language; she was also a Christian mystic whose work gives a careful spiritual and social commentary of England. Kempe became very close to Caister; in their first meeting, Caister listened to Margery Kempe speak about the love of God and her spiritual experiences. Margery Kempe also recorded that while some considered her to be insane or under the influence of demons, Richard Caister defended her, open to the idea that God may inspire a woman. Caister became Margery Kempe’s confessor and even defended her in a hearing before the formidable Bishop Henry le Despenser. From the website of present-day St Stephen’s Church, we learn that:

“……. after Caister’s death and burial, Margery Kempe writes that she was moved to journey to St Stephen’s to pray for the healing of a priest who was close to her. She writes of a powerful spiritual encounter of the goodness of God during this time of prayer at the chancel of St Stephen’s Church, where Caister was buried. The priest for whom she was praying was healed. It is most likely for this reason that Caister’s burial place became a shrine for pilgrimage throughout the latter half of the 15th century.”

The Character of Caister and his Ministry:
Caister had a reputation for being a man of significant learning who was assiduous in his pastoral duties, particularly in his preaching and in his concern for the poor of his parish. The pilgrim badges that accompanied the shrine of Richard Caister frequently depict him preaching from the pulpit, wearing either clerical or academic dress’.

Richard Caister (Pilgrim Badges)2
A medieval pilgrim badge, worn by someone who would have visited Richard Caister’s burial spot in St Stephen’s Church in Norwich in the 15th century. Photo: Pinterest (Museum of London)

John Pits, (1560 – 17 October 1616) was an English Roman Catholic scholar and writer who was born in Alton, Hampshire. He provides a character sketch of Richard Caister.

“He was a man simple and upright, and no mean scholar. In his sermons he used not so much to attack men’s vices with bitter words, as to deplore them with tears of sympathy, and to exhort all to flee from their sins and to have pity upon their own souls. With the ignorant multitude he willingly adopted a familiar style, and used to mingle with the crowds to hold outdoor meetings. The simplest folk he loved the best, as being most like himself, saying that of such is the kingdom of heaven. He is said to have had the spirit of prophecy, and both during his life and after his death to have been renowned for many miracles”

Then there was Francis Blomefield who, in his History of Norfolk (volume 4), adds to this description that Caister was “a man of greatest learning and what was exceedingly remarkable in those days, a constant preacher of God’s word in English to his parishioners”.

Religious Dissent in the 14th and 15th Centuries:
Caister lived in a turbulent period in the life of the Church in England, for there existed a particular element of non-conformist thought, known of today as “Lollardy“; this movement became increasingly powerful across England in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The book “Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards (1395)” indicates a set of ideas held in common at the time, and strongly criticises clerical practice, the doctrine of transubstantiation, pilgrimage, plus rejecting the necessity of the mediation of God’s forgiveness through the Church via confession of sins to a priest. However, at the heart of Lollardy was the insistence for access to the scriptures in the English language – not Latin.

Richard Caister (Thomas Arundel)
Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury. Copy of a 15th century portrait. Image: Lambeth Palace.

Thomas Arundel (1353 – 19 February 1414) was an English clergyman who served as Lord Chancellor during the reign of Richard II, as well as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1397 and from 1399 until his death, an outspoken opponent of the Lollards. In 1409 he promulgated a piece of ecclesiastical legislation, called the ‘Constitutions’ which was designed to establish control over religious thought and speech in England; it established controls over access to the scriptures in the English language:

“No one should translate any text of holy scripture on his own authority into the English language or any other under pain of excommunication, until that translation was approved by the local diocesan council”.

Alongside this, the Constitutions outlawed the criticism of clergy in the context of sermons and limited the topics upon which clergy could educate their parishioners. In a very influential essay Nicholas Watson argued that the goal of Arundel’s Constitutions was to restrict the development of religious thought in the English language; this led to the ‘watering-down’ of a growing and creative tradition of vernacular theology in England, as represented by Julian of Norwich.

Richard Caister (Love's Mirror)2
The ‘Mirror of the Blessed Jesus. This version printed by William Caxton, Westminster: circa. 1490. Image: University of Glasgow.

Then there was the 15th century Nicholas Love; the Carthusian prior of Mount Grace Priory. He translated and adapted Pseudo-Bonaventure’s ‘Meditations on the Life of Christ’ into English and named it ‘Mirror of the Blessed Jesus (1410)’. His was not merely a translation of one of the most popular Latin works of Franciscan devotion on the life and passion of Christ, but an expanded version with additions against the John Wycliffite (Lollard). Specifically, Love argued that Latin was the true language of theological thought and spiritual devotion. As such, the lay person remained in an unchangeable state of dependency on the Latin-speaking clergy. His version was submitted to Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, around the year 1410 for approval. This submission was in accordance with strictures that forbade any new biblical translation written since the time of John Wycliffe, “in any form whatsoever, unless the translation was submitted to the local bishop for approval.” Arundel not merely approved the ‘Mirror of the Blessed Jesus’, but commanded its propagation; the work survives in sixty-four manuscripts; nineteen of these contain a note of Arundel’s official approval along with a note that this work is a “confutation of heretics or lollards”. Love’s work appears to have been the most popular new piece of literature in 15th-century England and was published at least ten times between 1484 and 1606. It provides an instructive insight into the character of the Church at the time, in contrast to which Richard Caister’s own ‘Metrical Prayer’ can be better understood. In short, it is a fascinating document written at that turbulent time and does, arguably, contains some themes consistent with Lollardy.

Richard Caister (Henry_le_Despenser)
Henry le Despenser (c.1341-1406) a 14th-century carving of him on a misericord in a chancel stall in St. Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn. Photo: Wikipedia.

Lollardy was particularly influential in Norfolk at the turn of the 15th century. The Bishop of Norwich, the then Henry le Despenser, was also a fierce an opponent of Lollardy. According to Thomas Walsingham, (Rolls Series, Vol. ii., p.188):

“He swore, and did not repent, that if any of that perverse sect [Lollards] should presume to preach in his diocese, he should either be given to the flames or deprived of his head”.

The Legacy of Richard Caister:
Richard Caister was closely associated with the linguist, philosopher and theologian John Wycliffe who was an important influence on Lollardy and is thought of as a forerunner of Protestantism in England. Then there was Bishop John Bale (himself a man with strong protestant sympathies) who, in his work ‘Illustrious Writers of Great Britain’ (printed c1549-1559), wrote:

Richard Caister (John Bale)
John ‘Bilious’ Bale. Image: Wikipedia.

“Richard Caister, of the County of Norfolk, and coming from near Norwich itself, a man learned and pious for his age, and Vicar at the Church of St Stephen in that City, [he was] called ‘the Good’, lead an apostolic and innocent life in great simplicity of spirit. Miracles are narrated of this man, but many are void of all truth. Nevertheless, he was distinguished for remarkable sanctity and a prophetic spirit. He favoured the Wycliffite (or rather the Christian) doctrine strongly, but secretly, for fear of the Papists, having had experience of their tyranny in others.  The scandalous example of the clergy he deplored with humble reproof in sermons, since otherwise he was not able to cure it. Many other proofs of piety did the good man display, and amongst other things he wrote in his native tongue”.

Richard Caister (John Wycliffe)
John Wycliffe. Image: Wikimedia.

Whether or not Richard Caister really held Wycliffite views is not clear. In the case of Bishop Bale, (who was quite partisan towards Protestantism and could stretch his views of people towards his own ways of thinking), Richard Caister’s own Metrical Prayer does indicate, at least, some sympathy with ideas associated with Wycliffe and Lollardy; but, of course, did not suffer the same fate as others in the Diocese of Norwich who were more explicitly loyal to Wycliffe’s thought, such as William Sawtrey, and payed the price!

Richard Caister (William Sawtre)

FOOTNOTE:
The Richard Caister Project, hosted by St Stephen’s Church, Norwich, sets out to tell the story of Richard Caister. At the forefront of this story is the suitability of all (not just the professionally religious) for spiritual and theological discourse, a commitment which is still at the core of the ministry of Christ at St Stephen’s today. There will be an exhibition in the Church building, workshops for young people and series of talks throughout 2020 – ‘The Caister Talks’, delivered by a diverse range of experts, including Professor Richard Rex (Cambridge University), Laura Varnam (Oxford University) and prolific local historian Frank Meeres. There will be performances over the year including an evening of poetry with the internationally renowned poet and priest Reverend Dr Malcolm Guite. To close the year, there will be a celebration service at St Stephen’s Church, at which Bishop Graham Usher will preach.

Two planned lectures on “Richard Caister are:

16 January 2020, at The Auditorium in the Forum, Millennium Plain, Norwich NR2 1TF and hosted by the Norwich Society. 

6 May 2020, at The Green Room, Norfolk Record Office, The Archive Centre, Martineau Lane, Norwich NR1 2DQ and hosted by the Norfolk Record Office

THE END

Sources on which this Blog is based:
https://www.ststephensnorwich.org

The Story of Richard Caister


https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-4349
https://www.juliancentre.org/about/about-julian-of-norwich.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margery_Kempe#Pilgrimage
https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Lollardy
https://philpapers.org/rec/WATCAC-4
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wycliffe
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bale
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Sawtrey
https://www.networknorwich.co.uk/Articles/558444/Network_Norwich_and_Norfolk/Regional_News/Norwich/Events_mark_6th_centenary_of_Norwich_medieval.aspx

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

Tunstall: For Whom The Bells Toll!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnote:

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

THE END

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

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

A Church Living on the Edge!

The oldest part of Hellesdon is along Low Road, on the outskirts of Norwich and away from the vast, and all too familiar, Hellesdon housing estates on the other side of the Drayton Road. The village and its parish church lay in the settlement of Lower Hellesdon, beyond the former Hellesdon Hospital; this relatively small area still preserves something of its former rural character, despite its proximity to both the estates and modern Costessey. It is indeed fortunate to be on the fringe of the present-day Hellesdon community; for if it were to be in its centre then the original village would, by now, be suffocated by what must be a case of over development – a continuing trend one would suspect, that can only get worst. On the face of it – and so far, the village and its parish church of St Mary’s are indeed the fortunate ones!

Hellesdon (St Mary's)2
St Mary’s Church, Lower Hellesdon, Norwich. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

St Mary’s is not the grandest or prettiest church to be found in Norfolk, indeed, some might feel that it is somewhat odd – from an architectural point of view that is! St Mary’s is small but tall for its size – if that makes sense? Furthermore, most parts appear disproportionate to the other. Take the southern facing porch for instance; it appears too tall for such a squat Saxon Nave, and with quite small and simple windows which let light enter the very small room over the main porch entrance; this, in turn, allows access into the body of the church. Entry to the small elevated room above the porch is via an external stair turret, as seen to the left of the porch. As for the lead-covered bell turret; well, this struggles in its attempt to look like a spire, above the short ‘stumpy’ Nave which, in turn, is not helped by the addition of a north aisle – all be it having been built way back in the 14th century.

St Mary’s has, in the distance past, been referred to as the ‘church without land’ and is recorded as far back as in the Domesday Book of 1086. It is also believed, by some at least, that the old church or chapel that stood on this site marked the spot where King Edmund was interred and martyred in 869. One version of the story goes like this:

Hellesdon (St Edmund)1
A medieval illumination depicting the death of Edmund the Martyr on 20 November 869 by the Vikings. Photo: Wikipedia.

In 985, Abbo of Fleury, who at Ramsey Abbey (Cambridgeshire) compiled the ‘Life of St Edmund’, in which he writes of hearing the Archbishop relate a story that came from a young man who had heard it from a very old man who claimed to have been King Edmund’s armour bearer at the time of his death. On his capture, Edmund was whipped and tied to a tree, and shot with arrows. He was then beheaded and his head thrown into a bramble thicket in Hegelisdun Wood – hence the association with Hailesduna, present-day Hellesdon? The King’s head was later found, guarded by a wolf, and according to the story, the body was buried in a small chapel built nearby for the purpose. The site of the chapel is believed, again by some, to be where the present church of St Mary’s stands. However, some suggest otherwise, with Lyng (only a few miles away) offered up as one possibility!

Joe Mason wrote a blog back in 2015 when he said: “……..I must outline some of the story concerning the king’s [Edmund] death. This tale was written down by a French monk about a hundred years after the events described took place. In the manuscript [see previous quote] the location that was attacked by the invading Danes was a few miles downstream from Lyng at Hellesdon. This event is commemorated on the village sign at Lower Hellesdon, but for some unfathomable reason it is not believed by any academic historians. I think they must live in their ivory towers and have never got their feet muddy in Norfolk……The monk goes on to say that the King was buried a few miles away from Hellesdon, and a humble chapel was erected over his tomb [at Lyng?]. The king’s body did not stay in Norfolk very long, and well before a century had passed his body was re-interred at the place now known as Bury St Edmunds. The king’s body lay in Norfolk for less than 75 years and to this day everyone is unsure where…..”

Joseph C. W. Mason’s latest book ‘St Edmund and the Vikings 869–1066’ (see the above link) says so much more on the subject.

Not to put too finer a point on it – this story remains one of dispute, depending whether you live in Norfolk or Suffolk. But Hellesdon did stake its claim when images of St Mary’s Church, the dead body of King Edmund, and the wolf that stood guard over Edmund, found their way on to the village sign.

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Hellesdon Village Sign
The sign is located in front of the Hellesdon Parish Hall. It depicts St Mary’s church and the body of the martyred King Edmund, guarded by a wolf.
© Copyright Evelyn Simak – – geograph.org.uk/p/850757

It used to be thought that the whole of the present church was 14th century, but now historians recognise that both the Nave and Chancel are much earlier – possibly between 1040 and 1120. The clue lies in the fact that both these parts of the church are built with whole flints laid in mortar, whereas the walls of the 14th century North Aisle are built of ‘knapped’ flints – whole flints having been cut to reveal flat shiny Surfaces.

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St Mary’s from a more south-easterly direction. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

St Mary’s may well have languished in insignificancy, or even faded completely from history, had it not been for a group of 14th century benefactors. One happened to be John de Heylesdon, he being a local man who became a citizen and merchant of London; he was supported by his wife Joan. Then there were John’s parents, Richard de Heylesdon and Beatrice; following close behind was Walter de Berney, yet another local man who also became a citizen and merchant of London – but he reaching the heights of Sheriff there in 1360.

The church might also be grateful to John de Heylesdon for its bell, which is the oldest surviving in Norwich and an item which, along with the contruction of the bellcote and steeple, was probably funded by de Heylesdon. This belief in his generosity is supported by the fact that this solitary bell is inscribed “JOHNES DE HEYLESDON ME FECIT FIERI IN HONORE MATRS CRESTI WILELLMVS DE NORWYCO ME FECIT” – Translated as ‘John de Helesdon caused me to be in honore of the Mother of Christ. William of Norwich made me’. As for its sound; well, this has been familiar to the Hellesdon community for generations, but it is probably very likely that few have ever actually seen it as access to the bellcote is very restricted, and in this day and age deemed perilous.

St Marys (Christopher Codling)
The rear of St Mary’s from a north easterly direction. Photo: Christopher Codling 2018

According to Freda M. Wilkins-Jones, who compiled a very readable booklet, titled ‘Notes on the History of St Mary’s Church, Hellesdon’ (and from which the historical content of this blog is largely based – incidentally, copies of which can be purchased  at the church for a mere £2 donation); also included reference to another incumbent of St Mary’s:

“In 1362/63 the three men [mentioned above] obtained the manor and advowson – the right to present a clergyman to the living. It appears that Richard de Heylesdon had died by 1379 when the other two men presented Richard de Taseburgh to the living. They could have followed the example of other church benefactors and replaced the old building [St Mary’s] with one entirely new. However, it seems they loved the building, which even then, was old and contented themselves by making additions to it.”

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St Mary’s church – brass
Brass to a former rector, Richard de Thaseburgh (1389), mounted on the north wall having formerly been situated on the floor. The brass lettering is in Latin. Photo: © Copyright Evelyn Simak

These additions came in the form of a newly constructed north aisle and, it is believed, a two-storey porch on the south side of the chancel. Credit for these must clearly go to John de Heylesdon and his group of fellow benefactors. The addition to the 14th century north aisle runs the entire length of the church and, in effect, doubles its size. Of course, at the time of construction, little thought could have been given to the aesthetic nature of having an additional wing on only one side of the church, along with a disproportionate sized porch on the opposite south side; these only contribute to the overall ‘odd’ appearance of the present-day building.

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A view of St Mary’s showing the west side of the porch on the right, through to the older nave with its bell-tower, then the 14th century north aisle and finally the new 2012 addition on the left. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

On the outside, St Mary’s is pleasantly surrounded on all four sides by a neatly kept churchyard, broken only by one path on the north side which connects the church proper with the church hall, a less than well-kept car park, but a neatly kept churchyard extention beyond. On the south side a path connects the front entrance to a war memorial on the right, a small parking area with graves beyond, and the front porch to the left.

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The porch entrance © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

Into the porch and one is met with a neat, clean and plain looking enclosure which because of its simplicity has something of a calming effect as one prepares to enter into the nave beyond. On the porch ceiling are two bosses of a man and a woman – who are they the visitor might well ask. No one really knows, but one could reasonably speculate that they are perhaps the portraits of John and Joan de Heylesdon who, together with other benefactors, came to the rescue of St Mary’s centuries ago.

Again, according to Freda M. Wilkins-Jones: “the construction of the porch partly obstructed one of the original nave windows which, when viewed from the churchyard shows that part of the window was filled in. What is not so obvious is that the other part of that window still exists, as an alcove in the room over the porch. This small but charming room, with its lovely views of the southern part of the churchyard and the Wensum Valley beyond, its fireplace and chimney with its ‘squint’ (which at one time gave a view of the high altar) is now used by the Sunday School. There can be few Sunday Schools priviledged to have accommodation of such character.”

Hellesdon (St Mary's)8a
Inside the porch © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

Stepping inside, one can see a well-kept interior which, nevertheless, is somewhat austere, given its narrowness and height. It begs the question as to what does this church really need in this day and age? But this question doesn’t detract from some of the attractive aspects of this church. Take the low-sided window in the south wall of the chancel for instance one of around fifty such windows to survive in Norfolk Churches. We are told that in medieval times it would have had a wooden shutter through which, during the daily celebration of Mass, a handbell would be rung so that those working at their tasks in the fields, or their homes, could pause, cross themselves and so take part in the service. Fortunately, this particular window has not been filled in; however, in 1858 when this window was unglazed, thieves entered through it, after which, it was glazed but the shutter and ironwork retained. Sometime thereafter the wooden shutter itself was removed and in 1953 a beautiful stain-glass window was installed, depicting the Virgin Mary and Child; this replaced the window damaged by bombing in 1942. Despite this, in 1987 it was vandalised, but was quickly repaired with an external transparent screen being mounted to prevent further assaults.

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Today, the window looks like this. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.
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A view from the nave towards the chancel, and a place for quiet contemplation and a read either side of church services! Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

The present two-manual organ on the north side of the church was built by F. Browne and came from St Mary’s Church in Eastwell, Kent in 1949. Initially, the organ console was placed in the north aisle itself so that the organist sat with his back to the congregation. The carved lattace screen depicting the Benedicite was positioned to mask the organ pipes. The console was later moved to its present position so that the organist now sits behind a stone screen with his back to the chancel and the choir. For a while, the Benedicite screen looked somewhat isolated until an oak-sided altar and furnishings were place below the screen in 1970.

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A View along the north aisle towards the Benedicite screen which hides the organ and vestry beyond. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

John de Heylesdon was granted his wish to be buried in St Mary’s, alongside the tomb of his parents which was originally situated in what was then the Chantry; it and three other tombstones remained there until 1949 when they were moved into the main north aisle proper in order to make way for the organ. Set in the floor of the north aisle and protected by a blue carpet are the brasses to the memory of John de Heylesdon and Joan his wife; theirs is written in Latin; that of his parents are written in Norman French. 

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The above Brass, depicting Richard de Heylesdon and Beatrice, is written in Norman French. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.
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The above Brass, depicting John de Heylesdon and Joan, is written in Latin. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

Despite what has been said about this church, it remains lovely place for many and, thank goodness, it has a special character of its own which needs preserving; the church is unique and clearly provides an invaluable service to the Hellesdon community – all be it from its fringes. With this in mind, would the thoughts of a visitor be admissible? Such as one who suggests that the powers-to-be may have a mind to consider the replacement of its Victorian pews with ‘flexible’ seating more in keeping with present-day needs.

Those who may feel that this suggestion would be sacrilege should ponder on the fact that many church pews date from just the 19th century before when, churches and their interiors were more open and flexible in their use. It is only over the last 150 years or so that congregations have had to experience rigid pews; this period of time has been but minuscule in the context of the time church worship has been in existence. So, has the time come to get rid of pews? Certainly, with St Mary’s, the present access along the central aisle, together with the amount of space in and around the point where the nave meets the chancel, suggests possible problems for the likes of wedding ceremonies and funerals – heaven forbid that any pall-bearer should ever trip over!

THE END

Sources:
Wilkins-Jones, F.M. ‘Notes on the History of St Mary’s Church, Hellesdon’ – highly recommended to anyone who would like to read a much fuller explanation of St Mary’s history.
http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/hellesdonmary/hellesdonmary.htm
Plus a personal visit and a quick session of note-taking before the expected ‘graffiti hunting’ visitors turned up.
Banner Heading Photo: A Fine Day in February (Hellesdon) (undated) by John Middleton (Norfolk Museums Collections).

 

 

 

 

 

An Alphabet of Flowers!

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.

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St Mary’s Church, Wroxham, Norfolk, UK. Photo: David Ross.

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.

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The Norman South Doorway. Photo: David Ross.

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.

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The Trafford Mausoleum. Photo: David Ross.

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.

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Entrance to the flower festival. Photo: Haydn Brown.

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’.

THE END

Sources:
https://www.wroxhambenefice.org/index.html
www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/wroxham/wroxham.htm
https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/norfolk/churches/wroxham-st-mary.htm
Photos: David Ross, Peter Stephens, Haydn Brown, St Mary’s Church.

A Glimpse at Babingley, Norfolk.

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

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

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

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

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The kingdom of East Anglia during the early Saxon period. Image: Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St Felix. Norwich Cathedral. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

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

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The Babingley village signpost, carved by Mark Goldsworthy. Photo: (c) STEPHEN TULLETT via EDP.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END

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

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

 

 

Campanology: As per St Peter Mancroft!

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.

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Postcard of St Peter Mancroft Sanctus Bell, c 1920, and Tenor Bell, c 1924. Norfolk Record Office.

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.’

THE END

Sources:
https://norfolkrecordofficeblog.org/2015/06/26/campanology-once-you-learn-you-will-get-hooked/
Photo: (Feature Heading of St Peter Mancroft) © Copyright John Salmon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Photo (Bells) Norfolk Record Office.

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The Legend of Erpingham’s Gate!

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.

Erpingham (Outer Gate)
This Grade 1 listed gateway is one of two leading from Tombland into the Cathedral Close and dates from 1420 (restored in the 19th and 20th centuries). The central arch consists of three orders of mouldings with two bands of figures and is the work of Norfolk stonemason Thomas Hindley. The gate was erected for Sir Thomas Erpingham, the leader of the archers at the Battle of Agincourt (25 October 1415) and a benefactor of the Cathedral. Photo: © Copyright Evelyn Simak and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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.

Erpingham (Archers)
Henry V’s archers at Agincourt.

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!

 

Erpingham (Statue)2

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.

Erpingham (His Tomb)
Sir Thomas Erpingham’s tomb in Norwich Cathedral.

Erpingham (Friar)2That 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.

Erpingham (Friars)
Friars

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.

Erpingham (Friar on horse)

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.

Erpingham (Gate Interior)
The Erpingham Gate – as seen from Tombland Alley. The Erpingham Gate is one of two entrances into the Cathedral Close from Tombland. The other is St Ethelbert’s Gate Link  © Copyright Evelyn Simak and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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.

Erpingham (Whitefriars)1
Whitefriars flint wall, Cowgate (1939). This was to the north-east of Whitefriars bridge which once formed part of an anchorage attached to the adjoining Whitefriars Monastery. Founded by Philip de Cowgate circa 1256 and suppressed in 1543. Photo: George Plunkett.
Erpingham (Whitefriars)2
Whitefriars Friary doorway, Cowgate  west side. (1961). Uncovered in 1961 it stood adjacent to the anchorage. Photo: George Plunkett.
Erpingham (Whitefriars)3
Whitefriars Friary doorway, Cowgate east side (1988). Photo: George Plunkett.

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?).

Erpingham (Statue)1
The small statue of Sir Thomas above the front arch of the Erpingham Gate. 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.

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 END

Information Sources:
Wikipedia – on Sir Thomas Erpingham, Henry V and the Bishops of the time.
users.trytel.com/tristan/towns/florilegium/popdth04.html
Hugh Lupton, Norfolk Folk Tales, The History Press, 2013
Photos:
Banner Heading © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
George Plunkett – by kind permission of Jonathan Plunkett.

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