Peter Underwood was considered by some to have been that ‘indefatigable ghost-hunter’…… Dame Jean Conan Doyle, daughter of the great author and a keen student of the supernatural, once described him as ‘the Sherlock Holmes of psychical research’. Underwood also carried the labels of being an immaculate, urbane, gentlemanly and quite sophisticated sort of person. He was, for many years, a link with the distant past, outliving those investigators and writers who conducted the drama of the Borley Rectory, considered for a time as “Britain’s most haunted house”; he lived to tell the tales right up to 2014.
Underwood wrote over 50 books about his pursuit of spooks; many of them gazetteers, collections from around the country of oral history on supposed hauntings. In his book ‘No Common Task: The Autobiography of a Ghost-Hunter’ (1983), he suggested that ninety-eight per cent of these reports had a rational explanation, and were generally put to one side; it was the other two per cent that intrigued him and being worthy of pursuit. Nevertheless, he discarded nothing, allowing readers the option of deciding what was, or was not, a likely story.
Peter Underwood was born on 16 May 1923 into a family of Plymouth Brethren; his home on arrival was at Westholm, Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire. He claimed much later in life that he had his first paranormal experience at the age of nine, apparently seeing an apparition of his father who had died earlier the same day standing at the bottom of his bed. Thereafter, his interest in hauntings was further stimulated by his maternal grandparents, who lived for a time at Rosehall, a 17th century Hertfordshire house in Sarratt, a village considered “a good locality for ghosts – they have more ghosts there than ratepayers!” Rosehall had a haunted reputation, having a particular bedroom in which guests reported seeing the figure of a headless man. Underwood’s interest in hauntings and ghostly phenomena began to take root at this time, and it was said that whenever curious tourists knocked, young Peter would assume the role of tour guide and would regale visitors with tales; he became so fascinated when many shared their own experiences of the paranormal in return that he began to scribble them down.
At the beginning of World War Two and after a private education, part of which was with a personal tutor, Underwood joined the publishing firm of J M Dent & Sons in Letchworth, working at their printing and binding works at Dunham’s Lane in Letchworth. Later he would move to Dent’s publishing office before being called up for active service with the Suffolk Regiment in 1942. However, his military service was short-lived – after collapsing on a rifle range at Bury St Edmunds with a serious chest ailment which rendered him unfit for active service. Following several months of convalescence at Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk, Underwood was discharged from the army and returned to Dent’s. During this time Underwood became friendly with Harry Price and wrote to him in connection with his own investigations into the hauntings of Borley Rectory with permission of the owner, James Turner the poet. Price gave Underwood considerable advice on the topic and in 1947 invited him to join Price’s ‘Ghost Club’. Barely a few months later, Harry Price died suddenly from a massive heart attack; that was on Sunday 29 March 1948.
Two particular hauntings spoke the loudest to Underwood during his career. The first was of Borley Rectory; a pitiful building on the barren edge on the Essex/Suffolk. Borley became a media circus in the 1930s, when celebrity ghost hunter Harry Price set out to prove its reputation as a site for scary apparitions. The large Gothic-style house was said to have been haunted since it was built in the 1860s, but things took a more sinister turn in 1928 when the wife of a new rector who was cleaning out a cupboard came across a brown paper package containing the skull of a young woman. Subsequently the family reported strange happenings, including the ringing of servant bells which had been disconnected, lights appearing in windows and unexplained footsteps. As a result, the family fled Borley, but things only seemed to get worse after the arrival of the Reverend Lionel Foyster, his wife Marianne and daughter Adelaide in 1930. In addition to bell-ringing, there were windows shattering, the throwing of stones and bottles, and mysterious messages on the walls. On one occasion Marianne claimed to have been physically thrown from her bed; on another, Adelaide was attacked by “something horrible” and locked in a room with no key.
The building became known as “the most haunted house in England” after the celebrated psychic researcher Harry Price (who had lived at the rectory for a year in 1937-38) published a book about it in 1940. After Price’s death in 1948, however, members of the Society for Psychical Research investigated his claims and concluded that many of the phenomena he described had been faked, either by Price himself, or by Marianne Foyster (who later admitted, apparently, that she had been having an affair with the lodger and had used paranormal excuses to cover up their trysts).
In the years since Price’s death most of the Borley legend has been debunked, but Underwood, Price’s executor as well as his protégé, remained fiercely loyal to him. He claimed to have traced and personally interviewed almost every living person connected with the rectory, and had concluded that at least some of the phenomena were genuine and fiercely defended Price against accusations of fraud. He even went as far as to dedicate his book on the subject, the 1973 ‘Ghosts of Borley’, which he produced in collaboration with Paul Tabori, to his old friend; it was a gesture that straight away rendered the book as useless according to sceptics.
The second story was known as ‘The Greenwich Ghost’; apparently photographed, by a visiting clergyman in 1967, running up a circular staircase at The Queen’s House Museum. Such a tempting and wonderful image is far too good to be true, particularly when it has never been satisfactorily explained. This was Underwood’s favourite tale, but one where even he would go no further than to call it “puzzling”.
By 1955, Dent’s publishing arm had moved to London and Peter Underwood was living in Twickenham. Through his employers, Underwood was to meet many authors of the day, including Dylan Thomas, and also managed to carry out his own investigations of allegedly haunted places, including the ruins of Minsden Chapel near Stevenage and a house where the owner had requested a reduction in the rates due to it being haunted.
Underwood was to identify nine different varieties of ghost during a life dedicated to investigating ghouls and spooks of all shapes and sizes; these came as elementals, poltergeists, historical ghosts, mental imprint manifestations, death-survival ghosts, apparitions, time slips, ghosts of the living, and haunted inanimate objects. He had a talent for categorisation; for example, ‘Where the Ghosts Walk’, published in 2013, was described as a “definitive guide to the haunted places of Britain”, providing a digest of ghosts grouped by location – including Napoleon searching for somewhere to land his invasion along Lulworth Cove.
Simon Farquhar of the Independent wrote in February 2015:
“Underwood never pedalled mumbo-jumbo, but he was drawn to the idea of a ghost being an “atmospheric photograph”, pondering that all of our actions are perhaps recorded on some sort of eternal tape, and under certain conditions, maybe climactic, occasionally they reappear. I don’t honestly think the figures that are seen represent an afterlife. I think it’s much more likely that it’s some kind of echo of a previous life.”
Peter Underwood once claimed that he also had a nose for charlatanry and according to The Telegraph of 2014:
“…… the writer Dennis Wheatley gave a graphic description of a “psychometry” session hosted by Joan Grant, a writer famed for her “far memory” books. During these sessions she would go into a trance and dictate scenes from her past lives. Wheatley described how a stark-naked Joan began to talk in the person of an ancient Egyptian, “glistening and quivering in ecstasy……… writhing and contorting her body sensually in tune with the administration of his hands”. It was said that Wheatley was convinced by her performances – Underwood was not”
Unfortunately, perhaps, Underwood became caught up in some genuinely mysterious goings-on in 1994. Police arrived to question William (Bill) Bellars, a 75-year-old retired naval officer, Loch Ness monster expert and honorary treasurer of the Ghost Club of Britain, founded in 1862, of which Underwood had been president. They were following an anonymous tip-off that club members were really part of an IRA cell. In fact, Bellars had been planning to lead an all-night investigation at a haunted abbey in Hampshire; it took him an afternoon to convince the police that he was up to nothing more sinister than looking for 16th-century Cistercian monks. Eventually, the ghost hunt did go ahead as planned, but the mystery of the tipster’s identity was never solved. Nor did Bellars ever discover the source of abusive calls he claimed he had been receiving. However, it was noted that the previous year Underwood had been ousted from the presidency after 33 years in the post by members who had allegedly become fed up with his “autocratic” ways and who accused him of using the club’s name to help sell his books. “He really ran it to suit his own commercial interests,” Bellars was quoted as saying. Underwood denied any connection to the phone calls or the IRA incident, but Bellars’s description of the final showdown struck an appropriately supernatural note: “I said my piece, then he went purple in the face, just blew a top. Then he vanished.”
Sadly, towards the end of his own life, internal squabbles shattered the gentlemanly mood of the Ghost Club. The departure of Underwood from the Club caused it to split in two. According to Underwood, Bellars led a rump “Ghost Club” with about 80 per cent of the membership leaving to form a Ghost Club Society with Underwood as life president.
Peter Underwood, author, broadcaster and ghost-hunter died in Bentley, Hampshire on 26 November 2014. Again, according to Simon Farquhar writing in the Independent in February 2015:
“He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a leisurely author, thoughtful rather than gullible; Underwood’s work was “no common task”, as he called his 1983 autobiography; but after a lifetime spent chasing shadows, what he leaves behind is a solid treasury of legends and superstitions which make fine fireside reading, and here and there tell us something about the situations and ideas that perpetually disquiet us: stories that certainly would appear to be immortal.”
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.
Celia Fiennes lived at roughly the same time as Daniel Defoe. She was born in 1662 at Newton Toney, Salisbury, the daughter of a Colonel in Cromwell’s army. She is remarkable for the journeys she made throughout nearly every county of England, and the accounts she wrote about each one. She rode side-saddle, accompanied only by two servants. She travelled to improve her health, but also for personal adventure. Her account of her travels seems to have been written after her travels had largely ended, in 1702. She described both the great houses she visited and the developing new industries. She died in 1741.
As a 17th century English traveller, Celia Fiennes was vulnerable to robbery, getting lost and being swamped, or hedged in on poor English roads. As a woman, Fiennes faced added challenges and prejudices – as reflected in the popular English travel guides of the 16th and 17th centuries which asserted that “women who wandered too far afield were invariably suspicious, dishonest, and unchaste.” Nevertheless, early modern women did travel, and often quite extensively, with no “diminution of their moral fibre”. So we have the autonomous Fiennes, unmarried, travelling without a male companion of her social station, and accompanied only by a small retinue of servants; a woman who would certainly have stood out.
The original text of Fiennes is not divided into chapters and paragraphs are few. I have tried to separate her journey to Norwich into frequent separated paragraphs and brought some of her language and wording more into the modern era in order to assist the reader.
Celia Fiennes Writes:
“……..So to Norwich. Sometimes it was in view then lost again. To Beccles is 8 miles more which in all was 36 miles from Ipswich, but exceedingly long miles……… This is a little market town but it is the third biggest town in the County of Suffolk – Ipswich, Bury St Edmund and Beccles. Here was a good big meeting place of at least 400 hearers and they have a very good minister one Mr Killinghall; he is but a young man but seemed very serious. I was there on the Lords day. Sir Robert Rich is a great supporter of them and Contributed to building the meeting place which is very neat. He has a good house at the end of the town with fine gardens. There are no good buildings, the town being old timber and plaster work except his and one or two more. There is a pretty big market Cross and a great Market there. There is a handsome stone-built Church and a very good public minister whose name is Armstrong: he preaches very well, they say notwithstanding the town, it is a sad Jacobitish town.
This [town]chooses no parliament men. At the town’s end one passes over the river Waveney on a wooden bridge railed with timber and so you enter into Norfolk: it is a low flat ground all here about, so that the least rain they are overflowed by the river and lie under water as they did when I was there, so that the road lay under water which is very unsafe for strangers to pass by reason of the holes and quick sands and loose bottom. The ordinary people both in Suffolk and Norfolk knit much and spin, some with the’ rock and fusoe’ as the French do, others at their wheels out in the street and lanes as one pass. It is from this town to Norwich 12 miles, and it is 10 to Yarmouth where they build some small ships, and is a harbour for them and where they victual them. Also, Harwich about 12 or 14 miles also, but the miles here as long again as about London and pretty deep way, especially after rain: these miles are much longer than most miles in Yorkshire.
Norwich opens to view a mile distance by the help of a hill whereon is a little village. As I observe most of the great towns and Cities have about them little villages as attendants or appendix’s to them which are a sort of suburbs, there being straggling houses for the most part all the way between the gates. You pass over a high bridge yet leads on over a high Causey [causeway] of a pretty length which looks somewhat dangerous being fenced with trenches from its banks (pretty deep) that’s on both sides to secure it from the water, and these trenches run in many places round the low grounds to drain them and which are employed to whiten and bleach their woollen stuff is the manufacture of the place. This long Causey brings you to the large stone bridge over the river into which those trenches empty themselves.
Then you proceed to the City which is walled round full of towers Except on the river side which serves for the wall. They seemed the best in repair of any walled City I know though in some places there are little breaches, but the carving and battlements and towers look well. I entered the west gate. There are 12 gates in all and 36 Churches, which is to be seen on a clear day altogether from the Castle walls – I told myself 30 were there. They are built all of flints well headed or cut which makes them look blackish and shining. The streets are all well pitched with small stones and very clean, and many very broad streets: yet I entered in first [which] was very broad for 2 Coaches or carts to pass on either side, and in the middle was a great well house with a wheel to wind up the water for the good of the public. A Little further is a large pond walled up with brick as a man’s height with an entrance on one end. A Little further was a building on which they were at work, designed for a water house to supply ye town by pipes into their houses with water. At a Little distance was another such a pond walled in as I described before. These things fill up the middle of this spacious street which is for use and also ornament, ye spaces each side being so broad.
This brings you into a broad space called the Haymarket which is on a hill, a very steep descent all well pitched as before: this comes to another space for a market to sell hoggs in, and opens farther into divisions of buildings that begins several streets which runs off good lengths and are of a tolerable size. One runs along behind which is all for stalls for the County butchers that bring their meat for the supply of the town, which pay such a rent for them to the town. On the other side are houses of the town’s butchers, the inhabitants. By it is a Large market for fish, which are all at a little distance from the heart of the City, so it is not annoyed with them. There is a very large market place and hall and Cross for fruit and little things every day, and also a place under pillars for the Corn market.
The building round here is esteemed, the best and here is the Town Hall, but all their buildings are of an old form, mostly in deep poynts and much tiling as has been observed before, and they plaster on laths which they strike out into squares like broad free stone on the outside, which makes their fronts look pretty well; and some they build high and contract the roofs resembling the London houses, but none of brick except some few beyond the river which are built of some of the rich factors like the London buildings. There is in the middle of the town the Duke of Norfolks house of Brick and stone, with several towers and turrets and balls yet looks well, with large gardens, but the inside is all demolished only the walls stand and a few rooms for offices, but nothing of state or tolerable for use.
From the Castle Hill you see the whole City at once, being built round it: it is a vast place and takes up a large tract of ground, it is 6 miles in compass. Here is the County hall and Goal where the assizes are held and the Sessions. Nothing of the Castle remains but a green space, and under it is also a large space for the beast market, and 3 times in the year there is very great faire kept to which resort a vast concourse of people, and wares – a full trade. The whole City looks like what it is, a rich thriving industrious place; Saturday is their great market day. They have beside the town hall a hall distinct which is the scaling hall where their stuffs are all measured, and if they hold their breadths and lengths they are scaled, but if they are defective there is a fine laid on the owner and a private mark on the stuff which shows its deficiency.
There was also the mint which they coined, but since the old money is all new, coined into milled money, that ceases. Here there is a fine large Cathedral and very lofty, but nothing remarkable of monuments or else: by it is 3 hospitals for boys, girls and old people who spin yarn, as does all the town besides for the Crapes, Calamancos and damasks which is the whole business of the place. Indeed, they are arrived to a great perfection in work, so fine and thin and glossy; their pieces are 27 yards in Length and their price is from 30 shillings to 3 pound as they are in fineness. A man can weave 13 yards a day, I saw some weaving; they are all employed in spinning, knitting weaving, dying, scouring or bleaching stuffs. Their hospitals are well provided for; there are 32 women in one as many men in the other, there is also a good free school.
There are a great many ceremonies in the choice and swearing in of their mayor: they elect him the first day of May and prepare for his being sworn in on Holy Thursday. They newly wash and plaster their houses within and without which they strike out in squares like free stone. All the street in which is this mayor elect’s house, is very exact in beautifying themselves and hanging up flags of the Councillors’ companies, and dress up pageants and there are players and all sorts of show that day – there is little that is not done at the Lord mayor of London show. Then they have a great feast with fine flags and scenes hung out, music and dancing. I was in the hall where they keep [hold] their feast in and saw some of their preparations for that day; being about a fortnight to it.
The town is a mile and a half from the North to the South gate. Just by one of the Churches there is a wall made of flints that is headed very finely and cut so exactly square and even to shut in one to another that the whole wall is made without cement at all they say, and there appears to be very little, if any, mortar; it looks well, very smooth shining and black. A great many dissenters are in this City. The gentle-woman that was my acquaintance there died 10 days before I came here, so I made no great stay only to see about the town.
Thence I went to Windham [Wymondham], a little market town 5 miles, mostly on a Causey [causeway], the County being low and moorish, and the road on the Causey was in many places full of holes though it is secured by a bar at which passengers pay a penny a horse in order to the mending of the way, for all about is not to be ridden on unless it is a very dry summer. Thence we went mostly through lanes where you meet the ordinary people, knitting 4 or 5 in a company [group] under the hedges. To Attleborough, 5 mile more to a little village, still finding the County full of spinners and knitters: thence to Thetford 6 miles more, which was formerly a large place but now much decayed and the ruins only shows its dimensions. There is a very high hill quite round which stands up on one side of it and can scarcely be ascended so steep. Here I lay, which is still in Norfolk.
Next day I went to Euston Hall which was the Lord Arlington’s and by his only daughters’ marriage with the Duke of Grafton is his sons by her. Two miles from Thetford it stands in a large park, 6 miles about, the house is a Roman H of brick: 4 towers with balls on them; the windows are low and not sashes Else the rooms are of a good size and height, a good staircase full of good pictures, a long gallery hung with pictures at length, on the one side is the Royal family from King Henry 7th by the Scottish race, his Eldest daughter down to the present King William and his queen Mary. The other side are foreign princes from the Emperor of Morocco, the Northern and Southern princes and Emperor of Germany. There is a square in the middle where stands a billiard table, hung with outlandish pictures of Heroes; there is Count Egmont and Horn at the end of the room is the Duke and Duchess of Grafton’s picture at length.
Then I entered into the dining and drawing rooms and bed chambers of a very good size and good fret work on the ceiling: in one of the rooms was the Duchess of Cleveland’s picture in a sultaness dress, the Duke of Grafton being King Charles’s seconds base son by her. There was also another picture of ye Royal family. King Charles I’s five children altogether. I have often seen 3 which was King Charles II, King James and the Princess of Orange; but here was also the Lady Elizabeth and the Duke of Gloucester, a little Infant on a pillow. In another place there is the Queen Mother’s picture the Lady Henrietta drawn large.
There is a fine hall and parlour below, paved with free stone. There are good gardens with fountains and some stone statutes, a Canal by the side, a large court at the entrance with three Iron bar gates which open to the front, divided with stone pillars and balls. The outside Court is walled round and the wall is carried a great length round to the back yards. Within this is another Court with an iron spiked palisade divided every 2 or 3 yards by little stone pillars with balls. There are several rows of trees running the great length through the park; a visto to the front of the house, which looks nobly though, not just of the new modelled way of building. At the back gate I crossed over the river Waveney which is the division of the two County’s and entered Suffolk and passed over perfect downs; champion country, just like Salisbury Plain; and the winds have a pretty power here and blows strongly in the winter and not well to be endured.
With Celia’s journey over, have a look at the following BBC4’s little snippet at:
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.
On the 10th February 1788 Henry Keable/Cable/Kable (the surname has varied over time) and Susannah Holmes married in Australia; theirs was the first wedding ceremony in the new colony. In 2018, their descendants in Austalia celebrated not only the 230th Anniversay of the First Fleet’s arrival, but also the couple’s Wedding, and Susannah Holmes birth around late February in the year of 1764 – now some 255 years ago. Here is their story:
Maybe, with enough imagination, one could visualise a low March sun quietly painting tones of chilled colour on Surlingham Church’s ancient round tower. Everything would be quiet, except maybe, the sound of rooks gossiping as they left their late winter’s roost nearby. That almost perfect silence would remain as long as the visitor stayed still, but any movement forward towards the grounds of the church to enquire further would bring a possible soft crunch of frosted grass, or a squelch waterlogged soil as footsteps left a silent trail of prints.
Just over 255 years ago, on the 6th March 1764, a baby girl was baptised in St Mary’s Church, Surlingham, a village that still sits near the River Yare and Norwich in Norfolk. Present must have been her parents, Joshua Holmes and Eunice, (nee’ Brooks) and probably siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, all tidily dressed and adourned as befitted such a special moment. To everyone outside the family that child may not have been particularly special; but, after she had grown into a woman, married and brought up her own children years later in a far off British Colony – she would be! This baby would leave her own footprints in history and from the other side of the world. Norfolk would forget her and she would remain so until her story, and that of her husband Henry Keable was written, passed on to future generations and eventually finding its way back to the County of her birth. The events surrounding this couple’s story could possibly be described as stranger than fiction.
Thirty-three miles due south of Surlingham, Norfolk lay Laxfield in the county of Suffolk the birthplace of a Henry Keable. The first record we have is that Henry was baptised at Laxfirld’s All Saints Church on the 26th August 1764. Present were his parents, Henry Keable Senior and Dinah, (nee’ Fuller), and just like at Susannah Holme’s baptism in March of the same year, Henry junior was also probably blessed by having siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins present. We can reasonably assumed that both the Holmes and Keable families were poor and that both children helped their respective families to scratch a living and live on the margins of the law until both children fell foul of it.
Whilst Susannah’s story started in Surlingham, her early life remained in the shadows of village events until the ancient pages of the Norfolk Chronicle and the Norwich Mercury newspapers recorded that in November 1783, Susannah Holmes had been committed to Norwich Castle Gaol, accused of stealing clothing, silver teaspoons and linen, to the value of £2.00, from the home of her employer Jabez Taylor of Thurlton, which was nine miles away. Then, on the 19th March 1784 at Thetford Assizes, Mr. Justice Nares donned his black cap and sentenced Susannah to be ‘hanged by the neck until she was dead’. For reasons unknown, this death sentence was commuted to fourteen years transportation, first to the plantations of America before being switched to that of the British colony of Australia. But first, Susannah Holmes was committed to Norwich Castle gaol to await deportation and would never see her Surlingham village and its round-towered church again.
In the claustrophobic squalor of Norwich Castle cells Susannah Holmes met Henry Keable, now a convict himself. also sentenced to death at Thetford Assizes and later reprieved. His story was darker still. The Norfolk Chronicle reported that Henry [now Cabell] from Laxfield in Suffolk had joined his father and uncle Abraham Carman in robbing a house at nearby Alburgh. According to the Chronicle:
“they stripped it of everything moveable, took the hangings from the bedsteads and even the meat out of the pickle jars. They also regaled themselves with wine having left several empty bottles behind them.”
The Norwich Mercury also reported how the local Constable Mr Triggs and three assistants went to Carman’s house and discovered the gang trying to burn the evidence. When they broke down the door they were attacked by the three men:
“A severe combat took place in which Mr. Triggs received a terrible cut to the head and was otherwise much hurt.”
Sentenced to death, all three awaited their fates – that was until young Henry was reprieved on the orders of the Home Secretary Lord North, probably because of his age, and sentenced instead to seven years transportation. These were the days of ‘the Bloody Code’ when more than 150 offences carried the death penalty. What became of Henry’s father and uncle is recorded by the Chronicle in one chilling seventeen word sentence:
“On Saturday last Carman and Cabell were executed on the Norwich Castle Hill in pursuant to their crimes.”
Having been sentenced to death for separate robberies, Susannah and Henry were both fortunate to be reprieved but incarcerated in Norwich Castle for three years whilst the authorities decided what to do with them. Circumstances of the time were that The American War of Independence had halted transportation to the New World and plans were being made at Government level to send convicts to Australia instead, to a place on its eastern coast that the explorer James Cook had only set Western eyes upon in 1770. The couple had to wait until the authorities came to a decision; until then Susannah and Henry had to survive in prison conditions that were unsanitary, over-crowded and disease-ridden – stifling in summer, ice-cold in winter and in cells that often were under water. But according to the prison reformer John Howard who visited the prison at this time, the gaoler George Glynne was a humane man. Although prisoners were shackled they were allowed to mix, providing the opportunity for Henry and Susannah to meet, fall in love and produce a baby son who was named Henry, after both his father and grandfather.
In 1786 Susannah gave birth in her Norwich Castle cell to Henry. That same year mother and baby were sent on the long journey to the stinking prison hulk ‘Dunkirk’ at Plymouth to await transportation. They went alone. Agonisingly, the order from London forbade father Henry from going with them. He must have thought that he would never see his family again – but this story was about to get worse, much worse, before it got better. Mother and baby were also cruelly separated. Captain Bradley who was in charge of the ‘Dunkirk’ had orders only to receive Susannah and turned her baby away. The Norfolk Chronicle made reference to the plight of the girl from Surlingham:
“The frantic mother was led to her cell execrating (cursing) the cruelty of the man and vowing to put an end to her own life.”
What happened next became a ray of hope when John Simpson, the Norwich prison Turnkey (warder) who had escorted mother and child to Plymouth, gathered up baby Henry and made haste to London where, in an age governed by almost unbridgeable class conventions, the humble turnkey did something truly astonishing. He went to the palatial offices of the new Home Secretary Lord Sydney who was finalising plans for the first convict fleet to sail for Australia. Refused entry, Simpson slipped in a side door only to be told that he would have to wait several days to see the man whose name would soon be bestowed on a new city on the other side of the world. The Norfolk Chronicle again tells the story much better:
“Not long after, he saw Lord Sydney descend the stairs and he instantly ran to him. His Lordship shewed an unwillingness to attend to an application made in such a strange and abrupt manner. But Mr. Simpson described the exquisite misery he had been witness to and expressed his fears that the unhappy woman in the wildness of her despair should deprive herself of existence.”
It worked. Lord Sydney not only ordered that mother and child be reunited but gave instructions that the father should be allowed to join them as well. So Simpson set off wearily for Norwich to collect Henry Cabell. Together with the baby, they made the final journey to Plymouth and a remarkable reunion.
The Norwich gaoler, widely feted for a short time as ‘the humane turnkey’, would slip back into the shadow of anonymity, maybe to be rediscovered by descendants of his own children? – if indeed, there are descendants of this Norwich hero living today? It is not even known the fate of the two other female felons Elisabeth Pulley and Anne Turner who were sent from Norwich with Susannah to await transportation. What we do know is that transportation was a one-way ticket for both Susannah and Henry. There was no coming back, despite having deportation sentences that were far short of being for life……….On a different note, it is worth noting here that the spelling of Henry’s name changed more than once over the years. Parish records show that he was the son of Henry and Dinah Keable. Later, the newspapers called him Cabell, perhaps a mispelling. When he arrived in Australia it became Kable (probably a phonetic spelling) which it remains with his descendants. From here on – Kable it is.
On 11th May 1787 a fleet of 11 ships slipped anchor and edged out of Portsmouth into a stiff westerly breeze. Amongst them was HMS ‘Friendship’ with sails trimmed to meet the stiff breeze. The ship sat deep in the water with a course set to take its crew and passengers to the other end of the world. On board was this Susannah Holmes, a young Norfolk girl, her lover from Suffolk and their recently born son. They were just three amongst a total of some 800 convicts being carried by the First Fleet – to be hailed ever after by their Australian descendants as ‘the reluctant pioneers.’ Ahead lay one of the greatest sea voyages in history and an adventure for the young Norfolk family which is well beyond the wildest imagination of any story-teller.
That ‘First Fleet’ of eleven sailing ships set out on a voyage of epic proportions and into the unknown and into the history books. Altogether, the fleet was carrying almost 800 male and female convicts and a similar number of crew and marines. The ships were overcrowded. The ‘Friendship’ carried 72 unwilling prisoners, many of them originally sentenced to death and now sentenced to ever-lasting exile in the British Empire’s newest colony. All must have cursed their vessel’s ironic name.
But perhaps Susannah, from Surlingham, and her Suffolk-born Henry may have felt differently. At least they and Henry Jr were together and, remarkably, they did not travel with empty-handed thoughts. The separation of mother and baby prior to departure had caused such an outcry that the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, had been compelled to reunite them. Their plight had captured the public imagination and an appeal raised money to buy them clothing and a few possessions; but even here there is yet another twist in the story – but more of that later.
How extraordinary that this simple and uncomplicated couple, together with their companions were to have more than a future for themselves; One day, sometime after being shuffled away from our shores, they would be feted as the founders of modern Australia. Extraordinary, too, that whilst it appears that so much is known about Henry and Susannah, the available contemporary documents reveal scant personal details. It is known that Henry Kable was the first of nine children and that Susannah Holmes had a brother and sister, but there are no images of what either looked like. There is only one description of Henry as being a “fine, healthy young fellow” and a suggestion that he might have been red-haired. That’s it! Much more is known about the ships; two naval vessels, six convict transports and three supply ships. The itineraries survive and include lists of handcuffs, leg irons, livestock, coal, tools, food and water of course, as well as 5,000 bricks and a ‘piano’ belonging to the naval surgeon.
At Cape Town, Susannah and the other women on board HMS Friendship were transferred to the Charlotte to make way for 30 sheep. One of the marines wrote in his diary: “I think we will find them more agreeable than the women.”
The 13,000 mile voyage through often uncharted and turbulent seas took 252 days and almost unbelievably not a single ship was lost. Sadly the same cannot be said of the convicts. Forty three either died en route or, as the manifest puts it, ‘left our vessels.’ Twenty two babies were born to prisoners or marines’ wives. Remarkably, only two died. Henry Kable Jr. also survived.
Enter another hero in this strange story. If the first was John Simpson, the Norwich prison turnkey whose efforts had reunited Susannah and Henry, the second was the Commander of the First Fleet Expedition, a Captain Arthur Phillip. Clearly a competant sailor, his navigational skills were to take the Fleet safely through the iceberg-strewn Southern Ocean to arrived in Botany Bay on the 18th January 1788. A week later the Fleet sailed into what they called Port Jackson at the time. A strong belief endures to this day in Australia that the ‘fine, healthy young fellow’ Henry Kable carried the Captain, later to become Govenor Phillip, through the surf and on to the beach where he dedicated the new settlement to the Home Secretary Lord Sydney who had ordered the establishment of this far-off penal colony.
Two weeks after arrival the the colony, Susannah and Henry (together with three other couples) were married by the Fleet’s chaplain – theirs were the first marriages in the new land. A happy affair no doubt; however, it must have been somewhat tarnished by the fact that the couple’s only possessions, ones which had been purchased from that earlier public appeal in England, had disappeared – presumed stolen from the ‘Alexander’. In an effort to secure justice, they sued the ship’s Captain, Duncan Sinclair.
Before mentioning what followed, it would be worth mentioning a little about Captain, Duncan Sinclair:
It would appear that this Captain had faced a series of problems throughout the First Fleet’s voyage to the new colony. On 12 May 1787, as the fleet got underway, ten sailors on board the Alexander mutinied because they had not been paid. On 18 July 1787, when illness was rife, Sinclair had to be ordered to pump out the bilgewater. Then, in the October he was faced with a more serious mutiny amongst the crew and the convicts; surgeon Bowes surmised that it was caused by Sinclair “not exerting a proper spirit over them”. After Susannah and Henry’s case against Sinclair had been concluded, and Sinclair had set off on a return voyage of the Alexander in September 1788, the crews of both his ship and those on board the Friendship went down with scurvy. They all became so weak that the Friendship had to be scuttled. In addition to this, Sinclair allowed the remaining crews a half-share in the Alexander’s cargo. Sinclair sighted the Isle of Wight on 28 May 1789 – without further mishap!
As for Susannah and Henry Kable, they not only won their case against Captain Sinclair, but two and half centuries later that Court ruling remains an historic legal precedent. Governor Phillip had obtained Royal assent to establish a court of civil jurisdiction with a judge advocate; the writ issued by the Kables was the new Court’s inaugaural hearing. This would have been impossible in England where convicts were regarded as ‘dead’ in law with no rights whatsoever. Blackstones’ criminal law bible had put it rather more bluntly about convicts:
“A felon is no longer fit to live upon the earth…to be exterminated as monster and a bane to society…he is already dead in law.”
Well, on the other side of the world, the young Norfolk born Susannah and her Suffolk born husband, Henry who were considered ‘felons’ and once condemned to death, were well and truly alive – both in person and in young Australia’s law book. The Court that day, ordered the Captain to pay Susannah and Henry £15 in compensation. It was a wise decision of course for how else would convicts ever reform and develop in a civilised way without any legal rights, especially as 80,000 more convicts would arrive in the years ahead.
So it was that in the years that followed, the Kables thrived. At first, conditions were harsh, trying to survive in the primitive hovels that sprung up round the Bay. Famine was ever-present but it became clear that the Colony remained undaunted. Henry was made an overseer of a convict gang, then a constable and finally Governor Phillip appointed him as the first Chief Constable of New South Wales. Susannah laboured in a different way by way of not only feeding her growing family, giving birth to ten more children of which all but one survived. The family grew rich and even powerful. For a while Henry ran a public house called the Ramping Horse, named it is believed after Rampant Horse Street in Norwich. Its drunken revellers conveniently carted off to the nearby gaol which was also run by Chief Constable Kable.
At the last we are still not quite done with the firsts. The first ship of any size in the new colony was named after the Kable’s eldest daughter Diana. It was built by her father as part of a fleet that traded across the Pacific. And the same daughter of convict parents married brilliantly to a senior civil servant who had come to help establish the colony. It was Australia’s first ‘society’ wedding. By now her father had served his sentence and grown ever more wealthy with several estates and trading partnerships as well as just one more first on this vast continent, a stage coach service.
Henry Kable died in 1846 at the age of 82. He was buried alongside his beloved wife who he had outlived by 21 years. Susannah was 61 when she died in 1825. Ten generations later the dynasty they founded appears to be thriving and has been known to meet-up at the appropriately named Kable’s restaurant in Sydney; no doubt to remember their celebrated forebears who famously became known as the ‘First Fleeters’.
The 250th anniversary of the birth of Susannah Kable, (nee Holmes) – the Surlingham lass who is rightly regarded as one of Australia’s founding daughters, was celebrated in 2018. It took place on 10 February 2018 when a ‘Kable Family’ reunion was organised for the descendants of Henry and Susannah, to also celebrate the couple’s 230th Wedding Anniversary. The main venue for those activities was held in the Hawkesbury Race Club, Windsor. It included Registration and Welcome followed by a Church service and Dinner. Then on the following day, 11th February 2018 a Windsor heritage walk and bus tour took place, followed by a Light lunch. A few years previously to all this, Susannah was also voted one of that country’s most influential historic figures. Strange, and how very undeserving, that in the country and county of her birth, she is seldom remembered – except maybe by parish historians!
Back in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church at Surlingham, Norfolk the February sun had risen higher and taken the crispness from the early frost, but everywhere remained white. and the bare trees were leafed with snow. Beneath them the graves continued to say nothing. If it had not been for the theft of linen and silver teaspoons and a house robbery, Henry Kable and Susannah Kable may have eventually been laid to rest in Norfolk, beneath a Broadland sky – instead of in another country far away?
Footnote:On 30 January 1813 the “Norfolk Chronicle” reported:
“A small farmer, who a few years since resided in the neighbourhood of Norwich, has written from Botany Bay to his former landlord, stating that Cabel, who about 25 years since was sent from Norwich Castle, is now become a very great merchant and the owner of twenty-five ships.”
The newspaper then went on to present a resume’ of past circumstances surrounding the couple, and which confirms some of the essential substances of this story:
“In the year 1786 Cabel and a female prisoner were in Norwich Castle under sentence of transportation. During the two years that elapsed between the trial and the departure of the first batch of convicts, the woman gave birth to a child. Cabel, the father, was passionately fond of the infant, and appealed to the authorities to allow him to marry the mother. This was refused. The female and her infant were sent with the first contingent of convicts, and after a wearisome journey by coach in the depth of winter arrived at Plymouth in charge of Simpson, the turnkey of the prison. When Simpson handed over his prisoners to the captain of the transport that officer refused to take the child on board, alleging that he had no authority to do so. The mother was distracted by the separation. Simpson acted with great humanity. Taking with him the six weeks old child he proceeded to London by coach, and with much difficulty obtained an interview with the Secretary of State, to whom he related the story. The result was that not only was an order issued for the restoration of the child to its mother, but Cabel was permitted to sail by the same transport to the land of their exile.”
(Taken from the Norfolk Annals, A Chronological Record of Remarkable Events in the Nineteeth Century, Vol. 1 , Charles Mackie 1901)
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‘Saxon’ – ‘King’ – ‘Martyr’ – ‘Patron saint of East Anglia’ – ‘First patron saint of England’. All of these epithets can be applied to Edmund (or Eadmund), but for someone whose holy memory and cult of worship grew to enormous proportions in the early Middle Ages, very little is known of him. All that we know for sure is that he came to the throne of East Anglia some time before 865 AD, fought against the invading Danes, was killed by them in the winter of 869, and within 20 years, was being hailed as a saint. But it didn’t take long for miracles, stories and legends to gather about his memory, and many of these have made their mark on the landscape of East Anglia, from Hunstanton in the north-west of Norfolk, to Hollesley on Suffolk’s south-east coast. A conglomeration of all the basic myths about Edmund, many of which are still told today, would probably run something like this:
Once, East Anglia was ruled by a good and wise king named Offa. But the Christian Offa was childless, and resolved to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there to offer prayers in the hope of being blessed with a son and heir. On his journey across Europe, he stayed for a while with his kinsman Alcmund, a prince of Old Saxony, and was much impressed by the nobility and piety of Alcmund’s 12-year-old son, Edmund. On the return trip almost a year later Offa fell ill, and seeing that he was about to die, commanded his council to recognise Edmund as his true successor. This they did, and with his father’s consent, called upon Edmund to take up the throne. The young lad and the late king’s nobles set sail for the eastern shores of East Anglia, but the strong winds of a storm blew them off course, sweeping them around the coast and finally beaching them on the sands at ‘Maidenbury’, now known as Hunstanton.
After a year spent in secluded contemplation and religious devotion, Edmund – by then still only 14 years old – was crowned by Bishop Humbert on Christmas Day, at a place now called Bures St. Mary in Suffolk, some say after having been elected king by consent of the populace. For a decade, Edmund grew in virtue and stature among his adopted people, being widely loved for his wisdom, strength and Christian kindliness. Then a prince of the Danes named Lothbroc or Lodbrog, out sailing alone off the coast of Denmark, was swept across the North Sea by a storm. His small craft was blown along the river Yare till it reached Reedham, where Edmund had his royal seat at that time. Although Lothbroc was well received into the court, Edmund’s chief huntsman, Bern, became jealous of the favour and honour the Dane was enjoying, and murdered him one day in some woods, when they were out hunting alone. The crime being later discovered, Bern was punished by being set adrift in Lothbroc’s own boat, which by chance was eventually washed up in the Dane’s own kingdom. Bern blamed the murder on Edmund, at which Lothbroc’s sons, Hinguar and Hubba, vowed to take their vengeance on the king.
The heathen and barbaric Danes landed with their armies first in the north, and while Hubba wrought destruction across Northumbria, Hinguar came to East Anglia, secretly entering a city, slaughtering all its people, and burning it to the ground. Other battles and sieges followed, including one where Edmund escaped his enemies by using a ford known only to him. Then Hubba came with another army to join his brother Hinguar, and they met the king in battle somewhere near Thetford, the Danes winning the day. Edmund fled 20 miles east to his royal town of ‘Haegelisdun’, now known as Hoxne in Suffolk, with his foes following. Some say that Edmund threw down his weapons, vowing to stay true to his people and his faith, and he was seized in his own hall. Many say that he hid beneath a bridge, but was betrayed by a newly-married couple who saw the golden glint of his spurs reflected by moonlight in the water, and gave him up to the Danes. They called on him to yield up his treasures and his kingdom, to reject Christ, and to bow down before them, but Edmund refused to submit, saying that he alone must die for his people and his God. Dragging him out to a field, they beat him and scourged him with whips, then tied him to a tree and fired dozens of arrows into him.
Even then the young king defied them, calling upon God for help, so they struck off his head and threw it into deep brambles in a nearby wood, leaving his body where it had fallen. After the heathens had departed, to begin their terrible rule of the land, Edmund’s folk came out of hiding, and found the mutilated corpse of their lord still bound to the tree – but where was the saintly head? Although they searched by day and night for weeks, nothing could be found until a voice came out of the wood, calling “Here, here, here!” Following the voice, they found that it was coming from the lips of the severed head itself, which was being cradled between the paws of a huge grey wolf. The people gently retrieved the head and took it back to the town, the wolf walking tamely behind until it was sure that all was safe, then disappearing back into the forest. Behind them, a miraculous freshwater spring broke through the soil where the beloved head had lain. With huge sorrow and reverence the head was placed back upon its shoulders, the body of the king buried in a grave, and a simple wooden chapel hastily erected over the spot.
Over the years miraculous healings occurred at the little chapel, including a pillar of light emerging from the grave that restored sight to a blind man. As peace returned to the land pilgrims began to make their way there, and Edmund’s fame and saintliness spread. In time, the martyred king’s body was transferred to a new and grander church built for it some miles away at ‘Beodricesworth’, the town that would later become Bury St. Edmunds. But when the grave was opened, not only was Edmund’s body found to be incorrupt, but all the wounds on his body had healed, and all that was left to show where his head had been severed was a thin red crease on the neck.
More miracles followed over the centuries at the new shrine, and as his fame spread, so did princes, kings and a host of other pilgrims come to the abbey that was built around him, to give him honour and pray for his blessing. Although his exact place of burial is now unknown, it’s said that Edmund’s body still lies somewhere under the abbey ruins, even now whole and incorrupt, and a treasure buried with him.
The next section looks at how this mythology came into being, through the writings of Saxon and medieval scribes.
Part 2 – The Chronology of Legend:
865 AD: We know from contemporary coinage that by this time, Edmund is ruler of East Anglia, having followed a king named Æthelweard. This means that he is the one responsible for placating the ‘Great Heathen Army’ of the Danes with a gift of horses when they arrive late in this year, as told in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’:
“…and the same year came a large heathen army into England, and fixed their winter-quarters in East Anglia, where they were soon horsed, and the inhabitants made peace with them”.
But four years later the Danes are back, and after a triumphant slaughter in Northumbria, and an unsatisfactory peace at Nottingham, this time either they or Edmund decide that things aren’t going to go the same way again:
869 AD: “In this year the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and there fixed their winter-quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought with them; but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king, and conquered all that land”.
That entry in the ‘Chronicle’ was written just before 890, which is at about the same time that commemorative coins begin to be issued, and for another 20 years, inscribed ‘Sc Eadmund rex’, showing that Edmund is already being recognised as a saint, well within the lifetimes of those who have known him.
893 AD: Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ is believed by most scholars to have been written in about this year, again within living memory of Edmund. According to the Welsh monk, “Edmund the most glorious king of the East-Angles” begins his reign on Christmas Day in 854, when he is only 14 years old. But it isn’t until exactly one year later that Edmund is consecrated as king by Bishop Humbert, “in the royal town called Burva, in which at that time was the royal seat”. Asser relies heavily on the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ for many of his facts, and so follows the line that Edmund dies in battle. Although the death of a Christian king in combat with ‘the heathens’ was in itself enough to claim sainthood, it’s another 90 years before the notion of a solitary martyrdom for Edmund is written down.
985-7 AD: Between these dates the monk Abbo of Fleury writes his ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’, which is where the meat of the mythology begins. Abbo dedicates the work to Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, from whom he heard the story himself when Dunstan was an old man. The archbishop had heard it in his youth from a very old man who had claimed to be Edmund’s own armour-bearer at the time of his death, and thus an eye-witness to the events. Here, about 116 years had passed, and it is possible for two memories to cover such a period; most scholars seem to have accepted that this tale as truthful – if embroidered in the telling and retelling! In the ‘Passio’, Edmund is said to be of ‘ancient Saxon’ stock, which others later take to mean that he comes from Old Saxony in Germany – but Abbo would surely have highlighted the fact if a foreigner was taking the East Anglian throne’.
For the first time names are given to the main Danish protagonists: Inguar and Hubba (known from other sources as Ivar and Ubbi). After they conquer Northumbria, Hubba stays behind while Inguar takes a fleet east round the coast, then lands “by stealth” at a city in East Anglia and burns it to the ground, killing all its inhabitants. Slaughtering other men round about to deplete Edmund’s forces, Inguar then tortures a few to reveal the king’s whereabouts:
“Eadmund, it happened, was at that time staying at some distance from the city, in a township which in the native language is called Hægelisdun, from which also the neighbouring forest is called by the same name”.
Now we are told about the famous tale of how Edmund rejects Inguar’s terms, is seized in his hall, beaten, lashed to a tree, shot full of arrows, and beheaded even as he cries out to Christ.
“And so, on the 20th November, as an offering to God of sweetest saviour, Eadmund, after he had been tried in the fire of suffering, rose with the palm of victory and the crown of righteousness, to enter as king and martyr the assembly of the court of heaven”.
The story of the wolf and the speaking head follows, the bringing together of the head and the body, and the building nearby of a rough chapel over the grave. Abbo adds that the body is found to be whole and incorrupt many years later, when it is translated to “a church of immense size” newly constructed for it at ‘Bedrices-gueord’ (Bury St. Edmunds), where many miracles are attributed to the saintliness of the young martyr – who, according to the chronology, is 28 when he dies.
Although the basic story of the martyrdom is usually felt to be truthful, there are contradictions between Abbo’s account and the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ (such as the omission of any battle), which some later scribes have used as an opportunity to create further snippets of the mythology. The late Professor Dorothy Whitelock felt that Abbo may have melded the events of 865 and 869 into one narrative, so the burning of a city may well belong to the earlier incursion by the Danes. And the absence of a specific final battle may simply have been because Edmund’s armour-bearer was only asked about the martyrdom itself.
Late 11th century: Soon after 1095, Hermann of Bury’s ‘Liber de Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi’ says that Edmund is first buried at a place called ‘Suthtuna’ (Sutton), close to the site of his death. He also relates that Edmund’s body is moved to Bury during the reign of Æthelstan (924-39), while later scholarship has pinned it down to around 903-905.
1101: The foundation charter of Norwich Priory grants to that establishment the church at Hoxne, along with a chapel of St. Edmund in the same place, “ubi idem martyr interfectus est”: “where the same martyr was killed”. Thus the identification ‘Hægelisdun’ = Hoxne comes about for the first time. Although some historians believe the claim to be invented, to give the Priory greater status through association, it does at least show that the Hoxne tradition has been around for over 900 years.
Early 12th century: The ‘Annals of St. Neots’ are written, probably at Bury, and introduce the idea that Hinguar and Hubba are the sons of a Dane called Lodebroch.
c.1133: From the ‘Íslendingabók’ by Ari the Wise: “Ívarr, Ragnarsson Loðbrókar, lét drepa Eadmund inn Helga Englakonung” – “Ivarr, son of Ragnar Loðbrók, ordered to be killed Edmund the saint, King of the Angles”.
1135-40: Geoffrey of Gaimar is one of those ‘later scribes’ mentioned above who uses the gaps and inconsistencies in Abbo’s work to add to the Edmund legends. In his ‘L’Estoire des Engleis’, he recounts a battle lost by Edmund (not recorded by Abbo), after which the king flees to a castle and is besieged. As he emerges secretly, he is recognised and held until Ywar (Hinguar) and Ube (Hubba) arrive, and is then martyred.
1148-56: The ‘De Infantia Sancti Eadmundi’ of Geoffrey of Wells says that it is King Offa of East Anglia who chooses Edmund to succeed him, that he comes from Old Saxony, and lands at ‘Maydenebure’ (Hunstanton) where 12 springs burst from the ground as he kneels to pray. The major problem here is that there has never been a ‘King Offa of East Anglia!’ Geoffrey tells how Edmund founded a royal dwelling at Hunstanton, then spends a year in seclusion at Attleborough in Norfolk, learning the Psalter by heart. The ‘De Infantia’ now brings in the powerful Dane Lodebrok who, hearing of the fame of Edmund, taunts his three pirate sons to achieve as much. These sons are named as Hinguar, Ubba and Wern (a mistake for Bern, or Beorn), who then invade East Anglia and kill Edmund, the tale following Abbo’s version.
c.1180: The metrical biography ‘La Vie Seint Edmund le Rei’ by Denis Piramus states that Edmund was elected king at Caistor St. Edmund in Norfolk (the year before his coronation), and gives the name of Orford in Suffolk as the town that was destroyed by Hinguar.
Early 13th century: The chronicle of Roger of Wendover helps to shape the mythology further by introducing the story of Lothbroc coming to Reedham in Norfolk, being killed by Bern (here Edmund’s huntsman, not one of Lothbroc’s three sons), then Hinguar and Hubba killing Edmund in vengeance. The king meets the Danes in battle “not far from the town of Thetford”, and after they have fought to a bloody standstill, he takes the remainder of his forces “to the royal vill of Hæilesdune”. This place, he says, “is now called Hoxen by the natives”. Although he then gives Abbo’s account of the martyrdom, Roger says it was Bern who caused the king’s head to be thrown into the wood.
c.1220: A St. Albans text incorporated into a chronicle usually attributed to John of Wallingford is the first to give Edmund’s father a name – Alcmund – but this is a complete mix-up with the father of King Egbert of Wessex. Nevertheless, the name sticks.
c.1370-80: A collection of material on St. Edmund is included in a manual for the instruction of novice monks, in a manuscript (MS 240) currently held in the Bodleian Library, probably compiled by the Bury monk Henry Kirkstede. In it, Edmund is again from Old Saxony, but is said to have been born in Nuremberg (which isn’t in Saxony!) In a variation of Geoffrey of Gaimar’s tale of Edmund taking refuge in one of his castles, here the king is betrayed by an old blind man, a mason who had helped to build the castle. In this, the Danes bribe the mason to show them a weak spot in the defences, allowing them to enter, after which Edmund manages to escape.
In this manuscript it is also noted that, to escape the Danes, Edmund crosses a river at a hidden ford called ‘Dernford’, and is thus able to rejoin his main army and fall upon and rout his enemies. Although this is no more than a fragment, mixed in with many other later apocryphal tales about the saint, at least one researcher thinks it may represent a much older tradition, set at a real (though unknown) location. It may be either the origin of, or a variation upon, a similar escape at ‘Bernford’, the earliest written record of which I have found (so far) dates from 1790. Now, the basic mythology is in place. The next section is another chronology, this time looking at the few historical facts we actually know, both of Edmund’s life, and what happened to his body after death.
Part 3 – History As We Know It:
841 AD: Edmund is born. The Danes make their first raid into East Anglia. Æthelweard is king at this time. 854 AD: Edmund succeeds to the throne of East Anglia on Christmas Day. 855 AD: Edmund is consecrated as king, again on Christmas Day, at ‘Burva’. 865 AD: A ‘Great Heathen Army’ of the Danes arrives in England by ship, sets up its winter camp somewhere in East Anglia, and is bought off with a gift of horses. It’s quite possible that various battles occur before peace is brokered. 866-868 AD: The Danes leave for Northumbria, capture York, campaign in Mercia, force Nottingham to sue for peace, then go back to York for the winter. 869AD: The Danes ride back across Mercia to East Anglia, where they winter at Thetford. King Edmund fights with them, perhaps more than once at unknown locations, dies at ‘Hægelisdun’ on November 20th, and is buried there or nearby. The Danes take over East Anglia. c.903-5 AD: Edmund’s body is translated to a church at ‘Beodricesworth’ (Bury St. Edmunds). c.956 AD: Bishop Theodred of London inspects Edmund’s body and confirms it is still incorrupt. 1010: A Danish force lands at Ipswich. For safety, Edmund’s body is taken to London and kept there for three years. 1013: On its journey back from London, the body travels through Stapleford, where the local lord is allegedly cured by a miracle. 1014: King Sweyn Forkbeard threatens to sack Bury unless a ransom is paid, but dies suddenly, supposedly struck down by a vision of St. Edmund. 1020: King Cnut orders a new stone church to be built at Bury, to be staffed by monks, which begins Bury’s rise to power as one of England’s most important abbeys. 1060: Abbot Leofstan of Bury pulls at Edmund’s head to see if it really is still attached to the body, but suffers a stroke and loses the use of his hands. 1095: Edmund’s body is translated into the new church, and is confirmed as still being incorrupt. 1101: The church and chapel at Hoxne are granted to Norwich Priory, as being the place where Edmund was killed i.e. ‘Hægelisdun’. 1198: Edmund’s body is moved into a new and grander shrine at Bury. A golden angel is described as being upon the coffin, and Abbot Samson touches the incorrupt body. 1217: After the French are called in to help fight against King John, and instead try to take the country, they claim to have taken Edmund’s body and other relics to Toulouse. 1465: The abbey church and shrine at Bury are badly damaged by fire. 1538: At the Dissolution of the monasteries, the King’s Commissioners take from the abbey large amounts of gold, silver and valuables, but find the shrine “very cumbrous to deface”. There is no mention of the saint’s body or relics. 1901: Relics from Toulouse are returned to England and lodged at Arundel, where they still lie. Scholars reject them as the genuine remains of Edmund.
The next section looks at Edmund’s presence in the legendary landscape of East Anglia.
Part 4 – The Landscape of St. Edmund:
As Edmund almost certainly did not come from Old Saxony, and he is very unlikely to have arrived by ship in 854 at Hunstanton. Some have said that the legend may have come about because of the existence of an old chapel dedicated to the saint there. But the chapel (TF675419), which now consists of no more than a short section of wall complete with archway, is said to have been built in 1272, while the first record of the legend originates with Geoffrey of Wells more than 100 years earlier. The actual site of his landing, ‘Maydenebure’ or ‘Maidenbury’, is unknown, but is usually believed to have been either at what is now St. Edmund’s Point, very near to the chapel, or less likely, Gore Point, a little further round the coast at Holme-next-the-Sea.
Although the healing springs that burst from the ground where the king-to-be knelt to pray are supposed to have been twelve in number, not all records agree. As White’s ‘History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk’ says in 1845: “A well in the parish also bears the name of the name of the Royal martyr; but is sometimes called the Seven Springs”. Where these springs (or well) used to be is uncertain. But the sweetness of their water was supposed to have given rise to the town’s name: the ‘Honey-Stone Town’. ‘Honeystone’, however, is the local name for the native rich brown carstone that makes up much of the area’s remarkable ‘striped’ cliffs. The real origin of the name of the town is far more prosaic: the ‘tún’ or village of a Saxon called Húnstán. Local legend will have none of it though. It says that Edmund not only built a royal dwelling there, but he founded the town itself. The town sign proudly shows the crowned king standing tall, and behind him the wolf that guarded his sacred head after death (though some reckon it’s not a wolf at all, but Black Shuck himself, East Anglia’s own phantom hound!)
Although Geoffrey of Wells reported that, after landing here, Edmund spent a year in contemplation at Attleborough, about 40 miles away, other tales say that it was at Hunstanton itself that he spent a year in a tower (or, in a minor local variation, in the chapel, which some believed Edmund himself built). Still others, probably misreading the place-name, claim the honour for Aldeburgh in Suffolk.
Attleborough crops up again as the place where Edmund was supposedly acclaimed or elected king after his arrival, a mythical event that only occurs in the medieval tales. With little historical accuracy, White’s ‘Directory’ for 1854 tells us that, in Saxon times, the town was “the seat of Offa and Edmund”, successively Kings of the East Angles, who fortified it against the predatory incursions of the Danes. These fortifications may still be traced in the ridge called Burn Bank“. In fact this embanked earthwork, which may indeed be Saxon in date (though probably very early), is named Bunn’s Bank, and fragments of it run for about two miles around the edges of Attleborough, Old Buckenham and Besthorpe parishes. Local people, who are proud of the alleged association with Edmund and have named several areas of Attleborough after him, are convinced that the king had the bank built as a defence against the invading Danes.
Another place claimed for the site of Edmund’s mythical election as king is Caistor St. Edmund, just south of Norwich. Specifically, the Roman town of Venta Icenorum, which was built just after the failed Boudiccan revolt in 70 AD, as a way of controlling the local Iceni population. Some like to say that this was another of Edmund’s royal seats (a ‘palace’ according to Edmund Gillingwater) – but while the Saxons would have been attracted by the 20 foot high flint and brick-faced wall that was built around the settlement at the end of the 2nd century, the stone would have been robbed out soon after the Romans left, and there’s little sign of habitation after 500 AD. The suffix of the village (and thus the dedication of the church) can be explained by the fact that both manor and church were granted to Bury St. Edmunds abbey by Edward the Confessor.
Quite why Reedham on the river Yare, at the southern end of the Norfolk Broads, was chosen by Roger of Wendover in the early 13th century to be another of Edmund’s royal seats, I cannot imagine. This is the place where Ragnar Lothbroc supposedly made land after being blown across the North Sea, and where he was murdered by Edmund’s huntsman, Bern. The antiquaries of the 19th century used to think that Reedham was once a ‘Roman station’, and that on this tongue of land above the river there used to stand a ‘pharos’ or Roman lighthouse – but it was all wishful thinking, not born out by the archaeology.
As well as Hunstanton, Bures, Attleborough, Caistor and Reedham supposedly being royal ‘vills’, some tales tell that Edmund’s main seat was at Rendlesham, not far from Woodbridge in Suffolk. Certainly there was once a royal house here, that belonged to the early Saxon kings of East Anglia known as the Wuffingas. The dynasty reached the height of its power in the time of Rædwald, who died in about 625 AD, and who may well be the king commemorated in the famous ship burial among the mounds of the royal cemetery at nearby Sutton Hoo. But the Wuffingas died out with King Ælfwald in about 749, and there’s no evidence that Rendlesham was occupied by royalty then, let alone 100 years later in Edmund’s day.
The Coronation Chapel: As far back as 893 AD we’re told by Asser that Edmund was consecrated as king at ‘Burva’, the royal seat at that time (which incidentally contradicts the assertion above that Attleborough was the fictional Offa’s seat). No one actually knows for sure where this place was, but by long tradition – possibly dating back to the 12th century – ‘Burva’ has been identified with the village of Bures St. Mary, on the river Stour south of Sudbury in Suffolk, which appears in Domesday Book as ‘Bura’. An old hilltop chapel above the village is locally believed to be the site of Edmund’s coronation, while there is a ‘St. Edmund’s Hill’ a mile or so to the north.
Defences: Both history and legend are silent on the activities of Edmund after his coronation. But with the arrival of the Danes in East Anglia, his name starts being attached to more localities throughout the region.
Running across Newmarket Heath, and in part forming the boundary between Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, is the Devil’s Dyke. Possibly of Romano-British or early Saxon date, this huge bank and ditch can be traced for 7½ miles from Wood Ditton to Reach. Although some tales say it was built by giants, the main legend says that one day the Devil arrived, uninvited of course, at a wedding being held in the church at Reach. As the unwelcome guest was being chased away, his fiery tail dug an enormous groove in the earth, and the dyke was formed. But this is a late piece of local folklore. In Norman times it was known as ‘Reach Dyke’, then in the Middle Ages, the ‘Great Ditch’ (Miceldic), or ‘St. Edmund’sDyke’. Although it gained the latter name because it marked the limit of jurisdiction of the abbots of Bury St. Edmunds, many believed that Edmund himself ordered the earthwork to be built as a defence against the Danes, and gave it the name ‘Holy Edmund’s Fortifications’.
Castles & Battles: There was a time in antiquarian studies when just about every ditch, earthwork and ancient burial mound in Norfolk and Suffolk, irrespective of its actual date, was supposed to mark the place where Saxon fought Dane. Plenty of them are recorded on this site, such as Drayton, Lyng, Warham, Glemsford and Nacton. Even the 15th century monk John Lydgate, biographer of Edmund, said of his own Suffolk origins that he was:
“Born in a village which is called Lydgate
By olde time a famous castel towne
In Danes time it was beate downe
Time when S. Edmund martir made and King
Was slain at Oxne, record of writing”.
Orford on the Suffolk coast is claimed by Denis Piramus in about 1180 to be the town destroyed by Hinguar, arriving to avenge his father Ragnar’s death. Indeed, one local legend has the Danes making a landing at Orford, fighting with Edmund, then pursuing the king to Staverton Park near Butley, where a savage battle ensued. But some later tales have claimed that it was actually Norwich, now Norfolk’s capital city, that was burned to the ground. (This may be a confusion with the historical burning of Norwich by King Sweyn Forkbeard in 1004).
An early medieval story tells how Edmund, fleeing from the Danes after a battle, sought refuge in one of his castles, and was there besieged, only to be betrayed by an old blind mason. Local traditions have identified this castle with both Old Buckenham (near Attleborough in Norfolk) and Framlingham in east Suffolk, from which Edmund then escapes and flees to Hoxne, where he is caught and slain. The Normans erected a castle at Buckenham, from which the stone was taken in the 12th century to build a priory. Only a fragment remains of this near the manor house. But the castle was raised within an existing rectangular earthwork that looks more Roman than anything, but could well be early Saxon in date. At Framlingham on the other hand, much remains of the magnificent keepless but curtain-walled castle built by Roger Bigod in about 1200. This was on the site of an earlier Bigod castle that Henry II had demolished in 1174 – but local tradition (with little authority) says that there was a fortification on the site as far back as the late 6th century, supposedly built by King Rædwald himself.
On the southern edge of Thetford can be found the remains of the 12th century Benedictine Nunnery of St. George. Before that, legend says it was a priory of canons, founded in the reign of King Cnut (1014-35) in memory of those who fell nearby in a great battle between Edmund and the Danes. This may or may not be the same battle – the king’s last – as that recorded for Rushford, where the Seven Hills mounds mark the graves of the slain on Snarehill, just outside Thetford.
Also of interest here is a passage that I found in Allan Jobson’s 1971 book ‘Suffolk Villages’. Speaking of Columbine Hall at Stowupland, the moated enclosure of which was popularly “thought to date from Danish times”, he tells of an ‘old illustration’ found there, showing “the head of St. Edmund, set on a rayed background”. Upon this illustration was an inscription, which read: “Head of St. Edmund. Formerly in the Abbey, Bury St. Edmunds. Beheaded by the Danish invaders Juga and Hubla at Eyberdun, now Hoxne in 870 A.D. at a great battle below Columbyne Hall in the valley of the Gipping”. I don’t know the age or provenance of this illustration, nor whether it still exists – but it’s certainly very odd. The implication seems to be that ‘Eyberdun’ is some weird transliteration of ‘Hægelisdun’, though how it reached that stage, I can’t imagine. When the inscription says that Edmund was beheaded at Hoxne, “at a great battle…”, I’m pretty sure that’s an error for “after a great battle…” otherwise it makes no sense. Hoxne is nowhere near the Gipping valley.
A legendary battle at Lyng in Norfolk is supposed to have been fought between Edmund and the Danes, with Edmund retreating to Castle Acre. At this spot is the ‘Great Stone’ which bleeds when pricked; the blood is that from the battle.
A battle that Edmund is supposed to have won is said to have occurred somewhere between Barnby and Carlton Colville, a little west of Lowestoft in Suffolk, and a long way outside the areas normally associated with the king. Gillingwater (below) says that it was the battle at ‘Bloodmere-field’, now Bloodmoor Hill at nearby Gisleham, but this is nowadays said to have been between the Angles and the Romano-British, several centuries earlier. There is actually no evidence that a battle took place there in any era.
The Hidden Ford: At Barnby there is also the Suffolk legend that Edmund escaped his foes, then defeated them at ‘Bloodmere-field’ by using a secret ford unknown to them. The earliest reference to this tradition that I can find comes from Edmund Gillingwater’s 1790 book, ‘An Historical Account of the Ancient Town of Lowestoft’. Here he localises the spot to “a ford (which was called Berneford, from Berno), and now called Barnby…” The idea was that the ford was named after Edmund’s huntsman, Bern, who had betrayed him and caused the Danes to invade (and who was probably invented as a result of a misidentification with Lothbroc’s son Bern/Beorn). Incidentally, Lothingland, the district in which Lowestoft stands, was once thought to have been named after Lothbroc himself. This tiny village of Barnby on the river Waveney actually derives its name from ‘Biarni’s homestead’, and is one of the few major Scandinavian place-names in Suffolk. It definitely doesn’t owe its origin to any mythical or historical ‘Bern’ or ‘Beorn’.
However, in Part 2 (above) I mentioned that a minor 14th century tale had Edmund surprising and defeating his enemies by using a ford called ‘Dernford‘. ‘Dern’ is an Old English word meaning ‘hidden’, so the implication is that this site is a ‘hidden ford’, either known to few people, or hidden topographically. It’s tempting to suggest two possibilities here: (1) that someone who didn’t know the word’s meaning, or who misheard it, may instead have given rise to the Barnby legend as a way of explaining the otherwise mysterious name of ‘Dernford’; or (2) that the ‘Bernford’ name came first, with its direct link to the Lothbroc legend. The fact that it was ‘hidden’ may have caused someone to record it as a ‘derne ford’, and interpret it as an actual place-name. My own guess is that the first possibility is the more likely of the two. Exactly which battle was won here may well never be known. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ only says that Edmund fought the Danes – which could refer to a single decisive conflict, or to a series of encounters, including the period when the Danes first wintered in East Anglia in 865, before peace was bought with a gift of horses.
Some years ago, an archaeologist speculated that Dernford, a Saxon manor and mill in the parish of Sawston just outside Cambridge, was the very spot where Edmund fought this battle. But in fact, there were at least four more ‘Dernford’s in East Anglia (actually all in Suffolk), and far closer to the accepted orbit of Edmund than Cambridge. One was in the parish of Foxhall, about 4½ miles from Sutton Hoo, where Domesday Book says was once a manor called ‘Derneford’ (later Darnford), presumably at a crossing of the Mill River. Another is 10 miles to the north-east of Sutton Hoo, where Dernford Hall sits beside the river Alde, in the little village of Sweffling. The third is about 5½ miles south-east of Stowmarket in Suffolk, where ‘Derneford’ recorded in Domesday Book later became Darnford, possibly referring to a ‘hidden’ crossing of the river Gipping. The fourth I’m grateful to Keith Briggs for bringing to my attention, located in the parish of Cookley, south-west of Halesworth.
The Place of Death: Speculation on the actual site of Edmund’s final battle, his martyrdom and first resting place will be held until the last chapter of this investigation. Tradition, however, has several suggestions.
Hoxne, of course, is the favourite, its claim to being ‘Hægelisdun’ dating back to at least 1101. With its chapel, healing spring, bridge and memorial of the tree on which Edmund died, this little village has become a focus for traditions of East Anglia’s own saint and martyr. With ‘Hægelisdun’ becoming ‘Hailesdune’ in later texts, someone created the notion that Edmund was slain at ‘The Hail’ at Southwold. This unlikely location is supposed to be a small hill on the seabed that once displayed the remains of a chapel to the saint. As with much of the coast hereabouts, the shoreline was once considerably further out than now.
Old Newton north of Stowmarket – specifically, a field called ‘The Pits’ – is another candidate in folklore for the site of Edmund’s martyrdom, cropping up again in Part 5 in conjunction with other local legends. More recently I’ve learned that Wissett near Halesworth also has a local tale of Edmund being captured and slain at a spot known as King’s Danger. Along with the lore that Edmund’s reign centered around Rendlesham goes a localised belief that – contrary to all historical and archaeological evidence – the king lies buried under one of the unexcavated mounds at Sutton Hoo.
The Burial Gate: If Edmund was really martyred at Hoxne, and if his body was really translated from there to ‘Beodricesworth’ in about 903 AD, then the procession would have travelled along the approximate route of what is now the A143 to Bury. Of all the villages the cortege would have passed through or close to, a memory of the event only seems to have been retained in one place. The name of the parish, Burgate (south-west of Diss), is derived in popular imagination from the ‘burial gate’, a spot where the body of the saint lay for one night on its journey to the new shrine at Bury St. Edmunds. But this is just a piece of poor etymology of course, as the name really means ‘the gate of a burg, or fortified place’, probably referring to the nearby Iron Age earthworks.
Shrine of the Saint: And so we come to Edmund’s (probable) final resting place – ‘Beodricesworth’, where King Sigeberht established a small monastery in about 633 AD, which had become ‘Sancte Eadmundes Byrig’ 400 years later, and is now Suffolk’s second town, Bury St. Edmunds. Exactly what became of the saint’s shrine after the Dissolution, we don’t know; and the remains of the abbey nowadays are not very extensive, and quite frankly rather dull. But in its day it was a powerful focus of pilgrimage, and the abbey second only to Glastonbury in wealth and influence.
The treasure still waiting to be found with his mortal remains has already been noted, as have some of the miracles associated with the king. But in the Middle Ages, even the invocation of his name was sometimes enough to produce miraculous results. An 8 year old boy from Cockfield apparently cut himself very badly with a knife, but when a prayer to Edmund was offered, the bleeding stopped instantly. A young labourer broke his neck in a fall, but recovered with the saint’s help. And when a boy drowned in a moat at Great Whelnetham, he came back to life when Edmund’s name was invoked.
In common with many other saints, not only Edmund’s body was preserved at his shrine. The parings of his nails and locks of his hair, plus his shirt, banner and sword were kept there. Although they were probably destroyed at the Dissolution (or perhaps in the fire of 1465), some like to say that, along with the king’s body, they still exist somewhere. And there is supposedly an ‘ancient prophecy’ that, before the end of the world, all the relics of St. Edmund will be returned to Bury.
Part 5 – The Last Mystery: Where Did Edmund Die?
According to History as we know it, the only fact we have concerning the death of King Edmund is that in 869, the Danes were wintering at Thetford, Edmund fought them, and was slain. So says the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ in about 890. End of story! However, 95 years later Abbo of Fleury tells us that Edmund was martyred at a township called ‘Hægelisdun’, with a nearby forest or wood of the same name, which was “at some distance” from the unidentified city that Inguar had burned. Although told at third-hand, this information supposedly comes from an eye-witness, and is generally accepted by scholars. But, where was ‘Hægelisdun’?
Hægelisdun – The Candidates:
Hoxne: For centuries Hoxne (pronounced ‘Hoxon’) was the only contender, and the inhabitants still think it so. The identification with the site of Edmund’s martyrdom in the Norwich Priory charter of 1101 may have been for ecclesiastical or political purposes, or it may have been confirming an existing local tradition. We may never know. But it’s telling that, although a chapel of St. Ethelbert is noted at Hoxne in Bishop Theodred’s will of 950, there’s no mention at all of Edmund.
Certainly, by that date, only 80 years after Edmund’s death, Hoxne was considered the ‘see’ or bishopric for Suffolk, and Theodred had his episcopal seat there. Research has uncovered the fact that there were once actually two medieval chapels dedicated to Edmund at Hoxne. One, at Cross Street, was to commemorate the place of his death, while the other was in a wood less than a mile away, in an area then known as ‘Sowood’ or ‘Sutwode’. Bungalow Farm now stands on the approximate site. In about 1100 that existing chapel of St. Ethelbert was rededicated to Edmund, and in about 1226 a small priory in his honour was established next to the chapel. But while these may be interesting facts, and may point to a tradition of religious importance attaching to the village, they are a long way from proving Hoxne to have been ‘Hægelisdun’.
The local tales of the healing spring and the Goldbrook Bridge are medieval or later additions to the mythos. The association of a particular tree at Hoxne with the tale of St. Edmund may be even more recent. When the oak fell in 1848, and people started claiming it to be the very tree to which the king was bound, a local man made it plain to the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ that he’d known the area for over 50 years, and no tree in Hoxne had ever been popularly connected with St. Edmund’s legend. Indeed, he said at the time that this particular tree was in fact known as Belmore’s Oak.
Despite this, the association was confirmed in many minds when John Smythies, a correspondent of the ‘Bury Post’, visited the fallen tree, and discovered embedded in its wood “a piece of curved iron, possibly an arrowhead”. A later writer said that it was actually a flint arrowhead (not very Danish!), while others claimed there were several. In truth there was only one, which for many years after could be seen displayed in the museum at Bury St. Edmunds. However, x-ray examination in more recent times has shown this rusty lump to be either a piece of fence wire, or a bent nail.
What about Abbo’s mention of “the neighbouring forest [which] is called by the same name [as ‘Hægelisdun’]”? Woodland in medieval Suffolk was actually quite sparse, most having been cleared in prehistoric times. But Hoxne Wood, though damaged by replanting, is indeed a remnant of this old forestation. The main objection to Hoxne being ‘Hægelisdun’ is the name. Hoxne had already been recorded as ‘Hoxne’ in the ‘Cartularium Saxonicum’ in 950 – more than 30 years before Abbo even wrote his ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’. But Abbo of course was merely passing on a name that originated with Edmund’s armour-bearer perhaps 60 years earlier. So could ‘Hoxne’ have developed from ‘Hægelisdun’ between 869 and 950?
Although it is unique (and uncertain) in etymological terms, the best estimate for the meaning of ‘Hoxne’ is a derivation from the O.E. ‘hóhsinu’ meaning ‘heel-sinew’, from the resemblance of the land to the hough or hock of a horse (the northern part of the village stands on a spur or ridge above the rivers Dove and Waveney). We can safely ignore the 19th century antiquaries who theorised that ‘Hægelisdun’ meant ‘hill of eagles’. ‘Hægel’ is a Saxon personal name known from other locations such as Hailsham, Hayling and Hazeleigh (see also below under Maldon), and ‘Hægelisdun’ quite clearly means the ‘dún’ or hill of Hægel. Even without the written record, there’s no way that ‘Hoxne’ could be derived from ‘Hægelisdun’.
Actually, it’s surprising that 18th and 19th century antiquaries didn’t latch on to the town of Harleston as a possibility, as it’s only 5 miles from Hoxne, on the Norfolk side of the river Waveney. But the early forms of the name show that it derives from ‘Heroluestuna’ – the homestead of Herewulf. No ‘Hægelisdun’ here.
Hellesdon: Now a north-west suburb of Norwich, Hellesdon (pronounced ‘Hellsdun’) has long been the favourite of place-name experts and historians for the site of ‘Hægelisdun’. It appears in Domesday Book as ‘Hailesduna’, which is exactly the form one would have expected ‘Hægelisdun’ to have evolved into. Even in the mythology, by the time of Roger of Wendover in the early 13th century, the site of the martyrdom was being written as ‘Hæilesdune’. But once again, there are no traditional or cultic associations with St. Edmund. And quite frankly, we don’t know the origin of the name ‘Hellesden’. It could be named after a person or the actual Norfolk village for all we know, or it could be a corruption of something else entirely. Recent research by Dr. Keith Briggs has certainly shown that the identification with ‘Hægelisdun’ is far from a certainty. (See also under Maldon below.)
But the name is the only thing Hellesdon has going for it. There are no chapels, no legends, no traditions of association with Edmund, and no records of old woodland in the area. About a mile away, further up the valley of the river Wensum, is Bloods Dale at Drayton, where Dane is said to have fought Saxon – but no hint of a connection with the king’s last battle or death. Nevertheless, it has been theorised by Joseph Mason in his ‘St. Edmund’s Norfolk’ of 2012 that Edmund was indeed slain at Bloods Dale, then buried in what is now King’s Grove at Lyng.
Bradfield St. Clare: About 5 miles south-east of Bury St. Edmunds is the scattered parish of Bradfield St. Clare. Just south of Pitcher’s Green within the parish has been found, on the 1840 Tithe Map, the medieval field name of ‘Hellesden Ley’, which is the new favourite location of ‘Hægelisdun’. Its position, close to Bury and only about 15 miles from the Danish winter quarters at Thetford, are in its favour, as are several ‘Kingshall’ place-names a couple of miles to the north at Rougham (where Bury owned a ‘Kingshalle’ manor before the Conquest). It has also been suggested that the presence of a building called ‘Bradfield Hall’ within the former Bury Abbey, and that the abbey cellarer paid rent for some small parcels of land in St. Clare, denote a close historical connection. Also, within the parish are several areas of lost or existing medieval woodland, including Bradfield Woods and Monkspark Wood.
Hollesley: Situated near the coast of Suffolk south-east of Woodbridge, Hollesley (pronounced ‘Hoseley’) is nowadays mostly known for being the location of a Young Offenders Institution. The earliest written form of the name is ‘Holeslea’, probably meaning the wood or clearing of someone named Hól or Hóla – and is clearly not a candidate for ‘Hægelisdun’. But because of its position within a few miles of Orford, Rendlesham and Sutton Hoo, that hasn’t stopped the locals from claiming it as the place where Edmund met his end.
Some have tried to strengthen the claim for the area by pointing to Domesday Book where is mentioned a small manor called ‘Halgestou’. At the time of Domesday it was held by the mother of the founder of Eye priory, Robert Malet, and was later variously known as ‘Haleghestowe’ and ‘Holstow’. Although the exact spot is unknown, W. G. Arnott in 1946 believed that it was on the east side of Shottisham, close to Hollesley. Personally, I wonder if it couldn’t be that spot now marked as ‘Holy Stile’, a meeting of roads and tracks roughly halfway between the two villages. It wouldn’t take much for local usage to corrupt ‘Holstow’ into ‘Holy Stile’.
The argument requires that Abbo wrote the name wrongly in the first place, transposing two of the consonants. Thus, instead of ‘Hægelisdun’, he should have written ‘Hæligesdun’, which would then (they say) mean ‘holy place’. But the linguistic twisting doesn’t stop there. One researcher wrote “No place-name expert would argue about Hæligesdun being spelled Halgestou, allowing for the lapse of time and change of circumstance (dun or stou both mean place)”. Well actually they would, and they don’t. One thing there’s no argument about is the existence of ancient woodland in the area, with Staverton Park and the Thicks just to the north, near Butley.
Maldon: More recently, another contender for ‘Hægelisdun’ has been compellingly put forward by Dr. Keith Briggs. He points to the place-name ‘Halesdunam’ which appears in Domesday Book at Hazeleigh, near Maldon in Essex. Disregarding the Latinization gives us the name ‘Halesdun’, appearing after 1272 as ‘Hailisduna’. The location may refer to a hill near Hazeleigh or, it has been suggested, to the hill that named Maldon itself: ‘mæl-dún’ or ‘hill with a monument/cross’. Dr. Briggs posits that the cross may have actually been a monument to the martyrdom of Edmund, but memory of its significance was later lost or suppressed. Edmund may have been here, far from his home territory, to aid an Essex ally in their defence against the Danes.
The name Hazeleigh itself translates as ‘Hægel’s wood’, but otherwise the location and lack of surviving traditions or other connections to Edmund for me mitigate against Maldon being the actual site of ‘Hægelisdun’. Nevertheless etymologically, ‘Halesdunam’ is as valid as Hellesdon, and probably more so than ‘Hellesden Ley’ at Bradfield. (See: ‘Was Hægelisdun in Essex?’ by Keith Briggs, in ‘Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History’, Vol. XLII, part 3, 2011, pp.277-291.) But there’s a second facet to this investigation, introduced by Hermann of Bury just after 1095. While ‘Hægelisdun’ is, according to Abbo, where Edmund died, Hermann (probably a mistake for an archdeacon named Bertrann) tells us that Edmund was first buried “in a little village named ‘Suthtuna’, close to the scene of his martyrdom…”
Suthtuna: The tales in Hermann’s ‘Liber de Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi’ come partly from “an old book” and partly from “the tradition of our elders”. Hermann would certainly have known of Abbo’s ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’, but doesn’t mention ‘Hægelisdun’ at all. The conclusion nevertheless is that the two places were quite close together.
‘Suthtuna’ comes from O.E. ‘Súþ-tún’, meaning southern homestead or village, and has resulted in the very common English place-name ‘Sutton’. But in East Anglia, this has survived in only one village-name in Norfolk, and one in Suffolk. The Norfolk instance is an out-of-the-way little hamlet next to Stalham in the Broads, and can almost certainly be discounted.
The Suffolk one is a different matter, and is the only one that appears in Domesday Book actually written as ‘Suthtuna’. This is the large (and mostly empty) parish of Sutton near Woodbridge, within which stands the Saxon royal cemetery at Sutton Hoo, and which takes us back to the whole Rendlesham/Hollesley/‘Halgestou’
At 34 miles as the crow flies from the Danish winter quarters at Thetford, this seems an unlikely place for Edmund to have been buried. And despite the Saxon connections, the absence of a convincing ‘Hægelisdun’ still leaves this an improbable location for the action of the legend.
The existence of a place called Sutton Hall in Bradfield St. Clare parish has been introduced as further proof that this is the true burial place of Edmund. It can be found about ¾ of a mile south of the field once called ‘Hellesden Ley’, and stands next to a medieval moated enclosure. Here also the cellarer of Bury Abbey paid rent for some land.
At Hoxne, we have the traditions, but no actual ‘Hægelisdun’. Neither do we have a Sutton – but there was something quite close, and which could possibly have evolved from ‘Suthtuna’. According to the Wills of the Archdeaconry of Suffolk, dating from the mid-15th century, there was once a hamlet called ‘Suddon’ within the parish, and still exists as the area now called South Green.
Further away from Hoxne, 7 miles south in the parish of Kenton, is the manor of Suddon Hall, but of this I can find no further information. It’s just under 2 miles from Bloody Field at Debenham, where the name of Edmund has been ‘tacked on’ to a legendary Saxon vs. Dane battlefield.
So far we’ve considered possible locations for Edmund’s martyrdom and burial – but what about the site of his final battle with the Danes? Historically, we have absolutely nothing to go on.
Consider the words of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ for 869 AD:
“In this year the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and there fixed their winter-quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought with them; but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king, and conquered all that land”.
It is unlikely that Edmund would have launched an attack directly at the Danes entrenched behind the Iron Age and Saxon defences at Thetford itself. Some have suggested that the king attacked them before they even reached Thetford, but to my mind that sequence of events cannot be gained from the ‘Chronicle’.
The most enduring local legend is that at Rushford, where the final conflict allegedly took place on the slopes of Snarehill just outside Thetford, to the south-east. It’s possible that Edmund somehow drew the Danish forces out from behind their defenses to this range of low hills – but the tale probably came about because of the existence of many burial mounds spread along the ridge which are, however, bell barrows of the Bronze Age. Whether he fought them once or several times, any of the battles, including the last, could have been many miles from Thetford.
The Mystery Remains:
So, there are several clusters of possibility, but no definitive answer. To summarise:
HOXNE: 900 years of tradition and religious association, plus medieval woodland, but no ‘Hægelisdun’, and only a possible ‘Sutton’. HELLESDON: A fairly convincing ‘Hægelisdun’, but that’s all. BRADFIELD ST. CLARE: A definite ‘Sutton’, a possible ‘Hægelisdun’, a couple of other suggestive place-names and medieval woodland, but no traditional associations. HOLLESLEY area: Here is a positive ‘Sutton’, and the remains of ancient woodland, but a highly dubious ‘Hægelisdun’, an association with Saxon kings that is too early, an unlikely location, and a weak (and probably recent) tradition of Edmund. OLD NEWTON area: An Edmund legend and other relevant traditions, medieval woodland, but no ‘Hægelisdun’ or ‘Sutton’. WISSETT: A very minor Edmund tradition, with no other evidence. MALDON: A convincing ‘Hægelisdun’, an ancient wood of similar name, and a plausible historical reason for Edmund to be here, but no ‘Sutton’, and no surviving traditions.
I suspect that, among historians, Bradfield St. Clare and perhaps Hellesdon will continue to be the favoured locations for the events of St. Edmund’s death and burial. I doubt however that anything will shake the belief of Hoxne residents that their village is the one true site. Maybe someday, someone trawling through medieval manuscripts or charters, wills or maps, will come across another ‘Hægelisdun’, with a ‘Suthtuna’ nearby, and make the connection. But there would still be the question of tradition. Such a series of events would, I think, have left an indelible mark of legend on the landscape. If not Hoxne, Hollesley, or Old Newton, then where? The mystery of Edmund – king, martyr, and saint of East Anglia – remains!
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No one wants to admit it but we are all interested in murder so another chance to revisit this ‘old chestnut’ of a story – the Red Barn Murder. By now, few can plead ignorant of it, one of the most famous murder cases of 19th century England. It took place on Saturday 18th May 1827 in the Suffolk village of Polstead, not far south from my County of Norfolk.
In essence, it was a fairly tawdry tragedy, but it did have a number of features, including supernatural elements that rendered it sensational at the time and even fascinating in this present day. The circumstances not only made a great impact on the Victorians by way of topical news but also on the melodramatic plots that were subsequently injected into stage dramas. Not only that, but the tale was to have ramifications in popular culture, how murders were subsequently reported, and even how elements ‘enriched’ the English language. That being said, what follows is not intended to be a full account of the case or the characters involved; it is simply a summary – and another viewpoint! To start with, let’s just introduce the two principal characters and leave everyone else to reveal themselves as the following narrative unfolds:
William Corder: William Corder was born in 1803, the third son of a yeoman farmer. He lived in Polstead in the County of Suffolk. His father and three brothers all died within the space of 18 months, leaving William and his mother to run the farm.
Corder was about 5ft 4 inches tall, slender, well-muscled, with a fair complexion and freackles. He was very short-sighted yet, apparently, an excellent shot. In the best authenticated likeness he looks rather studious. As a child he spent five years at a respectable boarding school at Hadleigh. Though bright, he was not well liked by others. He was nicknamed “Foxey”, perhaps because he was prone to stealing and lying. In Polstead, he was generally known as ‘Bill’. He did not get on well with his father or brothers, but was quite attached to his mother. Despite being considered kind, humane and good tempered, Corder was said to have been reserved and chirlish. He absorbed gossip and took pleasure in keeping information to himself. His father despaired of him.
One of the curious things about Corder’s life was that he never seemed to have enough money. But, Corder was from an affluent “middle class” home, his father was dead and since his brother’s death he was heir to the farm which was extensive – locally, the Corders were important people. Yet he hinted time and time again about trouble at home with his surviving family, and while it is clear that he doted on his mother, she seemed to have been unwilling to surrender any financial control to him. She was clearly very attached to him and almost certainly took his side in any family squabbles. Certainly Corder, being a flamboyant dresser with expensive tastes, seemed to have been unwilling to seek any money from this obvious source.
Maria Marten: Maria Marten was born on 24th July 1801, the daughter of Polstead mole-catcher Thomas Marten and his wife, Grace. Maria was a quiet and intelligent child. She received an education and, unusually for a country girl at the time, she could read and write well. Following her mother’s death Maria, aged 9 years, took on the role of ‘mother’ very seriously but still managed to continue educating herself. One comentator observed of Maria (Having been blessed with a very retentive memory and her mind deeply embued with a desire to acquire useful knowledge, there is every reason to believe that, if she had received proper tuition, she would have made an accomplished woman” (Curtis, 1828. p41).
At the age of 17 years, Maria became involved with Thomas Corder, William Corder’s second oldest brother. Thomas as a passably good-looking young man and was to vist Maria frequently at her cottage. At Thomas’s wish, their courtship was largely carried out in secret – Maria was not his equal in social status. Thomas fathered Maria’s first child, but his visits became increasingly infrequent as her pregnancy progressed. He did not marry her and provided little financial support; the child died young. Maria, now a ‘fallen woman’, next had an affair with a certain Peter Matthews – referred to as ‘Mr P.’ in the following narrative since he serves no role in the forthcoming tragedy. However, Peter Matthews was a well-respected gentleman with relatives in Polstead. He was aware of Maria’s past but, by him, she had a son, Thomas Henry, the only one of her children to survive, Again, there was no marriage; however, Matthews provided a regular allowance for the upkeep of his child.
Maria next took up with the leading character in this story, William Corder. His father and brothers were dead. He was wealthy. He was young. He would have made a good catch and it would appear that Maria loved him. Despite her mother’s disapproval of the relationship, Maria was to press William to marry her, but whilst frequently promising marriage, Corder always found an excuse to delay a wedding. Nevertheless, by him, she had a third child but it was weak and died within a month. The pair pretended to take it to Sudbury for burial but probably buried it in a field. Six weeks after the birth, Maria disappeared; it appears that her anxiety to marry had sealed her fate. Two months short of her 26th birthday, Maria was dead.
Now, Imagine the scene, it is a Saturday and the date is 18th May 1827. We are told that William Corder, a son of a prosperous Suffolk family, set out to elope with Maria Marten, a village beauty of humble origin. The two. apparently, walked separately through the night to a barn, later to become the infamous ‘Red Barn’ which stood on Corder’s property. Maria was first dressed in male clothing to avoid local notice but on arrival at the barn changed into female attire. It was whilst she was in the process of changing that she met her death and was buried by Corder within the barn.
The tale goes on to relate that Corder not only remained in the little village of Polstead, but also informed Maria’s parents that he and Maria were to wed by Special Licence, but to avoid her arrest he had sent her to stay with friends near Yarmouth in Norfolk. She was also unable to write herself because of an injury to her hand. Sometime later Corder left for London and wrote to Maria’s father saying that he and Maria were now married and living on the Isle of Wight; Corder also stated that they were very happy and requested that the father burn some letters, claiming they were hiding from a Mr P – his identity already revealed above and serves no further purpose here. We also know that Corder was a liar and inconsistent in what he told others, particularly in the village during his visits there; such as whether or not he was indeed married and where Maria was residing during the year before the her body was discovered.
The Background to the Crime: All the sensation masks details of the story which may have a bearing on what really happened on that fateful night. First point, Maria Marten was mother of two illegitimate children by a local dignitary, a very wealthy gentleman, referred to as Mr P at the Inquest. As such she was open to arrest for the crime of bastardy, that is giving birth to illegitimate children. In fact no attempt was made to arrest her, because the children were not, it seems, “a burden on the parish” and because the father made a generous provision of £5 a quarter for their upkeep.
A year before the murder William Corder became intimately acquainted with Maria, who he had presumably known for some time because they both lived in what was a very small village, and he and Maria went off to live in ‘sin’ in Sudbury. While there she gave birth to another child, this one fathered by Corder, where, again, bastardy charges could have followed. They were not and the couple returned to Polstead, where the baby died. Corder removed the body, having placed it in a box and told villagers the child had been buried in Sudbury; in fact Corder buried the child in an undisclosed field – the body was never recovered.
Maria and Corden were to remain lovers, despite the gulf in their social position, which was nowhere as great as that between Maria and her former lover, the anonymous ‘Mr P’. Apparently, his family also disapproved on the same grounds. As it was, Corder’s father was dead, several of his siblings had died in the last few years of TB, and his elder brother had died in a skating accident, drowning when he plunged through the ice on the village pond. His mother had suffered an immense amount of grief and now William Corder was heir and helping to run the farm.
Yet, Corder still did not have control of the money and when a letter to Maria from Mr P was intercepted by Corder, he apparently stole the £5 maintenance for the child which was contained inside. Maria now had a problem; she argued publicly with Corder – who could hang for the theft — and she had no way to protect herself from the long deferred bastardy charges, should they be brought. However if Corder married her and claimed the children as his, they would be legitimate, and the problem would go away.
The Night of the Murder: Twice they had prepared to elope, but Corder backed out each time, leaving Maria increasingly depressed and unhappy. Her home life also appears to have been troubled by the moral condemnation from her younger sister, who regarded Maria as a ‘tart’, and had been particularly scathing about her dress sense. The death of her baby also affected Maria greatly, to say nothing of her health problems and Corder telling her that she was about to be arrested for bastardy, no doubt using this to frighten and control her. On the fateful night he assured her that she was about to be taken in to custody, so she dressed in his clothes and for the third time set out to elope and marry Corder. They would leave through separate doors of the Marten’s cottage, walk to the Red Barn where, being out of sight of any villagers, she would change and they would make off to marry by Licence, thus avoiding the necessity for banns to be read.
Of course, Corder was lying. There was no intention on the part of the authorities to apprehend Maria, so what followed appears straightforward enough with Maria changing out of Corder’s clothes into her own at the moment when she was shot in the head and possibly stabbed twice with Corder’s sword before being strangled with her neckerchief. Her body was placed in a sack, and buried there in the Red Barn.
About an hour after they had left the Marten’s cottage, Corder had gone to a cottage close to the barn and borrowed a spade. Sometime later Maria’s younger brother claimed he saw him walking across a field carrying a pickaxe. Corder was to claim that the boy was mistaken and that the person he saw was one of his agricultural labourers who had been grubbing up trees, and who, by the way, also wore a velveteen coat. The ‘same coat’ part was true, but at Corder’s trial, the labourer denied ever carrying a pickaxe that year as far as he could recall.
Concealing the Crime: The Red Barn: Corder buried the body just one and a half feet under the floor of the barn, and then cleaned up the blood. From that day on he carried the key, and when the harvest was brought in he personally supervised the laying of the crop over the spot where Maria was buried. With Corder holding the key it became difficult for anyone to enter, though presumably he must have somehow provided access to his farmhands, unless the hay was stored very long term. He was in the village for months before taking off to “be with Maria” purportedly in the Isle of Wight! Actually, he was to in London, about which more will be said shortly. For the next eleven months or so, Maria would remain buried in the Red Barn.
The actual barn (a ‘double barn’ in Suffolk terms) would be rapidly pulled down by souvenir seekers. The illustration below is rather misleading – the barn was actually surrounded on three sides by outbuildings, with a courtyard formed by these sheds and a gate some seven feet high at the front.
Supernatural Experience? The Discovery of the Body: ‘Providence – to some it was God – led to the unveiling of the murder’ according to the Inquest. In fact, the events which led to the discovery of the body have been the staple diet of supernatural books ever since because Maria was discovered after her stepmother dreamt of where the body was actually buried. Apparently, she managed to convince her husband, Maria’s father, to investigate. All that we know comes from The Times, April 22nd 1828 which stated that the dream was of Maria murdered and buried in the Red Barn, and that the dream had occurred on three successive nights. Of course, the papers were to make much of this but, between the lines, the argument for anything supernatural being involved was very weak.
It was well known that Maria and Corder had always met (and none but the naive would fail to presume that they made love) in the Red Barn. No sooner had Maria apparently ‘left for Yarmouth’ her parents were suspicious, and that is why they cross-examined Corder after their nine year old son said he saw the latter carrying a pickaxe on the night he was supposedly eloping with Maria. Many times had Maria’s father thought of entering the building to look for any evidence, but he never did because of the difficulty of access and the fact the barn was Mrs Corder’s property. Even after his wife had convinced him to search the barn, he took time to ask permission from Mrs Corder, saying he wanted to look for some of Maria’s clothing which he believed had been left in there. Such deference by farm labourers towards landowners was the norm then and is still not uncommon today.
So it was that Mr Marten, together with a Mr Pryke, and both armed with a spade and a rake set off to the barn and went to the very spot indicated in the dream where they uncovered the remains of Maria, very much decomposed to being mainly skeletal. They fetched others, and during the exhumation of the body it was noted that there was a mark on the wall where a pistol had been discharged. As Corder habitually carried a pair of percussion cap pistols and occasionally fired them into the Marten’s fireplace, his position looked precarious.
So was it a supernatural dream? Well, the bizarre way Maria, who could read and write and was close to her parents, had stopped communicating, the conflicting stories told by Corder, the enquiries badly deflected by Corder from Mr P (still sending faithfully his fiver for Maria) and village gossip all meant that the dream was probably little more than a reflection of the anxiety felt by the stepmother. She may have even made it up to finally make her husband, who had spent eleven months doing nothing, to actually go and check if Maria lay dead under the floor of the Red Barn. The dream caused a sensation at the time, but there is no reason to believe that it was supernormal on the part of Mrs Marten. However, that opinion does not dispel the supernatural. The Red Barn had an unwholesome reputation before the murder. It was so called because it stood on a rise and was stained that colour by the setting sun; apparently, such places were associated in Suffolk folklore with murder and horror. So maybe it is understandable that there would be stories of ghostly tales of crime in and around the Red Barn – now long gone.
William Corder Seeks Marriage Elsewhere: During the eleven months between the murder and the discovery of Maria’s body, Corder was in Polstead before eventually setting off – supposedly to live on the Isle of Wight. In fact he went to London where it has been suggested Corder had a number of criminal associates. What we do know from the Trial was that Corder seems to have enjoyed himself and quite quickly fixed his eyes upon marriage for he took out the following advertisement in The Sunday Times, 25th November 1827:
MATRIMONY — A Private Gentleman, aged twenty-four, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded, has lately lost chief of his family by the hand of Providence, which has occasioned discord among the remainder, under circumstances most disagreeable to relate. To any female of respectability, who would study for domestic comforts, and willing to confide her future happiness to one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the Advertiser is in affluence. Many very happy marriages have taken place through means similar to this now resorted to; and it is hoped no one will answer this though impertinent curiosity; but should this meet the eye of any agreeable Lady who feels desirous of meeting with sociable, tender, kind and sympathising companion, they will find this Advertisement worthy of notice. Honour and secrecy may be relied upon. As some little security against idle applications, it is requisite that letters may be addressed (post paid) A.Z., care of Mr. Foster, stationer, 68 Leadenhall-street, with real name and address, which will meet with most respectful attention.
The advertisement certainly worked for he received over a hundred replies, with two definitely gaining his attention. One was from a mysterious lady who wanted to meet him at a London church. She described herself, and told Corder to wear his arm in a sling and to wear a black handkerchief around his neck and attend a certain service where they would meet. Unfortunately maybe, Corder was delayed and missed the service, arriving after the lady had left. He later discovered that the woman making the enquiries was a lady of some standing and with a large fortune. His plans to contact her again was thwarted when he met the women who would become his wife.
Corder met Miss Moore at an undisclosed public place and they immediately were attracted to each other. The sister of a notable London jeweller, she was clearly dissatisfied with her single status, and three weeks after that first meeting the two were married. While the marriage was only to last eight or so months before Corder was executed, it seems to have been genuinely happy with Mr and Mrs Corder opening a boarding school for girls at Grove House in Ealing Lane, London. It was there, living with his wife and with a few pupils enrolled, that he was to be arrested for murder.
The Arrest: When found, the body it was quickly identified as Maria from missing teeth, clothing, jewellery and a small lump on the neck the corpse. There could only be one suspect and the village constable was sent off to London to find Corder. However The metropolis was outside his jurisdiction and he was obliged to go to a police station where a policeman named Lea was assigned to the case. It took fourteen hours to locate Corder despite having absolutely no idea where he might be, or even if he was in London. But find him they did when police constable Lea entered Corder’s house, pretending that he wished to place one of his daughters at the Corder Finishing School. As soon as Lea had Corder in in the confines of his study, he told him that Maria Marten had been found. Three times Corder denied ever knowing the girl but he was arrested and his sword taken, along with a small black handbag that had once been the property of Maria Marten. Inside were found Corder’s pistols.
Corder was taken back to Suffolk to face the charge of murder with his wife believing that the charge was bigamy. Nevertheless, she was to stand by him until their final parting on the day before his execution. In the meantime, Corder was held over night at the George Inn in Colchester then was transferred in the early hours of the following night to the Cock Inn at Polstead where the inquest on Maria Marten was to be held at ten the next morning.
The Inquest: At the appointed hour, the Cock Inn was full and representatives of the London press who disputed Coroner Weyman’s ruling that the press could not take notes for their newspaper columns. Their accounts of the proceedings would have to be filed from memory. The Coroner also noted that such was the sensational nature of the case that the papers, preachers and puppet shows were ignoring ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and declaring Corder guilty of the murder. Proceedings were then delayed by Corder’s representative who asked if he may come downstairs and witness the testimony; however, the Coroner ruled against him but stated the representative may have the witness statements read to him afterwards. Corder who had descended was forced to return to a room upstairs, while it was determined how Maria had died.
Determination, in fact, proved extremely difficult for Maria appeared to have been shot, stabbed two or three times, and then was perhaps strangled. It was not even possible to decide if she was dead when buried, so burial live was added to the list. In the end there were nine different possibilities as to exactly how she was killed and at his subsequent trial, Corder was charged with all nine to ensure that at least one of them would stick. This legal nicety would seem a bit odd to us today!
The important thing was the Inquest determined that poor Maria had been murdered and Corder was committed to prison at Bury St Edmund to await his trial, while the sensation continued to grow.
The Trial: The trial was held at Bury St Edmunds with Chief Baron Alexander presiding. His orders that no one was to be admitted until he had taken his seat led to absolute chaos outside; once his carriage had arrived, it took an hour and a half for him to gain entrance and much longer for the trial to finally begin. Corder was charged with nine counts of murder and was horrified and clearly outraged to discover that the Coroner Weyland was now the Prosecutor! This meant that the Coroner had already seen all the evidence and cross-examined the witnesses, whereas the Defence had not had access to anything other than the reports of those proceedings.
However the case against Corder was fairly substantial – the last person seen with the victim who had been found buried in his barn with wounds that could have been made by his pistol and sword, not to mention the fact that he had lied for eleven months about her whereabouts. He had taken his sword to be sharpened shortly before the murder and there was no evidence that he had planned to honour a promised marriage; he even appeared to have taken special care to cover up the burial site and, for the first time in his life, kept the barn locked after the murder, along with his endless lies to her family, friends and Mr. P about where she was. Maria was unhappy when she set out on the fatal night, and Corder had been terrorising her with the claim she was about to be arrested for bastardy. Afterwards, when he was supposedly living with her, he had refused to give their address to her parents, claiming the couple were fearful of Mr P – who whatever his moral failings, seemed to have actually done much to support his illegitimate children and support Maria. The picture that emerged from the trial was that Corder was a weak and not very bright schemer, who lied constantly. Yet there was more to the man than this: he had many friends, his new wife was devoted to him and those who came to know him in gaol felt sympathy or even liking for him. He was clever enough to work hard on his defence and, indeed, both his wife and Corder appeared to be convinced that he would be acquitted.
Corder’s Defence: So how did Corder hope to be found innocent? There was little hope of claiming the manner of death was incorrect or try for a technicality since he had been charged on all nine counts! His second course would be to argue that the body was not Maria Marten, but the evidence was such there could have been little doubt that it was. His third strategy was to object to the Coroner being employed as the Prosecutor, to which the Judge was certainly sympathetic, as he was to Corder’s point about being already judged guilty by the press and public long before the trial had began. However, Corder decided on arguing from his best position, namely that Maria Marten had committed suicide and he had merely covered up her death.
According to Corder his pistols had been in Maria’s possession since their time in Sudbury when she took them to have them repaired. The gunsmith testified that a man and a woman had collected them, but others did testify to seeing them in Maria’s possession. In his summing up the judge mentioned Corder “snapping” them at the fire at the Marten’s cottage on the fatal night. If that was correct then Corder certainly had the pistols when he left their house. Despite those pistols being found in Maria’s handbag at Corder’s School, he claimed that she had the pistols on the fateful night.
As they left the house to elope Maria was seen to be crying and as she changed at the barn Corder claimed she had abused him, comparing him unfavourably with Mr. P. Seeing a chance to call off the elopement and wedding, Corder claimed that he had told her that having spoken to him in such a manner before marriage, how would she treat him once they tied the knot?. According to him, he told her that he would not marry her and walked away. As he did so he heard a shot, turned and saw her lying dead, having shot herself in the head with his pistol. He gave no explanation for the second bullet mark on the wall, though she may have fired there first to attract Corder’s attention as he left. Corder stated to the court that he then panicked, concealing the body while he cleaned up the scene and left to borrow a spade. He later returned with a pickaxe to bury poor Maria in the barn. After that he did his best to conceal her fate by telling so many lies.
The greatest problem facing Corder was how to explain the evidence of the neckerchief pulled tight enough to have throttled the girl – he claimed that this must have happened as he dragged her body to the grave. Then how could he account for the wounds, made by a stabbing instrument as confirmed to the court by three surgeons who also attributed such wounds to Corder’s sword. Interestingly, Corder claimed that these marks were made by the spades of those who discovered and dug up the corpse!
Corder’s Fate is Sealed: When instructed, the Jury retired and spent barely an hour of discussion before finding Corder guilty. The Judge, Baron Alexander sentenced him to hang and afterwards be dissected:
“That you be taken back to the prison from whence you came, and that you be taken from thence, on Monday next, to a place of Execution, and that you there be hanged by the Neck until you are Dead; and that your body shall afterwards be dissected and anatomized; and may the Lord God Almighty, of his infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!
Corder was taken from the court on his way to Bury gaol to await his fate. There he met twice more with is wife, who seemed to have behaved with great courage and dignity, offering him religious literature and pious exhortations. Many clergy and others also sought an interview with him but Corder refused to see them, though he did spend time with the prison chaplain.
Finally, on the morning of his execution, Corder wrote his confession and had it witnessed.
“Bury Jail, August 10, 1828 — Condemned Cell,
Sunday Evening, Half-past Eleven.”
“I acknowledge being guilty of the death of poor Maria Marten, by shooting her with a pistol. The particulars are as follows:– When we left her father’s house we began quarrelling about the burial of the child, she apprehending that the place wherein it was deposited would be found out. The quarrel continued for about three-quarters of an hour upon this and about other subjects. A scuffle ensued, and during the scuffle, and at the time I think that she had hold of me, I took the pistol from the side-pocket of my velveteen jacket and fired. She fell, and died in an instant. I never saw even a struggle. I was overwhelmed with agitation and dismay — the body fell near the front doors on the floor of the barn. A vast quantity of blood issued from the wound, and ran on to the floor and through the crevices. Having determined to bury the body in the barn (about two hours after she was dead), I went and borrowed the spade of Mrs Stowe; but before I went there, I dragged the body from the barn into the chaff-house, and locked up the barn. I returned again to the barn, and began to dig the hole; but the spade being a bad one, and the earth firm and hard, I was obliged to go home for a pick-axe and a better spade, with which I dug the hole, and then buried the body. I think I dragged the body by the handkerchief that was tied round her neck. It was dark when I finished covering up the body. I went the next day and washed the blood from off the barn floor. I declare to Almighty God I had no sharp instrument about me, and that no other wound but the one made by the pistol was inflicted by me. I have been guilty of great idleness, and at times led a dissolute life, but I hope through the mercy of God to be forgiven.
Witness to the signing by the said William Corder,
According to this, his argument with Maria was actually about the burial of their child — Maria was worried that the baby’s body would be uncovered. Why is hard to understand, though many have speculated that Corder had killed the child, though that claim seems to have little evidence to support it. In the barn the couple fell to fighting and while they struggled, Corder pulled out his pistol, fired and Maria fell dead. He then covered up the crime and events proceeded as already described. Whatever the truth, Corder was led out at noon on August 10th, 1828 and hanged in front of an audience of 7,000 plus witnesses on a pasture behind Bury gaol, where he died quickly, his end speeded by the hangman pulling on his legs – a common practice where executions fail to go ‘according to plan’!
After an hour, his body was cut down by John Foxton, the hangman, who, according to his rights, claimed Corder’s trousers and stockings. The body was taken back to the courtroom at Shire Hall, where it was slit open along the abdomen to expose the muscles. The public was allowed to file past until six o’clock when the doors were shut. According to the Norwich and Bury Post, over 5,000 people queued to see the body.
The following day, the dissection and post-mortem were carried out in front of an audience of students from Cambridge University and physicians. A battery was attached to Corder’s limbs to demonstrate the contraction of the muscles, the sternum was opened and the internal organs examined. There was some discussion as to whether the cause of death was suffocation; but, since it was reported that Corder’s chest was seen to rise and fall for several minutes after he had dropped, it was thought probable that pressure on the spinal cord had killed him.
Since the skeleton was to be reassembled after the dissection, it was not possible to examine the brain, so instead the surgeons contented themselves with a phrenological examination of the skull. Corder’s skull was asserted to be profoundly developed in the areas of “secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness, philoprogenitiveness, and imitativeness” with little evidence of “benevolence or veneration”. The bust of Corder held by Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St. Edmunds is an original made by Child of Bungay, Suffolk, as a tool for the study of Corder’s phrenology.
The skeleton was reassembled, exhibited, and used as a teaching aid in the West Suffolk Hospital. Several copies of his death mask were made, a replica of one is held at Moyse’s Hall Museum. Artifacts from the trial and some which were in Corder’s possession are also held at the museum. Corder’s skin was tanned by the surgeon George Creed, and used to bind an account of the murder.
Corder’s skeleton was put on display in the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In 2004, Corder’s bones were removed from display and cremated
Supernatural Experience?: The Ghost of Corder: One doctor became fascinated by Corder’s skeleton and on leaving his post stole the skull, replacing it with another with a more ordinary history. Shortly after his return however terrible noises were heard and before long he began to see the shadow of a man in his house, a man who had come to reclaim what was his…… Finally, terrified and haunted to the limit of his mind by Corder’s ghost the unfortunate doctor disposed of the curiosity and peace once more reigned – So claimed a book on Suffolk folklore!
A Sensational Case: It turned out that Corder would form the archetype for the “wicked squire” – the murder was just a little too early for tying her to railway tracks for Maria was to be the innocent country maiden of Victorian Melodrama. Certainly, the story was to form the basis for many plays performed by travelling troupes all over the country, performing in barns and thus giving us the word “barnstorming”.
These plays were hugely popular and even when Corder was on trial there were puppet shows throughout the region and even in London depicting the murder. Not to be upstaged, a camera obscura show was put on in Bury St Edmunds. Such was the effect that the tragedy had on the general public that a nonconformist minister took it upon himself to preach to a crowd of thousands at the actual barn which, by the way, was dismantled by souvenir seekers. In Polstead today there is no trace at all of the gravestone of the unfortunate Maria Marten for it was chipped away by curiosity seekers long ago.