Although the story of Royal Navy Captain Sir William Hoste is not so well known as that of Lord Nelson, he is yet another Norfolk hero from the age of the sail and of the Napoleonic Wars of which the County can be proud of. Hoste was to be best known as one of Lord Nelson’s protégés, he was one of the great frigate captains of the Napoleonic wars, taking part in six major actions including the capture of a heavily fortified port. He was however absent from the Battle of Trafalgar having been sent with gifts to the Dey of Algiers. This blog relates to both Hoste’s early relationship with Nelson and also of how Nelson nurtured him and laid the foundation for Hoste’s own fame.
William Hoste was the second of eight children of the Reverend Dixon Hoste (1750–1805) and Margaret Stanforth. At the time of his birth on the 26 August 1780 at Ingoldisthorpe, a village which lay approximately 9 miles north-east of the town King’s Lynn, William’s father was Rector of Godwick and Tittleshall some 20 miles south-east. Later, the family moved there to lease Godwick Manor from Thomas Coke, the eventual 1st Earl of Leicester of Holkham Hall. Hoste was educated for a time at King’s Lynn and later at the Paston School in North Walsham, where Horatio Nelson himself had been schooled some years previously.
As early as 1785, Revd. Dixon Hoste arranged for William’s name to be entered in the books of HMS ‘Europa’ as a Captain’s servant; he was just 5 years old; although he would not actually go to sea until he reached the age of 12 or 13 by which time war with France broke out, that was in February 1793. Lacking any influence or naval contacts himself, the Revd Dixon Hoste asked his landlord, Thomas Coke, for assistance and was introduced to Horatio Nelson, then living nearby in Burnham Thorpe and who had recently been appointed as Captain of HMS Agamemnon a 64-gun third-rate, which was being fitted out at Chatham Dockyard. Nelson accepted William Hoste as a captain’s servant on the Agamemnon which he boarded at Portsmouth at the end of April 1793, just before the ship joined the Mediterranean Fleet under Lord Hood. It was in the Mediterranean and Adriatic that Hoste was to see most of his naval service. Extracts from Nelson’s letters to his wife frequently mention Hoste:
‘without exception one of the finest boys I ever met with’ and ‘his gallantry never can be exceeded, and each day rivets him stronger to my heart’.
These letters suggest that Hoste quickly became a favourite of Nelson, at the expense of another captain’s servant on the Agamemnon who was Josiah Nisbet, Nelson’s own stepson. Even at this stage of the youngsters’ careers Josiah compared unfavourably with that of Hoste in many respects. We do not know what these differences may have been but a brief outline of Josiah Nisbet’s naval career would provide some answers. Hoste became a naval hero, Nisbet ultimately failed miserably.
Josiah Nisbet was five years old when Nelson, his future stepfather, first met his mother in Nevis. After Nelson married Frances ‘Fanny’ Woolward, Josiah spent five years at school in Norfolk. Then at the outbreak of the French Revolutionary wars in 1793 he joined his stepfather on the 64-gun HMS ‘Agamemnon’ as a midshipman. At first, Nelson was able to write favourably that Josiah’s ‘understanding is excellent, and his disposition is good…… He is a seaman, every inch of him.’ Then, early in 1797, Josiah served as a junior lieutenant on the 74-gun HMS ‘Captain’ at the Battle of St. Vincent, followed by a disastrous night landing and attack at Santa Cruz later that year. It was Josiah who was instrumental in saving Nelson’s life at the battle of Santa Cruz, after the latter’s arm was nearly severed by grape-shot. Having seen him fall, Josiah carried Nelson, bleeding and unconscious, to a waiting boat, where a sailor formed a tourniquet that stopped Nelson from bleeding to death. He then helped to paddle the boat to the safety of a waiting ship, where Nelson’s arm was later amputated.
Regrettably, Nelson’s early ‘good opinion’ of his stepson was not to last – and who’s to say that the thought that Josiah also fell in love with the bewitching Emma Hamilton later in Naples, was not one more factor in Nelson’s change of heart towards his stepson. Certainly, Josiah Nisbet was beginning to display bouts of ill-temper and drunkenness, personality failings that were to blight his career in the Navy. Nelson’s early patronage had Josiah promoted lieutenant and then post-captain within a remarkably short time, and through Nelson’s efforts Josiah had secured command of the 36-gun frigate HMS ‘Thalia’ in the Mediterranean. The Thalia was not to be a happy ship. Captain Nisbet took to messing in the gunroom and discipline and morale plummeted. In 1799 Nelson wrote, when sending HMS Thalia to Admiral Duckworth at Gibraltar that: ‘he could say nothing in her praise, inside or out’, and added – ‘Perhaps you may be able to make something of Captain Nisbet; he has, by his conduct, almost broke my heart.’
It quickly followed that Hoste was promoted to midshipman by Nelson on 1 February 1794 and served with him during the blockade of and subsequent assault on Corsica on 7 February of that year.
HMS Captain and the Battle of Cape St Vincent: Hoste moved with Nelson to HMS ‘Captain’ in 1796 and was with him at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, when a British fleet under Admiral Sir John Jervis defeated a Spanish fleet almost twice its size. HMS Captain was heavily involved in the fighting and captured the larger ‘San Josef’ and ‘San Nicolas’ of 112 and 80 guns, respectively.
HMS Captain started the battle towards the rear of the British line. Instead of continuing to follow the line, Nelson disobeyed orders and made for the Spanish van, which consisted of the 112-gun San Josef, the 80-gun San Nicolas and the 130-gun Santissima Trinidad. Captain engaged all three, assisted by HMS Culloden which had come to her aid. After an hour of exchanging broadsides which left both Captain and Culloden heavily damaged, Nelson found himself alongside the San Nicolas which he boarded and forced her surrender. San Josef attempted to come to the San Nicolas’s aid, but became entangled with her compatriot and was left immobile. Nelson led his party from the deck of the San Nicolas on to the San Josef and captured her as well.
In June 1797, he transferred to HMS Theseus a 74-gun third-rate. Theseus was a ‘troubled’ ship, and Nelson and a few handpicked officers, including Hoste, Captain Ralph Willett Miller and Lieutenant John Weatherhead, were sent aboard to restore order. The tactic was successful and Nelson received a letter from the would-be mutineers which stated,
“We thank the Admiral (Nelson) for the Officers he has placed over us”.
In July, Theseus was present at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, although Hoste remained aboard and took no part in the assault. Following the death of a Lieutenant Weatherhead in the battle, Nelson promoted Hoste to lieutenant to fill the vacancy, his position being confirmed, thanks to his ‘book time’ in Europa, in February 1798.
Later that year, Hoste, still aboard HMS Theseus, was at the Battle of the Nile. The Royal Navy fleet was outnumbered, at least in firepower, by the French fleet, which boasted the 118-gun ship-of-the-line L’Orient, three 80-gun warships and nine of the popular 74-gun ships. The Royal Navy fleet in comparison had just thirteen 74-gun ships and one 50-gun fourth-rate. Nevertheless, the battle was a decisive victory for the British.
Following the battle, Nelson sent his report to London, taking the precaution of sending a duplicate in the brig HMS Mutine, commanded by Lieutenant Thomas Capel. At Naples, Capel was to carry on with the dispatch, handing command of Mutine to Hoste. Upon taking command, Hoste became an acting-captain at the age of 18. Hoste, carrying news of the victory, first sailed to Gibraltar, before re-joining the fleet, under St Vincent, off Cadiz. His promotion was confirmed in December 1798.
Hoste continued in command of the HMS Mutine for the next three years, campaigning in Italy under Nelson, where in the autumn of 1799, he took part in the capture of Rome. He later served under Lord Keith, who knew little of him and his career appeared to have stalled until, possibly at Nelson’s prompting, he was promoted post-captain by Lord St Vincent, First Lord of the Admiralty, in January 1802.
At this time, Hoste was in Alexandria, where he contracted malaria and then a lung infection, which were to have a lasting effect on his health. He convalesced with Lord and Lady Elgin in Athens, where he began an education in classical antiquity, completed following his appointment to the frigate HMS Greyhound in Florence, when his ship was cruising on the Italian coast. Hoste served almost continuously throughout the Peace of Amiens, returning to England briefly in April 1803 before being given command of HMS Eurydice in October.
Notable Actions: Nelson summoned Hoste to Cadiz in September 1805 and gave him command of the 32-gun frigate HMS Amphion. Sent on a diplomatic mission to Algiers, he missed the Battle of Trafalgar by a matter of days, and only learned of Nelson’s death on his return in November. He wrote to his father –
“Not to have been in it is enough to make one mad, but to have lost such a friend besides is really sufficient to almost overwhelm me” (Hoste’s letters).
A number of successes while engaged on active service in the Mediterranean over the following 18 months brought Hoste to the attention of Lord Collingwood, who sent him into the Adriatic Sea. Here he single-handedly conducted an aggressive campaign against enemy shipping and coastal installations, bringing coastal trade with the enemy more or less to a halt. It was said that by the end of 1809, Hoste and his crew had captured or sunk over 200 enemy ships.
His endeavours were rewarded with command, as commodore, of a small detachment of frigates, comprising HMS Amphion, HMS Active (36 guns), HMS Volage (22 guns) and HMS Cerberus (32 guns), operations continued and by establishing a base at Lissa, now known as Vis, Hoste was able to dominate the Adriatic with just four ships. In March and April 1810 alone, they took or destroyed 46 vessels.
The French and their allies became so frustrated by the disruption to their shipping that a Franco-Venetian squadron, under the command of an aggressive frigate commander named Bernard Dubourdieu, was dispatched to attack Hoste’s small force in what became known as the Battle of Lissa.
The Battle of Lissa was a naval action fought on 13 March 1811. It was between a British frigate squadron, led by William Hoste, and a larger squadron of French and Italian frigates and smaller ships led by Bernard Dubourdieu during the Adriatic campaign of the Napoleonic Wars. Dubourdieu’s squadron of seven frigates and four smaller warships possessed a total of 276 guns and nearly 2,000 men which significantly outnumbered Hoste with his 4 frigates and mounting only 124 guns and manned by less than 900 men. The engagement was fought in the Adriatic Sea for possession of the strategically important island of Lissa (also known as Vis), from which the British squadron had been disrupting French shipping in the Adriatic. The French needed to control the Adriatic to supply a growing army in the Illyrian Provinces, and consequently dispatched an invasion force in March 1811 consisting of six frigates, numerous smaller craft and a battalion of Italian soldiers.
In the subsequent battle, Hoste sank the French flagship, captured two others, and scattered the remainder of the Franco-Venetian squadron. The battle has been hailed as an important British victory, due to both the disparity between the forces and the signal raised by Hoste, a former subordinate of Horatio Nelson. Hoste had raised the message “Remember Nelson” as the French bore down, and had then manoeuvred to drive Dubourdieu’s flagship ashore and scatter his squadron in what has been described as “one of the most brilliant naval achievements of the war”. Dubourdieu was killed and apart from the French frigate that was driven on shore, another was captured and two of the Venetian frigates were taken. Hoste’s signal had a profound effect on his men. It was universally greeted with loud cheers and Captain Hornby of the Volage wrote of it later:
“Never again so long as I live shall I see so interesting or so glorious moment”.
Cattaro, Spalato and Ragusa: The Siege of Cattaro was fought between a British Royal Naval detachment and Montenegrin forces under Captain William Hoste, John Harper and Petar I Petrović-Njegoš respectively and the French garrison under command of Jean-Joseph Gauthier of the mountain fortress of Cattaro (now Kotor, Montenegro). The siege lasted from 14 October 1813 to 3 January 1814 during the Adriatic campaign of the Napoleonic Wars when the French surrendered; the engagement was fought in the Adriatic Sea for possession of the important fortress of Cattaro.
HMS Amphion was so badly damaged that she was obliged to return to England, where Hoste was given the command of HMS Bacchante (38 guns), although he did not return to the Adriatic in her until 1812. Hoste continued to demonstrate the same kind of initiative and aggression as before. He helped capture Spalato (Split) in November 1813 with the assistance from the 35th regiment of foot. Then working with Montenegran forces, he attacked the mountain fortress of Cattaro, hauling ships’ cannon and mortars to positions above the fort using block and tackle. The French garrison had no alternative but to surrender, which it did on 5 January 1814. Hoste immediately repeated these tactics at Ragusa (now Dubrovnik), which also surrendered later on the 27th.
Later life: Hoste’s health, compromised by his malaria and earlier lung infection, worsened and he was forced to return to England. In 1814, he was made a baronet, and in 1815 he was knighted KCB. In 1825, he was appointed to the royal yacht Royal Sovereign. Then in January 1828, he developed a cold which affected his already weakened lungs, and he died of tuberculosis in London on 6 December 1828. He was buried in St John’s Chapel, London.
Personal life: William Hoste married Lady Harriet Walpole (1 March 1792 – 18 April 1875) on 17 April 1817. She was the daughter of Horatio Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford and Sophia Churchill. They had the following children:
Caroline Harriet Clementina Hoste.
Priscilla Anne Hoste (Unknown – 21 October 1854).
Admiral Sir William Legge George Hoste (19 March 1818 – 10 Sept 1868).
Theodore Oxford Raphael Hoste (31 July 1819 – 1835).
Psyche Rose Elizabeth Hoste (4 April 1822 – 8 July 1904).
Wyndham Horatio Nelson Hoste (2 Feb 1825 –).
Legacy: Hoste’s actions at Cattaro and Ragusa were later immortalised in fiction, where they are attributed to Captain Jack Aubrey, the principal character in Patrick O’Brian’s 20 novels of the Aubrey–Maturin series. A small island in the entrance to the bay of Vis town is named Hoste Island after him, while the Sir William Hoste Cricket Club in Vis was founded by the Croatian islanders after learning that he had organised the game there during the British occupation of the island.
Once, while in conversation with Hoste’s father, Nelson remarked:
“His worth as a man and an officer exceeds all which the sincerest friend can say of him. I pray God to bless my dear William.”
Lord Radstock once wrote:
“I look at you [Hoste] as the truly worthy eleve [Noun. élève – masculine, referring to a boy] of my incomparable and ever to be lamented friend the late Lord Nelson.”
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This is a convoluted story, of two sets of murders in a small area of Norfolk within a couple of years. The killings had several unusual factors: one was that the murderers were female; another was that one set of deaths involved a murderous duo, of female friends rather than lovers (although the plot involves the lover of one of them); another was that the murderers used poison, argued to be the female murderers’ weapon of choice (we’ll come to that in Part 2); and finally, a ‘witch’, the same ‘witch’, played a role in both narratives.
Part 1: Mary Ann Wright
We’ll start with the story of Mary Ann Wright (née Darby), who was born in 1803 in the tiny north Norfolk village of Wighton, which lies between Walsingham to the south and Wells Next the Sea to the North. In 1829, aged 26, she married William Wright, a 34-year-old “teamerman”, whose job was to deliver carts of grain pulled by five horses. (1)
Mary and William lived in Wighton, with Mary’s father Richard Darby. They were poor, illiterate people and they lived physically tough lives, but village life was close-knit and stable. Everyone knew everyone else.
The couple had children but it difficult to say with certainty how many. There are records for Samuel, born in 1829, but reports of Mary’s trial mention two children.
It was well known that Mary suffered poor mental health. She had been affected both by the death in March 1832 of Samuel, at the age of three, (2) and another child. One person said in court that Mary was “never in her right mind” after the birth of her last child, so postpartum psychosis is a possibility. It was also assumed by her neighbours that a heredity factor played a part: her mother had spent 18 months in the asylum. Her neighbours noted that she had been behaving oddly, for example setting fire to the tablecloth and the chairs in her house.
Mary’s illness appears to have manifested itself as pathological jealousy. She told a friend that she would “stick a knife in him [William]” if he gave part of the fish he had just bought to her perceived rival and told another that she would not mind “running a knife” through him or “doing his business in some other way.” After she was arrested, magistrates heard evidence that she had made previous attempts on his life and on her own. (3)
Mary’s threats, and even her efforts, to kill William were brushed off at the time. No one could envisage what happened next. Mary was becoming increasingly desperate and had visited the local “cunning woman”, Hannah Shorten, at Wells, a walk of some two and a half miles. Shorten, whose services would have included casting love spells, creating charms and telling fortunes, made her living by offering magic to people for whom the Church’s teachings had little appeal. Many in poor rural societies preferred the power of folk remedies and curses; they must have seemed more direct ways to reach, and destroy, your enemies than prayer. One of Shorten’s methods for achieving your desires was to burn arsenic with salt. Whether she encouraged Mary to use arsenic in other ways, or whether Mary misinterpreted her advice, is not known.
Arsenic was a cheap poison used commonly for the killing of vermin. Thruppence (3d) would buy you three ounces, but you only needed enough to cover the tip of a knife to kill someone. It looked innocuous and could be hidden in flour or bread, or cakes. It was also tasteless but could produce a burning sensation after it was ingested. If you were intent on murder, the challenge was to acquire and administer it without attracting suspicion. As the symptoms of arsenic poisoning sometimes resembled gastroenteritis, it is likely that many poisoners “got away with it”. Vomiting, diarrhoea and inflammation of the stomach and bowels were easily mistaken for signs of cholera.
Mary appears to have planned the murder carefully. She asked Sarah Hastings to come with her on a shopping trip to Wells Next the Sea and told her that the local rat catcher had asked her to get some arsenic. Unfortunately, during the journey she quizzed Sarah on how much it would take to kill a person, something Hastings later described in court. While the women were in Wells Mary also bought currants. She said she was planning to make a plum cake. (4)
A few days later, on the morning of Saturday 1 December, William Wright rose early. He had been instructed by his employer to take a load of corn to Cley, just over 10 miles from Wighton. Mary gave him two plum cakes for the journey. After preparing the waggon with the help of Richard Darby, his father-in-law, and before he started out on the road, they repaired to a public house for a pot of beer and to eat the cakes. Richard returned home and William went on towards Cley with another farm worker, William Hales. He seemed fine at first but later became so ill and was in such agony, lying on sacks on the floor and unable to move, that he could not make the return journey. Instead, Hales took the team back to Wighton and Wright was carried to a public house where Charles Buck, the local surgeon, examined him. Mary was sent for. William finally expired on Sunday night, less than 48 hours after eating the cakes. Everyone, except Mary of course, blamed cholera and was terrified. (5)
When Mary returned to Wighton, she found that her father had also died. (6) The trouble with poison, especially in food, is that you could not be sure the wrong people will consume it. Both men were buried at Wighton Church on 4 December 1832.
It was a chance remark by Sarah Hastings that Mary had recently bought arsenic which led to suspicion falling on her. Four days after the funerals, the bodies were dug up and examined by Charles Buck in the chancel of Wighton Church; the stomachs were sent to Mr Bell, a chemist at Wells, who found they contained raisins from the plum cake. Bell used four separate tests to establish that they also contained arsenic.
Mary was arrested 16 miles from Wighton, at Oulton, and appeared at a special sitting of local magistrates. She was hardly able to speak and remained almost completely silent thereafter. Shortly afterwards, she was committed to Walsingham Prison for trial at the Lent Assizes.
A decision was made to prosecute her only for the murder of her husband, possibly because it was felt that she had not intended the death of her father. The Norfolk Chronicle (7) reported that she had made a full confession before she left Walsingham for Norwich Castle but she nevertheless pleaded not guilty to murder at her trial before Judge Baron Bolland. Witnesses from Wighton testified to William Wright’s sudden illness and Mary’s expedition to buy arsenic; Charles Buck described William’s death and Mr Bell his chemical tests. Mr Crosse, a surgeon from Norwich, declared that Hannah Shorten was not called as a witness.
……child bearing is apt to produce insanity [but] insanity from child bearing is mostly temporary.
Mary was found guilty and condemned to death, her body to be buried in the precincts of Norwich Castle. She then had what was described as an “hysteric fit” after which she declared she was pregnant. After some delay, Bolland assembled a panel of 12 matrons to examine Mary and after an hour they returned to court to declare that she was not with child. Perhaps prompted by Mary’s vehemence, Bolland then asked the opinion of three “eminent accoucheurs”, including Mr Crosse, who declared that Mary was indeed expecting a child. Five months later, on 11 July, Mary gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth. (8) and Mary would not have been surprised to learn that her execution was then scheduled, for 17 August. (9) However, at some point before this date, her sentence was commuted to transportation for life.
Mary did not reach Australia. She died in Norwich Castle in November. Cause of death: “by the visitation of God”, (10) meaning no one knew why she died. Did a brain tumour or other natural disease affect her personality and eventually cause her death? Was her death a suicide? Or perhaps the double loss of her babies, combined with postpartum psychosis, caused some aberration of mind that lead to extreme jealousy and destructive behaviour. We cannot know. The newspaper reports of her trial imply that a kind of medical defence was made but this was not spelled out and it was not strong enough to save her from a death sentence.
In another post, we talked about ‘Hunstanton’s Great Secret’ which was pivotal in changing our fortunes in the Great War. Yet other towns also played a vital role in the conflict and no story is more fascinating than that of Kings Lynn: although experts still debate the exact impact of the facts given below on the outcome of the war, it is a remarkable story in several ways, not least as an example of ‘thinking outside the box’ when faced with a problem that at first appeared to defy resolution. It is all about cordite, conkers and the future inaugural President of Israel.
What is cordite?:
Cordite had been used by the British Army as a propellant for shells and bullets since 1889 – previously, black gunpowder had been used. A vital ingredient of this was acetone, along with nitro-glycerine and gun cotton. Pre-war production involved huge quantities of birch, beech and maple which, through a process of dry distillation known as pyrolysis, produced the cordite. As demands increased manifold at the beginning of the war, Britain was forced to seek imports from America, a state of affairs clearly unsustainable given the success of the U-boat campaign. By 1915 there occurred a ‘shell crisis’ when British guns were limited to firing only a few times each day.
Enter Lloyd George, Chaim Weizmann, the Queen and lots of boy scouts:
It was at this time that the Ministry of Munitions was set up under future Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who asked renowned Manchester University chemist Chaim Weizmann to look for alternative ways to produce acetone. He set to work and came up with a new anaerobic fermentation process that used a bacterium, which came to be called ‘Weizmann Organism’, to produce large amounts of acetone from various foodstuffs including grain, maize and rice. Two new factories were built to build upon this success, one at Holton Heath in Dorset and the other at Kings Lynn. They were very successful, producing between them enough gallons of acetone – about 90,000 a year – for the British armed forces.
Problems occurred in 1917 as grain and potatoes became scarce because of German U-boat operations. Weizmann was asked to perform yet another miracle and he began experimenting with the common conker. As this looked very promising, the government launched a nationwide scheme to encourage youngsters and adults alike to gather as many tons as possible. Kept keen by the payments of 7s 6d (37.5p) for every hundred weight, 3000 tons were collected for the Kings Lynn factory. It is part of folklore that even the Queen joined in at her Sandringham gardens. Much was sadly left to rot as school children proved too adept at this task.
Production began in April 1918 but there were many teething problems and not as much acetone was produced as hoped for. Production ended after about three months but by then the war was clearly being won.
First President of Israel:
Chaim Weizmann’s contribution to the world continued after the war: he became the first President of the state of Israel which was established in 1948. He died in 1952.
Sources: Text by kind permission of Stephen Browning via:
Photos: By Daniel Tink, except where otherwise acknowledged.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items of ‘general interest’ only. It endeavours, where required, to obtain permission to use other copyright owner’s material; however, for various reasons, identification of, and means of communicating with, owners can sometimes be difficult or impossible to establish. Nevertheless, please rest assured that the appropriate ‘credits’ are always given in our articles, and no violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.
In 1981, Hidden East Anglia’s ‘Lantern’ magazine carried M.W. Burgess’s article ‘Hoax of the Broads’ which was highly critical of Charles Sampson’s popular book ‘Ghosts of the Broads’, published and reprinted by Jarrold & Sons Ltd in 1973, 1976 and 1979. In 2015, when Mike Burgess began writing about the various legends of Tom Hickathrift (updated in 2018), he again referred to Samson’s ‘extremely dubious tale’ of the giant, and stated that East Anglia can lay claim to only one traditional giant – that of the giant of the Norfolk Marshland.
Tom Hickathrift is mentioned many times in local folklore, and it is only fairly recently that Mike Burgess set about making his own serious attempt to follow up the dozens of different threads of the Hickathrift legend, in an attempt to discover the giant’s true origins. Burgess was modest when saying: “That is my quest – but I have a feeling that this will only lay the foundations for a much deeper study”. Here is the result of his endeavours, which he titled ‘The Quest of Tom Hickathrift’:
The Land of the Giant:
The majority of the action in the Hickathrift tales takes place in the far western corner of Norfolk, in a rough triangle bordered by King’s Lynn, Wisbech and Downham Market, and more specifically in that area marked nowadays on the map as ‘Marshland Fen’. Upon the western edge of this region is ‘The Smeeth’, a name that once applied to the whole Marshland (and probably derives from an Old English word meaning ‘smooth’).
This was, in olden days, a fine pastureland about 2 miles or so across and of 1200 acres in extent. Over 30,000 sheep and cattle were grazed here by the ‘Seven Towns of Marshland’ to whom the plain was common – namely Tilney, Terrington, Clenchwarton, Walpole, West Walton, Walsoken and Emneth. In 1923 the area was made into the new parish of Marshland St. James, and the Smeeth is now (or at least was, when I went there in 1980 and ’81) a straggling collection of both private and council houses, with a school, pub and small church, all strung out along Smeeth Road. Somewhere in this region of the Marshland, or so the legends say, was born Tom Hickathrift, “in the reign before William the Conqueror”, the son of a poor labourer also called Thomas Hickathrift. His father died not long after Tom was born, and his poor old mother was forced to work day and night to support him, since he was very lazy, and ate a huge amount:
“for he was in height”, says one story, “when he was but ten years of age, about eight feet, and in thickness five feet, and his hand was like unto a shoulder of mutton; and in all parts from top to toe, he was like unto a monster, and yet his great strength was not known”.
The Tales Surrounding Hickathrift & their Sources:
The earliest printed mention of the giant Hickathrift occurs in a massive book by John Weever, entitled ‘Ancient Funerall Monuments’, dated to 1631 (1). Weever reports a tradition of the Smeeth that once upon a time, a great conflict broke out between the inhabitants of the Seven Towns and their Landlord, over the rights and boundaries of the Smeeth, and the villagers were definitely getting the worst of the battle. At this time, Tom had got himself a job carting beer for a King’s Lynn brewer, and he often had to drive his cart over the Marshland to Wisbech.
Along comes Tom to the scene of the battle and, in Weever’s words:
“perceiving that his neighbours were faint-hearted, and ready to take flight, he shooke the Axell-tree from the cart, which he used instead of a sword, and tooke one of the cart-wheeles which he held as a buckler; with these weapons….he set upon the….adversaries of the Common, encouraged his neighbours to go forward, and fight valiantly in defence of their liberties; who being animated by his manly prowesse, they….chased the Landlord and his companie, to the utmost verge of the said Common; which from that time they have quietly enjoyed to this very day”.
Later antiquarian writers such as Spelman in about 1640 (2), Cox in 1720 (3), and Blomefield in 1808 (4) follow Weever almost to the letter, apart from William Dugdale (5) who is the ‘joker in the pack’, and who will be mentioned again shortly. However, a significant divergence in story line occurs in the early Chapbooks, those slender pamphlets for consumption by the ‘peasantry’ that pedlars hawked on the village streets. The earliest still in existence is in the Pepysian Library at Cambridge, printed between 1660 and 1690, and bearing the title ‘The History of Thomas Hickathrift’. (6)
This Chapbook relates how Tom used to drive his brewer’s cart between Lynn and Wisbech, but because of a fierce giant or ogre that dwelt in the Marshland, had to make a long detour around. One day Tom became fed up with this, and on his next journey resolved to test the ogre’s might. From his cave, the giant saw Tom coming and leapt out to meet the trespasser, saying “Do you not see how many heads hang upon yonder tree that have offended my law! But thy head shall hang higher than all the rest for an example”. To which Tom then gave the classic riposte “A turd in your teeth for your news, for you shall not find me like one of them”.
The giant, enraged, dashed back into his cave for his gigantic club, while Tom up-ended his cart and took the axle and wheel for a sword and shield. With these weapons, and after a mighty battle, Tom beat the twelve-foot high ogre into the ground and sliced off his head. After this deed Tom became the hero of the Marshland, and was henceforth known to all as ‘Master’ Hickathrift (a formerly distinct title that lost its significance in the 17th century).
These two alternate themes – the defeat of the Landlord and the slaying of the giant, both with wheel and axle – parallel one another until about the beginning of the 20th century, when the Landlord version is forgotten and only the giant-slaying remains. The question is, which tradition came first or, were there two very similar but separate tales existing from the very beginning? From experience, I would say that the former is the real problem, but that is easily solvable. Although the 17th century Pepysian chapbook is the oldest still surviving, we can be fairly certain that there was an earlier version, probably from the 16th century – or at least the internal literary evidence seems to point that way. And of course, the substance of the Chapbook is derived from popular oral tradition of indeterminate age, as is the substance of the passage in Weever.
But, it is the process of folklore to embellish tales, to enlarge, and thus the tyrant Landlord must have come first; enlarged and aggrandised by the Chapbook writers who were catering for a less discerning audience than that held by such as John Weever. For the same reason, the Landlord has vanished from current Hickathrift tradition, leaving only the wicked giant to be overcome by our hero. Here, we mention Sir William Dugdale again, because of the curious role reversal that he created in his 1662 work ‘The History of Imbanking…’.(5) where, somehow, he managed to twist the Weever story about – making Hickathrift himself into the zealous owner of the Smeeth common land, mightily defending himself with wheel and axle against the quarrelling villagers. This is a most peculiar reversal, and can only be explained by a hasty and inaccurate reading of the legend as told by Weever.
Whilst the antiquarians have no more to say about Hickathrift’s exploits, the Chapbooks, on the other hand, have a great deal more to tell; for instance. After his slaying of the Marshland ogre, Tom went into the cave and found there all the monster’s ill-gotten hoard of gold and silver, enough to make him a rich man for life. “Tom took possession of the giant’s cave”, says the Chapbook:
“….by consent of the whole company, and every one said he deserved twice as much more; Tom pulled down the cave, built him a fine house where the cave stood; and the ground that the giant kept by force and strength, some of which he gave to the poor for their common, the rest he made pastures of and divided the most part into tillage, to maintain him and his mother Jane Hickathrift”.
He then made a deer park round about, and near his house built a church of St. James “because he killed the giant on that day……” (which at the time of writing was August 6th). Whether or not this part of the tale influenced the naming of the parish in 1923 I do not know, but perhaps it is significant that there has never been another church of St. James in the whole of the Fenland district.
With his newfound wealth and respectability, Tom travelled far and wide throughout the Marshland, sometimes with his pack of hounds, to such festivities as “cudgel-play, bear-baiting, foot-ball, and the like”. One such event, although a minor one in the course of the story, will be seen to gain a greater significance later on. He rode one day to where some men were laying wagers upon a football game, but he was a stranger to them and not allowed to join in; “but Tom soon spoiled their sport; for he meeting the foot-ball, took it such a kick that they never found their ball more; they could see it fly, but whither none could tell……” The participants became angry at this, but Tom simply grabbed up a “great spar” from a ruined house, and flattened the lot of them. Then, on his way home he encountered four armed robbers. Once more in summary fashion he slew two and wounded the others, taking £200 from them for his trouble. But he later came upon a stout tinker barring his path, and since neither would yield to the other, they battled with staves (reminiscent, of course, of the meeting between Robin Hood and Little John). They were evenly matched, until Tom threw down his staff, invited the tinker to his home, and they became the best of friends.
At this point the earliest Chapbook versions end, leaving later versions to attach more. A typical example of this would be ‘A Pleasant and Delightful History of Thomas Hickathrift’, printed around 1750. It was not the only one, many others were produced all through the 18th and 19th centuries – all, apparently, based on the text of the above version. This continues the exploits of both Tom and the Tinker – whose name was given as Henry Nonsuch, telling how they were called to the Isle of Ely to help put down a rebellion. The two men defeated 10,000 (one reference says 2000) men all by themselves with naught but clubs as weapons; and when Tom’s club broke, he “seized upon a lusty, stout raw-boned miller, and made use of him for a weapon, till at length he cleared the field……” The King was so pleased with them that he promptly knighted Tom, and gave the Tinker a pension for life. As Sir Thomas Hickathrift, he then turned for home, only to find his aged mother dying.
After this Tom’s thoughts turned towards marriage, and he began to court a “rich young widow” of Cambridge named Sarah Gedyng. After trouncing a rival in love, Tom came up against two hired Troopers whom he simply tucked under his arms until, humiliated, they swore never to trouble anyone again. But even as Tom rode to his wedding, along came his rival with twenty-one hired ruffians to stop him – but to no avail. Tom just took up a sword and sliced an arm or a leg off every one, then hired a nearby farmer’s dung-cart to carry them home. At his wedding feast, which was held in his own home, an amusing and rather bizarre episode took place. At the end of the proceedings he discovered a silver cup missing, but which was found on an old woman named Strumbolow. While the other guests were all for chopping her to pieces for her theft, Tom devised a rather novel method of punishment:
“He bored a hole through her nose, and tied a string thereto, then tied her hands behind her back, and ordered her to be stripped naked, commanding the rest of the old women to stick a candle in her fundament, and then lead her by the nose through the streets and lanes of Cambridge, which comical sight caused a general laughter”.
Not long after this, word came to the King that a foul giant, with many great bears and lions in attendance, had invaded the Isle of Thanet in Kent, and posed a dire threat to the rest of his Kingdom. Without more ado he made Tom the Governor of Thanet, and Tom went off to combat the invader, a far more terrible ogre than any he had faced before. For the giant was “mounted upon a dreadful dragon, beating upon his shoulder a club of iron; having but one eye, which was placed in the middle of his forehead, and larger than a barber’s bason [basin], and seemed to appear like a flaming fire; his visage was grim and tawny, his back and shoulders like snakes of prodigious length, the bristles of his beard like rusty wire……” Nevertheless it didn’t take Tom long to deal with his opponent, first of all running his “two-handed sword of ten feet long in between the giant’s brawny buttocks, and out at his belly……and then pulling it out again, at six or seven blows he separated his head from his trunk….”
With no more ado he suffered the dragon likewise, then he and Henry the Tinker went out and dispatched the rest of the ravening beasts. But alas! The Tinker was slain by one of the lions. Tom then went home, but died in less than three weeks out of grief for his friend. And there the Chapbooks end their tale.
However, the legends of Tom Hickathrift do not end; more were added over the years, enlarging and twisting various episodes, until much is scarcely recognisable from the original. Probably one of the earliest additions is related by H. J. Hillen in about 1891. A local of the Smeeth told him that when Tom had slain the Marshland ogre, he decided to cut out the giant’s tongue. Then shortly after Tom had departed, along came a rogue who severed the head and took it to the King for a reward. Just as the King was about to open the royal purse, up popped Tom with the tongue and claimed the reward for himself. “The imperdant rarscal”, said the old local, “rushed scraamin’ away, getting’ a jolly sight more kicks than ha’pence!” (8) This additional fragment is not original to the neighbourhood however, being simply a variant on the old folk-motif of ‘The False Claimant’.
The earliest incident in the Chapbooks, by which Tom’s great strength is revealed, is when he hoists on to his shoulder a colossal weight of straw, far more than any other man can carry. This has been altered in oral tradition so that, for a joke, the bundle of straw has huge rocks hidden inside it, but Tom still lifts it without fuss. Likewise, the four-armed robbers that he dispatches become a large band of highwaymen whom he drives out of East Anglia. The chapter where Tom kicks a football out of sight has gained a wider audience, so that a Suffolk man can tell, in 1965, of “Old Icklethrift”, who kicked a ball “from Beccles to Bungay”. (9) One source doesn’t like the idea of our hero dying from grief, so makes him simply return home, “where he passed the remainder of his days in great content….” (10)
Legends in the Landscape:
One of the most interesting adjuncts to the Hickathrift myth was an earthen mound, which stood at the Smeeth in a field south of the village crossroads, not far from the former Smeeth Road railway station. The first printed mention of this mound seems to be Miller and Skertchly in 1878, (13) taking their information from Jonathon Peckover of Wisbech. They speak of “a mound with the marks of an entrenchment visible around it. This is called the giant’s grave, and the people of the neighbourhood have a tradition that it is hollow”.
The next reference quoted in G. L. Gomme’s edition of one of the chapbooks in 1884, (11) and taken from the ‘Journal’ of the British Archaeological Association from 1879., in an article entitled ‘Fen Tumuli’, by the above-mentioned Jonathon Peckover. (12) It reads:
“Another mound, close to the Smeeth Road Station, between Lynn and Wisbech, has also a traditional interest. It is called the giant’s grave, and the inhabitants relate that there lie the remains of the giant slain by Hickathrift, with the cart wheel and axletree. The mound has not been examined. It lies in the corner of the field, with a slight depression round it, and has now only an elevation of a few feet. A cross was erected upon it, and is to be seen in the neighbouring churchyard of Terrington St. John’s, bearing the singular name of ‘Hickathrift’s candlestick’.”
Hillen (8) terms it “a low tumulus (somewhat levelled on one side) with distinct marks of an entrenchment”. Dutt in 1909 (14) considered it “an artificial mound, possibly a barrow”. Because caves (occupied by ogres or otherwise) are pretty unlikely in the Marshland, I would venture that this was indeed an ancient burial mound, possibly with a visible entrance, or more likely a collapsed section, that gave people the idea that a giant lived there. In the same field, ‘Hicifric’s’ or ‘Hickathrift’s Field’, was a rough hollow or dry pond with some form of low bank around it. A former owner of Hickathrift Farm (which still stands opposite) said in 1955 (15) that there were two hollows “locally known as Giant Hickathrift’s Bath and Feeding-bowl”. But the pond with the bank round it was usually called ‘Hickathrift’s Hand-basin or Wash-basin’.
Basil Cozens-Hardy in 1934 (16) claimed it to be truly a “Scandinavian doom-ring”. Here, it seems likely that he derived this idea from the Kelly’s ‘Directory of Norfolk’ for 1925, (17) where the ‘doom-ring’ was said to be “the ‘moot’ place twice each year of the earliest inhabitants, and of their descendants down to the close of the 18th century, of the Seven Towns of Marshland”. Cozens-Hardy gave the added information that at midsummer the ‘commoners’ met at the earthen mound, while at Easter they gathered at St. John’s Gate a little to the north. In March 1929, the ponds were filled in with earth from the mound, and the field (in the angle between Smeeth Road and School Road) ploughed up to make ready for the building of council houses. On my first visit to the site in 1980 I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the field was still rough and open, but things have (of course) changed since then. Now mostly built over, only a small portion of the field remains, behind the primary school, although the name ‘Hickathrift’s Field’ still survives. A photo of the field as it was in 2010 can be found here.
The perplexing matter of the Crosses:
Above, it was stated that an ancient stone cross, once standing upon the ‘Giant’s Grave’ mound, had been moved to the churchyard at Terrington St. John. Miller and Skertchly (13) agree with this, as do Porter in 1969 (18) and various other commentators. However, Cozens-Hardy stated in 1934 that, when soil was being carted from the mound to fill in the ponds, “a large pedestal, 2’9” square and 1’9” high with stop-angles was unearthed. Two feet of the shaft, now pointed, survive. The cross has been moved into the hedge next to the main road….”
How could it be that a cross, which had been stated 65 years before as having been moved several miles to another village, is suddenly found in the very place it was supposed to have been taken from? To complicate matters, Terrington St. John actually has a portion of a stone cross also known as ‘Hickathrift’s Candlestick’, which stands just outside the north door of the church. But I have seen an old photograph of the Smeeth Cross taken just after it was rediscovered in 1929, and it is definitely not the same one.
The issue becomes even more complex when Cozens-Hardy says of the St. John cross that:
“some time in the middle of the 19th century when the late William Cockle, who was a churchwarden of St. John’s church, gave it to the late David Ward, who removed it to his residence in Terrington St. Clement, which subsequently became known as Hamond Lodge, and is now known as Terrington Court, where it is still. It appears to consist of the socket stone with other fragments piled upon it….”
Thus the next question becomes: how is this cross still at St. John’s when it was moved to St. Clement’s over a century ago? The 1980 owner of Terrington Court stated at the time that “there are at least two stones in the grounds of the Court that would appear to be part of a medieval cross……One source says they were moved from the churchyard at Terrington St. John, and another source says that they were brought from the marshes having been a medieval mark at one end of a marsh crossing…” (19) But as far as he knew, the fragments had no particular local name.
So what do we have so far? We have:
*A cross called ‘Hickathrift’s Candlestick’ that turns up at the Smeeth, when it should be at Terrington St. John.
*A cross of the same name at St. John that should be at Terrington St. Clement.
*Fragments of a cross at St. Clement, with no name, that may have come from either St. John or the marshes.
What a muddle! But hold on, there’s more to come!
Hillen (8) declares that the Smeeth Cross “is said to have been removed to Tilney All Saints churchyard……” where it rests outside the south porch. And, indeed, there is a ‘Hickathrift’s Candlestick’ in Tilney churchyard – in fact there are two! That near the south porch leaning precariously in its socket stone has four or five distinct indentations on the top of the shaft which legend says are the marks of giant Tom’s fingers. They are of course simply holes where a crosspiece or capital was once fitted. When I first saw it, the second cross-shaft had become detached from its base, and was propped against the wall just inside the churchyard gate. Now, in 2018, it has been set upright into a rough block, but again close to the wall. It bears upon the shaft the weathered remains of various armorial shields. Neither of these has been removed from elsewhere, as records show them to have always been at Tilney.
But back to the Smeeth Cross though: A further clue to the unravelling of the mystery turned up in the ‘Sunday Express’ of May 14th 1950, where the following is found:
“A quaint stone monument at the bottom of Mr. Harry Bodgers’ new council house did not please Mrs. Bodgers at all. So Mr. Bodgers dug it up and buried it. But he didn’t know that the stone had been a landmark in the village of Marshland Smeeth (sic), Norfolk, for 500 years. It was known as Hickathrift’s Candlestick, weighed three-quarters of a ton, and was named after a legendary giant. Now the Ministry of Works may be approached for an order to have the monument exhumed”.
As far as I know, there was no follow-up to this in the newspaper. Although I haven’t been able to pinpoint Mr. Bodgers’ house, there seems little doubt that this “quaint stone monument” was in fact the Smeeth Cross. In the ‘Eastern Daily Press’ for December 12th 1964, a Mr. Colman Green reported that the cross was still visible, and learned a new name for it from a local farm hand: ‘Hickathrift’s Collar-stud’!
I’m pleased to say that I’ve now managed to uncover virtually the whole recent history of the Smeeth Cross (although a little must be admitted as reasonable supposition).
Prior to the mid – or late 19th century the cross was clearly visible on the summit of the ‘Giant’s Grave’ mound at the Smeeth. Then, through the action of time and weather it was covered up by earth and vegetation, and people thought it had been lost or taken away. Antiquaries, discovering that there were others known by the same name at Terrington St. John and Tilney All Saints, surmised that it had been removed to one of these two places. The 18th century historian Tom Martin recorded three churchyard crosses at Terrington St. John, and as only one is now visible, it seems likely that it was one or possibly two of these that were taken to Terrington Court.
In 1929 during clearance work the Smeeth Cross was uncovered, still upon the mound. It was damaged by the workmen and pushed to one side, where Mr. Bodgers’ garden was soon to be made. He buried it in 1950, but it turns out that sometime in the ‘50s or early ‘60s a part of the base was rescued and taken to the Wisbech and Fenland Museum. There it stayed until June 6th 1979, when it was given back to the villagers of Marshland St. James and they, in belated celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, incorporated the remaining fragment into the base of the new village sign, where it stands to this day, at the crossroads known as ‘Hickathrift’s Corner’.
3) Tom and the Stone Football:
The incident where Tom kicks a football out of sight has already been mentioned. But this seems to have merged, or been confused, with another episode where he throws a hammer five or six furlongs into a river. The results of this amalgamation are almost as confusing as the problem of the various crosses!
The earliest written variant occurs in Hillen (8) in about 1891 where, although he seems unsure whether the missile is a hammer or a ball, he has altered the furlongs into miles, and says that Tom hurled it six miles from the Smeeth, to actually hit the church at Tilney All Saints. And, he says, “the credulous villagers still point out the actual spot, in the chancel-end of their church, where the hammer (or ball) struck the wall….” Only a year later in 1892, Murray, (20) speaking of the church at Walpole St. Peter, says “there are two circular holes in the north and south walls of the chancel opposite to each other, which tradition says were made by a ball kicked by (Hickathrift)….” So, already we have a divergence in the tales. In 1955 Mr. W. S. Parsons (21) adds another dimension, by reporting that Tom “announced that he would kick a stone ball and that wherever it fell he would be buried. He kicked the ball from Tilney St. Lawrence and it hit the wall of Tilney All Saints church, roughly two miles away. The impact caused a crack in the church wall which, it was said, could not be permanently repaired….”
Next with a variant is T. C. Lethbridge in his 1957 book ‘Gogmagog’ (22). He announces that Tom “threw a missile…through the wall of Walpole St. Peter’s church, where a small hole is still shown….” In 1966 Randell and Porter (23) say that Tom threw a stone three miles from a river to Tilney All Saints, and was buried where it fell. From the same source comes the claim that Tom beat the Devil in a game of football in the churchyard at Walpole St. Peter, but during the match Satan kicked the stone ball at our hero, missed, and the ball went through the church wall. A compendium of legends in 1973 (24) gets the notion that Tom actually fought the Devil at Walpole, from where Roberts (25) probably originated his claim that “Tom wrestles the Devil…and wins”.
Once again, we seem to have two parallel traditions arising from one or two similar incidents in the early Chapbooks, but this time they may be roughly ‘coeval’. The vagueness of the targets in the ball-kicking and hammer-throwing episodes is, I think, sufficient to account for the basic variations. Also, at Walpole, the two small round holes are probably where the ends of vanished tie beams of the church structure protruded through the walls. But at Walpole St. Peter there is another object, which I think served to attract the associations with Tom the giant.
The first reference to it is in Murray in 1892, (20) where he mentions “a figure of a satyr supposed to be Roman, called by the country people ‘Hickathrift’, the traditional local giant, (which) is built into the outer wall at the junction of the chancel and north aisle….” Roberts (25) is overstating things somewhat when he calls it “a monstrous, carven stone giant’s effigy (a la Cerne Abbas)….” as the little figure is only 21” high from head to toe! It is a very weathered image of crumbling sandstone on the north side of the church, and stands upon a corbel supporting a rood-stair window. Its identification with Hickathrift is somewhat suspect though, as it is of very indeterminate sex. Indeed, the architectural historian Pevsner (26) calls it “a small caryatid figure, probably Roman”. The point being that a caryatid is a female figure used as a pillar or support.
4) Hickathrift’s Grave:
If we assume that the Walpole incidents are but variations on a basic theme, we’re left with the fundamental action, common to many folk-tales, of the hero standing somewhere (probably at the Smeeth), and throwing or kicking a stone for some distance, saying that where it lands he wants to be buried. And in this case, the burial site is confirmed by almost every writer from Weever in 1631 onwards as being the churchyard at Tilney All Saints.
From about the 1950s, the inquisitive tourist has been shown a stone in the churchyard that is claimed to mark the grave of Tom Hickathrift the giant. It lies a few feet from the east end of the church, and is a simple plain slab of unadorned granite on an east-west axis, whose exact shape was hard to discern because of the dense undergrowth around and over it. Now, it has been cleared, and has been labelled as an aid to visitors. There have been various estimates of the stone’s length over the years, such as “no more than seven feet”, “nearly eight feet”, and “eight feet long”. Having accurately measured it, I can safely say that the stone was originally exactly 7’6” long, but now has a 3” split across the middle that has forced the two halves apart. This is supposed to be the very stone that Hickathrift threw from all those miles away!
However, if we go right back to 1631 and John Weever, we find: “In the churchyard is a ridg’d Altar, Tombe or Sepulchre of a wondrous antique fashion upon which an Axell-tree and a cart-wheele are insculped; Under the Funerall Monument, the Towne-dwellers say that one Hikifricke lies interred”. Likewise Dugdale in 1662 (5) refers to the gravestone “whereupon the form of a cross is so cut as that the upper part thereof by reason of the flourishes…sheweth to be somewhat circular, which they will, therefore, needs have to be the wheel and the shaft the axletree”.
How then is it that the present gravestone bears no resemblance whatsoever to this earlier carven ‘Sepulchre’? The main point is that up to about 1810 the grave was complete – that is, consisting of both a coffin and a coffin lid or cover, but after that date the two had become separated. In 1803, Blomefield (4) describes “the stone coffin” and the sculptured lid together. By the time of Sir Francis Palgrave’s investigation around 1814 (29) things had changed. He ascertained “the present state of Tom’s sepulchre. It is a stone soros (coffin), of the usual shape and dimensions; the sculptured lid or cover no longer exists”. Exactly where it had gone at that time I don’t know, but it certainly existed then and still does. In 1883 along came William White (30) who noted: “In the churchyard is part of a stone coffin, said to have contained the remains of Hickathrift….”
Note the words “part of a stone coffin” – because Hillen in 1891 also uses them: “Until recently a part of a stone coffin, said to contain the remains of the Fenland hero, might have been seen to the north of the church. It measures 7’4” outside, and 6’10” inside; whilst the breadth at the head was 2 ½ feet, and at the feet 1’3”……” But he also mentions the lid having been “deposited at the west end of the north nave-aisle”, actually within the church itself. The following year Murray (20) (possibly just taking his cue from Hillen) also says that “here until recently was a grave slab with a cross and circle round it….” The slab is now in the church, at the west end of the north nave aisle.
From then until Parsons in 1955 (21) only the coffin lid, inside the church, is ever mentioned, but Parsons is the first to commit to print the existence of the current gravestone. It will be noticed in the accompanying drawings that not only do none of the items conform to the eight-foot stature of the chapbook giant, but also that none is exactly the same size as the others.
What seems to have happened is that from the early days of the 17th century, there was a large stone coffin with a curiously ornamented lid that was associated with the burial of the legendary giant Tom Hickathrift. Some time afterward the coffin and lid became separated, and the coffin vanished from sight (buried, broken up, who knows?) But there must have been a second (perhaps lid-less) coffin, even larger, that came to be thought of as the giant’s. I say must have been, because the coffin as described by Hillen (7’4” long outside) is far too large for the 6’5” lid to have fitted it. I have it on expert advice (31) that the lid should have: “fitted it (the coffin) exactly. Usually most coffins and their lids were carved at the same quarry and transported as a single order. I would expect an entirely different lid to cover (this) coffin…”
Around the 1880s this larger coffin was breaking up, and ten years later it had vanished completely, the carved lid having been taken inside the church for safekeeping. Thus, sometime in the first half of the 20th century, a massive slab of granite was found or made, and placed over the remains of whoever it was that was thought to be the giant. Indeed, because it matches to within two inches the length of the coffin, it may have been specifically tailored to suit the conditions of the legend. But whichever the case may be, the gravestone that people are now shown as being Hickathrift’s is no more than a relatively modern replacement, perhaps no more than 80 or 90 years old.
Now, what about those odd carvings on the coffin lid? They are done in relief, and much weathered, but all the designs can still be seen quite clearly – which is more than can be said for the days of Weever et al, since they consistently mention only one “round cross upon a staff”. This is what Blomefield had to say on the subject in 1808:
“the cross, said to be a representation of the cart-wheel, is a cross-pattée on the summit of a staff, which staff is styled an axle-tree; such crosses-pattée on the head of a staff, were emblems, or tokens, that some Knight Templar was therein interred, and many such are to be seen at this day in old churches”.
One or two antiquaries agreed with this observation, with Gomme (32) even going so far as to speak of “one Hickafric, supposed to be a Knight Templar”! However, according to (31) “there is no evidence that the crosses pattée denote a Templar grave”. The central design, the four curving arms, “it has been suggested were intended to represent the scarves or infulae attached to processional crosses. From the shape of this device the cumbrous name of ‘Omega-slabs’ has been given to them, and their area of distribution…suggests that they were products from the Midland quarries” (33). This Omega pattern is, apparently, quite common in eastern England. If we assume that neither the large coffin, the lid, nor the granite slab actually held or covered the remains of a legendary giant, then just whom did they hold or cover?
The Origins of Tom Hickathrift:
As far as the coffin and the slab go, we can surely never know whom they covered – but what about the elaborate lid? ‘Kelly’s Directory’ of 1925 says the tomb is of “the Saxon giant Hycathrift, who accompanied Richard Coeur de Lion on the crusades”. This is almost as bad as claiming that Tom was a Knight Templar, but it at least gives us a clue. Then Hillen gives us a reasonable name to go with the coffin lid: “Probably the tomb is that of Sir Frederick de Tylney, who was renowned for his great strength and stature. He was knighted by Richard 1, whilst fighting in the Holy Land. Though killed at Acre, the knight’s body was brought home for interment”. If we put Kelly’s and Hillen’s remarks together, we get the result that Hickathrift = Sir Frederick de Tylney – but it isn’t as simple as that! In about 1814 Sir Francis Palgrave (29) writes:
“Mr. Thomas Hickathrift, afterwards Sir Thomas Hickathrift, knight, is praised by Mr. Thomas Hearne as a ‘famous champion’. The honest antiquary has identified this well-known knight with the far less celebrated Sir Frederick de Tylney, Baron of Tylney in Norfolk, the ancestor of the Tylney family, who was killed at Acon (Acre) in Syria, in the reign of Richard Coeur de Lion. Hycophric or Hycothrift, as the mister-wight observes, being probably a corruption of Frederick. This happy exertion of etymological acumen is not wholly due to Hearne, who only adopted a hint given by Mr. Peter Le Neve, whileome of the College of Arms”.
To this Gomme in 1884 added the comment: “There does not seem to be the slightest evidence for Hearne’s identification any more than there is for his philological conclusions…” Thomas Hearne lived from 1678 to 1735, while Peter Le Neve, a prolific and thorough antiquary, was born in 1661, and died in 1729. I’ve as yet been unable to track down the precise sources where either mentions Hickathrift.
Although the etymological transformation of ‘Frederick’ into ‘Hickathrift’ (or a variant) is indeed suspect, perhaps it should be noted that there is some superficial resemblance: “Frederick – Old German Frithuric, a compound of frithu ‘peace’ and ric ‘ruler’…occasionally found in the 12th century, but on the whole uncommon until the 17th century.” (34) According to Camden, Frederick is a very early name, “which hath been now a long time a Christian name in the ancient family of Tilney, and lucky to their house as they report” (35). But exactly who was this Sir Frederick, and what influence has he had upon the growth of the Hickathrift legend?
Blomefield mentions an ancient book which had once belonged to Sir Frederick de Tilney, and which in 1727 was in the hands of the afore-mentioned Peter Le Neve. Blomefield took his extract from Weever, and this was as far as I could go for quite some time. Now I’ve found that Weever probably obtained his information from Hakluyt’s 16th century ‘English Voyages’, where he says:
“This booke pertained in times past unto Sir Frederick Tilney, of Boston, in the Countie of Lincolne, who was knighted at Acon (Acre) in the land of Jurie, in the third yeere of the reigne of King Richard the first, AD 1192. This knight was of a tall stature, and strong of body, who resteth interred with his forefather at Tirrington (sic), neere unto a towne in Marshland called by his own name Tilney. The just height of this knight is there kept in safe custody until this very day”. (36)
Confusion sets in once more when we note that Hillen, Palgrave and Mee (37) say that Sir Frederick was slain at the siege of Acre (which actually ended in July 1191) and his body brought home, while Hakluyt (or rather the lost ‘Tilney book’), Cox, Thompson (38) and Rye also casually add that he was buried at Terrington St. John in 1189; that is, two years before he died! But whenever and however he died, if he was buried at Terrington, then the Tilney coffin lid cannot be his. In fact, Dr. Butler of Leeds University (31) says that this lid is a mid-12th century stone, and unlikely to be as late as the 1190s.
“The family of Tilney”, says Thompson (38) “is of Norman origin, but derives its name from the Town of Tilney, in the county of Norfolk, and was one of the most ancient of knights’ degree in England”. The first of the family was one Frodo who came to this country just before the Conquest, and held many lordships in this area. His brother Baldwin later came to be the third Abbot of Bury St. Edmunds, while his great-grandson was the Sir Frederick involved here. He was, says Thompson, “a man of more than ordinary strength and stature, and had his chief residence at Boston. He attended King Richard 1, anno 1190, into the Holy Land, was with him at the siege of Acon, where he is said to have performed prodigies of valour, and was there knighted for his services…”
Although no written confirmation exists of his burial at either Terrington or Tilney, I find it more than a strange coincidence that the same small area of the Norfolk Marshland should hold both the traditions of a powerful, heroic giant, and the record of an actual, historically large man famed for his stature, his strength, and his “prodigies of valour”. However, even the most incredible legend often has a germ of truth at its root, and in my opinion Sir Frederick de Tilney is the likeliest basis upon which the character and myth of Tom Hickathrift have grown. This idea has however long been ignored in favour of other explanations. John Weever drew a parallel between Tom’s defeat of the Landlord’s forces, and the exploits of a 10th century Scot named Hay, forbear of the Earls of Errol. Apparently, in the year 942, Hay and his two sons came upon a battle between the Scots and the Danes, and to spur on his fainthearted countrymen, took up an ox-yoke or a plough-beam and waded into the fray, driving off the Danes in dismay, to the greater glory of King Kenneth 1 of Scotland. How historically true this tale maybe I don’t know, but the parallel with Hickathrift is obvious.
Miller and Skertchly in 1878 voiced “the opinion of some of the people of Marshland that the story is allegorical, that the giant whom Hickathrift subdued represents the sea, the wheel and axle, the weapons for banking it out, and that the name of Hickathrift is derived from ‘Hitch’ and ‘Thrive’; the hero then was some early encloser of the Fens who became powerful by continually moving his banks further out…” While the last part of that sentence bears thinking about, the etymology is rather dubious – but I’ll come back to that. Perhaps the favourite theory has been that Tom the giant is simply another form of the ancient sun god. Dutt, (40) who thought little of the idea, tells us that:
“……there are ‘authorities’, made mad by too much learning, who would have us believe that Hickafric driving along in his cart is nothing more or less than a form of the sun-god; that the wheels and the axle are the symbols of the sun and its rays; and that the great fight between Hickafric and the invaders of the Smeeth is symbolic of the sun drying-up the waters of a great flood”.
Of this ilk was T. C. Lethbridge (22) who speculated that Tom was a Celtic god of the Iceni people, from his resemblance to Taranis ‘the thunderer’ whose symbol was the sacred wheel, and who was equated with both Mars and Jupiter. His original name being forgotten, the Saxons then called him ‘Hiccafrith’ – a name of Lethbridge’s own invention – which he says (with what justification I do not know) means “the trust of the Hiccas, or Iceni”. Lethbridge also comes up with the notion (which appears nowhere in the tales) that Tom was “humanised in the Middle Ages into a man who fought a Dane…” Gomme (11) compares Tom’s exploits with those of the Scandinavian hero Grettir the Strong, but derives parallels that are only superficial at best. As there’s little meat in these theories, let’s turn back to the question of Tom’s name. For a start, “Thomas is found in England before the Norman Conquest only as a priest’s name”, (34) so he and his father cannot have been born, as the Chapbooks say, “in the reign before William the Conqueror”. But his surname is a very different matter – it is certainly unusual!
So far I’ve come across 17 different versions of Hickathrift, including Hikifrick, Hikifrike, Hic-ka-thrift, Hycophric, Hicifric, Icklethrift and Hycathrift. One would expect, in common or dialectal usage, a transposition of those final consonants. Thus, Hickathrift should become Hickafrith – but apart from Lethbridge’s invented ‘Hiccafrith’ – this has not occurred. The printed version – which even as far back as the Pepysian Chapbook was Hickathrift – must have exerted wide influence.
A suggested derivation from ‘hitch’ and ‘thrive’ is untenable, but I can offer little in place of it. If we take the syllables separately, we have first to deal with the stem ‘hick-‘ or ‘ick-‘, which is a constant. If it does indeed originate with the tribal name ‘Iceni’, it would be a rare survival indeed. Perhaps ‘hick’, a by-form of ‘Richard’, meaning a farmer or countryman. Or maybe ‘hycgan’, Old English for ‘think’, or perhaps OE ‘ic’ meaning ‘I’. Then again, ‘Hicel’, ‘Icel’, ‘Yecel’ and ‘Ica’ are all well-attested Anglo-Saxon personal names. As for the second syllable ‘-thrift’ or ‘-frick’, how about OE ‘þryccan’: ‘oppress’, or OE ‘fraec’: ‘bold, gluttonous’, or ‘frecne’: ‘terrible’, or even perhaps OE ‘þraec’ from Old Norse ‘þrekr’: ‘force, courage’. The possibilities are well nigh endless, but the justification for any of them, in any combination, is tenuous. It is, I think, best to simply accept the name Hickathrift as curious (with perhaps a connection to ‘Frithuric/Frederick’), and leave it at that.
Before giving any conclusions, I have to mention one more site linked with Tom that, as with the tale of him kicking a ball from Beccles to Bungay, is decidedly way beyond the area that is normally his. I refer to the plasterwork figures to be seen on one of the many pargetted facades of the former ‘Sun Inn’ in Church Street at Saffron Walden in Essex. The two figures, supposedly of Tom and the Wisbech giant in conflict, are modelled in bold relief in the plaster, part side view, part full-face. Between them is a large raised ring, presumed to be the sun in the title of the former inn. Despite what tourists are always told, I have grave doubts that this scene is anything whatever to do with the Hickathrift legend. I can find no reference before the 1930s for the identification – indeed one source actually calls the figures ‘Gog and Magog’. Also, the figures as modelled do not match the tale of the chapbooks. For one thing, both effigies are portrayed as the same height, whereas the Wisbech ogre was supposed to be about four feet taller than Tom. Also, although his opponent wields the traditional heavy club, ‘Hickathrift’ is provided with a sword and an ordinary, rather small, shield, rather than the wheel and axle of the main legend. The building itself dates from about the 16th century, but the pargetting is known to be at least a century later. The style of clothing given seems to fit anywhere between the 10th and 17th centuries. Just what or whom the scene might portray is anyone’s guess, but I suspect that the identification with the tales of Hickathrift is a relatively modern occurrence.
Birth of a Legend:
To sum it all up then, this is what I think to be the convoluted origin of the legend of Tom Hickathrift:
First of all, we have Sir Frederick de Tilney, a giant of a man with great strength, a knight who performs “prodigies of valour” for his king, and most important of all, a strong local identity. Although his main home is at Boston in Lincolnshire, perhaps he is responsible for the embanking of various Fens in the Marshland, and perhaps he even champions the villagers in a dispute with their local landlord over common-rights. When he dies, maybe in battle, he is buried very close to home, and the memory of his stature and valour does not fade. After a time, the ‘wicked landlord’ is altered in popular imagination into an evil ogre who menaces the Marshland, and Sir Frederick becomes Hickathrift, to do battle with him. Other exploits are added from time to time and make their way into the popular Chapbooks, some probably borrowed from other champions, and some from the stock of legend current among the Scandinavian peoples, who have a strong inheritance in this area. As Professor Tolkien might have put it (41) Tom, Hay, Grettir, Sir Frederick and all the adventures adhering to them, are put into the Pot and stirred well into the mythological Soup.
There is an ancient mound or burial barrow of unknown origin nearby, and like many such sites, the folk think it hollow, and name it the ‘giant’s grave’. Whose grave is it though? Well it can’t be Tom’s because he’s buried at Tilney – or was it Terrington? So it must be the grave of the evil ogre that Tom killed, and if so, that must be where his cave stood and Tom later built his house. And of course, there’s an ancient cross on top, that looks something like a candlestick – or when the shaft has gone, like an old-fashioned collar stud! And there are others too, at Tilney and Terrington, so they must be Tom’s as well. One has even got his finger marks on the top!
At Walpole the little figure on the church wall is noticed – and who else can it be but our hero Tom? A monument to something he did there, maybe? Well, we know he was very fond of challenging all-comers to a game of football, and whoever he played against played dirty, kicking the ball at Tom like that, but missing and shooting it straight through the church wall. Knowing Tom, it was probably Old Nick himself!
By now, Sir Frederick and his place of burial are completely forgotten, but at Tilney, the huge coffin and the carved lid are noticed – and just look at those carvings! Well, they just have to be a pair of wheels and the axle between them, just as the stories say. And that has to be old Tom’s grave, just look at the size of it! And of course, there’s the hole or patch in the wall just above it – so this is where that football went to when he kicked it out of sight! From such apparently unrelated objects and incidents, I believe, the myth of Tom Hickathrift the giant has grown. While other traditional themes may have crept in over the centuries to enlarge the tale, to me, Sir Frederick de Tilney is the likeliest progenitor for Hickathrift’s character – a strong man for a strong legend.
Weever, John: ‘Ancient Funerall Monuments’ (1631), pp.818, 866-7.
2. Spelman, Sir Henry: ‘Icenia, sive Norfolciae Descripto Topographica’ (c.1640), quoted in Gibson, Bishop (ed.): ‘Reliquiae Spelmannianae’ (1698), p.138.
3. Cox, Rev. Thomas: ‘Magna Brittania – Norfolk’ (Nutt, 1720), p.297.
4. Blomefield, Francis: ‘History of Norfolk’ (Miller, 1808), Vol.9, pp.79-80.
5. Dugdale, Sir William: ‘History of Imbanking Divers Fens & Marshes’ (1662), pp.244-5.
6. Anon: ‘The History of Thomas Hickathrift’ (c.1660-90), in the Pepysian Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.
7. Anon: ‘A Pleasant & Delightful History of Thomas Hickathrift’ (Angus & Son, c.1750).
8. Hillen, H. J.: The Hillen Mss. (unpublished, c.1891), in ‘The Legendary Folklore of Norfolk’, Bradfer-Lawrence X1d, Norfolk Record Office.
9. Pendle, A.: letter in the ‘East Anglian Magazine’ (July 1965), Vol.24, p.322.
10. Marlowe, Christopher: ‘Legends of the Fenland People’ (Palmer, 1926), pp.x-xi, 49-56.
11. Gomme, G. L. (ed.): ‘The History of Thomas Hickathrift’, Chap-books & Folk-lore Tracts, 1st Series 1884); also the Villon Society (1885).
12. Jonathon Peckover: ‘Fen Tumuli’ in ‘The Journal of the British Archaeological Association’, Vol. 35 (1879), p.11. (Many thanks to Dr. Maureen James for this reference).
13. Miller, S. H. & Skertchly, S. B. J.: ‘The Fenland Past & Present’ (Longmans, Green & Co, 1878), pp.488-9.
14. Dutt, W. A.: ‘The Norfolk & Suffolk Coast’ (Unwin, 1909), p.398.
15. Wortley, Elizabeth.: letter in the ‘East Anglian Magazine’ (Sept. 1955), Vol.14, p.656.
16. Cozens-Hardy, Basil: ‘Norfolk Crosses’, in ‘Norfolk Archaeology’ (1934), Vol.25, pp.324-6.
17. Kelly (ed.): ‘Directory of Norfolk’ (Kelly’s directories Ltd, 1925), p.519
18. Porter, Enid: ‘Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore’ (R. & K. Paul, 1969), pp.188-9.
19. Ian Clayton Caldwell of Terrington Court to me (Oct. 8th 1980).
20. Murray (ed.): ‘Handbook of the Eastern Counties’ (John Murray, 1892), pp.322-3.
21. Parsons, W. S.: letter in the ‘East Anglian Magazine’ (1955), Vol. 14, p.475.
22. Lethbridge, T. C.: ‘Gogmagog: the Buried Gods’ (R. & K. Paul, 1957), pp.15, 168-9.
23. Randell, A. (Enid Porter, ed.): ‘Sixty Years a Fenman’ (R. & K. Paul, 1966), pp.79-81.
24. Various: ‘Folklore, Myths & Legends of Britain’ (Readers’ Digest Assoc., 1973), pp.252-3.
25. Roberts, Anthony: ‘Sowers of Thunder’ (Rider & Co., 1978), pp.72-3.
26. Pevsner, N.: ‘Buildings of England: North-West Norfolk’ (Penguin, 1962), p.438.
27. Porter, Enid: ‘Folklore of East Anglia’ (Batsford, 1974), pp.96-7.
28. Bord, Janet & Colin: ‘The Secret Country’ (Paladin, 1978), pp.87-9.
29. Palgrave, Sir Francis, in the ‘Quarterly Review’ (c.1814), Vol.21, pp.102-3.
30. White, William: ‘History, Gazetteer & Directory of Norfolk’ (Simpkin, Marshall & Co, 1883), p.743.
31. L. A. S. Butler of Leeds University to me (Sept. 29th 1980).
32. Gomme, G. L. (ed.): ‘Topographical History of Norfolk…’ (Stock, 1896), p.15.
33. Burgess, Frederick: ‘English Churchyard Memorials’ (Lutterworth Press, 1963), p.105.
34. Withycombe, E. G.: ‘Oxford Dictionary of English Christian names’ (O. U. Press, 1971), pp.116, 266.
35. Camden, William: ‘Remains Concerning Britain’ (1605), 1870 edition pub. By John Russell Smith, p.769.
36. Hakluyt, Richard: ‘The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics & Discoveries of the English Nation’ (1589 & 1599), Vol.2.
37. Mee, Arthur: ‘The King’s England: Norfolk’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1940), p.407.
38. Thompson, Pishey: ‘History & Antiquities of Boston’ (Longman & Co., 1856), pp.373-5.
39. Rye, Walter: ‘Norfolk Families’ (2nd edition 1913), pp.910-14.
40. Dutt, W. A.: ‘Highways & Byways in East Anglia’ (Macmillan, 1923), pp.284-5.
41. Tolkien, J. R. R.: ‘On Fairy-stories’, in ‘Tree & Leaf’ (Allen & Unwin, 1964), p.30.
M W Burgess has also expressed his: “grateful thanks for the assistance and information received from the following”:
Mr. W. J. Chambers of Saffron Walden.
Rev. C. N. Bales of Marshland St. James.
Rev. A. J. Clements of Tilney All Saints.
Mr. L. V. Grinsell of Bristol.
Mr. & Mrs. Ian Clayton Caldwell of Terrington Court.
Ms. Rosalinda M. C. Hardiman, former Curator of the Wisbech & Fenland Museum.
The Folklore Society.
Miss I. B. McClure of the British Archaeological Association.
Norwich Local Studies Library & the Norfolk Record Office.
Mr. E. Dowman, Assistant to the York Herald of the College of Arms.
Mr. A. J. Camp, Director of the Society of Genealogists.
Mr. F. H. Thompson, General Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Lincoln Central Library, & Lincoln Castle Archives.
Mr. J. Graham-Campbell, Secretary of the Society for Medieval Archaeology.
Dr. L. A. S. Butler, Head of the Dept. of Archaeology at the University of Leeds.
Dr. Maureen James, folklorist, historian and storyteller.
Source Website: https://www.hiddenea.com/quest1.htm
The text (excluding minor tweaks for editorial reasons) by kind permission Mike Burgess. Photographs (except those attributed elsewhere) are also by kind permision of Mike Burgess.
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There is something quite eerie about ravens, and there is something equally eerie about church ruins; seeing both together can, for the more imaginative, be quite chilling. None more so than when approaching the old church ruins of St Felix at Babingley, on the royal estate in Norfolk.
Babingley is a small hamlet which includes an abandoned village which adjoins the St Felix church ruin, standing as it does some 6 miles north of Kings Lynn and surrounded by fields and marsh, near the junction of the B1439 and the A149. Silence still manages to pervade the place and ivy masters its walls if not cut back. The added presence of jackdaws whirling above and swapping places between the church tower and nearby trees makes for drama. Make no mistake, this is the type of isolated spot that rides the surrounding fields well, particularly on bright winter days before the annual ploughing is spring carpeted and lambing begins. Best to witness the place when there is a chill in the air – for it has history and a legend!
Babingley has long claimed itself as the landing place of St Felix of Burgundy, in AD 631, who came to convert the East Angles to Christianity. It is said that he was invited by the Wuffings (or Wuffingas or Uffingas), the royal East Anglian family,. Others, like Wikipedia, is more specific by stating that Felix travelled from his homeland of Burgundy, first to Canterbury before being sent by Honorius to Sigeberht of East Anglia‘s kingdom. He travelled by sea and on arrival via Babingley, Sigeberht gave him a See at Dommoc . According to Bede, Felix helped Sigeberht to establish a school in his kingdom “where boys could be taught letters”. Felix of Burgundy was also known as Felix of Dunwich. He became a saint and the first bishop of the East Angles.
“all the province of East Anglia from long-standing unrighteousness and unhappiness”.
Felix may have been a priest at one of the monasteries in Francia founded by the Irish missionary Columbanus – the existence of a Bishop of Châlons with the same name may not be a coincidence!
A Clerk of Oxford further states :”Working with the aid of the ill-fated King Sigeberht, he [Felix] established churches, a school, and an episcopal See at a place called Dommoc (perhaps to be identified with the town of Dunwich, which has since disappeared almost entirely into the sea). Felix had help from the newly-founded church of Canterbury, and was consecrated as bishop by Honorius, the last surviving member of the Gregorian mission to England………Bede, in etymological mood, tells us (in Historia Ecclesiastica, II.15)”:
“Bishop Felix… came to Archbishop Honorius from the Burgundian region, where he had been raised and ordained, and, by his own desire, was sent by him to preach the word of life to the nation of the Angles. Nor did he fail in his purpose; for, like a good farmer, he reaped a rich harvest of believers. In accord with the meaning of his own name, he freed the whole province from its ancient iniquity and infelicity (infelicitate), brought it to the faith and works of righteousness, and guided it to eternal felicity (perpetuae felicitatis)”.
Felix was Bishop for seventeen years, until his death on 8 March 647/8. His relics were preserved at Soham [ Soham Abbey], but the shrine and community there were destroyed in the ninth century by a Viking raid. In the eleventh century Cnut gave permission for the monks of Ramsey Abbey to take possession of Felix’s relics…… There’s a memorable story in Ramsey’s own chronicle, the Chronicon Abbatiae Ramesiensis, which claims that when the Ramsey monks were sailing home with Felix’s relics through the Fens they were pursued by the monks of Ely, also in a boat, eager to have the precious relics themselves. A miraculous fog descended, in which the Ely monks lost their way, and our Ramsey heroes were able to escape with the relics. Rivalry between Ramsey and Ely, two great Fenland monasteries, is a regular feature of their medieval history, and since Soham is closer to Ely than it is to Ramsey you can see why the Ely monks might feel a little aggrieved! It’s a great story (though generically typical), but even the Ramsey chronicler who records it expresses doubts about its veracity – with engaging frankness, he says ‘the reader is not required to believe the story, provided that he feels it to be certain that every part of the relics of St Felix were translated to the Church of Ramsey, and honourably deposited there’. As indeed there’s no reason to doubt.”
So, maybe Felix did come to Babingley, but why arrive at the extremity of East Anglia and about as far as you can be from the former royal capital at Rendlesham and Dommoc, on the other side of the modern Walton; surely, Dunwich would have been a better bet? On second thoughts, we best leave this latter question behind; for if Babingley was never the place where St Felix set foot on his arrival in Norfolk then Babingley would never have had its legend – thus so:
Babingley has, like many Norfolk villages, a timber ‘village signpost’; this one was carved by Mark Goldsworthy and it depicts the curious tale of the ‘brave Bishop Beaver of Babingley’. The signpost stands amongst rhododendrons in a nearby wood clearing.
Like all charming legends, this one says that when St Felix arrived at the Wash, he headed for the River Babingley which was, at this time, still navigable. As he sailed up the river, looking for a suitable place to land, a violent storm occurred and St Felix’s ship floundered in the water. Fortunately for him, together with the rest of the crew, beavers existed in East Anglia at the time; and thanks to these creatures, everyone on the boat was saved from drowning and taken to safety – at Babingley. In gratitude, the Felix consecrated the chief of the beavers by making him a Bishop in thanks for saving his life and allowing him to deliver Christianity to the region of what became East. This act is remembered on the Babingley village signpost which shows a beaver in a bishop’s mitre grasping a crook.
The ruined church of which we speak was a rebuilt 14th-century edition, dedicated to St Felix and was used for worship until the early 19th century. It sits, surrounded by the trees which house those ravens, in a field some 200 metres north of the River Babingley and is now part of the nearby royal Sandringham. The ruin today comes with its 15th century south porch addition, built in the main of grey Sandringham stone and carstone with limestone dressings. The church once consisted of a nave, north and south aisles with two-bay arcade, chancel, and west tower and has undergone a number of alterations. The north aisle was demolished and its arcade blocked; the chancel arch bricked up and a Decorated Gothic window from the south side of the chancel re-set in the brickwork. Its ruined state goes back a long way – in a 1602 survey the chancel was described as ‘decaying’ and by 1752, ‘dilapidated’.
In 1845, William Whites’ History, Gazetter and Directory stated that “the tower and nave are in tolerable repair, but the chancel is in ruins” According to Pevsner, repairs were attempted four years later in 1849 but the introduction of the mission church just off the main road in 1880 was the final nail in the old St Felix’s coffin as it had its roof removed. As a ‘sop’ to its once proud place, the church yard continued to be used into the 20th century. Now, bar for the 15th century porch, the church is completely open to the skies, covered in ivy and teased by those ravens. However, it can take pride in the fact that, since March 1951, it is now Grade I listed!
FOOTNOTE: You can now spread your wings and, with the aid of the video below, take a birdseye view of the old St Felix Church at Babingley, and those ravens – if you can spot them far below!
The men of E Company had grown up together, playing cricket for the same village team, chasing the same girls and drinking in the same pubs and inns. And now, as members of the 5th Territorial Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment, they were about to go to war together.
It was during the hot August of 1914 when groups of friends, team-mates and work colleagues from across Britain eagerly enlisted to fight the Bosch. But what the soldiers of E Company, 5th Territorial Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment, had in common was something rather unusual: they all belonged to the staff of the Royal Estate at Sandringham.
The company had been formed in 1908 at the personal request of their employer, King Edward VII. He asked Frank Beck, his land agent to undertake the task. This he did, recruiting more than 100 part-time soldiers or territorials.
As was the custom in the territorial battalions of the day, military rank was dictated by social class. Members of the local gentry like Frank Beck and his two nephews became the officers. The estate’s foremen, butlers, head gamekeepers and head gardeners were the NCOs. The farm labourers, grooms and household servants made up the rank and file.
What happened to the Sandringhams during the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in the middle of their very first battle, on the afternoon of August 12, 1915? One minute the men, led by their commanding officer, Sir Horace Proctor-Beauchamp, were charging bravely against the Turkish enemy. The next they had disappeared. Their bodies were never found. There were no survivors. They did not turn up as prisoners of war. – They simply vanished!
General Sir Ian Hamilton, the British Commander-in-Chief in Gallipoli, appeared as puzzled as everyone else. He reported: ‘there happened a very mysterious thing’. Explaining that during the attack, the Norfolks had drawn somewhat ahead of the rest of the British line’. He went on ‘The fighting grew hotter, and the ground became more wooded and broken.’ But Colonel Beauchamp with 16 officers and 250 men, ‘still kept pushing on, driving the enemy before him.’ ‘Among these ardent souls was part of a fine company enlisted from the King’s Sandringham estates. Nothing more was ever seen or heard of any of them. They charged into the forest and were lost to sight and sound. Not one of them ever came back.’ Their families had nothing to go on but rumours and a vague official telegram stating that their loved ones had been ‘reported missing’.
King George V could gain no further information other than that the Sandringhams had conducted themselves with ‘ardour and dash’. Queen Alexandra made inquiries via the American ambassador in Constantinople to discover whether any of the missing men might be in Turkish prisoner-of-war camps. Grieving families contacted the Red Cross and placed messages in the papers, hoping for news of their sons and husbands from returning comrades. But all to no avail.
So what really happened to men of Sandringham?
Along with thousands of other troops, the 5th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment had set sail from Liverpool on July 30, 1915, aboard the luxury liner Aquitania.
At 54, Captain Beck need not have led his men to war. But despite his age, he was determined to do so.
‘I formed them,’ he said bravely, ‘How could I leave them now? The lads will expect me to go with them; besides I promised their wives and children I would look after them’.
The battalion landed at Suvla Bay on August 10, in the thick of the fighting, and was immediately ordered inland.
Officers and men were being continually shot down, not only by rifle fire from the enemy in front of them, but by snipers.
The climate was broiling by day and freezing at night. Men were already suffering from dysentery and from the side-effects of inoculations and seasick tablets administered during the voyage. There was a desperate lack of water – two pints were supposed to last each man three days.
Then, on August 12, just two days after they had arrived in this arid, hostile land, the 5th Battalion was told it was to attack that afternoon. The orders were confused. Some thought the plan was to clear away the enemy’s forward positions in preparation for the main British assault. Others believed their target was the village of Anafarta Saga on the ridge ahead of them. The officers were handed maps, which they soon discovered did not even show the area they were supposed to be attacking.
Having been in the baking sun all day the inexperienced troops were thirsty and scared – and now they were to launch a major assault on a well-armed enemy in broad daylight and with little cover. Only Private George Carr, a 14-year-old Norfolk lad, was to survive the bloodshed of that afternoon. Exhausted by the battle, he was saved by a stretcher-bearer called Herbert Saul, a pacifist who refused to carry a rifle on principle.
At 4.15-pm whistles blew and the Norfolks began to advance, led by Colonel Beauchamp, waving his cane and shouting: ‘On the Norfolks, on.’ Captain Beck was at the head of the Sandringhams. Even though they were still a mile-and-a-half from the Turkish positions, the order to fix bayonets and to advance at the double was given. The slaughter began immediately as the Turkish artillery trained in on the advancing British soldiers. By the time the Norfolks reached the enemy lines they were already exhausted.
A desperate battle ensued, officers and men being cut down all around by snipers hidden in the trees. Everywhere officers and men of the battalion were dying. A shell landed close to Frank Beck. He was last seen sitting under a tree with his head on one side, either dead or simply too tired to continue.In the midst of the bloodshed, Colonel Beauchamp continued to advance through a wood towards the Turks’ main positions, leading a band of 16 officers and 250 men. Among them were the Sandringhams.
Eventually, the Colonel was spotted, standing with another officer in a farm on the far side of the wood. ‘Now boys,’ he shouted, ‘ we’ve got the village. Let’s hold it.’ That was the last anyone saw or heard of Beauchamp, or any of his men, including the Sandringhams. They had all disappeared, amid the smoke and flying bullets, never to be seen again.
In 1918 when the war had ended, the War Graves Commission searched the Gallipoli battlefields. Of the 36,000 Commonwealth servicemen who died in the campaign, 13,000 rested in unidentified graves, another 14,000 bodies were simply never found. During one of these searches a Norfolks regimental cap badge was found buried in the sand along with the corpses of a number of soldiers. The find was reported to the Rev Charles Pierre-Point Edwards, MC, who was in Gallipoli on a War Office mission to find out what had happened to the 5th Norfolks. It was likely that he had been sent there by Queen Alexandra.
Edwards’ examination of the area where the badge had been found uncovered the remains of 180 bodies; 122 of them were identifiable from their shoulder flashes as men of the 5th Norfolks. The bodies had been found scattered over an area of one square mile, to the rear of the Turkish front line ‘lying most thickly round the ruins of a small farm’. This, Edwards concluded, was probably the farm at which Colonel Beauchamp had last been seen. The surrounding area was wooded, the only area in the Suvla vicinity that matched with General Hamilton’s description of a forest.
Four years later came news from Turkey of a gold fob-watch, looted from the body of a British officer in Gallipoli. It was Frank Beck’s. The watch was later presented to Margeretta Beck, Frank’s daughter, on her wedding day.
And so it is here that the story of the Vanished Battalion might have ended.
Many years later, in April 1965, at the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, a former New Zealand sapper called Frederick Reichardt issued an extraordinary testimony. Supported by three other veterans, Reichardt claimed to have witnessed the supernatural disappearance of the 5th Norfolks in August 1915.
According to Reichardt, on the afternoon in question he and his comrades had watched a formation of ‘six or eight’ loaf-shaped clouds hovering over the area where the Norfolks were pressing home their attack. Into one of these low lying clouds marched the advancing battalion. An hour or so later, the cloud ‘very unobtrusively’ rose and joined the other clouds overhead and sailed off, leaving no trace of the soldiers behind them.
This strange story first appeared in a New Zealand publication. Despite its unreliable provenance and inconsistencies (Reichardt got the wrong date, the wrong battalion and the wrong location), this version of events captured popular imagination at that time. More recent and detailed research for a BBC television documentary in 1991 called “All the King’s Men.” suggested that Reichardt’s story of the battalion-lifting cloud may have been a little confused. More significantly the BBC research unearthed two new important items of evidence.
The first piece of new evidence was an account of a conversation with the Rev Pierre-Point Edwards some years after the war, which revealed an extraordinary detail he omitted from his official report about the fate of the 5th Norfolks – namely, that every one of the bodies he found had been shot in the head.
It was known that the Turks did not like taking prisoners. This was confirmed by the second piece of evidence, which told the story of Arthur Webber, who fought with the Yarmouth Company of the 5th Norfolks during the battle of August 12, 1915.
According to his sister in-law, Arthur was shot in the face. As he lay injured on the ground, he heard the Turkish soldiers shooting and bayoneting the wounded and the prisoners around him. Only the intervention of a German officer saved his life. His comrades were all executed on the spot.
Arthur Webber died in 1969, aged 86, still with the Turkish sniper’s bullet in his head.
Can the true fate of the 5th Battalion now be more fully explained?
In that after their bold dash through the wood on the 12th of August…
Colonel Beauchamp and the Sandringhams were overwhelmed by their Turkish enemies…
They were either captured or they surrendered…
The Turks took no prisoners…
So they were butchered…and buried.
Is this what became of the Vanished Battalion?
Update: Steve Smith, author of ‘And They Loved Not Their Lives Unto Death: The History of Worstead and Westwick’s War Memorial and War Dead’, has written an article “5th Battalion Norfolk Regiment – The True Story” which is reproduced on this site – it may shed some light on the fate of the Vanished Battalion.
This is a fabulous walk along the cliff tops from Old to New Hunstanton. There is much to see, fascinating historical facts and myths to consider, and an awesome secret that was kept under wraps for decades.
Why not? Reached from everywhere by rail from Kings Lynn! Golf Galore and first class on the ladies championship course of 1914; and a nine hole course on the cliffs that youngsters may learn the rudiments and long handicaps may be made short! Why not? Lawn tennis and croquet with ‘open’ tournaments on 13 good courts at the recreation ground; cricket for residents and visitors on the best ground in West Norfolk; bowls on two fine greens; and tennis again on the Esplanade Gardens. Grand cliffs and glorious sands, the safest bathing on the East Coast, esplanades, shelters, cliff rambles, promenade pier, and sea fishing, concert rooms, and theatre. Why not?
Eastern Daily Press July 4 1914, describing Hunstanton
(the train station was later closed by Dr Beeching in the great ‘cull’ of Britain’s railways)
Starting the walk: The walk begins at the huge car park at the beginning of Lighthouse Close in ‘Old’ Hunstanton. You can drive here or walk from the vast sand dunes of Holkham and up to the top of the cliffs. There are toilets here as well as a cafe. Look back for unforgettable views of the sand dunes.
There is a cute road train that operates from here in the summer to the new town and back again – very popular with kids but it takes anybody! – And you can ride it either way (picks up by the green at the new town).
The white lighthouse you see straight ahead was built in 1840, although there have been structures with a similar purpose on this spot since at least 1665. The present lighthouse was the world’s first with a parabolic reflector. Nowadays, the building serves as holiday lets.
The legend of St Edmund: A few yards away on the green cliff top are the remains of St Edmund’s Chapel, alongside which is a wooden sculpture of a baying wolf.
St Edmund, the first Patron Saint of England, arrived in this locality as a very young man and was crowned King of East Anglia in 855. For some years he was a benign and just ruler before being defeated by the invading Danes led by a man called Ivar the Boneless at a place – exact location unknown – called Haegelisdon. He was offered his life if he denounced Christianity, which he refused to do. He was tied to a tree and his body shot through with arrows (there are obvious parallels with the legend of St Sebastian here) and he was decapitated. His mortal remains were unceremoniously dumped in a nearby wood.
When the broken-hearted people of East Anglia heard of this, they organised a search party for their king, finding his body quite quickly. However, as they could find no trace of his head, one of them yelled out ‘Where are you?’ Where are you?’ A cry came back from further inside the wood: ‘Hic, Hic, Hic’ (Hic is Old English for ‘Here’). The head was found, protected by the forelegs of a wolf. The wolf allowed the head to be taken and went with the men to the body of Edmund where the head miraculously reconnected itself to his body. The wolf returned to the forest.
Hippisley Hut: Hippisley Hut is here, still surviving as a private home, and pivotal to the success of the war as the centre and birthplace of wireless interception. It is a five bedroomed family home now, no longer a hut, and has in the past been available as a rented holiday home. It played a key – some say THE key – role in a top secret campaign to give Britain command of the seas and the U-Boat campaign during the Great War.
It is named after Richard John Bayntun Hippisley CBE (1865-1956), known in his life as Bayntun. Science was very much in the family genes, his grandfather being a Fellow of the Royal Society and another relative, Richard Lionel Hippisley (1853-1936) having a very distinguished career first as Director of Telegraphs in South Africa during the Boer War and later as Chief Engineer of the Royal Engineers in Scotland.
Bayntun joined the West Sussex Yeomanry in 1908, soon developing an interest in wireless and he successfully applied to the Post Office for a licence to start his own wireless station at the Lizard in Cornwall where he reputedly picked up messages from the doomed Titanic in 1912.
When war broke out in 1914 the Admiralty was very keen to utilize the experience of amateurs like Bayntun due to their wealth of experience and, frankly, lack of costs. Thus it was that Bayntun and a friend of his, Edward Russell Clarke, were recruited as ‘volunteer interceptors’ and together began an effective monitoring of German wireless stations. They proved to be successful operating at a lower frequency than the ‘official’ Marconi stations. In late 1914 both of these men were sent to Hunstanton, to a bare wooden building that became known as ‘Hippisley Hut’. Hunstanton was the highest point in close proximity to the German coast.
One of the men who won the war?: The work of Bayntun and Clarke was top secret but it is the opinion of some experts on the period that they may well have had a crucial impact on the outcome of the conflict. They rapidly converted the basically wooden hut into a listening station which could tune into the signals of German shipping and airships. Sometimes they would venture out onto the surrounding cliff tops and operate from tents. 14 more similar stations were set up along the coast and two at crucial overseas locations, Malta and Italy. The listening stations were critical in several ways, in particular during the Zeppelin menace of 1916.
Hippisley Hut, signal interceptors and the Battle of Jutland: This battle in 1916 was the most important naval clash of the war. The plan of the Germans was to lure the Royal Navy into a trap by offering battle with a small number of fast ships before attacking with the full might of the Dreadnoughts and U-boats waiting over the horizon. However, the Allies were aware of the location of the High Seas Fleet through the work of the listening stations, including that in Hunstanton. Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, commanding the British ships, was able to turn back from his pursuit before disaster may have struck, although he still lost two cruisers. Thereafter, there were skirmishes during which HMS Indefatigable, HMS Invincible and 11 other cruisers and destroyers were lost along with 6,000 men. Germany lost about 3,000.
It was the only meeting between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet and, although claimed to be a German victory, and indeed, the Royal Navy lost 14 craft to the 11 of Germany, it nonetheless ended for good any aspiration by the Kaiser to dominate the seas.
By 1917 Bayntun had further developed his systems and was able to advise as to the locations of German shipping and U-boats which led to the clearing of the seas, enabling essential supplies to reach the British people.
After the war Bayntun was awarded an OBE and returned to Somerset where he became involved in local politics. In 1937 he was honoured with a CBE. He died in 1956.
Walking into the ‘New’ Town: From the lighthouse, follow the path along the cliff top towards New Hunstanton, along Cliff Parade. As you walk looking over the cliffs, you will see not one, but up to four fences, each about a yard further in, stopping any further progress toward the cliff edge. The council has simply put up a new fence each time erosion has impacted the cliffs, leaving the ‘old’ one in situ. The fact that they are all in reasonable condition still is a physical reminder of just how quickly the land is being eaten away.
As this is an area of sometimes blanket mists, the grass can become surprisingly wet and waterproof footwear is a must. Some walkers choose to use the pavement on the further side of the road.
You will soon pass the area of new houses and flats designed with a sea view. On the left, the buildings become grander, constructed of beautiful deep sandy coloured ‘honeystone’. This is the start of the ‘New’ Hunstanton, designed as a complete new settlement by a celebrated Victorian architect, William Butterworth, and paid for by a consortium of wealthy businessmen led by Henry Styleman Le Strange. You will pass two elegant squares – Lincoln and Boston – which were based on London squares but each having a wonderful sea view. The town was begun in 1846 and linked to Kings Lynn by a new railway.
The road passes the old ‘pitch and put’ course on your right and leads to the Green, the epicentre of the town. Look up to your left to see the very first building ever built here, now called The Golden Lion Hotel. Glance around to witness a wonderful triangle of deep sandy-coloured honeystone buildings, with the bottom side of the triangle being the seafront and promenade. The sixties and seventies have a great deal to answer for here as, especially from the apex and along the right-hand side of the triangle, much quick ‘adding on ‘ has been done in order to turn the original buildings into shops and cafes. If, however, you can blot these out in your mind’s eye, it is possible to travel back in time and see this town as the beautiful and highly praised settlement it once was. The great and the good all came here along with the ‘ordinary folk’ who utilised the railway.
Went to New Hunstanton, which in consequence of the Camp and some excursions from the Midlands was a complete Fair, almost equal to the sands of Yarmouth in the height of the season. …The whole place was replete with life, and every available place of refreshment was crowded.
Rev Benjamin Armstrong July 20 1874
Walking around the town: If you have time, take a walk around the town. To do this, pass upwards to the right hand upper side of the green. Turn right, along the cafes and then first left. Follow Le Strange Terrace into Westgate and turn left into the High Street. This higgledy-piggledy street of golden honeystone has much the same atmosphere as it did years ago, although the shops themselves may have changed. At the end, turn left down the hill, left again at the green, until you stand opposite The Princess Theatre. You are on top of the green, where this mini walk began.
Personal memories: If you look behind you, this is precisely the spot where the writer of this account spent his teenage years. It was in a restaurant with flat above situated on the ground and first floors of one of these beautiful honeystone buildings. It had (has) five floors, the three above, alas, all being empty at the time. Unfortunately, the water tank was at the top and froze constantly in winter. Many was the time that mother and son went up and down, up and down, with hot water!
I have many memories of this restaurant where my Mum worked so hard for two years that she saved up enough money for the family’s first house. I recall, on the day we opened for business, a family of customers went to sit outside on the terrace. As they all sat down around the table I heard a sharp ‘crack’ and the man in the group was on the floor – his wooden chair had broken. This was excruciatingly embarrassing to the 13 year old boy (me) who was acting as the waiter. Oh well! He was very nice about it as I recall.
As you will see, from the top of the town the green slopes towards the massive Norfolk ocean over which the sun sets in spectacular fashion – Hunstanton is rare in facing west and the sun actually sets over the sea. For up to five or six hours a day, depending on time of year, silver and golden, at times also pink and red, even greenish, ‘roadway’ – some locals call it the ‘pathway to heaven’ – stretches to infinity over the waves. When the tide recedes and it is peaceful, scores of seals bask on the sandbanks. This is also a place of mirages: some claim to have seen magical ships and beautiful castles through the fine haze on a summer’s day, on the horizon just above the sea.
Local legends and literature: If there is a reasonable wind, there is no better place for windsurfing. Yet, when a gale blows and the sea roars, it is best to take cover – the pier was completely swept away in 1978. King John is reputed to have lost the Crown Jewels somewhere in the Wash due to a storm of unprecedented ferocity, so somewhere out there may be riches beyond imagination. Some historians think this may have been an early insurance scam, King John having secured the jewels somewhere else …
Again, legend has it that when St Felix was sailing in the Wash on his way to bring Christianity to East Anglia in 630 AD, his boat became tossed in a storm. The resident beavers came to his rescue and, in gratitude, he granted the chief beaver Episcopal status before landing at nearby Babingley: this is why the first Bishop of Norfolk is reputed to have been a beaver.
One of the most celebrated novelists associated with Hunstan is L.P. Hartley. In 1944 he published The Shrimp and the Anemone which drew upon his childhood experiences playing among the rock pools below the famous cliffs. Many became aware of him through the book The Go-Between, a work immeasurably melancholy and beautiful in almost equal proportions. The famous film of the book, starring Alan Bates and Julie Christie, was filmed in the region. PG Woodhouse was another frequent visitor.
If you have the time, you can wander down to the shore and along the long promenade, gaze at the ocean and even wait for one of the famous sunsets if you are lucky enough to visit when the weather conditions are right.
The Wash is a large bay on the east coast of England that lies between the counties of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. It is one of the largest estuaries in the United Kingdom and is fed by the rivers Witham, Welland, Steeping, Nene and the Great Ouse. Collecting 15% of the water that drains from the countries lands it is the second largest inter-tidal, uncovered when the tide is out, mudflats in Great Britain.
People have lived on the surrounding fertile land for centuries and it was this stretch of water that the Vikings used as a major route to invade East Anglia between 865 and the start of the Norman Conquest. The Wash was given the name of Metaris Aestuarium, meaning the reaping/mowing/cutting off estuary during the first century by Claudius Ptolemy, a Roman astrologer and mathematician. The Romans built large embankments that protected the land and prevented flooding, but they had all but disappeared by the end of the fifth century. In later years Dutch engineers began a large scale land reclamation and drainage project, this has continued on and off over the years.
It is the Wash that plays host to an interesting and somewhat speculative incident in history, the story of how, in 1216, King John lost England’s crown jewels in the murky water of the estuary.
John was not a popular king, previous to his unfortunate accident he had lost much of England’s lands in France, been excommunicated and forced to sign the Magna Carta. The following year the king broke his word, this action was the starting point of the First Barons’ War. John travelled around the country to oppose the rebel forces, directing a two-month siege of Rochester Castle. Later retreating from the French invasion, John took a safe route around the marshy area of the Wash to avoid the rebel held area of East Anglia. In the October of 1216, John travelled from Spalding in Lincolnshire to a town where he was well liked, Bishops Lynn, now Kings Lynn in Norfolk a town that he had previously granted a royal charter.
It was here that he was taken ill with dysentery and decided not to continue the journey. According to Kings Lynn’s Borough Council, it was on the 12th of October that the king left the town, taking the route via Wisbech sending his baggage, plus the jewels on what he thought was the quicker route across the mouth of the Wash. The Wash was much wider than it is today, the sea reached as far as Wisbeach and the inland town of Long Sutton was on the coast and was then a port. Up to three thousand of the kings entourage were carrying the royal wardrobe and the whole of the kingdoms treasury. At low tide the conditions of the causeway were wet and muddy and the wagons moved too slowly and sank into the mud engulfing the kings most valuable possessions. The men of the train struggled with the trunks whilst others pulled at the horses to encourage movement but eventually everything was covered by the incoming tide. The accident probably took place between the tiny hamlet of Walpole Cross Keys and what we now call Sutton Bridge that crosses the River Nene.
But what of the kings treasure? Is it buried centuries deep under Sutton Bridge?
The kings journey continued to Swineshead Abby, near Boston in Lincolnshire, were his health became worse and where legend has it that he was poisoned by a monk called Brother Simon who stole the jewels and made his way out of England with Europe as his destination. Another interesting take on the loss of the king’s treasurers is that they were not lost at all and that the king was using the jewels as security, arranging for their ‘loss’ before they arrived at their destination and using the Wash as a ruse. There seems to be no written documentation to give credence to these two facts so they must remain what they probably are, just tall tales.
On the run from the barons, the loss of the kingdoms ‘treasury’ may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, which affected his health and state of mind. It was either on his journey or during his one night stay at Sleaford Castle that he heard of the loss of the treasure, his health continued to deteriorate and following his arrival at Newark Castle, the king died on the 18th or 19th October 1216. He didn’t live to see his English barons switch their allegiance taking the side of the new king, his nine year old son Henry.
John is yet another English king who has suffered from bad press over the years, he was no hero, he was vengeful and untrusting and is it any wonder, as a child he received no support from warring parents, no support from a self obsessed brother and as king no support from his people, what chance did he have? W L Warren in his book ‘King John’ seems to sum up fairly accurately the cause of his troubled reign.
“talented in some respects, good at administrative detail, but suspicious, unscrupulous, and mistrusted. His crisis-prone career was sabotaged repeatedly by the half-heartedness with which his vassals supported him—and the energy with which some of them opposed him.”
Since 1216 there has been nearly eight hundred years of silt deposited over all the gold and silver plate, the coins and the jewelry and it is highly unlikely that this treasure will ever be found. Nottingham University did undertake some work trying to discover the causeway that King John’s royal train may have passed over. No doubt, other interested parties will search in the future and maybe they may well find something. But intriguing questions remain – did this event ever happen at all; and did ‘Bad’ King John ‘arrange’ for his treasure tto disappear for reasons only he knew?
There are two contemporary accounts, one by Roger of Wendover, an English chronicler who died in 1236 and one by Ralph of Coggeshall, an English monk and chronicler who died in 1227. Both were writing at the time of the loss. Roger of Wendover writes rather melodramatically and calls it a major disaster, he writes:
‘the ground opened up in the midst of the waves, and bottomless whirlpools sucked in everything’
Ralph of Coggeshall refers to it as more of a misadventure, stating that it was not the whole of the royal baggage train that was lost but the vanguard who carried household items, church and holy relics, but not the whole of the treasury. Indeed, some valuable items, belonging to the king of England, did get lost in the Wash, but not treasure as some would imagine. There was no large chest overflowing with coins, necklaces and gold goblets, only kitchen equipment and finery collected from churches. As Coggeshall suggested maybe the real treasure was in second train that never started its journey across the Wash which eventually ended its days thrown in among the new king, Henry III’s treasury
FOOTNOTE: In the mid fourteenth century there was a Norfolk gentleman by the name of Robert Tiptoft. He, quite suddenly so they say, became very wealthy as a result of finding the King’s treasure and not handing it back to the crown where it rightfully belonged. Now, here lays another Tale!
During the medieval period the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was the second most popular destination for pilgrims in England after Canterbury. It was also one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims across Europe. Pilgrims flocked to visit the small Norfolk village of Little Walsingham, and the pilgrims’ route from the European continent took them through the port of King’s Lynn.
One popular gathering place for pilgrims en route to Little Walsingham was the Red Mount Chapel in King’s Lynn. The chapel was built in 1485 as a wayside chapel for pilgrims landing at King’s Lynn; a place to stop and pray before undertaking the overland journey to Walsingham, or to pray before leaving England after a visit to the shrine. It was known as the Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount The Walks.
It was built by Robert Currance from June 1483. In 1485 the Benedictine prior of St Margaret’s (now King’s Lynn Minster) was granted a lease on the land. The upper chapel was added in 1506, possibly by Simon Clerk and John Wastel, the mason responsible for King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.
The Benedictine Priory was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1537. Surprisingly, the chapel was not destroyed, though it was later robbed of tiles and bricks for building materials. In 1586 it was converted into a study for the vicar of St Margaret’s church. During the Civil War it was used to store gunpowder, and during an outbreak of plague in 1665 it was used a a charnel house. Around 1780 the chapel was used as a stable, then in 1783 it was converted into an astronomical observatory.
The chapel narrowly survived a bombing raid in 1942 when German bombs fell in The Walks nearby. After the war it was used briefly as a place for inter-denominational worship but this ceased when the local Catholic church found the terms of the lease too costly. Now restored, the Chapel is opened to the public during summer months.
The Red Mount Chapel only served as a religious building for just about 50 years of its history.
WHAT TO SEE
The striking chapel is one of the most peculiar late medieval Gothic structures in England. It is built to an octagonal plan, and stands three storeys high. It is supported by buttresses rising two storeys, and each buttress is pierced by a hole that forms a statue niche. It is made of two concentric drums, rising over a barrel-vaulted cellar. Brick staircases run inside the wall formed by the two drums. The two staircases run counter-wise to each other, arriving at the chapel antechamber from opposite directions.
The bottom two storeys are made of red brick, but the top storey is built from stone. It was probably added several decades after the base.
There is a priest’s room and two chapels, a lower chapel and an upper chapel. The upper chapel is decorated with a stunning fan-vaulted ceiling in ornate late Perpendicular Gothic style. The ceiling has been likened to the famous vaulted ceiling at King’s College Chapel, which is not surprising if the same master mason was involved in both.
On the internal walls is graffiti dating back to 1639 and by the entrance door is a plaque reading, ‘Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount 1485‘. The chapel stands atop a mysterious mound thought to be the remains of an early Norman motte and bailey fortification.
The Red Mount Chapel forms part of King’s Lynn’s ‘Pilgrimage Trail’, following the route taken by medieval pilgrims. Modern pilgrims still take the route followed by pilgrims centuries before.
The chapel is open two days a week from spring through autumn, with an extra day at the height of summer. When closed, the Chapel’s unusual exterior structure can be viewed from within King’s Lynn public park known as The Walks, a short stroll from the historic town centre.
A very short distance away is a preserved section of medieval town walls and the Guannock Gate, part of the town’s medieval defences. The gate and the town wall held firm against a Civil War siege by Parliamentary soldiers. The Parliamentary army could not breach the defences, but lack of supplies eventually forced the Royalist defenders of King’s Lynn to surrender.
Red Mount Chapel Address: The Walks, London Road, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England
Today, Wells-next-the-Sea is at peace and a magnet for holidaymakers, day-trippers, sailors and bird-watchers. But that was not always so, particularly during the Second World War, when a somewhat unfortunate incident occurred just off its shores in this part of the North Norfolk coast. But only a handful of people ever knew about it at the time.
During the Second World War the waters just off the East coast of Britain were some of the most dangerous anywhere in the world and often protected by mines. Sadly therefore, the legacy from that time is a seabed littered with wartime wrecks and some incredible tales of heroism. Allied shipping was being decimated by German torpedo boats (or E-boats) which would often race across from occupied Europe, quickly attack and hastily retreat. So, for protection, convoys would huddle together in a narrow channel of water often protected by mines.
In June 1941, HMS Umpire (N82) a newly built Royal Navy U-class submarine was sailing from Chatham Dockyard in Kent, to Scotland. She was on her way up the East coast for sea trials in Scotland and fearing attack, joined a convoy of ships also heading northward along what was known as E-boat alley. Her eventual destination was Dunoon where she would join the 3rd Submarine Flotilla. From there she was to carry out a single working-up patrol in the North Sea before heading off to the Mediterranean. After leaving Chatham, she made an overnight stop at Sheerness on the Ise of Sheppey, to wait for assembly of a north-bound merchant convoy leaving the Thames and gathering off Southend. The following day, she duly joined the convoy and headed North.
As early as the first night with the convoy a German Heinkel attacked the convoy and Umpire took evasive action by crash diving to well below the surface. However, on surfacing, one of its diesels developed a fault and had to be shut down. The propellers had to be driven purely by electric motors on the surface and when submerged, the submarine had no mechanical linkage to the diesel-powered units. This, inevitably, reduced the Umpire’s speed and a radio message was sent to the Commodore of the convoy, reporting this. A Motor Launch was sent back as escort but lost Umpire in the gathering darkness.
The Northbound convoy, of which Umpire was now a part, passed the Southbound convoy FS44 around midnight on the 19th June 1941, about 12 nautical miles off Blakeney. Both passed starboard to starboard which was unusual, since ships and convoys normally passed port to port. No vessel was lit because of the risk of attack from German E-boats, nevertheless and despite having dropped back from its convoy, Umpire spotted the southbound convoy and altered course to port to avoid a collision. Then suddenly, as if nothing more could go wrong, her steering faltered and she veered sharply into the path of an armed escort trawler named the ‘Peter H. Hendriks’, which was part of the southbound Convoy. Unavoidably, the trawler struck the Umpire near its bow, flooding the forward torpedo-room and rapidly sinking her in about 18 metres of water. The 180ft, 540-ton HMS Umpire settled on the seabed with a 30-degree list to starboard.
According to a Kendall McDonald – “The two vessels clung together for less than a minute before the HMS Umpire heeled to port and went down. Four of Umpire’s crew members were on the bridge at the time of impact – the Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, the navigator, Tony Godden, and two lookouts. Only the CO survived the cold water and was rescued by the trawler; both lookouts sank before help reached them. ………… Four men in her control room had managed to seal the compartment. They knew from the depth gauge near the periscopes that they were at 24m, and though they had no Davis escape gear they decided to make a free ascent from the conning-tower hatch without delay. They made a good exit and all four reached the surface, but two had held their breath and, though picked up, died later from ruptured lungs………
Due to the list, the bulkhead door of the engine-room would not close properly and the compartment was slowly but steadily flooding. Twenty men had taken refuge here and prepared to escape using the Davis escape trunk. Only 17 had Davis escape gear, so three of those went first, with the three without escape lungs clinging to their legs. Two of the latter did not make it to the surface, as they were knocked unconscious after hitting gear outside the escape hatch – and let go.
A seaman called Killan then took charge of those who were left in the engine-room. First, he ducked under water into the trunking and went up it to make sure it was all clear before returning to the engine-room. Then he sent the others up one by one. He was the last to leave and was awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery.”
Edward Preston Young was a junior officer on board the HMS Umpire at the time, and who was to go on to have a distinguished career as a submarine commander himself. His story about his experience on the HMS Umpire comes from his classic memoir of British submarine warfare, ‘One of Our Submarines’. in which he wrote:
“The sea continued to pour in on us, with a terrible and relentless noise, and the water in the compartment grew deeper every minute. As the level crept up the starboard side, live electrical contacts began spitting venomously, with little lightning flashes. Vaguely I wondered if we were all going to be electrocuted.In the half-darkness the men had become anonymous groping figures, desperately coming and going. There was no panic, but most of us, I think, were suffering from a sort of mental concussion. I discovered one man trying to force open the water-tight door that I had shut earlier. “My pal’s in there,” he was moaning, “my pal’s in there.” “It’s no good,” I told him; “she’s filled right up for’ard and there’s no one left alive on the other side of that door.” He turned away, sobbing a little.
For some reason we decided it would be useful if we could find more torches. I knew there must be one or two others somewhere in the wardroom, so I made yet another expedition down the slope, wading through the pool that was now waist-deep and already covering the lowest tiers of drawers under our bunks. I spent some time in the wardroom, shivering with fear and cold, ransacking every drawer and cupboard, pushing aside the forsaken paraphernalia of personal belongings — under-clothes, razors, pipes, photographs of wives and girl-friends. But I could find only one torch that was still dry and working. Holding it clear of the water, I returned to the control-room. It was deserted.
The door into the engine-room was shut. Had I spent longer in the wardroom than I thought? Perhaps they had all escaped from the engine-room escape hatch, without realising that I had been left behind. Even if they had not yet left the submarine, they might already have started flooding the compartment in preparation for an escape, and if the flooding had gone beyond a certain point it would be impossible to get that door open again. I listened, but could hear nothing beyond the monotonous, pitiless sound of pouring water. In this terrible moment I must have come very near to panic.”
Young was not on duty at the time and after the collision found himself in a flooding boat resting on the bottom of the North Sea in 60 feet of water. Having tried to surface the boat using compressed air and having searched for other survivors, Young ended up in the conning tower with the First Lieutenant, an Engine Room Artificer (ERA) and an able seaman. They estimated that as a result of the angle of the boat and the height of the conning tower there was only about 45 feet above them and that they should attempt to swim to the surface. Closing the hatch below them, they forced open the upper hatch and escaped. The ERA was never seen again and the First Lieutenant drowned after reaching the surface.
Young and the seaman were picked up, along with several men who had escaped through the engine room hatch. The Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, had already been rescued, having been on the bridge when the collision occurred. All told, 2 officers and 20 ratings died with only 2 officers, Young and Wingfield, and 14 ratings surviving.
So, just nine days after being commissioned by the Royal Navy, their newest possession at 58 metres long and 730 tons displacement, had gone. The loss of HMS Umpire was not a direct result of any enemy action, but from an entirely and unfortunate accident. Today, the wreck is designated as a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. However, although it is legally a war grave, it can be filmed, so long as nothing else is touched nor moved. The wreck lies on the seabed about 15 miles off the Norfolk coast between Blakeney and Wells in part of what is called today the ‘Sheringham Shoal’ – an eerie memorial to its brave crew and the horrors of war.
(For a tour of the wreckage site go to Archive Divernet (here)
There seems to be some debate about the wreck of HMS Umpire being classified as a War Grave; some have pointed out that the wreck was reported as having been sold for scrap after the war and most of the damage to be seen today by divers was caused by the heavy use of explosives by the salvors.