There is something quite eerie about ravens, and there is something equally eerie about church ruins; seeing both together can, for the more imaginative, be quite chilling. None more so than when approaching the old church ruins of St Felix at Babingley, on the royal estate in Norfolk.
Babingley is a small hamlet which includes an abandoned village which adjoins the St Felix church ruin, standing as it does some 6 miles north of Kings Lynn and surrounded by fields and marsh, near the junction of the B1439 and the A149. Silence still manages to pervade the place and ivy masters its walls if not cut back. The added presence of jackdaws whirling above and swapping places between the church tower and nearby trees makes for drama. Make no mistake, this is the type of isolated spot that rides the surrounding fields well, particularly on bright winter days before the annual ploughing is spring carpeted and lambing begins. Best to witness the place when there is a chill in the air – for it has history and a legend!
Babingley has long claimed itself as the landing place of St Felix of Burgundy, in AD 631, who came to convert the East Angles to Christianity. It is said that he was invited by the Wuffings (or Wuffingas or Uffingas), the royal East Anglian family,. Others, like Wikipedia, is more specific by stating that Felix travelled from his homeland of Burgundy, first to Canterbury before being sent by Honorius to Sigeberht of East Anglia‘s kingdom. He travelled by sea and on arrival via Babingley, Sigeberht gave him a See at Dommoc . According to Bede, Felix helped Sigeberht to establish a school in his kingdom “where boys could be taught letters”. Felix of Burgundy was also known as Felix of Dunwich. He became a saint and the first bishop of the East Angles.
“all the province of East Anglia from long-standing unrighteousness and unhappiness”.
Felix may have been a priest at one of the monasteries in Francia founded by the Irish missionary Columbanus – the existence of a Bishop of Châlons with the same name may not be a coincidence!
A Clerk of Oxford further states :”Working with the aid of the ill-fated King Sigeberht, he [Felix] established churches, a school, and an episcopal See at a place called Dommoc (perhaps to be identified with the town of Dunwich, which has since disappeared almost entirely into the sea). Felix had help from the newly-founded church of Canterbury, and was consecrated as bishop by Honorius, the last surviving member of the Gregorian mission to England………Bede, in etymological mood, tells us (in Historia Ecclesiastica, II.15)”:
“Bishop Felix… came to Archbishop Honorius from the Burgundian region, where he had been raised and ordained, and, by his own desire, was sent by him to preach the word of life to the nation of the Angles. Nor did he fail in his purpose; for, like a good farmer, he reaped a rich harvest of believers. In accord with the meaning of his own name, he freed the whole province from its ancient iniquity and infelicity (infelicitate), brought it to the faith and works of righteousness, and guided it to eternal felicity (perpetuae felicitatis)”.
Felix was Bishop for seventeen years, until his death on 8 March 647/8. His relics were preserved at Soham [ Soham Abbey], but the shrine and community there were destroyed in the ninth century by a Viking raid. In the eleventh century Cnut gave permission for the monks of Ramsey Abbey to take possession of Felix’s relics…… There’s a memorable story in Ramsey’s own chronicle, the Chronicon Abbatiae Ramesiensis, which claims that when the Ramsey monks were sailing home with Felix’s relics through the Fens they were pursued by the monks of Ely, also in a boat, eager to have the precious relics themselves. A miraculous fog descended, in which the Ely monks lost their way, and our Ramsey heroes were able to escape with the relics. Rivalry between Ramsey and Ely, two great Fenland monasteries, is a regular feature of their medieval history, and since Soham is closer to Ely than it is to Ramsey you can see why the Ely monks might feel a little aggrieved! It’s a great story (though generically typical), but even the Ramsey chronicler who records it expresses doubts about its veracity – with engaging frankness, he says ‘the reader is not required to believe the story, provided that he feels it to be certain that every part of the relics of St Felix were translated to the Church of Ramsey, and honourably deposited there’. As indeed there’s no reason to doubt.”
So, maybe Felix did come to Babingley, but why arrive at the extremity of East Anglia and about as far as you can be from the former royal capital at Rendlesham and Dommoc, on the other side of the modern Walton; surely, Dunwich would have been a better bet? On second thoughts, we best leave this latter question behind; for if Babingley was never the place where St Felix set foot on his arrival in Norfolk then Babingley would never have had its legend – thus so:
Babingley has, like many Norfolk villages, a timber ‘village signpost’; this one was carved by Mark Goldsworthy and it depicts the curious tale of the ‘brave Bishop Beaver of Babingley’. The signpost stands amongst rhododendrons in a nearby wood clearing.
Like all charming legends, this one says that when St Felix arrived at the Wash, he headed for the River Babingley which was, at this time, still navigable. As he sailed up the river, looking for a suitable place to land, a violent storm occurred and St Felix’s ship floundered in the water. Fortunately for him, together with the rest of the crew, beavers existed in East Anglia at the time; and thanks to these creatures, everyone on the boat was saved from drowning and taken to safety – at Babingley. In gratitude, the Felix consecrated the chief of the beavers by making him a Bishop in thanks for saving his life and allowing him to deliver Christianity to the region of what became East. This act is remembered on the Babingley village signpost which shows a beaver in a bishop’s mitre grasping a crook.
The ruined church of which we speak was a rebuilt 14th-century edition, dedicated to St Felix and was used for worship until the early 19th century. It sits, surrounded by the trees which house those ravens, in a field some 200 metres north of the River Babingley and is now part of the nearby royal Sandringham. The ruin today comes with its 15th century south porch addition, built in the main of grey Sandringham stone and carstone with limestone dressings. The church once consisted of a nave, north and south aisles with two-bay arcade, chancel, and west tower and has undergone a number of alterations. The north aisle was demolished and its arcade blocked; the chancel arch bricked up and a Decorated Gothic window from the south side of the chancel re-set in the brickwork. Its ruined state goes back a long way – in a 1602 survey the chancel was described as ‘decaying’ and by 1752, ‘dilapidated’.
In 1845, William Whites’ History, Gazetter and Directory stated that “the tower and nave are in tolerable repair, but the chancel is in ruins” According to Pevsner, repairs were attempted four years later in 1849 but the introduction of the mission church just off the main road in 1880 was the final nail in the old St Felix’s coffin as it had its roof removed. As a ‘sop’ to its once proud place, the church yard continued to be used into the 20th century. Now, bar for the 15th century porch, the church is completely open to the skies, covered in ivy and teased by those ravens. However, it can take pride in the fact that, since March 1951, it is now Grade I listed!
FOOTNOTE: You can now spread your wings and, with the aid of the video below, take a birdseye view of the old St Felix Church at Babingley, and those ravens – if you can spot them far below!
On the 26 June 2015 Emily Sarah of the Norfolk Record Office wrote that the final of the National Twelve Bell Striking Contest would take place at St Peter Mancroft Church on the following day, when 10 of the best teams of ringers from across the country, plus several hundred visiting ringers visited the city.
The Norfolk Record Office holds the records for no fewer than four ringers’ societies, all based at St Peter Mancroft’s, the earliest of which was the Norwich Ringers’ Purse founded in 1716. Members paid weekly contributions and, in return, received financial support when they fell sick. The purse also supported families of deceased ringers.
The most recent ringers’ society is the Guild of Ringers, which was founded in 1907, after a bitter dispute between the vicar and churchwardens on the one hand and the ringers on the other. At one point, the belfry was closed, the vicar got rid of all the old ringers and a new band was formed. Even then, prospective new ringers had to demonstrate that they could ring three distinct methods on twelve bells before they were admitted. Ringing a method means pulling your rope so that your bell follows all the other bells in the tower in turn, with a constantly changing pattern and at different speeds, all done by memory.
The most common method is Plain Bob Doubles, rung on five bells, usually with a sixth bell, called the tenor behind, always in the final place to keep a good sense of rhythm. Ringing the same method on eleven bells would be called Plain Bob Cinques. On twelve bells, it would be Plain Bob Maximus.
Ringing on 11 or 12 bells is very difficult, demanding years of practice and intense concentration so that the bells all sound absolutely in time. If anyone makes a mistake, the bells will clash and the resulting cacophony would be heard all over Norwich. It is said that the best ringers can ring to a precision of 3/100ths of a second.
Over the years, St Peter’s has acquired a total of 14 bells (though it is normally regarded as a ring of 12) plus a Sanctus bell, which is rung during the communion service. The largest number of bells in one tower in England is 16, at Birmingham St Martin.
The first true peal, lasting three hours and eighteen minutes on Plain Bob Triples (seven bells), was rung at St Peter’s on 2 May 1715. A peal is often rung to celebrate a special occasion, such as a birthday.
The Norfolk Record Office holds a short article on campanology from the Mancroft Review of 1971. This is mainly an appeal for more ringers to join the regular band, but it also describes the learning process:
‘Beginners are not taught at Mancroft, but on the six [bells] at St George, Colegate. There the bells are not so heavy and the ropes are just 40 feet long, compared to Mancroft’s 70 feet. But beware … campanology is a disease! Once you learn, you will get hooked.’
The Norfolk Broads may look natural, but they are a man-made phenomenon, the result of inundated peat diggings. Amazingly, this fact was not realised until the 1950s, when Dr Joyce Lambert’s research revealed that the sides of the deep lakes were vertical and not gently sloping as would be expected of a naturally formed lake. This, coupled with the historical evidence of peat demand for fuel, proved irrefutable. Another clue was that the area’s names are not Anglo-Saxon or Norse. They are named after people or landmarks, meaning they originated later.
Imagine a time where there are no mod cons, no electricity and certainly no mechanical diggers – just man power and a need to survive in what would have been difficult and unforgiving times. By the time of Domesday, around 1086, East Anglia was the most densely populated part of Britain, with a prosperous economy founded upon a stable agricultural regime. At this point, water levels in the Broadland estuary would have been sufficiently low to enable widespread exploitation of the wetlands, but very little wood was to be found on the Broadland uplands and much of the remaining floodplain woodland would have already been cleared for timber and particularly for firewood. Peat cutting, or ‘turbary’ provided a readily available alternative.
The extraction of peat would have been a difficult and unpleasant task, requiring great physical effort. Yet it was a prosperous industry and provided fuel for both individual families and manors, with a greater proportion being sold. It is estimated that more than 900 million cubic feet of peat would have been extracted.
The work: Peat extraction was a very hard and unpleasant task; the deeper, more compacted peat has a higher calorific value and is a superior fuel to that unearthed from the surface layers, but the effort of cutting blocks of peat from pits which were constantly filling with water would have been enormous.
R.F.Carrodus researched 19th century rural practices around the Horning area and found that the traditional broadland turf, certainly at that time was three and a half inches square, and two or three feet long; he also eatimated that to dig up a thousand turves a day was regarded as a good day’s work, although some people claimed to be able to dig twenty turves a minute. The geographer C.T.Smith who did all the original work on the medieval records about the broads, followed Carrodus. He took the size of a medieval turf as a quarter of a cubic foot for the purposes of rough calculations about how long it would have taken how many men to dig out the basins of the broads.
Some people would have been cutting fuel for their own individual domestic consumption, however much of the peat, or ‘turf’ was likely to have been from demesne turbaries, which were owned by the church or by the manor. The peat produced in these turbaries was sometimes used within the manor or priory, but a large proportion was sold.
The decline of the peat cutting industry: Wage labour was used, but for the most part the turbaries are likely to have been worked by bond tenants as part of the mandatory labour service owned to the lord of the manor. For example, the bond tenants of Stalham Hall in the 13th Century owed their lord 23 days labour per annum in the turbaries, and were likely to have been required to work in the fields in addition to this. Records made in 1328 indicate that the tenants were required to undertake 14 days labour in the pits, or to pay 14d. in lieu.
The industry peaked in the 13th Century, but increasing water levels and floods made extraction from the submerged turbaries more difficult, and more costly; by 1350 there were visible signs of decline.
The account rolls for properties held by Norwich Cathedral Priory at Martham date from 1261. Up until the early 15th Century, the Martham turf accounts were made more or less systematically and show annual revenues for turf sales of between 3s. 2d. and 14s. 2d. for the period between 1299 and 1340. From 1341 onwards there was no revenue from turf sales, although peat was still cut for domestic use. In 1349, the accounts show that the cost of producing turves rose dramatically, from a previous 50 year high of 9d. per 1000 turves to 20d. per 1000.
The accounts of the Norwich (Whitefriars) Priory show that peat was the main fuel in the cathedral kitchens in the first half of the 14th century. Turf consumption began to fall after 1350, although the Priory continued to rely on turf as the main source of fuel until around 1384. After this date, however, other fuels, such as wood, are increasingly mentioned in the accounts, and after 1440 there are no further references to peat as a fuel.
The reasons for this shift are almost certainly economic ones: there was either a greatly increased availability of other fuels which could be more easily obtained, or the cost of producing peat had risen to such an extent that alternatives had to be sought.
Towards the end of the 14th Century, the relative sea level had risen to the extent that the peat workings were being flooded on a regular basis. Where flooding was not too severe, it may have been possible to bale the cuttings, but once flooded, the deep turbaries could not be adequately drained with the technology then available and it was probably nearly impossible to continue to extract peat from the flooded workings in the traditional manner.
Alternative techniques for removing peat from the flooded pits were devised: for example dredging the soft peat, or ‘mora’, from the bottom of the flooded pits and shaping it into blocks. Where there was sufficient labour available, the industry continued for a time on this basis, however the impact of another factor meant that this labour was no longer in cheap, and plentiful, supply.
The advent of the plague: Bubonic plague, otherwise termed the ‘greate death’, because it affected everyone, whether rich or poor, young or old, arrived in England by ship in June 1348. ‘Black Death’ was a later name for the disease, thought to refer to the dark swellings, or ‘buboes’ at the lymph nodes. Those infected with the disease died within 4 days of detecting the first signs of swellings in armpit or groin.
Others were inflicted with the pneumonic form of the disease, which affected the lungs. In either case, very few recovered. Within 18 months of the advent of the plague, almost half the population of the country was dead. It is impossible to comprehend the scale of the personal devastation and panic which would have swept the country.
“alas this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders”. William Dene
Food shortages caused by famine may have exacerbated the impact of the plague, with perhaps a higher mortality rate among the famine-weakened population than might otherwise have occurred. East Anglia was seemingly particularly hard-hit by plague, perhaps because of the high population density. A prayer in the church of St Edmunds in the market town of Acle, written by the rector at the time, refers to the “brute beast plague that rages hour by hour”.
In the months following the first outbreak of plague, houses would have been empty, crops stood unharvested in the fields, and animals were left untended; the workers who undertook these tasks struck down by the disease.
“for want of watching…….animals died in uncountable numbers in the fields and byways and hedges” Henry Knighton
The impact of the Black Death: Corresponding to the first outbreak of the plague the peat cutting industry seems to have undergone a rather sudden decline, even thought the natural resources of Broadland was by no means close to exhaustion at this time and large tracts of uncut peat fen still existed in many of the river valleys.
It is possible that some of these surface resources were not exploited because of ownership constraints or because there was some other significant and conflicting economic use of the land, for example reed or sedge cutting. However, because of the enormous scale of the peat cutting industry, the value of the excavated peat, and the rapidity of the change, it is probable that there was some more substantive factor which caused the decline.
The decline in the peat cutting industry almost certainly had its underlying cause in natural phenomena, but these were greatly exacerbated by the changing economic and social circumstances which came about as a result of the Black Death.
A major impact of the plague was severe labour shortage and because of this between 1350 and 1500 average wages in England rose dramatically. The economic impact of this on peat cutting, which was labour intensive, was devastating. While it would have been possible, if less economically viable, to continue to excavate peat in the face of rising sea levels and increased flooding by more labour intensive methods such as dredging the wet peat and shaping it into blocks, the loss of almost half of the labour force would have rendered any labour intensive tasks unworkable, and moreover, many of those who organised and supervised the work were dead.
The plague shifted the balance of economic power in favour of the workforce: labour became scarce and it became increasingly difficult to coerce the peasant classes into carrying out their traditional tasks on behalf of the manor. While not the single most important factor in the decline of the peat industry, the plague certainly reduced the economic viability of peat extraction from the deep cuttings to a point where it was no longer possible.
Peat continued to be cut from surface deposits on a smaller scale until the beginning of the 20th Century to supplement, and locally to replace, firewood as a source of fuel, but the deeper turbaries were never again exploited, and the industry which was instrumental in creating the Broadland landscape we know today was never fully revived.
On the 30th April 1823 Mr Stebbings of Norwich was brought before the City Mayor to answer charges that he had sold his wife for £6.10s to a Mr Turner. Mr Stebbings thought he made a good deal when he took up with his ‘more favourable wife’, Turner having made a down-payment of £4 on the old Mr Stebbings.
Turner took the ex-Mrs Stebbings home and immediately turned his lawful spouse out of the house. When the now-destitute Mrs Turner applied to the authorities for poor relief, they were not satisfied with her story. Both husbands were ordered to appear before the Mayor, together with their rightful wives, to undergo investigations as to their legal marital position.
After listening to their individual versions at length, the bewildered Mayor finally ordered each husband to take only his original and legal wife back into her rightful home and support her. The unhappy four were subjected to a hustling from a jeering crowd which had gathered outside the Town Hall, and had difficulty in making their way home. Whether Stebbings ever returned the £4 down-payment to Mr Turner was never recorded.
Quite frequently, wife selling took place in public and involved an element of street theatre – as in the case at Thetford on Saturday, 17 September 1839, where a John Simpson of Brandenham sold his wife. Soon after, a broadsheet carried news on the sale:
“……. a man about 40 years of age, in a shabby-genteel dress, leading a smart-looking woman, with a handkerchief [halter} round her neck and shouting with a load voice. “Who’ll buy a wife?”. After arriving at the centre of the market, he mounted a chair and offered her for sale……. A young man of plausible appearance offered 10s for her, but he was immediately opposed by an old gentleman bidding 5s more. Afterwards, the young man became the purchaser for £5. The money was paid down and the husband, on handing over the handkerchief to the purchaser, began to dance and sing, declaring he had got rid of a troublesome noisy wife, which caused much merriment in the crowd. The young woman turned sharply round and said ‘you know you old rascal you are jealous – you are no man and have no need of a young wife, and that is the reason you sold me, you useless old dog’……The women began to clap their hands to him. He then said she was a gormandizing woman, and would eat any man’s substance up; and declared that if he had kept her another year, she would have eaten him out of the house and harbour……”
According to Peter Tolhurst, the use of a halter was, in this case a handkerchief, but more often a length of rope, the exchange of insults and payment of the agreed sum, all witnessed by the crowd, were essential elements in this ritualised drama sufficient to legitimise the transaction.
Wife selling in England was a way of ending an unsatisfactory marriage by mutual agreement that probably began in the late 17th century, when divorce was a practical impossibility for all but the very wealthiest. Quite often, a husband would tie a halter around his wife’s neck, arm, or waist, and publicly auction her to the highest bidder. Wife selling provides the backdrop for Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, in which the central character sells his wife at the beginning of the story, an act that haunts him for the rest of his life, and ultimately destroys him.
Although the custom had no basis in law and frequently resulted in prosecution, particularly from the mid-19th century onwards, the attitude of the authorities was equivocal. At least one early 19th-century magistrate is on record as stating that he did not believe he had the right to prevent wife sales, and there were cases of local Poor Law Commissioners forcing husbands to sell their wives, rather than having to maintain the family in workhouses.
Wife selling persisted in England in some form until the early 20th century; according to the jurist and historian James Bryce, writing in 1901, wife sales were still occasionally taking place during his time.
It is a fact that many folk in the distant past could neith read nor write; couple this with the fact that folklore stories have long drifted in and out of print, meaning that each generation relied on the tongue for telling tales which it was hoped would be remembered and passed on, from generation to generation. As part of this process, and to maintain the interest of liseners, these stories were often elaborated and embellished; an essential part of the spoken tradition which wanted to perpetuate whatever lay behind each tale. The following story is just one example where the detail has been given just that treatment over time, appearing in print in as many and varied versions as would the same tale told verbally – so maybe past chronicle authors and story-telling bards have a lot to answer for! But we have to go with what we have, so the question is ‘How much of a story is fact and how much is fiction’, remembering that all legends have a degree of truth in them; but one thing is certain – we will never know. The only thing the reader can do is to pick through content and decide where a degree of licence may have been applied and where facts possibly rest.
This story is about the beginnings of Erpingham Gate, a great Norwich gateway which takes the visitor from Tombland into the Cathedral Close and directly towards the main entrance to Norwich Cathedral. More importantly, it is about the person who, it was said, paid for its construction, Sir Thomas Erpingham – and about whom a legend, myth – whatever you might call it – found root around the time of 1422 when Gate was built. But first, some facts:
Sir Thomas Erpingham was born in 1357 in the Norfolk village of Erpingham, some 17 miles north of Norwich. His family had been in the village since the Norman Conquest and were part of the local gentry who came to be the holders of the manor in the early thirteenth century, taking the place name of Erpingham as their surname. After the death of his father, Sir Thomas went into the service of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and fought alongside Gaunt’s son (Henry Bolingbroke) across Europe and the Middle East. Bolingbroke later became King Henry IV and Sir Thomas was made his chamberlain. In 1400 Sir Thomas became a Knight of the Garter and received many estates in Norfolk and Suffolk. He used his position at court to promote the interests of Norwich and in 1404, the king gave Norwich its new charter, making it the County and City of Norwich. Sir Thomas was a generous patron and one of his legacies can still be seen most clearly in his entrance gate to Norwich Cathedral.
Sir Thomas went on to have an impressive military and political career beyond the confines of Norfolk. He was a staunch supporter of the Lancastrian dynasty and part of Henry V’s inner circle, he was instrumental in the king’s political and military successes. In 1415, Sir Thomas went with Henry V to Agincourt where he is thought to have been in charge of the archers, riding out in front of the English lines giving the order to strike the French. Sir Thomas became a hero to many and was immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V, where one Act takes us through the English and French camps on the eve of the battle, portrayed as a steadfast and loyal ‘old hero’. However, whilst he was considered ‘good’ in Shakespeare’s play, there was a piece of folklore that grew amongst the populace following the completion of the Gate. Its theme depicted the process of Sir Thomas paying for the building of the Erpingham Gate as an act of personal penance – for a seedy episode during his life!
When it comes to legends, you would think that their themes would rely more on history books and the information, if not facts therein. In the case of Erpingham, this legend, of which we speak, would have made reference to the fact that Sir Thomas was against Henry le Dispencer, Bishop of Norwich. For instance, in efforts to turn the City of Norwich against the Bishop, Sir Thomas managed to persuade the City’s authorities to endorse a list of accusations against the Despenser, who sympathised with the deposed Richard II and became implicated in a rebellion against Henry IV. As it was, the house of Despenser had a long-standing enmity with the House of Lancaster – and ultimately Sir Thomas. When the King Richard II was disposed of, Bishop Henry le Despenser was disgraced. Add to this the fact that it was Sir Thomas Erpingham who, when in exile with Henry Bolingbroke, helped the future Henry V to secure the throne, whilst capturing Richard and offering ‘advice’ that because Richard was a possible threat, he should be removed! With the Bishop of Norwich disgraced, Erpingham became even more influential in Norfolk.
The result of these acts was that a serious breach of trust opened up between Erpingham and Bishop le Despenser, the repercussions of which may have been felt by both Sir Thomas and the Church beyond the year of 1406 when Despenser died. We do not know! However, if this legend ever found root beyond Dispenser and the next two Bishops of Norwich – Alexander Tottington (1407 to 1413) and Richard Courteney (1413 to 1415) – then it must have been with John Wakering (or Wakeryng) who was Bishop of Norwich from 1415 and until 1425. It was during this period in office when the Erpingham Gate was built. So, was any sort of reconciliation between the Church and Sir Thomas settled during Wakering’s period in charge?
Whenever it was, if the wound was ever to be healed then Sir Thomas needed to make some sort of financial gesture to the Church – because that was what they liked! As things turned out, it was said that he came up with a two-pronged solution that, with God’s help, would satisfy both the Church and his belief that heaven awaited those who donated generously to the church; he also must have hoped that his earthly bones would eventually be laid to rest in the Cathedral when his time came. They say that this was the basis on which Sir Thomas Erpingham built his Gate. When Sir Thomas did die in 1428, his bones were indeed buried in the north side of the Chancel (or presbytery) of the Cathedral, along with his two wives.
That was one version of the legend; but it would seem that the populace much preferred another version of the legend that tells quite a different story – and with much less historical content. This one goes along the lines having a Friar in the opening scene – we’ll call him Brother John for the purpose of this version – who clearly lusts after Sir Thomas Erpingham’s wife, Joan. We do not know which Joan the tale refers to; both of Thomas’s wifes carried the same name for he married a Joan, daughter of Sir William Clopton of Clopton, Suffolk, then married a second Joan, daughter of Sir Richard Walton sometime around 1411. No matter, for this legend tells us that during Mass, Brother John slipped a note into Joan’s hand. Curiousity alone dictated that she would read it at the first opportunty, her subsequent blushes apparently telling Sir Thomas all he needed to know of the note’s content. But, being a faithful wife, she still insisted that her husband read it word for word, knowing that he would take matters into his own hands and take steps to remove the problem that lurked beneath a religious habit! Sir Thomas did just that – and so cunningly; first by noting the time and place suggested by Brother John for his meeting with Joan, both perfect for his plans. The meeting would take place at dusk when disguise was so much easier, and the place would be a quiet spot by the River Wensum – a short but convenient walk away from the Cathedral, Whitefriars Priory and the busy part of the City. We of course, do not know if this friar came from the Blackfriar fraternity, or that of the Whitefriars stood next to the Cathedral in Pockthorpe with the River Wensum in between. Sir Thomas then decided to dress in one of his wife’s more favoured dresses before leaving with his faithful servant to the ‘trysting’ rendezvous which some believed was downstream from the rear of Whiefriars and just short of Cow Tower – again, we cannot be certain.
Once there, Sir Thomas, now further disguised with a silk scarf tied over his head, stood beneath a tree at the water’s edge and gazed across the water to the bank opposite; waiting, but at the same time listening intently for sounds of any movement behind him. In the meantime, his servant concealed both himself and Thomas’s horse under cover a short distance away. It was not long before (alias) ‘Lady Erpingham’ heard advancing footsteps behind him and then felt stumpy fingers begin to move over his hip. “Thank you for coming – my love”. Brother John got no further with his obvious intentions for, almost in a single movement, Sir Thomas reached for a metal object hidden beneath the waist of the dress, swung round and struck Brother John firmly on the side of his bald head. The Friar fell first on his knees and then face downwards towards the river-edge reeds. He was dead.
The recipient of the legend is led to believe that it was never Sir Thomas’s intention to kill his victim, but only to give him a heavy lesson which he would never forget – such was his anger……..“How do we get rid of this lecher” he eventually asked his servant, who had come to his master’s assistance immediately he saw the Friar hit the ground. His reply was quick and straight forward. “He has no blood showing, just a dent my Lord. The best we can do is to return him to the Priory grounds”. With the help of Thomas’s horse they took the body the short distance to the Priory’s boundary wall. There, the two men lifted it over the wall and propped Brother John up in a sitting position – as if the Friar was asleep.
The corpse had not been there long, after Sir Thomas, servant and horse had quietly departed, when another Friar, in this instance a Brother Richard who was a very pious man, noticed Brother John – apparantly asleep when he should have been at prayers! Seeing this known womaniser lazely avoiding his religious duties caused Richard to pick up a stone and throw it in the direction of John. It so happened, that his aim was good, too good in fact; the stone hit the side of Brother John’s head, causing him to keel over, once again hitting the ground. Believing that he had actually killed Brother John and in doing so sinned, Richard took a further step towards further weakness; he lifted the body and rolled it over the wall where it fell to lay outside the Priory boundary. He then quietly called on the services of his own pony and left the Whitefriars and what he thought was his crime scene.
Now it so happened that Sir Thomas Erpingham’s personal servant again rode past the Whitefriar’s outer wall on an errand for his master. He could not help noticing, with some puzzlement, the body lying on the wrong side of the wall from where he and Sir Thomas had first left it. Maybe it was a degree of panic, if not a cool calculated decision, that caused the servant to climb down from his horse and replace his elevated position with that of the corpse which by then was stiff with rigor martis. He managed to get former John into an upright position, his feet into the stirrups and his wrists tied to the reins before firmly slapping the horse’s rump into a gallop.
As for Brother Richard, he thought that he had left his unfortunate experience behind him as he too rode out of Norwich, all be it at a much slower pace. But then he heard the sound of galloping hooves approaching towards him from the rear. He instictively turned his head to see the ‘gastly figure’ of Brother John approaching fast on a horse which. When alongside Richard’s pony it pulled up causing the dead friar to fall off to beneath the ponty’s feet. Richard was absolutely terrified – feeling the guilt of what he thought he had done. It was nothing less than divine intervention he thought and decided, there and then, that he must confess! He immediately turned his pony and made his way back to the Bishop and told him all that he knew.
Inevitably perhaps, Friar Richard was sentenced to be hanged for his apparent sins, but as he stood on the gallows, praying for forgiveness and waiting for the immident drop into oblivion if not heaven, Sir Thomas came on to the scene and forced his way through a crowd eager to witness what was a public strangulation. He shouted “Hangman – stop!” as he climbed the scaffold steps, removing the implements of execution and then descending the steps with the Friar. Sir Thomas, the most powerful knight in Norfolk at the time, sought out the Bishop and did not hesitate to kneel before him to admit that he, Thomas, was the one who had killed Friar John. He told the of circumstances surrounding the Mass and his thoughts and planning which led up to the murder along that part of the River Wensum which runs past Whitefriars, towards Cow Tower, Bishops Bridge and beyond. The Bishop listened, then contemplated and decided that the act of this killing was manslaughter…….the sentence was not to be death for such a distinguished person of the County, but one of a penance which Sir Thomas had to agree to if he was ever to be forgiven and find his place in heaven. What was agreed was for him to pay the costs of building what was to become known as the Erpingham Gate.
FOOTNOTE: The Erpingham Gate was erected between 1420 and 1435, in a style which matches the west front of the cathedral itself. The exterior of the gate has a small statue of Sir Thomas above, although this was apparently only put in place in the 17th century – some speculate that it came from Sir Thomas’s tomb in the Cathedral’s Presbytery. The interior side of the Gate also displays the Erpingham coat of arms. There are no less than 24 Christian Saints carved in the archway – 12 male and 12 female – a nice example of equal treatment some 600 years before the Equality Act. (Would this have had anything to do with the fact that Sir Thomas had two wives?).
About the time when the Erpingham Gate was being built, other work associated with the rebuilding of the church of the Dominican Friars and a new East window for the church of the Augustinian Friars was taking place. History does suggest that Sir Thomas donated even more of his money to projects such as these. What is not clear is whether, or not Sir Thomas, following his death in 1428 ever left any of his funds to William Alnwick, who was the Bishop of Norwich between 1426 and 1436. This Bishop continued with further enhancements within the Cathedral precincts by altering and improving the Cathedral itself – as well as his Palace!
We are told that much of the rebuilding of the Dominican friary in Norwich was financed by Sir Thomas Erpingham and his son Robert, who became a friar there. The gate that bears his name is thought to have been built at his cost, a gift to the cathedral, ca.1420. The upper portion, surrounding the canopy within which Sir Thomas’s statue is recessed and faced with flint in Norfolk style. Below it, surrounding the Perpendicular arch, the outward face of the gateway is highly decorated with figures of saints. The turrets on the buttresses at either side also bear sculptures, as well as the heraldic devices of Erpingham and the families of his two wives, and each turret is topped by the statue of a priest. The word yenk (“think”) is engraved at various places on the gateway, and is a request for viewers to remember (and say a prayer for) the donor.
The date of the building of the gate is not known for certain, but it must have taken place after his second marriage (1411). The style suggests the 1420s, and it seems likely the gate would have been given at a time when Erpingham’s thoughts were turning to his death and afterlife – by this time he would have been in his sixties. There were certainly stories that he built the gate as a penance for a sin he had committed – different versions suggest a homicide, his role in the disgrace of Bishop Despenser, his support of heretics – or even gratitude for surviving Agincourt; but there is no real foundation for any of these. If anything, the highly decorated gate is an assertion of orthodoxy at a time when Lollardy was posing a challenge to the established order and at a time when Sir Thomas might have been concerned with his spiritual future.
Erpingham died in 1428 and was buried inside Norwich cathedral, in a tomb built in advance, alongside his two wives; a chantry was established there in his name. His testament did not forget the city in whose affairs he had always shown an interest. He left sums of money to the cathedral and the Prior and monks there, as well as to the church of St. Martin at Palace; his armour too he left to the cathedral. He also bequeathed money to the sisters and poor inmates of St. Giles’ hospital, Bishopgate, and lesser sums to prisoners in the gaols of Norwich castle and the city Guildhall, as well as to hermits within the city.
The construction of the gate may have been an act intended to win favour from the Cathedral in which he hoped to be buried, to win favour from God, and to establish a memorial to himself. The armour in which he is depicted in the statue may have been that which was bequeathed to the cathedral. Although his will makes no reference to the gate, it is possible he commissioned it shortly before his death, with the work finished posthumously by his executors, or it may even have been entirely a project of his executors. His testament focused on pious and charitable bequests and left the rest of his worldly goods to his executors’ disposition – they may have felt the gateway a suitable application of that wealth, and certainly it has stood the test of time. It has been argued that his statue is not the right size for its niche and may have been moved there from his tomb, replacing some other statue on a religious theme.
The patriotic song ‘Rule, Britannia!, Britannia rule the waves’, is the regimental March of the Royal Norfolk Regiment; it became its Regimental March in 1881. Even today, some Royal Navy vessels are called HMS Britannia. It is also traditionally performed at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ which takes place each year at the Royal Albert Hall. ‘Britannia’ still conjures a sense of pride and patriotism today.
Originally, Great Britain was called ‘Albion’ by the Romans, who invaded Britain in 55BC, but this later became ‘Britannia’. This Latin word referred to England and Wales, but was no longer used for a long time after the Romans left.
The name was then revived in the age of the Empire, when it had more significance. The word ‘Britannia’ is derived from ‘Pretannia’, from the term that the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1BC) used for the Pretani people, who the Greeks believed lived in Britain. Those living in Britannia would be referred to as Britanni.
The Romans created a goddess of Britannia, wearing a Centurion helmet and toga, with her right breast exposed. In the Victorian period, when the British Empire was rapidly expanding, this was altered to include her brandishing a trident and a shield with the British flag on, a perfect patriotic representation of the nation’s militarism. She was also standing in the water, often with a lion (England’s national animal), representing the nation’s oceanic dominance. The Victorians were also too prudish to leave her breast uncovered, and modestly covered it to protect her dignity!
The ‘Rule, Britannia!’ song that we recognise today started out as a poem co-written by the Scottish pre-Romantic poet and playwright, James Thomson (1700-48), and David Mallet (1703-1765), originally Malloch. He was also a Scottish poet, but was less well-known than Thomson. The English composer, Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778), then composed the music, originally for the masque ‘Alfred’, about Alfred the Great. Masques were a popular form of entertainment in 16th and 17th century England, involving verse, and, unsurprisingly, masks! The first performance of this masque was on 1st August, 1740, at Cliveden House, Maidenhead.
It was at Cliveden that the Prince of Wales, Frederick, was staying. He was a German, born in Hanover, son of King George II. His relationship with his father was strained but he came to England in 1728 after his father became king. The masque pleased Prince Frederick because it associated him with the likes of Alfred the Great, a medieval king who managed to win in battle against the Danes (Vikings), and linked him to improving Britain’s naval dominance, which was Britain’s aim at this time. The masque was performed to celebrate the accession of George I (this was the Georgian era, 1714-1830) and the birthday of Princess Augusta.
There were various influences on the poem. Scottish Thomson spent most of his life in England and hoped to forge a British identity, perhaps the reason for the pro-British lyrics. Another of his works was ‘The Tragedy of Sophonisba’ (1730). Rather than giving in to the Romans and becoming a slave, Sophonisba chose to commit suicide. This could have had an influence on ‘Rule, Britannia!’, with ‘Britons never will be slaves’. The words vary slightly between the original poem and the song we know today. Below is the poem, as it appears in ‘The Works of James Tomson’ by Thomson (1763, Vol II, pg 191):
When Britain first, at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main; floor
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame:
All their attempts to bend thee down
Will but arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
The Muses, still with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair; Blest Isle!
With matchless beauty crown’d,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
The first public performance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was in London in 1745, and it instantly became very popular for a nation trying to expand and ‘rule the waves’. Indeed, from as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, other countries’ dominant exploratory advances encouraged Britain to follow. This was the Age of Discovery, in which Spain and Portugal were the European pioneers, beginning to establish empires. This spurred England, France and the Netherlands to do the same. They colonised and set up trade routes in the Americas and Asia.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, England’s dominance grew, hence the significance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’. England had been unified with Wales since 1536, but only in 1707, by the Act of Union, did England join parliaments with Scotland, after years of tense relations. This occurred because it would benefit both countries. Scotland’s failed attempt to establish a colony in Panama costing £200,000, made a union with England look very appealing.
Scotland could use English trade routes without having to pay. England, which was experiencing fractious relations with the French, felt it made sense to have someone on their side, to fight for them, but also to simply not present a threat themselves. The Kingdom of Great Britain, the United Kingdom had been formed.
In 1770, Captain James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia, setting a precedent for later expansion in the Victorian era. In 1783 however, the nation experienced a set-back after the American War of Independence, in which 13 American territories were lost. Britain then turned her efforts to other countries, to try and establish more permanent colonies.
In 1815 after years of Napoleonic Wars, France was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, and this heralded the start of Britain’s century of power. At the height of the Empire, Britannia was in control of approximately one quarter of the world’s population and a fifth of the land mass.
The original words of the song altered with the fluctuations of Britain’s power; ‘Britannia, rule the waves’ later became ‘Britannia rules the waves’ in Victorian times, because Britain did, indeed, rule the waves! The famous phrase, ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’ at first seems simply hopeful and poignant, ever-glowing and successful. However, it was actually coined because Britain had colonised so many areas across the world, that the sun had to be shining on at least one of them!
The 19th century, though, was also a time of growth for Germany and America which led to conflict resulting in both World Wars in the 20th century. This began the decline of the British Empire. There was also subsequent decolonisation, and today only 14 territories remain.
Since 1996, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been transformed into ‘Cool Britannia’. This play on words reflects modern Britain, the stylish nation of music, fashion and media. It particularly encapsulates the atmosphere and buzz of cosmopolitan London, Glasgow, Cardiff and Manchester.
‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been so popular that it has been used in a variety of ways. In 1836, Richard Wagner wrote a concert overture based on ‘Rule, Britannia!’. Arthur Sullivan, who wrote comedy operas in Victorian times, quoted from the song too.
Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.
Britannia rule the waves.
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
Footnote: The mistake that seems always to be made by ‘Promenaders’ (at the Last Night of the Proms) is that ‘rule’ becomes ‘rules’ and is expressed as a statement. It is more correct for the first line of this ‘anthem’ to be an instruction – or aspiration! We no longer have a ‘Navy’ worth boasting about.
Prologue: On the 15th April 1912 the RMS Titanic, billed as ‘unsinkable’, sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage, killing 1,517 people. The United Kingdom’s White Star Line built the Titanic as the most luxurious cruise ship in the world. It was nearly 900 feet long and more than 100 feet high. The liner could reach speeds of 30 knots and was thought to be the world’s fastest ship. With its individualised watertight compartments, it was seen as virtually unsinkable. On its first voyage, from Southampton to New York with stops in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, the Titanic was carrying 2,206 people, including a crew of 898. A relatively mild winter had produced a bumper crop of icebergs in the North Atlantic, but the crew, believing their ship was unsinkable, paid scant attention to warnings.
On the night of Sunday, April 14, other ships in the area reported icebergs by radio, but their messages were not delivered to the bridge or the captain of the Titanic. The iceberg that struck the ship was spotted at 11:40 p.m. Although a dead-on collision was avoided, the Titanic‘s starboard side violently scraped the iceberg, ripping open six compartments. The ship’s design could withstand only four compartments flooding. Minutes later, the crew radioed for help, sending out an SOS signal, the first time the new type of help signal was used. Ten minutes after midnight, the order for passengers to head for the lifeboats was given. Unfortunately, there were only lifeboats for about half of the people on board. Additionally, there had been no instruction or drills regarding such a procedure and general panic broke out on deck.
The survivors, those who successfully made it onto the lifeboats, were mostly women who were traveling first class. In fact, the third-class passengers were not even allowed on to the deck until the first-class female passengers had abandoned the ship. White Star President Bruce Ismay jumped on to the last lifeboat though there were women and children still waiting to board. At 2:20 a.m., the Titanic finally sank. Breaking in half, it plunged downward to the sea floor, taking Captain Edward Smith down with it. The Carpathia arrived about an hour later and rescued the 705 people who made it into the lifeboats. The people who were forced into the cold waters all perished.
Official blame for the tragedy was placed on the captain and bridge crew, all of whom had died. In the wake of the accident, significant safety-improvement measures were established, including a requirement that the number of lifeboats on board a ship reflect the entire number of passengers.
The sinking of the Titanic has become a legendary story and 1985, after many attempts over many years, divers were finally able to locate the wreckage of the Titanic on the floor of the North Atlantic.
The Story Of Our Norfolk Couple: We are again into April and yet another Anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic on the 15 April 1912 has come round. Much has already been written since the date of that tragedy – facts, such as they are known, probably much fiction on which dreamed up novels, short stories, myths and movies have been written; most with the profit motive in mind. This blog is not about the whole gambit, but only about a Norwich couple, who probably would never had hit the history books if they had not bought tickets to emigrate aboard that ill-fated ship.
Edward Beane: was born in Hoveton, Norfolk, England on 19 November 1879. He was the son of George Beane, a brewery worker who worked for the large Bullard Brewery in Norwich, and Mary Ann Cox; both had been Norfolk born and bred, marrying on 29 November 1877. Edward, our subject, was one of ten children, his siblings being: Sarah, George Herbert, William, Charles Archie, Caroline Augusta, Ernest Christmas, May Christine, Robert and Bertie Stanley.
Edward first appears on the 1881 census living with his family at Armes Street in Heigham, Norwich, Norfolk but they then moved to 231 Northumberland Street, Norwich by the time of the 1891 census. Between then and the next census in 1901 the family had moved further down the same street to Number 188 where Edward was described as a bricklayer. It was a trade that was to stay with him beyond the time when the family lived at 43 Bond Street in Norwich.
Ethel Louisa Clarke: was born on 15 November 1889 in Norwich, Norfolk, England. She was the daughter of Boaz Clarke, a boot factory warehouseman, and Louisa Webb, both natives of Norwich who had married in early 1881. Ethel was one of their five surviving children from a total of eleven, her known siblings being: Flora May, William Webb, Sydney Charles p, Gladys Lilian, Reginald Boaz, Dorothy and Ellen.
Ethel first appears on the 1891 census, living at 172 Northumberland Street, Heigham, Norwich and was still at this address for the 1901 census. So for this period of her life she knew the ten year older Edward Beane. By the time of the 1911 Census, Ethel was still living with her family but at 21 Churchill Road, Norwich where she was described as a single dressmaker and furrier.
The Leading Events: At 17 years of age, Ethel Louise Clarke was not ready for either marriage or emigration when Edward Beane raised the topics prior to his first departure to New York in 1907. However, both proposals appealed to her when he asked her to wait until he had saved enough money. Ethel, of course, said yes.
It was on the 13 April 1907, Edward, a bricklayer aged almost 28, crossed the Atlantic to New York on the Philadelphia with his two brothers, all travelling in steerage to save money. This was their maiden voyage and they sailed in the knowledge that each one of them would earn better wages than at their old construction jobs in Norfolk. Edward, at least, was to share his time between New York and Norwich, writing to Ethel in between, in fact right up to the time when he returned home aboard the Adriatic, arriving in Southampton on 22 December 1910. It is not known if he continued commuting thereafter but it was at this point in his life, at the age of 29 years, that he intended to finally ‘tie the knot’ with his chosen bride Ethel Louisa Clarke. However, that did not happen until March 1912 when, by this time, the couple had saved up a ‘nest egg’ – a figure which someone, in later years, estimated had been in the region of some 500 dollars?
It was only a day or so before the 10th April, the day when this ‘unsinkable’ ship was due to set sail on its maiden voyage, that Edward and Ethel said goodbye to their families and left for Southampton. At the Terminal they bought two second class tickets for the sum of £26 (ticket number 2908), boarding the Titanic that day, not only as emigants but also ‘honeymooners’
Edward and Ethel were one of 13 honeymoon couples and were in their cabin when the ship struck the iceberg at about 2.00am on the 15 April 1912. They did not think much of the jolt they felt until a woman in a nearby cabin came to tell them about the order to go to the boat deck with lifebelts and to wear warm clothes. Subsequent reports say that Edward urged Ethel to hurry and not to worry about bringing any of their few valuables; most of their savings were locked in the Purser’s office.
On the boat deck, Ethel was quickly ushered to Lifeboat 13 and had no time for more than a quick kiss from Edward. Three or four more passengers were loaded before it was launched, but Ethel lost sight of her husband and hoped that he would surely take another lifeboat. Edward was indeed rescued, but the stories conflict of how it happened. The problem was that both he and Ethel were to tell different versions of that night to reporters. In one, Edward stated he kept an eye on his wife’s lifeboat from the deck of the Titanic. Then, as the ship sank, he jumped and swam “for hours” until he reached it and was pulled aboard. The problem with this version is that no one would have survived that long in icy waters. Also, a passenger in Lifeboat 13, Lawrence Beesley, wrote a detailed account of the entire night shortly afterward and never mentioned rescuing anyone from the water. Because Lifeboat 13 was, apparently, only half full, some passengers did want to return to help those in the water, but most refused because they felt that their boat would be swamped.
In another version that the Beane’s gave to the press stated that Edward was picked up by lifeboat 9 and he didn’t find Ethel on the Carpathia until after it docked in New York. This, again, seems unlikely because great care had been taken to compile accurate passenger lists and roll calls were also taken to help passengers find each other. It is possible, however, that Edward did jump aboard Lifeboat 13 at the last minute before launch, when no other women or children were available or willing to board. No one knows, but if he was like some other male survivors who panicked and ‘smuggled’ themselves into lifeboats, he probably would have met with public ridicule for not being “a gentleman” and going down with the ship – if indeed this was the case? Maybe, he and Ethel made up their stories to ease any guilt on his part? These questions and any viewpoints here are, however, purely speculative! However, bear in mind that another statement from an independent source said, perhaps in their defence: “They (the Beanes) were one of a few honeymooners who were not parted by the rule “women and children first”. Both were rescued in lifeboat 13”. As it is, Edward Beane is also listed as being a Lifeboat 13 passenger by Encyclopedia Titanica, the main source for all things Titanic and the principal aid in compiling this account.
Edward and Ethel settled in Rochester, New York where Ethel gave birth to a stillborn baby on 13 January 1913, making it likely that she was pregnant whilst on board the Titanic. The couple settled at 44 Michigan Street for the rest of their lives, never to return to England. Edward continued to work as a bricklayer and was a member of the Bricklayers’ Union. Ethel, for her part, delivered two children, both sons: Edward (1913-1982) and George (1916-1998) and during the rest of their lives seldom spoke about the Titanic, giving only the odd newspaper interview. Ethel was widowed in 1948 when Edward Beane died in the Rochester State Hospital on 24 October, just shy of his 69th birthday. A local newspaper reported: “Mrs. Beane is survived by her son, George Beane of Rochester, four granddaughters and six great-grandchildren”.
Ethel continued to live at the family home in Rochester before entering a nursing home in the last two years of her life. She died on 17 September 1983 aged 93 (although she had convinced everyone she was only 90) and was buried with her husband in White Haven Memorial Park.
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.
No one wants to admit it but we are all interested in murder so another chance to revisit this ‘old chestnut’ of a story – the Red Barn Murder. By now, few can plead ignorant of it, one of the most famous murder cases of 19th century England. It took place on Saturday 18th May 1827 in the Suffolk village of Polstead, not far south from my County of Norfolk.
In essence, it was a fairly tawdry tragedy, but it did have a number of features, including supernatural elements that rendered it sensational at the time and even fascinating in this present day. The circumstances not only made a great impact on the Victorians by way of topical news but also on the melodramatic plots that were subsequently injected into stage dramas. Not only that, but the tale was to have ramifications in popular culture, how murders were subsequently reported, and even how elements ‘enriched’ the English language. That being said, what follows is not intended to be a full account of the case or the characters involved; it is simply a summary – and another viewpoint! To start with, let’s just introduce the two principal characters and leave everyone else to reveal themselves as the following narrative unfolds:
William Corder: William Corder was born in 1803, the third son of a yeoman farmer. He lived in Polstead in the County of Suffolk. His father and three brothers all died within the space of 18 months, leaving William and his mother to run the farm.
Corder was about 5ft 4 inches tall, slender, well-muscled, with a fair complexion and freackles. He was very short-sighted yet, apparently, an excellent shot. In the best authenticated likeness he looks rather studious. As a child he spent five years at a respectable boarding school at Hadleigh. Though bright, he was not well liked by others. He was nicknamed “Foxey”, perhaps because he was prone to stealing and lying. In Polstead, he was generally known as ‘Bill’. He did not get on well with his father or brothers, but was quite attached to his mother. Despite being considered kind, humane and good tempered, Corder was said to have been reserved and chirlish. He absorbed gossip and took pleasure in keeping information to himself. His father despaired of him.
One of the curious things about Corder’s life was that he never seemed to have enough money. But, Corder was from an affluent “middle class” home, his father was dead and since his brother’s death he was heir to the farm which was extensive – locally, the Corders were important people. Yet he hinted time and time again about trouble at home with his surviving family, and while it is clear that he doted on his mother, she seemed to have been unwilling to surrender any financial control to him. She was clearly very attached to him and almost certainly took his side in any family squabbles. Certainly Corder, being a flamboyant dresser with expensive tastes, seemed to have been unwilling to seek any money from this obvious source.
Maria Marten: Maria Marten was born on 24th July 1801, the daughter of Polstead mole-catcher Thomas Marten and his wife, Grace. Maria was a quiet and intelligent child. She received an education and, unusually for a country girl at the time, she could read and write well. Following her mother’s death Maria, aged 9 years, took on the role of ‘mother’ very seriously but still managed to continue educating herself. One comentator observed of Maria (Having been blessed with a very retentive memory and her mind deeply embued with a desire to acquire useful knowledge, there is every reason to believe that, if she had received proper tuition, she would have made an accomplished woman” (Curtis, 1828. p41).
At the age of 17 years, Maria became involved with Thomas Corder, William Corder’s second oldest brother. Thomas as a passably good-looking young man and was to vist Maria frequently at her cottage. At Thomas’s wish, their courtship was largely carried out in secret – Maria was not his equal in social status. Thomas fathered Maria’s first child, but his visits became increasingly infrequent as her pregnancy progressed. He did not marry her and provided little financial support; the child died young. Maria, now a ‘fallen woman’, next had an affair with a certain Peter Matthews – referred to as ‘Mr P.’ in the following narrative since he serves no role in the forthcoming tragedy. However, Peter Matthews was a well-respected gentleman with relatives in Polstead. He was aware of Maria’s past but, by him, she had a son, Thomas Henry, the only one of her children to survive, Again, there was no marriage; however, Matthews provided a regular allowance for the upkeep of his child.
Maria next took up with the leading character in this story, William Corder. His father and brothers were dead. He was wealthy. He was young. He would have made a good catch and it would appear that Maria loved him. Despite her mother’s disapproval of the relationship, Maria was to press William to marry her, but whilst frequently promising marriage, Corder always found an excuse to delay a wedding. Nevertheless, by him, she had a third child but it was weak and died within a month. The pair pretended to take it to Sudbury for burial but probably buried it in a field. Six weeks after the birth, Maria disappeared; it appears that her anxiety to marry had sealed her fate. Two months short of her 26th birthday, Maria was dead.
Now, Imagine the scene, it is a Saturday and the date is 18th May 1827. We are told that William Corder, a son of a prosperous Suffolk family, set out to elope with Maria Marten, a village beauty of humble origin. The two. apparently, walked separately through the night to a barn, later to become the infamous ‘Red Barn’ which stood on Corder’s property. Maria was first dressed in male clothing to avoid local notice but on arrival at the barn changed into female attire. It was whilst she was in the process of changing that she met her death and was buried by Corder within the barn.
The tale goes on to relate that Corder not only remained in the little village of Polstead, but also informed Maria’s parents that he and Maria were to wed by Special Licence, but to avoid her arrest he had sent her to stay with friends near Yarmouth in Norfolk. She was also unable to write herself because of an injury to her hand. Sometime later Corder left for London and wrote to Maria’s father saying that he and Maria were now married and living on the Isle of Wight; Corder also stated that they were very happy and requested that the father burn some letters, claiming they were hiding from a Mr P – his identity already revealed above and serves no further purpose here. We also know that Corder was a liar and inconsistent in what he told others, particularly in the village during his visits there; such as whether or not he was indeed married and where Maria was residing during the year before the her body was discovered.
The Background to the Crime: All the sensation masks details of the story which may have a bearing on what really happened on that fateful night. First point, Maria Marten was mother of two illegitimate children by a local dignitary, a very wealthy gentleman, referred to as Mr P at the Inquest. As such she was open to arrest for the crime of bastardy, that is giving birth to illegitimate children. In fact no attempt was made to arrest her, because the children were not, it seems, “a burden on the parish” and because the father made a generous provision of £5 a quarter for their upkeep.
A year before the murder William Corder became intimately acquainted with Maria, who he had presumably known for some time because they both lived in what was a very small village, and he and Maria went off to live in ‘sin’ in Sudbury. While there she gave birth to another child, this one fathered by Corder, where, again, bastardy charges could have followed. They were not and the couple returned to Polstead, where the baby died. Corder removed the body, having placed it in a box and told villagers the child had been buried in Sudbury; in fact Corder buried the child in an undisclosed field – the body was never recovered.
Maria and Corden were to remain lovers, despite the gulf in their social position, which was nowhere as great as that between Maria and her former lover, the anonymous ‘Mr P’. Apparently, his family also disapproved on the same grounds. As it was, Corder’s father was dead, several of his siblings had died in the last few years of TB, and his elder brother had died in a skating accident, drowning when he plunged through the ice on the village pond. His mother had suffered an immense amount of grief and now William Corder was heir and helping to run the farm.
Yet, Corder still did not have control of the money and when a letter to Maria from Mr P was intercepted by Corder, he apparently stole the £5 maintenance for the child which was contained inside. Maria now had a problem; she argued publicly with Corder – who could hang for the theft — and she had no way to protect herself from the long deferred bastardy charges, should they be brought. However if Corder married her and claimed the children as his, they would be legitimate, and the problem would go away.
The Night of the Murder: Twice they had prepared to elope, but Corder backed out each time, leaving Maria increasingly depressed and unhappy. Her home life also appears to have been troubled by the moral condemnation from her younger sister, who regarded Maria as a ‘tart’, and had been particularly scathing about her dress sense. The death of her baby also affected Maria greatly, to say nothing of her health problems and Corder telling her that she was about to be arrested for bastardy, no doubt using this to frighten and control her. On the fateful night he assured her that she was about to be taken in to custody, so she dressed in his clothes and for the third time set out to elope and marry Corder. They would leave through separate doors of the Marten’s cottage, walk to the Red Barn where, being out of sight of any villagers, she would change and they would make off to marry by Licence, thus avoiding the necessity for banns to be read.
Of course, Corder was lying. There was no intention on the part of the authorities to apprehend Maria, so what followed appears straightforward enough with Maria changing out of Corder’s clothes into her own at the moment when she was shot in the head and possibly stabbed twice with Corder’s sword before being strangled with her neckerchief. Her body was placed in a sack, and buried there in the Red Barn.
About an hour after they had left the Marten’s cottage, Corder had gone to a cottage close to the barn and borrowed a spade. Sometime later Maria’s younger brother claimed he saw him walking across a field carrying a pickaxe. Corder was to claim that the boy was mistaken and that the person he saw was one of his agricultural labourers who had been grubbing up trees, and who, by the way, also wore a velveteen coat. The ‘same coat’ part was true, but at Corder’s trial, the labourer denied ever carrying a pickaxe that year as far as he could recall.
Concealing the Crime: The Red Barn: Corder buried the body just one and a half feet under the floor of the barn, and then cleaned up the blood. From that day on he carried the key, and when the harvest was brought in he personally supervised the laying of the crop over the spot where Maria was buried. With Corder holding the key it became difficult for anyone to enter, though presumably he must have somehow provided access to his farmhands, unless the hay was stored very long term. He was in the village for months before taking off to “be with Maria” purportedly in the Isle of Wight! Actually, he was to in London, about which more will be said shortly. For the next eleven months or so, Maria would remain buried in the Red Barn.
The actual barn (a ‘double barn’ in Suffolk terms) would be rapidly pulled down by souvenir seekers. The illustration below is rather misleading – the barn was actually surrounded on three sides by outbuildings, with a courtyard formed by these sheds and a gate some seven feet high at the front.
Supernatural Experience? The Discovery of the Body: ‘Providence – to some it was God – led to the unveiling of the murder’ according to the Inquest. In fact, the events which led to the discovery of the body have been the staple diet of supernatural books ever since because Maria was discovered after her stepmother dreamt of where the body was actually buried. Apparently, she managed to convince her husband, Maria’s father, to investigate. All that we know comes from The Times, April 22nd 1828 which stated that the dream was of Maria murdered and buried in the Red Barn, and that the dream had occurred on three successive nights. Of course, the papers were to make much of this but, between the lines, the argument for anything supernatural being involved was very weak.
It was well known that Maria and Corder had always met (and none but the naive would fail to presume that they made love) in the Red Barn. No sooner had Maria apparently ‘left for Yarmouth’ her parents were suspicious, and that is why they cross-examined Corder after their nine year old son said he saw the latter carrying a pickaxe on the night he was supposedly eloping with Maria. Many times had Maria’s father thought of entering the building to look for any evidence, but he never did because of the difficulty of access and the fact the barn was Mrs Corder’s property. Even after his wife had convinced him to search the barn, he took time to ask permission from Mrs Corder, saying he wanted to look for some of Maria’s clothing which he believed had been left in there. Such deference by farm labourers towards landowners was the norm then and is still not uncommon today.
So it was that Mr Marten, together with a Mr Pryke, and both armed with a spade and a rake set off to the barn and went to the very spot indicated in the dream where they uncovered the remains of Maria, very much decomposed to being mainly skeletal. They fetched others, and during the exhumation of the body it was noted that there was a mark on the wall where a pistol had been discharged. As Corder habitually carried a pair of percussion cap pistols and occasionally fired them into the Marten’s fireplace, his position looked precarious.
So was it a supernatural dream? Well, the bizarre way Maria, who could read and write and was close to her parents, had stopped communicating, the conflicting stories told by Corder, the enquiries badly deflected by Corder from Mr P (still sending faithfully his fiver for Maria) and village gossip all meant that the dream was probably little more than a reflection of the anxiety felt by the stepmother. She may have even made it up to finally make her husband, who had spent eleven months doing nothing, to actually go and check if Maria lay dead under the floor of the Red Barn. The dream caused a sensation at the time, but there is no reason to believe that it was supernormal on the part of Mrs Marten. However, that opinion does not dispel the supernatural. The Red Barn had an unwholesome reputation before the murder. It was so called because it stood on a rise and was stained that colour by the setting sun; apparently, such places were associated in Suffolk folklore with murder and horror. So maybe it is understandable that there would be stories of ghostly tales of crime in and around the Red Barn – now long gone.
William Corder Seeks Marriage Elsewhere: During the eleven months between the murder and the discovery of Maria’s body, Corder was in Polstead before eventually setting off – supposedly to live on the Isle of Wight. In fact he went to London where it has been suggested Corder had a number of criminal associates. What we do know from the Trial was that Corder seems to have enjoyed himself and quite quickly fixed his eyes upon marriage for he took out the following advertisement in The Sunday Times, 25th November 1827:
MATRIMONY — A Private Gentleman, aged twenty-four, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded, has lately lost chief of his family by the hand of Providence, which has occasioned discord among the remainder, under circumstances most disagreeable to relate. To any female of respectability, who would study for domestic comforts, and willing to confide her future happiness to one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the Advertiser is in affluence. Many very happy marriages have taken place through means similar to this now resorted to; and it is hoped no one will answer this though impertinent curiosity; but should this meet the eye of any agreeable Lady who feels desirous of meeting with sociable, tender, kind and sympathising companion, they will find this Advertisement worthy of notice. Honour and secrecy may be relied upon. As some little security against idle applications, it is requisite that letters may be addressed (post paid) A.Z., care of Mr. Foster, stationer, 68 Leadenhall-street, with real name and address, which will meet with most respectful attention.
The advertisement certainly worked for he received over a hundred replies, with two definitely gaining his attention. One was from a mysterious lady who wanted to meet him at a London church. She described herself, and told Corder to wear his arm in a sling and to wear a black handkerchief around his neck and attend a certain service where they would meet. Unfortunately maybe, Corder was delayed and missed the service, arriving after the lady had left. He later discovered that the woman making the enquiries was a lady of some standing and with a large fortune. His plans to contact her again was thwarted when he met the women who would become his wife.
Corder met Miss Moore at an undisclosed public place and they immediately were attracted to each other. The sister of a notable London jeweller, she was clearly dissatisfied with her single status, and three weeks after that first meeting the two were married. While the marriage was only to last eight or so months before Corder was executed, it seems to have been genuinely happy with Mr and Mrs Corder opening a boarding school for girls at Grove House in Ealing Lane, London. It was there, living with his wife and with a few pupils enrolled, that he was to be arrested for murder.
The Arrest: When found, the body it was quickly identified as Maria from missing teeth, clothing, jewellery and a small lump on the neck the corpse. There could only be one suspect and the village constable was sent off to London to find Corder. However The metropolis was outside his jurisdiction and he was obliged to go to a police station where a policeman named Lea was assigned to the case. It took fourteen hours to locate Corder despite having absolutely no idea where he might be, or even if he was in London. But find him they did when police constable Lea entered Corder’s house, pretending that he wished to place one of his daughters at the Corder Finishing School. As soon as Lea had Corder in in the confines of his study, he told him that Maria Marten had been found. Three times Corder denied ever knowing the girl but he was arrested and his sword taken, along with a small black handbag that had once been the property of Maria Marten. Inside were found Corder’s pistols.
Corder was taken back to Suffolk to face the charge of murder with his wife believing that the charge was bigamy. Nevertheless, she was to stand by him until their final parting on the day before his execution. In the meantime, Corder was held over night at the George Inn in Colchester then was transferred in the early hours of the following night to the Cock Inn at Polstead where the inquest on Maria Marten was to be held at ten the next morning.
The Inquest: At the appointed hour, the Cock Inn was full and representatives of the London press who disputed Coroner Weyman’s ruling that the press could not take notes for their newspaper columns. Their accounts of the proceedings would have to be filed from memory. The Coroner also noted that such was the sensational nature of the case that the papers, preachers and puppet shows were ignoring ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and declaring Corder guilty of the murder. Proceedings were then delayed by Corder’s representative who asked if he may come downstairs and witness the testimony; however, the Coroner ruled against him but stated the representative may have the witness statements read to him afterwards. Corder who had descended was forced to return to a room upstairs, while it was determined how Maria had died.
Determination, in fact, proved extremely difficult for Maria appeared to have been shot, stabbed two or three times, and then was perhaps strangled. It was not even possible to decide if she was dead when buried, so burial live was added to the list. In the end there were nine different possibilities as to exactly how she was killed and at his subsequent trial, Corder was charged with all nine to ensure that at least one of them would stick. This legal nicety would seem a bit odd to us today!
The important thing was the Inquest determined that poor Maria had been murdered and Corder was committed to prison at Bury St Edmund to await his trial, while the sensation continued to grow.
The Trial: The trial was held at Bury St Edmunds with Chief Baron Alexander presiding. His orders that no one was to be admitted until he had taken his seat led to absolute chaos outside; once his carriage had arrived, it took an hour and a half for him to gain entrance and much longer for the trial to finally begin. Corder was charged with nine counts of murder and was horrified and clearly outraged to discover that the Coroner Weyland was now the Prosecutor! This meant that the Coroner had already seen all the evidence and cross-examined the witnesses, whereas the Defence had not had access to anything other than the reports of those proceedings.
However the case against Corder was fairly substantial – the last person seen with the victim who had been found buried in his barn with wounds that could have been made by his pistol and sword, not to mention the fact that he had lied for eleven months about her whereabouts. He had taken his sword to be sharpened shortly before the murder and there was no evidence that he had planned to honour a promised marriage; he even appeared to have taken special care to cover up the burial site and, for the first time in his life, kept the barn locked after the murder, along with his endless lies to her family, friends and Mr. P about where she was. Maria was unhappy when she set out on the fatal night, and Corder had been terrorising her with the claim she was about to be arrested for bastardy. Afterwards, when he was supposedly living with her, he had refused to give their address to her parents, claiming the couple were fearful of Mr P – who whatever his moral failings, seemed to have actually done much to support his illegitimate children and support Maria. The picture that emerged from the trial was that Corder was a weak and not very bright schemer, who lied constantly. Yet there was more to the man than this: he had many friends, his new wife was devoted to him and those who came to know him in gaol felt sympathy or even liking for him. He was clever enough to work hard on his defence and, indeed, both his wife and Corder appeared to be convinced that he would be acquitted.
Corder’s Defence: So how did Corder hope to be found innocent? There was little hope of claiming the manner of death was incorrect or try for a technicality since he had been charged on all nine counts! His second course would be to argue that the body was not Maria Marten, but the evidence was such there could have been little doubt that it was. His third strategy was to object to the Coroner being employed as the Prosecutor, to which the Judge was certainly sympathetic, as he was to Corder’s point about being already judged guilty by the press and public long before the trial had began. However, Corder decided on arguing from his best position, namely that Maria Marten had committed suicide and he had merely covered up her death.
According to Corder his pistols had been in Maria’s possession since their time in Sudbury when she took them to have them repaired. The gunsmith testified that a man and a woman had collected them, but others did testify to seeing them in Maria’s possession. In his summing up the judge mentioned Corder “snapping” them at the fire at the Marten’s cottage on the fatal night. If that was correct then Corder certainly had the pistols when he left their house. Despite those pistols being found in Maria’s handbag at Corder’s School, he claimed that she had the pistols on the fateful night.
As they left the house to elope Maria was seen to be crying and as she changed at the barn Corder claimed she had abused him, comparing him unfavourably with Mr. P. Seeing a chance to call off the elopement and wedding, Corder claimed that he had told her that having spoken to him in such a manner before marriage, how would she treat him once they tied the knot?. According to him, he told her that he would not marry her and walked away. As he did so he heard a shot, turned and saw her lying dead, having shot herself in the head with his pistol. He gave no explanation for the second bullet mark on the wall, though she may have fired there first to attract Corder’s attention as he left. Corder stated to the court that he then panicked, concealing the body while he cleaned up the scene and left to borrow a spade. He later returned with a pickaxe to bury poor Maria in the barn. After that he did his best to conceal her fate by telling so many lies.
The greatest problem facing Corder was how to explain the evidence of the neckerchief pulled tight enough to have throttled the girl – he claimed that this must have happened as he dragged her body to the grave. Then how could he account for the wounds, made by a stabbing instrument as confirmed to the court by three surgeons who also attributed such wounds to Corder’s sword. Interestingly, Corder claimed that these marks were made by the spades of those who discovered and dug up the corpse!
Corder’s Fate is Sealed: When instructed, the Jury retired and spent barely an hour of discussion before finding Corder guilty. The Judge, Baron Alexander sentenced him to hang and afterwards be dissected:
“That you be taken back to the prison from whence you came, and that you be taken from thence, on Monday next, to a place of Execution, and that you there be hanged by the Neck until you are Dead; and that your body shall afterwards be dissected and anatomized; and may the Lord God Almighty, of his infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!
Corder was taken from the court on his way to Bury gaol to await his fate. There he met twice more with is wife, who seemed to have behaved with great courage and dignity, offering him religious literature and pious exhortations. Many clergy and others also sought an interview with him but Corder refused to see them, though he did spend time with the prison chaplain.
Finally, on the morning of his execution, Corder wrote his confession and had it witnessed.
“Bury Jail, August 10, 1828 — Condemned Cell,
Sunday Evening, Half-past Eleven.”
“I acknowledge being guilty of the death of poor Maria Marten, by shooting her with a pistol. The particulars are as follows:– When we left her father’s house we began quarrelling about the burial of the child, she apprehending that the place wherein it was deposited would be found out. The quarrel continued for about three-quarters of an hour upon this and about other subjects. A scuffle ensued, and during the scuffle, and at the time I think that she had hold of me, I took the pistol from the side-pocket of my velveteen jacket and fired. She fell, and died in an instant. I never saw even a struggle. I was overwhelmed with agitation and dismay — the body fell near the front doors on the floor of the barn. A vast quantity of blood issued from the wound, and ran on to the floor and through the crevices. Having determined to bury the body in the barn (about two hours after she was dead), I went and borrowed the spade of Mrs Stowe; but before I went there, I dragged the body from the barn into the chaff-house, and locked up the barn. I returned again to the barn, and began to dig the hole; but the spade being a bad one, and the earth firm and hard, I was obliged to go home for a pick-axe and a better spade, with which I dug the hole, and then buried the body. I think I dragged the body by the handkerchief that was tied round her neck. It was dark when I finished covering up the body. I went the next day and washed the blood from off the barn floor. I declare to Almighty God I had no sharp instrument about me, and that no other wound but the one made by the pistol was inflicted by me. I have been guilty of great idleness, and at times led a dissolute life, but I hope through the mercy of God to be forgiven.
Witness to the signing by the said William Corder,
According to this, his argument with Maria was actually about the burial of their child — Maria was worried that the baby’s body would be uncovered. Why is hard to understand, though many have speculated that Corder had killed the child, though that claim seems to have little evidence to support it. In the barn the couple fell to fighting and while they struggled, Corder pulled out his pistol, fired and Maria fell dead. He then covered up the crime and events proceeded as already described. Whatever the truth, Corder was led out at noon on August 10th, 1828 and hanged in front of an audience of 7,000 plus witnesses on a pasture behind Bury gaol, where he died quickly, his end speeded by the hangman pulling on his legs – a common practice where executions fail to go ‘according to plan’!
After an hour, his body was cut down by John Foxton, the hangman, who, according to his rights, claimed Corder’s trousers and stockings. The body was taken back to the courtroom at Shire Hall, where it was slit open along the abdomen to expose the muscles. The public was allowed to file past until six o’clock when the doors were shut. According to the Norwich and Bury Post, over 5,000 people queued to see the body.
The following day, the dissection and post-mortem were carried out in front of an audience of students from Cambridge University and physicians. A battery was attached to Corder’s limbs to demonstrate the contraction of the muscles, the sternum was opened and the internal organs examined. There was some discussion as to whether the cause of death was suffocation; but, since it was reported that Corder’s chest was seen to rise and fall for several minutes after he had dropped, it was thought probable that pressure on the spinal cord had killed him.
Since the skeleton was to be reassembled after the dissection, it was not possible to examine the brain, so instead the surgeons contented themselves with a phrenological examination of the skull. Corder’s skull was asserted to be profoundly developed in the areas of “secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness, philoprogenitiveness, and imitativeness” with little evidence of “benevolence or veneration”. The bust of Corder held by Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St. Edmunds is an original made by Child of Bungay, Suffolk, as a tool for the study of Corder’s phrenology.
The skeleton was reassembled, exhibited, and used as a teaching aid in the West Suffolk Hospital. Several copies of his death mask were made, a replica of one is held at Moyse’s Hall Museum. Artifacts from the trial and some which were in Corder’s possession are also held at the museum. Corder’s skin was tanned by the surgeon George Creed, and used to bind an account of the murder.
Corder’s skeleton was put on display in the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In 2004, Corder’s bones were removed from display and cremated
Supernatural Experience?: The Ghost of Corder: One doctor became fascinated by Corder’s skeleton and on leaving his post stole the skull, replacing it with another with a more ordinary history. Shortly after his return however terrible noises were heard and before long he began to see the shadow of a man in his house, a man who had come to reclaim what was his…… Finally, terrified and haunted to the limit of his mind by Corder’s ghost the unfortunate doctor disposed of the curiosity and peace once more reigned – So claimed a book on Suffolk folklore!
A Sensational Case: It turned out that Corder would form the archetype for the “wicked squire” – the murder was just a little too early for tying her to railway tracks for Maria was to be the innocent country maiden of Victorian Melodrama. Certainly, the story was to form the basis for many plays performed by travelling troupes all over the country, performing in barns and thus giving us the word “barnstorming”.
These plays were hugely popular and even when Corder was on trial there were puppet shows throughout the region and even in London depicting the murder. Not to be upstaged, a camera obscura show was put on in Bury St Edmunds. Such was the effect that the tragedy had on the general public that a nonconformist minister took it upon himself to preach to a crowd of thousands at the actual barn which, by the way, was dismantled by souvenir seekers. In Polstead today there is no trace at all of the gravestone of the unfortunate Maria Marten for it was chipped away by curiosity seekers long ago.
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.