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.
Almost all that is known about St Felix originates from The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed by Bede in about 731, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bede praised Felix for delivering:
“all the province of East Anglia from long-standing unrighteousness and unhappiness”.
Felix may have been a priest at one of the monasteries in Francia founded by the Irish missionary Columbanus – the existence of a Bishop of Châlons with the same name may not be a coincidence!
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!
Banner Heading: The Ruins of Babingley Church, Kings Lynn, Norfolk by Edward Seago 1910-1974.