Tag Archives: Suffolk

New Folk Tales book featuring Three Fire Springs!

The Anthology of English Folk Tales is out today, 1 November 2016! This treasury of tales from all around England is drawn from the History Press’s county folk tales series and features tellers such as Taffy Thomas MBE, Hugh Lupton, David Phelps, the storyteller who started the History Press on this folk and ghost tale journey – and Anthony, Kevan and Kirsty from Fire Springs! We three have five tales in the book, from Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Wiltshire and Suffolk. And of course it has an all new cover illustration from folk tales illustrator extraordinaire, Katherine Soutar-Caddick! An ideal Christmas present for wide-ranging folk tale seekers?

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That’s not all – all SIX Fire Springs members – Chantelle, David and Richard as well as the usual suspects above are going to be featured in a new History Press book coming out in 2017. Ballad Tales, edited by Kevan, is a book of 20 tales inspired by traditional British ballads by storytellers, writers and musicians.  Kevan’s heroically produced all the interior illustrations, but the cover design will be a departure – Stroud-based printmaker Andy Kinnear has been commissioned to produce a cover in his inimitable macabre style… Watch this space!

 

A Medieval Marvel: the Green Children

‘But the night is Halloween, and the fairy court do ride…’

picture1Tonight is Halloween, and it’s supposed to be the night when the fair folk rise up out of the hollow hills and ride through the lands of the living. If see them dancing and step into the ring to dance alongside them, you could be caught forever… There are many dangers for the unwary mortal stepping into the Otherworld, but less is said about those poor creatures who by chance step out of that world into ours. What if you didn’t want to come to the mortal world? What if it was an accident? Just two children strayed away from their homes, lured into a tunnel by the sound of pretty bells, only to awake in the blazing dawn to a land of strangers, fear and death.

There have been many theories about the Green Children of Woolpit. Many of them have been prosaic, striving to make sense in today’s pragmatic, secular world of something inexplicable. In 1173 there was a battle just outside Bury St Edmunds during the Revolt between Henry II and his sons Henry, Richard and Geoffrey (complicated – don’t go there! Read Sharon Penman’s The Devil’s Brood if you want to find out more). Suffolk was heavily involved in this revolt after the Earl of Leicester landed at Walton Castle and persuaded Hugh Bigod, the Earl of Norfolk, to take up his cause. It causes two stories in Suffolk Folk Tales – A Strange and Terrible Wonder and Maude Carew – and may be the spark for the Green Children.

The 12th century saw a surge of immigration into East Anglia from Flanders across the sea – welcomed in as the Jewish communities were starting the long process of victimisation and eventual banishment in the late 13th century. There was a settlement of Flemish fullers at Fornham St Martin, close to the battle site at Fornham St Genevieve – did the children flee, and get lost? Did they become sick as they wandered, and suffering from dietary deficiencies, was their skin tinged green by chlorosis? Was the Flemish they spoke unrecognisable to the villagers of Woolpit? Was the girl’s talk of St Martin’s Land a reference to their old village? So far, so good. But surely Richard de Calne would have understood Flemish and realised what had happened? This theory assumes an extremely parochial, limited existence for our medieval forebears. I don’t buy that someone living in Bardwell wouldn’t know what was going on in Fornham St Martin. I mean, it’s only about 9 miles away – you could easily walk there and back in a day!

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So where does that leave us? Are they the Babes in the Wood from the Norfolk story? Poisoned by arsenic by their wicked uncle, abandoned in Thetford Forest (scary – got lost there once myself!), they wander into Woolpit. The older, stronger girl survives, but her younger brother is too weakened and dies. Maybe? This tale doesn’t appear until the printing of a broadside in 1595. The most commonly cited wood for the tale is Wayland Wood, just south of Watton, and about 30 miles from Woolpit. Not impossible, but … in the story the children die. The wicked uncle is punished, but there’s no Disney happy ending. They die. Both of them. Alone in the forest.

Putting the green children in context helps. It’s a wonder tale, one of many collated by medieval writers, and particularly in the 12th and 13th centuries. Anything goes! These mirabilia, or marvels, were, perhaps, some of the earliest folklore collecting, predating people like John Aubrey and William Camden by centuries. But their reasons for putting in these tales to their accounts were different. We can’t assume that they were simply included because credulous monks and scholars believed them – though that may have been the case in some instances! There was a conscious searching for the hidden things of the world, that one day might be revealed and understood. The recording of marvels like the Green Children thus becomes a kind of scientific experiment, recorded for posterity when we might understand it better. Or, often, there is a moral lesson within the stories – though it’s hard to pinpoint what that might be in this tale.

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At this time, this kind of tales was avidly lapped up by the aristocracy. Courtly scholars such as Walter Map, Gervase of Tilbury and Gerald of Wales record many mirabilia and fantastica to thrill and chill their courtly audiences. Henry II and Henry the Young King were apparently keen on these stories. The stories included range from international folk tales to locally collected ones. Did our monkish scholars include similar tales to curry royal or aristocratic favour? But these stories give another possibility in our search for the ‘real’ green children – were they aliens? Alexander the Great saw alien spaceships at the Siege of Tyre in 329 BC, they allegedly ‘observed three soaring discs, which were described as “shining silvery shields, spitting fire around the rims,” … These “shields” were said to have annihilated a stone wall with a lightening-like beam weapon.’[i] In The King’s Mirror, a Norwegian example of these collections of tales from about 1250, an incident is recorded of ships in the sky over County Clare in the 10th century[ii]. In this case, one of the ‘aliens’ comes to earth to fix a problem with his anchor, but, unable to breathe our air, he dies. Gervase of Tilbury also records this tale, but sites it in England, and develops it further with the adventures of a Bristolian in the sky – and that story features in Anthony’s Gloucestershire Folk Tales….

But I don’t think our Green Children were aliens. For me, they seem to have come out of the hollow hills where the fair folk live. Green is a fairy colour, although the ballad Tam Lin mentioned in the first line says that the fairies were ‘grey’ – perhaps referring to the idea that they were spirits of the dead instead of another race… Is Halloween, when the fairy court do ride the first zombie apocalypse? There is another instance, recorded by Gerald of Wales, where the interaction goes the other, more usual way – a boy is approached by two little men saying, “If you will come with us, we will lead you into a country full of delights and sports”[iii] and led into another world with a sunless sky. John Aubrey also records an instance a few centuries later, in which a man accesses the world below through a round barrow; this became the basis for ‘The Fairies of Hackpen Hill’ in my Wiltshire Folk Tales. Its common knowledge that those who go into fairyland come out changed, and that many pine away. Perhaps it’s true of those who come out of the Otherworld, too, like the green boy. The green girl was a different matter, even though her story hints that the Otherworld was possibly more fun than ours as she showed ‘herself to be extremely high-spirited and unrestrained’![iv]

Notes:

[i] Morphy, Rob ‘Anchors Away: Sky Ships and Storm Wizards’, 2011 http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2011/09/anchors-aweigh-sky-ships-and-storm-wizards/

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konungs_skuggsj%C3%A1

[iii] Cambrensis, Geraldus The Itinerary through Wales and the Description of Wales (JM Dent & Co, London, 1908), pg. 68

[iv] Translation of Ralph of Coggeshall’s story by Dr Monika Simon, 2012

Images:

  1. The Green Children © Kirsty Hartsiotis
  2. Image from http://hypnogoria.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/folklore-on-friday-babes-in-woods.html
  3. Image from http://io9.gizmodo.com/5917914/why-are-there-spaceships-in-medieval-art

Green children, pudding and a ruddy great swan…

Okay, I lied – there are going to be three blogs on the Green Children. That’s how much I love this tale. This one, however, is a more personal take, going back to my earliest memories of Suffolk’s stories. As a tiny child my mythology was personal, concerning only the village, Layham, where I lived – with terrors like the bridge over the Brett by the mill which had gaping holes that would, I was sure, suck me down; like the fascinating fungus in the dead elm spinney next to the house. I had no idea that the rectory where I once got terrifyingly lost at a garden party was where poor Maria Marten had her first and only job, or that Black Shuck lurked on the lanes into Hadleigh – but that was soon to change.

the-swan

Back in 1979, when I was six or seven my Mum started making really exciting things. Mum was props mistress at the local amateur dramatic society, Hadleigh Amateur Dramatic Society (HADS), and I became used to her making all sorts of strange things – I particularly remember the box of fake gems that I loved to run by fingers through and dream… Some of the furniture she acquired actually stayed in the house, I think! This time, it was a huge, huge prop. It was a swan – to be the centrepiece of a medieval feast – and I was fascinated. Mum says of it, ‘I know I used a bird book to work from. It must have taken a while, though, to build up all the stages. It was a wire netting base then papier maché then possibly crepe or tissue paper.’ It was, as you see, a thing of beauty!

the-puddings

There were also tempting puddings – almost edible, they were: Mum didn’t have any clay so she simply made the puddings from pastry, which she then painted and adorned with plastic fruit. Having been a props mistress myself, I know they often have long, long lives – not so these. She says, ‘eventually they just disintegrated in the props cupboard…’

the-green-children-jpegBut what were they for? I knew it was a play, of course, but I was intrigued by the title, ‘The Green Children’. Who – or what – were these children, and why were they green? I was too young to go to the play and find out for myself, but Mum must have told me the story. It was one of my first encounters with the county’s folklore, and I loved it, even though it was a sad tale. It stayed with me ever since, helping develop a fascination with fairy lore and the Otherworld that lasts to this day. The sad fate of the green boy particularly affected me – and still does, I confess. As a child who was uprooted from my home several times, I admire the green girl for getting on with it, knuckling down and fitting in, but I was like the green boy, lonely and pining for a time and place where I was comfortable…

fading-away

The play was written by a couple who lived a couple miles north of Hadleigh in Whatfield, Mona Bruce and Robert James. The Internet Movie Database describes James as ‘a prolific “I know the face, but” performer of intelligence, authority and a distinctive countenance’, whose finest moment may have been as a ‘conscience-stricken scientist’ in the 1966 Doctor Who episode, ‘The Power of the Daleks’![i] His wife was a writer and actress, ‘known for Within These Walls (1974), To Sir, with Love (1967) and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: 4.50 from Paddington (1987).’[ii] They became heavily involved in HADS – James was the Chairman, and also in the Whatfield Amateur Dramatic Society.

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They wrote the play – actually a musical – in 1972, and it was revived in 1979, the production my Mum was involved in. Here’s what they have to say about it – it sounds as if we ought to have known the play better, if only for the tickly question of money! Let’s revive it, now! It was a humorous take on the story, full, says a local newspaper, ‘of funny Suffolkisms’ such as ‘“They must have been foreign,” said a startled villager. “’Appen they come from Essex,” came the reply.’[iii]

 

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In rehearsal

 

 

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So hungry!

 

 

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In the ‘green’ room… (just to give an idea of how green they were!)

Fortunately, Mum has a few pictures from the production, which, in 1979, stared Allyson White as the green girl, and Stephen Hicks as the green boy. Captions my Mum’s. You can even see my Mum, looking willowy and Pre-Raphaelite in the background of the rehearsal one…

 

She – and I – wonder what happened to the swan…

Notes:

[i] http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0416877/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm

[ii] http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0115551/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm

[iii] Newspaper clipping ‘Musical Shows Off Group’s Talents’ (3 December 1979), private collection

Images:

All images © Cherry Wilkinson

The Green Children of Woolpit (and Bardwell)

The cover image on Suffolk Folk Tales shows two of my favourite tales from the book. One, the story of King Raedwald of East Anglia, has featured already in this blog, but the one that gazes soulfully out of the page at you hasn’t – despite being one of Suffolk’s most famous tales. I’ve been biding my time, waiting for the right moment. And now it’s arrived – The Green Children features in The Anthology of English Folk Tales (The History Press) out on 1 November. I was really keen for this story to feature in the book because not only it is important for Suffolk, but is a nationally important tale, one of the first that shows the place of the fair folk – or the dead? – the Otherworld. Or does it? I’m going to do two blogs about this story – this is the first, looking at the story in Suffolk, and the places and people associated with it. The second blog will look at the theories that have grown up around this little tale – and other medieval mirabilia.

It’s an old tale, one of three in Suffolk Folk Tales recorded by the monk Ralph of Coggeshall in his Chronicon Anglicanum around the turn of the 13th century: the others being the Wildman of Orford and Malekin. Unlike the other two, the Green Children has another source, a slightly earlier source, from the Yorkshire monk William of Newburgh. The stories vary a little, but not in their essentials – the discovery of children with green skin in the small Suffolk village of Woolpit just outside Bury St Edmunds, then a major pilgrimage site for the relics of St Edmund. I decided to mostly follow Ralph’s story, for, although his is a slightly later recording, he knew Suffolk and his feels more realistic, with its names and places specified. Anyone who has anything to do with folklore will know that that is a mocker – specificity does not historical accuracy make – but when you are reaching back into the reign of King Stephen, much is inevitably guesswork.

In Woolpit they are proud of the green children – they feature on the village sign, and in the museum you can buy mugs featuring them!

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I should note that Woolpit probably doesn’t mean ‘wolf pit’ as William of Newburgh assumes – or, it does, but not in the way he thinks. Woolpit’s an old village. We know of it in the early 11th century when East Anglia was under the rule of Ulfketel Snillingr. Ulfketel is in the background of another of the tales in Suffolk Folk Tales, The Legend of the Holy Wells. Woolpit (Wlfpet) was given by Ulfketel to the abbey at Bury (in thanks?) after the battle of Thetford in 1004. Ulfketel means ‘wolftrap’[i]. Is that the explanation behind the name? Simply named after the lord of the manor?

There probably were pits around the village, though. There were three Romano-British farmsteads nearby – perhaps the pits were in one of those? Or maybe they emerged from the Roman clay pit at nearby Elmswell?[ii] We’ll never know – and more on the theories in the next blog! Ironically, the story of the green children wasn’t the most famous thing about Woolpit during the middle ages. It was the site of a holy well, and a shrine to the Virgin Mary. By the time the green children were found in the late 12th century, pilgrims were probably already making their way to pray at the image of the Virgin in the church. No wonder the villagers moved the green children on so fast!

In Ralph’s version, you see, it isn’t Woolpit where most of the action takes place. According to him, the villagers take the children to the nearby manor of Wikes, to the custody of the Constable of the neighbouring hundred, Blackbourn (Woolpit was in Thedwastre hundred), Richard de Calne. He was a real person, who definitely held a manor at Bardwell. We know his granddaughter Sibilla sold land there. Her name possibly links us back to Ralph – she is ‘de Colonia’, not de Calne. Is this a reference to Colchester (Colonia Victricensis) in Essex, not far from Coggeshall? Well, probably not, but you never know – after all, he had links with the landowners at Dagworth where Malekin is set.

To my mild dismay I discovered there were two manors called Wikes – both of them in the little village of Bardwell. I confess I couldn’t discover which was the correct manor. So, after an unsatisfactory lunch at Wyken Vineyard (sorry – it was really nice, but very small and rather expensive!) I decided to plump for the other one, Wykes. If you look on an OS map today, Wykes manor is not there. However, we had an old map bought by my Grandad in the 1970s, and there it was – low earthworks near the church, clearly marked. All gone, ploughed away in the last 40 years.

 

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The Black Bourn still trickles past, and it was possible to imagine the scene – but, as you see, there wasn’t a bump in the field to mark the house.

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I felt rather sorry for it, so Wykes it was. I felt a bit sorry for Bardwell too, oblivious, it seemed, to its association with Ralph’s famous story, and was keen to bring it back into the tale.

The green girl seems to have been happy at Bardwell – although in the end she did go to yet another country … across the border to Norfolk, to live with her husband in what is now called King’s Lynn!

Notes:

[i] Information taken from http://www.woolpit.org/history/

[ii] The Green Children of Woolpit by Elizabeth Cockayne (n.d.), p. 5

Images:

  1. Me and the Woolpit mug © Kirsty Hartsiotis
  2. The ‘green children’ of Woolpit on the village sign © Copyright Rod Bacon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
  3. The Black Bourn at Bardwell © Kirsty Hartsiotis
  4. Wykes Manor, Bardwell © Kirsty Hartsiotis

The True History of Friar Bungay

bacon and bungay

Yes, actually the true story.  Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but in this case, fiction is a lot stranger than the truth.  And yet, by revealing Thomas Bungay for what he was, we can strip away a little bit of the myth that the Middle Ages were completely unlearned, unlettered and superstitious.  In the stories, Friar Bungay is a magician, capable of conjuring up illusions of a damagingly physical nature, working alongside the equally magically-minded Friar Bacon to create a brazen head as part of their plan to protect England by building a wall of brass around the country (an early form of immigration control?) to protect it from its enemies, and fighting the German magician Vandermast.  Bungay’s magical adventures can be found in Suffolk Folk Tales, but like so many legends, his does have a basis in fact.

Blomefield in his History of Norfolk says of Bungay, ‘He was a great mathematician, and so knowing in the hidden secrets of nature and skilled in uncommon experiments, that he performed such wonders by his wit and art, as exceeded the understanding of the vulgar and therefore the doctor was traduced by some as a person dealing in the black art, holding correspondence with demons and in word a conjurer, and that one had to do with the Devil.’[1]  This was written in about 1745, and was the popular idea of both Bungay and Bacon from at least the 16th and 17th centuries when The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay were published.

Thomas Bungay was almost certainly from Bungay – he is sometimes referred to as Thomas de Bungeye, Thomas of Bungay, and he may have become a Franciscan friar in Norwich.  The Franciscan order had arrived in the city in 1226, and was established by the late 13th century on a site that straddled Prince of Wales Road – unsurprisingly close to Greyfriars Road.  Nothing remains of the site now, but it has been extensively excavated. After a few years there, probably as a boy, Bungay went up to Oxford to study at the Franciscan convent, Greyfriars Hall on the Iffley Road.  It wasn’t officially a college, but the Franciscan scholars in the city would have studied there.

It would have been an exciting place to the young Bungay.  His fellow Suffolk scholar, from Stradbroke, Robert Grosseteste, had been one of the first lectors at the hall (we would say lecturer now), teaching, as you might expect, theology.  But that can’t have been all he was teaching.  Grosseteste was a scientist as well as a theologian, writing on light, astronomy, on tides, on the rainbow and on maths in natural science.  He was one of the first scholars in England to start using controlled experiments as a way of demonstrating scientific theories, and although Bungay almost certainly wasn’t there in his day, the scientific tradition continued alongside the theology and philosophy.  We can imagine the scholars making their experiments on the natural world, debating and writing in this heady atmosphere of learning.  I must confess that my idea of what these medieval colleges were like is probably a bit skewed by Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew series, set in 14th century Cambridge during and mostly after the Black Death.  I do hope that there was a bit more studying and a little less murder in the real 13th century Oxford!

Bungay may have met his latter-day magician friend Roger Bacon at Oxford, but it is possible they never met at all.  Bacon probably did study with Grosseteste, but he was almost certainly gone from Oxford by the time Bungay arrived, probably around 1250.  By the time Bacon returned to Oxford in around 1278, Bungay had moved on, and was at the Other Place: Cambridge.   It’s possible they met in Paris as Blomefield says in his History of Norfolk that Bungay went from Oxford to Paris after becoming a doctor of divinity and became something of a scholarly celebrity there … if we trust Blomefield, of course. As both men were scholars and natural scientists, it does seem likely that in the small world of Franciscan scholarship in the middle ages, that they did know each other, even if they weren’t at Oxford at the same time.

Bacon is a well-known medieval scholar – though he’s often confused with Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan philosopher, statesman and scientist who also was a pioneer of empirical research in natural science.  Not to mention the 20th century painter of the same name – F Bacon’s all… Our Friar Roger Bacon was an expert on optics, argued for the reform of the Julian calendar (he was proved right, but the Gregorian calendar only came in three centuries later in 1582…), and was allegedly the first person to describe the ingredients and method for creating gunpowder in Europe.  His friend and fellow Franciscan, William Rubruck, had actually been to visit the Mongols at Karakorum and probably obtained some Chinese firecrackers while there.  The picture that starts to build is of the Franciscans in the 13th century having enquiring minds and the freedom to study, travel and experiment.

Bungay didn’t travel that far.  He went on to be a lector himself, at Oxford, and although most of his writing are lost, we know of one paper, De celo et mundo, a commentary on Aristotle’s main astronomical treatise, On the Heavens, which survives in Caius College, Cambridge.  He was also a theologian, of course.  He became the Provincial Master of the Franciscan Order in England, and in the 1280s was sent to Cambridge to be the Franciscan lector there, as part of a scheme by the Cambridge Franciscans to boost their school with able scholars from elsewhere[2].  It is said that he left Cambridge to live in the Franciscan house in Northampton, and was buried there when he died probably in the very late 13th century. It’s possible that he saw the ordination of another famous scholar – one with no whiff of sorcery – ordained at the Church of St Andrew in Northampton in 1291, John Duns Scotus.

How did Bacon and Bungay become sorcerers in the popular imagination?  Although it seems from the work and travels of Franciscans and other friars and priests that there was a certain amount of freedom of movement and thought, this is simplistic.  The Franciscan Order was busy tearing itself apart over various issues during Bacon and Bungay’s lifetime, and their scientific research often skirted close to the forbidden topic of alchemy – and even if they didn’t practice themselves, we know that Bacon at least wrote about it.  Easy to be tarred with the same brush – from alchemy, which looked, potentially to create gold and prolong life, it was a quick step to the dark arts and magic.  And stories of magic are easier to understand and more fun, more salacious than scientific philosophy. Mathematics and other ‘secret’ languages of science and philosophy (we might describe it as ‘jargon’ today) could easily be considered magic – especially when most people were illiterate.  Bacon may have even been imprisoned for his ‘novel’ ideas … but it looks like Bungay preferred a quieter life.

Next time – a tale of Bungay and Vandermast from the The Famous Historie…

Illustration from the cover of Robert Greene’s play, 1630.

[1] Mann, E Old Bungay (London: Heath Cranton), p. 229.

[2] Swanson, J ‘Thomas Bungay’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, www.oxforddnb.com, accessed 23 November 2014

Black Shuckery … on the One Show

I know, you wait ages for a Suffolk folk tale on national tv and then two come along at once!  The One Show is apparently having a Suffolk fest at the moment, and this time it is Suffolk’s most famous celebrity beastie who’s in the spotlight: Black Shuck.  A little while ago they found the bones of a giant (devil?) dog buried at Leiston Abbey, and this investigates the dig and their discoveries, as well as relating a little bit of the Shuck legend.  Although: Blythburgh isn’t mentioned by name – why? and Bungay isn’t mentioned at all – no fair!  The article plays at 25.51:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04ls2j2/the-one-show-28102014

Interesting they say it’s a Great Dane.  There was a Great Dane in the village where I grew up, Lower Layham, with whom I think my lifelong unease with dogs (was terror when I was younger) began.  It was huge, and, though I might be wrong, I think this was the dog that scratched (lightly) my face when I was a toddler.  I also met what seemed to ME Black Shuck or his Somersetshire equivalent in Rocks East Woodland, near Bath … also, I later found out, a Great Dane.  It was the size of a PONY and it followed me…

The actual Suffolk folk tale plot thickens as there have been a couple of sightings of Shuck in Leiston, though not at the Abbey, Mike Burgess in his excellent Hidden East Anglia website records James Wentworth Day in the 1950s describes how ‘a slinking, sable shadow slipped among the gravestones like a wraith, leaped the low churchyard wall and slid down the dark lane towards the sand hills like an evil whisper’ that Lady Walsingham and Lady Rendlesham saw when they went looking for the Galley Trot…

Sparrows and the quest for meaning in life

Sutton Hoo

Irresistibly, I am drawn back to our Wuffings and the beginnings of East Anglian Christianity. It may seem a dry subject to you, but for me it really helps to see how the region developed and took shape over those early years, and, like it or not, Christianity shapes the history of our region, our island, the whole of Europe.  However, we know from many of the tales of mermaids and dragons, of witches and cunning men, of Syleham Lamps and fairy changelings, that the old ways – and human imagination – still kept their hold of the people of East Anglia, right up to today.

So, if you’ve read the previous blogs, A Puff on Wuffings and Woden or Christ? you’ll know that Rædwald made a hesitant half-start when it came to bringing of Christianity to East Anglian shores.  He goes off into eternity honouring an entirely different set of gods, and Mound 1 – if it were to be his – is not the latest non-Christian burial there.  Paganism held sway among some for a time, it seems.  But the march of the White Christ pressed on in East Anglia, and circumstance would see it well entrenched by the time the dreadful Penda years came.  Why such a quick turnaround?  Bede once more has an answer, in the famous sparrow story told while Edwin’s court debates the issue of Christianity vs. their own existing religion up north in Northumbria.

Imagine the warriors of the court sitting on long benches around the central fire with the noble women passing amongst them pouring drinks while the debate rages on the long winter’s night. Outside, the wind howls, and sends the smoke from the fire buffeting through the room.  An old warrior sits back and stares up into the dim, smoky recesses of the rafters.  Can he make out a flitting shape there?  Maybe a bird has strayed in out of the cold.  Whatever he sees, it prompts him to make this famous speech:

Your majesty, when we compare the present life on man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall … The sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.  Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.[1]

The hope of a life after death for all, not only for those who were already rich and well-kept in this life was naturally desirable. With so much of the world in explicable except by supernatural means, religion and superstition had a power that many of us now cannot understand – at least while this little bubble of comfortable living we have constructed continues.  Edwin’s chief priest, Coifi, sees the writing on the wall, and immediately declares that his religion is worthless, has got him no gains, when others, less devout than he, have gained more, then jumps on a stallion and rides off to destroy the idols in the grove nearby at modern day Goodmanham in the East Riding.

Bede makes it sound very easy – but he is a Christian monk, with a Christian axe to grind. Between the lines of this time you can see that it wasn’t, really.  When Rædwald dies his remaining son, Eorpwald, becomes king.  Edwin of Northumbria then becomes the Bretwalda, and power passes into the north – effectively, Eorpwald owes allegiance to Edwin, as Edwin had done to Eorpwald’s father.  Edwin leans on Eorpwold, and the new king is christened.  Events move fast.  Eorpwald is killed by another member of the royal family, Ricberht, a pagan, and the kingdom reverts to paganism.  Who knows what was happening to the populace, what faith they followed.  In these times, it was all about kings.

For three years East Anglia stayed pagan, but then a new king arrived: Sigeberht. This young man had been in exile in France, which was already Christian, and Sigeberht had embraced the new faith wholeheartedly.  There may have been a balance – at first Sigeberht ruled with another king, Ecgric, another Wuffing, who was probably a pagan – as, let’s face it, most people would have been in the Anglo Saxon areas of Britain before 650.  But Sigeberht had a mission, and it didn’t take him long to put it into place.

First, he invited a French monk to join him to convert the masses. This was St Felix, for whom we get Felixstowe (probably).  Felix was made a bishop and set up a cathedral in Suffolk , probably at Dunwich, possibly at Walton near Felixstowe.  Unlike many of these early saints, he wasn’t a man for miracles.  He seems to have got on with the job in hand with minimal fuss, only ensuring that the villages of the Saints (the Elmhams, Ilketshalls etc.) were difficult to access to keep them pure and holy, and then after death playing the usual game of dictating where his body was going to end up – he went to Soham, a church founded by the saint, and then to the inveterate relic-hunters at Ramsey, beating the monks at Ely by casting a convenient darkness that bamboozled the Ely monks and allowed the Ramsey ones to escape with their prize.

No, for miracles we need to look elsewhere – and the next blog will be about East Anglia’s first miracle worker – St Fursey.

Photograph © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2013

[1] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Leo Shirley-Price (London: Penguin, 1990), pp. 129-30.