In Essex, there was an important monastery in Coggeshall , founded as a Sauvignac order in 1140 by King Stephen’s wife Matilda. By the early thirteenth century it had become part of the Cistercian order, and in 1207 Ralph, a monk of the order, became the 6th abbot. Ralph of Coggeshall was the abbey’s chronicler, and he wrote the Chronicon Anglicanum from 1187. He records he had hoped to make it a round 40 years of writing, but sadly it seems that he was defeated only three years before reaching that goal in 1224.
It was common for abbey’s to keep a chronicle of the events happening both locally and nationally – and sometimes internationally. These formed the history of the abbey. The Coggeshall chronicle survives in the British Library: MS Cotton Vespasian D. X. It was preserved by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, a 16th and early 17th century antiquary alongside most of the corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature, one of the 4 copies of the Magna Carta, and many other rare manuscripts. Sadly not all of Ralph’s books survive – he refers to a volume made entirely of marvels and wonders. So sad that that doesn’t survive! What riches would it contain?
Most of Ralph’s long chronicle is recognisably factual. He does offer some political comment: he admires Henry II, and goes back in the chronicle and comments on his predecessor’s criticisms of the monarch. He is impressed by Richard I – but has the good sense to recognise his limitations, saying of him, ‘no age can remember … [a king] who exacted so much money from his kingdom’. But it is for King John, who was king for most of the time Ralph was at the abbey, that he really reserves his bile, expressing horror at some of his policies – such as the treatment of Prince Arthur.
But this is a medieval chronicle, and the attitudes that the monks had to what was real and what wasn’t was different to our own. Ralph doesn’t just record facts – he also records miracles and strange happenings. He records the discovery of King Arthur’s tomb in Glastonbury, Essex-man Thurkill’s vision of heaven and hell, St Alpais’s fasting and holy life in France, and the publicani of Rheims (not a landlord, but a sect deemed heretical by the church at the time for their belief, amongst other things, that procreation was a sin). And, most importantly for us, he records local mirabilia – marvels, tales of wonder. Three of these are set in Suffolk: the Green Children, Malekin and the Wildman of Orford. A fourth tale tells of giants on the Essex coast, in Yorkshire and in Wales. All three Suffolk tales are featured in Suffolk Folk Tales, and each will get their own blog.