Wuffing Education Study Day: ‘Seeking the Body of St Edmund’

St Sernin Painting
St Edmund as protector of the city of Toulouse, from the Basilica of Saint-Sernin (c. 1540)


Yesterday I led a study day at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, entitled ‘Seeking the Body of St Edmund’ for Wuffing Education. The day was attended by 20 people and I delivered four sessions throughout the day. I was delighted to meet so many enthusiastic individuals interested in the cult of St Edmund, especially David Addy, the man behind the brilliant St Edmundsbury Chronicle. In addition to the images that accompanied my papers, I also brought along a few artefacts, including a coin actually minted in Edmund’s reign (to illustrate the historicity of the man behind the legend), copies of the earliest printed books about Bury St Edmunds by John Battely and George Ashby, a medal struck to commemorate the 1907 historical pageant re-telling the story of St Edmund, and an embroidered chasuble depicting St Edmund and his instruments of martyrdom, which may have been made for the arrival of St Edmund’s supposed relics at Arundel Castle in 1901.

My first talk focussed on the cult of St Edmund in its final phase before 1539, examining the relative strength of devotion to St Edmund in comparison with other East Anglian and national cults at the time. After break, my second talk continued the story by looking at how both Catholics and Protestants reinterpreted the hagiography of St Edmund after the Reformation. My third talk after lunch looked at St Edmund from the perspective of folklore and popular memory, while my fourth and final talk addressed the question of what happened to the body of St Edmund after 1539, the subject of my book Where is St Edmund? published in 2014.

Copies of all of the papers can be downloaded from my page by following the links above.


More Archaeology of Magic? The Mystery of the Little Thetford ‘Curse Tablets’

Little Thetford is a small village located just south of Ely – it has no connection at all with the Norfolk town of Thetford, and used to be known as Thetford-in-the-Isle – the Isle being, of course, the Isle of Ely. The name may have been changed as a result of the drainage of the waters around Ely, which would once have surrounded the village to east, west and south during the winter months. A couple of months ago I wrote about Dr David Barrowclough’s interesting discoveries at Barway near Soham, which seem to be a rare instance of archaeological evidence for the practice of magic in the medieval or early modern periods. However, the Barway pits may not be the only evidence of this kind in the area.

Lt Thetford map
A map of Little Thetford with Harrimere Drain and the site of Harrimere Chapel marked in red © Google

On Tuesday I happened to meet an experienced metal detectorist in Little Thetford, Dave Fletcher, who has frequently spoken about his finds to the local history society, as well as sharing them with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and consulting with academic archaeologists. One of Dave’s most remarkable discoveries is a series of 366 small rolls of lead, each between 0.5 and 1cm wide. He discovered many of these near the site of Harrimere or Haveringmere Chapel, a medieval chapel-of-ease between Little Thetford and the river founded in 1381. Convinced that they were curse tablets, he took them to archaeologists who dismissed this interpretation, on the grounds that they were too small, in comparison with the famous lead defixiones found in the spring at Bath. However, they had no alternative identification to offer.

When I saw images of Dave Fletcher’s ‘curse tablets’, I immediately thought of an artefact I saw in December at Stockholm’s Historiska Museet, which was a thin strip of lead dating from around 1400 recovered from a lake and bearing, not a curse, but a prayer to the Virgin Mary. This was adduced by the curators as evidence that the pagan practice of depositing metal items in bodies of water simply carried on in the Middle Ages in modified form. Indeed, a study of runic amulets by Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees, Runic Amulets and Magic Objects (Boydell, 2006) is replete with evidence of lead amulets with writing on, both in runes and Latin script, recovered in Nordic countries. Some of these are square or rectangular in form but many more are ‘strips’ or ‘rolls’. Only some of these contain curses: most are leechcraft amulets containing garbled Hebrew inscriptions, nomina ignota and the names of Norse gods and goddesses. These leechcraft practices continued at least until the sixteenth century, especially in Iceland.

The finds database of the Portable Antiquities Scheme currently includes 25 sets of probable curse tablets, and it is curious that in every case the finds officer classified them as ‘Roman curse tablets’. In some cases, where they were found alongside other definitely Roman objects, this may be justified; but in other cases I suspect that there is simply a belief amongst archaeologists that rolled up bits of lead are a Roman phenomenon. Furthermore, as the examples of Scandinavian leechcraft amulets show, it cannot be assumed that inscriptions on lead served a malefic purpose. Lead was simply a fairly cheap material, soft enough to write on with a stylus and then roll up, which would last permanently. Examples of lead amulets from the Middle Ages have been found in Austria, and it is not much of a stretch to imagine that Scandinavians settling in England after the Viking conquest of the Kingdom of East Anglia in the ninth century would have employed many of the same ritual practices they did at home.

The evidence for lead amulets in magic in England is ambiguous at best: Roberta Gilchrist has pointed to the grave of a woman excavated at St James, Bristol, a small rectangular package made of lead enclosed what may once have been parchment. Other graves also contained fragments of lead, but not enough to be certain that they were written on or served any magical purpose. But I suspect that the main reason such practices are unattested in Britain is that many archaeologists are unfamiliar with the Scandinavian evidence and assume that curse tablets must be a Roman feature. None of the Little Thetford ‘curse tablets’ have been opened, but I should be intrigued to find out what may lie inside. I strongly suspect that they are medieval in date, and probably contained healing charms rather than curses.


Launch Party for Inferior Office?


The launch party for Inferior Office? took place last night in the Long Gallery of the Bishop’s Palace in Ely. The launch was attended by around 40 people, including Peter Dawes, Emeritus Bishop of Derby. There was at least one priest present but, sadly, no deacons! Thanks are due to James Clarke & Co. for generously funding the event and to The King’s School, Ely for permitting me the use of the Long Gallery.



Launch of Inferior Office?

Launch Poster

Today I am launching my new book Inferior Office? A History of Deacons in the Church of England, which is the first ever book devoted to the history of the most junior of the three orders of bishop, priest and deacon in England since the Reformation. The book begins with the revision of the Ordinal under Edward VI in 1549, exploring the theological changes it embodied and asking why deacons survived the Reformation in England as a junior grade of the clergy, rather than undergoing the same transformation as they did in other reformed countries. The book then explores the development of lifelong and long-term deacons (clergy who remained in deacon’s orders for years before being ordained priest) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, asking why this happened, who these deacons were and what they did. My research suggests that lifelong deacons made up a little under 10% of the entire clergy during this period.

The book also covers the heated debate about the future of deacons that divided the Church of England in the nineteenth century, beginning in 1839 with Thomas Arnold’s call for middle class men without a university education to be ordained to the diaconate. The debate rumbled on until 1888 and even after, until it became clear that the Convocations of Canterbury and York had lost interest in changing the law so that working men could be ordained. The book’s final two chapters deal with the twentieth century and deacons in the contemporary Church of England. In the twentieth century, the argument shifted from ordaining working men as deacons to the question of whether women should be ordained to the diaconate (and, indeed, whether women already ordained as ‘deaconesses’ were deacons already). This culminated in the admission of women to the diaconate in 1987, and for a brief period until 1994, the number of ‘permanent deacons’ in the Church of England swelled because it was the only option for women seeking ordination. The admission of women to priest’s orders in 1994 significantly reduced the number of clergy who chose to remain deacons only, and they were to be found mostly in the dioceses of Chichester, London and Portsmouth. However, in 2001 a working party of the House of Bishops presented a document to General Synod, For Such a Time as This, calling for a renewal of the ‘distinctive diaconate’ in the Church of England. The report was rejected and, in spite of the fact that distinctive deacons were recognised as a form of ministry in The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church (2007), debate on the future of the diaconate in the Church of England has stalled.

Although individual bishops remain receptive to the distinctive diaconate, hostility to the idea of more deacons tends to come from priests and Lay Readers who object to the ‘clericalisation’ of a diaconal ministry that they are already engaged in; indeed, pressure from the Central Readers’ Council was one factor that led General Synod to reject For Such a Time as This. Some bishops are wary of deacons because they believe that they are mostly women who oppose the ordination of women as priests and bishops, and that the idea of a distinctive diaconate is only supported by Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic conservatives. Others reject deacons on the grounds that there is no such thing as an Anglican theology of the diaconate, believing that distinctive deacons are just a borrowing from other traditions. In addition, the fact that deacons are unable to celebrate the eucharist leads many bishops to believe that training them is not financially worthwhile, since they are unable to supply one of the key pastoral demands of congregations.

My hope is that Inferior Office? will rekindle the debate about the future of deacons in the Church of England, whether ‘distinctive’ or ‘transitional’, by revealing an almost entirely unknown history of the Anglican diaconate. Lifelong deacons are not a recent invention, but were a regular feature of the church’s life in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Furthermore, there is an Anglican theology of the diaconate which can be found in the Ordinals and the writings of Richard Hooker and other theologians. If the Church of England is to continue ordaining all of its clergy to the diaconate, it must have a coherent reason for doing so, and that reason is to be found in looking back at its history. The disappearance of deacons from the Church of England is a recent, indeed a twentieth-century phenomenon, and the church needs to ask itself whether it is seriously impoverished by the virtual absence of deacons (of whom there are only about 100 in the church, represented by the Diaconal Association of the Church of England). In some other churches in the Anglican Communion, deacons are a flourishing part of the church, for example in the Episcopal Church in the USA, where the number of deacons runs into thousands for a church whose membership is about the same size as the Church of England. Furthermore, permanent deacons are an immeasurably important part of the life of the Catholic Church in England, and a growing movement in the Methodist Church. By uncovering the hidden history of the diaconate in the Church of England, I hope that Inferior Office? will stimulate a debate in the Church of England about why it has never truly grappled with reviving the diaconate.


Review: The Book of Oberon

Oberon cover

The Book of Oberon: A Sourcebook of Elizabethan Magic, edited by Daniel Harms, James R. Clark and Joseph H. Peterson was published by Llewellyn in April this year, and is an edition of Folger MS V.b.26, a late sixteenth-century English compendium of necromantic magic in Latin and English. I am always pleased to see early modern magical texts make it into print, and for them to be edited as expertly as this is particularly satisfying. As the editors observe, there are few such texts in print: they mention Richard Kieckhefer’s edition of the Munich Handbook, the grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet and Willy Louis Braekman’s edition of a magical book in middle Dutch from the Wellcome Library. To this list may now be added my own edition of The Cambridge Book of Magic by Paul Foreman, which appeared in January. Indeed, The Book of Oberon shares many similarities with The Cambridge Book: it begins with a general treatise on the working of necromancy (here entitled Theurgia), and contains experiments for the same purposes (winning at dice, seeing spirits, winning favour with rulers, identifying thieves, making stolen items return, etc.), as well as conjuring some of the same spirits such as Mosacus and Sibylia (here identified as a fairy). Although the two books were composed a generation apart (The Cambridge Book was written between 1532 and 1558 while The Book of Oberon was composed between 1577 and 1583) they essentially embody the same variety of ‘clerical necromancy’ based on corrupted rituals of the medieval church.

The differences between the two books are also instructive; the Folger MS is a lot longer and more richly illustrated than Paul Foreman’s treatise, although the experiments in the Folger MS are generally shorter, and the vernacular predominates in The Book of Oberon in contrast to The Cambridge Book, about two thirds of which is in Latin. The author of the Folger MS also wrote out all Psalms in full (unless these were supplied by the editors), while Paul Foreman assumes that the reader will have a psalter to hand. The editors of The Book of Oberon have done an excellent job of transcribing and translating the author’s rather weak Latin, which appears with a translation in parallel columns in all cases. I was also pleased to see that the editors saw fit to make clear when they were expanding abbreviations in the Latin text – this is important because not doing so can allow errors of transcription to escape notice (not that I have found any such errors in this edition).

My only regret about the text is that the editors modernised the spelling of the vernacular sections without placing the original spelling next to it, but this is admittedly less of an issue with a text dating from the 1570s and ’80s when the grammar and vocabulary of English was closer to modern English than it was in the 1530s. The decision to print the entire text in both black and red was an excellent one, and I was very impressed by the illustrations in the text. Instead of choosing to reproduce the original illustrations the editors chose to reconceptualise them as original drawings, which is very effective indeed, and the designs are  well-executed, evocative and consistent with the tenor of the text itself. None of these things are easily achieved.

Daniel Harms et al. provide an extensive, scholarly and helpful introduction which sets the original MS in its historical context and discusses issues of dating, authorship and style. The editors aptly describe the book as ‘a magical miscellany’ (p. 6) and note that the author may have added the images of spirits to the text ‘to impress onlookers’ – many of these were copied from woodcuts in a work on monstrous births published in 1569. The Introduction also surveys the magical implements mentioned in the text and the spirits and named individuals mentioned. Overall, The Book of Oberon is a considerable feat of scholarship and it is deeply regrettable that, because it has appeared with a publisher of ‘occult’ books, it is unlikely to receive the attention it deserves from scholars of early modern magic or find its ways into academic libraries. I may be wrong, of course, but my experience is that academic libraries are woefully lacking in the scholarly products of contemporary occultism. Yet true scholarship, as represented here, stands on its own merits. This book is a must-have for anyone interested in the development of ritual magic in early modern England.


Review of Jan Machielsen, Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation

Delrio cover

My review of Jan Machielsen’s superb new biography of the sixteenth-century Jesuit scholar and demonologist Martin Delrio (or Del Rio, 1551-1608) has just been published on the Institute of Historical Research’s Reviews in History website. It is hard to praise this book too highly, since it has the potential to shift the way in which we see the Counter-Reformation. Machielsen argues against a purely hierarchical conception of Catholic reform and makes the case for a textual Counter-Reformation driven by ongoing humanist scholarship, which was channelled rather than stifled by the Council of Trent. He also does scholars of early modern demonology a great service by analysing in depth the philosophical roots of Delrio’s writings. Highly recommended!


Strawberry Hill: The Original Fake

DSCF0121 Back in March, Strawberry Hill opened its doors to visitors for the first time in decades after a £10 million restoration project that has brought Horace Walpole’s marvellous folly back to (most) of its former glory. Yesterday I was able to make my own pilgrimage to the birthplace of neo-gothic. It is hard to believe that Strawberry Hill still survives – it is the sort of place, like William Beckford’s Fonthill, that feels like it ought to have been consigned to oblivion long ago just on the grounds of sheer improbability; the product of one man’s eccentric imagination rather than something bequeathed to future generations. It comes as something of a surprise to find that it exists in reality. But of course that is exactly how Walpole wanted you to feel. Strawberry Hill is the original fake, which spawned a late eighteenth-century genre of faux gothic architecture and decorative arts that still bears its name: Strawberry Hill Gothick.

Ceiling of the gallery at Strawberry Hill

But Strawberry Hill is much more than just the birthplace of the gothic revival and the gothic novel (as if that isn’t enough) – it is the place where form definitively triumphed over substance, and in that sense it is one of the key birthplaces of modernity. Instead of showing visitors around an ancient house, Walpole showed visitors around a fake ancient house: he simulated antiquity, and yet at the same time he lived and gloried in the simulation. Every fantasy author, moviemaker and designer of  computer games owes their livelihood to him. Without Walpole, none of us would have the pleasure of running riot in our own invented versions of the past. DSCF0063

A cantering knight on the ceiling of Walpole's library
A cantering knight on the ceiling of Walpole’s library

Walpole’s version of Gothick architecture immediately strikes the modern visitor as naïve, superficial or both. Structurally, Strawberry Hill is much the same as every other eighteenth-century house, because none of the Gothick ornaments actually do anything; the plaster vaults and finials are just stuck on. Furthermore, the decorative features are just as likely to be borrowed from the Doge’s Palace in Venice as an English cathedral – and even then, Walpole and his friends plundered the engravings in Dugdale’s Monasticon (1655) and other antiquarian sources rather than actually copying medieval models, as later goths like Pugin and sons did so painstakingly. Strawberry Hill is an eclectic collection of architectural oddments, a single giant cabinet of curiosities in which the house itself is the principal curiosity to be admired. I was especially impressed by Robert Adam’s gothic fireplace in the Round Drawing Room – not just because Adam based it on the pilasters and marble decoration of the tomb of St Edward the Confessor (which dates from Mary’s reign), but also because Walpole was able to persuade even the supreme master of the Palladian style in England to indulge in gothic. I was also delighted to see that the Strawberry Hill Trust has been able almost to completely fill Walpole’s magnificent library with loans of books from the period – the original contents having been dispersed to America in the nineteenth century.

A wall cabinet where Walpole once kept John Dee's obsidian scrying stone
A wall cabinet where Walpole once kept John Dee’s obsidian scrying stone

But this house is, of course, the place where the eighteenth-century imagination was freed to explore the dark pathways of the subconscious. Here in a second-floor bedroom Walpole awoke one morning from a fearful dream in which he saw a gigantic mailed hand resting on a dark, gothic stair – the germ from which grew the world’s first gothic and supernatural novel – The Castle of Otranto (1764). The book, just like the house, was originally delivered to the world as fake history – but it was fake history that had some resonances in Walpole’s own heritage. He reported in the preface that the manuscript of Otranto was discovered in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England, and it is noteworthy that in the Plaid Chamber next to the room in which he dreamt up the novel hung a portrait of the Jesuit Henry Walpole, which Horace had bought or inherited from the last of his Catholic relatives in 1748. Walpole believed – or chose to believe – that his Jesuit forebear had been executed for trying to poison Elizabeth I; one of many stories that Walpole seemed to just make up on the spur of the moment for his visitors (he told them that Henry VII was an impious king who mocked God, for example). DSCF0106 The faux Catholic origins of Otranto, and Walpole’s inverted veneration of his Catholic ancestor as an interesting traitor were not the only expressions of Walpole’s ambivalent attitude to his own family’s Catholicism. In the woods he built a curious octagonal chapel and designed a frontage for it based on a chantry tomb in Salisbury Cathedral, producing a bizarre result. The chapel is still there, though no longer isolated as Walpole intended: it now faces the monstrous brick edifice of the Catholic chapel of St Mary’s University (irony enough in itself). I was lucky enough to find it open, although nothing survives in the interior from Walpole’s time apart from the vaulted roof, sadly in need of the same attention that the house itself has lately received.

Roof of the chapel, Strawberry Hill
Roof of the chapel, Strawberry Hill

Walpole’s chapel originally contained a marble holy water stoup and a medieval altarpiece, consisting of four panels depicting, on the outside, two fifteenth-century bishops: Cardinal Beaufort and John Kemp, Archbishop of York. Inside was a figure of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester in prayer, and ‘behind him a saint holding the duke’s cap of estate in one hand, and a golden chalice in the other’. There was also a fragmentary scene of the nativity, and a coat of arms which Walpole identified as Tate impaling Boleyn or Sanders. This altarpiece had belonged to the herald Peter Leneve and later his protégé Thomas Martin of Palgrave, but it came originally from the Abbey of St Edmund. The portrayals of Gloucester, Beaufort and Kemp together is intriguing, since all three men were at the Parliament in Bury St Edmunds at the time of Gloucester’s death in 1447. Sadly this precious relic of the Abbey, and of East Anglian Catholicism, no longer survives. DSCF0096 There were many eighteenth-century gentlemen who built ‘gothick temples’ and mock-monastic ruins as follies on their estates, and some who even built chapels in the Strawberry Hill style (there is an excellent example at Audley End). Yet Walpole must have been the only one who actually integrated the trappings of Catholicism – a stoop and an altarpiece – into the design of his chapel. There is a peculiar ambivalence to Walpole’s attitude to Catholicism; he was prepared to make up a story that traduced his ancestor, yet preserved a picture of him next to his bedroom; he portrayed Catholicism as superstitious in Otranto, yet delighted in such superstition and even reproduced it in his chapel. My visit to Strawberry Hill raised more questions than it answered about Walpole’s pivotal role in eighteenth-century English culture, and in particular changing attitudes to Catholics.


The Royalist May Day Rising at Bury St Edmunds, 1648

Cornhill in Bury St Edmunds, looking towards the old Market Cross (1700)
Cornhill in Bury St Edmunds, looking towards the old Market Cross (1700)

The Royalist rising in Bury St Edmunds in May 1648 is a forgotten counter-revolutionary episode that sought to challenge the supremacy of the Puritan Committee of Suffolk (part of the Parliamentarian Eastern Association). It was a particularly disturbing event for the Parliamentarian authorities, since Suffolk had been at the very heart of their territory during the first Civil War (1642-46). Yet Bury was never a wholeheartedly Parliamentarian town, and its Corporation was divided between Parliamentarians and Royalists. In 1642, when Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham, the town had sent protestations of loyalty to both King and Parliament, signed by different members of the Corporation. One key factor that led to Royalism becoming more rather than less of a political force in Bury was the death of the MP Thomas Jermyn of Rushbrooke in 1645, a committed Parliamentarian, who was succeeded by his Royalist son, also Thomas (d. 1659). Although Thomas was out of the country, at the court of the exiled Queen Henrietta Maria, his brothers took over Rushbrooke. Almost overnight, Rushbrooke Hall became a haunt of Royalist ‘malignants’ (as the Eastern Association called them), a situation not helped by the fact that nearby Hengrave Hall was a ‘great resort of papists’ and Royalists. Here, the Royalist Sir William Hervey of Ickworth had married the Catholic widow Penelope Gage. In 1648, the link between the Herveys and Gages was confirmed when Penelope’s son Edward married Mary Hervey.

A strong Royalist gentry may have emboldened ordinary people in Bury to think that they could throw off the Parliamentarian yoke, and on or around 12 May 1648 the revolt began as a quintessentially English ‘May Pole riot’. These happened all over England as a result of Puritan attempts to suppress May Poles and May Pole dancing (indeed, such attempts continued well into the Victorian period). Within a short while, the dispute about setting up the May Pole turned into shouts of ‘For God and King Charles!’, and armed insurgents who had evidently been hiding in the crowd put their plan into action. They seized control of the county magazine and barricaded themselves in the town’s two parish churches, St Mary’s and St James’ (now St Edmundsbury Cathedral). At around the same time, armed risings also took place at nearby Lidgate and Newmarket, as well as at Linton in Cambridgeshire and Saffron Walden in Essex. Most worryingly of all for the authorities, the defenders in Bury’s churches were joined by Royalists from Colchester, the principal Royalist bastion in the East of England.

St Mary's Church, Bury St Edmunds
St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds

Parliament ordered Sir Thomas Barnardiston to re-take Bury, and at the same time General Fairfax gave the same order to Colonel Whalley. A farcical scene ensued outside the town walls when neither Parliamentarian could agree on how to deal with the town. Whalley wanted to lay siege to Bury, while Barnardiston believed the situation could be resolved by negotiation. Cooler heads prevailed, and Barnardiston was able to negotiate a surrender of the Royalists, who laid down their arms in the market house on condition of indemnity. However, General Cromwell subsequently sent his cousin Major Desborough to secure the town, and at least two people were killed in the process. The rising at Bury was hardly a significant moment of the Civil War, and there was never a serious possibility of the town falling into Royalist hands in the long term, but it was a psychological blow to the Parliamentarians. In the long term, it was probably one of the factors that forced the post-Civil War administration in Suffolk to realise that compromise with the Royalist gentry was necessary. Later, under the Commonwealth, Sir William Hervey even became Sheriff of the County. The episode also showed, like the Royalist Christmas riot of 1644, that popular festivals were a key flashpoint for anti-Puritan (and therefore pro-Royalist) feeling.

A full account of the rising of 1648 is given in my forthcoming book The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism, 1640-1767 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2015), pp. 17-20.