Review of Brian Copenhaver, Magic in Western Culture


My review of Brian Copenhaver’s book Magic in Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment (Cambridge University Press, 2015) has just been published on the Institute for Historical Research’s Reviews in History website. Professor Copenhaver’s book is arguably the most comprehensive history of Renaissance magic – tracing its roots in the Neoplatonism of Late Antiquity – since the work of Frances Yates. Copenhaver directly challenges Yates’ claim that early modern magic was founded on Hermetic ideas and shows that, in reality, it was the Neoplatonists who were the major influence. This is a fascinating and very important book to the historiography of ideas.



Bishop William Poynter and exorcism in Regency England

William Poynter (1762-1827), Vicar Apostolic of the London District 1812-27

My article ‘Bishop William Poynter and exorcism in Regency England’ has recently been published in vol. 33:2 of British Catholic History, the journal of the Catholic Record Society. The article is based on a remarkable set of correspondence I discovered at the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone, which I believe to be the sole surviving correspondence regarding an exorcism in any British public archive. The correspondence covers the period 1814-15 and features a number of letters to Bishop William Poynter and his officials from Thomas Moore, the brother of the alleged demoniac Peter Moore, as well as replies from Poynter and his Vicar General. Thomas Moore was demanding an exorcism for Peter, whom he believed to be possessed. One priest from the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Chapel, Richard Broderick, offered to perform the exorcism but then withdrew at the last moment. Poynter himself prevaricated, telling Thomas Moore that if he could find a priest willing to perform the rite then he (Poynter) would authorise it; however, it is more than likely that Poynter exerted pressure on his clergy not to agree to Thomas Moore’s requests. Finally, in August 1815 Thomas Moore drew a blank, and Poynter therefore definitely forbade the proposed exorcism.

The case is interesting not only because it offers a detailed insight into different attitudes to exorcism in the Regency Catholic Church in England, but also because another Vicar Apostolic, John Milner, authorised (and actively encouraged) an exorcism at the same time (August 1815) as Poynter prohibited an exorcism in his own district. Both cases can therefore be considered an episode in the long-running feud between the Ultramontane Milner and other clergy he considered to be less than loyal to the full-blooded ‘supernaturalist’ Catholicism Milner espoused. However, in spite of this brief revival, exorcism more or less disappeared from English Catholic life for the remainder of the nineteenth century, and was not discussed again by Catholics until the emergence of Spiritualism in the 1890s. My book A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity contains a full account of developing British attitudes to the rite.


Ixworth Priory

Ixworth Abbey from the southwest, showing the south end of the west range (right) and the remains of the Prior’s lodging (left)

St Mary’s Priory of Augustinian Canons at Ixworth is one of the least well known of all Suffolk’s monastic houses, on account of the fact that the Priory buildings were turned into a private house after the dissolution and have remained in private hands ever since. Ixworth Priory was one of only a handful of religious houses within the Liberty of St Edmund (West Suffolk), an area tightly controlled by the Benedictine Abbots of Bury St Edmunds, who were most reluctant to permit the intrusion of other religious. However, the foundation date of the Priory (1100) gives a clue as to how the foundation may have come about. Abbot Baldwin of St Edmunds died in 1097 and the abbacy remained vacant for three years while the Norman barons did their best to obtain control of the Abbey. Hugh d’Avranches, Earl of Chester, managed to obtain the appointment of his illegitimate son Robert (who was barely old enough to be eligible), but Robert was deposed two years later by St Anselm of Canterbury. It was during this period of particular weakness for the great Abbey that Gilbert le Blond (ancestor of the Blount family) managed to found a priory of Augustinian canons at nearby Ixworth.

Remains of the Priory Church: an octagonal pier-base on the north lawn of Ixworth Abbey

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be able to see what remains of Ixworth Priory, which was incorporated into the post-Reformation house today called Ixworth Abbey. The remains consist of the west range and part of the Prior’s lodging. The west range stood to the south of the Priory church at right angles to it; in the middle of the west range, oriented east-west like the church, was the Prior’s lodging. The remainder of the house was added in the seventeenth century and was given its present appearance in the eighteenth. On the north lawn are what appear to be the remains of the Priory church, in the form of large octagonal bases for piers (one of which is now decorated with a sundial on a pedestal), and a number of medieval tomb slabs. Just beyond the tomb slabs the north lawn drops away to a cricket ground, with the edge of the lawn being marked out with pieces of reused stonework from the Priory.

Medieval tomb slab on the lawn of Ixworth Abbey
Medieval stones incorporated into the edge of Ixworth Abbey’s north lawn

Ixworth Priory was dissolved in February 1537 when its last (recently elected) Prior, William Blome, surrendered his house to Cromwell’s commissioners. Archaeological investigation of the Priory began, by accident, in 1835 and was recorded in a ‘Labourers’ Day Book’:

Began trenching the paddock on the north front of-the Abbey beyond the sunk fence, filling up the pike pond with the rubbish, &c. Found massive foundations of flint walls ; some of the angles in small blocks of freestone. They were in various directions, some interior partitions, but not always at right angles with the principal walls. The interior was generally floored with a layer of chalk stone, on a thick bed of coarse mortar. From the lump of foundation left at the west end, a wall extended in a northerly direction about 25 yards, when another wall went westerly at right angles, and an interior wall was found parallel; the eastern side of the interior wall was divided by similar constructions of about nine inches thick into small apartments, but no evidences of doors were visible, though a regular line of chalk stone flooring on a thick layer of coarse mortar was evident, on which the party walls had been erected. About ten yards from the east and west principal wall, and also about the same distance from the west end buttress, we came to a foundation of 3 rectangular sides with buttresses projecting from the angles, with an area of about 13 feet. At the foot of the second buttress, east of the first one, below the level of the foundation, was an excavation about 2 feet deep, and about 4 feet diameter, apparently a fireplace for a furnace, the sides sloping inwardly and cemented all round. On the bottom, which was not cemented, were built two oblong parallel lumps of stones and mortar about a foot high, and covered with cement, apparently intended to receive the bottom of the cauldron for melting lead, as there were remnants of lead and solder all about; and not far off, but deeper down in the soil a foot or more, were found the two ‘pigs’ of lead.

By 1849 these pigs of lead were in front of the main entrance of the house (presumably on the north side) and were marked with the crowned monogram of Henry VIII. This is clear evidence of the systematic stripping of lead from the roofs of monastic buildings immediately after the dissolution. Sir Thomas Kytson the elder (d. 1540), the builder of Hengrave Hall between 1525 and 1538, is supposed to have purchased both lead and stone from the site of Ixworth Abbey for his new house.

The works of 1835 also uncovered human remains:

The earthen mound [in front of the house] is raised over a brick grave, made capable of containing two bodies, but there was only one in it—a female skeleton … which had been buried in a coffin; as was evident by a black mark, as if drawn with charcoal, the exact shape and size of one; and which was the only evidence, with the addition of a few splinters of oak adhering to the handles and nails, which were lying in their exact positions, and which were removed to the Abbey, but the skeleton was left untouched. It was on the left hand or north side, and not in the centre. On the outside, to the north of the wall of the grave, and about two feet under the surface, we came to a quantity of lead, which proved to be the winding sheet to a body, which was also pronounced to be a female. The skeleton appeared perfect, with unctuous matter about it, but no hair on the scalp. The leaden wrapper and its contents were deposited in the vacant space on the right hand of the skeleton. The dos d’ âne grave stones were not found in their present positions, nor indeed in any, but used as building materials in the old flint wall, which it was necessary to remove to accomplish the object we had in view, of diminishing the damp of the house by draining the water from it. The pieces were preserved and placed over collections of bones as at present, of which there are great quantities under ground, which from the confused heaps in which they were found, had probably been moved before.

This passage is useful because it tells us that the medieval tomb slabs visible today are not in their original positions – and therefore that nothing about the layout of the church can be deduced from them.

On 14 June 1849 the recently founded Suffolk Institute of Archaeology convened at Ixworth Abbey, then owned by R. N. Cartwright. The proceedings of the meeting recorded:

Having for a short time walked through the beautiful grounds of Mr. Cartwright, where are some remains of bases of pillars of the Priory chapel, and several richly florated crosses on stone coffin lids rising above the lawn, the company entered the house, in the hall of which, formerly the crypt of the Prior’s hall, the exhibition of the Society had been arranged. This crypt is extremely interesting. Mr. Adey Repton remarks :— “The capitals on the walls being partly Norman and partly early English, appear to me to be of the time of King John, or about the year 1200. The same may be observed on the bosses, which remind me of the works of Bishop Joscelins in ‘Wells Cathedral’.” Here is admirably preserved in an oaken table, the stone coffin lid of Prior Poyk, the 12th Prior, and a stone coffin.

One of the objects displayed for the members of the Society on this occasion was a copy of the common seal of the Priory of St Mary of Ixworth, taken from the one appended to the deed of surrender, which depicted the Assumption of the Virgin and showed the arms of Gilbert le Blond (barry nebulée of six), the founder of the monastery, at the bottom right.

Common seal of Ixworth Priory as engraved for the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology in 1849

The next archaeological investigation of the Priory had to wait until 1957, when archaeologists concluded that ‘a large part of the canons’ dormitory over a vaulted under-croft, and the eastern half of the refectory are included’ in the surviving buildings. They remarked upon ‘the open 13th century arcade at the southern end of the dorter subvault’ and reported that ‘remains of three of the bases of the central tower—of 13th century date—bases of the choir arcades and a single base of the N. aisle of the nave’ had been discovered.

‘Ghosts’ of both a large medieval ogival window and a Georgian pedimented door or window on the south side of the old Prior’s lodging


The north end of the west range, viewed from the east

Ixworth Abbey is one of Suffolk’s undiscovered treasures, and my main regret from my visit is that I did not actually manage to get inside the building. Nevertheless, I was pleased that so much is visible from the outside.






Abbey of St Edmund Heritage Partnership


Today is the official launch of the Abbey of St Edmund Heritage Partnership, a new collaborative initiative between St Edmundsbury Cathedral and St Edmundsbury Borough Council to ensure the better interpretation of the ruins of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. The intention of the Partnership is to bring together all groups and individuals with an interest in the preservation of this historic site, including English Heritage, all levels of local government, the Bury Society, and local faith groups. As a historian of the Abbey, I was invited to join the Partnership in order to assist with historical interpretation of the site, as well as to liaise with Bury’s Catholic community to ensure their views are heard.

The site of the Abbey ruins was privately owned for centuries by the Hervey family, Marquesses of Bristol, who are Hereditary Stewards of the Liberty of St Edmund. In 1912 the Bury Corporation leased the so-called ‘Botanical Gardens’ from the Marquess and opened them to the public, but did not purchase the site from the Hervey family until 1953. The Bury Corporation managed the ruins on behalf of the Ministry of Works (later English Heritage), although parts of the precinct are in the hands of the Church of England – namely, the Cathedral of St James and St Mary’s Church. The Norman Tower, although owned and managed by English Heritage, remains the belfry of the Cathedral. The site of the Abbey is thus a complex one in terms of ownership and management.

Public interpretation of the ruins began in 1847, when a large stone plaque was fixed to the northeast pier of the crossing of the Abbey Church to commemorate the oath sworn by the barons on the high altar in 1214 to compel King John to sign Magna Carta. In 1903, following the discovery of the tombs of abbots in the Chapter House, ledger slabs bearing the names of the abbots were laid on the site. The small metal plaques identifying different sites within the ruins probably date from the Council’s acquisition of the site in the 1950s. It was not until the 1990s that a concerted effort was made to interpret the ruins meaningfully to the public, and an Abbey Visitor Centre was opened in Samson’s Tower in the Abbey’s West Front. Moulded plastic models of the medieval Abbey precincts were placed behind Samson’s Tower and close to the Eastgate entrance of the Abbey Gardens to aid interpretation, and metal ‘lectern’ boards were placed in key locations around the ruins.

Sadly, the Abbey Visitor Centre was forced to close in the early 2000s and, although the metal lectern boards remain, there is no other public interpretation of this immensely important historic site. In comparison with other ruined abbeys owned by English Heritage, such as Glastonbury, Fountains and Rievaulx, Bury Abbey is extremely difficult for the visitor to understand and interpret. One challenge that Bury faces is that the site of the ruins is a major and established leisure area for the town and a public park, meaning that only a proportion of visitors actually come to look at the ruins. The aim of the Abbey of St Edmund Heritage Partnership is to draw on best practice from around the country to ensure that people visiting the ruins will be able to picture the Abbey and realise its significance. This is especially important because the year 2020 will mark the millennium of the traditional foundation date of the Benedictine Abbey in the reign of Canute.

The Partnership met today, and after the meeting the Partners were some of the first people to climb the tower of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, which gives magnificent views over the ruins of the Abbey Church. The scale of the Abbey is best appreciated from the air, so the opening of the tower tours is an important step towards making the Abbey better understood. However, the Partnership has ambitious plans to transform the present site of the Abbey ruins which will be unveiled in due course.


Uncovering Bishop Simon Patrick’s Chapel at Ely

by Sir Peter Lely, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1668
Simon Patrick, Bishop of Ely (1626-1707) by Sir Peter Lely

Yesterday I led guided tours of the Bishop’s Palace in Ely for Heritage Open Day, as I have since 2012, which were attended by around 140 people. Each year, as we learn more about the history of the Palace, I have some new discovery to share with visitors. This year I was able to confirm that I have found the site of a chapel that was either constructed or renewed by Simon Patrick, Bishop of Ely 1691-1707. This chapel was the immediate predecessor of the present chapel, which was constructed by Bishop Edmund Keene after 1770.

ground-floor-planThis plan of the ground floor of the Palace as it is today shows Bishop Keene’s chapel immediately south of the Gatehouse Chamber on a north-south axis (something that Keene got in trouble for at the time). However, before 1770 the Gatehouse Chamber was an actual gatehouse under which all north-south traffic through Ely had to pass, meaning that the traffic had to execute a sharp turn to the east as it passed under the gatehouse and re-joined the course of the street now known as the Gallery. Keene’s demolition of a gallery linking the Palace to Ely Cathedral allowed him to re-route traffic away from the Palace to its present route, and made it possible for him to build a chapel in the newly vacated space.

The fact that Keene was criticised by the antiquary William Cole for creating a chapel on a north-south rather than an east-west axis suggested that a previous chapel had existed which was on an east-west axis, and indeed an inventory of 1581, taken at the death of Bishop Richard Coxe, confirms that there was indeed a medieval chapel (as one would expect in a bishop’s palace). The inventory offers few clues as to where this original chapel was located, apart from the fact that it is listed close to the gallery (which was on the east side of the building). However, the Palace fell into a state of considerable disrepair between 1581 and 1619, when Bishop Lancelot Andrewes undertook restoration, and again between 1642 and 1667. There were two late seventeenth-century restorations, first by Bishop Benjamin Laney between 1667 and 1675 and then by Bishop Simon Patrick in 1691-92.

Simon Patrick was translated from Chichester in April 1691 to replace the deprived nonjuror Francis Turner. Patrick immediately set to work restoring the Palace in Ely, which he moved into in May 1692 – it was most unusual for a Bishop of Ely, at this time, to make Ely his main residence. The major evidence of Patrick’s restoration is to be seen on the south, east and west sides of the building where the enormous sash windows (reminiscent of William and Mary’s restoration of Hampton Court Palace) are a significant feature.

For some time I had been curious about the top of a blocked-up round-headed arch or window which appears just above the roof of a twentieth-century plant room on the east side of the Palace. In the photograph below the roof of the plant room and the round-headed arch above it can be seen on the left; the gothic window on the right is the southernmost window of the Victorian restoration of Bishop Keene’s chapel, and the eliptical window in between is at the end of the corridor leading to the present-day chapel.


It seemed possible to me that the blocked-up arch could be the east window of Bishop Patrick’s chapel, but it was also possible that it was an arch through which the traffic going under the Palace before 1770 was supposed to pass, making its sharp turn east onto the course of the present street. Finally, in April, I was able to get inside the plant room, and I was delighted to discover that it had simply been built against the east wall of the Palace, leaving the features of that wall intact.

Inside the plant room: the east window of Bishop Patrick’s chapel

Once inside the plant room, it was clear that the blocked-up arch was that of a window, since the bottom of the window is clearly visible in this image. The huge size of the window, its position facing east and its architectural conformity to the other features of the building known to date back to Bishop Patrick’s restoration mean that I am as sure as I can be that this is the east window of Bishop Patrick’s chapel of 1691-92. It is possible – even likely – that Patrick built his chapel on the foundations of the earlier chapel mentioned in the 1581 inventory. Their status as sacred sites meant that chapels tended to be restored in their original locations rather than rebuilt on a new site, and furthermore the location of Patrick’s chapel was hardly ideal; traffic would have passed very close to the northeast corner of the chapel, and it was probably quite noisy. The simplest way to explain this unusual choice of location is that Patrick wished to honour the site of an earlier chapel.

Site of Bishop Patrick’s chapel of 1691-92 in relation to the present-day groundplan of the Palace

Unfortunately, nothing survives of the interior of Bishop Patrick’s chapel and nothing is likely to be discovered, since the southeast corner of the Palace has been altered so significantly. The east end of what was the chapel is now occupied by a flight of stairs and, beyond that, a modern kitchen, toilets and a staff common room. It is also difficult to judge how large the chapel was and how far west it reached, since all of Patrick’s sash windows are the same. It seems likely, judging from the surviving evidence, that Patrick’s chapel would have been quite a plain one, which would certainly be consistent with that prelate’s latitudinarian principles.



Launch of The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds


Today is the publication date of my new book The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds: History, Legacy and Discovery, which is the first complete history of East Anglia’s greatest abbey from foundation to dissolution. This evening I launched the book at St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds. I was especially pleased that the Sacrist of the modern-day St Edmund’s Abbey, Dom Hugh Somerville-Knapman, was able to be there as a representative of the monks. I am grateful to Rev. Malcolm Rogers and St Mary’s Church for hosting the event in association with my publisher, Lasse Press.

To those who already have an interest in the history of Suffolk and Bury St Edmunds the appeal of a history of the great Abbey is, I trust, obvious. However, the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was not just another large medieval English abbey. The Abbey’s significance was national, in the first instance, because it was an active symbol of the difficult and complex construction of a composite Anglo-Danish Christian identity for the people of the Danelaw, the mixed descendants of the old Kingdom of East Anglia and Viking invaders. The centrality of the shrine of St Edmund ostensibly sent a message about the ultimate victory of English Christian over heathen Dane, and this may have been the ideology behind the translation of Edmund’s body to the town of Beodricesworth (the future Bury St Edmunds) at the beginning of Æthelstan’s reign (c. 904). However, the Abbey itself was apparently founded by the Danish king Cnut, only six years after his father Sweyn was supposedly killed by the spectre of St Edmund. Thus, the Benedictine foundation represented an act of reconciliation between Englishman and Dane whose significance extended far beyond Suffolk or even East Anglia.

The Norman Conquest sharpened Bury’s significance as the shrine of the patron saint of the English people; ironically, owing to its French abbot (Baldwin), Bury did not suffer any of the depredations of the Conquest and only grew in importance. William I, by siding with the Abbey against the Bishop of Norwich, performed an act of reconciliation not dissimilar to that of Cnut; St Edmund presided over the merging of English and Norman identities in the new polity of the Norman Conquest. Indeed, throughout the Middle Ages Bury was the guardian of a specifically English identity; Edward I repeatedly visited the Abbey to and from his expeditions against the Scots, praying at St Edmund’s shrine for an English victory, and both Edward I and Henry VI insisted on receiving the submission of Welsh princes at St Edmunds. The significance of the Abbey to the story of Magna Carta is well known, as is its role in the development of medieval English anti-Semitism. Understanding the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds is crucial to understanding the formation of an English ‘national’ identity in the Middle Ages, as far as such a concept makes sense before the advent of the modern nation state.

Until now, however, there has been no complete history of the Abbey available. The first published history of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was written in Latin by John Battely (1647-1708), Archdeacon of Canterbury, in around 1691, but it remained unpublished until 1745 – and, in any case, Battely told the story only up to 1272. In 1805 Richard Yates, a clergyman who had been brought up in the ruined West Front of the Abbey, brought out the first volume of a two-volume work entitled An Illustration of the Monastic Antiquities of St. Edmund’s Bury; the second volume was published posthumously in 1843. Although richly illustrated, Yates’ book was more of a collection of antiquarian documents than a complete history of the Abbey from foundation to dissolution. The next attempt at a complete history of the Abbey was Albert Goodwin’s The Abbey of St. Edmundsbury (1931), but this was really no more than a short pamphlet publication of a prize essay. Then, finally, in the early years of the twenty-first century the veteran historian of the Abbey, Antonia Gransden, produced two monumental volumes on the Abbey between 1182 and 1256 and between 1257 and 1301.

Although Gransden had originally intended her volumes to cover the entire history of the Abbey, she was forced to give up on this ambition owing to the vastness of the task. As a consequence, until today no complete book-length history of the Abbey from its putative foundation in 1020 to its dissolution in 1539 existed, although historians as eminent as Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Arnold, M. R. James, Diarmaid MacCulloch and Antonia Gransden had turned their attentions to different aspects of the Abbey at various times. Part of the problem has been that certain periods in the Abbey’s history – such as the richly documented reign of the famous Abbot Samson – have attracted disproportionate attention in comparison with other eras. My book provides a narrative history of the Abbey’s entire history, supported by detailed references to the secondary literature so that those who wish to investigate the Abbey’s history in more detail can do so with ease. My aim is to provide a synthesis of all the historical work undertaken on the Abbey, ensuring that there is a single port of call for all embarking on the study of the Abbey, as well as an accessible introduction for the non-specialist.



BBC Radio Suffolk on the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds

Abbey view

Today (Sunday 4 September) I appeared again on Jon Wright’s Sunday breakfast show on BBC Radio Suffolk, this time to talk about my new book The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds: History, Legacy and Discovery which will be published on 8 September. You can listen here at 01:22:00. The interview was recorded on 31 August in the ruins of the crypt and chapter house, and snippets were broadcast on Thursday (here at 54:48). There is a short video of me in the ruins here.

In the interview, I explained that the new book is the first to tell the complete story of the Abbey from foundation to dissolution, and expressed my hope that the book will make people already familiar with the Abbey much better informed about it. The sheer size of the Abbey Church – at least 13,700 square metres – is not appreciated by many people, and made it the largest complete church in the world at the time it was demolished (St Peter’s Basilica, which is bigger, was just being built). I explained how the Abbey accrued vast wealth from the donations of pilgrims and from landholdings as far afield as Northamptonshire, Essex, London and even Normandy, but suggested that the Abbey gave far more to the local area than it ever took. Where it had been a major royal centre, the dissolution turned Bury into a marginal provincial town, and the town’s economy did not recover until the eighteenth century.

I am launching the book at St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds at 5pm on Thursday 8 September.