Today I spoke to BBC Radio Suffolk’s Amy Nomvula on the Lesley Dolphin Show (listen from 29:30) about Suffolk’s folklore of fairies and my new book on the subject, Suffolk Fairylore. Amy asked me how traditional ideas about fairies differ from modern stereotypes, as well as about the origins of fairylore in Suffolk and the ways in which fairy beliefs have changed over time. I spoke about my inspirations for writing the book, the challenges of gathering folklore about fairies, and the lingering influence of fairy beliefs into the twentieth century.
This evening I launched my new book Suffolk Fairylore at Elm Tree Gallery in Woolpit, Suffolk. The book is the first complete account of fairy belief in Suffolk, as well as the first book-length study of the fairylore of any English county. Suffolk has a rich fairylore in comparison with other East Anglian counties – albeit in comparison with the west and northwest of England, Suffolk’s fairy traditions are somewhat elusive. The book takes a chronological approach, tracing the development of belief in fairy-like beings in Suffolk from the Roman period to the present day. Kirsty Hartsiotis, author of the wonderful Suffolk Folk Tales, kindly provided the book with an insightful foreword. I am very grateful to my publisher Susan Curran for organising the launch and to Elm Tree Gallery’s Anne Wilding for hosting the evening. I introduced the book and – appropriately for the setting – gave a brief reading from a passage about the Green Children of Woolpit.
Woolpit seemed the most appropriate place to launch a book about Suffolk’s fairies, since Suffolk’s most famous fairy narrative (although people frequently fail to recognise it as such) is the tale of the Green Children of Woolpit. I specifically chose Elm Tree Gallery for this launch because it has a lot to do with the reason why I wrote this book in the first place. I often visited Woolpit as a child, and became fascinated by the story of the Green Children as well as by the mythological figurines made by Clarecraft Pottery in Woolpit. Clarecraft had an arrangement to sell slightly damaged figurines at Elm Tree Gallery at reduced prices, and so I began a collection of elves, wizards, leprechauns, dragons and talking trees, nuts and stones (this was before Clarecraft began specialising in Terry Pratchett merchandise). Elm Tree Gallery always seemed a thoroughly magical place, with an ever-changing stock of mythological figures that fed my intense interest in fairy and folk tales.
Elm Tree Gallery kindled and sustained my interest in the fairies all those years ago, and also planted an association between Suffolk and fairylore in my mind that smouldered away for many years. However, at the time I shared the unfounded prejudice (which I have carefully documented in the book) that Suffolk – and the east of England more generally – does not really have fairies. Instead of looking for traces of fairy belief in Suffolk, I was anxious to visit those places I associated with fairylore: Cheshire, Devon, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, and the Highlands of Scotland and to read about the folklore of those places. It was not until 2006 that I decided (I am still not sure exactly why) that I would revisit the question of Suffolk’s fairies – it may be that it was in that year that I obtained a copy of a reprint of Arthur Hollingsworth’s History of Stowmarket (1845), a book notorious for its collection of fairy narratives from the Hundred of Stow. However, for years I was at a loss as to how to pursue the question of Suffolk’s fairies further and – as is often the case with an inchoate, half-formed project – I was unsure whether there was enough material for an article on Suffolk’s fairies, let alone a book.
Inspiration came in the form of Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook’s wonderful volume Magical Folk (which I reviewed here back in May), which consists of a series of geographically specific studies of fairylore in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the New World, often with a historical focus. I was disappointed that there was no chapter on East Anglia, but this was one of those occasions when I realised that there was no-one better placed to correct that omission than myself. Reading Magical Folk (as well as corresponding extensively with its incredibly kind and generous editor Simon Young) convinced me that a coherent historical account of the development of fairy belief in a specific locality was possible, and so I set to work to excavate everything I could about Suffolk’s fairylore. The result is this book, whose aim is to drill as deep as possible into the dark depths of East Anglian folklore to recover everything that can now be known about belief in the fairies in England’s easternmost county.
Suffolk Fairylore is my twelfth book. It is not the longest book I have written. It is probably not the most important book I have written, nor the one that will sell the most copies. But, of all the books that I have written to date, this one is my favourite – perhaps because writing it has given me the chance to shed the light of historical and folklore scholarship on themes that captivated me as a child. I trust this does not make me sentimental or lacking in objectivity; virtually every historian, to some extent, relies on formative experiences to guide them to the themes and areas they choose to study. Rarely, however, does a historian get the chance to revisit the preoccupations of childhood. And I have learnt that even when analysed, dissected and traced to their folkloric sources, fairies always remain magical. That is their appeal.
Today is the Vigil of the Feast of St Edmund (20 November), when the Church celebrates the martyred king of East Anglia (and traditional patron saint of the English people) who was slain by Vikings in 869. The majority of church dedications to St Edmund are, of course, found in England – but the cult of St Edmund is also a global one, and churches dedicated to the saint can be found throughout the world. My current focus of research for an upcoming article and book is the cult of St Edmund in Ireland, but I also recently wrote about Edmund dedications in Australia. This blogpost provides an overview of churches dedicated to St Edmund beyond England, although much more research is still needed into this global cult.
The cult of St Edmund spread beyond England at an early date, with a Cistercian abbey dedicated to St Edmund founded on the Norwegian island of Hovedøya in 1147. An Augustinian priory dedicated to St Edmund at Athassel in Ireland followed in 1200, while a church dedicated to St Edmund was founded at Crickhowell, Wales in the early fourteenth century. During the course of the Middle Ages churches were dedicated to St Edmund in Italy and Egypt, with several chapels of St Edmund in France, while the Icelandic town of Akureyri boasted a statue of the saint.
The Reformation put a temporary stop to the growth of the cult of St Edmund, but missionary societies (both Catholic and Anglican) in the nineteenth century revived interest in the saint and numerous churches were dedicated to St Edmund around the world. In the English-speaking world, in particular, St Edmund was welcomed as a symbol of an ‘Englishness’ that people in North America and Australia were keen to perpetuate.
While Australia has 4 churches dedicated to St Edmund, Canada boasts 11 (several of them, surprisingly, in French-speaking Quebec). In the USA, there are no fewer than 14 churches dedicated to St Edmund, with one each in the states of Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Wyoming. California and Louisiana have 2 St Edmund’s each.
In Asia, Malaysia has 2 churches dedicated to St Edmund, while Africa has 2: one in South Africa and one in Nigeria. St Edmund’s church in Nigeria was attacked by the Nigerian army in June 2016 and several worshippers killed.
Perhaps the world’s newest church dedicated to St Edmund is the huge church of San Edmundo Rey y Mártir built at San Bernardo, Chile, in 2009. As far as I am aware, this remains the only church dedicated to St Edmund in South America.
The spread of church dedications to St Edmund beyond the English-speaking world is especially intriguing, since it cannot always be attributed to the influence of the British Empire or English missionaries. Sometimes church dedications do not primarily commemorate a saint, but rather take the name of the saint after whom someone else was named, such as a major donor or beloved pastor. But this in itself is testament to the global reach of St Edmund – the fact that the personal name Edmund (in its many variants) exists in so many languages and has reached so many countries. Of course, there is not just one St Edmund – I have excluded here, as far as possible, churches dedicated to St Edmund Rich, Archbishop of Canterbury, but in some cases churches do not specify the Edmund to whom they are dedicated. In these cases, the original St Edmund, king and martyr would seem the most likely dedicatee.
Australia might seem an unlikely place to find evidence for the cult of the Anglo-Saxon martyr king St Edmund, but the more time I spend investigating St Edmund’s global presence, the more I realise how truly worldwide the cult of East Anglia’s martyr king has become. As the patron saint of the English people, it should not surprise us that commemoration of St Edmund has spread throughout the English-speaking world (and beyond), and churches and chapels have been dedicated to the martyr king in every inhabited continent.
The Catholic Church in Australia was famously planted by the English Benedictines, led by John Bede Polding (1794-1877), who arrived in Australia in 1835. Polding and most of the Benedictines in Australia came from St Gregory’s, Acton Burnell (later Downside), but one of the missionaries, James Ambrose Cottam (1810-83) was a monk of St Edmund’s, Douai. Cotton served in Hobart, Tasmania between 1844 and 1851. One Australian also entered St Edmund’s, Douai in the nineteenth century: Michael Morris (Osmund in religion) (1848-88), who was ordained priest in 1875, served in Hobart between 1844 and 1851. Furthermore, two of the earliest candidates for the priesthood to emerge from Australia, Maurice Reynolds and a Mr Ferguson, went to study at St Edmund’s, Douai in 1837. However, in spite of the English Benedictine Congregation’s reputation for perpetuating the memory of St Edmund as a Benedictine saint, I have found no direct evidence that the Benedictines in Australia were responsible for spreading the cult of St Edmund there.
The first Australian church dedicated to St Edmund was the Catholic church of St Edmund and Our Lady of the Assumption at Bodalla, New South Wales, which was founded in 1886 by Laidley and Mary Mort in memory of Robert Charles de Courcy Coveny (1842-85), who was killed while serving in 1st Battalion the Black Watch in the Sudan. The Mort family came originally from Bolton, Lancashire and it is unclear why St Edmund was chosen as the church’s patron. One possibility is that the dedication commemorated Edmund Blacket (1817-83), an architect patronised by the Morts. More likely, however, is a connection between the Morts and St Anne’s church, Ormskirk, Lancashire, which is served by monks from Douai Abbey and where members of the Mort family have been members of the congregation for generations.
Australia’s second church dedicated to St Edmund was an Anglican one, and was founded in 1917 on Emerald Hill, overlooking Herdsman Lake, on land that was to become the suburb of Wembley, Perth. Originally little more than a tiny wooden shed with an iron frame, the church was consecrated on 18 November 1917. Other than the church’s date of consecration, which is two days before St Edmund’s Day (and between the feasts of St Edmund of Abingdon and St Edmund, king and martyr), there is no indication as to why the church on Emerald Hill was dedicated to St Edmund. In 1931 the tiny church was moved from its original position to Pangbourne Street, and between 1952 and 1956 it was replaced by an imposing red brick church that was consecrated on 4 August 1956.
Another very basic colonial church dedicated to St Edmund can be found at Tharwa in the Australian Capital Territory, where a small wooden building was founded in 1919 by the owner of Cuppacumbalong Station, George McKeahnie. The McKeahnies arrived from Scotland in 1838, and once again the reason for the dedication to St Edmund is unclear.
A more modern Australian church dedicated to St Edmund can be found in Wild Street, Maroubra, a suburb of Sydney. The origins of this church remain obscure, although in its current form it must surely have been built after 1960. It is also worth noting here that Australia has one church dedicated to St Edmund of Abingdon, St Edmond’s church in Croydon, Victoria. A number of institutions associated with the Christian Brothers are also dedicated to Bd Edmund Rice.
New Zealand lacks any churches dedicated to St Edmund, king and martyr or St Edmund of Canterbury, but Wellington Cathedral’s bells come from St Edmund’s church, Northampton, having been shipped to New Zealand when St Edmund’s was demolished in the 1960s.
Apart from the handful of church dedications to St Edmund, king and martyr and some associations between Australia and Douai Abbey, I have not been able to identify any other evidence of the cult of St Edmund in Australia such as statues or representations in stained glass. However, I would be delighted if any Australian readers of this blog know of such representations.
This evening I was privileged to attend the Folklore Society‘s annual Katharine Briggs Lecture at The Warburg Institute in central London. This is the occasion when the annual Katharine Briggs Folklore Award is presented to the author of the book published in the UK and Ireland in 2017-18 that made the most distinguished contribution to folklore studies. My book Peterborough Folklore, published by Lasse Press in September 2017, was one of 9 books to be shortlisted for the award. The judges commented on the book:
Local folklore studying and collecting remains the backbone of folklore studies, and this nice local collection is a fine example. Intelligently and sensitively edited, the work is far more than a retread of old ground, making good use of older sources, both familiar and less so, and also quite aware of more recent folklore work.
The fascinating lecture, entitled ‘The Unfortunate Rake’s progress: a case-study of the construction of folklore by collectors and scholars’ was delivered by Prof. Richard Jenkins of the University of Sheffield (a last-minute replacement for Prof. Dr Ulrika Wolf-Knuts of Åbo Akademi University in Finland). Prof. Jenkins spoke about the construction of a tendentious genealogy for a supposed family of folk songs entitled ‘The Unfortunate Rake’, when in fact there is very little evidence that such a family of folk songs ever existed. Prof. Jenkins used the case study of this folk song family to discuss broader issues of confirmation bias in folklore studies, and concluded by observing that folklorists always contribute to the reification of the folkloric record by writing about it. The difficult question is whether folklorists, as part of ‘the folk’ themselves, have the right to make their own contributions to folklore by ‘putting a spin on the ball’ in their interpretations. Although folk song is far from my speciality, this was a thought-provoking lecture which touched on deep questions of methodology.
Although Peterborough Folklore did not win this year’s prize, I am very pleased that the book reached the shortlist. The Peterborough region (consisting of the old Soke of Peterborough and the parts of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire subsumed into Peterborough Unitary Authority) has been neglected by folklorists, and the book was an attempt to put that right. The book is also, in part, a tribute to Peterborough’s nineteenth-century folklorist Charles Dack, who was never able to bring his extensive work on the region’s folklore to fruition. I drew heavily on Dack’s surviving papers for the book, which partly completes his work.
I was delighted that Prof. Jenkins, who was one of this year’s judges, was so full of praise for the book (even telling me that it was the sort of book he wished he had written). The evening was an excellent opportunity to meet and connect with luminaries of the folklore world such as Jeremy Harte, Alan Murdie and Prof. Jenkins himself.
This morning I appeared on BBC Radio Suffolk (listen from 1:33:00) to speak to presenter Wayne Bavin about Ambrose Rookwood, Suffolk’s Gunpowder Plotter. I explained that Rookwood was drawn into the plot by the charismatic Robert Catesby, who asked Rookwood to purchase barrels of gunpowder and provide horses. It was only in September 1605, however, that Catesby revealed the nature of the plot to Rookwood – and by then, having been party to treason, it was too late for Rookwood to back out. He was found guilty of treason and hanged, drawn and quartered in January 1606. Wayne also asked me about how the Rookwood family survived this, and I explained that the family used clever tricks to keep hold of their land (such as putting it into trust). Nevertheless, 90 years after the first Ambrose Rookwood, another Ambrose Rookwood tried to assassinate another king (William of Orange) and met the same fate as his infamous forebear.
You can read more about the Rookwoods in my book Rookwood Family Papers 1606-1761.