‘Holy and Unholy Suffolk’ at the Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival


This afternoon I spoke at the third Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival (at Bury’s Unitarian Meeting House) on the theme of ‘Holy and Unholy Suffolk: Adventures in Suffolk’s History and Folklore’. The talk explored some of my research into the history and beliefs of Suffolk people. This is the full text of the talk.

That great Suffolk historian, M. R. James, declared while he was still at school ‘I desire above all things to make an archaeological search into the antiquities of Suffolk’. James was true to his word, and among other things, he revolutionized our understanding of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Yet M. R. James’s historical and archaeological achievements are today forgotten by most people: this historian of the holy is far better remembered for his interest in the unholy, the macabre, and the strange, expressed in his famous ghost stories. What was it in the antiquities of Suffolk, I wonder, that led James in this sinister direction?

I am sure that most people with any knowledge of or association with Suffolk have heard the term ‘silly Suffolk’, which is of course a corruption of the Middle English ‘seely Suffolk’ – ‘seely’ meaning holy, and usually taken as a reference to the proliferation of churches in the Suffolk countryside. Suffolk is indeed a holy place; a county with an incredibly rich religious history, from the early Anglo-Saxon missionaries to the great monasteries of the Middle Ages and the fierce Puritanism and earnest nonconformist dissent that characterised later ages. But Suffolk also has another history: there is an ‘unseely Suffolk’ that lurks within the landscape seemingly consecrated by churches: a Suffolk of unearthly monsters, strange spirits and otherworldly visitants that sometimes sits uneasily with the down-to-earth piety we may associate with the county. One of my most recent projects was working on an edition of a collection of stories about Suffolk and Norfolk’s ‘bogey beasts’ by M. R. James’s cousin, Margaret James. These, perhaps, were the kind of stories James grew up with in the rectory at Great Livermere, and which formed his imagination.

Like M. R. James, I am first and foremost a church historian. I write about churches, monasteries, manuscripts and the cults of saints. Yet over the years I have found myself increasingly drawn into forgotten and overlooked byways of belief. I have become intrigued by the intersection between what people were supposed to be believing – the official line taken by the church – and what they really believed; a path of study which soon takes us into the realms of popular religion, folklore and magic.

I grew up in Suffolk – here in Bury St Edmunds, and spent my childhood playing in the ruins of the Abbey. I have always found Bury Abbey to be one of the hardest ruins to visualize in its former glory – even now, after studying it for years and writing a book about it – and I suspect it was the enigmatic character of these ruins that sowed in me a deep fascination with the mysteries of the past, as well as an unusually developed awareness of how alien the past is from the present. As a child I was fascinated by history and by chronology; I always wanted to know how old things were, and to find the oldest building in any town or village I visited. I developed intense obsessions with particular historical periods and tried to find out everything I could about them; and I collected old things – almost anything, from typewriters and medals to coins and stamps.

But even I had my limits: when someone brought me back a human vertebra, washed down from a churchyard onto Dunwich beach, I kept it in a box for only one night before I hurried down to my local parish church, dug a little hole, and buried it in the nearest consecrated ground. I was only about 11, but I had already read M. R. James’s story ‘Oh whistle, and I’ll come to you, my lad’, and I knew no good would come of keeping such a trophy.

However, what made history more than just a hobby for me was my teenage involvement with Hengrave Hall, then home to an ecumenical religious community, where I found myself roped in to take historical tours of the building. I soon started doing my own original research on Hengrave, even managing to trick my way into the manuscipts room of Cambridge University Library when I was far too young to be allowed in. Hengrave had been home to a recusant family – Catholics who refused to accept the Reformation and clung onto the old religion, whatever the cost. This research formed the basis of the first book I wrote – although it was not published until 2015 – The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism, 1640–1767. Along the way, I decided to edit the papers of the Rookwood family, another recusant family from Stanningfield who married into the Gages and therefore deposited their papers in the same collection.

I might have stuck with just exploring the archives of Suffolk’s recusant families if I had not stumbled across an unusual mezzotint among the Hengrave papers. For the benefit of M.R. James fans: yes, I know it sounds like I’m making this up, but it really did happen! The mezzotint portrays the great hall at Coldham Hall and two ghosts that apparently appeared there in October 1807. Two women emerged from large portraits of nuns that then hung in the great hall and walked across the hall. The portraits are still there; in spite of the fact that Coldham Hall has changed hands many times and much of its contents have been sold off, no-one has dared to remove the nuns, since moving their portraits is associated to this day with bad luck. Indeed, when the supermodel Claudia Schiffer moved into the property this century, the tabloid newspapers reported that she experienced supernatural disturbances when the portraits were moved for cleaning.

The story of the haunted nuns of Coldham Hall was, in a sense, the core around which my book English Catholics and the Supernatural developed. Although the book is not specifically about Suffolk or East Anglia, but covers Catholic reactions to supernatural beliefs all over England, it was the snippets of supernatural belief I uncovered in my researches in the Gage and Rookwood family papers that encouraged me to explore further afield and analyse similar occurrences.

Most of my books have followed on naturally from one another, such as my books on the Gage and Rookwood families, but occasionally I have been inspired to write a book by a purely chance event. One of these occurred in August 2015, when I was browsing in the former Churchgate Books. A woman entered the shop and asked the proprietor whether he had a book about the Abbey. She was disappointed when he told her that no-one had ever written a history of the Abbey. At the time I sniggered, as I could hardly believe that this was true – but on getting home I did some research and realized that he was right; although plenty of research had been done in the form of editions of original Abbey documents and even detailed volumes on specific periods in the Abbey’s history, no-one had ever written a single-volume history of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds from foundation to dissolution. So I sat down there and then and started writing one.

Another chance encounter that led to a book was meeting the Abbot of St Edmund’s Abbey at a history conference about twelve years ago. Yes, there is a modern-day St Edmund’s Abbey, located near Reading and usually called Douai Abbey. I told the abbot about my research on Bury St Edmunds and he mentioned a manuscript in the archives of his abbey which he thought contained a story about what happened to the body of St Edmund at the time of the Reformation. At the time I was not even working on St Edmund, and it was a few years before I took up the abbot’s suggestion and went to the abbey to consult the manuscript. What I found was a remarkable account from the late seventeenth century of a monk who claimed to be the great-grandson of one of the monks who secretly buried the body of St Edmund in an iron chest at the time of the dissolution of Bury Abbey in 1539. The account was very sketchy, but I can’t emphasise enough how important this discovery was, because up until that point no source of any kind had ever been turned up that described the fate of St Edmund’s body. This body was especially important, because it was one of only a handful of English saints who were supposed to be incorrupt – indeed, with the exception of St Cuthbert, St Edmund was supposed to be the only male saint who lay intact in his tomb. The fate of St Edmund had been much debated by historians, including M.R. James, but turning up a family tradition about what happened in 1539 seemed to be a game changer.

The monk William Hitchcock’s account of what happened to the body of St Edmund formed the centrepiece of what is (so far) probably my best-known book: Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King, which appeared in 2018. In the book I make the case that St Edmund’s body was probably buried in the area where the tennis courts behind the abbey ruins now stand – a suggestion that garnered a great deal of attention and made the national media. I cannot take credit for making this suggestion in the first place, of course – it was Sarah Friswell who first told me about the idea – but the important point was that this longstanding theory was supported by William Hitchcock’s story, allowing me to make what I consider a plausible reconstruction of events: at some point between 1535 and 1539, and probably in the period 1538-9, a group of monks including William Hitchcock’s grandfather removed the coffin from St Edmund’s shrine, placed it in a long iron chest formerly used to house monastic treasures in the sacristy, and carried this heavy burden out through the Chapel of St Botolph and the Shrinekeeper’s House before burying it in the monks’ private cemetery at the east end of the Abbey Church.

Since I made this suggestion many people have called for the tennis courts to be excavated, and I expect this will probably happen – although I am not sure whether I want the body of St Edmund to be found. In the 1930s, M.R. James called for the excavation of the Abbey’s crypt for the same reason; he expected Edmund to be buried under the floor. James did not live to see the excavation begun, which did not happen until 1959, and in the event no burials were found. So I have learnt to be cautious, and in any case, perhaps some guardians are best left to lie in peace.

When people ask me how I decide what I am going to write next, I often tell them that I write the books that I would like to read, but that no-one else has yet bothered to write. If I find myself saying the words, ‘If only somebody would write a book about…’ I am in dangerous territory, as that usually ends with me writing the book! Some literary ambitions take longer to realise than others, however. Since as early as 2006, I had been toying with the idea of writing a book about belief in fairies in Suffolk, but I was unsure whether there was sufficient material to make a book, and therefore wondering whether it was worth starting on a project that it might never be possible to complete. I began gathering material for the book, but did not get much further until I encountered a book that analysed the fairy traditions of different English counties, Magical Folk by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook. I was so mortified that there was no chapter on Suffolk – and that I could have contributed such a chapter – that I was immediately galvanized into completing the book that would become Suffolk Fairylore, published at the end of 2018. The book was recently shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Award, the Folklore Society’s prize for the best book published each year in the field of folklore studies – I shall find out next Tuesday how it did!

Central to Suffolk’s fairy lore is the tale of the Green Children of Woolpit, a story as often misunderstood as it is re-told. There is something strangely compelling and realistic about the story of the two green-skinned children found by reapers in a ditch at Woolpit in the twelfth century – so much so that people have been struggling for centuries to find the true interpretation of what happened. Theories abound as to where the green children came from and why they were green. Yet what many people have failed to notice is that two different versions of the story exist, with some quite significant differences, and that both versions contain elements we would expect to find in a story about the fairies. The green children emerge from the earth, and dwell in an underground world lit by twilight. Although medieval fairies are not usually green in colour, there is no doubt in my mind that the story of the green children is a fairy story. This does not mean that it does not reflect some real event, but it does mean that whether or not such an event took place doesn’t really matter. It is a story, no more and no less, and I prefer to resist the urge to find a reductive explanation for everything.

As someone who has written both about history and folklore, I am conscious that very different modes of thinking apply in the two fields. The historian is concerned with determining, as well as possible, what actually happened. But this is exactly what we should not do with folkloric narratives like the Green Children. Folklore is about studying what people believed; if we are constantly asking questions about the reality behind those beliefs, we will fail to dig deeply into the nature of the belief itself – and that, in my view, is what is really interesting. Did the green children really exist? Is their story based on a real event? It may seem strange to say so, but I honestly don’t care. The historical truth in these cases is usually beyond recovery. What fascinates me is why people told and re-told their story.

Belief in the fairies remained alive and well in Suffolk into the early twentieth century, and the fairies people believed in were not little insect-like flower fairies with gauzy wings. Historically, the dominant response to fairies was fear: fairies stole children, stopped bread from rising, curdled milk in the churn, and rode horses into a sweat during the night. They made life more difficult for rural people. Before the First World War, many Suffolk people’s lives were dominated by fear of witches, fairies and that terrifying shape-shifting creature, Shock (as he was known in Suffolk – ‘Old Shuck’ in Norfolk) whose origins seem to stretch as far back as the Old English poem Beowulf. Although St Botolph is said to have driven the devils from Iken, otherworldly creatures have never quite left Suffolk behind – like the shaggy ‘wild man’ captured by medieval fishermen swimming in the sea off Orford or the ‘faun’ which tried to seduce a girl in twelfth-century Dunwich.

I want to finish by saying a little about my most recent research, which involved preparing an edition of a long out-of-print ghost story from Victorian Suffolk. This was written in 1861 by Margaretta Greene, a daughter of the family which founded the Greene King Brewery who lived in the ruined west front of the Abbey church. Margaretta Greene wrote a short historical novella about the death of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in 1447, inventing a character called Maude Carew who poisons Duke Humphrey and is condemned to wander the Abbey ruins forever. Maude Carew’s ghost is supposed to explain paranormal phenomena in the west front that Margaretta alludes to at the start of the book. The story of Bury’s ‘Grey Lady’ spread like wildfire, and Maude Carew has passed into local folklore, but very few people have read the scarce original story on which she was based. I wanted, therefore, to put Margaretta Greene’s The Secret Disclosed back in print.

I have two other books coming soon. If you are interested in St Edmund, my research has taken me a little further afield, and next year will see the publication of Athassel Priory and the Cult of St Edmund in Medieval Ireland, which tells the story of the only Irish monastery dedicated to St Edmund and the failed attempts to make St Edmund the patron saint of Ireland – yes, the English in Ireland really did try that on! Also appearing next year, in the millennium year of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, is my complete history of all the monastic houses in Suffolk, Monasticism in Suffolk. Although Bury was the largest and most famous of Suffolk’s monasteries by far, there were nearly sixty smaller monasteries in medieval Suffolk and this book is the first to give a full account of them all. I am very excited indeed about next year’s Abbey Millennium, and you may well see or hear me on your TV or radio enthusing about the Abbey’s amazing history. Until then, it has been a huge pleasure to share my work at the Bury Literature Festival. Thank you.

One reply on “‘Holy and Unholy Suffolk’ at the Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival”

It was very good of you to bury the relic / artefact you found washed up, and the right thing to do at the time, and still is. Thank you Francis Young ! Sincerely Jo

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