Review: The Anglo-Saxons by Marc Morris

My review of Marc Morris’s new book The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England has just been published in First Things magazine. My review focussed in particular on the book’s treatment of Christianity in early England.


A secret Norfolk Catholic chapel

The clandestine Elizabethan chapel at Barnham Broom

This month’s Catholic Herald contains an article by me and Brigitte Webster, the owner of Old Hall in Barnham Broom, Norfolk, about a 16th-century domestic chapel discovered inside the house earlier this century, but whose significance has only recently been realised. The chapel (which may date from the 1570s) features a distinctive pattern of black and white drops representing the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side, as well as an aumbry and the probable remains of a piscina. The decorative scheme quite closely resembles a well-known chapel at Harvington Hall in Worcestershire. Since the Chamberlain family who lived at Barnham Broom were never recorded as recusants, it is likely this is some of the first evidence of a domestic oratory used for Catholic worship by a family of church papists. If true, this is confirmation of the case advanced by Alexandra Walsham and other historians that church papists were every bit as committed to Catholicism and to their Catholic identity as recusants; church papists simply chose to express their Catholicism in a different way.

Old Hall, Barnham Broom

St Edmund on HistoryHit

Dan Snow’s online channel HistoryHit TV has just released the documentary ‘In Search of the Great Viking Army’ in which I appear as an expert interviewed by Dan about the life and death of King Edmund of East Anglia, the Vikings’ most famous victim during the winter of 869-70, and the subject of my book Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King. Around the same time as the documentary HistoryHit also released an episode of its ‘Going Medieval’ podcast featuring an interview between me and Dr Cat Jarman in which I go into much more detail about Edmund and his significance for the formation of England and an English national identity.


Jankyn Smyth Commemoration Sermon 2021

The portrait of Jankyn Smyth (d. 1481) in Bury St Edmunds Guildhall

Today I was honoured to be invited by St Mary’s Church in Bury St Edmunds to deliver the sermon for the 540th Commemoration Day in honour of Jankyn Smyth and other benefactors of the town of Bury St Edmunds, which is supposed to be the oldest continuous act of civic commemoration in England. Although today’s Commemoration Day was an understated affair, with no civic procession, it was still followed by the traditional distribution of Cakes and Ale at the town’s Guildhall. This is the text of my sermon this morning.

Commemoration Day Sermon, St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds, 24 June 2021

May I speak in the name of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hands up if you love Christmas! Well, I’m sorry to say that it’s not Christmas today. In fact, I have to tell you that today is one of the very worst days in the whole year. I wonder if there are any younger members of the congregation who can tell me today’s date? Yes. Today is the 24th June. And how many months are we into the year? Six months, since June is the sixth month. So why is this so terrible? Because today is as far away as it is possible to get from Christmas; six months away from last Christmas Eve, and six months away from the Christmas Eve yet to come. Far enough from last Christmas to forget about all your presents, and too far from next Christmas for it to seem exciting at all. Surely one of the worst days in the calendar, looked at one way. Or we could look at it in another way, and say today is one of the best days in the calendar. Consider that every day from now on, next Christmas will be closer to us than the last Christmas we remember. Christmas may well feel a long way away now, but we are already on the downward slope.

As well as being the furthest we can be from Christmas – in fact, because it is six months away from Christmas – today is a special day in the Christian calendar. We commemorate this day as the birthday of St John the Baptist, Jesus’s slightly older cousin who we know was six months old when Jesus was born. John the Baptist is a strange figure in the Bible, a character who seems out of place in the New Testament, as if he is a prophet from an earlier, wilder world; a character from the Old Testament who somehow ends up in the New. Indeed, the people of his own time were convinced that John, who lived alone in the desert, ate locusts and wore clothes made of camel hair, was the prophet Elijah returned. John is often called the last of the prophets, and in that sense he is a figure representing the past. But when you read what John himself actually had to say, he was completely focussed on the future: and, in particular, on the man of the future, his cousin Jesus. As John declared, ‘[Jesus] must become greater; I must become less’ (John 3:30).

It seems very appropriate indeed that this year’s 540th commemoration of Jankyn Smyth and other benefactors of the parish of St Mary and the town of Bury St Edmunds falls on the birthday of John the Baptist, this witness who straddles past and future. Because a day of commemoration and thanksgiving like today is about the future as much as it is about the past. Like John the Baptist, a benefactor is someone we may think of as a strange intruder from the past. Why, on one day of the year, should we turn our thoughts to these people – with strange names, who spoke strange English, who dressed strangely in fur tippets and doublets, in farthingales, wimples, and trailing skirts? What do they matter to us now? I certainly cannot claim that our benefactors were always good people; they were, on the whole, hardnosed businessmen and businesswomen, whose success was hard won, and sometimes won at the expense of others. But they all had one thing in common, and one thing they shared with John the Baptist. In choosing to become benefactors, they chose to look ahead to the future, and to make at least one part of their life about the future rather than about the past or the present. Because we still, to this day, benefit from their generosity; and future generations will continue to benefit from that generosity, provided we remain faithful to their legacy.

A benefactor is someone who bridges past, present and future; but more than that, a benefactor is a witness to the truth that the life of a community endures beyond the life of any individual. This was something of which Jankyn Smyth, the founder of this commemoration, was very much aware, for he lived at a time when the town of Bury St Edmunds had to fight for its identity. Overshadowed by the immensely powerful abbey, the merchants, traders and shopkeepers of the town had few rights. In fact, one of the few things they could do was form guilds, trade associations with spiritual benefits that paid for the burial and commemoration of their members. After the townsfolk rose in rebellion in 1327, the Guild Merchant that used to govern the town from the Guildhall was suppressed, but by Jankyn Smyth’s time another, the Candlemas Guild, had taken its place. The Candlemas Guild represented the town’s people to the abbot and acted as a rudimentary town council, repairing infrastructure and providing watchmen for the town’s walls and gates. In 1539, less than sixty years after Jankyn’s death, the great abbey was dissolved; but life became no easier for the townsfolk. The abbots were simply replaced by stewards, who made much the same demands, and to make matters worse the government completely abolished all guilds in 1548.

It was at this moment that the parishioners of Bury’s two ancient churches, St Mary’s and St James’s, came up with an ingenious way to keep the town alive and flourishing. The two churches agreed to sell their valuable silver plate for £480 to buy the land of the old guilds and chantries so that the town could continue to maintain almshouses for the poor and destitute, and to found a grammar school. The men who ran this fund were known as the feoffees, and the endowment as the Guildhall Feoffment. For the next sixty years, while the Stewards of the Liberty of Bury St Edmunds continued to deny the townsfolk the right to govern themselves, the feoffees became the de facto local government, until at long last, in 1606, Bury St Edmunds obtained its first royal charter establishing a corporation for the borough, headed by an elected alderman. Without the benefactions of Jankyn Smyth and Bury’s other medieval benefactors, purchased and perpetuated by the Guildhall Feoffees, Bury’s civic life would have withered and declined.

This commemoration has changed in character over the centuries; originally, it took the form of a Mass sung for the repose of Jankyn Smyth’s soul, and it is likely it first took the form of a sermon in the reign of Edward VI in the 1550s. In the nineteenth century, the sermon was preached not in June but on the Thursday after Plough Monday, which was usually the first Thursday in January. And most disturbingly of all, reports of the Cakes and Ale ceremony from the 1980s record that ale had by that time been replaced by sherry. But there have been few years in living memory when a commemoration of the resilience of the past has seemed so relevant to the present. When we are urged to ‘build back better’ after the devastation of a global pandemic, who better to look to than the example of Bury’s medieval benefactors? These were men and women who knew all too well the scourge of epidemic disease, and how difficult it was for the town to recover from the trauma of plague. Last year, for the first time since the great Bury plague of 1637, Bury Market itself was forced to close for public health reasons, and the life of the town seemingly ground to a halt.

But Bury has always bounced back; from war, from catastrophe, from plague, from recession, because this town was built by people who looked to the future. From King Sigebert, who founded this very church in the seventh century, to those who endowed the shrine of St Edmund in this place and those who fought for the town’s freedom to govern itself, Bury’s benefactors witnessed to something greater than themselves. Their example should encourage us to do what we can to build up the honour of our town; but, like the example of John the Baptist, it should also point us to the ultimate benefactor: to God, in whose honour the stones around us were laid, and whose continued blessing we invoke upon the memory of Jankyn Smyth, upon this parish, and upon this town: the shrine of the king, and the cradle of the law.



The Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr, Little Whelnetham

The Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr, marked as ‘Chaple w[i]th out a Steeple’ marked as a landmark on the road between Bradfield Combust and Bury St Edmunds by John Ogilby (1675)

Did the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr in Little Whelnetham, formerly the conventual church of the Crutched Friars, survive the Reformation?

A curiosity I recently noted on one of the road maps drawn by John Ogilby in 1675 is the appearance of ‘a Chaple w[i]th out a Steeple’ as a landmark between Bradfield Combust and Bury St Edmunds, shown just to the southwest of ‘An old ruinous Abby or Pryory’, which was the rather obscure house of Crutched Friars in the parish of Little Whelnetham. The fact that the chapel is depicted both as a separate building from the ‘ruinous Abby’ and not described as ‘ruinous’ strongly suggests that the chapel was still standing in 1675 and was, perhaps, still in use as a chapel of ease within the parish of Little Whelnetham at that date. The chapel can be none other than the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr which became the chapel of a house of Crutched Friars founded in 1274 by the De Bures family.

A sculpture on the site of London’s Crutched Friars © The Dabbler

The Crutched Friars, so-called after the cross (crux) they wore on their habits arrived in London in the 1240s and founded a handful of religious houses around England, including at Little Whelnetham. The friary was always small (although it had a daughter house at Barham in Cambridgeshire) and does not seem to have survived until the dissolution of the monasteries. This fact may be significant for the survival of the chapel; before the dissolution, even when religious houses became derelict, their churches usually remained consecrated buildings and continued as chapels (consider the case of Old Leiston Abbey, abandoned in 1364 but retained as a chapel).

Furthermore, it is likely that the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr, which presumably came into existence as a manorial chapel of ease (like the nearby chapel of St Clare that later became the parish church of Bradfield St Clare) remained a place of worship for local parishioners during and after its occupation by the friars. This is especially likely given the shape of the parish of Little Whelnetham, in which the area occupied by the house of Crutched Friars was a parochial exclave (this has led to some confusion about whether Crutched Friars is in Little or Great Whelnetham). It was not uncommon for small monastic churches in Suffolk to double up for parish worship – this was the case at Bungay, Redlingfield, Rumburgh, and several other sites in Suffolk.

A further indication that the chapel may have survived the dissolution as a building distinct from the former monastery is found in place names. The house constructed from remains of the old house of Crutched Friars was known as Chapel Hill Farmhouse, and appears on Hodskinson’s 1783 map of Suffolk as ‘Chaple House’ (although the chapel itself appears to have disappeared by that date). Similarly, a nearby windmill was known as Chapel Mill.

The fact that the memory of the chapel was more prominent than the memory of the Crutched Friars suggests that it had gone out of use or fallen into ruin more recently than the friary. The 1984 listing for the house called Crutched Friars notes that a single buttress attributed to the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr survives to the north of the house (visible in the photograph below), but this is inconsistent with the portrayal of the friary ruins and chapel as separate buildings by Ogilby in the 1670s.

Interestingly, satellite images of the site on Google Maps reveal what might be crop marks in what appears to be the site of the chapel portrayed by Ogilby – slightly southwest of the early modern farmhouse.

While scarcely conclusive, this accumulation of circumstantial evidence – and, in particularly, the Ogilby map – suggests to me a high likelihood that the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr which the Crutched Friars used as their conventual church not only stood some distance away from the main friary buildings, but also continued in use for some time after the dissolution – and was possibly still in use as a chapel of ease within the parish of Little Whelnetham as late as the 1670s. Clearly, more research is required to establish this, but it seems to me a mistake to roll the history of the chapel entirely together with that of the friary; the picture in Little Whelnetham was more complex.


Review: Wolsey by Glenn Richardson

My review of Glenn Richardson’s new biography of Thomas Wolsey has just been published in the journal British Catholic History and can be read here. This is an excellent introductory biography to the great cardinal that examines his life and achievements from a variety of different angles; Richardson’s treatment of Wolsey’s importance as a European potentate and diplomat is especially valuable. Highly recommended!


Review: Exorcism by Fr Vincent Lampert

Vincent Lampert, Exorcism: The Battle Against Satan and his Demons (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2020), 176pp.

Since the majority of the literature on exorcism by practising exorcists is still written in Italian, it is helpful to have a perspective on exorcism from a practising North American exorcist in the form of Fr Vincent Lampert’s Exorcism: The Battle Against Satan and his Demons, which is published in Emmaus Road’s ‘Living Faith’ series which encourages Catholics to reflect on and equip themselves in the Catholic faith. Lampert’s book serves as an introduction to the ministry of the exorcist, written for those who may have no knowledge of the subject at all (as well as tackling some of the many misconceptions surrounding the role of an exorcist, and the routine sensationalisation of this ministry).

Lampert, the exorcist of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, is an experienced exorcist who recounts his path to becoming a diocesan exorcist (including his initial reluctance). Lampert deals with basic issues in demonology such as the reality and identity of the devil and demons and delineates his view on the scope of the devil’s activity. The book then moves on to examine the rite of exorcism itself, including a detailed commentary on Jesus’ exorcism of the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark’s Gospel.

The book is not solely theoretical, and its practical dimension includes an explanation of the US Bishops’ Conference’s approach to exorcism, and that of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Lampert reproduces the questionnaire he asks people to fill in when they approach him requesting the help of an exorcist, which is designed not only to distinguish between mental illness and demonic affliction but also to determine the possible reason why someone has become the subject of demonic attack. As Lampert observes, exorcists in many countries where exorcism is accepted as part of everyday life would not screen those approaching them in this way, but the US bishops place a strong emphasis on discerning between the psychiatric and spiritual dimensions. Lampert includes advice for ordinary parish priests who are not exorcists and a guide to ‘Best Practices to Fend Off the Devil’ as well as suitable prayers for the use of the faithful.

Lampert shows a strong degree of confidence in the power of exorcism and urges a focus on the power of Christ rather than the feats by which, he says, demons attempt to impress and overawe human beings. To this extent, Lampert is pragmatic and sees exorcism as a fairly straightforward process, although the list of activities Lampert believes may lead a person to become open to demonic influence is very long indeed, including everything from horoscopes to yoga.

From the researcher’s point of view, the book’s chief interest (in addition to the views of an authorised exorcist) is the detail Lampert goes into regarding his procedure as an exorcist. As an introductory and explanatory text, the book does not dwell on anecdotes of exorcism like Gabriele Amorth’s An Exorcist Tells His Story, but rather seeks to set the ministry of exorcism within the broader context of Catholic life. Lampert’s intent is, as far as possible, to ‘normalise’ exorcism (or, at least, to disabuse readers of the notion that it is something strange and unusual, even if there is a sliding scale of demonic vexation that might feature alarming demonic possessions at the more extreme end. The book is a straightforward explanation of how an exorcist operates in a North American context and, as such, a valuable insight into an often misunderstood ministry.


Mendicant missionary journeys in medieval and early modern Lithuania

An 1803 depiction of the 14th-century martyrdom of friars in Vilnius

This morning I delivered a paper entitled ‘Mendicant missionary journeys in medieval and early modern Lithuania’ at an online symposium hosted by University College Dublin, ‘Temporal journeys in late medieval and early modern Europe’. The paper was part of a panel focussing on the activities of the friars in East-Central Europe.

Franciscan friars were among the first Catholic missionaries to reach the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the last European nation to accept the Christian faith. However, the position of Christianity in Lithuania remained insecure into the early modern period, and mendicant friars played a key role in the gradual Christianisation of Lithuania that lasted into the eighteenth century. Travel through the dense forests of Lithuania and Samogitia in order to access remote communities was a key challenge faced by the mendicants, and this paper addresses the friars’ conversion and Christianisation of Lithuania from the perspective of the journeys they were compelled to undertake in order to reach an intractable, resolutely pagan and sometimes threatening land. Although the Jesuits would overtake the friars as Lithuania’s principal evangelists in the seventeenth century, the friars remained a force to be reckoned with in the early modern Grand Duchy thanks to the pioneering journeys undertaken by early mendicants.

I am grateful to Dr Ben Hazard for organising the symposium and inviting me to contribute, and to Dr Malgorzata D’Aughton for hosting the panel.


Review: Deliverance by Jason Bray

Jason Bray, Deliverance (London: Coronet, 2021), 304pp.

Deliverance is an account by a priest of the Church in Wales, the Revd Dr Jason Bray, of his role as a deliverance minister, and represents an unusually frank and detailed exploration of the present-day practice of Anglican exorcism. In fact, it is hard to point to any book that is a better introduction to the realities of deliverance ministry in contemporary Anglicanism, since most books in this field are either instructional texts focussed on the theory and practice of deliverance or a series of anecdotes from deliverance ministry interspersed by a deliverance minister’s reflections or personal demonological theories. Certainly, when I was writing my book A History of Anglican Exorcism I would have found a book like this very helpful in giving an honest account of the realities of deliverance ministry in the modern world.

Dr Bray is a deliverance minister refreshingly uninterested in theory, and while no book on deliverance can be entirely free from demonological speculation, Bray mercifully keeps it to a minimum and appears to understand that his book will be far more readable and accessible to the general public without excessive theologising. What is rather special about Deliverance is that it assumes no knowledge on the part of the reader of what Anglican clergy do, and Bray deftly weaves his account of deliverance ministry into a much broader depiction of clerical life that makes clear the pastoral context within which deliverance ministry is, well, delivered. Deliverance ministers are priests like any others, with the usual responsibilities, who are obliged to fit in deliverance ministry alongside their other commitments.

Dr Bray is clearly a deliverance minister who belongs to the fairly cautious, sacramental school of thought on exorcism that can be traced back to Max Petitpierre and, before him, Gilbert Shaw. Bray also names Dominic Walker as an influence, and Bray shares Walker’s reticence in accepting the reality of many claims of demonic possession; indeed, Bray makes clear he has never yet had cause to perform a ‘Major Exorcism’ (an exorcism of a person believed to be possessed) and, while he acknowledges the theoretical reality of such cases, he believes them to be exceedingly rare. In this respect Bray differs from some charismatic and evangelical exorcists who are sometimes more willing to discern demonic possession. The emphasis of Bray’s ministry, therefore, is on paranormal phenomena affecting people in their homes, and it consists primarily of a ministry of house blessing and the occasional Requiem Mass where a ‘genuine haunting’ is concerned.

In addition to conveying the way in which deliverance ministry is integrated into the wider life of an Anglican priest, Deliverance also conveys the sheer mundanity of most deliverance ministry – which indeed reflects the reality of exorcism at most times and in most places in history, as a form of ‘spiritual pest control’ rather than the sort of set-piece dramatic confrontations with the devil imagined in popular culture. I can only presume that it is in order to present a balanced and truthful image of the much-sensationalised deliverance ministry that Bray has written this book, and he had presumably done so with the agreement of the bishop to whom he acts as deliverance advisor. This is a bold move on the part of the Church in Wales – and one that I would be surprised to see in the Church of England, whose strategy has historically been to avoid any publicity for the ministry of deliverance. Dr Bray’s decision to take advantage of the ever ready public interest in exorcism to present an impressively desensationalised account of the realities of deliverance ministry may well turn out to be the better strategy, since secretiveness about one of the church’s ministries has the tendency to breed misconceptions. While I have many personal reservations about the ministry of deliverance as practised in the Anglican Communion, it is difficult not to commend the honesty of Dr Bray’s book, which will no doubt become a first port of call for those interested in the ministry of deliverance.


230th anniversary of the Polish-Lithuanian constitution of 1791

An allegory of the Constitution of 1791 (1793)

Today I was honoured to attend a reception at the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania in London to celebrate the 230th anniversary of the ratification of the first written constitution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on 3 May 1791, hosted by the ambassadors of Lithuania and Poland to the United Kingdom. Earlier in the day the Lithuanian Embassy hosted a webinar on the history of the constitution featuring leading historians of Poland-Lithuania, including Prof. Robert Frost, Dr Jolanta Karpavičienė and Prof. Karin Friedrich, which was moderated by the celebrated Lithuanian historical novelist Dr Kristina Sabaliauskaitė.

Preceded by a cello recital from Lithuanian cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, the reception was attended by the ambassadors of Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Ukraine and Hungary and honoured the contribution of Prof. Robert Frost to public understanding of the history of Poland-Lithuania. Prof. Frost was formally invested with the insignia of a Knight of the Orders of Merit of both nations, by presidential decree. Kristina Sabaliauskaitė was then presented with the Two Nations Award in recognition of her work as a historical novelist in bringing the history of Poland-Lithuania to public attention. I was especially honoured to have the opportunity to speak to Dr Sabaliauskaitė about her work.

The reception was a wonderful occasion for historians of Poland and Lithuania based in the UK that fittingly celebrated the historic events of 3 May 1791 as well as the achievements of Prof. Frost and Dr Sabaliauskaitė.