Article in Transforming Ministry: ‘Readers in the Eastern Churches’

Boys belonging to the order of Quroyo (Reader) in the Syrian Orthodox Church in the USA

My article ‘Readers in the Eastern Churches’ has just been published in the Winter 2020 edition of Transforming Ministry, the magazine of the Church of England’s Central Readers’ Council. The article looks at how the office of Reader is exercised in the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Church of the East, where there is a great deal of diversity in whether Readers are considered clergy or laity, in whether both men and women are admitted as Readers, and in whether Readers are permitted to preach. This article is a sequel to an earlier article comparing lectors in the Roman Catholic Church with Readers in the Church of England.


‘Macabre Church Lore’ for the Churches Conservation Trust

This afternoon I delivered a virtual talk for the Churches Conservation Trust on the subject of ‘Macabre Church Lore’ (you can listen to the talk here). The talk explored the more sinister side of folklore connected with England’s churches and churchyards, from gruesome revenants to guardian black dogs and the machinations of necromancers. The talk was the most popular ever broadcast by the CCT, with over 12,500 people signing up to watch it either live or subsequent to broadcast.


‘Spooky Suffolk’ on BBC Radio Suffolk


The Green Girl, © Katherine Soutar-Caddick

This afternoon I was interviewed on BBC Radio Suffolk (listen from 3:17:00) as part of what will become a regular segment on ‘Spooky Suffolk’, featuring weird tales and unexplained phenomena from the county. I began the series, naturally, by talking about the Green Children of Woolpit – perhaps Suffolk’s best-known story of the unexplained, which is discussed at length in my book Suffolk Fairylore. There are many interpretations of the story of the Green Children and theories advanced about them, but my own view is that the story should be read in the context of stories about otherworldly visitors who dwell under the earth – in other words, fairies. But this is such a strange story that my guess is no better than anyone else’s, really…

‘Spooky Suffolk’ should be next broadcast at around 12.15 on 22 October. Watch this space!


Article in British Catholic History: ‘Sir Thomas Tresham and the Christian Cabala’

My article ‘Sir Thomas Tresham and the Christian Cabala’ has just been published in the journal British Catholic History. While Tresham is renowned for his interest in mystical numerology (expressed in his architecture at Rushton and Lyveden), the article is the first to pay serious attention to the relationship between Tresham’s personal number mysticism and the best-known tradition of mystical numerology – the Jewish Kabbalah. The article shows that Tresham became interested in the Kabbalah, in its Christianised form (usually called ‘Christian Cabala’, using the latinised form of the word), in the mid-1590s between the building of Rushton Triangular Lodge and the construction of Lyveden New Bield and its gardens, the latter of which shows some Cabalistic influence (as Andrew Eburne was the first to notice). The article traces the source of Tresham’s Cabalistic knowledge to the Italian scholar Pietro Galatino (possibly via the interest of the English Jesuit leader Robert Parsons) and explores in detail how Tresham drew on Galatino’s synthesis of Christian Cabalism for the design of elaborate paintings added to the walls of Tresham’s ‘cell’ in the Bishop’s Palace at Ely in 1597.

The west window of Bishop Goodrich’s Long Gallery in the Bishop’s Palace, Ely under investigation in October 2013

This article is the culmination of research on Tresham’s decorations at the Bishop’s Palace in Ely I have been conducting since 2012. Tresham’s number mysticism was an aspect of English Catholic esotericism I touched on in my book English Catholics and the Supernatural, but when I started writing the book I little expected I would actually end up working in the same building where Tresham was imprisoned periodically between 1588 and 1597. However, in 2012 The King’s School, Ely moved its Sixth Form into the Bishop’s Palace, and since I was at the time Assistant Director of Sixth Form I moved in too and was assigned a small office in the west tower, while the Long Gallery where the Catholic prisoners had lived became the Sixth Form common room.

My research involved both searching for material traces of Tresham’s paintings and transcribing Tresham’s lengthy and complicated description of the paintings in the British Library. In 2013 a professional conservator investigated the window I identified as the one described by Tresham – the westernmost window of Bishop Goodrich’s Long Gallery – and found traces of a substance that may have been bitumen on the stonework, but no trace of the paintings themselves, which were probably painted on cloth (and may have been fixed to the stonework using bitumen as an adhesive). My account of my research on Tresham’s period in Ely was subsequently published in British Catholic History (then Recusant History) in 2014. While my 2014 article on the Catholic prisoners in the Bishop’s Palace described Tresham’s paintings, it stopped short of a full interpretation of their symbolism and its meaning.

I presented my initial thoughts on the meaning of Tresham’s paintings and his use of the Christian Cabala in a paper delivered at a conference in Cambridge, ‘Visions of Enchantment’, in March 2014. It was some years, however, before I was able to bring the research together into a publishable form. It is my hope that the article will shift our view away from Tresham as a unique eccentric towards a more balanced view of this remarkable figure as a participant in a broader European tradition of esoteric Counter-Reformation Catholicism. Tresham’s numerology did not come out of nowhere, and while Tresham was undoubtedly a uniquely imaginative and creative figure, the article shows that his interest in the Christian Cabala was consistent with the curiosity shown by figures such as John Fisher and John Colet earlier in the 16th century.

The article builds on a general transformation in our perceptions of Tresham, who can no longer be viewed as an arch-conservative figure, as he once was; Tresham was, instead, a representative of the radical and exploratory traditions of English Catholicism embodied by the Renaissance Humanists and Cardinal Pole. These traditions, under the pressure of both state persecution and Counter-Reformation caution, were increasingly marginalised in the English Catholic community – although possible connections between Tresham’s Catholic Cabalism and that of William Alabaster, the author of the controversial Apparatus in Revelationem Iesu Christi, remain to be explored…


Joy Rowe (1926-2020): tribute to a historian

Joy Rowe receiving the diocesan medal of the Diocese of East Anglia at her 90th birthday party on 17 September 2016

Joy Rowe, who died on 7 September 2020 at the age of 93, was a key figure in the study of the religious history of early modern East Anglia, and for many years a leading member of both the Catholic Record Society and the Suffolk Records Society. It would be no exaggeration to say that Joy Rowe revolutionised our historical understanding of the place of religious minorities in early modern East Anglia, while she pioneered the study of East Anglian Catholicism as early as the 1950s – long before the recent expansion of interest in the study of the English Catholic community at a local level. The body of work she left behind remains indispensable to the study of Elizabethan Catholicism, and Joy Rowe ought to be considered a largely unsung hero of the ‘revisionist’ movement within the historiography of English Catholicism in the 1980s and ’90s, alongside such figures as Eamon Duffy, Christopher Haigh, Michael Questier, Alexandra Walsham, and Nicholas Tyacke. Perhaps because she never produced a major monograph, Joy Rowe’s work has tended to be consigned to footnotes – but every article she wrote was pioneering and extraordinary.

I first got to know Joy Rowe in the late 1990s when I was still studying for my A Levels, and researching the Suffolk composer John Wilbye for a History project. Joy encouraged my research, generously shared her insights, and urged me to consult the primary sources – advice for which I have always been grateful. As a consequence, I first came into contact with the Hengrave Manuscripts in Cambridge University Library and the Suffolk Record Office in Bury St Edmunds, which would form the basis of much of my later work. It was fitting that my interest in Hengrave Hall led me to Joy Rowe, since Joy taught History there in the 1950s when it was a convent school run by the Sisters of the Assumption. Her first major article, published in 1958, focussed on the medieval monastic hospitals of Bury St Edmunds, but in 1959 Joy turned to early modern history with the publication of a slim but groundbreaking pamphlet, The Story of Catholic Bury St Edmunds.

Although later reprinted in an expanded form in the 1980s (to cover the history of the Catholic mission at Coldham and Lawshall as well), Joy Rowe’s work was pioneering in the 1950s because it broke away from the then predominant view of post-Reformation Catholic history as the story of recusant gentry families and the priests who served them. Joy drew on the surviving 18th-century mission register of the Jesuit founder of the Catholic church in Bury St Edmunds, John Gage, to analyse the Catholic community in a town – of all social classes, and not just the gentry.

In 1962 the Rowe family moved into Ixworth Abbey, a house constructed from the ruins of Ixworth Priory, a priory of Augustinian canons founded in the 12th century. Joy published a brief pamphlet on Ixworth that remains to this day the most recent research on this little studied religious house. Joy shared her historical interests with the parish priest of Bury St Edmunds, Fr Bryan Houghton, who in the 1960s embarked on a search for the relics of St Edmund in the belief that they reposed at the Basilica of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse. However, Fr Houghton’s departure from Bury in 1969 was not followed by similar enthusiasm for the history of the parish – to the extent that John Gage’s precious mission register ended up in a wastepaper basket from which Joy Rowe had to rescue it. For several decades the register remained in her possession – since she was unwilling to trust the church to look after it – before she eventually deposited it with the Suffolk Record Office.

In 1960 Joy Rowe began a scholarly collaboration with Patrick McGrath that would last for three decades and produce five articles. The first article focussed on the intriguing Sir Thomas Cornwallis, an Elizabethan Catholic notable for his tactical strategies of survival and alliance of convenience with the Protestant Bishop of Norwich, Edmund Freke, against the increasingly influential Puritans. This early article foreshadowed two of the major themes in revisionist historiography of the English Catholic community in subsequent decades, which emphasised the nuanced nature of Catholic adherence (beyond outright recusancy) and the extent to which Catholics continued to exert local influence rather than being merely persecuted martyrs. Subsequent articles co-authored with McGrath examined Marian priests in the reign of Elizabeth, the early seminary priests, harbourers of priests, and imprisoned Catholics in Elizabeth’s reign.

In the 1990s Joy Rowe’s historical interests expanded beyond Catholicism to include other religious minorities in early modern Suffolk, while her researches into the Catholic community expanded beyond the reign of Elizabeth to include the 17th and 18th centuries. Joy’s work on the 1767 Census of Papists once again broke new ground, at a time when there was very little interest in the 18th-century Catholic community. Joy Rowe showed a willingness to grapple with the complexity of urban and rural Catholic communities that was paralleled by few other historians at the time. In 2004 she was invited to contribute no fewer than eight articles to the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

My own collaboration with Joy Rowe began in earnest in 2009, when I began work on my book The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism, 1640–1767. The book was, to an extent, one that Joy herself had long wanted to write, and she generously shared her insights and kindly permitted me to reproduce extracts from John Gage’s mission register. Then, in 2016, Joy kindly acted as general editor for my edition of the Rookwood Family Papers, 1606–1761 for the Suffolk Records Society. In that year Joy and I also collaborated on a chapter on Elizabethan Catholicism in the volume I edited to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Roman Catholic Diocese of East Anglia, Catholic East Anglia. Sadly, Joy was not able to be present in person to deliver her paper on the 18th-century Bacton mission at the ‘Catholic East Anglia’ conference at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in May 2016, but in September I was able to help present Joy with a Diocesan Medal (in recognition of her contributions to Catholic history) at her 90th birthday party at Ixworth Abbey.

Joy Rowe was an exceptionally gifted historian whose work, even today, has not yet been exploited to its fullest extent to transform our perceptions of Catholicism in post-Reformation East Anglia and beyond. Joy’s work was characterised by her unfailing willingness to return to the primary sources, by her nuanced and insightful interpretation of the evidence, and by her boldness in advancing new approaches to material that others sometimes thought unworthy of attention. My priorities as a historian were shaped by Joy Rowe in so many ways, and I feel convinced that her contribution will long survive her.


Joy Rowe: a select bibliography


Joy Rowe, The Story of Catholic Bury St. Edmunds (Bury St Edmunds, 1959; reprinted 1980, 1981)

Joy Rowe, ‘The Medieval Hospitals of Bury St Edmunds’, Medical History 2:4 (1958): 253–63

Joy Rowe and Patrick McGrath, ‘The Recusancy of Sir Thomas Cornwallis’, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History 28 (1960), pp. 226–71

Joy Rowe, Ixworth Abbey, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk: A Short History and Simple Guide (Ixworth: privately printed, 1964)

Joy Rowe and Patrick McGrath, ‘The Marian Priests under Elizabeth I’, Recusant History 17:2 (1984): 103–20

Joy Rowe and Patrick McGrath, ‘Anstruther analysed: the Elizabethan Seminary Priests’, Recusant History 18:1 (1986): 1–13

Joy Rowe, ‘Roman Catholic Recusancy’ in David Dymond and Edward Martin (eds), An Historical Atlas of Suffolk (Ipswich: Suffolk County Council, 1988), pp. 88–89

Joy Rowe and Patrick McGrath, ‘The Elizabethan Priests: their Harbourers and Helpers’, Recusant History 19:3 (1989): 209–33

Joy Rowe, ‘Suffolk Sectaries and Papists, 1596–1616’ in E. S. Leedham-Green (ed.), Religious Dissent in East Anglia (Cambridge: Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 1991), pp. 37–41

Joy Rowe and Patrick McGrath, ‘The Imprisonment of Catholics for Religion under Elizabeth I’, Recusant History 20:4 (1991): 415–35

Joy Rowe, ‘Roman Catholic Recusancy’ in T. Ashwin and A. Davison (eds), An Historical Atlas of Norfolk (Norwich: Norfolk Museums Service, 1994), pp. 138–9

Joy Rowe, ‘The 1767 Census of Papists in the Diocese of Norwich: The Social Composition of the Roman Catholic Community’ in David Chadd (ed.), Religious Dissent in East Anglia III (Norwich: University of East Anglia, 1996), pp. 187–234

Joy Rowe, ‘“The Lopped Tree”: The Re-formation of the Suffolk Catholic Community’ in Nicholas Tyacke (ed.), England’s Long Reformation 1500–1800 (Abingdon: UCL Press, 1998), pp. 167–94

Joy Rowe, ‘Protestant Sectaries and Separatists in Suffolk 1594–1630’, Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society 7:4 (2004): 225–34

Joy Rowe and Francis Young, ‘East Anglian Catholics in the Reign of Elizabeth, 1559–1603’ in Francis Young (ed.), Catholic East Anglia: A History of the Catholic Faith in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (Leominster: Gracewing, 2016), pp. 37–60


Review: The Penguin Book of Exorcisms edited by Joseph P. Laycock

Joseph P. Laycock (ed.) The Penguin Book of Exorcisms (London: Penguin, 2020), 313pp.

The Penguin Book of Exorcisms is the latest addition to a series of readers published in the Penguin Classics series which collate sources relating to a particular theme – in this case 37 accounts of exorcisms divided into seven chronologically and culturally themed sections: the ancient Near East, the Graeco-Roman world, Jewish traditions of exorcism, the Islamic tradition, exorcisms from South and East Asia, and modern exorcisms. The editor’s focus is a broad one, attempting to take in the entire global scope of exorcism across all cultures – which raises questions about exactly what an exorcism is, and what counts as one. Joseph P. Laycock deals with this issue by defining exorcism as ‘banishing unwanted spirits from people, places or things’, although he also suggests that exorcism will be used to treat a problem ‘attributed to spirits’.

As readers of my books A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity and A History of Anglican Exorcism will be aware, I have reservations about approaches to the history of exorcism that treat all cases of ‘exorcism’ across all cultures as essentially similar – or, at the very least, treat exorcism as an analogous practice across different cultures and religions. Such approaches can lead to a functionalist approach to exorcism, where exorcism is seen as any practice that serves the purpose of banishing spirits – but this seems a rather unsatisfactory approach when it is inappropriate for the historian to reach any conclusion about the reality or otherwise of the spirits supposed to exist by demonologists and exorcists; it also raises the question of what a ‘spirit’ is (and whether, for example, ending an experience of ‘divine possession’ would count as an exorcism). Furthermore, the approach of seeing exorcism as an essentially unified phenomenon can lead historians of religion to overlook the significant differences between techniques and rituals of exorcism, focusing instead on the aim of the exorcism (namely, the deliverance of a demoniac, place, or thing); this has the result that possession, as experienced by the alleged demoniac and others, tends to become the major focus of ‘historians of exorcism’ (who become in reality historians of possession). The act or process of exorcism itself is approached primarily as an event that reveals the features of the possession phenomenon – and little attention is given to exorcism as a ritual act set within a specific ritual, religious or magical tradition.

The appeal of a collection surveying the phenomenon of exorcism across world cultures is nevertheless clear, and Laycock’s collection makes accessible some scarce accounts of possession and exorcism from an impressive array of sources. A collection like this also permits the editor to exercise a light interpretative touch, with the editor’s particular interpretation of the phenomenon of exorcism largely implicit in the selection of sources rather than in any extensive analytical commentary. This collection is undoubtedly an excellent starting point for anyone interested generally in the phenomena of possession and exorcism, and I am certainly in agreement with Laycock’s view that exorcism is intimately linked to politics and the level of upheaval within a society. However, I remain sceptical of any approach to exorcism that approaches the phenomenon in general terms rather than through a particular tradition of exorcistic practice – probably because I see the history of exorcism as part of the history of magic and the history of liturgy rather than viewing it in anthropological terms. This is not to say that anthropological studies of exorcism are any worse than historical ones, but I continue to maintain that detailed understanding of exorcism is only obtainable through paying close attention to the particular theological, liturgical and legal tradition within which a practice of exorcism has developed.


Publication of Yellow Glass and Other Ghost Stories

I have long contemplated bringing out a collection of antiquarian ghost stories, and it has finally come to pass with the publication of Yellow Glass and Other Ghost Stories, my début collection of supernatural tales. The book features seven stories that explore supernatural themes related to the unexpected and unpleasant consequences of delving into the unquiet past…

I had no plans to take this digression into fiction until December 2018, when my story ‘This Is My Book’ unexpectedly won a runner-up prize in the Petersfield Bookshop’s ‘Ghosts in the Bookshop’ short story competition. That encouraged me to write a few more ghost stories – and polish up some old ones – which are published in this volume for the first time.

As Roger Clarke, the author of A Natural History of Ghosts, kindly describes the book:

“A sickly yellow rose window in a French cathedral has an unpleasant surprise for a conservator; an old woman’s monstrous book hoard lingers unprepared for sleep; a slice of human regret lurks impersonated in the geothermal springs of Iceland. One always dreams a favourite academic might come up with some ghost stories and here all at once it has happened: admirers of Munby, Baker and of course the master MR James should spring faster than an occult guardian to embrace these treasures, these vignettes of the mind and genre.”


Review: The Book in the Cathedral by Christopher de Hamel

My review of Christopher de Hamel’s book The Book in the Cathedral has just been published in this month’s Catholic Herald. This very short book advances a fascinating theory that a hitherto little known Anglo-Saxon psalter was the personal prayer book of Thomas Becket – and, indeed, that it was originally commissioned for another martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, St Alphege. The story of De Hamel’s process of research as much as the story of the book itself, De Hamel’s book sheds light on the personal library of Thomas Becket as well as reflecting on our attitude towards books owned by famous people, both now and in the Middle Ages.


Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King out in paperback

Today is publication day for the slightly revised paperback edition of Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King, my book about St Edmund of East Anglia and the hunt for his mortal remains published by Bloomsbury. The book has been updated to reflect the most recent developments, including the removal of the tennis courts behind the Abbey Ruins in Bury St Edmunds that may have been covering the saint’s final burial site. I am excited that the book will now be available to a wider audience as a paperback.

Since its original publication in 2018 the book has provoked a great deal of interest and even inspired the writing of a novel by Simon Edge which imagines the discovery of the saint’s body. In reality, St Edmund remains undiscovered but the case I advance in the book for Edmund’s burial in the monks’ cemetery at Bury remains untested. However, the book is far more than just an exploration of the saint’s possible burial site and deals with what little we know of Edmund’s life and martyrdom as well as the development of his cult into the national cult of England’s patron saint. The book examines the role of the cult of St Edmund in the development of an English national identity from the tenth century onwards, and argues that Edmund played a crucial role in the making of England – with intriguing implications for the future of England’s perennially fraught national identity.


Review: Anyone for Edmund? by Simon Edge

Simon Edge, Anyone for Edmund? (London: Lightning Books, 2020), 304pp.

It is rare for me to review fiction on here – indeed, I don’t think I have ever done so before – but Anyone for Edmund? is rather different, because Simon Edge’s novel was inspired by my research into the last resting-place of St Edmund, especially in my book Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King. I never anticipated that my historical work would inspire fiction, and I am rather honoured that Simon Edge considered my historical hypotheses worthy of fictionalising. Anyone for Edmund? imagines a scenario I have imagined many times – the discovery by archaeologists of the mortal remains of St Edmund, on the site of the monastic cemetery in Bury St Edmunds, from where the municipal tennis courts were recently removed. The focus of Edge’s novel, however, is not on the archaeologists who find Edmund, but rather on a hapless government spin-doctor whose job it is to turn the story to the advantage of his political masters – resulting in a disastrous (and hilarious) litany of fabrication, exaggeration and deceit that would not be out of place in the propaganda machine of a medieval monastery. In the meantime, it turns out that St Edmund himself has a part to play, with equally catastrophic results.

Anyone for Edmund? is a very enjoyable and skilfully crafted novel that goes far beyond the fantasy of Edmund’s re-discovery to explore highly pertinent themes of national identity and authenticity in history and heritage – as well as providing a salutary lesson against the perils of slapdash historical research. Any historian who has dealt with the media (or, worse still, with politicians) will be painfully aware of the ease with which fabrications can slip into the public presentation of a historical or archaeological news story, so I found myself cringing through much of the book; the sort of narrative disaster envisaged in the novel is all too easy to imagine in reality. As we have seen, iconic archaeological discoveries like the exhumation of the body of Richard III can produce something akin to a collective cultural hysteria, resulting in claims and counter-claims and a tussle over real and symbolic ownership. There was a hint of this in Bury St Edmunds in 1965 when a Roman Catholic priest, Fr Bryan Houghton, attempted to acquire relics then supposed to be the body of St Edmund from Arundel Castle – only to find himself opposed by the Church of England establishment, since St Edmundsbury Cathedral considered itself the rightful custodian of Edmund’s body. Fr Houghton wisely gave up the attempt, and the bones remained at Arundel before they were shown to be a miscellaneous collection of human remains in 1994.

In spite of the fact that I uncovered a key source in the search for the body of St Edmund, and have hypothesised about his possible resting-place, the thought of archaeologists actually digging for Edmund and finding him fills me with something between trepidation and horror. As Simon Edge shows vividly in this book, discoveries of this kind are seized upon by politicians and the media to weave their own narratives – and in this respect we have changed little from the days of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Perhaps we should hope that St Edmund remains firmly hidden in the earth of Bury St Edmunds, and enjoy Simon Edge’s rich imagination rather than seeking the secrets of the king…