New insights on Ely Palace

Ground Floor Plan Goodrich01

On Wednesday evening I spoke to the Little Downham Society on the subject of the Bishop’s Palace in Ely, which gave me an opportunity to discuss my most recent theories regarding the layout of the Palace before 1667, when Bishop Laney remodelled the building to its present form. Little Downham actually has a Bishop’s Palace of its own, the surviving portion of Bishop Alcock’s favourite summer palace, but few have had the chance to visit this building. My talk took the form of a chronological treatment of the structure of the building, with occasional digressions into the historical events that took place there. Since writing my book on the Palace in 2012, I have made a more detailed study of John Speed’s representation of the building in his survey map of 1607, and produced a conjectural groundplan (see above) based on it. The pink lines are guesswork based on Speed’s drawing, while the grey lines represent existing walls.

This week has also seen both The Ely Standard and Ely Weekly News print articles on the publication of Witches and Witchcraft in Ely.


Publication of ‘Witches and Witchcraft in Ely’

Cover image

Today is the official publication date of Witches and Witchcraft in Ely: A History, my short account of Ely’s special place in the history of English witchcraft. The ‘witch of Brandon’, an old women who consulted with an oracle called the ‘guardian of the springs’, attempted to curse the army of Hereward the Wake in the Isle of Ely in 1071, shouting her imprecations from a high wooden gantry. She is one of the first ‘witches’ to appear in English history, although the Latin sources use a variety of appellations for her, none of them necessarily cognate with ‘witch’. In the fifteenth century, Ely was the scene of the trial of Richard Barker of Babraham, one of the best-recorded cases of necromancy from this period (the original record of the trial survives in Cambridge University Library), but again, it is unclear whether Barker was a witch in the early modern sense. Elizabeth Mortlock, tried at Ely in 1566, was described as a ‘witch’, but her crime was curing people and protecting them from the fairies using a magic girdle. It was not until the seventeenth century that Ely became the focus of a series of witch trials, culminating in September 1647 with the Isle of Ely assizes, at which the last victims of Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne’s witch-hunt were put on trial, and some were convicted and hanged. Hopkins himself was dead by this time, but his assistant Stearne lived to carry on his work. As late as 1679, a witch trial took place at Ely, although in that case the accused received a royal pardon. The final part of the book examines belief in witchcraft in the Fens around Ely since the seventeenth century; the Cambridgeshire Fens were one of the last places where people continued to genuinely fear witches until well into the twentieth century; the last instances of apotropaic practices and accusations date from the 1930s, although it seems likely that belief in some form probably lingers on in some areas.

I will be launching my book at Oliver Cromwell’s House on Wednesday 16th October.


Launch of ‘Witches and Witchcraft in Ely: A History’

Oliver Cromwell's House Poster

On Wednesday 16th October, at 5pm, I shall be launching my new book Witches and Witchcraft in Ely: A History at Oliver Cromwell’s House, which is a museum and also the Tourist Information Centre in Ely. My presentation on Ely’s connection with witchcraft will be preceded by a ghost walk, an annual event at Oliver Cromwell’s House, which claims to be a haunted building. Much to my horror, I am billed on the poster advertising the event next to a picture of the Lord Protector’s face – a genocidal tyrant much more terrifying than any Hallowe’en spook…


Heritage Open Day 2013

HOD logoToday I managed the opening of the Old Bishop’s Palace in Ely for Heritage Open Day, with guided tours of the building from 10am to 4pm. I delivered a series of presentations on the history of the Old Palace to support the tours. A special feature of the day was a small exhibition, entitled ‘Prisoners in the Palace’, located at the west end of the Long Gallery next to the window which Sir Thomas Tresham decorated with secret emblematic paintings in the 1590s. The exhibition concentrated on four prisoners: Tresham, George Cotton (translator of the ‘Japonian Epistles’), Edward Rookwood and William Catesby.

Prisoners Exhibition


The exhibition also introduced the ‘Tresham Project’, a planned collaboration between The King’s School, Ely and Hirst Conservation to investigate whether any vestiges of Tresham’s original wallpaintings remain at the end of the Long Gallery. I will be updating this blog with the progress of the investigation once it commences, hopefully later this year.

Around 200 people visited the building during the course of the day. I am hoping that by next year’s Heritage Open Day, there will be a documentary film on the history of the Palace to show visitors.


Catholic Record Society Conference 2013

I have not been able to attend as much of the Catholic Record Society Conference this year as I should have liked, even though the conference was this year held in the very convenient location of Downing College, Cambridge – only half of the distance between the station and city centre. However, I was able to go along this evening and hear Coral Stoakes’s intriguing short communication on Catholic apocalypticism in the sixteenth century, the subject of her PhD thesis. It was also good to meet up with other stalwarts of the Catholic history circuit, such as Liesbeth Corens and the conference organisers, James Kelly and Simon Johnson. Sadly, I shall not be able to attend Liesbeth’s paper later today on relics at St Omer. It was also good to see Serenhedd James again, and I was delighted to hear that his book on Bishop George Errington is shortly to be published.

I delivered a short communication of my own on the post-Reformation cult of St Edmund, summarising my recent research which touches on five aspects of the survival of interest in St Edmund after 1539:

1. The transformation of the hagiography and iconography of St Edmund in the late sixteenth century

2. The development of St Edmund’s special place in the English Benedictine Congregation

3. Antiquarian interest in St Edmund, both Catholic and Protestant, from John Leland to John Battely (d. 1708)

4. Local folklore about St Edmund, local devotion, and his presence in the Suffolk landscape

5. The question of the saint’s final resting place

I issued an appeal for any information about post-Reformation images of St Edmund, other than the ones I mentioned in the paper. After my paper the conference relocated en masse to the ‘Prince Regent’, and it was good to have the opportunity to speak at some length to Aidan Bellenger about the state of my research.

I was also able to meet Fr John Broadley, who is taking over as CRS Volumes Editor and will be presiding over the publication of my monograph on the Gages, which may appear as early as the end of 2014.


‘What is Early Modern English Catholicism?’ Conference


On Saturday afternoon I made my way to Ushaw College, Durham for the ‘What is Early Modern English Catholicism?’ Conference in honour of Eamon Duffy. This was a very large conference and certainly the most comprehensive I have attended in terms of the range of scholars present. The conference was extremely ably organised by Lucy Underwood and James Kelly, with help from Liesbeth Corens, and all those involved deserve high praise for the smooth running of the event and the welcoming atmosphere created for the delegates. The only major lecture I was able to attend was Alexandra Walsham’s ‘In the Lord’s Vineyard: Catholic Reformation in Protestant Britain’ on Sunday morning. This was a masterful and sweeping survey of the history and present state of early modern Catholic studies, in which Walsham mentioned important recent work that is advancing our understanding of the English Catholic community. I was glad to hear her mention work on the Rookwood family as Catholics who, in spite of their notoriety, managed to negotiate very successful relations with their non-Catholic neighbours. I presume that Professor Walsham was referring to my work, and perhaps that of Carys Brown, as I am not aware of anyone else working on the Rookwoods.

A portion of Walsham’s lecture was devoted to the constructed fantasies through which Catholics and Protestants viewed each other, for instance anti-Catholicism in the case of Protestants, and she argued that anti-Catholic and Catholic discourses cannot be usefully separated from one another. On this theme she pointed to the work of Alison Shell, and gave the impression that research into this area is largely being conducted within the realm of English Literature. Walsham also touched on the world of thaumaturgy as part of the Catholic mission, including exorcism and sacramentals, and it was on this theme that I raised a question at the end of the lecture, asking to what extent she thought that caution and scepticism about the supernatural in the Catholic community was a reaction to anti-Catholicism, or an internal Catholic anxiety derived from the Council of Trent. Professor Walsham replied that it was the result of both, but pointed out that such anxieties and scepticism existed before the Reformation as well. She singled out the work of Caroline Walker Bynum on late mediaeval devotions, which were often as much signs of the need for confirmation of faith as they were superstitious excesses. Eamon Duffy then entered the debate, citing doubts expressed in the Douai Cases of Conscience about the appropriateness of indulgences obtained from grain blessed by the Pope as evidence that English Catholics remained concerned about the legitimate limits of devotion. As one delegate commented to me afterwards, it is rare that these two titans of English Catholic history share the same platform, and I was glad to have stimulated this exchange between them.

My own contribution to the Conference was more modest, and consisted of a short paper on the use of Neo-Latin by English Catholics. I noted the almost complete absence of scholarship on Latin literature produced by Catholics, in spite of the fact that Latin works considerably outnumbered vernacular works in the printed literature of the English Counter-Reformation between 1559 and 1640. In the subsequent discussion Peter Marshall asked me, quite legitimately, whether my paper reinforced or challenged the conventional view that English was the language of Protestants while Latin was the language of Catholics. I replied that, although I was advocating greater recognition for the Latin works of Catholics, this was because Latin literature (whether by Catholics or Protestants) is neglected in general; I would be happy to see more study of Latin works by Protestants as well. My argument would therefore be that the Catholic-Protestant Latin-English dichotomy is a thoroughly false one. Professor Walsham felicitously referred to the martyr paintings of Circignani in the chapel of the English College in Rome as Renaissance transformations of familiar mediaeval English saints, a topic of particular interest to me at present since it concerns the post-Reformation transformation of images of St Edmund. I offered St Edmund’s assimilation to St Sebastian as an example, and noted the dependence of the paintings’ Latin commentary on Nicholas Harpsfield’s Historia Ecclesiastica Anglicana, circulating in manuscript in the 1580s.

The Conference offered many delights to enjoy, not least the concert of the latest music unearthed by Peter Leech from James II’s Chapel Royal at Whitehall, Catherine of Braganza’s chapel, and the private chapel of Cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart. I was particularly intrigued by a peculiar Latin motet by Thomas Kingsley personally addressed to the nun Cecilia Tasburgh, one of the sisters of John Beaumont Tasburgh. I was pleased to catch up with Victoria Van Hyning, Gabriel Glickman and Maurice Whitehead, whose work I am always interested to hear about.


European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism

ESSWE logo

I have recently become a Full Member of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE), the first society dedicated to the academic study of the history of all aspects of the Western esoteric tradition including the Hermetic Tradition, Rosicrucianism and Paracelsianism, Astrology, Alchemy and Magic. Although exorcism is not currently one of the major research interests of members of ESSWE, it is to be hoped that in future the ‘official magic’ of the church will be considered alongside ceremonial magic, which often drew on the church’s official and semi-official liturgies anyway. ESSWE was founded in Amsterdam in 2005 and hosts a biannual conference, which this year will be in Gothenburg, Sweden.

I am grateful to Dr Peter Forshaw for making me aware of the existence of ESSWE.


Publication of English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553-1829

Front Cover

Today is the official publication date of English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553-1829. The book is the first systematic attempt to treat Catholic responses to those aspects of early modern ‘popular religion’ that might be termed ‘preternatural’ or, to use the less accurate but more commonly used term, supernatural. It differs from other works on the subject of early modern popular religion by being based almost entirely on sources produced by Catholics, and includes chapters on Catholic views of ghosts, witchcraft and magic, and Catholic exorcism. It also approaches the question of what English Catholics thought superstition actually was, and attempts to locate English Catholic thought on the subject within the context of the wider Counter-Reformation. The book argues that Catholics were considerably more sceptical of supernatural phenomena than they were portrayed by their opponents.

You can order the book from Ashgate’s website, where you can view the Introduction as a sample chapter, or from Amazon, where the ‘search inside’ facility ought to become available soon. There are also extracts of the book available on Google Books.


‘What is Early Modern English Catholicism?’ Conference

At some point on 29 or 30 June I will be speaking at a conference at Ushaw College organised by Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies, entitled ‘What is Early Modern English Catholicism?’.

The conference will run from 28-30 June and the plenary speakers will be Eamon Duffy (Cambridge), Brad Gregory (Notre Dame), Thomas McCoog (Fordham) and Alexandra Walsham (Cambridge).

Celebrating the contribution of Eamon Duffy’s work to changing notions of how early Modern English Catholicism is understood, the aim of the conference is to discuss different ‘sorts’ of Catholicism in evidence – exploring whether the term covers a broad spectrum of interest groups or is more narrowly defined. As such, it will change perceptions of the subject, the conference including those who approach the material from very different angles, questioning perceived notions of what is actually meant when Early Modern Catholicism is mentioned in the English context. The period under consideration will be in the long-term, from the 16th century break with Rome, the years of uncertainty and the Marian restoration, through the periods of recusancy, persecution and the Glorious Revolution, to the Jacobite movement and the Catholic survivalism of the 18th century.

My paper will be entitled ‘Neo-Latin in the English Catholic Community’ and will address the marginalised area of Latin literature produced by the Catholic community, arguing that Latin was as important as English as a lingua franca amongst English Catholics.


Royal presentation for History of the Bishop’s Palace at Ely

Yesterday a copy of my book A History of the Bishop’s Palace at Ely: Prelates and Prisoners was presented as a gift to HRH The Duke of Gloucester, who presided at the official re-opening of the Palace as a home for the Sixth Form of King’s Ely. The Duke, who originally studied Architecture, showed great interest in the history and fabric of the building, which is now much better understood than it was as a result of the extensive work of restoration and renovation carried out by the school. Amongst other things, restoration has opened up the original arches of the loggia supporting the Long Gallery (built by Bishop Goodrich in 1549) and uncovered original 15th and 16th century ceilings. The official re-opening of the Palace was marked by a service in Ely Cathedral, In his sermon the Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, compared the work of his predecessors Bishops Alcock and Goodrich on the Palace and suggested that the building’s use as a centre of learning may be the best purpose to which it has yet been put.