Nine stories of Norfolk saints and shrines
PUBLISHED: 19:00 01 April 2020
Norfolk Museums Service
Thousands of pilgrims once flocked to the tomb of a Norfolk priest who died exactly 600 years ago. During his lifetime, and after his death on April 4, 1420, Richard Caister was renowned for his holiness, learning and concern for the poor. Miracles were reported both before and after his death. But over the centuries he had been almost forgotten - until the church where he ministered and was buried decided to celebrate his life and legacy.
The congregation of St Stephen’s church, Norwich, had put together a year-long programme to celebrate the priest and poet who lived in the city at the same time as Julian of Norwich and was a friend of King’s Lynn mystic Margery Kemp, defending her when she was accused of heresy. Her autobiography, the first to be written in English, records that while some thought she was possessed by demons Richard Caister was open to the idea that God may inspire a woman.
Unusually he wrote and preached in English, the language of the people, rather than Latin, the language of the church, and one of his prayer-poems still exists.
He was born in Norfolk and was probably a monk at Norwich Cathedral before becoming vicar of Sedgeford, near Lynn, from 1397 to 1402, and then St Stephen’s until his death on April 4, 1420. He was buried in the church and Margery Kempe travelled to Norwich to pray at his tomb for the healing of a priest. She writes of feeling the power and goodness of God as she prayed and the priest recovered. The tomb became a shrine until the Reformation, with pilgrims flocking pray here. A medieval Richard Caister pilgrim badge, which would have been bought by a visitor to St Stephen’s, was unearthed in London and is now in the Castle Museum.
The Richard Caister project, called Grant Me Grace, was due to run until October and included a pilgrimage route around Norwich, free lectures and family workshops.
For more on the story of Norwich’s saintly priest and poet vist ststephensnorwich.org
Dereham and Holkham.
One legend suggests St Withburga was an eighth century princess. While playing on Holkham Beach as a child her sandcastle is said to have miraculously become a huge hill which could not be knocked down. A Saxon church was built on the hill, now within Holkham Park, and is, to this day, the only one in the world dedicated to St Withburga.
When she grew up the sandcastle-building princess moved to Dereham where she founded a monastery. Unable to feed the builders she prayed to the Virgin Mary for help and was sent two deer to be milked to sustain her workforce. The legend is retold on the town sign.
Withburga died in 743 and was buried in Dereham but her body was stolen and taken to Ely. A spring appeared at the site of her empty tomb and became a place of pilgrimage. A thousand years later a bath house was built over the well in an attempt to turn Dereham into a spa town. Described as a hideous building, it was demolished in 1880 but the ancient spring still flows.
Docking and Burnham Market
St Henry Walpole, born at Docking, near Hunstanton, in 1558, was a pupil at the Norwich School. After seeing Catholic priest St Edmund Campion executed in London, he wrote a book of poems celebrating the priest’s life. He fled to France to escape arrest and was eventually ordained as a priest himself. He worked in France, Belgium and Spain before returning to England to continue his ministry, but was immediately captured. He was hanged for treason as a Catholic priest on April 7, 1595 and declared a saint in 1970. The Catholic chapel in Burnham Market is dedicated to him.
Burgh Castle, near Yarmouth.
St Fursey arrived from Ireland in the 630s to convert the people of East Anglia to Christianity. He founded a monastery beside the abandoned Roman fort at Burgh Castle and was known for his visions of angels, and three miracles he is said to have performed. The modern orthodox church of St Fursey in Sutton, near Stalham, is the smallest working church in the country – built by its priest in his garden.
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Babingley, near Castle Rising.
In the seventh century St Felix is said to have been saved from drowning on the river here by a colony of beavers. The grateful holy man, who had arrived to deliver “all the province of East Anglia from long-standing unrighteousness and unhappiness” made the chief beaver a bishop and the story resonates to this day in the village sign showing a carved beaver in a bishop’s mitre grasping a crook. The ruined church is said to be on the site of Norfolk’s first Christian church, and churches in nearby Shernborne, as well as waterside Loddon and Reedham are also dedicated to St Felix.
Bawburgh, near Norwich.
St Walstan dedicated his life to farming and farm animals and is the patron saint of farms and farm workers. More than a thousand years later the huge dining hall at the Norfolk Showground is named for him. Walstan’s shrine at Bawburgh was destroyed in the Reformation, but his well, close to the village church, remains.
He was born into a wealthy family but chose to work as a farm labourer in Taverham, becoming well-known for his skill with animals. In 1016 he died while working in the fields and in accordance with his wishes, his body was put in a cart, pulled by two white oxen. Springs bubbled up at Taverham, at Costessey where the oxen paused, and at Bawburgh, where they finished their journey. The springs in Taverham and Costessey (where the golf course is today) dried up long ago but the well at Bawburgh remains.
Although his shrine was destroyed, after more than five centuries of pilgrimage, St Walstan’s day on May 30 is still celebrated in the village.
The death of the child who became known as St William of Norwich had terrible repercussions across the country. William was found dead at Easter 1144, aged 12, and false stories soon circulated that he had been crucified by local Jews. The actual identity of the murderer has continued to be debated into the 21st century but people began blaming their Jewish neighbours for the murders of children elsewhere in Britain and an atmosphere of increasing intolerance and violence led to a massacre of Jewish people in Norwich in 1190. A century later all Jewish people were expelled from England – and not officially allowed to live in the country for more than 350 years.
Most of William’s story comes from a book written by Norwich monk Thomas of Monmouth, begun five years after William was killed. The bishop of the time is said to have been keen to promote lucrative pilgrimages to the shrine and city. Miracles were soon attributed to William and he was declared a saint. He was buried at Norwich Cathedral and a chapel was built where his body was discovered on Mousehold Heath. Just ruins remain today.
William is also shown on medieval church screens at Worstead, Garboldisham and Loddon and on a panel from St John Maddermarket, Norwich, which is now in the Victoria and Albert museum.
King Edmund was crowned King of East Anglia on Christmas Day 855 and is remembered across his kingdom – in churches, in village names and in the great Abbey in Bury St Edmund’s, where he was buried in 869.
St Edmund’s Chapel, at St Edmund’s Point, in Hunstanton, is built at the site where he is said to have arrived, by boat, in Norfolk to lead an army against the Vikings. When defeated and captured he refused to renounce his faith, so was tied to a tree, shot with arrows and beheaded. Miracles were reported almost immediately and he became the first patron saint of England.
Churches across Norfolk are dedicated to the saintly king, including at Caistor St Edmund, Acle, Costessey, Downham Market, Emneth, Norwich, South Burlingham and Taverham.
Holt and Cawston
John Bradburne is not a saint yet – but is well on his way. Born in 1921, the son of a priest, he was brought up in Norfolk, where his father was Vicar of Cawston. He attended Gresham’s School in Holt and at the start of the Second World War he volunteered for the Indian Army, serving with the Gurkhas in India, Malaya, Singapore and Burma.
He became known for tending the wounded and for his love of wildlife, poetry and psalms – he is officially the most prolific poet in the English language, having written more lines of poetry in English than anyone else.
Deciding he was best fitted to a solitary life devoted to God and helping others he worked with the homeless and sick, often living as a hermit. In the 1960s he became the warden of a leper colony in Zimbabwe but after falling out with the organisation in charge, he continued his ministry from a tin hut just outside the perimeter fence for the final six years of his life. He was kidnapped and murdered in 1979. Reports of miracles began immediately and in July last year the Vatican approved the next stage of his path towards sainthood.
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