12 Norfolk places with saintly connections

PUBLISHED: 12:38 31 March 2020 | UPDATED: 12:38 31 March 2020

The wooden sculpture of the wolf that stands in front of Old Hunstanton Lighthouse. Picture: Ian Burt

The wooden sculpture of the wolf that stands in front of Old Hunstanton Lighthouse. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant © 2013

As churches across the county celebrate Easter we find 14 Norfolk communities with saintly connections

1. Norwich and Sedgeford, near King’s Lynn

Pilgrims who flocked to the tomb of a much-loved Norwich priest who died exactly 600 years ago bought specially-made badges to mark their journey. Thousands flocked to the shrine of medieval trailblazer priest Richard Caister, at St Stephen’s Church in Norwich. With miracles reported both before and after his death, on April 4, 1420, he was pronounced a saint. and all this year his almost-forgotten story is being retold and celebrated at St Stephen’s.

Richard was vicar of Sedgeford, near King’s Lynn, from 1397 to 1402, before moving to St Stephens where, unusually, he wrote and preached in English, the language of the people, rather than Latin, the language of the church. He also defended King’s Lynn mystic Margery Kempe when she was accused of heresy and was known for his holiness, learning, concern for the poor and the poetic prayers he wrote. A medieval St Richard Caister pilgrim badge, now in Norwich Castle Museum, was found in London. It would have been bought by a visitor to his tomb in St Stephen’s. The 600th anniversary celebrations include talks and family activities. A series of free lectures includes a talk on Richard Caister and Margery Kempe, on April 22, and one about the pilgrim badges on May 27. A drop-in workshop includes the chance to make a badge, dress as a medieval pilgrim and find out about Norwich’s saint, also on May 27. Full details of all the events at ststephensnorwich.org

2. Dereham and Holkham

One legend suggests St Withburga was an 8th 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 mound, 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, which 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 spring itself still flows.

3. Docking, near Hunstanton

St Henry Walpole was born at Docking in 1558 and attended the Norwich School. After seeing Catholic priest St Edmund Campion executed in London, at a time when being a Catholic priest was considered treason, he wrote a book of poems celebrating his life. He fled to France to escape arrest and after many years of study was himself ordained as a Jesuit priest. He worked in France, Belgium and Spain before arriving back in England to continue his ministry. But he was captured within hours, imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death. He was hanged, drawn and quartered in York on April 7, 1595, and declared a saint in 1970. The Catholic chapel in Burnham Market is dedicated to him.

4. Burgh Castle, near Yarmouth

St Fursey arrived from Ireland in the 630s to help convert the people of East Anglia to Christianity. Renowned for his visions of angels, he founded a monastery beside the abandoned Roman fort at Burgh Castle. 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.

5. Dickleburgh

Like St Fursey, St Deicola, or Dicul, was a ‘wandering saint’ from Ireland who founded a monastery here in the 7th century.

6. Babingley, near Castle Rising

St Felix arrived in East Anglia by boat, keen to deliver “all the province of East Anglia from long-standing unrighteousness and unhappiness.” Bobbing down the then-navigable River Babingley he is said to have been saved from drowning by a colony of beavers. Overwhelmed with gratitude he made the chief beaver a bishop. The ruined church is believed 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.

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7. 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 1,000 years after he died the huge dining hall at the Norfolk Showground is named for him. His shrine at Bawburgh was destroyed in the Reformation, but his well, close to the village church, remains.

Born into a wealthy family he 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 instructions, 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 and he was buried. Pilgrims flocked here for more than 500 years and although the shrine was destroyed, St Walstan’s well remains and the saint’s day on May 30 is still celebrated in the village.

8. Martham

St Blitha, the mother of St Walstan, was related to King Ethelred the Unready and his son, Edmund Ironside. She was buried at Martham where a chapel was dedicated in her honour.

9. Hulme, near Ludham

St Wolfeius was an 11th century hermit at St Benet Hulme, now known as St Benet’s Abbey.

10. Norwich

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 stories soon circulated that he had been tortured and crucified like Jesus. Local Jews were accused of the crime – the first known medieval accusation against Jews of ritual murder. Jews were soon being blamed for the murders of children elsewhere in Britain and the increasing intolerance and violence led to a massacre of Jewish people in Norwich in 1190. A century later all Jews 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 by Norwich monk Thomas of Monmouth, begun a few years after the murder. However, the identity of the murderer has continued to be debated into the 21st century.

Miracles were soon attributed to William and, with the bishop said to be keen to promote lucrative pilgrimages to Norwich, he was declared a saint. He was buried at the cathedral and a chapel was built where his body was found on Mousehold Heath. William also appears on medieval church screens at Worstead, Garboldisham and Loddon and on a panel from St John Maddermarket in Norwich which is now in the Victoria and Albert museum.

11. Hunstanton

King Edmund was crowned King of East Anglia on Christmas Day 855 and is remembered across his kingdom – in churches, in village names, at St Edmund’s Point, Hunstanton, where he first landed in his kingdom, and in the great Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, where he was buried in 869. He led an army against the Vikings but was 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, Hunstanton, Acle, Costessey, Downham Market, Emneth, Norwich, South Burlingham and Taverham.

12. Holt and Cawston

John Bradburne is not a saint yet – but he is on his way. Born in 1921, 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 volunteered for the Indian Army, serving with the Gurkhas in India, Malaya, Singapore and Burma.

He became known for tending the wounded and his love of wildlife, poetry and psalms – he is actually the most prolific poet in the English language, in terms of lines of poetry.

Deciding he was best fitted to a solitary life devoted to God and helping others, he travelled in Britain, Europe and Africa, working as a gardener with the homeless and sick and often living as a hermit. In the 1960s John became warden of a leper colony in present-day Zimbabwe, but after disagreements with the charity in charge he spent the final six years of his life continuing his ministry from a tin hut just outside the perimeter fence. 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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