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St William of Norwich chapel, Norwich
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William of Norwich chapel, Norwich
The woods on Mousehold Heath are the lungs of Norwich, richly verdant in summer as they clamber across the rolling landscape. But in the bare skeletal winter there is something primeval about them, and if it were not for the sound of traffic on the nearby ring road you might imagine yourself in any age. A lumpy hillock not far from the road is all that remains of a 12th Century chapel, established here as part of a local cult that was born in controversy and which contributed to appalling consequences.
In about the year 1150, the Bishop of Norwich asked a monk called Thomas of Monmouth to investigate a crime. It was a delicate matter, for a few years previously the body of a young English boy had been found up here on the Heath. He had been stabbed to death. The boy's name was William, and he'd been an apprentice tanner working regularly among the Jewish community of the city. The bulk of the Norwich Jewish community had arrived with the Normans and were French-speaking, as of course were the city's Anglo-Norman administration, and the murder had caused a considerable headache. The boy's family and neighbours had put it about that the Jewish community had been responsible for the boy's death as a way of obtaining Christian blood for rituals. This was antisemitic nonsense of course, but there was a further conspiracy theory abroad that the Anglo-Norman administration had colluded with the Jewish community to cover up the crime at the expense of the Anglo-Saxon townspeople. This led to riots, and the Jewish community was taken into the castle for a while for their protection.
The boy's body had been buried up on the Heath where it was found. Thomas of Monmouth began by interviewing members of the boy's family and a host of what might accurately be termed unreliable witnesses. Key among these was a monk and former Jew called Theobold whose bizarre outlining of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy would echo down the centuries. Other ridiculous stories were concocted to justify the accusations against the Jewish community, and at this distance you can't help thinking that Thomas of Monmouth's investigation contributed to the development of these. It was a kind of mass hysteria, and so perhaps not surprisingly stories of miracles after the boy's death began to appear, and he began to be treated as a martyr saint. In the 1160s the chapel on the heath was built on the site of the murder and burial as a pilgrimage shrine. It was a small building, but curiously seems to have been set within a series of moats, perhaps because this is a wet area, or perhaps there was another significance, maybe even a liturgical one.
Inevitably perhaps, the monks of Norwich saw the growing cult as an opportunity. Two of England's most popular pilgrimage sites were nearby at Walsingham and Bury St Edmunds, and so here was the chance to establish their own contender. The boy's body was exhumed from the lonely Heath and brought down to the Cathedral, first being buried in the monks' cemetery and then successively within the Cathedral until it ended up in a spot by the high altar. And yet, it seems that the cult was never widely popular, and didn't attract the pilgrims and their money that the monks had hoped for. Bequests were still being made to the shrine right until the end of the medieval period, but at the Reformation it was relatively quietly taken down, and there has never been a modern clamour for it to be returned. Interestingly, pilgrimages also continued to the lonely chapel up on the Heath, and here too there were still offerings being made towards the Reformation. Enough of the structure survived for it to be shown as a church with a tower on 16th Century maps, though this is unlikely to be an accurate representation. Most likely it became a woodsman's shelter during the long years that it crumbled into the ground.
William was never formally declared a saint, and that his cult was deeply rooted in the antisemitism of the Norwich townspeople is unquestionable. But perhaps there is rather more to it than that. As the cult grew it became a focus for a kind of anti-establishment discontent, at the heart of which was the conspiracy theory that the administration had colluded to cover up the crime. This in itself was not unusual, and there would be a number of occasions in the centuries ahead where local saints became a focus for anti-establishment feeling. But there were consequences to come. Ill-feeling amongst the townspeople against the Jewish community both in Norwich and in other cities increased as the century passed, and in 1190 there was a dreadful massacre in the city when perhaps eight hundred Jews were killed. There were massacres too in York and Lincoln, and perhaps in other places on smaller scales that history has left unrecorded. In 1290 the entire Jewish population of England was expelled.
In the centuries that followed the expulsion, there remained a strong antisemitic element in in English culture and religious life. In East Anglia there are a number of 14th Century wall paintings that depict Jews with exaggerated features and wearing jester costumes, mocking and whipping Christ and nailing him to the cross. It is not likely that any of the artists had ever met a Jew. And although St William's cult did not reach the proportions hoped for by the monks of Norwich, there are still medieval survivals of it in Norfolk. At Loddon, a gruesome panel on the early 16th Century rood screen shows the boy stretched between two poles while grinning figures stand by with knives. He holds nails on the roodscreens at Litcham, where he is paired with St Walstan, another local saint, and at Worstead with the crucified St Uncumber. In Norwich itself, he was on the screen at St James, now the puppet theatre, the panel now moved to St Mary Magdalene, and at St John Maddermarket, where the panel is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Unsurprisingly modern images are rare, though he does appear in the mawkish early 20th Century glass at Fritton St Edmund.
Simon Knott, February 2023
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