The mystery of William of Norwich….


Painting at the church of St Peter and St Paul, Eye, Suffolk, c. 1500

England and Wales abound with saints who have never figured very highly—or even at all—in the estimation of Rome. British saints rarely seem to reach the hallowed list, unless they were of the calibre of Becket. But in their local area these saints were much revered and of considerable importance.

One of them is a mere boy, William of Norwich, whose story still causes discussion today. What really happened to him in 1144, when he was murdered and his mutilated body found in Thorpe Wood (now absorbed into Mousehold Heath) near Norwich?

Site of St William’s Chapel in the Wood, photograph by Evelyn Simak

At the time there was an effort in certain quarters to blame it a Jewish ritual murder, but others believed it to have been a sex crime (because he was found naked) that had nothing to do with Jews. It remains an unsolved crime. Here are the facts as I understand them:

William was only about twelve, an apprentice skinner and tanner, and possibly the first apprentice in English history, although I wouldn’t know about that. His father was named Wenstan, but I don’t know if he was still around. I think not.

His mother, Elviva, was contacted by a man who said he was a cook for the Archdeacon of Norwich. A job was offered to William, and Elviva would be paid three shillings if she would surrender the boy. William, it seems, was keen to accept, but his mother had reservations. There must have been something suspicious about the man. Word had it that the fellow had been employed by the Jews to lure William into the house of a certain Eleazar, where he would be sacrificed. William went, and was treated well, which rather eliminated the unpleasant rumours. But then he was bound and gagged, tortured and murdered most foully. His body was shoved into a sack and taken to Thorpe Wood.

Those who took him there encountered a burgess named Erlward, who’d been to church nearby. He clearly thought there was something suspicious and stopped them. They fled immediately. The sack remained behind, but Erlward went on home to Norwich. After that there were up to three more people who discovered the sack and its contents: A Norman nun named Lady Legarda, a man named Henry de Sprowston who was a forester and in charge of the bishop’s stables. He had duties in Thorpe Wood. There was also an unnamed peasant. Henry started an inquiry, but it seems to have fizzled out. No one was taking much notice. William’s uncle, brother and cousin identified the body and the boy was buried in Thorpe Wood. This all happened over the Easter period in 1144.

That was when the miracles started to happen. Strange lights had been seen around the body before burial, and now there were wondrous cures. Several churches dedicated paintings, panels and rood screens to him. A cult sprang up, and it suited certain persons in the Church to promote William as a saint because of his miracles. Saints meant pilgrims, and pilgrims meant income for the Church. But others were less convinced. As it happened, in 1150, those in favour of sanctifying William had him moved to prominence in the cathedral close to the high altar. But Rome did not recognise him. The cult was suppressed.

Before being moved to the cathedral, William was laid to rest in Thorpe Wood, and a chapel was built around his tomb. He became known as William of the Wood. His chapel suffered as did so many church buildings because of Henry VIII, and all that remains now are some stones, concealed amid a tangle of nettles, brambles and hawthorn, in a dell that is surrounded mostly by oaks. (See picture above)

Old OS Map

It seems that William would have been almost forgotten, had it not been for the intervention of one of my favourite writers of superb ghost and horror stories, M.R. James:-

“ . . . . According to E. M. Rose in his book ‘The Murder of William of Norwich’:

“ . . . .’William of Norwich, in particular, has received a considerable amount of attention, ever since the full text of his story was discovered in a Suffolk parish library at the end of the 19th– century by the antiquarian M. R. James, who edited and published an influential translation with Augustus Jessopp, an honorary canon of Norwich Cathedral. Brother Thomas’s ‘Life and Passion has now been re-translated for a modern readership, including passages that the fastidious Victorian translators passed over.’ . . . ”

Do I think William’s terrible murder had anything to do with the Jews? Certainly not! Do I think it was a sex crime? Most likely, I fear. Do I think he was a saint? Well, if there were miracles around his body and grave, yes. If it was invention to encourage pilgrims. No. But we will never know.

To read more details about William, here are some useful links, from some of which I have taken the images and captions above. William’s feast day is 23rd March.

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