8. The Black Death 1349 – 1381
While at the beginning of 2012 we hear of a new strain of T.B. in India that is resistant to current drugs we can at least rest assured that we have an effective vaccine to prevent a repeat of the 100million plus worldwide deaths caused by ‘Yesinia pestis’ (The Black Death). Beginning in 1340s in China and lasting three centuries with an estimated mortality rate of between 30% and 60%.
Apart from it’s well known progression in rat fleas via Marseille through the London ports, the plague also arrived here in Norfolk at Yarmouth and also Hunstanton where 63 men and 15 women died during the initial outbreak in September and October 1349, followed by a further 172 deaths in the following six months.
In East Anglia and especially Norfolk the pestis coincided with two years (1347/8) of violent and prolonged rains. The corn lay rotting in the fields and cattle died in droves resulting in crop failure and famine. The weakened health of the peasant population was an easy target for the bacterium. The illness took the form of egg sized boils under the armpits or groin, coughing and spiting of blood was accompanied with inflammation of the windpipe and a raging fever, ushering in death within a hours, 4 days at most.
Whole families perished until there were too few to bury the dead or keep the Manorial Court Rolls. Despite this one set of records was still maintained without fail, the the Diocesan Registers. Thus, we know that in 1349 “New Parsons were instituted in no less than 21 out of 23 parishes including East and West Lexham, Gt and Lt Dunham, Kempston, Wellingham, Godwick, Rougham and Weasenham which surround Litcham. At Brisley, Kempston, Wellingham, and Rougham, not only the parson died but also his successor! At Horningtoft three died; the last not being replaced until the following year. In Litcham, Roger Godewyk, the rector was replaced by William Knyghtelee on October 6th 1349.” (Eric Puddy)
Some of the Parishes were filled with a new Parson in great haste even in those hellish days due to the dread of the Pope immediately filling the vacancy with an Italian Priest. In the 14th Cent there was such a feeling of insecurity both among those who had the right of patronage and the candidates for benefices that a panic ensued to prevent any foreigners being sent from Rome.
This depopulation meant a huge shortage of agricultural labour and peasant villeins escaped their villages selling their labour to the highest bidder. This was stopped by an Act of Parliament that fixed wages at a lower rate than those before the plague, sewing the seed of national discontent that culminated in Wat Tyler’s ‘Peasants Revolt’ of 1381.
9. All Saints Church, Litcham
Rebuilding of All Saints Church, 1400-1412
When Richard Rokel of Snettisham became the Rector of All Saints in 1379 thirty years had passed since the Black Death. During Richard’s ministry a great restoration took place in the growing market village of Litcham. Notably, he managed this a full seven years before the repairs to St. Nicholas at Lynn in 1419.
One of the reasons was the increasing importance of guilds, which alongside the new boom created following the great plague, became an important feature of town and village life. The guilds were both religious and commercial in their character and as the guilds importance grew so they sought side-chapels where the guild’s chaplains could say masses for the souls of their faithful and departed members. It was this need and desire for processions that led to the addition of side aisles in many churches around which the congregation could ‘process’.
Thus it was that soon after the turn of century William Hindley was engaged as a master mason to make substantial improvements Litcham All Saints. A total of fourteen Free Masons set up their ‘Lodge’ against the wall of the church and lived there during the ten or so years it took them to complete their task. Skillful and meticulous craftsmen the Mason’s had a strict quality-control system. Once a stone had been carved it was passed to the ‘Master’ or ‘Lodge Warden’ for inspection before the mason was allowed to add their individual ‘bencher’ or ‘masons’ mark, which showed not only the amount of work done but also who had done it. Many of these ‘benchmarks’ may still be viewed in the church today.
We should not forget the work the rough masons, wallers, layers and setters, generally drawn from local craftsmen, whose highly skilled work is still evident to this day.
The church was rebuilt in the latest fashio, the chancel was rebuilt and the Church broadened by the addition of north and south aisles in which new windows in the perpendicular style we installed with Hindley’s imaginative trademark of St. Andrew’s cross in the head of each side light.
By 1411 the workers handed over to glaziers and carpenters and great celebrations were held by the band of Free Masons who roasted their pigs in the lodge, enjoying cakes and ale. 600 years on we look forward to celebrating ourselves when, on June 17th the bishop of Norwich, and again on the feast of St. Botolphs, will celebrate and give thanks for all those who through the years who have helped to keep All Saints preserved for us all.
The Litcham Cryptogram – A Holy Message From The Past?
Carved into a pillar in all Saint’s Church is one of the most puzzling examples of
medieval graffiti, known as the Litcham Cryptogram it has been the subject of much debate and its’ true meaning remains a mystery to this day. Since Eric Puddy wrote about this most intriguing feature of our church many experts have struggled to decipher it, originally thought to have been the work of a pilgrim on his way to Walsingham recent research has more or less dismissed this interpretation.
If it is a Holy message why disguise it with an inscription that makes no sense? It could be of course be that our fervent discussion and reference to it is exactly what was hoped for, so that we never forget, but who or what are we remembering?
The inscription is cut significantly deeper than surrounding graffiti and written in a late medieval hand (1300-1500). However the style is unusual as the letters are squashed together with one being used as the beginning of another making a definitive interpretation difficult.
It is usually interpreted as ‘mmwyke baumburgh’ with the letters ‘a s .j. m a y’ added later by another hand running above. Puddy, and others, suggest the upper letters translate as ‘anima salv. jesu. maria a yosephu’;- save (my) soul Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The lower line, starts with ‘mm’, which is thought be shorthand for ‘memento mori’ (lit: remember death).
An Essex archivist wrote to Puddy reminding him that the Felton’s came from Northumberland close to the area of Bamburgh Castle, so perhaps the Cryptogram refers to an event that did not occur in Norfolk at all? Oddly the derivation for the word Wyke and Felton are very alike. In the “Painswick Chronicle” wyke is described as a “dairy farm” while the old English derivation of Felton is fell tun or fell farm. Sir William Felton took charge of Bamburgh castle in 1316 and in 1463, during the Wars of the Roses, Lord Montague and his elder brother Warwick attacked the castle with cannon fire (one of the first such attacks), many hundreds perished, adding to the estimated 100,000+ souls who died during this bitter war. A nine-month siege followed which was ended by subterfuge in July 1464.
It should also be noted that it was Sir John Felton, governor of nearby Alnwick Castle who introduced Roger de Godwyk of Aylsham as the new rector of Litcham in 1319 at around the time of the Black Death. The Rev’d Godwyk died in 1349, so here we have yet another possible reason to remember thousands of lost souls.
The Holy message if interpreted as above may be prompting us to remember those who perished at Bamburgh Castle or maybe the millions who died in the Great Plague, perhaps prompting us to dwell upon our own mortality and be thankful (to God) that we are still on this earth, for the time being at least!
10. Vicar or Rector, what’s the difference?
Have you ever wondered why do we find Rectories in some villages and Vicarages in others? A local example is Kempston, which for many years had a vicarage while Litcham boasted much grander Rectory. The answer is buried in our history…
When the great Earls founded religious establishments it became the custom for their relatives and vassals to make gifts (endowments) of land and manorial tithes and churches, to new foundations. Alan fitz Flaald, Lord of Mileham and Netherhall gave Castle Acre Monastery land and an orchard in Kemistuna (Kempston) while John le Strange gave six acres in Litcham. Agnes, wife of Ralph l’Strange, following the example of her overlord William de Warren, who founded the Monastery, gave two shillings a year and William’s steward, Wirmer, gave the tithes and Church of Kemptston ‘in it’s entirety’.
The monks of Castle Acre therefore took on the responsibility of providing for the souls of Kempston, which they achieved by appointing a Vice-Rector or Vicar. As the Monks received all of the tithes or benefices they were the Rectors (or rulers) and their priest at Kempston, who received a third of the tithes, was known as a ‘Vicar’ as his duties were discharged “vicariously” on behalf of the monks.
Litcham, All Saints was never given to any ecclesiastical body and therefore our priest remained a Rector, receiving all his tithes and living in a Rectory, whereas at Kempston the priest lived in a Vicarage.
The earliest priest we know in ‘Lucheham’ as it was known in 1157 is William who is referred to as a Chaplain. The first recorded ‘rector’ (about 1299) was Nicholas de Durdant who gave Gilbert de Beaupre several villeins and their families to work the glebe land for benefit of the church and community.
From 1319 institutional books record every rector of Litcham right through to this day. We now live in an age of team ministries where the Rector, now known as the Priest-in-Charge has team which can include vicars or curates (trainee clergy) officiating at the several churches in their charge. But still our priest lives in a Rectory, although it is not quite as grand as it once was.
Eric Puddy’s : “History of a Mid-Norfolk Village” (1957)
Compiled and edited by David Sheppard, Chair Litcham Historical Society and Julia Bloomfield