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Weird Norfolk: Bringing the dead back to life at Bromholm Priory

PUBLISHED: 09:00 14 April 2018 | UPDATED: 09:29 14 April 2018

The 13th-century Bromholm Priory, which is now on private land. Picture: Archant library

The 13th-century Bromholm Priory, which is now on private land. Picture: Archant library

The ruins are spectacular and hint at a majesty long since claimed by time – but the broken walls of Bromholm Priory hide an even bigger secret: they once housed a holy relic said to be so powerful it could raise the dead.

Also known as Bacton Abbey or Broomholm Priory, the building was founded in 1113 by William de Glanville as a sister abbey of nearby Castle Acre and stands as a lonely sentry in fields just off the scenic north-east Norfolk coast road. These days, Bacton’s fame is bound up in gas, but travel back in time to 1205, and Bacton was nothing short of miraculous.

For the first century of its life, Bromholm was a staging post on the pilgrim route to Walsingham, but in 1205 its fortunes changed thanks to a tiny wooden cross no bigger than a man’s hand which, it was said, was a relic of the True Cross on which Jesus died.Soldiers of the Fourth Crusade had ransacked Constantinople, bringing back a horde of treasure, both spiritual and secular. A local priest who had been with the emperor in Constantinople brought back the two pieces of wood which he offered to the Cluniac monks at Bromholm on condition that he and his sons were admitted to the priory. The monastery, poor in worldly goods but rich in faith, believed the priest and agreed to his terms – his cross, said to have been made by St Helena from the part of the cross to which Christ’s hands and feet were nailed - was set up in the church and it proved to be Bromholm’s salvation.

Matthew Paris’ illuminated medieval manuscript Chronica Majona contained information about the cross which drew from Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover in his annals for 1223: “In the same year divine miracles became frequent occurrences at Bromholm, to the glory and honour of the life-giving cross on which the savoir of the world suffered for the redemption of humankind,” it reads. The manuscript then reveals that the relic was brought to Bromholm by King Baldwin’s chaplain, who had already been refused by several other monasteries but who was enthusiastically welcomed in Norfolk: “in this year…divine miracles began to be wrought in that monastery to the praise and glory of the life giving cross; for there the dead were restored to life, the blind recovered their sight…and any sick person who approached the aforesaid cross with faith went away safe and sound.’”

In all, 39 people were raised from the dead, 19 blind people had their sight restored and pilgrims (including Henry III) flocked to Bromholm with gracious offerings.

The cross is mentioned in Reeve’s Tale, the third of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written in the 1380s - miller Symkyn lives near Cambridge and steals the wheat and meal brought to him for grinding. Two students set out to get revenge for their college steward who fell victim to Symkyn and orchestrate a farce-like situation involving wives, daughters and bed-hopping.

At one point the miller’s wife is woken when her husband falls: “‘Help!’ she screamed, ‘Holy Cross of Bromeholme keep us! Lord

into thy hands!’” Within 50 years of Chaucer’s work, the end would be nigh for Bromholm’s claim to fame. In 1424, Sir Hugh Pie, a protestant chaplain from Norwich, was tried before the Bishop of Norwich for having thrown the relic on a fire. In The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe, of 1424, it says that Pie was brought before the Bishop on July 5 1424 “for holding these opinions following: that people ought not to go on pilgrimage, that the people ought not to give alms...that the image of the cross and other images are not to be worshipped.” Pie denied the charges “…whereupon he had a day appointed to purge himself by the witness of three lay-man, and three priests. That so done, he was sworn as the other before, and so dismissed.” Two years later, the Bishop recalled Pie regarding the death of William White, who had been burned at the stake for heresy and had been associated with White, a fellow Lollard. Pie was reprieved yet again, but Bromholm Priory had lost its miraculous attraction and never again attracted wealthy visitors keen to part with gifts in return for touching wood.

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