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Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Many a saint of God has breathed his last beneath that white precipice, midst flame and pitch; many a grisly procession has advanced… across the old bridge towards the Lollards hole…”
The Norwich author, George Borrow, writing in the 19th century captures something of the horror of the place. Today all traces of it are long gone, the site occupied by a pub and car park on Norwichs busy Riverside Road. But in the 15th and 16th centuries, people were burned to death here for their religious beliefs. It does not take that much imagination to conjure the scene; the victim walking from his or her place of imprisonment, probably in the Guildhall jail, through the streets thronged with eager onlookers for such executions were thankfully rare. Perhaps the crowds were sympathetic, maybe hostile, sometimes just curious. The walk over the ancient Bishopsbridge would bring journeys end. By the river bank the faggots would be piled high, the Church would hand the victim over to the secular authorities and they would be burned at the stake.
It was reality for a few brave souls whose beliefs were so important to them they were prepared to give up their lives. Were not sure exactly how many people were executed at the pit. At least three are mentioned in 1428, a half dozen during the first half of the 16th century and up to 50 burned during the reign of Queen Bloody Mary. Here and there we have their individual stories: William White, the Lollard priest; Thomas Bilney, the Cambridge don who repeatedly defied the Church; Cecily Ormes and Elizabeth Cooper, artisans wives who virtually condemned themselves to death.
They were forerunners of the English Reformation. John Wycliffe was an Oxford academic who, during the second half of the 14th century, called for reform of the Catholic Church. Put simply, Lollards were anti-clerical. They believed the Church was corrupt in many ways and looked to scripture as the basis for their religion. In this they had much in common with the Protestants who would follow more than a century later. After Wycliffe had effectively been silenced, the movement went underground. Origins of the name Lollard are disputed, but it may have come from a Dutch word roughly meaning to mumble, so it was a derogatory term. It appears that Lollardy was particularly influential in Norfolk, and throughout East Anglia. In 1401 the Church became so alarmed by the Lollards that they persuaded King Henry IV to pass the statute De Heretics Comburendo (The Necessity of Burning Heretics). We dont really know how popular Lollardy was, mainly because it was a secretive movement or exactly how it really influenced later thinkers.
The pit was long associated with the Church, and was held by the Bishop of Norwich. For generations city people had used the area, and the then vast expanse of Mousehold Heath beyond, as an industrial site. Early chalk workings were dug out there to provide foundations for the nearby cathedral hence the creation of a pit. It was also just outside the city walls, and therefore a good place to dispose of those who had been cast out by the Church.
John Foxes Acts and Monuments, popularly known as Foxes Martyrs, tells many of their stories although with a strong anti-Catholic bias. Thus we learn of William White, a priest from Kent who moved to Ludham to preach dissent. Along with fellow Lollards Hugh Pye and John Waddon, White was executed there in September, 1428, and thus gave the pit its name. We dont know how bravely White met his fate, but it was reported that some people emptied the contents of their chamber pots over him as he walked along Bishopsgate. Persecution of heretics tailed away after that, until 1531 when the Reformation began disturbing things once more. Thomas Bilney, a Norfolk man born near Dereham, was a Cambridge academic. Like White before him he was convinced the Church had to be reformed. Arrested, and taken before Cardinal Wolsey, he recanted denied his beliefs. But, characteristic of many who recanted when initially faced with execution, he began preaching heresy in the streets and fields. Bishop Nix of Norwich had him arrested, and this time there was no mercy. Like other heretics Bilney was tried by the Church, but given to the agents of the State for execution. Good people, I am come here to die, declared Bilney as he stood at the stake. The height of the burning came during the reign of Mary (1553-58). Up to 48 people died during this time, under the religious conservative Bishop Hopton. In 1557 pewterers wife Elizabeth Cooper and Simon Miller, of Kings Lynn, were executed. Cooper had interrupted a service at St Andrews to retract her earlier recantation of Protestantism. As the two went to Lollards Pit, Cecily Ormes, wife of a weaver from St Lawrences parish, declared her support for them. She would pledge on the same cup that they drank on, she shouted. The civil authorities, often loath to arrest heretics, had no choice; Ormes spent a year in prison sticking to her guns and was executed in September, 1558, shortly before Queen Marys death ended the burnings.
For many years the area was shunned by local people, given its evil connotations. Later it became a tannery, where wherrymen used to load and unload cargo, and the citys rubbish was also dumped there. By the time George Borrow was writing it was used as a camp by gipsies. In modern times, as the area became more developed, local children would play there, unbothered by ghosts of the past. Today the Bridge House pub stands there, the plaque illustrated here fixed to its wall. On the other side of the road, on the riverbank, is another plaque. It hails the executed as martyrs, naming up to a dozen who died so horribly centuries ago.