WEIRD NORFOLK: Did one of Norfolk’s lost villages house a Puritan’s shameful secret?

PUBLISHED: 08:59 20 September 2020

It was said that Boyland Hall was haunted by the ghost of Oliver Cromwell. Picture: Archant Library/Supplied

It was said that Boyland Hall was haunted by the ghost of Oliver Cromwell. Picture: Archant Library/Supplied

At a lost hall in a lost village near Morningthorpe there is a persistent rumour that Oliver Cromwell’s repentant ghost was said to appear on the staircase

Even less remains of Boyland Hall than there are details of the phantom man seen on the mansion’s staircase and identified as the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. There are believed to be around 200 lost villages in Norfolk and Boyland – close to Morningthorpe – is one of their number. Lost to time, only echoes of its past remain.

Boyland Hall was a large Elizabethan house to the north of the village which was rebuilt in the 19th century in the Gothic Revival style but fell into disrepair after the death of its owner in 1930 and was demolished in 1947. Once a small medieval village, Boyland has been swallowed by the parishes which were once on its border, but there have been settlements here for many centuries. Close to where the hall once stood, two early Saxon pots where found in a gravel pit in 1974 and, following further investigation, 365 burials and nine cremations were uncovered along with beads, finger rings, iron spearheads, shield bosses, knives, buckles and the remains of what may be a lyre. The graves also produced some Roman finds, including 11 brooches, two gem stones and some coins that had been pierced with a hole. Secret tunnels are said to snake under Boyland Hall towards the Norman castle at New Buckenham, Kenninghall Palace in Breckland and the priory of Old Buckenham Castle. This corner of the world hides its secrets well.

The only account of the ghost seen on the stairs at Boyland Hall notes that the ghost was recognised as Oliver Cromwell and was said to haunt the hall because he had once had an extra-marital affair with a former occupier. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, was plain old Mr Cromwel when he lived in Ely – 55 miles way from Boyland Hall - during the 1630s with wife Elizabeth and four sons (a fifth son, James, died in infancy) and four daughters. A political and military leader I the 17th century, he was head of state of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland for a five-year period until his death in 1658. Known for being ruthless in battle, he twice led successful efforts to remove the British monarch from power and by 1640 was a devout Puritan, telling family that he had been a “sinner” and was newly-reborn.

There is little evidence that Cromwell had an affair, in fact his love for his wife was well-documented in letters exchanged between the pair.

“Thou art dearer to me than any creature, let that suffice,” he wrote to her in 1650, to which she replied, “truly my life is but half a life in your absence.”

A highly religious man who believed everyone should lead their lives according to what was written in the Bible – one of the laws passed during his leadership was that adultery was punishable by death and swearing or cursing would result in a fine. However, the Cromwells were well connected in Norfolk so it is possible the Lord Protector may have visited Boyland Hall: Oliver Cromwell’s mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of William Steward, a Norfolk man.

At St Peter and St Paul church in Swaffham, a stone carving shows Katherine Steward, who died in 1590, kneeling and looking towards the south aisle chapel while holding a large skull in her hands: she is Oliver Cromwell’s grandmother. Could the link between the phantom seen on the stairs at Boyland Hall and Cromwell be simply a slanderous rumour designed to belittle the famous puritan?

Or did Oliver Cromwell’s shade have a shameful score to settle before ascending to heaven?

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