Ancient document tells of tragic ball of lightning strike on Erpingham Church

A chance find in a cathedral library nearly 300 miles away has added mystery and drama to the history of a remote north Norfolk parish church.

Rev Brian Faulkner, rector of St Mary's, Erpingham, was taken aback to open his post one morning and find inside a copy of a 17th-century broadsheet.

It related a tragic tale of an apparent ball of lightning striking the medieval church.

According to the writer, using the spelling of the time: 'It left a great smoak and stinck behind it, and upon the breaking, there was a great and hideous outcry in the church, and in the conclusion there was one man found stark dead, and many others lamed, who yet continue so. One woman who sat in the porch, is so weak as tis thought she will not live.'

The document had been discovered by someone unknown to Mr Faulkner who was researching an unconnected topic in the library of Carlisle Cathedral, Cumbria, and thought it might be of interest to Erpingham's present-day priest.

The 1665 broadsheet, headed 'Norwich July 4', precisely dates the incident as 'The last Lord's day as Mr Hobbs was preaching in the parish church of Erpingham in the afternoon.'

It goes on to say that a great storm arose and a great grey ball descended, beating down the south-west corner of the steeple, which then fell, taking the church porch with it.

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The ball then entered the church and headed for the men's seats, on the south side.

'Mr Hobbs being in the pulpit, saw the men fall some one way, and some another, in such manner that he thought they had been all struck dead.

'It past towards the chancel, and brake; upon which the church was as if it been all of a fire,' the writer adds.

One worshipper, a Mr How, was left lame and 'about the top of his thigh in the groyn, is round red place, and down from that about the breadth of a finger, a red streak to his foot, which is very painfull, and his stockin on the inside is seared, but not without.'

Some of the account ties in with a known incident recorded in the church's guide book, but Mr Faulkner is sceptical about the broadsheet's version.

According to F. Blomefield's A History of Norfolk, written 1805/1810, one of four statues gracing the pinnacles of the church tower fell down during 'Divine Service' and a violent tempest.

Blomefield says: ' surprised the congregation; killed one and stupified two others although they later recovered.'

Other references to the incident date it in 1721, but Blomefield's account comes from the Rev John Worts, rector of Erpingham from 1738-1769, and is described as having happened 'about 80 years since.'

That could place it in 1665 when the church's own records show that the priest was a Richard Hobbys, possibly the 'Mr Hobbs' of the broadsheet.

After the incident, the three remaining tower statues were taken down and all the now-broken figures are kept inside the church.

Mr Faulkner believes the climate of the times may have led the broadsheet writer to over-dramatise the incident in an uncertain world where plague raged in London, and there was much political and religious uncertainty following the restoration of the monarchy, with Charles II.

'It talks about 'a great smoak and stinck' - well this church is High Church Anglican and there is always smoke and stink here because we burn a lot of incense so you could say nothing's changed.'

He added: 'I'm also a trainee steam locomotive driver on the Bure Valley Railway - so I'm surrounded by smoke and stink there too. It's my element!'

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