Norfolk on a stick: The tale behind a town’s tribute to Viking raids and revolutionary writing
PUBLISHED: 11:44 28 January 2019 | UPDATED: 11:48 28 January 2019
One changed a nation with a sword, the other with a pen. ANDREW TULLETT looks at the two towering figures on Thetford’s town sign
The ‘T’ shaped sign at Thetford features Thomas Paine on one side and Sweine Forkbeard on the other.
Thomas Paine was born in Thetford on January 29, 1737. In 1774 he emigrated to America, arriving on November 30. Paine had received a basic education as a child.
Throughout the rest of his life he dedicated himself to the pursuit of knowledge and philosophical thought. It is perhaps due to being largely self-taught that Paine developed some ideas considered quite radical at the time.
In 1776 Paine published, anonymously at first, a pamphlet entitled ‘Common Sense’. He argued in very clear terms why America should seek independence from British rule. He expressed his opinion that this course of events was inevitable. The publication was a huge success, possibly selling over half a million copies.
An inscription below a statue erected in his honour in Bordentown, New Jersey, where he once lived, refers to Paine as, ‘The Father of the American Revolution’.
Paine continued to write influential and controversial works. He visited France a year after the start of the French Revolution. He supported the idea of overthrowing corrupt governments that did not serve the good of the people.
‘The Rights of Man’, which he published in 1791, expounded these views and also argued against hereditary government roles and aristocratic titles.
Paine became a vocal opponent of the use of the death penalty.
This was a view not shared by most French revolutionaries and he was imprisoned on the charge of treason. Paine wrote ‘The Age of Reason’ while in prison in Paris between 1793 and 1794. He was released less than a year later, in November 1794. ‘The Age of Reason’, which had the subtitle ‘Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology’, cautioned against a literal interpretation of the Bible and challenged key Christian doctrine.
Paine’s radical views, once so influential, began to lose him friends. His funeral in 1809 was attended by only six people. In 1819 the bones of Paine were exhumed by another revolutionary pamphleteer, William Cobbett, who intended to return them to England to be buried. This never happened and the whereabouts of Paine’s remains are a mystery to this day.
Sweine Forkbeard, on the other side of the sign, was the ruler of much of Norway around 1000. In 1004 he led a raid against Thetford, which at that time was one of the largest towns in England. His incursion left much of the town in flames. Forkbeard went on to command his army in other battles across England, returning to raid Thetford again in 1010.
The success of Forkbeard’s armies forced King Ethelred into exile and Forkbeard was declared King of England on Christmas Day 1013. Although he died only a few weeks later, in 1014, his sons ruled England for the following three decades.
Above both Forkbeard and Paine is the castle emblem currently used by Thetford Town Council.
The emblem is also used by local groups, such as Thetford Town Cricket Club and Thetford Town Football Club. It is usually used in association with the legend ‘Antiq. Burg. De Thetford’ meaning ‘the Ancient Borough of Thetford’.
A great motte and bailey castle was built in Thetford around 1070, occupying the site of an Iron Age fort.
The remaining mound of the motte, at 80 feet in height, is said to be the tallest medieval earthwork in England - although all evidence of the timber structures that once made-up the rest of Thetford Castle have long since gone.
Population: 24,340 (2011 census)
Background: It’s believed to have been the capital of the Iceni tribe and an important centre during the late Iron Age/Roman period. Queen Boudicca may have even once called Thetford home.
Also known for: Site of much Dad’s Army filming, its status as a postwar ‘overspill town’ taking people from London, Thetford Priory ruins, the Thetford Treasure, once the home of Duleep Singh, final Maharaja of the Sikh Empire and last male to wear the Koh-i-Noor. Thetford also elected Britain’s first black mayor, Dr Allen Glaysier Minns, in 1904.
Signs of the times
This piece is part of a series about the stories behind Norfolk’s many town and village signs called Norfolk on a Stick.
Dr Tullett, from Lakenham, researched just about all of Norfolk’s 500-plus town and village signs as part of his Signs of a Norfolk Summer project. He is giving a public talk on the subject called ‘The History of Norfolk on a Stick - Researching Village Signs’ at the Norfolk Record Office, next to County Hall in Norwich, on Wednesday, February 6 at 1pm. For more details of that and Norfolk’s other signs, visit the Signs of a Norfolk Summer page on Facebook.