Weird Norfolk: The Banningham snake pit where ‘the morals of women’ were tested

An adder

It is said that Richard Cromwell installed a snake pit on Banningham village green. - Credit: Archant Library

According to legend, the son of infamous Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell installed a snake pit on Banningham village green for men to test the morals of their wives.

While the Snake Pit is synonymous today with the corner in-fill between the Barclay Stand and the Geoffrey Watling City Stand at Carrow Road, in the 17th century it was a feared method of discovering if a woman lived a pure life, if stories are to be believed.

The pit, said to be 14ft deep, was commissioned by Richard Cromwell, the tale goes, and was then filled with 10 venomous snakes – presumably not the indigenous adder, which very rarely kills.

According to the Hidden East Anglia website: “If any man had suspicions about his wife's conduct and morals, he was allowed to throw her into the pit, and if she emerged unharmed, then she was innocent.”

There are clear shades of witch ducking with this inhuman practice (if, of course, it is true and there is no evidence other than anecdotal to say it is, although anecdotal is more than enough for Weird Norfolk).

This story of snakes and strumpets comes from the time when Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins’ name would have sent shivers down the spine.

Hopkins and his colleague John Stearne, carried out terrible witch hunts in East Anglia between 1644 and 1647 and during this time was responsible for more people being hanged for witchcraft than in the previous 100 years.

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Fye Bridge in Norwich is thought to be where the city's medieval ducking stool was situated, a chair which was formerly used for the punishment of disorderly women, scolds, 'strumpets' and dishonest tradesmen in England and Scotland.

But during Hopkins' reign of terror, it took on an even more sinister purpose. It was the method used to 'test' women who were suspected of being witches, the theory being that if the unfortunate woman survived the ducking then she had to be a witch who would summarily be burnt, and if she drowned, she was innocent of all charges (albeit innocent and dead).

The similarly-named cucking stools were put on wheels so the women could be dragged around their parish and humiliated while ducking stools were on poles to make immersing the woman in the water an easier process.

Some argued that witches floated because they had renounced baptism when entering Satan's service: King James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, claimed in his Daemonologie that water was so pure an element that it repelled the guilty.

Banningham, the centre of the village.

Oliver Cromwell's son is said to have installed a snake pit on Banningham village green. - Credit: Archant Library

Richard Cromwell’s father Oliver was a devout Puritan who believed that everybody should live their lives according to what was written in the Bible.

Cromwell senior introduced a string of 'moral' laws to 'improve' people's behaviour which banned the theatre and bear-baiting, and forbade people to drink or celebrate Christmas – you can see why his son would have been linked with morality and punishment.

After the 1649 beheading of Charles I on a charge of high treason, the Commonwealth of England was introduced and led by a Council of State to replace the monarchy.

Oliver Cromwell, who had led the military campaigns to establish control of Ireland and Scotland, was appointed as Lord Protector in 1653, the ‘watchman’ of the Commonwealth.

He and wife Elizabeth had nine children (only six survived to adulthood) and as the only surviving son of his parents, Oliver was also tasked with supporting his widowed mother, who outlived her husband by almost 40 years.

The Cromwells lived in Cambridgeshire and it was there that Oliver’s successor, Richard, was born, the third son of eight siblings.

After his father’s death, Richard became Lord Protector, but it was a role he was ill-suited to and he was forced to retire just eight months later at which point Parliament invited Charles II back to restore the monarchy.

Quite why Richard would have spent so much time in Banningham, which is close to Aylsham, is unknown – and there’s another anomaly: some stories claim that emerging from the pit unharmed was a sign of innocence, others that it was a sign of guilt.

Women, eh? Damned if we are bitten to death by snakes, damned if we’re not.

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