Weird Norfolk: Fye Bridge where scolds, strumpets and witches were punished
- Credit: copyright: Archant 2014
Thousands of us pass over it every day without a passing thought for the role it played in Norwich's dark past.
The oldest known bridge site in the city – older than Bishop Bridge, albeit rebuilt in 1829 so far more modern in appearance – is a tombstone's throw from nearby Tombland and leads to Magdalen Street. There are records of this ancient bridge from 1153, when it would have been a timber structure before it was replaced with stone in the early 15th century.
During the reign of Henry V, the bridge fell into disrepair and was destroyed by flooding in 1570, the current bridge was opened in 1933 and has two arches and a width of 50 feet between the parapets: below it flows the River Wensum, a stretch of water once used to determine whether or not an accused person was practising witchcraft.
Matthew Hopkins, who claimed to hold the office of Witchfinder General, 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.
Fye Bridge 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
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and dead). Generally a simple chair to which the accused could be tied, 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.
If we travel back to Bishop Bridge, still one of the oldest active bridges in England, there is a connection to the poor souls who were ducked as witches. Built in 1340, the bridge once boasted a gatehouse and was crossed by Robert Kett and his rebels in 1549 and by Elizabeth I in 1578. On the far side of the bridge was Lollards Pit, where chalk was drawn to provide the foundations for Norwich Cathedral and which was owned by the Bishop of Norwich. Just outside the city walls, it was the perfect place for those who had been cast out by the church to meet their end. Lollards were anti-clerical and so-called heretics were burned at the site from the 1420s up until the reign of Mary in the 16th century.It also became the
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venue for witch burnings during the mid-17th century – more accused witches were hanged than burnt, but a handful met their fiery death at this site within view of Bishop Bridge.
The accused were marched from their cell at the city's Guildhall and then towards the pit across the bridge and past the faggots of wood piled high on their pyre before they were handed over
by the church to their executioner. It is said that the ghost of a woman who was burned after being accused of witchcraft can still be seen wandering up and down Bishopgate holding the faggot of wood which would be lit beneath her. Dressed in rags, she can be seen stumbling along the street and drinkers at Lollards Pit Pub,
on the site of the execution ground, have reported hearing screams. On occasion, the woman has been seen to drop the firewood she is carrying and pleading for help to pick it up: but do not fall into her trap: it is said that if you ever spy the witch and help her with her bundle of sticks, then you too will die in a fire within six months.
Professor Alice Roberts will explore the cucking stool in Norwich in her Channel 4 series Britain's Most Historic Towns: Tudor Norwich on Saturday April 28 at 8pm, including undergoing a humiliating 'scold ducking' at Pulls Ferry.
For more Weird Norfolk click here.