Weird Norfolk: Chilling tale of ghostly priest who wanders cathedral gate

View of Erpingham Gate from the roof of Norwich Cathedral. Photo : Steve Adams

View of Erpingham Gate from the roof of Norwich Cathedral. Photo : Steve Adams - Credit: Steve Adams

Like the very best ghost stories of all, this one was discovered by chance, pasted in the back of an old magazine dated 1736 and titled 'A Strange Occurrence'.

The story - of a traveller who encountered the ghost of a priest martyr at the mighty Erpingham Gate as he walked the streets of Norwich - by Frederick Higbane, was later told in the book Recollections of Norwich 50 Years Ago.

'Business chanced to take me many year ago to the ancient city of Norwich,' the story begins, 'I stayed that night at a very old inn, situated in a street called, if my memory serves me right, Maudlin-street (Magdalen). The room I occupied was a very old-fashioned one. Over the fireplace was a portrait, I imagine painted on the wall itself, of a very pale man with black hair, habited in some sort of ecclesiastical garb, and bearing the look of a Jesuit or Romish priest. There was something about this picture that affected me very strongly…Next morning I asked the landlord whose portrait it might be, and he could not enlighten me…'

Frederick took a walk around Norwich before his return to London the next day. 'I was walking near one of the great gates, which led to the cathedral, when I suddenly observed a man clothed like a clergyman standing in the angle of a wall directly in front of me,' the story continues. 'Owing to the dusk I could not see him well until I was close up against him. Then I saw him perfectly clearly, and to my horror his face was terribly swelled, and a rope was drawn tight around his neck. Protruding from his breast was a knife, such as formerly used by executioners for dismembering the bodies of criminals. I could not think why his lineaments seemed so familiar to me, and then there suddenly flashed across my mind the portrait in my bedchamber at the inn. For some moments I gazed with the utmost horror, not unmixed with fear, at this awful sight. Then I heard a kind of deep sigh - a groan - and he disappeared.'

Returning to the inn, believed to be The Maid's Head, the man took another look at the portrait and reassured himself that the vision he had seen was the same man. He asked the landlord of the inn to help him find a Roman Catholic priest. 'To him, therefore I went the next morning early,' the story continued. 'Telling him my strange adventure, he took me into his house and showed me a portrait of the same man. On my inquiring who it might be, he replied: 'The Rev. Thomas Tunstall, a priest, who was executed for the Catholic Faith in 1616 at the gates of the very street in which your inn is situated.' 'Why I should have apparently seen his apparition, neither he nor I could form any idea.'

Tunstall was a Catholic martyr who had been arrested for his faith, had escaped from Wisbech Castle by rope and sought help from Lady Alice L'Estrange in Norfolk whose husband Sir Hamon reported him to the authorities. Recaptured, he was sent to Norwich gaol where he was tried on July 12 1616.

The following day, he was hanged, drawn and quartered, possibly at Magdalen Gates, and his body displayed at various points in the city before being taken down by Catholics and later placed in an altar at Bath. A contemporary report recounts: 'The lookers on, who were very numerous, and amongst them many persons of note, were all sensibly affected with the sight of his death; many shed tears, all spoke kindly and compassionately of him, and appeared edified with his saint-like behaviour.

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'His head was placed on St Bennet's gate, in Norwich, according to his request; his quarters on the walls of the city. The judge who condemned him died before he had finished his circuit, and most of the jury came to untimely ends, or great misfortunes.'

Thomas Tunstall was beatified by Puis XI in 1929.

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