Weird Norfolk: King Gurgunt and the Frozen Bear of Norwich

It's said that King Gurgunt and his treasure are buried in Norwich Castle mound. Picture: Jamie Hone

It's said that King Gurgunt and his treasure are buried in Norwich Castle mound. Picture: Jamie Honeywood - Credit: Archant

Let's weave a Weird Norfolk Fairytale of our own: pull up a chair, huddle closer to the fire and let me begin with the curious tale of King Gurgunt and the Frozen Bear.

In truth, we cannot claim that Norwich's King of the Hill has any knowledge whatsoever of the frozen bear, but one should never let fact get in the way of a good fairytale and both stories are enchanting in their own strange way.

Norwich Castle isn't lacking in ghostly stories, ransacking attempts or regal visits, but our story begins long before the castle came to be, when a mythical King (always the best kind) and the son of Bellinus, decided to settle in Norwich – quite literally, as it turned out.

King Gurgunt was so fond of Norwich that he built the Castle and established the city around it and when he was ready to take his last breath, he seated himself at a grand table deep underneath the castle mound – one of the largest man-made structures in Britain – and, alongside his silver, gold, jewels and treasures, fell into an eternal sleep.

It is said that, like King Arthur, King Gurgunt is ready to rise from his slumber in order to save Britain if she was in peril, and indeed it is said that when another regal visitor came to Norwich, he awoke to greet her – well, kind of, it was an actor playing Gurgunt.

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Queen Elizabeth I visited August 16 1578 and, in an account of the visit by Bernard Garter, it says the actor, attended by three henchmen and carrying his helmet, his shield and his staff, bowed before the Queen when she reached Harford Bridge and introduced himself as King Gurgunt.

The procession continued to Town Close, at which point the actor started to theatrically tell his story, but the heavens opened, the Queen was quickly led to shelter and the legend was never told.

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King Gurgunt enjoyed his solitude until February 14 1976, when the city received an unusual Valentine: the deep-frozen body of a European brown bear, weighing twice as much as a man. As gifts go, it's definitely unusual. And what Norwich did with it was even MORE unusual – it was buried near the Castle.

The bear, which died naturally, was given to the museum by a British zoo - it took several days to thaw out.

'It was extremely heavy and had to be dragged through the doors,' said Mr Peter Lambley, keeper of natural history at Norwich Castle.

Before being buried, the animal was skinned by Mr John Goldsmith, a natural history assistant. It was a smelly, day long exercise. The skin is now being cured at the Castle and may eventually be tanned. 'It will be useful for artists who want to get close to a bear and feel the texture of the fur, or it may eventually be mounted,' said Mr. Lambley.

According to the Eastern Evening News of the time: 'It is the bones which interest the boffins most. That is why the carcase has been buried – to be exhumed in a couple of years. Mr Lambley explained that 500,000 years ago north Norfolk was covered by dense forest, now known as the Cromer forest bed.

'For many years now bones of animals who lived in that forest have come to light, washed up on the beach or revealed by cliff erosion. Elephant bones are quite common, one species found is now extinct, the hippopotamus was once a Norfolk resident too.'

It was not the first time that the museum had been presented with a dead bear, a stuffed and mounted polar bear has been in residence at the Castle since the turn of the century.

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