WEIRD NORFOLK: The Great Yarmouth ‘Queen’who had an audience with the Prime Minister
- Credit: Wellcome Collection
She was a Great Yarmouth legend with delusions of grandeur, but ‘Queen’ Martha Stanninot was treated with respect in the seaside town.
She was, by all accounts, eccentric – having worked as a servant, as she grew older her conviction grew stronger: she believed she was actually the Queen of England.
Martha Stanninot, who was born in 1734 in Great Yarmouth, ruled from her lowly home in one of the town’s crowded rows, convinced that her family was royalty. In the 17th century, mental illness was seen as both a natural and a possibly supernatural event that could have been caused by enchantment or even by astronomical events. Families might pay wise women, cunning men, herbalists or astronomers to help treat their loved ones while institutions often offered brutal living conditions for those who were ill, with a common belief being that fear could restore a disordered mind.
In Great Yarmouth, however, Martha was treated with the utmost kindness and respect and given an allowance from the parish and private sources.
As a young woman, she had served in the grand houses of rich Yarmouth families but as she had grown older, she had become ever-more eccentric, eventually believing that her brother John was entitled to the crown and in turn she should be treated as queen. She carried in her hand a selection of items which symbolised her royal standing: a seal, a triangular piece of French chalk, a French half-crown and the title page of an act of Parliament. People addressed her as ‘Your Majesty’ and when she was in church, where she was a regular, she would protest against praying for the King and Queen. Martha was neatly dressed, faultlessly polite and refused to take charity although she would accept loans on the basis she repaid them when her allowance arrived.
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Her Royal role meant that she was compelled to travel and she would sometimes walk the 20 miles to Norwich to call on the bishop at Norwich Cathedral and even made the long 135 mile walk to London to speak to the Prime Minister of the day, Lord Francis North. When faced with the Yarmouth Queen, Lord North was kind and pleasant, sending her back home with the assurance that “the next cart full of money which should come into the town was intended for her”.
On another visit to Westminster, Martha was taken ill at Leiston in Suffolk and was taken back home to Yarmouth, where she was received into a workhouse and treated with utmost care and attention. Until the very end, in November 1804, she believed herself to be the Queen and her faithful attendants – all of whom she promised handsome rewards to – were loyal until she drew her last breath.
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As an aside, the Row where Martha once lived – Row 28, Conge Row – ran from North Quay to George Street and was the first row south of The Conge. It was where several almshouses stood, which provided a place of residence for poor, old and distressed people, and also some cottages which belonged to the Hospital of St Mary. A man called Cockrell, who was on the run from police, once entered the chimney of a house in this row and found himself stuck – the chimney had to be dismantled in order for him to be freed – and then arrested. The row had disappeared by a survey in 1936, taking with it the Royal residence.
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