Weird Norfolk: The Witch’s Heart of Kings Lynn

The Witch's heart carved into the building on the Tuesday Market Place in King's Lynn. Picture: Ian

The Witch's heart carved into the building on the Tuesday Market Place in King's Lynn. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

It's a lively town square famous for funfairs and festivals, the beating heart of King's Lynn's social scene.

But it's a heart of a different kind that captures our interest today, one etched into the very fabric of a West Norfolk town square, a permanent reminder of darker days when women accused of witchcraft were hunted, tortured and finally burnt at the stake on grounds no greater than that they were old, lonely or eccentric.

On the north side of Tuesday Market, a large square fringed by the Corn Exchange, pubs and hotels, numbers 15 and 16 hide a wicked secret: above one of the windows, carved into the red brick is a diamond shape and within it, a somewhat crudely carved heart.

But this heart doesn't mark romance, it marks the death of Margaret Read, a woman burned at the stake in the square in 1590, a full three decades before Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins was even born and almost 60 years before he would begin his witch purges in the east of England.

Read was accused and then found guilty of witchcraft, her punishment was to be burnt in the marketplace. The marketplace had a long history of being the site of executions, both hangings and burnings, all of which would have been witnessed by inquisitive crowds.

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Legend has it that as she was being consumed by flames, Margaret's heart burst from her chest, smashed into the spot above the window which is now marked with a diamond and then fell to the ground before it beat a determined path to the nearby River Ouse where it sank beneath the surface, the water bubbling and roiling as it was enveloped.

A second tale is told in Lynn, that of a housemaid who told her lover that her recently-widowed mistress had told her she stood to inherit her fortune. The lover proposed, a will was written, the mistress was murdered and the housemaid was arrested for treachery, the punishment for which was being burnt at the stake.

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As the flames licked around her, she vowed her innocent heart would burst from her chest at the point of death. And so it did. Various other legends are told about the so-called witch's heart of King's Lynn, but all involve a heart bursting from the chest of an innocent but condemned woman.

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