WEIRD NORFOLK: The ‘witch brick’ of Earlham Hall found in the frame of a window
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020
A talisman to protect against witches or an invitation to the Devil? The story behind the strange 'witch brick' found at Earlham Hall.
Does this carved brick - found during renovations at Earlham Hall on the edge of Norwich in 2013 - repel witchcraft or was it part of a dark ritual?
When a section of one of the south walls was removed down to a first floor window, an exposed brick was discovered which boasted a crudely-scratched pentacle and the number 666 laid out in circular form on its surface. Could it date from the 1640s, when fear of witches was rife in Norfolk, or is it from one of the later renovations of the stately red brick hall which is now used by University of East Anglia law students? Was it a protective curse added by the mason working on the hall or part of a dark ritual carried out in the room? It is hard not to be carried away by the sinister symbolism now rooted in so-called Satanic rituals. The brick isn't the only indication that something strange has happened at this beautiful Hall set in parkland: there are also a number of eye-witness accounts of ghosts being spotted wandering through corridors and floorboards creaking of their own accord. Lifts appear to have been summoned by invisible residents and some visitors are too frightened to return after their first encounter with the inexplicable goings on at the 1580-built manor house.
In an Eastern Daily Press article from June 2014, then law faculty manager Karen Morley was quoted talking about the stories of prison reformer Elizabeth Fry's sister, Catherine Gurney, who was said to haunt the hall. The gentle ghost of Catherine - who was born in 1776 and who died in 1860 - was said to appear in the room where she had sat looking out of the window, resting in her old age. "I have always been fine here," said Karen, "…but some people are totally spooked. We had builders who wouldn't come back."
The oldest parts of Earlham Hall date back to 1580 while the current building took shape in around 1642, just two years before Matthew Hopkins began his dreadful witch hunt that cloaked the county in justified terror. Well-known Norfolk families such as the Houghtons, Bacons, Gurneys and Frys have made the hall their home and it has been a library, maternity hospital and nursery school. During World War Two, the building was used as a hospital for injured soldiers before being taken over by UEA in 1963.
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The most likely reason why the 'witch brick' was carved is as a protection symbol to keep the people inside the house safe from witches and other threats. Known as apotropaic marks, they are most likely to be found carved into stone or woodwork near entrances like doorways, windows and fireplaces where they could ward off witches and evil spirits from making an unwelcome entrance. At Earlham Hall, the pentacle (a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle) was a symbol often seen as the centerpiece of a witch's altar, its points representing the five elements of fire, air, water, earth and spirit. Recorded from as far back as 3000BC, in the medieval period they were used as a way to 'trap' spirits for eternity into their endless lines. The 666, meanwhile, has become a widely-recognised sign for the Antichrist and is said to invoke Satan - we have been unable to find it used in other 17th century references to witchcraft which leads us to think that this carving is likely to be more contemporary than at first suggested. Victorian, perhaps. Unsettling, definitely.
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