WEIRD NORFOLK: The Swaffham Bellarmine museum where you can see witch bottles and buried treasure
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020
From shipwrecked treasure to witch bottles filled with magic to repel curses, Alex Wright’s magical Swaffham museum is a wonderful box of delights
It’s like an Aladdin’s cave where the walls have eyes: everywhere you look, a face stares back at you from across the centuries.
Alex Wright has spent decades building a spectacular collection of Bellarmine jugs which he houses in a museum in his Swaffham garden, a large room dominated by stoneware vessels which have been unearthed from across the world.
The fascinating jugs bear the image of a bearded man thought to represent the wild men common from European folklore.
Catholic cardinal Roberto Bellarmino lent his name to the jugs: a strong opponent of Protestantism, he called for alcohol to be banned, so Protestant Germans cheekily drank ale and wine from jugs they nicknamed Bellarmines due to the bearded men who bore a resemblance to the teetotal cleric.
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Made from grey clay and manufactured along the Rhine River from the 16th to early 19th centuries, the Bellarmines were exported to the UK in their millions due to their superior liquid-holding potential.
Fired to create the iron-rich deep brown seen today, the jugs were hugely superior to British stoneware and were made in various sizes and used for decanting wine, storing alcohol, transporting goods such as chemicals, oils and vinegar and, when filled with magical ingredients, they were used as witch bottles.
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“People are always keen to see the witch bottles,” says Alex, leading us to one of his museum cabinets where six are on display, most of which are from East Anglia.
In front of us are a selection of Bellarmine jugs with their bulbous bellies, bearded faces and medallions.
But these jugs aren’t empty like the majority of Alex’s collection: they are buried treasure which boast their very own buried treasure.
The fear of witchcraft in the 17th century led many people to take out a very specific kind of insurance policy, namely a protection spell to repel bad magic from entering a house.
Practitioners would fill the vessels – in this case a Bellarmine jug – with an assortment of items, most commonly urine and bent pins. The urine would lure witches into the bottle where they would be drowned in the liquid after becoming trapped on the pins’ sharp points.
Another theory why Bellarmines were employed is that the shape of the vessel mirrors that of a bladder and to fill a bottle with nails and pins with intent would cause an accused witch so much pain while passing water that she would reverse her curse.
Next to one of Alex’s bottle is a copy of an x-ray taken of one of the Bellarmines which dates from between 1620 and 1675 and was found under a doorstep of a pub in Swardeston.
The bottle was sealed and its contents intact: gently shake the bottle and you can hear a faint rattle.
“This bottle was made in Germany, brought to England by Dutch traders and ended up under the doorstep of a pub in Swardeston,” explains Alex.
“There are very few of these bottles around and those that are have often had their contents removed or tampered with. When we had this one x-rayed you can see brass pins, an iron pin and a silver pin – the organic matter can’t be seen.
“Another bottle I bought from eBay and when it arrived, there were nails inside it. I contacted the seller who said there had been nothing inside it when she owned it.
“I think what had happened is that the nails had been attached to some earth and had worked their way free – when I spoke to her, it was clear that it had been used as a protection charm at a house.”
Alex’s fascination with Bellarmines (which form only part of a host of collections he has, including bronze cauldrons and Grimston Ware from King’s Lynn) began in the 1970s when he was working in accountancy.
Raised in Swaffham, he was working in King’s Lynn when one day he was given a lift by a man who told him that he’d just found some Roman coins which he’d dug up from a field.
“I was fascinated so he took me there and soon I was finding more objects than I had spare time, so the job had to go! Accountancy just can’t compete with looking for treasure…
“In those days, there were amazing things to find everywhere you looked. Building sites would have piles of objects that were just there to be found – and that’s how I found my first Bellarmine.”
In 1976, Alex was scouring a building site in King’s Lynn when he saw what looked like a fragment of brown pottery. As he loosened the soil and pulled the object from the ground, he realised it was a Bellarmine jug with just a small section missing.
“I knew what it was because I’d seen one in a shop in Elm Hill in Norwich,” he said, “I collected stamps as a child and used to pass the shop run by the Brett family and I’d seen one there and been fascinated by it.
“To find one myself and be the first person to touch it in 300 years was incredible. It’s like no other feeling, to be connected to something that has been hidden for so long.”
The find sparked a life-long quest to assemble a stunning selection of Bellarmine jugs and other German stoneware which led to the foundation of the Bellarmine Museum in Swaffham, which can be visited by prior appointment.
Having opened in 2016, Alex offers fascinating tours for free: there are more than 150 Bellarmines and hundreds of fragments which include the bearded face asks and medallions. Additionally, there are 200 other German stoneware pots from the 1200s onwards: it is a jaw-dropping collection.
Showcased in vintage cabinets, including a huge Victorian mahogany museum display cabinet from the V&A Museum in London, the collection is one of the largest in the world, although Alex says there are other Bellarmine museums which dwarf his.
“This collection represents around 25 per cent of what I have owned,” said Alex, as he points out highlights including a bottle found in India which had stood on the same doorstep since the 1650s and bottles which have been recovered from shipwrecks.
The future of the museum is uncertain as many of Alex’s visitors are from America or Germany and with current travel issues due to coronavirus and fewer local visitors, he feels it may be time to pack up the stoneware and use the building it is housed in for another project.
But…until a decision is made, visitors are welcome and tours are free and fascinating. Standing and surveying row upon row of beautifully-made jugs, all that bear a similar and yet individual bearded face, it’s like staring at a wall of stoneware hipsters.
And Alex’s sheer weight of knowledge and enthusiasm for the characterful jugs is infectious: I ask him, does he have a favourite from the sea of small faces?
“Shhh!” he laughs, “they’ll hear you…”
* To find out more, visit www.bellarminemuseum.co.uk, or call 01760 725426.
* Medallions often contain figures, geometric patterns, heraldic designs, crests, coats-of-arms, European cities, royal houses or ecclesiastical designs
* As more Bellarmines were required, the faces became more grotesque and crude
* Both the medallions and faces were added after the jugs were made and attached to them with slip
* The stoneware was an important export from Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries and were shipped to Europe and colonies in North and South American, India and Australia
* Half of all the witch bottles found had been buried close to hearths, a quarter beneath thresholds and the remainder beneath floor and walls
* Of the 250 English witch bottles on record, 130 are Bellarmines
* Alex has written three books (The Bellarmine and other German Stoneware I, II & III) and is working on two more
* In Germany the jugs were also called ‘Bartmann’ (‘bearded man’) jugs