Rhymes with freckles

IT RHYMES WITH FRECKLES

THE HELPFUL FEMALE voice with a North American accent emitting from our mobile ‘phone was quite persistent in trying to direct us onto the A47 road, the most direct route from Swaffham to Norwich, but we chose to ignore the advice we were being given. Instead, we forced ‘her’ to change her instructions so that we could follow a far longer but more pleasant route via Watton and Old Buckenham. As we wound our way between the two last mentioned places, we spotted a church with a round tower, made with flint and mortar, topped with a newer octagonal structure. This was in a Norfolk village that rhymes with freckles: Breckles. The church is St Margarets in the parish of Stow Bedon.

Churches with round towers are a rare breed in England compared with those with square towers. There are only 186 of the rounded versions (www.roundtowers.org.uk/) and some of them are in ruins. Of all the examples of this kind of church, the greatest number can be found in East Anglia, 131 of them in Norfolk.  Church towers were built to house bells and sometimes the items used in services (e.g., church vessels). It is unlikely that they were built as part of the country’s defence against invaders because many of them were built after the last invasion of England (www.roundtowers.org.uk/about-round-tower-churches/).

But why were so many churches with round towers built in East Anglia and relatively few elsewhere? The following (from https://historyhouse.co.uk/articles/round_tower_churches.html) provides one possible answer:

“It has been suggested that the main reason was the lack of suitable local building material. Square towers require strong stone cut and dressed into blocks at each of the corners. But there is no suitable stone to be found in East Anglia and to transport stone from another county was very expensive for a small parish.

The only locally available stone was flint. Flint is a small, knobbly stone which, although creates strong walls when set in mortar, is not suitable for tower corners.”

The round tower of St Margarets was built in the 11th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1248441), so could have been constructed either before or after 1066, when the Normans invaded. The octagonal structure on the top of the tower, the belfry, is late 15th century (www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/breckles/breckles.htm).  Restored in 1856, the nave and chancel were constructed in the 15th and 14th centuries, respectively.

The interior of St Margaret’s is attractively simple. The carved, probably highly restored,  wooden rood screen, separating the nave from the chancel, is one of the few decorative features in this small church. However, for me, the greatest attraction is the carved stone font, which is decorated with patterns and four carved figures standing in archways. The latter are carved in a simple, almost naïve or unsophisticated style, which made me wonder whether they date to pre-Norman times. Various sources describe it as being Norman.  Whatever it is, it is a lovely piece of carving. When we saw it, it was decorated with flowers and foliage as part of the church’s preparations for celebrating the harvest season.

Having seen this charming church, we were pleased that we did not obey the voice on our GPS app, but instead took a route that our electronic navigator was initially so dead against. The more round about route allowed us to find a lovely church with a round tower.

Catherine the Great and the extravagant earl

MANY MARKET PLACES in English and Scottish towns have what is called a ‘market cross’. These are often elaborate and ornate structures. One definition of such a building is (according to Wikipedia): “… a structure used to mark a market square in market towns”. Some of them include crosses (of the Christian variety), others do not. A market cross can range in design from a simple cross or obelisk to a significant structure, sometimes serving as a covered shelter.

The market cross in Swaffham, Norfolk, is in the form of a circular shelter topped with a lead covered dome supported by eight plain columns with Doric capitals. The dome is surmounted by a statue of the Roman goddess of corn and agriculture, Ceres. She is depicted holding in her left hand a cornucopia filled with vegetables, and in her right a bundle of heads of corn. This market cross with its statue that harks back to pre-Christian religion does not contain or otherwise display the cross associated with Christianity.

The market cross is a distinctive and attractive feature in the centre of Swaffham’s large, triangular marketplace. Also known as the Butter Cross, it was designed by a Mr Wyatt, who might possibly have been the architect James Wyatt (1746-1813), who specialised in both neo-classical and gothic revival styles. It was completed in 1783 for the politician George Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford (1730-1791), grandson of Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (1676-1745), who became Britain’s first prime minister. George Walpole, founder of The Swaffham Coursing Club (i.e., hare coursing) in 1776, the first such club in England, was extremely extravagant. To raise money, this decadent and bankrupt fellow sold his grandfather’s collection of 204 old master paintings, which used to hang in Houghton Hall (Norfolk), to Catherine the Great of Russia in 1778. The sale was arranged by James Christie, founder of Christie’s auction house and raised £40,555. Seventy of these paintings were returned briefly to Houghton Hall for a temporary exhibition held there in 2013 (www.tretyakovgallerymagazine.com/articles/%E2%84%964-2013-41/walpole-paintings-houghton-hall-brief-homecoming).  

According to a brief history of Swaffham by David C Butler, the market cross in Swaffham was known as the Butter Cross because trading in butter was carried out beneath its dome. In the 18th century, large amounts of locally produced butter were sent to London, where it and other butter from the district was known as ‘Cambridge Butter’.

Restored in 1984, the eye-catching domed structure is, according to David Butler, now a designated scheduled ancient monument. However, it appears to have been ‘de-scheduled’ and re-designated as a ‘listed building’ (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1269570). I am unsure what to make of this, but that need not bother you should you happen to pass through Swaffham, the childhood home of Howard Carter, the discoverer of the grave of Tutankhamun, and the birthplace of Admiral Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson (1842-1921), a hero of the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882. Should you wish to sit and contemplate the decadent earl’s contribution to Swaffham, I suggest you have a refreshment at an outside table next to a café named after the Ancient Egyptian king discovered by Carter.

Russian music with an Albanian conductor in a London church

THE ALBANIAN CONDUCTOR Olsi Qinami, who began studying music in Tirana (Albania), lives in London. He certainly knows how to get the best out of the orchestra he helped to found, the London City Philharmonic. On Saturday the 2nd of October 2021 he conducted the orchestra in a wonderful concert of music by three Russian composers, two of them from the 19th century and the other from the 20th. The musicians performed to a large and enthusiastic audience in the church of St James in Sussex Gardens, Paddington. Many of those present were Albanian speakers and amongst them the Albanian ambassador, Qirjako Qirko.

Olsi Qinami

The church, a fine example of Victorian gothic, was built to satisfy the spiritual requirements of the rapidly growing population of 19th century Paddington. Designed by George Edmund Street (1824-1881), the building was completed in 1882 on the site of an earlier, smaller church that was built in the neo-classical style in about 1841. Apart from being a highly successful example of gothic revival, the church is notable for having been that in which the unjustly vilified writer Oscar Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884. Despite being a large, spacious building, the church’s acoustics coped well with the orchestral music.

The concert opened with a spirited rendering of the “Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor” by Alexander Borodin. This piece holds a special place in my heart, as I will now explain. In the late 1950s, my parents bought or were gifted an LP entitled “Classical Music For People Who Don’t Know Anything About Classical Music”, which I played often in my childhood. Its cover has a sketch of four people in the living room of a very modern looking house, even by today’s standards. A lady, looking pleased with herself or the music or both, stands next to a gramophone player clutching a record cover (sleeve). Behind her, three people are seated in armchairs: one looks puzzled; another looks a bit bored; and the third has fallen asleep with a drinking glass resting on his armrest. One of the tracks on this LP was the “Polovtsian Dances”.

Borodin’s piece was followed by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture”, with which I am less familiar than the “Polovtsian Dances”. Although this brief piece was nicely performed, it is unlikely to enter my list of favourite works by this composer in the near future.

After the interval, we were treated to an exciting and brilliantly performed rendering of the 5th Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. Olsi Qinami and the orchestra handled the constant alternation of the composer’s triumphant sounding sections of the symphony with its comparatively peaceful, lyrical sections with exquisite mastery.

Shostakovitch completed his 5th Symphony in 1937, soon after having been heavily criticised by Stalin for his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, first performed in 1934. Had the Fifth Symphony not been so well received and liked by Stalin, the composer’s future might have become exceedingly grim. As Olsi Qinami pointed out in a brief speech before conducting the symphony, the piece, which was praised by the authorities, contains subtle musical messages expressing the composer’s criticism of the ruling regime. Whether or not one was able to detect these messages did not matter because the performance we heard was exciting, uplifting, and invigorating. In the last minutes of the symphony, I noticed one of the violinists breaking into a wonderful smile, no doubt because she and the rest of the orchestra had so successfully mastered this complex and difficult piece of music.

An odd thought occurred to me whilst listening to the Shostakovich piece. It was composed in 1937, when life for ordinary people in the USSR cannot have been at all easy. Although the situation here in the UK in 2021 is hardly comparable to that distant time in Russia, we are also going through times far more difficult than anyone has experienced since WW2, what with the covid 19 pandemic, Brexit-related problems, and shortages in shops and filling stations. It must have been a source of great solace for Soviet citizens to escape from their daily problems, if only for a few hours, by joining an audience at a concert of fine classical music. Well, that is how Olsi’s joyous concert felt for me as soon as he lifted his baton, and the orchestra began to play.

A cloistered pathway

A LABYRINTH DIFFERS from a maze in that the former contains a continuous path without the confusing branching and blind endings found in the latter. Often the pathways of a maze are lined by walls or hedges so that the person within them cannot have an overview of the layout of the maze. In the case of labyrinths, these are frequently absent and someone entering a labyrinth can easily observe the layout of its pathway. Labyrinths have been constructed since time immemorial, but the one laid out on the lawn in the cloisters of Norwich Cathedral was only constructed in 2002, to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.

The cathedral’s website (www.cathedral.org.uk/visit/things-to-see-and-do/the-labyrinth) notes:

“The Labyrinth forms a continuous path and represents a spiritual journey. Although there are many twists and turns, and at times we may be uncertain where the path will take us next, we are never lost … a labyrinth affirms the gentle guiding hand of God, who even when we may feel lost or confused, is leading us ever onward … Quietly walking the labyrinth can be a way of seeking to resolve a problem, seek guidance, grieve a loss, release a fear or just to be with God. Labyrinths are familiar feature in all cultures. The seemingly simple act of following a pattern is a surprisingly profound means of soul-searching, engaging body, mind and soul.”

I like the sentiments expressed in this extract but wonder how effective this labyrinth is really in helping to resolve difficult personal problems. I suppose when navigating a labyrinth, one’s mind briefly concentrates on this task rather than continuing to mull over whatever is bothering it. This short distraction from one’s inner musings can be therapeutic just as is the case with doing sport or concentrating on a hobby or artistic activity or craftwork.

From Brussels to Norwich

LIKE FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE, Edith Cavell (1865-1915) was a heroine of the nursing profession. In fact, Edith, who was born in the county of Norfolk, was martyred because of her compassion and goodwill.

Recently, we spent four nights at an excellent bed and breakfast place in Norfolk. It is located in the village of Swardeston, which is only 4.7 miles southeast of Norwich Cathedral. After leaving our accommodation in Swardeston, we spent several hours in central Norwich. At least one hour of our visit to the city was taken up by exploring the interior and exterior of the cathedral. We attended part of a Sunday service, which was held in the part of the church east of the nave. The cathedral’s choir sounded magnificent. The reason the congregation was not in the nave is that part of the cathedral is currently being used to display ‘Dippy the Dinosaur’ from London’s Natural History Museum. On Sundays, Dippy is allowed a day’s rest from being gawped at by crowds of visitors, so we did not get to see this prehistoric skeletal attraction, apart from a short section of its backbone, which could be glimpsed through the window of a locked door leading from the magnificent cloisters to the nave. You might be beginning to wonder why I began this piece by telling you a little about Edith Cavell. Well, now I will tell you more.

Grave of Edith Cavell next to Norwich Cathedral

After the service and a wander around the cloisters and the east half of the cathedral, we walked around to the outside of the southeast corner of the building, where we were told that we would find the burial place of Edith Cavell. The original gravestone surmounted by a cross stands close to a newer monument, which does not bear a cross, but resembles the kind of gravestones often found in Commonwealth war cemeteries but has a circular inscription that reads: “ECOLE BELGE D’INFIRMIERES DIPLOMEES”. While we were looking at these two memorials, we chatted with a lady who was passing by. When we asked her why Edith Cavell was buried in Norwich, she told us that the nurse had been born in the village where we had been staying, Swardeston. When she was born, her father was the vicar of the village’s church, which we would have visited had we known about its connection to the famous nurse.

Close to the cathedral, next to the western wall of the Cathedral Close, there is yet another monument to Cavell. A bronze bust of Cavell tops a rectangular based column with a bas-relief showing a soldier attaching a wreath to the monument. Erected in 1918, the bust’s sculptor was Henry Pegram (www.racns.co.uk/sculptures.asp?action=getsurvey&id=289), who lived from 1862 to 1937. The monument was commissioned by the physician John Gordon Gordon-Munn (1863-1949), who was Mayor of Norwich between 1914 and 1915.

After finishing school, Edith Cavell first became a governess, including for a family in Brussels. Then, after caring for her ailing father, she trained to become a nurse. She worked in various English hospitals until 1907 when she was recruited by Antoine Depage to become the matron of a recently opened nursing school in Brussels, L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées. This helps explain the inscription on the newer of the two memorials next to the cathedral.

When WW1 broke out, Edith was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk. The Red Cross took over her clinic and the nursing school, to which she returned after seeing her mother. It was in Brussels, after it had been occupied by the Germans, that she began helping British soldiers to escape from German-occupied Belgium to then neutral Holland. Harbouring and helping soldiers who were in armies fighting the Germans was against German military law. In August 1915, after being betrayed by a collaborator, she was arrested by the Germans, tried at a court-marshal, and found guilty of aiding a hostile power. She was executed by firing squad at Schaerbeek, a district of Brussels.

Cavell was first buried next to St Gilles prison in Brussels. Then in 1919, her body was shipped to England. At first, it lay in state on Dover pier for one night before it was transferred by train to London, where there was a state funeral in Westminster Abbey.  On the 19th of May 1919, Edith was buried at the spot next to Norwich Cathedral, where she ‘rests’ now.

Next time that we are in Norfolk, we will try to visit the church in Swardeston, where Edith’s father officiated. As the bed and breakfast accommodation was so excellent in Swardeston and we fell in love with Norwich, I hope it will not be long before we return to Norwich and its environs.

PS: there is a large memorial to Edith Cavell in London, near the south end of St Martins Lane and just north of St Martin-in-the-Fields church.

Praying above the flowing water

ALMOST OPPOSITE THE modern and magnificent Hepworth Wakefield art gallery, completed in 2011, there is a nine arched bridge, built between 1342 and 1356, crossing the River Calder. Midway across the bridge, there is a small gothic chapel. It is the oldest one of only four surviving bridge chapels in England. Between the mid-14th century, when it was built and the Reformation in the 16th century, the Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin served as a place of worship for travellers crossing the bridge on their way from Wakefield to Leeds.

The purpose of a chantry chapel was:

“…to provide for a priest to say mass for the souls of the dead to reduce their time in purgatory.” (www.wakefieldcathedral.org.uk/visit-us/the-chantry/a-history-of-the-chantry-chapel)

Two acts passed during the reigns of King Henry VIII and his successor the young and fanatically Protestant Edward VI resulted in the closure of the well over 2300 chantry chapels in their kingdom. The chapel on the bridge at Wakefield was one of them. Whereas many chantry chapels were demolished or otherwise rendered unrecognizable, that on the bridge at Wakefield survived because it is an integral part of the structure of the bridge (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chantry_Chapel_of_St_Mary_the_Virgin,_Wakefield).

The former chapel on the bridge was used for various purposes between 1547, when its religious use was terminated, and 1842, when it was restored. It was used at different times to house a warehouse, a library, an office, and a cheese shop.

In 1842, the formerly Roman Catholic chapel was transferred to the Church of England and it was restored by the Yorkshire Architectural Society, which was influenced in its philosophy by the Oxford Movement, a group of High Church members of the Church of England who wanted to reinstate older Christian traditions, which had been abolished during the Reformation, and incorporate them into Anglican theological practice. The architect George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) was involved in the restoration of the edifice.  By 1848, the bridge on the chapel was once again being used as a place of worship. For a while it became a parish church, and then after a new parish church was built in 1854, it became used for occasional rather than regular services, and peopled prayed whilst water flowed below them.

Currently, the chapel is under the care of the Friends of Wakefield Chantry Chapel, which was founded in 1991. The chapel is usually kept closed but is opened on certain days (see: www.chantrychapelwakefield.org/open-days.html). As luck would have it, we walked across the bridge on a sunny day that the chapel was open. The small chapel is on two floors. The upper chapel is well-lit both by electric lamps and light flooding through its five sets of stained-glass windows. A narrow spiral staircase leads down to a lower, poorly lit, rather dusty chamber, somewhat devoid of interest.

The decorative ancient gothic chapel on the bridge makes an interesting contrast to the elegant but puritanically unadorned exterior of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery almost opposite it. Both buildings are definitely well worth exploring.  

Boy meets girl: dining in Bradford

BRADFORD IN YORKSHIRE is a vibrant multi-ethnic city. Many of its inhabitants have their roots in the Indian subcontinent. We found that many of these people with subcontinental ancestry regard themselves as neither Pakistani nor Indian, but Kashmiri.

International restaurant in Bradford

When we first visited Bradford a few years ago, we were itching to try the local restaurants serving what is generally called “Indian food”, regardless of whether it has been cooked by an Indian, or a Pakistani, or a Bangladeshi, or even a Kashmiri. As we drove from the station to our hotel in a taxi, we asked the driver, who was of Kashmiri descent, where he thought we would get good Indian food. He recommended ‘X’ in Bradford and ‘Y’ in nearby Shipley. A couple of other people, of whom we asked the same question, both recommended X. With three different recommendations for X, we decided to book it for that evening.

When I phoned the restaurant, a lady answered. I asked to book a table for two. Then, she asked:

“Is it two males or a male and a female?”

Puzzled, I replied:

“A male and a female.”

When we reached the restaurant, we were given a nice table. We had arrived at X with high expectations and good appetites. It was a pleasant restaurant with obliging staff. However, we were served one of the worst meals I have ever eaten in a restaurant serving Indian food. After this experience, we did not try another ‘Indian’ restaurant in Bradford.

During that unsatisfactory meal, the head waiter or manager came up to our table to ask if all was well. Politely, we replied that it was, but my Indian wife, who had seen ladies entering the restaurant but disappearing up a flight of stairs, remarked:

“I have noticed that apart from those little girls with their father, I am the only woman in this room. It does not bother me, but it is a bit strange.”

The head waiter looked perturbed and said:

“Sorry, so very sorry. You should not have been given a table in here. I was not aware of your arrival. Had I greeted you, I would not have seated you in here. It is reserved for men, and sometimes they can get rowdy. Can I move you to another table?”

We said that we were happy where we were. After the man left, we wondered how it was possible that men could get rowdy in a halal restaurant that clearly did not serve alcohol. At the end of the meal, we noticed that there was another section of the restaurant where men and women could dine together, a sort of ‘family room’. We also noticed that groups of women unaccompanied by men were directed to another part of the restaurant on the floor above. While the food at X was memorably poor, the experience was far from dull.

Recently, in September 2021, we revisited Bradford. There, we met our Polish host. Remembering our unfortunate experience at X, we thought it would be fun to try something different, a Polish restaurant perhaps. We asked Pavel if he could recommend one. To which he replied:

“There used to be a Polish restaurant here, but it’s closed. Anyway, I don’t like Polish food. You should eat curry here. Try the International. It’s just around the corner and gets good reviews on Tripadvisor.”

In view of our previous ‘Indian’ meal in Bradford, we entered the bustling International with some trepidation. When the food arrived, our fears evaporated rapidly. We were served some of the best ‘Indian’ food we have ever eaten in the UK. The portions were enormous, and we noticed that at every other table, diners were taking home the remains of their meals in packages. We also noticed that at almost every table, diners had ordered chips (French fries) with their ‘Indian’ dishes. The restaurant’s owner, the son of its founder who opened it 50 years ago, told us that in Bradford:

“These young people eat chips, pizzas, and burgers all the time; sometimes they don’t even eat curry.”

We asked him whether the International was an Indian or a Pakistani restaurant. He told us that it is the latter, but he and most of his staff are Kashmiri.

Tandoori king prawns at the International

We enjoyed the International so much that we returned there for dinner on the following day. Once again, we enjoyed first class food served in huge portions. Thinking of the tandoori king prawns and lamb chops makes my mouth water as I write this piece.

On both occasions, we sat at tables on the ground floor. On the second evening, our table was next to a staircase leading to an upper floor, which we were told was used for parties. Both waiters bearing trays loaded with dishes of food and also customers continuously dashed up and down the stairs. At one point in the evening, a group of heavily bearded Asian men dressed in loose fitting robes, Pathan suits or similar, began ascending the stairs. One of them looked down at us, an Asian and European dining together, and we saw him smile and then heard him say:

“Boy meets girl.”

Roman and Saxon stones in Yorkshire

ROMANS TRAVELLING ON the ancient Dere Street, a road constructed by the Romans, between York and Hadrian’s Wall crossed the river Ure near the present Yorkshire village of Aldborough, which archaeological research has revealed stands on the site of a large Roman town called ‘Isurium Brigantum’. Some of the Roman remains can be seen at the beautifully laid out English Heritage site in Aldborough. The parish church in Aldborough is built on the site of the forum of the former Roman town and contains a Roman sculpture, which might well depict the god Mercury. Excavations, which we viewed, being undertaken by archaeologists from Cambridge University are discovering that the Roman town was an important way station for supplying and servicing troops travelling to and from Hadrian’s Wall. The archaeologists, who kindly showed us around their dig,  asked us not to reveal what they have discovered because they have yet to be published in the appropriate way.

A carved Saxon stone incorporated into the masonry of a church wall at Kirby Hill, Yorkshire

After crossing the Ure at Aldborough, Dere Street, so named after the Romans had departed from Britain, travelled north to Catterick (Roman: ‘Cataractonium’). A few miles from Aldborough, the old road used by the Romans passed close to the Yorkshire village of Kirby Hill, whose parish church, All Saints, perches on the summit of a hill. It is possible that the church is sited where once there was a Celtic and/or Roman shrine. The church’s informative website (www.allsaintskirbyhill.org.uk/) reveals:

“… there are some large stones in the lower walling; one of these at the South West angle is clearly Roman and has a sunk panel, which once contained a 13 line inscription. Unfortunately, it is now very badly weathered. It was a posthumous dedication to either Antonins Pius or Caracalla, the first such recorded from Roman Britain.”

Unfortunately, when we visited this lovely church recently, we missed seeing this interesting souvenir of the Roman occupation of Britain. However, during our brief look inside the church we did see evidence of some of the invaders who arrived in Britain after the Romans had left.

The church contains some well-preserved carved fragments of Saxon crosses. High up on the south side of the church, we noticed that such a fragment had been incorporated in the stonework of its wall, just as the Roman stonework had been incorporated elsewhere in the structure of the church as already described.

The nave of All Saints was built both during the Saxon and Norman eras. Its structure includes some Saxon slabs as well as those placed after the Norman invasion in 1066. A north aisle was added in about 1160 and is separated from the older part of the church by semi-circular masonry arcades supported by sturdy stone pillars topped with capitals dating back to Norman times.

The church, which we only visited because we followed a roadside direction sign with the words “Ancient Church”, contains many other interesting features, which we did not have time to examine as we were in a bit of a hurry to reach an appointment on time. When we told a lady, who was telling us about the church, that we were rather pressed for time, she said to us, smiling:

“That’s a pity. You’re speaking with the wrong person. You can’t expect someone from Yorkshire to be brief.”

Oliver Cromwell’s grandmother

DURING RECENT MONTHS, we have visited several places in East Anglia associated with Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and his family. These include Huntingdon, where he was born; Ramsey in Cambridgeshire, where his Royalist relative Oliver Cromwell lived; and Cambridge, where some say his head is hidden within one of the city’s colleges. Most recently, we visited Swaffham in Norfolk, where we entered the town’s magnificent parish church.

While looking around Swaffham’s Church of St Peter and St Paul, which was built in 1454 in the Early English gothic style, we came across an interesting funerary monument in a chapel on the south side of the building. The monument contains a sculpture of a woman on her knees with the left side of her face in profile and looking to the left. This monument, covered with heraldic crests, is a memorial to Catherine Stewart, only child and sole heir of Thomas Payne, formerly of Castleacre (Norfolk). Catherine Stewart, who died in 1590, was the second wife of the tithe farmer (a kind of tax collector) William Stewart of Ely, who was buried in Ely Cathedral in 1593.

William and Catherine’s daughter Elizabeth married twice. Her second husband was Thomas Cromwell. Oliver Cromwell, Britain’s ruler, The Lord Protector, between 1653 and 1658, was the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Cromwell. Thus, Catherine Stewart, whose monument we admired in Swaffham’s church, was Oliver Cromwell’s maternal grandmother.

Someone working at the museum in Swaffham told us that because his grandmother lived in Swaffham, Oliver Cromwell and his troops avoided damaging it during the Civil War, even though it was a town that supported the Royalists. After the Civil War was over, Cromwell mentioned Swaffham once in his recorded correspondence. When the fighting ended, the draining of the Fens resumed under the supervision of a new organisation of which Oliver Cromwell was a member, The Company of Adventurers for Draining the Great Level of the Fens. In 1653, 150 petitioners from Swaffham, who had asked about certain rights for them and had received notice that their grievances would be redressed, forced the Company’s workmen to cease working on the dykes and began to vandalise the work that had been done already. On the 23rd of April 1653, Cromwell wrote to Mr Parker, an agent of the Company:

“… I hear some unruly persons have committed great outrages in Cambridgeshire, about Swaffham and Botsham … Wherefore, I desire you to send one of my Troops, with a Captain, who may by all means, persuade the people to quiet, by letting them know, They must not riotously do anything, for that must not be suffered: but ‘that’ if there be any wrong done by the Adventurers, – upon complaint, such course shall be taken as appertains to justice, and right will be done.

I rest, your loving friend, OLIVER CROMWELL”  

(Quoted from: “Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches: with Elucidations”, by Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Carlyle, published 1845)

I was puzzled to see that Cromwell associated the Norfolk town of Swaffham with the county of Cambridgeshire. With help of Google, I discovered that there is a Swaffham in Cambridgeshire: its full name is Swaffham Bulbeck. The latter is near Cambridge and includes the parish of Botsham (Bottisham).

While researching this piece, I came across a paper by Walter Rye with the title “The Stewart Genealogy and Cromwell’s Royal Descent” (http://fmg.ac/phocadownload/userupload/scanned-sources/tgb/Vol02-PDFs/S-3895.pdf), which examined the idea that The Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, had royal relatives. Rye concluded:

“I think therefore, that I have succeeded that Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Royal Descent’ which passed muster with Carlyle and other historians, who have made it a peg on which to hang reflections more or less ridiculous, is a fabrication; and that he really sprang, ex parte materna, from a Norfolk family, probably of illegitimate descent, and certainly of no credit or renown, which had settled in Swaffham long before the alleged Scottish ancestor is supposed to have landed in England with his Royal master and kinsman.”

The Royal relative referred to above was King James VI of Scotland and Stewart is quite a common surname. Others might dispute Rye’s conclusion, but this is not the place to explore this further. Once again, a chance visit to a small town in the English countryside has opened a window to reveal one of the many fascinating aspects of the history of England.