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 (  

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’ ( 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.

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” (, 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.

Digging for riches

SWAFFHAM IS A SMALL town in Norfolk, west of Norwich. Two of its former inhabitants enriched their lives by digging. One of them is more widely known than the other. The lesser known one was a pedlar, who lived in the 15th century and was most probably called John Chapman.

The pedlar had a dream in which he was told to go to London Bridge to receive some good news. He ignored it at first but after it had recurred several times, he set off for London with his pack on his back and his dog at his side. When he reached London Bridge, he found nothing, and received no good news. After a few days of lurking on the bridge, one of the shopkeepers on that ancient crossing of the Thames asked him what he was doing. The pedlar related his dream and the shopkeeper replied:

“How foolish you are. You should not believe such dreams. Why, only last night I dreamt that I should go to Swaffham in Norfolk and dig under an apple tree where a pot of treasure was buried. Do you think I should believe that? Of course not, my friend. If I were you, I would go home and ignore such dreams.”

Hearing this, the pedlar realised that he had just heard the good news for which he had come to search.

Back in Swaffham, the pedlar dug beneath his apple tree and discovered a pot of gold. After emptying the pot, he added it to the wares he was peddling. The pot had a label attached. As the pedlar was illiterate, he asked a local priest to read it to him. The words on the pot said:

“Beneath me, thou shalt find even greater riches.”

The pedlar returned to his apple tree and began digging again. Lo and behold, he discovered another pot filled with gold, far more than in the first.

Whether or not this tale is true, there was a John Chapman in Swaffham, who lived in the town and was a church warden in 1462, at the time when the parish church was being rebuilt. He donated a huge amount of money towards building both the church’s tower and its north aisle.

The existence of the digging pedlar and his story might possibly be questioned by sceptics, but that of Swaffham’s other famous digger is beyond doubt. When we visited Swaffham recently, it was hard to miss seeing an eccentric looking café-cum-curio shop called ‘Tutankhamun’s Emporium’, with the subtitle  ‘Bar, Bistro, Gallery’. In addition to a Russian restaurant called Rasputin, the choice of an Ancient Egyptian’s name for a café in Norfolk struck me as odd until we visited the town’s small museum.

Samuel John Carter (1835-1892), a noted Victorian animal artist and illustrator, was born in Swaffham. After studying at the Royal Academy, Samuel lived both in London and Swaffham. He married Martha Joyce Sands, born in Swaffham, and the couple produced 11 children, the youngest of whom was named Howard. They lived most of the time in London, where Howard was born (in Kensington). Howard, a sickly youngster. Was sent from London to live with Samuel’s sisters in Swaffham.

Howard Carter (1874-1939) spent most of his childhood in and around Swaffham. Like his father, Howard had great artistic talent. He used to visit local country houses with his father when the latter was up in Norfolk. One of these was Didlington Hall near Swaffham. Its owner, William Amhurst Tyssen-Amhurst (1835-1909), an MP, was a great collector of books and antiquities. The collection included many Ancient Egyptian artefacts, which fascinated young Howard. In 1890, the Amhursts were visited by Percy Newberry (1869-1949), who worked for the Egypt Exploration Fund. Discovering Howard’s talents as an artist and interest in history, Newberry invited him to work at the British Museum, copying tomb and other wall paintings that had been discovered in Egypt. Soon, Carter was sent out to Egypt on archaeological expeditions to work alongside the archaeologists. In 1922, Howard discovered the tomb that contained the remains of the boy king (pharaoh) Tutankhamun (c1341-c1323 BC). This discovery brought great fame to Howard: a digger brought up in Swaffham.

The local museum in Swaffham has displays relating to Carter and Tutankhamun. Both might be flattered if they were to learn that a small town in Norfolk, many thousands of miles away from the River Nile, has a café named after the short-lived pharaoh. As for the pedlar, the town is full of images of him trudging along with a pack on his back. In the parish church, which he might well have helped to finance, there are woodcarvings of him and his dog.

We visited Swaffham whilst travelling around Norfolk because we had read that it has an attractive parish church and an unusual 18th century circular market cross. However, learning about the pedlar and the archaeologist, two famous diggers, were unexpected bonuses for us.