William of Norwich, often known as 'St. William', was a twelve year old Christian boy who was murdered in Norwich in 1144 and whose body was found in Thorpe Wood which at that time extended for some miles to the north and east of the city and included today's Mousehold Heath. He became known locally as a martyr, allegedly ritually murdered by some local Jews, an accusation described on a Catholic website as 'one of the most notable and disastrous lies of history' and a cult developed at his tomb in Norwich Cathedral but was later suppressed by the Pope.
His short, tragic life is of minor historical importance in itself but Norwich has the dubious distinction of being the location of the first accusation in England of the Jews committing the ritual murder of a Christian child. This occurs in a book written in Latin by Thomas of Monmouth between 1154 and 1173, The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, which is the only, very problematic, source for our knowledge of William. (The allegation of William's ritual murder was not that of the later 'blood libel' which developed from it and claimed that Jews used the blood of a Christian child for baking Passover bread). The book itself is also of considerable interest as an example of a medieval hagiography with the express purpose of creating a local saint, and as providing some insights into local medieval life.
In the next few years after his murder William's alleged martyrdom attracted very few believers and he had been almost forgotten by 1149. It was only when Thomas of Monmouth arrived in Norwich in 1150 and began his investigations and reports of miracles that any sort of cult developed, being strengthened considerably by Thomas's book which must have circulated in Norwich and further afield. The cult itself seems not to have had anti-semitic features but was simply the celebration of a local saint.
The cult never seems to have attracted pilgrims on the scale of other major pilgrim sites such as St Edmund at Bury St. Edmunds, the shrine at Walsingham or St Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. By the late years of the twelfth century its fortunes were already in decline and by 1363 the yearly offerings at his tomb had fallen to only two pence. A temporary boost to the shrine's popularity occurred after 1376, when William was adopted by the Norwich Peltier's Guild, whose annual service at the Cathedral included a child who played the part of William. In 1386 offerings were about £20. In 1383 Kings Lynn scholars also formed a fraternity of 'Holy Martyr of St William'. Offerings continued to be made at the Norwich shrine until at least 1521.
William's martyrdom was also celebrated in three liturgical texts used at the Cathedral: in the Ormesby psalter, begun in the 1280s; in a late 13th century psalter in Lambeth Palace; and a 'customary' of the 1280s which detailed how William's mass should be celebrated on his feast day, March 24th.
A chapel on Mousehold Heath, originally dedicated to St Catherine, was rededicated to William in 1168. It is said that the chapel was founded on the site where his body was found. The last offering there is recorded in 1506. Today a banked enclosure with earthworks can be seen, thought to be the site of the chapel.
There is some ambiguity about whether William has ever been officially canonised as a saint as before c.1200 local bishops could declare someone to be a saint and Thomas of Monmouth was strongly encouraged in the writing of his hagiography by Bishop William Turbe, bishop from 1146 and by the Prior of the Abbey, both keen to establish the cult of St William. But many Popes have either directly or indirectly condemned the ritual murder and blood libel accusations, and no Pope has ever sanctioned them. Another Catholic website says, 'There is no evidence to support the legend, and it declined owing to papal displeasure in the years prior to the Reformation. It is now suppressed'.
Images of William
Despite his cult being relatively short – lived, devotion to him as a local saint must have continued into the late 15th century, as evidenced by the existence of a number of extant images of him on five rood screens in Norfolk and one in Suffolk. Perhaps the best known example is in Holy Trinity church, Loddon, near Norwich, dating from between 1490 and 1514. This depicts William as being crucified on a crude cross between two posts, as described by Thomas of Monmouth, with one foot and one hand nailed. There are figures on each side of him who are meant to be Jews, one having pierced his side with a knife as described by Thomas, but lacking the crude anti – semitic style of some medieval images or carvings. In the other five images William is identified by his holding of two or three nails. One is a painting of William with St Agnes, commissioned by the merchant, Ralph Segrym, which was originally in St John Maddermarket church in Norwich and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Another, believed to date from 1500, is on a rood screen panel in St Mary Magdalene church, Silver Road, Norwich which was moved from St James the Less, Pockthorpe in 1946. The others are in All Saints, Litcham; in Worstead church which has a painting of a man holding three nails, probably of St William; and in St. Peter & St. Paul, Eye in Suffolk.
That there was also a modern memory of, and devotion to, William is evidenced by the existence in Fritton St Edmund church of an early 20th century stained glass panel of him holding a cross and four nails. In addition, in what is now the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Norwich, he featured in a group of six boy saints, in a modern stained glass window which was destroyed by a 'near miss' from a bomb in 1942. Further evidence of local memory is that a new road, St. William's Way, was named after him.
For the whole story of William of Norwich our only authority is Thomas of Monmouth, a monk of the Benedictine Priory at Norwich Cathedral. As his name implies, he was not a Norwich man but from South Wales, who came to Norwich in 1150, six years after William's murder, and active until 1173. He must have heard local stories about the murder and seems to have devoted his time thereafter to enquiring about the murder and writing his book in Latin, divided into a Prologue and seven books. He seems to have been well educated, had a good knowledge of scripture and command of Latin. Most importantly he was well schooled in the art of rhetoric which he deployed to full effect in his account of William.
Thomas clearly had one main purpose in writing his book: to create a local martyr with some relics and hence a cult for the Cathedral. Unlike the monastery at Bury St Edmunds which attracted many pilgrims to the shrine of the martyred St. Edmund, Norwich's cathedral was dedicated to the Holy Trinity and thus had no saint or relics of its own to attract pilgrims and to provide a good income stream.
Thomas was encouraged to write the book by Bishop Turbe who succeeded Bishop Everard in 1149, just before Thomas arrived in Norwich, and to whom Thomas dedicated his book. The first six books were composed between 1154 and 1155 and the seventh in 1172 -73 after an apparent resurgence of miracles at the tomb.
To portray William as a martyr it was necessary for Thomas to have some 'pagans' who were responsible for his death and who killed him because he was a pious Christian. This was the reason for Thomas seizing on the Norwich Jews as the convenient culprits, building on an existing tradition of Christian anti – Semitism and possibly on some local rumours that the Jews were responsible which were circulating at the time of William's death.
The first translation of Thomas's book published in England was that by Augustus Jessopp and M.R. James, published by Cambridge University Press in 1896 as The Life and Miracles of William of Norwich by Thomas of Monmouth. M.R. James, also known as a writer of ghost stories, was later to be Provost of Kings College, Cambridge and of Eton College.
A new annotated translation in 2014 by Miri Rubin, The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, with an authoritative Introduction, has been published in the Penguin Classics series.
The book cannot be considered as a biography or history in the modern sense but as a hagiography. Rubin suggests that Thomas was probably influenced by the Welsh 'tradition of creative fiction and fogery' and by the example of his contemporary Geoffrey of Monmouth, famous for creating myths about the origins of Britain
That the book's prime purpose was to create a martyr's cult is very evident from the fact that of its 185 pages in the Penguin edition more than half are devoted entirely to over a hundred miracles which allegedly occurred at William's tomb and elsewhere. These miracles range from 'Sick oxen returned to health' to 'A Mute from birth cured' to 'A Bent Woman on crutches who was Cured'.
The opening sentence of the first book sets the tone; 'When the mercy of divine piety wished to visit the province of Norwich …. it gave it a boy who was to be listed among the principal martyrs and to be honoured by the entire company of saints'. Throughout his account of William Thomas also employs the device of creating echoes of well- known Biblical stories and phrases to show William as a pious, Christ – like figure. To take just a few examples: before his birth his mother is 'honoured with a vision' which her father interprets as a sign that the boy 'will be greatly exalted in heaven' and when he is twelve will 'ascend to the pinnacle of his greatest glory'. Even as a baby William performs a miracle by touching and breaking the chains of a penitent. He grows up as a pious boy, fasting three days per week and giving his food to the poor. When he is taken to the Jew's house he is 'like a lamb to the slaughter' and he is 'sentenced to be crucified' and 'he was put upon the cross'. Throughout the account such phrases as 'the glorious boy' and 'most holy blessed martyr' are used to refer to William. The nun, Legarda, the first to find William's body in Thorpe Wood, had seen a fiery light 'sent forth from heaven' on the day before, Good Friday, and guided by that light she was led to the wood and found his body, with 'his head shaven and pierced with innumerable cuts'. Thirty two days after William's burial in the monks cemetery the body is found uncorrupted and 'blood gushed from his nostrils' with a sweet smell.
The other main trait in Thomas's account is the blatant attempt, with almost no supporting evidence, in what Rubin calls 'The Fabrication of Jewish Guilt', to blame the Jews. Norwich had a small Jewish community of some two hundred from about 1130, most of whom lived on the west side of the Castle, adjacent to the market, and under the protection of the Crown. By the fourth page of Thomas's account there is a reference to the Jews' 'miserliness' and their 'plan of spite' for William to 'be mocked and sacrificed'. Very early in Book 1, Thomas purports to know that the forester who found William's body thought that 'only a Jew would have taken it upon himself to kill the innocent in this way'. After the discovery of the body William's maternal aunt remembers a dream in which the Jews broke her leg and tore it off. William's mother then says that 'it was cried out also by the voices of all that the Jews should be destroyed …. as the constant enemies of the Christian name and cult'. His account is laced with references to the Jews' 'villainy', 'deadly hands', 'malice' and 'cunning machinations'. Later the perpetrators apparently suffer 'divine vengeance' or were 'quickly annihilated' – a chilling precursor of the Holocaust.
By the time Thomas arrived in Norwich there were reports and rumours of miracles at William's tomb but he obviously very soon determined to create the story of a saint. In reporting sources for his story Thomas frequently resorts to vague statements such as 'a certain person saw ….' and he purports to give verbatim accounts of speech with no source for it given, for example: one of the Jews' advice about the disposal of the body; of the vision of William's aunt and of Godwin's speech to the Synod.
The only evidence that Thomas presents for his account of William being, as it were, crucified is that, long after the Jews had been accused of his murder a Christian maidservant in a Jew's house said that she had a momentary glimpse, through a chink in a door, of his body tied to the posts and Thomas professes to have been shown, some years later, two nail holes in the post. He also claims that he was told by Theobald, a Jewish convert to Christianity and then a monk, that the Jews carried out a ritual murder annually and that in 1144 Norwich was chosen as the location for that year. He also tells us that five years after the murder, in 1149, a citizen confessed on his deathbed that he had seen the Jews in Thorpe Wood with the body.
According to Thomas, William was born in 1132 or 1133, probably in Haveringland, about eight miles north west of Norwich, the child of Wenstan, a farmer and his wife Elviva, the daughter of a priest. Her sister, Liviva, was married to a priest in Norwich, Godwin Sturt, who features in Thomas's account. At the age of eight William was apprenticed to a skinner in Norwich where he had frequent dealings with Jews although, according to Thomas, his uncle Godwin had warned him against them.
On the Monday before Easter in 1144 William called on his mother with a man who alleged that he was the cook of the Archdeacon of Norwich and who offered William a place in the Archdeacon's kitchen. At first William's mother refused but on the offer of three shillings she agreed. The cook brought William back the next day to see his aunt Liviva. After the cook and William left the house they were seen to go into the house of 'a certain Jew', unnamed - this being one of the very few eye witness statements that Thomas offers in support of his allegations against the Jews.
Then, Thomas alleges, the Jews who were having a meal in the house fell upon William, tortured his body and, in a parody of the Crucifixion, hung it between two doorposts in the house. After some discussion they took the body in a sack to Thorpe Wood where a Norwich burgess saw them and touched the sack.
William was not seen again until the following Saturday, Easter Saturday, when his body was found by a pious nun, Legarda, who then returned home. Later, Henry of Sprowston, previously a stableman of Bishop Everard but now a forester, who had also seen the 'fiery light' on the previous day, was led to the body by a peasant and saw 'a wooden instrument of torture' in William's mouth. Allegedly, 'he began already to suspect that … only a Jew would have taken it upon himself to kill the innocent in this way'.
Henry summoned members of his family and they decided to leave the body until after Easter when Henry buried William in the wood. Rumours then spread in the city about the discovery and some blamed the Jews. William's uncle, the priest Godwin Sturt then came and dug up the body which smelt sweetly, reburied it and returned to Norwich. He then told the story to his wife, who then remembered that she had had a vision some days before warning her against the Jews. Willliam's mother, Elviva, then arrived and immediately blamed the Jews.
The death was reported to the Easter synod, meeting at that time in Norwich, and William's uncle, Godwin Sturt, the priest, accused the Jews of the murder. It was then reported to the Sheriff of Norwich who as the servant of the Crown was responsible for the Jewish community but apparently he did nothing because, as Thomas alleges, he was bribed by the Jews. Bishop Everard then arranged for William's burial in the monks' cemetery. Following some visions of Thomas in 1150 the body was transferred to the chapter house. Later, Thomas reports, that he and the sacrist, with the Bishop's approval, transferred it to the side of the high altar to make it more accessible to the throngs of pilgrims. In 1154 it was moved again, to the chapel of the Holy Martyrs, now known as the Jesus chapel. In 1436 it was possibly moved to an altar to the north of the rood screen but has since disappeared.
Later anti – Semitism and pogroms
Thomas's book was part of the spread of anti – Semitism until the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and beyond that date. Although it is debateable as to how far knowledge of Thomas's book spread beyond East Anglia (see the next section), it seems likely that it was known by other Benedictine foundations and there were similar accusations of child murder at Gloucester in 1168 and in Bury St Edmunds in 1181, although, as in Norwich, there were no serious consequences for local Jews. But in 1189 thirty Jews were killed in London, and in 1190 there occurred a pogrom in York when 150 Jews were massacred in Clifford's Tower. In the same year a number of Jews were killed in Lynn and, in a sort of 'preparation' for a Crusade, many Jews were butchered in their houses in Norwich. In 1255 a boy, Hugh, was allegedly killed by a Jew in Lincoln for which one Jew was hanged and eighteen other Jews executed. Between the writing of Thomas's book and 1900 there have been over a hundred accusations of the ritual murder of a child by Jews.
Studies by recent scholars and who was the murderer?
Since the publication of Thomas's account in 1896 many scholars have studied the case and its importance in the history of Christian anti – Semitism. In particular there has been a debate as to whether Thomas of Monmouth initiated the myth of the ritual child murder. Langmuir argues that Thomas invented the myth and introduced it to the world but McCulloh contests that and claims that it was already known in England before his account was written, that William's family made the first accusations against the Jews and that it is doubtful whether Thomas's account became known outside East Anglia.
Some scholars have also made suggestions about who was really responsible for William's murder. M.R. James thought that a possible suspect was the Jewish convert, Theobald himself, claimed by Thomas to be his main informant about a Jewish plot. Lipman has suggested that William was the victim of a paedophile, possibly the cook who lured William from his family. Others have suggested that he was killed by members of his own family or by some unknown Christians who arranged things so that the Jews were blamed. Arnold Wesker, the Jewish playright, was commissioned by Norwich Playhouse to write 'Blood Libel' as a play for a performance in 1996.
Whatever the truth of these matters, Miri Rubin provides a cogent summary of the contemporary importance of the story of William in the Introduction to the 2014 edition of Thomas of Monmouth's book: 'This translation will, I hope, alert new readers to the ways in which stories shape our perceptions of others in our communities and how alluring those narratives can be which so easily explain evil and loss by demonizing vulnerable people'.
• Anderson, M.D., A Saint at Stake (1956)
• Atherton, I, Fernie, E, Harper – Bill, C, and Smith, H (eds.), Norwich Cathedral: Church, City and Diocese 1096 – 1996 (1996)
• Bradbury, Carlee, A Norfolk Saint for a Norfolk Man:William of Norwich (Norfolk Archaeology, Vol. XLVI, Part IV, 2013)
• Campbell, James in Medieval Norwich, eds. Carole Rawcliffe and Richard Wilson (2004)
• Langmuir, Gavin, Thomas of Monmouth;Detector of Ritual Muder (Speculum No 59, Vol 4, 1984)
• Lipman, V.D., The Jews of Medieval Norwich (1967)
• Mc Culloh, John, Jewish Ritual Murder: William of Norwich, Thomas of Monmouth, and the Early Dissemination of the Myth (Speculum Vol.72, July 1997)
• Nott, Simon, Norfolk Churches website
• Rubin, Miri, The Life and Passion of William of Norwich (Penguin 2014)
• Shinners, John jnr. The Veneration of Saints at Norwich Cathedral in the 14th century (Norfolk Archaeology Vol. XL (1988)