Malekin, the poltergiest of Dagworth and a damned Norman lord


I have to confess that I had not heard of the hamlet of Dagworth before I started researching these tales. It wasn’t even a place name on a sign, like Langham. But in the 13th century it appears to have been a place of note – or at least known to Ralph of Coggeshall. He sets the story of the changeling child that we began in Langham in the previous blog there. Dagworth is near Haughley, whose castle, at the time that Ralph’s story takes place, would have been a burnt out ruin from the recent troubles that had beset East Anglia thanks to the ambitions of Hugh Bigod. Ralph sets his tale of supernatural goings on in the reign of King Richard, which means it has to be in the 1190s.

I was wrong to think that Dagworth wasn’t famous though – only last year, in 2012, it was featured on national television, the BBC no less in Michael Wood’s Great British Story, which brought the story of Dagworth’s lost English lord, Breme, who fell at the Battle of Hastings. After that Dagworth’s story was told through Norman lords. Today Dagworth Manor is divided in two, and earlier this year I missed the chance to buy the east half – as you will see from this article in the Daily Mail, it was a little beyond a jobbing writer’s budget! There is a great website on the history of the village for more detail.

What Dagworth was really like in the 12th century is hard to guess, but we do have the Doomsday book data. The manor house must have dominated the village, and we know there was woodland where pigs rootled in the undergrowth. We know there were ploughmen, and meadowland, and that people kept cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. Then as now it was probably marshy, with a stream dividing the settlement. At some point there was a fishpond nearby, and hops and osiers grown – the map names these still. The manor house would have had a chapel – there is no church in the village. Though Chapel Hill on the other side of the railway line is suggestive that there was a chapel there … but the parish church is in Old Newton a couple of miles away.

At that time, Dagworth manor was held by Osbert Fitzhervey. Osbert had connections with the great and the good, and was connected with royalty through his uncle Ranulf de Glanville. Ranulf founded Leiston (originally at miasmic Minsmere) and Butley abbeys, and was related to the Bartholomew de Glanville who figures in another Ralph tale, the Wildman of Orford – a fact which is almost certainly no coincidence. Osbert was born at Dagworth, it seems, around 1160, married Margaret Fitzroscelin of Linstead. He became a royal judge, serving three kings, and died in 1206. His son Richard was born in 1184, which makes him about the right age to experience the ghostly goings on in the early 1190s.

The thing is, Ralph doesn’t like Osbert. It seems possible that he knew him personally as Osbert had ties with land near Coggeshall, at Bradwell only three miles from there. Setting a poltergeist story of a changeling at his house might seem bad enough – but maybe Ralph felt that someone as corrupt as Osbert would attract such uneasy spirits. In his Vision of Thurkill he singles Osbert out for special treatment. Thurkill was a peasant granted a vision of both hell and heaven in 1206 in Stisted, close to both Bradwell and Coggeshall, and he seems to have a vision of Osbert who died that same year – it’s worth quoting in full:

But now Thurkill sees a notable figure, who has to act sins that have been committed in a high station. All England knew the man once, as one of the Chief Justiciaries; most profound in law, most eloquent in speech, but most corrupt in his dealings. He died this very year, suddenly, without a will; and all his ill gotten wealth has been dispersed and squandered. He is placed on a mock tribunal. The Fiends flock around him, pleading a cause, and urging it with statement and counterstatement. He shifts from right to left, listening, noting, taking money from both sides, and fingering and counting the bribes incessantly. But the coins glow in his clutches, and he is forced by the Fiends to cram them down his greedy throat. Then they roll and iron cartwheel up and down his back, pounding him with the massive studs upon it, till he disgorges what he has swallowed. And at a sign the Fiends pick up the coins, and keep for another time.

Ralph certainly has it in for him!

But what about the spirit? Is she a changeling trapped in between this and the Otherworld? Or, is there a hint that she might be a more troubled spirit? Could she be a poltergeist? The text says, ‘He laughed wonderfully … and acted and spoke, also showing himself often through other clandestine acts.’ What were these ‘acts’? The child only shows herself to one person, a maid; otherwise her antics are invisible. The first mentions of poltergeists seem to appear in Roman times, when someone is possessed. Josephus, the Jewish historian speaks of a bowl being turned over by itself as sign that a spirit has been expelled. In the Eyrbyggia Saga from Iceland, a fish is torn apart by unseen hands. Closer to home, St Godric, who was a hermit at Finchale in County Durham (though he was actually from Walpole in Norfolk) in the 10th century who was tormented by a spirit that constantly threw things at him. These visitations are almost always scary and unsettling to these who experience them, but Margaret Fitzroscelin and her household were made of sterner stuff. Ralph goes on: ‘the wife of the knight and the entire household were at first very scared by her talk, but soon her words and ludicrous acts became familiar, she spoke confidently and familiarly to them and was often questioned by them.’ They even left food out for her.

These tales of Ralph and other 12th and 13th century chroniclers often have strange little details that seem to reveal them as truth – such as the chest with the food in it that Malekin takes. But you can also pick up the political mores of the time as well – Malekin is gifted with languages, and can speak Norman-French and Latin – and even ‘English the second language of that region’. Ralph, a Norman himself, is happy to put us English folk in our place, and all his three Suffolk tales deal with the great and the good like Osbert Fitzhervey – even if Ralph didn’t think he was very good at all!

A walk in unsuitable shoes, or, searching for the fairies

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On the way back from my book signing in Bury, which is a fair way from where my parents live near the coast, I wanted to visit one of the very few locations I hadn’t yet reached: Langham.  Half of the Malekin story is set there, but I’d never, ever been there.   The story is one that combines two small, remote places that make you feel as if you have stepped far away from the beaten track and into that deeper Suffolk that is inhabited by the stories of place I have captured in the book – and, it feels, by the denizens of the stories, too.  The other half of the story is set in Dagworth, about 8 miles away as the crow flies to the south east of Langham.  Both are tricky to get to – Langham especially if you don’t happen to have the 1:50 map on you at the time, as we did not.

In Malekin, the child says she came from Langham (or Lanaham in the original Latin), where she was ‘stolen by some stranger and taken away’ when she was left alone outside while her mother was working at the harvest with the rest of the villagers.  It seems highly likely that this is an early version of a changeling – this time, following the child snatched by the fairies, or, in Suffolk, ferishers or feriers.  More often, the story follows the fairy changeling that is left in place, but this tale tells what happens next to those who are taken off to fairyland – and it isn’t very pleasant or easy.  There are tales told in Suffolk of fairy changelings, too.  The same woman who recounts to the Reverend Arthur Hollingsworth the story of her own near miss with the fairies also says that she had heard of a woman who ‘had a child changed, and one, a poor thing, left in his place, but she was very kind to it, and every morning on getting up she found a small piece of money in her pocket.’[1] So, it seemed to me that this might be an ancient practice amongst the ferishers to reward the good – and why not reward Malekin’s mother as well, for the loss of her little girl and the gaining of another, different child.

But Langham has another mysterious link, one that I discovered by chance in Mike Burgess’s excellent website, Hidden East Anglia.  It isn’t even listed under Langham in his gazeteer, but under nearby Hunston.  This place, Burgess records, has a small earthwork called Mill Hill (a castle – or the site of a windmill – or even a more ancient burial mound?) from which it is said tunnels run to Great Ashfield Castle – and the Castle Ditches at Langham. 

Now, England is criss-crossed with secret tunnels and Suffolk has many: from those that run from the Angel to the Abbey at Bury, to the tunnel that run from the church to the Queen’s Head at Blyford.  Many of these tunnel stories have practical origins – drainage ditches at Bury, perhaps, and smuggler’s hideaways near the coast.  But what if those tunnels went … somewhere else?  The most famous tunnel story in Suffolk is that of the Green Children, who emerge near Woolpit from a tunnel from another land.  Is it fairyland – or maybe the underworld itself?  Once, a fiddler was lost forever in the tunnels at Bury, the ghostly notes still sometimes heard.  A farmer lost his pigs into the tunnels at Hunston – and there is no record that they popped out at Great Ashfield or Langham.  Perhaps the ferishers came out of the Castle Ditches tunnel to nab Malekin, and perhaps it is through the tunnels that she make her way around the county to steal food from humankind.  Perhaps.

But I wanted to see.  There is little info on the Castle Ditches on the web that I could find, just a note that they were east of the church, and that they are no longer visible.  Oh well. We were determined to try.  Without the 1:50 map we were a little stymied, but after a lot of dodging about to get a mobile signal I found the info about them being near the church.  We backtracked through the long village (yep, still lives up to its name) to the edge of the village and down the path that alleged it led to the church.  The path said PRIVATE in large letters, but did seem to be okay for walkers, so off we set, Cherry and I hobbling along in the pumps we had worn to Bury, and Dave limping on the track thanks to his dodgy knee.  To the left was a little strip of wood – a remnant perhaps of what the land must have been like when people named Great Ashfield, Elmswell, Oaktree Farm and Willow Wood nearby – and huge oak tree stood like a guardian spirit from the past to the side of the path to welcome us in.  Ahead, we could see water meadows by the stream that separates Langham from Hunston.  There were sheep grazing, and Queen Anne’s Lace blooming.  Idyllic.  But not, immediately, a church.

A turn of the corner onto a grassier track, and there it was.  A small flint church with a little bell tower. A tractor was dancing back and forth obliterating the long grass ahead of us, and the Hall stood imposing in 18th century brick to the left on higher ground.  It was a vision (except for the tractor!) of an earlier time.  However, the 21st century intruded not only in the tractor’s noise. The church was locked.  And to spite us, a sign informed us that the very next day there would be an open day at Langham Hall and a service in the church.  The tractor was creating a car park for the massed hordes…

Round the church we went, to the east – and higher ground.  Was there something in that thicket of brambles? We investigated the edges of the churchyard and found – a moat!  With a, um, bridge.  I hacked through the nettles (if you run through them quickly, they don’t sting, right?) but decided not to cross…

Then we took the path in front of the church.  It was clear where the castle ditches had been – two lovely flat horse paddocks now stood next to the church.  But the ground slipped away sharply to the right of the path, and we glimpsed water through the gaps in the trees. The moat again!  The castle was here – so somewhere must have been the entrance to the tunnels.  Was it near here that Malekin was stolen back when this was a fine timber castle?  Were they harvesting hay from the meadows beyond, and did the mother leave her babe safe close by the castle only to have the ferishers slip out and take her away?

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[1] Gurdon, Eveline Gurdon County Folk-Lore Suffolk: Printed Extracts No. 2 Suffolk (Lightening Source UK Ltd., Milton Keynes, 2011), p. 37, taken from Revd AGH Hollingsworth’s The History of Stowmarket, 1844, p. 248