To an exceptional woman of Ipswich – prequel to the Legend of the Holy Wells


In 1818 the Reverend James – John – Ford published The Suffolk Garland, a miscellany of items he had gathered over the 10 or so years he had been the perpetual curate at St Lawrence’s on Dial Hill in Ipswich. In the collection are several poem by a Mrs J Cobbold, who John Ford must have known. She was Elizabeth Cobbold, the second wife of John Cobbold, the brewer, a match that made her stepmother to no less than 14 children – and mother to another 7! Regardless of all these charges, Elizabeth, as a wealthy woman, had plenty of time to indulge her love of the arts, history and science, as well as fostering it in her many charges. She had published her first collection of poems at 18, and went on writing and publishing throughout her life, including the two volume romance The Sword: or Father Bertrand’s History of His Own Times. She describes herself in a poem to a friend,

‘A botanist one day or grave antiquarian
Next morning a sempstress or abecedarian
Now making a frock and now marring a picture
Next conning a deep philosophical lecture
At night at the play or assisting to kill
The time of the idlers with whist or quadrille
In cares or amusements still taking a part
Though science and friendship are nearest my heart’

She organised many literary, artistic and musical gathering at Holywells, the Cobbold family home, including her famous Valentine’s party where she would try and match-make for the town through the writing of around 80 valentines that were selected randomly to encourage people to talk and get to know each other. Time for a revival?

She supported local talent, encouraging and promoting – and in some cases arranging publication – and, as was to be expected in a woman of means of her time, she also promoted charity in the town, starting, for example, the Society for Clothing the Infant Poor in 1812 – it is noted that by 1824 it had clothed over 2000 children. She was also fascinated by natural history, and corresponded with Sir James Smith, the President of the Linnean Society, and after submitting useful information and a lot of fossil shells for James Sowerby’s Mineral Conchology of Great Britain she even had a fossil named after her, Nucula Cobboldiae (or Acila Cobboldiae, apparently – not being as knowledgeable as Mrs Cobbold I have no idea why!) – Sowerby says that she collected with her children and step-children ‘with great industry’ and that in them she ‘delighted to inspire with a love for the works of nature from the crag pits of her own estate’ showing, he says, ‘a degree of taste and zeal seldom met’.

An extremely gushing memoir was compiled after her death in 1824, aged 57, with poems celebrating her – the memoir was written by Lætitia Jermyn, a butterfly collector, who went on to be the wife of James Ford!

There is one thing that Lætitia doesn’t mention: the infamous Margaret Catchpole was Elizabeth Cobbold’s servant, and she assisted her throughout her trails, imprisonment and transportation to Australia…

To celebrate the exceptional Mrs Cobbold here is her Sonnet to Spring,

Breathe, gentle gales, that round my hawthorn play,
And blythe, in wanton pastime, scatter round
White blossoms, fragrant on the dewy ground,
A mimic snow upon the breast of May.
I feel your balmy health-bestowing pow’r,
With ev’ry breeze successive pleasures rise,
Bright curls the wave, clear spread the azure skies,
And op’ning roses deck my tranquil bow’r.
Still’d is the soul, wild passion hush’d to rest;
The regulated pulses gently move;
And blameless friendship, peace, and hallow’d love,
Hold their bland empire in my quiet breast.
Then, vernal gales, your sportive flight pursue,
And reasons pow’rs, with nature’s charms, renew.

From: Mrs Elizabeth Cobbold a Memoir of the Author (J Raw, Ipswich, 1825)

Vikings in Suffolk – part 1: who do they think they are?


I know, it’s been ages since my last post – a legacy of mad hecticness in my other life as a museum curator that has lasted from June last year until now! But, celebrating the 1st anniversary of the publication of the book (well, nearly), off we go again! And back, eventually, to Hadleigh, from where the first photo comes, and where I went to school as a child, living as I did a few miles away in Lower Layham.

I visited the new Vikings exhibition at the British Museum this week, and although the exhibition itself wasn’t all that exciting, it did set me thinking about how we think about Anglo Saxons and Vikings. A slightly depressing 20 years ago this autumn I started an MA in Medieval Studies: the Early Medieval World 400-1100 at York, so you can see that I am a bit keen on this period, and have been for a very long time… Feeling old! But it was a treat to go back to those roots when looking at the Viking material in the exhibition, so I’ll be posting a few blogs about this topic over the next week or so.

There are two stories in Suffolk Folk Tales that directly involve Vikings: King Edmund and The Legend of the Holy Well. In both stories I hope I have painted an ambiguous picture of the Northmen. Certainly characters like Ivar the Boneless and his brothers Hubba and Halfdan are vicious and bent on revenge, but they have come to avenge the great wrong they believe Edmund has done to their father Ragnar Lothbrok. But in fact, in the story, Edmund welcomed and befriended the lost Viking, and their shared culture allows Ragnar to slip into life at Edmund’s East Anglian court with ease. In the Holy Well story things are more complex. The early 19th century poem on which this story is based is itself based on a real battle at Nacton, near Ipswich, in the year 1010 between Ulfketel the Earl of East Anglia, and Thorkill the Tall, a Swedish Jomsviking. This was at the time at Sweyn Forkbeard was making a play for the English throne – on which more in the next blog! – but the names of the protagonists give it away. Thorkill was from Scandinavia, but Ulfketel is a Scandinavian name. Was he a Viking too? And, by the 11th century, after a century of intermarrying among the nobility – and likely below as well! – could you tell who was who, even if you wanted to?

Viking settlement in East Anglia begins after Edmund’s death in 869, in theory. But in fact it was another Englishman – the West Saxon King Alfred – who starts it in earnest. After subjugating Northumbria (867), East Anglia (869) and Mercia (877-9) Wessex was the next prize on the Great Heathen Army’s list, but, so the story goes, Alfred the Great rose up and defeated the Dane, Guthram at the Battle of Edington in 878 and Guthram, defeated, became a Christian. Triumph to the Saxons! And if you’d like to read that story, then check out my other Folk Tales collection, Wiltshire Folk Tales. Triumph to the English? Well, yes and no, as my (Scottish) Grandad would say.

What happened to Guthram after that? It’s a Suffolk story, after all. Guthram, by becoming a Christian with the nice new English name Athelstan, was now Alfred’s ally. They divided up their joint spoils between them, Guthram taking East Anglia, Essex and Eastern Mercia. Guthram seems to have taken his oaths seriously (this time!) and lived and ruled in the region, dying in 890 and being buried in what was presumably a royal vill, Hadleigh. Interesting aside – the Hadleigh Historical Society say in their timeline that Guthram killed Edmund. If true, it would an ironic full circle, given how much Alfred admired Edmund…

In the Vikings exhibition there is one really shocking thing (well, apart from some of the way the exhibition is designed, but that’s another story!). By the longship there is an assemblage of skeletons, heads separated from bodies, clearly hacked about – one hand has been cut through as the man was resisting even as his head was cut off. Here we are in a Viking exhibition. Clearly this is an atrocity by Vikings against the innocent English, isn’t it? Well, no. This was war. These men’s DNA has been traced back to Scandinavia. They are Vikings. Raiders? Warriors attacking from the Danelaw during wars between Alfred’s son Edmund the Elder and the Vikings over Mercian land? We can’t know. But it illustrates that there wasn’t a hair between the English and the Vikings – both were warrior cultures, keen to defend their own self-interest.

I’ll be blogging next time about the remarkable woman who wrote the poem that inspired the Legend of the Holy Well, and also Ulfketel and Thorkill, and about Sweyn Forkbeard and Edmund’s revenge, hopefully providing a small window into a time that must have been unsettling and difficult for the ordinary folk who lived in East Anglia – whether English or Viking.

Images: © Kirsty Hartsiotis

1. St Edmund’s head held by the wolf – a bench-end in St Mary’s

2. St Mary’s Church, Hadleigh: Guthram was buried in an earlier church probably on this site