Tag Archives: Ipswich

Vikings and holy wells – an exercise in how difficult it is to find the ‘truth’


It was a freezing cold day when we rocked up at Holywells Park in Ipswich to try to find the ‘hermit’s mossy cell’ as described by Elizabeth Cobbold in her poem ‘Holy Wells’ that inspired my Legend of the Holy Wells. Snow lay everywhere around, and children were racing while chilly parents followed them. It wasn’t easy to see what we were looking at, but it certainly showed what a vibrant place the former grounds of Elizabeth’s house has become.

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Why is it called Holywells? Well, shh, let me tell you a secret … it was called Hollow Wells (1) before , and our romantic 19th century citizens changed Hollow to Holy – maybe Elizabeth herself coining the term. The place does have a religious history, however, as it was owned by the Bishops of Norwich. There may possibly have been a residence for the bishops, and potentially a small chapel – but the idea of a Bishop’s Palace may well also have been concocted by Elizabeth! She seems to have been a woman after my own heart – keen to enchant, or re-enchant the landscape around her.

Is there any possibility that Elizabeth’s story has a grounding in history? The importance of the water on the site doesn’t seem to have been celebrated until the Cobbold’s came along to use it in their beer making in the 17th century. But there have certainly long been rumours of something holy happening at Holywells. Was it a guardian of the wells? A guardianship handed down from father to son over the generations? Had there, in fact, been a guardian there since the Iron Age and the time of the druids? A friend of Boudicca, maybe? We’ll never know – unless archaeology does turn something up in the future.

But, what about those Vikings? They were there, right? Oh yes. On the 5 May in 1010 there was a battle at Nacton, and indeed there is a snippet of folklore about the area. The Seven Hills mounds at Nacton – there are actually eight, and there were thirteen or fourteen once – by the A1156 are supposed to be the graves of the Saxons who fought under Ulfcytel Snillinge, or the Bold, Ealdorman of East Anglia, and who were killed by the invading Vikings under Thorkell the Tall (2).

In the saga of St Olaf, the Heimkringla, East Anglia is Ulfketel’s Land. He seems to have ruled from 1002 until his death in 1016. He may have been married to a daughter of King Ethelred. The Saxon forces in the battle at Nacton did not cover themselves with glory however. Thorketel Mare’s Head ran away, taking his force with him, and only the men of Cambridgeshire held firm. The Vikings then sack Ipswich, and raid the region.

But there are Vikings on both sides. This is a war for the rule of the country, not random raids to take plunder. Ulfketel and Thorketel are Scandinavian sounding names, and fighting on Ethelred’s side was also St Olaf, Olaf Haraldsson, the king who brought Christianity to Norway. And it’s complicated. The ‘enemy’ is Sweyn Forkbeard, and one of the reasons he felt able to invade was that his sister Gunhilde was said to have been killed as part of the St Brice’s Day Massacre on 13 November 1002, when Ethelred ordered all Danes (Vikings!) in England killed as he was afraid they might come after his throne – he was afraid that the Danes were ‘sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat’. Of course, his plan backfired and led to his overthrow, not once, but twice – badly counselled indeed! And an early indicator of the effects of an intolerant political agenda towards migrants. The Danes in Oxford, for example, sought refuge in a church, and were burnt out and killed. Who is the bad guy here? Can we tell? Can we judge – I doubt they could judge at the time, and I doubt we can judge now even with hindsight.

The battles continued. The same year at Rymer in Suffolk (seven miles south of Thetford, near RAF Honington and indeed another Seven Hills with mounds…) there was another battle in which St Olaf fought alongside Ulfketel:

To Ulfkel’s land came Olaf bold,
A seventh sword-thing he would hold.
The race of Ella filled the plain —
Few of them slept at home again!
Hringmara heath
Was a bed of death:
Harfager’s heir
Dealt slaughter there.

From Hringmara field
The chime of war,
Sword striking shield,
Rings from afar.
The living fly;
The dead piled high
The moor enrich;
Red runs the ditch.(3)

Ethelred won this one, and Ulfketel attempted to make a truce with Sweyn, but he broke it and tried to sack Thetford. This jockeying went on until St Edmund (allegedly) killed Sweyn in 1014, revenging himself on the Danes who had taken his life, and perhaps incensed that Sweyn had chosen the same day to get crowned as himself – Christmas day. But that’s another story for another blog. His son Cnut took the throne in 1016, after the battle that killed Ulfketel. It is said that he was killed by his nemesis at Nacton, the Jomsviking Thorkell.

A complex tale indeed, and who’s to say that two wounded Vikings didn’t make their way to Ipswich and that one found his long lost Saxon father and stayed as a hermit guarding the holy well…

There is a certain irony to all this, though. Because there is a Viking age holy well in Ipswich. A boundary charter of 970 records a haligwille near the Stoke area on the other side of the Orwell, probably where Fir Tree Farm was, and where the Chantry Estate now is. The well was already well enough established to be used as boundary marker:

The aforesaid land is bounded this way and that by these limits : ‘These are the boundaries (landgemaera) of the 10 hides at Stoke. The first of these is a hythe and along the midstream at Ashman’s yre and so forth into the middle of the stream it comes to brunna and so forth to Theofford and from there to Haligwille to Healdenesho and so to Pottaford to Hagenefordabrycge from Hagenefordabricgeto Horsewade to [into] a merscmylne from merscmylne to the bridge In the year of the Lord’s incarnation the nine hundred and seventieth was this charter written.’(4)

It may have been in use for a long time before, as it is close to the place where a cache of Iron-age gold torcs was found in 1968 – a ritual offering? The mystery deepens…

1. http://www.gatehouse-gazetteer.info/English%20sites/4278.html
2. Actually Bronze Age bowl barrows…
3. http://omacl.org/Heimskringla/ The text of this edition is based on that published as “Heimskringla: A History of the Norse Kings” (Norroena Society, London, 1907, and edited, proofed, and prepared by Douglas B. Killings, April 1996
4. Fairclough, John ‘The Bounds of Stoke and the Hamlets of Ipswich’ in Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History Volume XL, part 3 (2003), pp. 262-277

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)

The Tales are coming! Upcoming events for Suffolk Folk Tales

I’ll be arriving for a week of events on Friday 31st May. I’ll be kicking off with a short slot at the Everyman Folk Club, and then into a week of signings at bookshops around the county. I’ll then be back in July for another signing and another event – watch this space!

Saturday 1 June
Book signing for Suffolk Folk Tales.
Join Kirsty Hartsiotis at the Butter Market Waterstones in Bury St Edmunds for a book singing with a tale or two from the book told for free! Her new book Suffolk Folk Tales is a fascinating look at traditional and modern folk tales set in the heart of beautiful and mysterious Suffolk.
Waterstones, Butter Market, Bury St Edmunds, IP33 1DW, 12:00pm.
Further details: 01284 750877, or Waterstone’s website

Friday 7 June
Suffolk Folk Tales talk and storytelling.
Come and find out about the stories that haunt Suffolk’s countryside and towns – and hear local stories told by the author, storyteller Kirsty Hartsiotis. Event arranged by the Halesworth Bookshop.
Halesworth Library, Bridge Street, Halesworth, IP19 8AB, 10:30am
Contact: 01986 873840 for details

Saturday 8 June
Book signing for Suffolk Folk Tales. Join Kirsty Hartsiotis at Waterstones in Lowestoft for a book signing with a tale or two from the book told for free! Her new book Suffolk Folk Tales is a fascinating look at traditional and modern folk tales set in the heart of beautiful and mysterious Suffolk.
Waterstones, 98 London Road North, Lowestoft, NR32 1ET, 12:00pm.
Further details: 0843 290 8467, enquiries@lowestoft.Waterstones.com

Saturday 13 July
Book signing for Suffolk Folk Tales. Join Kirsty Hartsiotis at the Waterstones in Ipswich for a book singing with a tale or two from the book told for free! Her new book Suffolk Folk Tales is a fascinating look at traditional and modern folk tales set in the heart of beautiful and mysterious Suffolk.
Waterstones, Buttermarket, Ipswich, IP1 1BQ, 11:00am.
Further details: 01473 289044, or Waterstone’s website