Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The Site of the Chapel of the Boy Martyr

A site of an extraordinary, if horrifying, turning point in Norwich’s history. In 1144, in Norwich’s Thorpe Woods (in an area now known as northern Mousehold Heath), the body of the 12-year old William of Norwich was found, and whose death at the time was attributed to Norwich’s Jewish community. The murder was seen as evidence of ritualistic sacrifice, apparently the first medieval instance of a blood libel against Jews. An increasing sense of anti-Semitism in the area (as well as the country in general) was to culminate in 1190, when the majority of Norwich Jewish community was massacred.

Local miracles attributed to the murdered boy quickly saw William regarded as a saint. A wooden chapel was erected on the site on which William’s body was originally found. This chapel never survived the sixteenth century, and is almost entirely forgotten today. The only remaining signs of its existence are four small moss-covered stone markers indicating its former boundaries. I managed to find three of the four. William of Norwich’s clear relationship to violent medieval anti-Semitism means he is little known today, even in his home city.


  1. 'The spot marked on the map as the site of St. William in the Wood, is now scarcely distinguishable from the surrounding heath, save by very slight traces of its foundation, and a smooth patch of short smooth grass, amongst which "the wild thyme grows," but free from furze and the coarser plants which flourish all around.
    About twelve months since, having never seen the spot, I went in search of it; but without any clue to the place, and seeing no ruined walls as I expected, to indicate its locality, I despaired of finding it. I inquired of an old shepherd who was tending his flock, though with little hope that he could tell me aught of the Chapel of St. William in the Wood; and was surprised to learn from him that I was very near it, and if I followed that sheep-track for about an hundred yards, I should come to it. I asked how I should know the place: his answer was, "You can't mistake it; the grass is short and fine: 'tis holy ground; and no weeds will grow upon it."'

    W.C. Ewing, p.2, Norfolk Archaeology vol.2 (Norwich, 1849)

  2. An absolutely fabulous quote, and certainly one I wasn't familiar with...