I have no doubt that if you were to delve back into the history of any village, town or city you would find something of interest in its past, the town where I live, East Dereham, situated in the centre of Norfolk is no different, admittedly you have to filter myth from the truth.
Let’s begin by looking at the story behind the town sign.
In the early years of the seventh century, Anna was king of the Angles. He had four daughters. Ethelreda, the eldest, inherited the Isle of Ely, and there she founded the great monastery and abbey. The next two sisters married and left East Anglia, while Withburga lived at Holkham. When their father died in 654, Withburga came to a small village in the middle of Norfolk – Dereham. Here she founded a small nunnery, no doubt with help from Ely. They settled down to teach and care for the people, and to build a small church. At times money was short and they had little but dry bread to eat. One night the Virgin Mary appeared to Withburga, saying ‘Send two of your women down to the stream every morning, where two does will stand to be milked’. This they did, and there was butter and cheese for all to add to their diet.
The tale of this wonder spread around, and many more of the country folk came to ask for help and advice – so much so that the Reeve of the village became jealous of Withburga’s fame. He set off with his hounds to kill, or drive away the deer, but his horse stumbled and threw him, and his neck was broken.
The years passed, Withburga died, and was buried in the churchyard until a suitable shrine could be built. When the time came to move her to her final resting place, the coffin was opened, and her body was found to be whole and uncorrupted as on the day she died. One story tells how one of the men reached and touched her cheek with his finger – whereupon the maiden saint blushed at the sacrilege!
Then came the Danish invasion. The nuns were scattered, the nunnery destroyed. But the church and shrine escaped, and when peace returned, became the parish church.
In 870 King Edgar gave to the Bishop of Winchester Ely and all the other monasteries destroyed by the Danes. He restored Ely, and at Dereham had a prison and court-house. On one visit, he suggested that Withburga, a royal princess, should lie at Ely with her three sisters, but Dereham folk did not wish to lose their saint. The next time, Ely monk:s gave a great feast to the men of Dereham and afterwards crept away, broke into the shrine, loaded the coffin onto an ox-wagon and set off for Ely. When morning came and the desecrated tomb was found, there was hot pursuit – they had almost caught up by Brandon, only to find the monks had got the coffin aboard a barge and were sailing down the river to Ely. The account in the Liber Eliensis ends with ‘and the men of Dereham ran along the bank, throwing clods of earth’. When they returned to Dereham, they found the empty tomb had filled with a spring of clear water, which they felt certain was recompense for the loss of their beloved Saint. Still pilgrims continued to come to pray, and drink the holy water, which to this day has never run dry.
Years later, at the end of the eighteenth century, a Bath-house was built over the spring, in the hope that the town would become a second Buxton nor Bath. Described as ‘a hideous building of brick and plaster’, it was never popular and about 1880 the Reverend Benjamin Armstrong got permission to pull it down. It was replaced with iron railings and for years was smothered in ivy and ferns, the water green with duck-weed. Since 1950 it has been cleared, the ivy replaced with climbing roses and rock plants, and the water kept clean.
(This account was written by Mildred M. Cook and is available from http://people.bath.ac.uk/liskmj/living- spring/sourcearchive/fs6/fs6mmc1.htm)
There is one aspect of Dereham’s history I am not very proud of and that is the fact that Edmund Bonner was at one time rector of the parish. This name may not mean much to many people, indeed the people of Dereham may only be aware of it in that his cottage next to the parish church still stands and operates as a museum today.
Those who have a little understanding of Church History will know that Edmund Bonner went on to become the Bishop of London and during the reign of Queen Mary and was responsible for the martyrdom at Smithfield of over 200 people who deified the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, in his day he was became known as “Bloody Bonner”.
One person who was connected to Dereham will need no introduction, and that is the hymn-writer William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper). Dereham is immensely proud of its connection to William Cowper, there was a Cowper Society in Dereham at one time, but today it is incorporated into The Dereham Antiquarian Society.
Cowper moved to Dereham with his friend Mary Unwin and they lived in house that was situated in the town market place. The house no longer stands, it was demolished and on the site now stands the Cowper Memorial Evangelical Congregational Church, for five years I served as a member of the pastoral team, but that is another story. William Cowper was a great friend of John Newton, and together they are well known for their collection of “Olney Hymns”. The list of William Cowper’s hymns includes hymns such as “Praise for the Fountain Opened” (beginning “There is a fountain fill’d with blood”) and “Light Shining out of Darkness” (beginning “God moves in a mysterious way”) which remain some of Cowper’s most familiar verses.
Although after being institutionalised for insanity in the period 1763–65, Cowper found refuge in a fervent evangelical Christianity, the inspiration behind his much-loved hymns, he often experienced doubt and after a dream in 1773 believed that he was doomed to eternal damnation. Several of Cowper’s hymns, as well as others originally published in the “Olney Hymns,” are today preserved in the Sacred Harp. Cowper died at Dereham on the 25th April 1800 at the age of 68 years he is buried in the chapel of St. Thomas of Canterbury, in St. Nicholas Church, East Dereham.
East Dereham was also the birthplace of the poet George Borrow, his birthplace still stands today although it is off the beaten track and rather difficult to find. I recall in my boyhood days delivering newspapers to the house every morning for two or three years. Although born at Dereham, Borrow died on the 26th July 1881 in Lowestoft, Suffolk.