You wouldn’t normally think the Devil would want to go anywhere near a church – but apparently in the medieval period, he’d often pop in. With disastrous consequences!
I grew up in the county of Essex in England, not far from London. It’s full of medieval churches and abbeys – some still standing and others in ruins. And it’s well documented from the Middle Ages, that on occasion Satan was known to wander in. For whatever reason.
In the 1992 book, Secret Essex by Glyn Morgan, there are several instances noted of the devil coming to mass. In one case, in the year 1402, he came disguised as a grey friar – that is a member of the Franciscan order. This resulted in a huge storm that severely damaged the building.
He subsequently sneaked back to steal one of the bells, which was eventually retrieved in a nearby field. But nobody would dare ring it for years afterwards. This theft isn’t entirely surprising as apparently Satan can’t stand the sound of church bells. It distracts him as he tries to seize the souls of the recently departed!
According to Glyn Morgan, churches often used to have “devil doorways” on the north side of the nave. These are usually bricked up now. But the idea was that they encouraged Satan to vacate the premises during events like christenings where his presence really wasn’t appreciated at all. Nobody wanted a possessed baby!
At one church in the village of Runwell, a new priest took mass one Sunday and he was well known for his inappropriate interest in the occult. While he was delivering a sermon, the devil appeared out of his mouth. Recovering quickly, he dashed to the main door of the church and slammed it shut.
The devil in turn, crashed into the door and began trying to claw his way out. And you can still see Satan’s frantic scratches on the woodwork today.
According to local media in the county, there are lots of examples of the devil in church in Essex. In the town of Broomfield, there is an ancient tomb in the churchyard and if you walk round it seven times – guess who shows up?!!
If you have any stories about Satan coming to your place of worship – do share!
For centuries the debate has raged – is The Shroud of Turin the real burial cloth in which the crucified body of Jesus was wrapped or is it a forgery?
What is the Turin Shroud?
In the cathedral church of Saint John the Baptist in the Italian city of Turin, you’ll find a long linen cloth with the imprint of a dead man. His hands and feet bear signs of having been nailed to a cross and there are blood stains along the folds of the cloth. The body has a ghostly appearance with a mournful bearded face that any Christian would identify as Jesus. This is the Turin Shroud.
But is it Christ? Science and faith have been at loggerheads over this in recent years.
Just when you think the Turin Shroud has been carbon dated and definitely proven to be a medieval fake, along comes another scientist or expert of some description to claim it could still be the real deal. Though I must say at this point that the overwhelming majority of scientists would be on the fake side of the argument – but not 100% of them.
Let’s start by taking a good look at the Turin Shroud – and by all means pull up the many images you can Google to see it in more detail. Remember, the view of those who believe is that this imprint was somehow made on the linen after Jesus had died on the cross.
A 3D image of Jesus as he may have looked like has even been produced using the Turin Shroud as this YouTube video shows. We’ll look at the evidence further below.
The Catholic church has always sat on the fence a bit when it comes to the shroud. You may have got the impression that the Vatican is totally on board with its authenticity as a literal representation of Jesus. But you’d be wrong. Read the small print. The church has authorised it as a devotional item – but not a bona fide relic of Jesus Christ.
The historian Charles Freeman thinks the Catholic church has boxed itself in over a piece of cloth that nobody believed was truly the shroud of Jesus when it was most likely created in the 14th century – a thousand years after the crucifixion. Freeman thinks the Turin Shroud was used as a theatrical prop in religious plays put on for simple folk at Easter time.
Intriguingly, some images of the Turin Shroud from five hundred years ago shows that the cloth had a lot more blood and gore on it. There was apparently quite a fashion for blood-splattered religious relics from the 14th century onwards. Pilgrims liked to see the Messiah had suffered – I dare say Mel Gibson would approve having watched his horrific depiction of Christ’s death.
Scientists testing small samples from the cloth have dated it to the 14th century. However, there was one high-profile dissenting voice from one of the scientific investigations conducted in the 1970s. Barrie Schwortz was the official photographer on the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) in 1978. In his own words, even though he is Jewish – he’s convinced to this day that the shroud he photographed is the genuine article.
A fascinating Bloodstain Pattern Analysis was conducted on the shroud by two scientists in 2018 – Matteo Borrini and Luigi Garlaschelli – concluding that the flow of blood on the front of the body didn’t match the flow of blood on the back. More bluntly, the rivulets of blood on the front of the arms suggested a crucifixion at an angle of 80 to 100 degrees – so arms raised very high. While on the back it pointed to a 45 degree angle. In other words, the front and back of the shroud don’t agree with each other.
Another scientist is more optimistic about the veracity of the shroud. Stephen Mattingly at the University of Texas thinks the image was caused by decaying bacteria from the body of a man who had died very slowly. Or how about the theory that a kind of thermo-nuclear flash caused by the Resurrection of Jesus burnt his image into the shroud.
Others trying to prove its authenticity have argued that the weave of the material corresponds to cloth from the biblical period while pollen on the Turin Shroud has been traced to the Middle East.
Then we go to the really far out theories. I’ve heard it claimed that the Turin Shroud is actually the face of Jacques de Molay – the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. Or a more popular assertion is that Leonardo da Vinci had a hand in its creation. Possible he used primitive photographic techniques to capture a human image.
I’ve been visiting the shrines of some weird saints over the summer.
The stories, legends and myths attaching to these holy people can often be rather weird. Strange tales of how they were martyred in a gruesome fashion. At the shrines, you can find their entire body or a bone or a piece of cloth. Let’s look at some of the weird saints I encountered!
Saint Cassian is the oddest account of a martyrdom. A Christian in the Roman Empire who was teaching pagan children. This was during the reign of Julian the Apostate – who tried to turn the empire back to paganism after three decades of emperors who had converted to Christianity.
Cassian refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and his punishment was to be turned over to his own pupils who were told to kill him with their pens and clay tablets. This took a while by all accounts – but Cassian urged them on desiring to die for his faith!
Saint Apollonia is said to have been martyred during a riot in Alexandria under the reign of the Roman emperor Philip. Before her death, it’s said she had her teeth pulled out. And so rather ghoulishly, she is depicted holding a pair of pliers with a tooth in its grip. Yuck!
There’s many horrible ways to die but being grilled is probably the worst. Saint Lawrence is often depicted holding what looks like an iron bed mattress but it’s actually the metal grid to which he was tied and cooked.
Here’s the body of Saint Justina – a virgin woman from Padua in Italy. She converted to Christianity at a time when the Roman Empire was still pagan. The emperor Maximian himself tried to make her reject Christ but she refused. So she was martyred with a sword – which she holds close to her breast. Somehow, her body made it from Italy to Portugal and here it is…
And then there’s Bartholomew the apostle of Christ. He is said to have journeyed to India to convert people to Christianity but then came to grief in Armenia. There, he was executed by being skinned alive. Sometimes he’s also being crucified upside down at the same time. The depictions of him and his skin can be rather odd.
Medieval England saw many strange incidents. Unexplained visitations that creeped out villagers who knew nothing about science or reason. One such incident was the sudden arrival of two children with green skin at the village of Wulpet. Who and what were they? The mystery is one well worth revisiting.
The strange green children of Wulpet
This is one of those stories that confirms the view of folk in the Middle Ages being…well…not the sharpest pencils in the box. It’s a strange tale. We must go back to the stormy reign of King Stephen, a Norman king who sat precariously on his throne fighting an insurgency from a rival claimant to his crown – the Empress Matilda. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle claims these were miserable times for England when God himself had turned his face away from the country.
It’s in troubled periods like this that odd events seem to happen – mysterious occurrences with no rational explanation. Maybe a product of mass hysteria – people driven out of their wits by daily strife. And what happened in the village of Wulpit in Suffolk was, frankly, out of the ordinary. It was recorded by one William of Newburgh in 1150. He adopts a cynical tone but says so many witnesses claimed what they saw was true that he feels compelled to repeat it.
Green children emerge from the “wolf pits” – known as Wulpet
Four or five miles from Bury St Edmunds – the shrine to a Saxon king shot through with arrows – was Wulpit….named after “ancient cavities” called Wolfpittes or ‘pits for wolves’. While the reapers were in the fields working, two children emerged from these holes in the ground. A boy and a girl. Nothing untoward about that – except for their appearance. William of Newburgh explains:
“…a boy and girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations…”
Their skin was completely green! Well, the reapers were startled and grabbed the kids taking them to Wulpit. The villagers gawped at them for ages, trying to feed them but the children would not take what they were offered – until somebody offered them beans from their pods. And they gobbled them down.
Their green skin of the children of Wulpet fades!
Over time, they were taught to eat bread and learned English and then something unexpected happened – their green colour started to fade. With this development, it was decided to baptise the boy and girl. This proved fatal with the boy who subsequently died. The girl survived and “differed not in the least from the women of our own country”. She even got married.
All of which begs the question – who were these children? This was their own explanation recorded by William of Newburgh:
‘…we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St Edmund’s when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields, where you were reaping’.
Wulpet green children: from the ‘land of St Martin’
They claimed to be from the ‘land of St Martin’ – a place where this saint was hugely venerated. Did they believe in Christ in their homeland? Yes. Did the sun rise like it did in Wulpit? No.
‘The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sunrise, or, follows the sunset.’
So they lived in a permanently dark realm though, bizarrely, they could see in the distance a ‘certain luminous country’. But they couldn’t get to it because there was a great river in between.
There are a large number of theories as to what or who these children were – ranging from aliens to fairies to Flemish refugees, etc, etc. It’s not atypical of other stories in the Middle Ages detailing strange visitations to isolated villages.
One such story I like is of the villagers in a church who heard a great thump in the graveyard and found a massive anchor had dropped from the sky…and up above was a floating ship…and down the anchor chain came a sailor. In one version of this story he was grabbed by the villagers and ‘drowned’, exploding like a being made of water.
Exorcism has a long history in human society. The casting out of evil spirits. Rituals to remove demons that were destroying crops or bringing illness into communities. Even Jesus is reported to have done some exorcism in the bible.
Only recently I was reading of the terribly sad story of three children sacrificed by the Inca around the year 1500 to please their Gods. The community was worried about their harvest. So two girls and one boy were imprisoned in a cave and starved. We only know about this because their mummified bodies survived.
There is a reviving belief in exorcism in the US and Europe. The casting out of devils is coming back into vogue. It’s something our ancestors would have understood. Evil spirits were all around them waiting to make them sick, mad or even kill them.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Violent demons were expelled angels
Violent demons were believed to be extremely dangerous and their power was derived from the fact that they were originally angels – living in heaven. They rebelled against God and were cast out. They became ugly and hideous.
But they did not lose their power. Even when they fell from heaven, the power of their fall created the pit of hell. And forever, they are trying to escape from hell. Beneath the earth these demons are trying to grab at your soul while up above, angels are trying to guide you to God.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How demons entered your body
It was once believed that demons could enter your body as a vapour through any opening. That might be your open mouth for example. Chester girl Anne Millner was possessed in this way in the 16th century when she found herself surrounded by a white cloud. She had no doubt it was a physical entity and it entered in to her.
People in the Middle Ages truly believed that demons could turn in to everyday objects like food – there are accounts of people inadvertently admitting a demon by consuming an apple or even a lettuce leaf.
Bad case of food poisoning? Maybe. Very probably. But the resulting fevers and lack of medicine to help meant these sick folk appeared to be possessed.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How to get rid of a pesky demon?
So how to get rid of a demon? How to treat a ‘demoniac’? Well, an exorcism of course.
In 1585, Sarah Williams was subjected to an exorcism. Sarah truly believed herself to be possessed. She could not cross herself. She behaved strangely. Her verbal outpourings were taken to be the demon talking.
So, like a scene out of the Hollywood movie The Exorcist, she had holy water chucked at her and Sarah called her tormentors all sorts of unpleasant and profane words.
As there was no sign of improvement – the treatment became more intense. A cauldron stew of powdered root that smelt disgusting was held under nose and the smoke turned Sarah’s face black. Sure sign of possession!
The next step was to cram the bones of a dead saint in to Sarah’s mouth! And she was touched over and over again with a crucifix – particularly the extremities like the feet. And the rite of baptism and other prayers were chanted over her. After several months, Sarah was ‘cured’.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Some people rather liked demons
Not everybody wanted to get rid of demons – some people wanted to harness their power through necromancy…the conjuring up of spirits through spells. A crime punishable by death. Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (1400-1452), was an infamous necromancer.
She consulted two astrologers who predicted that King Henry VI of England would suffer a life threatening illness. For this she was forced to do penance while one of the astrologers was hung, drawn and quartered.
The Munich Handbook was hugely popular in the Middle Ages and gave detailed instructions on just how to summon up the spirits. One spell described how to turn a beautiful maiden in to a love slave.
This involved finding a white dove, bite in to it near its heart, draw with the blood using a quill from an eagle on a parchment made from a female dog on heat….no, I’m not making this up! The dove, by the way, was seen as being the symbol of Venus while the dog was the symbol of lust.
Having turned the maiden one is after in to a slave, the demon that has been summoned would create a replica human in the shape of the maiden who would return to her home and pretend to be her. So you could never be sure who was a real human being and who was a demon in disguise.
Aaaah…but fairies you say. They’re nice spirits aren’t they? Cute little things with pink wings. Well, not in the Middle Ages. The medieval mind had not heard of Peter Pan or Walt Disney. To them, fairies did not have gossamer wings – a Victorian invention – and were not necessarily small – a Shakespearian invention.
Fairies were human size – possibly inherited from the Roman idea of nymphs. They were only invisible when they wanted to be.
Fairies could kill you, ruin your crop and worst of all, abduct your child and replace it with a ‘changeling’. In medieval Britain, the belief in changelings led to women advising new mothers to surround the cradle with cold iron – like shears, which should be placed near the head.
Draw a chalk circle around the cradle and recite prayers as you did it. But even this didn’t guarantee a child’s safety.
Demon changelings – when evil spirits replaced family members
If the child inherited an abnormality – a fairy had probably taken its place. A child being deaf, not moving much or throwing violent tantrums – could very well be a fairy changeling.
A parent in the Middle Ages might do something odd to test the child. They would bake bread in an eggshell to see if the baby or toddler laughed – thereby proving it was an old knowledgeable fairy in a child’s body.
So if the baby was proven to be a changeling – what then?
Well, according to contemporary sources, babies were left exposed on a dung heap or placed near a fire and the terrified fairy would fly out of the body and it would be replaced by your real baby.
Unfortunately, babies did die. And as late as 1895, a man killed his wife in England because he believed his own wife to be a fairy changeling.
So, as you can see, exorcism has a long and violent history – which I rather hope will not return!
Politicians and journalists are more unpopular today than ever. But in the past in London they stood a very real risk of being lynched.
One of the many politicians to be lynched was Walter Stapleton, Lord Treasurer of England, who came to a sticky end around 1326.
Victim of the London mob
Not only was he in charge of the country’s finances, Walter was a leading adviser to King Edward II and – typical of the Middle Ages – also the Bishop of Exeter. Men of the cloth often held top political positions. It wasn’t seen as unusual or ungodly. However, the conduct of King Edward II was seen as less than godly – with accusations of sodomy and vice swirling around him.
Edward’s own queen launched a rebellion to overthrow her husband the king in alliance with her lover. Londoners came out in the queen’s support. The king fled towards Wales while his Lord High Treasurer, the unfortunate Walter, tried to lock the gates of the city to stop Queen Isabella getting in.
Stapleton is one of many medieval lynched politicians
However, he’d misjudged the mood of London very badly.
The hapless politician galloped as fast as he could towards St Paul’s cathedral to plead for sanctuary but was intercepted by the mob. They pulled Walter from his horse, stripped his clothes (worth a pretty penny I’m sure) and dragged him naked to the stone cross that once stood in Cheapside.
There, they proclaimed him a traitor and cut off his head – putting it on a pole and processing around with it. The same fate befell his servants whose headless bodies were tossed on a heap of rubbish by the river.
Over fifty years later, a similar gory end came to Simon Sudbury, the Lord Chancellor of England. Like Walter, Simon held some ecclesiastical positions as well as being a politician. He was both Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury – so a top nob in medieval society. But the London mob soon cut him down to size – literally.
Poll tax leads to politicians being lynched
Regrettably, Sudbury supported the introduction of a poll tax. The peasants hated it. They marched on the capital and surrounded the Tower of London where Simon was holed up with the Lord Treasurer Sir Robert Hales.
Eventually, the two men were handed over to the mob and beheaded. Apparently, it took something like eight blows to take Simon’s head off. His skull can still be seen in the church of St Gregory in the town of Sudbury, Suffolk today.
Londoners have frequently rioted and attacked top politicians with no regard to their rank or position. During the 1780 anti-Catholic “Gordon Riots”, the house of Lord Mansfield was thoroughly plundered. In 1815, Lord Eldon – the Lord Chancellor – confronted a mob that was breaking the windows of his home with a shotgun in his hand!
Eldon was hated by the city populace as he’d managed to oppose just about every progressive measure you could imagine including the abolition of slavery and attempts to secure affordable bread for the poor (the Corn Laws).
But the pelting of Eldon’s house with stones wasn’t a one off incident. Lord Wellington – hero of Waterloo – was assailed in his carriage by Londoners – as was King George III and King George IV.
So if politicians think they’ve got it tough today – pick up a history book. They’re getting off lightly in our times – with just a few hostile tweets. In the past they were lynched – their lives cruelly cut short.
I’ve been busy filming with the History channel in the Portuguese town of Tomar for a thrilling new documentary series about the Knights Templar. It’s called Buried: Knights Templar and the Holy Grailand is presented by Mikey Kay and Garth Baldwin.
This will accompany the new Templar drama Knightfall about to grace your TV screens.
Buried follows the Templar quest for the Holy Grail and I caught up with the team in Tomar, the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Portugal.
Tomar, in central Portugal, was on the frontier between the Christian crusader kingdoms of northern Spain and Portugal and the Islamic caliphate to the south. This is when cities like Lisbon, Seville and Cordoba were ruled by emirs. But slowly, the crusaders and Templars conquered the whole Iberian peninsula.
One Muslim army tried to storm Tomar and the cost of much blood, the Knights Templar held the city and pushed them back. One gate where a very vicious struggle took place between Knights Templar and Muslims is still called the Gate of Blood.
I’ve visited this town many times, dominated by its Templar fortress. It’s a hugely atmospheric and enigmatic place. Nowhere I’ve been to in the world captures the essence of the Templars like Tomar.
After the Knights Templar were crushed in 1307, the Portuguese simply rebranded them as the Order of Christ. And this is why we wondered in the programme whether Tomar could have been a safe haven for Templars worldwide? And could their treasure have been buried there?
Together with the team, we set out to unearth some Templar secrets and you can find out how we got on later in the autumn – or Fall for my American followers!