Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/William (1132?-1144)

WILLIAM (1132?–1144), ‘saint and martyr of Norwich,’ was the son of Wenstan, a substantial farmer, and Elvina or Elviva, daughter of a married priest. He was born apparently at Haveringland, a village nine miles north of Norwich, on 2 Feb. 1132 or 1133. At the entertainment which Wenstan gave at Haveringland on the occasion of the child's baptism, a man who was undergoing penance was freed from the fetters he was compelled to wear by the sudden snapping of the iron rings, much to the wonder of the bystanders. The child was brought up with great care by his mother, and is said to have been conspicuous for his devotions and religious temperament from his infancy. At eight years old (1142) he was apprenticed to a skinner in Norwich, with whom he remained till he was twelve. His mother had by this time become a widow, and an elder brother appears to have been already in minor orders. While in Norwich William lived with a man named Wulward, his mother Elvina presumably still continuing to reside at Haveringland. The master-skinner had frequent dealings with the Norwich Jews, which brought the young apprentice into intimate relations with them. His constant visits to them, we are told, displeased his uncle, one Godwin Sturt, the husband of Liviva, his mother's sister. Godwin appears to have held some benefice in Norwich, and he forbade his nephew to have anything more to do with the Jews. On 20 March 1144, the Monday before Easter, a strange man who represented himself to be the cook of William, the archdeacon of Norwich, and whose name is not mentioned, called upon Elvina and offered to take the boy into the archdeacon's kitchen if he could come at once and enter upon the duties of the place. On Elvina's objecting to so hasty an engagement, the mysterious stranger prevailed on her to comply by offering her money, which she accepted. Next day the stranger called with William upon the aunt Liviva in Norwich to inform her of the arrangement that had been made. She, suspecting something wrong, set her daughter to watch the pair, and the story is that they were last seen entering a Jew's house in Norwich. Afterwards the lad was never seen alive. From this point till the discovery of the boy's dead body the evidence of what happened is in the highest degree untrustworthy, and the more it is investigated the stronger becomes the impression upon the reader that the details of the story were invented to serve a purpose, and that no reliance can be placed upon them. The legend, however, goes on to tell that a Christian woman, who acted as a servant to the Jew into whose house Liviva's daughter had tracked her cousin, saw through a chink in the door of the inner room a boy fastened to a post. But other hearsay evidence (?) declared that the Jews had deliberately murdered the child, shorn his head, and lacerated it with thorns, pierced his left side, and poured hot water over the body to staunch the blood. The motive for the crime is further asserted to have been the intention of carrying out a ritual murder, that is of sacrificing the boy as a victim in compliance with what was believed to be a religious rite of the Jews. The day, it must be remembered, was the Tuesday before Easter, that is the day before the Passover, which in this year, 1144, fell on the Wednesday. On that day the Jews, we are asked to believe, left the dead body in the house while they kept the passover according to their observances. On Thursday, however, they consulted what was to be done, and determined on their next step. Accordingly, on Good Friday two Jews slipped out of the city on horseback, carrying with them the corpse, and managed to hang it upon a tree in Mousehold Wood, near Norwich, and there left it. The further details of the very improbable story may be passed over. The body was discovered on Easter Eve. It is said that many people from Norwich crowded to look at it. Nevertheless it remained unburied till Easter Monday, and then was put into the ground without any religious ceremony. On Easter Tuesday Godwin Sturt and Robert, the martyr's brother, identified the body, and when the Easter synod of the diocese assembled a day or two later, Godwin the priest brought the matter before the bishops and clergy, and in an inflammatory speech charged the Norwich Jews with having murdered his nephew as a Christian victim, and claimed vengeance upon them even to the extent of extermination. The bishop of the diocese, Eborard, seems to have disbelieved the story. The secular clergy as a body were divided in opinion as to its truth. Among the citizens of Norwich and even among the monks in the cloister there was a large party of sceptics who were inclined to denounce the whole affair as an imposture. But so stubbornly and vehemently was the truth of the story advocated by the Prior William Turbe [see William, 1095?–1174], who a year or two later became bishop of Norwich, that in the end all opposition was stamped down, and a large crop of miracles sprang up at the successive tombs of the ‘martyr.’ He had been buried originally at Thorpe Wood, whence he was translated to the monks' cemetery, and afterwards to the chapter-house; thence he was removed to the south side of the altar. When Thomas wrote his life of William, William's remains lay in a chapel on the north side of the altar, but some time before the dissolution of the monasteries they had been placed on the north side of the rood-screen, and an altar erected over them. This altar continued to attract visitors and pilgrims down to the middle of the fifteenth century. In the meantime other boy saints and martyrs were discovered elsewhere, the several legends concerning their deaths and miracles being evidently borrowed from the Norwich prototype.

[The only authority for the life of St. William is a monk of Norwich, Thomas of Monmouth by name, whose curious work was printed at the Cambridge University Press in 1896, under the joint editorship of Dr. Jessopp and Dr. James, from a twelfth-century manuscript, which there is some reason to think passed under the author's eye and hand. Incidentally the volume throws some much needed light upon the history of East Anglia during the reign of King Stephen.]

A. J.