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“The discovery of a dead body”, extract from The Murder of William of Norwich

The discovery of the mutilated body of William of Norwich in 1144 soon sparked stories of a ritual murder performed by Jews that quickly spread beyond the walls of Norwich. E. M. Rose examines the events surrounding the murder and the ensuing court case, and launches a historical forensic analysis into the death. The following is an extract describing the discovery of William’s body.

The story of the first ritual murder accusation begins with the discovery of a dead body. In March 1144, William, a young apprentice, was killed and left under a tree on the outskirts of Norwich. Finding a dead body is invariably an awkward experience. It raises troubling questions, draws unwanted attention to the finder, and generally entangles the discoverer in costly officialdom and paperwork, not to mention emotional distress. This was particularly true in medieval England, where detailed rules specified the proper procedures for dealing with corpses. Then, as now, homicide was a serious business involving families, communities, courts, and an entire hierarchy of justice. Many considered it advisable to move a dead body elsewhere, bury it quickly, or hope that it might be devoured by animals or consumed by the elements before it was discovered.

When a peasant stumbled upon a corpse tangled in the underbrush not far from a major thoroughfare outside the city of Norwich, therefore, he knew exactly what to do: at first he ignored it. Earlier that same day, another person who came upon the corpse, a Norman aristocratic nun, Lady Legarda, likewise failed to alert the authorities or to take any responsibility. She said prayers around the corpse with her fellow nuns, and then retreated to her convent, apparently untroubled. The presence of birds circling around the cadaver indicated that it lay unprotected in the open. As was typical in many such cases, the ‘first finder’ of the body was actually the last of several people who encountered it, but the first one who was legally obligated to investigate the death.

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Saint William of Norwich, Anonymous rood screen painting. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

On Holy Saturday (25 March) the day before Easter, the forester Henry de Sprowston was shown the corpse while he was riding through the woods in the course of his duties, looking for people who might be making mischief or, more likely, cutting timber without a license. He was patrolling Thorpe Wood on behalf of his ecclesiastical employer, the Norwich bishop and monks. The right to cut lumber was a valuable privilege that was jealously guarded. Wood was used for heating and cooking, for building halls, cathedrals, parish churches, homes, docks, and the boats needed for the hundreds of shiploads of fine limestone brought from Normandy to build Norwich Cathedral and castle. Good English oak was especially highly prized: tree trunks were employed for the construction of heavy beams in houses, halls, and barns, the branches were used to make charcoal or were dried for firewood, the bark was boiled for tannin used in leatherworking, and the fiber beneath the bark could be used to make rope. This was a period of great deforestation throughout Europe as the population expanded and land was cleared for planting, especially around Norwich, one of the fastest-growing boroughs in the country in an already densely populated region. Landlords, therefore, vigorously enforced restrictions on access to woodland.

The forester’s role was judicial and economic as well as agricultural. In a complicated plan to divide one of their major assets, the bishop owned Thorpe Wood, but part had been given to the monks of Norwich Cathedral Priory, the monastery attached to the cathedral. The woods were to be managed for the joint benefit of monastery and bishop, and each had to approve the trees that the other marked before they were cut down. They also had to agree to any timber sales to a third party. The discovery of a dead body on their land was of consequence to the church authorities in their capacity as landowners as well as comforters of the dead youth’s family.

To deflect attention from his own possibly illicit activities, the peasant led Henry de Sprowston to the dead body. Neither the woodcutter nor the forester recognised the young man, and neither could account for how the body came to be in the woods. Henry de Sprowston launched an inquiry into the death, and while nothing apparently came of his investigation, the body was identified as that of William, a young apprentice leatherworker and son of Wenstan and Elviva. The news spread and people from the city rushed to the woods to see what had happened. After William’s uncle, brother, and cousin identified the body, the dead youth was laid to rest with minimal ceremony and no elaborate marker.

Information about William and the resulting homicide inquiry comes from Brother Thomas’s account of the Life and Passions of William of Norwich, which is one of the only surviving texts from the large library of twelfth-century Norwich Cathedral. Thomas arrived at the monastery a few years after the discovery of William’s body and took a passionate interest in the dead boy, for reasons that will become clear. Six years after the murder, Brother Thomas claimed to have pieced together what had happened during the fateful Holy Week of 1144. He set out to prove that William had been killed for his faith, and therefore deserved to be hailed as a saint.

Featured image credit: Norwich Cathedral by Ziko-C. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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