POCKET HISTORIES OF SUFFOLK PARISHES.
No. 320. SOUTH ELMHAM ST. MICHAEL.

As everybody who has taken the slightest interest in the story of the Southelmhams knows very well the nine parishes comprising this ancient township are so inter-mingled, that to write about one particular village without encroaching upon the preserves of the others is a matter of extreme difficulty, if not of absolute impossibility. Therefore, in revealing something of Southelmham St. Michael's past it is necessary to walk very warily, but even so there is a certain quality of attraction here which well deserves the setting down.

For, although from the reasons mentioned above I am leaving the manors connected with the Southelmhams severely alone, St. Michael can beast, and boast definitely, a connection with affairs of some importance so far as the making of history is concerned. In fact, this rather remote Suffolk village - and I know from personal experience that I am asking for trouble from irate inhabitants of the district in so describing it!-is intimately associated with an episode which, quite easily, could have changed the whole history of England.

Rather far-fetched a statement, I admit, and yet the truth of it will be apparent by what follows. As everybody knows, after William the Conqueror had set his iron heel upon the country he had invaded, he rewarded his more intimate friends and supporters with many rich estates filched from the beaten Saxons, and amongst the lands so distributed was the village of Southelmham St. Michael-at least, so the majority of historians aver. The particular and fortunate recipient of the Norman's favours was a certain Ralph Guader who, incidentally, was made Earl of Norfolk and Suffolk, as well. Yet Ralph, judging by all accounts, was very far from being satisfied with his good fortune for good fortune it certainly was, even although we know very well that he had fought for such a reward-and through some reason or other considered himself a more worthy personage to wear the crown of England than William, his liege. Therefore, he planned to depose the Conqueror, and although intrigue and conspiracy are no uncommon things where the affairs of royalty are concerned, we cannot have any sympathy for Ralph Guader, for he seems to have been something of a loose-tongued fool, that is, judging by the manner in which he made public his designs, and only the most close-lipped of men should attempt to indulge in the dangerous pastime of unseating kings!

To cut a long story short: Amongst Ralph's allies in this most risky of revolts was Walthorp, the great Earl of Northumberland, as he has been described-and if so great, surely he should have known better! Moreover, other nobles espoused his cause, including the Earl of Hereford, whose sister Ralph Guader intended to marry in due course. And it seems as though the latter fact was partly responsible for his downfall, for it was his wedding-day which actually caused the ruination of his plans and his ultimate downfall.

Ralph, like a good many men in similar circumstances, drank just sufficient to make him talkative, so much so that he laid bare all his schemes-schemes which were meant to end in the seizing of England's throne – before his guests.

And apparently his intentions were considerably more ambitious than several of his allies desired, for although they applauded them at the time, when the effects of the nuptial potions had been shaken off they realised they had committed themselves to a very serious thing, with the result that they rapidly-some probably rather shamefacedly, for no man likes to climb down after the utterance of bellicose statements-backed out leaving Ralph Guader to continue in his own way.

But Ralph Guader, with all his faults, was no coward-his conduct at Hastings had proved that-and although deserted by many of his friends and allies, he decided to carry on with his misguided attempt. The effort, however, was foredoomed to failure; before the forces of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and of Geoffrey, Worcester's bishop, who proved that the church militant was no term of speech in those days.

Ralph rapidly gave way, and to his eternal shame, left his followers to their fate and fled to Brittany. His wife, however, refused for some time to submit to her husband's foes, and held Norwich Castle as bravely as any knightly warrior could desire. Of course, in the end she was compelled to surrender, but either through pity or else because they had admired her courage and fortitude in the cause of a lost cause before desperate odds, the beseigers granted her safe passage to the continent.

Whether she was ever reunited with her truant husband, who, naturally enough, was deprived of his earldom, is doubtful. Probably not, for Ralph de Guader followed in the footsteps of many men of noble birth and chivalrous inclinations in those remote times; he journeyed to the Holy Land and fought for its restoration from the hand of the infidel.

Apparently, the atmosphere of Palestine – or more probably the cause for which he wielded his sword- engendered a religious spirit in de Gauder, for we find that he died a “great penitent”. Despite all this, however, the two sons he left behind failed to benefit, for his estates were confiscated to the Crown, the Southelmham St. Michael property being granted to Alan, Earl of Brittany and Richmond, usually called Rufus, for reasons which every schoolboy will appreciate.

Alan owned quite a lot of land in the district, and through his connection with Southelmham St. Michael the church seems to have been appropriated to the Priory at nearby Rumburgh.

Apart from his association with such an abode of peace, however, the Earl of Brittany is of considerable interest through the part he played when he fought beneath the banner of the Conqueror at Hastings. For the earl- he, of course, had not then received the title - commanded the rear of William's army in that epoch-shattering battle; and so well in favour with his liege was he that he married the Conqueror's daughter.

Alan, Earl of Brittany and Richmond, surnamed Rufus, died without issue; but his brother Stephen, who eventually succeeded, was the father of another Alan, a son whose vicious behaviour earned for him the designation of "The Savage." Like his predecessors, however, "The Savage," if ruthless, was also brave, and made a considerable name for himself in the engagements between Stephen, on whose side lie fought, and the Empress Maud, for amongst his various achievements he was virtually responsible for the capture of Lincoln Castle, whose walls he scaled at dead of night, with the result that much treasure fell into the hands of his king.

Alan "the Savage" was a really bad lot in most respects, however, and there is no doubt that his founding of a religious establishment was inspired by a fear of the wrath to come which, incidentally, was often the case in those times. As far as these notes are concerned however, there still remains something of interest connected with his line, for when he died his son succeeded, and this son took for wife the daughter of Malcolm the Fourth, King of Scotland; and the only daughter of the couple married Geoffrey Plantaganet, father of the ill-fated Prince Arthur, whose name is famed in song and story through his untimely end at the hands of a wicked uncle.

Having said so much about the rather gory episodes connected with people whose history is partly linked with Southelmham St. Michael's past, it is advisable to discover something of the village as it is to-day; and, first of all, it strikes the visitor as consisting chiefly of an extensive green, with around it the houses of the inhabitants, the majority of these habitations ancient-looking and in entire harmony with their environment. On the green, also, is a pond, in whose muddy waters cattle splash refreshingly; whilst geese, important-looking as usual, strut majestically but somewhat foolishly about. Some distance away is a mill, in itself a symbol of the country's quiet appeal; and on the green itself the church stands-a building whose outward-leaning walls and very atmosphere seem to tell of the past and its story.

Rubble and flint are the chief materials used in its construction, and it contains chancel, nave, South porch, and Western tower only. Perhaps the first object to strike the eye when visiting this pleasant little building, in its open position, is the sun-dial on the wall near the porch, for, apart from bearing the trite saying one so frequently discovers in connection with similar relics-"I only count, the sunlit hours"-this particular affair, gives very sound words of advice and admonition to anybody who goes there out of pure curiosity. "Why stand gazing?" it says, pertly enough considering its hoariness. And as if this be not sufficient to shame the idler, "Be about your business."

A really splendid example of the Norman style of architecture can be seen in the South doorway, but the rest of the building chiefly belongs to the Decorated period. As we have conveyed, the structure seems singularly redolent of the past, and this effect is more apparent when the interior is gained, for the old timber roof of the nave, and the general appearance certainly suggestive of age, and the fascination that age retains.

Not that many outstanding items providing links with ancient times are existent in St. Michael's Church, and yet those remaining are of some consequence. And amongst these must be mentioned the font, for this is certainly in a remarkable state of preservation, and what is more, has escaped mutilation-at least so it seems. The panels of the bowls depict angels holding shields, and lions, whilst representations of the latter animals support the stem.

On the nave wall, close by the South doorway, is a list of vicars, commencing in 1555 with John Redwyke, but certainly the most uncommon affair in the church has been placed on the West wall near the tower arch. This is a candle sconce, brought to light in a field near the mill twenty-five years ago, and it is made of pewter, and dates from the eighteenth century, whilst as a matter of further interest it is suggested to have belonged to a ring of candles once used to light the church.

Another curious discovery, which is preserved on the opposite or Northern side of the tower arch is an abbey token found beneath the floor of the nave during a thirty years' ago restoration. This was struck at Nuremburg about the beginning of the sixteenth century, and was one of a similar type used by the monks for reckoning, in much the same way as a children's counting board at the present time.

A floorstone, some two hundred years old remains in the nave, and there is a monument on the North wall to Robert Chase, a former inhabitant of Southelmham St Michael who died at Wissett in 1842, whilst his wife and daughter are also commemorated, the accompanying inscription being typical of the period. To go further back, however, the chancel retains a piscina and sedilia, and amongst the church plate is an Elizabethan chalice and a paten of the same era.

The story of Southelmham St. Michael, therefore, is well worth the telling, and although in the dim and distant past people connected with it played their parts in many a bloody affray, to-day it retains the peace won through centuries of seclusion, the peace and the quietude typified by its extensive green, where stands the ancient church, whose very appearance suggests the deeper things of life and the understanding which dwells only in the contented mind and the chastened but unconquered spirit.

Yeoman Reprinted from the Suffolk Chronicle and Mercury, August 4th, 1933.

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