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In Anne Boleyn's Country (Norwich to Aylsham, Blickling, and Cromer)

Aylsham - Blickling Hall - The History of the Manor - The Boleyns - Traditions concerning Anne Boleyn - The Blickling Library - Blickling Church - Blickling Ghosts - On to Cromer.
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Nearly four hundred years have passed since Anne Bullen or Boleyn, little dreaming of the stormy life and sad fate in store for her, wandered through the leafy Janes of Aylsham and Blickling; but the country folk of the district would have us believe that even now she has not wholly deserted the scenes amid which she spent her childhood. There is an old avenue of trees in the park at Blickling down which, once a year, a coach drawn by headless horses is driven by a headless coachman, and in it is seated, her head in her lap, a woman who was once a queen (Strange how these old ghost stories linger on in the country! See the story of the haunting of Doleswood by Dame Paulet. ("Hampshire" in " Dent's County Guides."). But she cannot now enter the portals of her old home, for the manor house built by Sir Nicholas Dagworth at the end of the 14th century, and afterwards occupied by Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, a mercer and Lord Mayor of London, has wholly disappeared. In its place has risen a house which is one of the glories of Norfolk and of England - the beautiful Jacobean mansion, Blickling Hall. No one who visits Norfolk should leave the county without seeing this fine old home of the Marquesses of Lothian. The road from Norwich to Blickling is a very pleasant one, and the distance little more than twelve miles. There are no hills sufficiently steep to trouble the cyclist, who, when he has exhausted the delights of the village and hall, may, instead of returning to Norwich, ride on by way of Gunton and Roughton Heath to Cromer. If you are not a cyclist you may take the train to Aylsham. You will then have about a mile-and-a-halfs walk to the Hall.

Leaving Norwich by the old Magdalen Street, near the end of which are some traces of the city walls, and making your way through suburban Catton, you come, about two miles from the city, to a branching of the road where, by taking the right-hand road, you find yourself on the highway from Norwich to Aylsham and Cromer. The villages passed through before Aylsham is reached are Horsham St Faith, Newton St Faith, Hevingham, and Marsham; but although the scenery about and between these hamlets is generally pleasing, and some charming " bits " are often met with, there is not much to delay you. Marsham is said to have produced the rebellious Titus Oates, but upon what grounds the assertion is based, I cannot say. Brampton, which adjoins Marsham, but lies a little to the right of the road, was the scene of a big find of sepulchral urns. The discovery was investigated by Sir Thomas Browne, and may have suggested the writing of his essay on " Urn Burial." Since the days of the famous Norwich worthy, a large number of urns have been unearthed in the neighbourhood.

In Norfolk there are few more pleasantly situated towns than Aylsham. It stands on the banks of the Bure, (which is navigable as far as here to the wherries so familiar to voyagers on the inland waterways of East Anglia,) and in the midst of a well wooded district. At one time the court of the Duchy of Lancaster was held here; and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, built the parish church. It is a fine church - but Norfolk is so full of fine churches that you take for granted that Aylsham possesses a worthy one. Some good brasses will interest the antiquary; but most people will be more attracted by the old stained glass windows, and the ancient font which is adorned with emblems of the Passion and the Evangelists and the arms of the families of Gaunt, Erpingham, Morley, and Bourchier. Outside the church is a curious epitaph to Humphrey Repton, the celebrated landscape gardener to whom Norfolk is indebted for not a little of its loveliness.

The mile-and-a-half walk or ride from Aylsham to Blickling is along a road overshadowed by oaks and beeches, and such oaks and beeches as are delightful to look upon. Blickling Church soon comes in sight to the right of the road, and directly afterwards you stand before one of the stateliest of the " stately homes of England." Until its west front comes into full view little is seen of Blickling Hall, for it is hidden from you as you approach from Aylsham by the church, the rectory, and the surrounding trees. So the sight of it comes as a surprise, and the impression made is a lasting one. The old hall stands upon ground which has often been trodden by the feet of men and women whose names are big in history; and as you cross the moat-bridge, or ascend the famous dark oak staircase, you may attain to a mood in which it would scarcely cause surprise if a company of silent spectres appeared in the haunts that, while in the flesh, they knew so well. Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine that these famous men and women are still alive, for they seem to make their presence felt in Blickling Hall, and the eye that sees what is not catches glimpses of them in the old halls and corridors. A Norman bishop, who was chaplain to the Conqueror, rubs shoulders with a London knight whose descendant, the beautiful Anne Boleyn, her face bearing the marks of pride and pain, leans on the arm of a portly English king. Kings, queens, and ambassadors, a Lord Chief Justice, soldier knights from Agincourt, all join in the phantom procession; whilst somewhere in the background is the shadowy form of a warrior king who held his court at Blickling nearly a thousand years ago.

A complete list of the holders of the manor of Blickling would be dull reading; but some of its lords and ladies have played such great parts in their day that it may be of interest to give a short account of its history. Even now the inhabitants of the district can point out the spot, in the old Manor meadow, about a mile from the hall, where the home of King Harold stood. After the battle of Hastings, the Conqueror bestowed the manor upon his chaplain, Bishop Herfast, and it became a favourite retreat of the bishops of Thetford and, after the removal of the see, of Norwich. In the fourteenth century a portion of it came into the possession of Sir Nicholas Dagworth, who built himself a house here. Of this house there are now no traces; but we know that 136 it was in turn occupied by Sir Thomas Erpingham and Sir John Fastolff, whose names are inseparably associated with the history of the county. In 1459 Sir John Fastolff sold the estate to Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, whose grandson, Viscount Rochfort, was the father of Anne Boleyn. His successor, Sir James Boleyn, disposed of it to Sir John Clere, whose heir was obliged to sell it to Sir Henry Hobart, a Lord Chief Justice of England. It was this Sir Henry Hobart who pulled down the old manor house of Sir Nicholas Dagworth and commenced the building of the present hall, which was completed by his son, who entertained Charles II. here. In 1746 the fifth baronet was created Earl of Buckinghamshire. The daughter of the second earl married, in 1793, sixth Marquess of Lothian and inherited the estate, which has since been the seat of the Marquesses of Lothian.

Such is the history of the manor of Blickling. As to the Boleyns, the family seems to have had a French origin and to have settled in Norfolk several generations before the birth of the ill-starred Anne. We do not hear much about them until Thomas Boleyn, of Salle, Norfolk, married Anna, a daughter of Sir John Bracton, and bound his eldest son Geoffrey apprentice to a London mercer. This Geoffrey became a very prosperous London citizen and was Lord Mayor in 1457. That he was a man of considerable influence may be assumed from the fact that he was able to maintain peace between the hostile partisans of York and Lancaster during the congress held in his jurisdiction. He married Anna, daughter of the lord of Hoo and Hastings, and, as I have said, purchased Blickling from Sir John Fastolff. His grandson, Sir Thomas Boleyn, afterwards Viscount Rochfort, married Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the famous Earl of Surrey who became Duke of Norfolk. This Sir Thomas was the father of Anne Boleyn. Three places claim to be her birthplace - Hever Castle in Kent, Rochfort Hall in Essex, and Blickling. Little evidence exists in support of these claims; but Sir Henry Spelman, a Norfolk man who Jived in the time of Elizabeth; Blomfield, the Norfolk historian; and the letters of the Earl of Buckinghamshire all state that Anne was born at Blickling. Whether it was so or not is a question which will probably remain for ever unanswered; but we know that Anne spent some years of her childhood at her father's Norfolk home. There is a historical tradition, too, that she was married to the King here, and Blomfield says it is true. The only evidence bearing upon this is found in the words of Stephenson, a Norfolk poet who wrote some lines to commemorate the visit to Blickling of Charles II. and his queen, Catherine of Braganza. He says that -

"Blickling two monarchs and two queens has seen;
One king fetched hence, another brought a queen;"

but this is by no means conclusive. Indeed, unless we discredit the statements of Wyatt, there is no reason to doubt that the marriage took place at Whitehall.

Another tradition which, until a few years ago, had a firm hold upon the neighbourhood of Blickling was that after Anne's execution her remains were secretly removed by night from the Tower Church and brought to Salle Church, the ancient burial-place of the Boleyns. This church, which is about six miles from Blickling Hall, contains a great number of brasses, among them some to the Boleyns, who, as we have seen, were lords of the manor. Miss Agnes Strickland, in her Lives of the Queens of England, finds confirmation of the tradition in the words with which Wyatt closes his account of the queen's death. "God," he says, " provided for her corpse sacred burial, even in a place as it were consecrate to innocence," words that, as Miss Strickland suggests, could scarcely apply to a burial in the Tower Church without religious rites. Visitors to Salle used to be shown a plain black marble slab, without inscription, in the church, and were told that this was Anne Boleyn's tomb. Some years ago, however, the slab was taken up and nothing found beneath it to witness to the truth of the strange tradition. Curiously enough, a similar black monument in the church of Horndon-on-the-Hill, in Essex, was said to mark the burial-place of the murdered queen.

The famous library at Blickling, containing over 12,000 volumes, was got together by Mattaire for Sir Richard Ellis, who bequeathed it to an ancestor of its present owner. It is contained in an elaborately decorated room 127 feet long. Among its treasures, the rarest of which are kept under lock and key, are the first printed Latin Bible, dated 1462, "The Blickling MS," dated 971, three fifteenth century books of Hours, a French MS. Bible of the thirteenth century, a Latin MS. Psalter, believed to be a thousand years old; Aldine publications from 1490 to 1590, and an old Latin MS. Bible containing the autographs of the Duke of Wellington, inscribed in 1819, and the Princess of Wales, added in 1888. In an adjoining room are two portraits by Gainsborough, and some tapestry representing Peter the Great and the Battle of Pultowa, presented by the Empress Catherine to the second Earl of Buckinghamshire when he was ambassador at St Petersburg. There are statues of Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth in the Hall, and, in addition to some fine old family portraits, there are preserved in a cabinet some draperies, gowns, nightcaps, and toilet necessaries which belonged to Anne. A stone chimney-piece in the morning-room was originally a window arch at Sir John FastolfF's stronghold, Caister Castle.

Blickling Park and gardens are almost as famous as the Hall. A few years ago a violent gale wrought havoc among the Blickling oaks, hundreds of which were laid low; but fine oaks are so plentiful here that they are scarcely missed, and beautiful beeches and birches draw away the eyes from the gaps left by the fallen trees. A mile-long lake, of crescent shape skirts the lawns and woodlands, and, with the fallow deer which haunt its shores, adds much to the beauty of the park. There is a pyramidal mausoleum about half-a-mile from the Hall, containing the remains of the late Earl of Buckinghamshire and his two wives. Of it the Rev. A. H. Malan, to whose description of the Hall and grounds I am indebted for some of my information, says it is " Of sombre and depressing aspect, and shunned by all things living, except, it may be, one or two of those long-eared owls which delight in densest shade." Some statues which formerly adorned the terraces of Oxnead Hall, a neighbouring mansion of noble proportions in which Charles II. was entertained by one of the Pastons, are now preserved in the park. Of the Blickling ghosts, which are still believed in by some of the villagers, many stories are told; but of that of Sir Thomas Boleyn, who, in a chariot drawn by headless horses, has, as a penance, to cross in a night forty county bridges, the most amazing statement I have come across is that he is always pursued by a horde of terrible fiends who, according to a recent writer, " are allowed a night's holiday by their master, Auld Reekie! "

Blickling Church, although ancient, has been so restored that it retains few evidences of its antiquity; but it contains several brasses, monuments, and memorial windows. A fine monument is that to the memory of the eighth Marquis of Lothian, which is the work of Mr G. F. Watts, R.A. One of the brasses represents Sir Nicholas Dagworth in full armour; another, Anne A'Wode with twins in her arms; and a third is to Anna Boleyn, an infant daughter of William Boleyn, who died in 1479. There is also an oak chest about four hundred years old, bearing the inscription:

"Maystyr Adam Ilee mad ys chyst and Robert Filipis payed yer for, God have mercy on yar soules."

If you care to make Aylsham your headquarters for a while before returning to Norwich or journeying on to Cromer, there are several places of interest in the neighbourhood which will call for your attention. Among these are Wolterton Hall, built by Horace Walpole during the first half of the eighteenth century; Oxnead Hall, erected by Clement Paston in the sixteenth century, and the ruined churches of Antingham and Wolterton.

The cyclist who extends his tour to Cromer must ride carefully over the first few miles out of Aylsham, for there are one or two dangerous turnings. He will pass through Ingworth and by its water-mill, and when about four miles from Aylsham will come in sight of Gunton Park, in which stands the country house of Lord Suffield. A few miles further on he will enter upon Roughton Heath, after crossing which he will be in the midst of a district described at length in the tour, " By the Wild North Sea."

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