A miracle at Bildeston

John Blatchly looks at a remarkable tale

There is no doubt that wills give real insights into medieval times, people, their possessions and their beliefs. Few early letters survive (those of the Paston family are an exception) so that wills are all we have.

In the wills which the late Peter Northeast had transcribed and for which Dr Falvey had completed the editing and indexing, a long-serving parson of Bildeston named Richard Swettock was executor or witness to seven testators.

Unfortunately his own will is lost. He was born in the second half of the 1410s and served the parish from 1442 to 1491 when he probably died in his 70s.

The interesting thing about Swettock is that sometime in the 1480s he claimed to have been cured of profound deafness by the miraculous powers of the late King Henry VI, murdered in the Tower on May 21, 1471.

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The ending of the Lancastrian dynasty and the manner of the king’s death led to his veneration as a martyr. His statue on the rood screen of York Minster was much visited but removed on Edward IV’s orders in 1479 to stifle the tradition.

In 1484 Richard III transferred the king’s body from Chertsey Abbey to a new shrine at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, as an act of reconciliation. Richard wisely took advantage of the dead king’s reputation in view of the growing number of miracles associated with his name during the 1480s.

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Stories of the king’s miracles were collected in order to advance him through the Blessed Henry to St Henry, but the Reformation brought all this to nought. Swettock’s story, told at length by a witness, is here much abbreviated.

Over 10 weeks one winter in his old age, Swettock had increasing difficulty in hearing the clergy singing or the bells pealing. Lent was approaching and he doubted whether he would be able to hear his parishioners’ confessions and give them adequate pastoral support.

He then prayed to ‘that man most blessed and beloved of God’, Henry VI, pledging that he would hasten on foot to the king’s holy shrine. He then waited ‘in sobriety and patience’, until the next Sunday, when ‘all that blockage of deafness was exchanged somehow for sharpness of hearing, and so caused the man to be healthy and cheerful... he was rendered most fit, just like the rest. Therefore let there be praise, honour and glory to him who has done all things well, who has made the deaf hear and the dumb speak.’

No mention is made of consulting a doctor, nor of medieval ear-drops. Swettock must have known and been impressed by the 12-year-old King Henry VI praying at the shrine of St Edmund in Bury Abbey in 1434.

There is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford a book of macaronic sermons (mixed Latin and English) written or transcribed by one John Swetstock a generation earlier, with much reference to Henry V. Could he have been Richard’s father or uncle?

To show Bildeston church as Swettock would have recognised it, one needs a photograph taken before May 8, 1975 when the tower, already undergoing repair and the bells removed, collapsed suddenly with a great roar. It was another miracle that the last man beneath escaped without injury.

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