WEIRD SUFFOLK: The incredible and magical secrets buried at Kedington
PUBLISHED: 18:00 20 June 2020
Knights in eternal slumber under trees that line a graveyard, a magical well – it’s all happening at Kedington in Suffolk.
It sounds like a medieval fairy story, brave knights sleeping under elm trees, a holy well that can heal the sick – and it’s all based here in Suffolk in Kedington.
On Mike Burgess’ excellent Hidden East Anglia website there is a curious story about the churchyard at St Peter and St Paul, known to many as the Cathedral of West Suffolk. It stands on a ridge that overlooks the Stour Valley and boasts a host of interesting features including a Saxon cross, Roman foundations and a line of elm trees each of which hides a knight beneath its roots. The elms may not all be where they were once planted, but legend has it that 10 trees were where 10 noble Knights Templar were laid to rest. When one of the trees fell, many years ago, according to Hidden East Anglia, itself telling a story from Herbert Tompkins’ 1949 Companion into Suffolk, the skeleton of a man was found in its roots.
Author MJ Wayland says that wood from elm trees, which has been used for hundreds of years for the building of coffins, features in Templar folklore. In 1187, when Jerusalem had fallen to the Saracens, the Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar separated into two distinct groups at a special ceremony called ‘the cutting of the elm’. There are legends that link the Knights’ treasure to locations “between the oak and the elm” and the knights were known to have believed the elm to have magical properties.
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has added a layer of intrigue to the centuries-old tales of the Knights Templar, although the author gives no credence to suggestions that the Templars guarded the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. He doesn’t believe that a surviving remnant protects the identities of the descendents of Jesus and Mary Magdalene or that the order secretly runs the world. What we do know, however, is that the Knights Templar was founded by a French knight in 1119 after the First Crusade and that the Templars were charged with protecting throngs of pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. The knights wore white robes with a red cross, embraced the idea of personal poverty (they were known as the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ) and adhered to strict codes of conduct. In 1307, on an unlucky Friday 13th, King Philip IV of France ordered a stealthy attack on Knights Templar, a purge of the clan that resulted in hundreds of deaths. The charitable and military order had grown in power and wealth over two centuries and Philip was nervous: he destroyed the order, imprisoned its leaders and burnt many knights at the stake. As the last Grand Master, James of Molay, looked at the flames that would soon consume him on an island in the Seine, he warned: “God will avenge our death.” Within a month, Pope Clement V, who had sanctioned the murders, died in torment of a loathsome disease thought to be lupus and eight months later, King Philip died in a hunting accident at the age of 46. Over the following 14 years, the throne passed rapidly through Philip’s sons, who died relatively young and without producing male heirs. By 1328, his male line was extinguished entirely.
Close to Kedington is Temple End in Little Thurlow, whose name commemorates a land grant there by Roger and William le Bretun to the Knights Templars. There is strong evidence, from the graffiti in Great Thurlow church, that it might once have been used for ceremonies held by the Knights Templar and brasses of knights and their families which date from the period in question. In addition to its knightly claim to fame, Kedington is also the site of a possibly holy well, said to have healing powers and found in the grounds of the (privately owned) Ketton House. Holy wells or sacred springs are small bodies of water that emerge from underground and were often Pagan sacred sites that later became Christian. Such wells are often linked to a piece of significant folklore in the area or an associated legend and were the site of ceremonies or rituals. The well is mentioned in Michael Burgess’s paper of 1978 Holy Wells and Ancient Crosses of Norfolk and Suffolk – it is an unusual structure made of brick which has its own spiral stepped walkway. It was once at the side of the road, until the road was diverted away, and a local tradition says that it was used by pilgrims on their way to Bury St Edmund’s shrine to the Saint it is named after.
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