WEIRD SUFFOLK: The curious case of the Prior who was buried three times and who is said to haunt Butley Gatehouse

Weird Suffolk: Butley Priory Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Weird Suffolk: Butley Priory Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

The Prior of Butley whose eternal rest was disturbed not once but twice and who is said to haunt the Suffolk priory which he led to the point of collapse. Would you dare to stay in The Ghost Room?

Weird Suffolk: Butley Priory Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Weird Suffolk: Butley Priory Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

For centuries, those who took their own lives were given short shrift when it came to their burial. It was believed that, like executed criminals, those who chose when to end their lives left behind particularly troublesome or persistent spirits.

Bodies could not be buried on consecrated ground and this led to a range of ritual practices to dispose of corpses - in Norway, France and Italy, suicides were buried on rival banks and on the tideline, other common practices including staking or weighing down bodies in bogs, woods and other marginal landscapes.

In England, however, the law stated that those who chose their own Judgement Day should be buried in or by the highway, usually at a crossroads, sometimes with a wooden stake driven through the body, although this was not required by coroners.

A survey of East Anglian newspapers revealed 33 instances of roadside burials between 1764 and 1823 and in six of the cases, the corpses were also pierced by a stake.

This practice was ended by an Act of 1823, but the same law ensured that a ritual stigma remained, by stipulating that suicides would not receive Christian rites and that their burial could "…only take place between the Hours of Nine and Twelve at Night". This was repealed in 1882.

A pertinent anecdote: in 1892, a Russian priest was sentenced to penance in a monastery after he allowed parish members to disinter a suicide corpse and then dump it in nearby woods - it followed a terrible famine after a series of poor harvests, a natural disaster which was blamed on suicide victims who had been given a Christian burial.

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Something similar happened in Suffolk.

Butley Priory is in east Suffolk, a former Augustinian Priory founded in 1171 which is now used as a venue, where you can still see a fine gatehouse and an arch which once led out of the south transept of the church.

In 1506, Robert Brommer became Prior at Butley at the time when King Henry VII granted to the priory the Benedictine priory of the Virgin Mary at nearby Snape, which almost immediately plunged Butley and its Prior into terrible debt, with no hope of repayment.

By 1509, Brommer had become desperate to the point where he carried out what at the time was the ultimate crime against God: after travelling to Ipswich, he took his own life by hanging in a house in the town, breathing his last on May 25. He was buried in Butley churchyard by his canon.

In June of the following year, Bishop Nykke ordered the body to be disinterred and reburied on deconsecrated ground, as befitted a suicide. At first, it was re-interred near the north door of the church in the so-called "Devil's Portion" before the "unhallowed" corpse was exhumed and buried again as a suicide by "lay hands" outside the sanctuary of the church, at a crossroads.

It was, it is believed, the earliest record of a roadside burial in East Anglia.

In 1900, the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology noted that a stone coffin, close to the ruins of the east walls of at Butley was "…the only silent memento of the hallowed ground wherein the body of Robert Brommer, who, distracted by the cares of office 'shuffled off his mortal coil', was not allowed to find a sacred resting place."

But although Brommer's earthly remains were in the ground and his coffin stood at the Priory, his spirit was free to roam - and roam it did, back to Butley Priory's gatehouse. In the 1800s, when the building was being used as a vicarage, one of the rooms was kept constantly sealed and was known as "The Ghost Room".

Whether Robert Brommer remains at Butley is a mystery - but hopefully he has found peace more than 500 years after his untimely demise.

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