Weird Suffolk: The ghost footsteps of Sudbury’s beheaded Archbishop
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown / Archant
The man whose cruel Poll Tax led to the Peasants’ Revolt and brought about his grisly death is said to appear at St Gregory’s Church in Sudbury: his disembodied footsteps pace the church he once founded. In Lantern, the periodical of the Lowestoft-based Borderline Science Investigation Group, there was a report in 1974 of bell-ringers in the 1920s hearing the footsteps as they practiced.
Born in 1316, Simon was killed in the revolt in June 1381 when he was dragged to Tower Hill and beheaded by a baying mob. His body was buried in Canterbury Cathedral but his head – after it was removed from London Bridge – was sent to St Gregory’s Church, where it remains and where it can be viewed by appointment.
It is fitting, therefore, that Archbishop Sudbury haunts both the Cathedral and the Suffolk church, perhaps his body visits his skull, which is kept in a glass case.
Simon of Sudbury became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1375 and presided over a particularly difficult period of history which included the Black Death and the continuation of the Hundred Years War with France. He conducted the funeral services of Edward the Black Prince in 1376 and Edward III the following year, crowning 10-year-old Richard II, a famously unpopular King, just a few weeks later.
When he became Lord Chancellor in 1380, the crown needed vast sums of money to continue the war in France and English forces who needed paying and to be given supplies: in the shadow of the plague and at a time of widespread poverty, Simon raised the poll tax to one shilling and four groats per person. Rebels from Kent and East Anglia marched on Canterbury, damaging Simon’s properties, and then they marched to London.
At the Tower of London, where the King and his advisors were seeking refuge, the guards were powerless and had to open the gates. Simon walked towards the crowd who dragged him on to Tower Hill and beheaded him: it took eight blows to sever his head, which was then displayed for all to see. When the King regained control, the head of rebel Wat Tyler was placed on the same pole as Simon’s before the Archbishop’s head was secretly taken back to Sudbury.
At Canterbury, where the cleric had been heavily involved with building work, his head was replaced with a cannon ball when his body was buried. Interestingly, despite the fact that in death he was separated from his head, his ghost appears as intact at Canterbury where he has been seen as a pale, grey-clad figure in the tower which is named for him.
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The partially-mummified skull of Simon of Sudbury has rested at St Gregory’s for almost 650 years – it is believed that a man from the Suffolk town recognised the Lord Chancellor’s head on the spike and took it in the middle of the night and brought it back to his hometown.