I decided to treat myself to a bus trip to Sudbury to see the silk shops at Vanners and Stephen Walters. I was hoping to find out more having recently learnt to weave braids . The finest braids were made of silk, but the yarn needs to be strong, judging from my early efforts with wool. No known braids from Edmund’s time have been found in East Anglia, but there are braids from Denmark and Norway, which have survived in anaerobic conditions, and whose designs are straightforward to reconstruct. This one is from the Oseberg burial site in Norway from 834ad:
My mission failed – not only were both shops closed on Mondays but there was a staff shortage and there was no bus back to Bury until mid-afternoon. Perhaps I should have walked back, but just for once I was not in the mood. Instead I set out to investigate Sudbury.
St Gregory’s Church was visible from Vanner’s Mill Shop, and I wandered in to a large medieval space. I was admiring the huge C15 font cover when I heard a soft squeaking noise behind the door. I wondered if someone was having a problem with the heavy handle and went to open it. Behind the door was a man trying to oil it! He explained he was the organist and was most happy to tell me all about the church and its many interesting features. Before long he asked me if I would like to see a skull.. and of course I accepted immediately. We went into a small anteroom beyond the chancel and there, in a small cupboard, was the severed head of Simon of Sudbury. The squeamish should look away now…
Skulls in the anatomy department are usually cleaned of soft tissue, but this one had not been prepared and there is mummified skin over part of the face. The skull was of a large, heavy-looking man. Sudbury’s career was impressive- not only was he appointed Bishop of London in 1361, but went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury in 1375 and then Lord Chancellor of England in 1380, an odd combination by modern standards. My companion explained that things went wrong for him when a poll tax was introduced and a populist mob dragged him to Tower Hill where he was beheaded with eight blows to his neck.
I turned around, and my companion showed me something else: in 2011 the head had been examined and a facial reconstruction made by forensic experts at the University of Dundee- this is what he would have looked like!
What a very human face. We both agreed it was a most suitable story for the political times in which we live, and I can only feel relieved that populist execution is not yet current practice in the UK.
As we returned to the chancel I admired the carving on the misericords- noting that decorative braids in the clothing and hair of the women: perhaps we weren’t so very different after all.