During recent research on illusions in early modern England, a forgiveable distraction (introduced to me by Giles Coren’s Kent adventure in Our Food) delivered some amusing anecdotes and useful information; William Lambarde’s A Perambulation of Kent – an Elizabethan travelogue – contains a wealth of apocryphal tales about this (and my) home county, combining sober historical description with some outrageous post-Reformation revisionism.
Chatham and Gillingham, the small naval towns of Elizabethan England, are somewhat miserably introduced. Lambarde appears to face the problem of most modern residents of the Medway towns, writing frankly: ‘I haue not hitherto at any time, read any memorable thing recorded in hystorie, touching Chetham it self…’. So far so 2012. In the name of dispelling ‘Popish illusions’, though, we are offered a medieval ghost story:
It happened (say they) that the dead Corps of a man, (lost through shipwracke belike) was cast on land in the Parishe of Chetham, and being there taken vp, was by some charitable persons committed to honest burial within their churchyard: which thing was no sooner done, but our Lady of Chetham, finding her self offended therewith, arose by night, and went in person to the house of the Parishe Clearke, (whiche then was in the Streete a good distance from the Churche) and making a noyse at his window, awaked him: This man at the first (as commonly it fareth with men disturbed in their rest) demaunded somewhat roughly, who was there: But when he understood by her owne aunswere, that it was the Lady of Chetham, he changed his note…She tolde him, that there was lately buryed (neere to the place where she was honoured) a sinfull person, whiche so offended her eye with his gastly grinning, that unles he were remoued, she could not, but (to the great griefe of good people) withdrawe herself from that place, and cease her wonted miraculous working amongst them. And therefore she willed him, to go with her…she might take him up, and cast him againe into the Riuer…This done, our Ladye shrancke againe into her shrine, and the Clerke peaked home to patche vp his broken sleepe, but the corps now eftsoones floted vp and downe the Riuer, as it did before. Whiche thing being at length espied by them of Gillingham, it was once more taken vp and buried in their Churchyard. But soe what followed vpon it, not onely the Roode of Gillingham (say they) that a whyle before was busie in bestowing Myracles, was nowe depriued of all that his former virtue: but also the very earth + place, where this carckase was laide, did continually, for euer after, setle and sinke downward.
Considering Medway’s unfortunate reputation, one might be inclined to shift the blame for our ‘downward’ spiral from Mrs Thatcher to this unclean John Doe. Even so, Lambarde reassures us that all is superstitious nonsense, devised by the cunning Clearke (a ‘Talewriter’ and a ‘Fableforger’) to put Chatham back on the miracle-map at the expense of its Gillingham competition. Perhaps we shouldn’t believe all we hear.