What’s inside the crypt at Brisley Church in Norfolk?

Published:
29:00 September 29, 2022



Not all ghosts drift eerily through graveyards – some come to reunite with old friends and enjoy a pipe and a glass of… spirits.


Brisley village sign in front of St Bartholomew’s Church
– Credit: Stacia Briggs

There is a strange story told in the old register of Brisley Church in North Norfolk.

At St Bartholomew’s, the vicar of nearby Gateley – Robert Withers – left his mark on the register on a page dated December 12, 1706.

He told the story of a fellow clergyman, which he felt compelled to share with the parishes he was involved in: it proved, he wrote, that ghosts do exist.

“I, Robert Withers, MA, Vicar of Gately, hereby insert a story which I had from undoubted hands; for I have all the moral certainty of the possible truth,” he wrote.

The incident, which happened on July 21, 1706, involved a scholar called Mr. Shaw, who was sitting in his office around 11 p.m. or noon when a visitor called.

A visitor who died four years ago.

He told the story to a friend, Mr. Grove, who had been visiting and staying there for several days and, as a colleague, Mr. Withers, in a devoted manner, passed it on.


A sculpture showing a fox carrying a goose in its mouth at St Bartholomew's Church in Brisley

A sculpture showing a fox carrying a goose in its mouth at St Bartholomew’s Church in Brisley
– Credit: Stacia Briggs

He writes: “Mr. Grove went to see Mr. Shaw on August 2 last. As they sat talking in the evening, said Mr. Shaw: “On the 21st of last month, while I was smoking a pipe and reading in my study, between eleven and noon at night, came Mr. Naylor (former member of St. John’s College, but had been dead for four years).

“When I saw him, I wasn’t very scared, and I asked him to sit down, which he did accordingly for about two hours, and we talked together.

“I asked him how it went with him. He said, “Very well” — “Were there any of our old acquaintances with him? ” – ” Nope ! (to which I was greatly alarmed), ‘but Mr. Orchard will soon be with me, and you yourself shortly afterwards.’

“As he was leaving, I asked him if he wouldn’t stay a bit longer, but he refused. I asked him if he would call back. ‘No;’ he only had three days off and he had other business.


St. Bartholomew's Church in Brisley

St. Bartholomew’s Church in Brisley
– Credit: Stacia Briggs

“NB – Mr Orchard died shortly thereafter. Mr. Shaw is now dead: he was once a fellow of St John’s College, an ingenious and good man. I met him there.

Following the ghostly house call, Mr Shaw wrote his will and soon after he was seized with a fit while reading a church service, fell from the pulpit and died almost immediately.

Mr. Shaw, before his dead friend’s visit, had been a vocal skeptic of ghosts, but after becoming convinced that the dead could visit the living.

Brisley Church dominates the surrounding landscape, drawing the eye to it, and for good reason: this church is full of secret treasures.


The crypt of St Bartholomew's Church in Brisley, where the condemned were housed before their execution

The crypt of St Bartholomew’s Church in Brisley, where the condemned were housed before their execution
– Credit: Stacia Briggs

Here you can see gargoyles and angels, beasts and the green man, the devil on high and bench carvings of foxes fleeing with geese in their mouths, the telltale ocher hue of medieval wall paintings and a crypt hidden where the condemned spent their last nights. .

Brisley’s first rector was appointed in 1304, but the building that stands today replaced the Saxon church that once stood there, a church that had a crypt, which can still be visited to this day.

Cross the 15th century rood screen to the choir and look for the 13th century door on its original hinges, which descends into the crypt below the sanctuary.


The crypt of St Bartholomew's Church in Brisley, seen from the outside

The crypt of St Bartholomew’s Church in Brisley, seen from the outside
– Credit: Stacia Briggs

A narrow spiral staircase takes you to a single room with three slim windows and a fourth which is blocked – it is thought that another bedroom could have been behind this space.

It is believed that this room once served as a mass grave, where the bones of the dead were stored until Judgment Day, but in the 19th century it was a lodging house for prisoners.

A ‘strabismus’ hole near the altar served as a means for the condemned – or perhaps, earlier, for those considered ‘unclean’, such as lepers, or perhaps for an anchor or an anchorite, locked in the cell below to live a life of prayer.

Later, it was to this crypt that those destined for the Norwich gallows were sent from the Assizes of King’s Lynn for their last night in the realm of the living.

There is a record of a man who, after his night in the church crypt, was hanged at Norwich Castle the following day.

In his case, perhaps the ghost story of the vicar of Gateley offered some hope: that from beyond the grave, a pleasant evening with an old friend, pipe smoke and alcohol be still possible.

Have you seen a ghost or a UFO? Do you have a story about the paranormal in Norfolk that you would like to share? Email [email protected]

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