Odd this day

25 May 1402

4 min readMay 25, 2024

Satan manifests himself in… er, Chelmsford.

Well, of course it’s true. The story was set out in Thomas Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana, a detailed and highly accurate account of the years 1272–1422, a time when Benedictine monks were noted for their rigorous fact-checking.

Diabolica species apparuit in Estsexia apud Danbury

…he wrote, and I don’t think any reasonable person can argue with that. Strictly speaking, it was St. John the Baptist’s church in the village of Danbury, but that’s in the district of Chelmsford.

St. John the Baptist’s church in the village of Danbury — an attractive church with a square tower against a blue sky

It was Corpus Christi Day (which falls the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, fact fans, which is the first Sunday after Pentecost, or Whitsun, which is the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles while they were celebrating… you know, I think there may be a limit to fact fandom).

Anyway, the story also appears in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland from the 16th century, which tells us:

On Corpus Christie daie at evensong time, the devill (as was thought) appeared in a towne in Essex called Danburie, entring the church in likeness of a greie friar, behaving himself verie outrageouslie, plaieng his parts like a devill indeed so the parishioners were put in a marvellous great fright.

…also very reliably. A version in more modern English adds that

At the same instant, there chanced such a tempest of wind, thunder, and lightning, that the highest part of the roof of that church was blown down, and the chancel was all to shaken, rent, and torn in pieces.

…and the Reader’s Digest’s Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain says

He broke down the top of the steeple and scattered the chancel, then mounted the altar and sprang from side to side. In departing he passed between the legs of a parishioner ‘who soon fell in mortal disease, his feet and part of his legs becoming black’.

…so it was all a very exciting business, clearly. Not only that, he came back and stole one of the church’s bells, the congregation gave chase, and he dropped it at Bell Hill, giving the place its name, and making a dent in the ground which became a pond which the locals used to visit to look for either treasure or a devil, depending on whose account you read.

Now, some of you beastly cynics may be imagining that this is all complete balls, but nothing could be further from the truth. Just because historian Jeremy Harte manages to devote an entire chapter of his Cloven Country — the Devil and the English landscape to folklore about Satan damaging churches in different ways and by various means doesn’t mean this one isn’t true. Good Lord, no.

For a start, Harte says, we’ve missed some crucial details. This devil…

…ran up onto the altar and leapt to and fro three times in a sort of jeering dance before smashing out through the chancel wall , leaving a nasty smell of sulphur behind.

…and as we all know, it’s the richness of incidental detail that makes a story convincing. Harte further points out that Bell Hill gets its name because it’s… shaped like a bell, thus proving himself to be an appalling spoilsport who should be shunned by polite society. He adds that the tale of

…a fiend dressed as a Friar Minor … was set down in writing by learned monks at St Alban’s Abbey, which would explain the unusual costume worn by the fiend; there was little love lost between monks and friars

…and I’m sorry but I will not have these awful facts getting in the way of a good story. It’s just not on. Quite apart from anything else, this story makes more sense than the one about some people opening a

Curious Leaden Coffin

in that same church in 1779 and discovering, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine (Vol. 59. p. 337 if you want to track it down) a

body, lying in a liquor, or pickle, somewhat resembling mushroom catchup, but paler, and of a thicker consistence … The body was tolerably perfect, no part appearing decayed, but the throat, and part of one arm: the flesh everywhere, except on the face and throat, appeared exceedingly white and firm.

So, obviously, because it was well preserved, it was a Knight Templar, and told us a lot of mystical woo about Knights Templar. No, really. If you search ‘pickled knight danbury’ you, too, can read a blog post written in the 21st century about “a strange alignment of pubs and locations across Essex”.

Even that, though, makes more sense than the instigator of the 1779 exhumation, a Mr T White, looking at the bodily ooze of someone who’d been dead several hundred years, noting that it looked like mushroom ketchup, and deciding on those grounds, to taste it.

…aromatic, though not very pungent, partaking of the flavour of catchup, and of the pickle of Spanish olives.

Humans are inexplicable. Mind you, if we weren’t, I’d have bugger all to write about.




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