WEIRD NORFOLK: Have you seen Corpusty's ghost hearse?

Painting: A child of the Honigh Family on its deathbed by an unknown artist

Painting: A child of the Honigh Family on its deathbed by an unknown artist - Credit: Unidentified painter, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Is it a ghost carriage which carries the mourning away from the funeral of a child or did a witness travel back in time to a poignant moment in history?

Weird Norfolk recently travelled to Corpusty for the curious tale of the brother who rose to greet his sister…from his coffin, which had been buried for some days.

A family reunion with a difference, one might say.

We return again to this small village close to the River Bure where the land bears witness to those who have trodden the ground before us: flint, axes and bronze axe heads have been found here and remains of iron foundries have been discovered.

From the Old Norse name ‘Corp’s Stig’, the path of Corp, itself a personal name that comes from Korpr, or raven, Corpusty is a treasure trove of the strange and tragic.

In addition to the family reunion between the living and the dead, the village also boasts

The Devil’s Dish, an area in Mossymere Wood which has been claimed by the Dark One as his own and where human remains and relics have been found.

And Corpusty and nearby Saxthorpe have a sad claim: the death toll of 38 young men from a population of 600 during World War One meant the percentage of war dead was one of the highest in England. This is a village where great sorrow has been endured in years gone by.

Our tale today, however, involves the death of an infant hundreds of years ago and the sighting of a ghostly carriage driven by midnight-black horses and carrying grief-stricken.

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Seen travelling at speed from Corpusty churchyard, the witness believed that rather than seeing the spirits of the long-departed, they had travelled back to the time of the funeral itself…but let us not get ahead of ourselves.

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St. Peter's Church in the snow at Corpusty.
Dated 22 November 19

St. Peter's Church in the snow in November 1965 - Credit: B H Smith

St Peter’s church in the village stands alone at the top of a hill watching over the valley and the villages that surround it.

Last used for worship in 1965, the oval site on which St Peter’s stands is believed to be very ancient, possibly pre-dating the arrival of the Romans.

There was a smaller, lower church which was originally built here and although there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that a settlement was next to the building, we know that a track once led from village to church.

Enlarged in height in the 14th century, when the leaded windows were added and restored again in 1891, the church has been repaired with funding from the Lottery, English Heritage and the Norfolk Churches Trust.

In Janet Wilson’s The Heritage of Corpusty and Saxthorpe, the author recalls a stone ledger slab which once laid on the floor of the Chancel to mark the death of a child.

The inscription read: “Here lyeth the body of Edmund Pooley, son of Sir Edmund Pooley of Bradley in the County of Suffolk, Kent, Knight, & Dame Hester his Wife. He lived Eleven Monthes, eight Dayes. Died September 4th Anno Domini I650.”

Sir Edmund is mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diary and noted as an MP for Bury St Edmunds and, interestingly (read on), “a Royalist”.

Janet writes that it is strange as to why the Pooleys had travelled from Suffolk to Corpusty – 1650 was just after the execution of King Charles I and England was under the rule of Oliver Cromwell.

Nearby Irmingland Hall once belonged to the Fleetwood family, one of whom, General Fleetwood, married Cromwell’s daughter Bridget, who was regularly visited by her father.

Artist John Sell Cotman made a pencil and watercolour portrait of what he called “Oliver Cromwell’s Bedroom at Irmingland Hall Norfolk and my bedroom, October 10 and 11 1841”.

All this is relevant: when the ghost coach was seen leaving Corpusty graveyard, it made off in the direction of Holt before turning off towards Irmingland Hall.

Janet wrote: “…what happened to the unfortunate baby Edmund? Was he an ailing child weakened by the long tiring journey who succumbed at Irmingland? We shall never know, but a gentleman in the Holt area went through a ‘time-slip’ in which he saw a black horse-drawn carriage, carrying black clothed ladies, leave the churchyard and go galloping down the hill towards the village and maybe turn off to Irmingland Hall…”

If the grieving women in black racing back to Irmingland are the Pooley family (little Edmund was one of 13 children), why would they – Royalists – be visiting the home of anyone connected to the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth who twice led successful efforts to remove the British monarchy from power?

The stone for little Edmund is no longer at the church, but perhaps his memory lingers in the glimpses of his grieving family as they leave him in his final resting place.

·      The child shown in the painting (A Child of the Honigh Family on its Deathbed, by an anonymous artist) has been memorialised for its grieving parents, who would have commissioned a last image of their child.Painted in the 17th century at a time when most children did not live beyond their first year of life, only those with money could afford such a lavish commemoration. Wearing lace clothing and resting under elaborate bedlinen, you can just see the straw underneath the child which was used when a body was being laid out to ward off evil spirits.