Scholar of Magic
Ranulf Higden and the Wands of Chester Cathedral
The Cheshire monk Ranulf Higden is remembered to historians today as the author of a distant world history from the fourteenth century. However, beyond his daily religious work in the abbey at Chester, he was an inquisitive and curious man of his age; traits that can help us understand better why such a figure of Christian piety would come to be buried with a notorious totem of the magical arts.
Break On Through
Renovations in historic buildings rarely pass without curious incident. Alongside the practical implications of removing stonework, altering floor levels, and repositioning artefacts, there is also a basic reality to be considered at every turn. There is a chance, no matter the intention, that those carrying out the work may come across human remains. It is simply unavoidable, and on occasion, sometimes those remains may be more famous than others.
There are few more explosive figures in English history than that of King Charles I. The man divided a country, led it into Civil War, and as a result of his subsequent beheading, inspired hundreds of pub names the length and breadth of the country. Following that execution in January 1649, where he reportedly wore two shirts to ensure his tremble in the winter air would not be taken for fear of his fate, his body was placed in a coffin and taken to the Chapel of St George in Windsor. A hundred years later though, there was no sign of his final resting place in Windsor. Somehow, nobody could quite remember where it was supposed to be, and rumours circulated that he had in fact been interred at Westminster Abbey, in secret, at the behest of his son King Charles II, sometime in the 1660s.
However, in the early 1800s, when a mausoleum was being built at Windsor under the personal instruction of King George III, workmen accidentally crashed through the wall of a passageway and into a vault containing the remains of King Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour. Dean of Windsor, Benjamin Charles Stevenson, was charged with making his way down into the vault to inspect the damage, where he was surprised to see a third coffin alongside those of Henry and Jane. The coffin was draped in a black velvet shroud and Stevenson knew his history. He recognised from the descriptions he had read that this could well be the missing coffin of King Charles I. Temptation soon overcame any notions of good taste.
Upon removing the shroud, the inscription was clearly visible. It was the coffin of the lost king, but it wasn’t enough to simply recognise the fact, and so in the spirit of the human fascination with the macabre, he ordered the coffin open. Removing the covering from the head, he saw that the long face with a sculptured, pointed beard, bore a striking resemblance to that which had come to adorn all manner of coins, busts, and portraits of the late king. Yet still, confirmation of the face wasn’t enough. And so, Stevenson lifted aloft the skull in the dim light of the chamber to check that it had indeed been separated from the body in accordance with a formal beheading.
I have to say, this conjures an image I find as equally fascinating as I do gruesome, but it is a discovery that pales in comparison compared with the fascination we might find in our own forthcoming tale, as sometimes, the things we find in coffins hidden away in our most ancient buildings will raise far more questions than they could ever hope to answer. Sometimes, they compel and mystify, and an incident at Chester Cathedral during renovations there in the 1870s would certainly do just that, placing the very nature of the institution's Christian heritage into a rabbit hole of esoteric possibilities.
Founded in 1093 as the Benedictine Abbey of St. Werburgh, by the nineteenth century this county’s grandest of structures was badly in need of repair. It had been at least 200 years since the last major conservation work had taken place and significant portions of the cathedral were now on the verge of collapse. Sandstone, for all its qualities, finds few friends in the elements hundreds of years from its initial setting, and various work projects would take place between 1820 and 1876 in an attempt to save the building for the future. It was during the later stages of this revival, under the auspices of the great Gothic architect George Gilbert Scott, that a find was made which gave cause for serious disquiet in local society circles.
Buried in the Cathedral were - and still are - a plethora of historical figures from Cheshire’s past. These include Hugh d’Avranches, the 1st Earl of Chester, and Ranulf de Blondeville, the 6th Earl, and a veritable megastar of the High Middle Ages. One figure not quite as well known though was the fourteenth century chronicler and Benedictine monk, Ranulf Higden. It was when realigning his tomb, that by accident or design, his stone coffin was split open. Inside, Hidgen’s remains were wrapped in the remnants of his burial shroud as expected, but atop it, perfectly preserved, was placed a long, hazel wand. A sign of pagan belief, curiosity and concern - in equal measure - soon began to smoulder in the conversations echoing throughout the cloisters of the cathedral.
To the Victorian mind, in an era enthused with the esoteric, the wand was quickly noted to be a tool of the occult, and so a natural question was posed as to just what business did such apparatus have being found in the sanctuary of a millennium-old centre of Christianity? It is a question that is yet to be answered, but one we will now dare to satisfy here.
Established under Roman rule as a major administrative centre, the city of Chester, or Deva to give it its Roman name, had been founded in 79 BCE by Emperor Vespasian and, if recently suggested theories are correct, it had likely been intended as the new capital of Britannia. This is something which would account for the fact that its amphitheatre, that traditional centre for gladiatorial and sporting games, is the largest of its kind in the whole of Britain, seating around 10,000 people. Its original fortress too was the largest in the province. The city was surrounded by plenty of navigable water and was located deep enough into the new Roman territory to suggest a natural command centre for the wider world around it. For a little while at least, it is hard to argue against Deva being viewed as one of the most important settlements in the whole of the Roman Empire.
With this firm foundation from Rome, naturally, the soldiers that found themselves at Deva - together with their families and dependents - would worship the plethora of Roman gods and goddesses that was their will throughout a tenure in the North West that lasted for more than three hundred years. When Rome officially withdrew from Britain in the year 410, the city would then be inhabited by a Romano-British people that had developed in the shadow of its imperial safety, continuing to utilise its fortress in order to provide sanctuary against the frequent raiding parties that would come in from Wales and Ireland. They would live with a history of its Roman heyday for hundreds of years; as late as the ninth century, Chester is still referred to as Cair Legion or the ‘City of the Legion’.
As Roman rule gave way to the age of Scandi-Saxon conflict which followed, Chester surfaces on the record at various points denoting its continuing cultural and administrative importance. In 616 there comes the Battle of Chester, in which Æthelfrith of Northumbria defeats an invading Welsh force. A key event surrounding the battle was a massacre of monks from Bangor, who had been targeted for fear that they had been praying for the defeat of the Anglo-Saxon forces; a signpost to the emerging cult of Celtic Christianity that was beginning to rival the pagan belief system of the post-Roman world.
Seventy years later, Æthelred of Mercia would found a new church in the city. This church would grow, and Chester’s Christian status would become cemented with it. By the tenth century, when the body of St. Werburgh, niece of the aforementioned Æthelred, was brought into the city in an attempt to ensure it was not violated during Norse raids in nearby Staffordshire, Chester had become a major religious centre at the heart of Saxon christendom. It was a sign of the city’s emergence as such a centre that in 1093, following the destruction of the collegiate church, a new Benedictine Abbey was founded in its place, and it is in this building that we come to find Ranulf Higden living and working as a monk in the year 1299.
Scholar of Magic
It was a curious trait of the Benedictine order that, if a member had a talent for writing, this would actively be encouraged to become their primary daily task, perhaps accounting for as much as six hours a day; virtually all the ‘work’ time available to the medieval monk outside of their religious rites and chores. It is something to which it seems Ranulf was particularly well suited and something that, should the curious mind choose to picture it, would give ample opportunity for all manner of literary investigations and conjectures to bear themselves out in the work of an inquisitive chronicler. It could even be considered just the kind of sympathetic situation required to guide a person with a curious mind towards less well-known pathways of thought.
Details as to his earlier life are as scant as you might imagine, but we do know that Ranulf Higden was born in or around the year 1280. Described by contemporary scholars as a ‘man of the west country’, by twenty years of age he had come to find himself in education at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Werburgh.
A monastic religious order within the Catholic Church, the Benedictines, or the ‘Black Monks’ in reference to the colour of their robes, were founded by Benedict of Nursia, an Italian monk who had become canonised due to his creation of a specific code for his fellow brothers to live by.
His canonisation was further helped by the fact that Benedict also knocked out an impressively diverse line in personal miracles, ranging from the practical (mending a piece of clothing by prayer) to the downright dangerous; Benedict once being credited with the exploding of a poisoned chalice - which had been handed to him by a group of nefarious monk - simply by looking at it. Growing out of the Italian peninsula during the sixth century, by the time of their Chester foundation, the order had come to be one of the most well-respected in all of Europe.
The life of a Benedictine was dominated by Benedict’s ‘Rule of Worship’ - a series of daily rights stretching from 2 am until sundown. For most Benedictines however, aside from the devotion and work needed to run a successful monastery - ‘to labor is to pray’ being a favourite motto - there was also a real emphasis placed on the idea of learning; or more specifically, reading. Between prayer and its associated duties, at every spare moment, and even whilst eating their meals, there was a constant encouragement to read.
It was a part of Benedictine life that resonated at a volume within Higden. His talent for writing had been with him from an early age and is something that he would make a deliberate effort to nurture long into his adult life. In 1327, in his late forties, Ranulf drew on that lifetime of learning and skill as he compiled a work that would, for centuries to come, be considered the definitive work on the history of the known world; Polychronicon.
In so high esteem did this work place Higden that King Edward III himself would request his company in later life when in 1352 he was asked to visit the king at Westminster together with ‘all your chronicles, and those which are in your charge to speak and take advice of’.
By the age, of 70, Ranulf Higden had become nothing less the bonafide authority on historical matters in England. His elevated status would have surprised few close to his field of study, the Polychronicon had been something of a sensation. Written in Latin, that first version of 1327 had been followed by further extended publications during the 1340s. Divided into seven books, as per the days of Genesis, it began with a geographical view of the world before going on to cover histories from Asia and Africa alongside that of Europe, with a substantial section devoted to the history of England from the period of the Saxons through to the reign of Edward III himself. To this day, copies of Higden's final version of 1352 are held in esteemed libraries across the world, not least of all, in Vatican City.
There is a view that Higden had gleaned most of his knowledge from the works that surrounded him at the abbey, and whilst this would certainly be fitting of the times, and no doubt a great deal of study in-situ would have been necessary in order to create such a vast work as the Polychronicon was, there is also evidence to suggest he had gained certain aspects of his knowledge directly from his travels throughout the world surrounding him. This is particularly likely in respect of the subject matter that most of us would associate with the image of a wand like that with which Higden was buried; witchcraft. There is a direct reference within the Polychronicon to the witches of the western isles of Britain, and particularly the Isle of Mann, where we learn that;
In the Isle of Man is sorcery and witchcraft used, women there sell wind to the shipmen, closed under knots of thread, so that the wind he would have, the more knots he must undo.
Western Isle witchcraft, with its distinctly elemental focus, had been known to scholars since at least the year 1200, with stories of how King Haakon of Norway had fallen victim to such forces on his visit to the region. A flood was reputedly raised by the witches of the West to blow clear his fleet for fear of their intent of invasion; the Isle of Mann being a province of Norway during until it came under Scottish rule in 1266. In a foreshadowing of King James’ own work on the subject much later in 1597, the governor of the Isle of Man had written against using witchcraft as early as 1338.
My labour on this point is metered by the fact that Higden is noted to have been a ‘man of the West Country’. I wonder if there might not be some direct connection therefore with his knowledge of witchcraft in the Western Isles?
This connection is suggested directly from the contents of the Polychronicon itself, but it may well be that Higden had more localised knowledge on the subject too; having far more interaction with the world that existed beyond the confines of St. Werburgh’s than has previously been considered. It is often overlooked, but the Polychronicon wasn’t Higden’s only published work. There was also The Speciduiu Curatorum (Mirror for Priests) and numerous others, specifically designed to be used by, and regarding the daily lives of, his fellow monks. What draws further interest for us, however, are the works he is suspected to have written, and those that may give us insight into another, more colloquial side of his character; namely, the Chester Mystery Plays.
Mystery plays were popular across Europe from the thirteenth century right through to the middle of the 1700s. They primarily consisted of performances based on Bible stories, designed to spread the word of God to audiences that would otherwise struggle to perceive the messages within due to the Latin language barrier. In effect, it was the Bible, live on stage, for the masses. What could possibly go wrong?
Performed outside the church entrance, in the street, or at common markets, the Chester plays are one example of several well-preserved in England, with others associated with Coventry and York that are still relatively well understood today. First performed by the monks themselves and then also by members of local guilds too, the plays were the cause of some controversy in their heyday, as naturally, such public performance could easily - and often did - create something akin to a carnival atmosphere.
There would be ale drinking, feasting, and a whole parade of wagons filled with cavorting patrons. In Chester itself, a dedicated carnival route was established, moving along Northgate and Watergate before crossing to Bridge Street. The route would spark no less than three straight days of celebration on Witsun week in early summer, beginning in the morning and lasting long into the darkened hours. Quite the spectacle, the plays would eventually be banned in 1578 on account of their perceived ability to inspire debauchery in the common people of the city.
Higden is thought by many experts to have been the original writer of the Chester plays performed during the fourteenth century, and it is his association with them (as opposed to anything specifically included within) that should draw our curiosity now. A talented writer of his time undoubted, but his position in relation to the creation of the mystery plays shows both a desire to mingle with the local population and an acute knowledge of its sensibilities. Not the kind of thing that you would expect from the reclusive character that Higden has long been stated to have been.
When held against his knowledge of the wind-knots of the Western Isles, we may well find a reason to inquire as to the likelihood of opportunity Higden may have had to enrol himself with the folk of the countryside at large, and therefore too, their practice of country witchcraft. And as we will now see, the issue of witchcraft itself was far from taboo for brothers of the Benedictine order in England during the period. If anything, it was nothing less than an officially sanctioned source of exploration.
Esoteric texts were part and parcel of the library for any Benedictine abbey. The order’s focus on education and reading meant that there was a real cultural breadth to the material that their brethren would consume, but thanks to the catalogue of one location in particular during the period - the Benedictine abbey of St. Augustine’s in Canterbury - we can get a real sense of just how deep that exploration ran, in the vein of specifically denoted ‘magical’ books.
More than thirty such texts were donated to St Augustine’s across the medieval period, helping to form a collection of works that actively promoted ideas associated with the magical arts. Part of the logic for this was that in the working of Christian prayer, a certain kind of supernatural force was deemed to have already been at play. Naturally, this meant that anything mimicking a similar act would form a legitimate field of study, be it to prove or disprove anything that did or did not align with accepted Christian doctrine.
There is evidence from the same period as Higden’s life, set out wonderfully in Sophie Page’s Magic in the Cloister from 2013 (an extraordinary academic work on the topic) that the monks investigating such matters were far from adverse to attempting certain charms and spells themselves, most pointedly with the aim of bettering the order’s lot economically. Mostly written in Latin, but sometimes of Arabic influence too, the idea of metaphysical magic was a popular subject for those living and working in closed abbey communities. It was, ironically given the backlash on such subjects that would come later in the early modern period, viewed as a legitimate gateway to spiritual knowledge.
Partaking in the practical application of such spells and charms was often justified with philosophical arguments and rationale centred around a combative mindset that was growing through an age of increasing scientific revisionism. Even when such texts should have proven controversial, the fact that many survive today shows the level of toleration afforded to the subject. At St Augustine's, the monks involved in the collating of magical texts were never accused of anything other than diligent hard work, and it is that collection, still intact come the dissolution of 1538, that would ultimately end up in the private collection of that most infamous of sixteenth century polymaths, Dr. John Dee. The fact is, the very order of which Higden was a brother was the primary safe-house of magical learning in the whole of medieval Christendom.
Having established that the idea of a Benedictine monk being somehow connected to the matter of practical magic in the medieval period as being far from outlandish, we should now look to the ideas centred on the issue of the hazel wand itself. In British folklore, which so often provides the best hope of understanding when dealing with such distant, obscured practices, hazel is often associated with the warding away of evil spirits. More broadly, however, as we stretch across varied cultures, the primary association for hazel is that as a symbol of knowledge.
Relatively commonplace in the grave pits of European prehistoric burials and too in Eastern mythology, far from denoting an active practitioner of magic per-se, hazel wands have long been associated with protection against witchcraft. Rather than a tool of the wielder, they are the rebuttal and the shield.
Whilst the motivations which lay behind the full meaning of such an object being placed in the tomb of Ranulf Higden may be eternally lost to us, the isolated fact that it was placed there at all can offer us a real window into its wider cultural context. Quite obviously, Ranulf did not place the wand there himself, meaning that its relevance and suitability for Higden in death must have been known by others at the time. That is to say, someone else, and most likely a figure of influence, thought it appropriate. Perhaps even necessary. That other party too would have been part of the Benedictine order in Chester come Ranulf’s death on 12th March 1364; an observation which glows hot with possibilities for the imagination when we learn that incredibly, Ranulf’s burial was not the only one at the abbey to be marked with the placement of such a wand.
When it comes to such burial rites being carried out in the cathedral at Chester, I am drawn to entries made in the local press at the time of the discovery of Higden’s wand. A magazine for curious gentlemen, where those so minded could find a forum to write with questions and replies in each issue, The Cheshire Sheaf of May 1878 reads that;
Some three or four years ago, when the grave of Ranulf Higden, the historian, was discovered in Chester Cathedral, it was stated that in that and another tomb in an adjoining aisle there had been found a long hazel stick placed, in each case, across the sere-clothed body. There must have been some significance, occult or otherwise, in this curious burial customer, and I should be pleased to learn any information you may pick up for me therefore. G.T
G.T are the given initials of the question’s poser, and in reply, we have this from the equally mysterious T.T;
The Hazel stick found in the two ancient tombs in Chester cathedral named by G.T, as also in a similar grave of Abbot Birchylles in the Lady Chapel there, many years before, shows the prevalence of superstition amongst people in high places in the earlier days of the English Church. Its use, under such circumstances, was held to be an antidote against witchcraft and all other evils in the future of the deceased. I am aware that the wand so placed in the grace has been regarded by some antiquaries as a badge of authority, and I know that the bishop's pastoral staff or the abbot's crook is not infrequently so found, but I can see no reason why a mere roughly-cut switch of the hazel tree should be regarded as a religious symbol. My belief is that blind superstition was at the bottom of it all. T.T
Abbot Birchells is recorded as being at the abbey during the 1320s, a time when Higden was deep into the writing of the Polychronicon, and an abbot noted in chronicles of the time for holding ‘too many feasts’, eating meat on fish days and using the abbeys funds to buy up books for his personal use. There was also a scolding noted, recording how under Abbot Birchells some monks had started to dress differently in an apparent attempt to denote their status. That the abbot heading the abbey during Higden’s heyday should too come to be buried with a hazel wand is quite the point of note. Far from being an outlying curiosity of abbey life in Chester during the fourteenth century, it may be evidence that this cult of the wand was relatively well established, even to the point of being enshrined in the burial of the abbot himself.