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The magical sword of Winfarthing 

It was the Excalibur of Norfolk, a magical sword which helped women rid themselves of terrible husbands from the safety of their village church.


A legend in Winfarthing, near Diss, claims there was a duel between two knights who were fighting over the same woman: one knight killed the other and, fearing retribution, sought sanctuary in St Mary’s Church. The knight of Winfarthing lived to fight another day but left his sword - the murder weapon - in the church where it became a relic and was said to boast supernatural powers that could bestow miracles on the worthy.


Winfarthing St Mary Virgin church. CREDIT: George Plunkett

Thomas Becon, writing in 1563 spoke of ‘The Good Sword of Winfarthing’ and said the weapon was visited by pilgrims who would leave offerings, bow to the sword and kiss it in order to receive good fortune. Becon was born near Thetford - around 15 miles away from Winfarthing - and heard the tale of the magical sword from a young age.


“The sword was visited far and near for many sundry purposes,” he wrote, “but specially for things that were lost and for horses that were either stolen or run astray.

“It also helped with the shortening of a married man’s life, if that the wife was weary of her husband…”


‘Weary wives’, it was said, could set a candle before the sword every Sunday for a year – missing not even one – and the situation would be dealt with.


This fascinating folk magic was sometimes linked to St Uncumber, the patron saint of women who wished to be freed from abusive husbands and whose own commitment to avoiding saw her grow a beard overnight to repel her intended.


Thomas Becon recorded the story of the Good Sword of Winfarthing in 1563

Becon’s account of the magical sword in St Mary’s chapel is the only one which remains, and links the sword to a thief who hid in the church rather than a knight. The villain, he adds, had managed to escape “through the negligence of the watchmen” and escaped, leaving behind his sword. Placed in an old chest in the church, the sword was “afterward through the subtlety of the parson and the clerk of the same parish made a precious relic, full of virtue, able to do much, but especially to make fat the parson’s pouch.” 


The sword was once displayed in the south aisle chapel and there is a theory that it was visited by pilgrims whose donations funded the majority of the building work carried out on the building in the 14 and 15th century.


All that remains of the sword today, which disappeared after the Reformation, is a stained-glass window which illustrates the legend in memory of Alfred and Frederick Cole, erected by Sydney John Cole in 1957.


On his excellent Norfolk Churches website Simon Knott writes: “Today, the sword is itself lost, gone astray like so much else in the holocaust of the Reformation. But what became of it? Perhaps it was melted down. Or perhaps it was buried, and it still lies under the ground somewhere in the fields of south Norfolk.”


 

You can listen to our podcast about the Good Sword below.



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