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Conflict, Conspiracy and Espionage
The strange affair at Appleton Hall
Elizabeth Fiddick ©
As I began to write this article I saw through my window that the snow had returned. It was only a light dusting that time but one afternoon earlier in the year during our mini ice-age I watched a re-run of the film ”Cromwell”; it was most enjoyable. Richard Harris glowered magnificently as Cromwell while watching Alec Guiness play Charles1 was like seeing one of those famous Van Dyke portraits come to life. The film did deal with the conflict between Parliament and the King quite well and there were some splendid battle scenes. Perhaps indeed it was a little too splendid. Even at the height of battle Richard Harris was perhaps too well dressed with his wonderful golden sash. However the film did not deal with the devastating effect the conflict had on the ordinary person.
All war is an ugly business and in a Civil war the enemy is not some foreigner. The men you are trying to kill are your fellow country men. They are men possibly from the next village or even your own. In some cases they are even members of your own family. I read recently that more people were killed in small skirmishes during our civil war than in the big set piece battles. Many stories of murder, destruction of houses and all manner of mayhem and atrocity were reported from both sides. One scene in the film showed villagers attending a church service wearing the sober black and white dress of the Puritans and I thought that this could be what a service in our own church would have been like in 1643.
Henry Scrimger was our vicar during this time when the Puritan movement had gathered strength in Norfolk. Since the reformation of the previous century churches had changed. Painted walls had been whitewashed and a simple cup and cover replaced the gilt and silver chalices previously used. Crosses, candlesticks and representations of the Virgin Mary were forbidden. Many new instructions were issued like that which stated “no man do presume to have his hat on his head in the time of service.” No pews were built,”so that they which be in them cannot be seen how they behaved themselves.” The fear of papacy was paramount and even the King's wife Henrietta Maria was viewed with mistrust. As a practising Roman Catholic she was suspected of trying to persuade the King to convert and it was rumoured that a papist army was lurking in South Wales waiting for the right moment to invade.
In Dersingham the principal family was the Pells whose wealth was based on shipping wool to the Low Countries. They were Puritan and supporters of the Parliamentary cause. They lived in their rambling Tudor mansion on the site of our new surgery. Neither Dersingham Hall, Jannoch's Court as we now know it, nor the Great Barn in front of the church had been built. However a “small studded clay house” that served as the vicarage was probably standing where the Memorial cross in the Churchyard can now be found.
Sir Valentine Pell was appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk and took command of a troop of infantry for the parliamentary forces. So Puritanism and support for parliament was established in our village. Yet there must have been considerable tension for just up the road were the Cobbes of Sandringham.a well known Catholic family. It is possible that in 1616 they were one of the families who gave shelter to Thomas Tunstal, a priest who had escaped from imprisonment in Wisbech Castle. He was later captured and put to death in Norwich. Colonel William Cobbe fought for the King and at the end of the war his estate was sequestered so that the family fortunes never recovered.
A member of the influential Paston family, Sir William lived at Appleton Hall just a mile or so beyond Sandringham. He was also a noted recusant and Royalist. (Appleton Hall no longer stands as it was burnt down in a fire. But on the left of the road to Hillington there are the remains of a ruined church and a sign for Appleton Farm)
The Hovell family at Hillington and the Yelvertons at Grimston were also Catholic and Royalist supporters.
Then, of course, most well known to Dersingham folk were the L'Estrange family of Hunstanton Hall who were staunch Catholic supporters of the King. It was Sir Hamon L'Estrange who in 1643 with Richard Hovell of Hillington and the Mordaunts of Massingham took control of King's Lynn and raised the Royal Standard there. Such provocation could not be ignored. An important port like Lynn could not be allowed to become the rallying point for the King. Ships of Parliament's fleet were sent to the Wash to blockade the town. Only one ship succeeded in breaking the blockade. It approached flying the Parliamentary flag. The blockading ships parted to allow it into the line whereupon it hoisted the Royal Standard and sailed through to Lynn. The Earl of Manchester brought troops and set up camp at Setch Bridge. Artillery was sent to West Lynn from where it kept up a daily bombardment of the town. The sound of the gunfire must have been heard here. There were a few skirmishes outside the town as raiding parties were sent out for supplies but the siege did not last very long. On 16th of September Manchester sent word that he would storm the town if the garrison did not surrender by nine o'clock. The defenders sent word that they would capitulate. The heavy guns ceased firing and all the surrounding villages knew the siege was over.
Now a very curious event took place. Sir Hamon's son Roger, who had stood with his father throughout the siege, made his way to the King at Oxford. He was an enthusiastic if hot headed young man but he convinced the King that the spirit of resistance was still alive in Lynn. He persuaded everyone that he was the man who could organise an uprising of the King's loyal subjects not only in Lynn but throughout West Norfolk. The King agreed and wrote out a commission for Roger in which he agreed that on the success of the enterprise Roger would be Governor of Lynn. Money would be provided and a powerful force sent to hold the town and regain control of the area. Roger went straight to Appleton Hall. William Paston was not there but his wife welcomed Roger to the house. Once there Roger sent for a sea captain from Lynn called Leaman whom he had met while at Oxford. He believed that Leaman if not a committed Royalist could be easily bribed. He offered him £1000 to help form a group that would take over Lynn and raise the Royal Standard again. This was a very substantial sum so it was no surprise when Leaman agreed and promised to return to Appleton the next day with plans to help. However, on his return to Lynn Leaman went straight to the Governor, Colonel Valentine Walton, and told him what had happened. The next day when he arrived at Appleton he was accompanied by a Corporal Hagar who was disguised as a seaman. Hagar told Roger he was a poor man living at Fisher's End in Lynn where he kept an ale house. He was disgruntled as the Roundheads owed him £40 but needed to be sure Roger had the authority from the King that he claimed. Roger took the commission from its hiding place in the canopy of his bed and showed it to Hagar. At the same time a Lieutenant Stubbing and five soldiers, all disguised as poor seamen, arrived at the house and pushed their way into the courtyard. They pleaded for alms as they were all so poor and had suffered so much in the troubles. Mrs. Paston went upstairs and told Roger about the six poor seamen from Lynn who were begging for alms. Roger sent down a shilling and asked the men to leave but at that point the “seamen” rushed up the stairs and after a brief struggle seized Roger and arrested him. A search quickly discovered the commission which he had not returned to its hiding place but put in his pocket. Roger was taken into custody. One can only imagine his thoughts as he was escorted under guard to Lynn where he was imprisoned. A few days later he was sent to London to be tried as a spy. Of course his father Sir Hamon was immediately suspected of being involved and he was in fact taken to Lynn and questioned about the episode. He must have convinced them he was innocent as he was discharged after ten days.