Following the Christmas Eve BBC TV airing of an adaptation of the classic M.R.James supernatural horror story The Mezzotint, here's my two pennyworth, starting with the fact the story revolves around the fates of two families: the Gawdy family and the Francis family.
About four miles along some wet and muddy country lanes from where I'm sitting writing this story is the Gawdy Hall Estate, just shy of the town of Harleston in South Norfolk. The hall was built in the mid-16th century by a local lawyer called Thomas Gawdy, who was married three times and had sons by each of these wives. These sons all went on become lawyers and, in a remarkable example of vanity, all three were christened Thomas. However upon his confirmation, the youngest Thomas Gawdy changed his first name to Francis.
Francis would subsequently go on to become the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, one of the highest judicial appointments in the land, and in the course of a legal career that lasted over 50 years, he was involved in some of the most important State trials of that era. These included the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the treason trials of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and Sit Walter Raleigh. On his deathbed Sir Francis Gawdy, as he by then was, apparently confessed that "the justice of England was never so depraved and injured as in the condemnation of Sir Walter Raleigh".
In his private affairs, Sir Francis was a less-than attractive personality, quarrelling with other branches of the Gawdy family and even defrauding his wife of some of her family property and estates. He died of a sudden attack of apoplexy in June 1606 however then began the farce of locating a suitable church or chapel in which he could be buried.
According to one contemporary commentator "having made his appropriate parish church a hay-house or dog-kennel, his dead corpse, being brought from London could for many days find no place of burial, but in the meantime growing very offensive by the contagious and ill savours that issued through the chinks of lead, not well soldered, he was at last carried to a poor church of a little village thereby called Runcton, and buried there without any ceremony".
This would have been Runcton near Kings Lynn in Norfolk. As for his dead corpse "growing very offensive", this is not altogether surprising as at least eight months elapsed between his death and his burial, apparently beneath flagstones in one of the church aisles.
No males heirs survived Sir Francis Gawdy and so his line became extinct.
We know M.R.J. was familiar with this part of East Anglia (in one of his travel guides he chronicles the sad fate of The Red Book of Eye and Eye is only 10 miles from Harleston) so it is entirely possible he was familiar with the saga of the Gawdy family – and the bizarre circumstances surrounding Sir Francis's mortal remains would surely have amused him.
Although the Gawdy Hall Estate still thrives as a farming enterprise, the big house is one of the lost stately homes of England as it was demolished in 1939. The picture shows it in its Edwardian heyday.
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