Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Swaffham Pedlar

From my book  The Folklore of London (unedited version) photos above taken by me in August:

'Visit the fifteenth-century church of St Peter and St Paul in Swaffham, Norfolk and you will probably be impressed initially by the squadron of angels in flight incorporated into the magnificent chestnut roof.  However, a little more time spent inspecting the interior reveals a number of carved bench-ends depicting a man with a dog on a chain; the same image appears on the central pinnacle of the south porch of the church.  The figure commemorated here is John Chapman, who had given a large sum of money to construct the north aisle, together with its stained glass windows, (long since disappeared) showing him with his wife and three children.  The reputed source of his fortune is of interest to anyone fascinated by London’s folklore.

John Chapman was a resident of Swaffham during the fifteenth century who made his living as a pedlar.  He is the subject of the earliest of several legends concerning a pedlar’s dream, in which he is told that he will hear something to his advantage if he visits London Bridge.  As a result of the information he receives he discovers treasure in his back garden.  The earliest written account of Chapman’s tale, recorded by Sir William Dugdale in a letter dated 29 January 1652/3, relates:

“That dreaming one night if he went to London he should certainly meet with a man upon London Bridge which would tell him good news; he was so perplext in his mind, that till he set upon his journey he could have no rest; to London therefore he hasts and walk’d upon the Bridge for some hours where being espyed by a Shopkeeper and asked what he wanted, he answered you may well ask me that question for truly (quoth he) I am come hither upon a very vain errand and so told the story of his dream which occasioned the journey.  Whereupon the Shopkeeper reply’d alas good friend! should I have heeded dreams, I might have proved myself as very a fool as thou hast; for ‘tis not long since that I dreamt, that at a place called Swaffham Market in Norfolk dwells one John Chapman a pedlar who hath a tree in his backside under which is buried a pot of money.  Now therefore, if I should have made a journey thither to dig for such hidden treasure, judge you whether I should not have been counted a fool. To whom the pedlar cunningly said “Yes verily, I will therefore return home and follow my business, not heeding such dreams henceforward.”  But when he came home (being satisfied that his dream was fulfilled) he took occasion to dig in the place and accordingly found a large pot full of money which he prudently conceal’d, putting the pot amongst the rest of his brass.  After a time it happen’d that one who came to his house and beholding the pot observed an inscription upon it which being in Latin, he interpreted it, that under that there was an other twice as good.  Of that inscription the Pedlar was before ignorant or at least minded it not, but when he heard the meaning of it he said, “‘tis very true, in the shop where I bought this pot stood another under it, which was twice as big”; but considering that it might tend to further his profit to dig deeper in the same place where he found that, he fell again to work and discover’d such a pot, as was intimated by the inscription, full of old coine: notwithstanding all which he so conceal’d his wealth, that the neighbours took no notice of it.  But not long after the inhabitants of Swaffham resolving to reedify their church, and having consulted with the workmen about the charge they made a levy wherein they taxed the Pedlar according to no other rate than what they had formerly done.  But he knowing his own ability came to the church and desired the workmen to shew him their model, and to tell him what they esteemed the charge of the North Isle would amount to, which when they told him he presently undertook to pay them for building it, and not only that but of a very tall and beautiful tower steeple.” [Sir William Dugdale’s letter is transcribed from Sir Roger Twysden’s Remembrancer in Francis Blomefield An essay towards a topographical history of the County of Norfolk  (William Miller, London, 1805-10) 11 vols. vol. vi. pp.211-214.  See also Enid Porter The Folklore of East Anglia (B.T. Batsford Ltd. London, 1974) pp.126-127]

There is another slightly different version of the story in which the lid of the pot or box that contained the original precious hoard, with its Latin inscription unintelligible to Chapman, is placed in his window.  Shortly afterwards he happens to overhear some passing young scholars translate the verse as:

Under me doth lie
Another much richer than I

Thus inspired, he digs deeper in his garden and uncovers a treasure much richer than the first.  The story of The Pedlar of Swaffham was well known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as both a chapbook and as a children’s book.  Though tied to details of Swaffham church, it did not begin there.  It is the earliest-known English version of an international tale, “The treasure at home”, found all over central Europe, and in Eastern collections of stories; in Britain, there are versions set at Upsall Castle, North Yorkshire, and in Scotland and Wales. [Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys (Penguin Books, London, 2005) pp.516-517]'

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