Weird Norfolk: The grave of the Thetford Vampire

Those suspected of being vampires were often decapitated before they were buried

Those suspected of being vampires were often decapitated before they were buried - Credit: Pixabay

A skeleton unearthed in Thetford appears to have been buried in a ‘vampire’ ritual designed to prevent it from returning from the grave.

According to the Norfolk Heritage Explorer website, excavations at Thetford recorded a Saxon burial that had been disturbed shortly after the body had been put in the ground.

The excavations in Thetford where skeletons were discovered

The excavations in Thetford where skeletons were discovered - Credit: Archant

According to medieval lore, those suspected of being vampires were often buried face down, decapitated or their chest pierced with a stake which pinned them to the ground.

The idea was to prevent the vampire from returning to hunt on earth.

In the French Mecure Galant of 1693, the following account described the belief in vampires: “They appear from midday to midnight and come to suck the blood of living people and animals in such great abundance that sometimes it comes out of their mouths, their noses, and especially their ears, and that sometimes the body swims in its blood, which has spilled out into its coffin.

“This revenant or vampire, or a demon in his form, comes out of his tomb and goes about at night violently embracing and seizing his friends and relatives and sucking their blood…

“This persecution does not stop at one person but extends to the last person of the family, at least as long as one does not interrupt its course by cutting off the head or opening the body of the vampire.”

Weird Norfolk readers may remember our previous tale of the Victorian ‘vampire’ serial killer from Happisburgh who was, somewhat bizarrely, buried with a cake.

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And at the long-lost parish cemetery of St Margaret Fybriggate in Norwich, which was a known burial ground for criminals (particularly those who had been hanged in the city) until 1468, a skeleton was found with a brick placed in the jawbone.

This is similar to a skeleton discovered in Venice in 2009, who was buried with a brick jammed between her jaws to prevent her feeding on victims of a plague which swept the city in the 16th century.

There was a medieval belief that vampires were behind the spread of plagues like the Black Death – the ‘undead’ would spread disease in order to suck the remaining life from corpses until they had the strength to return to the streets again.

The British have been fascinated by vampires for centuries, long before Irishman Bram Stoker wrote the story of Count Dracula, where most of the action takes place in England from the moment the Transylvanian stowaway arrives in Whitby.

Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire

Whitby Abbey, which inspired Dracula author Bram Stoker - Credit: Pixabay

In the 12th century, Wiliam of Newburgh wrote about a vampire in Buckinghamshire that returned from the dead nightly to feast on the living, while in Wharram Percy in Yorkshire, more than 100 ‘vampire’ corpses were found buried in village pits.

One of the most curious cases is that of The Croglin Vampire, a terrifying creature said to inhabit a small village close to Carlisle in Cumbria.

The tale involves a young woman, Miss Fisher, trying to fall asleep on a stiflingly hot summer night when she sees from her window two pinpricks of light.

She follows the lights as they move towards the house and realises with a jolt of horror that they are eyes belonging to a hideous creature which proceeds to pick at the lead of her window pane until it gains entry and bites her throat.

Her screams bring her brothers into her room and they watch as the thing escapes away across the lawn: horrified, the family move away the next day.

Foolishly, they return a year later and the same thing happens again – but this time, the brothers are ready and fire a shot at the creature as it runs away, hitting it in the leg.

They watch as it disappears over a wall and inside a vault at the nearby churchyard: when they visit in daylight, they find a scene of horror – coffins opened, dismembered remains scattered across the floor and only one coffin intact.

They open it and inside is the shrivelled creature, perfectly mummified, a bullet in its leg – they drag it outside and burn it. But can you kill the undead?

It appears that you can: in 2018, in Pocklington in Yorkshire, excavations unearthed two strange Iron Age graves that contained the bodies of what archaeologists believed to be a pair of wealthy noblemen.

One of the men, aged between 17 and 25, had been “killed” at least twice, if not three times: one theory is that this would have stopped him returning to earth as a vampire.

After dying, the corpse of the man had been pierced by nine spears and then received a massive blow to the head which shattered part of his skull.

There are several explanations, one being that he received a ritual ‘warrior’s death’ after dying of natural causes, another that he was so feared that his body was rendered useless for potential life after death. The spears were left in his body to make doubly sure.

Never has there been such a potent argument for the regular consumption of garlic bread – on which note, another delightful medieval ritual involved taking the congealed blood from a presumed vampire and baking it in bread or painting it on potential victims.

Nothing deters a vampire like their own blood, it seems. Even the undead have standards.