The fenland town of King’s Lynn has a long history, and unsurprisingly a few dark tales have been remembered and passed on through generations of townspeople over the years. Once a thriving port and a member of the prestigious medieval Hanseatic League, King’s Lynn (known as Lynn to locals) retains many of its historic buildings. One such building, an unassuming 17th Century cottage huddled close to the churchyard of St Nicholas’ chapel, is known as the “Exorcist’s house.”
Exorcism can be defined as “the attempt to cast an unwanted spiritual entity out of the body of a human being.” It is found in many different religions and cultures – for example, in a number of passages in the Bible, Jesus is shown casting out demons and evil spirits that have possessed unfortunate people. Many Christian saints have been associated with exorcism, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who is sometimes depicted driving demons out of possessed people. People suffering from what we might today describe as a mental illness or a disability were sometimes considered to be possessed.
But why is this little house in Lynn called the Exorcist’s House? The building dates from 1635, and is thought to replace an earlier building which was home to members of the clergy who served St Nicholas’ chapel, located adjacent to the cottage. It is not known why the house gained its unusual moniker. The popular image of the exorcist – the priest specially-trained to drive out demons, as portrayed by the character of Lankester Merrin in the 1973 film The Exorcist – bears little resemblance to the practice of exorcism in the medieval period, when those believed to be possessed by demons were encouraged to pray to saints associated with exorcism, or visit their tombs or relics.
It might be that someone who once lived at the Exorcist’s House, or in a previous building on the site, had been known locally as someone who had cleansed a person or a place of a malign spirit. It could have been a local clergyman whose prayers or other activities brought comfort and peace to people who felt they were troubled by evil spirits or demons. We can only speculate. Sadly, any tales of the exorcist that the house is named after have been lost to time.
For much of the medieval period Lynn was known as Bishop’s Lynn, as it had been granted the right to hold markets by the Bishop of Norwich, and it only gained its modern name of King’s Lynn in 1537 when it passed from the control of the bishop to being directly controlled by the crown.
Unlike some towns already featured on this blog, Lynn’s fortunes were actually improved by weather events in the 13th Century that caused the nearby river to change its route. Helped along by human hands after a period of flooding, the course of the wide Great Ouse found a new outfall at Lynn, giving the town a valuable connection to the sea. The river’s width, allowing it to accommodate large ships, plus the fact that it was navigable for many miles inland, made Lynn ideally located to receive goods both from other towns in England and the major ports of Europe.
By the mid-14th Century Lynn was a thriving trading port and a member of the Hanseatic League, a trading federation that linked many port cities in northern Europe. The town’s location on England’s east coast made it well-situated for trade with European cities on the North Sea and Baltic coasts, and it was home to many wealthy and prosperous merchants. Lynn’s links with cities across Europe meant that it wouldn’t have been unusual to meet foreigners there, and by the 15th Century there was a well-established German community in the town.
Lynn’s status as a prosperous trading centre is reflected in the town’s religious buildings. Before the Reformation, a number of religious foundations existed in the town, including a friary of the Franciscan Grey Friars. The impressive 15th Century tower from that foundation still survives today, and was for many centuries used as a landmark for those coming to Lynn by sea. Not far from Greyfriars, a little walled-off burial ground serves as a reminder of the town’s Jewish community – those buried in this cemetery were from a community of Dutch Jewish people who settled in Lynn in the 18th and 19th Centuries, while it is also thought that a number of Jewish people lived in Lynn in the 12th Century. The two Gothic towers of St Margaret’s Church, known since 2011 as King’s Lynn Minster, dominate the medieval heart of Lynn. Construction began on this imposing building in 1101 in the town’s Saturday Marketplace, although today few traces of the original Norman building remain. In subsequent centuries wealthy Lynn parishioners helped to fund lavish rebuildings of St Margaret’s, which are reflected in the church’s beautiful appearance today.
St Nicholas, located next to the Exorcist’s House, was never a full parish church in its own right. Despite its impressive appearance and large size, it was only ever a chapel of ease to St Margaret’s Church. As Lynn’s population grew as the town prospered, St Margaret’s was no longer big enough to accommodate the number of people in the parish, so St Nicholas was set up as a place of worship for those living in the affluent north part of Lynn. St Nicholas was founded in 1200, and the present perpendicular Gothic building dates from the 1380-1410 – at this time, more people attended Mass at St Nicholas than at the main parish church of St Margaret. Local people long desired for St Nicholas to be created a full parish church, but this never happened. Today, it is no longer used for regular services but acts as an arts and cultural venue, playing host to exhibitions, concerts and workshops.
The Exorcist’s House’s association with the supernatural has followed it down the years, with a number of tales being attached to the house. Its location, with a door opening out onto the churchyard, probably serves to emphasise its links with spirits and sinister tales. A few sources I found made reference to the house being the location of Lynn’s last exorcism before the Reformation, an incident linked to the burning of a woman at the stake in the town. It is unclear whether this is in any way linked to the story of Margaret Read, a woman condemned as a witch and burnt alive in 1590. The gruesome tale goes that when she was being burned, Margaret’s heart shot out of her body and hit a nearby building. A building by the Tuesday Market Place, not far from the Exorcist’s House, retains to this day a carved heart above one of its windows, supposedly the site where the witch’s heart hit the building.
A curious figure took up residence in the Exorcist’s House in the 20th Century. Frederick Robert Buckley, also known as F R Buckley, was a writer and, later, a broadcaster. He lived for many years in the United States, and published a number of novels and short stories during the interwar years, although after his wife’s death in 1931 he appears to have returned to England. After the Second World War he was a writer and broadcaster for the BBC. In his later years, he moved to the Exorcist’s House in Lynn. Little is known about Buckley, and his association with the Exorcist’s House may have fuelled rumours about his interests. An article published in KL Magazine in 2016 contains an account of Buckley’s apparently eccentric behaviour – a young man who attempted to take a photograph of the house found that his camera shutter had jammed, and Buckley told him that he was a wizard and an expert on the occult who advised the local police about black magic rites.
Buckley died in 1976, and the next residents of the Exorcist’s House claimed to have seen a ghost in the cottage’s living room. Allegedly this was the ghost of Buckley’s second wife, who had returned to America after Buckley’s death, and who died on the same day that the new owner’s stepdaughters reported seeing a ghost in the Exorcist’s House.
The house was put up for sale in 2016, attracting attention from local and national media outlets. It’s not the only house in Lynn with a long and strange history, but it continues to intrigue locals and visitors alike, featuring on local ghost walks and fuelling speculation about hauntings and dark practices. It is even referred to as the Exorcist’s House in its Grade II listing by Historic England, ensuring that its mystique will continue for years to come.
References and further reading
The Exorcist’s House – Historic England, List Entry Summary
Francis Young – A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016
Francis Young – The Folklore of Exorcism, Folklore Thursday, 16th August 2018
“Fight your demons in this Norfolk Cottage,” The Guardian, 11th November 2016
Alison Gifford – “The perfect local ghost story for Halloween…” KL Magazine, 3rd October 2016, pp22-24 (accessed online here)
The Exorcist’s House, King’s Lynn, Echoes of the Past, 13th May 2013
History of King’s Lynn, Visit West Norfolk