`The Treasure Trove of Bishop Bonner`
( An appreciation of M.R James - by Chris Halton).
As a serious collector of old photographs, etchings and prints, Alex Smith was well known to many dealers in the antiquarian book trade, and especially those who auction or sell by approval to those with a registered interest through the post.
One such dealer, for whom we will refer to here as `Banhams of Oxbridge`, sent him in the post their latest catalogue of `Objects D`art and other Antiquarian Oddities`, which was a 10 page booklet listing prints, original photographs, and some etchings dating back some 150 years or more.
Having sat down at his leisure on a quiet, wet, February afternoon, he glanced at the many items listed and was immediately struck by an odd and somewhat faded photograph of a woodland setting which featured a rather square and rather obtuse looking stone building surrounded by heath.
The sepia daguerreotype photograph measured around 12" x 6", and bore (according to the accompanying description) on the reverse in pencil, `Bishop Bonner`s Treasure House, Norfolk.` It was unsigned and undated.
As the imagery in the catalogue photograph was rather small and devoid of such detail that would allow a more intimate examination, he decided to call Banham`s by telephone to ask for the print to be sent on two week`s approval.
The price struck him as rather exorbitant for the subject matter offered, as at 4 guineas, the image could not be attributed to any well known or famous photographer or studio.
When he raised this issue with Banham`s, his contact there, a Mr Cecil Byers a director of the said establishment, assured him that it would pique his interest, and that he would soon appreciate it`s value as it was shot some 100 years earlier.
Still not particularly convinced by his rather mediocre explanation, he placed his order with him as at the end of the day if I didn't want or need it, it would only cost him the return postage fee.
Within a few days the print arrived rolled neatly in a carboard tube, and with a small note thanking him for his interest.
Having carefully rolled it flat on a table with two paperweights to prevent it returning to it`s coiled form, I he looked through a handheld magnifying glass and noticed something a little odd.
The door appeared to be partially open, although I was certain in the rather small catalogue image that it was closed.
His confusion could simply be attributed to a printing error in the catalogue, and so rather than dwell on such irrelevant concerns, he proceeded to examine the reverse, where as described in a hastily written hand, were the words, `Bishop Bonner`s Treasure House, Norfolk`. Unsigned and undated.
Now from his education, he knew Bishop Bonner was a recalcitrant priest to Elizabeth I, and under the rule of her sister, Mary, he was a well known burner and persecutor of alleged Protestant heretics.
Bonner lived in an age where the Catholicism of old (which had been earlier rejected by King Henry VIII and his son, Edward VII) was forcibly re-enacted as the state religion by Mary following the death of Edward. With Bonner, `Bloody` Queen Mary found a natural ally and approved somewhat of Bonner`s cruel atrocities against her adversaries - whether real or perceived.
He also recalled that he too earned the nickname of `Bloody Bonner` because of his pleasure with torture and murder.
As a result, he acquired great personal wealth, and was promoted to Bishop of London with a palace (now gone) at Copford in Essex.
In short, he was a cruel, merciless, greedy man who later met his end in Marshalsea Prison on 5 September 1569 - having been jailed unrepentant for his many sins by Elizabeth I.
So, Alex mused, how is this photograph connected or even relevant to `Bloody Bonner?`
After an hour spent working through his Gazeteer of Norfolk, and a number of historical reference books at his command, he found that the `Treasure House`, was in fact a medieval `warreners cottage`, within Thetford Forest.
In the old days, it belonged to the church, and was a source of fresh rabbit meat for the tables of the Priors of Thetford, and the cottage or lodge was built to protect the warreners from attacks by brigands, and as a place to safely store the freshly killed rabbits before transporting to Thetford Priory.
Although here was a connection to the church of the day, there was nothing that he could read or discern that linked Bonner and his treasure to this lodge, although legend dictated that Bonner had in fact buried his treasure in the grounds of present day Copford Hall, a house built later upon the foundation of his palace after it was destroyed and following his death.
Folklore in the locality apparently gave reason to believe that Bonner haunts the land around the hall, and at times his ghost had been spotted in search of his lost treasure.
But like all good tales, nobody had ever in fact reported seeing this manifestation, and despite efforts of past owners at Copford Hall, nobody had ever found any trace of it.
Yet here perhaps erroneously, this ancient photograph gives claim to the real location of his wealth which if to be believed, was a remote building many miles from his former possessions in Copford.
Giving no further thought to this story, he retired to bed to ponder on whether to buy this old photograph and follow through the story, or merely to simply return it at the modest cost of return postage.
On the morning of the following day, his thoughts once more returned to the old photograph which still lay where he left it on the table the night before.
Still somewhat `blurry eyed` from his recent sleep he at first thought that his eyes were deceiving him when he had occasion to glance at the image as he proceeded to read the morning newspaper.
Here he could now see a rather short and rotund figure of a man walking away just a short distance from the doorway. Clearly, he was certain that he hadn`t seen this previously, and despite the faded quality of the photograph and foxing around the print, there was clearly something amiss.
He returned to the catalogue image, and considered whether he had taken leave of his senses.
And yet here before him was the greatest shock and surprise. It too correlated with the image he had in my possession. A short rotund man in dark clothing in exactly the same position as in the photograph.
Trying desperately to resolve this mystery, or perhaps some unknown mental malady which had apparently seized possession of his mind, he looked more closely through his magnifying glass at the depiction of this previously unseen man.
He was clearly dressed in a dark monk like habit with the hood obscuring his face from being gazed upon. In one hand I could see a small square box upon which his hand was holding a carrying handle. His head was slightly stooped forward, almost as though he was focused upon some intent, or perhaps with a deed or act to perform.
He decided therefore to note down in writing what he had seen, which was timed and dated. He would return later to note any changes in the image, or perhaps hoping deep down it would remain the same, as if to reassure him that he had not taken leave completely of his senses.
Having spent a few hours that day away from home on business in the ancient town of Colchester, he found himself the vicinity of Copford Church - close to the said ancient Copford Hall, where he came across the local church verger, an elderly man.
Upon enquiring on the history of the village, he told him that he had lived in the village all of his life, and by some fortune was also a local historian who had collected his own reliquary of the area.
Without discussing the photograph in his possession, he enquired about Bishop Bonner`s legend.
He at first noticeably grimaced at the mere mention of his name, as even to this day, Bonner`s reputation had brought some undeserved shame upon those that lived in the area.
Looking at Alex with wizened powder blue eyes set rather narrowly on a long sharp face, he responded rather agitated, “You are not after his treasure I suppose?”
Alex retorted, (and perhaps through some shallow guilt of what he had already presumed to know), “Of course not, but more about the man when he lived here as Bishop of London”.
Shaking his head dismissively, he replied, “Well, what can I tell you that history doesn`t already know, he had other properties and possessions across the region, stretching from London to Norfolk, yet here his name has indelibly stained more so than in any other area, which was due to his cruel and harsh treatment of others, and not for any good works. And particularly so for the poor, or Protestants like myself who he hated with mortal disdain”.
He then explained, “According to legend, the door of the church is studded with traces of human flesh which some believe was the work of the Danes”.
He continued, “I can say from folk I have spoken to, and whose family have lived here for centuries, the flesh belonged to a local man who rejected Bonner`s stance on Catholicism. Bonner offered him salvation by returning to the old ways, and threatened him with death if he didn`t. The man chose the latter, and Bonner had him nailed to the door of the church to make an example, and where he so remained for days until he expired from loss of blood and exposure to the elements.
It was said that Bonner was so angry that he beat him with sticks and tree branches as he writhed in pain. He was such a cruel and sadistic man and without any shred of moral decency.”
Somewhat shocked by this tale, Alex was hesitant to follow through with his next question which vexed him so badly for an answer, but regardless he asked, “Did Bonner have a connection to the Priory at Thetford, and in particular it`s outlying properties as in the `Warreners Lodge` in Thetford Forest?”
The old man exclaimed, “What an odd question, but I can say that he owned a cottage next to the church in Dereham in Norfolk - as he was once rector there, and that this is some 25 miles north of Thetford. Perhaps your questions should be directed there. Talk of Bonner leaves a rather bitter taste in my mouth as I am sure you can now appreciate. Good day sir”.
He then dipped his hat, turned away from me, and hobbled off towards the church barely supported by a hickory walking stick.
Alex decided to leave matters there, and not to antagonise him further. He returned home once more to that now beguiling image, as curiosity with what I might find had gotten the better of him. Yet he was also left feeling very uncomfortable and even more indisposed to the tenor of that insidious man in the photograph.
On arrival back home, I immediately went to the photograph on the table - And upon his approach to it, a gnawing sensation in his stomach prepared him for the worst I might find inside it.
Again using the magnifying glass he saw that the figure was now emerging from a line of trees next to the clearing. He or it, was no longer carrying the box as he had observed earlier, and the head in the hood was turned towards the camera in a manner that presupposed that he was alert to Alex`s supposed intrusion. The face was without any discernible definition, but he was sure, well reasonably certain, he was actually smiling cynically at him.
He shuddered at this apparition, and stepped back away from the table upon which the image rested. Now it become quite seemingly something very personal, and deeply worrying.
He again checked the catalogue photograph, but there was no image of the hooded man in view. He had gone as though in an instant! I surely must have imagined this.
Alex immediately placed down his glass and sat down relieved for he felt once more at ease, and was ready to discount all of this until he glanced nervously back at the original.
In the foreground and to the right hand corner, he could see just a sliver of blackness, just enough to show that he had moved forward and towards to the right of him - as he had apparently slipped off the screened area.
The thought as to where he may have gone caused Alex to look closely around the room which was now falling into darkness as the sun had slipped from view outside.
He felt very cold as a shiver of fear shot down his spine, and his senses snapped into a defensive reaction. Was he with him in this room?; he shuddered and thought, Is he still somewhere in the confines of that image?
Every creak of every joist in that house became cruelly convincing in his mind, that the presence of this man who he was certain was Bonner, was now in hiding somewhere with malicious intent within his home.
The old Verger`s words rang like an alarm bell in Alex`s mind. He thought, perhaps Bonner had reached out from beyond the grave to inflict some cruel and historic torture upon him?
He decided that the only way to end this nightmare was to venture out to rural Norfolk and to travel to the remote Warreners Lodge. Perhaps the answers to this strange set of circumstances lay there, but first he had to find out more about the photograph from Banham`s. If they offered it for sale, they must surely have a record of where it came from?
After an unsettling night`s sleep, he welcomed the yawning light of the emerging sun the next day. Deep down he was hoping that he was suffering from an excitable over-imagination, and had even convinced himself that he had been under a lot of pressure from his work, and that perhaps after ringing Banham`s, all will be resolved to his own personal satisfaction.
So many wishes and thoughts as he attempted to extract himself from a situation that some would deem as possibly paranormal, and yet logically, he knew that the paranormal was nothing more than fiction. No scientific mind of the modern day could ever accept anything less, as there was now an answer for everything, he assured himself.
After gulping down a strong coffee, he rang his contact Mr Byers at Banham`s.
He decided to play it straight and not to share any of the experiences he now believed he mistakenly thought he had with this photograph.
Mr Byers informed him that although the image is shown in their stock list, he was unable to source where it came from. He explained that sometimes image stock was bought in bulk from an estate, and later were separated into single lots for sale - which he was certain was the reason here. In any case if Alex wasn`t happy with the item, he could simply return it.
For reasons that he could only describe as being motivated by curiosity, he decided to purchase the photograph but managed to get a bargain 50% reduction on the purchase price due to his preferred trading status with Banham`s.
Having sent the cheque in the post to close the deal, he thereupon packed an overnight case with the photograph inside, and set off to Thetford where he acquired an overnight room at the ancient White Horse Coaching Inn, a large old timber-framed hotel with a centuries old tradition.
After dinner, he retired to the residents bar where he struck up a brief conversation with the barman, a young local man who like many other locals of this area, spoke with a broad, rich, Norfolk accent, and who asked of Alex whether he was there on business - as agriculture was the main trade in the area.
Alex, having told him he was a historian, he then broached the subject of the Warreners Lodge in the forest.
The barman admitted he knew very little of it's history, but the night porter, a man named Jim Wright, was someone who had many connections within the farming community, and was surely the very best person who could assist Alex in his quest.
He added that Mr Wright was a `bit of a gossip`, and that Alex should be prepared for a long discussion - such was the way of people in this locality.
Having returned to his room, he removed the photograph from his suitcase. To protect it whilst travelling he had earlier placed into a temporary frame of a stiffened card back, and protected with cellophane.
Again Alex checked the image for any new detail, but everything appeared as it was when he first purchased it.
After 10pm when Jim Wright came on duty, a hot drink previously ordered for this time was dutifully delivered by him. And as the bar man warned, Jim was indeed very talkative and knowledgeable of the area.
Jim would be described as being quite tall, and a rather wirey looking fellow in his late forties with a mass of grey hair and rather long old fashioned sideburns. He had a smile that stretched from ear to ear, and his old fashioned button up waistcoat and collar studded white shirt with a narrow tie reminded me somewhat of a turn of the century railway man. But his pleasing and laid back demeanour epitomised the local farming folk in this part of Norfolk.
Alex tentatively shared with him the unusual photograph which Jim immediately recognised from his childhood. He added it had been taken many years earlier by a local photographer, a man who was apparently one of the first in the district to own a camera.
Jim recalled that this photograph was of the lodge about the time of `that murder`, and ironically perhaps, the image had been shot a week before his death by the actual victim. The killer was never caught, and the photographer victim was believed to have been obsessed that the lodge was where Bishop Bonner hid his most precious treasure before being detained at the displeasure of `Queen Bess` (Elizabeth I).
The victim he knew was a man named Daniel Wilkerson, the son of a wealthy landowner who had spent much personal resources hunting for `Bloody Bonner's Baubles` as he used to refer to it. Everyone thought him to be mad because of this unfounded obsession.
In fact (and according to what Jim had learned as a child) Wilkerson was one night enraged over a disagreement with a member of the hotel staff who apparently was never seen again the following day. The argument lay around the legend of Bonner's treasure, and importantly the reason why he hid it either in, or near to the lodge.
Although suspected to have been involved, Wilkerson was never arrested or charged and claimed that he had witnessed a dark robed figure of a man follow the staff member from the hotel shortly after their dispute.
Alex quietly shuddered, but managed to retain his quiet composure.
Jim added, that owing to Wilkerson`s social importance as that of a wealthy land owning Squire, the authorities were loathe to move against him, and particularly so as his uncle was the local Justice of the Peace. The disappearance therefore was ascribed to the actions of a homeless vagabond, a type that used to frequent the area in search of odd jobs and farm work. Neither the hotel worker or the `vagabond` were ever seen again.
Jim continued, “My late uncle knew of Wilkerson, and regarded him as rather unstable in character. Having been employed as a game keeper on the estate which covered the warrener`s lodge, he often saw him flitting around the building at all times of the day or night. He claimed he knew where the treasure was, and that Bonner hid it in the area as he knew the site so well from his tenure at Dereham”.
“And the strangest part is .....”, Jim paused and continued, “is that Wilkerson claimed he had captured Bonner in that very photograph that you now possess”.
Alex laughed as to mask his own fear of what I had already discerned, and exclaimed, “So Wilkerson claimed he captured a long dead Bishop in a photograph that you and I cannot see!”
“Well”, replied Jim rather glumly, “He died a week to the day after he took it, so who knows what was going on his his mind”.
The story of his murder apparently raged for weeks. It was said that Jim`s uncle had found his body early one morning lying out in a shallow trench. His arms were stretched out in frozen fear, and there was a look of terror etched on his battered face.
There were multiple bruises on his body, and so beaten was he that it was only possible to identify him from a fob watch and his clothing. Whoever committed this crime was certainly more deranged than him.
And the oddest part of the whole episode was that both his jacket pockets were filled with sand and some natural debris.
Despite vigorous police enquiries at the time and a huge reward offered by the Wilkerson's, the killer was never found.
Alex enquired about the vagrant that Wilkerson claimed earlier to have followed the former staff member from the hotel. “Could he have been perhaps responsible as he bore witness to a supposed suspect in a disappearance?”
Assuredly, Jim replied rather oddly, “No, I don`t think it was him”..
Alex asked Jim whether he believed in the treasure legend, but he merely shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Who knows what to believe, but I never felt comfortable around that lodge as a child. And at night people have reported hearing or seeing strange things. It just doesn`t feel right.. “
Thanking Jim for the background story he left Alex alone to ponder his own thoughts.
He pondered. “Is there such a hidden treasure, and if so, would it not be too dangerous to go there the following day after all that he have seen in that image?”
He thought nothing more about it as he was too tired after a long drive from Essex, and retired for the night.
The next thing he remembered from that night was arriving for the first time at the lodge the following day, which despite the passing years still remained, although in rather splendid isolation against a back drop of forest which had hardly changed in centuries.
Strangely perhaps the building appeared to have been in some use as there were wooden staves and picket fences around the structure, and smoke curling into a wisp from a chimney fire.
As Alex drew closer to the door, he could hear someone, or something, shuffling around inside. He felt a tremendous fear or caution that something did not feel right, and stood away to the rear of the building. He then heard the door open and close, and to the side walking towards the forest, he saw the very same man from the photograph dressed in a habit with the hood up. He appeared to be carrying a box in one hand.
He followed, (or at least he felt driven to follow), and kept behind at a safe distance as the figure entered the forest. A short-while later he could hear digging, and the grunting of a man not used to manual work from behind a small bush.
He crept cautiously, and saw a deep hole with a small oak coffer padlocked in iron strap work, which remained upright inside this pit. But the man had gone, he was nowhere to be seen or heard.
He didn't know why, but he was urged to go inside the pit where he picked up the box by it's heavy handle, and noticed it was very heavy, very heavy indeed...
As he was about to extract himself with the box from the pit he felt a tremendous blow to the back of his head and slumped forward and then onto his back.
He looked up, and there was the menacing face he had seen robed in the photograph.
All he remembered was an evil smile as again he struck him across the head with a wooden stave, and he lost consciousness ......
“It`s 7.30am sir, your early morning call you requested”... The voice was softer, that of a woman and Alex realised that I was actually sat upright in his hotel bed with somewhat of a terrible headache. The caller was a maid outside the room, and he thanked her, as he heard her footsteps trail away outside.
He realised that his imagination had got the better of him, and no doubt aided by the tales shared to him the night before by the porter.
And now he had to make a decision as to whether to travel over to the old warrener`s lodge, or whether to return home none the worse for the weird experience.
He again referred to the photograph taken all those years before by Wilkerson. Now feeling as though he was fated to go there he looked at the image through his magnifying glass. And once more a cold tingling shock revived his senses when he saw standing clearly and faced towards him by the entrance to the lodge, the robed figure.
This time his hood was down, and he could plainly see a fat, balding face staring coldly at him with a grimacing smile. To him this felt to be a challenge, and one where science and logic could overrule primitive fears and superstition. There had, he concluded, to be a logical explanation.
He no longer cared who or what was in this photograph, he wanted to find out the truth of what was perhaps the greatest mystery he had ever encountered - as unsettling as it felt.
Having settled his hotel bill,he packed away his belongings into the boot of his car and drove for about 30 minutes before reaching a rather crude car parking area where he removed from the boot an old spade to check out whether the dream had any substance in the real world.
He remembered his route from the dream, and after a few minutes he came across a rather square 14th century stone building that he immediately recognised as the lodge.
There were no doors or windows, as by now it had become a shell, but the forest and clearing looked very much the same from the photograph. As he walked towards the structure he could hear feet walking behind him. He stopped and turned – but there was nobody there, and he continued to the now barred entrance.
He looked around and saw a couple walking their dog, but they both stopped to look rather oddly at him. He waved back, but their faces turned towards the side of the building as though they had observed someone or something else. He looked in their direction and there certainly wasn`t anyone else there, and if the truth would know it, he rather felt alone with himself and continued with his inspection of the empty shell of the lodge.
It was hard to imagine the history of this 600 year old building, save the remains of two fireplaces and a medieval garderobe (toilet). There remained but a hollow and forlorn structure.
Following the trackway he recalled from the photograph and his dream, he walked into the forest, a dark almost impenetrable world of tall trunks and a dark menacingly quiet canopy which gave the air of some dark medieval cathedral.
He noticed that the bush in his dream was there, and upon stepping inside he saw a large hollow in the ground. Whether through fear or through a deep and driving curiosity, he dug deeper and deeper before the spade hit something hard.
He clambered down and scraped away the light sandy soil where he discovered to his shock and dismay, a heavy human skull much stained by the yellow impurities of the sand around it.
After a few seconds he pulled the skull clear, and below was a dark cavity which he reached into. Out came a ruby pendant, then a gold cross, and countless rings and jewellery set with precious stones in gold. For here was a King`s ransom in real treasure, and Wilkerson had been proven right, Bonner's treasure was indeed here.
The excitement quickly diminished any fear I had, and he placed the precious artifacts into a canvas sack he was carrying.
Having satisfied the hole was now empty save for the ruins of a well rotted wooden box he quickly left, abandoning the spade in situ, for he no longer cared or worried. Excitedly he thought that he had beaten the curse of Bloody Bonner, and now his only thoughts were upon returning home and declaring this hoard to the appropriate authorities as treasure trove.
As he walked down the track-way back from where he had come, he met the couple I had seen earlier. Both appeared shocked and looked beyond me to my rear, but Alex remained silent as he smiled courteously, and hurriedly moved on to where he had parked his car.
Having looked around a few times, he felt personally assured that there was nobody following, although the couples dog was snapping and snarling in the gathering distance as it strained on it`s leash towards him. but there were nobody he could see following him, and felt quite safe if not a little apprehensive for what he had duly accomplished.
Returning to his car, he drove the 2 hour journey back to his home. He was finally safe to sort out the treasure, and to make notes inside his diary. Tomorrow, he would declare the find to the Coroner`s Office and the world..
Inspector Frank Johnson of the Essex Police placed down the diary recovered from the car of the late Alex Smith, a former collector and dealer in antiquaries and object d`arts.
He had been reading passages aloud to colleagues gathered in his office, and took a sip of office tea before looking around at the gathered police detectives.
Somewhat bemused by these entries, he placed the diary into an evidence bag and passed it over to Det Sgt Stanley Jones, the officer assisting in Smith's apparent murder.
He asked, “Have we recovered any of the items recorded in this diary, Stan?”
“No sir, the strangest part of all is that the canvas bag was filled with sand and debris, and we can find no trace of the photograph.”
“And what of the hotel, Stan, have we verified the stay and the meeting with the night porter. Has he anything to add?”
Jones rather formally replied while reading his notes, “Our enquiries confirm he stayed at the hotel, but there is no record of a night porter working there by the name of Jim Wright. Someone did once work there by that name, but that was a porter believed murdered some distance from the hotel many years ago allegedly by a Daniel Wilkerson - but nothing could be proven as the body was never recovered”.
He continued, “Thetford police have spoken to the barman referred to, but he states he left a message with a night porter to speak to him at 10pm, but when the porter arrived with a hot nightcap, there was no reply. It was assumed that he had retired to bed. And he did check out normally the next day following an early morning call by staff”.
Inspector Johnson interjected, “This is all very odd. All we can say is that Smith visited Thetford two days ago, and was reportedly acting oddly despite having a reputation as a sober and respected collector of antiques with no known mental issues or drug problems. And now his battered body was found this morning in the driveway of his home by the milkman with no trace of any culprit, And in his jacket pocket a bag full of sand and debris. No neighbours saw or heard anything, although one recalled his car arriving late into the night. If I cannot find any fresh leads, this case will be left on file unsolved, as murdered by a person or persons unknown. None of this makes any sense at all”.
And resignedly he added, “And what of that dealer who sold him that damned photograph?”
Three weeks later, Raymond Simonsen, a noted collector of antiquarian prints and objet d`art receives in the post a catalogue from a respected dealer in Oxbridge. Listed on page ten is a rather interesting photograph bearing a pencil inscription, `Bishop Bonner`s Treasure House, Norfolk`, Unsigned and undated ......
(Copyright Chris Halton 2015