WEIRD NORFOLK: The Devil’s seat at Great Yarmouth

The Devil's Seat was once at the entrance of St Nicholas Church in Great Yarmouth. Picture : ANTONY

The Devil's Seat was once at the entrance of St Nicholas Church in Great Yarmouth. Picture : ANTONY KELLY - Credit: copyright ARCHANT 2017

The chair outside a Great Yarmouth church which determined who would have the upper-hand in their marriage

The Devil's Seat in Great Yarmouth. Illustration from The seals and whales of the British seas By Th

The Devil's Seat in Great Yarmouth. Illustration from The seals and whales of the British seas By Thomas Southwell - 1881 - Credit: Thomas Southwell

It stood outside Great Yarmouth’s imposing St Nicholas church, an alien in the landscape, a curious chair fashioned from a monstrous beast that only the brave dared sit on. The Devil’s Seat was made from the skull and vertebrae of a sperm whale washed ashore at Caister-on-Sea in 1582 and then it was taken to Yarmouth’s largest church where it sat on the site of the present church gates.

In 1606, the churchwardens spent eight shillings painting it and it sat by the path for 200 years, earning its name thanks to a dark prophecy that became attached to it. If you sat in the chair, it was said, it would bring deadly disaster to your door.

The seat was later moved to a niche by the west door and, it seems, its removal gave it a whole new lease of life in folkloric terms: it was no longer a bringer of doom, rather a bestower of power in a marriage. Fisherfolk claimed that whoever was fastest to sit in the seat after a marriage ceremony, be it bride or groom, they would be the one destined to rule the home for the length of the partnership.

This superstition led to a cunning piece of counter-folklore which benefited men: brides were warned NOT to sit on the whalebone seat and great efforts were made to prevent them doing so. In the wonderfully-named Thomas Firminger Thiselton Dyer’s 1906 book Folk-Lore of Women, the author mentioned the famous Yarmouth chair.

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“In past years every precaution was taken to prevent a bride sitting down on the left seat at the gateway of the entrance to Great Yarmouth Parish Church—popularly designated the ‘Devil’s Seat,’” he wrote.

“Such an act, it was said, would in days to follow render her specially liable to misfortune.”

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It was almost as if there was a plot to stop women potentially being given any kind of control over men: surely not, Weird Norfolk has never heard of such a thing…

On June 25 1942, more than 1,500 bombs were dropped o the town, killing three people and causing widespread damage. St Nicholas was virtually destroyed, only the Norman tower and the walls were left standing. It was believed the Devil’s Seat had fallen victim to the bombing raid but this was not the case – a note written in November 1942 by the parish clerk revealed the curious chair had been plucked from a pile of debris and although ‘somewhat burnt’ was safe.

The trail, however, goes cold after this point: do YOU have the Devil’s Chair in your house? And if so, do YOU have the upper-hand in your relationship?

The concept of a Devil’s Chair is relatively well known: in America, during the 19th century, special chairs were often carved in graveyards for the comfort of visitors and called ‘mourning chairs’. While the chairs gradually fell out of fashion, superstitions arose whereby young people would dare each other to sit in the chairs late at midnight, alone, on specified nights, such as Halloween.

One of the two south-east entrance stones to the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire is known as the Devil’s Chair. Legend has it that when you sit in front of the stone and find yourself looking up at a natural chimney, you need to check for smoke. If smoke is billowing from the chimney, the Devil is holding court. And if it isn’t and you need to ask a favour of Lucifer, you’re in for a work-out. For an audience with the Devil, run around the stone 100 times, counter clockwise and he will appear: just make sure you’re ready for him.

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