The Knights Who Say
Want to prevent unwelcome development? Easy: curse
New Statesman, 28th November 2005
It is a bitterly cold night in the depths of Suffolk.
Anyone with any sense is inside, in front of the fire
with their feet up. I, however, am standing in a deserted
car park watching a man dressed as a monk calling down
the wrath of God on a department store.
The monk, holding a wooden cross in front of him, is
not alone. Behind him stand four other monks and five
medieval knights. Four of them support on their shoulders
what looks like a coffin, shrouded in a blue flag and
topped with a plastic crown. Around them stand about
30 onlookers, some enthused, some bemused, all very
"Debenhams PLC!" pronounces one of the monks
loudly. "Anathema! Anathema! Anathema!" respond
all the others. Some people in the crowd giggle self-consciously.
A gang of sullen teenagers on motorbikes who have been
doing wheelies around the car park gawp at us.
"We declare that nothing they build on this land
will ever bear fruit," cries the monk. "We
declare those who despoil St Edmund's town will themselves
"Amen," mumbles the crowd hesitantly. The
monks and knights incline their heads, lift their torches
higher, turn, and begin moving in slow procession towards
the local branch of Boots.
"This is not about 'development'," Alan Murdie
had told me earlier in the day, "it's about greed.
Corporate greed." We were sitting in a pub in Bury
St Edmunds, where Murdie had been explaining to me why
he and his colleagues, who prefer to remain anonymous,
had decided to take radical action to prevent their
town being "blighted" by an £80m shopping
development. The local council, in cahoots with a development
company called Centros Miller and the department store
Debenhams, intends to have the mall built on what is
now the car park, and which until recently was a historic
St Edmundsbury Borough Council says the development
will save Bury from retail decline. Murdie, a local
legal consultant, says it will destroy it. "This
is a spiritual town," he said. "Although it's
been badly mauled by modern commercial development and
the expansion of big business, it still remains - just
- a town on a human scale. And it's human scale that
Campaigners against such developments can be expected
to organise a march or even some form of direct action.
What they rarely do is what Murdie and his colleagues,
who call themselves the Knights of St Edmund, have now
done: unleash an ancient religious curse on those they
accuse of blighting their town. And woe betide anyone
who thinks they're joking.
"This is not Harry Potter stuff," warned
Murdie. "There is a little-known section in the
Book of Common Prayer known as Commination, which we
will be using in this ceremony. We will be calling on
St Edmund to protect his town and its people, and to
punish those who violate it." Murdie, like many
of the other knights, is a committed Christian. And
he believes that curses work.
The ancient curse of St Edmund - the last Anglo-Saxon
king of East Anglia, martyred by Danish invaders - claims
a long list of victims, including King Svein Forkbeard,
legions of treacherous or impious abbots and priests
and, most impressively of all, Henry VIII, who having
abolished the monasteries was said to have died in agony
from syphilis, screaming: "The monks! The monks!"
I asked Murdie what the usual effects were. "Death,
insanity, destruction of property and venereal disease,"
he said cheerfully. What if the board of Debenhams were
to start dropping like flies? Wouldn't he feel guilty?
"Well, if it's God's judgement on them, they have
been warned. We gave them a formal notice via our solicitors."
The developers and the local council have tried hard
to dismiss the knights as a bunch of harmless cranks.
But the knights aren't going away. If their use of ancient
ritual to tackle this most modern of problems doesn't
work, they have other tricks up their sleeve, which
may include taking the council to judicial review.
As for the efficacy of the curse, I called Debenhams
and asked whether it had started having an effect. "We're
not commenting on that," said the press officer.
Oh go on, I said. "We're all fine," said the
press officer. "Though I am feeling a bit tired.
But no, no comment."