According to old writers, such was the medieval prosperity of Boston that when, during the proclamation of a tournament at fair time, a band of marauders dressed as monks fired the town and plundered the merchants’ stalls, the molten gold and silver ran down the streets in a stream. This was towards the end of the reign of King Edward I (1272–1307). In 1371, the town became a staple for wool, and Hanse merchants established a guild here, the Hanseatic League having a steelyard, warehouses, and a dock here for the weighing and export of wool.
Local tradition later said that, in order to secure a firm foundation, the great tower of St Botolph’s church was built on woolpacks. This is the ‘high steeple’ of the rhyme, the world-famous Boston Stump, 262 feet 9 inches (80.07 m) high, and 40 feet 3 inches (12.27 m) square, which can be seen forty miles (64 km) out at sea and served as a beacon over Lynn Deeps. As the tower stands within a few feet of a tidal river, something to consolidate the peaty fenland soil was probably needed, although the fairly widespread tradition of churches and bridges ‘Built upon woolpacks’ probably has more to do with the wool trade than medieval technology.
Boston Stump was connected with an extraordinary event in the mid nineteenth century:
On Sunday, Sept. 29th, 1860, a strange portent occurred. A cormorant took up its position on the steeple of Boston Church, much to the alarm of the superstitious among the townspeople. There it remained with the exception of two hours’ absence till early the following morning, when it was shot by the caretaker of the church. The fears of the credulous were singularly confirmed when the news arrived of the loss of the ‘Lady Elgin’ at sea, with three hundred passengers, among whom were Mr Ingram, member for Boston, with his son, on the very morning when the bird was first seen.
A cormorant is unusual as a death omen. Although in Lincolnshire the omen in the form of a bird suddenly appearing or tapping at a windowpane might be of unknown species, it was most often said to be a pigeon or white dove, like the celebrated Oxenham Omen (see ZEAL MONACHORUM, Devon). However, the episode of the cormorant was curiously echoed more than a century later by the experience of Bob Lane of Boston, apparently previously unaware of the earlier event:
… just before my father-in-law’s death in November 1980 a very strange thing happened … my wife and I were in bed, I was really sound asleep, and suddenly heard a horrible screech a bit like a heron in the night – it so alarmed me that I woke up with a start … my wife was awake – she asked if I had heard this noise … Well, that weekend we went to visit my in-laws … about a mile away as the crow flies … mother-in-law had heard the shriek, but father-in-law was convinced that what he heard was the old woman next door’s budgie … not long after he died of cancer.