A few miles west of Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, between the villages of Stow Longa and Kimbolton, rests a flat, windswept area of farmland that the B-road snakes across. One can easily miss the short stretch of narrow road that cuts across the older, crumbling concrete of class-A taxiways that once carried B-17 Flying Fortresses to the main northwest-southeast runway. If you stop and trudge out across the muddy public footpath which heads due west, you will come across patches of concrete, often covered in hay bales for the local livestock. It is an eerie scene, for one cannot help but picture the heavy bombers coming back from a mission deep over Germany, and in the strong winds that blow across those flat fields, one can almost hear the engines of the bombers. These flat fields with their small patches of runway and tarmac are all that remain of Royal Air Force Station Kimbolton, a Class A airfield used by the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Eighth Air Force from 1942 through the end of the Second World War.
To this airfield came the 379th Bomb Group (Heavy), with its famous “triangle-K” markings on the vertical stabilizers of the B-17s, which would operate from RAF Kimbolton until the end of the war. Four squadrons: the 524th, 525th, 526th and 527th Bombardment Squadrons comprised the 379th which flew its first combat mission on 19 May 1943. Focused on the war-making capabilities of Germany, the 379th flew raids on heavy industry, refineries, warehouses, submarine pens, airfields, marshalling yards and command and control centers across occupied Europe. They flew bombing missions against the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt and Leipzig, against synthetic oil plants at Merseburg and Gelsenkirchen, against the chemical plants at Ludwigshaven and airfields from Occupied France to Berlin.
It was from Kimbolton that a certain B-17F Bomber – nicknamed “Ye Olde Pub” – took off on December 20, 1943 to target an FW-190 factory at Bremen, Germany. It was a cold, overcast winter day when 2nd Lt. Charles L. Brown took the controls; it was his first combat mission as an aircraft commander with the 379th Bomb Group.
The bombers began their 10-minute bomb run at 27,300ft with a temperature of minus 60 degrees. Flak was heavy and accurate as “Ye Olde Pub” was to find out. Even before they had dropped their payload under the instructions of “bombs away” Brown’s B-17 took hits that shattered the Plexiglas nose, knocked out the number two engine, damaged number four, which frequently had to be throttled back to prevent over speeding and avoid damage to the controls. These initial hits forced Brown to drop out of formation with his fellow bombers and become a straggler. Almost immediately, the solitary, struggling B-17 came under a series of attacks from 12 to 15 German Bf-109s and FW-190s that lasted for more than 10 minutes.
In that time the number three engine was hit and oxygen, hydraulic, and electrical systems were damaged and the plane’s controls were only partially responsive. The bomber’s 11 defensive guns were reduced by the extreme cold to only the two top turret guns and one forward-firing nose gun. The tail gunner was killed and all but one of the crew in the rear incapacitated by wounds or exposure to the frigid air. Charlie Brown took a bullet fragment in his right shoulder.
Charlie Brown figured out that the only chance of surviving this pitiful, unequal fight was to go on the offensive; each time a wave of attackers approached, he turned into them, trying to disrupt their aim with his remaining firepower. The last thing oxygen-starved Brown remembers was reversing a steep turn, becoming inverted and looking up at the ground! When he regained fill consciousness, the B-17 was miraculously level at less than 1,000 feet. Still partially dazed, Lieutenant Brown began a slow climb with only one engine at full power. With three seriously wounded on board, he rejected bailing out or a crash landing. The alternative was a thin chance of reaching the British mainland.
Whilst nursing the battered bomber towards England, Brown looked out of his right window and saw a German Bf-109 flying on his wing, so close that the pilot was looking him directly into the eyes and making big gestures with his hands that only scared Brown more. The German pilot was motioning Brown to land in Germany which the B-17 commander refused to do. His bombing mission targeting a German munitions factory had been a success, his B-17F bomber had been attacked by no fewer than 15 planes and so far had survived; now, Charlie Brown’s attempts to get home safely seemed doomed to failure. The Bf-109 and its pilot was between him, the remnants of his crew and his almost crippled plane and safety. It was at that moment when the German pilot decided not to shoot at his ‘enemy’ because he ‘fought by the rules of humanity’
Second Lt. Charles L. Brown (left). Oberleutnant Franz Stigler (right).
The pilot of the Bf-109 was Franz Stigler and he had remembered the words of his commanding officer, Lt Gustav Roedel. “Honour is everything here,” he had told a young Stigler before his first mission, adding: “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself. You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.” Stigler’s moral compass was more powerful than his need for glory. “For me, Shooting down that B-17 would have been the same as shooting at a parachute, I just couldn’t do it,” Stigler was to say later.
The New York Post detailed Brown’s ensuing 40-year struggle to come to terms with why that German pilot decided to go against orders and spare the Americans – allowing him to fly and land his battered plane safely and go on to live a happy and full life after the war. The pilot in question was, as we now know, Franz Stigler, a 26-year-old ace who had 22 victories to his name. Earlier that day, he had downed two 4-engine bombers and needed only one more to be awarded the Knight’s Cross. But on that day, as his Bf-109 closed in on the US plane he had to consider the consequences for not finishing off an enemy plane – a court martial and certain execution. But, he sensed something was wrong – the enemy plane was not engaging with him; in fact, unbeknown even to Brown, the plane had lost it’s tail-gun compartment and one wing was badly damaged. As Stigler drew closer he saw the gunner covered in blood, and how part of the plane’s outside had been ripped off. And he saw the wounded, terrified US airmen inside, trying to help one another tend to their injuries. However, he was still fearful that with other German guns likely to come into view at any time and he needed to make a quick decision. Stigler ended up, not shoot the B-17 down but escorting it for several miles out over the North Sea, still fearing that if he was seen flying so close to the enemy without engaging, he would be accused – and doubtless found guilty – of treason. But, as he flew in formation with the B-17 “….the most heavily damaged aircraft I ever saw that was still flying……I thought, I cannot kill these half-dead people. It would be like shooting at a parachute”. Meanwhile, the B-17 crew had begun to train their guns on Stigler’s Bf-109.
Without further ado, the German pilot saluted his counterpart, motioned for him to fly away from German territory and pulled away. The moment had been fleeting and it would take many years before answers to so many questions would be answered. The only thing that was known that day was that following the disappearance of the Bf-109 into the clouds, the B-17 did make it acrross the 250 miles of storm-tossed North Sea and landed at Seething near the coast of Norfolk, the home of the USAAF 448th Bomb Broup which had not yet flown its first mission.
The crew was debriefed on their mission, including the strange encounter with the Bf-109. For unknown reasons, the debriefing was classified as “Secret” and was to remain so for many years, Lieutenant Brown went on to complete a combat tour, finish college, accept a regular commission, serve in the Office of the Special Investigations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other Air Force and State Departments until his retirement. Throughout all that time and into retirement, the image of his strange encounter with that German Bf-109 remained firmly embedded in Charlie Brown’s mind and in 1986, more than 40 years after the incident, Brown – who was still traumatised by the events of that fateful day – began searching for the man who saved his life even though he had no idea whether his saviour was alive, let alone where the man in question was living.
In 1990 Brown bought an ad in a newsletter aimed at former German fighter pilots, saying only that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.’ The former Oberleutnant Franz Stigler saw the ad. in his new hometown of Vancouver, Canada – where he had moved after the war, unable ever to feel at home in Germany. By comparing time, place and aircraft markings, it was established that Stigler was the chivalrous pilot who had allowed Brown and his crew to live. Charlie and Franz got in touch. “It was like meeting a family member, like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years,” Brown said at the pair’s first meeting. Stigler revealed how he had been trying to escort the B-17 to safety and had pulled away when he feared he had come under fire. He told Brown that his hand gestures were an attempt to tell him to fly to Sweden.
Franz Stigler’s act of chivalry was justly, though belatedly, honoured by several military organisations in the US of A and elsewhere. On the other hand,Charles Brown was not decorated for his heroism that fateful day over Germany, for no other reason than the fact that the 448th Bomb Group at Seething, Norfolk never reported the incident – such was the secrecy perhaps! However, in 2007, Charlie submitted a request to the American Air Force for the ‘Silver Star Medal’ to be awarded to his nine former crew members of “Ye Olde Pub” for their part in the mission over Bremen, Germany on December 20, 1943. The citations were awarded in early 2008 and Charlie received the ‘Air Force Cross’ for his part as commander of that B-17. No other former WW2 aircrew has this distinction.
Their story, told in the book A Higher Call, ended in 2008 when the two men died within six months of one another, Franz Stigler in March, aged 92 and Charlie Brown in November, aged 87. In their obituaries, each was mentioned as the other’s ‘special brother’.
All that remains of the former runway from which Charlie Brown took off.
Fearless, ruthless and uncommonly lucky, Norwich schoolboy Philip Fletcher Fullard DSO, MC, AFC was one of the greatest fighter aces of the First World War. Relatively unknown and overshadowed by the likes of Ball, Bishop and McCudden, Philip Fullard was one of the highest scoring fighter pilots of WW1 being credited with a final score of 46. Many would have considered this score on it’s own a remarkable achievement, but what made it even more so was the fact that he achieved it in just six months, a period which included leave and a bout of sick leave. However his run of victories was finally brought to an end, not by an enemy bullet, but by a football injury acquired during a match just three days before the start of the battle of Cambrai in November 1917.
Fullard was born on the 27th May 1897 at Merton Hall Road, Wimbledon, Surrey to parents Annie and Thomas Fletcher. The family moved to Norwich sometime after 1901 where Philip Fullard was educated at the Norwich Grammar School – later to be renamed Norwich School. Fullard developed an active enthusiasm for sport while at school, captaining both the hockey and football teams. It has been rumoured that whilst at school, or shortly afterwards, he played for the Norwich City Football Club reserve team; subsequent enquiries indicated that the Club have no record of Fullard playing for them.
He enlisted in the British Army in 1915 and, initially, served with the Royal Irish Fusiliers. As with many other ultimately successful airmen Fullard sought and received a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1916, receiving training at the School of Aeronautics at Oxford and then at Netheravon and Upavon. He received his pilot’s certificate in the December of that year and went on to initially serve with the RFC in the capacity of flight instructor at Upavon. Fullard finally, in April 1917, achieved his desire for active combat with a posting to 1 Squadron on the Western Front in , the month of the highly successful Allied attack at Vimy Ridge.
At 20 and just two years out of school, he was already a combat veteran whose lethal record of success belied his boyish features. In a whirlwind five months tour on the Western Front, the prize-winning Norfolk scholar was becoming one of the rising stars of the Royal Flying Corps with 28 victories to his name and a Military Cross and Bar to add to his academic and sporting achievements.
Since joining No 1 Squadron at Bailleul in May 1917 as an already accomplished pilot with a penchant for performing stunts his career trajectory had been upward all the way until one day in September 1917 an act of folly very nearly proved fatal. It resulted in Fullard damaging blood vessels in one eye while out flying, brought on by his frustration of experiencing a fruitless chase above the war-torn battlefield in his Nieuport Scout, At that moment, he decided to make up for the lack of adrenalin-charged excitement with a little test of his own – as he explained:
“……..I thought that for an experiment I would see what would happen if a Nieuport was put out of control with the engine full on, so, letting go the controls, I waited. The machine fell 12,000 feet in a diving spin at great speed, when suddenly I felt an intense pain in my head and found I could see nothing at all. I thought I had been shot, and, managing to make the machine fly level at a slow speed and, after what seemed a long time, I began to see very indistinctly with one eye the blurred outline of white objects. I picked out the white cross on the aerodrome and landed safely, still in great pain in the eyeballs and quite blind in one eye………”
The resulting temporary blindness kept him away from the fray for much of the next month and it was this self-inflicted near-disaster which accounted for the presence, for the first time among his flying kit, of a pair of goggles. Until that spectacular brush with catastrophe, he had preferred to fly his wind-buffeted, open cockpit fighter, without any protection for his eyes and preferring nothing to hinder his sight of the enemy.
Though not of his choosing, the change to his flying face attire made no difference to his run of success in the warring skies above the embattled troops slogging their way across the Flanders bog below. The bitter fighting around Passchendaele showed no sign of letting up as Philip Fletcher Fullard made his way back to his fighter squadron after a month’s enforced rest.
He lost no time in continuing his amassing of a highly impressive aerial victory tally. During the four weeks following his return at the end of September 1917 he was as consistent and courageous as ever, equalling his best monthly return of his short combat career with five enemy aircraft destroyed, six shot down ‘out of control’ and an observation balloon ‘deflated’. All 40 of his overall total score of successes were achieved between May and November 1917. It was a performance which confirmed his status as one of the leading ‘aces’ of the British air services and would help to make him the highest-scoring Englishman to survive the First World War – flying Nieuport aircraft to great effect.
Such was his prowess that he briefly gained celebrity status when a reluctant high command bowed to media pressure and identified him, together with the legendary James McCudden, as one of the nation’s ‘Air Stars’.
That much was certainly true, along with his character traits which went unmentioned at the time but contributed to Fullard’s remarkable record as a fighter pilot, namely his: fearlessness, ruthlessness and self-confidence bordering on arrogance which, when allied to his supreme mastery of his flying machine, made him the most formidable of adversaries. Interviewed years later when he was in his 80s, his past self confidence, and probable arrogance showed through once more when he scoffed at the romanticised image of the first war in the air as a courtly joust between devil-may-care aviators portrayed as latter-day knights.
“I don’t think it existed,” he declared. “You couldn’t have operated like that……”. Clearly, his approach to aerial combat was also decidedly unsentimental. “I just felt I wanted to survive,” he said, “and the best way of doing that was to kill the other fellow.” By way of an example he recalled an early morning clash that took place some 2,000 feet above the shell-churned wilderness in October 1917 and at the height of the Passchendaele offensive. Having manoeuvred close beneath the tail of an enemy two-seater, he proceeded to shoot it up “properly”, as he put it. With the rear gunner seemingly silenced and the aircraft at his mercy, he then decided to change the ‘drum’ on his machine-gun which entailed him having to hold the joystick with his knees while he fumbled to replenish his ammunition. “Suddenly, the observer in the machine that I thought I had dealt with………came to life again and fairly shot me up properly”…….”The burst of fire ripped through my flying coat, punctured the oil tank, ignited a supply of Verey lights and, as I turned to look, tore off my goggles *#!”. Fullard’s reaction was anything but chivalrous. “I had no qualms about going down again and shooting him to pieces,” he said. “I mean, I wasn’t going to be insulted in that way……..I shot him down and he was seen to fall in flames quite close to the lines.”
The combat over Moorslede which resulted in his 37th aerial victory also illustrated another – arguably the most valuable if intangible of all – of his many virtues as a fighter pilot – it was his extraordinary good fortune. He was not one to carry a “good luck token” on any of his sorties and it was his enviable claim to fame within the squadron that he never lost anybody “who was flying with me in any formation, whether it was six, 12 or two aircraft”……..“As to my own machines,” he recalled, “I changed……two or three times because they were shot up but I was never shot down. Including the eye thing, I had to come down five times for one reason or another…….twice just behind the lines. Once, upside down and once, in a shell-hole…… and I don’t think I ruined machines except on one or two of these occasions.”
However, his greatest stroke of luck came not in the air but on the ground. On November 17, 1917 he suffered a compound fracture of his right leg while playing football for his squadron against a team from an army battalion resting nearby. The 20-year-old patrol leader, who had escaped serious injury in countless combats during 250 hours of flying over the battle zone, was carried off to hospital never to return to front-line action.
“This happened immediately before the Cambrai offensive,” he later wrote, “so that I was very hurriedly evacuated to England to make room for the expected casualties…….Perhaps owing to this hasty move, my leg refused to set properly and, after seven attempts had been made, it was eventually plated more than a month after the fracture.”
The injury denied him the opportunity to add to his score of 46 victories, all of them achieved with No 1 Squadron within the space of a little under five months, but in all probability saved his life. Whereas many another great aces fell victim to the unrelenting strain of combat in the final year of the war, Philip Fullard recovered, albeit slowly, to take on the less glamorous but less hazardous role of an area flying examining officer. His venturesome war ended in Yorkshire as a 21-year-old major with a Distinguished Service Order, a Military Cross and Bar and just one big regret – that he had not been awarded the Victoria Cross for which he had been cited in the autumn of 1917 when his flying career was at its zenith. Though other awards came his way during a distinguished career spanning more than three decades the absence of the VC was to rankle with Fullard for many years after the First World war was over. Speaking about it in the late 1970s, Norfolk’s most successful fighter ace, still remembered being shown a copy of the rejected recommendation after it had been returned to the squadron adjutant. Scrawled across it in crayon was the brigade commander’s comment:
“Make him get some more.”
Despite Fullard’s disappointment at the time, he still elected to remain with the Royal Air Force, eventually reaching Air Commodore rank and serving once again during the Second World War (including a period as Duty Air Commodore at HQ Fighter Command); he eventually retired on 20 November 1946 at the age of 49.
Although Beowulf and Saint George are the most famous dragon slayers in British mythology, even they cannot defeat all the dragons that appear in the larger folklore of England, Wales, and Scotland. Many of these dragons, or “worms” as they are frequently called, have stories which link them with fixed locations throughout the UK. As such, a large portion of Britain’s dragons are part of local folktales that have been handed down over centuries.
1 The Red And White Dragons
The image of the dragon is an integral part of Welsh identity. As evidence of this, a red dragon is emblazoned on the country’s flag as a symbol of Welsh pride and nationalism. This dragon, along with a white dragon, appear in The Mabinogion—one of the earliest examples of British prose literature and an important collection of Welsh mythology. Compiled sometime between the 12th and 13th centuries, the Mabinogion contains numerous tales that have become famous across the world, such as some of the earliest accounts of the Celtic leader King Arthur. “Lludd and Llefelys,” another famous tale, details the important war between the red dragon and the invading white dragon.
In the story, the foreign white dragon is so fearsome that its cries cause women to miscarry and its mere presence is enough to kill livestock and ruin crops. Determined to rid his kingdom of this menace, King Lludd of Britain visits his brother Llefelys in France. Llefelys tells his brother to prepare a pit filled with mead and cover it with cloth. After Lludd completes this task, the white dragon begins to drink from the pit and falls into a drunken stupor. With the monster asleep, Lludd captures the dragon and imprisons it in Dinas Emrys, a wooden hillock in Wales.
One of the more common interpretations of this story is that the red dragon represents the native Celtic inhabitants of Britain while the white dragon is a symbol of the Germanic Anglo-Saxons who began invading England in the fifth century. A related idea is that the white dragon is the symbol of the Saxon warlord Vortigern while the red dragon is the flag of King Arthur’s forces. Either way, “Lludd and Llefelys” does show a close relationship between Celtic Britain and Gaul (today’s France), which may make this story’s origins even older than the fifth century.
2 Dragon Of Loschy Hill
“The Dragon of Loschy Hill” is a tragic Yorkshire tale that is recounted by Reverend Thomas Parkinson in his 1888 book Yorkshire Legends and Traditions. According to Parkinson’s account, a large dragon once haunted a wooded area later known as Loschy’s Hill in the parish of Stonegrave. As the dragon terrified local villagers, a brave knight named Peter Loschy decided to kill the beast once and for all. While wearing a special suit of armor that featured several razor blades, Loschy and a trusted dog set out to find the dragon.
Feeling confident that the knight would be just another meal, the dragon wrapped itself around Loschy’s armor and tried to squeeze the human into eternal submission. Loschy’s armour gave the dragon numerous cuts, but all of them healed quickly. Although stunned by the dragon’s supernatural powers, Loschy managed to cut off pieces of the dragon’s skin with his sword. His dog then carried the pieces to Nunnington Church. Loschy and his dog managed to dismember the dragon so thoroughly that it could not regenerate. Loschy was so overjoyed that he didn’t realize that his face was coated in the dragon’s poison. Upon licking his master’s face, the faithful dog ingested the poison and died. In turn, the poison fumes became too much for Loschy, and he died by his dog’s side. As a show of gratitude, the villagers of Stonegrave buried Loschy next his dog in Nunnington Church, where stone engravings retell the story for all to see.
3 Sockburn Worm
The Sockburn worm is a wyvern, not a dragon. Although a relative of the dragon, northern European folklore depicts wyverns as smaller creatures with the head of a dragon, the body of a snake, the wings of a bat, and two legs that protrude above a long, serpentlike tail. Despite being smaller than dragons, wyverns were known for being exceptionally vicious. The Sockburn worm was no different.
Not long after the Norman Conquest, the Sockburn worm began terrorizing the country surrounding the River Tees in County Durham. The Sockburn worm used its ability to fly and its poisonous breath to wreak havoc all across the Sockburn Peninsula. Realizing that the wyvern must be killed to save the realm, a knight named Sir John Conyers visited a church and offered up the life of his only son to God in preparation for the battle. A document known as the Bowes Manuscript asserts that Conyers not only killed the wyvern but earned land and a title because of his heroism.
Some historians have suggested that the Sockburn worm represents a marauding Danish warrior while others see Conyers as a Norman knight who helped to legitimize Anglo-French rule in the northeast. Whatever the truth, the weapon that Conyers supposedly used to kill the Sockburn worm is still on display in the Durham Cathedral and is called the Conyers falchion.
4 Mester Stoor Worm
Located in the far north of Scotland, the Orkney Islands have an ancient history that stretches all the way back to the Stone Age. During the ninth century, Orkney fell prey to numerous Viking raids from Norway. Ultimately, the islands were settled by Scandinavians who helped to annex the islands for Norwegian and later Dano-Norwegian kings. As the Orkneys offered a way for Germanic and Celtic cultures to interact, the islands became home to unique folklore. As part of that folklore, the Mester stoor worm remains a thoroughly Orcadian tale.
As the legend goes, the Mester stoor worm was a gigantic sea serpent that could wrap itself around the entire world. When it moved, the Mester stoor worm caused earthquakes and other natural disasters. Owing to the monster’s poisonous breath and its habit of smashing ships to pieces, most knights steered clear of the creature. One day, a powerful wizard promised the king that the sea beast could be killed if the king gave up his daughter to the wizard. Not wanting to lose his daughter, the king offered the entire kingdom to any brave warrior who killed the Mester stoor worm.
An unlikely hero emerged by the name of Assipattle, a slow-witted farm boy who killed the dragon by guiding a ship into the dragon’s stomach. There, Assipattle applied burning peat to the dragon’s liver, which eventually caused an explosion that forever rid the world of the Mester stoor worm. According to the legend, the dead beast did bring about a positive change, for the dragon’s scattered teeth created the Orkney Islands.
5 Bignor Hill Dragon
Not much is known about the Bignor Hill dragon. Its name appears only sporadically in the historical record, yet the few clues about the beast are quite tantalizing. In the 19th century, The Gentleman’s Magazine recorded that the local inhabitants of Bignor Hill, an area in Sussex dotted with Roman roads, believed that an ancient Celtic dragon lived on top of a nearby hill.
Some folktales spoke of the surrounding hills as being part of the dragon’s skinfolds while others pointed out that the dragon’s den was close to a ruined Roman villa. This later tale is interesting because it may highlight an interpretation of the Bignor Hill dragon as some sort of holdout from the Roman occupation of Britain, which introduced the Roman religion on the island. The notion that the dragon is of Celtic origin likewise points to a Christian demonization of pagan practices.
Lyminster, Sussex, was once home to a knucker. Based on the Old English word nicor, which means “water dragon,” knuckers are predominately found in knuckerholes, ponds that are present throughout Sussex. The Lyminster knucker lived in one such knuckerhole near the major church of Lyminster. The knucker began its reign of terror by snatching away livestock. Then the water dragon began dragging away all the young girls from the village until the only maiden left was the king’s daughter. With few options left, the king of Sussex offered his daughter as the prize for anyone who could slay the dragon.
Three different versions of the legend record three different heroes. One legend has it that a wandering knight killed the dragon before taking the princess as his wife. In another version, a local man named Jim Puttock kills the dragon by feeding it poisoned pudding. A third version says that a man named Jim Pulk slays the dragon with poisoned pudding but forgets to wash the dragon’s poison off his skin and dies as a result. These competing versions merely highlight the importance of the Lyminster knucker story to Sussex folklore. St. Mary Magdalene’s Church in Lyminster is still known as the home of the “Slayer’s Slab“—a tomb that supposedly houses the bones of the man who killed the Lyminster knucker.
7 Laidly Worm Of Spindleston Heugh
“The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh” began as a Northumbrian ballad that was passed down through song in northern England. The story begins with the king of Northumbria, who lived inside Bamburgh Castle with his wife and children. When the first queen died, the king took a malicious witch as his bride. The king’s strong son, Childe Wynd, is out to sea, so there is no one in the castle who can stop the witch’s evil plans. Jealous of the beautiful Princess Margaret, the witch turns the young girl into a dragon. The princess remains that way until Childe Wynd returns and kisses the dragon. The prince’s kiss breaks the spell, which allows the prince to claim the throne. As revenge, Childe Wynde curses the witch and turns her into a toad.
This is just one version of this classic tale. In another version, the castle is called Bamborough and the witch’s curse is far worse. Princess Margaret becomes an uncontrollably hungry dragon that must feast upon the area livestock. However, both versions draw inspiration from the Icelandic saga of the shape-shifter Alsol and her lover Hjalmter.
8 The Mordiford Wyvern
The story of Maud and the Mordiford wyvern is a rather unusual legend. Set in the Herefordshire village of Mordiford, the story concerns a young girl named Maud who finds a baby wyvern while out walking one morning. Maud takes the small creature back to her home as a pet and feeds it milk regularly. As the creature grows older, it develops a taste for human flesh and begins dining on the Mordiford villagers. Despite its cruelty, the wyvern remains loyal to Maud and refuses to eat her. However, even Maud cannot get the wyvern to stop its killing spree. It makes its home on a nearby ridge and its constant movements back and forth create the Serpent Path, a twisting road that ends at a local river.
Several versions of the creature’s demise exist. In one, the scion of the Garston family manages to kill the beast after a fierce ambush. Another version says that a condemned criminal killed the wyvern to escape capital punishment.
9 The Dragon Of Longwitton
For a time, the inhabitants of Longwitton, Northumberland, were barred from three holy wells. This was not because the water was poisoned but rather because a fearsome dragon kept them away. A hero did not appear until a knight named Sir Guy, Earl of Warwick accepted the task of killing the dragon. For three days, Sir Guy and the dragon fought each other. During that time, Sir Guy grew disenchanted because each cut and stab did nothing to the dragon. Once struck, the dragon simply used magic to heal its own wounds. On the third day, Sir Guy noticed that the dragon kept its tail inside one of the wells throughout the battle. Realizing that the sacred waters allowed the dragon to constantly heal itself, Sir Guy persuaded the dragon to move away from the wells entirely, thereby leaving it vulnerable. Once away from the holy waters, Sir Guy easily managed to kill the creature.
More detailed versions of the story proclaim that the waters were known for their healing properties throughout Northumbria, and as such, the dragon coveted the wells for its own purposes. In some tales, the brave knight also uses a magic ointment to protect himself from the dragon’s breath.
1 Worm Of Linton
According to 12th-century stories from the Scottish Borders, the Linton worm lived in the “Worm’s Den”—a hill near the village of Linton in Roxburghshire. At dusk and dawn, the dragon left its den to prey upon sheep, cows, and people. All the weapons used against the creature proved useless, and before long, Linton had been reduced to a wasteland.
When word of the dragon reached the ears of William (or John) de Somerville, the Laird of Lariston, the courageous knight decided to act. Riding north, de Somerville noticed that the dragon frequently consumed everything that stood in its way. However, when faced with something too large to swallow, the dragon would lie still with its mouth open. Realizing that this made the dragon vulnerable, de Somerville had a blacksmith create an iron spear with a wheel on its tip. De Somerville placed burning peat on top of the wheel. When he journeyed inside the worm’s mouth on horseback, he placed the fire inside of the dragon, creating a fatal wound. In its death throes, the Linton worm’s thrashing body created the many hills that today populate the region. For his actions, Linton Church (or Kirk) created a carved stone to record the story for posterity.
In some versions, the death of the Linton worm occurred during the reign of King William the Lion, who ruled Scotland from 1143 until 1214. Supposedly, King William greeted de Somerville as “my gallant Saint George” to enhance the nobleman’s confidence. Also, besides the carved stone in Linton Church, de Somerville’s victory is supposedly commemorated by the de Somerville coat of arms, which features a green, fire-breathing dragon on top of the tympanum.
No one wants to admit it but we are all interested in murder. Few therefore can plead ignorant of the story of the ‘Red Barn Murder’ one of the most famous murder cases of 19th century England. It took place on Saturday 18th May 1827 in the Suffolk village of Polstead, not far south from my County of Norfolk.
In essence, it was a fairly tawdry tragedy, but it did have a number of features, including supernatural elements that rendered it sensational at the time and even fascinating in this present day. The circumstances not only made a great impact on the Victorians by way of topical news but also on the melodramatic plots that were subsequently injected into stage dramas. Not only that, but the tale was to have ramifications in popular culture, how murders were subsequently reported, and even how elements ‘enriched’ the English language. That being said, what follows is not intended to be a full account of the case or the characters involved; it is simply a summary – and another viewpoint! To start with, let’s just introduce the two principal characters and leave everyone else to reveal themselves as the following narrative unfolds:
William Corder was born in 1803, the third son of a yeoman farmer. He lived in Polstead in the County of Suffolk. His father and three brothers all died within the space of 18 months, leaving William and his mother to run the farm.
Corder was about 5ft 4 inches tall, slender, well-muscled, with a fair complexion and freackles. He was very short-sighted yet, apparently, an excellent shot. In the best authenticated likeness he looks rather studious. As a child he spent five years at a respectable boarding school at Hadleigh. Though bright, he was not well liked by others. He was nicknamed “Foxey”, perhaps because he was prone to stealing and lying. In Polstead, he was generally known as ‘Bill’. He did not get on well with his father or brothers, but was quite attached to his mother. Despite being considered kind, humane and good tempered, Corder was said to have been reserved and chirlish. He absorbed gossip and took pleasure in keeping information to himself. His father despaired of him.
William Corder became involved with Maria Marten around March 1826 and kept their relationship secret until Maria became pregnant. Thereafter, he was a constant visitor to the Marten’s cottage.
One of the curious things about Corder’s life was that he never seemed to have enough money. But, Corder was from an affluent “middle class” home, his father was dead and since his brother’s death he was heir to the farm which was extensive – locally, the Corders were important people. Yet he hinted time and time again about trouble at home with his surviving family, and while it is clear that he doted on his mother, she seemed to have been unwilling to surrender any financial control to him. She was clearly very attached to him and almost certainly took his side in any family squabbles. Certainly Corder, being a flamboyant dresser with expensive tastes, seemed to have been unwilling to seek any money from this obvious source.
Maria Marten was born on 24th July 1801, the daughter of Polstead mole-catcher Thomas Marten and his wife, Grace. Maria was a quiet and intelligent child. She received an education and, unusually for a country girl at the time, she could read and write well. Following her mother’s death Maria, aged 9 years, took on the role of ‘mother’ very seriously but still managed to continue educating herself. One comentator observed of Maria (Having been blessed with a very retentive memory and her mind deeply embued with a desire to acquire useful knowledge, there is every reason to believe that, if she had received proper tuition, she would have made an accomplished woman” (Curtis, 1828. p41).
At the age of 17 years, Maria became involved with Thomas Corder, William Corder’s second oldest brother. Thomas as a passably good-looking young man and was to vist Maria frequently at her cottage. At Thomas’s wish, their courtship was largely carried out in secret – Maria was not his equal in social status. Thomas fathered Maria’s first child, but his visits became increasingly infrequent as her pregnancy progressed. He did not marry her and provided little financial support; the child died young. Maria, now a ‘fallen woman’, next had an affair with a certain Peter Matthews – referred to as ‘Mr P.’ in the following narrative since he serves no role in the forthcoming tragedy. However, Peter Matthews was a well-respected gentleman with relatives in Polstead. He was aware of Maria’s past but, by him, she had a son, Thomas Henry, the only one of her children to survive, Again, there was no marriage; however, Matthews provided a regular allowance for the upkeep of his child.
Maria next took up with the leading character in this story, William Corder. His father and brothers were dead. He was wealthy. He was young. He would have made a good catch and it would appear that Maria loved him. Despite her mother’s disapproval of the relationship, Maria was to press William to marry her, but whilst frequently promising marriage, Corder always found an excuse to delay a wedding. Nevertheless, by him, she had a third child but it was weak and died within a month. The pair pretended to take it to Sudbury for burial but probably buried it in a field. Six weeks after the birth, Maria disappeared; it appears that her anxiety to marry had sealed her fate. Two months short of her 26th birthday, Maria was dead.
Now, Imagine the scene, it is a Saturday and the date is 18th May 1827. We are told that William Corder, a son of a prosperous Suffolk family, set out to elope with Maria Marten, a village beauty of humble origin. The two. apparently, walked separately through the night to a barn, later to become the infamous ‘Red Barn’ which stood on Corder’s property. Maria was first dressed in male clothing to avoid local notice but on arrival at the barn changed into female attire. It was whilst she was in the process of changing that she met her death and was buried by Corder within the barn.
The tale goes on to relate that Corder not only remained in the little village of Polstead, but also informed Maria’s parents that he and Maria were to wed by Special Licence, but to avoid her arrest he had sent her to stay with friends near Yarmouth in Norfolk. She was also unable to write herself because of an injury to her hand. Sometime later Corder left for London and wrote to Maria’s father saying that he and Maria were now married and living on the Isle of Wight; Corder also stated that they were very happy and requested that the father burn some letters, claiming they were hiding from a Mr P – his identity already revealed above and serves no further purpose here. We also know that Corder was a liar and inconsistent in what he told others, particularly in the village during his visits there; such as whether or not he was indeed married and where Maria was residing during the year before the her body was discovered.
The Background to the Crime
All the sensation masks details of the story which may have a bearing on what really happened on that fateful night. First point, Maria Marten was mother of two illegitimate children by a local dignitary, a very wealthy gentleman, referred to as Mr P at the Inquest. As such she was open to arrest for the crime of bastardy, that is giving birth to illegitimate children. In fact no attempt was made to arrest her, because the children were not, it seems, “a burden on the parish” and because the father made a generous provision of £5 a quarter for their upkeep.
A year before the murder William Corder became intimately acquainted with Maria, who he had presumably known for some time because they both lived in what was a very small village, and he and Maria went off to live in ‘sin’ in Sudbury. While there she gave birth to another child, this one fathered by Corder, where, again, bastardy charges could have followed. They were not and the couple returned to Polstead, where the baby died. Corder removed the body, having placed it in a box and told villagers the child had been buried in Sudbury; in fact Corder buried the child in an undisclosed field – the body was never recovered.
Maria and Corden were to remain lovers, despite the gulf in their social position, which was nowhere as great as that between Maria and her former lover, the anonymous ‘Mr P’. Apparently, his family also disapproved on the same grounds. As it was, Corder’s father was dead, several of his siblings had died in the last few years of TB, and his elder brother had died in a skating accident, drowning when he plunged through the ice on the village pond. His mother had suffered an immense amount of grief and now William Corder was heir and helping to run the farm.
Yet, Corder still did not have control of the money and when a letter to Maria from Mr P was intercepted by Corder, he apparently stole the £5 maintenance for the child which was contained inside. Maria now had a problem; she argued publicly with Corder – who could hang for the theft — and she had no way to protect herself from the long deferred bastardy charges, should they be brought. However if Corder married her and claimed the children as his, they would be legitimate, and the problem would go away.
The Night of the Murder
Twice they had prepared to elope, but Corder backed out each time, leaving Maria increasingly depressed and unhappy. Her home life also appears to have been troubled by the moral condemnation from her younger sister, who regarded Maria as a ‘tart’, and had been particularly scathing about her dress sense. The death of her baby also affected Maria greatly, to say nothing of her health problems and Corder telling her that she was about to be arrested for bastardy, no doubt using this to frighten and control her. On the fateful night he assured her that she was about to be taken in to custody, so she dressed in his clothes and for the third time set out to elope and marry Corder. They would leave through separate doors of the Marten’s cottage, walk to the Red Barn where, being out of sight of any villagers, she would change and they would make off to marry by Licence, thus avoiding the necessity for banns to be read.
Of course, Corder was lying. There was no intention on the part of the authorities to apprehend Maria, so what followed appears straightforward enough with Maria changing out of Corder’s clothes into her own at the moment when she was shot in the head and possibly stabbed twice with Corder’s sword before being strangled with her neckerchief. Her body was placed in a sack, and buried there in the Red Barn.
About an hour after they had left the Marten’s cottage, Corder had gone to a cottage close to the barn and borrowed a spade. Sometime later Maria’s younger brother claimed he saw him walking across a field carrying a pickaxe. Corder was to claim that the boy was mistaken and that the person he saw was one of his agricultural labourers who had been grubbing up trees, and who, by the way, also wore a velveteen coat. The ‘same coat’ part was true, but at Corder’s trial, the labourer denied ever carrying a pickaxe that year as far as he could recall.
Concealing the Crime: The Red Barn
Corder buried the body just one and a half feet under the floor of the barn, and then cleaned up the blood. From that day on he carried the key, and when the harvest was brought in he personally supervised the laying of the crop over the spot where Maria was buried. With Corder holding the key it became difficult for anyone to enter, though presumably he must have somehow provided access to his farmhands, unless the hay was stored very long term. He was in the village for months before taking off to “be with Maria” purportedly in the Isle of Wight! Actually, he was to in London, about which more will be said shortly. For the next eleven months or so, Maria would remain buried in the Red Barn.
The actual barn (a ‘double barn’ in Suffolk terms) would be rapidly pulled down by souvenir seekers. The illustration below is rather misleading – the barn was actually surrounded on three sides by outbuildings, with a courtyard formed by these sheds and a gate some seven feet high at the front.
Supernatural Experience? The Discovery of the Body
‘Providence – to some it was God – led to the unveiling of the murder’ according to the Inquest. In fact, the events which led to the discovery of the body have been the staple diet of supernatural books ever since because Maria was discovered after her stepmother dreamt of where the body was actually buried. Apparently, she managed to convince her husband, Maria’s father, to investigate. All that we know comes from The Times, April 22nd 1828 which stated that the dream was of Maria murdered and buried in the Red Barn, and that the dream had occurred on three successive nights. Of course, the papers were to make much of this but, between the lines, the argument for anything supernatural being involved was very weak.
It was well known that Maria and Corder had always met (and none but the naive would fail to presume that they made love) in the Red Barn. No sooner had Maria apparently ‘left for Yarmouth’ her parents were suspicious, and that is why they cross-examined Corder after their nine year old son said he saw the latter carrying a pickaxe on the night he was supposedly eloping with Maria. Many times had Maria’s father thought of entering the building to look for any evidence, but he never did because of the difficulty of access and the fact the barn was Mrs Corder’s property. Even after his wife had convinced him to search the barn, he took time to ask permission from Mrs Corder, saying he wanted to look for some of Maria’s clothing which he believed had been left in there. Such deference by farm labourers towards landowners was the norm then and is still not uncommon today.
So it was that Mr Marten, together with a Mr Pryke, and both armed with a spade and a rake set off to the barn and went to the very spot indicated in the dream where they uncovered the remains of Maria, very much decomposed to being mainly skeletal. They fetched others, and during the exhumation of the body it was noted that there was a mark on the wall where a pistol had been discharged. As Corder habitually carried a pair of percussion cap pistols and occasionally fired them into the Marten’s fireplace, his position looked precarious.
So was it a supernatural dream? Well, the bizarre way Maria, who could read and write and was close to her parents, had stopped communicating, the conflicting stories told by Corder, the enquiries badly deflected by Corder from Mr P (still sending faithfully his fiver for Maria) and village gossip all meant that the dream was probably little more than a reflection of the anxiety felt by the stepmother. She may have even made it up to finally make her husband, who had spent eleven months doing nothing, to actually go and check if Maria lay dead under the floor of the Red Barn. The dream caused a sensation at the time, but there is no reason to believe that it was supernormal on the part of Mrs Marten. However, that opinion does not dispel the supernatural. The Red Barn had an unwholesome reputation before the murder. It was so called because it stood on a rise and was stained that colour by the setting sun; apparently, such places were associated in Suffolk folklore with murder and horror. So maybe it is understandable that there would be stories of ghostly tales of crime in and around the Red Barn – now long gone.
William Corder Seeks Marriage Elsewhere.
During the eleven months between the murder and the discovery of Maria’s body, Corder was in Polstead before eventually setting off – supposedly to live on the Isle of Wight. In fact he went to London where it has been suggested Corder had a number of criminal associates. What we do know from the Trial was that Corder seems to have enjoyed himself and quite quickly fixed his eyes upon marriage for he took out the following advertisement in The Sunday Times, 25th November 1827:
MATRIMONY — A Private Gentleman, aged twenty-four, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded, has lately lost chief of his family by the hand of Providence, which has occasioned discord among the remainder, under circumstances most disagreeable to relate. To any female of respectability, who would study for domestic comforts, and willing to confide her future happiness to one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the Advertiser is in affluence. Many very happy marriages have taken place through means similar to this now resorted to; and it is hoped no one will answer this though impertinent curiosity; but should this meet the eye of any agreeable Lady who feels desirous of meeting with sociable, tender, kind and sympathising companion, they will find this Advertisement worthy of notice. Honour and secrecy may be relied upon. As some little security against idle applications, it is requisite that letters may be addressed (post paid) A.Z., care of Mr. Foster, stationer, 68 Leadenhall-street, with real name and address, which will meet with most respectful attention.
The advertisement certainly worked for he received over a hundred replies, with two definitely gaining his attention. One was from a mysterious lady who wanted to meet him at a London church. She described herself, and told Corder to wear his arm in a sling and to wear a black handkerchief around his neck and attend a certain service where they would meet. Unfortunately maybe, Corder was delayed and missed the service, arriving after the lady had left. He later discovered that the woman making the enquiries was a lady of some standing and with a large fortune. His plans to contact her again was thwarted when he met the women who would become his wife.
Corder met Miss Moore at an undisclosed public place and they immediately were attracted to each other. The sister of a notable London jeweller, she was clearly dissatisfied with her single status, and three weeks after that first meeting the two were married. While the marriage was only to last eight or so months before Corder was executed, it seems to have been genuinely happy with Mr and Mrs Corder opening a boarding school for girls at Grove House in Ealing Lane, London. It was there, living with his wife and with a few pupils enrolled, that he was to be arrested for murder.
When found, the body it was quickly identified as Maria from missing teeth, clothing, jewellery and a small lump on the neck the corpse. There could only be one suspect and the village constable was sent off to London to find Corder. However The metropolis was outside his jurisdiction and he was obliged to go to a police station where a policeman named Lea was assigned to the case. It took fourteen hours to locate Corder despite having absolutely no idea where he might be, or even if he was in London. But find him they did when police constable Lea entered Corder’s house, pretending that he wished to place one of his daughters at the Corder Finishing School. As soon as Lea had Corder in in the confines of his study, he told him that Maria Marten had been found. Three times Corder denied ever knowing the girl but he was arrested and his sword taken, along with a small black handbag that had once been the property of Maria Marten. Inside were found Corder’s pistols.
Corder was taken back to Suffolk to face the charge of murder with his wife believing that the charge was bigamy. Nevertheless, she was to stand by him until their final parting on the day before his execution. In the meantime, Corder was held over night at the George Inn in Colchester then was transferred in the early hours of the following night to the Cock Inn at Polstead where the inquest on Maria Marten was to be held at ten the next morning.
At the appointed hour, the Cock Inn was full and representatives of the London press who disputed Coroner Weyman’s ruling that the press could not take notes for their newspaper columns. Their accounts of the proceedings would have to be filed from memory. The Coroner also noted that such was the sensational nature of the case that the papers, preachers and puppet shows were ignoring ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and declaring Corder guilty of the murder. Proceedings were then delayed by Corder’s representative who asked if he may come downstairs and witness the testimony; however, the Coroner ruled against him but stated the representative may have the witness statements read to him afterwards. Corder who had descended was forced to return to a room upstairs, while it was determined how Maria had died.
Determination, in fact, proved extremely difficult for Maria appeared to have been shot, stabbed two or three times, and then was perhaps strangled. It was not even possible to decide if she was dead when buried, so burial live was added to the list. In the end there were nine different possibilities as to exactly how she was killed and at his subsequent trial, Corder was charged with all nine to ensure that at least one of them would stick. This legal nicety would seem a bit odd to us today!
The important thing was the Inquest determined that poor Maria had been murdered and Corder was committed to prison at Bury St Edmund to await his trial, while the sensation continued to grow.
The trial was held at Bury St Edmunds with Chief Baron Alexander presiding. His orders that no one was to be admitted until he had taken his seat led to absolute chaos outside; once his carriage had arrived, it took an hour and a half for him to gain entrance and much longer for the trial to finally begin. Corder was charged with nine counts of murder and was horrified and clearly outraged to discover that the Coroner Weyland was now the Prosecutor! This meant that the Coroner had already seen all the evidence and cross-examined the witnesses, whereas the Defence had not had access to anything other than the reports of those proceedings.
However the case against Corder was fairly substantial – the last person seen with the victim who had been found buried in his barn with wounds that could have been made by his pistol and sword, not to mention the fact that he had lied for eleven months about her whereabouts. He had taken his sword to be sharpened shortly before the murder and there was no evidence that he had planned to honour a promised marriage; he even appeared to have taken special care to cover up the burial site and, for the first time in his life, kept the barn locked after the murder, along with his endless lies to her family, friends and Mr. P about where she was. Maria was unhappy when she set out on the fatal night, and Corder had been terrorising her with the claim she was about to be arrested for bastardy. Afterwards, when he was supposedly living with her, he had refused to give their address to her parents, claiming the couple were fearful of Mr P – who whatever his moral failings, seemed to have actually done much to support his illegitimate children and support Maria. The picture that emerged from the trial was that Corder was a weak and not very bright schemer, who lied constantly. Yet there was more to the man than this: he had many friends, his new wife was devoted to him and those who came to know him in gaol felt sympathy or even liking for him. He was clever enough to work hard on his defence and, indeed, both his wife and Corder appeared to be convinced that he would be acquitted.
So how did Corder hope to be found innocent? There was little hope of claiming the manner of death was incorrect or try for a technicality since he had been charged on all nine counts! His second course would be to argue that the body was not Maria Marten, but the evidence was such there could have been little doubt that it was. His third strategy was to object to the Coroner being employed as the Prosecutor, to which the Judge was certainly sympathetic, as he was to Corder’s point about being already judged guilty by the press and public long before the trial had began. However, Corder decided on arguing from his best position, namely that Maria Marten had committed suicide and he had merely covered up her death.
According to Corder his pistols had been in Maria’s possession since their time in Sudbury when she took them to have them repaired. The gunsmith testified that a man and a woman had collected them, but others did testify to seeing them in Maria’s possession. In his summing up the judge mentioned Corder “snapping” them at the fire at the Marten’s cottage on the fatal night. If that was correct then Corder certainly had the pistols when he left their house. Despite those pistols being found in Maria’s handbag at Corder’s School, he claimed that she had the pistols on the fateful night.
As they left the house to elope Maria was seen to be crying and as she changed at the barn Corder claimed she had abused him, comparing him unfavourably with Mr. P. Seeing a chance to call off the elopement and wedding, Corder claimed that he had told her that having spoken to him in such a manner before marriage, how would she treat him once they tied the knot?. According to him, he told her that he would not marry her and walked away. As he did so he heard a shot, turned and saw her lying dead, having shot herself in the head with his pistol. He gave no explanation for the second bullet mark on the wall, though she may have fired there first to attract Corder’s attention as he left. Corder stated to the court that he then panicked, concealing the body while he cleaned up the scene and left to borrow a spade. He later returned with a pickaxe to bury poor Maria in the barn. After that he did his best to conceal her fate by telling so many lies.
The greatest problem facing Corder was how to explain the evidence of the neckerchief pulled tight enough to have throttled the girl – he claimed that this must have happened as he dragged her body to the grave. Then how could he account for the wounds, made by a stabbing instrument as confirmed to the court by three surgeons who also attributed such wounds to Corder’s sword. Interestingly, Corder claimed that these marks were made by the spades of those who discovered and dug up the corpse!
Corder’s Fate is Sealed.
When instructed, the Jury retired and spent barely an hour of discussion before finding Corder guilty. The Judge, Baron Alexander sentenced him to hang and afterwards be dissected:
“That you be taken back to the prison from whence you came, and that you be taken from thence, on Monday next, to a place of Execution, and that you there be hanged by the Neck until you are Dead; and that your body shall afterwards be dissected and anatomized; and may the Lord God Almighty, of his infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!
Corder was taken from the court on his way to Bury gaol to await his fate. There he met twice more with is wife, who seemed to have behaved with great courage and dignity, offering him religious literature and pious exhortations. Many clergy and others also sought an interview with him but Corder refused to see them, though he did spend time with the prison chaplain.
Finally, on the morning of his execution, Corder wrote his confession and had it witnessed. According to this, his argument with Maria was actually about the burial of their child — Maria was worried that the baby’s body would be uncovered. Why is hard to understand, though many have speculated that Corder had killed the child, though that claim seems to have little evidence to support it. In the barn the couple fell to fighting and while they struggled, Corder pulled out his pistol, fired and Maria fell dead. He then covered up the crime and events proceeded as already described. Whatever the truth, Corder was led out at noon on August 10th, 1828 and hanged in front of an audience of 7,000 plus witnesses on a pasture behind Bury gaol, where he died quickly, his end speeded by the hangman pulling on his legs – a common practice where executions fail to go ‘according to plan’!
After an hour, his body was cut down by John Foxton, the hangman, who, according to his rights, claimed Corder’s trousers and stockings. The body was taken back to the courtroom at Shire Hall, where it was slit open along the abdomen to expose the muscles. The public was allowed to file past until six o’clock when the doors were shut. According to the Norwich and Bury Post, over 5,000 people queued to see the body.
The following day, the dissection and post-mortem were carried out in front of an audience of students from Cambridge University and physicians. A battery was attached to Corder’s limbs to demonstrate the contraction of the muscles, the sternum was opened and the internal organs examined. There was some discussion as to whether the cause of death was suffocation; but, since it was reported that Corder’s chest was seen to rise and fall for several minutes after he had dropped, it was thought probable that pressure on the spinal cord had killed him.
Since the skeleton was to be reassembled after the dissection, it was not possible to examine the brain, so instead the surgeons contented themselves with a phrenological examination of the skull. Corder’s skull was asserted to be profoundly developed in the areas of “secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness, philoprogenitiveness, and imitativeness” with little evidence of “benevolence or veneration”. The bust of Corder held by Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St. Edmunds is an original made by Child of Bungay, Suffolk, as a tool for the study of Corder’s phrenology.
The skeleton was reassembled, exhibited, and used as a teaching aid in the West Suffolk Hospital. Several copies of his death mask were made, a replica of one is held at Moyse’s Hall Museum. Artifacts from the trial and some which were in Corder’s possession are also held at the museum. Corder’s skin was tanned by the surgeon George Creed, and used to bind an account of the murder.
Corder’s skeleton was put on display in the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In 2004, Corder’s bones were removed from display and cremated
Supernatural Experience?: The Ghost of Corder
One doctor became fascinated by Corder’s skeleton and on leaving his post stole the skull, replacing it with another with a more ordinary history. Shortly after his return however terrible noises were heard and before long he began to see the shadow of a man in his house, a man who had come to reclaim what was his…… Finally, terrified and haunted to the limit of his mind by Corder’s ghost the unfortunate doctor disposed of the curiosity and peace once more reigned – So claimed a book on Suffolk folklore!
A Sensational Case
It turned out that Corder would form the archetype for the “wicked squire” – the murder was just a little too early for tying her to railway tracks for Maria was to be the innocent country maiden of Victorian Melodrama. Certainly, the story was to form the basis for many plays performed by travelling troupes all over the country, performing in barns and thus giving us the word “barnstorming”.
These plays were hugely popular and even when Corder was on trial there were puppet shows throughout the region and even in London depicting the murder. Not to be upstaged, a camera obscura show was put on in Bury St Edmunds. Such was the effect that the tragedy had on the general public that a nonconformist minister took it upon himself to preach to a crowd of thousands at the actual barn which, by the way, was dismantled by souvenir seekers. In Polstead today there is no trace at all of the gravestone of the unfortunate Maria Marten for it was chipped away by curiosity seekers long ago.
The egg has long been a symbol of rebirth and fertility. Going back as far as thousands of years, a simple bird’s egg might be given as a gift, often gaudily painted to celebrate the colours and vibrancy that came with the season of the spring, when the sun god stirred to life again – all long before Christianity.
In 1307 Edward I’s household accounts included an entry that said: 18 pence for 459 eggs to be boiled and dyed or covered with gold leaf and distributed to the royal household. (If you want to create your own golden egg, wrap an egg in onion skins, secure firmly with string or rubber bands and then simmer in a pan of water for up to an hour – by which time the egg should be marbled gold.) Then again, you might prefer a more expensive alternative, such as the flawless jewelled eggs created in the nineteenth century by Carl Faberge for the Russian Czar and Czarina, constructed of enamelled platinum shells which each contained a small golden egg.
Such a rare and priceless gift is unlikely to find its way into most of our hands this Easter day. But chocolate eggs will be widely held, with many fingers grown sticky and brown – and this melting quality of the confection is what led to the possibility of chocolate taking the form of eggs.
The first chocolate eggs were only developed in the early 19th century when, originally in France and Germany, a blend was created that could be shaped. In England, John Cadbury made his first solid eggs in 1842, but it was not until many years later, after a press was successfully used to separate the cocoa butter from the bean, that a finer chocolate was available, and being easy to melt and mould the result was the Cadbury Easter egg of 1875. The first eggs were made of smooth plain chocolate and the insides were filled with dragees but many more designs followed on, with icing and marzipan flowers, and boxes and ribbons to decorate: now become the annual indulgence which is a tradition for all.
We herewith present an (admittedly) random selection of Easter snippets from the early 19th century newspapers; a true Easter miscellany.
On the 25th March, 1802, The Treaty of Amiens, which signalled peace between Great Britain and the French Republic, was signed. It was also the signal for a proposed long school holiday for the Eton schoolboys. Do any of our readers know if the Prince of Wales’ request was granted?
His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has interceded with the Head Master of Eton School for extending the Easter holidays of the Etonians a week longer than usual, in consequence of the Peace.
(Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 26th April, 1802)
The following year, with the truce breaking down, and Britain about to declare war on France, while a few of the nobility remained in London, battle-lines were being drawn elsewhere.
The fine weather, and the Easter holidays, scatter a few of our fashionables around the Metropolis, that they may inhale a little fresh air, preparatory to the suffocating routs and balls of May. The SALISBURYS are gone to Hatfield; the ABERCORNS to Stanmore; the DERBYS to the Oaks; the MORTON PITTS to Corfe Castle; Earl ROMNEY to the Mote, near Maidstone; Lord and Lady HOBART to Roehampton; and Lord HAWKESBURY will take the air between Combe and Downing-street, though he may not always be able to take his breath.
(Morning Post, 5th April, 1803)
Tuesday evening a most furious battle took place between a Chimney Sweep and a Jack Ass Driver, at a small fair which is held on the Easter Holidays at the end of Tottenham-court-road. After half and hour’s hard and obstinate fighting, both being beat to that degree that neither was able to stand, they were forced to give up any farther contest.
(Hampshire Chronicle, 18th April, 1803)
Epping Hunt – Monday, at an early hour, the industrious sons of Spitalfields, Bethnal-green, and Whitechapel, disdaining the somnific powers, rose at the blush of Aurora, and prepared for the far-farmed Epping hunt, big with the fate of Cockneys. The road from town to the sportive scene was thronged by hunters of every description. Some were heavily dressed, and others as bare of covering as Meleager when he killed the Calydonian boar. The gallant troop displayed all the colours of gay Iris, and the sable bearings of a chimney-sweeper were often blazoned by the powderings of a barber’s apron. The cattle were composed of horses, asses, and mules, all high in bone and low in flesh; and the pack displayed every class of the canine species, from the bull to the lap-dog.After having regaled with copious libations of geneva, the motley group arrived at The Eagle, Snaresbrook, and other houses contiguous to the forest. A fine stag had been previously carried from a stable. His horns were sawed off, as usual, except the front antlers, which were braided with ribbands, and he was turned out to the mercy of his pursuers, near Buckets-hill. Finding himself at liberty, he dashed into Fairmaid Bottoms and sought refuge in the forest. The scent was then given, and off went the Cockneys,
“Like wind and tide meeting.”
In a few moments the ground was covered with hats, wigs, and the bodies of fat Citizens. Riders were seen looking for their horses, and horses for their riders. The vendors of gin and eatables, who stood prepared for the scene, immediately rushed in to dispose of their ware, and glasses of cordial consoled the downcast hunters for bruises and pain. Several Nimrods, who had pursued the sport of the day in taxed carts, were overthrown with the loss of their wheels, and the confusion which prevailed produced considerable mirth, at the expence of tailors, tallow-chandlers, weavers, and soap boilers, who had not been able to restrain the fury of their vicious kicking donkeys, and mischievous cart-horses. The stag, as usual, escaped from the fury of its unqualified pursuers, and many of the hunters who had lost their horses returned on foot to the Bald-faced Stag, to celebrate their lucky escape from the perils of the chace. After sacrificing at the shrine of the Jolly God, they returned to town.
(Oxford University and City Herald, 8th April, 1809)
Owing, no doubt, to the extreme coldness of the weather, the Park yesterday was not so prolific in the display of the Spring fashions as was expected, and is as usual on Easter Sunday. Custom, assuredly, is the arbiter of fashion; but the closer such adheres to nature the better. Long waists, and tight stays, although much worn, are not deserving of panegyric. Natures always looks most beautiful as herself, without capricious whimsicalities of stiff ornament. Among the newest articles in the female costume, we noticed the Polish dress, or pelisse, composed of slate coloured sarsenet; it is made open in front, with a gold bordering, and gold buttons. The bonnet, boots, and redicule, were made of the same materials. Among the fashionable equipages were those belonging to the Duchesses of GRAFTON and LEEDS; Marchionesses of WELLESLEY, LANSDOWNE, and HEADFORT; Ladies CASTLEREAGH, CLONMELL, KINGSTON, MEXBOROUGH, D. SMITH, MANSFIELD, and SEFTON. A sudden storm of hail and snow, about half-past three o’clock, destroyed all the fair beauties of the scene in a moment. The company, male and female, who were in the pedestrian promenade, scampered off at the first approach of the enemy, to seek refuge under any covering, however humble, so that it afforded them a secure retreat from the pitiless element. The Park was completely deserted during the after part of the day.
(Morning Post, 3rd April, 1809)
Easter was also a time for Balls; the ones held at the Mansion House in London being particularly spectacular:
The decorations and alterations making at the Mansion-house for the Easter ball are extremely splendid. A carpeting is made to imitate a gravel walk, and each side of the avenues leading to the Egyptian-hall will be ornamented with orange trees, and flowering shrubs.
The Prince of Wales has accepted the invitation of the Lord Mayor to dine and the Mansion-house on Easter Monday. This will be the first public visit ever made by his Royal Highness into the City, and the only instance, for many reigns, of an Heir Apparent going there on such occasion.
(Bury and Norwich Post, 14th April, 1802)
Yesterday John Hawkins, an extra constable, was charged before the LORD MAYOR with concealing a diamond drop, which he found at the Mansion House on Monday night, at the Easter Ball, the property of the Duchess of GORDON, being part of a pair of elegant diamond ear-rings worn by her Grace that day, value above five hundred guineas, and for the recovery of which a reward was advertised.
Mrs. HORSFALL, of the Mansion House Coffee-house, stated, that she saw a constable have such an article in his possession that night, which he said he had picked up in the Mansion House, and described the man, from which circumstance he was discovered. The prisoner at first denied it, but the diamond drop being found, he pretended not to know the value of it. His Lordship, conceiving that he detained it with a felonious intent, fully committed him to take his trial for the same.
(Morning Post, 11th April, 1806)
And if you were attending such a Ball, then, as a fashionable lady, you would need to look your best.
THE EASTER BALL and GALA will be particularly grand in Honour of the Regency, and as the Ladies will appear with extreme lustre on this occasion, it certainly accounts for the present great demand for HUBERT’S ROSEATE POWDER, which effectually removes superfluous hairs on the face, neck and arms, and highly improves the whiteness, delicacy and softness of the skin, thus bestowing a new charm on natural beauty. – May be had of the Proprietor, 23 Russell-street, Covent-Garden; Rigge, 35, and Overton, 47, Bond-street; Dunnett, 3, Cheapside; Davison, 59, Fleet-street, Thorn, 45, Oxford-street; Bowling and Co. 38, Blackman-street, Borough; Harding and Co. 89, Pall-mall; and of all Perfumers. – 4s. and 7s.
(Morning Chronicle, 8th April, 1811)
And we end with the best Easter Gift, (although personally, as chocoholic’s, we’d rather have an Easter egg . . . ), and an Irish Easter cake.
The best Easter Gift, a present to a young Lady, is a Ticket in TOMKINS’S Picture Lottery; which are selling in New Bond-street at Three Guineas each; and a red ticket and a black ticket are sure to gain a prize.
(Morning Post, 25th April, 1821)
CURIOUS CUSTOM – In Ireland, at Easter, a cake, with a garland of meadow flowers, is elevated upon a circular board upon a pike, apples being stuck upon pegs around the garland. Men and women then dance round, and they who hold out longest win the prize.
(Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 17th December, 1825)
Is it worth mentioning that Easter is both a festival for western Christian religions and a holiday for both those with an ecumenical bent and for those of a more secular disposition? Maybe not for we know that for many it is a win win situation, the best of both worlds as they say.
The religious know that Easter is a celebration in honour of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, as described in the New Testament as having occurred three days after his crucifixion at Calvary. It is also the weekend when children excitedly wait for the Easter bunny to arrive, along with the delivery of their chocolate egg treat.
Easter is, as everyone knows, is a ‘movable feast’ which corresponds with the first Sunday following the full moon after the March equinox. It therefore occurs on different dates around the world because western churches use the Gregorian calendar, while eastern churches use the Julian calendar. So where did this ‘movable feast’ begin, and what are the origins of the traditions and customs celebrated on this important day around the world?
Most historians, including Biblical scholars, agree that Easter was originally a pagan festival and the word Easter is of Saxon origin, namely, Eastra, the goddess of spring, in whose honour sacrifices were offered at Passover time each year. By the eighth century Anglo–Saxons had adopted the name to designate the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. However, even among those who maintain that Easter has pagan roots, there is some disagreement over which pagan tradition the festival emerged from. Here we will explore some of those perspectives.
Resurrection as a symbol of rebirth
One theory that has been put forward is that the Easter story of crucifixion and resurrection is symbolic of rebirth and renewal and retells the cycle of the seasons, the death and return of the sun.
According to some, the Easter story comes from the Sumerian legend of Damuzi (Tammuz) and his wife Inanna (Ishtar), an epic myth called “The Descent of Inanna” found inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets dating back to 2100 BC. When Tammuz dies, Ishtar is grief–stricken and follows him to the underworld. In the underworld, she enters through seven gates, and her worldly attire is removed. “Naked and bowed low” she is judged, killed, and then hung on display. In her absence, the earth loses its fertility, crops cease to grow and animals stop reproducing. Unless something is done, all life on earth will end.
After Inanna has been missing for three days her assistant goes to other gods for help. Finally one of them Enki, creates two creatures who carry the plant of life and water of life down to the Underworld, sprinkling them on Inanna and Damuzi, resurrecting them, and giving them the power to return to the earth as the light of the sun for six months. After the six months are up, Tammuz returns to the underworld of the dead, remaining there for another six months, and Ishtar pursues him, prompting the water god to rescue them both. Thus were the cycles of winter death and spring life.
Drawing parallels between the story of Jesus and the epic of Inanna “does not mean that there wasn’t a real person, Jesus, who was crucified, but rather that the story about it is structured and embellished in accordance with a pattern that was very ancient and widespread.”
The Sumerian goddess Inanna is known outside of Mesopotamia by her Babylonian name, “Ishtar”. In ancient Canaan, Ishtar is known as Astarte, and her counterparts in the Greek and Roman pantheons are known as Aphrodite and Venus. In the 4th Century, when Christians identified the exact site in Jerusalem where the empty tomb of Jesus had been located, they selected the spot where a temple of Aphrodite (Astarte/Ishtar/Inanna) stood. The temple was torn down and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built, the holiest church in the Christian world.
The story of Inanna and Damuzi is just one of a number of accounts of dying and rising gods that represent the cycle of the seasons and the stars. For example, the resurrection of Egyptian Horus; the story of Mithras, who was worshipped at Springtime; and the tale of Dionysus, resurrected by his grandmother. Among these stories are prevailing themes of fertility, conception, renewal, descent into darkness, and the triumph of light over darkness or good over evil.
Easter as a celebration of the Goddess of Spring
A related perspective is that, rather than being a representation of the story of Ishtar, Easter was originally a celebration of Eostre, goddess of Spring, otherwise known as Ostara, Austra, and Eastre. One of the most revered aspects of Ostara for both ancient and modern observers is a spirit of renewal.
Celebrated at Spring Equinox on March 21, Ostara marks the day when light is equal to darkness, and will continue to grow. As the bringer of light after a long dark winter, the goddess was often depicted with the hare, an animal that represents the arrival of spring as well as the fertility of the season. The idea of resurrection was ingrained within the celebration of Ostara: “Ostara, Eástre and seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of up-springing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the christian’s God.
Most analyses of the origin of the word ‘Easter’ maintain that it was named after a goddess mentioned by the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede, who wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, translated in Bede’s time as “Paschal month”) was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”.
The origins of Easter customs
The most widely-practiced customs on Easter Sunday relate to the symbol of the rabbit (‘Easter bunny’) and the egg. As outlined previously, the rabbit was a symbol associated with Eostre, representing the beginning of Springtime. Likewise, the egg has come to represent Spring, fertility and renewal. In Germanic mythology, it is said that Ostara healed a wounded bird she found in the woods by changing it into a hare. Still partially a bird, the hare showed its gratitude to the goddess by laying eggs as gifts.
The Encyclopedia Britannica clearly explains the pagan traditions associated with the egg: “The egg as a symbol of fertility and of renewed life goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who had also the custom of colouring and eating eggs during their spring festival.” In ancient Egypt, an egg symbolised the sun, while for the Babylonians, the egg represents the hatching of the Venus Ishtar, who fell from heaven to the Euphrates.
In many Christian traditions, the custom of giving eggs at Easter celebrates new life. Christians remember that Jesus, after dying on the cross, rose from the dead, showing that life could win over death. For Christians the egg is a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection, as when they are cracked open, they stand for the empty tomb. Regardless of the very ancient origins of the symbol of the egg, most people agree that nothing symbolises renewal more perfectly than the egg – round, endless, and full of the promise of life.
While many of the pagan customs associated with the celebration of Spring were at one stage practised alongside Christian Easter traditions, they eventually came to be absorbed within Christianity, as symbols of the resurrection of Jesus. The First Council of Nicaea (325) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the March equinox.
Whether it is observed as a religious holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or a time for families in the northern hemisphere to enjoy the coming of Spring and celebrate with egg decorating and Easter bunnies, the celebration of Easter still retains the same spirit of rebirth and renewal, as it has for thousands of years.
The ‘Spring’ or ‘Vernal Equinox’, which was once called ‘Ostara’, occurs on either 20th, 21st or 22nd March when the sun enters ‘Aries’ according to the Earth’s orbit and the insertion of leap years. The Spring Equinox marks the time when the sun crosses the celestial equator northwards or the ‘half way point’ resulting in equal twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night. At the equinox the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west after which the daylight hours grow increasingly longer until the sun reaches its highest point in the sky at the ‘Summer Solstice’, which occurs in June.
The Oestra Hare in folklore and tradition
Have you ever wondered how the symbol of the rabbit became associated with the Easter Festival? The origin of the Easter Bunny probably goes back to the festival’s connection with the pagan goddess Eostre.
Eostre (sometimes spelt Oestre) was a fertility goddess from whom we derive the word “oestrogen” and she is closely associated with fertility symbols such as eggs. The rabbit is known as a highly fertile creature and hence an obvious choice for Easter symbolism.
In fact the use of the rabbit is probably a mistake – the Easter “bunny” is more likely to have been a hare, since it is the hare that is usually considered the sacred creature of Eostre.
Pagan fertility festivals at the time of the Spring equinox were common. It was believed that at this time, when day and night were of equal length, male and female energies were also in balance.
The hare is often associated with moon goddesses; the egg and the hare together represent the god and the goddess respectively. The earliest known reference to our modern Easter Bunny tradition appears to be from 16th century Germany. In the 18th century, German settlers to America brought the tradition with them. The Bunny was known by them as Oschter Haws (a corruption of the German Osterhase ) and brought gifts of chocolate, sweets and Easter Eggs to good children. Often children would make up nests for Oschter Haws, sometimes using their Easter bonnets, and the Bunny would leave his treats there.
It is because of this strong connection with pagan traditions that Hares were strongly associated with witches and witchcraft in Christian times. People claimed that a witch could shape shift her form at night and become a hare. These solitary creatures, rarely seen, sometimes standing on their hind legs like a person, aroused suspicion. When in distress they uttered a strange, almost human-like cry, which gave the animal a supernatural quality. For its behaviour would mimic that of a supposed witch. In this form she stole milk or food, or destroyed crops. Others insisted that hares were only witches’ familiars.
With Easter almost here, how about we share with you some snippets about the way Georgians spent their Easter as shown in a few extracts from the newspapers of the day – partying being the most obvious! Let us begin with a letter of complaint, clearly, from someone who didn’t appreciate many of the celebrations that took place during the year and felt it appropriate to vent annoyance to the editor of the Whitehall Evening Post – focusing on a section about Easter…..…
Whitehall Evening Post (1770), August 2, 1783 – August 5, 1783
Some things customary refer simply to the idea of feasting, according to the season and occasion. Of these, perhaps, are lambs-wool on Christmas eve; furmety on Mothering Sunday; Braggot (which is a mixture of ale, sugar and spices) at the festival of Easter … lamb at Easter to the Paschal Lamb. This, perhaps, may be the case also with respect to pancakes on Shrove Tuesday; unless that shall be supposed to allude to ‘the egg at Easter’ an emblem of the rising up out of the grave; in the same manner as the chick, entombed as it were in the egg, is in due time brought to life. So also the flowers, with which many churches are ornamented on Easter-day, are most probably intended as emblems of the resurrection having just risen from the earth during the severity of winter, they seem to have been buried.
A custom, which ought to be abolished as improper and indecent, prevails in many places of lifting, as it is called, on Easter Monday and Tuesday. Is this a memorial of Christ being raised from the grave? There is, at least some appearance of it; as there seems to be trace of the decent of the Holy Ghost on the heads of the Apostles in what passes at Whitsuntide fair in some parts of Lancashire; where one person hold a stick over the head of another, whilst a third, unperceived, strikes the stick, and thus gives a smart blow to the first. But this, probably is only local.
The Hampshire Chronicle, Sunday, March 31, 1788
Of the multitude of customs and ceremonies which formerly commanded attention at this season, but very few are preserved; it is however, universally considered as a time appropriate to recreation and innocent festivity. Amongst the common people it is even now a custom in the North to rise early, in order to see the sun dance. We suppose this o have arisen from some metaphorical expression in the sacred writings. Boys carry a vessel of water into the fields, that the sun may seem to dance from the tremulous motion of the water.
Paper eggs, properly pasche eggs, are stained of different colors and covered with gold leaf, and given to young children in the North of England as a fairing. This is a relic of Popish superstition; an egg being considered a type of the resurrection. This custom prevails in Russia; a long account may be seen in Hackluyt’s voyages. Dr. Chandler also in his travels in Asia Minor says ‘they made us presents of coloured eggs and cakes of Easter bread’.
(It was a family tradition to make pasche eggs for Easter by binding the flowers to eggs with strips of sheeting then boiling the eggs in onion skins. The flowers would act as a resist, creating prints on the hardboiled eggs.) – To continue:
Durand says, that on Easter Tuesday wives used to beat their husbands, on the day following when husbands beat their wives.
In the city of Durham the following custom is still preserved: On one day the men take off the women’s shoes, which are only to be redeemed by a small present. On another day the women take off the men’s in a like manner.
In Yorkshire tansy puddings and cakes are made, which custom Seldon, in his ‘Table Talk‘, has referenced to the bitter herbs which the Jews greatly use at this season. At Newcastle, on Easter Monday a great match is always played at hand ball for a great tansy cake.
Many other incidents might be enumerated, most of which are obsolete, and many generally forgotten; we sincerely however regret, that the memory of anything should be lost, which, by introducing innocent merriment, strengthens the sweet bond of social life.
The Hampshire Chronicle, Monday, April 28, 1794
The belles and beaux, from the fineness of the weather, exceeded far, very far, any number that ever were seen at that favourite spot. From six to eight o’clock, on their return to London, it was one continued throng of holiday people of all ranks and descriptions, from Greenwich park to Westminster bridge. There was no resisting the torrent; and many an honest young woman who was so yesterday morning, will have fatal cause to repent, before this day twelvemonth, the frolic of tumbling down the hill in the park – drunkenness, riots, battles and thefts, as usual, dignified the proceedings. Not less than one hundred thousand persons were present.
At ten in the morning, at least ten thousand equestrians and pedestrians were upon the forest: every species of vehicle from the hand cart and buggy to the light waggon and splendid chariot was there. At one, the stag, bedecked with ribbons was turned out on Fairmaid Bottom – and then the fun began, with running, riding, crossing, jostling, tumbling, hooting, shouting, screaming and howling; which formed the scene that may be seen, but cannot possibly be described, and that indeed never before was exhibited but in a nation of madmen. At four, the stag was at bay in a thicket, near the Royal Oak and was taken and put in a cart and with continual shouts was brought to the starting house in order to afford fresh sport in future.
The future of folklore is bright, says David Barnett. It might not be all about fairies and goblins, but the art of story telling and traditional legends is alive and the country’s best-loved tales are rebooted for the 21st century.
Gather round, children, for I tell you a story of things lost, or perhaps about to be. Bide a while as I stir the embers of our fire and gaze into its dancing flames, contemplating the old tales of our people. Folklore, myth and legend, the glue that holds the disparate tribes of these islands together, the narratives that pre-date written history, that try to make sense of the world at the same time as hinting at the other, at places and things that reside beyond the veil of night. About to be lost, all of it – Well, that’s if Center Parcs is to be believed.
OK, that’s enough. Turn the light on and unmute the TV. Center Parcs, did you say? The company that provides woodland lodge holidays for those of us who like the idea of getting back to nature but don’t want to eschew heated swimming pools and well-Tarmaced paths?
Indeed. Center Parcs has commissioned a study into what they call the future of British folklore, to mark the company’s 30 years having sites at Sherwood Forest and Elvedon, Norfolk, places obviously redolent in the folk legends of Britain thanks of course to its associations with the mythical outlaw Robin Hood and Black Shuck etc.
The survey reveals that almost a quarter of those asked could not even name one story from folklore. While 80 per cent of respondents were familiar with Robin Hood, when presented with a list of other classic folklore tales and characters – the report mentions King Arthur, Jack the Giant Killer and the Loch Ness Monster among them – on average those questioned could only recognise two.
And despite two-thirds of respondents believing that traditional stories help fire children’s imaginations, about the same number (64 per cent) said they had no intention of passing on folklore tales to their own children, and a fifth said they didn’t really remember being told the stories in the first place.
Of course, Center Parcs has a dog in this fight (this being about folklore, a spectral dog, of course; maybe even Norfolk’s Black Shuck or Yorkshire’s Gytrash), and wants to encourage special family time of sharing folklorish tales, and if that’s at one of their parcs then all the better. And they’ve teamed up with the Folklore Society to create a map of the UK locating some of the country’s best-loved tales.
Jeremy Harte, a committee member of The Folklore Society, said, “Countries aren’t just made up of rocks and rivers. They’re also made up of the stories we tell each other, about the places we know. There are stories about heroes and heroines like Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest and Lady Godiva in Coventry, tales of mermaids around the coasts, giant warriors on the mountains and hidden treasure in the earth. These tales give a special character to our homes, and poetry to our landscape.
“However, we’ve seen from this research that our rich folkloric tradition may be slipping through our fingers, which is deeply saddening and an issue we are passionate about tackling alongside Center Parcs. While there is a wealth of information about folklore on various tourist, council and heritage organisation sites, there clearly may be a decline in stories being passed from generation to generation in the traditional way. By curating this map, we hope to remind people of the fabled history in their local areas, and hope to see these stories re-told for generations to come.”
But are we really in danger of losing the old tales? It almost goes without saying that children today have more distractions than ever before, and we are regularly told that not enough of us are reading to our children, thus losing that perfect bedtime opportunity to impart the classic stories, or variations of them. But while the days of gathering around the hearth to share stories on a dark and stormy night might be long gone, folklore still seeps into our daily lives, and rather than technology killing off folklore, it’s actually revitalising it.
Go on to Twitter today and search the #FolkloreThursday hashtag and you’ll find hundreds of posts from people sharing old stories, photographs, drawings, local legends… it’s a hugely popular weekly event on the social network, with an international reach.
Dee Dee Chainey is one of the co-founders of #FolkloreThursday, and she says: “What we’ve actually seen is a massive increase in interest in folklore over the last two years since it began. I’m amazed to say that we still find the hashtag trending most weeks, testament to its popularity, and we now have a community of almost 16,000 people – and these are just the ones on Twitter.
“There are many more on Facebook, and others who don’t use social media at all that we’ve been able to reach out to through our newsletter and website, which serves as an online folklore magazine with contributors ranging from local community folklore groups, museums, and best-selling writers and artists from around the UK and the world.
“Each Thursday, people come together to explore folklore and tales from their own communities on #FolkloreThursday, as well as learn about traditions from all over the world. We’ve been hugely excited to see people spending all week researching folklore from around Britain as well as globally, and asking their parents and grandparents about their old traditions, just so they can come on Twitter that week and share them.
“It’s been lovely to see people from the global community engaging with us, too – we’ve now got people coming on from the US, India, Japan, South America and the Arabian Gulf, all sharing their folklore, and listening to stories and traditions from the UK, which is where #FolkloreThursday started – it’s now a global thing.
“It’s great to see everyone coming together to share centuries of stories, and a wealth of tradition, and using it to create a really exciting conversation, that has no boundaries, and easily transcends differences and division, to really bring people together, and show us how we’re all so similar, and yet so wonderfully different at the same time.”
And we shouldn’t worry about our children missing out on the classic stories; they get them, but just in different forms. Chainey says, “While watching out for fairies in the barrows of the land might be a thing of the past, almost all of us have heard of Sleeping Beauty’s endless sleep, a story that was revamped and told from the side of the villain in the film Maleficent with Angelina Jolie.
“While Disney has been accused of ‘prettifying’ fairy tales, we’ve all seen parades of little girls dressed as Belle from Beauty and the Beast, which teaches about inner beauty. The popularity of more obscure folklore is also rife: we only need to think of Frozen, inspired by ‘The Snow Queen’, Tangled, which modernises and reinterprets ‘Rapunzel’ or Moana, which touches on folklore from Polynesia. People are flocking to cinemas with their children to watch these versions of time-old tales.”
Literature still mines myths, legends and fairy tales; from Angela Carter to Philip Pullman, from Joanne Harris to Neil Gaiman – both of who have recently retold Norse myths, for example. Chainey also cites authors Carrie Ann Noble and Jackie Morris, and adds: “They are more popular than ever, and they’re using folklore to explore contemporary issues like the plight of refugees in their work. Storytelling, too, is far from a dying art, and people are clamouring around to hear traditional tales from all over the world. Jan Blake is a fantastic teller of diverse stories, and she’s seen huge success over recent years – the importance of folktales is not going unnoticed, evidenced by her TEDx talks on the power of telling traditional stories.”
Chainey has no beef with the Center Parcs research, and she and her co-founders of #FolkloreThursday do work closely with The Folklore Society. “It’s excellent to see the traditional tales of Britain being brought to life with a folklore map of Britain, and the project from Center Parcs and The Folklore Society is admirable, and certainly something that many people will really enjoy engaging with,” she says. But she takes issue with the prophecies of doom for folklore, and certainly thinks there’s life in the old black dog yet.
“These stories are still relevant, as by listening and retelling them we explore social norms, and through engaging with them, we form our own identities and work out where we stand in our communities; in essence, traditional tales help us reflect on what it means to be human,” says Chainey. “By telling stories from our communities, and delving into the stories and traditions of other cultures, we can explore the similarities that run through the global community, and learn to appreciate the differences, and appreciate each person and community in all of their glorious humanity, each a melting pot of traditions, stories, and things that make them wonderfully unique.
“Folklore is not just something old and dead; it’s not all about goblins and fairies, and certainly not restricted to the stories we tell. Folklore is very much alive, and stretches to the food we eat and customs we teach our own children: It’s the food our grandparents taught us to make at the kitchen table that we now pass on, it’s the songs and games our children learn from their friends in the school yard, it’s the little traditions each family observes at their festivals – whether that’s kissing under the mistletoe, or having something old, new, borrowed and blue at a wedding.”