In another post, we talked about ‘Hunstanton’s Great Secret’ which was pivotal in changing our fortunes in the Great War. Yet other towns also played a vital role in the conflict and no story is more fascinating than that of Kings Lynn: although experts still debate the exact impact of the facts given below on the outcome of the war, it is a remarkable story in several ways, not least as an example of ‘thinking outside the box’ when faced with a problem that at first appeared to defy resolution. It is all about cordite, conkers and the future inaugural President of Israel.
What is cordite?:
Cordite had been used by the British Army as a propellant for shells and bullets since 1889 – previously, black gunpowder had been used. A vital ingredient of this was acetone, along with nitro-glycerine and gun cotton. Pre-war production involved huge quantities of birch, beech and maple which, through a process of dry distillation known as pyrolysis, produced the cordite. As demands increased manifold at the beginning of the war, Britain was forced to seek imports from America, a state of affairs clearly unsustainable given the success of the U-boat campaign. By 1915 there occurred a ‘shell crisis’ when British guns were limited to firing only a few times each day.
Enter Lloyd George, Chaim Weizmann, the Queen and lots of boy scouts:
It was at this time that the Ministry of Munitions was set up under future Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who asked renowned Manchester University chemist Chaim Weizmann to look for alternative ways to produce acetone. He set to work and came up with a new anaerobic fermentation process that used a bacterium, which came to be called ‘Weizmann Organism’, to produce large amounts of acetone from various foodstuffs including grain, maize and rice. Two new factories were built to build upon this success, one at Holton Heath in Dorset and the other at Kings Lynn. They were very successful, producing between them enough gallons of acetone – about 90,000 a year – for the British armed forces.
Problems occurred in 1917 as grain and potatoes became scarce because of German U-boat operations. Weizmann was asked to perform yet another miracle and he began experimenting with the common conker. As this looked very promising, the government launched a nationwide scheme to encourage youngsters and adults alike to gather as many tons as possible. Kept keen by the payments of 7s 6d (37.5p) for every hundred weight, 3000 tons were collected for the Kings Lynn factory. It is part of folklore that even the Queen joined in at her Sandringham gardens. Much was sadly left to rot as school children proved too adept at this task.
Production began in April 1918 but there were many teething problems and not as much acetone was produced as hoped for. Production ended after about three months but by then the war was clearly being won.
First President of Israel:
Chaim Weizmann’s contribution to the world continued after the war: he became the first President of the state of Israel which was established in 1948. He died in 1952.
Sources: Text by kind permission of Stephen Browning via:
Photos: By Daniel Tink, except where otherwise acknowledged.
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‘Saxon’ – ‘King’ – ‘Martyr’ – ‘Patron saint of East Anglia’ – ‘First patron saint of England’. All of these epithets can be applied to Edmund (or Eadmund), but for someone whose holy memory and cult of worship grew to enormous proportions in the early Middle Ages, very little is known of him. All that we know for sure is that he came to the throne of East Anglia some time before 865 AD, fought against the invading Danes, was killed by them in the winter of 869, and within 20 years, was being hailed as a saint. But it didn’t take long for miracles, stories and legends to gather about his memory, and many of these have made their mark on the landscape of East Anglia, from Hunstanton in the north-west of Norfolk, to Hollesley on Suffolk’s south-east coast. A conglomeration of all the basic myths about Edmund, many of which are still told today, would probably run something like this:
Once, East Anglia was ruled by a good and wise king named Offa. But the Christian Offa was childless, and resolved to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there to offer prayers in the hope of being blessed with a son and heir. On his journey across Europe, he stayed for a while with his kinsman Alcmund, a prince of Old Saxony, and was much impressed by the nobility and piety of Alcmund’s 12-year-old son, Edmund. On the return trip almost a year later Offa fell ill, and seeing that he was about to die, commanded his council to recognise Edmund as his true successor. This they did, and with his father’s consent, called upon Edmund to take up the throne. The young lad and the late king’s nobles set sail for the eastern shores of East Anglia, but the strong winds of a storm blew them off course, sweeping them around the coast and finally beaching them on the sands at ‘Maidenbury’, now known as Hunstanton.
After a year spent in secluded contemplation and religious devotion, Edmund – by then still only 14 years old – was crowned by Bishop Humbert on Christmas Day, at a place now called Bures St. Mary in Suffolk, some say after having been elected king by consent of the populace. For a decade, Edmund grew in virtue and stature among his adopted people, being widely loved for his wisdom, strength and Christian kindliness. Then a prince of the Danes named Lothbroc or Lodbrog, out sailing alone off the coast of Denmark, was swept across the North Sea by a storm. His small craft was blown along the river Yare till it reached Reedham, where Edmund had his royal seat at that time. Although Lothbroc was well received into the court, Edmund’s chief huntsman, Bern, became jealous of the favour and honour the Dane was enjoying, and murdered him one day in some woods, when they were out hunting alone. The crime being later discovered, Bern was punished by being set adrift in Lothbroc’s own boat, which by chance was eventually washed up in the Dane’s own kingdom. Bern blamed the murder on Edmund, at which Lothbroc’s sons, Hinguar and Hubba, vowed to take their vengeance on the king.
The heathen and barbaric Danes landed with their armies first in the north, and while Hubba wrought destruction across Northumbria, Hinguar came to East Anglia, secretly entering a city, slaughtering all its people, and burning it to the ground. Other battles and sieges followed, including one where Edmund escaped his enemies by using a ford known only to him. Then Hubba came with another army to join his brother Hinguar, and they met the king in battle somewhere near Thetford, the Danes winning the day. Edmund fled 20 miles east to his royal town of ‘Haegelisdun’, now known as Hoxne in Suffolk, with his foes following. Some say that Edmund threw down his weapons, vowing to stay true to his people and his faith, and he was seized in his own hall. Many say that he hid beneath a bridge, but was betrayed by a newly-married couple who saw the golden glint of his spurs reflected by moonlight in the water, and gave him up to the Danes. They called on him to yield up his treasures and his kingdom, to reject Christ, and to bow down before them, but Edmund refused to submit, saying that he alone must die for his people and his God. Dragging him out to a field, they beat him and scourged him with whips, then tied him to a tree and fired dozens of arrows into him.
Even then the young king defied them, calling upon God for help, so they struck off his head and threw it into deep brambles in a nearby wood, leaving his body where it had fallen. After the heathens had departed, to begin their terrible rule of the land, Edmund’s folk came out of hiding, and found the mutilated corpse of their lord still bound to the tree – but where was the saintly head? Although they searched by day and night for weeks, nothing could be found until a voice came out of the wood, calling “Here, here, here!” Following the voice, they found that it was coming from the lips of the severed head itself, which was being cradled between the paws of a huge grey wolf. The people gently retrieved the head and took it back to the town, the wolf walking tamely behind until it was sure that all was safe, then disappearing back into the forest. Behind them, a miraculous freshwater spring broke through the soil where the beloved head had lain. With huge sorrow and reverence the head was placed back upon its shoulders, the body of the king buried in a grave, and a simple wooden chapel hastily erected over the spot.
Over the years miraculous healings occurred at the little chapel, including a pillar of light emerging from the grave that restored sight to a blind man. As peace returned to the land pilgrims began to make their way there, and Edmund’s fame and saintliness spread. In time, the martyred king’s body was transferred to a new and grander church built for it some miles away at ‘Beodricesworth’, the town that would later become Bury St. Edmunds. But when the grave was opened, not only was Edmund’s body found to be incorrupt, but all the wounds on his body had healed, and all that was left to show where his head had been severed was a thin red crease on the neck.
More miracles followed over the centuries at the new shrine, and as his fame spread, so did princes, kings and a host of other pilgrims come to the abbey that was built around him, to give him honour and pray for his blessing. Although his exact place of burial is now unknown, it’s said that Edmund’s body still lies somewhere under the abbey ruins, even now whole and incorrupt, and a treasure buried with him.
The next section looks at how this mythology came into being, through the writings of Saxon and medieval scribes.
Part 2 – The Chronology of Legend:
865 AD: We know from contemporary coinage that by this time, Edmund is ruler of East Anglia, having followed a king named Æthelweard. This means that he is the one responsible for placating the ‘Great Heathen Army’ of the Danes with a gift of horses when they arrive late in this year, as told in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’:
“…and the same year came a large heathen army into England, and fixed their winter-quarters in East Anglia, where they were soon horsed, and the inhabitants made peace with them”.
But four years later the Danes are back, and after a triumphant slaughter in Northumbria, and an unsatisfactory peace at Nottingham, this time either they or Edmund decide that things aren’t going to go the same way again:
869 AD: “In this year the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and there fixed their winter-quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought with them; but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king, and conquered all that land”.
That entry in the ‘Chronicle’ was written just before 890, which is at about the same time that commemorative coins begin to be issued, and for another 20 years, inscribed ‘Sc Eadmund rex’, showing that Edmund is already being recognised as a saint, well within the lifetimes of those who have known him.
893 AD: Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ is believed by most scholars to have been written in about this year, again within living memory of Edmund. According to the Welsh monk, “Edmund the most glorious king of the East-Angles” begins his reign on Christmas Day in 854, when he is only 14 years old. But it isn’t until exactly one year later that Edmund is consecrated as king by Bishop Humbert, “in the royal town called Burva, in which at that time was the royal seat”. Asser relies heavily on the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ for many of his facts, and so follows the line that Edmund dies in battle. Although the death of a Christian king in combat with ‘the heathens’ was in itself enough to claim sainthood, it’s another 90 years before the notion of a solitary martyrdom for Edmund is written down.
985-7 AD: Between these dates the monk Abbo of Fleury writes his ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’, which is where the meat of the mythology begins. Abbo dedicates the work to Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, from whom he heard the story himself when Dunstan was an old man. The archbishop had heard it in his youth from a very old man who had claimed to be Edmund’s own armour-bearer at the time of his death, and thus an eye-witness to the events. Here, about 116 years had passed, and it is possible for two memories to cover such a period; most scholars seem to have accepted that this tale as truthful – if embroidered in the telling and retelling! In the ‘Passio’, Edmund is said to be of ‘ancient Saxon’ stock, which others later take to mean that he comes from Old Saxony in Germany – but Abbo would surely have highlighted the fact if a foreigner was taking the East Anglian throne’.
For the first time names are given to the main Danish protagonists: Inguar and Hubba (known from other sources as Ivar and Ubbi). After they conquer Northumbria, Hubba stays behind while Inguar takes a fleet east round the coast, then lands “by stealth” at a city in East Anglia and burns it to the ground, killing all its inhabitants. Slaughtering other men round about to deplete Edmund’s forces, Inguar then tortures a few to reveal the king’s whereabouts:
“Eadmund, it happened, was at that time staying at some distance from the city, in a township which in the native language is called Hægelisdun, from which also the neighbouring forest is called by the same name”.
Now we are told about the famous tale of how Edmund rejects Inguar’s terms, is seized in his hall, beaten, lashed to a tree, shot full of arrows, and beheaded even as he cries out to Christ.
“And so, on the 20th November, as an offering to God of sweetest saviour, Eadmund, after he had been tried in the fire of suffering, rose with the palm of victory and the crown of righteousness, to enter as king and martyr the assembly of the court of heaven”.
The story of the wolf and the speaking head follows, the bringing together of the head and the body, and the building nearby of a rough chapel over the grave. Abbo adds that the body is found to be whole and incorrupt many years later, when it is translated to “a church of immense size” newly constructed for it at ‘Bedrices-gueord’ (Bury St. Edmunds), where many miracles are attributed to the saintliness of the young martyr – who, according to the chronology, is 28 when he dies.
Although the basic story of the martyrdom is usually felt to be truthful, there are contradictions between Abbo’s account and the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ (such as the omission of any battle), which some later scribes have used as an opportunity to create further snippets of the mythology. The late Professor Dorothy Whitelock felt that Abbo may have melded the events of 865 and 869 into one narrative, so the burning of a city may well belong to the earlier incursion by the Danes. And the absence of a specific final battle may simply have been because Edmund’s armour-bearer was only asked about the martyrdom itself.
Late 11th century: Soon after 1095, Hermann of Bury’s ‘Liber de Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi’ says that Edmund is first buried at a place called ‘Suthtuna’ (Sutton), close to the site of his death. He also relates that Edmund’s body is moved to Bury during the reign of Æthelstan (924-39), while later scholarship has pinned it down to around 903-905.
1101: The foundation charter of Norwich Priory grants to that establishment the church at Hoxne, along with a chapel of St. Edmund in the same place, “ubi idem martyr interfectus est”: “where the same martyr was killed”. Thus the identification ‘Hægelisdun’ = Hoxne comes about for the first time. Although some historians believe the claim to be invented, to give the Priory greater status through association, it does at least show that the Hoxne tradition has been around for over 900 years.
Early 12th century: The ‘Annals of St. Neots’ are written, probably at Bury, and introduce the idea that Hinguar and Hubba are the sons of a Dane called Lodebroch.
c.1133: From the ‘Íslendingabók’ by Ari the Wise: “Ívarr, Ragnarsson Loðbrókar, lét drepa Eadmund inn Helga Englakonung” – “Ivarr, son of Ragnar Loðbrók, ordered to be killed Edmund the saint, King of the Angles”.
1135-40: Geoffrey of Gaimar is one of those ‘later scribes’ mentioned above who uses the gaps and inconsistencies in Abbo’s work to add to the Edmund legends. In his ‘L’Estoire des Engleis’, he recounts a battle lost by Edmund (not recorded by Abbo), after which the king flees to a castle and is besieged. As he emerges secretly, he is recognised and held until Ywar (Hinguar) and Ube (Hubba) arrive, and is then martyred.
1148-56: The ‘De Infantia Sancti Eadmundi’ of Geoffrey of Wells says that it is King Offa of East Anglia who chooses Edmund to succeed him, that he comes from Old Saxony, and lands at ‘Maydenebure’ (Hunstanton) where 12 springs burst from the ground as he kneels to pray. The major problem here is that there has never been a ‘King Offa of East Anglia!’ Geoffrey tells how Edmund founded a royal dwelling at Hunstanton, then spends a year in seclusion at Attleborough in Norfolk, learning the Psalter by heart. The ‘De Infantia’ now brings in the powerful Dane Lodebrok who, hearing of the fame of Edmund, taunts his three pirate sons to achieve as much. These sons are named as Hinguar, Ubba and Wern (a mistake for Bern, or Beorn), who then invade East Anglia and kill Edmund, the tale following Abbo’s version.
c.1180: The metrical biography ‘La Vie Seint Edmund le Rei’ by Denis Piramus states that Edmund was elected king at Caistor St. Edmund in Norfolk (the year before his coronation), and gives the name of Orford in Suffolk as the town that was destroyed by Hinguar.
Early 13th century: The chronicle of Roger of Wendover helps to shape the mythology further by introducing the story of Lothbroc coming to Reedham in Norfolk, being killed by Bern (here Edmund’s huntsman, not one of Lothbroc’s three sons), then Hinguar and Hubba killing Edmund in vengeance. The king meets the Danes in battle “not far from the town of Thetford”, and after they have fought to a bloody standstill, he takes the remainder of his forces “to the royal vill of Hæilesdune”. This place, he says, “is now called Hoxen by the natives”. Although he then gives Abbo’s account of the martyrdom, Roger says it was Bern who caused the king’s head to be thrown into the wood.
c.1220: A St. Albans text incorporated into a chronicle usually attributed to John of Wallingford is the first to give Edmund’s father a name – Alcmund – but this is a complete mix-up with the father of King Egbert of Wessex. Nevertheless, the name sticks.
c.1370-80: A collection of material on St. Edmund is included in a manual for the instruction of novice monks, in a manuscript (MS 240) currently held in the Bodleian Library, probably compiled by the Bury monk Henry Kirkstede. In it, Edmund is again from Old Saxony, but is said to have been born in Nuremberg (which isn’t in Saxony!) In a variation of Geoffrey of Gaimar’s tale of Edmund taking refuge in one of his castles, here the king is betrayed by an old blind man, a mason who had helped to build the castle. In this, the Danes bribe the mason to show them a weak spot in the defences, allowing them to enter, after which Edmund manages to escape.
In this manuscript it is also noted that, to escape the Danes, Edmund crosses a river at a hidden ford called ‘Dernford’, and is thus able to rejoin his main army and fall upon and rout his enemies. Although this is no more than a fragment, mixed in with many other later apocryphal tales about the saint, at least one researcher thinks it may represent a much older tradition, set at a real (though unknown) location. It may be either the origin of, or a variation upon, a similar escape at ‘Bernford’, the earliest written record of which I have found (so far) dates from 1790. Now, the basic mythology is in place. The next section is another chronology, this time looking at the few historical facts we actually know, both of Edmund’s life, and what happened to his body after death.
Part 3 – History As We Know It:
841 AD: Edmund is born. The Danes make their first raid into East Anglia. Æthelweard is king at this time. 854 AD: Edmund succeeds to the throne of East Anglia on Christmas Day. 855 AD: Edmund is consecrated as king, again on Christmas Day, at ‘Burva’. 865 AD: A ‘Great Heathen Army’ of the Danes arrives in England by ship, sets up its winter camp somewhere in East Anglia, and is bought off with a gift of horses. It’s quite possible that various battles occur before peace is brokered. 866-868 AD: The Danes leave for Northumbria, capture York, campaign in Mercia, force Nottingham to sue for peace, then go back to York for the winter. 869AD: The Danes ride back across Mercia to East Anglia, where they winter at Thetford. King Edmund fights with them, perhaps more than once at unknown locations, dies at ‘Hægelisdun’ on November 20th, and is buried there or nearby. The Danes take over East Anglia. c.903-5 AD: Edmund’s body is translated to a church at ‘Beodricesworth’ (Bury St. Edmunds). c.956 AD: Bishop Theodred of London inspects Edmund’s body and confirms it is still incorrupt. 1010: A Danish force lands at Ipswich. For safety, Edmund’s body is taken to London and kept there for three years. 1013: On its journey back from London, the body travels through Stapleford, where the local lord is allegedly cured by a miracle. 1014: King Sweyn Forkbeard threatens to sack Bury unless a ransom is paid, but dies suddenly, supposedly struck down by a vision of St. Edmund. 1020: King Cnut orders a new stone church to be built at Bury, to be staffed by monks, which begins Bury’s rise to power as one of England’s most important abbeys. 1060: Abbot Leofstan of Bury pulls at Edmund’s head to see if it really is still attached to the body, but suffers a stroke and loses the use of his hands. 1095: Edmund’s body is translated into the new church, and is confirmed as still being incorrupt. 1101: The church and chapel at Hoxne are granted to Norwich Priory, as being the place where Edmund was killed i.e. ‘Hægelisdun’. 1198: Edmund’s body is moved into a new and grander shrine at Bury. A golden angel is described as being upon the coffin, and Abbot Samson touches the incorrupt body. 1217: After the French are called in to help fight against King John, and instead try to take the country, they claim to have taken Edmund’s body and other relics to Toulouse. 1465: The abbey church and shrine at Bury are badly damaged by fire. 1538: At the Dissolution of the monasteries, the King’s Commissioners take from the abbey large amounts of gold, silver and valuables, but find the shrine “very cumbrous to deface”. There is no mention of the saint’s body or relics. 1901: Relics from Toulouse are returned to England and lodged at Arundel, where they still lie. Scholars reject them as the genuine remains of Edmund.
The next section looks at Edmund’s presence in the legendary landscape of East Anglia.
Part 4 – The Landscape of St. Edmund:
As Edmund almost certainly did not come from Old Saxony, and he is very unlikely to have arrived by ship in 854 at Hunstanton. Some have said that the legend may have come about because of the existence of an old chapel dedicated to the saint there. But the chapel (TF675419), which now consists of no more than a short section of wall complete with archway, is said to have been built in 1272, while the first record of the legend originates with Geoffrey of Wells more than 100 years earlier. The actual site of his landing, ‘Maydenebure’ or ‘Maidenbury’, is unknown, but is usually believed to have been either at what is now St. Edmund’s Point, very near to the chapel, or less likely, Gore Point, a little further round the coast at Holme-next-the-Sea.
Although the healing springs that burst from the ground where the king-to-be knelt to pray are supposed to have been twelve in number, not all records agree. As White’s ‘History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk’ says in 1845: “A well in the parish also bears the name of the name of the Royal martyr; but is sometimes called the Seven Springs”. Where these springs (or well) used to be is uncertain. But the sweetness of their water was supposed to have given rise to the town’s name: the ‘Honey-Stone Town’. ‘Honeystone’, however, is the local name for the native rich brown carstone that makes up much of the area’s remarkable ‘striped’ cliffs. The real origin of the name of the town is far more prosaic: the ‘tún’ or village of a Saxon called Húnstán. Local legend will have none of it though. It says that Edmund not only built a royal dwelling there, but he founded the town itself. The town sign proudly shows the crowned king standing tall, and behind him the wolf that guarded his sacred head after death (though some reckon it’s not a wolf at all, but Black Shuck himself, East Anglia’s own phantom hound!)
Although Geoffrey of Wells reported that, after landing here, Edmund spent a year in contemplation at Attleborough, about 40 miles away, other tales say that it was at Hunstanton itself that he spent a year in a tower (or, in a minor local variation, in the chapel, which some believed Edmund himself built). Still others, probably misreading the place-name, claim the honour for Aldeburgh in Suffolk.
Attleborough crops up again as the place where Edmund was supposedly acclaimed or elected king after his arrival, a mythical event that only occurs in the medieval tales. With little historical accuracy, White’s ‘Directory’ for 1854 tells us that, in Saxon times, the town was “the seat of Offa and Edmund”, successively Kings of the East Angles, who fortified it against the predatory incursions of the Danes. These fortifications may still be traced in the ridge called Burn Bank“. In fact this embanked earthwork, which may indeed be Saxon in date (though probably very early), is named Bunn’s Bank, and fragments of it run for about two miles around the edges of Attleborough, Old Buckenham and Besthorpe parishes. Local people, who are proud of the alleged association with Edmund and have named several areas of Attleborough after him, are convinced that the king had the bank built as a defence against the invading Danes.
Another place claimed for the site of Edmund’s mythical election as king is Caistor St. Edmund, just south of Norwich. Specifically, the Roman town of Venta Icenorum, which was built just after the failed Boudiccan revolt in 70 AD, as a way of controlling the local Iceni population. Some like to say that this was another of Edmund’s royal seats (a ‘palace’ according to Edmund Gillingwater) – but while the Saxons would have been attracted by the 20 foot high flint and brick-faced wall that was built around the settlement at the end of the 2nd century, the stone would have been robbed out soon after the Romans left, and there’s little sign of habitation after 500 AD. The suffix of the village (and thus the dedication of the church) can be explained by the fact that both manor and church were granted to Bury St. Edmunds abbey by Edward the Confessor.
Quite why Reedham on the river Yare, at the southern end of the Norfolk Broads, was chosen by Roger of Wendover in the early 13th century to be another of Edmund’s royal seats, I cannot imagine. This is the place where Ragnar Lothbroc supposedly made land after being blown across the North Sea, and where he was murdered by Edmund’s huntsman, Bern. The antiquaries of the 19th century used to think that Reedham was once a ‘Roman station’, and that on this tongue of land above the river there used to stand a ‘pharos’ or Roman lighthouse – but it was all wishful thinking, not born out by the archaeology.
As well as Hunstanton, Bures, Attleborough, Caistor and Reedham supposedly being royal ‘vills’, some tales tell that Edmund’s main seat was at Rendlesham, not far from Woodbridge in Suffolk. Certainly there was once a royal house here, that belonged to the early Saxon kings of East Anglia known as the Wuffingas. The dynasty reached the height of its power in the time of Rædwald, who died in about 625 AD, and who may well be the king commemorated in the famous ship burial among the mounds of the royal cemetery at nearby Sutton Hoo. But the Wuffingas died out with King Ælfwald in about 749, and there’s no evidence that Rendlesham was occupied by royalty then, let alone 100 years later in Edmund’s day.
The Coronation Chapel: As far back as 893 AD we’re told by Asser that Edmund was consecrated as king at ‘Burva’, the royal seat at that time (which incidentally contradicts the assertion above that Attleborough was the fictional Offa’s seat). No one actually knows for sure where this place was, but by long tradition – possibly dating back to the 12th century – ‘Burva’ has been identified with the village of Bures St. Mary, on the river Stour south of Sudbury in Suffolk, which appears in Domesday Book as ‘Bura’. An old hilltop chapel above the village is locally believed to be the site of Edmund’s coronation, while there is a ‘St. Edmund’s Hill’ a mile or so to the north.
Defences: Both history and legend are silent on the activities of Edmund after his coronation. But with the arrival of the Danes in East Anglia, his name starts being attached to more localities throughout the region.
Running across Newmarket Heath, and in part forming the boundary between Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, is the Devil’s Dyke. Possibly of Romano-British or early Saxon date, this huge bank and ditch can be traced for 7½ miles from Wood Ditton to Reach. Although some tales say it was built by giants, the main legend says that one day the Devil arrived, uninvited of course, at a wedding being held in the church at Reach. As the unwelcome guest was being chased away, his fiery tail dug an enormous groove in the earth, and the dyke was formed. But this is a late piece of local folklore. In Norman times it was known as ‘Reach Dyke’, then in the Middle Ages, the ‘Great Ditch’ (Miceldic), or ‘St. Edmund’sDyke’. Although it gained the latter name because it marked the limit of jurisdiction of the abbots of Bury St. Edmunds, many believed that Edmund himself ordered the earthwork to be built as a defence against the Danes, and gave it the name ‘Holy Edmund’s Fortifications’.
Castles & Battles: There was a time in antiquarian studies when just about every ditch, earthwork and ancient burial mound in Norfolk and Suffolk, irrespective of its actual date, was supposed to mark the place where Saxon fought Dane. Plenty of them are recorded on this site, such as Drayton, Lyng, Warham, Glemsford and Nacton. Even the 15th century monk John Lydgate, biographer of Edmund, said of his own Suffolk origins that he was:
“Born in a village which is called Lydgate
By olde time a famous castel towne
In Danes time it was beate downe
Time when S. Edmund martir made and King
Was slain at Oxne, record of writing”.
Orford on the Suffolk coast is claimed by Denis Piramus in about 1180 to be the town destroyed by Hinguar, arriving to avenge his father Ragnar’s death. Indeed, one local legend has the Danes making a landing at Orford, fighting with Edmund, then pursuing the king to Staverton Park near Butley, where a savage battle ensued. But some later tales have claimed that it was actually Norwich, now Norfolk’s capital city, that was burned to the ground. (This may be a confusion with the historical burning of Norwich by King Sweyn Forkbeard in 1004).
An early medieval story tells how Edmund, fleeing from the Danes after a battle, sought refuge in one of his castles, and was there besieged, only to be betrayed by an old blind mason. Local traditions have identified this castle with both Old Buckenham (near Attleborough in Norfolk) and Framlingham in east Suffolk, from which Edmund then escapes and flees to Hoxne, where he is caught and slain. The Normans erected a castle at Buckenham, from which the stone was taken in the 12th century to build a priory. Only a fragment remains of this near the manor house. But the castle was raised within an existing rectangular earthwork that looks more Roman than anything, but could well be early Saxon in date. At Framlingham on the other hand, much remains of the magnificent keepless but curtain-walled castle built by Roger Bigod in about 1200. This was on the site of an earlier Bigod castle that Henry II had demolished in 1174 – but local tradition (with little authority) says that there was a fortification on the site as far back as the late 6th century, supposedly built by King Rædwald himself.
On the southern edge of Thetford can be found the remains of the 12th century Benedictine Nunnery of St. George. Before that, legend says it was a priory of canons, founded in the reign of King Cnut (1014-35) in memory of those who fell nearby in a great battle between Edmund and the Danes. This may or may not be the same battle – the king’s last – as that recorded for Rushford, where the Seven Hills mounds mark the graves of the slain on Snarehill, just outside Thetford.
Also of interest here is a passage that I found in Allan Jobson’s 1971 book ‘Suffolk Villages’. Speaking of Columbine Hall at Stowupland, the moated enclosure of which was popularly “thought to date from Danish times”, he tells of an ‘old illustration’ found there, showing “the head of St. Edmund, set on a rayed background”. Upon this illustration was an inscription, which read: “Head of St. Edmund. Formerly in the Abbey, Bury St. Edmunds. Beheaded by the Danish invaders Juga and Hubla at Eyberdun, now Hoxne in 870 A.D. at a great battle below Columbyne Hall in the valley of the Gipping”. I don’t know the age or provenance of this illustration, nor whether it still exists – but it’s certainly very odd. The implication seems to be that ‘Eyberdun’ is some weird transliteration of ‘Hægelisdun’, though how it reached that stage, I can’t imagine. When the inscription says that Edmund was beheaded at Hoxne, “at a great battle…”, I’m pretty sure that’s an error for “after a great battle…” otherwise it makes no sense. Hoxne is nowhere near the Gipping valley.
A legendary battle at Lyng in Norfolk is supposed to have been fought between Edmund and the Danes, with Edmund retreating to Castle Acre. At this spot is the ‘Great Stone’ which bleeds when pricked; the blood is that from the battle.
A battle that Edmund is supposed to have won is said to have occurred somewhere between Barnby and Carlton Colville, a little west of Lowestoft in Suffolk, and a long way outside the areas normally associated with the king. Gillingwater (below) says that it was the battle at ‘Bloodmere-field’, now Bloodmoor Hill at nearby Gisleham, but this is nowadays said to have been between the Angles and the Romano-British, several centuries earlier. There is actually no evidence that a battle took place there in any era.
The Hidden Ford: At Barnby there is also the Suffolk legend that Edmund escaped his foes, then defeated them at ‘Bloodmere-field’ by using a secret ford unknown to them. The earliest reference to this tradition that I can find comes from Edmund Gillingwater’s 1790 book, ‘An Historical Account of the Ancient Town of Lowestoft’. Here he localises the spot to “a ford (which was called Berneford, from Berno), and now called Barnby…” The idea was that the ford was named after Edmund’s huntsman, Bern, who had betrayed him and caused the Danes to invade (and who was probably invented as a result of a misidentification with Lothbroc’s son Bern/Beorn). Incidentally, Lothingland, the district in which Lowestoft stands, was once thought to have been named after Lothbroc himself. This tiny village of Barnby on the river Waveney actually derives its name from ‘Biarni’s homestead’, and is one of the few major Scandinavian place-names in Suffolk. It definitely doesn’t owe its origin to any mythical or historical ‘Bern’ or ‘Beorn’.
However, in Part 2 (above) I mentioned that a minor 14th century tale had Edmund surprising and defeating his enemies by using a ford called ‘Dernford‘. ‘Dern’ is an Old English word meaning ‘hidden’, so the implication is that this site is a ‘hidden ford’, either known to few people, or hidden topographically. It’s tempting to suggest two possibilities here: (1) that someone who didn’t know the word’s meaning, or who misheard it, may instead have given rise to the Barnby legend as a way of explaining the otherwise mysterious name of ‘Dernford’; or (2) that the ‘Bernford’ name came first, with its direct link to the Lothbroc legend. The fact that it was ‘hidden’ may have caused someone to record it as a ‘derne ford’, and interpret it as an actual place-name. My own guess is that the first possibility is the more likely of the two. Exactly which battle was won here may well never be known. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ only says that Edmund fought the Danes – which could refer to a single decisive conflict, or to a series of encounters, including the period when the Danes first wintered in East Anglia in 865, before peace was bought with a gift of horses.
Some years ago, an archaeologist speculated that Dernford, a Saxon manor and mill in the parish of Sawston just outside Cambridge, was the very spot where Edmund fought this battle. But in fact, there were at least four more ‘Dernford’s in East Anglia (actually all in Suffolk), and far closer to the accepted orbit of Edmund than Cambridge. One was in the parish of Foxhall, about 4½ miles from Sutton Hoo, where Domesday Book says was once a manor called ‘Derneford’ (later Darnford), presumably at a crossing of the Mill River. Another is 10 miles to the north-east of Sutton Hoo, where Dernford Hall sits beside the river Alde, in the little village of Sweffling. The third is about 5½ miles south-east of Stowmarket in Suffolk, where ‘Derneford’ recorded in Domesday Book later became Darnford, possibly referring to a ‘hidden’ crossing of the river Gipping. The fourth I’m grateful to Keith Briggs for bringing to my attention, located in the parish of Cookley, south-west of Halesworth.
The Place of Death: Speculation on the actual site of Edmund’s final battle, his martyrdom and first resting place will be held until the last chapter of this investigation. Tradition, however, has several suggestions.
Hoxne, of course, is the favourite, its claim to being ‘Hægelisdun’ dating back to at least 1101. With its chapel, healing spring, bridge and memorial of the tree on which Edmund died, this little village has become a focus for traditions of East Anglia’s own saint and martyr. With ‘Hægelisdun’ becoming ‘Hailesdune’ in later texts, someone created the notion that Edmund was slain at ‘The Hail’ at Southwold. This unlikely location is supposed to be a small hill on the seabed that once displayed the remains of a chapel to the saint. As with much of the coast hereabouts, the shoreline was once considerably further out than now.
Old Newton north of Stowmarket – specifically, a field called ‘The Pits’ – is another candidate in folklore for the site of Edmund’s martyrdom, cropping up again in Part 5 in conjunction with other local legends. More recently I’ve learned that Wissett near Halesworth also has a local tale of Edmund being captured and slain at a spot known as King’s Danger. Along with the lore that Edmund’s reign centered around Rendlesham goes a localised belief that – contrary to all historical and archaeological evidence – the king lies buried under one of the unexcavated mounds at Sutton Hoo.
The Burial Gate: If Edmund was really martyred at Hoxne, and if his body was really translated from there to ‘Beodricesworth’ in about 903 AD, then the procession would have travelled along the approximate route of what is now the A143 to Bury. Of all the villages the cortege would have passed through or close to, a memory of the event only seems to have been retained in one place. The name of the parish, Burgate (south-west of Diss), is derived in popular imagination from the ‘burial gate’, a spot where the body of the saint lay for one night on its journey to the new shrine at Bury St. Edmunds. But this is just a piece of poor etymology of course, as the name really means ‘the gate of a burg, or fortified place’, probably referring to the nearby Iron Age earthworks.
Shrine of the Saint: And so we come to Edmund’s (probable) final resting place – ‘Beodricesworth’, where King Sigeberht established a small monastery in about 633 AD, which had become ‘Sancte Eadmundes Byrig’ 400 years later, and is now Suffolk’s second town, Bury St. Edmunds. Exactly what became of the saint’s shrine after the Dissolution, we don’t know; and the remains of the abbey nowadays are not very extensive, and quite frankly rather dull. But in its day it was a powerful focus of pilgrimage, and the abbey second only to Glastonbury in wealth and influence.
The treasure still waiting to be found with his mortal remains has already been noted, as have some of the miracles associated with the king. But in the Middle Ages, even the invocation of his name was sometimes enough to produce miraculous results. An 8 year old boy from Cockfield apparently cut himself very badly with a knife, but when a prayer to Edmund was offered, the bleeding stopped instantly. A young labourer broke his neck in a fall, but recovered with the saint’s help. And when a boy drowned in a moat at Great Whelnetham, he came back to life when Edmund’s name was invoked.
In common with many other saints, not only Edmund’s body was preserved at his shrine. The parings of his nails and locks of his hair, plus his shirt, banner and sword were kept there. Although they were probably destroyed at the Dissolution (or perhaps in the fire of 1465), some like to say that, along with the king’s body, they still exist somewhere. And there is supposedly an ‘ancient prophecy’ that, before the end of the world, all the relics of St. Edmund will be returned to Bury.
Part 5 – The Last Mystery: Where Did Edmund Die?
According to History as we know it, the only fact we have concerning the death of King Edmund is that in 869, the Danes were wintering at Thetford, Edmund fought them, and was slain. So says the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ in about 890. End of story! However, 95 years later Abbo of Fleury tells us that Edmund was martyred at a township called ‘Hægelisdun’, with a nearby forest or wood of the same name, which was “at some distance” from the unidentified city that Inguar had burned. Although told at third-hand, this information supposedly comes from an eye-witness, and is generally accepted by scholars. But, where was ‘Hægelisdun’?
Hægelisdun – The Candidates:
Hoxne: For centuries Hoxne (pronounced ‘Hoxon’) was the only contender, and the inhabitants still think it so. The identification with the site of Edmund’s martyrdom in the Norwich Priory charter of 1101 may have been for ecclesiastical or political purposes, or it may have been confirming an existing local tradition. We may never know. But it’s telling that, although a chapel of St. Ethelbert is noted at Hoxne in Bishop Theodred’s will of 950, there’s no mention at all of Edmund.
Certainly, by that date, only 80 years after Edmund’s death, Hoxne was considered the ‘see’ or bishopric for Suffolk, and Theodred had his episcopal seat there. Research has uncovered the fact that there were once actually two medieval chapels dedicated to Edmund at Hoxne. One, at Cross Street, was to commemorate the place of his death, while the other was in a wood less than a mile away, in an area then known as ‘Sowood’ or ‘Sutwode’. Bungalow Farm now stands on the approximate site. In about 1100 that existing chapel of St. Ethelbert was rededicated to Edmund, and in about 1226 a small priory in his honour was established next to the chapel. But while these may be interesting facts, and may point to a tradition of religious importance attaching to the village, they are a long way from proving Hoxne to have been ‘Hægelisdun’.
The local tales of the healing spring and the Goldbrook Bridge are medieval or later additions to the mythos. The association of a particular tree at Hoxne with the tale of St. Edmund may be even more recent. When the oak fell in 1848, and people started claiming it to be the very tree to which the king was bound, a local man made it plain to the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ that he’d known the area for over 50 years, and no tree in Hoxne had ever been popularly connected with St. Edmund’s legend. Indeed, he said at the time that this particular tree was in fact known as Belmore’s Oak.
Despite this, the association was confirmed in many minds when John Smythies, a correspondent of the ‘Bury Post’, visited the fallen tree, and discovered embedded in its wood “a piece of curved iron, possibly an arrowhead”. A later writer said that it was actually a flint arrowhead (not very Danish!), while others claimed there were several. In truth there was only one, which for many years after could be seen displayed in the museum at Bury St. Edmunds. However, x-ray examination in more recent times has shown this rusty lump to be either a piece of fence wire, or a bent nail.
What about Abbo’s mention of “the neighbouring forest [which] is called by the same name [as ‘Hægelisdun’]”? Woodland in medieval Suffolk was actually quite sparse, most having been cleared in prehistoric times. But Hoxne Wood, though damaged by replanting, is indeed a remnant of this old forestation. The main objection to Hoxne being ‘Hægelisdun’ is the name. Hoxne had already been recorded as ‘Hoxne’ in the ‘Cartularium Saxonicum’ in 950 – more than 30 years before Abbo even wrote his ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’. But Abbo of course was merely passing on a name that originated with Edmund’s armour-bearer perhaps 60 years earlier. So could ‘Hoxne’ have developed from ‘Hægelisdun’ between 869 and 950?
Although it is unique (and uncertain) in etymological terms, the best estimate for the meaning of ‘Hoxne’ is a derivation from the O.E. ‘hóhsinu’ meaning ‘heel-sinew’, from the resemblance of the land to the hough or hock of a horse (the northern part of the village stands on a spur or ridge above the rivers Dove and Waveney). We can safely ignore the 19th century antiquaries who theorised that ‘Hægelisdun’ meant ‘hill of eagles’. ‘Hægel’ is a Saxon personal name known from other locations such as Hailsham, Hayling and Hazeleigh (see also below under Maldon), and ‘Hægelisdun’ quite clearly means the ‘dún’ or hill of Hægel. Even without the written record, there’s no way that ‘Hoxne’ could be derived from ‘Hægelisdun’.
Actually, it’s surprising that 18th and 19th century antiquaries didn’t latch on to the town of Harleston as a possibility, as it’s only 5 miles from Hoxne, on the Norfolk side of the river Waveney. But the early forms of the name show that it derives from ‘Heroluestuna’ – the homestead of Herewulf. No ‘Hægelisdun’ here.
Hellesdon: Now a north-west suburb of Norwich, Hellesdon (pronounced ‘Hellsdun’) has long been the favourite of place-name experts and historians for the site of ‘Hægelisdun’. It appears in Domesday Book as ‘Hailesduna’, which is exactly the form one would have expected ‘Hægelisdun’ to have evolved into. Even in the mythology, by the time of Roger of Wendover in the early 13th century, the site of the martyrdom was being written as ‘Hæilesdune’. But once again, there are no traditional or cultic associations with St. Edmund. And quite frankly, we don’t know the origin of the name ‘Hellesden’. It could be named after a person or the actual Norfolk village for all we know, or it could be a corruption of something else entirely. Recent research by Dr. Keith Briggs has certainly shown that the identification with ‘Hægelisdun’ is far from a certainty. (See also under Maldon below.)
But the name is the only thing Hellesdon has going for it. There are no chapels, no legends, no traditions of association with Edmund, and no records of old woodland in the area. About a mile away, further up the valley of the river Wensum, is Bloods Dale at Drayton, where Dane is said to have fought Saxon – but no hint of a connection with the king’s last battle or death. Nevertheless, it has been theorised by Joseph Mason in his ‘St. Edmund’s Norfolk’ of 2012 that Edmund was indeed slain at Bloods Dale, then buried in what is now King’s Grove at Lyng.
Bradfield St. Clare: About 5 miles south-east of Bury St. Edmunds is the scattered parish of Bradfield St. Clare. Just south of Pitcher’s Green within the parish has been found, on the 1840 Tithe Map, the medieval field name of ‘Hellesden Ley’, which is the new favourite location of ‘Hægelisdun’. Its position, close to Bury and only about 15 miles from the Danish winter quarters at Thetford, are in its favour, as are several ‘Kingshall’ place-names a couple of miles to the north at Rougham (where Bury owned a ‘Kingshalle’ manor before the Conquest). It has also been suggested that the presence of a building called ‘Bradfield Hall’ within the former Bury Abbey, and that the abbey cellarer paid rent for some small parcels of land in St. Clare, denote a close historical connection. Also, within the parish are several areas of lost or existing medieval woodland, including Bradfield Woods and Monkspark Wood.
Hollesley: Situated near the coast of Suffolk south-east of Woodbridge, Hollesley (pronounced ‘Hoseley’) is nowadays mostly known for being the location of a Young Offenders Institution. The earliest written form of the name is ‘Holeslea’, probably meaning the wood or clearing of someone named Hól or Hóla – and is clearly not a candidate for ‘Hægelisdun’. But because of its position within a few miles of Orford, Rendlesham and Sutton Hoo, that hasn’t stopped the locals from claiming it as the place where Edmund met his end.
Some have tried to strengthen the claim for the area by pointing to Domesday Book where is mentioned a small manor called ‘Halgestou’. At the time of Domesday it was held by the mother of the founder of Eye priory, Robert Malet, and was later variously known as ‘Haleghestowe’ and ‘Holstow’. Although the exact spot is unknown, W. G. Arnott in 1946 believed that it was on the east side of Shottisham, close to Hollesley. Personally, I wonder if it couldn’t be that spot now marked as ‘Holy Stile’, a meeting of roads and tracks roughly halfway between the two villages. It wouldn’t take much for local usage to corrupt ‘Holstow’ into ‘Holy Stile’.
The argument requires that Abbo wrote the name wrongly in the first place, transposing two of the consonants. Thus, instead of ‘Hægelisdun’, he should have written ‘Hæligesdun’, which would then (they say) mean ‘holy place’. But the linguistic twisting doesn’t stop there. One researcher wrote “No place-name expert would argue about Hæligesdun being spelled Halgestou, allowing for the lapse of time and change of circumstance (dun or stou both mean place)”. Well actually they would, and they don’t. One thing there’s no argument about is the existence of ancient woodland in the area, with Staverton Park and the Thicks just to the north, near Butley.
Maldon: More recently, another contender for ‘Hægelisdun’ has been compellingly put forward by Dr. Keith Briggs. He points to the place-name ‘Halesdunam’ which appears in Domesday Book at Hazeleigh, near Maldon in Essex. Disregarding the Latinization gives us the name ‘Halesdun’, appearing after 1272 as ‘Hailisduna’. The location may refer to a hill near Hazeleigh or, it has been suggested, to the hill that named Maldon itself: ‘mæl-dún’ or ‘hill with a monument/cross’. Dr. Briggs posits that the cross may have actually been a monument to the martyrdom of Edmund, but memory of its significance was later lost or suppressed. Edmund may have been here, far from his home territory, to aid an Essex ally in their defence against the Danes.
The name Hazeleigh itself translates as ‘Hægel’s wood’, but otherwise the location and lack of surviving traditions or other connections to Edmund for me mitigate against Maldon being the actual site of ‘Hægelisdun’. Nevertheless etymologically, ‘Halesdunam’ is as valid as Hellesdon, and probably more so than ‘Hellesden Ley’ at Bradfield. (See: ‘Was Hægelisdun in Essex?’ by Keith Briggs, in ‘Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History’, Vol. XLII, part 3, 2011, pp.277-291.) But there’s a second facet to this investigation, introduced by Hermann of Bury just after 1095. While ‘Hægelisdun’ is, according to Abbo, where Edmund died, Hermann (probably a mistake for an archdeacon named Bertrann) tells us that Edmund was first buried “in a little village named ‘Suthtuna’, close to the scene of his martyrdom…”
Suthtuna: The tales in Hermann’s ‘Liber de Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi’ come partly from “an old book” and partly from “the tradition of our elders”. Hermann would certainly have known of Abbo’s ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’, but doesn’t mention ‘Hægelisdun’ at all. The conclusion nevertheless is that the two places were quite close together.
‘Suthtuna’ comes from O.E. ‘Súþ-tún’, meaning southern homestead or village, and has resulted in the very common English place-name ‘Sutton’. But in East Anglia, this has survived in only one village-name in Norfolk, and one in Suffolk. The Norfolk instance is an out-of-the-way little hamlet next to Stalham in the Broads, and can almost certainly be discounted.
The Suffolk one is a different matter, and is the only one that appears in Domesday Book actually written as ‘Suthtuna’. This is the large (and mostly empty) parish of Sutton near Woodbridge, within which stands the Saxon royal cemetery at Sutton Hoo, and which takes us back to the whole Rendlesham/Hollesley/‘Halgestou’
At 34 miles as the crow flies from the Danish winter quarters at Thetford, this seems an unlikely place for Edmund to have been buried. And despite the Saxon connections, the absence of a convincing ‘Hægelisdun’ still leaves this an improbable location for the action of the legend.
The existence of a place called Sutton Hall in Bradfield St. Clare parish has been introduced as further proof that this is the true burial place of Edmund. It can be found about ¾ of a mile south of the field once called ‘Hellesden Ley’, and stands next to a medieval moated enclosure. Here also the cellarer of Bury Abbey paid rent for some land.
At Hoxne, we have the traditions, but no actual ‘Hægelisdun’. Neither do we have a Sutton – but there was something quite close, and which could possibly have evolved from ‘Suthtuna’. According to the Wills of the Archdeaconry of Suffolk, dating from the mid-15th century, there was once a hamlet called ‘Suddon’ within the parish, and still exists as the area now called South Green.
Further away from Hoxne, 7 miles south in the parish of Kenton, is the manor of Suddon Hall, but of this I can find no further information. It’s just under 2 miles from Bloody Field at Debenham, where the name of Edmund has been ‘tacked on’ to a legendary Saxon vs. Dane battlefield.
So far we’ve considered possible locations for Edmund’s martyrdom and burial – but what about the site of his final battle with the Danes? Historically, we have absolutely nothing to go on.
Consider the words of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ for 869 AD:
“In this year the army rode over Mercia into East Anglia, and there fixed their winter-quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought with them; but the Danes gained the victory, and slew the king, and conquered all that land”.
It is unlikely that Edmund would have launched an attack directly at the Danes entrenched behind the Iron Age and Saxon defences at Thetford itself. Some have suggested that the king attacked them before they even reached Thetford, but to my mind that sequence of events cannot be gained from the ‘Chronicle’.
The most enduring local legend is that at Rushford, where the final conflict allegedly took place on the slopes of Snarehill just outside Thetford, to the south-east. It’s possible that Edmund somehow drew the Danish forces out from behind their defenses to this range of low hills – but the tale probably came about because of the existence of many burial mounds spread along the ridge which are, however, bell barrows of the Bronze Age. Whether he fought them once or several times, any of the battles, including the last, could have been many miles from Thetford.
The Mystery Remains:
So, there are several clusters of possibility, but no definitive answer. To summarise:
HOXNE: 900 years of tradition and religious association, plus medieval woodland, but no ‘Hægelisdun’, and only a possible ‘Sutton’. HELLESDON: A fairly convincing ‘Hægelisdun’, but that’s all. BRADFIELD ST. CLARE: A definite ‘Sutton’, a possible ‘Hægelisdun’, a couple of other suggestive place-names and medieval woodland, but no traditional associations. HOLLESLEY area: Here is a positive ‘Sutton’, and the remains of ancient woodland, but a highly dubious ‘Hægelisdun’, an association with Saxon kings that is too early, an unlikely location, and a weak (and probably recent) tradition of Edmund. OLD NEWTON area: An Edmund legend and other relevant traditions, medieval woodland, but no ‘Hægelisdun’ or ‘Sutton’. WISSETT: A very minor Edmund tradition, with no other evidence. MALDON: A convincing ‘Hægelisdun’, an ancient wood of similar name, and a plausible historical reason for Edmund to be here, but no ‘Sutton’, and no surviving traditions.
I suspect that, among historians, Bradfield St. Clare and perhaps Hellesdon will continue to be the favoured locations for the events of St. Edmund’s death and burial. I doubt however that anything will shake the belief of Hoxne residents that their village is the one true site. Maybe someday, someone trawling through medieval manuscripts or charters, wills or maps, will come across another ‘Hægelisdun’, with a ‘Suthtuna’ nearby, and make the connection. But there would still be the question of tradition. Such a series of events would, I think, have left an indelible mark of legend on the landscape. If not Hoxne, Hollesley, or Old Newton, then where? The mystery of Edmund – king, martyr, and saint of East Anglia – remains!
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William the Conqueror managed it in 1066 but since then no foreign power has ever managed to invade these islands. There has been no shortage of attempts and plans from the Spanish Armada, to Napoleon, to Hitler but, by courage or fortuitous circumstance, the threat has never been carried out. However, there was a time 100 years ago when invasion was seen as highly likely and it was believed that the Norfolk Coast was where it would begin.
It is August 1914. Much like this summer it is very hot and a large section of Norfolk people has decamped to the seaside. Hotel bookings at Cromer and Sheringham are at record levels. Most did not believe that Great Britain would be affected by the events in Belgium, Germany and France or that we need be involved at all should fighting begin. However, on Tuesday 4th August the late-night edition of the Eastern Daily Press announced that we were indeed at war.
The Coast Prepares: It was on the Norfolk coast that defensive measures were first introduced. Settlements such as Happisburgh and Weybourne were considered prime sites for a hostile landing as the sea here was deep enough to allow ships to closely approach the shoreline and land men and machines. Immediate action was taken to defend them. In Happisburgh, for example, a division of what were known as ‘Rough Riders’ – cavalry hastily drafted in from all over the country – were billeted in private houses. Trenches were dug along the cliff tops and the beaches shut to the public completely between sunset and sunrise: at all other times special permission needed to be obtained from the Lieutenant Colonel in charge of defences. Many local women of coastal settlements were also formed into groups to make clothing and bandages for troops.
Fears of Invasion: In 1914 there was a school of thought that saw invasion as highly likely. There were literally dozens of graphic full length novels published in the early 1900s giving no-holds-barred and horrifying accounts of life under a foreign conqueror. A best seller was William Le Quex’s The Invasion of 1910 which sold over a million copies. In this book, the Germans landed at Lowestoft. In another, Swoop of the Vulture, Lowestoft and Yarmouth were invaded helped by previously unknown German sympathisers. In another, the Japanese landed at Liverpool. Erskine Childers, a future war hero, even got into the act with his famous novel The Riddle of the Sands.
There was also what is known as the Blue Water School of thought which believed that as long as Britain commanded the seas there was no possibility of invasion. According to this theory, championed by the Admiralty, if Britain surrendered command of the seas, the army would be ineffective anyway in the case of a multiple assault. The enemy would land on the Norfolk coast or maybe south of Lowestoft and sweep into London. The sinking within 90 minutes of the Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy by a single German U-boat dealt the Navy a huge psychological blow, at least temporarily, and did little to reassure the concerns of people living on the coast.
The Fishermen: Protection of the Norfolk coast relied not just on the British Navy but also on North Sea fishermen many of whom were enrolled in the Royal Naval Reserve Trawler Section. They were to use their own vessels in a variety of war work – patrolling, minesweeping and anti submarine operations. Some smacks, commanded by skippers such as Thomas Crisp and Charles Fryatt, whose heroic exploits have previously been featured in this magazine, played an active part as combatants and created instant legends which greatly helped morale. The Germans were under no illusions as to fishermen’s value and sank 26 boats within the first four weeks of hostilities. Over 500 herring drifters from Yarmouth and Lowestoft were hired by the Royal Navy during the course of the war. In addition, in 1914, four of the largest Yarmouth steam drifters were used to install heavy steel anti-submarine mesh in what was called the Swin anchorage off Maplin Sands. This proved a vital anchorage for battleships of the 3rd Battle Squadron.
At the beginning of the war German ships which happened to be in British ports were captured. The Fiducia was taken at Great Yarmouth and several at the major ports such as Kings Lynn and Ipswich.
Put Those Lights Out!:
The Eastern Daily Press ran this letter:
Sirs, In accordance with the Defence of the Realm Act, I hereby give notice that all lights on the coast of Norfolk showing to seaward from all buildings are to be screened from sunset to sunrise. Every person infringing this regulation will be liable to arrest. Also that any unauthorised person showing a light on the seashore (or on the cliffs adjoining thereto) will be liable to arrest. Any person signaling with any lamp or otherwise will be liable to be shot without further warning. I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant. A.A .Ellison, Captain in Charge, Lowestoft and Yarmouth.
Anti-German Feeling and Spies: Germans in Britain were subject to suspicion, although the press in Norfolk said that relations between the county’s citizens and those of German nationality were more friendly than elsewhere. Some, however, believed that all Germans should not merely be registered but sent to an (unspecified) colony and a letter in the local paper suggested that anything reminding the good people of the county with anything Germanic, should be banned, including sausage dogs.
Many hotel and guest house owners found that those people who had registered for a holiday failed to show up. One high profile case involved a German guest house owner in Sheringham, Jacob Lichter, who brought a case against some guests who had failed to appear after war broke out. Judge Mulligan of North Walsham Crown County Court threw the case out adding some remarks about the absurdity of allowing Germans to own guest houses on the vulnerable coast.
Spies were everywhere, some believed. One such was the MP for Kings Lynn, Holcombe Ingleby, who believed that Zeppelins were being assisted by car owners who were using their headlights to signal from coastal roads. One man was arrested for sketching on Sheringham sea front. So febrile was the atmosphere that there were those who believed any light showing in a house on the coast had an ulterior purpose. Major Egbert Napier, Chief Constable of the Norfolk County Constabulary, spent much of his time hunting spies on the Norfolk coastline. He subsequently signed up for the Royal Garrison Artillery and was killed in October 1917.
The Diss Express for Fri Sept 11, 1914 carried this item, one of many showing the nervousness of some folk:
ENEMIES IN OUR MIDST
A large number of German and Austrian subjects liable to military service have been handed over to the military authorities… A few days ago there appeared in the press a circumstantial report of a midnight attack by two men on a signalman. On enquiry it was found that the signalman was suffering from nervous breakdown, and there was no truth in the story. There have been reports of attacks on police constables by armed motor-cyclists, but in no case was the report substantiated. Reports of the discovery of secret arsenals are untrue.
In early 1915, the Norfolk and Suffolk Journal, reported a successful prosecution: FLASHES TOWARDS THE SEA .Sentence of six months hard labour was passed at Spilsby, Lincs on Monday on Bertie Whydale, cycle repairer, for having, Feb 14 1915, contrary to the regulations made under the Defence of the Realm Act, displayed a light ‘in such a manner as could serve as a signal, guide or landmark’ …At 11.20 on the night of 14th ‘he was seen flashing an acetylene lamp from a hill, 250 feet above sea level towards the sea’.
Less Selfish? As the war progressed, the Bishop of Norwich saw an uplift in people’s ethics. He is reported in the Norfolk Chronicle of December 15 1915 as saying in an address entitled VICTORY AND REACTION:
‘I can foresee that the very time of victory itself will be a time of excitement and danger. There will then be the risk that our men may fall into easy paths. How dreadful once more to drop down into that flat, unimaginative, unentertaining life, petty, small, self-pleasing, self-seeking from which, through the war, we are now being raised to something better’.
Coastal Defences: How They Developed During The War: When the war began, the coast had no defences to speak of – except for warnings from the Coastguard and boy scouts, and the latter were quickly and enthusiastically organized to make patrols. Kings Lynn boasted a small battery and, right around the coast, Southwold had some old canons. Harwich, of course, being the major naval centre for the region, had fortifications, including searchlights and a minefield as well as some new 9.2 inch guns.
It was widely believed that, if Germans invaded, the fleet would cut them off and that the enemy would soon surrender in inhospitable territory with no supplies. Thus, in 1914, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk had each only one Infantry Brigade, one mounted Yeomanry Brigade, a brigade of the Royal Field Artillery and two battalions of cyclists. Harwich had six battalions of infantry.
There was fevered discussion as to where the enemy was likely to land. The salt marshes at Weybourne were seen as unsuitable and the wide expanses of beaches between Cley and Sheringham, and possibly Lowestoft, were considered quite likely.
Home Defence, Trenches and Additional Guns: Initially, much reporting was of an optimistic nature. The Norwich Mercury of December 9 1914 reported: A HOPEFUL OUTLOOK. The latest war news from the Western Front appears to show that the Germans have abandoned the attempt to force their way to the coast. In the same edition it reports on Home Defence: ‘the new volunteer movement which has sprung out of the possibilities of an attempt at an invasion of our shores grows in force day by day…Today there are upwards of a million men, aged from about 35 upwards…In our own area, Yarmouth has done well, with over 500 men already enrolled. Lowestoft has followed suit with 250 and Norwich has begun its task with over 400 men in the first few days of the appeal…’
The Authorities were not keen to dig up beaches in 1914 so as not to alarm public but eventually began to do so, including on Sheringham Golf Links. Also, by 1915 there were six 4.7 inch guns moving on travelling carriages at Weybourne and two more at Cromer.
Harwich was made into strong fortress in 1914. In 1915 two 9.2 inch Mk X guns were brought from Ireland, the most powerful pieces ever to be put on the East Coast. They could fire a shell of 280 pounds up to 17,000 yards and reach any ship threatening the base and town.
In 1915 an armoured train was brought to Norfolk, [it was said to be the No. 2 Armoured train “Alice” and was to spend most of WWI in Norfolk] and it looked very impressive but was militarily useless as it was on fixed tracks and relied upon the enemy obligingly coming within range. Based in North Walsham, it comprised four carriages with a steel shell half an inch thick. At either end was a gun truck with a Maxim gun and 12 pounder naval gun. For the duration of the conflict it noisily banged up and down the track on the Mundesley line as far as Great Yarmouth and it never fired a shot.
Air threats led to two 75-mm guns being placed at Bacton and two more at Sandringham to protect the Queen. In addition the airbase at Pulham Market had 3 3-inch guns and Yarmouth two 18-pounders. In 1916, following the April bombardment of Lowestoft by the High Seas Fleet, which caused great panic and fear on invasion, trenches were dug along the cliffs at Pakefield and inspected by the King.
If we are invaded – This Is What We Shall Do: In 1916 it was decided by the Admiralty and War Office that an invasion by up to 160,000 men was quite possible and that half a million troops must always be stationed in the UK to counter the threat. The attack was deemed probable between the Wash and Dover. Consequently two command posts were set up, one at Bretford and one at Mundford. The defence plan was to hold the coast as long as possible and then, if German troops landed, seen as probable for exercise reasons, then they should be attacked by mobile units of cyclists and infantry. Thereafter it was pretty much harass and hopefully defeat the enemy on the way to London – it was assumed the enemy would make a beeline for the capital.
The government also sought the active help of the public in keeping vigilant. The Eastern Daily Press of Tuesday July 18, 1916 wrote: ‘The War Office request that the public will render assistance…by notifying…of any bomb or projectile or fragments thereof or any other article discharged, dropt or lost from any enemy aircraft or vessel’.
The defences never approached those of the Napoleonic wars but in 1917 more trenches were dug at Weybourne and Sheringham, Sea Palling and Great Yarmouth. South of Lowestoft was further strengthened by guns and men. Weybourne in particular became an important Army coastal defence base. Mobile guns included six 60-pounders at Weybourne, Mundesley and Pakefield: these would be useful against troops but were not really designed to pierce armour. Cromer also had two of the same guns in a permanent mount. Monitors operated 24/7 from Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth.
Pillboxes: Some 48 pillboxes, named, some say, because of their shape which resembled the boxes that pills could be obtained in from the local chemist, were built in Norfolk, the majority along the Norfolk coast. The picture is not entirely clear, especially as some were re-used and adapted in the Second World War. 24 remain today.
Often circular or hexagonal in shape and made of concrete, they were designed to protect British troops when firing at the enemy through the ‘loopholes’. Steel shutters could cover the openings when in defensive mode. They were often built in pairs to provide greater support and they ran from Cley to West Runton. It is possible that the pillbox at Stiffkey was also in this defensive line but experts even now are trying to work out whether it was built in the First or Second World War. It is unsually flat, thus making it difficult for troops to stand inside and the openings are wider than normal: possibly it was some kind of observation, rather than defensive, post. A second line reinforced these and ran just inland between Holt and Aylmerton. A line ran along the banks of the River Ant with other locations including Mundesley, Bacton, Sea Palling Hanworth, North Walsham and Great Yarmouth. Many were built by the Royal Engineers.
The Pillbox Trail: A Pillbox Trail was launched with great success in 2015. Fourteen are accessible and these are: Stiffkey, Weybourne, Beeston Regis, Aylmerton, Thorpe Market (2), Bradfield, (2), Little London (2), White Horse Common (2), Wayford Bridge and Sea Palling. Further information and leaflets are available from any north Norfolk information centre or online. http://www.visitnorthnorfolk.co.uk.
Sources: Text by kind permission of Stephen Browning via:
Photos: Daniel Tink photos are by kind permission of him. All others photos acknowledged as stated.
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In 1981, Hidden East Anglia’s ‘Lantern’ magazine carried M.W. Burgess’s article ‘Hoax of the Broads’ which was highly critical of Charles Sampson’s popular book ‘Ghosts of the Broads’, published and reprinted by Jarrold & Sons Ltd in 1973, 1976 and 1979. In 2015, when Mike Burgess began writing about the various legends of Tom Hickathrift (updated in 2018), he again referred to Samson’s ‘extremely dubious tale’ of the giant, and stated that East Anglia can lay claim to only one traditional giant – that of the giant of the Norfolk Marshland.
Tom Hickathrift is mentioned many times in local folklore, and it is only fairly recently that Mike Burgess set about making his own serious attempt to follow up the dozens of different threads of the Hickathrift legend, in an attempt to discover the giant’s true origins. Burgess was modest when saying: “That is my quest – but I have a feeling that this will only lay the foundations for a much deeper study”. Here is the result of his endeavours, which he titled ‘The Quest of Tom Hickathrift’:
The Land of the Giant:
The majority of the action in the Hickathrift tales takes place in the far western corner of Norfolk, in a rough triangle bordered by King’s Lynn, Wisbech and Downham Market, and more specifically in that area marked nowadays on the map as ‘Marshland Fen’. Upon the western edge of this region is ‘The Smeeth’, a name that once applied to the whole Marshland (and probably derives from an Old English word meaning ‘smooth’).
This was, in olden days, a fine pastureland about 2 miles or so across and of 1200 acres in extent. Over 30,000 sheep and cattle were grazed here by the ‘Seven Towns of Marshland’ to whom the plain was common – namely Tilney, Terrington, Clenchwarton, Walpole, West Walton, Walsoken and Emneth. In 1923 the area was made into the new parish of Marshland St. James, and the Smeeth is now (or at least was, when I went there in 1980 and ’81) a straggling collection of both private and council houses, with a school, pub and small church, all strung out along Smeeth Road. Somewhere in this region of the Marshland, or so the legends say, was born Tom Hickathrift, “in the reign before William the Conqueror”, the son of a poor labourer also called Thomas Hickathrift. His father died not long after Tom was born, and his poor old mother was forced to work day and night to support him, since he was very lazy, and ate a huge amount:
“for he was in height”, says one story, “when he was but ten years of age, about eight feet, and in thickness five feet, and his hand was like unto a shoulder of mutton; and in all parts from top to toe, he was like unto a monster, and yet his great strength was not known”.
The Tales Surrounding Hickathrift & their Sources:
The earliest printed mention of the giant Hickathrift occurs in a massive book by John Weever, entitled ‘Ancient Funerall Monuments’, dated to 1631 (1). Weever reports a tradition of the Smeeth that once upon a time, a great conflict broke out between the inhabitants of the Seven Towns and their Landlord, over the rights and boundaries of the Smeeth, and the villagers were definitely getting the worst of the battle. At this time, Tom had got himself a job carting beer for a King’s Lynn brewer, and he often had to drive his cart over the Marshland to Wisbech.
Along comes Tom to the scene of the battle and, in Weever’s words:
“perceiving that his neighbours were faint-hearted, and ready to take flight, he shooke the Axell-tree from the cart, which he used instead of a sword, and tooke one of the cart-wheeles which he held as a buckler; with these weapons….he set upon the….adversaries of the Common, encouraged his neighbours to go forward, and fight valiantly in defence of their liberties; who being animated by his manly prowesse, they….chased the Landlord and his companie, to the utmost verge of the said Common; which from that time they have quietly enjoyed to this very day”.
Later antiquarian writers such as Spelman in about 1640 (2), Cox in 1720 (3), and Blomefield in 1808 (4) follow Weever almost to the letter, apart from William Dugdale (5) who is the ‘joker in the pack’, and who will be mentioned again shortly. However, a significant divergence in story line occurs in the early Chapbooks, those slender pamphlets for consumption by the ‘peasantry’ that pedlars hawked on the village streets. The earliest still in existence is in the Pepysian Library at Cambridge, printed between 1660 and 1690, and bearing the title ‘The History of Thomas Hickathrift’. (6)
This Chapbook relates how Tom used to drive his brewer’s cart between Lynn and Wisbech, but because of a fierce giant or ogre that dwelt in the Marshland, had to make a long detour around. One day Tom became fed up with this, and on his next journey resolved to test the ogre’s might. From his cave, the giant saw Tom coming and leapt out to meet the trespasser, saying “Do you not see how many heads hang upon yonder tree that have offended my law! But thy head shall hang higher than all the rest for an example”. To which Tom then gave the classic riposte “A turd in your teeth for your news, for you shall not find me like one of them”.
The giant, enraged, dashed back into his cave for his gigantic club, while Tom up-ended his cart and took the axle and wheel for a sword and shield. With these weapons, and after a mighty battle, Tom beat the twelve-foot high ogre into the ground and sliced off his head. After this deed Tom became the hero of the Marshland, and was henceforth known to all as ‘Master’ Hickathrift (a formerly distinct title that lost its significance in the 17th century).
These two alternate themes – the defeat of the Landlord and the slaying of the giant, both with wheel and axle – parallel one another until about the beginning of the 20th century, when the Landlord version is forgotten and only the giant-slaying remains. The question is, which tradition came first or, were there two very similar but separate tales existing from the very beginning? From experience, I would say that the former is the real problem, but that is easily solvable. Although the 17th century Pepysian chapbook is the oldest still surviving, we can be fairly certain that there was an earlier version, probably from the 16th century – or at least the internal literary evidence seems to point that way. And of course, the substance of the Chapbook is derived from popular oral tradition of indeterminate age, as is the substance of the passage in Weever.
But, it is the process of folklore to embellish tales, to enlarge, and thus the tyrant Landlord must have come first; enlarged and aggrandised by the Chapbook writers who were catering for a less discerning audience than that held by such as John Weever. For the same reason, the Landlord has vanished from current Hickathrift tradition, leaving only the wicked giant to be overcome by our hero. Here, we mention Sir William Dugdale again, because of the curious role reversal that he created in his 1662 work ‘The History of Imbanking…’.(5) where, somehow, he managed to twist the Weever story about – making Hickathrift himself into the zealous owner of the Smeeth common land, mightily defending himself with wheel and axle against the quarrelling villagers. This is a most peculiar reversal, and can only be explained by a hasty and inaccurate reading of the legend as told by Weever.
Whilst the antiquarians have no more to say about Hickathrift’s exploits, the Chapbooks, on the other hand, have a great deal more to tell; for instance. After his slaying of the Marshland ogre, Tom went into the cave and found there all the monster’s ill-gotten hoard of gold and silver, enough to make him a rich man for life. “Tom took possession of the giant’s cave”, says the Chapbook:
“….by consent of the whole company, and every one said he deserved twice as much more; Tom pulled down the cave, built him a fine house where the cave stood; and the ground that the giant kept by force and strength, some of which he gave to the poor for their common, the rest he made pastures of and divided the most part into tillage, to maintain him and his mother Jane Hickathrift”.
He then made a deer park round about, and near his house built a church of St. James “because he killed the giant on that day……” (which at the time of writing was August 6th). Whether or not this part of the tale influenced the naming of the parish in 1923 I do not know, but perhaps it is significant that there has never been another church of St. James in the whole of the Fenland district.
With his newfound wealth and respectability, Tom travelled far and wide throughout the Marshland, sometimes with his pack of hounds, to such festivities as “cudgel-play, bear-baiting, foot-ball, and the like”. One such event, although a minor one in the course of the story, will be seen to gain a greater significance later on. He rode one day to where some men were laying wagers upon a football game, but he was a stranger to them and not allowed to join in; “but Tom soon spoiled their sport; for he meeting the foot-ball, took it such a kick that they never found their ball more; they could see it fly, but whither none could tell……” The participants became angry at this, but Tom simply grabbed up a “great spar” from a ruined house, and flattened the lot of them. Then, on his way home he encountered four armed robbers. Once more in summary fashion he slew two and wounded the others, taking £200 from them for his trouble. But he later came upon a stout tinker barring his path, and since neither would yield to the other, they battled with staves (reminiscent, of course, of the meeting between Robin Hood and Little John). They were evenly matched, until Tom threw down his staff, invited the tinker to his home, and they became the best of friends.
At this point the earliest Chapbook versions end, leaving later versions to attach more. A typical example of this would be ‘A Pleasant and Delightful History of Thomas Hickathrift’, printed around 1750. It was not the only one, many others were produced all through the 18th and 19th centuries – all, apparently, based on the text of the above version. This continues the exploits of both Tom and the Tinker – whose name was given as Henry Nonsuch, telling how they were called to the Isle of Ely to help put down a rebellion. The two men defeated 10,000 (one reference says 2000) men all by themselves with naught but clubs as weapons; and when Tom’s club broke, he “seized upon a lusty, stout raw-boned miller, and made use of him for a weapon, till at length he cleared the field……” The King was so pleased with them that he promptly knighted Tom, and gave the Tinker a pension for life. As Sir Thomas Hickathrift, he then turned for home, only to find his aged mother dying.
After this Tom’s thoughts turned towards marriage, and he began to court a “rich young widow” of Cambridge named Sarah Gedyng. After trouncing a rival in love, Tom came up against two hired Troopers whom he simply tucked under his arms until, humiliated, they swore never to trouble anyone again. But even as Tom rode to his wedding, along came his rival with twenty-one hired ruffians to stop him – but to no avail. Tom just took up a sword and sliced an arm or a leg off every one, then hired a nearby farmer’s dung-cart to carry them home. At his wedding feast, which was held in his own home, an amusing and rather bizarre episode took place. At the end of the proceedings he discovered a silver cup missing, but which was found on an old woman named Strumbolow. While the other guests were all for chopping her to pieces for her theft, Tom devised a rather novel method of punishment:
“He bored a hole through her nose, and tied a string thereto, then tied her hands behind her back, and ordered her to be stripped naked, commanding the rest of the old women to stick a candle in her fundament, and then lead her by the nose through the streets and lanes of Cambridge, which comical sight caused a general laughter”.
Not long after this, word came to the King that a foul giant, with many great bears and lions in attendance, had invaded the Isle of Thanet in Kent, and posed a dire threat to the rest of his Kingdom. Without more ado he made Tom the Governor of Thanet, and Tom went off to combat the invader, a far more terrible ogre than any he had faced before. For the giant was “mounted upon a dreadful dragon, beating upon his shoulder a club of iron; having but one eye, which was placed in the middle of his forehead, and larger than a barber’s bason [basin], and seemed to appear like a flaming fire; his visage was grim and tawny, his back and shoulders like snakes of prodigious length, the bristles of his beard like rusty wire……” Nevertheless it didn’t take Tom long to deal with his opponent, first of all running his “two-handed sword of ten feet long in between the giant’s brawny buttocks, and out at his belly……and then pulling it out again, at six or seven blows he separated his head from his trunk….”
With no more ado he suffered the dragon likewise, then he and Henry the Tinker went out and dispatched the rest of the ravening beasts. But alas! The Tinker was slain by one of the lions. Tom then went home, but died in less than three weeks out of grief for his friend. And there the Chapbooks end their tale.
However, the legends of Tom Hickathrift do not end; more were added over the years, enlarging and twisting various episodes, until much is scarcely recognisable from the original. Probably one of the earliest additions is related by H. J. Hillen in about 1891. A local of the Smeeth told him that when Tom had slain the Marshland ogre, he decided to cut out the giant’s tongue. Then shortly after Tom had departed, along came a rogue who severed the head and took it to the King for a reward. Just as the King was about to open the royal purse, up popped Tom with the tongue and claimed the reward for himself. “The imperdant rarscal”, said the old local, “rushed scraamin’ away, getting’ a jolly sight more kicks than ha’pence!” (8) This additional fragment is not original to the neighbourhood however, being simply a variant on the old folk-motif of ‘The False Claimant’.
The earliest incident in the Chapbooks, by which Tom’s great strength is revealed, is when he hoists on to his shoulder a colossal weight of straw, far more than any other man can carry. This has been altered in oral tradition so that, for a joke, the bundle of straw has huge rocks hidden inside it, but Tom still lifts it without fuss. Likewise, the four-armed robbers that he dispatches become a large band of highwaymen whom he drives out of East Anglia. The chapter where Tom kicks a football out of sight has gained a wider audience, so that a Suffolk man can tell, in 1965, of “Old Icklethrift”, who kicked a ball “from Beccles to Bungay”. (9) One source doesn’t like the idea of our hero dying from grief, so makes him simply return home, “where he passed the remainder of his days in great content….” (10)
Legends in the Landscape:
One of the most interesting adjuncts to the Hickathrift myth was an earthen mound, which stood at the Smeeth in a field south of the village crossroads, not far from the former Smeeth Road railway station. The first printed mention of this mound seems to be Miller and Skertchly in 1878, (13) taking their information from Jonathon Peckover of Wisbech. They speak of “a mound with the marks of an entrenchment visible around it. This is called the giant’s grave, and the people of the neighbourhood have a tradition that it is hollow”.
The next reference quoted in G. L. Gomme’s edition of one of the chapbooks in 1884, (11) and taken from the ‘Journal’ of the British Archaeological Association from 1879., in an article entitled ‘Fen Tumuli’, by the above-mentioned Jonathon Peckover. (12) It reads:
“Another mound, close to the Smeeth Road Station, between Lynn and Wisbech, has also a traditional interest. It is called the giant’s grave, and the inhabitants relate that there lie the remains of the giant slain by Hickathrift, with the cart wheel and axletree. The mound has not been examined. It lies in the corner of the field, with a slight depression round it, and has now only an elevation of a few feet. A cross was erected upon it, and is to be seen in the neighbouring churchyard of Terrington St. John’s, bearing the singular name of ‘Hickathrift’s candlestick’.”
Hillen (8) terms it “a low tumulus (somewhat levelled on one side) with distinct marks of an entrenchment”. Dutt in 1909 (14) considered it “an artificial mound, possibly a barrow”. Because caves (occupied by ogres or otherwise) are pretty unlikely in the Marshland, I would venture that this was indeed an ancient burial mound, possibly with a visible entrance, or more likely a collapsed section, that gave people the idea that a giant lived there. In the same field, ‘Hicifric’s’ or ‘Hickathrift’s Field’, was a rough hollow or dry pond with some form of low bank around it. A former owner of Hickathrift Farm (which still stands opposite) said in 1955 (15) that there were two hollows “locally known as Giant Hickathrift’s Bath and Feeding-bowl”. But the pond with the bank round it was usually called ‘Hickathrift’s Hand-basin or Wash-basin’.
Basil Cozens-Hardy in 1934 (16) claimed it to be truly a “Scandinavian doom-ring”. Here, it seems likely that he derived this idea from the Kelly’s ‘Directory of Norfolk’ for 1925, (17) where the ‘doom-ring’ was said to be “the ‘moot’ place twice each year of the earliest inhabitants, and of their descendants down to the close of the 18th century, of the Seven Towns of Marshland”. Cozens-Hardy gave the added information that at midsummer the ‘commoners’ met at the earthen mound, while at Easter they gathered at St. John’s Gate a little to the north. In March 1929, the ponds were filled in with earth from the mound, and the field (in the angle between Smeeth Road and School Road) ploughed up to make ready for the building of council houses. On my first visit to the site in 1980 I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the field was still rough and open, but things have (of course) changed since then. Now mostly built over, only a small portion of the field remains, behind the primary school, although the name ‘Hickathrift’s Field’ still survives. A photo of the field as it was in 2010 can be found here.
The perplexing matter of the Crosses:
Above, it was stated that an ancient stone cross, once standing upon the ‘Giant’s Grave’ mound, had been moved to the churchyard at Terrington St. John. Miller and Skertchly (13) agree with this, as do Porter in 1969 (18) and various other commentators. However, Cozens-Hardy stated in 1934 that, when soil was being carted from the mound to fill in the ponds, “a large pedestal, 2’9” square and 1’9” high with stop-angles was unearthed. Two feet of the shaft, now pointed, survive. The cross has been moved into the hedge next to the main road….”
How could it be that a cross, which had been stated 65 years before as having been moved several miles to another village, is suddenly found in the very place it was supposed to have been taken from? To complicate matters, Terrington St. John actually has a portion of a stone cross also known as ‘Hickathrift’s Candlestick’, which stands just outside the north door of the church. But I have seen an old photograph of the Smeeth Cross taken just after it was rediscovered in 1929, and it is definitely not the same one.
The issue becomes even more complex when Cozens-Hardy says of the St. John cross that:
“some time in the middle of the 19th century when the late William Cockle, who was a churchwarden of St. John’s church, gave it to the late David Ward, who removed it to his residence in Terrington St. Clement, which subsequently became known as Hamond Lodge, and is now known as Terrington Court, where it is still. It appears to consist of the socket stone with other fragments piled upon it….”
Thus the next question becomes: how is this cross still at St. John’s when it was moved to St. Clement’s over a century ago? The 1980 owner of Terrington Court stated at the time that “there are at least two stones in the grounds of the Court that would appear to be part of a medieval cross……One source says they were moved from the churchyard at Terrington St. John, and another source says that they were brought from the marshes having been a medieval mark at one end of a marsh crossing…” (19) But as far as he knew, the fragments had no particular local name.
So what do we have so far? We have:
*A cross called ‘Hickathrift’s Candlestick’ that turns up at the Smeeth, when it should be at Terrington St. John.
*A cross of the same name at St. John that should be at Terrington St. Clement.
*Fragments of a cross at St. Clement, with no name, that may have come from either St. John or the marshes.
What a muddle! But hold on, there’s more to come!
Hillen (8) declares that the Smeeth Cross “is said to have been removed to Tilney All Saints churchyard……” where it rests outside the south porch. And, indeed, there is a ‘Hickathrift’s Candlestick’ in Tilney churchyard – in fact there are two! That near the south porch leaning precariously in its socket stone has four or five distinct indentations on the top of the shaft which legend says are the marks of giant Tom’s fingers. They are of course simply holes where a crosspiece or capital was once fitted. When I first saw it, the second cross-shaft had become detached from its base, and was propped against the wall just inside the churchyard gate. Now, in 2018, it has been set upright into a rough block, but again close to the wall. It bears upon the shaft the weathered remains of various armorial shields. Neither of these has been removed from elsewhere, as records show them to have always been at Tilney.
But back to the Smeeth Cross though: A further clue to the unravelling of the mystery turned up in the ‘Sunday Express’ of May 14th 1950, where the following is found:
“A quaint stone monument at the bottom of Mr. Harry Bodgers’ new council house did not please Mrs. Bodgers at all. So Mr. Bodgers dug it up and buried it. But he didn’t know that the stone had been a landmark in the village of Marshland Smeeth (sic), Norfolk, for 500 years. It was known as Hickathrift’s Candlestick, weighed three-quarters of a ton, and was named after a legendary giant. Now the Ministry of Works may be approached for an order to have the monument exhumed”.
As far as I know, there was no follow-up to this in the newspaper. Although I haven’t been able to pinpoint Mr. Bodgers’ house, there seems little doubt that this “quaint stone monument” was in fact the Smeeth Cross. In the ‘Eastern Daily Press’ for December 12th 1964, a Mr. Colman Green reported that the cross was still visible, and learned a new name for it from a local farm hand: ‘Hickathrift’s Collar-stud’!
I’m pleased to say that I’ve now managed to uncover virtually the whole recent history of the Smeeth Cross (although a little must be admitted as reasonable supposition).
Prior to the mid – or late 19th century the cross was clearly visible on the summit of the ‘Giant’s Grave’ mound at the Smeeth. Then, through the action of time and weather it was covered up by earth and vegetation, and people thought it had been lost or taken away. Antiquaries, discovering that there were others known by the same name at Terrington St. John and Tilney All Saints, surmised that it had been removed to one of these two places. The 18th century historian Tom Martin recorded three churchyard crosses at Terrington St. John, and as only one is now visible, it seems likely that it was one or possibly two of these that were taken to Terrington Court.
In 1929 during clearance work the Smeeth Cross was uncovered, still upon the mound. It was damaged by the workmen and pushed to one side, where Mr. Bodgers’ garden was soon to be made. He buried it in 1950, but it turns out that sometime in the ‘50s or early ‘60s a part of the base was rescued and taken to the Wisbech and Fenland Museum. There it stayed until June 6th 1979, when it was given back to the villagers of Marshland St. James and they, in belated celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, incorporated the remaining fragment into the base of the new village sign, where it stands to this day, at the crossroads known as ‘Hickathrift’s Corner’.
3) Tom and the Stone Football:
The incident where Tom kicks a football out of sight has already been mentioned. But this seems to have merged, or been confused, with another episode where he throws a hammer five or six furlongs into a river. The results of this amalgamation are almost as confusing as the problem of the various crosses!
The earliest written variant occurs in Hillen (8) in about 1891 where, although he seems unsure whether the missile is a hammer or a ball, he has altered the furlongs into miles, and says that Tom hurled it six miles from the Smeeth, to actually hit the church at Tilney All Saints. And, he says, “the credulous villagers still point out the actual spot, in the chancel-end of their church, where the hammer (or ball) struck the wall….” Only a year later in 1892, Murray, (20) speaking of the church at Walpole St. Peter, says “there are two circular holes in the north and south walls of the chancel opposite to each other, which tradition says were made by a ball kicked by (Hickathrift)….” So, already we have a divergence in the tales. In 1955 Mr. W. S. Parsons (21) adds another dimension, by reporting that Tom “announced that he would kick a stone ball and that wherever it fell he would be buried. He kicked the ball from Tilney St. Lawrence and it hit the wall of Tilney All Saints church, roughly two miles away. The impact caused a crack in the church wall which, it was said, could not be permanently repaired….”
Next with a variant is T. C. Lethbridge in his 1957 book ‘Gogmagog’ (22). He announces that Tom “threw a missile…through the wall of Walpole St. Peter’s church, where a small hole is still shown….” In 1966 Randell and Porter (23) say that Tom threw a stone three miles from a river to Tilney All Saints, and was buried where it fell. From the same source comes the claim that Tom beat the Devil in a game of football in the churchyard at Walpole St. Peter, but during the match Satan kicked the stone ball at our hero, missed, and the ball went through the church wall. A compendium of legends in 1973 (24) gets the notion that Tom actually fought the Devil at Walpole, from where Roberts (25) probably originated his claim that “Tom wrestles the Devil…and wins”.
Once again, we seem to have two parallel traditions arising from one or two similar incidents in the early Chapbooks, but this time they may be roughly ‘coeval’. The vagueness of the targets in the ball-kicking and hammer-throwing episodes is, I think, sufficient to account for the basic variations. Also, at Walpole, the two small round holes are probably where the ends of vanished tie beams of the church structure protruded through the walls. But at Walpole St. Peter there is another object, which I think served to attract the associations with Tom the giant.
The first reference to it is in Murray in 1892, (20) where he mentions “a figure of a satyr supposed to be Roman, called by the country people ‘Hickathrift’, the traditional local giant, (which) is built into the outer wall at the junction of the chancel and north aisle….” Roberts (25) is overstating things somewhat when he calls it “a monstrous, carven stone giant’s effigy (a la Cerne Abbas)….” as the little figure is only 21” high from head to toe! It is a very weathered image of crumbling sandstone on the north side of the church, and stands upon a corbel supporting a rood-stair window. Its identification with Hickathrift is somewhat suspect though, as it is of very indeterminate sex. Indeed, the architectural historian Pevsner (26) calls it “a small caryatid figure, probably Roman”. The point being that a caryatid is a female figure used as a pillar or support.
4) Hickathrift’s Grave:
If we assume that the Walpole incidents are but variations on a basic theme, we’re left with the fundamental action, common to many folk-tales, of the hero standing somewhere (probably at the Smeeth), and throwing or kicking a stone for some distance, saying that where it lands he wants to be buried. And in this case, the burial site is confirmed by almost every writer from Weever in 1631 onwards as being the churchyard at Tilney All Saints.
From about the 1950s, the inquisitive tourist has been shown a stone in the churchyard that is claimed to mark the grave of Tom Hickathrift the giant. It lies a few feet from the east end of the church, and is a simple plain slab of unadorned granite on an east-west axis, whose exact shape was hard to discern because of the dense undergrowth around and over it. Now, it has been cleared, and has been labelled as an aid to visitors. There have been various estimates of the stone’s length over the years, such as “no more than seven feet”, “nearly eight feet”, and “eight feet long”. Having accurately measured it, I can safely say that the stone was originally exactly 7’6” long, but now has a 3” split across the middle that has forced the two halves apart. This is supposed to be the very stone that Hickathrift threw from all those miles away!
However, if we go right back to 1631 and John Weever, we find: “In the churchyard is a ridg’d Altar, Tombe or Sepulchre of a wondrous antique fashion upon which an Axell-tree and a cart-wheele are insculped; Under the Funerall Monument, the Towne-dwellers say that one Hikifricke lies interred”. Likewise Dugdale in 1662 (5) refers to the gravestone “whereupon the form of a cross is so cut as that the upper part thereof by reason of the flourishes…sheweth to be somewhat circular, which they will, therefore, needs have to be the wheel and the shaft the axletree”.
How then is it that the present gravestone bears no resemblance whatsoever to this earlier carven ‘Sepulchre’? The main point is that up to about 1810 the grave was complete – that is, consisting of both a coffin and a coffin lid or cover, but after that date the two had become separated. In 1803, Blomefield (4) describes “the stone coffin” and the sculptured lid together. By the time of Sir Francis Palgrave’s investigation around 1814 (29) things had changed. He ascertained “the present state of Tom’s sepulchre. It is a stone soros (coffin), of the usual shape and dimensions; the sculptured lid or cover no longer exists”. Exactly where it had gone at that time I don’t know, but it certainly existed then and still does. In 1883 along came William White (30) who noted: “In the churchyard is part of a stone coffin, said to have contained the remains of Hickathrift….”
Note the words “part of a stone coffin” – because Hillen in 1891 also uses them: “Until recently a part of a stone coffin, said to contain the remains of the Fenland hero, might have been seen to the north of the church. It measures 7’4” outside, and 6’10” inside; whilst the breadth at the head was 2 ½ feet, and at the feet 1’3”……” But he also mentions the lid having been “deposited at the west end of the north nave-aisle”, actually within the church itself. The following year Murray (20) (possibly just taking his cue from Hillen) also says that “here until recently was a grave slab with a cross and circle round it….” The slab is now in the church, at the west end of the north nave aisle.
From then until Parsons in 1955 (21) only the coffin lid, inside the church, is ever mentioned, but Parsons is the first to commit to print the existence of the current gravestone. It will be noticed in the accompanying drawings that not only do none of the items conform to the eight-foot stature of the chapbook giant, but also that none is exactly the same size as the others.
What seems to have happened is that from the early days of the 17th century, there was a large stone coffin with a curiously ornamented lid that was associated with the burial of the legendary giant Tom Hickathrift. Some time afterward the coffin and lid became separated, and the coffin vanished from sight (buried, broken up, who knows?) But there must have been a second (perhaps lid-less) coffin, even larger, that came to be thought of as the giant’s. I say must have been, because the coffin as described by Hillen (7’4” long outside) is far too large for the 6’5” lid to have fitted it. I have it on expert advice (31) that the lid should have: “fitted it (the coffin) exactly. Usually most coffins and their lids were carved at the same quarry and transported as a single order. I would expect an entirely different lid to cover (this) coffin…”
Around the 1880s this larger coffin was breaking up, and ten years later it had vanished completely, the carved lid having been taken inside the church for safekeeping. Thus, sometime in the first half of the 20th century, a massive slab of granite was found or made, and placed over the remains of whoever it was that was thought to be the giant. Indeed, because it matches to within two inches the length of the coffin, it may have been specifically tailored to suit the conditions of the legend. But whichever the case may be, the gravestone that people are now shown as being Hickathrift’s is no more than a relatively modern replacement, perhaps no more than 80 or 90 years old.
Now, what about those odd carvings on the coffin lid? They are done in relief, and much weathered, but all the designs can still be seen quite clearly – which is more than can be said for the days of Weever et al, since they consistently mention only one “round cross upon a staff”. This is what Blomefield had to say on the subject in 1808:
“the cross, said to be a representation of the cart-wheel, is a cross-pattée on the summit of a staff, which staff is styled an axle-tree; such crosses-pattée on the head of a staff, were emblems, or tokens, that some Knight Templar was therein interred, and many such are to be seen at this day in old churches”.
One or two antiquaries agreed with this observation, with Gomme (32) even going so far as to speak of “one Hickafric, supposed to be a Knight Templar”! However, according to (31) “there is no evidence that the crosses pattée denote a Templar grave”. The central design, the four curving arms, “it has been suggested were intended to represent the scarves or infulae attached to processional crosses. From the shape of this device the cumbrous name of ‘Omega-slabs’ has been given to them, and their area of distribution…suggests that they were products from the Midland quarries” (33). This Omega pattern is, apparently, quite common in eastern England. If we assume that neither the large coffin, the lid, nor the granite slab actually held or covered the remains of a legendary giant, then just whom did they hold or cover?
The Origins of Tom Hickathrift:
As far as the coffin and the slab go, we can surely never know whom they covered – but what about the elaborate lid? ‘Kelly’s Directory’ of 1925 says the tomb is of “the Saxon giant Hycathrift, who accompanied Richard Coeur de Lion on the crusades”. This is almost as bad as claiming that Tom was a Knight Templar, but it at least gives us a clue. Then Hillen gives us a reasonable name to go with the coffin lid: “Probably the tomb is that of Sir Frederick de Tylney, who was renowned for his great strength and stature. He was knighted by Richard 1, whilst fighting in the Holy Land. Though killed at Acre, the knight’s body was brought home for interment”. If we put Kelly’s and Hillen’s remarks together, we get the result that Hickathrift = Sir Frederick de Tylney – but it isn’t as simple as that! In about 1814 Sir Francis Palgrave (29) writes:
“Mr. Thomas Hickathrift, afterwards Sir Thomas Hickathrift, knight, is praised by Mr. Thomas Hearne as a ‘famous champion’. The honest antiquary has identified this well-known knight with the far less celebrated Sir Frederick de Tylney, Baron of Tylney in Norfolk, the ancestor of the Tylney family, who was killed at Acon (Acre) in Syria, in the reign of Richard Coeur de Lion. Hycophric or Hycothrift, as the mister-wight observes, being probably a corruption of Frederick. This happy exertion of etymological acumen is not wholly due to Hearne, who only adopted a hint given by Mr. Peter Le Neve, whileome of the College of Arms”.
To this Gomme in 1884 added the comment: “There does not seem to be the slightest evidence for Hearne’s identification any more than there is for his philological conclusions…” Thomas Hearne lived from 1678 to 1735, while Peter Le Neve, a prolific and thorough antiquary, was born in 1661, and died in 1729. I’ve as yet been unable to track down the precise sources where either mentions Hickathrift.
Although the etymological transformation of ‘Frederick’ into ‘Hickathrift’ (or a variant) is indeed suspect, perhaps it should be noted that there is some superficial resemblance: “Frederick – Old German Frithuric, a compound of frithu ‘peace’ and ric ‘ruler’…occasionally found in the 12th century, but on the whole uncommon until the 17th century.” (34) According to Camden, Frederick is a very early name, “which hath been now a long time a Christian name in the ancient family of Tilney, and lucky to their house as they report” (35). But exactly who was this Sir Frederick, and what influence has he had upon the growth of the Hickathrift legend?
Blomefield mentions an ancient book which had once belonged to Sir Frederick de Tilney, and which in 1727 was in the hands of the afore-mentioned Peter Le Neve. Blomefield took his extract from Weever, and this was as far as I could go for quite some time. Now I’ve found that Weever probably obtained his information from Hakluyt’s 16th century ‘English Voyages’, where he says:
“This booke pertained in times past unto Sir Frederick Tilney, of Boston, in the Countie of Lincolne, who was knighted at Acon (Acre) in the land of Jurie, in the third yeere of the reigne of King Richard the first, AD 1192. This knight was of a tall stature, and strong of body, who resteth interred with his forefather at Tirrington (sic), neere unto a towne in Marshland called by his own name Tilney. The just height of this knight is there kept in safe custody until this very day”. (36)
Confusion sets in once more when we note that Hillen, Palgrave and Mee (37) say that Sir Frederick was slain at the siege of Acre (which actually ended in July 1191) and his body brought home, while Hakluyt (or rather the lost ‘Tilney book’), Cox, Thompson (38) and Rye also casually add that he was buried at Terrington St. John in 1189; that is, two years before he died! But whenever and however he died, if he was buried at Terrington, then the Tilney coffin lid cannot be his. In fact, Dr. Butler of Leeds University (31) says that this lid is a mid-12th century stone, and unlikely to be as late as the 1190s.
“The family of Tilney”, says Thompson (38) “is of Norman origin, but derives its name from the Town of Tilney, in the county of Norfolk, and was one of the most ancient of knights’ degree in England”. The first of the family was one Frodo who came to this country just before the Conquest, and held many lordships in this area. His brother Baldwin later came to be the third Abbot of Bury St. Edmunds, while his great-grandson was the Sir Frederick involved here. He was, says Thompson, “a man of more than ordinary strength and stature, and had his chief residence at Boston. He attended King Richard 1, anno 1190, into the Holy Land, was with him at the siege of Acon, where he is said to have performed prodigies of valour, and was there knighted for his services…”
Although no written confirmation exists of his burial at either Terrington or Tilney, I find it more than a strange coincidence that the same small area of the Norfolk Marshland should hold both the traditions of a powerful, heroic giant, and the record of an actual, historically large man famed for his stature, his strength, and his “prodigies of valour”. However, even the most incredible legend often has a germ of truth at its root, and in my opinion Sir Frederick de Tilney is the likeliest basis upon which the character and myth of Tom Hickathrift have grown. This idea has however long been ignored in favour of other explanations. John Weever drew a parallel between Tom’s defeat of the Landlord’s forces, and the exploits of a 10th century Scot named Hay, forbear of the Earls of Errol. Apparently, in the year 942, Hay and his two sons came upon a battle between the Scots and the Danes, and to spur on his fainthearted countrymen, took up an ox-yoke or a plough-beam and waded into the fray, driving off the Danes in dismay, to the greater glory of King Kenneth 1 of Scotland. How historically true this tale maybe I don’t know, but the parallel with Hickathrift is obvious.
Miller and Skertchly in 1878 voiced “the opinion of some of the people of Marshland that the story is allegorical, that the giant whom Hickathrift subdued represents the sea, the wheel and axle, the weapons for banking it out, and that the name of Hickathrift is derived from ‘Hitch’ and ‘Thrive’; the hero then was some early encloser of the Fens who became powerful by continually moving his banks further out…” While the last part of that sentence bears thinking about, the etymology is rather dubious – but I’ll come back to that. Perhaps the favourite theory has been that Tom the giant is simply another form of the ancient sun god. Dutt, (40) who thought little of the idea, tells us that:
“……there are ‘authorities’, made mad by too much learning, who would have us believe that Hickafric driving along in his cart is nothing more or less than a form of the sun-god; that the wheels and the axle are the symbols of the sun and its rays; and that the great fight between Hickafric and the invaders of the Smeeth is symbolic of the sun drying-up the waters of a great flood”.
Of this ilk was T. C. Lethbridge (22) who speculated that Tom was a Celtic god of the Iceni people, from his resemblance to Taranis ‘the thunderer’ whose symbol was the sacred wheel, and who was equated with both Mars and Jupiter. His original name being forgotten, the Saxons then called him ‘Hiccafrith’ – a name of Lethbridge’s own invention – which he says (with what justification I do not know) means “the trust of the Hiccas, or Iceni”. Lethbridge also comes up with the notion (which appears nowhere in the tales) that Tom was “humanised in the Middle Ages into a man who fought a Dane…” Gomme (11) compares Tom’s exploits with those of the Scandinavian hero Grettir the Strong, but derives parallels that are only superficial at best. As there’s little meat in these theories, let’s turn back to the question of Tom’s name. For a start, “Thomas is found in England before the Norman Conquest only as a priest’s name”, (34) so he and his father cannot have been born, as the Chapbooks say, “in the reign before William the Conqueror”. But his surname is a very different matter – it is certainly unusual!
So far I’ve come across 17 different versions of Hickathrift, including Hikifrick, Hikifrike, Hic-ka-thrift, Hycophric, Hicifric, Icklethrift and Hycathrift. One would expect, in common or dialectal usage, a transposition of those final consonants. Thus, Hickathrift should become Hickafrith – but apart from Lethbridge’s invented ‘Hiccafrith’ – this has not occurred. The printed version – which even as far back as the Pepysian Chapbook was Hickathrift – must have exerted wide influence.
A suggested derivation from ‘hitch’ and ‘thrive’ is untenable, but I can offer little in place of it. If we take the syllables separately, we have first to deal with the stem ‘hick-‘ or ‘ick-‘, which is a constant. If it does indeed originate with the tribal name ‘Iceni’, it would be a rare survival indeed. Perhaps ‘hick’, a by-form of ‘Richard’, meaning a farmer or countryman. Or maybe ‘hycgan’, Old English for ‘think’, or perhaps OE ‘ic’ meaning ‘I’. Then again, ‘Hicel’, ‘Icel’, ‘Yecel’ and ‘Ica’ are all well-attested Anglo-Saxon personal names. As for the second syllable ‘-thrift’ or ‘-frick’, how about OE ‘þryccan’: ‘oppress’, or OE ‘fraec’: ‘bold, gluttonous’, or ‘frecne’: ‘terrible’, or even perhaps OE ‘þraec’ from Old Norse ‘þrekr’: ‘force, courage’. The possibilities are well nigh endless, but the justification for any of them, in any combination, is tenuous. It is, I think, best to simply accept the name Hickathrift as curious (with perhaps a connection to ‘Frithuric/Frederick’), and leave it at that.
Before giving any conclusions, I have to mention one more site linked with Tom that, as with the tale of him kicking a ball from Beccles to Bungay, is decidedly way beyond the area that is normally his. I refer to the plasterwork figures to be seen on one of the many pargetted facades of the former ‘Sun Inn’ in Church Street at Saffron Walden in Essex. The two figures, supposedly of Tom and the Wisbech giant in conflict, are modelled in bold relief in the plaster, part side view, part full-face. Between them is a large raised ring, presumed to be the sun in the title of the former inn. Despite what tourists are always told, I have grave doubts that this scene is anything whatever to do with the Hickathrift legend. I can find no reference before the 1930s for the identification – indeed one source actually calls the figures ‘Gog and Magog’. Also, the figures as modelled do not match the tale of the chapbooks. For one thing, both effigies are portrayed as the same height, whereas the Wisbech ogre was supposed to be about four feet taller than Tom. Also, although his opponent wields the traditional heavy club, ‘Hickathrift’ is provided with a sword and an ordinary, rather small, shield, rather than the wheel and axle of the main legend. The building itself dates from about the 16th century, but the pargetting is known to be at least a century later. The style of clothing given seems to fit anywhere between the 10th and 17th centuries. Just what or whom the scene might portray is anyone’s guess, but I suspect that the identification with the tales of Hickathrift is a relatively modern occurrence.
Birth of a Legend:
To sum it all up then, this is what I think to be the convoluted origin of the legend of Tom Hickathrift:
First of all, we have Sir Frederick de Tilney, a giant of a man with great strength, a knight who performs “prodigies of valour” for his king, and most important of all, a strong local identity. Although his main home is at Boston in Lincolnshire, perhaps he is responsible for the embanking of various Fens in the Marshland, and perhaps he even champions the villagers in a dispute with their local landlord over common-rights. When he dies, maybe in battle, he is buried very close to home, and the memory of his stature and valour does not fade. After a time, the ‘wicked landlord’ is altered in popular imagination into an evil ogre who menaces the Marshland, and Sir Frederick becomes Hickathrift, to do battle with him. Other exploits are added from time to time and make their way into the popular Chapbooks, some probably borrowed from other champions, and some from the stock of legend current among the Scandinavian peoples, who have a strong inheritance in this area. As Professor Tolkien might have put it (41) Tom, Hay, Grettir, Sir Frederick and all the adventures adhering to them, are put into the Pot and stirred well into the mythological Soup.
There is an ancient mound or burial barrow of unknown origin nearby, and like many such sites, the folk think it hollow, and name it the ‘giant’s grave’. Whose grave is it though? Well it can’t be Tom’s because he’s buried at Tilney – or was it Terrington? So it must be the grave of the evil ogre that Tom killed, and if so, that must be where his cave stood and Tom later built his house. And of course, there’s an ancient cross on top, that looks something like a candlestick – or when the shaft has gone, like an old-fashioned collar stud! And there are others too, at Tilney and Terrington, so they must be Tom’s as well. One has even got his finger marks on the top!
At Walpole the little figure on the church wall is noticed – and who else can it be but our hero Tom? A monument to something he did there, maybe? Well, we know he was very fond of challenging all-comers to a game of football, and whoever he played against played dirty, kicking the ball at Tom like that, but missing and shooting it straight through the church wall. Knowing Tom, it was probably Old Nick himself!
By now, Sir Frederick and his place of burial are completely forgotten, but at Tilney, the huge coffin and the carved lid are noticed – and just look at those carvings! Well, they just have to be a pair of wheels and the axle between them, just as the stories say. And that has to be old Tom’s grave, just look at the size of it! And of course, there’s the hole or patch in the wall just above it – so this is where that football went to when he kicked it out of sight! From such apparently unrelated objects and incidents, I believe, the myth of Tom Hickathrift the giant has grown. While other traditional themes may have crept in over the centuries to enlarge the tale, to me, Sir Frederick de Tilney is the likeliest progenitor for Hickathrift’s character – a strong man for a strong legend.
Weever, John: ‘Ancient Funerall Monuments’ (1631), pp.818, 866-7.
2. Spelman, Sir Henry: ‘Icenia, sive Norfolciae Descripto Topographica’ (c.1640), quoted in Gibson, Bishop (ed.): ‘Reliquiae Spelmannianae’ (1698), p.138.
3. Cox, Rev. Thomas: ‘Magna Brittania – Norfolk’ (Nutt, 1720), p.297.
4. Blomefield, Francis: ‘History of Norfolk’ (Miller, 1808), Vol.9, pp.79-80.
5. Dugdale, Sir William: ‘History of Imbanking Divers Fens & Marshes’ (1662), pp.244-5.
6. Anon: ‘The History of Thomas Hickathrift’ (c.1660-90), in the Pepysian Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.
7. Anon: ‘A Pleasant & Delightful History of Thomas Hickathrift’ (Angus & Son, c.1750).
8. Hillen, H. J.: The Hillen Mss. (unpublished, c.1891), in ‘The Legendary Folklore of Norfolk’, Bradfer-Lawrence X1d, Norfolk Record Office.
9. Pendle, A.: letter in the ‘East Anglian Magazine’ (July 1965), Vol.24, p.322.
10. Marlowe, Christopher: ‘Legends of the Fenland People’ (Palmer, 1926), pp.x-xi, 49-56.
11. Gomme, G. L. (ed.): ‘The History of Thomas Hickathrift’, Chap-books & Folk-lore Tracts, 1st Series 1884); also the Villon Society (1885).
12. Jonathon Peckover: ‘Fen Tumuli’ in ‘The Journal of the British Archaeological Association’, Vol. 35 (1879), p.11. (Many thanks to Dr. Maureen James for this reference).
13. Miller, S. H. & Skertchly, S. B. J.: ‘The Fenland Past & Present’ (Longmans, Green & Co, 1878), pp.488-9.
14. Dutt, W. A.: ‘The Norfolk & Suffolk Coast’ (Unwin, 1909), p.398.
15. Wortley, Elizabeth.: letter in the ‘East Anglian Magazine’ (Sept. 1955), Vol.14, p.656.
16. Cozens-Hardy, Basil: ‘Norfolk Crosses’, in ‘Norfolk Archaeology’ (1934), Vol.25, pp.324-6.
17. Kelly (ed.): ‘Directory of Norfolk’ (Kelly’s directories Ltd, 1925), p.519
18. Porter, Enid: ‘Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore’ (R. & K. Paul, 1969), pp.188-9.
19. Ian Clayton Caldwell of Terrington Court to me (Oct. 8th 1980).
20. Murray (ed.): ‘Handbook of the Eastern Counties’ (John Murray, 1892), pp.322-3.
21. Parsons, W. S.: letter in the ‘East Anglian Magazine’ (1955), Vol. 14, p.475.
22. Lethbridge, T. C.: ‘Gogmagog: the Buried Gods’ (R. & K. Paul, 1957), pp.15, 168-9.
23. Randell, A. (Enid Porter, ed.): ‘Sixty Years a Fenman’ (R. & K. Paul, 1966), pp.79-81.
24. Various: ‘Folklore, Myths & Legends of Britain’ (Readers’ Digest Assoc., 1973), pp.252-3.
25. Roberts, Anthony: ‘Sowers of Thunder’ (Rider & Co., 1978), pp.72-3.
26. Pevsner, N.: ‘Buildings of England: North-West Norfolk’ (Penguin, 1962), p.438.
27. Porter, Enid: ‘Folklore of East Anglia’ (Batsford, 1974), pp.96-7.
28. Bord, Janet & Colin: ‘The Secret Country’ (Paladin, 1978), pp.87-9.
29. Palgrave, Sir Francis, in the ‘Quarterly Review’ (c.1814), Vol.21, pp.102-3.
30. White, William: ‘History, Gazetteer & Directory of Norfolk’ (Simpkin, Marshall & Co, 1883), p.743.
31. L. A. S. Butler of Leeds University to me (Sept. 29th 1980).
32. Gomme, G. L. (ed.): ‘Topographical History of Norfolk…’ (Stock, 1896), p.15.
33. Burgess, Frederick: ‘English Churchyard Memorials’ (Lutterworth Press, 1963), p.105.
34. Withycombe, E. G.: ‘Oxford Dictionary of English Christian names’ (O. U. Press, 1971), pp.116, 266.
35. Camden, William: ‘Remains Concerning Britain’ (1605), 1870 edition pub. By John Russell Smith, p.769.
36. Hakluyt, Richard: ‘The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics & Discoveries of the English Nation’ (1589 & 1599), Vol.2.
37. Mee, Arthur: ‘The King’s England: Norfolk’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1940), p.407.
38. Thompson, Pishey: ‘History & Antiquities of Boston’ (Longman & Co., 1856), pp.373-5.
39. Rye, Walter: ‘Norfolk Families’ (2nd edition 1913), pp.910-14.
40. Dutt, W. A.: ‘Highways & Byways in East Anglia’ (Macmillan, 1923), pp.284-5.
41. Tolkien, J. R. R.: ‘On Fairy-stories’, in ‘Tree & Leaf’ (Allen & Unwin, 1964), p.30.
M W Burgess has also expressed his: “grateful thanks for the assistance and information received from the following”:
Mr. W. J. Chambers of Saffron Walden.
Rev. C. N. Bales of Marshland St. James.
Rev. A. J. Clements of Tilney All Saints.
Mr. L. V. Grinsell of Bristol.
Mr. & Mrs. Ian Clayton Caldwell of Terrington Court.
Ms. Rosalinda M. C. Hardiman, former Curator of the Wisbech & Fenland Museum.
The Folklore Society.
Miss I. B. McClure of the British Archaeological Association.
Norwich Local Studies Library & the Norfolk Record Office.
Mr. E. Dowman, Assistant to the York Herald of the College of Arms.
Mr. A. J. Camp, Director of the Society of Genealogists.
Mr. F. H. Thompson, General Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Lincoln Central Library, & Lincoln Castle Archives.
Mr. J. Graham-Campbell, Secretary of the Society for Medieval Archaeology.
Dr. L. A. S. Butler, Head of the Dept. of Archaeology at the University of Leeds.
Dr. Maureen James, folklorist, historian and storyteller.
Source Website: https://www.hiddenea.com/quest1.htm
The text (excluding minor tweaks for editorial reasons) by kind permission Mike Burgess. Photographs (except those attributed elsewhere) are also by kind permision of Mike Burgess.
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