By Mike Burgess.
In 1981, Hidden East Anglia’s ‘Lantern’ magazine carried M.W. Burgess’s article ‘Hoax of the Broads’ which was 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:
- The Mound:
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.
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.