Foxgloves are the epitome of not only the cottage garden but also our coastal walks, woodland edges and many more spots in between. It is almost August as I write and the time for this year’s foxgloves is edging towards the moment when the last seeds have been shed and the plants wilt. June is the month when these elegant plants are at their best wherever you are in Norfolk or indeed, anywhere else in most parts of the UK. Beautiful to the eye, but poisonous to the unwary – yet life-saving when used for good. Foxgloves have a long-held and fascinating place in our natural history.
Origins: There have been many suggestions for the derivation of the name “foxglove” for Folklorists have long been divided on where the common name for Digitalis Purpurea comes from. It is, in fact, an ancient name that goes back to at least the time of Edward III (1327-1377). Probably, the prefix ‘fox‘ derived from the “folks”, who to our 14th century ancestors were the fairies; to explicitly speak of them as such was believed to get their attention and cause them to be mischievous! To others, the plant is known as “fox fingers,” its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. There again, the word “glove” may have come from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, or ‘gliew’, being a ring of bells or the name for a musical instrument consisting of many small bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; their sound being a spell of protection against hunters and hounds. Putting the two words together gives us “Fairy Bells”.
Whilst the name ‘Foxglove’ is the English common name we all recognise and love the plant by, there have been, and are, a whole host of alternative common names used throughout the UK which reflect the association with fairies; names such as: Fairy Caps, Fairy Gloves, Fairy Thimbles, Fairy Herb, Fairy Bells, Fairy-fingers, Goblin Gloves, Fairy Petticoats, Fairy Weed. Another name, ‘Dead Man’s Bells’ serves to warn of the plant’s poisonous disposition. On the other hand, the names Flopdock, Floppydock, Flop-a-Dock, Flapdock, Popdock, Flop-poppy, Flop-top, Cowflop, Gooseflops, Rabbit’s Flowers or Bunny Rabbits all allude to the foxglove’s large soft downy leaves, on a plant that thrives in acidic soils in a wide range of habitats. In the first-year of the Foxglove’s cycle, large downy basal leaves are produced, followed in the second year by impressive flowery spikes that extend to any height between about 3 to 6 feet tall. The plants die once they have seeded, but if the flowers are picked before they go to seed, the basal leaves will last another year and they will attempt to seed again. Foxglove flowers open first at the base of the stem and then graduates upwards followed by the appearance and development of the seed-heads below. Three basic colours self-seed – white, pink and purple. Colours generally come true to the parent plant where plants are isolated, but they cross-pollinate freely and many large groups of foxgloves include all three shades.
Medicinal Uses: Foxglove is the source of digitalis, a plant that is beautiful on the outside but toxic at its heart with all parts of the plant poisonous. It derives from several cardiac glycosides produced by the plant, and widely used as a heart medication. Basically, and without being too technical, it regulates the heartbeat. However, The biochemistry website “Molecule of the Month” puts it this way:
“Digitalis is an example of a cardio-active or cardiotonic drug, in other words a steroid which has the ability to exert a specific and powerful action on the cardiac muscle in animals, and has been used in the treatment of heart conditions ever since its discovery in 1775.”
The use of Digitalis purpurea extract containing cardiac glycosides for the treatment of heart conditions was first described in English language medical literature by William Withering, in 1785. It is said that this ‘proper’ English doctor only made this discovery after he was forced to prowl the forgotten byways of Shropshire and bargain with a gypsy sorceress to find out which compound had healed a patient with a fatal heart problem.
It has also been said that with careful usage and expert pharmaceutical guidance, doctors have successfully used digitalis and saved thousands of lives, but it is at the same time a dangerously toxic plant which, if used wrongly, can cause heart palpitations, delirium, hallucinations, vomiting and possibly death. This powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times and botanist and writer, Bobby J. Ward, has written of early foxglove use in his excellent book ‘A Contemplation Upon Flowers’:
“An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to the meddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful
maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.
“After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon’s wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejewelled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians.”
Traditional Folk Medicine: According the Theresa Green: Modern-day herbalists have largely abandoned the use of digitalis because of its narrow therapeutic index and the difficulty of determining the amount of active drug in herbal preparations. Once the usefulness of digitalis in regulating the human pulse was understood, it was employed for a variety of purposes, including the treatment of epilepsy and other seizure disorders, which are now considered to be inappropriate treatments.
The Doctrine of Signatures, dating from the time of Dioscorides and Galen, states that herbs resembling various parts of the body can be used by herbalists to treat ailments of those body parts. Foxglove flowers, for instance, were supposed to look like an animal’s open mouth; within the doctrine of signatures this meant it must have some medicinal value in treatment of injuries of the mouth and throat. The speckles in the mouth of the flower were, according to the Doctrine symbolic of inflammation of the throat. Another array of folk-names reflects foxglove’s association with the mouth: Throatwort, Rabbit’s Mouth, Bunny Mouths, Tiger’s Mouth, Duck’s Mouth, Gap-Mouth, & Dragon’s Mouth. Another, less charming name of Scabbit Dock came about as in Culpepper’s day Foxglove was used in an ointment or shampoo for treating impetigo or “scabby head”.
Mythology and legends: One story has it that fairies would hide themselves inside the flowers. Mischievous children, wanting to hear fairy thunder, would hold one of the flower bell then strike the other end on their hand. The poor fairy, rightly upset and probably rather cross, would make a snapping sound, a clap of fairy thunder, while she escaped from her retreat.
Another legend, believed to be Welsh – but certainly from the West Country, explains why foxgloves bend and sway so gracefully, even when there is no wind. We are told that this has nothing to do with the elements but that, as the flower is sacred to the fairies, it has the power of recognising them, and indeed all spiritual beings, and that it bows in deference to them as they pass by. Should you therefore find yourself amongst swaying Foxgloves, it is quite possible that you have Fairies for company – and this is not the end of the possibilities! In the opinion of Terri Windling: fairies can also be attracted into your domestic garden – by planting foxgloves there. Terri also believes that dew collected from the foxglove blossom can used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic.
They say that in the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies’ cradles for protection from Foxglove bewitchment, while in Shropshire they were put in children’s shoes for the same reason; not forgetting that the leaves were considered as a cure for Scarlet Fever. There again, picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and pixies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance! In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars.
The plant has been particularly associated with midwifery and women’s magic ever since. This association with midwifery probably also gave rise to the names Granny’s Gloves or Granny’s Bonnets, and Witch’s or Witches’ Gloves. So called Witches and Grannies, or at least Midwives and other herbal practitioners, had many uses for the foxglove plant. Association does not stop there; there is a connection with “white witches” (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter pictured with enchanted foxglove bells around their necks. In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary, and. in the earliest recordings of the ‘Language of Flowers’, foxgloves symbolised riddles, conundrums, and secrets. However, we are told that by the time the Victorian era came along, they had been devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.
Foxgloves in English Literature: Theresa Green states that at least two great poets, Wordsworth and Tennyson, were moved to immortalise the foxglove in words; the former clearly aware of the deadly qualities of the plant. In ‘The Borderers’, a tragedy, a woman describes a dream she had:
“My poor Babe
Was crying, as I thought, crying for bread
When I had none to give him; whereupon,
I put a slip of foxglove in his hand,
Which pleased him so, that he was hushed at once:
When, into one of those same spotted bells
A bee came darting, which the Child with joy
Imprisoned there, & held it to his ear,
And suddenly grew black, as he would die.”
Also by William Wordsworth (from ‘The Prelude’)
Through quaint obliquities I might pursue
These cravings; when the foxglove, one by one
Upwards through every stage of the tall stem
Had shed beside the public way its bells…..
Tennyson named the flower in the poem ‘In Memoriam’ –
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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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It is a fact that many folk in the distant past could neith read nor write; couple this with the fact that folklore stories have long drifted in and out of print, meaning that each generation relied on the tongue for telling tales which it was hoped would be remembered and passed on, from generation to generation. As part of this process, and to maintain the interest of liseners, these stories were often elaborated and embellished; an essential part of the spoken tradition which wanted to perpetuate whatever lay behind each tale. The following story is just one example where the detail has been given just that treatment over time, appearing in print in as many and varied versions as would the same tale told verbally – so maybe past chronicle authors and story-telling bards have a lot to answer for! But we have to go with what we have, so the question is ‘How much of a story is fact and how much is fiction’, remembering that all legends have a degree of truth in them; but one thing is certain – we will never know. The only thing the reader can do is to pick through content and decide where a degree of licence may have been applied and where facts possibly rest.
This story is about the beginnings of Erpingham Gate, a great Norwich gateway which takes the visitor from Tombland into the Cathedral Close and directly towards the main entrance to Norwich Cathedral. More importantly, it is about the person who, it was said, paid for its construction, Sir Thomas Erpingham – and about whom a legend, myth – whatever you might call it – found root around the time of 1422 when Gate was built. But first, some facts:
Sir Thomas Erpingham was born in 1357 in the Norfolk village of Erpingham, some 17 miles north of Norwich. His family had been in the village since the Norman Conquest and were part of the local gentry who came to be the holders of the manor in the early thirteenth century, taking the place name of Erpingham as their surname. After the death of his father, Sir Thomas went into the service of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and fought alongside Gaunt’s son (Henry Bolingbroke) across Europe and the Middle East. Bolingbroke later became King Henry IV and Sir Thomas was made his chamberlain. In 1400 Sir Thomas became a Knight of the Garter and received many estates in Norfolk and Suffolk. He used his position at court to promote the interests of Norwich and in 1404, the king gave Norwich its new charter, making it the County and City of Norwich. Sir Thomas was a generous patron and one of his legacies can still be seen most clearly in his entrance gate to Norwich Cathedral.
Sir Thomas went on to have an impressive military and political career beyond the confines of Norfolk. He was a staunch supporter of the Lancastrian dynasty and part of Henry V’s inner circle, he was instrumental in the king’s political and military successes. In 1415, Sir Thomas went with Henry V to Agincourt where he is thought to have been in charge of the archers, riding out in front of the English lines giving the order to strike the French. Sir Thomas became a hero to many and was immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V, where one Act takes us through the English and French camps on the eve of the battle, portrayed as a steadfast and loyal ‘old hero’. However, whilst he was considered ‘good’ in Shakespeare’s play, there was a piece of folklore that grew amongst the populace following the completion of the Gate. Its theme depicted the process of Sir Thomas paying for the building of the Erpingham Gate as an act of personal penance – for a seedy episode during his life!
When it comes to legends, you would think that their themes would rely more on history books and the information, if not facts therein. In the case of Erpingham, this legend, of which we speak, would have made reference to the fact that Sir Thomas was against Henry le Dispencer, Bishop of Norwich. For instance, in efforts to turn the City of Norwich against the Bishop, Sir Thomas managed to persuade the City’s authorities to endorse a list of accusations against the Despenser, who sympathised with the deposed Richard II and became implicated in a rebellion against Henry IV. As it was, the house of Despenser had a long-standing enmity with the House of Lancaster – and ultimately Sir Thomas. When the King Richard II was disposed of, Bishop Henry le Despenser was disgraced. Add to this the fact that it was Sir Thomas Erpingham who, when in exile with Henry Bolingbroke, helped the future Henry V to secure the throne, whilst capturing Richard and offering ‘advice’ that because Richard was a possible threat, he should be removed! With the Bishop of Norwich disgraced, Erpingham became even more influential in Norfolk.
The result of these acts was that a serious breach of trust opened up between Erpingham and Bishop le Despenser, the repercussions of which may have been felt by both Sir Thomas and the Church beyond the year of 1406 when Despenser died. We do not know! However, if this legend ever found root beyond Dispenser and the next two Bishops of Norwich – Alexander Tottington (1407 to 1413) and Richard Courteney (1413 to 1415) – then it must have been with John Wakering (or Wakeryng) who was Bishop of Norwich from 1415 and until 1425. It was during this period in office when the Erpingham Gate was built. So, was any sort of reconciliation between the Church and Sir Thomas settled during Wakering’s period in charge?
Whenever it was, if the wound was ever to be healed then Sir Thomas needed to make some sort of financial gesture to the Church – because that was what they liked! As things turned out, it was said that he came up with a two-pronged solution that, with God’s help, would satisfy both the Church and his belief that heaven awaited those who donated generously to the church; he also must have hoped that his earthly bones would eventually be laid to rest in the Cathedral when his time came. They say that this was the basis on which Sir Thomas Erpingham built his Gate. When Sir Thomas did die in 1428, his bones were indeed buried in the north side of the Chancel (or presbytery) of the Cathedral, along with his two wives.
That was one version of the legend; but it would seem that the populace much preferred another version of the legend that tells quite a different story – and with much less historical content. This one goes along the lines having a Friar in the opening scene – we’ll call him Brother John for the purpose of this version – who clearly lusts after Sir Thomas Erpingham’s wife, Joan. We do not know which Joan the tale refers to; both of Thomas’s wifes carried the same name for he married a Joan, daughter of Sir William Clopton of Clopton, Suffolk, then married a second Joan, daughter of Sir Richard Walton sometime around 1411. No matter, for this legend tells us that during Mass, Brother John slipped a note into Joan’s hand. Curiousity alone dictated that she would read it at the first opportunty, her subsequent blushes apparently telling Sir Thomas all he needed to know of the note’s content. But, being a faithful wife, she still insisted that her husband read it word for word, knowing that he would take matters into his own hands and take steps to remove the problem that lurked beneath a religious habit! Sir Thomas did just that – and so cunningly; first by noting the time and place suggested by Brother John for his meeting with Joan, both perfect for his plans. The meeting would take place at dusk when disguise was so much easier, and the place would be a quiet spot by the River Wensum – a short but convenient walk away from the Cathedral, Whitefriars Priory and the busy part of the City. We of course, do not know if this friar came from the Blackfriar fraternity, or that of the Whitefriars stood next to the Cathedral in Pockthorpe with the River Wensum in between. Sir Thomas then decided to dress in one of his wife’s more favoured dresses before leaving with his faithful servant to the ‘trysting’ rendezvous which some believed was downstream from the rear of Whiefriars and just short of Cow Tower – again, we cannot be certain.
Once there, Sir Thomas, now further disguised with a silk scarf tied over his head, stood beneath a tree at the water’s edge and gazed across the water to the bank opposite; waiting, but at the same time listening intently for sounds of any movement behind him. In the meantime, his servant concealed both himself and Thomas’s horse under cover a short distance away. It was not long before (alias) ‘Lady Erpingham’ heard advancing footsteps behind him and then felt stumpy fingers begin to move over his hip. “Thank you for coming – my love”. Brother John got no further with his obvious intentions for, almost in a single movement, Sir Thomas reached for a metal object hidden beneath the waist of the dress, swung round and struck Brother John firmly on the side of his bald head. The Friar fell first on his knees and then face downwards towards the river-edge reeds. He was dead.
The recipient of the legend is led to believe that it was never Sir Thomas’s intention to kill his victim, but only to give him a heavy lesson which he would never forget – such was his anger……..“How do we get rid of this lecher” he eventually asked his servant, who had come to his master’s assistance immediately he saw the Friar hit the ground. His reply was quick and straight forward. “He has no blood showing, just a dent my Lord. The best we can do is to return him to the Priory grounds”. With the help of Thomas’s horse they took the body the short distance to the Priory’s boundary wall. There, the two men lifted it over the wall and propped Brother John up in a sitting position – as if the Friar was asleep.
The corpse had not been there long, after Sir Thomas, servant and horse had quietly departed, when another Friar, in this instance a Brother Richard who was a very pious man, noticed Brother John – apparantly asleep when he should have been at prayers! Seeing this known womaniser lazely avoiding his religious duties caused Richard to pick up a stone and throw it in the direction of John. It so happened, that his aim was good, too good in fact; the stone hit the side of Brother John’s head, causing him to keel over, once again hitting the ground. Believing that he had actually killed Brother John and in doing so sinned, Richard took a further step towards further weakness; he lifted the body and rolled it over the wall where it fell to lay outside the Priory boundary. He then quietly called on the services of his own pony and left the Whitefriars and what he thought was his crime scene.
Now it so happened that Sir Thomas Erpingham’s personal servant again rode past the Whitefriar’s outer wall on an errand for his master. He could not help noticing, with some puzzlement, the body lying on the wrong side of the wall from where he and Sir Thomas had first left it. Maybe it was a degree of panic, if not a cool calculated decision, that caused the servant to climb down from his horse and replace his elevated position with that of the corpse which by then was stiff with rigor martis. He managed to get former John into an upright position, his feet into the stirrups and his wrists tied to the reins before firmly slapping the horse’s rump into a gallop.
As for Brother Richard, he thought that he had left his unfortunate experience behind him as he too rode out of Norwich, all be it at a much slower pace. But then he heard the sound of galloping hooves approaching towards him from the rear. He instictively turned his head to see the ‘gastly figure’ of Brother John approaching fast on a horse which. When alongside Richard’s pony it pulled up causing the dead friar to fall off to beneath the ponty’s feet. Richard was absolutely terrified – feeling the guilt of what he thought he had done. It was nothing less than divine intervention he thought and decided, there and then, that he must confess! He immediately turned his pony and made his way back to the Bishop and told him all that he knew.
Inevitably perhaps, Friar Richard was sentenced to be hanged for his apparent sins, but as he stood on the gallows, praying for forgiveness and waiting for the immident drop into oblivion if not heaven, Sir Thomas came on to the scene and forced his way through a crowd eager to witness what was a public strangulation. He shouted “Hangman – stop!” as he climbed the scaffold steps, removing the implements of execution and then descending the steps with the Friar. Sir Thomas, the most powerful knight in Norfolk at the time, sought out the Bishop and did not hesitate to kneel before him to admit that he, Thomas, was the one who had killed Friar John. He told the of circumstances surrounding the Mass and his thoughts and planning which led up to the murder along that part of the River Wensum which runs past Whitefriars, towards Cow Tower, Bishops Bridge and beyond. The Bishop listened, then contemplated and decided that the act of this killing was manslaughter…….the sentence was not to be death for such a distinguished person of the County, but one of a penance which Sir Thomas had to agree to if he was ever to be forgiven and find his place in heaven. What was agreed was for him to pay the costs of building what was to become known as the Erpingham Gate.
FOOTNOTE: The Erpingham Gate was erected between 1420 and 1435, in a style which matches the west front of the cathedral itself. The exterior of the gate has a small statue of Sir Thomas above, although this was apparently only put in place in the 17th century – some speculate that it came from Sir Thomas’s tomb in the Cathedral’s Presbytery. The interior side of the Gate also displays the Erpingham coat of arms. There are no less than 24 Christian Saints carved in the archway – 12 male and 12 female – a nice example of equal treatment some 600 years before the Equality Act. (Would this have had anything to do with the fact that Sir Thomas had two wives?).
About the time when the Erpingham Gate was being built, other work associated with the rebuilding of the church of the Dominican Friars and a new East window for the church of the Augustinian Friars was taking place. History does suggest that Sir Thomas donated even more of his money to projects such as these. What is not clear is whether, or not Sir Thomas, following his death in 1428 ever left any of his funds to William Alnwick, who was the Bishop of Norwich between 1426 and 1436. This Bishop continued with further enhancements within the Cathedral precincts by altering and improving the Cathedral itself – as well as his Palace!
We are told that much of the rebuilding of the Dominican friary in Norwich was financed by Sir Thomas Erpingham and his son Robert, who became a friar there. The gate that bears his name is thought to have been built at his cost, a gift to the cathedral, ca.1420. The upper portion, surrounding the canopy within which Sir Thomas’s statue is recessed and faced with flint in Norfolk style. Below it, surrounding the Perpendicular arch, the outward face of the gateway is highly decorated with figures of saints. The turrets on the buttresses at either side also bear sculptures, as well as the heraldic devices of Erpingham and the families of his two wives, and each turret is topped by the statue of a priest. The word yenk (“think”) is engraved at various places on the gateway, and is a request for viewers to remember (and say a prayer for) the donor.
The date of the building of the gate is not known for certain, but it must have taken place after his second marriage (1411). The style suggests the 1420s, and it seems likely the gate would have been given at a time when Erpingham’s thoughts were turning to his death and afterlife – by this time he would have been in his sixties. There were certainly stories that he built the gate as a penance for a sin he had committed – different versions suggest a homicide, his role in the disgrace of Bishop Despenser, his support of heretics – or even gratitude for surviving Agincourt; but there is no real foundation for any of these. If anything, the highly decorated gate is an assertion of orthodoxy at a time when Lollardy was posing a challenge to the established order and at a time when Sir Thomas might have been concerned with his spiritual future.
Erpingham died in 1428 and was buried inside Norwich cathedral, in a tomb built in advance, alongside his two wives; a chantry was established there in his name. His testament did not forget the city in whose affairs he had always shown an interest. He left sums of money to the cathedral and the Prior and monks there, as well as to the church of St. Martin at Palace; his armour too he left to the cathedral. He also bequeathed money to the sisters and poor inmates of St. Giles’ hospital, Bishopgate, and lesser sums to prisoners in the gaols of Norwich castle and the city Guildhall, as well as to hermits within the city.
The construction of the gate may have been an act intended to win favour from the Cathedral in which he hoped to be buried, to win favour from God, and to establish a memorial to himself. The armour in which he is depicted in the statue may have been that which was bequeathed to the cathedral. Although his will makes no reference to the gate, it is possible he commissioned it shortly before his death, with the work finished posthumously by his executors, or it may even have been entirely a project of his executors. His testament focused on pious and charitable bequests and left the rest of his worldly goods to his executors’ disposition – they may have felt the gateway a suitable application of that wealth, and certainly it has stood the test of time. It has been argued that his statue is not the right size for its niche and may have been moved there from his tomb, replacing some other statue on a religious theme.
The Wash is a large bay on the east coast of England that lies between the counties of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. It is one of the largest estuaries in the United Kingdom and is fed by the rivers Witham, Welland, Steeping, Nene and the Great Ouse. Collecting 15% of the water that drains from the countries lands it is the second largest inter-tidal, uncovered when the tide is out, mudflats in Great Britain.
People have lived on the surrounding fertile land for centuries and it was this stretch of water that the Vikings used as a major route to invade East Anglia between 865 and the start of the Norman Conquest. The Wash was given the name of Metaris Aestuarium, meaning the reaping/mowing/cutting off estuary during the first century by Claudius Ptolemy, a Roman astrologer and mathematician. The Romans built large embankments that protected the land and prevented flooding, but they had all but disappeared by the end of the fifth century. In later years Dutch engineers began a large scale land reclamation and drainage project, this has continued on and off over the years.
It is the Wash that plays host to an interesting and somewhat speculative incident in history, the story of how, in 1216, King John lost England’s crown jewels in the murky water of the estuary.
John was not a popular king, previous to his unfortunate accident he had lost much of England’s lands in France, been excommunicated and forced to sign the Magna Carta. The following year the king broke his word, this action was the starting point of the First Barons’ War. John travelled around the country to oppose the rebel forces, directing a two-month siege of Rochester Castle. Later retreating from the French invasion, John took a safe route around the marshy area of the Wash to avoid the rebel held area of East Anglia. In the October of 1216, John travelled from Spalding in Lincolnshire to a town where he was well liked, Bishops Lynn, now Kings Lynn in Norfolk a town that he had previously granted a royal charter.
It was here that he was taken ill with dysentery and decided not to continue the journey. According to Kings Lynn’s Borough Council, it was on the 12th of October that the king left the town, taking the route via Wisbech sending his baggage, plus the jewels on what he thought was the quicker route across the mouth of the Wash. The Wash was much wider than it is today, the sea reached as far as Wisbeach and the inland town of Long Sutton was on the coast and was then a port. Up to three thousand of the kings entourage were carrying the royal wardrobe and the whole of the kingdoms treasury. At low tide the conditions of the causeway were wet and muddy and the wagons moved too slowly and sank into the mud engulfing the kings most valuable possessions. The men of the train struggled with the trunks whilst others pulled at the horses to encourage movement but eventually everything was covered by the incoming tide. The accident probably took place between the tiny hamlet of Walpole Cross Keys and what we now call Sutton Bridge that crosses the River Nene.
But what of the kings treasure? Is it buried centuries deep under Sutton Bridge?
The kings journey continued to Swineshead Abby, near Boston in Lincolnshire, were his health became worse and where legend has it that he was poisoned by a monk called Brother Simon who stole the jewels and made his way out of England with Europe as his destination. Another interesting take on the loss of the king’s treasurers is that they were not lost at all and that the king was using the jewels as security, arranging for their ‘loss’ before they arrived at their destination and using the Wash as a ruse. There seems to be no written documentation to give credence to these two facts so they must remain what they probably are, just tall tales.
On the run from the barons, the loss of the kingdoms ‘treasury’ may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, which affected his health and state of mind. It was either on his journey or during his one night stay at Sleaford Castle that he heard of the loss of the treasure, his health continued to deteriorate and following his arrival at Newark Castle, the king died on the 18th or 19th October 1216. He didn’t live to see his English barons switch their allegiance taking the side of the new king, his nine year old son Henry.
John is yet another English king who has suffered from bad press over the years, he was no hero, he was vengeful and untrusting and is it any wonder, as a child he received no support from warring parents, no support from a self obsessed brother and as king no support from his people, what chance did he have? W L Warren in his book ‘King John’ seems to sum up fairly accurately the cause of his troubled reign.
“talented in some respects, good at administrative detail, but suspicious, unscrupulous, and mistrusted. His crisis-prone career was sabotaged repeatedly by the half-heartedness with which his vassals supported him—and the energy with which some of them opposed him.”
Since 1216 there has been nearly eight hundred years of silt deposited over all the gold and silver plate, the coins and the jewelry and it is highly unlikely that this treasure will ever be found. Nottingham University did undertake some work trying to discover the causeway that King John’s royal train may have passed over. No doubt, other interested parties will search in the future and maybe they may well find something. But intriguing questions remain – did this event ever happen at all; and did ‘Bad’ King John ‘arrange’ for his treasure tto disappear for reasons only he knew?
There are two contemporary accounts, one by Roger of Wendover, an English chronicler who died in 1236 and one by Ralph of Coggeshall, an English monk and chronicler who died in 1227. Both were writing at the time of the loss. Roger of Wendover writes rather melodramatically and calls it a major disaster, he writes:
‘the ground opened up in the midst of the waves, and bottomless whirlpools sucked in everything’
Ralph of Coggeshall refers to it as more of a misadventure, stating that it was not the whole of the royal baggage train that was lost but the vanguard who carried household items, church and holy relics, but not the whole of the treasury. Indeed, some valuable items, belonging to the king of England, did get lost in the Wash, but not treasure as some would imagine. There was no large chest overflowing with coins, necklaces and gold goblets, only kitchen equipment and finery collected from churches. As Coggeshall suggested maybe the real treasure was in second train that never started its journey across the Wash which eventually ended its days thrown in among the new king, Henry III’s treasury
FOOTNOTE: In the mid fourteenth century there was a Norfolk gentleman by the name of Robert Tiptoft. He, quite suddenly so they say, became very wealthy as a result of finding the King’s treasure and not handing it back to the crown where it rightfully belonged. Now, here lays another Tale!
Just about 355 years ago, between the 10th and 13th March 1664, a trial took place at Bury St Edmunds Assizes, Suffolk. Two elderly women from Lowestoft, Amy Denny and Rose Cullender who were both widows, were tried before Magistrates on a charge of witchcraft. Thirteen indictments were brought against them, alleging that they had bewitched several people, including children, following quarrels. The trial lasted two days, during which time and apart from pleading ‘Not Guily’, the accused made no attempt to deny the charges made against them. On the afternoon of Thursday, 13th Match, the verdict of Guilty being returned, followed by the Judge Sir Matthew Hale, Kt, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, sentencing the two women to be hanged. The executions took place on Monday, 17th March 1664, with neither of the women confessing their guilt. This moment ended one of the most controversial of East Anglian witch trials.
Unfortunately, all that is known about this Trial is contained in a 60-page pamphlet entitled ‘A Tryal of Witches, at the Assizes held at Bury St. Edmunds for the County of Suffolk; on the Tenth day of March 1664’ and published in London in 1682. It was written by a supposedly anonymous spectator; nevertheless, this pamphlet is the sole primary source of information for this particular ‘witch trial’. The written account does, apart from the subject of witchcraft, make for an interesting case, being free from political coercion, religious rivalries, and the ‘wicked’ schemes of some other trials of the time.
Though the trial occurred at Bury St. Edmunds, the events leading up to it occurred in Lowestoft, an isolated fishing town with a population of about fifteen hundred inhabitants, 112 miles northeast of London and 50 miles east of Bury St. Edmunds. At the time of this trial, Lowestoft town was involved with a lawsuit against the larger fishing town of Great Yarmouth over fishing rights. Interestingly, this lawsuit involved two principal members of the Lowestoft witches trial, namely Samuel Pacy and Sir Matthew Hale.
The person responsible for bringing Amy Denny and Rose Cullender to trial was one Samuel Pacy, a wealthy fish merchant and property owner in Lowestoft, who had denied a request from a poorer member of that same community, namely a Amy Denny. Samuel Pacy had rejected several requests from this Amy Denny for him to sell her some fish. As way of further information and possibly relevant to the eventual witch’s trial, Amy Denny was not only a widow but also had a reputation as being a witch. According to Samuel Pacy, immediately after he had turned down Amy Denny’s request for a third time, his daughter, Deborah:
“…was taken with most violent fits, feeling most extreme pain in her Stomach, like the pricking of Pins, and Shreeking out in a most dreadful manner like unto a Whelp, and not like unto a sensible Creature.”
Believing his two daughters bewitched his suspicions fell first upon Amy Denny and requested that she be placed in the Stocks in the hope that this may break the spell; this took place on the previous October 28th. Apparently, this did not ease the condition of his children and their symptoms continued for another three weeks before Pacy asked a neighbour, Dr. Feavor, for his opinion. Feavor could not diagnose a natural cause of the illness. Then Pacy consulted a doctor but, it appears, the he did not seek the help of the clergy, which usually presented a unique absence from demonic trials. Neither, during the trial, did Pacy’s deposition mention him employing any religious methods of dispossession. Samuel Pacy’s deposition did, however, state that his daughter, Deborah Pacy:
“… in her fits would cry out of Amy Duny as the cause of her Malady, and that she did affright her with Apparitions of her Person.”
Two days later, on the 30th October,
“the eldest Daughter Elizabeth, fell into extream fits, insomuch, that they could not open her Mouth to give her breath, to preserve her Life without the help of a Tap which they were enforced to use…”
Apparently, for the next two months, the two sisters suffered other symptoms, including lameness and soreness, loss of their sense of speech, sight, and hearing, sometimes for days. Fits ensued upon hearing the words “Lord,” “Jesus” and “Christ.” They also claimed that a Rose Cullender, another reputed witch, along with Amy Denny, would appear
“ before them, holding their Fists at them, threatening, that if they related either what they saw or heard, that they would Torment them Ten times more than ever they did before.” …….…the sisters also coughed up pins, “………and one time a Two-penny Nail with a very broad head, which Pins (amounting to Forty or more) together with the Two-penny Nail were produced in Court, with the affirmation of the said Deponent, that he was present when the said Nail was Vomited up, and also most of the Pins.” Allotriophagy, the vomiting of extraordinary objects, would provide an observable proof of possession.
Once arrested, the suspects were searched for ‘Witch’s’ or ‘Devil’s Marks’ by a team of six matrons. These marks, any spot or blemish of an uncommon sort, were believed to be either a brand made by the devil at the signing of the pact, or a spot which an evil spirit in animal form, had sucked blood. Such marks were found on Rose Cullender and this information was considered evidence of being a witch and would be presented to a court. After an oral examination, the two women were committed for trial and duly appeared before the Circuit Judge, Sir Matthew Hale, at the next Bury St Edmunds Assizes.
The legal system of the 17th century was far removed from that of today; no laws of evidence existed and testimony was therefore accepted from all, even children. Also at this time, there existed no provision for a Council for the Defence, in consequence, those brought to trial were largely unrepresented. It was in this situation that Amy Denny and Rose Cullender found themselves when they were brought into the crowded courtroom.
The trial itself started on 10th March 1664. By then, the afflictions of Samuel Pacy’s daughters had spread to three other girls, neighbours of the Pacy’s. They were Ann Durrant (probably between the age of 16-21), Jane Bocking (14 years old), and Susan Chandler (18 years old). Deborah Pacy and Jane Bocking were too ill to attend the trial. Though Elizabeth, Ann, and Susan did not testify (family members spoke for them), they were present and affected the courtroom atmosphere. The three arrived…
“…..in reasonable good condition: But that Morning they came into the Hall to give Instructions for the drawing of their Bills of Indictments, the Three Persons fell into strange and violent fits, screeking out in a most sad manner, so that they could not in any wise give any Instructions in the Court who were the Cause of their Distemper. And although they did after some certain space recover out of their fits, yet they were every one of them struck Dumb, so that none of them could speak, neither at that time, nor during the Assizes until the Conviction of the supposed Witches.”
The trial opened with the deposition of Dorothy Durrant. Her statement chronicled old and improvable events. Durrant did not explain why she had waited several years to accuse Denny. She alleged Amy Denny of bewitching and eventually murdering her ten-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, four years earlier. She also testified that although her infant son, William, suffered similar afflictions, Dr. Jacobs, a physician from Yarmouth, rescued him by recommending the use of counter-magic. Dr. Jacobs told Dorothy to hang William’s blanket over the fireplace and to burn anything found in it. When she took it down at night, a large toad fell out, which a boy in the house quickly caught. As he held it over the fire with tongs, the toad exploded with a flash of light.
Durrant also testified that the next day, a relative of Amy Denny told her that Denny had recently suffered serious burns all over her body. According to Durrant’s deposition, when she visited Denny, the burned woman cursed her and predicted that Durrant would outlive some of her children and be forced to live on crutches.
Her predictions soon proved accurate. Durrant’s daughter, Elizabeth, soon fell seriously ill, and after seeing Amy Denny’s spectre, died. After Elizabeth’s death, Dorothy Durrant became crippled in both her legs. Judge Hale, attempting to find a natural explanation for the affliction, asked her if the lameness was due to “… the Custom of Women.” Durrant rejected this possibility. Forced to use a crutches for over three years, she threw these away, supposedly cured, when she heard Denny and Cullender were pronounced guilty!
The most dramatic evidence at the trial was the presence and actions of the children. Elizabeth Pacy, in particular, created quite a scene, as she:
“…..could not speak one Word all the time, and for the most part she remained as one wholly senseless as one in a deep Sleep, and could move no part of her body, and all the Motion of Life that appeared in her was, that as she lay upon Cushions in the Court upon her back, her stomach and belly by the drawing of her breath, would arise to a great height: and after the said Elizabeth had lain a long time on the Table in the Court, she came a little to her self and sate up, but could neither see nor speak…, by the direction of the Judge, Amy Duny was privately brought to Elizabeth Pacy, and she touched her hand; whereupon the Child without so much as seeing her, for her Eyes were closed all the while, suddenly leaped up, and catched Amy Duny by the hand, and afterwards by the face; and with her nails scratched her till blood came, and would by no means leave her till she was taken from her, and afterwards the Child would still be pressing towards her, and making signs of anger conceived against her.”
After these dramatic events, parents of afflicted children outside the Pacy home testified. They were Edmund Durrant, father of Ann, apparently no relation to Dorothy; Diane Bocking, mother of Jane; and Robert and Mary Chandler, parents of Susan. They swore that their children suffered afflictions similar as to those of the Pacy children, specifically, fit, seeing spectral images, and vomiting crooked pins. They brought to the court several pins as evidence. In a deposition strikingly similar to that of Samuel Pacy, Edmund Durrant, about who nothing is known other than his deposition, described the afflictions of his daughter, Ann:
“……That he also lived in the said, Town of Leystoff, and that the said Rose Cullender, about the latter end of November last, came into this Deponents House to buy some Herrings of his Wife, but being denied by her, the said Rose returned in a discontented manner; and upon the first of December after, his Daughter Ann Durrant was very sorely Afflicted in her Stomach, and felt great pain, like the pricking of Pins, and then fell into swooning fitts, and after the Recovery from her Fits, she declared, That she had seen the Apparition of the said Rose, who threatened to Torment her. In this manner she continued from the first of December, until this present time of Tryal; having likewise vomited up divers Pins (produced here in Court). This Maid was present in Court, but could not speak to declare her knowledge, but fell into most violent fits when she was brought before Rose Cullender.”
The evidence presented so far would be considered ludicrous by today’s standards and indeed was not accepted unquestionable at that time. Indeed, a Mr Sargeant Keeling protested to this effect and was privately asked by the Judge, together with Lord Cornwallis and Sir Edmund Bacon, to repeat the experiments outside the courtroom using other people. The result was to suggest that the charges so far made were groundless and, as a result, the court proceedings were stopped for a considerable time whilst a course of action was decided upon. Eventually, it was agreed to seek the advice of an impartial observer, one Doctor Brown, a knowledgeable physician of Norwich.
Dr. Thomas Browne, a respected physician, was brought forward to testify. He affirmed that witchcraft did exist, specifically mentioning similar events that had occurred in Denmark. Despite mentioning possible medical explanations for the girls’ afflictions, namely “the mother,” Browne noted that the Devil could intensify symptoms. Though he believed that the girls were bewitched, he did not specifically state that Denny and Cullender had afflicted them. Browne testified:
“….. That the Devil in such cases did work upon the bodies of men and women, upon a natural foundation, [that is] to stir up and excite such humors, super-abounding in their Bodies to a great excess, whereby he did in an extraordinary manner afflict them with such distempers as their bodies were most subject to, as particularly appeared in these children; for he conceived, that these swooning fits were natural, and nothing else but that they call the Mother, but only heightened to a great excess by the subtlety of the devil, cooperating with the malice of these which we term witches, at whose instance he doth these villanies.”
After Browne’s testimony, the court did carry out several experiments to test the accused witches and their accusers. In contrast to the Mary Glover case, no burning occurred to test the hands for insensibility. Here, the fists of the girls, while afflicted, remained tightly closed,
“…as yet the strongest Man in the Court could not force them open; yet by the least touch of one of the supposed Witches, Rose Cullender by Name, they would suddenly shriek out opening their hands, which accident would not happen by the touch of any other person.”
The three respected members of the aristocracy present in court were Lord Charles Cornwallis, a member of Parliament, Sir Edmund Bacon, a justice of the peace for the county, and Sir John Keeling (who became Chief Justice of the King’s Bench three years after the trial); they tested Elizabeth next. While they looked on, a blindfolded Elizabeth Pacy touched Amy Denny and another woman. When Elizabeth “reacted similarly to both women,“…the three Gentlemen openly protested, that “they did believe the whole transaction of this business was a mere Imposture.” Samuel Pacy replied “…That possibly the Maid might be deceived by a suspicion that the Witch touched her when she did not.” Though Pacy’s explanation for the test result helped convince the jury of Denny’s guilt, other factors also played a role. As the author of “A Tryal of Witches” acknowledged, many people believed that these girls were not capable of “counterfeiting”:
It is not possible that any should counterfeit such Distempers, being accompanied with such various Circumstances, much less Children; and for so long time, and yet undiscovered by their Parents and Relations: For no man can suppose that they should all Conspire together, (being out of several families, and as they Affirm, no way related one to the other, and scarce of familiar acquaintance) to do an Act of this nature whereby no benefit or advantage could redound to any of the Parties, but a guilty Conscience for Perjuring themselves in taking the Lives of two poor simple Women away, and there appears no Malice in the Case. For the Prisoners did scarce so much as Object it.
Depositions by John Soam, a Lowestoft Yeoman, Robert Sherringham and Nicholas Pacy (Samuel’s father or brother), followed. Significantly, all had civil suits against a John Denny during the 1640’s and 1650’s. By the time of the trial, Ann Denny’s husband, John, was deceased. As there were two John Dennys in Lowestoft at this time, with dozens of civil cases against one or both men, it is impossible to prove that this was the same John Denny.
John Soam accused Rose Cullender of bewitching his three carts, making them unusable for a day. Robert Sherringham blamed her for the loss of four horses and several cows and pigs, as well as his lameness and his suffering a “…great Number of Lice of extraordinary bigness.” Following their testimony, the wife of Amy Denny’s landlord, Ann Sandeswell, deposed that Denny complained that her chimney might collapse, which it did a short time later. Additional testimony by Ann concerning the loss of geese and fish ended the depositions.
After these witnesses spoke, Hale had the opportunity to verbally review the evidence for the jury, which he had done in past cases. He did not recapitulate in this case, “… least by so doing he should wrong the Evidence on the one side or on the other.” Instead, according to the writer of ‘A Tryal of Witches’, Hale instructed the jury: ……”That they had Two things to enquire after. First, Whether or no these Children were Bewitched? Secondly, Whether the Prisoners at the Bar were Guilty of it?” That there were such Creatures as Witches he made no doubt at all; for First the scriptures had affirmed so much. Secondly, the wisdom of all Nations had provided Laws against such Persons, which is an Argument of their confidence of such a Crime……For to condemn the innocent and to let the guilty go were both an abomination to the Lord.
The jury took half an hour to convict both women. The spectacle of a tormented eleven-year-old girl fiercely scratching a stereotypical witch, coupled with a great deal of circumstantial evidence, appears to have convinced the jury. The men of the jury, none of whose identity is known, condemned the women to their deaths. The following morning, the previously possessed children and their parents visited Hale. The children appeared cured, “And Mr. Pacy did Affirm, that within less than half an hour after the Witches were Convicted, they were all of them Restored, and slept well that Night, feeling no pain; only Susan Chandler felt a pain like pricking of Pins in her Stomach.” Denny and Cullender “were urged to confess, but would not.” The two hanged on March 17, 1662.
From the evidence of the trial it would seem as though Amy Denny and Rose Cullender were the victims of superstition and parochial vindictiveness. Much of the evidence brought against them was due to coincidence, for example, a farmer who hit a house with his cart seems likely to be an incompetent driver and it is not really surprising to hear that it turned over or get stuck in a gateway! Equally, one does not have a witch to say that a chimney in an obviously bad state of repair is likely to fall if left unattended. Much of the rest could be a fabrication. The accused did seem to have something of a bad reputation in Lowestoft, and Pacy’s attitude in not selling them fish was obviously unfriendly. This, Amy Denny and Rose Cullender died having committed no crime save that they were unpopular, at a time when a scolding tongue and witchcraft so often went hand in hand.
FOOTNOTE (1): What is particularly interesting and significant about the 1662 trial at Bury St. Edmunds is the supposed personal integrity, obvious intellectual acumen, and the clear professional achievements of some of the main participants running the show.
At the top was Sir Matthew Hale, (1 November 1609 – 25 December 1676), Chief Baron of the Exchequer who was an influential English barrister, judge and lawyer. He presided over the trial;. Then there was Dr. Thomas Browne, (19 October 1605 – 19 October 1682), knighted 1671, a celebrated author and physician, who testified at the trial. Both were known at the time for their incorruptibility and tolerance, qualities that undoubtedly helped them to not only survive, but also to prosper during those turbulent and uncertain times in English history.
At the time of the Lowestoft Witches Trial Browne was a resident of Norwich in Norfolk and at the height of his career. He was the author of a half dozen major works, his interests ranging from his candid personal views on religion as a physician (Religio Medici, 1643), to natural history (Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646) to ancient funeral rites (Hydriotaphia, 1658). Quite a mixture! He was, at times, sceptical, anti-dogmatic, mystical, erudite, witty, moderate, and curious, but his works had many admirers. Though he dabbled with some scientific experimentation (both he and Hale wrote about magnetism, for instance), Browne, like Hale, also firmly believed in Satan and witchcraft which should not go unnoticed with respect to this trial. Brown, for instance, believed evil was a part of God’s universe, and to doubt the existence of witchcraft opened the door to atheism. Two decades before the trial, in probably his greatest work, Religio Medici (1643), Browne had written:
“It is a riddle to me, how this story of oracles hath not wormed out of the world that doubtful conceit of spirits and witches; how so many learned heads should so far forget their metaphysics, and destroy the ladder and scale of creatures, as to question the existence of spirits. For my part, I have ever believed, and do now know, that there are witches: they that doubt of these, do not only deny them, but spirits; and are obliquely, and upon consequence a sort not of infidels, but atheists.”
Dr. Thomas Browne of Norwich appears in only one paragraph of the ‘A Tryal of Witches’, pamphlet about the Witchs’ trial at the Bury St. Edmonds Assizes. Unfortunately, neither Browne nor Hale was alive at the time of the pamphlet’s publication to review and possibly refute its content. Also, since neither man mentioned the experience at Bury St. Edmunds in any of their subsequent works or personal correspondence, it is impossible to know what their views were towards that event.
Sir Matthew Hale, was four years Browne’s junior, but also wrote prodigiously. Unlike Browne though, Hale chiefly wrote for his own enjoyment and, presumably, to satisfy his desire to grow intellectually. Although he published only a few works, his posthumous ‘History of the Common Law of England (1713)’ and ‘Histroia placitorum coronae (1726)’ were highly regarded for centuries. Principally interested in religion and the law, Hale, like Browne, commented on natural history and the relationship between Christianity and reason. Both men seemed to be examples of the typical Oxford-educated, successful, well read, and well-respected Englishman at the top of his chosen profession.
Sir Matthew Hale and Sir Thomas Browne were clearly highly intelligent people, at the top of their respected professions, who sincerely believed in witchcraft. It is understood that Hale presided over at least one other witchcraft case – and that ended with an execution! In England, however, the era in which it was possible to prosecute and execute witches was coming to an end. Educated justices found executing poor, elderly, and “outcast” women based on the testimony of children problematical. As the belief in witches slowly died out, the ability to prosecute them died out even more quickly.
The real grievance against both Hale and Browne is that they were to be judged by later legal, medical, and scientific standards, not those of their own era. Edmund Gosse, a biographer of Browne, characterized his participation in the trial, “..…the most culpable and the most stupid action of this life..…Among the most appalling stories of witch-trials, none was more shocking, none more inexcusable than that which resulted in the hanging of Amy Denny and Rose Cullender.” Hale’s biographer, Edmund Heward, found the omitting the summary of evidence at the end of the trial a “sign of weakness” and alleged that Hale’s behaviour “……indicates the credulity and superstition which mingled with his religious beliefs.”
FOOTNOTE (2): Another consequence of the Lowestoft Witches Trial was its influence upon the events at Salem, Massachusetts, USA. Several features of the Lowestoft Witches Trial bear a remarkable resemblance to the Salem trials three decades later. The crisis originated with the afflictions of Deborah and Elizabeth Pacy, whose ages, nine and eleven, were identical to those of two girls, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, who played a key role in the Salem witchcraft trials. The symptoms of the girls and reports of witches’ spectres were similar in Bury St. Edmunds and Salem. In both cases, the afflictions spread to other girls, and adults contributed testimony about previous confrontations with the accused. Finally, the conclusion was the same- hangings.
In 1693, when Reverend Cotton Mather published his ‘Wonders of the Invisible World’, he enclosed a chapter entitled “A Modern Instance of Witches: Discovered and Condemned in a Trial Before That Celebrated Judge, Sir Mathew Hale.” Mather begins, “It may cast some Light upon the Dark things now in America, if we just give a glance upon the like things happening in Europe. We may see the Witchcrafts here most exactly resemble the Witchcrafts there.” After stating that the trial was “……much considered by the Judges of New England,” Mather summarized Lowestoft’s ‘A Tryal of Witches’ in the next nine pages of his book.
Cotton Mather, like Browne in his testimony at Bury St. Edmunds, believed that the Devil could “stir up and excite humours,” especially in children and females. Describing the afflictions of Mercy Short, whose possession occurred within a year after the Salem trials, Cotton Mather wrote ‘Another Brand Plucked Out of the Burning’. Emulating Browne’s testimony, Cotton Mather wrote:
“That the Evil Angels do often take Advantage from Natural Distempers in the Children of Men to annoy them with such further Mischiefs as we call preternatural. The Malignant Vapours and Humours of our Diseased Bodies may be used by Devils, there into insinuating as engine of the Execution of their Malice upon those Bodies; and perhaps for this reason one Sex may suffer more Troubles of the kinds from the Invisible World than the other, as well as for that reason for which the Old Serpent made where he did his first Address.”
Unfortunately, in terms of what soon would unfold at Salem, Hale’s judgment and Browne’s opinions continued to influence events even after their deaths. Though witchcraft beliefs were dying out, the impact of Bury St. Edmunds remained. As historian James Sharpe has written:
“The Bury St Edmunds trial of 1664 demonstrated how, even in the face of a court willing to entertain the possibility of deception, and anxious to subject a witchcraft accusation to as many of the known tests and methods of proving witchcraft as possible, the accepted standards of proofs in witchcraft trials were still difficult to reject.”
Both the source of this story and its author are unknown to me; it came into my hands via an old ‘Gestetner’ printed copy which was also undated and unsigned – I suspect though that the contents were written in the 1970/80’s.
Having read it several times and arrived at my own conclusions, I thought I should broadcast it to a wider audience in the hope that such a tale will interest others. In doing so, I should say that the detail is unabridged and with persons’ names retained – as they appeared in the original. What litle editing has been done was aimed at ‘tweaking’ the grammer and syntax. Other than that I can only point out that I am merely the messenger here – so don’t shoot me!
“That enigmatic, legendary creature, in the form of a large black dog, crops up over and over again in the annals of East Anglian Folklore. From Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast, down through the region, through Broadland and the heart of Norfolk, through the Waveney Valley and down further along the Suffolk coast and into Essex – this creature has, from time immemorial, struck fear and terror into the hearts of our forebears. His name may vary between “Old Shuck”, “Black Shuck”, “Owd Snarley-how”, “Hateful-Thing”, “Galley-Trot” or “Shug-monkey”, but this infamous creature is known throughout East Anglia.
Almost everything about ‘Old Shuck’, as he is most commonly known, is a mystery. Even the derivation of his name comes, according to some, from the old Anglo-Saxon word “Scucca”, meaning Satan or Devil; from the less imaginative, the name comes from the local worf “Shucky” meaning ‘shaggy’ – no doubt referring to the creature’s long, un-kept coat. Likewise, his origins are now veiled in the cloak of time. Here again, opinions differ, some say that he is Odin’s ‘dog of war’, brought over by the Vikings; while others, more practical minded people, say that the dog’s origins go back to the days of smuggling. It is, apparantly, true that tales of Old Shuck were put about to keep people indoors after dark, to keep them out of the way while the smugglers went about their clandestine activities. Even the descriptions of Old Shuck’s appearance do not remain consistent. Here he is a large black nebulous creature silently padding along the hedgerows, while over there he is a huge, one-eyed creature with a mournful howl and rattling chains. Yet, despite all these ambiguities, not every aspect of him is quite so diverse. On one point, most of the numerous legends agree; he bodes death or misfortune to those who are unfortunate enough to see him. On another, no matter what his forgotton origins were, belief in him still is deeply rooted in the minds of East Anglians.
In this, so called, enlightened and technological age it is easy to sit back and scoff at such stories as superstitious nonsense, or the imaginings of backward and ignorant minds. But, what happens when, in the midst of our marvellous technology, someone who is neither superstitious or ignorant but an educated and trained observer claims to have seen “Old Shuck”. Add to this, that he had never previously heard stories of Old Shuck, having only recently moved to these parts and we come up with a mystery as curious and enigmatic as Old Shuck himself!
This is what happened in 1972 when a Mr Graham Grant, then aged 34 and an Officer with HM Coastguard, was keeping a lone virgil one rough windy night at the lookout station on the South Pier at Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth on the east coast of Norfolk. Mr Grant describes what happened”:
“…….while on duty at the Coastguard Headquarters on the Gorleston South Pier on April 19th 1972; dawn had just broken so I started to scan the coastline to the south of my station, then to the north. Both coaslines were clear but I did observe a black dog a quarter of a mile to the north of me on Yarmouth beach and at the time thought nothing of it. A scan out to sea confirmed that my area was clear for the time being, so I turned my eyes once again to the dog. It was running up and down the beach as if looking for someone; it was about 50 yards from the sea. The nearest description of the dog I can give is as follows: It was a large black hound-like animal, standing about 3 feet from head to feet. I did not notice its eyes at the time but I feel sure that it had two. Old Shuck has been reported with one eye, like a cyclops; I feel sure that if the animal had had only one eye it would have stuck in my mind without a doubt. Its mouth was open like any dog that has been running and I noticed nothing outstanding about its teeth. I observed the animal for some two minutes or more, never taking my eyes off it.
Then it just faded away as if a veil of silk had been drawn over it. At first I thought that it had dropped into a hole, but on looking more broadly at the beach with my big 30 x 80 glasses, this was out of the question. Bulldozers had been on the beach the day before to move the sand away from the sea wall and the beach was as flat as a pancake, plus the fact that the wind had levelled the sand so that the beach looked like a tennis court – no question of a hole. Also, the Coastguard Lookout is 26 feet above sea-level so at all times I was looking down on to the beach. The time of 04.48 was my last sighting of the animal, but I remained observing the area until 05.55 hours with negative results. My feelings at the time were a little mixed for I was a trained observer and have excellent vision and I told myself that things like this just do not happen. I was also very curious……..”
“That was how Mr Grant described what happened on that stormy April morning. Remember, he was unaware of the ‘Shuck’ legends at the time as he had been transferred to Gorleston from the Isle of Sheppey that previous summer. However, this is by no way the end of this story, for Mr Grant happened to mention this experience to another member of the Coastguard staff, a Mr Harold Cox, who came from Cromer and who knew of the Old Shuck legends. What happened next was also described by Mr Grant”:
“……. after telling Mr Cox the story, he asked me if I was worried about the foreboding story that goes with the sighting of Old Shuck and explained that if anyone sees Old Shuck, some bad luck or misfortune will come to his family or friends the following year. I told him that this did not worry me too much (I wanted to know the story) and so he told me all about Old Shuck……”
“At that time, Mr Grant was completely unconcerned with tales of ill-luck and misfortune, but soon afterwards something happened to make him change his mind; once again, Mr Grant takes up the story”:
“…….. Old Shuck was sighted by myself on the 19th April 1972. Mr Cox, who told me the story of Old Shuck, died of heart failure during the last week of June that same year. He collapsed in the same chair from which he told me the story; he was in his 50’s. In February 1973, my father died at home in Yorkshire, four weeks after I had told him the story – Heart Failure!……..”
“There is one further point worthy of note which ties in with this story. Southdown Road, which runs parallel to the river and almost opposite to where Mr Grant had his experience, has long been associated with the ‘Shuck’ legend; the Road was originally an ancient trackway linking Gorleston and Great Yarmouth. According to the legend, ‘Old Scarfe’ – for that is what the animal is refered to in the town –haunts this road, but is described as being a rather more spectacular creature than that seen by Mr Grant on the beach. One account describes it as a hugh black, shaggy animal with large yellow eyes that glow like hot coals; around its neck hings a chain. The account goes on to describe how, if straw is laid across its path, the animal rattles its chains and howls in a loud and terrifying manner! It is also said that ‘Old Scarfe’ resides in the cellars of the Dukes Head Hotel in Yarmouth.
Although the above account is far removed from Mr Grant’s, it is still interesting to speculate on whether, or not, there might possibly be some connection between these two creatures. It is up to readers to draw their own conclusions. Is there something in these legends after all? – or something we can all put down to imagination, coincidence or believing only that which we want to believe? Finally, perhaps the last word on Old Shuck should come from Mr Grant himself and whose experience left a deep impression on him:”
“………Now, when the wind blows from the north and is blowing a gale, I do not look on to the sands of Yarmouth beach for very long…………..”
Witches of old may have been persecuted and condemned by the church before being passed over to civil authorities for execution but, in more enlightened times, they occasionally found themselves in a position of some favour by those in need. In the 19th century, one such ‘wise woman’ received a discreet Royal Command no less! That person happened to be an old woman living in the Norfolk Village of Flitcham and was considered by some to be a witch while others thought her a ‘wise woman’. As the writer, Walter H. Barrett put it:
“……not only was she supposed to have the power of putting a curse on people, she was also reputed to have a vast knowledge of herbal cures when other remedies failed. She would wander miles in search of a certain herb she required. Lots of folk sought her aid when they needed a ‘starter’ or ‘stopper’ in times of distress.”
All this has the ingredients of a very curious story; what with a wise woman, or witch on one hand, and a Prince on the other hand. That Prince was none other than Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, who later was to become King Edward VII. He was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert who fondly called their son ‘Bertie’, as did the rest of the family. It was said that Bertie was a privileged lazy individual; he was easily bored and uninterested in serious matters; instead, he took pleasure in the social and pleasurable aspects of life. His infidelities, without putting too fine a point on them, began in the first years of his marriage. The fact was that he loved women and found beautiful intelligent women irresistible.
It is said that amongst all his titles that he held, one was called “Protector of the Craft”; a title assumed to refer to Freemasonry in which he was a leading light in forming that organisation into what it is today. However, if the scribes of the time had made a better job of recording the significance of such a title, in other words, if they had recorded the facts, then the appellation of “Protector of the Craft” may not have applied to Freemasonry at all – would it be possible for it to hint at the crafts of ‘wise women’ of which the nearby village of Flitcham certainly had one?
It should be remembered that when the Prince bought Sandringham in 1863, he expelled “several wise women” who lived in a group of cottages there which he had torn down and replaced by modern ones for his servants. Only one old “wise woman” was allowed to remain near the Estate; it was further said that the Prince’s Agent dared not remove her! That woman’s name, was never recorded; however, it was known that she was a herbal medic, an abortionist and a practitioner of the use of Rue Tea. All this indicates that the cures and craft of the ‘old wives’ or ‘wise women’ of the area were respected and indeed used by the highest in the land – when nothing else would work! This ambivalent attitude in law of the upper classes to many things is probably something one might expect from any privileged class.
However, that apart, our story says that in 1880, Bertie was taken ill and he lost much of his usual ‘energy’ – certainly for his two beloved hobbies; one was his stud of thoroughbred horses on the Sandringham Estate, the other was the thoroughbred ladies he entertained inside his grand House. They were there, as Walter H. Barrett further put it:
“As a result of having to keep one eye on the brood mares in the stables, and the other eye on the females inside the house……., (unsurprisingly perhaps) his health broke down. He was very ill for a considerable period”.
Bertie’s wife, Princess Alexandra, consulted with her sister-in-law, the Grand Duchess Olga of Russia. The topic discussed was said to be about what could be done to get Bertie back on his feet and active again. Both women could see that the preferred medicines and efforts prescribed thus far had not been up to the job; both women agreed that another opinion should be obtained; also, the only other possible solution to the Prince’s problem was maybe a combination of the Danish faith in the supernatural and the longstanding Russian belief in sorcery and black magic. As things were to turn out, neither needed to be imported, for the answer lay on their doorstep.
It could well be imagined that the utmost discretion had to be applied to their inquiries, both within their immediate circle of contacts but particularly, in their mind, down through the social class system. It was, in fact, down below where the answer lay, as some of Princess Alexandra’s kitchen staff politely reminded her. If indeed the Princess needed to be reminded of a certain elderly woman, a supposed witch no less, who still lived at Flitcham – she might be able to be of assistance! Summoned to her royal presence, this old woman produced a bottle of wine which she had made and instructed Her Royal Highness to give the Prince three glasses of the wine each day, advising her that HRH would be fully recovered in three days if he managed to avoid the undertaker – such was the elixir’s potency if misused. In due course, as the old woman had predicted, the Prince recovered and the grateful Princess, apparently, sent a purse of gold coins to the woman – along with a request for some more wine!
In a postscript to this short story, Walter Barrett later recalled that around the mid-1920s he visited The Bell Public House in Flitcham for nothing more than refreshments, although, remembering the incident of the Prince of Wale’s period of illness some forty years previously at Sandringham House, asked the Publican, Edward Cocks, about the old woman who had, apparently, supplied the Prince with some special wine. The publican said he knew nothing of her, adding that she had died years before he had come to the village. However, if this Mr Barrett would care to buy a pint, or two, for the elderly local man who was clearly having a quiet moment in front of the fire, he would obtain all that he wanted to know.
The placing of a freshly pulled pint of beer in the hand of this elderly local immediately had the desired response from him. He did, indeed, remember the “old gal” when he was just a young man; a time when his mother and she had been longstanding friends. Not only could he recall how she was regularly used by the locals, in preference to the local quack, to supply curative medication, but he remembered what her brew of rue tea was like; it was something he described as being like ‘liquid gunpowder’. He went on to say that she had lots of cures in her cottage, and that she stocked her own ‘special’ home-made wine, which he claimed she never drank herself. She, it seems, preferred to stick with the gin that she collected from the back door of The Bell – always knocking back one before taking the rest home.
Many came to the conclusion that this ‘special wine’ of hers was made from the mandrake root and was particularly sought after by the local gentry “to supply a much-wanted energy” – No names, no pack drill as they say! Who better placed than the ‘wise woman’ of Flitcham, and as Walter Barrett, himself, suggested, this old woman was probably well aware of the Biblical story (Genesis 30.14) wherein Reuben collects mandrake root to assist his mother Leah in regaining Jacob’s affections, much to the consternation of her jealous sister Rachel who was well aware of the herb’s powers.
Thus said, the flow of information which had freely flown from the elderly local’s lips following each gulp of beer in The Bell that day, abruptly stopped when his pint pot ran dry. He declined another, having really had sufficient beforehand and the reason why he was dozing in the first place. However, as a gesture of gratitude to the inquirer, he offered the comment of claiming that he remembered hearing that the old woman had shown his mother a handful of gold coins which she said had been given to her by Princess Alexandra for services rendered. We know nothing more!
FOOTNOTE (1): An examination of the 1881 census shows that the oldest female residents of Flitcham were the widows: Lydia Bridges – (105 years), Mary Chilvers (92 years), Jane Bridges (83 years old and resident at the Bell Inn, being the mother of the then landlady) and the vicar’s mother, Irish born Honora O Malley (83 years). It would seem that the last two women do not fit the ‘wise woman’ of this story – suggesting that either Lydia or Mary might possibly be her – but we do not know and probably never will.
FOOTNOTE (2): Mandrake root was said to resemble the human form and was used in mediaeval times as a painkiller and anaesthetic as well as an aphrodisiac. However, as a member of the belladonna and potato family, it is apparently highly toxic in all its forms and should not be used today except for ornamental purposes.
It is not clear when it finally faded away, but from 1971 to the early 1980’s, the Borderline Science Investigation Group (BSIG) claimed to be the premier organisation investigating unexplained phenomena in East Anglia. Its quarterly journal was called ‘Lantern’, in which about 40 issues were published between the Winters of 1971 and 1982.
One of the more interesting stories published by this group, and written by their Ivan Bunn, told of the experience of a Lowestoft man on the new (A12 now A47) Hopton Bypass, a mile or so north of Lowestoft, during late 1980. Apparently, so the story goes, at 5.15pm on the 23rd November of that year, PC Frank Colby, who had been 29 years in the British Transport police, was driving back to Lowestoft with his wife. As his car reached the southern section of the Bypass, he saw what he thought to be a man crossing the dual carriageway in front of him. Mr Colby described it at the time as being:
“……. About 5 foot 6” – or a little more, stocky in build and wearing a calf-length shapeless garment. Its head was hunched into its shoulders and it appeared to have What I thought was very spiky hair. There appears to be trousers or some sort of thing on its legs, but what caught my eye – I know it sounds daft – was its fantastically huge footwear. These boots were very big and he was lifting them up well as he plodded along.”
Mr Colby braked and remarked upon the figure to his wife, but she could not see it. The figure was just outside the range of his headlights, but as it crossed the central reservation barrier, Colby claimed that he saw it pass through it and disappear. He immediately stopped his car and examined the spot where the figure had vanished, but there was nothing there – as you might expect! He then returned to his car and made notes of what he claimed he had seen and drew a sketch of it. Mr Colby’s encounter was investigated by Ivan Bunn of the BSIG’s team and his report received press coverage both locally, in the Lowestoft Journal, and nationally on the eve of Christmas 1980. (See figure 2 on Map).
Approximately twelve months after Mr Colby saw the spectral figure in Hopton, on Monday, 2nd November 1981 to be exact, a Mr Andrew Cutajar was driving towards Great Yarmouth; it was very wet and very miserable. Somewhere near to Hopton he noticed what first appeared to be a grey mist in the middle of the carriageway ahead of him. As he drove closer, he could see the figure of a man:
“Tall and dressed in a long coat, or cap, coming well past his knees. He had on old-fashioned heavy laced up boots and his grey hair was long and straggly”.
The figure was unmoving as Mr Cutajar braked to avoid a collision but, in the wet conditions, the car began to skid, passing straight through the figure, ending up facing the other way on the grass verge. At that moment there was no trace of the ghostly figure! Apparently, a number of other single vehicle accidents had occurred at the same spot – and it was speculated at the time if any of these incidents had taken place in similar weather conditions!
These two instances of the 1980’s were not the first, or only, accounts of a spectral figure appearing along, or near, the village of Hopton. One of the earliest came from a Mr Roger Hammersley of Lowestoft who, at the beginning of 1957, was driving in convoy with a friend, Mr R Gardner from Yarmouth, to their home town. Just before midnight, on the old A12 (now the A47) just south of Hopton, both men separately saw what Mr Hammersley described as the figure of a man wearing very large boots, a large fawn overcoat and a hat, crossing the road in front of them. Mr Hammersley drove close to the tall figure before realising it was no longer there, although he did admit that he could not remember seeing the spectral actually disappear. During an interview with Ivan Bunn of the BSIG, Mr Hammersley admitted that many times prior to this encounter he had often felt distinctly “uneasy” driving along this particular stretch of road, and that after seeing the ‘ghost’ back in 1957 he avoided the Hopton stretch of the old A12 whenever he could. (See figure 3 on Map).
In the 1970’s there was yet another claimed sighting of what may have been ‘The Old Man of Hopton’; this story came to light following the Press coverage of PC Colby in 1980. It was said to have happened on 24 December, Christmas Eve, in 1977 when 24-year-old Mrs Rita Rose of Bradwell was driving along the old A12 through Hopton with her mother. It was about 5.30pm when they approached a road junction quite near to the Hopton Post Office – (marked ‘1’ on the map). Mrs Rose’s car was travelling north towards Great Yarmouth and just before they reached the junction, she saw the figure of a man in here headlights, standing on the edge of the nearside kerb. As she drew level with the figure, it stepped off the kerb and under the front wheels of the car. Mrs Rose instinctively did an emergency stop which resulted in her mother being flung against the windscreen; at the same time, Mrs Rose said she felt the impact as the car appeared to hit this man. Despite getting out and searching neither she, nor her mother, could find anyone one either in front or underneath the car.
Mrs Rose, who was a qualified nurse at the time, described both the incident and the ‘man’ to Ivan Bunn, the BSIG investigator. “………he was a bent-over old man wearing a trilby hat and a heavy overcoat……”. She was particularly struck by his “ashen face and cold look….. He was looking directly at the car as it approached him, but gave no indication that he was about to step off the kerb…..he had an odd expression, as if he knew what was about to happen”. Mrs Rose’s mother later confirmed to Ivan Bunn more or less what her daughter had said; saying that she herself never saw the ‘old man’ or felt the impact. In fact, she said that she was absolutely unaware that anything was amiss until she was, unceremoniously, thrown out of her seat when her daughter “stood on the brakes”. (See figure 1 on Map).
There have been other reported encounters with a ‘ghostly pedestrian’ and a few unsubstantiated ones. Another one which seems to have a ring of authenticity about it was one that occurred on a stretch of the old A12 road in March, 1974. At about 9.15pm one evening the driver of a car claimed to have seen a ‘sneering face’ illuminated by the headlights of his car. He braked hard to avoid what he thought was a person but, to his horror, “the car went though it!”. This witness also recalled that on other occasions before this incident, he felt “decidedly uneasy” on that stretch of the road “for no apparent reason”. (See figure 4 on Map).
It was also on the old A12, back in in December 1960 that a Mr Ernest Tuttle of Lowestoft was killed when the fish lorry which her was driving left the road for no apparent reason and hit a tree. Mr Tuttle, who had frequently driven along this road, had often told his daughter that it was “The worst road he had ever driven on….and there was something odd about it”. A month or so before his fatal crash, Mr Tuttle had told his daughter that he had seen “a grey shadow, a mist, going across the road.” At his inquest, an open verdict was returned; in his address, the Coroner said to the Jury:
“ The evidence, regarding the cause of the accident, did not amount to much, and most of it was negative……one naturally tries to find some explanation of something that would otherwise be a complete mystery”. (See figure 5 on Map)
As to the identity of this ghostly figure – well, no one knows. One theory suggested that it was a William Balls, Hopton’s postman who had worked himself to death in January of 1899, having spent 22 years serving the village. He was found in a field, close to where the hauntings occurred, at 10.30am on 2 January 1899, lying face down in a pool of blood after having succumbed to pneumonia which had developed from winter flu. It was said that he was buried at Hopton church, which must have been the present St Margaret’s since the St Margaret’s Church of old was burned down in 1865 – the remains of which still exist as a ruin.
Ivan Bunn was told about William Balls by Gwen Balls – the postman was her husband’s grandfather who died aged just 40 and who had been warned by his doctor just days beforehand that he would die without rest. “What am I to do? I must do my duty,” he replied. On the day of his death, as usual, he set out on his 16-mile round at 6am and worked until 9.30am at which point he started for home and a rest before restarting work at 4.20pm. He was found in his father’s field by a farm worker and left behind a pregnant wife, Angelina.
Dating back to the late 15th century, the first Monday after Epiphany marks the start of ploughing for spring sown crops and was once the traditional day of agricultural workers returning after the Christmas period. Historic documents however, tell of plough candles being lit in churches during January in the 13th century.
Customs of the day varied nationwide, but the most common feature was a plough (blessed in church the previous day) to be hauled from house to house in rural communities. As the continued, an army of villagers collected money for the parish during a passing street procession. Apart from dancers and musicians, an old woman called “the Bessy” or a boy dressed as such and a man in the role of the ‘Plough Fool’ often headed of the procession. Some participants paraded a Straw Bear and not surprisingly, the event also attracted much drinking, merriment and mirth throughout the day. In Eastern England, ploughs were taken around by Plough Monday mummers and Molly Dancers and were sometimes even used as a threat. If householders refused to donate to the money collectors, their front paths would be ploughed up!
A festive Plough Pudding was also eaten on the day. Originating and also ‘invented’ in Norfolk, this was a suet pastry-topped boiled pudding filled with pork sausage meat, chopped bacon and onions with sage and sugar added. It could be eaten alone, or served with boiled potatoes, vegetables and gravy. One recipe suggested a Cooking time of 3 hrs 30 minutes, but today’s microwaves would reduce that!! A similar item is still sold today by major supermarkets.
At its height, Plough Monday was most commonly celebrated in the East Midlands and East Anglia, until the English Reformation caused its slow decline. In 1538, Henry VIII forbade “plough lights” to be lit in churches, before Edward VI condemned the “conjuring of ploughs”. Ceremonies revived during the reign of Mary only to decline again during Elizabeth I’s reign. Some processions survived into the 19th century and in 1810, a farmer took his case to Derby Assizes, claiming that refusal to donate money, those pulling the plough, immediately ploughed up his drive, his lawn and a bench, causing twenty pounds worth of damage. Plough Monday customs continued to decline but were revived in some towns in the 20th, with remaining events mainly involving Molly Dancers. Some Plough Monday events were still recorded in the 1930’s before a “folk revival” in the ’60s and ’70s partly returned it to some communities.
This year however, being 2019, Plough Monday falls on the 7th January – which means, for this year at least, it clashes with St. Distaff’s Day!!
Before factory-made cloth was invented, spinning was considered one of the most demanding female chores as before the Spinning Wheel arrived, this activity was slowly and tediously done on a Drop Spindle. One pound of woollen yarn might take a week to spin and a pound of heavy cotton yarn, several weeks. Women of all ages spun threads and when normal activities resumed, they would also spin at home in the evenings, after daytime working in the factory. Spinning was the only way to turn raw wool, cotton or flax, into thread, before it became cloth.
Several times recently, readers have enjoyed descriptions of certain dates connected with historic events, famous people and more. We’ve just had New Year’s Day and next month, comes St Valentine’s Day. But there are other “named” days relating to unusual, forgotten or bygone customs and the following is one example:-
In England, as well as other European countries the days from Christmas through Twelfth Night were once considered a time of rest from the labours of spinning. The maidens returned to their work on St. Distaff’s Day, January 7th. This day was also known as Rock Day, which is derived from the German word rocken, which means both distaff and woman’s. Robert Herrick’s poem about St Distaff’s Day comes from the anthology, Hesperides, and was published in 1647:
St. Distaff’s day, or the morrow after Twelfth-Day
(from Hesperides by Rober Herrick)
Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on S. Distaffs day:
From the Plough soone free your teame;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Bring in pailes of water then,
Let the Maides bewash the men.
Give S. Distaffe all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.
The general suggestion of the poem seems to be that men and women should go back to work after the Christmas break but should do so lightly and with some playfulness thrown in before settling in for the long haul. The command ”Partly worke and partly play/ Ye must on S. Distaffs day” is probably a fair observation on the actual state of affairs, given that Plough Monday games (on the Monday after Epiphany) are well attested in many rural areas, especially East Anglia. Little it seemed was therefore taken too seriously on the first day back at work; it became a joke holiday and they called it St. Distaff’s Day. Of course, there never was a real St. Distaff, the “distaff” was, in fact, a principal spinning tool – a rod on to which flax was tied and from which, thread was pulled.
Although women resumed work on January 7th, men still stayed free until Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany (6th Jan). If that fell on a Tuesday, they wouldn’t return until Monday, 12th January! As it was, the Plough Monday celebrations were a great deal more popular in the days leading up to the 19th century when England still had a sizable rural, agricultural population. A large number of rural customs that flourished in England in the mid-19th century were dying or dead by the beginning of the 20th as people migrated from the country to cities and lost their ties to rural life. Antiquarians and, later, folklorists and anthropologists took to the task of recording the remains of these customs, as well as hunting down snippets of information from archives. As for the plough-boys when the festival was at its height, well they used this discrepancy to no good by playing pranks on the busy spinners. The most popular of these pranks was to set fire to the tow and flax which was awaiting processing. The spinners in turn would quench the fire with buckets of water, drenching both fire and firebug.
Large and small St Distaff’s Day gatherings of the fibre-based community were held nationwide on 7th January, with little work being done that day. Records suggest that in England, St. Distaff’s Day was only ‘celebrated’ between the 13th and 17th centuries.