Quite often I pass by the road signs on the Fakenham Road in Norfolk that tell me where the villages of Lyng and Elsing are. Each time I do so the name ‘Fustyweed’ comes to mind – a name that had been curious to me in the past – but no longer; but it still does tempt me to delve into the realms of ‘fantasy’ from time to time!
For those who do not know, ‘Fustyweed’ is real, both as a word with a pedigree, and also the name of an actual hamlet that sits comfortably between the neighbouring villages of Lyng and Elsing; all blessed for being on a sheltered side of the valley, and with open meadows. This hamlet itself consists of a collection of five older, artisan sized, houses, one of which is a treehouse!
It seems that Fustyweed has always been a hamlet, remaining so because it never grew to warrant a church or a working mill as did its neighbours. So, there must have been another reason for it being where it is; and why was it so named? Was it simply that in the very distant past, not only did crops grow thereabouts, but also some unpleasant smelling plant – possibly offering medicinal benefits to the community? The reason I suggest this is the possible origin of the word itself, which may offer a clue.
Here, I had to go back to an 1822 publication by Robert Nares (1753 – 1829), titled ‘Nares’ Glossary’; this book was described in 1859, by Halliwell and Wright, as indispensable to readers of Elizabethan Literature. Within it I found the following information:
“Fusty” – Musty or mouldy:
Hector shall have a great catch if he knock out either out your brains: ‘a were as good crack a fusty nut with no kernal’. (Troilus and Cressida ii. 1.)
“Dirty, Musty, Ill Smelling”:
…. Where the dull tribunes,
That with the fusty plebeians [a commoner] hate thine honours,
Shall say, against their hearts, “We thank the gods
Our Rome hath such a soldier.” (Coriolanus. i. 9.)
Now, with the dry stuff out of the way – how about a little of that fantasy that I hinted to earlier. On that topic, I can do no better than recommend the following, by fellow blogger, Molly Potter in her November, 2009 blog, titled ‘Fustyweed’. Here it is:
A terrace of five small houses sits some distance back from the only road. Smoke from the five little chimneys zig zags into the sky. The doors and window frames are haphazardly painted orange, purple, red and green. The front gardens are brimming with stunningly beautiful flowers: mostly noddydil, fraf and craggleweed. Silver and gold fluttifol buzz around them collecting gliff to make their glittery crunnyplop (which is sold in jars from a table at the roadside).
All of the houses are kept perfectly maintained with the exception of number four. Minky Flupp who lives there says she spends far too much time granting wishes to bother with keeping her house shipshape. Her neighbours don’t mind, as long as she grants them a wish now and then.
Jiggy Paloozeville at number three keeps yickins. The yickins lay the most delicious eggs with a yoke so deeply purple few can resist. He willingly shares the produce with his neighbours and most mornings the fruity aroma of freshly poached yickin eggs wafts around the terrace.
People tend not to call round to number five because its resident: Professor Batty Baffookink conducts science experiments there. The one-time Minky knocked on the door, it was answered by a squealing green and brown slimey mass. It took Minky some time to recover even after she had learned that the sight was just Batty covered in Harpypoo Sulphate after a tuttyfragwill experiment had blown up. Even so, these days everyone prefers to wait for Batty to come to them.
The eldest Fustyweed occupant lives at number one. At four-hundred and forty-two, Neg Keg is filled with memories. So many, in fact, that he has to have them regularly removed by Chiffle Lacey-Trickle-Doot who conveniently lives next door. The removal process uses a bespoke machine that Chiffle invented. The machine has many cogs, several springs, a few sparking wires, two glass tubes and a large wooden memory vat. A wriggling hose-like attachment (tailored to Neg’s spikey head) sucks out twenty years’ worth of memories at a time. With the relief this provides, Neg can go back to filling his head up with new memories. These memories mostly come from his time on the wirrity field playing tuffball.”
Heading Image: The welcoming village (hamlet) sign. Credit Cameron Self, 2010.
‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K.
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In school we were told that King John lost his jewels in the Wash; fact they said- and we believed it for we were not in a position to think or judge otherwise! Now it’s a case of thinking ‘Maybe he did, – maybe he didn’t’; certainly there has been much speculation and probably arguments for generations ever since – with no sign of the debate ending in the foreseeable future!
For the purposes of this blog, let’s keep things calm and simple by starting with The Wash, the place which played host to this interesting and somewhat speculative incident in our history. Then we will combine this with the year of 1216, when King John was said to have lost England’s Crown Jewels somewhere in the murky waters of quite a sizable estuary which is still fed by the rivers Witham, Well, Steeping, Nene and the Great Ouse at the point where they enter the Wash.
Even a cursory look at a map will show that the Wash is a large bay on the East coast of England; lying as it continues to do, between the Counties of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. The Wash collects somewhere around 15% of Great Britain’s water and is host to the Country’s second largest inter-tidal mudflats, clearly in evidence when the tide is out.
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. Schools also continue to tell children that The Wash was given the name of Metaris Aestuarium, (meaning the reaping/mowing/cutting off estuary) during the first century, by the Roman astrologer and mathematician, Claudius Ptolemy. Also, that 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. However, in 1631, a Dutch engineer, by the name of Sir Cornelius Vermuyden (1595 – 1677), began a large-scale land reclamation to drain the Fens of East Anglia with the building of the Horseshoe Sluice on the tidal river at Wisbech……. So much for today’s geography and history lessons; we must proceed with the circumstances surrounding ‘Bad’ King John and the apparent loss of his Crown Jewels.
In a nutshell, King John was not popular – probably still an understatement. Nevertheless, previous to this, his latest of unfortunate ‘incidents’ in his life, he had the misfortune of losing much of England’s lands in France; he’d been excommunicated and maybe worst of all, he was forced to sign the Magna Carta. However, the following year John, being John, 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 he retreated north from the French invasion, taking a safe route by circumventing the marshy area of the Wash and thus avoiding that rebel held area of East Anglia. It is known, for example, that on 2 October John travelled to Grimsby, apparently to arrange for military equipment and stores to be shipped to Bishop’s Lynn – now King’s Lynn. Originally, the town was known as `Linn’, and it is thought that the name derived from the Celtic word for a lake or pool, and it is recorded that a large tidal lake originally covered that particular area.
King John also went to Spalding before possibly using one of the Sutton Wash crossing points to arrive back in Bishop’s Lynn on 9 October. It was in Lynn where he finally succumbed to dysentery and had no option but to stay awhile in order to recover; it may have been somewhat fortunate that Bishop’s Lynn happened to be a town where the King was well liked – in view of the fact that he had previously granted the place a Royal Charter. He was still in Lynn on October 11. According to Kings Lynn’s Borough Council records, the King stayed until the 12 of October 1216 when he left, taking a different route to his baggage.
We are told that he sent it, together with the jewels, on what he thought was a quicker route across one or other of the rivers thereabout. On this, there is a problem for today’s speculation and argument is about the place where the treasure was actually lost. We know that the Wash was much wider centuries ago, and the sea then reached as far as Wisbech and the inland town of Long Sutton was a port on the coast. But it is much more than that; journalist, Bruce Robinson, as recently as 2014 speculated:
“…… Was it near Fosdyke, close to the mouth of the river Welland, as some modern revisionists have suggested; or as most Long Suttonians have long believed, on the Sutton Wash estuary of the river Nene? And what was the treasure? Gold and silver, or ancient books and legal documents? Or was there never any ‘treasure’ in the first place, as some have speculated, because the King was largely bankrupt?
There are more questions than answers for the precise details of John’s daily movements are unknown, and there has been much speculation as to how the schedule was achieved. John may have gone directly from Lynn to Wisbech, crossing the Nene by the town bridge before heading for Spalding and then to Swineshead Abbey. Or he may have crossed the estuary and ridden to Wisbech before awaiting the arrival of his baggage train. It was all, without doubt, a hard schedule for a very sick man. Understandably, it is the movement of the baggage train which has excited most curiosity, for its attempted crossing of the estuary using the Cross Keys to Sutton route apparently at a time when the tide was about to turn can only suggest either that the baggage train was in a desperate hurry, or that someone must have ignored or over-ruled the advice of local guides. Either way – and it might have been both – and assuming the event did take place here and not Fosdyke, it was a foolhardy decision.”
We are told that up to three thousand of the King’s entourage were carrying the royal wardrobe and the whole of the kingdom’s treasury. At low tide the conditions of any causeway would have been so wet and muddy that the wagons would have moved slowly, with the inevitable result that they would have sunk into the mud, thus engulfing the King’s most valuable possessions. The men of the train would certainly have struggled with the trunks, whilst others equally struggled with the horses in an attempt to encourage movement – but with no avail; everything would have been eventually covered by the incoming tide!
As for the King; he continued to Swineshead Abby, near Boston in Lincolnshire, where his health deteriorated once again. Here we have yet another legend about the loss of the treasure. This one tells us that he was poisoned by a monk called Brother Simon, who stole the jewels and made his way out of England, his destination was somewhere in Europe – and the stories did not stop there. Another interesting take is that the treasure was not lost at all! – instead, the John used its value as security, arranging for its ‘loss’ before they would have arrived at their destination, using the Wash as a ruse. But, there appears to be no written proof to give credence to these two tales – so they remain as possible myths!
In the end, however, we are led to believe that a story which began with the King’s run from the Barons came to a head with the loss of the kingdom’s ‘treasury’, and may well have been the last straw with the John’s health and possibly his state of mind. But, apparently, he was not to hear about his ‘loss’ until after he had left Sleaford Castle for Newark Castle. It was here where the so-called ‘Bad’ King John died – either the 18 or 19 of October 1216 – and we are all here to pick up the pieces!
Epilogue: John was an English king who has suffered from bad press over the centuries. He was no hero, he was vengeful and untrusting; is it any wonder when we are told that, as a child he received no support from warring parents, he received no support from a self obsessed brother and, as King, he saw little or no support from his people so, what chance did he have? W L Warren, in his book ‘King John’, seems to sum up fairly accurately the cause of John’s 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.”
There are also 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, on the other hand, 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 that carried household items, church and holy relics. However, and on balance, it seems pretty certain that some valuable items belonging to King John did get lost in the Wash, but not a treasure trove as we would imagine it to be. 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 a second train that never began its journey across the Wash, but ended its days thrown in amongst the new King Henry III’s treasury?
Two final myths: Firstly, in the mid-14th century a certain local Norfolk gentleman, by the name of Robert Tiptoft, became suddenly very wealthy; according to folklore this was because he found the Kings treasure – but did not hand it back to the Crown!
The other is, again, from journalist, Bruce Robinson:
“The whole King John episode has sparked some odd investigations over the decades, none stranger than one shortly before the Second World War when an ‘expedition’ to find the jewels excited interest and suspicion, so much so that years later……. a story was still current that the searchers were not archaeological experts looking for treasure but ‘Nazi spies’ mapping the fieldscapes in preparation for later landings by paratroopers……..Interestingly, in 1940 and 1941, during the ‘invasion scare’ period, defensive preparations for enemy paratroop landings were high on the list of local military priorities.”
There lies further stories!
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.
This is the story of non-other than Mucky Porter, the Fenland publican who saved King Charles 1 on one occasion. It was written originally by Gordon Phillips, who based it on different tales contained in the books “Tales from the Fens” and “More Tales from the Fens”, written by Walter Barrett, with illustrations by Percy Garrod; the stories were edited by Enid Porter. Walter, or Jack as most locals knew him as, grew up in Brandon Creek and most of his tales were adapted from those told by the legendary fen man and storyteller, Chafer Legge. This story, by Gordon Phillips, previously appeared on the Enid Porter Project website. Read on:
In the fens of the past there was a secret brotherhood and sisterhood of the Grey Goose Feather. True fen landers would carry a feather from the fowl who overwintered in the watery places and when in need they only had to produce the feather and all true fen landers would help them.
At the time of the English Civil War there lived in the village of Southery, on the Norfolk border of the great wilderness, a publican by the name of Mucky Porter. One evening he was counting out his money, his takings for the day of which there was very little, when there came a knock at the Inn door. Mucky Porter looked outside and saw two very fine-looking gentlemen with two extremely beautiful thoroughbred horses outside in his yard. He wondered what such affluent looking folk could want with him and hurried to the door.
“Are you the man they call Mucky Porter?” They asked. “I might be, it depends on who wants to know”, he replied letting them into the pub parlour. The strangers sat down and quickly came to the point.
“Mr. Porter could you tell us what you think of Old Noll?” – This, by the way, is an epithet applied to Oliver Cromwell by his Royalist contemporaries.
“Well, I don’t think much about him except he’s the reason that my takings have been rather low recently. Nearly all my regulars have gone to fight in his army as he says that he’ll put an end to the draining of the fen and interfering with their way of life,” he replied.
“And what about the King, Mr. Porter?”
“Well, I don’t think much about him neither.”
“Would you be prepared to help the King Mr. Porter?”
“Well, it depends what was in it for me.”
At this one of the strangers took out of his pocket a bag of gold coins. Mucky Porter’s eyes lit up. The strangers continued:
“Mr. Porter we have heard that you are one of the few people who know the way across these accursed marshes and bogs. The King has been pursued across Norfolk by Oliver Cromwell’s men and needs to get to Huntingdon where his forces are waiting to escort him to Oxford. If you could guide him across you would be rewarded with this bag of gold.”
It took Mucky Porter at least three seconds to decide and later that night he was brought before the King himself at Snore Hall near Downham Market, where he was being hidden. Some of the King’s attendants were dubious that this raggedy looking local could be trusted with the fate of the monarch and Mucky was asked for some proof that he was trustworthy. At that Mucky Porter drew from his pocket a grey goose feather. He took out his knife and cut the feather in half.
“Your lordships,” said Mucky Porter with all the dignity he could muster, “I am a fen lander, a true fen lander. All true folk of this area carry this token and if in need are sworn to help, unto even their own death, another who carries a grey goose feather.” He put one half feather in his pocket and handed the other to the King. “Now, by my honour, I can do nothing but aid His Majesty.”
This seemed to satisfy the members of the court and the following morning Mucky Porter of Southery and King Charles 1st of England set out across the last great wilderness of Southern Britain. At first, they passed through populous areas and Mucky Porter was concerned that their presence was being noted by those they came across.
“Your Majesty,” he said, “I am worried that these great huge horses make us stand out. I think we need to take a detour.”
The detour took them to Southery and the inn where they stabled the thoroughbreds they were riding and took to two sturdy fenland ponies instead. Mucky Porter also got a couple of old sacks to put over their clothes and as they passed out through the village streets, they went unnoticed.
Mucky Porter was indeed an expert at finding his way through the fen and they passed through areas that few knew and even fewer dared themselves to visit. Thus, they came eventually to the other side, to the ford in the river just outside Huntingdon. There, however, their hearts sank as it was strongly manned by Roundhead troops.
“Halt, who goes there?” called the sentries.
At this Mucky Porter put his hand into his pocket, took out the split grey goose feather and held it aloft. The troops turned their gaze on the King who put his hand in his pocket and did the same.
“Quick, come across, and then away with you”, said the guards who were, of course, themselves true fen landers. There Mucky Porter handed the King over eventually to his own men and returned by his secret route towards the pub. In his pocket, which he kept tapping, was the bag filled with gold coins and in his stable back at the pub were the two fine horses, the like of which had never been seen in Southery.”
And that might have been the end of the story for Mucky Porter, but not, of course, as we know for King Charles. Eventually the forces of Oliver Cromwell were victorious and Charles was forced to stand trial. As is well known, he was found guilty and was sentenced to death. It is said in the fens that on the night before the execution, Cromwell was sitting with the rest of his generals near to the place of execution when there came an emissary from the King. He stood before the generals and said,
“The King does not ask for pardon for he is God’s anointed monarch and knows that the Parliament has no authority to do what they intend to do to him. All that His Majesty asks is that he is afforded that due to one who holds this token.”
At that the courtier drew from his pocket the split grey goose feather and placed it on the table before Cromwell. Cromwell’s face went white and he dismissed all those who were gathered with him. Long he sat into the night, staring at the feather. For Cromwell too was a fen lander and knew what he should do. But when morning came, he did not intervene and Charles 1st was beheaded. It is said that when they heard about this the fenland members of his army refused to follow him. They threw their goose feathers at his feet and returned to their homes.”
And what of Mucky Porter, back in the inn at Southery? Perhaps he shed a tear when he heard of the execution of the King, we do not know. He was still landlord many years later when he heard of the death of ‘Old Noll’ and it unlikely that he was very upset at that. One day, when Mucky Porter was getting very old but still landlord at the pub there came a knock at his door in the early morning. He went to the window and saw a number of fine-looking gentlemen out in the yard. He went outside and greeted them.
“Are you Mucky Porter?” one of the fine gentlemen asked. “I might be, it depends who’s asking”, was his reply. “I am looking for a man called Mucky Porter”, said the most flamboyantly dressed visitor. “When I was young, I heard many times the story of how a publican of that name helped my father to escape from Cromwell’s men across the wilderness. I have always wanted to reward him for the deed.”
Mucky Porter very quickly realised who the visitor was and within a few minutes had agreed to accompany Charles 2nd and his courtiers out into the newly drained lands. The company was amazed when the old fen lander emerged from his stable riding a fine thoroughbred horse, the descendent of the two horses he had obtained all those years ago.
They rode out on to the fen where the newly drained land shone with fecundity in the bright fenland sunlight. After they had ridden for a while Charles said to Mucky Porter, “Well here we are Mr. Porter. You can have, as a reward for the service that you gave to my father, as much of the land as you would like. Come now, specify the boundaries of your new domain.” Mucky Porter stared around him.
“Well, Your Majesty”, he said, “I think I’ll have from that barn over there, to that ditch right over there, to that tree in the distance. How much do you think I’ve got?”
“Mr. Porter, I think that you must have several acres there.”
And ever since that day the land on Methwold Fen has been called the Methwold Severals which, ever since, has been farmed by a Porter.
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Our thanks to Jim Moon of ‘Hypnogoria’ who, somewhere amongst his many blogs, wrote the following – it is his take on a very famous and popular Norfolk myth – whoops! – tale.
In the county of Norfolk, between King’s Lynn in the west and Norwich in the east lies the market town of Swaffham. However, while the town and its market have been a centre for agriculture since the 14th century, the town is perhaps better known as being home to an oft-told folk tale. It’s a tale of a good man and good fortune, and frequently is mentioned when the subject of prophecies and dreams come up. It’s a tale that has been told many times, and its earliest incarnation is found in an old tome entitled ‘An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk’ by Francis Blomefield (William Miller, London, 1805-10). In Volume 11 of this truly compendious essay, we have a letter by Sir William Dugdale, dated 29 January 1652, and in it he relates the following Tale:
“That dreaming one night if he went to London he should certainly meet with a man upon London Bridge which would tell him good news; he was so perplext in his mind, that till he set upon his journey he could have no rest; to London therefore he hasts and walk’d upon the Bridge for some hours where being espyed by a Shopkeeper and asked what he wanted, he answered you may well ask me that question for truly (quoth he) I am come hither upon a very vain errand and so told the story of his dream which occasioned the journey. Whereupon the Shopkeeper reply’d alas good friend! should I have heeded dreams, I might have proved myself as very a fool as thou hast; for ‘tis not long since that I dreamt, that at a place called Swaffham Market in Norfolk dwells one John Chapman a pedlar who hath a tree in his backside under which is buried a pot of money. Now therefore, if I should have made a journey thither to dig for such hidden treasure, judge you whether I should not have been counted a fool. To whom the pedlar cunningly said “Yes verily, I will therefore return home and follow my business, not heeding such dreams henceforward.” But when he came home (being satisfied that his dream was fulfilled) he took occasion to dig in the place and accordingly found a large pot full of money which he prudently conceal’d, putting the pot amongst the rest of his brass.”
“After a time, it happen’d that one who came to his house and beholding the pot observed an inscription upon it which being in Latin, he interpreted it, that under that there was an other twice as good. Of that inscription the Pedlar was before ignorant or at least minded it not, but when he heard the meaning of it he said, “‘tis very true, in the shop where I bought this pot stood another under it, which was twice as big”; but considering that it might tend to further his profit to dig deeper in the same place where he found that, he fell again to work and discover’d such a pot, as was intimated by the inscription, full of old coine: notwithstanding all which he so conceal’d his wealth, that the neighbours took no notice of it. But not long after the inhabitants of Swaffham resolving to reedify their church, and having consulted with the workmen about the charge they made a levy wherein they taxed the Pedlar according to no other rate than what they had formerly done. But he knowing his own ability came to the church and desired the workmen to shew him their model, and to tell him what they esteemed the charge of the North Isle would amount to, which when they told him he presently undertook to pay them for building it, and not only that but of a very tall and beautiful tower steeple.”
Now this tale has become famous the world over, and is much celebrated in the the town itself, lending its name, in the past, to the Pedlar’s Hall Cafe and inspiring the carved wooden village sign (above) for the town. However curiously, Swaffham isn’t the only place that has a tale like this. Indeed, an almost identical tale is told of Upsall Castle in North Yorkshire. In ‘The Vale of Mowbray: A Historical and Topographical Account of Thirsk and Its Neighbourhood’ by William Grainge (Simpkin, Marshall & Co. 1859) we have a story he entitles “Crocks of Gold”:
“Many years ago there resided in the village of Upsall, a man who dreamed three nights successively that if he went to London, he would hear of something greatly to his advantage. He went, travelling the whole distance from Upsall to London on foot, arrived he took his station on the bridge where he waited until his patience was very nearly exhausted and the idea that he had acted a very foolish part began to rise in his mind. At length he was accosted by a Quaker, who kindly inquired what he was waiting there so long for. After some hesitation, he told his dreams. The Quaker laughed at his simplicity, and told him he had had that night a very curious dream himself, which was that if he went to dig under a certain bush in Upsall Castle in Yorkshire, he will find a pot of gold; but he did not know where Upsall was, and inquired of the Countryman if he knew, who seeing some advantage in secrecy pleading ignorance of the locality; and then thinking his business in London was completed, returned immediately home, dug beneath the bush, and there he found a pot filled with gold, and on the cover an inscriptions in a language he did not understand. The pot and cover were however reserved at the village inn; where one day, a bearded stranger like a Jew, made his appearance, saw the pot, and read the inscription, the plain English at which was –
“Look lower where this stood
Is another twice as good”
The man of Upsall hearing this, resumed his spade, returned to the bush, dug deeper, and found another pot filled with gold far more valuable than the first: encouraged by this, he dug deeper still, and found another yet more valuable.”
This story has been related of other places, but Upsall appears to have as good a claim to this yielding of hidden treasures as the best of them. Here we have the constant tradition of the inhabitants, and the identical but yet remains beneath which the treasure was found; an Elder, near the north-west corner of the ruins. Now you will notice that this text boldly mentions that the tale is told in other places, and indeed it is. For to travel further north in the United Kingdom, we find it retold yet again and at an earlier date. In ‘The Popular Rhymes of Scotland’ by Robert Chambers (W. Hunter, 1826), we learn the history of Dundonald Castle:
“Donald, the builder, was originally a poor man, but had the faculty of dreaming lucky dreams. Upon one occasion he dreamed, thrice in one night, that if he were to go to London Bridge, he would become a wealthy man. He went accordingly, saw a man looking over the parapet of the bridge, whom he accosted courteously, and, after a little conversation, intrusted with the secret of the occasion of his visiting London Bridge. The stranger told him that he had made a very foolish errand, for he himself had once had a similar vision, which directed him to go to a certain spot in Ayrshire, in Scotland, where he would find a vast treasure, and, for his part, he had never once thought of obeying the injunction. From his description of the spot, the sly Scotsman at once perceived that the treasure in question must be concealed in no other place than his own humble kail-yard at home, to which he immediately repaired in full expectation of finding it. Nor was he disappointed; for, after destroying many good and promising cabbages, and completely cracking credit with his wife, who esteemed him mad, he found a large potful of gold coin, with the proceeds of which he built a stout castle for himself, and became the founder of a flourishing family.”
Chambers, much like Grainge, goes on to remark “This absurd story is localised in almost every district of Scotland, always referring to London Bridge”. And indeed, not only does the tale recur in other Scottish tales, but it appears in various other places in England and Wales too. Furthermore if we hop over the Channel to Europe, we find it flourishing there too, although of course with some other national landmark standing in for dear old London Bridge. The most famous example perhaps is found in the collections of folk tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm:
“Some time ago a man dreamed that he should go to the bridge at Regensburg where he would become rich. He went there, and after spending some fourteen days there a wealthy merchant, who wondered why was spending so much time on the bridge, approached him and asked him what he was doing there. The latter answered, “I dreamed that I was to go to the bridge at Regensburg, where I would become rich.“What?” said the merchant, “You came here because of a dream? Dreams are fantasies and lies. Why I myself dreamed that there is a large pot of gold buried beneath that large tree over there.” And he pointed to the tree. “But I paid no attention, for dreams are fantasies.” Then the visitor went and dug beneath the tree, where he found a great treasure that made him rich, and thus his dream was confirmed” (from Deutsche Sagen (1816/1818), Vol. 1, No. 212)
However, the trail does not end there. Even earlier and further south, we discover an identical tale in that famous anthology of ancient tales ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ (AKA Arabian Nights). The 14th tale is called The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream and goes like this:
“Once there lived in Baghdad a wealthy man who lost all his means and was thus forced to earn his living by hard labor. One night a man came to him in a dream, saying, “Your fortune is in Cairo; go there and seek it.” So he set out for Cairo. He arrived there after dark and took shelter for the night in a mosque. As Allah would have it, a band of thieves entered the mosque in order to break into an adjoining house. The noise awakened the owners, who called for help. The Chief of Police and his men came to their aid. The robbers escaped, but when the police entered the mosque, they found the man from Baghdad asleep there. They laid hold of him and beat him with palm rods until he was nearly dead, then threw him into jail. Three days later, the Chief of Police sent for him and asked “Where do you come from?” “From Bagdad” he answered. ” And what brought you to Cairo?” asked the Chief.
“A man came to me in a dream and told me to come to Cairo to find my fortune,” answered the man from Baghdad “But when I came here, the promised fortune proved to be the palm rods you so generously gave to me.””You fool,” said the Chief of Police, laughing until his wisdom teeth showed. “A man has come to me three times in a dream and has described a house in Baghdad where a great sum of money is supposedly buried beneath a fountain in the garden. He told me to go there and take it, but I stayed here. You, however, have foolishly journeyed from place to place on the faith of a dream which was nothing more than a meaningless hallucination.” He then gave him some money saying, “This will help you return to your own country.”The man took the money. He realized that the Chief of Police had just described his own house in Baghdad, so he forthwith returned home, where he discovered a great treasure beneath the fountain in his garden. Thus, Allah gave him abundant fortune and brought the dream’s prediction to fulfillment”.
Now we cannot be sure of the exact age of the many tales collected in this volume, for scholars believe the first versions of the collection appeared in Arabic in the early parts of the 8th century, with various additional tales being added over the next few centuries. However, what we do know is that this particular story of a most fortunate dream appears in as part of a poem by the 13th century Persian poet, Jalal al-Din Rumia, who is best known in the West as simply Rumi. In his epic collection The Masnavi, we have the poem ‘In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad’.
So then, here we have a tale retold in many places and at many times, indeed it is one of those small number of tales that seems to recur everywhere. And folklorists have a catalogue of such stories – this one is commonly referred to as ‘The Treasure at Home’, and under the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales it is number ATU 1646. Now given that we have several important literary landmarks for the story, it is widely though that this very popular tale was spread throughout Europe thanks the massive popularity of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’, and was adapted to fit local geography and history as it was retold in different places.
However, the first European edition of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ was a French version translated by Antoine Galland that appeared 1704, and was first translated into English in 1706. We should also note at this point that the works of Rumi were not translated until considerably later, with the first English translations appearing in the late 19th century. However, if you have been paying attention to the dates, we find that while the ‘Arabian Nights’ theory could well account for the versions referenced by Grainge and Chambers, the oldest English version, comes from a letter written in the 1650s.
Now while we cannot rule out this old Arabic tale been spread orally across Europe before its printed incarnations, it is certainly intriguing that the Swaffham version predates other European versions by a good century or more. Furthermore Sir William makes clear that it was already an old tale when he set it down in his letter, and this is supported by the fact that the original Swaffham version has a sequel built in that many other version do not – the business of the inscription and a second pot of gold. For this kind of embroidery is typical of a tale been around for a good while, gaining additional details and extra subplots as it is retold by different generations.
Stranger still is the fact that our hero is actually given a name – John Chapman – something very unusual for a folk tale. But even more intriguingly, there is some historical evidence to back up the story, for John Botewrigh, the Rector of Swaffham between 1435 and 1474 made an inventory of building and repair work done to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. And this tome is now known as the’Swaffham Black Book’, and in it we discover that in the mid-15th century the North Aisle of the church was rebuilt. And what is more, this renovation work was paid for by a fellow named John Chapman. And as part of this building work, new pews were installed and two of them are of particular interest for us: for their carved ends show a pedlar and his dog. Furthermore, local tradition suggests that a third which shows a lady, is a representation of the shopkeeper in the story.
Of course, none of that can displace the fact that a version of the tale was circulating in the East some centuries before, but certainly the pews and Chapman’s name appearing in the ‘Swaffham Black Book’ does suggest that the story of his good fortune may have been doing the rounds while the goodly gent was still alive. Obviously, Chapman, who served as a churchwarden, was a wealthy man, for construction work never comes cheap, particular in earlier times when a major building project may take years to complete. And given that in the 15th century, Swaffham was home to a thriving market, one wonders whether the tale had found its way to rural Norfolk thanks to travelling merchants, the very kind of folks Chapman would have been trading with.
Furthermore, in history we have many examples of less than virtuous men who in later life decide to bankroll various projects for their local churches. And usually these generous and charitable projects are seemingly done as a kind of penance for their earlier sins and misdeeds. Therefore it is tempting to speculate that the tale of Chapman’s fortune may well have been deliberately adopted to disguise the real origin of his wealth. And rather than repaying the good Lord for his luck by refurbishing his local church, as many versions of the tale suggest, he may well have been atoning for making a lot of money through less than virtuous means…
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.
Anglo-Saxon tradition dictated that at the beginning of each year, the lord of the manor would greet the assembled multitude with the toast waes hael, meaning“be well” or “be in good health”, to which his followers would reply drink hael, or “drink well”, and so the New Year celebrations would start with a glass or two, or perhaps even a drop more! It is likely that such celebrations were being enjoyed many years before Christianity began to spread throughout Britain from around 600 onwards.
Depending upon the area of the country where you lived, the wassail drink itself would generally consist of a warmed ale, wine or cider, blended with spices, honey and perhaps an egg or two, all served in one huge bowl and passed from one person to the next with the traditional “wassail” greeting.
The Wassailing celebrations generally take place on the Twelfth Night, 5th January, however the more traditional still insist in celebrating it on ‘Old Twelvey’, or the 17th January, the correct date; that is before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar messed things up in 1752.
There are two distinct variations of wassailing. One involves groups of merrymakers going from one house to another, wassail bowl in hand, singing traditional songs and generally spreading fun and good wishes. The other form of wassailing is generally practiced in the countryside, particularly in fruit growing regions, where it is the trees that are blessed.
The practice of house-wassailing continued in England throughout the Middle Ages, adapting as a way by which the feudal lord of the manor could demonstrate charitable seasonal goodwill to those who served him, by gifting money and food in exchange for the wassailers blessing and songs;
“Love and joy come to you,
and to you your wassail to;
and God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.”
The house-wassailing tradition has evolved into what we now recognise as carolling, where groups of people go from door-to-door singing Christmas carols. Some aspects of the original practise however can still be detected in the words of these carols; listen carefully as the wassailers demands begin, “now give us some figgy pudding”, and then as those demands turn to threats “and we won’t go until we’ve got some”.
The wassailing, or blessing of the fruit trees, involves drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they will provide a bountiful harvest in the autumn. This ancient custom is still practised across the country today, and is particularly popular in the cider producing areas of England, such as Somerset, Devon, Herefordshire, Kent and Sussex.
The celebrations vary from region to region, but generally involve a wassail King and Queen leading the assembled group of revellers, comprising the farmers, farm workers and general villagers, in a noisy procession from one orchard to the next. In each orchard the wassailers gather round the biggest and best tree, and as a gift to the tree spirits, the Queen places a piece of wassail soaked toast into its branches, accompanied by songs such as;
“Apple tree, apple tree we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sacks fills…”
The wassailers then move on to the next orchard; singing, shouting, banging pots and pans, and even firing shotguns, generally making as much noise as possible in order to both waken the sleeping tree spirits, and also to frighten off any evil demons that may be lurking in the branches.
Stories from Medieval times have shaped our understanding of this classic Christmas figure.
There are many sides to the beloved figure of Santa Claus – a giant of pop culture, he also has “miraculous” powers and ties to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Santa’s blend of religion and popular culture is, however, not modern at all. Several of Santa’s modern features, such as his generosity, miracle-working, and focus on morality (being “naughty or nice”), were part of his image from the very beginning. Others, like the reindeer, came later.
The original Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a fourth century Bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) with a reputation for generosity and wonder-working. St Nicholas became an important figure in eighth century Byzantium before hitting pan-European stardom around the 11th century. He became a focus not just for religious devotion, but Medieval dramas and popular festivals – some popular enough to be suppressed during the Reformation.
The Naughty List: St Nicholas had his own version of the naughty list, including the fourth century “arch-heretic” Arius, whose views annoyed the saint so much he supposedly smacked Arius in the face in front of Emperor Constantine and assembled bishops at Nicaea.
An even more surprising listee is the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis. In popular Byzantine stories, Nicholas acted like a one-man wrecking crew, personally pulling down her temples, and even demolishing the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s almost a shame, as they probably would have agreed about the importance of reindeer.
The idea of St Nicholas’ conflict with Artemis probably relates to religious change in Anatolia, where the goddess was hugely popular. Historically, the temple was sacked earlier, by a band of Gothic raiders in the 260s, but hagiographers had other ideas. Perhaps these furious northmen even count as Santa’s earliest “helpers”. He was after all (as part of his extensive saintly portfolio) the patron of the Varangians, the Viking bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors.
Fast travelling: Santa’s greatest miracle is intrinsic to modern Christmases: his ability to reach all the children on Earth in one night. NORAD, the US and Canadian air defence force, has tracked Santa’s sleigh since the 1950s, presumably trying to figure out the secret of his super speed. But really, they just need to check their ancient sources.
St Nicholas had a history of teleporting about on his own — often showing up in the nick of time when people ask for his help. As the patron saint of sailors, he often did this out at sea. In one story, sailors in a wild storm in the eastern Mediterranean cried out for the already-famous wonderworker’s help. With the mast cracking and sails coming loose, a white-bearded man suddenly appeared and helped them haul the ropes, steady the tiller, and brought them safe to shore. Rushing up the hill to the local church to give thanks, the sailors were astonished to see Nicholas was already there, in the middle of saying mass.
Suddenly appearing to save people became a favourite trick in accounts of the saint’s life and in folklore. He once saved three innocents from execution, teleporting behind the executioner and grabbing his sword, before upbraiding the judges for taking bribes.
There’s also the tale of Adeodatus, a young boy kidnapped by raiders and made the cupbearer of an eastern potentate. Soon after, St Nicholas appeared out of nowhere, grabbed the cupbearer in front of his startled master, and zipped him back home. Artists depicting this story stage the rescue differently, but the Italian artists who have St Nicholas swoop in from the sky, in full episcopal regalia, and grab the boy by the hair are worth special mention.
The flying reindeer: None of the old tales have Saint Nicholas carrying around stacks of gifts when teleporting, which brings us to the reindeer, who can pull the sleigh full of millions of presents. The popular link between Santa Claus and gifting came through the influence of stores advertising their Christmas shopping in the early 19th century. This advertising drew on the old elf’s increasing popularity, with the use of “live” Santa visits in department stores for children from the late 1800s.
Santa Claus became connected to reindeer largely through the influence of the 1823 anonymous poem, A visit from St Nicholas. In this poem, “Saint Nicholas” arrives with eight tiny reindeer pulling a sleigh full of toys. The reindeer have the miraculous ability to fly.
The origins of the animals’ flight may link back to the Saami reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. Here, the herders were said to feed their reindeer a type of red-and-white mushroom with psychedelic properties, known as fly agaric fungi (Amanita muscaria). The mushrooms made the reindeer leap about, giving the impression of flying. The herders would then collect and consume the reindeer’s urine, with its toxins made safe by the reindeer’s metabolism. The reindeer herders could then possibly imagine the miraculous flight through the psychedelic properties of the mushroom.
The ninth reindeer, Rudolph, was created as part of a promotional campaign for the department store Montgomery Ward by Robert Lewis May in 1939. May himself was a small, frail child, who empathised with underdogs. In May’s story, Rudolph Shines Again (1954), the little reindeer is helped by an angel to save some lost baby rabbits, once again blending Santa’s religious and popular sides.
And … invisible polar bears: A number of modern depictions have connected Santa with polar bears, such as the 1994 film The Santa Clause. It seems likely the association grew as Santa’s home became accepted as the North Pole — though in one of the oldest stories, St Nicholas saves three Roman soldiers, one of whom is named Ursus (“Bear” in Latin).
Polar bears are undoubtedly useful companions for secretive Santa, and don’t even need his powers to move about unseen – the special properties of their fur mean they are hidden even from night-vision goggles.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas (1976), written by the Lord of the Rings’ author to his children, features the (mis)adventures of the North Polar Bear. Like St. Nick, the North Polar Bear isn’t shy about getting physical with those he perceives as wrong-doers. In one letter, the North Polar Bear saves Santa, his elves, and Christmas from a murderous group of goblins.
So, with Santa Claus once again coming your way, remember — ancient or modern – it’s better to be on the “nice” side of this teleporting saint and his motley crew of miracle-workers.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. See the following ‘Source’ link.
Peter Underwood was considered by some to have been that ‘indefatigable ghost-hunter’…… Dame Jean Conan Doyle, daughter of the great author and a keen student of the supernatural, once described him as ‘the Sherlock Holmes of psychical research’. Underwood also carried the labels of being an immaculate, urbane, gentlemanly and quite sophisticated sort of person. He was, for many years, a link with the distant past, outliving those investigators and writers who conducted the drama of the Borley Rectory, considered for a time as “Britain’s most haunted house”; he lived to tell the tales right up to 2014.
Underwood wrote over 50 books about his pursuit of spooks; many of them gazetteers, collections from around the country of oral history on supposed hauntings. In his book ‘No Common Task: The Autobiography of a Ghost-Hunter’ (1983), he suggested that ninety-eight per cent of these reports had a rational explanation, and were generally put to one side; it was the other two per cent that intrigued him and being worthy of pursuit. Nevertheless, he discarded nothing, allowing readers the option of deciding what was, or was not, a likely story.
Peter Underwood was born on 16 May 1923 into a family of Plymouth Brethren; his home on arrival was at Westholm, Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire. He claimed much later in life that he had his first paranormal experience at the age of nine, apparently seeing an apparition of his father who had died earlier the same day standing at the bottom of his bed. Thereafter, his interest in hauntings was further stimulated by his maternal grandparents, who lived for a time at Rosehall, a 17th century Hertfordshire house in Sarratt, a village considered “a good locality for ghosts – they have more ghosts there than ratepayers!” Rosehall had a haunted reputation, having a particular bedroom in which guests reported seeing the figure of a headless man. Underwood’s interest in hauntings and ghostly phenomena began to take root at this time, and it was said that whenever curious tourists knocked, young Peter would assume the role of tour guide and would regale visitors with tales; he became so fascinated when many shared their own experiences of the paranormal in return that he began to scribble them down.
At the beginning of World War Two and after a private education, part of which was with a personal tutor, Underwood joined the publishing firm of J M Dent & Sons in Letchworth, working at their printing and binding works at Dunham’s Lane in Letchworth. Later he would move to Dent’s publishing office before being called up for active service with the Suffolk Regiment in 1942. However, his military service was short-lived – after collapsing on a rifle range at Bury St Edmunds with a serious chest ailment which rendered him unfit for active service. Following several months of convalescence at Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk, Underwood was discharged from the army and returned to Dent’s. During this time Underwood became friendly with Harry Price and wrote to him in connection with his own investigations into the hauntings of Borley Rectory with permission of the owner, James Turner the poet. Price gave Underwood considerable advice on the topic and in 1947 invited him to join Price’s ‘Ghost Club’. Barely a few months later, Harry Price died suddenly from a massive heart attack; that was on Sunday 29 March 1948.
Two particular hauntings spoke the loudest to Underwood during his career. The first was of Borley Rectory; a pitiful building on the barren edge on the Essex/Suffolk. Borley became a media circus in the 1930s, when celebrity ghost hunter Harry Price set out to prove its reputation as a site for scary apparitions. The large Gothic-style house was said to have been haunted since it was built in the 1860s, but things took a more sinister turn in 1928 when the wife of a new rector who was cleaning out a cupboard came across a brown paper package containing the skull of a young woman. Subsequently the family reported strange happenings, including the ringing of servant bells which had been disconnected, lights appearing in windows and unexplained footsteps. As a result, the family fled Borley, but things only seemed to get worse after the arrival of the Reverend Lionel Foyster, his wife Marianne and daughter Adelaide in 1930. In addition to bell-ringing, there were windows shattering, the throwing of stones and bottles, and mysterious messages on the walls. On one occasion Marianne claimed to have been physically thrown from her bed; on another, Adelaide was attacked by “something horrible” and locked in a room with no key.
The building became known as “the most haunted house in England” after the celebrated psychic researcher Harry Price (who had lived at the rectory for a year in 1937-38) published a book about it in 1940. After Price’s death in 1948, however, members of the Society for Psychical Research investigated his claims and concluded that many of the phenomena he described had been faked, either by Price himself, or by Marianne Foyster (who later admitted, apparently, that she had been having an affair with the lodger and had used paranormal excuses to cover up their trysts).
In the years since Price’s death most of the Borley legend has been debunked, but Underwood, Price’s executor as well as his protégé, remained fiercely loyal to him. He claimed to have traced and personally interviewed almost every living person connected with the rectory, and had concluded that at least some of the phenomena were genuine and fiercely defended Price against accusations of fraud. He even went as far as to dedicate his book on the subject, the 1973 ‘Ghosts of Borley’, which he produced in collaboration with Paul Tabori, to his old friend; it was a gesture that straight away rendered the book as useless according to sceptics.
The second story was known as ‘The Greenwich Ghost’; apparently photographed, by a visiting clergyman in 1967, running up a circular staircase at The Queen’s House Museum. Such a tempting and wonderful image is far too good to be true, particularly when it has never been satisfactorily explained. This was Underwood’s favourite tale, but one where even he would go no further than to call it “puzzling”.
By 1955, Dent’s publishing arm had moved to London and Peter Underwood was living in Twickenham. Through his employers, Underwood was to meet many authors of the day, including Dylan Thomas, and also managed to carry out his own investigations of allegedly haunted places, including the ruins of Minsden Chapel near Stevenage and a house where the owner had requested a reduction in the rates due to it being haunted.
Underwood was to identify nine different varieties of ghost during a life dedicated to investigating ghouls and spooks of all shapes and sizes; these came as elementals, poltergeists, historical ghosts, mental imprint manifestations, death-survival ghosts, apparitions, time slips, ghosts of the living, and haunted inanimate objects. He had a talent for categorisation; for example, ‘Where the Ghosts Walk’, published in 2013, was described as a “definitive guide to the haunted places of Britain”, providing a digest of ghosts grouped by location – including Napoleon searching for somewhere to land his invasion along Lulworth Cove.
Simon Farquhar of the Independent wrote in February 2015:
“Underwood never pedalled mumbo-jumbo, but he was drawn to the idea of a ghost being an “atmospheric photograph”, pondering that all of our actions are perhaps recorded on some sort of eternal tape, and under certain conditions, maybe climactic, occasionally they reappear. I don’t honestly think the figures that are seen represent an afterlife. I think it’s much more likely that it’s some kind of echo of a previous life.”
Peter Underwood once claimed that he also had a nose for charlatanry and according to The Telegraph of 2014:
“…… the writer Dennis Wheatley gave a graphic description of a “psychometry” session hosted by Joan Grant, a writer famed for her “far memory” books. During these sessions she would go into a trance and dictate scenes from her past lives. Wheatley described how a stark-naked Joan began to talk in the person of an ancient Egyptian, “glistening and quivering in ecstasy……… writhing and contorting her body sensually in tune with the administration of his hands”. It was said that Wheatley was convinced by her performances – Underwood was not”
Unfortunately, perhaps, Underwood became caught up in some genuinely mysterious goings-on in 1994. Police arrived to question William (Bill) Bellars, a 75-year-old retired naval officer, Loch Ness monster expert and honorary treasurer of the Ghost Club of Britain, founded in 1862, of which Underwood had been president. They were following an anonymous tip-off that club members were really part of an IRA cell. In fact, Bellars had been planning to lead an all-night investigation at a haunted abbey in Hampshire; it took him an afternoon to convince the police that he was up to nothing more sinister than looking for 16th-century Cistercian monks. Eventually, the ghost hunt did go ahead as planned, but the mystery of the tipster’s identity was never solved. Nor did Bellars ever discover the source of abusive calls he claimed he had been receiving. However, it was noted that the previous year Underwood had been ousted from the presidency after 33 years in the post by members who had allegedly become fed up with his “autocratic” ways and who accused him of using the club’s name to help sell his books. “He really ran it to suit his own commercial interests,” Bellars was quoted as saying. Underwood denied any connection to the phone calls or the IRA incident, but Bellars’s description of the final showdown struck an appropriately supernatural note: “I said my piece, then he went purple in the face, just blew a top. Then he vanished.”
Sadly, towards the end of his own life, internal squabbles shattered the gentlemanly mood of the Ghost Club. The departure of Underwood from the Club caused it to split in two. According to Underwood, Bellars led a rump “Ghost Club” with about 80 per cent of the membership leaving to form a Ghost Club Society with Underwood as life president.
Peter Underwood, author, broadcaster and ghost-hunter died in Bentley, Hampshire on 26 November 2014. Again, according to Simon Farquhar writing in the Independent in February 2015:
“He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a leisurely author, thoughtful rather than gullible; Underwood’s work was “no common task”, as he called his 1983 autobiography; but after a lifetime spent chasing shadows, what he leaves behind is a solid treasury of legends and superstitions which make fine fireside reading, and here and there tell us something about the situations and ideas that perpetually disquiet us: stories that certainly would appear to be immortal.”
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.
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 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.
Folklore stories have long drifted in and out of print, meaning that each generation, particularly those who could neither read nor write, relied on other tongues to tell tales; there must also have been a hope that these tales would be remembered and passed on to future generations. As part of this process, and to generate and maintain the interest of liseners, these stories were often elaborated and embellished; an essential part of the spoken tradition which wanted to perpetuate whatever fact, or possible moral, that lay behind each tale. The following story is just one example where detail must have been given such treatment over time, appearing in print in as many and varied versions as any tale passed on verbally – maybe past chroniclers, 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; However, 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 – and we all have opinions and pet theories.
This story is about the beginnings of Erpingham Gate, a great Norwich gateway which takes the visitor from Tombland into the Cathedral Close, and visa versa; a Gate which is also the best way of taking the visitor directly towards the main entrance to Norwich Cathedral. But enough of that, this story is more about the person who, it was said, paid for the Gate’s construction, Sir Thomas Erpingham – and about whom a legend, myth – whatever you might like to call it – found root around the time of 1422 when the Gate was built. Since then, there have been those who say that Sir Thomas was a generous patron, and based on the one legacy that can still be seen and admired – his entrance gate to Norwich Cathedral, then clearly he might well have been the most generouse of men. But there was more than one side to him which will be revealed as this tale unfolds. First, however, some facts, background and opinions, as they are generally believed:
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 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, we are told that he also had ‘another side’.
Erpingham was a man who, so they say, beat a monk from St Benet’s senseless after chasing him on horseback to just outside Thetford; then he mocked the Lord as he had the monk Hung, Drawn and Quartered…….. it has also been said that he helped Henry overthrow Richard II which, at any other time and situation, was enough to see the man excommunicated. If that was not enough, Erpingham was said to have practiced ‘chevauchée’ in France (pillage and probably rape – something that was a bit of a fashion in those days), so maybe he would have had little or no compunction about killing a monk. Further to this, 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 maybe?
Erpingham’s legend, of which we speak, makes reference to the fact that Sir Thomas more than disliked Henry le Dispenser, Bishop of Norwich; both, it appears, had been at each other’s throats for years. One reason must have been that Bishop Despenser, along with the Abbot of St Benet’s Abbey, had long tried to seize more and more land for themselves – and at one point they did ‘eye’ the lands belonging to Erpingham. Not only that but Despenser, a most currupt character by present-day standards, had also been siphoning funds from the cathedral to build his own castle at North Elmham, capped only by his being accused of treason on several occasions. In his dispute with Erpingham, Despenser attempted to lodge accusations of heresy against the knight, on the basis that Sir Thomas be friendship and supported John Wycliff and the Lollardy movement. One thing Despenser loved doing was burning Lollards!
In return, Sir Thomas Erpingham strove to turn the City of Norwich against the Bishop, and did manage to persuade the City’s authorities to endorse a list of accusations against Despenser. Clearly in the other camp, it was the Bishop 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. It followed that when King Richard II was disposed, Bishop Henry le Despenser was disgraced. Added to this was the fact that it was Sir Thomas Erpingham who, when in exile with Henry Bolingbroke, helped this future Henry IV to secure the throne, whilst capturing Richard and offering ‘advice’ that, because Richard was a possible threat, he should be removed! Henry IV eventually stripped all his civic powers including cathedral finance from Despenser and handed it all to Thomas.With the Bishop of Norwich disgraced, Erpingham became even more influential in Norfolk.
It was the result of these acts that established a serious breach of trust 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 of 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 which stood next to the Cathedral in Pockthorpe with the River Wensum in between. Sir Thomas 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 Whitefriars 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 mortis. 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. 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 Bishop 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, circa 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.
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