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.
Enid Porter Project | Bringing folk traditions to life in five Cambridgeshire villages
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