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The Bay of the Departed

21 Feb

The westernmost tip of the Brittany coast, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, is alive with legends of the sea. Mythical creatures, giants, imps, naiads and sages – each associated with a detail of the sea that explains the violence and the beauty of the coastline. The stories are often harsh and, to modern ears, cruel. Men and women destined to live out the same sacrifices for all of time, retribution for crimes committed by earlier generations or as an attempt to appease the angry sea. One part of Brittany that is today more famous for its surfing and its seafood is the Baie de Trepasses – the Bay of the Departed – but in ancient times it was said to have always been a portal into death. Here, the way of life still follows the steady tread of the century before and the century before that, a timelessness that recalls the telling and retelling of old folk tales. One of the more famous stories inspired by Breton folklore is that of the Ankou: a fisherman called by name in the deep of the night by God or the Devil to transport dead souls to the portal of the beyond on the shore of a distant land.

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Manannan, Son of the Sea

22 Nov

The Isle of Man, almost equidistant from Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland, is one of the most beautiful spots in Britain, a mountainous, cliff-fringed island just thirty-one miles by thirteen, into which are shoehorned austere moorlands and wooded glens, sandy beaches, fine castles, beguiling narrow-gauge railways and scores of standing stones and Celtic crosses. Although it takes some effort to reach and the weather is hardly reliable, this also means that the Isle of Man has been spared the worst excesses of the British tourist trade: there’s peace and quiet in abundance and an entire yesteryear ensemble of picket fences and picnic spots, rural villages straight out of a 1950s picture book, steam trains and cream teas. This is also the island whose name comes from Manannan mac Lir, who in some tales was the son of the Irish sea god and others the brother of the Welsh Bran, known as the Blessed, and his doomed sister Branwen.

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Sawney Bean

16 Aug

Sawney Bean, the cave-dwelling cannibal, is one of Scotland’s most shocking and gruesome legends. Sawney Bean was – legend tells – the head of an incestuous cannibalistic family, who oversaw a 25-year reign of murder and robbery from a hidden sea cave on the Ayrshire/Galloway coast in the 14th century. There are numerous written sources detailing the account of Sawney and his family, and it has been suggested that the legend has its roots in real events. Little is known for certain about his early life, however Sawney Bean is believed to have been born in East Lothian in the late 13th century, and was a tanner by trade. Yet, while the story itself was gory enough, it has often been thought to have an even more sinister subtext. Despite being set in Scotland, the gruesome deeds of Sawney Bean were popularised in England during the 17th and 18th centuries, at a time when there was widespread prejudice against Scots. At the time of the Jacobite risings in the 18th Century, the English press regularly portrayed Scots in a negative way, either as subjects of ridicule or as having a sinister nature (the name Sawney itself was a popular English name for the barbarous cartoon Scot). But just how much truth was there to this sinister legend?

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Scarborough Fair

19 Jul

Scarborough Fair is a traditional English ballad about the Yorkshire town of Scarborough. Today, Scarborough is a quiet town with a rich history: in the 1600s, mineral waters were found in Scarborough and it became a popular holiday resort. Long before this, however, it hosted the ‘Scarborough Fair’ – a popular gathering in Medieval times, which attracted traders and entertainers from all over the country. The fair lasted 45 days and started every August 15th. In the Medieval period, this fair gave its name to a popular folk song that became widely known as Bards would sing it when they traveled from town to town. The author of the original song is unknown, and today many different versions exist, the best known of which is probably the one by Simon & Garfunkel. Paul Simon learned about this song when he was on tour in England, where he heard a version by a popular folk singer named Martin Carthy. The traditional version has many more lyrics, some of which are quite sinister and replete with mythological associations.

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The Man in the Moss

21 Mar

A rich body of geographical lore, much of it related to real or imaginary hazards, characterises perceptions of bog landscapes. Bog bursts, will-o’-the-wisps, carnivorous plants, weird creatures, and perceptions of the ‘bottomless’ bog all play a part in the folklore of the landscapes. For example, there is Lindow Man, the preserved body of a man discovered in a peat bog at Lindow Moss near Wilmslow in Cheshire, North West England on 1 August 1984 by commercial peat-cutters. The find, which is regarded as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 1980s, caused a media sensation and helped invigorate study of ‘bog men’ in Britain. Ambiguity about the features of bog landscapes is further heightened by the descriptive terminology employed by tale tellers, who present to us a world inhabited by meanings that go beyond the physical environment and touch on the primordial inner landscape. Not long after its discovery, Lindow Man inspired Phil Rickman’s horror novel The Man in the Moss, in which a man’s body is found perfectly preserved in peat, despite the fact that it has been there for over two millennia. For the isolated Pennine community of Bridelow in the novel, his removal is a sinister sign. In the weeks approaching Samhain – the Celtic feast of the dead – tragedy strikes in Bridelow. Soon, firm believers of both the Christian and pagan persuasion are at each other’s throats, while the village prepares to face a natural disaster unknown since the time of King Henry VIII.

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The White Horse of Uffington

18 Jan

Although chalk figures appear in many places throughout the world, there is one region in particular that has a wealth of them. Mighty figures of men with clubs, ogres and rampant steeds, acres in extent, and visible across great counties, decorate the hillsides in Southern England. Horses are especially abundant, with the finest of them to be found in Berkshire. This is the Uffington White Horse, located just two miles south of the tiny village of Uffington in the Berkshire Downs. It lies at the centre of a cluster of well-known landmarks thick with folkloric and literary associations, including the Neolithic barrow Wayland’s Smithy, of which much is told in Walter Scott’s Kenilworth, the pre-Roman Ridgeway, a hill fort called Uffington Castle, and the naturally flat-topped Dragon Hill, where Saint George is said to have slain the dragon. While the Uffington White Horse is a majestic creature measuring approximately 360 by 130 feet, it is not just size that makes it unique. It possesses two other traits that none of the other existing white horses have – antiquity and unique artistry. Indeed, this particular chalk figure may have served as the inspiration for all those that followed it.

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The Stone of Destiny

16 Nov

This has been a huge year for Scotland, with a referendum on independence and a Commonwealth Games hosted in Glasgow in addition to the usual annual highlights of Hogmanay, Up Helly Aa and the Edinburgh Festival. Somewhat lost among all these events is the significance of the Stone of Scone, perhaps the single most important, mysterious and widely travelled object in Scottish history. This holy relic, also known as the Stone of Destiny, has been fought over by England and Scotland for centuries. According to one Celtic legend, the stone was once the pillow upon which the patriarch Jacob rested at Bethel when he beheld the visions of angels, hence its other famous moniker, Jacob’s Pillow. Thereafter, it was for centuries associated with the crowning of Scottish kings and then, in 1296, was taken to England and later placed under the Coronation Chair. It was finally returned to Scotland seven centuries later – the supreme symbol of Scottish independence for some and the ultimate symbol of the union with England for others. However, the Stone of Destiny has other, more mystical associations, which are known to few.

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The Bones of Avalon

10 Aug

Shrouded in Arthurian myth and rich in mystical associations, the town of Glastonbury was once one of the most important destinations for pilgrims in England. Now thousands flock here for the annual music festival and for the summer solstice on Midsummer’s Day. Over the years history and legend have become intertwined, and the monks who founded Glastonbury Abbey, around 700 AD, found it profitable to encourage the association between Glastonbury and the mythical ‘Blessed Isle’ known as Avalon. Avalon was another name for the Otherworld, and was the place where King Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged, as well as being the supposed site of his eventual tomb. Once Glastonbury and its conical hill, Glastonbury Tor, rising from a vast inland lake that covered much of present day Somerset, had been a sacred site of the Old Religion of the British Isles. Even today, it is a place where the very air is alive with the stuff of myth and legend. In Arthurian legend it was ruled by the enchantress Morgan le Fay and her eight sisters, every one of them skilled in the magical arts. Before that, it was said to be ruled by the dark Celtic deity Aballach. It has variously been called the ‘Isle of apples’ and the ‘Isle of glass’. In the Christian era, it was said to be the place where Joseph of Arimathea came carrying the Holy Grail in order to found Britain’s first church. All of these myths, legends and historical associations have inspired numerous fiction writers over the years, among them Phil Rickman, whose novel The Bones of Avalon, takes full advantage of this rich body of lore.

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The Ghosts of Haddon Hall

7 Jun

Haddon Hall, perhaps the most simple and understated of English stately homes, is also one of the finest medieval manor houses in Britain. Nestled in the heart of the Peak District National Park, it certainly enjoys a picturesque setting, two miles south of Bakewell (known for its eponymous tarts) on the banks of the River Wye. In the mid-twelfth century the hall passed from its Norman founders to the Vernon family, who owned it for four hundred years until the most famous event in its history occurred. In 1558 the sole remaining Vernon heir, Dorothy, married John Manners, scion of another powerful family who later became Dukes of Rutland. Their union is commemorated in their joint tomb in Bakewell church, but the romantic story of their elopement may be apochryphal. Dorothy Vernon was 18 at the time and it is said that the couple eloped during the wedding of one of her sisters. There must have been some sort of reconciliation, as Dorothy and John later became owners of Haddon Hall. The hall has been owned by the Manners ever since then, but curiously enough has never been sold. The mansion fell into two hundred years of neglect from the start of the eighteenth century until the 9th Duke began restoring Haddon Hall when he moved there in 1912. No one quite knows the reason for the building’s neglect and seeming lack of interest to buyers – although this may have something to do with the fact that the ghost of Dorothy Vernon is said to appear there on a regular basis, usually seen on the steps leading up to Haddon Hall, as if being chased.

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The Demon Countess of Anjou

10 May

The House of Plantagenet was an Anglo-French royal dynasty that came to prominence in the Middle Ages. Although the Plantagenets transformed England from what was essentially a realm ruled from abroad under the earlier Norman kings into a powerful and independent kingdom in its own right, they came from dark and uncertain origins. The roots of House Plantagenet can be traced back to the House of Anjou, usually referred to simply as the Angevins, a family of Frankish origin descended from a ninth-century noble named Ingelger, who were Counts of Anjou since 870. The chronicler Gerald of Wales, however, borrowed elements of the Melusine legend to give a demonic origin to the Angevins. Melusine was a figure of European legend and folklore, a feminine spirit of fresh waters in sacred springs and rivers. She is usually depicted as a woman who is a serpent or fish from the waist down, and is said to possess eternal life as the result of a curse. Over the centuries tales of Melusine have been told by chroniclers as diverse as Sir Walter Scott, Marcel Proust, Felix Mendelssohn and A S Byatt. Melusine’s demon blood partly explains the commonly held belief that Lady Elizabeth Woodville – wife of Edward IV and mother of the Princes in the Tower – was a witch. At any rate the Angevin monarchs never shied away from their supposedly supernatural origins. The famous English king Richard the Lionheart was reputedly fond of saying that his whole family “came from the devil and would return to the devil” as a result of their descent from the demon countess of Anjou.

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