The folktale of the Pedlar of Swaffham tells of how a poor pedlar came to find his fortune by following a dream. The story begins in the historic English market town of Swaffham in the county of Norfolk in the 15th century.
A Dream of Fortune
The legend tells of how John acquired his money after a strange dream he experienced three times on consecutive nights. In that dream he saw the great city of London and he saw London Bridge stretching across the River Thames. He heard a voice telling him that if he was to travel all the way from Swaffham in Norfolk to London, where on London Bridge, he would meet someone who would tell him the most wonderful news.
The first night he dismissed it as just a dream. The second night he gave greater thought to it but again dismissed it as just a dream. After the third night of the dream he became convinced that he needed to follow the dream through, so he bid his wife farewell and set off with his dog to find London Bridge.
In those days the roads were long and hard and the countryside was wild, so it was good to have his dog with him for company. After many long and weary days he eventually found himself standing on London Bridge. In those days the river had many ships sailing up and down it and the bridge had many busy shops all along its length.
On his first day he walked the length of the bridge over and over again with his dog and stood and looked out over the river. He visited all the shops but he met with no one who had anything to say to him and he saw no signs to help him.
On the second day he did the same and he and his dog wandered in and out of the shops and gazed at the river as it flowed under the bridge. He began to doubt himself and began to feel foolish at coming all this way over a dream.
On third day he and his dog again wandered the length of the bridge visiting all the shops several times. Yet still he met with no one or saw any sign to help him. He was beginning to feel very despondent and he stood and gazed at the river as it flowed, thinking to himself how foolish he had been to set his hopes on just a dream.
Now it so happened that as he had wandered the bridge going in and out of all the shops over those three days he had caught the attention of a shopkeeper who came up and spoke to him.
The shopkeeper asked him why he was spending his time wandering in and out of the shops or just leaning on the bridge walls watching the river flow. He asked John if he had any goods to sell or if indeed he was a beggar. Chapman told him that he had nothing to sell and that he was not a beggar and could take care of himself.
Now full of curiosity the shopkeeper asked him where he had come from and what had brought him to London Bridge. Chapman then explained that he had lived in town in the country, but did not say where and that he had traveled all this way because of a dream he had experienced. The shopkeeper asked what was in the dream that had made him come all the way from his home in the country to London.
Chapman told him about the dream and how the voice had told him to go to London Bridge where he would here the most wonderful news. The shopkeeper laughed out loud at this and told him he was nothing but a fool to put such great faith in his dreams.
Laughing, the shopkeeper, told John that he had also had a dream over the last three nights. In that dream a voice had told him to travel to a town called Swaffham in Norfolk, where buried under an old apple tree in a small orchard, behind a house he would find the most wonderful treasure. The shopkeeper laughed saying that he would have been a fool to undertake such a long arduous journey purely on the say so of a voice in a dream, and adding that Chapman was also a fool for making such a long journey for those reasons as well.
Finding the Treasure
Hearing what the shopkeeper had to say and recognising the place he had described, Chapman hurried home to Swaffham as fast as he could. Digging under the apple tree in his orchard he found a small pot filled to the top with gold coins. He cleaned up the coins and hid them away safely but while he was cleaning the pot he noticed it had an inscription etched upon it but he did not have the skill to read it.
A few weeks later he persuaded a passing monk to take a look at the inscription. The monk told John that the inscription said, ‘Under me doth lie, another richer far than I’. Thanking the monk, John went to his orchard and again began digging under the apple tree. Sure enough underneath the place he found the first pot he came across a much larger and heavier pot filled to the brim with gold.
Being honest and industrious and a man of gratitude he invested his fortune wisely making his wealth grow. To show his gratitude for his good fortune he donated money to help the rebuilding of the local church.
Fact or Fiction?
History shows that a man called John Chapman lived in Swaffham and was a man who achieved considerable wealth though the means of how he did so cannot be proved. He was believed to have been a pedlar or a shopkeeper, or trader of some kind though his exact occupation remains unclear.
In his life-time he is credited with donating sufficient money to build the tower and north aisle of the local church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The town sign has a depiction of him and his dog commemorating his generosity to the town and remembering the legend.
It is known the Rector of Swaffham between 1435 and 1474 was John Botewright who compiled an inventory of building work done to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The book came to be called the Swaffham Black Book and its records show that someone called John Chapman paid for the North Aisle to be rebuilt.
Furthermore, in the choir area of the church are three wooden pews. On one is carved the figure the pedlar and on the other his dog. On a third is a carving of a woman looking from a shop door way which possible depicts his wife.
Origin of the Legend
Very similar legends can be found all over Europe as well as the Middle East. Possibly the earliest version In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad from the writings of Jalal al-Din Rumia a 13th century Persian poet.
A similar theme can also be found in story from ‘The Arabian Nights’, a collection of folk tales from the Middle East titled The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream. Other places in the UK, Eire, and Europe also have local versions of the same theme including Upsall Castle, England and Dundonald Castle, Scotland. In recent times the theme was used by Paul Coelho in his novel, The Alchemist.
Of course the legend of the Pedlar of Swaffham may be based on facts that have been embellished over the centuries or have become intertwined with other legends from other places, or indeed it may possibly all be true. We will probably never know but it does still make a good story.