Jack O’ Legs
In the folklore of Hertfordshire, England, Jack O’ Legs was a giant and legendary outlaw who helped the poor people of his locality. He was a good archer and used a huge bow to match his size. He was said to live in a cave in the Weston Hills or Weston Wood near the village of Weston which is about four miles from Stevenage and two and a half miles from Baldock. The site of Jack’s cave is a field called “The Cave” and the adjacent field is called “Weston Wood.” (1)
Although the area has been continuously settled by humans through the Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age times to the modern town of Baldock was established by the Knights Templars sometime in or after 1140 (2). According to tradition after a poor harvest had caused the bakers of Baldock to increase the price of flour and consequently bread beyond the price of the poor. Jack, feeling sorry for the poor people of Weston, decided to act. On the Great North Road near Gravelly there is a steep incline known as “Jack’s Hill.” which is where he would ambush the bakers and steal their flour to distribute it to the poor people of Weston.
The Bakers Strike Back
The bakers in revenge managed to arrest Jack and he was put on trial under the practice of infangthief (3). This was originally an Anglo-Saxon practice that allowed a lord of the manor to put to death a thief caught on his land. He was found guilty, blinded and told he would face the gallows and given a final wish. Jack was said to have asked to be allowed to shoot a final arrow and the spot that it landed was where he wanted to be buried. This was allowed and his bow and an arrow was given to him and he was orientated as to his directions. He shot the arrow which flew three miles to land in the churchyard of the Holy Trinity Church in Weston. After his execution that is where he was said to have been buried. According to legend his grave lies between two stones in the churchyard about fourteen feet apart allegedly marking where his head and feet lay and giving an idea of how tall he was said to be.
Whatever we know about Jack and it is not really very much has been passed on orally from generation to generation since early medieval times. In 1521 John Skelton wrote a poem called “Speak Parrot” criticizing Cardinal Wolsey which contained a line ‘The gibbett of Baldock was made for Jack Leg’. From this it is believed the legend must be known at that time as he appeared to expect his audience to understand the line.
Certain parts of the story may be true such as there being a shortage of flour and its increase in price. This would possibly have led to difficulty in being able to buy it for poor people causing resentment. It may even have made someone angry or desperate enough to do something about it. Step forward Jack, but while it is possible it cannot be proved. It may be that the legend is a folk memory of an exceptionally tall robber who once existed and was generous with his ill gotten gains to the people of Weston and the locality who would probably have been thankful for his largess. The story of him being buried where his arrow landed may have been added later as an embellishment and he may have been buried in Weston churchyard because he was born in its parish. It may be that each generation added a little to the story taking it to its present stage.
Nevertheless, it is a good story and gives the area a popular and colorful folk hero and center of interest as his depiction in the above mural in the Grange Junior School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire shows.
© 03/12/2020 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright zteve t evans December 3rd, 2020
- (1) Jack o’ Legs – Wikipedia
- (2) Baldock – Wikipedia
- (3) Infangthief and outfangthief – Wikipedia
- File:Jack O’Legs mural Letchworth.jpg from Wikimedia CommonsJack1956, Author: Jack1956 – CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The appearance of Jack O’ Legs in the mural brings to mind the Greenman. Any ideas about this?
Well, Jack may have something to do with the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green and other spirits and figures associated with Spring, rebirth and vegetation. I also note that the Knights Templars were active in the Heretfordhire area and they were set up to protect the poor and there may be a bit of Robin Hood in there. I think there maybe several churches in the area with the Green Man motif though it is difficult to make any definite link. Still it is interesting, thanks for you commenting appreciated!
Love your insights! Thanks, zteve.
Jack o Legs sounds a cheerful character but his height seems a bit intimidating. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of these wonderful tales. Stay safe and have a good weekend
Thanks Rita, greatly appreciated! Stay safe!
Wonderful post. Puts me in mind of Robin Hood. I love the illustration, too.
Thank you! Its a great image and was painted by Patricia Tew in the Grange Junior School, Letchworth, as a mural for its opening in 1952.
Fascinating legend. It certainly reminds me of Robin Hood but with more of a gray area morally. After all, the bakers didn’t increase prices because they wanted to live extravagant lifestyles, but the people who couldn’t afford the bread were also in need of aid. Probably some of them were the farmers who could produce a better harvest for next year too, which means it really was in the bakers’ best interest if the farmers were fed.
That is a very interesting perspective thanks for spotting it and raising it!
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