Hertfordshire Folklore: Jack O’ Legs

Jack1956, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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)

Jack Strikes

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.   

Oral Tradition

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