English Folklore: The Werewolf of Longdendale

Werewolf – Copyright 28/20/2020 zteve t evans

Longdendale

Presented here is a retelling of an old folktale collected by Thomas C. Middleton and published in his book “Legends of Longdendale.”  The story centers around Longdendale, a long valley in the Peak District, Derbyshire and is set in the time of King Henry II, after he had bestowed the monks of Basingwerke Abbey in Wales the nearby town of Glossop.  Longendale is situated just north of Glossop.  In earlier times it was part of the Royal Forest of the Peak and home to wolves, boar, deer and smaller animals.

The Abbots Chair

The tale begins at a place called the Abbot’s Chair, which originally was a large stone cross situated on a highway known as the Monk’s Road.  All that can be seen today is the stone socket which held the cross.  According to this tale the Abbot of Basingwerke Abbey held court and received the rents and tithes of his tenants in the area while sitting on the stone.  He also heard the petitions and grievances of the people of his estates and other such administration.

A Tale of Woe

On one such occasion there came to him an old widow full of misery and woe shedding bitter tears. Tearfully, she told the Abbot that she lived in fear of a very powerful witch who was skilled in the black arts and sorcery.  This evil witch had caused the death of her husband and all of her children and was now seeking to murder her.  The widow told him she was all alone in the world and had no one she could go to for help  and shelter.  Furthermore, her enemy was a cunning shape-shifter who could change her physical appearance into that of any animal or bird to commit crimes and escape capture and punishment.  She could also change herself to resemble any man, woman or child she desired that may suit her own evil purposes.

The Abbot’s Curse

The Abbot being a good and kindly man was outraged at the plight of the old widow and very angry with the witch.  He distributed bread and alms to her to ease her poverty and then laid a terrible curse upon the wicked old witch who persecuted her, 

“The eye of God that sees all shall see this wicked woman in whatever form she may be wearing here and now.  From this moment on she will remain in that form never being able to revert to human or other form until the time justice is done and she has paid for her sins!”

He declared that he foresaw the wrath of heaven falling upon the old witch and foretold she would face a cruel death shortly.

The Royal Hunt

On that very morning at that exact time the witch had transformed into a werewolf and was out in the forest seeking victims.   Moreover, King Henry II was visiting the Baron of Ashton-under-Lyne accompanied by his son, Prince Henry.  These three along with the Baron of Aston, the Lord of Longdendale and other nobles and dignitaries were out hunting in the Royal Forest. 

It was the practice of the Royal hunting party to hunt every corner and every nook and cranny of the forest.  Beaters were sent into the densest parts of the forest to drive the game into the paths of the hunters.  They were unaware of the alleged crimes of the witch and were not seeking her  but this practice increased the chances of her being driven before them.

Her shape-shifting abilities had allowed her in the past to simply transform into human form and send pursuers on a wild goose chase looking for her. Other times she would transform into a bird and fly away. 

And so as the Abbot was uttering his curse the Royal Hunt was out in the forest.  The star of the day was the Lord of Longdendale who slew an exceedingly large and ferocious wild boar after it had given a fierce battle.

Werewolf Attack

The young Prince Henry desperately wanted to match the feat of the Lord of Longdendale to prove his own valor.  He went off alone and sought out the wildest and remotest part of the forest hoping to find some worthy test of his courage and skill.  As he was roaming through the forest he was suddenly attacked by the werewolf and was almost killed.  Fortunately his trusty steed sensed the impending attack and veered sharply to the right as the werewolf sprang.  This allowed Prince Henry to push away the attacker and with his spear deliver a wound in its side.  He thrust hard, blood spurted and the beast wailed a savage but almost human cry.  In its desperation it managed to seize the spear and bite the weapon in two with its great jaws.  The prince quickly drew his long hunting knife to defend himself as best he could.

With the beast uttering unearthly but almost human-like cries it grasped his legs trying to pull him from his horse.  Quickly Henry stabbed the beast in its shoulder but in its frenzy it succeeded in dragging him to the ground.  

With his knife stuck in his foe’s shoulder Henry managed to grasp the beast around the throat.  Although he fought hard and bravely he could feel his own strength ebbing as he wrestled cheek to jowl with the attacker.  

He thought it was his end but as he was slipping into death the Baron of Ashton, who had heard the commotion arrived.  Seeing the dire peril of the king’s son he immediately sprang to his aid and engaged the werewolf in a deadly fight that was long and vicious. Finally, he managed to deliver a killing blow to its skull.  

The Baron of Ashton received great praise and honor not just from Henry but from the king and the rest of the Royal hunting party when they caught up. The body of the slain beast was given as a trophy to the baron who returned with it to his castle.  As the beast was being prepared for exhibition it was cut open and the heads of three babies that it had eaten earlier were found in its stomach.

This again caused much talk about the ferocity and evil nature of the beast.  Prince Henry emphasized again and again it’s savagery and the wild human-like cries it had uttered as it had attacked him.  

The Forester’s Testimony

On hearing the news of the slaying of this savage beast a forester stepped forward to give a most strange testimony to the lord’s and ladies saying, 

“If it may please my lords I have something to say that may be of interest to you concerning this strange and wild beast.As one of his Royal Foresters it was my duty to seek out and put a stop to those who dare to poach my king’s game.Having concealed myself in thick bushes I lay quietly in wait  hoping to catch a certain poacher in the act.  As I lay waiting I was startled by strange and ghoulish wailing.  On creeping through the forest to its source I was astounded to see a werewolf tearing and clawing at its very own skin.  It was as if it desired to shed it quickly such as a person would undress themselves.It’s cries were both hideous and pitiful and I thought it sounded like a twisted version of an old woman’s voice.  Human or other, it was a cracked and hideous cry that it uttered. I am afraid that on seeing and hearing this my courage failed.  I fled as fast and as far as I could from the frightful thing before its attention should fall upon myself.”

Then one by one other witnesses appeared who bore similar testimony concerning the beast.

The Abbot

That same evening a banquet was held in the hall of the Baron with the king, prince and the rest of the Royal hunting party in attendance.  Also invited was the good Abbot of Basingwerke Abbey  who was informed of the strange events of the day and inspected the body of the slain beast.   The Abbot had absolute faith that the werewolf was the wicked witch he had cursed earlier and evidence was brought that showed this to be true and she was never seen again.   The good Abbot took the old widow under his protection and from then on she lived the rest of her life in safety and comfort.

© 28/10/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright 28, October, 2020 zteve t evans

English Legends: The Strange Life of Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton was one of the most famous soothsayers in Britain and a familiar figure in English folklore and traditions. Stories about her were published in chap-books from the middle of the 17th century onward. These were usually embellished and exaggerated but succeeded in capturing the public’s attention even though many of her prophecies only appeared after her death. 

She was believed to have been born in the time of King Henry VII, in Knaresborough, Yorkshire in 1488 and named Ursula Sontheil.  There are several variant spellings of her surname. Her mother was believed to have been a poor single girl about fifteen years old named Agatha. According to legend she gave birth to her during a violent thunderstorm in a cave near the River Nidd. Despite being forced to appear before the local magistrate Agatha refused steadfastly to name the baby’s father. She appeared to have no family or friends to support her and lived alone in the cave bringing her baby daughter up the best she could. Eventually after two years the Abbot of Beverley heard of her plight and she was taken to a  distant nunnery. Baby Ursula was taken in by a local family but in the nunnery Agatha lost contact with her daughter and later died. As an adult, Ursula became known as Mother Shipton and the cave became known as Mother Shipton’s Cave and today is a popular tourist attraction.

Baby Ursula

According to tradition, Ursula was a very unattractive baby to such an extent that no one wanted to nurse her.  Eventually a foster mother was found who lived on the edge of Knaresborough.  Strange things happened around baby Ursula.  One legend tells how one morning her foster mother discovered she and her crib missing. She roused several neighbors who set about searching the home for clues to her whereabouts.  According to this legend the neighbors were attacked by strange ape-like imps and other unearthly entities that pricked and scratched them. Eventually, to the shock of all, baby Ursula was found still in her crib but suspended in mid-air halfway up the chimney. Eerie events of this kind happened on many occasions as she grew up.  Plates, crockery and ornaments would fly around the room and furniture would slide across the floor to a different position.  As she grew older her power of prophecy began to develop. 

Marriage

Unfortunately for Ursula, as she grew into a woman her looks did not improve and all descriptions of her are terribly unflattering.  With a thin and sharp face covered in warts and a large hooked nose she became the archetypal image of a witch. Despite her unfortunate appearance she was said to have married a carpenter from York named Tobias Shipton at the age of twenty four. Sadly, he died a few years later and the couple had no children. 

To  earn a living she appears to have taken on a role as a cunning woman and made potions and remedies out of herbs and flowers to alleviate health problems for local people.   She began making  prophecies and her fame spread far and wide and she became known as Mother Shipton.

Her Prophecies

There were many prophecies attributed to her including  events like the Spanish Armada in 1588,  English Civil War from  1642–1651,  Great Fire of London of 1666 and many other important events.  She was said to have prophesied her own death that occurred in 1561 at the age of seventy three.  One of her alleged prophecies that did not come true was the end of the world,

“The world to an end shall come

In eighteen hundred and eighty one.”

Like other prophets her predictions were placed in verses, rhymes and riddles that were difficult to interpret and ambiguous.  However, this technique did make them suitable for many  kinds of events and situations that arose. 

False Prophecies, Fake News

It was many years after her death when the first publications in the form of books and pamphlets appeared in 1641 and later in 1684. It is believed that the writers of these publications were creative in the use of facts and events and many events that happened after her death  were made to look like she had  predicted them.   

It may be that predictions sell and what is novel and unusual can strike a chord with the public who become eager for more information.  This increases the chances of writers and publishers making money which increases their creative juices to flow, while inventing new stories to sell to the gullible public.  Fake news is not a modern invention!

Richard Head who edited the 1684 publications was believed to have created her life story and the  descriptions of her on existing legend and folklore. This had been passed on orally and possibly twisted, embellished and exaggerated along the way. Although this makes it difficult to get to know the real person, or even if there was a real person behind the legends.

Mother Shipton’s Cave

The cave where Ursula was born and later lived is now known as Mother Shipton’s Cave, or sometimes Old Mother Shiptons’s Cave.  It is situated near the River Nidd at Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. Close by is the Petrifying Well that has been visited by paying sightseers  since 1630 making it the oldest entrance-charging tourist attraction in England.  The water in the well is high in carbonate and sulphate and immersed objects  eventually become encrusted in stone.

Mother Shipton’s Legacy

We will probably never know the real truth and full story of Mother Shipton or Ursula Sontheil and very often the truth turns out more interesting than the fiction. In many ways she is the archetypal witch with her strange and  lonely ways and her unfortunate physical appearance. All around the British Isles there are cases from history of women such as her who made a meager living from selling potions, telling fortunes or perhaps delivering babies. Sometimes they were known as cunning women or perhaps the local wise-woman.  Although they often lived on the edge of society they performed important roles that could not be done by those within.  In many cases the different behaviour they displayed might see them as being part of the autistic spectrum or perhaps some psychological disorder.  Nevertheless in her life, she seems to have achieved a reasonable degree of success with stories of how she could find lost or stolen objects and predict the future with some success. It seems that after her death her reputation was exaggerated and embellished by others to suit their own purposes and some scholars doubt she ever existed.

© 13/05/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright 13th May 2020, zteve t evans

Havelock the Dane: Hero-King of Two Realms

Havelock the Dane

Havelock the Dane is a story from English medieval romance centered on the theme of the persecuted heir and the cruel guardian.  It first appeared as a narrative poem written in Norman French in the 13th century and may possibly have had a Welsh origin. There are many versions of the poem and it is included in the Matter Of Britain.  Different versions also have different ways of spelling the names of the main characters and although there are differences in the story, they all share the same basic plot and final denouement.

 The story reveals the attitudes towards social status of the times contrasting the differences between the social classes of the day.  Royalty and nobility are examined for their righteousness and found wanting, while the lower classes reveal a steadfast acceptance of their own low place in society while displaying unquestioning loyalty to their lords.  Great emphasis is placed on the acceptance of the value of hard work, loyalty and obeying the laws of God and King, especially towards the lower classes.  However, it is the nobility that is revealed as greedy and corrupt.

Essentially, the narrative reveals the story of two young heirs; Prince Havelock and Princess Goldboru who were cruelly treated and had their royal inheritance stolen from them by their wicked guardians at the death of their respective fathers.  After enduring much shame and hardship and a forced marriage they find love together.  Eventually both their lost stolen rights are returned to them and Havelock rules over both Denmark and England with Goldeboru as his queen.  Presented here is my version of the story of Havelock the Dane influenced by Maud Isabel Ebbutt and a number of other sources provided in the Bibliography, Attributions and Further Reading section.

Havelock the Dane:  Hero-King of Two Realms

Kindle Edition Available Here

British Folk Songs: The Ballad of John Barleycorn

Barley has a long association with human society because of its uses for food, drink and medicine that goes back some 12,000 years.   Used for animal feed and to make bread for human consumption, it is also used to make popular alcoholic drinks such as beer, barley wine, whisky and other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

Beer is the oldest and the most common of all alcoholic drinks and after water and tea the third most popular beverage.  With its ancient importance, barley has given rise to many myths and is the source of much folklore and many people think that hidden in an old traditional folk song of the British Isles  called John Barleycorn, lies the story of barley.

Barley – Public Domain Image

The Ballad of John Barleycorn

A traditional British folk ballad, called John Barleycorn, depicts the lead character as the personification of barley and its products of bread, beer and whisky.   The song is very old and there are many versions from all around the British Isles.  The song does have strong connections with Scotland with possibly the Robert Burns version the most well-known though the song goes way back to before the times of Elizabeth 1st.

Different Versions

In the song, John Barleycorn is subject to many violent, physical abuses leading to his death.  Each abuse represents a stage in the sowing, growing, harvesting, malting and preparation of barley to make beer and whisky.

In many versions there is confusion because it is brandy that is consumed even though brandy is made from grapes, rather than whisky or beer made from barley.   John Barleycorn is also a term used to denote an alcoholic drink that is distilled such as a spirit, rather than fermented like beer.

In some versions of the song there is more emphasis on the way different tradesmen take revenge on John Barleycorn for making them drunk.  The miller grinds him to a powder between two stones.  However John Barleycorn often proves the stronger character due to his intoxicating effect on his tormentors and the fact hat his body is giving sustenance to others making humans dependent upon him.

Through the savagery inflicted upon John Barleycorn the song metaphorically tells the story of the sowing, cultivating and harvesting cycle of barley throughout the year.  The ground is ploughed, seeds are sown, and the plant grows until ready for harvest. It is then cut with scythes, and tied into sheaves, which are flayed to remove the grain.

Pagan and Anglo-Saxon Associations

Wikipedia says that some scholars think that John Barleycorn has strong connections with the pagan Anglo-Saxon character of Beowa also known as Beaw, Beow, or Beo or sometimes Bedwig. In Old English ‘Beow’ means ‘barley’ and ‘Sceafa’ means ‘sheaf.’ From Royal Anglo-Saxon lineage, Beowa is the son of Scyld who is the son of Sceafa in a pedigree that goes back to Adam.

Many scholars also think that there are strong associations with Beowa and Beowulf and the general agreement is that they are the same character.  Some scholars also think that Beowa is the same character as John Barleycorn while others disagree.

The Golden Bough

Wikepedia says, Sir James George Frazer, in his book, ‘The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion’  asserts that many of the old religions of the world were derived from fertility cults which had at their core the ritual sacrifice of a Sacred king who was also known as the Corn King, who was the embodiment of the Sun god.  Each year he went through a cycle of death and rebirth in a union with the Earth goddess, dying at the harvest time to be reborn in the spring.

The Corn King

The Corn King was chosen from the men of a tribe to be the king for a year.  At the end of the year he would then dance, or perform thanksgiving and fertility rituals in the fields before being ritually killed.  So that the soil would be fertilised his body was dragged through the fields to enable his blood to run into the soil.  It may be that he may then have been eaten by the tribe in completion of the ritual.

As well as other uses, the barley was made into cakes which would be stored for the winter and were thought to hold the spirit of the Corn King.  Around the time of the winter solstice when the sun was at its weakest and as it started to strengthen, the cakes would be fed to children giving them the spirit of the corn king.

Christianity

There are also theories that possibly an earlier form of John Barleycorn represented a pagan rite before the rise of Christianity. There are suggestions that the early Christian church in Anglo-Saxon England adapted this to help the conversion of the pagan population to Christianity.  This is a tactic that was used with Yule and other pagan festivals and traditions.   In some versions of the song, John Barleycorn suffers in a similar way to Christ, especially in the version by Robert Burns.

After undergoing ritualistic suffering and death, his body is ground into flour for bread and drink. Some scholars compare this with the Sacrament and Transubstantiation of Christian belief though not all agree.

Popular Culture

We will probably never know the true origins and meaning that are hidden in the story of John Barleycorn but the song and its mysteries still have a powerful effect on people today.  Many popular musicians and folk artists have performed versions of the song in the recent past and it is still a popular song today.

In 1970, the progressive rock group, ’Traffic’ made an album entitled, John Barleycorn Must Die, featuring a song of the same name which went on to become a classic.

The song is popular with recording and performing artists and a favourite with audiences. Folk rock bands Fairport Convention and Steel-eye Span and many other rock and folk artists have recorded versions of the song ensuring the story of John Barleycorn is still sung and celebrated, so that even though the meaning may be lost in time, the story lives on.

References and Attributions
File:Hordeum-barley.jpg From Wikimedia Commons 
Read the lyrics HarvestFestivals.Net - John Barleycorn
AudioEnglish.org -John Barleycorn
The Golden Bough - from Wikipedia
Sacred king from Wikipedia
Frazer, Sir James George -  The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
Traffic - John BarleyCorn  
Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music