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Myth & Legend
Bishop Eaten Alive by Mice
In The Gallows Curse, the servant girl, Elena is terrified by her strange dreams. In the Middle Ages people believed that when the person was dreaming the soul left the body, in the form of a mouse.
In the tenth century there was a great famine in the Rhineland. The starving people went to Bishop Hatto of Mainz and begged for a little of the food he had in his well-stocked tithe barns. He invited them into the barn to take the food, but the barn proved to be empty and too late… the people found themselves locked in. The bishop had the barn set on fire and those inside were all burned to death.
Soon afterwards a plague of mice infested the bishop’s palace. He fled to a tower in the middle of the Rhine, but the mice followed, swarmed over him and ate him alive. The mice were believed to be the spirits of those he had murdered.
A mischievous imp or poltergeist inhabiting country areas. It caused destruction in cottages and farms, making things go bump in the night, causing weeds to spring up in fields and the cows’ milk to dry up. It also played malicious tricks on travellers. It usually became attached to a particular place or family and would not leave.
The Broken Vow
In the 1300’s Earl de Warrenne fought a dual with Lord Pevensey. Lord Pevensey raised his sword to strike the fatal blow, but Warrenne’s pregnant wife prayed to St Nicholas to save her husband. The saint heard her prayer and turned aside Pevensey’s sword blade, saving Warrrenne’s life. In gratitude, the Earl vowed to do anything the saint commanded and St Nicholas told him that his wife would give birth to a son, and when the son became a man, Warrenne must send him to Byzantium to place the saint’s own belt on the grave of the Virgin Mary. This the son must do before he married. Warrenne promised on his unborn son’s life to see that the vow was fulfilled.
Years passed and Warrenne entirely forgot his vow. His son, Lord Manfred, grew up and fell in love with the beautiful Lady Edona and on the 17th May, twenty-one years after his father’s dual, Manfred married his lovely bride. That night many wealthy and important guests came to enjoy the wedding banquet. But at the very hour that Warrenne had been saved from the fatal blow, an icy wind roared through the great hall extinguishing every candle as well as the blazing fire. The hall was plunged into darkness, and as the guests cried out in horror, they saw on the wall the glowing, ghostly figures of Warrenne and Pevensey fighting that bloody dual and the saint raising his hand to deflect that fatal blow. Warrenne wept when he remembered the broken vow and when his son learned of the story, he left his bride without consummating the marriage and immediately set sail for Byzantium.
Every day for a year Lady Edona to the cliff tops to look for his returning ship. Then exactly a year to the day they married, she recognised its sails far out at sea. She immediately set word to Warrenne and both families hurried out to the cliff to welcome Manfred home. But Manfred had been wed before carrying out his father’s promise. The vow had been broken. And even as they watched the ship sail into the bay, St Nicholas caused a great rock to rear up out of the water right in front of it. The ship was dashed to pieces. The watchers on the shore could do nothing except listen to cries and screams of the drowning men.
Poor Edona, still a maid, dropped dead from shock and grief and her father-in-law was so stricken he spent the rest of his life building a church to St. Nicholas to atone for his broken vow. He built the church near where Edona was laid to rest in what is now the town of Brighton, East Sussex.
And if you should find yourself on the cliffs at midnight on 17th May, you will see Manfred’s ghostly ship sailing towards land and you will hear the cries of the sailors rising from beneath the waves and sobs of his heartbroken bride as she waits in vain for her husband to return.
Also known as Lilith’s star or Algol, is in the constellation Perseus. It was considered the most dangerous star in the heavens, bringing evil and death, for it seems to wink like a great eye. A girl born under its astrological influence was said to bring a curse upon her family and any man she married.
The star appears to wane in brightness over four and a half hours, remaining dim for twenty minutes, then increases to its original intensity for sixty-nine hours. We now know this is caused by a dimmer star eclipsing a brighter one.
From the Hebrew, meaning unformed. In kabbalistic magic, soil or clay was made into the statue of a man and brought to life by placing under its tongue a slip of paper on which was written the tetragrammation (the four-letter name of God). The resulting zombie-like being would only obey the master who had made him, and was immensely strong and destructive, but very stupid. Christians came to believe that any book or paper with Hebrew lettering could be used to animate a golem.
It was discovered that a parish priest was keeping a white gyrfalcon in his barn. It was a bird of such great value that not even his own bishop could dream of owning such a prize. Everyone was certain there was only one way a poor man like him could have obtained such a bird, he must have stolen it. The white gyrfalcon must surely have belong to no less a person than a prince or even a king. To steal from royalty was nothing less than treason, and not even the Church could protect a man accused of such a terrible crime.
The priest was found guilty and sentence to be burned to death. The gyrfalcon was taken from him and securely tethered until it could be sent to the king. Then the priest was lead to the stake and there he was bound in chains to the post and the pyre was lit. But just as the flames took hold and leapt upwards, the gyrfalcon managed to escape its leash and flew straight towards the burning pyre. It perched on the top of the stake, spreading its wings protectively to cover the head of the priest. When the people who were gathered in the square saw this, they cried out ‘It is a sign from God. The priest is innocent.’ At once they pulled away the burning wood and doused the flames. Then they released the priest from his chains and set him free.
King Curses Courting Couple
Legend has it that one night, in the year 869AD St Edmund, King of East Anglia was fleeing from the invading Danes. As his pursuers drew closer, Edmund hid under a bridge in Hoxne, near Lowestoft in Suffolk, hoping the Danes would think he was still ahead of them. But two newly weds out for a stroll, paused on the bridge to kiss and gazed into the romantic moonlit river. King Edmund was wearing gold spurs and they saw the glitter of the gold reflected in the water.
The young couple betrayed his hiding place to the pursing Danes who seized him, tied him to an oak tree and used him as target practise for their spear men. They pierced him many times through his limbs and body until he finally died.
But with his dying breath, King Edmund cursed any couple who would in future pass over the bridge on their way to be married. Since the bridge was the road to the parish church, this meant that brides and grooms had to go miles out of their way to avoid crossing it, for the curse was taken very seriously. In the end a new bridge had to be built over the river, because couples were still avoiding Gold-Bridge right up into the 19th Century.
And it’s said, that even today, if you gaze into the river when the moon is bright, you will still the ghostly reflection of King Edmund’s golden spurs glinting through the water.
A beautiful, but evil, female water sprite. Their skins are said to be white or translucent like water.
Roads and Ditches – ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the King
When King John visited Alnwick he was furious to discover the townspeople had been neglecting to repair the roads and ditches. The water from the ditches was flooding the tracks, which were full of holes. By the time King John arrived in the town his costly clothes were splattered in stinking mud.
He ordered the townspeople to set to work at once to make the roads fit for travel, and threatened to use their dead bodies to fill in the potholes, if they did not.
This was no idle threat for the law said if a man failed to keep a dyke in order and caused his neighbour’s property to flood, he could be buried alive in the dyke as part of the flood defences. So the officials in Alnwick hastily complied, but John was not satisfied with that. He wanted them punished for ruining his clothes.
So he ordered that, once year, the townspeople must walk along every track and boundary on a route he specified which took them straight through a pond called, Freeman’s Well. A group of officials known as the Boundary Riders had to dress in all in white and, with drawn-swords, were obliged to canter to the pond, wade through it the middle of it on foot and remount on the other side to complete the route. This decree was taken so seriously that the annual custom continued for centuries, but has now sadly lapsed. Although perhaps the local townspeople might be tempted to revive it next time their town council is too slow in repairing the roads.
King John died in 1216 at Swineshead Abbey, near Boston, Lincolnshire. Some say he died from a surfeit of peaches and new cider, others whispered his cider had been poisoned. But so feared was he that rumours began to circulated that his spirit lived on in devilish form. Some even said he roamed the countryside as a werewolf, and his spine-chilling howls can still be heard at Runnymede, where he was forced, against his will, to sign the Magna Carta and at The Wash where he continues to search for his Crown Jewels lost as he retreated from the French Invasion. The jewels were said to be in John’s baggage train was caught in quicksand and overwhelmed by the incoming tide, the whirlpools sucking down men, horses and waggons.
These were fossil ammonites found on the beaches along the Yorkshire coast. Legend has it that in 657AD when St Hilda wanted to build her double monastery on the top of the cliffs at Streoneshalh (Whitby) she found the place infested with snakes. She drove them over the cliffs and into the sea where they were turned to stone. Right up until Victorian times, ammonites of all sizes were sold by locals to pilgrims and later to tourists as proof of St Hilda’s miracle and some enterprising locals even carved the ends into snakes’ heads to embellish the resemblance!
A malicious goblin, or – some said – the devil himself, who took the form of a rough-coated horse with glowing eyes and who shone with an eerie blue light. He frightened travellers with his unearthly groans and noises, which were said to sound like the creak of a coffin lid opening or the rattling of great chains. He led the unwary into bogs and caused horses to throw their riders. To defend themselves against him, travellers were advised to carry an iron horse shoe, a daisy chain or a sprig of rowan tied with a scarlet thread.
The Wronged Sister
St Kenelm, a young boy of seven years, was heir to the kingdom of Mercia. They said he was assassinated in the Clent Hills by his elder sister, Quendreda, a harlot and sorceress, who had arranged for his tutor to murder him to gain the throne herself. When he was slain, a white dove burst out of the dead boy’s skull carrying a parchment written in Anglo Saxon, which it carried to Rome and dropped onto the high altar of St Peter’s, where English pilgrims read it and discovered the cruel murder.
When the body of this innocent child was borne to the abbey at Winchombe for burial, Quendreda was reading the heretic’s psalm backwards, as part of her wicked spell. ‘The fool has said in his heart there is no God.’ But as the abbey death bell began to toll, her eyeballs burst from her head, covering her psalter with blood.
It was a miraculous death, that is to say, it was for the abbey for it brought in a steady stream of gold for the abbot’s coffers for years to come. Thousands of pilgrims flocked to the boy’s shrine and paid handsomely to see the blood-stained psalter. They even carved the scene of his sister’s exploding eyes on the front of Wells Cathedral.
But Kenelm was no child martyr. He died a man in battle. And his sister, Quendreda, was no sorceress for she was abbess of Southminster and when she eventually died in old age she was still in full possession of both her eyes.
It was a widely held medieval belief that witches could steal a man’s penis and there are numerous accounts of terrified young men complaining to their priests or judges that a witch had spirited-away their genitals and they were entirely smooth between the legs. No amount of reassurance by others that their genitals were still plainly visible would convince the men they had not been robbed. Many civil and ecclesiastical authorities believed that women had indeed bewitched the unfortunate men into not being able to see or feel their own private parts. The remedy prescribed was to flog or torture the woman in the presence of the man, until she confessed her crime and agreed to restore his manhood. In all the recorded cases this seems to have been effective in convincing the men that their genitals had been returned to them.
Welcoming the Dead
In my novel The Owl Killers the priest complains about his parishioners’ habit of placing food and ale on the graves of their loved ones on All Hallows Eve. This was an old custom, arising from the belief that on All Hallows Eve (Halloween) the spirits of the dead would return to visit their families. All Hallows Eve was also the day on which livestock were brought into the cottage or the byres adjoining it, for shelter over winter. The returning spirits of the dead would therefore protect both the family and livestock and must be welcomed as honoured guests, if they were to bless the house. So food and drink were also laid out ready for them in the house, along with their favourite possessions. This also gave rise to the custom of ‘souling’ – begging for ‘soul cakes’ from friends and neighbours, to leave out for the dead. A soul-cake was a flat, round, spiced biscuit.
A witch who lived in Berkeley, Gloucestershire had a ‘familiar’ (a bid) in the form of a jackdaw who could read the future. One day the jackdaw warned her that she would shortly endure a great tragedy and would die soon after. When news came that her son and his family had all been killed, the witch became extremely alarmed and sent for her daughter who was a nun and her second son who was monk. She told them that while her soul could not be saved they must save her body.
After her death the witch’s body was to be sewn up in a stag’s hide and placed in a stone coffin bound with three iron chains and left in the church for three nights, while her children kept vigil. After that she considered that they might safely bury her body.
The first night demons entered the church and broke the first chain. The second night they shattered the second chain and on the third night the devil himself appeared in a great thunderstorm. He broke the last chain and dragged her from the coffin and led her to a black horse which had iron hooks protruding from it all over its hide. The devil impaled her on the hooks on the horse’s back and all three of them vanished. The screams of the witch could be heard for miles as they galloped away through the night.
There once lived a priest who did not believe that witchcraft existed. One morning he was late rising from his bed and hurried to cross the bridge to his church. Impatiently he pushed in front of an old woman, instead of letting her go first, and in doing so caused her to fall in the mud. She cursed him saying, ‘You shall not cross unharmed.’
He ignored her, but when he tried to get out of bed the next day he found himself paralysed from the waist down. For the next three years he had to be carried into the church.
When the old women lay dying she sent for him to hear her confession. The priest refused to go, but his mother had him carried to the old woman’s bedside. The old woman asked him if he knew she had inflicted his infirmity on him. At first he denied it, for it meant admitting it was done by witchcraft, but when she pressed him, he eventually agreed he knew she was a witch and begged her to lift the spell. She told him he would be cured within thirty days of her death, and so he was, just as suddenly as he had been struck down.