By Jonathan Reed
'Hole of Horcum' supplied by Reed Gallery©
Britain has a long and dynamic history, we have seen biblical fires destroy our capital city of London. We’ve seen a King execute two of his wives and we’ve faced two World Wars. We’ve experienced the Black Plague, the attempted plot to blow-up the Houses of Parliament, the fall of the Monarchy and its re-emergence to power. We’ve seen the nation unite in grief at the death of a ‘People’s Princess’ and the battle of exiting the European Union play out.
But something that is rooted deeper across the length and breadth of this United Kingdom, are the legends that have continued to shape the land of Hope and Glory.
But why are they so important? What elements pay towards their longevity and most importantly, what keeps us all intrigued? And what is the reality behind these legends of mystery, intrigue and magic?
One of Britain’s most enduring and debated legends stem from our ‘greatest King’, Arthur and his legendary Roundtable.
The tale of a young boy lifting the sword Excalibur, from a mystical stone and instantly becoming King of England has ignited the imaginations of the British for centuries. It has inspired novels, films and even a musical, but why do people love the story of King Arthur so deeply?
Many would state that Arthur and his men represent the ‘birth of Britain’, the Great King taking on monsters and witches to uphold the nobility of his crown and Camelot Kingdom. Throw in a mystical Lady of the Lake and an unbreakable sword anointed with noble destiny, and you have a story which will intrigue for centuries.
King Arthur’s existence has long been debated with no concrete proof the King ever existed. Perhaps what adds to the mystique surrounding Arthur is the numerous public profiles that have been stated as the ‘real’ King Arthur.
The earliest mention of Arthur is in a collection of Welsh verses, ‘Y Gododdin’ in the Book of Aneirin. Though he is only mentioned in passing by comparison to a British hero Gorddur, it is never stated what type of man Arthur is, or even if he is a man.
The most recognisable historical ‘Arthur’ is written in the book, ‘History Of The Britons’ (Historia Brittonum). Chapter 56 of the book portrays Arthur as a ‘General of Battles’, listing 12 ‘God-given’ victories over the Saxons, where he single-handedly kills 960 members of the enemy.
hough it is hard to fully timeline the transformation of Arthur’s story from historical to mythical, it is believed that elements of Christian faith were added throughout the centuries. These included the Sword in the Stone and the mention of the Holy Grail. Both most likely have stemmed from other historical myths and combined with Arthur’s legend, to paint him as a holy King, the most notable being Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Camblan’.
After all, both elements of the sword and Grail, including the Kingdom of Camelot are first mentioned in the late 12th-century French romance Lancelot or the Knight in the Cart.
Whichever way historians try to depict King Arthur and his enduring legend, one thing can be sure, that centuries from now, Arthur will continue to intrigue the British public.
Another famous British legendary leader was the famed thief ‘who stole from the rich and gave to the poor’.
Robin Hood and his Merry Men is a story which has been told time and time again, and the fascination has resulted in numerous films and TV shows being made on the lovable rogue. His mythical story of a man born into wealth and turning his back on the elite is a tale which never grows old, and the continuing captivation in Hood proves this.
With villains like the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John who are often depicted usurping the absent King Richard, whom Robin Hood is still loyal to, create a running theme which is often present in the more enduring legends, good versus evil.
Throw in his rough and tumble rabble of ‘Merry Men’ and his love interest, Maid Marian and the legend of Robin Hood is as durable a British legend as any other.
Similarly to King Arthur, Robin Hood’s existence is highly and fiercely debated with many historians unable to agree on the elusive vagabond.
The earliest mention of Hood isn’t in rhymes, historical records, or even ballads, but in hints and allusions found in various works. From 1261 onward, the names ‘Robinhood’ and ‘Robehod’ occur in the rolls of several English Justices as nicknames or descriptions of malefactors. Throughout various regions across England ‘Rabunhod’ is referenced from Berkshire to York.
The first reference to a direct ‘Robin Hood’ was discovered in 2009 in the margin of the ‘Polychronicon’ based at Eton College. The text written in 1460 by a monk in Latin says:
“Around this time according to popular opinion, a certain outlaw named Robin Hood, with his accomplices, infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies.”
The earliest known legal and historical records which mention Robin Hood are from 1226 in the city of York. This ‘Hood’ is the only figure to be historically listed as an outlaw, however, there is no evidence that he was also a bandit.
Another suggestion on Robin’s identity stems from an alias used by a group of thieves. First mentioned in Berkshire, many historians allude to the fact that most likely an earlier legend was already evident at this time, and this therefore allowed stories to be added to the iconic vigilante, forming the ‘Robin Hood’ we all know today.
The location of Sherwood Forest, set in Nottinghamshire is the most famous place associated with the legend, and tourists can visit ‘The Major Oak’, said to be the hideout of Robin and his Merry Men. But other parts of England have some associations with Robin Hood, most notably, Yorkshire.
Yorkists publicly dispute Nottinghamshire’s claim to Robin Hood’s heritage, claiming there is more evidence placing the rogue in the northern county. This stems from the written text of the ‘Gest of Robyn Hode’, where linguists observe the language written in a distinctive northern dialect.
Whoever Robin’s identity points to or his whereabouts are rooted, one thing is for sure, that his tale of heroism against the rich and championing the poor, is a constant theme that rings true, even today.
HOLE OF HORCUM
In the middle of the Yorkshire Moors, is a deep rugged valley which stems one of the county’s most famous legends – The hole of Horcum.
The ‘hole’ which garners thousands of visitors, is a popular walking route of trekkers and its origin tells a tale of giant proportions.
The legend speaks of the Giant Wade, who after an argument with his wife, scooped up a handful of earth and threw it at her, thereby forming the ‘hole’ we see today. The valley also has another name, ‘The Devil’s Punchbowl’.
Whilst the legend is entertaining, the reality is less so. The valley was in fact formed by a process called spring-sapping, whereby water welling up from the hillside has gradually undermined the slopes above, eating the rocks away grain by grain. Over thousands of years, a once narrow valley has widened and deepened into an enormous cauldron – and the process still continues today, as does the Giant of Wade legend.
LOCH NESS MONSTER
Perhaps the most fiercely contested legends of Britain is the famed claim of the Loch Ness Monster. Dating back to the sixth century AD, the book ‘Life of St. Columba’ by Adomnan, provides the earliest reference to a ‘monster’ near Loch Ness.
It is claimed that St Columba, after seeing a swimmer mauled and dragged underwater by a large beast, sent the beast away after attempting to attack another swimmer. The altercation was deemed a miracle.
Though this is the earliest mention of the monster, there have been far more famous ‘sightings’. One being on 22 July 1933, when George Spicer and his wife saw “a most extraordinary form of animal” cross the road in front of their car. Described as having a long, wavy, narrow neck and no limbs, this sighting would be the first of many, and they would increase astronomically in the following years.
Perhaps the most famous and ensuring sighting of the Loch Ness Monster comes from the now iconic ‘Surgeons Photograph’. Taken in 1934, the photo snapped by Robert Kenneth Wilson would become the most recognisable image depicting the famed and evasive monster. Whilst for many years it was hotly seen as evidence of the monster’s existence, it is now widely believed to be the result of an elaborate hoax.
Since then, there have been countless videos, photographs and testimonies of the creature lurking beneath the cold waters of Loch Ness.
Whilst the ‘Nessie’ legend adds a mystery to the Scottish Loch, it is now widely believed to not exist. Numerous underwater explorations have taken place and even Sonar scanning equipment used to map the entire Loch have shown nothing resembling a prehistoric aquatic monster.
Many claim that the whole legend was a marketing gimmick to garner mass tourism and therefore boost the local economy, which has worked! However, despite the numerous of sightings over the decades, no evidence has ever been found to prove conclusively, the Loch Ness Monster exists.
Arguably our oldest and most enduring legends stem right the way back to the 13th century, where they were first described by the historian Gervase of Tilbury. Described as ‘little people’, Fairies were called fallen angels, neither bad enough for Hell nor good enough for Heaven.
Throughout almost every part of the country, legends exist regarding fairies, though they are not always described as so.
Black Annis, a blue-faced hag, haunts the Dane Hills in Leicestershire and Gentle Annie governs storms in the Scottish Lowlands; both are described as ‘nature fairies.’ Though perhaps the most notable nature fairies are Mermaids and Mermen.
Fairies have become so synonymous with legends that many have been adapted across novels, films, music, art and religion. But perhaps they entered mainstream media after the infamous ‘Cottingley Fairies’ photographs.
The series of five pictures taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths were captured in Cottingley, near Bradford in Yorkshire. Many believed, at the time, that the pictures were genuine, and Elsie believed that she had photographed her thoughts which had manifested in the shape of fairies.
Fairies have existed in British folk-law for thousands of years and each time have taken a different form. Their existence has long been debated, though today it is widely believed to be nothing more that stories. No evidence has ever been discovered pertaining to the discovery of the flying figures.
Regarding the ‘Cottingley Fairies’, though many initially believed them to be genuine, both Elsie and Frances later admitted in the 1980s that the pictures were faked. Using cardboard cut-outs from a popular children’s book, they had positioned them to look as if the camera had indeed captured ‘real’ fairies. However, it is worth mentioning that Frances maintained that the fifth picture in the series was genuine. All five of the photographs along with the two cameras are now on display at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, England.