Folklore and Man’s Past by H.R. Ellis Davidson (1963)

We realize now that folklore is not merely a study of survival – fossilized pieces of quaint tradition from a hypothetical past. Yet it does provide a link with the past, and as a student of early literature, archaeology and religion, this is the aspect of folklore studies with which I am most concerned. What kind of light does it throw on the customs and beliefs of men of long ago?

Sir James FrazerThe work of Sir James Frazer and other giants of the early twentieth century has given us a popular picture of the pagan past – a past in which the king went down regularly to a sacrificial death to ripen the corn; when covens of twelve witches under the leader in the animal mask flourished openly over the face of Europe; when sun-worshippers kindled their bonfires and planned elaborate sun-clocks of megalithic stones, and white-robed Druids stabbed their victims on ancient altars, brandishing the sacred mistletoe.


The rudiments of truth are here, but the picture is misleading. Popular books and articles on folklore have tended to over-simplify it wildly in pursuit of the romantic and the sensational. The careful researches of scholars have reached the general public in a dogmatic and irresponsible form, so that cautious suggestions of a possible pattern are turned into rash statements of fact, while the type of evidence on which theories have been based is completely ignored. Moreover this picture is founded on the assumption that folklore leads us back like a plumbline to a kind of Folk Golden Age, when all these picturesque customs were fixed and established ceremonies. The priest with the knife, the dying god, the dancing spirit of the corn, are assumed to have been unani-mously recognized and acclaimed by the folk in happy or at least fanatical uniformity.

Thus we find statements like the following, from the letter of a country rector to the Folklore Society in 1898:1

In the Lincolnshire marshes.., underneath a thin veneer of Christianity there still exists a solid foundation of pure paganism …. In the very district once known as the ‘Land of Mary’ there is scarcely a trace left of medievalism, but any amount of Norse paganism. All these ideas are rapidly dying out. But what is taking their place? I fear blank materialism to a great extent, and I am not sure that the change is for the better.

As to the ideas taking their place, we have heard much about these from Mr Opie. Now however let us dwell for a while on the other side. It is claimed that this part of Lincolnshire is full of the heathen beliefs of the Danes. This would mean that they must have been established there in the comparatively brief period between the invasion of the Vikings in the ninth century and their subsequent conversion in the tenth, and very strongly established indeed to leave such a mark upon local folk-tradition. In this case then the Golden Age of folklore is placed in the ninth century A.D. Indeed this particular writer, Mr Heanley, derived almost every- thing from the Danes, including the Sword Dance, an error which has had a surprisingly long life, and has only just been satisfactorily demolished by Violet Alford.2

Green Man (Shebbear)

Other writers as cheerfully and dogmatically put their Golden Age in some other favourite period: heathen Anglo-Saxon England, or Roman Britain (less popular this than one would expect, seeing that it extended over 400 years of paganism), or Celtic Britain before the Romans, or that very promising stretch of some thousands of years about which so little is known, the Bronze Age. It does not require much thought to realize that the pre-Christian period in Britain was of long duration, and likely to have been immensely rich, varied and complicated. But the popular folklorist conveniently forgets this; to him indeed a thousand years seems but as yesterday, and if he can find an isolated custom in the writing of some ancient historian or medieval chronicler and link it up with existing folklore, he will joyfully assume continuity without further ado.

There are three rules which are essential if we are to use folklore profitably to interpret the past. First, we must know a good deal about the kind of evidence which we are using, whether it be written, oral, pictorial, or based on the findings of archaeology. Secondly, we must know a good deal also about the history of religion and culture in the particular locality and period with which we are concerned. Thirdly, the folklore which we use must be reliable, and must be considered in its full context. Without these elementary safeguards, folklore may be a very dangerous guide.

It is often assumed that there is a romantic and esoteric quality about folk-memory; that the folk have a kind of mystical inner knowledge which enables them to keep the essentials in folklore unsullied from one generation to another. Oral memory may result in amazing feats, as has been shown by the epic poetry of Jugo- Slavia and the Balkan countries, composed in our own day. But just how reliable is folk-memory?

The classic example, often quoted, is that of the warrior in golden armour from Mold. The facts seem to be as follows:3 In 1833 a very fine gold collar was found in a tumulus near Mold. A local vicar wrote to the Society of Antiquaries soon afterwards, vouching for the fact that a considerable time before the discovery was made, an old woman returning to the town late at night saw a figure which she described as ‘of unusual size, clothed in a coat of gold which shone like the sun’, crossing the road and moving to the place where the treasure was afterwards found. Here if the informant was reliable – and this evidence, produced after the event, would hardly be accepted by a jury or by the Society of Psychical Research – we may have an instance of extra-sensory perception of considerable interest. But against this I would set another story told by Mr Lethbridge in Merlin’s Island.4


Here he discusses William the Conqueror’s attack on the rebel Hereward (afterwards known as Hereward the Wake), which according to a medieval chronicle took place at Alrehede, in the Fens near Ely. The monk who wrote the Latin account said that he himself had seen the remains of Normans dragged up from the water there in their rotted armour. This looks like a valuable piece of early archaeological evidence, and Mr Lethbridge was therefore justifiably excited when a local farmer who lived near Aldreth volunteered that he had seen a knight in armour on the skeleton of his horse uncovered near the medieval causeway there. The man, he said, wore a gold ring on his finger with a red stone in it.

Lethbridge set to work to follow up this clue. But the end of the search was not rewarding. He had indeed, said Lethbridge,

… seen a warrior on a horse found near the causeway. A hoard of bronze objects had been found a mile or so away in the Fen, at a farm called the Hempsals. Among the Roman bronzes in this hoard were two complete little equestrian statuettes of Roman soldiers about the size of a modern toy soldier. These were exhibited with the other objects from the hoard in a case at the Cambridge Museum. In the same case was a gold ring from Bristol, set with a red garnet.

Therefore when the golden warrior of Mold is mentioned, it is as well to remember the Aldreth horseman at the same time. But this is not to deny continuity with the past, or the value of folk- memory. There are impressive examples of this which no amount of scepticism can explain away. There is one for instance from Brittany, where the spring of Berenton can still be visited in the remains of the ancient forest of Broceliande, not far from Rennes. The custom now is to throw a few pebbles into the spring, which causes the water to bubble up vigorously, but in the last century the custom was to take a little of the water and sprinkle it on a large stone which formerly lay beside the spring, and which can now be seen built into the doorway of a house in the nearest village. We hear of this fountain in a number of medieval writings, of which the earliest is the twelfth-century poem of Wace. He tells us in a matter-of-fact way that in time of drought hunters used to pour water on to the stone with their horns in order to cause rain. In Chretien de Troyes’ poem Ivain, the hero pours water on a block of emerald beside the spring, and produces a storm of rain and snow. The right of the owner of the local chateau to use the spring in this way is mentioned in documents of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In August 1835, when there was a serious drought in the district, the local priest was prevailed on to lead a procession to the spring and place the foot of the processional cross in it, while he asperged the stone and the procession with its water. According to contemporary record, black clouds were soon seen in the sky, and before long a storm broke, drenched the procession and forced it to disperse.5


Barenton Fountain, Brocéliande.
Barenton Fountain, Brocéliande.

Another local tradition with enduring life is that of Weland the Smith, said to have his smithy in the megalithic stone grave on the Ridgeway, near the Berkshire White Horse. In 1738 Francis Wise6 recorded that the country people believed in an invisible smith who lived in this tomb,

… and if a traveller’s Horse had lost a Shoe upon the road, he had no more to do than to bring the Horse to this place with a piece of money, and leaving both there for some little time, he might come again and find the money gone, but the Horse new shod.

This seems to have been a genuine folk-tradition, for it was recorded again, along with tales about the smith and his assistant, several times during the last century, one story as recently as 1929.7 Similar traditions about ‘the silent trade’, as it is called, have been collected from other parts of the world, and are sometimes founded on fact, in places where shy and primitive people live on the outskirts of civilization.8 Traditions of a smith who lives in a hill or a cave or a stone tomb abound in North Germany, Denmark and Belgium. Moreover there are other local traditions about Weland the Smith, some from Somerset and a number from Denmark, and some of these go back to early times, while places associated with his name are found in medieval German documents. Most interesting of all, the tomb on the Ridgeway was evidently associated with Weland in Anglo-Saxon times, since it is named Welands smidde in a Berkshire charter of 855. Here then we have a local tradition extending back for at least 1ooo years.

Again, as in the case of the Breton spring, early literature reinforces the folklore. King Alfred himself referred to Weland the cunning smith, and he was remembered in heroic poetry both by the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians as a craftsman of outstanding skill, captured by a king and forced to work for him, and taking a terrible vengeance on his captor. A scene from the story of Weland can be seen on a little ivory box of eighth century Northumbrian work in the British Museum. The early literature even gives us his genealogy, and makes him the son of the giant Wade; and Wade, like Weland, is remembered in local legends in both Britain and Denmark, as a giant builder of castles and Roman roads in Yorkshire and elsewhere. Traditions about Weland the Smith may possibly be a case of folklore derived ultimately from pre-Christian beliefs in giant craftsmen dwelling under the earth, the same beings who have left so vigorous an imprint on the Scandinavian myths. But faithful, even obstinate, as folk-memory may be in its adherence to a local tradition, the dangers remain. We have seen one of these: memory is a strange, unreliable thing. Another is that a custom may be deliberately invented by some antiquary with a sense of the dramatic. The burning of the Viking ship at Lerwick in Shetland every year, and its picturesque crew of Vikings led by the Guizer Jarl, is a splendid and impressive spectacle, and one in which the people wholeheartedly take part; yet this was invented in the 1890’s by a local antiquary after tar-barrels had gone out of favour for the winter festival because they were so dangerous. There is little doubt that the success of the ship-burning is due to the fact that it is fully in key with the ancient Winter Bonfire festival connected with Yule, still held on the last Tuesday in January, the Up-Helly-aa, of which it now forms the climax. Here then we have no fake ceremony, but rather additional complications added to the existing one; yet one cannot but wonder how many other ingenious local antiquaries have had their inspiration and been forgotten, while the ritual they instigated continues to win the awe and respect of folklore enthusiasts. Such is the natural development of folklore, it may be argued; fair enough, but we shall be woefully misled if we try to reconstruct past religion and heathen symbolism from such festivals. An even more extreme example of what might be called the spanner in the works was reported in The Times last summer.9 The old legend that only ninety-nine yew trees would flourish in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Painswick, was strengthened by the fact that all attempts to cultivate the hundredth failed. Now it is revealed that Mr Meeze, a scientist with a passion for practical jokes, lived next to the vicarage; whether he started the legend in the first place is uncertain, but his daughter vouches for the fact that he poured acid on the roots of the hundredth tree each time they planted it. The most ominous note sounded in this story was the remark that church and museum records were now being  amended accordingly. Evidently the curse on the hundredth tree had been carefully recorded as genuine local tradition.

The Viking longboat burns during the annual Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

Another deeply rooted human instinct which at times plays havoc with tradition is the desire to tell a good story; once one is in circulation, it appears again and again, until in one sense it may be counted as folklore, but folklore artificial in origin. A familiar instance is the story of Alfred and the cakes. Ask any class of eleven-year-olds what they know of Alfred of Wessex, and if the first child does not mention the cakes, the second certainly will. Text-books change, slants in history teaching vary, yet Alfred and his burnt cakes remain indelibly fixed in the minds of the youth of Britain.

Now what is the origin of this immortal story? It would be splendid could we say that it was oral tradition from Alfred’s time, but it has not reached us directly as such. It can be traced to Asser’s Life of Alfred, the Latin biography of the king written by his friend and counsellor, a highly respectable contemporary source. But unfortunately the tale was not included in Asser’s original book. It was Archbishop Parker in the sixteenth century who found it in the Latin Annals of St Neots, thought it a good story – fatal temptation – and argued that it must have come from Asser and been omitted in the manuscript which he himself had used. So he inserted it into his edition of the Life, and there it has remained, to be solemnly quoted by scores of later writers, and to have found its way into almost every child’s book on the period. Parker acted in good faith; where he sinned as a scholar was in claiming that he had faithfully followed his manuscript, altering and adding nothing. ‘More mischief has been wrought by Parker’s interpolation of this long passage than by any other falsification of historic evidence’, said Stevenson severely in his edition of Asser’s Life. For the Annals of St Neots, which dates from the twelfth century, is not greatly valued by historians, and certainly not regarded as a reliable source for Alfred’s time. The story of the cakes might have been an early popular one; Robert Birley recently put up a spirited defence of it, at least in the form found in a twelfth-century homily where the king is set to watch loaves baking, and there is no mention of them burning. 10 But we have no proof even so that the story was told of Alfred; it could have  belonged to some other hero visiting a cottage in disguise, and been transferred later to the famous king. Humorous or exciting stories, and sometimes folk-tales from abroad, were often handed round from one hero to another.

King Alfred and the Cakes

A mistake of a different kind which has made its way into recorded folklore is the belief that the kingdom of Lyonnesse lay under the sea, off the Cornish coast. This has appeared times without number in guidebooks, works on popular folklore, and serious literature from the seventeenth century onwards, and seems never to have been questioned until an article by Mr Bivar published in 1953 11 showed how the mistake probably arose. It appears in Carew’s Survey of Cornwall, published in 1602, and seems to have been based on a series of errors made by previous writers. Tristan’s kingdom of Loenois, that is, Lothian in Scotland, was confused with Leonois in Brittany; the neighbouring district in Brittany, Cornouaille, was taken to be Cornwall, and traditions about a great inundation of the sea at Mont St Michel, Brittany, were transferred to St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. Consequently when Carew searched for the land of Lioness in Cornwall and could find no trace of it, he assumed that this was the land which had been submerged beneath the waves. Camden borrowed the idea from Carew, and future antiquaries and folklorists, relying on two major authorities, spread the notion far and wide. It will not be easy to dismiss it now.

A different source of error is one which arises when too much reliance is placed on one isolated scrap of folklore, never critically examined, but passed on reverently from one scholar to another until it has appeared in many learned books and gained the reputation of a venerable myth. Of all the gods in the Scandinavian Asgard, one of the most puzzling is Loki, hero of a large number of stories, some tragic and some humorous. In spite of the major part which he plays, many have doubted if he were originally a god at all. Certainly there has never been any evidence that he was known in England, until in 1890 a country clergyman wrote to Baring-Gould about an experience which he claimed to remember from boyhood, about 1859, when he lived in Lincolnshire. He had taken some quinine from his mother to the local ‘wise woman’, whose grandson was ill, but when he visited her with a second bottle she refused it scornfully, saying she knew a better cure than ‘yon mucky stuff’. At the foot of the boy’s bed she showed him three horseshoes, nailed to the wood, with a hammer laid across them. She told him that she took the hammer in her left hand and struck the shoes with it three times, speaking these words:

Feyther, Son an’ Holi Ghoast, Naale the divil to this poast. Throice I stroikes with holy crook, Won for God, an’ won for Wod, an’ won for Lok.

This she declared was a sure charm: ‘Whin the Old Un comes to shak him he wean’t nivver git past you; you’ull fin’ him saafe as t’ church steaple.’12

Eight years later the vicar wrote to the Folklore Society, giving the same story. The dialogue was a little different, and so was one line of the verse, and the hitting of the horseshoes was not merely described by the old woman, but performed in his presence.13 In 1902 the vicar lectured to the Viking Society, and now the verse had an extra line, ending:

Throice I smoites with Holy Crok, With this mell Oi throice dew knock, One for God, An’ one for Wod, An’ one for Lok.14

His mother, he said, had suggested to him that Wod and Lok must be Woden (the Anglo-Saxon form of Odin) and Loki. The possibility that this charm incorporated the two Northern gods, with perhaps Thor, the hammer-god, as the third, caused much excitement in the scholarly world, particularly outside England. It does not appear that corroborating evidence of any kind was ever produced, and we are entirely dependent on the vicar’s memories of forty years back. Undeterred by this however, the great Danish scholar, Axel Olrik, worked out a theory that the three gods of the charm were Hoenir, Odin and Loki, who appear together in one of the poems of the Icelandic Edda and also in a ballad from the Faroes, and that this must mean that a magic  formula was current from the East Midlands to the Northern Isles, probably founded on Anglo-Saxon heathen beliefs in a trinity of gods. A German scholar, Philippson, more recently suggested as an alternative that the formula had reached Lincolnshire from the Faroes. It was left for De Vries, writing in 1933,15 to point out that before building up elaborate theories it might be as well to examine critically the material on which they were based, and he expressed doubt whether an account of an experience remembered forty years later could be depended upon. We may confirm these doubts by pointing out the discrepancies between the various versions, and by remembering that Mr Heanley, the same vicar who wrote the letter quoted earlier was, determined to see a Danish origin for everything. He was quite capable, I should have thought, of turning two obscure names into Wod and Lok by mere wishful thinking. Moreover the knocking of nails into a post, which the verse implies, in order to ward off fever, bears no particular resemblance to the cult of Thor, the Hammer-God.

Loki, Odin and Hœnir,
Loki, Odin and Hœnir.

It is true that the slavish repetition of one man’s dubious theory is something by no means unknown outside folklore, due to a reluctance among careless or lazy scholars to go back to original sources. But the ease with which some wild claim is accepted by reputable folklorists and their readers is partly due to the exaggerated respect for folk-memory with which we have grown up.

Apart from mistakes, misreadings and over-credulity, the folklore of the past may be influenced by another factor, the tendency to fit the life of a great hero or a great saint or tyrant into a recognized pattern. If certain parts of the pattern are lacking in the great man’s life, story-tellers sooner or later will supply them. The reasons for this are deep and complex, and I shall not attempt to go into them here, but it must be recognized that this tendency to attach a suitable story to a popular figure – be it St Patrick or King Alfred, Walter Raleigh or Oliver Cromwell – may prevent us from accepting some attractive traditions as genuine biographical evidence.

The classic example of this tendency is the persistent legend of the return of the leader who is believed dead. Such tales are legion where King Arthur is concerned; they are attached to many places  in Britain and abroad, and can be quoted from early times up to our own day. In many cases we are dealing with genuine folklore, current among the common people, although a flourishing literary tradition about Arthur also existed among cultured folk. This must have helped to spread the rumours of the king’s return and at the same time been strengthened by the existence of such rumours.

There is one convincing story of a party of travellers from Laon, who made a pilgrimage to holy places in Southern England in 1112. They visited the ‘Seat’ and ‘Oven’ of Arthur in Cornwall, and at the neighbouring shrine of Our Lady they found a man with a withered hand keeping vigil and hoping to be healed. This man however, according to an account written soon after the visit,

began to contend with one of our attendants, who belonged to the household of Guy the archdeacon of Laon, saying that Arthur was still alive. Whence no small tumult arose, many rushed into the church with arms, and unless the aforesaid clerk had intervened, the matter would have almost come to the shedding of blood. Such a quarrel before her shrine was, we believe, displeasing to Our Lady, for the man with the withered hand, who had caused the tumult about Arthur, got no cure.16

In many places, as for instance near Cadbury Camp in Somerset, traditions about Arthur’s return lingered for centuries. At the close of the last century, a party of antiquarians paid a visit to the Camp, and were asked by an old man from the neighbourhood whether they had come to take the king out. Arthur was said to sleep inside this hill, as inside many others, and to be awaiting the day when he would return to his people. Such stories were not confined to Arthur’s Britain. How are we to explain the tradition recorded by Gervase of Tilbury about 1211, that the bishop of Catania’s groom, searching for a runaway horse, entered a cleft in Mt. Etna and there found Arthur lying wounded in a wonderful palace, his wounds breaking out afresh each year? Similar stories from the same area have been recorded by other medieval writers. Have local traditions of a king inside the mountain been attached to a new literary hero, Arthur of Britain, whose fame by now had been carried far beyond his own land? Or did Gervase, or some other  before him, deliberately transfer the tradition to Mt Etna, for the sake of new local colour and to modernize a familiar legend? It will be obvious that no easy, casual answer can be given to questions such as these; each separate problem of this kind is a fruitful field for research by scholars equipped in the languages, literature and history of the period concerned. It will also be clear that in questions of early literature and oral tradition of this kind, folklore plays an important part, and that the ability to use it wisely will be a great asset to the scholar.

Bayeux Tapestry Scene 13 (cropped)
Harold Godwinson, from the Bayeux Tapestry

Other leaders after Arthur were expected back from the dead: Harald Godwinsson, after his defeat at Hastings; Olaf Tryggvason, after his last sea-battle; James IV of Scotland after Flodden; Sebastian of Portugal, known after death as the ‘hidden king’; Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden; and more recently Lord Kitchener and Adolf Hitler.17 In the case of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, who died in I190, there were folk-traditions extant similar to those about Arthur: in the fourteenth century there was a tale of a man searching for a horse in the Kuffhausen mountain and discovering the Emperor asleep in a jewelled cavern, with his beard grown round a stone table.18

One folklorist’s explanation of these tales of the sleeping king is that this is a reflection of old beliefs in a deity of vegetation, asleep through the winter; but this again is an oversimplification, since we are faced with complex problems of oral tradition, sophisticated written sources, and the transmission of tales from one region to another, as well as with local superstitions connected with certain places. On the simplest level, there is a natural human reluctance to close the book and finish the chapter; that is why Conan Doyle was persuaded to write The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

As with the heroes, so with the gods. Ancient beliefs clash and mingle with late literary themes, and legends continue to gather round their names long after cults and temples are no more. But popular traditions which survive the centuries may not bear much resemblance to heathen conceptions about the gods. For instance there is folklore from Sweden associated with the name of the god  Odin. In the late eighteenth century peasants in certain districts were recorded as sacrificing to the ‘horses of Odin’ by leaving a few blades of grain covered with moss when they mowed a meadow. It was believed that neglect of this practice would cause a bad harvest the following year. This evidence has been collected, sifted and discussed, and the general conclusion is that it cannot represent an ancient heathen practice connected with Odin and his horse Sleipnir.19

Odin on Sleipnir (

The clue seems to lie in the fact that in Denmark the last sheaf was preserved not for Odin but for the horse of Jon Opsal, or some other undistinguished name, and that the Swedes seem to have taken this particular custom from the Danes. Elsewhere in Northern Europe the general pattern is for the last sheaf to be kept for some local spirit, perhaps in female or animal form or connected with the dead in the earth, and never for one of the leading deities. Here genuine folklore attached to a god’s name appears to have taken a different trend from that of his original cult in pre-Christian times. Much more likely to have ancient origins is the folklore which connects Odin, who was the god of ecstasy and madness and battle, with the Wild Hunt.20

Indeed one of the main reasons for caution in the interpretation of folklore is the very factor which gives folklore studies such rich- ness and fascination: the tendency of traditions to shift and change in transmission from one generation to another, and Proteus-like to alter their shape while the spirit remains constant. Consider again the bonfires and fireworks of November 5, which still give much enjoyment to children and older folk. When the Gunpowder Plot was discovered in 1605, it was decreed that the date should be made a public holiday with bell-ringing, firing of cannon and general rejoicing. The fierce religious controversies of the seventeenth century have burned out, yet the bonfires are more popular than ever. Undoubtedly this celebration in early November carried on the custom of ritual bonfires on All Hallows Eve, a practice dying out under the influence of the Reformation. The fires however were kept up in their older form, known as Tindles or Tandles, in the North of England, in Lancashire, Westmorland  and Derbyshire, until the late nineteenth century. There fires were kindled in the fields and burning straw carried round the land, while the household knelt in the grass and remembered their dead, and in Catholic families prayed for their souls.21

Guy Fawkes Night
Bonfires are lit in Britain every 5th of November to commemorate the failure of the plot.

Such customs almost certainly replaced in their turn earlier heathen ceremonial, the hallowing of the land with fire in the honour of the Thunder God, and the kindling of autumn bonfires at the Feast of the Dead. Such indeed is the nature of continuity in folklore; details change and so do the accepted reasons for the practice, but fundamentally the basic principle remains and falls into a definite and discernible pattern. In following up such patterns, we shall find that folklore has much to teach us concerning the nature of man’s approach to the supernatural and his feeling towards myths, rites and symbols. What the conscious mind ignores or denies, a deeper instinct recognizes and welcomes.

As a last example of this shifting of tradition, I will take the folklore associated with one particular carved stone in Llowes church, just over the Radnorshire border and separated from Brecknockshire and Herefordshire by the River Wye. The stone is a large, flat, upright one, tapering slightly upwards, with a wheel- cross carved on one side, simply decorated with diamond shapes in low relief, and on the reverse side a simple Latin cross. There is no inscription. Nash-Williams in his survey, the Early Christian Monuments of Wales, dates the carving to the eleventh century. It seems however that the stone had already been shaped earlier as a standing stone, presumably in pre-Christian times.

Until recently the cross stood out in the churchyard, and the church is dedicated to St Meilig. When the saint’s fair used to be held there, the cross formed a centre for the men buying and selling. It has been noted that one part of the stone is worn smooth, as if by constant touching, and it is said that at the fair people would touch it as a pledge of good faith and a witness that they spoke the truth. It has been suggested that the saint brought it down from Croesfeilig – that is, Meilig’s Cross – up in the hills, when he founded his monastery. It would be in accordance with practice elsewhere here if the Christian symbol of the cross was placed upon a sacred stone, to bring its pagan sanctity under the blessing of the church.

This is what archaeology and local church history have made of the Llowes stone. Folklore has preserved different traditions, not wholly consistent. In 1872 Hartland was told by the old parish clerk that the stone was in memory of two men from local families who killed one another in a duel.22 Theophilus Jones, whose history of Brecknockshire was published in 1805, had heard it said that the cross was a memorial to a local anchorite called Wechlen, mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis, who learned to speak in Latin by direct inspiration.23 (This sounds like antiquarian speculation rather than folklore.) But the popular explanation, known both to Hartland and Jones, was that this was Moll Walbee’s stone. Moll was said to be the person responsible for building Hay Castle in one night, and while she was busily carrying stones in her apron, one fell into her shoe. As it was uncomfortable, she pulled it out and flung it over the river into Llowes, where it has remained ever since. Although the present vicar of Llowes indignantly denies any connection between his fine Celtic cross and the undignified Moll, the association persists.

St. Meilig's Cross
St. Meilig’s Cross

Moll appears to be a local giantess, of the same type as Wade and his wife from the Pickering area in Yorkshire, who also were reputed to build medieval castles and who carried and dropped stones in the same way. Various rough stone heads on churches in the district were also identified with Moll by the local people, and a carved figure, probably a monk, which used to stand in Hay churchyard was said to be her likeness.

However there seems no doubt that the original of Moll Walbee was a historical figure of King John’s time, Maud or Matilda de St. Valery, who became the wife of William de Breos, one of the most powerful barons in the land at the beginning of King John’s reign. William held vast estates on the border as well as in Limerick, and possessed Hay Castle (demolished in Henry II’s time) and Painscastle, locally known as Castle Maud, which his wife held against the Welsh in 1195. For reasons not altogether clear – according to the chroniclers because she openly accused him of the murder of his nephew Arthur – Maud roused the anger of King John, and he determined to destroy both her and her  husband. William had to hand over all his border castles to John, and when later he attacked Leominster, the king drove him out of the country, and even pursued him and his family to Ireland. Contemporary chroniclers are agreed that Maud and her son died of starvation in Windsor Castle, prisoners of the vindictive king, and modern historians judge that his treatment of this powerful family helped to bring down on John the enmity of the other barons.

There is no doubt that Maud was one of those dominant personalities round whom legends clustered, both during her life and after her death. Allusions to her have been found by Professor Mary Williams in unpublished Welsh manuscripts of the fifteenth century in the National Library of Wales,24 and here she is called Maud Walbri. One story is that she ordered the Welsh chieftain Madog to shoot an apple placed on the head of his youngest son, and Madog succeeded. He and his cousin later took their revenge by hanging Maud and her son in the tower of her castle. It seems likely that she is the same as Mallt y Nos, Matilda of the Night who was rebuked by a monk for her inordinate love of hunting, and retorted that if there were no hunting in heaven, there she refused to go. She was accordingly condemned to join the Wild Hunt, and so shared a distinction given to a number of famous characters, including King Arthur and the god Odin.

Here is a good example of the interconnection of folklore with religious tradition, history, and stories of primitive supernatural beings. It shows how local beliefs may attach themselves both to outstanding historical characters and to objects of ancient sanctity, such as the Llowes stone. It illustrates both the tenacity and the elusiveness of folk memory. The personality of a strong-willed woman who fought the Welsh and who came to a tragic end had evidently passed into literary tradition – although the literature has long been forgotten – and had also drawn in folk-traditions of a familiar kind, such as the shooting of an apple on a son’s head, the Wild Hunt, and the castle-building giantess, while it has been linked with the dimly remembered significance of a sacred stone.


In this paper I have dwelt chiefly on the dangers of following folklore into the past without adequate knowledge to guide us along the way. Alas, it offers no magical short cut to a Golden Age of fixed rites and organized heathen beliefs, as the pioneers once hoped. Indeed, there is no fixed centre to the labyrinth to which the clue of folklore can take us. The more we learn of the beliefs and practices of any past era, whether it be that of the Danes in Alfred’s time or the Celtic peoples or the builders of Stonehenge, the more we discover confusion and complication, mixed local traditions and many different layers of belief. The findings of anthropologists who have worked with so-called primitive peoples in our own time should have prepared us for this, but the assumption that pagan faiths were fixed, simple and coherent is very slow to die. Moreover at every step of the way we have complications caused by the heroic and courtly literature, the highly developed myths, and the antiquarian speculation which forms a background to folklore. It seems all the time to be a case of two-way traffic, as each set of traditions influences the other. Folklore, after all, could never be kept in a vacuum in past ages. In small, isolated communities the different social classes had many points of contact; servants and peasants might hear tales of Beowulf or the exploits of King Alfred in their master’s hall, while an aristocratic poet might come upon local tales of monsters in the lake or the sleeper inside the hill among his men-at-arms or his wife’s serving-women.

I have chosen to dwell on the difficulties in the use of folklore rather than its possibilities, because it is essential that these should be clearly recognized before any real progress can be made. Not so very long ago, evidence gained from the study of archaeology was regarded with extreme mistrust and dislike by historians and philologists, accustomed to deal exclusively with the written word. Now such evidence has become wholly respectable in academic circles, because the unbridled enthusiasm of the first amateurs has been tempered by a scientific discipline, and scholarly standards established; at times it is even viewed with excessive veneration and its natural limitations forgotten. If folklore is to win similar recognition as a means of interpreting the past, it will only be through a severely critical approach to the evidence which it provides.

Its value can, I believe, be shown already. In three widely  different fields, for instance, we have illuminating work on folklore about the heathen gods Odin and Loki, by the Dutch scholar, De Vries; we have the work of Professor Loomis on the influence of oral tradition on the Arthurian legend; and we have a recent piece of work by Mr Alan Smith on folk-customs connected with mock battles for an animal head used to throw new light on the old problem of place-names like Swineshead and Gateshead as evidence for ancient cults.25 And even if it proves, as it so often does, that folklore does not lead us back to that heathen past which we should like to find, the twisted path may well be of value and significance for its own sake, and may give us more understanding of the creative mind of man, the hopes and fears and insights of those who lived in days before our own. It can bring us nearer to man’s past, though not always in the way which we expect.


  1. Folklore, 9, I898, p. X86.
  2. V. Alford, Sword Dance and Drama, 196.
  3. Archaeologia, XXVI, 1836, pp. 425-6; Arch. Cambrensis, III (I), 1848, p. 98.
  4. T. C. Lethbridge, Merlin’s Island, 1948, pp. 13-14.
  5. Marquis de Belleviie, Paimpont, 1912, p. 47 f. I owe this reference, and some information about the spring, to Mrs Chadwick.
  6. Letter to Dr. Mead concerning Antiquities in Berkshire, Oxford, 1738, p. 37.
  7. H. R. Ellis Davidson, ‘Weland the Smith’, Folklore, 69, 1958, p. 145 f.
  8. Hamilton Grierson, The Silent Trade, Edinburgh, 1903.
  9. The Times, 8 June 1963.
  10. R. Birley, The Undergrowth of History, Hist. Assoc. Pamphlet (G 30), 1955.
  11. A. D. H. Bivar, ‘Lyonnesse, the Evolution of a Fable’, Modern Philology, L, 1952-3, p. 163 f.
  12. S. Baring-Gould, A Book of Folklore, p. 77.
  13. Folklore, 9, 1898, p. 186.
  14. Viking Club Saga Book, III (i), 1902, p. 40; cf. County Folklore, V, p. 125.
  15. 15 J. de Vries, ‘Contributions to the Study of Othin’, F.F. Communications 94, 193 1, p. 4 f.
  16. Hermannus, De. Mirac. S. Mariae Laudun, II, 15. P.L. 156, 983. See J. Armitage Robinson, Two Glastonbury Legends, 1926, pp. 51-2, from whom the translation given above is taken.
  17. In the discussion following the paper, Mr Opie mentioned the recent rumours about Rachman being still alive as an interesting example of this tendency. The rumours about Sir Hector MacDonald’s return were also instanced as a good example.
  18. R. S. Loomis, ‘Arthurian Tradition and Folklore’, Folklore, 69, 1958, p. 13.
  19. J. de Vries, ‘Contributions to the Study of Othin’, F.F. Communications, 94, 193 1, p. 4 f.
  20. Since this was written, an article by J. S. Ryan, ‘Othin in England’, has appeared in Folklore which bears it out (Folklore, 74, 1963, pp. 472 ff).
  21. C. Hole, ‘Winter Bonfires’, Folklore, 71, 1960, p. 222 f.
  22. E. Hartland, ‘Notes on a Radnorshire Cross’, Arch. Cambrensis, IV (3), 1873, PP. 322-3.
  23. T. Jones, History of the County of Brecknock, I, 1805, p. 113.
  24. M. Williams, ‘A Welsh version of the William Tell Legend’, Folklore, 71, 1960, p. 317.
  25. A. W. Smith, ‘The Luck in the Head’, Folklore, 73, 1962, p. 13 f.
Viking remains found in a mass grave with their heads separated from their bodies (Dorset, UK)
Viking remains found in a mass grave with their heads separated from their bodies (Dorset, UK)

Source: Folklore, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Winter, 1963), pp. 527-544

Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.

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