The Secret Life of … the Housemaid’s Tale

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How many times has the Devil been to Lancashire? We’ll never know. But there are certainly quite a few stories of encounters with the Old Lad and the Lancashire lads. Lately I’ve been looking at a few.

My current favourite Lancashire devil story was told around 1825 by a Anne Bentham, a “housemaid at Bury,” to the aunt of the folklorist Charlotte Burne (1850 – 1923). Burne learned it from her aunt and published it in 1909. It was reprinted in Westwood and Simpson’s The Lore of the Land, currently my take-everywhere, desert-island book.

Westwood and Simpson don’t say when Charlotte Burne learned the story from her aunt, but it was probably in her childhood. Burne’s father was severely disabled, and as a child she was often sent to aunts. From this we can hazard a guess that the middle-aged Burne was publishing a story which she had heard about fifty years previously within the extended family, around the 1850s or 60s. If so, the aunt would have been telling her niece a story which she would herself similarly have heard as a child, about thirty years previously.

The story concerns a battle of wits between Satan and “old Mr Hodgson,” the Bury schoolmaster. Some of Hodgson’s schoolboys inadvertently raised the devil before realising they didn’t know how to send him back to Hell. Mr Hodgson noticed something was wrong when his wooden trencher – a detail which prompts Westwood and Simpson to date the story to the seventeenth century or earlier – began spinning round beneath his dinner. Presumably it was an after-school prank, and Mr Hodgson had gone home to have his tea. Since the Devil in such stories is notable for the sudden violence and brute strength of his movements, perhaps we can imagine the spinning plate as an effect of a shock-wave emanating from Satan’s sudden materialisation.

Anyway, Mr Hodgson hurried to the schoolhouse, and “set about dismissing the Devil by setting him some task he could not perform: traditionally, one had only three chances to do this.” The first task was to “count the blades of grass in the Castle Croft,” and the second was to “count the grains of sand on the School Brow.” The Devil was easily able to do both. The third task was to count “the letters in the large Bible in the Parish Church.” This the Devil could not do – presumably for spiritual reasons – and he fled back to Hell through the schoolroom floor, leaving a large crack in the hearthstone to attest the truth of the story.

Three-stage battles of wit with the devil, or other powerful mortal or immortal enemy, are widely attested in the storytelling traditions of the British Isles. Westwood and Simpson list two other examples for Lancashire alone. The challenging tasks frequently involve counting impossibly large numbers. So far, so commonplace.

Westwood and Simpson say little about the places in which this story is set – Castle Croft, School Brow, the Parish Church, and the schoolroom. Charlotte Burne, their immediate source, doesn’t say much about these places either. Neither, for all I can tell, did the aunt, or the unknown “housemaid at Bury” around 1825. However, I’d hazard a guess that the housemaid – at least – appreciated a pattern in the story’s layout, which certainly isn’t obvious in Burne’s rewritten account: it might easily have been too obvious to mention for any storyteller acquainted with the school and its environs, and too obscure for anyone else to notice. So, with Google Maps only a mouse-click away, let’s have a closer look.

Bury Grammar School dates its foundation from 1727, but has roots stretching back to the 1570s. Nowadays, it has all the Hogwartian trappings of an old public school, including houses with colours, a cadet force, a crest with a Latin motto, and a quaint name for people who went there (“Old Clavians”). Their ranks, interestingly, number the comedian Victoria Wood, alongside MPs of both parties, soldiers, business and media luminaries, and professional sportspeople – and, of course, the alleged amateur Satanists of the housemaid’s story. From the first, Bury Grammar School was attached to the Anglican Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, and was “originally housed in buildings in The Wylde (which exists today as The Blackburn Hall) behind the Parish Church.” So Blackburn Hall – or somewhere very close to it – gets my vote for the schoolroom of the housemaid’s story.

Mr Hodgson sends the Devil to count the grass ‘in the Castle Croft.’ Where, and what, is Castle Croft? Bury Castle itself did not survive the Wars of the Roses, and today its site is largely occupied by a Territorial Army centre. But it seems fairly clear that the Castle Croft was the tract of land running north from the castle along the bank of the Irwell. It was an open space beyond the western edge of the town, later sliced up by the East Lancashire Railway, and later still again by the A56 Peel Way viaduct. Today, on Google Maps, Castlecroft Road runs between an industrial estate and a patch of open parkland alongside the Irwell, about a quarter-mile north-west of the grammar school. The open ground still seems fairly grassy.

School Brow is a lane off Castlecroft Road, lying between it and the old school site. It doesn’t seem to have many grains of sand these days, but since it runs past a derelict factory into a tunnel under the A56, it may certainly have once been much sandier than it is now.

So it seems that the locations of the devil’s tasks are not arranged at random: they run in a straight(ish) line from the river at the town’s edge to the school at the town’s heart. It follows that the housemaid’s tale shows the Devil being sent from the school almost as far as the river, before making his way directly and inexorably back to the school. This certainly adds to the emotional impact and tension of the story: following the Devil’s abortive banishment to open spaces outside the town, we can now sense him getting a little bit closer with each task, like the wolf in a game of What’s the Time, Mister Wolf, before Mr Hodgson turns the tables just in time. I love the ending: the way the schoolmaster suddenly seems to get the point in the nick of time and tricks the devil; the way the trick suggests that the strongest antidote to evil lies closest to home – and is not always valued.

Also, interestingly, we’re left with a reinforced sense that the school is the home-point, the emotional centre of the story. The story does, in fact, paint quite a plausible picture of an old public school and its residents. Like today’s teenagers, the schoolboys seem prone to dabbling in the occult and getting out of their depth. The cracked hearthstone is a realistic detail and suggsts the spread of frightening rumours about hauntings around the schools as playground folklore, which certainly happens today.

I also note that the story as we have it seems to have been told by an adult to a child, who then grew up and told it to another child, who then grew up, wrote it down, and published it. So perhaps the story was not, or not only, playground folklore. Was it told to two generations of middle-class children as a typically Victorian scary bedtime story? If it was, it would have been common for the storyteller to be a family servant: domestic service was a major point of contact between the classes, and, so, a major channel of folklore from working-class culture to young middle-class ears.

Which brings us to the housemaid. Who was Anne Bentham? Did she have some connection to the school? Would that explain how she met the Burnes, an Anglican clergy family which would have found a natural habitat in schools like Bury Grammar, and who might have been flattered by a story of an Anglican schoolmaster’s victory over the devil? Who did she hear the story from? Someone else with a school connection?


Herne the Hunter: A Story for the Solstice

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The legend of the ghost of Herne the Hunter has been associated with Windsor at least since Shakespeare’s time. It was used by him for local colouring in The Merry Wives of Windsor. The earliest extant account of the whole legend seems to be the one in William Harrison Ainsworth’s Windsor Castle (1842). Some contemporary neopagans, apparently following Margaret Murray’s God of the Witches (1931), identify Herne as an aspect of Cernunnos. This is my own treatment of the story: on this blog I usually write about stories, rather than tell them, but I’ve made an exception here in honour of the season. I’ve based it fairly closely on Shonaleigh‘s version, but I also consulted Ainsworth.

Herne was a boy in King Richard’s days, when Windsor was a great forest: a young man from the kitchens, apprenticed to the huntsmen, consumed with the desire to excel. In time the king noticed the young man, and began to praise him for his skill. But he was reserved and awkward, difficult to take a liking to, and the other huntsmen did not warm to him.

One winter’s day, when the whole court was out at the chase, the boy faced down a great stag, just as it threatened to trample the king. He stood in the path of the charging beast, and the stag gored the boy even as he killed it. But the king was unhurt. As the remarkable young man lay beside the dead stag, the king swore aloud that if he lived, young though he was, he would be appointed head huntsman. The other huntsmen stood watching. Then, out of the forest, there came a stranger, darker than the shadows of the forest behind him in the winter sunlight. Before the astonished court, the dark stranger cut the antlers from the dead stag’s head, and bound them by the hide on the head of the maimed boy, and announced that, in order to be healed, the boy had to wear the antlers day and night until they rotted, and the day they fell away from him altogether, his strength would be regained in full.

The bewildered king told the huntsmen to leave the boy in the dark stranger’s care. Carrying the boy between them, they followed the stranger into the depths of the forest.

The king went home.

When the huntsmen returned, they would say only that the boy was lodging with the dark stranger, and would be back soon enough.

Sure enough, after three months, he emerged from the forest, and at once rejoined the king’s service. He said had worn the antlers until they rotted away, and the dark stranger had proved as good as his word. His wound was healed, and he had no lingering sickness, and at first he seemed quite his old self.

But when the boy returned to the hunt, it very soon became clear that his luck had abandoned him. He was useless as a huntsman now. He would fumble over the simplest of tasks, and as time passed it became clear that he would never kill quarry again.

At last, with great sorrow, the king summoned the boy and told him that he must return to the kitchens. He would never fulfil his lonely desire for excellence in his chosen craft. Leaving the king’s presence, the boy went straight to the great oak in Windsor Park, threw a rope over its broadest bough, and hanged himself. That might have been the melancholy end of it.

But after the burial, the morning after the full moon, all Windsor Park was found to be mysteriously desolate. Unseen hands had torn the lawns up in the night, cut and slashed the branches, and scorched the woodland while the court slept. The forest was still charred and smouldering, and a pall of smoke hung heavy in the air. Overnight, the forest had become a desert. The troubled king summoned his huntsmen to account.

Sir, said the head huntsman, judge us as you see fit. We spoiled the forest, I and my fellow-huntsmen. Months ago, when the boy Herne killed the deer under the great oak, and first wore its horns on his head, we carried him to the dark stranger’s house. By the time we came there, the stranger had already seen how much we hated the boy – hated him because of his skill, and the favour it won him in your eyes. Then the dark stranger told us that he had only promised to save his life. He could easily send him back a living fool, he said, to trouble us no longer. And he would do it, if in return we agreed to gather again under the great oak, the first full moon after the boy’s death. We said we would, and came home. When the boy came back, he had indeed become a fool, and soon afterwards he died at his own hands, and so we saw that the dark stranger was as good as his word. And so we were as good as ours. We went to the great oak last night. The stranger was waiting there for us. He stood aside. In the shadows behind him, under the oak, we saw the boy Herne, just as he had been in life, with the living antlers on his brow. The dark stranger told us that, since we had not been content to follow Herne before by the king’s command, we would follow him now by the terms of our own bargain. Some power greater than our own wills overmastered us then, and all that night we followed Herne as our lord and head huntsman, and we ravaged the forest as we went. Herne led us, and I have never seen such mastery of the hunter’s craft. His skill was perfect, and he laughed to see us breaking the forest as we rode through it.

We woke this morning in our own beds, and came at once to your summons.

The head huntsman fell silent. The king considered.

I see, he answered. Your service to Herne is now over, seemingly, and your bargain with the dark stranger is fulfilled. But you still have to pay your debt to me.

With those words he hanged them all from the same great oak, because they had plotted against his loyal servant, and spoiled his property, and so made traitors of themselves.

Then he took new huntsmen into his service, and they began the work of mending the forest.

For King Richard, that was the end of the matter. But still you can still see them all, if you go at night to the great oak in Windsor Park: even now, when the forest is all but cleared, and the great oak is long since felled, and the line of kings has failed, and the very winters are warm, you can see the shadow of the horned hunter, his retinue riding behind him, with terror in their faces and death in their hands. And anyone foolish enough to look among those faces will see Herne’s old tormentors and fellow-huntsmen in the ranks of the retinue, in among all the timely and untimely dead of the world, running and riding, searching restlessly until the world’s ending. And at the head of them all, still to be seen, rides their lord, Herne the Hunter, perfect at last in the mastery of his craft.