Friday, 7 August 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - The Brawny Beasts of County Durham Part I


While browsing local legends online, I came across a brief mention of a tale of a limbless worm that reputedly made its lair in a wood outside Bishop Auckland, a little country town literally just down the road from my own. Now the North of England has many legends of great wyrms and dragons, but this one was new to me. And so I did some digging, and in The Works of Sir Walter Scott Volume III (1806) I discovered a fuller account. While discussing the border ballad Kempion, Scott talks at length about the tradition of dragons and wyrms in the North; he recounts the tale of another local dragon, the Sockburn Worm which we have discussed before, and tells of how tradition demands that a new Bishop of Durham is presented with the falchion that slew the beast on his first entrance into the diocese at Croft-on-Tees. But then he goes on to mention a knight slaying a worm at at Bishop Auckland. 

Now what was interesting was that Scott relates that this legend inspired a suspiciously similar ritual involving a falchion and the Bishop of Durham too. I say suspiciously similar for what are the odds of having two dragon-slayers, in the same county, within a few miles of each other, who both commemorate being rewarded lands by presenting exactly the same type of weapon to the local bishop? Surely this was but the same tale but mistakenly attributed to the wrong town and noble family. 

Fortunately for us, Scott quotes his sources, an old tome called Ancient Tenures. It was written by one Thomas Blout in the early 17th century, but was later expanded by other scholars. And hence an edition published in 1815 by by S.Brooke for Butterworth & Son of London has the full title - Fragmenta antiquitatis: or, Ancient tenures of land, and jocular customs of manors (Enlarged and corrected by Josiah Beckwith; with considerable additions from authentic sources, by Hercules Malebysse Beckwith) - and in it we find the following passage - 


Now judging by the dates given in the text, the account of the Pollard's Lands falchion rite dates from long after old Thomas Blout had passed away, and hence is clearly a later addition, most likely a new expansion for this 1815 edition. Now as the scholarship of the 18th and 19th century can be sometime a little muddled with its facts, I tried to find other, and preferably earlier, mentions of the Pollards and a serpent. And in an even older tome I found this reference, which although brief, sheds a very different light on the matter -  
The owners of the land are to doe at every Bishop's first coming to be Bishop here to present him with the Falchion with which the Bore was slayne
from Parliamentary Surveys of the Bishopric of Durham 1649-1650


And so, here was the key to the mystery - there was good reason why I hadn't heard of a dragon tale from Bishop Auckland, for the monster in question was actually a vicious wild boar rather than a serpent! And with that important fact uncovered, it was not difficult to uncover many versions of the tale of the Brawn of Bishop Auckland and its slaying by a knight of the Pollard family.

Now Bishop Auckland was once a place of deep forests and wildwoods, indeed it is said that the town grew from a hunting lodge built there by the Bishops of Durham. With the local woodlands and hills providing excellent sporting opportunities, the little town grew and the Bishops of the county built a great hall there, and later a palatial castle. At some point, alleged in the Middle Ages, a monstrous boar appeared in the woods. Reputedly the size of a cow, this gigantic porker terrorized the area, attacking both man and beast. Naturally this dangerous brawn (as such boars were called) was a great menace to the local folk and was putting a serious dent in the nobility's hunting trips too. Therefore the Bishop of Durham placed a bounty on the beast's head in the hope some brave soul would slay the beast.

A knight named Sir Richard Pollard took up the challenge and tracked the dreaded brawn into the woodland lair, and after a long battle he finally slew the monstrous hog. Sir Richard cut out the boar's tongue and then, being extremely fatigued by the mighty and bloody battle, collapsed into a deep sleep by the still cooling carcass of the brawn. However a cunning fellow happened by the sleeping knight and knowing of the bounty on the brawn, spirited its body away and claimed the reward from the bishop. Naturally Richard was horrified when he awoke, and rode with all haste to the Bishop's palace at Bishop Auckland. The trickery was soon revealed when Sir Richard produced the beast's missing tongue, and in recompense the Bishop offered Sir Richard ownership of all the lands he could ride around before the Bishop had finished his meal. The Bishop however was rather shocked when Sir Richard returned mere minutes later, and the clergymen was even more horrified when he discovered the reasons why. For the wily Sir Richard had rode around Auckland itself, which of course included the Bishop's beloved castle, palace and lands. Of course the Bishop would not honour the agreement but impressed by Sir Richard's cunning, awarding tracts of the most fertile lands in the county, which of course became Pollard's Lands, and which now survive as Pollard's Dene.

A highly entertaining tale no doubt. But how did a monstrous boar become confused with a great serpent? Well it has been suggested that the confusion arises from an old Germanic word Gewurm which referred to any sort of dangerous wild animal, and has the same origin as the English word 'vermin'. It's a nice theory, however it is one that is rather problematic - firstly there is a clear mismatch of several centuries from when it was possible such Germanic words were still readily peppering the developing English language and the period from which this story purportedly dates, for it is a medieval tale not a Saxon one. Furthermore the Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for 'gewurm' which rather suggests the word was never in common currency in  these isles, likewise lexicons of Old English  fail to include it too.

A more likely explanation in my view is that thanks to the often broad nature of North Eastern accents, somewhere along the line some visitor from Southern England misheard 'brawn' as 'wyrm'. While accents in County Durham might not always be as thick as Tyneside's Geordie, however the different vowel sounds and speaking cadences in the region could very easily result in a visitor to the area confusing 'wyrm' with 'brawn'. And in the realm of folklore it would not be the first time the confusing of a name lead to the birth of a new legend.

So then, that is one possible explanation for Bishop Auckland having twin legends of knights fighting dragons and boars. However this neat wrap-up of the mystery is somewhat unraveled when you learn that the little town of Ferryhill, which lies less than ten miles away, has a suspiciously similar legend of a brave knight slaying a monstrous boar! Clearly there is some chicanery going on here as we now have three separate but over-lapping legends in the same twenty mile area!

If you will pardon the pun, someone somewhere here is telling porkies! And next time we will discover which naughty knight is telling fibs and discover more about the monster brawns of the North East! 


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