Friday, 14 August 2015

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


Last week, we uncovered a tangled legend from Bishop Auckland about a brave knight who slew either a dragon or a monstrous wild boar. And this tale of Sir Pollard and the Brawn shared many similarities with the legend of the Sockburn Worm, a story hailing from a few miles south in County Durham. A highly suspect coincidence to be sure. However stranger still, even closer to Bishop Auckland, the virtually neighbouring town of Ferryhill has its own legend of a monster hog.

The tale is found in The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham: Volume 3, Stockton and Darlington Wards by Robert Surtees published in 1823. While detailing the history of the area, and noting the various historical traces and relics left by one Sir Roger de Fery, Surtees' recounts this 13th century knight's great claim to fame - the slaying of the Brawn of Brancepeth. He writes - 
The Boar or Brawn of Brancepath was a formidable animal, which made his lair on Brandon-hill, and walked the forest in ancient undisputed sovereignty from the Wear to the Gaunless. The marshy, and then woody vale, extending from Croxdale to Ferry-wood, was one of the brawn's favourite haunts, affording roots and mast, and the luxurious pleasure of volutation. Near Cleves-cross, Hodge, of Ferry, after carefully marking the boar's track, dug a pitfall, slightly covered with boughs and turf, and then toling on his victim by some bait to the treacherous spot, stood armed with his good sword across the pitfall,— “At once with hope and fear his heart rebounds.” At length the gallant brute came trotting on his onward path, and seeing the passage barred, rushed headlong on the vile pitfall. 
Now according to local historians this is the earliest record of the story of the slaying of the beast by Roger/Hodge of Fery. However is it curious that Surtees includes a quote in this recounting of the tale - “At once with hope and fear his heart rebounds” - and quite where this line comes from is unclear. I can find no trace of it anywhere else. Is it a quote from Surtees' source for the tale?

Some digging on my part turned up what appears to be an earlier version, told in verse, although annoyingly lacking Surtee's mystery quote. In another old tome The History of the Urban District of Spennymoor published in 1893, by author James J Dodd relates the Ferryhill legend, often almost quoting some of Surtees' phrasing. However deviating from his predecessor's account, he includes the following verse- 
He feared not ye loute with hys stalfe,
Ne yet for ye knyghte in his mayle;
He cared ne more for ye monke with his boke,
Than ye fiendis in depe Croixdale.
Then out spake Hodge yt wyghte soe bolde,
Yt wous on Fery hye;
And he hathe swome by Seynct Cudberte hys rode,
Yt thys horride brawne shall dye;
And he hathe dygged a depe, depe pit,
And strewed it with braunches so grene
Clearly Dodd's quote is but a fragment, and one that tantalizingly cutting off just where the Surtees line might have appeared. And so far, I have been unable to discover either a complete version or a definite origin for it.  Now I have found this old poem appearing with a date of 1208 attached to it, but its actual provenance has been difficult to ascertain. To further muddy the waters, the Victorians, with their passion for heritage and history, recreated a great many old traditions, and hence there is the possibility that this verse, despite being penned in convincing early English, is actually the product of a later century, a Victorian recreation of an imagined lost ballad perhaps.

However the 1208 date does match the historical record, for indeed there was a knight named Roger de Fery in that time. Local tradition has it that the name of the local area 'Brancepeth' is actually derived from 'brawn's path', as this is where the beast reputedly roamed. However scholars in recent times have cast doubt on this, claiming it more likely comes from 'Brant's path', named after a family that made its home in that locale. But as Surtees remarks "The story has nothing very improbable, and something like real evidence still exists", and goes on detail the legacies of Sir Roger that still exist today. These including his alleged tomb in the parish church of Merrington, a twelfth century grave whose slab bears the carved sign of a crossed sword and a spade. As Mr Dodd remarks - 
Seeing that the sword and the spade were the instruments of his famous victory, it needs a very slight stretch of imagination to identify this stone as the actual tombstone of Hodge of Fery. 

However local lore identifies two other places linked with the legend. As Dodd relates, in 1867 the remains of a large pit were discovered while repairing a stackyard, which was quickly assumed to be the very trap dug by Sir Roger. This may seem like a leap of logic, but some years earlier on the same farm, a large stone was dug up which is purported to be all that remains of a cross erected to mark the spot where Sir Roger slew the beast. The area where it was discovered is now known as Cleves Cross after it, and there is a plaque set into a nearby wall that claims - 
The large stone just above ye part of Cleves Cross marks the site where by tradition the Brawn of BRANCEPETH was killed by ROGER de FERY about the year 1200
The current plaque is a recent facsimile, but the original can still be seen in Ferryhill town hall (which also sports the gorgeous stained glass window seen at the heading of this piece).


While the stone is definitely the remains of a medieval monument, in truth we cannot be sure the cross does actually commemorate the slaying of the beast. Some historians postulate that the cross was more probably a way point or marker for pilgrims to Durham Cathedral, but to be frank that is unsupported supposition too, and  I suspect more a product of an attempt to rid history of something that embarrassing like a monster legend. But is a 13th knight hunting down a ferocious wild hog really that unlikely?

To begin with wild boar were still to be found in England at that time, although by the start of the 13th century their numbers were falling and they were being considered something of a menace. Furthermore as tales of monster slaying go, the tale of the Brawn of Brancepeth is highly plausible; the legend actually lacks all the mythic touches one would expect. It features a real animal, and there are no charms or magic involved. It is in fact a rather straight forward account of hunting a dangerous animal, with none of the usual narrative embroidery of the boar's ferociousness or size, nor some lavish reward for brave Sir Roger to round it out into a traditional story or folk tale.

More importantly, the historical record has some very strong evidence to back up the old tale. The traditions of heraldry in that period allowed a man to place in his arms the likeness of any notable beast he had slew. And hence, as Surtees' records, the seals of the de Fery family in that era do indeed show a boar - with Sir Roger's own showing the full beast, while his daughter Maude's just the head.


Given these seals and the carved device on Sir Roger's tomb, it is therefore very much looks like we have a story here rooted in fact rather than fiction. And as we shall discover next time, slaying wild boars was a not uncommon feat for brave men of that era, however many such stories are not well supported as Sir Roger's by the historical record... And returning to the Pollard legend we will discover why having a beast slayer in the family was so desirable.


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