Friday, 28 August 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY: The Brawny Beasts of County Durham Part III

Over the past two articles in this series, we have detailed the peculiar case of a small area of County Durham being home to three overlapping legends. In the Part I we discovered a muddled legend of the Pollards  in Bishop Auckland, which variously claimed that this aristocratic family's lands were granted as a reward for slaying either a dragon or a monstrous wild boar, noting that the legend and a ritual with a falchion were suspiciously similar to the tale of the Sockburn Worm, another dragon legend from a miles away in Croft.   Meanwhile in Part II, the waters grew even muddier when we discovered the neighboring town of Ferryhill also had a legend of a knight slaying a boar too. 

So then, at last its time to get to the bottom of the mystery. Last time we drew the cautious conclusion that Ferryhill's cherished legend of a medieval knight slaying a huge boar was most likely based on fact, and our earlier article traced the long history of the Sockburn Worm. Therefore it is the Pollards tale is looking most suspect, indeed as we remarked in Part I, it was curious that different accounts seem uncertain whether the beast slain was a wyrm or a brawn. So then, what evidence is there for the Pollard tale?

Well, the earliest version of the legend comes from the Parliamentary Survey of church lands undertaken in 1649, which mentions the tradition of presenting a new Bishop of Durham with the falchion that slew the beast, and that it was for this deed that the Pollard family had been given their lands around Bishop Auckland. However this wasn't the first such record of which family held which lands and the basis for their claims, and there are several earlier mentions of the Pollard family having a falchion as the title deed for their estates, with its image becoming part of the family heraldry from the 14th century onwards. But interestingly there is no mention made of slaying a monster in any of these accounts...

Hence it appears that this story of slaying a beast seems to have only been told by the Pollards themselves. Furthermore it is considerably later that the tale gets its additional details added of the cunning Sir Richard riding around lands to claim them as a reward. Furthermore unlike the similar story of Sir Roger of Ferryhill, there is a distinct absence of any supporting evidence for the story of monster slaying in the historical record prior to the mid 17th century. Indeed the date of that first mention of the legend is significant in itself for that Parliamentary survey was taken while the English Civil War was raging.

Now to sum up briefly, this era saw the country tearing itself apart over who had the right to rule, a battle between the emerging ideas of democracy and the old feudal system which placed political power by birthright in the hands of the Crown and the nobility. Hence in this period the aristocracy were asserting their traditional rights and stressing their long histories and ancient links to their lands. Furthermore after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, there was a considerable amount of romanticizing the past - after the upheavals of the Civil War, there was a strong cultural push to reclaim the ancient traditions that had been disrupted and threatened by the conflict. Hence in this period, archetypes of 'Merry England' - an idyllic view of rural Britain and its local customs and folk traditions - become common in literature and other texts, as the new King  repealed the acts of the Puritan Parliaments that that outlawed the likes of May Day celebrations, harvest festivals and Christmas feasts. Naturally the surviving nobility romanticized their histories too and there are a great many alleged ancient traditions and tales, that were claimed to date from medieval times, were actually fabricated in this period.

Now the Pollard family itself did not survive the Civil War, and hence in the 1660s the current Bishop of Durham, John Cosin decreed that the freeholders of their former lands were to continue the tradition of the presenting of the Pollard Falchion to the Bishops of Durham. Cosin was very active in healing the rifts caused by the civil war, reinstating old liturgies, restoring the fineries stripped out of the churches by the Roundheads, and spent a great deal of the bishopric's revenues in strengthening the Church's charities and schools. In setting up a continuation of the Pollard falchion tradition, Cosin was effectively pulling the local community together - on one hand it was asserting the ancient ties between the Church and the nobility, but in transferring the upholding of the tradition to the local people it was also neatly embracing the political changes whereby the aristocracy had conceded a large degree of power to the new emerging Parliamentary democracy.

And certainly it seems that the legend of Pollard and the monster brawn appears to have really taken root in this period, a time when England was attempting to unite a recent bloody rift. In romanticising stories of medieval times essentially the feudal system was quietly being cemented into history. Hence originally the Pollard falchion, like other ancient weapons held by other noble families, was a symbol of their right to rule through their martial power and oaths to deploy that might in the service of  the crown, it now became a relic wrapped up in folklore, a left-over from days when knights were bold and monsters still lived in Merry Old England.

And in this transition from history to folklore, the tale of Pollard and the boar has clearly borrowed from the neighboring legends of Sir Roger and the Brawn of Brancepeth and the slaying of the Sockburn Worm by Sir John Conyer, with details added as the years passed. And while it is possible there might be lost earlier sources that would show the Pollard story to be a genuine medieval legend, the only other piece of supporting evidence appears to point at it being a later fabrication. For in St. Andrews Church in Bishop Auckland, that ancient residence of the Bishops of Durham, there is a 13th century wooden effigy of a knight. It is the usual sleeping figure atop a tomb and local tradition alleges it is the resting place of Sir Richard Pollard who slew the boar.

Now there are no inscriptions or mentions in ancient records to back up this claim, and the story is based upon the fact that at the feet of the sleeping knight is the carved likeness of a boar - much like how the tomb of Sir John Conyers has a dragon at his feet. However experts believe that this carven beast was most likely originally a lion, and at some later date the creature's face was recarved to resemble a pig's snout. This in itself is certainly suspect, hinting at a later revision of local history. However what make it a smoking gun for our investigation into the brawny beasts of County Durham is the fact that Bishop Cosin, who recreated and remodelled the Pollard falchion tradition was famous for redecorating and restoring old churches whose features and ornaments had been destroyed or defaced by the Puritans. And indeed most tellingly, a whole branch of church decorations in Durham now bear his name - Cosin Woodwork...

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