The fascinating myths and legends of Hertfordshire
PUBLISHED: 10:27 13 June 2017 | UPDATED: 10:27 13 June 2017
As the county's cultural heritage is explored as part of a major Traditional Hertfordshire project, Debbie White delves into the county's mysteries, myths and legends
Stories about ‘witch stones’, a giant and even a dragon dwelling beneath a church feature in Hertfordshire’s fascinating legends. These are stories from times when science held less sway than magic and myth, but if you think these old tales have lost all their power, you’ll find there is still resonance down the centuries.
Much of our enduring interest in myths and legends stems from the mystery that surrounds them - how, when and why they began.
A case in point is the Royston Cave beneath the streets of the town centre. No records of its age or purpose exist, but it is man-made and contains an extensive range of wall carvings representing the crucifixion, the holy family and several saints. Other carvings have been interpreted as possible pagan symbols.
Some studies have drawn comparisons with Knights Templar sites, while others point to possible masonic markings that could link it to James I, who maintained a hunting lodge at Royston. Others believe it is a spiritual centre where two ley-lines cross.
The cave features in Homer Sykes’ Mysterious Britain: Fact and Folklore. The author suggests it might have been used as a private chapel by a hermit. He adds that such sites, ‘have become associated with folklore, legend and mystery, stemming from the period of the introduction of Christianity into Britain.’
Stone of power
You wouldn’t think lumps of odd-looking rock could be at the heart of local superstitions, but there’s a rare example that people used to ward off evil spirits, mark boundaries and bring good luck.
The centuries-old belief in the powers of Hertfordshire puddingstone – flint pebbles cemented together with sand and silica that resemble a giant plum pudding – seems to have continued through to us, so that even today, locals treat it with caution.
Michael Laws of the St Albans’ Society of St Michael’s and Kingsbury writes that there are several myths about this distintive rock formation that typically occurs on land as isolated large blocks.
‘Some thought the stones were alive, could move and had feelings and emotions. One myth relates that a block of puddingstone between Thorley and Bishop’s Stortford turned around when it heard the town clock in Stortford strike midnight.’
And because puddingstone can be quite unexpectedly exposed in fields by rainstorms or sharp frost, ‘this caused a superstition among farmers that they grew in the ground.’
Blocks of puddingstone were placed on doorsteps, on village greens and in churchyards to ward off witches – hence their alternative name: ‘hagstone’.
Michael says, ‘A parish record of 1662 records how a suspected witch was to be prevented from escaping from her grave: A hagstone be placed on the coffin for her bodie within be bewitched.’
The ‘Wheathampstead witch stone’ was relocated after members of Wheathampstead Cricket Club became fed up with tripping over the nearly 600-year-old boundary stone between the parishes of Wheathampstead and Sandridge. During the 15th century the monasteries of St Albans and Westminster contested commonland between the two parishes, and in 1429, a jury agreed that a boulder of Hertfordshire puddingstone should be used to divide them. The marker was moved to the edge of the cricket pitch, under the watchful eyes of the district’s chief archaeologist.
A tall tale
A Robin Hood type character featuring in Herts’ legends is a giant archer who stole from the rich to give to the poor – Jack O’Legs.
‘There was a very tall chap who lived in a cave near Weston.’ Alice Cherry, a long-time Weston resident, told the BBC. ‘He had a lot of friends in Weston and used to talk to them through their upstairs windows.
‘One year there was a pretty bad harvest and the bakers from Baldock cornered the market in flour and put the prices up. Jack O’Legs used to lay in wait for the bakers on what is now called Jack’s Hill between Weston and Graveley (near Stevenage). He caught them, got the flour off them and gave it to his friends in Weston.’
However the bakers responded violently, taking out his eyes, before telling him he was to be hanged. The story goes that his captors agreed to grant Jack O’Legs one last wish.
‘He said ‘point me towards Weston and where my arrow lands, I wish to be buried,’ Alice says.
The tale originated sometime between 1148 and 1521. Luckily, the arrow is said to have bounced off the clock at Holy Trinity Church, Weston and landed in the graveyard. Today, two stones stand 14 feet apart marking the head and foot of a plot marked ‘Jack O’Legs Grave’.
When a St Albans abbot used the ruins of nearby Roman Verulamium to rebuild the abbey around a millennia ago, the lair of the legendary Wormenheart the dragon, who lived beneath the church, was destroyed.
A popular superstition is connected to a cedar known as The Whispering Tree in Sumpter Yard beside St Albans Cathedral, planted by the Dowager Lady Spencer, a relative of Princess Diana, in 1803. Its branches hang over the footpath, and when passing by it, superstition says you must not talk or you risk not finding your way home.
A hermit, simply known as Roger, is remembered in a Latin inscription inside St Albans Cathedral, inscribed during the abbacy of Geoffrey de Gorham (1119-46).
Roger lived to a great age near Markyate, where he headed an informal community of five hermits. He used to walk at least 20 miles each night to attend Matins at the abbey, and would ask God to take away the nightingales from the area so they would not disrupt his devotion. Chronicler Thomas Walsingham, writing in the late 14th century, reported that even in his own time, nightingales still avoided the spot for a mile around.
Wizards & witches
There are various stories about the – sometimes fatal – punishment dealt out to Hertfordshire residents accused of witchcraft.
One shocking tale involves an elderly couple from Long Marston, John and Ruth Osborne, who went begging at a farm. When turned away, Ruth’s mutterings were taken to be a curse. When the farmer later suffered ill health the pair were accused of being a wizard and witch.
A notice cried at Hemel Hempstead market on April 14, 1751 called for ‘two ill-desposed persons to be ducked by the neighbours consent’.
A mob forced the couple from a Tring workhouse and to Wilstone where they were dragged by rope across a pond about five feet deep while wrapped in a sheet. A Tring chimney sweep turned and prodded Ruth with a stick, before she was pulled to the pond edge. She was carried to the nearby Half Moon Ale House. Fifteen minutes later, when the men who ducked her had left the premises, the landlord discovered she was dead.
Days later, a coroner investigating the death of Ruth Osborne found she had been suffocated with ‘mudd and water in a certain pond of water’. Ducking had been made illegal 16 years previously and the men responsible were tried for murder.
Even today, bar workers at the Half Moon will point to an old table used by patrons in the pub’s window, saying ‘that’s the table said to have been used for Ruth’s body’.
Stuff of legends
Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire have been involved in a collaborative three-year research project, ending next year, aimed at understanding how our ancestors felt about the stuff of legends.
Dr Ceri Houlbrook, researcher in intangible cultural heritage at the university, said, ‘The green and pleasant land we abide in has a dark, strange and chilling other side. The British landscape is heavily populated with tales of ghosts, fairies and other strange beasts, which speak of the fears of both our ancestors and ourselves.’
Traditional Hertfordshire, undertaken by heritage sites and museums in the county, explores tales of fairies, witchcraft, straw dollies, alchemy and more. The project, led by Hertfordshire County Council Museum Development Service, runs until January. Visit hertfordshiremuseums.org.uk for more.