Folklore of Northamptonshire

Folklore of Northamptonshire

by Peter Hill


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Folklore of Northamptonshire by Peter Hill

This book describes the reaction of the common people to some of the tumultuous events which occurred in Northamptonshire and shaped England’s history, and how this gave rise to many colourful folklore traditions. Especially rich in dialect, vocabulary, legends, and wondrous stories that have been handed down through the ages, the character of Northamptonshire and its people is firmly rooted in its folklore. There are tales of literary folk and noblemen, but always at the heart of Northamptonshire's folklore are the traditional beliefs, stories, events and customs of the common people. Daily life itself contained numerous beliefs and maxims, omens and superstitions—often based on fear of the uncertain—as well as being full of music and verse, dance and song. These delightful, revealing, and sometimes fanciful traditions have remained hidden until now.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752435220
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 07/01/2009
Series: Folklore Of Series
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Peter Hill is a lecturer in adult and higher education and a folklore historian.

Read an Excerpt

Folklore of Northamptonshire

By Peter Hill

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Peter Hill
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9987-1


Rose of the Shires

Northamptonshire is an apple without a core to be cut out, or a rind to be pared away.

These words by one of the county's renowned literary sons, Thomas Fuller of Aldwincle, in his 1662 book, The Worthies of England, sum up the affection and protectiveness felt by Northamptonshire folk over the centuries, a process that still continues relentlessly today. And yet, as each year goes by, so much of our everyday way of life – because of its very familiarity – has not been considered important, something to be valued, and has not been properly documented for future generations. Roy Paine of Rushden, whose family ancestry in the county stretches far back into the mists of time, sums up the attitude of many folk:

This county is thickly clad in the vestments of the ages, and we locals wear the dialects, lore, deeds and happenings, like a comfortable suit of clothes. We know where to go to walk with the shades of the past ... you could say we have taken it all for granted.

Until recently, only a few interested individuals or local history societies were recording or researching the heritage of their communities. With the dawn of the new millennium, all this has changed and the county now has a fine network of enthusiasts and websites. Allied to this is the growth of interest in Northamptonshire's folklore.

So what is folklore? It is a study of the traditional beliefs, stories, events and customs of the common people. It is a never-ending process, as this store of traditions from the past is still being added to today, for as time goes on what is a normal part of life for us will gradually change and be forgotten, or become a distant memory. In other words, something that is modern now will, within a relatively short time, be seen as old-fashioned. Our way of life will join that of our ancestors as part of antiquity as new ideas and advances change the world.

Events that have determined the course of England's history in some way have taken place in the county, giving rise to certain connections and colourful, if fanciful, traditions that have become part of folklore. Thomas à Becket's Well in Northampton is where he is said to have paused to slake his thirst and rest during his flight from the town after his trial at the castle in 1164 for the misappropriation of funds and breach of Constitutions of the Realm. The Queen's Oak in Salcey Forest is said to be the tree where Edward IV met his future wife and consort, Elizabeth Woodville, whom he later secretly married at Grafton Regis, her family home, in May 1464. The tree was described in an early account as 'an oak so hollow, huge and old, it look'd a tower of ruin'd masonwork'.

Earlier, a crucial battle of the War of the Roses had taken place in the rain-drenched meadows at Delapré in Northampton in July 1460, which saw Yorkist forces defeat the Lancastrians, inflicting heavy losses (around 500 men) and taking Henry VI prisoner. The conditions and bloody carnage led to the field 'turning red' and the ghosts of the slain were said to have been seen and heard for many years afterwards.

The Tudor and Stuart periods would give rise to more fanciful legends. In 1585, Queen Elizabeth I is said to have visited Kirby Hall, which lies in isolation near Gretton. Kirby Hall was the newly acquired home of her chancellor and favourite dancing partner, Sir Christopher Hatton, a member of a distinguished county family. The esteem in which she held him was mentioned, if somewhat humorously, by Richard Barham in The Ingoldsby Legends (1837):

So what with his form and what with his face,
And what with his velvet coat guarded with lace,
And what with his elegant dancing and grace,
His dress and address so tickled Queen Bess
That her Majesty gave him a very snug place;
And seeing, moreover, at one single peep, her
Advisers were, few of them, sharper or deeper,
(Old Burleigh excepted) she made him Lord Keeper.

It is said that on certain nights of the year, a banquet given by Hatton in her honour is re-enacted at Kirby Hall, with flickering lights and shadowy figures seen dancing in the long-uninhabited building. Although there is no evidence that Elizabeth I did stay there, another tradition says that while in the area, she fell from her horse into a treacherous bog during a hunt and was rescued by men from nearby Corby. In gratitude, she issued a charter commanding that all men and tenants of the village be given certain rights and concessions around the kingdom:

to be quit from such toll, pannage, murage and passage to be paid on accounts of their goods and things throughout our whole realm aforesaid ... Also that you do not place the same men and tenants of the same manor in any assizes, juries or recognisances to be held out of the Court of the Manor.

Fotheringhay is also the site of several traditions. In 1387, Edmund of Langley, the first Duke of York, acquired the castle which was in a ruinous state, rebuilding and enlarging it to grand proportions, as befitted such an illustrious family. The village became a hive of activity, with more accommodation being built outside the castle to cater for the number of important guests arriving for feasts and tournaments. Three members of the family who were slain on the battlefield were eventually buried there: Edward, the second Duke of York, who died at Agincourt in 1415; Edward IV's father, Richard, the third Duke of York; and brother Edmund, who were both slain at Wakefield. The future Richard III was born at Fotheringhay in October 1482, with one biased chronicler writing:

... he was suppressed in his mother's womb for two years, emerging with teeth and shoulder length hair.

Long after the demise of the castle, many local people insisted they could hear 'strange music' from drums and trumpets coming from the earthworks of the former castle, including one well-documented case in the 1950s of a policeman from Oundle who went to investigate but was unable to find or see anything tangible. A similar situation has also occurred on occasion in the now truncated church, the missing portion being part of an attached chantry college which disappeared in the years following the Dissolution. There have been cases of medieval funeral music being heard from within, but when the door has been opened to investigate, everything goes silent.

Mary Queen of Scots, who was seen as a threat to Elizabeth I, was imprisoned and ultimately beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle. On the way to her final destination, she is said to have uttered the word 'Perio!' as she sighted the village in the distance. The word was incorrectly taken to mean 'I perish!', when in fact she was passing through the former settlement called Perio and the road on which she was journeying was known as Perio Lane.

On 31 January 1587, eight days before her execution, a strange incident took place, for an hour from midnight, when a flame of bright fire appeared from nowhere and hovered outside the window of the queen's chamber, lighting up the room. It disappeared then returned twice more to act in the same manner. It was not visible anywhere else at the castle; only the guards, frightened out of their wits, were witnesses.

Mary's beheading took two blows of the axe and, after a final severing with a knife, the head was held up by the executioner. It became detached from the wig in the process and fell to the floor. An eyewitness, Robert Wynfield, wrote an account of the execution to Chief Minister Burghley, which included a description of a remarkable sight following the beheading:

one of the executioners pulling of her garments espied her little dogge which was under her clothes, which could not be gotten forth but by force, and afterwards would not depart from its dead companion, but came and laid betweene her head and shulders.

After Mary's death, her apparition was said to follow an underground passage from the castle to the oratory at nearby Southwick Hall, her footsteps sounding on the stone steps leading up to the door and pausing before she entered the small room, holding a rosary, to pray. A tradition was also passed down through the centuries that when Mary's son, James VI of Scotland, became James I of England, he had the walls of the castle torn down as an act of retribution for his mother's execution. However, history proves otherwise, since the castle survived for many years, at one stage being used as an armaments store, until the mid-1630s when its stonework was used for the building or repair of local dwellings, walls and, in one case, a chapel at Fineshade. A visitor in the castle's final days is said to have found graffiti scratched on a window sill by Mary's diamond ring with the words:

From the top of all my trust, mishap hath laid me in the dust.

Robert Catesby, the charismatic leader and instigator of the Gunpowder Plot, was associated with the county, being based at Ashby St Ledgers. Two other conspirators, also associated with the county, were the last to join the plot: Sir Everard Digby of Gayton and, more reluctantly, Catesby's cousin and boyhood companion, Francis Tresham of Rushton, 'a wyld and unstayed man'. Significantly, two places where the conspirators are said to have met in secret to hatch the plot were the gatehouse of Catesby's home and the Triangular Lodge at Rushton Hall. It is Tresham who is credited with revealing the plot by secretly delivering a letter to his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, in London, urging him not to attend the opening of Parliament. It began:

My Lord, out of love I bear to some of your friends, I have care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this Parliament.

The letter was taken to the Chief Minister and acted upon. It may well have been a forgery, planted by ministers who knew about the plot but waited to watch its development before doing anything, but this did not prevent Tresham from being implicated and he died in painful circumstances in the Tower on 23 December 1605, possibly from a urinary infection, although some say he was poisoned. Innocent or not, he was beheaded after his death. His body was thrown into a hole in the vicinity and his head was sent to Northampton, where it was put on public display.

Monteagle became a national hero for saving King and Country and another high-ranking county man, Sir Edward Montagu of Boughton House, introduced a Bill in Parliament proposing an annual day of rejoicing on the anniversary of the plot's discovery, which was the origin of Bonfire Night. Initially, 5 November was a day of bell-ringing and church attendance for prayers of thanksgiving. The prayers were later dropped and by 1625, bonfires began to be a regular feature, these being combined with firework displays by 1662.

In later years, a popular rhyme or 'catch' chanted by children around the county as they went from house to house on Bonfire Night was:

Guy Fawkes and his companions did the plot contrive,
To blow up the king and parliament and people all up alive.
By God's providence they were cotch'd,
With a dark lantern and a lighted match.
['cotch'd' means 'caught']

Northamptonshire was the scene of much action during the Civil War. The county was mainly Parliamentarian in allegiance and it was difficult to be in the Royalist faction. Many of the leading aristocracy were either taken prisoner or went into exile and their great houses were plundered, such as that at Deene where a valuable local history collection was ransacked and depleted, or at Rockingham where the castle was left virtually as a shell, with the church, almshouses and much of the village destroyed. Some Royalists did hold their ground, however, such as the daring Dr Michael Hudson, rector of Kingscliffe and chaplain to Charles I, whom he accompanied from Oxford to Newark. Hudson was constantly trying to recruit men for the Royalist cause and legends abound about how he managed to escape the clutches of Parliamentarian troops three times, on one occasion with a basket of apples on his head. In anger, the Parliamentarians used the church as stables and caused damage to its spire. Finally, on 6 June 1648, they pursued Hudson to Woodcroft Castle, on the county border near Elton. Hudson hung on to a parapet while they hacked at his fingers, causing him to fall to his death in the moat below. The incident was used by Sir Walter Scott in his novel Woodstock.

The decisive battle of the war took place in the county, at Naseby. On 14 June 1645, 14,000 Parliamentary troops under Fairfax and Cromwell routed the 10,000-strong Royalist forces commanded by Prince Rupert. In the aftermath, 4,000 bodies lay on the field and for many years afterwards, on the anniversary, the battle was said to have been re-enacted in the sky above. There were also eyewitness accounts of regular ghostly combat on the field itself. According to widely held belief, Cromwell's body was taken back to the scene of his victory after his death in 1658 and his ghost was said to roam in the fields. Today, anyone visiting that bleak isolated spot, where a memorial overlooks the site, cannot fail to picture the scene of such carnage.

The slaughter continued as Royalist survivors fled the scene. Cromwell wrote about the aftermath in a letter shortly after the victory:

We pursued them from three miles short of Harborough to nine beyond even to sight of Leicester, whither the King fled.

Years later, an elderly eyewitness gave an account of the battle and its aftermath, reporting that even women accompanying the defeated troops were cut and slashed in the face or nose, some with the comment: 'Remember Cromwell, you whores!'

At Marston Trussell, a group of Royalists were trapped in an enclosed field known as Pudding End, close to the church, and were massacred, their bodies buried in a shallow pit, long afterwards known as Cavaliers' Grave, giving rise to yet another haunted location in the county.

Tradition also says that Oliver Cromwell and some of his men stayed in the Hind Hotel in Wellingborough on the eve of the battle, although this has been proved impossible. However, true or not, a room named after him exists there today. Similarly, a table in the church at Naseby is where Royalists were dining when they were interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Cromwell's men.

These events are just some of many that have given rise to all kinds of speculation over the centuries, contributing to the vast body of folklore of Northamptonshire, Rose of the Shires. Let us now enter that fascinating world, go along some of its paths and explore the rich landscape within.


What's in a Name?

If you could travel back in time to old Northamptonshire, you would encounter many familiar words such as holt, stag, hog, crab stick, twang, budget, stickers, shorts, take away, tight, great, hike, fridge, fashion, broad cast and drop out, to name but a few. The problem is that these words had a different meaning then. That process of change in our language continues unabated today, as our way of life changes. In spelling, vocabulary, grammar and usage, new words are coming in, others going out of fashion and some (e.g. gay, pad, coke) undergoing a change of meaning. Many of these words can be found in the Glossary section of this book.

Our county ancestors had a whole host of local words and expressions (folk rhymes), some of which were used by one community to describe a neighbouring one, mainly alluding to some characteristic of the topography or reputation of the inhabitants, justified or invented by inter-village rivalry or harmless ribaldry, the origins of which have often been lost or distorted long ago. There have been occasions when rivalry has been apparent in some form (usually a form of superiority) between the adjoining villages of Cottingham and Middleton, as well as between Wilbarston and neighbouring Stoke Albany, Rothwell and Desborough, and Corby and Kettering. A case in point was the discovery of a saying marked on a wall of a demolished pub in Corby some years ago:

Rockingham on the hill, Oakley in the vale
Kettering for silly b-----s, Corby for ale!

The same saying occurred elsewhere for many years in the north of the county towards Leicestershire and other parts of the Midlands, as any villages or towns could be substituted in the rhyme at will. Here it may have reflected the onetime strong feelings and rivalry between the two towns, with Corby feeling that Kettering gladly accepted the generous employment prospects offered by their large steelworks, but looked down on them as coarse and uneducated.


Excerpted from Folklore of Northamptonshire by Peter Hill. Copyright © 2013 Peter Hill. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


One Rose of the Shires,
Two What's in a Name?,
Three A Cornucopia of Customs,
Four Stranger than Fiction,
Five Natural or Supernatural?,
Six Legends and Tales,
Seven Things That Go Bump in the Night: Ghosts, Witches et al,
Eight Superstition and Belief,
Nine Everyday Life,
Ten Music, Song and Dance,
Dialect and Glossary,
Field Names,
Wood Names,

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