Hidden East Anglia:
Landscape Legends of Eastern England
QUEST FOR TOM HICKATHRIFT
Part 5 - Birth of a
To sum it
all up then, this is what I think to be the convoluted origin of the
legend of Tom Hickathrift:
all we have Sir Frederick de Tilney, a giant of a man with great strength,
a knight who performs “prodigies of valour” for his king, and most
important of all, a strong local identity. Although his main home is at
Boston in Lincolnshire, perhaps he is responsible for the embanking of
various Fens in the Marshland, and perhaps he even champions the villagers
in a dispute with their local landlord over common-rights.
When he dies, maybe in battle, he is buried very close to home, and the memory of his stature and valour does not fade. After a time, the ‘wicked landlord’ is altered in popular imagination into an evil ogre who menaces the Marshland, and Sir Frederick becomes Hickathrift, to do battle with him. Other exploits are added from time to time and make their way into the popular chapbooks, some probably borrowed from other champions, and some from the stock of legend current among the Scandinavian peoples, who have a strong inheritance in this area.
As Professor Tolkien might
have put it41 Tom, Hay, Grettir, Sir Frederick and all the
adventures adhering to them, are put into the Pot and stirred well into
the mythological Soup.
There is an ancient mound or burial barrow of unknown origin nearby, and like many such sites, the folk think it hollow, and name it the ‘giant’s grave’. Whose grave is it though? Well it can’t be Tom’s because he’s buried at Tilney – or was it Terrington? So it must be the grave of the evil ogre that Tom killed, and if so, that must be where his cave stood and Tom later built his house.
And of course there’s an ancient cross on top, that looks
something like a candlestick – or when the shaft has gone, like an
old-fashioned collar stud! And there are others too, at Tilney and
Terrington, so they must be Tom’s as well. One has even got his finger
marks on the top.
At Walpole the little figure on the church wall is noticed – and who else can it be but our hero Tom? A monument to something he did there, maybe? Well, we know he was very fond of challenging all-comers to a game of football, and whoever he played against played dirty, kicking the ball at Tom like that, but missing and shooting it straight through the church wall. Knowing Tom, it was probably Old Nick himself!
By now, Sir
Frederick and his place of burial are completely
forgotten, but at Tilney,
the huge coffin and the carved lid are noticed – and just look at those
carvings! Well, they just have to be a pair of wheels and the axle between
them, just as the stories say. And that has to be old Tom’s grave, just
look at the size of it! And of course there’s the hole or patch in the
wall just above it – so this is where that football went to when he
kicked it out of sight!
apparently unrelated objects and incidents, I believe, the mythos of Tom
Hickathrift the giant has grown. While other traditional themes may have
crept in over the centuries to enlarge the tale, to me, Sir Frederick de
Tilney is the likeliest progenitor for Hickathrift’s character – a
strong man for a strong legend.
I’d like to express my grateful thanks for the assistance and information received from the following:
Mr. W. J. Chambers of Saffron Walden.
Rev. C. N. Bales of Marshland St. James.
Rev. A. J. Clements of Tilney All Saints.
Mr. L. V. Grinsell of Bristol.
Mr. & Mrs. Ian Clayton Caldwell of Terrington Court.
Ms. Rosalinda M. C. Hardiman, former Curator of the Wisbech & Fenland Museum.
The Folklore Society.
Miss I. B. McClure of the British Archaeological Association.
Norwich Local Studies Library & the Norfolk Record Office.
Mr. E. Dowman, Assistant to the York Herald of the College of Arms.
Mr. A. J. Camp, Director of the Society of Genealogists.
Mr. F. H. Thompson, General Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Lincoln Central Library, & Lincoln Castle Archives.
Mr. J. Graham-Campbell, Secretary of the Society for Medieval Archaeology.
Dr. L. A. S. Butler, Head of the Dept. of Archaeology at the University of Leeds.
Dr. Maureen James, folklorist, historian and storyteller.