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THE QUEST FOR TOM HICKATHRIFT

Part 5 - Birth of a Legend: 

To sum it all up then, this is what I think to be the convoluted origin of the legend of Tom Hickathrift: 

First of 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! 

From such 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. 

References:

  1. Weever, John: ‘Ancient Funerall Monuments’ (1631), pp.818, 866-7.

  2. Spelman, Sir Henry: ‘Icenia, sive Norfolciae Descripto Topographica’ (c.1640), quoted in Gibson, Bishop (ed.): ‘Reliquiae Spelmannianae’ (1698), p.138.
  3. Cox, Rev. Thomas: ‘Magna Brittania – Norfolk’ (Nutt, 1720), p.297.
  4. Blomefield, Francis: ‘History of Norfolk’ (Miller, 1808), Vol.9, pp.79-80.
  5. Dugdale, Sir William: ‘History of Imbanking Divers Fens & Marshes’ (1662), pp.244-5.
  6. Anon: ‘The History of Thomas Hickathrift’ (c.1660-90), in the Pepysian Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.
  7. Anon: ‘A Pleasant & Delightful History of Thomas Hickathrift’ (Angus & Son, c.1750).
  8. Hillen, H. J.: The Hillen Mss. (unpublished, c.1891), in ‘The Legendary Folklore of Norfolk’, Bradfer-Lawrence X1d, Norfolk Record Office.
  9. Pendle, A.: letter in the ‘East Anglian Magazine’ (July 1965), Vol.24, p.322.
  10. Marlowe, Christopher: ‘Legends of the Fenland People’ (Palmer, 1926), pp.x-xi, 49-56.
  11. Gomme, G. L. (ed.): ‘The History of Thomas Hickathrift’, Chap-books & Folk-lore Tracts, 1st Series 1884); also the Villon Society (1885).
  12. Jonathon Peckover: 'Fen Tumuli' in 'The Journal of the British Archaeological Association', Vol. 35 (1879), p.11. (Many thanks to Dr. Maureen James for this reference).
  13. Miller, S. H. & Skertchly, S. B. J.: ‘The Fenland Past & Present’ (Longmans, Green & Co, 1878), pp.488-9.

  14. Dutt, W. A.: ‘The Norfolk & Suffolk Coast’ (Unwin, 1909), p.398.

  15. Wortley, Elizabeth.: letter in the ‘East Anglian Magazine’ (Sept. 1955), Vol.14, p.656.
  16. Cozens-Hardy, Basil: ‘Norfolk Crosses’, in ‘Norfolk Archaeology’ (1934), Vol.25, pp.324-6.
  17. Kelly (ed.): ‘Directory of Norfolk’ (Kelly’s directories Ltd, 1925), p.519
  18. Porter, Enid: ‘Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore’ (R. & K. Paul, 1969), pp.188-9.
  19. Ian Clayton Caldwell of Terrington Court to me (Oct. 8th 1980).
  20. Murray (ed.): ‘Handbook of the Eastern Counties’ (John Murray, 1892), pp.322-3.
  21. Parsons, W. S.: letter in the ‘East Anglian Magazine’ (1955), Vol. 14, p.475.
  22. Lethbridge, T. C.: ‘Gogmagog: the Buried Gods’ (R. & K. Paul, 1957), pp.15, 168-9.
  23. Randell, A. (Enid Porter, ed.): ‘Sixty Years a Fenman’ (R. & K. Paul, 1966), pp.79-81.
  24. Various: ‘Folklore, Myths & Legends of Britain’ (Readers’ Digest Assoc., 1973), pp.252-3.
  25. Roberts, Anthony: ‘Sowers of Thunder’ (Rider & Co., 1978), pp.72-3.
  26. Pevsner, N.: ‘Buildings of England: North-West Norfolk’ (Penguin, 1962), p.438.
  27. Porter, Enid: ‘Folklore of East Anglia’ (Batsford, 1974), pp.96-7.
  28. Bord, Janet & Colin: ‘The Secret Country’ (Paladin, 1978), pp.87-9.
  29. Palgrave, Sir Francis, in the ‘Quarterly Review’ (c.1814), Vol.21, pp.102-3.
  30. White, William: ‘History, Gazetteer & Directory of Norfolk’ (Simpkin, Marshall & Co, 1883), p.743.

  31. Dr. L. A. S. Butler of Leeds University to me (Sept. 29th 1980).

  32. Gomme, G. L. (ed.): ‘Topographical History of Norfolk...’ (Stock, 1896), p.15.
  33. Burgess, Frederick: ‘English Churchyard Memorials’ (Lutterworth Press, 1963), p.105.
  34. Withycombe, E. G.: ‘Oxford Dictionary of English Christian names’ (O. U. Press, 1971), pp.116, 266.

  35. Camden, William: ‘Remains Concerning Britain’ (1605), 1870 edition pub. By John Russell Smith, p.769.

  36. Hakluyt, Richard: ‘The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics & Discoveries of the English Nation' (1589 & 1599), Vol.2.

  37. Mee, Arthur: ‘The King’s England: Norfolk’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1940), p.407.

  38. Thompson, Pishey: ‘History & Antiquities of Boston’ (Longman & Co., 1856), pp.373-5.
  39. Rye, Walter: ‘Norfolk Families’ (2nd edition 1913), pp.910-14.
  40. Dutt, W. A.: ‘Highways & Byways in East Anglia’ (Macmillan, 1923), pp.284-5.
  41. Tolkien, J. R. R.: ‘On Fairy-stories’, in ‘Tree & Leaf’ (Allen & Unwin, 1964), p.30.

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.

 

Part 1 - The Land of the Giant

Part 2 - The Tales & their Sources

Part 3 - Legends in the Landscape

Part 4 - The Origins of Tom Hickathrift