Thu 21 May 20 in History

Lesser-known English myths and legends


English culture has some of the most famous legends known around the world, from King Arthur and Robin Hood to mystical druids and fairies. But there are some not as famous. Here are a few less popular legends in English culture.


Havelok the Dane

In England, King Athelwod dies and leaves no male successor, only a young daughter, Goldborow. Godrich, Earl of Cornwall, promised to rule in her stead and to find her the highest man in the kingdom as a husband. But Godrich betrayed his vow and imprisoned the young girl in a tower in Dover.

In Denmark, king Birkbein dies, leaving behind his two daughters and a three-year-old son named Havelok in the care of the regent Godard. He too betrays his promise, kills the two girls, and sends Havelok to a fisherman to be drowned. 

The fisherman saw a bright light coming out of the boy’s mouth as he slept and a cross-shaped birthmark on his shoulder confirming that Havelok was the rightful heir to the throne. They run to England and make their home in the town of Grimsby, along with the fisherman’s family. Havelok grew up and amassed enormous strength and size with a great appetite. 

During a famine they were struggling, so Havelok decided to leave and sustain himself. He walked barefoot to Lincoln, where he found a job with a cook in a noble home. At a festival, Havelok participated in a stone-throwing competition, and his victory attracted the attention of Godrich, who was at the festival as well. The youth’s height is what Godrich believed to be a literal fulfillment of the vow to marry Goldborow, the English king’s daughter. Believing the boy to be a peasant, he will thus deprive her of the inheritance. 

Threatened by Godrich, Havelok reluctantly agrees to marry Goldborow, and on their wedding night, she sees the light coming from his mouth, while he has prophetic dreams about embracing the Danish land and people. Realizing who he actually is the two take Denmark back together and England’s throne after. 


Hereward the Wake

Hereward was an  Anglo-Saxon nobleman whose parentage has long since been debated, scholars pointing to him possibly being the son lady Godiva and Leofric, Earl of Mercia, or the son of Edith, a descendant of Olsac of York and Leofric of Bourne, nephew of Ralph the Staller. 

Even though the exact parentage of Hereward is unknown, he still remains a figure of English folklore, mostly associated with resistance against Norman Conquest of William the Conqueror. His father reportedly exiled Hereward for his disobedience and unruly behavior. A number of outlandish stories have been attributed to Hereward during his exile, such as a fight with a bear, an unwanted marriage, and the rescue of a Cornish princess. 

He took up the mantle of mercenary in his exile, participated in conflicts and tournaments. At the time of the Norman invasion, Hereward was still in exile working as a mercenary, and when he returned he found that his family’s lands had been taken by the Normans and his brother killed. He exacted revenge on the Normans who killed his brother and soon after went to Peterborough Abbey to be knighted by his uncle Abbot Brand. 

Hereward then joined an army led by Morcar, the Saxon former Earl of Northumbria, ousted by William. In opposition William also sent an army to deal with the rebels, and pushed their retreat to the Isle of Ely, a predominantly marshland. At the stronghold in Ely, again there have been speculations about Hereward's deeds, from sneaking into the enemy camp to spy, disguised as a potter, to the Normans attempts at scaring them with a witch atop a wooden tower that Hereward burnt with the witch still inside. 

Betrayal seems to have been the way William managed to take the Isle of Ely, bribing monks to have them show a safe passage through the marshes. This led to Morcar’s capture and Hereward’s escape into the wild fenlands where he continued his resistance. 

After the fall of Ely there are many contradictions regarding the end of Hereward’s story, he might have been captured, pardoned by William, gone into exile once more, or killed by Norman knights. His existence in history is not one that has ever been put into question, the life he had, though, falls in the realm of legend sometimes. 


Drake’s Drum

Sir Francis Drake was a sea captain in Elizabethan times and has carried out the second circumnavigation of the world. On this trip, he took with him a snare drum decorated with his coat of arms. 

As he lay dying, off the coast of Panama, he asked that his drum be returned to his family at Buckland Abbey. He vowed to come to the rescue of his country if ever it found itself in danger and someone beat the drum. 

It is an English take on the King asleep in the mountain tale. Legend states that people have heard drums in critical moments of Britain’s history. Some claimed to have heard the drum when Napoleon was brought as a prisoner at Plymouth Harbor, in 1914 when WW I began, and during the Dunkirk evacuation. 

Drake’s drum has made its way into literature, being included in stories and poems, cementing its way into folklore and gaining cultural value.  


The Pedlar of Swaffham

A peddler from Swafftham dreamt of going to London Bridge to simply stand on it. He believed he would receive wonderous news there. So after thinking it over a few times, he decided to indeed attempt this. He arrived at London Bridge and stood there for two maybe three days, looking around and expecting his good news. 

Nothing came through, until one day a shopkeeper went up to the peddler, after having seen him there pointlessly walking and looking around the past few days. The shopkeeper asked what was the nature of his stay on the bridge since he neither sold wares nor asked for alms. After the peddler told him about his dream of receiving good news there, the shopkeeper laughed in his face at his folly, to have taken up such a journey for nothing. 

The shopkeeper then proceeded to tell him about his own dream, about a certain place called Swaffham, where he believed that behind a peddler’s house, in a particular orchard, at the foot of an oak tree he could find buried treasure. The shopkeeper told him how silly it would be for him to go searching for that treasure merely on the basis of a dream. So his advice to the pedlar is to go home. 

Which indeed he went back to Swaffham and found the treasure behind his house in the orchard under the great oak tree. His dream came true and the pedlar became rich. 


The green children of Woolpit

Two children, brother, and sister found their way near the village of Woolpit, one day during harvest season. They were found by a wolf pit.  What was bizarre about this is that they both had unusual green skin, spoke an entirely unknown language, wore strange clothes, and refused to eat any food given to them, except raw broad beans. 

They slowly adapted to eating regular food, and in doing so began to lose their green-tinted skin. Soon after they had been baptized the boy became very sick and died. The girl learned to speak English and said that she and her brother were from a land where the sun did not shine as brightly, a land of twilight where everything was green. This land she said was called St Martin's Land. They got lost herding cattle and picked up the sound of the church bell in Woolpit where they arrived soon after by the wolf pit. 

The girl was named Agnes and she married a man named Richard Barre. 

As far as legends go this one sounds fantastical to its core and many agree that it probably originated from folklore, or was a true account of something that happened but told in a distorted fashion.