A history of Britain's folklore
The British landscape is fertile with centuries of folklore, from sprites and giants to witches and ravens. These tales may bear little relation to reality – but, writes Francis Young, they continue to define British identities today
Somewhere near the town of Longtown on the banks of the river Esk, in one of the last parcels of land to be disputed between Scotland and England before the Union of Crowns of 1603, is the supposed site of the battle of Arthuret. Nothing to do with King Arthur (in spite of its name), the legendary battle is traditionally dated to AD 573, when local British king Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio was killed by a rival in a disastrous defeat. Gwenddoleu’s bard, Myrddin, was driven mad by the sight of the slaughter and fled into a nearby forest, where he lived as a wild man among the beasts. Yet by immersing himself in nature, Myrddin received the gift of prophecy. Today, he is better known by his anglicised name: Merlin, a composite figure constructed in the 12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth from Myrddin and another figure of Welsh legend named Ambrosius.
At Arthuret, where Welsh-speaking forces clashed in a place later disputed between England and Scotland, the national identities that would one day make up Great Britain literally and symbolically converge. The battle gave birth to a truly British figure: Merlin was claimed equally in the Middle Ages by England, Wales, Scotland and Brittany. The prophet and enchanter would go on to become a repository for countless fantasies about magic and occult knowledge. In his incarnation as the wild man of the woods, Merlin even prefigures the Green Man, who often symbolises British folklore.
With its intensely local character, folklore may seem a strange place to look for “Britishness” – a sense of common national identity shared by all the peoples of Great Britain – but Merlin is an example of a character who is both genuinely and distinctively British.
Britain's origin myth
In the fifth century, Britain, which had been united under the Romans (with the exception of the Scottish Highlands), broke into a series of small kingdoms. This process of dissolution was accelerated by Germanic settlers, who brought a new culture and language to what became England. In the Anglo-Saxon period, the concept of Britain was all but forgotten beyond Welsh lands, only to return in the wake of an unlikely saviour: William the Conqueror. The Duke of Normandy relied on the help of a number of Breton knights for his conquest, many of whom settled in Welsh-speaking areas and became captivated by the idea of a return of British glory.
A likely descendant of a Breton conqueror, a man named Geoffrey of Monmouth, would become the father of British folklore. In his 12th-century The History of the Kings of Britain, he began fabricating a splendid origin myth for Britain, claiming that it had been founded by none other than a Trojan prince named Brutus, fleeing Troy like Aeneas, the founder of Rome in Virgil’s Aeneid.
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Geoffrey’s “history” was anything but, peopled with such outlandish characters as King Bladud, founder of Bath, who worked necromancy to give himself the power of flight. Geoffrey’s most lasting confabulations were the figures of Arthur and Merlin, both composite constructions that he put together, Frankenstein-like, from a mixture of history, myth and fiction. Exactly how he did this has baffled scholars ever since.
Even in his own lifetime, Geoffrey’s writings fell under the suspicion of other historians, and by the 17th century his works had long been jettisoned from the historical canon. His influence on folklore remained, however, travelling outwards like ripples in a pond. The two great wicker giants who appear in the Lord Mayor of London’s Show every year are a case in point: they are Gog and Magog, giants whom Brutus found living on the island of Britain.
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These giants were, on one level, just British versions of the titans of Greek mythology. Yet Geoffrey was also faithful to a much older Anglo-Saxon tradition that interpreted Britain’s ancient monuments as enta geweorc, “the work of giants”. According to Geoffrey, the giants built Stonehenge in Ireland before Merlin transported it by magic to Salisbury Plain. This is one instance where the truth turned out to be almost as strange as the fables, as we now know that one version of Stonehenge was indeed transported from a distant land in the prehistoric west – not from Ireland, but Wales’s Preseli Hills.
Many British rulers have drawn on the unifying power of folklore at times of crisis and change. Henry Tudor, whose claim to the throne was somewhat slender, promoted his Welsh ancestry as a supposed descendant of King Arthur. He displayed the red dragon of Wales on his personal standard and named his heir Arthur. Henry VIII oversaw the painting of the replica of the round table in Winchester, while the magician John Dee encouraged Elizabeth I to claim the “New World” as it had already been conquered by her legendary ancestor, Arthur.
But it was James VI & I, more than any other monarch, who needed all the help he could get to promote his Britishness. While never his formal title, the first Scottish king to rule England styled himself “King of Great Britain”. His succession in 1603 was supposedly marked by an overflowing of the river Tweed, causing its waters to mingle with the river Pausyl at a place named Merlin’s Grave. Thus the prophecy of 13th-century Scottish seer Thomas the Rhymer was fulfilled: “When Tweed and Pausyl meet at Merlin’s grave / Scotland and England shall one monarch have.”
Listen | Miles Russell offers a bold new view on the historical King Arthur based on his reinterpretation of medieval sources, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
James’s arrival in London brought an outpouring of literary reflections on Britishness, none more spectacular than Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, the first part of which appeared in 1612. Poly-Olbion was an ambitious series of poems and allegorical maps originally supposed to consist of three parts covering every location in England, Wales and Scotland, but Drayton died before Scotland could be completed. While he took inspiration from classical literature, his work was also characteristically British, drawing heavily on Geoffrey of Monmouth and more reliable historical sources such as William Camden’s Britannia (1586), the first complete antiquarian survey of the country.
What was perhaps most remarkable about Poly-Olbion was its synthesis of topographical and cartographical accuracy with the fantastical. Drayton’s maps personified every city, town, village, river and body of water as an anthropomorphic nymph or deity, but at the same time he took pains to ensure the maps were as accurate as possible.
Drayton drew on pre-existing traditions and invented a new mythology that peopled Britain’s landscape with mythical beings. Poly-Olbion includes characters such as the giant Gogmagog, a figure created in the Middle Ages from the biblical giants Gog and Magog, who fell in love with the nymph Granta. Gogmagog gave his name to the Gog Magog Hills south of Cambridge, and Granta gave hers to the river that runs through Cambridge and to an early name for the town itself: Grantebrycge.
In Poly-Olbion, the trend for comprehensive antiquarian surveys collided with a deep desire for meaning in the landscape: a yearning for every place to have its personified protective spirit, and its classicised origin myth involving nymphs and giants. It was almost as though Drayton’s nymphs and deities took the place of those protectors displaced by the Reformation: the saints.
Obsessed with druids
British folklore is immensely diverse. Every region has its distinctive characters, such as the boggarts of the north of England, the pixies of Cornwall and Devon, and the hikey sprites – a kind of fairy unique to Norfolk. Scotland’s fairies are known for “trooping” around the landscape, while England’s are largely isolated domestic helpers; Scottish witches work together in covens, while the English witch is a solitary individual.
Yet some folkloric beings have become national symbols, perhaps because local cultural creations are ultimate representations of the uniqueness and character of a nation. The red dragon, Loch Ness monster and leprechaun are instantly recognisable symbols of Wales, Scotland and Ireland respectively, even if their folkloric origins are now neglected. An equivalent being that represents England or the whole of Great Britain is more elusive, although Romantic poet William Blake attempted to supply such a figure in his “Giant Albion”.
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Blake’s abiding contribution to a national identity was the poem “And did those feet in ancient time”, set to music by Hubert Parry as ‘Jerusalem’, which has acquired the status of an unofficial national anthem for England. This poem was inspired by folklore – in this case the legend that Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail to Britain and founded Glastonbury Abbey. The story’s originsare obscure, although in 1345 Edward III sanctioned a search for Joseph’s tomb at Glastonbury, where the supposed tombs of Arthur and Guinevere had been found in the 12th century.
This desire to realise legend through archaeology continued beyond the Middle Ages. The Jacobean court architect Inigo Jones thought Stonehenge was built by the Romans in a “druidic” style, and was once roofed over, showcasing a lost architectural style of ancient Britain. In the 18th century, antiquarian William Stukeley grew so obsessed with the druids that he adopted a druidic name, Chyndonax, and built megaliths in his garden.
Ultimately, the shared mythological figures of Great Britain will always be those created by Geoffrey of Monmouth: Arthur and Merlin, who have penetrated Britain’s collective consciousness in spite of the absence of evidence that either really existed. In the realm of folklore, questions of historical existence are secondary – it is cultural influence that matters. It is no accident that the “Wizarding World” of JK Rowling venerates the memory of Merlin. Like a modern-day Poly-Olbion, Rowling’s books are peopled by the cast of British folklore: giants, boggarts, Cornish pixies and kelpies.
Rowling’s books are peopled by the cast of British folklore: giants, boggarts, Cornish pixies and kelpies
Yet any idea that Britain’s folklore is reserved for fantasy fiction needs to be dismissed, because there are signs that the nation’s collective lore is alive and well. In January 2021, one of the ravens of the Tower of London, Merlina, went missing. The story made national headlines, since many people still know that the ravens leaving the Tower of London betokens disaster for the country.
This legend is a microcosm of the power and flexibility of British folklore. The idea that the ravens are linked to the nation’s safety is no older than the Second World War, and originated in some of the ravens being lent to a brewery to provide warning in the event of air raids. But a connection between the Tower of London and protection of the island of Britain is far older. In the Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh tales, King Arthur buries the head of the giant Brân the Blessed on Tower Hill, where the White Tower will later be built. As long as Brân’s head remains, Britain will be secure. Curiously, the Welsh name Brân means “raven”.
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It is notable, in the fevered politics of recent years, how often populist politicians invoke almost spiritual concepts such as “Blitz spirit” in place of practical proposals. They are referenced so frequently that they have almost become personalities in their own right.
Similarly, while sovereignty was hitherto an abstract concept largely discussed by constitutional theorists, it has become for some a talismanic idea – unclear in meaning, perhaps, but invoked with religious fervour. It is hard, as a folklorist, not to think of the ancient personification of sovereignty as a goddess, such as Brigantia, who represented in Roman Britain what is today the north of England. Her name may lie at the root of the Welsh words brenin (“king”) and brenhinol (“royal”), a reminder of the continuing significance of sovereignty as a sacred concept in ancient and contemporary Britain.
During lockdown, British people reverted to ritual practices that were similar to those of their ancestors
Behaviour during the Covid-19 pandemic, meanwhile, suggests that people turn to folklore in times of uncertainty and crisis. During lockdown, “votive deposits” appeared in many parts of Britain – painted stones, “love locks” attached to bridges, ribbons tied to trees – and there was an increase in the habit of throwing coins into bodies of water. Although there is likely no single explanation for these behaviours, it is intriguing that, when activities other than a daily walk were unavailable, British people reverted to ritual practices similar to those of their ancestors. Ritual interactions with trees, including tying cloth to branches, are ancient practices, as are leaving pebbles at sites of ritual significance and throwing coins into water. These activities are not unique to Britain and Ireland, but such practices seem to be a wordless ritual language that unites us, at some level, even if we have little clear idea of what they really mean.
All of this points to the fact that seemingly recent folklore can have deep roots, and that folklore will sometimes transform beyond recognition over time. In spite of its huge diversity, a unifying strand of legend remains at the heart of British folklore: a common story and characters who belong equally to England, Scotland and Wales. It is no exaggeration to say that shared folklore is one of the things that holds Britain together.
Francis Young is the author of Magic in Merlin’s Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain, which will be published by Cambridge in March 2022
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine