Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Wild Hunt and the Flying Monk - Katherine Langrish

Because we are getting a new puppy (tarantara!) we recently drove over to Malmesbury, Wiltshire, to visit her.  Malmesbury is a sweet little hillside country town with the remains of a huge medieval abbey.  And I mean HUGE.  It was founded around 676, built and rebuilt, and by 1180 possessed a 431 foot spire, easily beating Salisbury Cathedral. So it was pretty catastrophic when, circa 1500, the spire was struck by lightning and collapsed; and then the west tower also fell down fifty years later and – well, what’s left is impressive but nothing compared to past glories.

For a small place, Malmesbury has a colourful past. A gravestone in the churchyard commemorates the death in 1703 of a barmaid called Hannah Twynnoy who was killed by a tiger: 

In bloom of Life
She’s snatched from hence
She had no room
To make defence
For Tyger fierce
Took life away
And here she lies in a bed of Clay
Until the Resurrection Day.

The tiger belonged to a travelling circus which parked in the inn yard.  Like Albert in ‘Albert and the Lion’, it seems that Hannah could not resist teasing the animal - with fatal consequences.

A luckier and much earlier Malmesbury character was described by the chronicler William of Malmesbury, a monk of the abbey who wrote several books including a history of the Kings of Britain up to the Conquest.  It is this book in which he details the magnificent escapade of the flying monk.  Some time in the early 1000’s, the monk Eilmer of Malmesbury flew something like a primitive hang glider off the top of one of the abbey towers:

“He had by some means, I hardly know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet, so that he might fly like Daedalus, and collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong (220 yards).  But, agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of the air… he fell, broke both his legs, and was lame ever after.”  Enthusiastic despite his injuries, Eilmer declared that he knew what had gone wrong: his glider needed a tail. He was probably right. And he wanted to have another go, but his abbot – who must have been a long-suffering and enlightened man to allow him to try in the first place – utterly forbade it. 

My book ‘Dark Angels’ (‘The Shadow Hunt’ in the USA) is set in the late 12th century, and I spent months researching the period.  I wanted to know as much as I could about ways of life in a monastery and in an (already old-fashioned) motte-and-bailey castle.  I wanted to immerse myself in the stories 12th century people told and sang, and the legends they believed in.  There was no better place to find this out than from the medieval chronicles themselves.  They are irresistible once you get going, full of colour and vigour and human emotions.  Take an example from the Peterborough version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the progressive year-by-year account of important events which was kept and copied up with some slightly different variants from 1042 to 1155.  The thing to remember is that the Anglo Saxon Chronicle was written in the vernacular – in Old English, not in Latin. Hence the name. This meant that after the Norman Conquest, as far as newly appointed Norman French abbots were concerned, the Chronicle was effectively written in code.  These abbots could read Latin and French; they couldn’t read English.  So for the year 1127, the monk writing the chronicle is free to say exactly what he thinks about his new abbot, Henry of Poitou, who has been appointed by the King: 

“Thus miserably was the abbacy given, between Christmas and Candlemas, at London, and so he [Henry] went with the king to Winchester and from there he came to Peterborough, and there he stayed exactly as drones do in a hive.  All that the bees carry in, the drones eat and carry out, and so did he…”

So far, vivid enough – but this is merely the lead-in to a piece of vituperation which has become famous as an account of one of the earliest apparitions of the Wild Hunt in Britain!  Our anonymous but angry chronicler continues: 

“Let it not be thought remarkable when we tell the truth, because it was fully known all over the country, that as soon as he came… then soon afterwards many people saw and heard many hunters hunting.  The hunters were big and black and loathsome, and their hounds all black and wide-eyed and loathsome, and they rode on black horses and black goats.  This was seen in the very deerpark of the town of Peterborough… and the monks heard the horns blow that they were blowing at night…

“This,” our chronicler concludes darkly, “was his coming in – of his going out we can say nothing yet.  May God provide!”

In other words, the Peterborough account of the Wild Hunt is informed by the Peterborough monks’ hatred of their new, foreign, and greedy abbot.  It’s a splendid piece of mud-slinging, which has preserved an even more splendid bit of folklore – and yes, it did find its way into my book.   

For more stories visit my website at  or my blog: Seven Miles of Steel Thistles


Miriam Halahmy said...

An excellent piece of research Kath, must have been great fun doing it and all your marvellous discoveries. I shall regard Peterborough in a completely different light now!

Charlotte said...

Thanks for the fascinating post! I especially liked the tiger. And I've added your book to my list...

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks, Miriam! And Charlotte, I'm now following your blog, it looks just the sort I like!

Katherine Roberts said...

The Wild Hunt features in my current book! Mine's a fairy host, though, so ghostly but not dark.