THE DRAGON OF WANTLEY:
A Major Reappraisal Revealing Ancient, Medieval and Hitherto Unrecognised Early-Modern Roots of the Famed English Legend
Historians have long misread as a dispute with a lord of Wortley what actually is a Counter-Reformation allegory of the 16th century legal battle of a George More of Sheffield against his manorial lord, George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury; failing to spot the precursor localised mythology, both ancient and medieval, behind the Wharncliffe/Waldershelf setting
Creative Commons copyright Steve Moxon, May 2013
[Much new material added in 2015]
This new original detailed investigation into the Dragon of Wantley — the famous early-modern ballad about a conflict between a knight, More of More Hall, and a dragon of Wharncliffe Crags — reveals that all the evidence converges on a completely novel clear understanding: that the ballad was based on a 16th century conflict in Sheffield rather than the best part of ten miles further north in the locality where the ballad is set; and that it did not involve the local lord there; one of the Wortley family. The Wharncliffe / More Hall setting was through mythological precursors in this landscape; both ancient and medieval — the latter mostly superseding the former. Local tithe disputes assumed to be germinal were not so. The only aspect of the hitherto accepted interpretation which was even vaguely accurate is that the ballad indeed did concern an early-modern legal case; but as well as its being not the case assumed, the reason it was seized on was to illustrate not a rich-man / poor-man antagonism as presumed, but a major politico-religious polemic.
The legal battle in question was initiated in 1573 by a certain George More on behalf of the Sheffield Burgery (‘free men’) against the lord of Sheffield manor, George Talbot, the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. The facts of this are well documented and accessible yet completely missed by historians today as in the past, in a classic case of ‘groupthink’ and misguided faith in ‘authority’, to accept a false conclusion for the basis of the Wantley legend in a local tithe dispute concerning one of the Wortley lords. The More-Talbot tussle appears to have been utilised to be emblematic of the counter-Reformation; the ballad being an early-modern allegory of this.
That the ballad was attached to the particular locale of Wharncliffe Crags and More Hall is explained by newly discovered traces of localised ancient ‘Celtic’ serpent, ‘water monster’ / ‘otherworld’ mythology, which was overlain with also localised medieval dragon/ knight Christian legend stemming from lands at More Hall and a wider area of the Waldershelf ridge being held by the monastic order of the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem: latterly on their behalf by one George More of More Hall (presumably an eponymous then recent ancestral relative of the Sheffield George More — the Sheffield More family is surely connected with the Mores of Moor Hall). This provided the underpinning and likely some of the strange detail of the ballad. So the long held assumption is in error, that inasmuch as the ballad has any basis in anything before the date of the legal dispute it enshrines, it is mere empty literary invention as a satire on generic medieval romance. That such satire and generic romance is present in the 17th century ballad does not mean that they are core to the legend that is allegorised. They are facets of the allegorisation, for which the mythology is local folklore borrowed for the purpose.
The false identification of the dragon with a Wortley lord appears to be an 18th century conjecture by Godfrey Bosville, likely serving to aggrandize one of his ancestors and to denigrate this ancestor’s antagonist, Sir Francis Wortley. In particular it surely relates to the exploits of Sir Francis against Puritan, Parliamentary local gentry in the Civil War; not least the Bosvilles. The ballad may have been appropriated as being symbolic of their struggles by Penistone and Bradfield locals in tithe disputes with the Wortley lord (given the siting in those parishes respectively of the Wortleys’ Lodge at Wharncliffe and of More Hall), with Bosville being merely the first to write a history who was taken in by this. It may well be that the co-option of the ballad to be latterly reinterpreted in terms of tithe disputes was a development that Bosville was all too ready to accept without much question, given how he could personally make use of it. Whichever came first, here surely is where explanation for the error in attributing an origin lies.
[Major points are supported by citation and extracts in the appendix; almost anything else is easily verified by internet search.]
[This paper prompted a complete re-write of the Wikipaedia entry for the Dragon of Wantley, which since has been edited down to almost nothing (apparently in pique by Simon Heywood), removing both the evolution of the new insight from the previous erroneous understandings and the important mythological context, leaving merely the new George More insight without the explanation or context required to be able to compare the present conclusions with what hitherto has been the false consensus, so as to be able to decide between the two. The present text allows the reader to do this, as well as to gain an understanding of the ancient and medieval locally anchored mythologies, which are the more interesting aspects of the ballad, being as they provide wider and deeper insights into mythology and psychology than does the surface allegorisation of an early-modern religious conflict.]
* I have altered the text to refer to ‘the late’ David Hey after the sad news of the South Yorkshire historian’s death in February 2016. He published notable, albeit ultmately ill-informed contributions concerning the Dragon of Wantley, as I discuss here. It’s unfortunate that there is no longer the prospect of a public discussion between us.
Historians have long maintained a consensus that the once hugely famous legend (in the form of a bawdy anonymous ballad, and later an opera) of the fight between a dragon of Wharncliffe Crags and ‘More of More Hall’ is entirely an early-modern fancy: of Sir Francis Wortley personified as a dragon, with someone cast as the knightly adversary, who, though, can’t be a More of More Hall because the family had died out by Sir Francis’ time, necessitating the awkward twist that it has to be a later owner of More Hall, George Blount, as being one of those who took legal actions against the Wortleys circa 1600. The Dragon of Wantley ballad, it is insisted, is nothing more than the flippant appropriation of the standard ‘George & the dragon’ tale to allegorise the contest, with a literary treatment to satirise medieval romance. [The place-name Wantley appears to relate to a particular section of the Wharncliffe Crags (or the part of the plateau immediately behind it) also known as Whitley Church: see below; Wharncliffe Crags as a whole previously were alternatively known as Wancliff.]
The present research reveals this to be false; that historians have long persisted in succumbing to a classic case of ‘groupthink’ and misguided deference to ‘authority’, being profoundly in error not just in terms of what the ballad allegorised but also as to the antiquity of its local roots. These appear to go back to ‘Celtic’ times, before a knight/dragon mythology was superimposed in the medieval era, followed by the early-modern fanciful gloss of political allegory in the form of the ballad as first published in 1685. Furthermore, none of this had anything at all to do with the Wortley lords.
That the Wortley theory turns out to be false is hardly surprising given the reliance entirely on the conjecture of just one person who was himself commenting centuries after the events supposedly the ballad’s basis: Godfrey Bosville (1717-1784, of Thorpe, near Malton; descendent of the Bosville gentry of Gunthwaite Hall within Penistone parish). Ever since his speculations in the mid-18th century, they have been taken as definitive, despite Bosville having obvious usual motives to aggrandise his own ancestor (Francis Bosville) and in-law (Lionel Rollestone), in their being at the forefront of a battle by Penistone tithe-payers against the Wortley lord of their time. Also, Bosville had a motive in doing-down the opponent of his progenitor. Decades after the tithe dispute, but still a century before Bosville’s conjectures, in the English Civil War a later Wortley lord, Sir Francis Wortley, had garrisoned Penistone Church with his Royalist troops, so as to harass and tax the local wholly Parliamentarian gentry; which included Bosville’s ancestor, who was a member of the Long Parliament and a colonel in the Parliamentary army. Whereas the Wortleys were Catholics, the Bosvilles were Puritans, and were responsible for appointing the Penistone vicars. Sir Francis Wortley was the earliest and most zealous Cavalier in the wider area, and dragoons under his command won a battle at Tankersley Moor in which many of the estimated 2,000 local Parliamentarians taking part were either killed or captured. These Civil War exploits must have so poisoned opinion against the Wortleys that dealings of previous Wortley lords down through history were then open to reinterpretation, distortion and misrepresentation, for historians subsequently to take mistakenly as windows on the history of which they relate rather than as reflections of the context of a later enmity towards the Wortleys. Writing well over 200 years ago, and therefore closer in time to any relevant events (even if still a long time afterwards), Bosville’s conclusion was and still is treated with a reverence as if it were itself history; when this is a lazy acceptance of a biased speculation as the only evidence, instead of a proper examination and a wider look at the historical context for rival explanations, to then decide on the one most plausible.
Not much blame in this respect can be attached to Thomas (Bishop) Percy, whose Reliques of Ancient English Poetry famously included The Dragon of Wantley, and in its fourth (1794) edition provided the extensive background information that from then right up until today has been the principle source of it. Being non-local, Percy relied on correspondence from Bosville, which he was in no position to check, for the long notes on a re-evaluation of the ballad’s provenance. The problem has been the subsequent unquestioning adherence to these notes by South Yorkshire local historians – most recently the late David Hey (Historic Hallamshire, 2002), and Joseph Hunter nearly two centuries ago (South Yorkshire II, 1831). [Hunter’s myopic focus on a Wortley theory likely was primed by deference to still higher ranked gentry – as shown by his book dedication to the incumbent Duke, as the chief subscriber to publication; not to mention a cringe-worthy devotion of many pages in his earlier book, Hallamshire (1819) to endless banal minutiae re the funeral of an Earl of Shrewsbury. The Bosville family was local high gentry right up to and including Hunter’s time, and therefore to go against previous Bosvilles as well as the still more prominent former Lords of the Manor of Sheffield would have been bold indeed for a local historian of two hundred years ago, depending as he would have been on the patronage of the gentry as subscribers in order to publish — in particular by the higher gentry so that the lower would follow suit.]
Hey defered to Hunter, who had modified Bosville’s claims only regarding the specific identity of the person taking the lead in the law suit by tithe-payers: Hunter plumps for a George Blount, on the grounds that the More family would no longer have been resident at More Hall by the time of the supposed relevant events; Blount being the individual who bought the hall from the Mores, and as a resident took part in not just the Penistone but also the Bradfield tithe dispute. The problem for the theory is that Blount was the leader of neither: not even the one in his own parish (Bradfield). According to the Stocksbridge local historian Joseph Kenworthy, it was Christopher Wilson snr (of Broomhead Hall, Ewden) who “led the opposition which the freeholders of Bradfield made to Gilbert, Earl of Shrewsbury, in the Great Tithe Cause …” [The Early History of Stocksbridge, handbook number 15 (1915) p77] Kenworthy goes on: “… the memory of which, with other like attempts at extortion, inspired the ballad ..”. So was it a multiplicity of disputes that the ballad referred to, or is this a confusion within ‘folk memory’ that Kenworthy is recording? Note that anyway the villein of the peace here is not the Wortley lord but the Earl of Shrewsbury.
If the Wantley tale was known (ahead of its first known publication in 1685), then locals easily would see how it could be co-opted as a pointed allegory to their tithe dispute(s), given the local siting and proximity of More Hall to the Wortleys’ Lodge on Wharncliffe. This usurping of interpretation then would be misunderstood by historians to be the origin.
It’s instructive that prior to the Wortley/Blount theory there was another, even flimsier, which also concerned a law suit, but with no evidence at all in support (merely that the three children mentioned in the ballad somehow might be taken to refer to the plight of three Wortley family daughters). In A Collection of Old Ballads Corrected From the Best and Most Ancient Copies Extant (editor not known, 1723) an explanation is offered, non-committally, beginning: “a member of the law, and here represented by the dragon …”. So in this interpretation, the knight/dragon identification is inverted! Here, the ‘member of the law’ is not the knight but the dragon. Yet no-one has commented on this strange flip that occurred between the two theories. The account continues: “… being left guardian to three orphans, and finding some little flaw in their titles, put in his claim, deprived them of their estate, took possession of it himself, and turned them over to the parish; upon which, another (here called Moore of Moore-Hall) took up their cause, sued the unjust guardian, cast him, and recovered the estate for the children.” [The mis-spelling of More was common: the surname is occasionally inaccurately rendered Moore in the Sheffield Burgery records (see below); but that the accurate, original spelling indeed is More is shown by the earliest broadside of the ballad being titled A True Relation of the Dreadful Combat between More of More-Hall, and the Dragon of Wantley.]
The competing accounts all involving a law suit and the Wortleys suggests a partial rather than a total memory failure. That it can’t be decided between the theories as to which is the accurate one indicates either the law suit or the involement of the Wortleys is a red herring. The multiple theories stem from assuming the Wortleys are central and then trying to find a law suit roughly of the times that might seem to fit the bill. Yet it is the law suit which is central: the one part of Bosville’s correspondence to Bishop Percy that seems to ring true is where he is openly uncertain — in his mention of an indistinct memory of the personage represented by the dragon being either the attorney or counsel behind the law suit. Just as should be asked of the editor of the 1723 ‘Old Ballads’ collection: does Bosville here really mean the dragon? Surely he means the knight. That the memory is but a dim one is here made plain. Bosville fails to check himself that this glaring anomally might show that he’s on the wrong lines. Instead, he’s presumptively certain about the Wortleys without any attempt at justification. It’s this focus on the Wortleys which is responsible for the narrow proliferation of rival theories. If this very focus is the likely main obstacle to an understanding, then pulling out the lens to look less myopically may be what is required. And it turns out that indeed this is just what is required. Pulling out the lens comes up trumps.
The key pertinent fact has been entirely overlooked. I found it accidentally when researching an interesting development in working on the etymological investigation of Robin Hood mythology (see the section on this same website). Previously, I had come across a mention by Hunter (Hallamshire) of considerable alarm in Sheffield in the late 17th century at the prospect of newly coming under the auspices of the Court of the Honour of Peveril. From other sources it was easy to piece together that this referred to the administration of the ancient Forest of the Peak by a form of the manorial court type known as court leet, set up by William Peveril (the Conqueror’s son), which had become obsolete as a vestige of feudalism yet was later revived in Derbyshire. Two stewards of this resurrected court, Sir Simon Degge and Thomas Eyre, attempted in 1682 to extend its jurisdiction to encompass Sheffield (and Rotherham). They had successfully petitioned Charles II, who had granted a charter to this effect; but it was rescinded after fierce resistance by the Sheffield Corporation and Sheffielders through lobbying their lord of the manor, the Duke of Norfolk (Thomas Howard, the Earl of Arundel).
With the dragon of Wantley ballad in the back of my mind, the 1682 date had struck me: these events were just three years before the first date of publication of the Wantley ballad in 1685. And 1685 was the year that Charles II died. It set me thinking that this might just be the (notion of a) contested law suit about which the allegorisation in terms of a knight versus a dragon arose. However, there was no connection with either More Hall or anyone with the More surname; nor to the neighbourhood of Wharncliffe. Neither was there any individual champion — merely a conduit of resistance in the manorial lord — nor an obvious target to personify as a dragon. It may well be that this episode, culminating in Charles II’s death, prompted the first publication of the ballad; but not because it is the origin of the ballad: instead through it evoking some previous historical event which was the origin. Delving into the history of the Sheffield Corporation, formerly the Sheffield Burgery, I then came across something much more interesting: a fact that self-evidently was key to the Ballad of the Dragon of Wantley.
In 1573, one George More, who was prominent in the Sheffield Burgery (the council of ‘free men’, the forerunner of the municipal council), single-handedly took out a law suit representing the Burgery (and Sheffielders all) against George Talbot, lord of the manor of Sheffield, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. The suit was to re-secure the proceeds of Sheffield ‘waste’ land, that ever since the Free Tenants Charter to the Town of Sheffield granted in 1297 by a predecessor of Talbot, the third Thomas Furnival, had funded support of the Sheffield poor, civic works and the parish church. [Re the 1297 Charter, see pp 54 & 43, Sheffield (History and Guide) by David Fine, 1991: extracts are below in the appendix, where also is a full translation of the Charter, from the Latin.]
The details were all laid out in historical documents and in contemporary published summary of them. How come, then, nobody had spotted the obvious connection with the Dragon of Wantley?
As to why George Talbot would wish to renege on a time-honoured agreement and to risk local opprobrium in doing so, nobody has proferred an answer. Reputedly the richest landowner in all England, he would appear hardly to need to squeeze more income out of Sheffield by some underhand means. Though humourless and fretful, with ‘short man’ syndrome exacerbated by his longstanding very bad case of gout and other illness, the Earl was a shrewd rather than a mean businessman; unlike his wife, Bess, who was ruthlessly so, and a severe burden on the Earl in being famously high-living in every sense (extremely ‘high-maintenance’, especially regarding her mania for building a succession of palatial residences). Her character is summed up damningly by the Sheffield historian Joseph Hunter (Hallamshire), as: “withal overbearing, selfish, proud, treacherous and unfeeling. One object she pursued through a long life (was) to amass wealth and to aggrandize her family. To this she seems to have sacrificed every principle of honour or affection, and to have completely succeeded”. According to another chronicler (Edmund Lodge, in Illustrations of British History, 1791), she died as she had lived, without a single friend. As a non-native of Sheffield she felt responsibility only to her geographically distant offspring through her previous husbands. She had no sense of responsibility towards the inhabitants of Sheffield manor; and more than just offloading this fully on to George, she could spur and goad him to see his station as not in major part the beneficent servant towards those beneath him (as men in such position usually regard the obligations of their role), but as their entitled exploitative overlord. Being anyway, it is attested, considerably brighter than her husband, Bess surely was a puppet-master here.
A major consideration is that the Earl was severely burdened from 1569 onwards with the huge costs of keeping Mary Queen of Scots under house arrest sufficiently securely to prevent any repeat of attempts to free her. His letters reveal continuous unrequited requests to Queen Elizabeth’s staff for additional funding, given that the weekly sum he received (which anyway was intermittent) did not cover the cost even of food for Mary and her enormous entourage numbering eighty, plus the dozens of guards and other staff required; let alone preparing and maintaining apartments fit for monarchy, and hosting recreational expeditions to keep Mary from feeling too much a prisoner. Elizabeth I later well illustrated her impecunious or miserly attitude in refusing urgent entreaties from her navy for gunpowder and food in the middle of the battle with the Spanish Armada (the Crown was always strapped for cash yet the Queen was afraid to ask parliament for more). Bess resented the imposition of what she regarded as a love rival placed in her own house, albeit that it was an honour that Queen Elizabeth placed such trust in the Talbots. Elizabeth R saw the Talbot line as staunchly loyal after George’s father’s key role in suppressing the counter-Reformational Northern revolt of ‘the Pilgrimage of Grace’. It may be George’s acceptance of such a lapdog role, putting the Talbots severely out of pocket, that irked Bess to the point of prompting her to drive her husband to ape her own ruthlessness in business.
Perhaps most significantly, George invested heavily in local industry – notably mining iron ore to smelt in the blast furnaces he built (at Wadsley, Attercliffe and Kimberworth); the resulting iron being fashioned into various goods in the water-powered forges and grinding wheels he also constructed. Talbot may well have considered, in the light of his injection of money and effort to bring about local prosperity, that now ancient charters giving concessions to locals generally in respect of waste land had become a hindrance to this industrial development; and that, therefore, actually he was acting in the general interest to modernise arrangements. Crucially, the wood from coppicing obtainable from Sheffield waste land was needed in huge quantity by George’s furnaces (the old bloomeries as well as the new blast furnaces) as fuel — before the successful use of coal to substitute for charcoal, the demands of expanding iron smelting threatened to denude the whole of the local area of its forestry. The alternative of shipping in all of such a volume of fuel from outside the local area would have been so prohibitively expensive as to render the whole enterprise uncompetitive, and, therefore, doomed. Contemporary surveys for the Earl highlight coppiced (‘spring’) woods for just this purpose, and there are extant letters between Talbot and the High Sheriff of Yorkshire, Sir Thomas Gargrave, discussing local Sheffield customs regarding woodland and their possible enclosure. Formerly, under the Free Tenants Charter, these lands had been available to anyone to graze their animals, but this had been terminated because the forced new shoots through coppicing, being right at ground level, are easy for cattle and sheep to reach. That this and other moves likely were driven by Bess is supported by the fact of one of Bess’ businesses being timber merchandising, and revealed by her behaviour when married to William Cavendish, from whom she learnt estate management. Bess herself closed off common land to her tenants, provoking them on many an occasion to riot. Apparently, for the rest of her life she continued at her own behest to do this, and to depopulate villages. It must strongly be suspected, then, that rather than through any sense of over-entitlement, greed or elite malevolence on his own part, it was business sense, financial straits and, most of all, the conceits of Bess that were behind George Talbot’s reneging on the Free Tenants Charter even in the face of legal challenge.
The Earl had form in annoying the locals. He had caused uproar amongst Hallamshire freeholders by reviving the long dead practice of requiring ‘aid’ or ‘benevolence’ on an occasion of a major event in the lord’s life, such as the knighting of the heir apparent. For Talbot’s eldest daughter’s marriage, local manors paid what for the time were hefty sums — such as well over £25 from the inhabitants of Bolsterstone alone. The threat of such impositions hung over Sheffield and the surrounding area until repealed in 1660. Bess presumably was the instigator of this plunder, which must have put Sheffielders on their guard against further forms of extortion from their lord. In being not so dissimilar forms of taxation, the obligations placed on freeholders by Talbot re his daughter’s wedding vis-a-vis local tithe disputes is likely a particular basis of the mis-remembering of the genesis of the Wantley ballad.
George More had sought legal advice that the Free Tenants Charter legally could not be circumvented, and announced in the parish church (where, at the time, the Burgery met, before the first town hall had been built) that this indeed was the case. Some details of his action are in Church and Manor: A Study in English Economic History, by Sidney Oldall Addy (1913) (p263), and in the records of the Burgery of Sheffield, which reveal payments to George More for his repeated attendance of the court at York in order to press the suit. These records were published in 1897 as a book of that title by Sheffield local historian John Daniel Leader, with added footnoted quotes from a notebook of George Talbot’s right-hand man, his bailiff, William Dickinson, who relates that he was himself witness to George More’s announcement in the parish church. [See the full extracts from both Addy and Leader below in the appendix.] Yet even Leader himself didn’t spot the significance of George More’s suit to the Dragon of Wantley tale: he speculated elsewhere that the dragon, with his ‘forty-four teeth of iron’ represented iron forging (Wortley Forge).
That George Talbot had managed (or threatened) to circumvent the ancient Free Tenants Charter for his own ends was somewhat ironic given that his father, Francis Talbot, the fifth Earl, had actively supported the interests of Sheffield citizens over a plundering of Sheffield land and bequests through Edward VI’s Suppression of Chantries Act – one of the Reformation measures. This support was through Robert Swyft, ”an old servant of the Shrewsbury family” [Hallamshire p71], (presumably William Dickinson’s predecessor as bailiff) who, in 1554, with William Taylor successfully petitioned the newly enthroned Queen Mary to reverse the impact of the Act in respect of Sheffield. [See Hallamshire pp55 & 56, and the ‘history’ section of the website of the Sheffield Church Burgesses Trust http://www.sheffieldchurchburgesses.org.uk/history-of-sheffield-church-burgesses-trust.htm. Both are reproduced below in the appendix.]
From close examination of the Sheffield 1297-1554 Catalogue, this earlier dispute concerned chantries — payments often made in a will to clergy to pray for the soul of the departed, which specifically were outlawed in a Reformation Act (the Statute of Chantries). An individual (a Henry Bayley) acted the part of informant in claiming that a chantry was still being paid for in Sheffield. The matter began in 1501 when Felice Hyne, the heir of John Whitebred formerly of London but latterly of Sheffield, bequeathed to Sheffield a substantial property with gardens known (in subsequent documents) as the George, in Old Change, London; so that it could be sold to pay for a silver and gold cross with the image of ‘Our Lady and Saint John’ to be placed permanently in Sheffield’s parish church (now the cathedral) in memory of John Whitebred. [The Old Change is a street now part of the large precinct of St Paul’s Cathedral, on which formerly stood the Old Exchange: the building where gold bullion was made into coinage. The George had been the property of Sir William Littlesbury, a lord mayor of London in 1487, who bequeathed it entirely for charitable purposes.] The sale never took place, and the property was still in the hands of the Sheffield Burgesses when T(homas) Walter Hall compiled the Sheffield Catalogue in the early 20th century. There is no mention of prayers being said for Whitebred, so it would appear that Henry Bayley was mischievous in inappropriately expanding the meaning of ‘chantry’ when in 1551 he reported to the Court of Augmentation that the Church Wardens of Sheffield had omitted to reveal to the King’s Commissioners the continuance of chantries. Nevertheless, Bayley seems to have managed not only to persuade the court on this, but also to bring into consideration The George together with the proceeds of all the Sheffield waste lands that since the Charter granted by Furnival were for public works, support of the poor, and the upkeep of the church and maintenance of its clergy. Bayley’s charge was answered the following year on behalf of Sheffielders by Robert Swyft and William Tailour, who contested that it was untrue, not a proper use of the law, and, moreover, motivated by Bayley’s desire to acquire for himself The George. [Presumably, Bayley was a Londoner and not a sheffielder, but there is no record of where he resided.] Despite further presentations by not only Robert Swyft but the Earl of Shrewsbury in person, Bayley got what he wanted; but then in 1554, with the assent of Queen Mary, Swyft & Shrewsbury’s efforts paid off in not achieving the status quo ante but, still better, in an award of a Royal Letters Patent making Sheffield a Corporation and restoring the lands taken from it. Apparently, through the Queen’s anxiousness to please Catholics, Sheffield received further lands. In a spirit of compromise, in place of a 21-year lease on all the properties Bayley was seeking, though Mary gave him only The George, it was on a lease twice as long.
Swyft was no longer alive in 1573 to recommence fighting on behalf of Sheffielders by initiating a legal action, and in any case it’s hardly likely that he would have taken out a suit against his employer — his new employer, as George Talbot would have been following the death of Francis. The same goes for Swyft’s successor, William Dickinson. It would seem that George More was a brave, lonely figure to take on Sheffield’s lord; who was either highly principled and/or considered he had little to lose or forgo despite his opponent’s pervasive local power — as must have been the case for him to have been so celebrated for his actions.
Self-evidently this is the lawsuit and the individual taking it out (‘either the attorney or the counsel’) indistinctly recalled by Bosville. George More was his own attorney and counsel both (albeit he did seek some legal advice); whereas the George Blount whom Bosville proposes as the ‘knight’ was neither. George More surely was the “More of More Hall” who “with nothing at all, slew the Dragon of Wantley”. Merely the name George might suggest a ‘George and the dragon’ allegory for the dispute, but, as I’ll outline below, there are strong reasons in the locale why this would indeed be seen as apposite. The great significance to the history of Sheffield municipal affairs of the battle between the Sheffield Burgery and the lord of the manor would explain the presence and prominence of a stone relief of More and the dragon in the main entrance of Sheffield Town Hall. It is part of the stone carving commissioned for the structure and not relocated from the Old Town Hall that the building replaced. I can find no records of the contents of that or of the very first town hall built in 1637, so whether or not a depiction of the battle was a feature in previous town halls is unknown. Of course, in earlier times, with nobility then still retaining considerable power and influence, it may have been considered too disrespectful to so concretely champion the contesting of the incumbent Earl of Shrewsbury’s forbears. The concrete presence in the current building hardly can be symbolism of workers versus bosses in the common but mistaken understanding of the legend as concerning tithe disputes, because the building’s construction long pre-dates the translation of working-class agitation into municipal representation and the birth of the Labour Party. It may be that the simple historical fame of the Wantley legend is all there is behind the depiction, yet Wharncliffe was well outside the Sheffield municipal boundaries at the time when the new Town Hall was constructed, and, therefore, without the knowledge that the protagonists were Sheffielders it would be odd to have made this knight/dragon tale such a central feature.
Everyone missed the major clue in the ballad text that a personification of Wortley is on the wrong lines. Wharncliffe Lodge (the Wortley’s hunting lodge or summer residence) is referred to as “Matthew’s House”, which Bosville claimed was a reference to one of supposedly several generations of Matthew Northalls who resided at the Lodge as the gamekeeper of Wharncliffe deer park; but the late David Hey looked into this and found no record of any such person [Historic Hallamshire p144]. It seems to be a confusion with a 17th century succession of Northalls (Humphreys, not Matthews) who kept the nearby deer park at Thorpe Hesley, living at Hesley Hall. The attempt at such literal interpretation of what anyway always should have been suspected to be allegory is rather foolish. The assumption that the ‘monster’ was a Wortley lord and the whole tale a skit, has long distracted everyone to read into the ballad that (just as) anything within it that is generic somehow can’t have a local reference, that also anything within it that is seemingly concrete must be a local reference. Matthew’s house, as ought to be apparent even today in our non-Bible-reading world — but, more to the point, would scream at any reader in centuries past — is a crystal-clear reference to the house of Jesus’ first disciple. It’s a house where could be found ordinary sinners, who are deemed in the Bible, for whatever sins they may have committed, nonetheless worthy of breaking bread with Jesus and being ‘saved’ (even to become Jesus’ disciple and an apostle). The Wortley lord hardly can have been considered in the ballad both as ‘Matthew’ and the ‘monster’. In the Bible, those with whom Jesus eats at Matthew’s House are tax collectors; and sure enough, this was one of the roles of the Wortleys. However, the identification in the ballad instead is with the real big cheese of tax collectors in the district, the Earl of Shrewsbury, to whom the Wortley squire was a subordinate proxy.
The ‘monster’ would seem not to be an individual person ‘monsterised’, as it were, but a political movement. Immediately behind the circumstances of George More’s suit is the Reformation – the dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of their assets by the King and in turn the most powerful local overlords (which in the case of South Yorkshire meant the Talbots, Earls of Shrewsbury). The woodcut used to illustrate all of the earliest published versions of the Wantley ballad (the first four in the Bodleian collections) depicts the devouring of robed individuals — clearly monks — with a distant figure looking on in the background which on close inspection evidently is a king. Here is being illustrated, in a direct way, the dissolution of the monasteries. The king, though the instigator, is not the agent; this is instead the ‘monster’ representing the idea of the Reformation that the king had set in motion. The ‘monster’ takes the form of a ‘chimera’: a fire-breathing part-serpent, part-lion, part-goat female creature of Greek myth; that as a ‘hopeless monster’ of outlandish composition was sometimes used as a symbol in early-modern times of an outlandish and doomed political idea. The Dragon of Wantley ballad seems, therefore, to be an attack on the Reformation; that is, it is of the counter-Reformation. The Reformation is here portrayed literally as devilishly anti-Christian with the cloven-hooved aspect of the chimera. [Note that any suspicion that this specific woodcut was, like many woodcuts, recycled and of relatively incidental applicability to the particular broadside it was used to illustrate, is belied by the absence of any evidence of its use elsewhere. It does not feature in any of the broadside ballads in the University of Oxford’s on-line photo-facsimile archive. It would appear, then, either to have been commissioned specifically for the Wantley ballad or appropriated from use with a counter-Reformation pamphlet.]
It now starts to make sense how the basis of the Wantley ballad became so obscure when you consider that the Sheffield Burgery was, according to the late David Hey, in his book, A History of Sheffield (2010), almost wholly non-conformist. The complaint from this quarter was that the Reformation did not go far enough. And then there were the major anti-Catholic sentiments later produced by the Civil War. Yet Yorkshire had been the centre of the counter-Reformation with the military revolt in 1536 known as ‘the Pilgrimage of Grace’ against the assertion by King Henry VIII to be the head of all religion in the break with the Catholic church and the dissolution of the monasteries, exacerbated by the behaviour of Thomas Cromwell. Francis Talbot, the fifth Earl (George Talbot’s father), had been obliged by the King to aid his father, the fourth Earl, to suppress the revolt, but did so with no enthusiasm, because he was inclined towards ‘the old religion’. The sea-change in attitude must have played a part in the burial of the Wantley ballad’s meaning.
The More Hall in the ballad still exists, albeit mostly remodelled in Georgian times and before, with hidden but clear remains of ancient structure (Hunter, Hallamshire). It’s well to the north of Sheffield but within Hallamshire; and was the seat from early medieval times of the More family. The Mores ceased to be resident at More Hall from 1547, though the family retained ownership until a daughter of Thomas More (the son of the last More inhabitant) sold it to George Blount in 1597. George More of Sheffield presumably would have been of the same family, but whether or not this was the case would have been readily associated in people’s minds with the hall. It’s not merely that it was still in the possession of the More family in 1573 (the year the suit was begun) and for a good many years afterwards, but the last of the Mores resident there was himself named George More.
There is good evidence that the More family of More Hall were related to those of Sheffield. In the will of a George More of Sheffield dated 1535, part of the estate is given as ‘Brokholhirste’, which is the ancient name (more modernly spelt on maps as ‘Brockholehurst’) of the place where clergy resided before the vicarage was built at Bolsterstone (hence Brockholehurst having long been re-named Parsonage Farm). It is known that the Mores of More Hall had land at Townend (see below). The will also shows that the Sheffield Mores were prominent and civic minded – with money given to the vicar and for local bridge rebuilding — and that they had good relations with the Talbots: this George More bequeathed his cross-bow to the lord.
It’s surely the case that for generations offshoots of the Mores of More Hall turned up in Sheffield and there established themselves; and that the name George was a favourite within the pedigree. The deaths of two George Mores are recorded, one in 1560, the other in 1622; both of Greenhill, Sheffield. It’s not inconceivable that the one who died in 1622 was our Sheffield George More, though at almost 50 years after the 1573 suit, this is highly unlikely, given that a town burger would tend to be older rather than younger. If he was young at the time of the suit, then this would be consistent with the appearance in the Sheffield Parish Registers of a George More (‘Georgii More’) as the father of children baptised in 1588 and 1591.
Now, More Hall was the principal and most ancient residence of the ridge (a promontory) of Waldershelf, other than the Bolsterstone manor house. Bolsterstone was a manor, but there is no record of More Hall being within this (see Brenda Duffield: The History of Morehall www.stocksbridgehs.co.uk/download_pdf.php?id=2478). Instead, it must be in the adjacent manor of Waldershelf, which had been held by the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem since it was given to them in the eleventh century [See Waldershelf Manor and the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem in the Chapelry of Bradfield Near Sheffield by T(homas) Walter Hall, 1930]. Interestingly, this is an order of ‘black’ monks, just as is depicted in the woodcut featured in the printed editions of the ballad — the robed individuals are in not the usual white (or grey) monk appareil, but black. Across the wider area of Bradfield parish is property formerly belonging to the Knights Hospitallers, some of which is still today marked with a cross to denote this — distinguishing such property as not being subject to the tithes of the church of the local parish. And note that the topic of tithes surfaces here, which may have fed the false interpretation of the ballad in terms of tithe disputes. There is no extant cross on the facade of More Hall, but it would have been lost in the extensive Georgian and earlier remodelling. Bosville asserted that the Hall was within his ancestor’s manor of Oxpring, but no geographical or political sense can be made of this assertion: More Hall is far away from Oxspring on the far side of Waldershelf, which is within not only a different parish but a different lordship to Oxspring, and over the Hallamshire border. It is hardly likely, therefore, that More Hall would be within Oxspring manor as a detached portion of it (as sometimes occurs with manorial holdings). The rather outlandish claim of Bosville’s looks very much to be a desperate addition to try to give his theory about the Wantley ballad the appearance of holding water when he well knew it did not. In his communication of this to Bishop Percy, Bosville elaborates that he still receives a rose annually from the More Hall incumbent as symbolic payment to him as lord of the manor in continuation of custom — though if true this could be for a variety of reasons, customary but not concerning manorial rights — and tellingly he uses the third person when referring to himself (just as Arthur Scargill usually did), which is a giveaway for insincerity as much as it is self-aggrandising. [Note that Waldershelf actually was restored to the Knights of St John after the dissolution of the monasteries, by Queen Mary (as with all Hospitallers possessions), and that this reversal of the Reformation — a counter-Reformation victory — may well have a bearing on the genesis of the Wantley ballad.]
At the time of the confiscation of this monastic property (1540), the chief tenant was the above-mentioned George More (presumably an ancestor or relative of our George More). Rental records reveal that this included property at a place between Bolsterstone and Deepcar named Townend (which is not an ‘end’ of a town but a rationalisation of the Gaelic torán, pronounced ‘tohr-AEn’, meaning ‘from / under the craggy hills’ and/or a reference to ‘chief, lord, champion, sovereign’), where the Knights held their court. Given that the Order had farmed out even the parent Newland preceptory to local gentry, then the Knights themselves, even of the lowest rank of the ‘military friars’, the Serving Brothers, were unlikely to be in evidence — save presumably for a ‘Free Serving Brother’ (an administrative official of the Knights) to visit Townend to oversee court proceedings. So, with only the ‘fraternity’ or ‘fray’ present in Waldershelf, then (the presumed ancestral relative) George More in effect was the local personification of the Knights in Waldershelf at the end of their long period of its possession; his ancestors likewise, earlier in this period.
The significance of the Knights Hospitallers to the Dragon of Wantley tale is that they supply to the locale not only the notion of a knight but also of a dragon. In the Bible, as everyone in centuries past would have been well aware, St John has a ‘revelation’ of a battle with a dragon/serpent. [In the King James Bible: Revelations 12.3-12.17] Famously attached to the Knights of St John was a legend dating from medieval times of one of their knights being ‘the dragon slayer’ of a supposedly real dragon on the island of Rhodes. The tale has it that the knight succeeded through guile and (as in the Wantley ballad) by attacking the vulnerable underbelly. The very emblem of the Knights of St John is a serpent coiled round a cross (or staff) – a winged serpent being the original notion of a dragon. [Historians have investigated but are inconclusive as to whether it may or may not be coincidental that the More family has a dragon as the main feature of their heraldic crest (and whether or not this dates to before the ballad or the events the ballad allegorises, is unknown).]
The serpent/dragon notion firmly links with Wharncliffe Crags. It is not merely that the crags, immediately towering as they do over More Hall, just across the river Don in another lordship, present a wild, remote, supremely lofty place that at once suggests itself in imagination as the lair of a dragon and where the battle with a knight might be imagined to take place; but place-name evidence reveals that a serpent is how the long snaking line of Wharncliffe Crags anciently was conceptualised. At the very (south) end – the serpent’s head, as it were – of the Crags, just a stone’s throw beyond Wharncliffe Lodge, are the Hobb Stones: from hob(b), diminutive or robin, from Gaelic rìbhinn, meaning ‘serpent’, and considered as the ‘maiden queen’ Bríd(h)e/ Brigit/ Brigantia, which in ‘hag’ form is supposedly turned to stone. [This etymology – and the ubiquity of (Scottish) Gaelic as well as Welsh Pennine South Yorkshire or Dark Peak place-name roots — is explained in Robin Unhooded, an etymological investigation revealing the ancient origin of Robin Hood mythology, which is available in full, open-access, also at stevemoxon.co.uk.] It appears that the Crags were envisaged as a petrified dragon. The mythology of a ‘hag’ cum serpent figure occurs on the Crags also in the ‘old wife’ appellation in Old Wife’s Cellar, which is the original name of Dragon’s Den (the two place-names are immediately adjacent on some OS map editions, but in fact they’re one and the same feature; as indicated by the confusion of earlier commentators in citing Dragon’s Cellar). Additionally, the end of Wharncliffe Crags above Deepcar is shown on the 1843 first edition OS map (the Cassini series) as Holy Birch Edge, where, on the ground still today, is a large boulder with an old inscription, ‘Holly Birch Ride’ (‘holly’ here being a variant spelling of ‘holy’): these are either further references to Bríd(h)e/ Brigit/ Brigantia — the birch tree was considered sacred to her — and/or an Anglicisation of Gaelic brychan, meaning ‘holy’ / ‘high’ in reference to the said deity. [Note that this links straight back to Waldershelf and the Knights Hospitallers in that the above-mentioned Brockholehirst — the property at Townend owned by the Hospitallers — in common with other instances of the brockhole construction as a placename, has the same co-derivation, with broacean / brochel, ‘of the Brigantes / Brig(h)id’. The suffix is likely not the standard OE word meaning ‘wood’ but, as with instances of hobhirst, from OE thyrs, ‘demon’ or ‘giant’.] On the same map, the resumption of the gritstone edge from above Deepcar to Finkle Street near Wortley is named Softley Crags, from Gaelic saobhaidh, pronounced sue-vee, which has been rationalised by English speakers to have the standard –leah suffix, and this in turn suggested a stem of ‘soft’ to make an intelligible word. It means ‘lair’ of a creature, usually specifically denoting that of a ‘monster’. The naming also applied to the north-western end of Wharncliffe Chase to where at one time deer were restricted: Softley Park. The name is duplicated on the Don valley floor in Soughley / Soffley Lane and Bridge, and across the Don the monster in question is recorded on an 1801 local bespoke map in field names right by the edge of the river: Hob Hole and Nippy Knacker. [The map is the Plan of the Wortley Estate in the Township of Hunshelf; the Tin Mill area portion of which is included in the very recent archaeological survey of Wortley Tin Mill, available on-line. The field name Hob Hole also occurs in a 1737 valuation of Hunshelf.] Here we have an exact correspondence with Hobb Stones on Wharncliffe, plus a name derived either from OE nicor, ‘water monster’ and/or Gaelic nathair, ‘serpent’. This clearly establishes a mythology in a locale extremely close to Deepcar / Wharncliffe / Waldershelf of a ‘flying monster’ ranging between crags on high and the river below; which dramatically increases the likelihood of being able to establish similar at Deepcar / Wharncliffe/ Waldershelf, in that all that is needed is to evidence a parallel rather than something unique — or, at least, something a long way from other generic instances.
The actual dragon namings on Wharncliffe by contrast are recent — post-dating the publication of the ballad as the late David Hey (on this point accurately) claimed — and fanciful appropriations of features inadequate for their labelling. The Wharncliffe instance of Dragon’s Well is not a well but a puny spring at some distance from the ‘Den’, which itself is nothing more than a small cleft in the crags with a little overhang in no way befitting the label ‘cave’. The mistake Hey made was to conclude from this that there were no antecedents in the locale of any mythological roots, but he was in error here even regarding the Den, in that, as I explained above, in its former name of Old Wife’s Cellar embodies the notion of a serpent. It is no matter that the rock cleft and overhang no more befit the description ‘cellar’ than ‘den’. The fact is that anciently it was appropriated in local mythological imagination re a serpent creature, which to all intents and purposes is one and the same as the dragon figure of early-modern conceptualisation. It is most likely, furthermore, that even specifically ‘dragon’ localised mythology was antecedent to the ballad given the presence of the Knights of St John; albeit not recognised in (official) place-naming. A prior local notion of a knight with the name of More battling a dragon is a possibility of which Hey was aware (and he stated he conceded), in his noting of a report that a painting of More slaying the dragon was hanging in Wortley Hall in the early 18th century, not long after the ballad’s first publication.
With the Lodge built between the Hobb Stones and the Old Wife’s Cellar, it would have been natural for the Wortley lords later falsely to be identified with the dragon. The Wortley family were recorded long ago to have been nonplussed by this. Not only did they not see any connection at all to themselves of the published ballad — if they did, then hardly would they have had on display the above-mentioned painting — but they were aware of a local legend to be not regarding a dragon but some other form of “monster”, which had devoured countless people, and was a “formidable drinker”, yet notwithstanding such capacity had been “drunk to death” by an opponent, not a knight but “the chieftain of the opposite moors”. [See Sir Walter Scott’s mention of this, in 1803, in a letter of his to George Ellis; as being then the current understanding by the Wortley family, with whom Scott was very well acquainted, having visited them at Wharncliffe.] This is a strikingly odd description which, in not in any way keying into classical or any other well-known mythology, obviously is no concoction: it looks like a genuine ‘folk-memory’ of something far more ancient than a knight/dragon romance, and it echoes folklore still extant in the 1960s in Deepcar school playgrounds of two giants warring across the valley from opposite hillsides. The Wortleys were alluding to some form of ‘water monster’, with the chieftain, as with the notion of a giant, evidently a confusion introduced through Allman Well being close by Walder’s Low: the megalith-topped ancient burial mound atop the Waldershelf ridge. The presumed chieftain or king buried here understandably has been taken to be the knight in the dragon/knight contest, and a giant in local folklore — as likely actually recorded (see above) in the OE thyrs suffix of Brockholehirst.
To get a handle on what underlies these vague ‘folk-memories’ requires comprehensive local place-name etymology. The obvious starting point is the Dragon’s Well – that is, the actual well of that name on Waldershelf and not the parallel later naming of a small spring on Wharncliffe Crags. Contrary to some reports, the well is still to be found, complete with an old inscription in stone, close to the golf course tee named after it. Alternatively and originally named Allman Well, this is associated with helliwell – ‘holy well’ – namings: rising up the hill towards the well is Helliwell Lane, named after the inhabitants of the farm at the foot of this lane and others close by who shared that surname, which in turn apparently arose from the well. Allman Well is on Townend Common immediately above the Knights of St John’s administrative centre at Townend, and was its water supply. The derivation could not be clearer: Welsh allman, ellmyn, meaning ‘one of another place’. The naming must be at least one thousand two or three hundred years ago — dating back at the latest to when English supplanted ‘Celtic’ languages, which was quite late in Pennine South Yorkshire — and more likely several thousand years old. It would appear to be a reference to ‘the otherworld’ or ‘underworld’ of ‘Celtic’ imagination. Bodies of water were regarded as portals between this and another world, and a ‘monster’ of the water was often envisaged as emanating from and guarding it. [That a Welsh derivation is the right one is shown by other Welsh namings in the immediate locality. The name of the most longstanding family at Townend, Fynney / Fenney (as in the ‘E. F.’ datestone on an old Townend building), is from Welsh fynnon, ‘well’ or ‘spring’. Recorded in a rental for the Hospitallers, Pynsonyng, as with Pencenig/Pen-y-Cerrig in Wales, is Welsh pen-cynin (/ -cynen) and/or pen-y-cerrig, ‘headland of the (ancient) chief’ and/or ‘headland of the stone’; the two likely to be interchangeable given that the king figure and a stone memorial to him go hand in hand. At this site, it’s an obvious reference to the above-mentioned stone-topped burial mound near to Allman Well on the Waldershelf ridge now known as Walder’s Low — in the local folklore reputed to be the burial place of a chieftain — and extant in the placename of the area below it, Pen Nook (formerly a farm, recently demolished, remembered in several street names of the estate built on its site, and in the pub, orginally named The Pen Nook, now just The Nook). Walder’s Low derives from Welsh wyddfa, ‘burial mound’, rationalised and Anglicised in the wake of the execution of the local lord with national eminence, Waltheof (Waldef, Waldev), which made him a popular saint.
A large body of water — a lake — is known formerly to have existed in the valley floor below Allman Well (at Deepcar), where there is a river confluence of the Don and Little Don; and at the back of this, facing across to Allman Well, on a portion of hillside at the end of the Hunshelf ridge as it curves to face south, is Ellen Cliff. Ellen appears to be the very same name as that attached to wells denoted (St) Ellen or St Helen. Deepcar locals in time of drought used a well above Ellen Cliff as the only alternative to an even higher climb to Allman Well. The name links to Allman Well not least in Ellen being the derivation of the name of the area in upper Deepcar where the Allman Well brook in confluence with Clough Dike ends and opens out the deep Clough ravine: The Lane. [A variant of Gaelic Ellen is Léan, pronounced ‘layn’.] This area encompasses the portion of the south bank of the Clough ravine where the branching stream from Allman Well is temporarily stopped up in troughs: one at Lane Farm at the foot of Helliwell Lane, and the other at the cottages named Lane End. The area is far more than the section of Carr Road passing through it, so the name cannot simply denote a road; not that anyway such a banal non-distinguishing basis of naming would be tenable. Before the quarrying and industry at this place, it would have appeared in the mindset of the long past to be the juncture of a dark, devilish abyss and streams of holy water in a much lighter (sunnier) place. The possibility of a derivation from Ellen / Léan appears confirmed with the overlapping mythological naming of the hill forming the back of this area, Hood Royd — from Welsh hud, originally ‘magic’, ‘fairy’, in the sense of ‘devil’; rationalised to Wood Royd: the original name appears on the 1843 first edition OS map (Cassini series) and the 1855 OS map before being changed on the 1893 edition. This knoll formed as a result of the stream confluence at The Lane is also known (extant in the name of a road on its lower slope) as Frank Hillock (Field), which is a naming otherwise inexplicable other than as an English-speaker’s take on Gaelic ceann na cailleach, ‘hag’s head’. [Right by this, on the valley floor, is Hive Yard, which is an area with no known connection to bee-keeping, and similarly seems to be a rationalisation of a Gaelic naming: inbheraird(an)— pronounced as it would be spelt in English, Inverard — which would be an apposite name for the confluence of the Little Don here with the stream descending on-high from The Lane. Another rationalisation from Gaelic is evident in a row of cottages at Wood Royd: Bacon Row, from Gaelic beacán, ‘small, little one’.]
St Helen/Ellen wells usually were earlier recorded as Elian or Eilian, pronounced ehl-ihn. This is derived from Scottish Gaelic eilidh or ailie, which can be traced back to Indo-European progenitors always meaning ‘light’; that is, ‘of the sun’. More directly it seems to be from Gaelic ellén (cognate with Welsh eilien), ‘monstrous’, that as a noun denoting spirits (sprites) generically is Gaelic aillen, which ‘personified’, as it were, is Aillen, a mythological fire-breathing water-monster; a dragon, or serpent, indeed, with affiliation to water. This sense is also preserved in the naming of the adjacent part of the Hunshelf hillside, White Carr Head — from (given as OE, but is more ancient and in ‘Celtic’ languages) wight, ‘creature’, ‘thing’ (and see below re carr head). With the similarity in both meaning and naming to Allman, it’s likely to be a co-root of it, linking the river confluence and the ‘holy’ well; as well as a reinforcing if not the original basis of the later conceptualisation of a fire-breathing creature that is a dragon. The later mythological conceptualisation in a flying dragon of a connection between two locations on-high seems not to be the original one.
In ‘Celtic’ mythology, Aillén emerges every Samhain (the ‘Celtic’ New Year, November 1) to burn down dwellings and kill people, but eventually is himself killed by the giant, Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool), which name Anglicises to Fingal, as in Fingal’s Cave, and, likely, as in Finkle Street, the afore-mentioned hamlet at the other end of the line of Wharncliffe Crags from Hobb Stones known as Soffley Crags (see above). A complementary co- or earlier/later derivation here may be Gaelic fion ghaill, ‘fair stranger’, which, from a Gaelic-speaking ancient British perspective, would be the extent of settlement by English-speakers at roughly this place — a major river dividing remote upland from lowland — which did not extend further into the area of the darker ‘Celts’ probably because being hilly it was both less desirable as land and difficult to seize given the ease of defending steep hillsides thick with forest. It may be that the frontier between different peoples here drove the mythologisation. Note that the ‘fair stranger’ epithet would refer not to invading Danes or Angles/Saxons but to a largely indigenous population: new understanding through genetics studies of the UK population indicates the strong possibility that a forerunner of English language was not imported but had emerged in Britain, being far more ancient than had been supposed, long predating settlement by Saxons and Angles. This was, however, restricted to the east of England, whereas ‘Celtic’ languages continued well into the first millennium in the west. [A derivation ‘fair stranger’ surely solves what has long been the most intransigent problem for placename ‘experts’ of the meaning of Finkle Street in its many occurences in towns near markets. It could be either a generic label for the area in which traders of a non-Gaelic-speaking ethnicity settled or the route leading out to where such people distantly resided. Whole papers and book chapters despairing of any satisfactory derivation have been written on Finkle Street; all because of the stubborn failure of academics to consider Gaelic roots through false, outdated notions about prehistory.] Note that the Finn MacCool figure would be a candidate for the counterpart giant across the Don in local folkloric imagination of the giant/chieftain associated with Walder’s Low; with their warring from opposite banks of the Don valley perhaps at root the stand-off between ancient British and another people. The original usage of street (Gaelic sráit, OE stræt) was in reference to a paved way (a causeway), and here street apparently attaches not to the road by the hamlet (which is Finkle Street Lane, and would never have been paved) but to the pretty-well level gritstone edge comprising a chain of huge flat-topped rock stacks that is Soffley Crags, envisaged as being to the giant a convenient string of pavement flagstones, as if a proportionately scaled-up human causeway – just as in the famous instance of Fingal’s Causeway on Staffa. This is either a take on the Finn MacCool figure and/or an understanding in terms of a monster, as embodied in the above-cited derivation of soffley as Gaelic saobhaidh, meaning ‘lair’ of a monster.
With the annual Samhain emergence of the ‘monster’, it is interesting that Deepcar/Stocksbridge along with Stannington and the Don valley area north of Sheffield is the area in all England where there was the strongest, most recently surviving Samhain custom of ‘soul-caking’; the door-to-door ritual of individuals specially masked to become surrogate spirits of the dead in need of placating — the notion Christianised as ‘All Soul’s Day’. [In my own childhood in Deepcar in the 1960s, on the night following Halloween mischief-making, all the kids donned red-painted papier-maché masks we had made for the occasion in the Deepcar primary school, with which to call on neighbours, singing the then locally universally-known denuded ‘soul-caking’ song (beginning, before a lyric of quaintly but brazenly asking and expecting money, simply, ‘K K K … K K K’; that originally would have been ‘cake’, but any understanding re ‘soul-cakes’ had been lost), after which locals were obliged to pay for our trouble — a forfeit, if I recall, in recognition of their failure to identify us (in our case, myself and my brother); though I daresay our complicit victims may have had a good idea but didn’t let on. The money forfeit obviously was in place of the cake that would have been given in former times. The local manifestation of this custom is referred to and in part described by local historian Joseph Kenworthy in his book series, The Early History of Stocksbridge.]
Returning to the lakebed: the plain that was the lakebed in its largest portion, which is that to the east of the River Don, below Wharncliffe Crags (now much of it covered by the remains of a very large spoil heap from the Stocksbridge steel works, in part landscaped as a road network junction of the Stocksbridge bypass), was named Gilbert Plain. No sense can be made of this as being named after some personage, just as in the case of Gilbert Hill by Langsett. In both cases (and as anyway suggested in both instances by the contexts of other mythological place-naming — at Gilbert Hill is Hoodlands, from Welsh hud, ‘magic, fairy, devil’; and Brown Edge, from Gaelic bruighin, ‘fairy hill’, or bruíon, ‘fairy palace’), the derivation is Gaelic gille Brigte, ‘servant of Brid(h)e/ Bridget/ Brigantia’ — the ‘serpent’ pan-‘Celtic’ goddess as discussed above. Note that in Gilbert pertaining to the area, it’s likely to refer not to land but the former lake. The English qualification Plain of course would have been recent. The adjacent place-naming, Burnt Stones (Plantation) is also a reference to Brid(h)e/ Bridget/ Brigantia in its being derived from Gaelic bronn, an epithet for the Cailleach — the Gaelic hag figure, which is the hag form of Brid(h)e/ Bridget/ Brigantia — through a median consonant/vowel transposition very common in placename evolution, followed by Anglicisation and rationalisation to burnt. [The same derivation surely applies to Burnt Stones at Hallam Head, high up on the eastern edge of Sheffield; a name long resistant to all enquiry.]
Gaelic derivation continues to apply to the immediately adjacent minor placenaming. All of the naming here in terms of a lake are from Gaelic. That part of this lakebed to the east of the Don right by the confluence is Uskers, from Gaelic uisge, ‘water’, in some form, but hardly as the banal plain ‘water’ because this would have none of the informative value that is the very function of place-namng. Much more likely, the appellation is to a part of the lake or its bank envisaged as an ‘otherworld’ portal guarded by some supernatural creature. It’s almost inconceivable in ‘Celtic’ imagination that a lake would have no such supernatural connotations, and therefore Uskers would be from either uruisg, ‘water-goblin’ / ‘lady of the lake’, or the each uisge, ‘water horse’, which would be shortened over the very long elapse of time through language transition from Gaelic, to be pronounced ‘ash-ghe’, to then become in Anglicisation uskers. [Uskers is on the 1854 OS map and a subsequent one by the ‘Chemical Works’ built on part of it, and it’s a generic naming appearing elsewhere by the Don river; for example at Wharncliffe Side]. Also, the Gaelic word meaning ‘tributary stream’, ‘confluence’, sruthan, which Anglicises as ‘struan’, may be the derivation of Stone Row cottages once standing right by the Little Don at Deepcar Bridge (‘stone’ in local dialect pronunciation would be ‘stu-an’). [‘Stone’ hardly would be a distinguishing feature warranting the basis of placenaming when all building in the locale then was in stone, before local clay was later exploited to make brick. On the Streetmap website, all the UK placename instances of Stone Row are adjacent to streams.] Further up the Little Don valley towards Stocksbridge are Leek House and Leekfield (the latter inscribed above a passageway in a terraced row on Manchester Road: the housing having been named after the field on or by which it was built), which by elimination appear named in respect of the lake extending to this point; from Gaelic loch, Anglicised under the influence, obviously, of lake. [The alternative possibility of Gaelic leac, ‘pillar-‘ or ‘flag-stone’, is belied by there being no trace of any large stone in the vicinity; and for the name to be from a Norse word meaning ‘brook’ (loekr) would be both insufficiently distinguishing and inappropriate for what was always a river.] At Leekfield the valley sides constrict somewhat in accordance with the leek namings indicating the extent of the former lake, which by this reckoning would be considerable — a distance of several hundred yards back up the Little Don from the confluence.
The conclusion must be that Gaelic gille Brigte is the accurate derivation of Gilbert Plain, thus establishing a mythological link between the former lake and Wharncliffe Crags.
The area by the Don / Little Don confluence immediately west and south of it is Deepcar (which name also applies to the village which sprang up on the hillside above it). This too apparently is from Gaelic: from the word denoting the classic generic Gaelic monster figure, the Dobharchu, Gaelic dobhar-cú, meaning literally ‘water-hound’; which is a mythical giant and ferocious half-fish/half-dog creature predating on humans. [Outlining the evidence here is lengthy but it’s clear; confirmed by a particularly neat parallel instance at Marsden, as I will explain.] The pronunciation of ‘do-ar-ku’ sounds like nothing in English, and therefore an English speaker would feel obliged to somehow make sense of it; not least so as to be able to remember it. Deepcar is recorded in 1575 as Depker, and is pronounced by true locals as ‘deeop-k-’, which in common with the ‘do-ar-ku’ pronunciation of dobhar-cú has three syllables with accenting in the same places. A folk-etymological rationalisation as ‘deep carr’ would introduce the medial ‘p’ and a slight change in the first vowel sound. The rationalisation to deep (in OE, deop) would accompany — would be in the wake of — the rationalisation of the last syllable as carr. But this is as Norse kjarr, which is itself a misinterpretation by later English speakers: carr in Northern England actually (usually) means ‘stony hill’ (after Gaelic carr), and not ‘marsh’, as often would be assumed.
What seems likely to have occurred is that the name Deepcar, though it denotes principally the former lake by the river and only recently the village which has grown above it and up the hillside, actually emanates from a place up this hillside, at a point where it ceases to be so steep and nearly levels off, before resuming the climb up to Townend Common. This is Carr Head, which fairly obviously has the meaning ‘the top of the stony hill’; as exactly paralleled in Car Head on the opposing hill of Hunshelf, further up the Little Don valley above Stocksbridge; this site being even higher up the hillside than is its Deepcar counterpart, with no evidence of a former marsh below. The Deepcar Carr Head hardly can mean ‘the top of the marsh’, since the marsh would have ended at the edge of the plain before the hill starts. This understanding is confirmed by placenaming elsewhere: at both Wibsey in Yorkshire and Thornhill (by Bamford) in Derbyshire, the area at the foot of a steep bank is named Carr Bottom — and, furthermore, in neither place is there any marshland. Even if there were any at these locations, this naming would make no sense in terms of marshland, since a road by it could not even be in the marsh, let alone somehow at the bottom of it.
In any case, in the era of Gaelic naming there would have been no marsh at Deepcar for placenaming to indicate. The lake still would have been there. It’s telling that whereas namings at the lakebed in terms of a lake are all Gaelic, the namings here denoting marshland were from a time after Gaelic had ceased to be spoken, to be replaced by Welsh (Brittonic language was a later offshoot of proto-Celtic than was Gaelic). Not being what they seem are two curious namings, Midge Hall and Mangle Row (the former an extant farmhouse on the edge of the lakebed situated below and on the right as nowadays you come into Deepcar from Sheffield on the Manchester Road; the latter a now demolished terrace a hundred yards further along on the other side of Manchester Road, on the former lake bank). Midge Hall on the face of it having a meaning simply of ‘small house’ (as in smidgen), is a name hardly befitting the substantial range of the buildings on the site compared to the tiny size of most houses of old; and Mangle Row, the local vernacular for a short terrace, Wharncliffe View, demolished in 1965, lamely accounted for by a supposed outdoor communal mangle. [Apart from being a pretty silly, ephemeral supposed basis of an appellation, a mangle would not have fitted in what a photo from 1924 reveals to be a very narrow central alleyway (not if anyone were either to be able to pass it or work it), and, furthermore, would not be easily seen by passers-by — destroying the viability of a naming from the start.] Both are obvious English-speakers’ rationalisations of the same Welsh construction mign dol, pronounced MIGen-dol, ‘bog meadow’. Now, if a naming of the area of the confluence in terms of a lake was replaced, as the lake gave way to marsh, by a naming in terms of marshland, then theis would take us into later, Britonnic-speaking times: the appellation would have been in Welsh. With no possible Welsh derivation apparent for Deepcar, and with a lake being a feature that would have screamed out for naming and in still more ancient times, then Deepcar at root must be a pre-Welsh naming: a Gaelic derivation, and with not a marsh but a lake present, one that cannot be from ‘marsh’.
‘Stony hill’ would have been an accurate description of the hill at or below Carr Head, because the Waldershelf hillside down to the Don originally, before it was fully cleared for farming, would have been strewn with boulders from the extensive millstone grit outcrop (crags) along the ridge at the summit of the hillside. The skyline today is a very different, jagged one, in the wake of very extensive 18th and 19th century quarrying; so that it no longer mirrors the Wharncliffe Crags atop the opposing hillside. The particularly steep final part of the Waldershelf hillside as it falls to the former lakebed / Don floodplain would have been long left un-cleared through being just too high a gradient to be of value as farmland in comparison to that at and above Carr Head. [Evidence that a Gaelic root here is apposite, another placename at Carr Head also appears to be gaelic in origin: the only derivation thus far found for Sibbering Row is from this being the point where the valley is at its narrowest. Gaelic seamhas, the root of the Scottish surname Shivers, means ‘a narrow place’ re a river. The appellation would apply to the field (the attached, much later –ing suffix) from here down to the Little Don. I had thought that Cull Row also might be from Gaelic — cuil, ‘nook’, indicatings the levelling out of the steep hill at this point — but the moniker appears to be from the Cull family who lived in these cottages.] Given the naming Carr Head, then the particularly steep hill leading up to it could be dubbed ‘deep’, to provide the construction ‘deep carr’; which, sound-wise, would be a seeming right though actually misconstrued take on the otherwise incomprehensible name down below at the river confluence, of Dobharchu. So it would be that ‘do-ar-ku’ became ‘deeop-k-‘.
That the placename didn’t initially apply to the foot of the hill and later creep up it, as it were, is shown by both the name of the short, particularly steep road up from the river bridge to the junction with the main (Manchester) road through the old centre of Deepcar village: Vaughton Hill; and that of the bank above this: Orchard (Street). The latter is a rationalisation of Gaelic eochair, ‘bank’ (as similarly at nearby Oughtibridge). As for the former: despite first appearances, Vaughton appears to be ancient; the Anglicisation waughton from Gaelic bhagach dun, ‘big’ + ‘hill’ to denote the sudden sharp steepness of the hillside here as it begins from the lakebed / floodplain, being the very bank of the former lake (this initial steepness shallows after reaching the top of the former lake bank, and the gradient becomes just that of the Waldershelf hillside; so bhagach dun denotes the step-like intial part of the hill as a whole). This Anglicisation of the Gaelic name is parallelled in an instance of a notably steep eminence in Aberdeenshire called Waughton Hill. Only very recently, it would seem, did the Deepcar instance undergo a name change, ever so slightly, to substitute an initial ‘v’ in place of the ‘w’ after a man with the surname Vaughton built on the south side of the road/hill a row of cottages, one of which was the pub, nicknamed The Low Drop, of which a son, James Vaughton, was the dissolute original landlord. [No other reason is apparent why the road/hill would have taken the Vaughton name but for the prompting by the pre-existing highly similar waughton. There must have been a name for such a distinctive topographical feature as this sharp hill, and there would be no reason for this to be replaced by a very different name, and merely because it is the name of someone who built at the place. No instance in the locale of placenaming on this basis occurs to the best of my knowledge. It would be far too big a coincidence that the topographically accurate ‘Celtic’ naming was not applied anciently at this spot,yet an identical-sounding surname did come to be thus applied, though only very recently, and for no more salient reason than building there.] So the naming of Carr Road was never up from and contiguous with a naming of the lakebed: it always referred to the hill down from Carr Head — with the hillside lower down (and again, well above the former lakebed/marsh) also featuring Carr Fold and Carr Croft.
A folk-etymological rationalisation of Dobharchu would have made good sense with the lake drying up to leave just a marsh, and there are other near-local parallel instances: Durkar and Dyscarr likewise are placenames adjacent to former lakes. There is also a seeming direct correspondence in Deep Carr Lane at Riber (the very steep slope and its top, up from the river confluence at Matlock), in that riber would appear to be a superseding Welsh naming with a very similar meaning: (g)wiber, literally ‘flying snake’; in other words, a serpentine monster (from which we get the English word wyvern, denoting a form familiar to us as the dragon).
Most striking is the parallel instance of Dirker at Marsden, where as at Deepcar there is a co-occurrence with Ellen. An area on the northern hillside of the glen at Marsden is named Dirker Hays, which is above Dirker Bank, in turn above Dirker immediately by Lady Royd (the site of Old Lady Well) at the head of Spring Head Lane: clearly this is the site of an ancient ‘holy’ well, envisaged as a portal of the hag form of Brid(h)e and, therefore, a serpent. So here we have a placename akin to that of Deepcar and Durker in being associated with a body of water, but instead of a former lake Dirker indicates a well / spring, and in a position on a steep hillside. This confirms that the suffix of these related placenames is not rooted in a word meaning ‘marsh’ — it cannot be kjarr. Across the river, near the foot of the directly opposite hillside there is a tight cluster of Ellen Clough, Crow Hill (denoting a winged beast) and Butter Spring and Well, with, a little further away, Butterley Clough, Butterley and Butterley Hill: the butter names make no sense other than that they are from Gaelic bheithir, ‘serpent’. In a cluster above Dirker Heys are various netherwood namings (Heys, Hill, Lane, a clough, etc), which, given the location uppermost on a hillside, cannot be banally nether, ‘lower’, but instead likely are all from Gaelic nathair, ‘serpent’ (see the paper on King Arthur). There is also Netherley opposite, by Butterley Clough. The landscape here at Marsden is one rich in namings in respect of flying serpents/’monsters’.
At Deepcar, there is a possibility that the area right in the cruck of the confluence, between the Don and Little Don rivers, retained a name much closer to dobharchu than is deepcar until modern times, when this too underwent rationalisation: to the name Donkey View. This was the vernacular for Florence Buildings, a dense cluster of 100 back-to-back terraced houses in four rows built on the site in the mid-ninettenth century, demolished in 1970. Interspersing the rows were communal outside toilet blocks, such that toilets were all you could see out of the houses. Still current in the nineteenth century, the archaic English compound word denoting an earth closet, privy or cesspit is donnekin; from dun, ‘brown’ and ken, ‘house’, meaning ‘dung house’; more specifically, ken denoted a small meeting house for reprobates. With what would be this amusing take on residents visiting the loo, we can well see that a colloquial name for the whole site of Donnekin View would be thought apposite; and as the word donnekin fell out of use and memory (except in Australia, where it survives as dunny), a rationalisation would follow to Donkey View. The story locally abounds that the name stems from a donkey being kept in a nearby field, but this is just the sort of banal false contemporary rationalisation that follows in the wake of the pointed actual basis of naming. Even if such an ephemeral, slight, all-too-common and non-distinguishable basis for place-naming had any credence in the first place (which most surely it does not), there is anyway no sight-line to any field from the windows of any of the houses — they’re back-to-back houses, all with frontages aligned either to earth closet blocks or to each other. The windows at both the east and west outer edges of the site faced toilet blocks, with the exception of just half-a-dozen, which face eastwards along Station Road to the houses there. No doubt the ‘view of a donkey’ explanation was for politeness, and the ready answer to the endless questioning by literal-minded children. [I recall myself as a four-year-old insisting to my father than Deepcar could not be anything other than a car … that is, an automobile.] The question is: did this naming arise and take hold simply through the wit of some individual — in the way that famously a statue of a female in a fountain was dubbed ‘The Floozie in the Jacuzzi’ — or would it have required some prior impetus: another name for the area itself requiring rationalisation? ‘Shithouse vista’ is a meaning anything but endearing, so it’s not easy to see why the name would either arise or stick, though it may be clandestine rebelliousness against the landlord. The employer who built the accommodation for his workers at the nearby refractory brick works named it after his young daughter, Florence Grayson Lowood, doubtless prompted by the then new-found fame of Florence Nightingale (the housing was built not long after after the Crimean War, which ended in 1855; Florence being born in 1865). So the workers in effect would be describing what their employer (not to mention the nation) held most dear in terms of excrement, thereby ‘getting back’ in a cutting though indirect way, to avoid risking punishment. Yet in that era such disrespect to a paternalistic employer resident within the local community would be felt an uncommonly uncalled-for ‘biting the hand that feeds you’, so it seems likely that this mischief was prompted by word-play — that Donkey View could stem indirectly from a precursor place-name. It may be, then, that dobharchu was the initial impetus of a rationalisation, providing ‘permission’ for the slight, as it were. Without such initial impetus, not only may there have been a sense that permission to indulge such a slight was lacking, but it likely wouldn’t have entered anyone’s head in the first place. However, if dobharchu was rationalised in the end to deepcar, then it’s hard to see how the original naming separately would have survived so intact into modern times. It would appear, then, perhaps just too fanciful.
Likewise any possibility of a further parallel ‘flying monster’ in the landscape featuring More Hall. More (originally Mora) may just be derived from an alternative Gaelic name for a ‘water-monster’, madhra-uisce, ‘water-wolf’ – the ‘wolf’ element being pronounced ‘modra’, which later likely would have been influenced in its pronunciation, and, moreover, rationalised in its meaning to OE mæra, ‘hag’, given the perception of the Crags as being ‘the hag turned to stone’, linking with the etymology re a meaning of ‘serpent’. This would be highly conjectural, however, given that there are several plausible derivations: chiefly Gaelic mordha, ‘noble’. With the ancestry of the Mores and their residence at More Hall traceable back in record to not long after the Conquest, then an origin from the Norman French family name de la More has to be a contender. Individuals of the de la More family are known to have assisted William the Conqueror in his conquest of England, and in reward would have been granted lands. Interestingly, this would have provided the notion of the Mores being knights even before their association with the Knights Hospitallers.
What is not fanciful is that there is in the immediate vicinity of the Wharncliffe/ Waldershelf/ Deepcar ‘monster’ landscape, as it were, a parallel cluster of minor placenames indicating another mythological beast with a lair on-high connected to the water below (see above re Softley / Hob, etc); and that for the connection between Wharncliffe Crags, Allman Well and the Deepcar confluence with Ellen Cliff and The Lane there is good contextual evidence. As regards specifically the place of Deepcar here, there is an internally cohesive strong argument in support of a derivation of Deepcar from dobhar-cú; albeit, as ever with placenames, a lack of truly hard evidence per se. So the mandatory health warning should be given here. It is not impossible that instead of a later rationalisation in terms of Norse kjarr, ‘low marsh’ after all could be the original meaning; but apart from the converging lines of evidence rendering this unlikely, it’s unlikely also by reason of the predominance of ‘Celtic’ place-naming and scarcity of Norse roots in both the immediate and wider locale of this very hilly area, which both placename and new genetic evidence reveals is a ‘Celtic’ late-survival lacuna highly distinct from the lowlands nearby to the east.
Albeit that there is no (and hardly could be) definitive ‘proof’ available for a localised ancient mythology of flying serpents and water monsters, there is no shortage of evidence: that the protagonists in the Wantley ballad appear originally to be monsters both; some form of a ‘water-monster’ (or a confusion between more than one such) down below – at a river confluence and at a well — and a (winged) serpent on high – at Wharncliffe Crags. Any human figure in the guise of a knight cannot have been other than a medieval interloper, self-evidently, because there was no conception of a knight in ‘Celtic’ times. Even so, the confusion between a ‘monster’ associated with Allman Well and the ‘chieftain’ buried at the nearby Walder’s Low shows that a human incarnation in mythic imagination surely precedes the notion of a knight; and then there is the above-mentioned Finn MacCool to provide a possible correspondingly human opponent.
The superimposition of mythologies explains the curious aspects of the knight in the ballad. The late David Hey claimed that the ballad is nothing more than a regurgitation of the stock features of other ‘George & the dragon’ tales, whereas in the past it was conceded that there were peculiar aspects. Self-evidently the ballad is a reworking of generic romance, but it hardly follows that specifics of the earlier localised mythology are entirely absent. Though some of the seemingly most pointed aspects — for example, the spiked armour — are not unique to the Wantley story; the knight’s behaviour most certainly is. Instead of being mounted on his horse, he eats it – all bar the head – after first swinging it round by the mane. [?!] Then there is the inversion of the knight’s role of saving maidens, instead to procure them to wash him and be sexually devoured. These are aspects not of any knight but of the very ‘monster’ a knight would be called upon to slaughter. And, tellingly, the knight uncharacteristically drinks large quantities of water (and alcohol). This makes little sense other than to echo what the Wortley family long ago related about their understanding of what they called ‘the monster’ and its peculiar relationship to water — a striking allusion to its watery abode.
Just as would be expected in the evolution of place-names, the evolution of a piece of folklore such as the Dragon of Wantley looks like a succession of mythologies, from ancient roots through medieval trappings to early-modern detail: a tapestry of human imagination down through the ages. That in the end it became a poetic satire parallels the usual evolution of once-evocative tales into nursery rhyme.
Any 17th century affectations in the 1685 earliest (or earliest surviving) broadside are also to be expected, and do not mean the ballad was wholly composed at this time. As Llewellyn Jewitt (in Art Among the Ballad Mongers, The Art Journal, New Series, 5, 1879) pointed out, the construction betrays a pre-17th century composition.
The flimsiness of the Wortley/Blount theory of a basis of the ballad in obliging its shoring-up has just entrenched the myopic groupthink of historians. Evidence has been sought of conflicts involving successive Wortley lords, but this only boomerangs to further uncover the baselessness of the theory. The late David Hey, following previous historians, claimed that enmity towards the Wortleys began with a forced depopulation of the Wharncliffe plateau to create a deer park, and that this was indicated by the Wortley lord being specifically targeted in acts of serious vandalism; the response to which, of going to court, further exacerbated local feeling. Also, a minor detail in the ballad text is seized on as pointing to a tithe dispute. None of this withstands scrutiny – even that by Hey himself. I’ll deal with them in reverse order.
In some versions of the ballad, the ‘monster’ is described as treating ‘houses and churches’ as if they were “geese and turkeys”, which are the sort of produce that could be given in tithe payment. This is taken to refer to the payment in kind to substitute for customary monetary payment the Wortley lord, on behalf of the Earl of Shrewsbury, had instigated to deal with the attrition in the value of taxes by inflation. The original text, however, is “gorse and burches”, and churches of all things were never subject to tithes themselves — the very purpose of tithes was to pay for the upkeep of clergy and churches, not to tax them! It is astonishing that any historian could be blind to this other than through an imperative to bolster a dear theory in danger of collapse.
The supposed retribution the Wortleys suffered, of poaching and destruction of the walls of the deer park, in fact were instances of widespread serious hooliganism with no particular target, by the same band of perpetrators – as Hey documented [Historic Hallamshire pp148 & 149]. “Vicar Lord (Richard Lord, the Ecclesfield incumbent) went on to say that ‘Gilbert Dycconson, William Bromehead and Raphe Bromehead are persons suspected for many disorders and misdemeanours’ within the parish of Ecclesfield”. Lord was backed in evidence by ordinary locals: a husbandman and a yeoman; and Lord himself “had obtained a warrant from the Quarter Sessions ordering the good behaviour” of these and a few other named locals. Other local deer parks, such as that at Tankersley, were broken into and poached. So the Wortley squire was neither the specific target of attack nor the only one instigating legal action against the perpetrators. There was good reason and local support for taking the miscreants to court.
As for the supposed forced depopulation: the only source for this is the non-conformist minister Oliver Heywood, who claimed this occurred when the deer park on Wharncliffe Chase was extended circa 1530. Hey himself contradicted the eviction tale [Historic Hallamshire p146], citing Joseph Hunter [Hallamshire pp 300 & 301] that there was a local ‘tradition’ of a great pestilence to alternatively account for the depopulation of the area that became the Chase. This is highly plausible given severe plague outbreaks, sometimes denuding population pockets to the point that a community became no longer viable. The evidence, though, supports neither contention. There never were enough people for there to be any depopulation phenomenon; at least not in the historical period. Archaeology reveals only prehistoric settlement of any note, and not traces of a former town as Heywood claimed could be viewed. The most likely basis of such folk-memory, as so often is the case, is of events far older than supposed. There was ancient British occupation of the plateau, when full farming was feasible owing to average temperatures then several degrees Centigrade higher than during the later historical period, when most crops would have become too difficult to grow through the height and exposure of the Wharncliffe plateau. That there was a village on the plateau was thought to be indicated by the place-name Whitley Church — likely as for wantley/wantcliff, from Welsh (g)wyn-ty, ‘holy house’; the stem then suggesting what would thereby be a secondary root of Welsh wan, ‘church’ (the earlier form of llan), and taking a standard -leah suffix (as -ly, -ley or –leigh, meaning ‘wood’ or ‘clearing in a wood’) – but instead of referring to some actual church structure, it’s a manifestation of the ancient (pre-Christian) religious connotations of the gritstone edge. [The (g)wyn-ty compound is an actual one in place-names recorded elsewhere, and the whole (g)wyn-ty-leah construction became a surname in the locality: Whyntelegh occurs in the 1379 subsidy rolls (poll tax returns) for Bradfield parish.] Rather than this being an alternative naming of the whole line of the Crags, though, it would seem to denote the remains of ancient-British houses. Such we know to exist after archaeological excavation in 1949 by Leslie Butcher (Yorkshire Archaeological Society, 1950), of a site right on the gritstone edge he gave as Whitley Church. The stones and turf banks outlining some of these houses, together with earthwork boundaries of small-sized field systems can be seen from and right by the crag-top path, over the former deer park wall, just along from the Dragon’s Den towards Deepcar. This would be what Heywood supposed was a late-medieval ‘town’ — there are no traces anywhere else on the plateau of substantial settlement, as would be in evidence if it had been so relatively recent.
Every facet of the Wortley/Blount theory unravels.
There are no loose ends remaining to tie up. The Wortley/Blount theory has no substance and is supplanted by the well-evidenced events involving George More. There are no plausible alternative theories – none have been put forward. The only remaining major question is as to the identity of the ballad’s author, but this may well remain unsolved, for the very good reason that a counter-Reformation tract is something that anyone at the time would not have put their name to and would have made sure was not tracable to their hand. The very fact of the ballad’s anonymity is in line with the present analysis. The problem of political sensitivity at the time it was written adds to the overlying changed politics in subsequent decades and centuries to explain too why the meaning of the ballad had been lost. Still, without the layers of obfuscation in wayward interpretation in favour of what it was hoped the ballad meant rather than what actually it did mean, there would have been less mystery for the fun of solving.
The question of authorship is complicated by consideration of whether the ballad was composed close to the time of first known publication in 1685 or a century before, at the time of the 1573 law suit. Of course, if it does date from the sixteenth century, it may have acquired seventeenth century modification before publication. It’s possible the ballad was published simply as a bawdy comic piece, ignorant of its meaning, with changes in text not sensitive to meaning, which thereby might well have been rendered more latent. An earlier composition would make the issue of authorship particularly fraught, given the paucity of surviving documentation prior to 1600. An early seventeenth century candidate would be the celebrated Counter-Reformation pamphleteer and renowned poet, Richard Crashaw, given that his father was from Handsworth, Sheffield. On the more plausible assumption that it was written not long before its publication, I proffer an educated guess — or, rather, two guesses.
Sir Richard Fanshawe, also of local origin — of a family from Dronfield, which is where a son of the last George More of More Hall relocated — was a well-known poet, translator, classical scholar and enthusiastic Royalist (holding very high office under Charles I and, later, Charles II) who, after being captured in the Civil War, was kept in internal exile in 1653 and 1654 at the gentry seat neighbouring that of Wortley: Tankersley. His residence was what later came to be known as Tankersley Old Hall, at the time named Tankersley Lodge, having been built around a medieval hunting lodge; a counterpart of the Wortley’s Wharncliffe Lodge. During this period of semi-incarceration — he was not allowed to venture beyond a five-mile radius — as the guest of the second Earl of Stafford, William Wentworth, Fanshawe devoted himself to his literary work. His wife, Ann, wrote in her memoirs (not published until centuries after her death) that they were content, among friends, and “lived an innocent country life, minding only the country sports and country affairs”, leaving Tankersley only because of the death there of a young daughter from smallpox and the association of the place with this event.
Being of local pedigree, Sir Richard had an interest in local matters; and when it came to a local manifestation of the Reformation, his interest must have been very strongly aroused; even more so when you consider that the matter of George More and George Talbot concerned taxation, which was exactly the nature of Fanshawe’s former offical high office (as it had been for generations of his family before him) of the Queen’s/King’s Remembrancer of the Exchequer. Given that even his semi-confinement was conditional, then it would have been imperative for him to write in allegorical mode to disguise explosive political meaning. With his local knowledge together with classical scholarship, Fanshawe was supremely well placed to conjour up the Wantley ballad to vent his politico-religious conviction through the disguise of high art verse with a cutting vernacular comic edge. Sir Richard Burton’s description of Fanshawe’s translations of classical poetry — “the sprightly gallant style, the gay and lively lilt, the swing and spring of the verse show he enjoyed the task …. often comic, inverted, savage …” — could well describe the Wantley stanzas.
Fanshawe died prematurely of an illness in 1666, leaving his papers to be sorted by Ann, who then wrote her memoirs of her husband and herself, but failed to publish even these before her own death in 1680, which is very shortly before the first known publication of the ballad. This may of course be mere coincidence, but given the long timescale over which the ballad could have been written — in excess of a century between George More’s legal action and the emergence of the ballad — then the five-year near simultaneity in association with explanation for the century-plus gap, is perhaps a case of a too precise coincidence to be one. It would be consistent with the Fanshawe family going through Sir Richard’s work and deciding to posthumously release the ballad, given that it expresses what Fanshawe felt unable to get away with in his lifetime; albeit anonymously because of its bawdiness, which likely would not have been considered fitting by way of remembrance of such a high-achieving scholar and pre-eminent public servant.
Alternatively, the ballad’s author is possibly someone likewise both a poet and incarcerated for his Civil War exploits (in the Tower of London, no less), during which time he too composed poems; a figure who was one of the very hereditary line of lords that historians have assumed to be embodied as the Wantley dragon itself: Sir Francis Wortley. After all, who else with the required literary ability could have been aware of the detail of the pre-existing legend of a dragon and a knight pertaining to a locale as remote and obscure as Wharncliffe and Waldershelf?
Weighing against this conjecture, it might seem unlikely that the Wortley family in later generations were themselves so ignorant of the provenance of the ballad as to be unable to counter the slight on the family of the assumption that their ancestor was depicted as the dragon; but in the odd and complex circumstances, superseding political landscapes, and the elapse of time, then actually it would not be at all strange. There would also have to be a lack of foresight by Sir Francis that with the location of Wharncliffe Lodge close to the supposed lair of the dragon, this might lead to himself and/or Wortley lords generically being identified with it; yet this would be just what may be required for Sir Francis to deflect suspicion that politics underlay this piece of fancy. That ordinary locals would be able to use the ballad to symbolise their struggle against their Wortley lord may well not have occurred to Wortley: the poem surely would have been written with an audience of non-local gentry and nobility in mind rather than his own underlings, when at the time even townsfolk were mostly unable to read. Hardly could he have anticipated his verse appearing as a cheap broadside for sale on the street, to become nationally famous even amongst the lowly classes.
Well, if of all people Sir Francis Wortley turns out to be the author of the ballad ….. now that really would be a neat irony.
FROM Church and Manor: A Study in English Economic History by Sidney Oldall Addy (1913).
PAGE 263: “In 1573 there was a suit before the Council at York about the ownership of the waste ground in Sheffield. In 1297 Thomas Furnival, lord of the town, had granted the fee farm to the free tenants, who afterwards became the governing body called the Burgery. The grant conveyed to them all the tofts, lands, and holdings, together with their appurtenances, both within the town and without, which they held of the lord, the only proviso being that the lord’s free warren should not be hindered. Relying on this grant, the Burgery, in 1573, claimed the waste ground as their own, and the dispute between them and the lord of the manor continued till 1724, if not later, but how it ended we are nowhere told.
In 1579 the Bailiff of Sheffield wrote in his notebook that:
‘George More did confess in the church of Sheffield that he was fully resolved by his counsel that the waste ground in Sheffield did not pass by their charter made to the free tenants of the Lord Furnival.”
This George More had gone to York “about the suit of the Burgery,” and the management of the affair seems to have been left in his hands. Evidently he reported what his counsel had said at a meeting held in church.’
The deliberations of the Burgery took place in the church in the seventeenth century, for at a meeting held in that building in 1676, there being present the Town Collector and “thirteen burgesses or free tenants”, it was agreed that the lord of the manor should be requested to consent to the removal of the common bakehouse, and to the building of another in a more convenient place, where it might be less dangerous to the town. [Leader’s Records of the Burgery of Sheffield, 1897, pp. 29, 31, 207, 346-7.]”
FROM Records of the Burgery of Sheffield by John Daniel Leader (1897)
PAGE 29: “1573 [p.20] Taken forth of that ix li ix s which Remened in the foote of the last Reconinge by thands of Nicholas Stannyforth James Haldsworth Robert Bawre and Richard Hale and others the somme of xxs. the xix day of November 1573 which was Deliveryd to George More for and concerninge the suete of the Burgerye at Yorke.
,… Whereof was spent and dysbursed by George More in the traveys and suet of Law at Yorke as appeareth by his bylles which are putt into the common cheste and that which he Received the some of ….. xis. Iiijd. Mr S. O. Addy has a manuscript Account and Note book formerly belonging to William Dickenson or Dicksonne, a servant of the Earl of Shrewsbury, which throws light on the legal proceedings here referred to.
[On the back of page 62 of his notebook, Dickenson writes:]
29 November 1579.
‘Note also that George More did confesse in the chairch of Sheffeld that he was fully resolved by his counsell that the waste grounde in Sheffelde did not passe by their chartre made to the Free tenants of the Lord Furnyvall.
Note also that he said that for the lands in Sheffeld now in question before the counsell at Yorke he doubted not but the statute of limitation would save thym; and yt for these buydlings which were made in Sheffeld vpon the waste grounde there within tyme of memory he doubted of thym.’
From this we may infer that the suit was between the free tenants and the Earl of Shrewsbury about the waste ground in Sheffield.
See also entries under the years 1573, 1575 and 1576.
PAGE 31: “Item, paid to George More the xviij of November for his firste goinge to Yorke aboute the suyte of the bugerye which he spent there as by his billes doth appaere. Xxs. …
Item paid to George Moore at his secounde tyme goynge to Yorke about the sayd suete vjs. Viijd. Whereof he spent there v.s.”
PAGE 36 is similar and also reveals that George More is “the Collector for the Burgerye” in 1576.
PAGE 38. Ditto re the Collector for 1577, but not for 1578 (p.40).
PAGE 62. GM chosen again as the Collector for 1592”
The full translation of the Charter to the Town of Sheffield:
To all the faithful of Christ who shall see or hear this present writing, Thomas of Furnivalle, the third, son and heir of Sir Thomas of Furnivalle, eternal salvation in the Lord.
Know ye that I have demised, granted, and delivered in fee farm to all my Free tenants of the town of Sheffield and their heirs all the tofts, lands, and holdings which they hold of me in the foresaid town of Schefeld, to hold and to have [the same] of me and my heirs to the foresaid tenants and their heirs with all their appurtenances belonging to the said tofts, lands, and holdings, within the town of Sheffield and outside, in fee and heredity, freely, quietly, well, and in peace, for ever, (provided that my free warren be not hindered by the said tenants or in anywise disturbed), the said tenants and their heirs paying yearly therefor to me and my heirs £3. 8s. 9¼d. of silver, at the two terms of the year, namely, half at the Birthday of the Lord (Christmas), and half at the Nativity of Saint John Baptist, in discharge of all services and demands, reserving nevertheless to me and my heirs fealty, escheats, and suit of court of the said tenants.
Furthermore, I will and grant that the court of the said Town of Sheffield of my foresaid tenants shall be held within the foresaid town every three weeks by my Bailiffs, as hitherto has been accustomed in the time of my ancestors.
And if it should happen that my said tenants, or any of them, are to be fined for any trespass in my said court, I will and grant for myself and my heirs that they be fined by their peers, and that according to the measure of the offence.
Furthermore, I will and grant for myself and my heirs that the said tenants and their heirs, as well buyers as sellers, shall everywhere throughout all Hallamshire be quit from all exaction and demand of toll, as they were wont to be in the time of my ancestors, for ever.
And I, the foresaid Thomas, and my heirs, will warrant all these matters aforesaid, with their aforesaid appurtenances, as is aforesaid, to my aforesaid tenants and their heirs, against all people for ever. In witness whereof the seals of the parties are to the present writing, made in the manner of a chirograph, alternately affixed. Witnesses:—Sir Robert of Ecclissale, Sir Edemund Foliot, knights, Thomas of Schefeld, Thomas of Mounteney, Robert of Wadislay, Ralph of Wadislay, Thomas of Furneys, William of Darnale, Robert the Breton, then seneschal of Hallamshire, and others.
Given at Sheffield on the fourth of the Ides of August, in the year of the Lord 1297
FROM Sheffield (History and Guide) by David Fine (1992)
PAGE 54: “… The Twelve capital Burgesses and Commonalty of the Town and Parish of Sheffield decreed by Queen Mary in 1554. A consequence of the reformation, this was a less democratic yet more ecclesiastical replacement of Furnival’s Free Tenants charter of 1297, but the burgesses were still only responsible for provision of services, such as upkeep of the roads and the poor. The town remained governed by its lord …”
PAGE 43: “… The Third Thomas Furnival to grant Sheffield its first town charter on 10 August 1297 ….. it cost the freemen of Sheffield a total of £3.8s.9d per annum, and although the haggling required to reach this sum can only be imagined, the key clause appears to be:
‘Furthermore, I will and grant for myself and my heirs that the said tenants and their heirs, as well as buyers and sellers, shall everywhere throughout all Hallamshire be quit from all exaction and demand of toll, as they were wont to be in the time of my ancestors, for ever.’
… this town charter facilitated trade … Furnival retained full administrative and judicial control through his manorial court. Sheffield was a town run by a manor. “
FROM Hallamshire: The History and Topography of the Parish of Sheffield in the County of York by Joseph Hunter (1819)
PAGES 55 & 56: “… an act of kindness, not to say of justice, to his tenantry and neighbours in Sheffield. In the late reign they had been deprived of certain public property, under pretence that certain uses to which the income from it had been appropriated came within the scope of the Act 1 Edward VI for the suppression of chantries, colleges, and guilds. Of this he obtained for them restitution, and at the same time a royal patent declaring the future uses of the income of that property, and constituting a body corporate for its management and better protection. He returned home with the high appointment of president of council of the north. This court was instituted by Henry VIII, soon after the suppression of Aske’s rebellion. It sat at York. …..
Though this earl did not cordially approve of the measures of the Reformists, he did not object to avail himself of the opportunity which those measures afforded for recovering portions of the ancient estate of his family which had been given by his predecessors to different religious foundations. He had two extensive grants of abbey lands, one in the 33 Henry VIII, the other in the 6 Edward VI. In the former were included the grange at Fullwood, and all the interest which the canons of Beauchief had enjoyed in that part of the parish of Sheffield: in the second, the reversion, after the death of his sister Mary countess of Northumberland, of that part of the tythe of Sheffield which had heretofore belonged to the abbey of St Wandrille, and lately to the Carthusian monastery of Saint Anne near the city of Coventry. It will appear to have been the earl’s intention to have produced at the same time the advowson of the parish church of Sheffield, which on so many accounts it was desirable he should possess. But that as well as a share of the tythe of Sheffield passed at this period into the hands of one of his principal agents, Robert Swyft of Broomhall esquire.”
FROM Sheffield Church Burgesses Trust: History (website) http://www.sheffieldchurchburgesses.org.uk/history-of-sheffield-church-burgesses-trust.htm
“For 450 years, the Sheffield Church Burgesses Trust has served Sheffield. Adapting to social change down the centuries, it is now a multi-purpose charity supporting the ministry of the Church of England; promoting educational opportunity; and assisting organisations working for the needy and the deprived and for the benefit of the community. It has made, and continues to make, a significant impact upon the life of the City. In particular, it makes major contributions to the running costs and upkeep of Sheffield Cathedral, for the building and improvement of churches and for the maintenance and extension of the work of the Church of England in Sheffield. The story of the Trust begins in 1297, when Thomas de Furnival, lord of the manor, granted to the freeholders of the town a charter whereby, in return for payment of rent of £3 8s. 9¼d. per annum, they were afforded important rights and privileges. During the ensuing 200 years, the value of the land and properties held by the ‘free tenants’ of Sheffield increased, and income from rentals, over and above that paid to the lord of the manor, was devoted to community purposes, especially for the work of the Parish Church. By the time of Henry VIII, when Sheffield was a thriving town of 2000 inhabitants, the town’s income from the ‘town’s lands’ had been augmented by voluntary contributions and bequests. By that time there was in place a rudimentary organisation for financing, with this income, activities essential to the community. These included maintenance of the parish church; payments to the poor and needy; contributions towards the maintenance of public highways and bridges. Most of the money was allocated to payment of the stipends of three Assistant Priests who served from the Parish Church.
Henry VIII had plundered the monasteries and abbeys. His son, Edward VI, inspired no doubt by the Lord Protector Somerset, turned to plunder of the Cathedrals and parish churches. Under the Act for the Suppression of Chantries, all land, property and any other benefits given to maintain priests or chantries devoted to saying masses for the dead were confiscated to the Crown. A Chantries Commission, which visited Sheffield in 1548, ruled that most of the town’s lands and other bequests, the income from which was largely devoted to stipends of the three assistant priests at the Parish Church, were to be confiscated. Protests from the inhabitants were of no avail and Sheffield lost its source of income for maintaining essential community services. But Sheffielders, then as now, do not give in easily, especially when able to say, with some justification, ‘we was robbed’. As soon as Mary Tudor came to the throne, a Petition was presented by Robert Swyft and William Taylor, in the name of all the inhabitants of the parish of Sheffield, requesting the restoration to the town of the lands and the income therefrom. The Petition was successful and on 8 June 1554 Queen Mary, in her Royal Charter, restored the confiscated lands, placing them in the trust of a Corporate body with perpetual succession known as The Twelve Capital Burgesses and Commonalty of the Town and Parish of Sheffield in the County of York. The income from the lands was to be used for charitable purposes specified as: a. Payment of the stipends of three priests assisting the Vicar of the Parish Church and of the costs of divine worship there; b. Whatever is left over and above these stipends and costs shall be used towards: i. the repair of the Parish Church, ii. for repair of highways and bridges in the parish, and iii. for relief of the poor and needy inhabitants of the parish.
An immediate, and lasting, effect of the grant of the Charter was to divide the ‘town’s property’ into two. Lands and income therefrom which had been confiscated under the Chantries’ Act were granted to the newly formed Trust. Lands not confiscated were not granted to the Capital Burgesses, but continued to be administered by the freeholders of the town. The earliest accounts we have show that the income of the Capital Burgesses in 1557 was £30 5s. 5d. and that for the ‘Town’s Burgesses’ was £7 11s. 4d. in 1566. It was not until 1681 that arrangements were formalised for the administration of the income of the ‘Town’s Burgesses’ by the incorporation of what is now known as the Sheffield Town Trust, which remains a significant and active charity.
For centuries, the town’s affairs were administered through two bodies – the Twelve Capital Burgesses (having its priorities, but by no means all of its concerns, in maintenance of the Parish Church and its many activities) and the ‘Town’s Burgesses’ (later the Town Trust), concerned with ‘civic’ matters such as maintenance of roads and bridges, street lighting and the building and upkeep of a Town Hall.
The Church Burgesses are not a ‘church body’. Their full title of ‘The Twelve Capital Burgesses and Commonalty of Sheffield’ properly represents their origin and interests, with Trustees drawn from the freeholders of the town, caring for the needs of all its inhabitants. But from earliest times, in recognition of the prime responsibilities laid upon them in their Charter, their meetings are described as ‘church meetings’ and their estates and property are often (but quite erroneously) called ‘Church lands’. The title and description ‘Church Burgesses’ became accepted from the seventeenth century, with the term ‘Capital Burgess’, from 1673, being applied to the Chairman, for the time being, of the Trust, who traditionally holds office for one year. The Commonalty – the generality of the citizens of Sheffield – has never played any significant part in the affairs of the Trust. Public meetings of the Trust ceased at the end of the seventeenth century and the public has never been involved in the appointment of Trustees. …..
….. The story of the Church Burgesses Trust down the centuries is one of active involvement in the affairs of Sheffield. They had their origin in meeting the social and spiritual needs of the whole town. ….. The records of the Trust provide fascinating glimpses of growth and change as a Tudor town of two thousand inhabitants grew to a modern industrial City of half a million. The original Charter and Account Books of the Trust (which are complete from 1557) are kept in the Sheffield City Archives.