As it is the Season of Good Cheer, this fortnight’s entry in my ongoing blog consists of an unpublished extract of my soon to be completed book on ‘Legendary London’, which deals with a number of specific subjects which are highly relevant to some of the other matters previously focussed on during the course of some of my previous entries: with particular relevance to the old English traditional folk song ‘When I was Just A Little Boy’, transcribed in full at the beginning of this month.
Chapter Three: The Singing Head ‘Neath Tower Hill.
"I have been on the White Hill, in the Court of Cynvelyn,
For a day and a year in stocks and fetters,
I have suffered hunger for the Son of the Virgin,
I have been fostered in the land of the Deity,
I have been teacher to all intelligences,
I am able to instruct the whole universe….."
"The Hanes Taliesin".
To the modern reader, the mere mention of the words "Holy Grail" automatically conjures up images of Glastonbury Tor and Chalice Well in Somerset, where the ancient Abbey ruins supposedly cast their mid-summer shadows over the common grave of King Arthur and his fickle queen, Guinevere. The oldest Arthurian connection with the Holy Grail, in terms of original manuscript antiquity at least, is an ancient Welsh poem entitled "The Spoils of Annwn"; which appears in translation in "Wales and Arthurian Legend" by R.S. Loomis (publ. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1956). Unlike the image of the Christian chalice that has been handed down to us in Mediaeval Grail Tradition, however, that which is invoked by the author of this particular poem is one infinitely more ancient than that with which we normally associate the heroic deeds of King Arthur and his Knights; for, at the heart of their quest in "The Spoils of Annwn", is a mighty cauldron; decorated with blue enamel and adorned with precious and highly sought after pearls. A far cry indeed from the Christian cup of later times.
Curiously, the image that is here presented has a link to one of London’s most ancient legendary traditions; the origins of which can be traced back right the way into the most primordial depths of antiquity. A legend which re-invokes the long lost world of the first great Celtic Heroic Age. That legend is the tale of Bran the Blessed, whose story features in a traditional Welsh heroic composition which makes up part of a cycle of eleven tales referred to collectively as "The Mabinogion". In a tale entitled "Branwen daughter of Llyr", we follow the fortunes of the archetypal God King Bran, who, we are told, had been raised to the High Kingship of Britain at London; and who also seems to have been the possessor of a mighty cauldron with magical properties. Bran’s connection with the prehistoric symbol of the sacred cauldron is significant for a variety of reasons, some of which are dealt with in full by the great twentieth century Druid scholar Stuart Piggot:
"Cauldrons themselves, their manufacture made possible by the technological expertise of Celtic metal-smiths, could be sacred vessels, and beyond the Celtic world the Cimbri sent to Augustus "the most sacred cauldron in their country" as a diplomatic gift. Strabo, recording this, goes on to describe the sacrifice of prisoners of war by cutting their throats over such a vessel, and in the Celtic world, the well known passage in the Berne scholia on Lucan’s lines about Gaulish deities describes sacrifices to Teutates- "a man is put head first into a full tub, so that he is suffocated"……..there may have been a representation of this very rite on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Wells with votive offerings are frequent in Romano-Celtic contexts, as at Coventina’s Well on Hadrian’s Wall, with human skulls among the votive gifts, and the severed head continues its association with wells and springs in modern Celtic belief……" (1)
In the previous chapter we looked at the possible connection between the mythical giant known as the Dagdha or the Dagda and the legend of Brutus and Corineus. In view of this then, it is perhaps significant that, like Bran, the Dagdha also has a mythical association of his own with a sacred cauldron in many ways akin to that which is said to have been possessed by Bran. For, as Nora Chadwick points out on pages 171/2 of her monumental work on "The Celts", he "….had a cauldron of abundance which no one could leave without being satisfied. The bronze cauldron is a distinctive artifact of the late Bronze Age in Ireland. The Dagda’s cauldron was made the subject of satire in the "Second Battle of Moytura", where the Fomori, the enemies of the Tuatha de Danaan, prepare for him a stupendous porridge in his cauldron (another tradition has it that the porridge was to be eaten from a huge hole in the ground), with its vast ladle, and the Dagda is invited to eat it all on pain of death; but having swallowed it all he even scrapes the bowl with his fingers…."
Of all the examples of a classic Celtic type sacred cauldron which archaeology has recovered for us, perhaps the most significant is the vessel previously mentioned by Piggott which is generally referred to as "The Gundestrup Cauldron". This high quality silver votive vessel, recovered from a peat bog in Denmark, seems to have been deliberately dismantled into its various component parts and left on the surface of the bog in order to be absorbed. The Classical writer Athenius reports that the Scordistae of the Middle Danube region of Eastern Europe appear to have placed a higher worth upon silver than on gold; something which might have its origins in their adherence to a Lunar Cult; and this particular cauldron may have its origins in a cultural background of similar type. More recent assessments of the evidence however have led to a number of theories relating specifically to Scythian and other Indo-European contacts with the west, originally emanating from the Eurasian Steppes. (2)
In contemporary Britain too, similar sacrificial offerings of valuable metal artifacts appear to have been made at this very same time. A Bronze helmet from the Thames near Waterloo Bridge and the so-called "Battersea Shield"- likewise from the Thames, are both clearly votive objects, specially forged for the specific purpose of ritual sacrifice. And, the fact that such sacrifices appear to have been made in the immediate vicinity of where the City of London would later spring up may well be indicative of the presence of some kind of sacred centre close at hand during the self same prehistoric era when these items were originally crafted. Add to this the fact that our Grail King Bran is linked not only with London, but also with the Island of Anglessey in ancient Welsh legend, and we may well have found a vital clue as to exactly what it was that stood in the immediate vicinity of where the modern financial centre of the country is presently situated. From what we know about the prehistory of these islands, Anglessey appears to have been a veritable hotbed of Druidism at the time of the Roman Conquest; a fact which will be touched upon again in Chapter Five. And, in view of the fact that, as John Michell is himself swift to point out, Britain as a whole appears to have been the most important centre of Druidism at this time, it is by no means impossible that London’s association with the ancient Grail Keeper of "The Mabinogion" may well point to the existence of a Druidic place of initiation; and possibly even a Druidic College on this very site; previous to the arrival of the Romans. My friend and correspondent John Michell’s own assessment of the prevailing situation in Britain at this time is summed up briefly in the following extract from his "Flying Saucer Vision":
"Rich men from all over Northern Europe sent their sons to study with the Druids in Britain. Even after their suppression by the Romans it is recorded that the son of a King of Scotland was sent to a surviving Druid College in the Isle of Man. As in the religious colleges of India, their learning was expressed in a series of verses. This does not imply simply the composition of rhymes and riddles which could easily be learned by heart, but the use of a poetic language, a way of expressing ideas so that their true meaning was hidden from anyone who did not have the poetic key. Through this medium, the poetic lingua franca, which transcends all barriers of language, race and time, the Druids had received their knowledge of the nature of God, the true history and origin of the human race and the shape of the universe from their predecessors, the creators of amazing astronomical instruments such as Stonehenge…….."(3)
So what was it, this "poetic lingua franca" to which Michell refers, and how is it relevant to the story of "Legendary London"? Put simply, the use of hidden symbolism in traditional story telling to conceal some hidden truth is something which is common to all ancient cultures, from the tribal Indians of North and South America, to the Australasian Aborigines, the Maoris and a whole host of other indiginous peoples too numerous to list here. In Britain, such storytelling has survived in the fragmentary remnants of ancient Celtic mythology that have come down to us in collections such as "The Mabinogion", "Hanes Taliesin", and "The Red Book of Hergest". Whether through poetry or storytelling, these ancient traditions conceal a series of hidden ciphers incomprehensible to the uninitiated; which have the appearance of being mere fictions intended to entertain or amuse the unlettered and ignorant. One such specifically London legend is that of Bladud of Bath, "The British King Who Tried to Fly", which consists of a sort of indiginous reworking of the age old myth of Icarus.
According to this particular London legend, King Bladud of Bath, whose apparent descendant, King Leir, is by all accounts amongst the most famous British monarchs of Shakespearean theatrical tradition, is supposed to have constructed a flying machine. The story goes that both he and it came to a sticky end when the thing spun out of control before crashing in a heap on the site of where St. Paul’s Cathedral now stands; atop of Ludgate Hill. As we shall see, the idea of a prehistoric flying machine is itself a pure fantasy woven into a traditional story intended to conceal a series of hidden truths from the uninitiated. In spite of this, however, the story of Bladud and this mysterious apparatus, through which he acquired his legendary powers of levitation, has inspired a vast output of literature over the centuries, beginning, first of all, with Geoffrey of Monmouth, and continuing on down to the present day. The various traditions collected and collated by Howard C. Levis F.S.A. in his "Extracts from Old Chronicles and histories relating to Bladud the Ninth King of Britain with Several Portraits", first published privately at the Chiswick Press in 1919, and since re-issued by Publishers West Country Editions, has engendered much speculation, from John Michell and others, as to how it was, exactly, that Bladud or his Druids acquired their legendary knowledge of flight in the first place. Some of these theories, such as those recounted by Michell below, in connection with Bladud’s supposed use of "ley lines", have engendered more than a few raised eyebrows, in contemporary scientific circles at least, but are nevertheless worth taking into consideration from the point of view of mere curiousity:
"Perhaps the Druids flew in the following way. On the eve of the day when the line, on which stood a chambered mound, became animated by the rising sun, they would enter the mound, seal the entrance and spend the night in accumulating a degree of energy by which the animal magnetism of their bodies became raised to an active pitch. The appearance of the morning sun, stimulating a current of terrestrial magnetism all down the line to the mound, would act on the body charged with energy, enabling it to levitate and move along paths of a certain level of magnetic intensity. This suggestion has not been proved by experiment and obviously it still leaves a great deal unexplained. Above all there are questions such as, to what extent the Druids made use of vehicles in their flight, and whether they travelled physically or in a disembodied state, perhaps assuming such outward form as the circumstances might require."(4)
In chapter four of my book "The Lay of the Last Minstrel: Sir Walter Scott and the Border Minstrel Tradition" I demonstrate how, in an age before even the most primitive of maps and charts, the indiginous inhabitants of the Scottish Borders incorporated a series of poetical ciphers into their native folk singing traditions which enabled them to use specific landmarks in the landscape to guide themselves across the countryside using the shortest routes possible. Concealed within seemingly fantastical stories of Fairy kidnap, magical flight, the levitation of objects and Fairy Halls lies a wealth of hidden topographical knowledge which may well have been used by past generations of Borderers in place of maps and compasses. The general structure of the ballads and stories make them easy to remember and pass down from generation to generation on account of their generally entertaining nature; thus ensuring their preservation from one century to the next. And, in the case of the King that flew, we have a vital clue as to the true origins of his story, in the landscape just a few short miles as the crow flies from where Bladud himself once reigned:
"In 1929 a remarkable discovery in the country around Glastonbury Tor was claimed by Miss. K. Maltwood and described in her book "A Guide to Glastonbury’s Temple of the Stars". Below the Tor, she says, lies a giant Zodiac arranged in a circle of diameter some ten miles. Inside the circle figures, zodiacal and legendary, are marked out on the ground by natural and artificial features, such as hills, streams, ditches, boundaries and roads. Their size is so great that they can only be detected on a large scale map and can never be seen, so that only those who knew the secret of the figures could ever suspect their existence. Miss Maltwood supports her theory with allusions to the figures in early writing and folklore, particularly to those of Arthurian legend. She suggests that the figures, which correspond to the pattern of constellations in the sky were laid out by an ancient race of astronomer-priests, and that the secret of the Zodiac was revealed only to initiates into their cult……." (5)
Did the legend of Bladud and his mythical attempts at flight once conceal a cleverly formulated myth relating to the only means by which such a circle as this might in reality have been viewed? And, if this could have been so, what, if any, is the connection between this mysterious circle of figures, collectively referred to as "The Glastonbury Giants", and Ludgate Hill in the City of London? Curiously, the writer, artist and film maker Mary Caine claims to have discovered a similar Zodiacal circle of figures in the London basin; centred upon the suburban town of Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey; itself just a short distance by train from the hustle and bustle of Waterloo Station. Stranger still is the fact that one of London’s most ancient, but least known, traditional folk songs would appear to provide some sort of symbolic evidence that somebody may have believed in the existence of such a strange phenomenon long before Mary Caine’s twentieth century discovery of a collection of gigantic terrestrial effigies referred to by her as "The Kingston Zodiac". The ballad itself, which is entitled "When I was a Little Boy" and is given in full below, contains direct references not only to London, but also to some of its pre-Great Fire landmarks; most notably the original spire of St. Paul’s Cathedral; long since replaced by the world famous dome constructed by the seventeenth century Grand Master Architect, Sir Christopher Wren.
"When I was a little boy to London I did go,
But now I’ve turned a roguish blade, my courage it will show.
My feet was on the table, sir, my head was hanging down,
And, I jumped over Kingston’s Hill and never touched the ground,
With my tooral laddy, whack fol laddy, tooral looral ling.
I bought myself a little bull about three inches high;
The people all admired me, its for me to hear him cry.
The people all admired me for he made such an awful sound,
He made the steeple of St. Paul’s Church come tumbling to the ground
With my tooral laddy, whack fol laddy, tooral looral ling.
I bought myself a flock of sheep and most of them were wethers;
Sometimes they bought me fine wool, sometimes they brought me feathers.
They were as fine a flock, sir, as anyone could possess,
For every month or six weeks’ time they brought me six lambs apiece,
With my tooral laddy, whack fol laddy, tooral looral ling.
I bought myself a little hen, and of her I took great care;
I set her on a mussel shell and she hatched me out a hare.
The hare grew up a milk-white steed about eighteen yards high,
And if anyone tell you a bigger story, I’ll tell you it’s a bloody lie.
With my tooral laddy, whack fol laddy, tooral looral ling.
I bought myself a little box about three acres square;
I stowed it into my breeches pocket, the guineas they were there.
Now the people all admired me, thanked me for what I’d done,
And they gave me a portion of silver and gold about ten thousand ton.
With my tooral laddy, whack fol laddy, tooral looral ling. (6)
As we shall now see, the only "True" zodiacal effigies missing from these seemingly nonsensical verses are Leo, the Cat of the Zodiac, and Virgo, its Maiden. As we shall also see, in Chapter Five, the Hare is an animal with proven links to at least one major aspect of the primordial Mother Goddess worshipped here in Britain before the advent of Christianity; whilst the money box could well be symbolic of the financial interests represented by the celebrated "Whyttingtonian Cat" who we have previously encountered in the opening pages of our story. So, on the face of this evidence, whilst the Hare of our folk ballad may well correspond to the Astrological sign of Virgo, the Cat or Lion may be directly linked to the money box referred to in the final verse. But what, the reader may well be asking, do I myself have by way of evidence to support this theory?
Curiously enough, in the shadow of Kingston Hill, which features in verse one, is Ham House, constructed in 1610 by Sir Thomas Vavasour, himself a member of the powerful family of northern magnates previously linked to the Fitz-Warines and Lord Mayor Richard Whyttington in the opening chapter of this book. Towering directly above Ham House and enclosed within Richmond Park, is the self same ancient prehistoric earthwork or "Toot", known as "King Henry VIII’s Mound", which we encountered in connection with Brutus and his Trojans in the second chapter of this book. Here, a gap in the trees still provides the inquistive walker with a magnificent view of St. Paul’s Cathedral from the summit of this ancient tumulus. We shall concern ourselves at length with the full legendary significance of this ancient site, which is associated with a London legend of its very own, at a later juncture. In the meantime, let us return to the reference to St. Paul’s in verse two of the folk song above. For, if Wren’s architectural masterpiece is being viewed from the top of "King Henry VIII’s Mound", and the viewer turns, looking out in the opposite direction, it is the Taurean Effigy of Mrs. Caine’s Kingston Zodiac that is seen stretching out into the distance. Thus, from this magnificently placed prehistoric vantage point, what may well be the "Little Bull" of our Kingstonian Zodiacal ballad, takes on the appearance of being "about three inches high". Coincidence? Who can really say? Whatever the truth, it is certain that the mound was here well before the ballad, or indeed the Cathedral; as previous archaeological excavation has proved.
In a similar way, if one resorts to looking at the map of Mrs. Caine’s Zodiac, as it appears in her book "The Kingston Zodiac" (published Capall Bann 2001), one of the apparently male figures of the Gemini Effigy has the appearance of standing "on the table" with his "head…hanging down". In this instance, the table in question is none other than the Cancer Effigy, which, in the case of this particular Zodiac, is a boat or ship corresponding to the constellation "Argo Navis". The singer’s "flock of sheep", most of which are "wethers" and which seemingly correspond to Kingston’s Aries Effigy, some of them providing "wool" whilst others give him "feathers", are here seen to simultaneously manifest this Zodiac’s Libran aspect; which at Kingston is not a pair of scales, but a bird in flight. Libra, as Astrologers know, is an air sign, so it is perhaps appropriate that Kingston’s Hogsmill Brook, a stream that flows past the Libran Law Courts, which correspond to its previously mentioned Zodiacal Scales, derives its name from John Hog, a former mill owner, who, by Mary Caine’s reckoning, was originally of Danish extraction; his name corresponding to that of a hawk in his ancestors’ native tongue.
Curiously enough, the link between wool and feathers previously referred to is perhaps connected to the image of St. Blaise, patron saint of wool combers, who appears on a pillar in the nearby Parish Church of St. Mary’s; complete with wool comb in hand. As we shall see in Chapter Eleven, Blaise has his own unique connection with Custom Law and Common Right and appears to have been a key icon amongst those apparently responsible for the foundation of the early Trade Union Movement. Perhaps it is St. Blaise, in his incarnation of Bleise, the legendary instructor and mentor of Merlin in the Grail Tradition of Malory, who composed the primordial original of this apparently Zodiacal nonsense ballad in the first instance. Of the many stories attributed to Blaise, whose martyrdom is supposed to have involved his being flayed alive by a group of tormentors fully equipped with wool combs, perhaps the most important is that connected with his capture by Roman hunters and animal tamers out looking for animals for the circus arena: a location where many a Christian martyr had perished before him. Where else would they have found an abundance of such creatures than in a Zodiac? The one at Kingston, as we shall see, has its very own wolf, corresponding to the wolf tamed by Blaise, who is likewise accredited with miraculously saving a child from choking to death on a fish bone. Kingston’s coat of arms is "The Three Fishes", which, as we shall also note, have a link with London’s Fishmonger’s Guild; and ultimately with its Lord Mayors Lovekyn and Walworth; forerunners of Richard Whyttington; whose own Mayorality corresponds with the approximate date at which St. Blaise was first depicted in the very church at which Lovekyn himself, a native of Kingston, is previously known to have worshipped. Is this all just coincidental, or were Whyttington, Lovekyn, Walworth, the Vavasours and Blaise before them, party to some lost secret connected with the mysterious legend of Bladud of Bath?
An island in the river not so very far away from where the Hogsmill Brook enters the Thames is referred to as "Raven’s Ait" on old maps, a fitting Libran reference to the battle standard of invading Danes who devastated much of the surrounding area in the time of Alfred the Great; some of whom were doubtless ancestors of the later miller of Kingston. The raven is the bird of death and corresponds once again to the Welsh Goddess Rhiannon’s sacred birds which have frequented the Tower of London’s "White Hill" since before written records began. As the river flows down towards the Sagittarian horse at Richmond, which is none other than the "milk-white steed about eighteen hands high" referred to in verse four, it passes what used to be "The Three Pigeons" public house; built within the grounds of what was once the Duke of Buccleuch’s former residence along the Petersham Road. Perhaps the name of the pub has some mysterious and subliminal connection not only with our Libran bird, but also with another ballad, that of "The Three Ravens". If so, it is an amazing coincidence, for amongst Buccleuch’s own numerous acqaintances was Sir Adam Ferguson, the Duke’s personal secretary when the latter travelled to Lisbon in 1819, and himself, as we shall now see, a near relative of the present author with a mysterious and well documented connection with the raven of his very own.
More to follow in next month’s Blog…..