On the track of medieval wildmen in the Curious County
(This first appeared in Fortean Times FT 318, September 2014). See front cover image.
Woodwose on a font at Barking-Cum-Darmsden, near Needham Market
SUFFOLK, mainland Britain’s easternmost county, last year briefly adopted the controversial slogan “the Curious County”. The churches of mostly rural Suffolk do harbour a curiosity - woodwoses (literally “wild-men-of-the-woods”), hirsute manimals brandishing clubs. Particularly in Suffolk Coastal District, few churches are without at least one woodwose. Believed to date from the 15th century (“the 1400s”), these are carved on the staves of stone baptismal fonts, or as a reliefs hewn into the porch of a church, where they are usually to be found with a club and shield raised as they close in for combat with a dragon of wyvern.
The woodwoses on the font of St Andrew’s Walberswick are ruined – some of their heads are gone and you can just make out the wavy hair on the torsos that remain. When I first saw the ruined Walberswick woodwoses, I mistook them for a particularly hairy Adam and Eve.
The Protestant religious reformers – enforcing an edict of 1540 from the Tudor boy king Edward VI ordering the smashing of statues in churches – showed intolerance to these and other Suffolk woodwoses. Some local woodwose-bearing fonts only survive because the idolatrous bits were plastered over until the commissioners had gone away.
Ruined woodwose on the font at St Andrew's Church, Walberswick. Possibly defaced by the commissioners of Henry VIII enacting an edict ordering the destruction of religious statues, or other instructions in the short reign of Edward VI, or by self-appointed local Cromwellian iconoclast William Dowsing and his deputies.
While the seaside village of Walberswick is a famously fashionable holiday resort, the haunt of Hampstead literati and the Freud family in particular, Suffolk’s woodwoses tend to be in out of the way places that are unlikely to feature in glossy Sunday supplements any time soon. The area of the county with the greatest density of “woodwose churches”, inland from the “Suffolk Heritage Coast” and west of the A12, is so far off the map there's actually a Lonely Wood there, and several “Lonely Farm” addresses. (I later learnt that this region is known officially as the Blyth Valley, although how you know you're in a valley in such a pancake-flat county isn't clear to me.)
Cross-legged woodwose, with shield, Halesworth St Mary
You could take in most of the woodwoses of Suffolk Coastal District and the western edge of Mid-Suffolk District in a day by car. A determined, fit cyclist in good weather could do them in a full day. I made a woodwose run from Halesworth station to the villages of Crediton, Cratfield, Badingham and onward to Darsham station in a day's cycle ride before sundown, including pub and tearoom stops for the rainy bits. Peasenhall and Sibton are do-able by bike in a long afternoon from Darsham or Saxmundham stations.
The diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich even lay on occasional “woodwose bike routes” that cover two or three “woodwose churches” in a day at a more leisurely pace than my Stakhanovite two-wheeled woodwose road trips of well over 20 miles each.
Holidaying “smart set” Radio 4 listeners (and – a few summers back – then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, up for his hols in the trendily retro holiday resort of a Southwold, where beach huts change hands for over £100k) mostly dash into the town of Halesworth just long enough to fill the 4X4 up with posh dinner party ingredients and then speed out again. Halesworth has its own miniscule museum, and is famed among trainspotters for its “moving platform”, a combined railway platform and level crossing. But souvenir postcards of the less chic destination of Halesworth, however, are hard to find in any of the town’s shops. The parish church of St Mary's Halesworth does, however, have woodwoses on the font.
The standard woodwose-on-a-font configuration is four woodwoses facing outward, rarely more than a foot high, generally flanked by sitting lions, along with the angels and winged animals representing the Four Evangelists - Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Most of Suffolk’s woodwose-bearing fonts conform surprisingly closely to this arrangement. The head of the bull signifying St John in Halesworth Church looks strangely satanic, while some of Halesworth’s font woodwoses stand with their legs crossed, their clubs resting on the ground.
Griffon representing one of the Four Evangelists, and a strangely Christ-like woodwose, both on the font at St Mary's Church, Chediston
From Halesworth the road to my next woodwose stop, the very small and mostly thatched village of Chediston, took me along a “roadside nature reserve” and then through miles of rape fields with the occasional field of alpacas.
Fields of yellow rapeseed - such as this one on the Halesworth road, on the borders of Chediston Civil Parish - are a common sight in the Spring in Suffolk's Blyth Valley
The churchyard of St Mary’s Chediston is a thoroughfare, with a battered “Please drive very slowly in the churchyard” sign. The woodwoses on the 15th century font in the otherwise bare church of St Mary's Chediston looked almost exactly like Halesworth’s, except that some of the woodwoses have surprisingly Christ-like beards and expressions, and the seated lions flanking them had broad grins.
Another woodwose on the font at St Mary's Chediston, flanked by the traditional smiley lions. There are well over a hundred of these octagonal fonts, usually with just the lions, across Suffolk
The next woodwose font halt was St Peter’s Sibton, (you can see the ruins of a Cistercian abbey in a distant field, although St Peter's was a parish church, never an abbey church). The four Sibton woodwoses have more muscular limbs and thicker hair, and stare suspiciously at you as they guard the font. Most beasts in medieval art were in some way allegorical, and woodwoses were said to represent strength. They’re also the right shape to fit neatly within the space of the upright staves of a font – tall and thin, holding up a club.
A wary looking woodwose at St Peter's Church Sibton, catches the evening light through the windows.
The Church of St John the Baptist lies on the edge of ancient market town of Saxmundham, right next to its Tescos and Waitrose superstores. St John’s has just two woodwoses on the font of its church, and I have to agree with the assessment of church’s own guide: “a splendid specimen in an excellent state of preservation.”
A Renaissance work of art - Saxmundham's woodwoses wear contemporary late 15th century woollen hats
Saxmundham's woodwoses are 18-inch Renaissance works of art – why they aren’t as well known as the works of Michelangelo is beyond me. Their extraordinarily detailed little faces have all the dignity of Biblical patriarchs, their features could past muster as a slightly retro Neanderthal reconstruction. Flanked by the standard smiling lions (these ones have their tongues out), the burly, thick-limbed “Sax” wildmen sport late 15th century woollen hats and are otherwise naked under their thick, superbly detailed fur. One has his club raised, another has his club resting on the ground, his legs crossed.
More imposing than little woodwoses on font staves – in the humble opinion of this woodwose aficionado, at least – are the woodwoses carved on Suffolk church porches. Sometimes they're well over two feet high.
The porch of St John the Baptist Badingham has a very worn outline of a woodwose with long hair on its head and a thick club raised at an equally worn wyvern. Either the elements have eroded both protagonists away, or the religious reformers have defaced him. In any event, you can barely see their outlines. Out in the middle of nowhere, nearer Badingham than anywhere else, I came across a stately hall whose name had long faded from its sign in the drive, leaving only the words “No Salesmen” legible.
The barely visible outline of a badly eroded (or defaced?) woodwose on the porch at John the Baptist, Badingham
The (from a woodwose enthusiast's viewpoint) boring old font is St Mary’s Church, Cratfield has realistic Biblical human figures, possibly damaged by Tudor Church reformers. Cratfield’s woodwose on the porch may be less than two feet tall, but he’s impressive. With his legs tucked into the space available above the arch over the door, he has an angry expression, short curly hair on his head and a pointy beard While most woodwoses on Suffolk church porches are fighting two-legged wyverns, this one's closing in for a fight with a fat dragon with two sets of legs. (I appreciate that the font depicting the seven sacraments - plastered over when the King's commissioners came round and restored in Victorian times - is regarded as one of the better examples of devotional art in England, but from an atheist woodwose-spotter's point of view it's less interesting.)
Woodwose on the porch at Cratfield church closes to do battle with a wyvern (not shown)
The wyvern with whom the Cratfield woodwose is about to do battle
Badingham and Chediston are far enough away from anywhere else that those doing the woodwose run might consider a stop at the King’s Head (aka The Low House) in Laxfield. The King's Head's listed as a “heritage pub”, which could be code for “eccentric layout", as it's a pub with no bar. I walked into a dead end with taps and barrels, and a price list hanging up, and a sort of partition where the crisps and peanuts were on display, and someone asked if they could help me. (I won’t call her the barmaid, there being no actual bar.) “I'm looking for the bar,” I said. “We haven't got one.” They bring the drinks to your table, someone in a warren of multiple snugs with what look like high-backed pews. (I later found out there's another pub-with-no-bar locally at Sweffling, and that the dead end with the beer pumps is called the "pump room".)
Arriving at Peasenhall, you get a sense you are back in civilization. Not only are there signs for the A12 again (East Suffolk’s link to London, and the nearest it gets to a motorway), there are two tea rooms.
Woodwose spotters hold up as the finest example of the genre either Cratfield or Peasanhall porch, and I have to say the latter particularly magnificent example is my favourite. The woodwose above the porch at St Michael’s Peasenhall is in slightly better condition than Cratfield’s, he has the happier face of a serene although slightly comic yet slightly disturbing noble savage. Peasenhall Man’s body hair falls in luxurious curls, and he has a lot of fine detail on his shield, while the wyvern apporaching him across the porch is more wriggly and serpentine than Cratfield's obese wyvern.
In my humble opinion the finest example of a Suffolk woodwose, at Peasenhall ("the valley where peas grow").
I was impressed on my three woodwose tours how all the local churches are left open to the public all day. The proprietor of the Halesworth wine shop said St Mary’s Halesworth had been robbed just the week before, with money taken from the office and a Mother’s Day flower display ruined. The dragnet was closing in on in the ecclesiastical thieves, though, with both Norfolk and Suffolk Constabularies on the case. Just over the Norfolk border in Gillingham, someone had robbed an undertakers, and left an identical shoeprint to whoever had plundered St Mary’s Halesworth. A sign up at Badingham featured a pick-up truck silhouette with a red line through it, and warned of “CHURCH THEFT!” The sign noted; “Trucks and workmen will be accompanied by a church warden. If not – there are probably stealing the roof.”
One of numerous "CHURCH THEFT" posters - this one is at Badingham
Missing person poster for the then recently stolen John the Baptist font cover at Saxmundham
Nobody really knows what the woodwoses are doing there, and why there are so many of them in Suffolk. Are they just for show, or do they commemorate some kind of local English wildman-of-the woods, a British Bigfoot, or what cryptozoologists call “relict hominids”? There are indeed accounts of two historical Suffolk wildmen, including a capture of a wildman in the Suffolk port of Orford whose description was remarkably similar to the manimal depicted on so many of the county’s churches.
Cistercian abbot and historian Ralph of Coggeshall, writing in approximately 1200, recorded in his Chronicon Anglicanum how around 1161, “In the time of King Henry II, when Bartholomew de Glanville was in charge of the castle at Orford, it happened that some fishermen fishing in the sea there caught in their nets a wild man. He was naked and was like a man in all his members, covered with hair and with a long shaggy beard.”
Ralph added that the Orford wildman “would not talk, even when tortured and hung up by his feet… He was allowed to go into the sea, strongly guarded with three lines of nets, but he dived under the nets and came up again and again. Eventually he came back of his own free will. But later on he escaped and was never seen again.” When I last visited Orford Castle a few years ago, there was an atmospherically dimly-lit display with a realistic model of a bald, man-sized captive Orford wildman with a long beard. There are still woodwoses on the font at the church St Bartholomew in what Visit Suffolk call the “diminutive gem” that is Orford today.
Woodwose on the font at St Bartholomew's Church, Orford
And there’s a Wild Man Inn the village of Sproughton, on the western edge of Ipswich. This pub’s said to owe its name to a creature who during its construction, roughly contemporary with most of the woodwoses in the county’s churches, “terrified the builders in a nearby waste.” (Phenomena – a book of wonders, p. 111, John Michell and Robert J. M. Rickard, Thames and Hudson, 1977.) Its current pub sign features a cartoon figure wearing a spotted animal skin and carrying a spear and a club, reminiscent of The Flintstones.
It turns out my woodwose tours were just scratching the surface, taking in a mere eight examples of woodwoses in churches in the part of the county where they are most abundant. In the course of my investigations I discovered that Suffolk also has woodwoses in its churches at Woolpit (as in “green children of Woolpit”), Waldringfield (with goat’s feet), St Andrew’s Alderton (north of Felixstowe), Wissett, the Church of the Assumption in Haughley, Framlingham, St Mary’s Yaxley, the church of St Mary in Harkstead and the church of St Mary, Newbourne, (in whose churchyard George Page, “the Suffolk giant” is buried). And I've since had a chance to view the woodwoses on the font in the disused, fire-damaged St Clement's Church, Ipswich, which will hopefully become an arts centre soon, and the woodwoses on top of the porch at Mendlesham, North Suffolk.
Ruined woodwose in the church at Theberton, which also has on display fragments from the Theberton Zepplin Crash of 1915.
Ruined woodwose in the church at Woolpit, West Suffolk, "a symbol of strength and evil... said to come from India" according to a label in the church. It could possibly have come from the well shrine of Our Lady at Woolpit, demolished by Henry VIII's reformers
Since this article first appeared I've also tracked down woodwoses on the fonts of the churches in Barking-cum-Darmsden, St Michael the Archangel, Holy Trinity Middleton(-cum-Fordley), and some ruined woodwoses at church of St Andrew's Covehithe, and in Theberton.
Slightly damaged woodwose in Holy Trinity, Middleton-cum-Fordley. The damage to the head, as in many woodwose fonts I've seen, may have been to accommodate hinges to a font cover, added later.
Ruined woodwose on the font at St Andrew's Covehithe. A leaflet for visitors of the church says they were defaced by William Dowsing's men in Cromwellian period. But Dowsing's journal makes no reference to woodwoses or any images on the font, only to religious "pictures" including stained glass images and images of "cardinals". It's possible they were defaced earlier, either by Henry VIII's commissioners, or (more likely) by Edward VI's officials.
There's also the top half of a ruined woodwose on display at the church at Letheringham, restored there after being found in a local garden. See here. (link added 10/06/16).
Outside Suffolk, woodwoses in churches are rare in the rest of England, although there’s one over the Norfolk border in All Saints, Hilborough. Zuilen, now part of the Dutch city of Utrecht, proudly displays woodwoses on its coat of arms, as do the Earl of Atholl and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, and there was even St Onuphrius, a woodwose saint in both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. He was a fourth-century “Desert Father” of Egyptian Christianity who lived as hermit for many years and had thick body hair and a loincloth made of leaves.
It’s tempting to think Suffolk’s woodwoses remember an actual briefly captive wildman, or even a species of relict hominid living among us in the flat plains of East Anglia, But folklorist Gregory “The Wildman Inside and Outside Europe”, (Gregory Forth, Folklore volume 118, no 3 Dec 2007) points out that unlike the Asian and American traditions of Bigfoot, almasti and so on, there are very few surviving accounts of actual sightings of hairy wildmen in Europe. At the time most of Suffolk’s woodwoses were carved on the county’s church fonts and porches somewhere in the 15th century, they were “thought to be mythical” or at least to “live outside Europe,” according to Forth.
Unlike the Asian and North American big hairy men, who were viewed as a different animal to humans, the Christian doctrines of Man made in the image of God and of The Fall meant that woodwoses had to become “‘feral men’, originally human but who had grown apart due to ‘outrageous hardship’” or turned wild through an “upbringing among wild beasts.” The woodwose’s coat of hair was regarded as a consequence of their “wildness… not their natural state”, according to Forth. One distinguishing feature that set Europe’s woodwoses apart from the wildmen and big hairy men outside Europe was that they had long hair on their heads, and beards, making them more human-like.
Some of the attributes of European woodwoses were that they didn’t speak, they seemed to enjoy thunderstorms, they had some kind of Tarzan-style “sympathy” with animals, as well as knowledge of medicinal plants. Sometimes woodwoses snatched and ate human children. Male woodwoses were said to occasionally abduct human women, while “wildwomen" (female woodwoses) had the power to disguise themselves as more mainstream women to seduce male humans.
The Renaissance saw a rebranding of the woodwose as an extinct creature, or a savage human, like the “savage” peoples that were then being discovered outside Europe. By the 17th century, “wildman” had pretty much vanished from English literature and written sources, as a fascination for the newly discovered non-European “wild” races had instead taken hold.
But to bring the Suffolk woodwose mystery up to date, the Paranormal Database received a report from a lorry driver who in May 2011, en route to Suffolk's busy international container port of Felixstowe, was passing through fields near the village of Elveden along a busy stretch of the A134 road in the north-east corner of the country. He saw from his cab a light brown-grey ape-like creature, at first walking on all fours, with an “almost hyena-like movement”, before it got up its hind legs. The “semi-human like” creature looked up at the witness, showing its “forward facing eyes, long snout but a shorter face than a deer” and “small upright dog-like ears,” before bounding off on all fours again.
And shortly after my woodwose rides I interviewed “Phillip” (not his real name) who told of a strange late afternoon encounter in the summer of 2011 while walking with his partner back from a festival in Peasenhall towards their tiny campsite in Sweffling. From his description, Phillip’s sighting was along a stretch of Rendham Road, with woods immediately to the east.
In an experience he estimated lasted two or three minutes, Phillip “became aware something was watching us, following us… almost parallel with us.” He “didn’t know what it was,” it was at first “just a feeling I got,” Phillip's “periphery vision on the left side saw this figure… if I turned my head I didn't see it.” The entity was “(a) vague impression, it didn’t look directly at us.” He felt whatever it was “looking sideways at us, not turning its head.” Phillip caught the occasional “fleeting glimpse, like a snapshot." It was “there one minute and not there.” (The description of an entity walking “parallel” but not visible if you look at it directly is noteworthy. Some of the “Black Shuck” phantom dogs in the traditions of Suffolk appear alongside witnesses on lonely country roads at night and walk in step with them, and are benign and protective – but only if you avoid looking them in the eye.)
Sketch by "Phillip" of the entity he encountered on the road to Peasenhall in 2011, copyright "Phillip"
Phillip’s partner didn’t see anything. Phillip described what he saw: on two legs, “seven or eight feet tall… silver grey, dark.” He had the sense that it was “friendly". He’d had a similar encounter earlier in woodland in Wales, with an “impression of a tall and hairy” entity, “not as distinct” as his Suffolk manimal encounter.
An artist by profession, Phillip sent me a pencil drawing of the apparition on the road from Peasenhall. It showed a tall, very hairy, bulky biped in profile with stooped shoulders and an indistinct head, with trees in the background, more Bigfoot that woodwose. He confirmed that neither he nor his partner knew at the time of the wildman on the porch of the nearby St Mary’s church, Peasenhall. Could it be that the little woodwose carvings actually commemorate some local protective spirits, like the “tall, hairy entity” that Phillip experienced – glimpsed fleetingly, yet giving the people of that corner of Suffolk in the fifteenth century the impression of something “friendly”?
www.suffolkonboard.com has details of local bus services, and the book-in-advance Suffolk Links “Demand Responsive Transport” services (Blyth, Loes and Pathfinder) on which you can take bikes. Abelio Greater Anglia’s East Suffolk Line has hourly trains to Saxmundham, Darsham and Halesworth from Ipswich and Lowestoft, also with space for bikes. For diocesian woodwose bike routes see the diocese of St Edmundsbury website.
Orford Castle's website is here
Regular FT contributor Matt Salusbury is freelance journalist based in Dunwich. His Mystery Animals of Suffolk (CFZ Press) is due out in 2015, and meanwhile has its own Mystery Animals of Suffolk Twitter feed already.
In response to the article that originally appeared in Fortean Times, there were a couple of letters. There was a suggestion by Stephen Mickelewright of Hampshire that East Anglian woodwoses commemorate the "Silvatici", who fought on after the Norman conquest and became experts in subterfuge and camouflage and guerrilla warfare against Normans. May also have inspired Robin Hood and his merry men. Very few accounts survive, Herward the Wake in the East Anglia Fens and also Eadric Wild in Shropshire, who became immortalised in local Wild Hunt legends. A group of masons in East of England may have incorporated them as an in-joke, own little act of defiance against Norman churhcgoers. Mickelwright quotes The English Resistance by Peter Rex.
Mark Utting of Thornham Magna, Suffolk in a letter to FT suggests the Biblical wild men such as Nebercubnezzer, "humbled by God" and ejected from society, living like a beast, represented those cast out and later redeemed by baptism. Fonts were not "objects of veneration", so were left alone by the religious reformers. Those depicting religious scenes, crucifixion, etc, were plastered over until Victorian times (Cratfield) scraped away (Blythburgh) or smashed, including woodwoses ( at St. Andrews church, Wickham Skeith)
Update: Wingfield, the tombs of the De La Poles.
Saracen's head crest on the helm of John de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, in Wingfield. Inspiration for the Suffolk woodwoses?
In a remote corner of North Suffolk lies Wingfield, seat of the De La Poles, the Earls of Suffolk until Tudor times. It used to have a castle (now ruined) and a college (still there, but not a college anymore.) It really is out of the way, an hour's cycle from the nearest town (Eye) and a long way from the nearest village (Hoxne). About the only landmark between Hoxne and Wingfield when I cycled on a bleak November day was a huge pile of mangle wurzels (turnips for cattle feed.)
In the church are the tombs of the De La Poles, and what's striking is the helms (helmets) that the seated figures of the De La Pole men rest on. They're full-face helms with crests, and the crest shows the severed head of a "Saracen", the Muslim foes of the crusaders, mostly from Egypt or Turkey. The best example is from John de la Pole, who served under Henry VII. The Saracen on his helm is dignified but a bit of a racist caricature, with a broad nose, thick lips and flowing locks and a beard, with earrings. And he looks awfully like a Suffolk woodwose.
Could the woodwoses on fonts and church porches - roughly contemporary with John De La Pole - have been inspired by the coat of arms of the Earls of Suffolk, somehow a sign of local pride? (There's still a Saracen's Head pub in Sudbury and a Turk's Head pub in Woodbridge.)
Update: All Saints, Sudbury
I was in Sudbury in early February, and took a photo of something dark and indistinguishable on the roof of the now disused All Saint's Church. Its silhouette was vaguely suggestive of a woodwose. Lo and behold! Back home, Photoshop revealed it to be a hairy man with a beard and club! It could be a woodwose, or it could be a "Saracen", although you'd hardly expect a Saracen to adorn the roof of a Church. What I thought to be a possible spike on top of the Saracen's helmet could just be a metal bar keeping the woodwose(?) in place. There's a confirmed woodwose, kneeling with a long club, on the roof of St Mary's Haverhill, not too far to the West of Sudbury.
The Woodbridge wildman spoon handle
Late last year there was a treasure trove hearing at Ipswich courts over a gold spoon handle that showed a hairy, bearded wildman with a club, found by detectorists near Woodbridge. It had been snapped off just below the feet. Prof Ron Hutton (he taught me on my History degree back at the University of Bristol in 1986!) told BBC News that it was among the oldest examples of wildmen in England, from around 1400. Suffolk Archaeology Service told me the British Museum were valuing the wildman spoon handle, and that Ipswich Museum were possibly interested in buying it. Suffolk Archaeology kindly allowed me to use their photos of the spoonhandle in Mystery Animals... but the license doesn't extend to using it on my website. You'll have to buy the book!
And below are the pub sign for the Calthorpe Arms, Clerkenwell, London and the arms of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (the family originates in northern Germany. They're both fine examples of wildmen on an English coat of arms.
Words and images (except "Phillip's" drawing of his road-to-Peasenhall entity encounter, © "Phillip") © Matt Salusbury 2014-2016. Last updated 21 July, adding a new photo of the wildman on the HRH the Duke of Edinburgh coat of arms and a link to the woodwose at Letheringham.)
None of this would have been possible without Simon Knott's excellent Suffolk churches website.