The Legend of St Cuthbert and a Wandering Brown Cow

One afternoon in Durham, Jonson and his companion managed to extract themselves from Bishop Neile’s assiduous entertainment to indulge in a spot of antiquarianism. durham cathedralThey toured the various monuments within Durham’s mighty Norman cathedral, stopping in particular to look at those of St Cuthbert, and his biographer, the historian the ‘Venerable’ Bede.

St Cuthbert (635-687) was the prior of the monastery of Lindisfarne, on a small island joined by a tidal causeway to the Northumbrian coast. He spent many years as a hermit on the more remote island of Inner Farne, in later life becoming a bishop in Northumbria, before returning to the Farne Islands where he died.

St Cuth tomb

Following Viking attacks in 875, his body was carried by devoted monks around northern England, settling for a century in Chester-le-Street; after further travels, he was eventually interred east of the High Altar in Durham cathedral in 1104.

The much-visited shrine became a focal point of a cult of St Cuthbert, that also was celebrated on Lindisfarne. The ornate tomb was dismantled after the Reformation and the body reburied in a plain grave behind the altar, reputedly still uncorrupted. Cuthbert’s tomb was again opened in 1827 to disprove the apparently miraculous preservations of his remains.

Jonson was also to hear of another of the myths associated with the saint, the way in which Cuthbert’s final resting place was chosen. In 995, monks fearful of further Viking raids, were searching for a suitable site when they followed two milkmaids looking for a brown or ‘dun’ cow to a rocky peninsula in the River Dee. Here, on Dun Holme, the cathedral was built to house Cuthbert’s shrine. Durham_Dun-Cow

This legend was portrayed in a stone carving, described in 1593 as ‘a monument of a milk maid milking her cow … on the outside of the north-west turret’ of the cathedral’, which though ‘defaced by the weather … to this day is there to be seen’. This will have been what Jonson will have been shown though what you see today is its replacement from 1775. And the myth is perpetuated in ‘The Dun Cow’ inns of Crook and Witton-le-Wear in County Durham.

Fenwick Lawson’s  sculpture ‘Journey’ (1999), carved from seven elm trees, also commemorates the monks’ long travels with Cuthbert’s remains, and is now on Lindisfarne.



Subsequently a bronze casting of it was made, and you can see this now amongst the shops and eateries of Millenium Square in Durham.



Jonson then paid his respects to the other notable resident of Durham Cathedral, the Venerable Bede (c.673-735). Bede was a monk and historian in the monastery at Jarrow, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c.731) was first printed in Strasbourg after 1474, and in numerous sixteenth and seventeenth century editions.

BedeBede was initially buried at Jarrow, but subsequently re-interred in the Galilee chapel of Durham cathedral in a blue marble tomb; this was dismantled following the Reformation, and the remains buried more simply under two of the original marble stones.

Hey Ho, the Wind and the Rain

Walking out of York, the travellers seem to have found themselves on the wrong end of a change in the weather. Perhaps they could feel it coming on, or knew that fine conditions were unlikely to last: they decided not to take a detour to spend the night at Sir Henry Frankland’s house at Aldwark, three miles west of Tollerton, but press on a further nine miles to Topcliffe, ‘desiring to take advantage of the fairness of the weather‘, as the account puts it.

Copyright Beinecke Library

Charles Stanhope’s annotations to his copy of Jonson’s Works, now in the Beinecke Library, Yale

In so doing, they abandoned a plan to meet up with Sir Edward Stanhope, who was – interestingly enough – the cousin both of Sir John Stanhope, who’d assaulted Sir Charles Cavendish of Welbeck in 1599, and of Charles, later Baron Stanhope, who left some enigmatic annotations in his copy of an edition of Jonson’s Works, including the claim to have met Jonson at Lyon when the poet was travelling with Sir Walter Raleigh’s son, the imaginatively named Wat, in 1612-13. I hope the two knights weren’t too put out  – you can imagine them sat silent in the acutely empty hall at Aldwark, more than a bit deflated by the news of their intended guest’s sudden change of plan.

Needs must, however, and for a long distance walker the weather isn’t a factor easily ignored. Jonson and his companion seem to have had a reasonably easy time of it up till now, at least if the account is faithfully taking note of conditions. Only two spells of rain are mentioned: at Hoddesdon it had thundered and rained, and delayed their progress for most of the day, while north of Huntingdon they’d been ‘frecked by rain‘ – ‘freck’ here being either a shortened form of ‘freckle’ or a variant of ‘freak’, meaning dappled or flecked. It’s a great but rare word – used, so the OED tells me, by George Sandys in his translation of Ovid and then, much later, by John Clare. It catches the experience of being touched by raindrops falling thinly enough to be felt individually, rather than merging – as they often go on to do – into a more general, more thoroughly wettening, rain. These are the gradations that you become aware of, and that matter, when you spend a lot of time outdoors.

Raindrops_on_water resized

Here, though, north of York, the conditions appear to have become notably worse. Having made it through dry to Topcliffe, they spent the next day ‘shut up with rain‘. When they set out again on the following morning they were forced to divert to Sandhutton (not to be confused, confusingly enough, with Sand Hutton), ‘where we shifted by reason of a huge shower [which] overtook us‘. They were to arrive wet at Darlington the next day, but the worst was still to come. As the companion somewhat miserably records, north of Ferryhill they were assailed by a storm: ‘by the way I lost my gossip, and came muck wet‘ to Durham. Another fine phrase, that – very wet, soaked through – noted now by the OED as an English dialect term, but its origins not all that well described. ‘Muck’ here is an intensifier, but does it come from the same root as ‘mickle’, sometimes given as ‘muckle’, meaning ‘much’ or ‘a lot’? Or does it instead stem from the word ‘muck’ meaning ‘dirt’? In fact, it could be both: there is a now relatively unusual phrase, ‘wet as muck’, which works on the same principle as ‘common as muck’, but uses ‘muck’ to mean ‘very’ or ‘completely’, seemingly losing any association with dirt – hence the otherwise not very intelligible phrases ‘drunk as muck’ and ‘sick as muck’.

Though I imagine that nothing could have been further from our bedraggled author’s thoughts as he trudged into Durham that day. After all, being soaked by rain and blown about by wind tends to concentrate the mind on matters more immediate and less abstruse then etymology. And there was also, now, the small matter of finding his walking companion: unsurprisingly, as the account notes, he went looking in the nearest inn.

Jonson’s Lost Weekend in York

The last we hear of Jonson during the weekend of 14 to 16 August, is when he is carried away in Sir Arthur Ingram’s carriage to see his ‘Lords grace’. Jonson’s companion seems not to have been included in this hospitality by, we think, the archbishop of York, Tobie Matthew.

TobiasMatthewTobie Matthew (1544-1628), a graduate of Christ Church, Oxford in the 1560s, had been archbishop of York from 1606. An orthodox Calvinist, he had previously been the bishop of Durham from 1594, where he had gained a reputation for his indefatigable preaching and his suppression of Catholicism. On his promotion to York, he cooperated closely with the gentry and magnates on the Council of the North. Sir John Harington described Matthew’s time as dean of Christ Church in the 1570s where

‘it was hard to say whether he was more respected for his great learning, eloquence, authority, countenance given him by Queen Elizabeth and the great ones; or beloved for his sweet conversation, friendly disposition, bounty, and above all, a cheerful sharpness of wit, that so sauced all his words and behaviour.’

Bishopthorpe-PalaceIn the summer of 1618, the archbishop was resident at his palace at Bishopthorpe, about three miles south of central York, situated on the banks of the River Ouse. Bishopthorpe Palace has been the official residence of archbishops of York since its first building by Archbishop Walter de Grey in 1241. The palace you see today has been extended over the centuries, its frontal elevation added in the 1760s. Jonson would have seen the older north wing built in the late fifteenth century.

MatthewThat Jonson will have been bountifully entertained there is suggested by Matthew’s grand monument in the Lady Chapel of York Minster, which relates that ‘his house was a perpetual scene of entertainment for the rich, and of charity for the poor’. Matthew’s diary records that he was preaching that weekend at Bilbrough, four miles west of Bishopthorpe, so Jonson may well have enjoyed a sermon, for which Matthew was renowned. Matthew had had warm relations with Gilbert Talbot, the seventh earl of Shrewsbury, at whose funeral in 1616 he preached the sermon, so Jonson and he probably will have had several acquaintances in common in that social network.

Less elevated is a description from the later 1600s of one incident in Matthew’s time as bishop of Durham:

‘Tis said this Bishop loved a Girl well & was supposed to have been kind with the wife of one parson, upon whom he bestowed a very good living. The parson desiring to show his thankfulness to the Bishop’s wife Mrs Matthew, went to render his thanks but she angrily replied to him, “That he might thank the hot arsed Queen his wife & not her” for his appointment’.

Further reading: Eric A Gee, Bishopthorpe Palace: An Architectural History (1983)

The King in the North

York is a significant presence in the ‘Foot Voyage’, and clearly more than an incidental destination. When Jonson and his companion pitched up at Thomas Key’s fine inn, The George in Coney Street (long since demolished, more’s the pity) they were ‘no sooner housed but diverse came to see us‘. There were plenty of people keen to greet the walkers, and to offer them a lavish welcome to what was then England’s second city.

York Minster

York Minster

It’s clear that the travellers went off to do a bit of sightseeing, since appended to the ‘Foot Voyage’ account in the Aldersey manuscript are some antiquarian notes in the same hand on a couple of notable events in York’s history, combined with observations on heraldic detail in the Minster. The historical episodes recalled in these notes are moments of national and international political significance: the elaborate celebrations for the marriage of Henry III’s daughter, Margaret, to Alexander III of Scotland, at York Minster on 26 December 1251, which were attended by many of the nobility and knights of both kingdoms, and the public ceremony and feast for the installation of George Neville as archbishop in 1465, a byword at the time for conspicuous consumption. The notes include an abbreviated version of the extensive list of provisions, fuller instances of which survive in other sources.

We also have the companion’s record of a visit he made – without his gossip – to a very grand building to the north west of the city centre:

This day Mr Walter, my Lord President’s steward, showed me the new manor which the king hath new built where St Mary’s monastery stood, and carried me down into the cellar, which is the fairest, largest, and fullest of light that I have seen. Two springs of excellent sweet water rising in the middest thereof.

This is the King’s Manor, which had its origins in a palace hastily constructed on seized monastic lands for a visit by Henry VIII. The new complex was constructed on the orders of James VI and I as the seat for the Council of the North, the instrument of royal government for the whole of the north of England – the ‘Lord President’ mentioned here was Edmund Sheffield, President of the Council until 1619. Construction of the imposing building began in 1611, and by 1616 had already cost £1000; the new manor incorporated the only remaining part of Henry’s palace, the extensive cellar which so impressed Jonson’s companion.

King's Manor

The King’s Manor, York

So what the travellers find in York is a city which is its own centre of political and historical gravity. Interestingly, King James had once spoken of a plan – or threat – to set up his court at York, the union of the Scottish and English crowns raising the possibility of the city’s reinvention as a new nation’s capital.

Sir Arthur Ingram

Sir Arthur Ingram

And it’s notable that Jonson’s other host here, who ‘sent to my Gossip telling him he hoped he would take none other house but his whilst he was in town’, should be the magnate and monopolist Sir Arthur Ingram. Formerly one of the company of wits who met at the Mitre in London, and rebuffed in his attempts to secure court office, he concentrated instead on his growing estates in Yorkshire: he acquired the position of secretary to the Council of the North in 1613, and subsequently bought a lease of the crown’s rights in the alum industry. He built himself an impressive house in York while continuing to accumulate property, office and influence in the county; by 1625, his estates yielded between £4,000 and £5,000 per year. He was living proof – to set alongside the architectural evidence – of York’s capacity to sustain, among other qualities, grand ambition.

Read more stories about York at

‘Whatsoever Tasted of Antiquity’ at Pontefract

In Pontefract Jonson swapped the boots of a traveller for the eyes of an antiquarian, or what might be termed a tourist, for the journal records that they

‘visited the castle and whatsoever tasted of antiquity’.

Here they were shown around the ancient fortress, their guide telling them tales of past events, an oral version of our present-day interpretation boards. Two were apparently noteworthy enough to merit recording by Jonson’s companion.

Richard_II_King_of_England The first was of the alleged murder of the unfortunate Richard II in 1400 in Pontefract castle, having been held there in captivity since Henry of Bolingbroke’s invasion the previous year, and his replacement of Richard as king. Following Bolingbroke’s coronation as Henry IV, Richard was apparently starved to death, though the exact manner of his demise is not known. The account of his ‘murder’ by Exton is common to familiar sources, including Holinshed and Shakespeare.

Richard_II_(Play) This sad event was the subject of one of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays, The Life and Death of King Richard II, first performed in 1595; at its first printing in 1597, its title was The Tragedie of King Richard II.

The castle was the site for several political executions over the centuries, including one described by Camden:

‘here King Richard the Third caused Antony Earl Rivers, King Edward the Fifth, his Uncle by the mother’s side, and Sir Richard Grey Knight, half brother to the same King by the mother’s side, both innocent persons, to lose their heads’ (Camden, 1610, 696)


HowardCatherine02 The other more lascivious tale, was of Henry VIII’s stay at Pontefract in 1541 with his lively young queen, Catherine Howard, and his alleged cuckolding by Thomas Culpeper, when the queen admitted him into her chamber. Both were subsequently executed for the affair, Archbishop Cranmer using an affectionate letter from Catherine to Culpeper as proof.

The Giants of Pontefract

After feasting on venison with Pontefract’s aldermen, Jonson was walking wearily to his bed when he was mobbed by dancing giants. Our account suggests that this, with accompanying music, had been arranged to welcome Jonson, though it may have been that his arrival in Pontefract simply coincided with one of the town’s festivals.

Processional giants, built on wicker frames, and covered with cloth, were carried in towns and cities across England in midsummer and other festivities. Until the mid sixteenth century they often represented religious figures, perhaps the patron saint of the guild that owned them, or David’s combatant, Goliath. The Pontefract giants may have been housed in the castle in the early seventeenth century: as the trusty three military men touring England in the 1630s were to report, ‘we view’d the spacious Hall, which the Gyants kept’.

Although the practise was widely suppressed after the Reformation, the ceremonial use of these effigies continued for several decades in cities including Newcastle and Chester. Such was the gigantic figure of Gogmagog who appears in several places. A poem on a German giant residing at Charing Cross in 1660, describes

German giant


His whole proportion is upright, and streight,
‘Tis nine foot fully, and a half in height:
Not much in debt to Age, his Body clean,
Up to his Stature, and not fat, nor lean;
His Hand exceeds in bigness, and his Span
‘Bove twice th’extensions of another man.

and of others in England…

In his Dimentions set forth at Guild-Hall,
Know ’tis a Poet onely can define
A Gyants posture in a Gyants line,
The Art falls short of Nature, and must err,
When Rules are given her by the Carpenter…
And thus attended with his direful Dog,
The Gyant was (God bless us) Gogmagog.
And He who (fear’d by his prodigious Frame)
Not long since kept the gates of Nottingham;
And many others who have left to all
Succeeding times their proud Memorial[Anon.]

Giants still exist today, though their original religious associations have usually changed to a representation of national or regional heroic figures, or to reflect local folk traditions. Christopher the Salisbury Giant is the oldest one surviving in England, dated from before 1570. Formerly owned by the Tailor’s Guild, he is now incarcerated in Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. Giants like this are still symbols of civic pride, carried in town festivals, intended to bring a joyous air and a larger-than-life structure to such events.

Groups of giants from English and European towns, such as the Dorchester giants, today travel around festivals in the UK and Europe, such as these at Steenvorde

At the Samson festival in St Michael im Lungau

At the Samson festival in St Michael im Lungau

Before the Barcelona Olympics, 625 giants gathered from all over Europe in the nearby village of Matedepera, and in 2000 nearly 70 giants were listed in the British Isles.
British Isles Giant Guild:

Further reading: Daniele Di Bartolomeo, ‘Giants in European Festivals and Processions: a Short Note’, on the ENBaCH website, the European Network for Baroque Cultural Heritage: