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Crockern Tor illustration (7k)

Illustration of Crockern Tor by David Taylor

The power of lonely places

Jeremy Harte

Crockern Tor is a barren hill in the heartless centre of Dartmoor. It is nowhere near shelter and stands exposed to every blast of the bleak winds. Yet in this inhospitable place hundreds of men used to meet and discuss the most important matters of law and government. They were the chief miners of Devon, and their attendance here was required by ancient custom; it is spoken of as an old thing in 1510 [1]. Statutes and ordinances were only effective if pronounced at this place; the four stannary towns, as they were called - Tavistock, Plympton, Ashburton and Chagford - each sent twenty-four burgesses, while others attended to hear what business was undertaken, so that for the duration of the court this bare spur of rock had a greater population than most villages in the country.

The last recorded meeting, in 1749, adjourned hastily to Tavistock nine miles away. By 1793 memories of the old custom were fading past [2]. Rough piles of the native granite could be identified as benches and furniture among them the supposed table of the Lord Warden and Stannators, which was dragged away for a more mundane career as a water shute [3]. The tin trade died, and Dartmoor was left to the ponies and pixies. But the Lord Warden of the Stannaries had been an important person in his day. He answered directly to the Price of Wales, and there was no appeal from his decisions; his Parliament (for so it was called) had jurisdiction on all matters except those of life and limb. And yet this state functionary held court on a granite outcrop within the greatest wilderness of southern England. It must have made sense to someone - and at a comparatively late date, too; for tin-mining was not introduced into Devon by the Cornish until the fourteenth century.

Crockern Tor is the omphalos of Dartmoor, the most central point accessible by the old trackways over the waste. As a site equidistant from the four stannary towns, it would balance their competing claims for pre-eminence. But why meet on the grim hillside? The wealth of the tinners could easily have contributed to some kind of hall, like the Spech House set up for similar business by the free miners of the Forest of Dean [4]. Open-air meetings, levying as they did such a toll on human endurance, must have had something more to them than geographical minuteness.

Perversity of this kind is not confined to Devon. The landholders of Shetland chose 'the windiest and least comfortable of places for their deliberations' [5] - an island in the Loch of Tingwall, originally accessible from the shore only over a half-drowned causeway of boulders. Member of the court met in the loch, while seven or eight hundred men listened to their proceedings from the edge of the dry land. John Michell, in his pioneering study of these Viking sites, produces evidence that the place is central to Shetland's Mainland, but it is hardly creditable that judges would get damp feet simply to satisfy a surveyor's accuracy of +/- 0.01 miles. The wet stones must have had a further, ritual significance.

Just such an island in Loch Finlaggan was the seat of government for MacDonald of Islay, the Lord of the Isles, until 1615. The Faroese have retained their parliament at T rshavn, a site peculiarly ill-equipped for a capital town, simply because it lies on a meridian axis; but this alone cannot account for the Lo/gting making a choice of a flat spit of rock protruding into the harbour. Here again a panel of judges - the thirty-six 'best men' - were ritually isolated from the crowd of landholders who attended on their decisions [6].

Free assemblies of any kind are the exception rather than the rule in English history. The vision of a democracy of independent Saxon landholders, answering only to their king, was a radical fantasy created a thousand years after the event [7]. But the processes of early English government did involve meetings on a similar scale to the Viking Things, in the form of shire courts; and these seem to have been held at equally awkward sites. The men of Knet met at Pennenden Heath in 1072; those of Durham held their county court by the River Tyne. According to Roger of Wendover, the tyrannical bishop Walchere was lynched at one such gathering, together with many of his supporters [8]. I have never been present at a lynching, and have no idea of the practicalities involved; but it must be a very large crowd indeed that can fall on and dispatch a hundred men. Clearly these shire courts were no formalities.

The men of Berkshire met at Cwichelmslaewe, now Scutchamer Knob, a barrow on a lonely stretch of the Wessex Ridgeway remarkable only for the extent of the view from its summit [9]. Excavations here discovered the moot-stake, an oaken stump bound with willow twigs - unless this was a post for the beacon which was later set up on the mound [10]. No sign was found of any burial, although it was clearly believed that the old king Cwichelm lay buried beneath the place of judgement [11].

Secklow and Offlow in Buckinghamshire and Staffordshire, both of them moot sites [12], suggest that hlaew, 'pagan burial mound', could be compounded with names taken from the heroic tradition; seg means 'warrior' and Offa was presumably the legendary king of Angeln [Not necessarily - Offa was a popular Anglo-Saxon personal name. R.N.T.].

Scutchamer Knob was a magic place. The Danes struggled uphill to camp here in 1006, observing a prophecy that if they did so they would never take ship from England again - which came to pass in the usual grim way of prophecies, for the men of Wessex killed them, every one. Meetings of one kind or another persisted on this hill. As late as 1620 the inhabitants of East Ibsley, on being granted a charter for a fair, demanded in the interests of their monopoly that the customary market at the barrow be put down [13].

Customs, however enduring, must have some point of origin. The Berkshire moot at Scutchamer Knob cannot be older than the county of Berkshire, which seems to have been composed from the regiones of the Sunningas and Readingas in historic times [14]. The deliberate creation of a territory meeting at a hlaew is recorded still later, from Worcestershire in the 960s. At this date the county was already divided into the subordinate districts known as hundreds, three of which were amalgamated to form the new hundred of Oswaldeslow, which was to form part of the assets of the Bishop of Worcester. His Grace held court on Low Hill, at the junction of three parishes, and his delegated oversaw seven manorial courts, all of them at geomantic sites - Sidbury Gate, Radford Bridge, Pickt Oak, Rye Elm, a hill in Flodbury, Stoke Hill and the stones called the King and Queen on Bredon Hill [15].

What stands out here is the deliberate avoidance of settlements as focal sites, down to a very local level, and the choice of places with an aura of magic about them. Bredon Hill 'still feels very alive'; the hillfort at its summit (Baenintes burh in a boundary charter of 779) inspired a thirteenth century landowner to build a chapel to St Catherine and an eighteenth century one to erect a folly, not to mention being the site of a beacon, a stone that goes to drink and is ritually visited on Good Friday, Druidical caves and a curious witchcraft legend [16]. The bishop was not choosing sites for their folklore value, of course, and it would be uncharitable to suppose that he wanted his tenants to gather in the wind and rain simply to stop them wasting time at meetings. Both he and they must have shared a symbolic code which identified the right kind of place for a popular assembly.

Anglo-Saxon hundreds met at some curious places. Following Gomme's original survey [17] and the work of the place-name scholars [18] there has been a lively interest by Earth mysteries researchers into moots held at trees [19], mounds [20] and stones [21]. But it is only when a whole county is reviewed that we can see how this sort of obscure and magical site is the norm and not the exception. The boundaries of the Dorset hundreds, as they existed for fiscal purposes in 1086, have been reconstructed with some confidence [22] and although changes were made later in the middle ages, the system was durable enough for its details to be recovered from eighteenth century tradition [23]. Of the thirty-three hundreds which represented territorial divisions [24], eleven met at barrows; seven on hills, in hillforts or at earthworks; another six along lanes, in a combe, at a stone, or under a tree; which leaves only nine named after minster churches or royal vills. The moots were in regular use, despite the apparent inconvenience of their sites. Seventeen hundredal courts were held a year, and at least twice yearly the view of frankpledge required the presence of several people from each village. Yet the sites were not intended for crowds - the barrow at Hasler was in a thicket, and the hundred of Tollerford met at a river crossing. Sometimes those attending must have been sorely tempted to adjourn the moot to the nearest town - from Badbury to Wimborne, or from Stone to Cerne, or from Uggescombe to Abbotsbury. But they remained faithful to the isolated hills and mounds.

Individual studies of hundredal moots are rare. The hundred of Copthorne in Surrey met at Nutshambles Bank near Epsom [25] and this site has been plausibly identified as a junction both of boundaries and of tracks from each tithing in the hundred. But there is more to the symbolism of boundaries than an attempt to secure impartiality between the constituent settlements, for Nutshambles (originally motscaemoles, 'benches for the moot') was on a boundary before Copthorne hundred was ever conceived [26]. These boundary moots are intended to occupy a no man's land, a liminal zone. The lengths to which this could be taken is suggested by the Herefordshire hundred of Wolphy, earlier wulfheie,'enclosure in which wolves are caught' [27]; a wild place indeed.

Hundredal courts met at deliberately liminal, ambiguous sites. The Norfolk moots included three barrows, two hills, two earthworks, a pit, a valley, a cross, a gallows, two fords and two gates [28]. The symbolic value of the ford and the gate as boundary zones would have been familiar from the Bible as well as mediaeval romance, while the ancient mound served in both Celtic and Tauronic tradition as the place for secret contact with the Otherworld. As for the gallows, was it not the final boundary, between life and death? Eggardon hundred in Dorset met at a hillfort bisected by a parish and forest boundary which passed through a barrow, Wrechebergwe, and then through a gallows in the middle of the earthwork [29]. Today this line is marked by an old solitary thorn. Queer things go on at Eggardon [30].

The conjunction of moot at gallows is a natural one, when you consider that hundredal courts originally had jurisdiction in cased of theft and murder, and might hang the guilty. Execution, like judgement, took place in the marginal area away from the settlement. The Old English Life of St Juliana describes her martyrdom in contemporary terms: she 'was led near to the border of the land (londmearce neah) and to the place where cruel men thought to kill her' [31]. The gallows tree, offering as it did such easy passage from Earth to Heaven or Hell, might stand at a crossroads, on a hill, at a parish boundary, or all three [32]. It is not necessary to reopen the debate as to whether hanging as a mediaeval punishment perpetuates hanging as a pagan sacrificial rite[33]; execution, sacrifice and martyrdom retained symbolic links in popular culture down to the eighteenth century. The Anglo-Saxon gallows stood in the same liminal space where previous generations had buried the heathen dead. Excavators of such sites in Surrey have been hard pressed to decide whether their mute bones are pagan heroes buried with honour or Christian criminals hastily interred [34].

It seems that, for the early mediaeval people, the judgement and authority did not belong to the familiar world of human settlement; they came from beyond the borders, and were the prerogative of numinous strangers from unknown. Scyld Scefing comes alone over the waves of the immeasurable sea, and founds a line of kings [35]. Royalty had no fixed home in this world. Down to the eleventh century, the kings of England moved restlessly around their ancient domains. We find the Witan convened at such unlikely sites as Nadder, Woodyates, Pentridge and Micheldever [36]. These men had one of the best administrative machines in northern Europe at their service. If they roamed from vill to vill, it was not because they had to keep on the move, but because it was kingly to do so. To be bound to one place was to be a nativus, a serf; freedom, as the ceremony of manumission made plain, was freedom to travel.

Now, I think, we can understand many things: why Walter Map compares the Angevin royal entourage setting out on the road with the wanderings of the Wild Hunt; why Wotan, the father of the gods, is also a lonely wandered; and why kings and beggars have traditionally made the best friends. All these things suggest that royalty derives its power from being marginal. The pauper spurned by society, and the monarch transcending it, meet on equal terms in a common, liminal space [37].

The royal companions, true to their master's itinerary, must have cursed under their breath as they trudged to Thunderfield Common for a council in the 930s. It lies deep in the Surrey Weald, and the tracks are stiff with clay. But this was an ancient holy place, the clearing of Thunor; nearby was the hill of Woden and the nearest hamlet was Burstow, 'the meeting place at the burh' [38]. Isolation itself made this woodland clearing a fit seat of government. From the endless sea of trees stemmed the right to own fertile estates in the north of the county; and the link between chalk and clay was perpetuated well into the middle ages, each downland manor making claim to a dependent farm in the Weald. As late as 1312 John de Dene, who farmed south of Dorking, held his tenancy on condition that he brought a cartload of brushwood over the North Downs once a year to help enclose the demesne land at Ewell Court [39]. As a means of acquiring 16.5 feet of fencing this was not cost-effective, but the laborious climb of man and carthorse out of the wood was a symbolic journey.

Not that isolated seats of government were a pagan survival; they expressed the spirit of the age, which was a Christian one. Columba and his successors at Iona brought the faith to the Picts and Scots; Aidan established the Northumbrian bishopric at Lindisfarne. In both cases the spiritual authority conferred by living on an offshore island outweighed any practical problems of inaccessibility. When the Normans brought their own brand of common-sense to England they promptly moved the bishoprics of Ramsbury, Selsey, Crediton and Elmham from their lonely, holy sees to convenient urban sites at Old Sarum, Chichester, Exeter and Norwich.

It is hard to know, in the early period, whether a burh is being used as a proto-urban site or as an isolated holy enclosure. I think we are too prone to assume that these places of royal authority were meant to be centres of population; they may have been quite the reverse. When the Mercian underking of Surrey gave Chertsey Abbey a handsome grant in the 670s, he issued the charter from a royal site, 'villam Frid-euuoldi iuxta supradictam fossatum Fullingadic' [40]. But this vill was not a town but a hillfort - St George's Hill at Walton-on-Thames; the very same place where Gerrard Winstanley, a thousand years later, would call for a new dispensation to be issued by and for landless men on the common waste. Frid-wold's seat of power was not proto-urban, nor was it in any way central; it lay right next to the boundary earthwork dividing the Fullingas (whoever they may have been) from the Woccingas. Nor was this kind of site a pagan survival.

In Mercia itself, Frid-wald's kinsman Frid-uric confirmed the status of the hillfort at Breedon-on-the-Hill by founding a monastery there in the late seventh century [41]. The iron age earthworks can hardly have been needed for defence; here. if anywhere, we are at the heart of Albion and the royal residence of Tamworth stood nearby. Breedon is one of those geomantic sites that has everything - an imposing hill, the sharpness of its contours exacerbated by modern quarrying; evidence for dominating first-century houses, forty feet across; enough Roman material to suggest continued importance for the nearby villa; a Celtic placename, which as at the Worcestshire Bredon must imply a meaningful status for the hill in the period of language contact; the Saxon monastic cells and stonework; and finally a parish church which, in legend, was carried uphill by doves, stone by stone, when the villagers obstinately tried to build it down among their homes [42]. They wanted the holy place to be central, but divine authority moved it to a marginal location.

Churches built in hillforts are not uncommon [43] and stranger things than doves have been seen in them. At Danbury in 1402 the Devil appeared in the church during a terrible thunderstorm, taking on the form of a grey friar and 'behaving himself verie outrageouslie' [44]. Danbury is the highest hill in south-east Essex, the 'burh of the Daenningas' (whoever they may have been) and its hillfort contained a beacon as well as the twelfth-century church.

It seems that in the Anglo-Saxon period fairs were held upon Breedon Hill, for a sceatta of the Mercian coinage has been picked up there. This interpretation is strengthened by the discovery of sceattas at other hillforts - Hunsbury, Totternhoe, Walbury, Old Sarum and Hod [45] - combined with our knowledge of later fairs at ritual sites like Scutchamer Knob. Sceattas have also been found at over twenty Roman sites, not necessarily urban ones, and many of these must have been similarly regarded as enclosures outside the pale settlement.

It may strain credibility to think of commerce as a marginal activity, but that is exactly how it was seen by mediaeval authorities. Right up to the Civil War, the practice of buying wholesale and selling retail was regarded as fundamentally immoral, especially when food and essential products were at risk from monopolisation, and marketing was hedged about with the kind of restrictions which we now reserve for gambling and commercial sex. Fairs were profitable, but they might bring moral as well as medical infection to the community; it was not simply considerations of space which led to their being banished, as often happened, to a ritual hill on the outskirts of town.

There was always a creative tension between centre and margin, between the place where people lived and the seat of occasional religious, political or economic activity. Might this not account for some of the cases of settlement drift at Saxon towns? We know that in the seventh or eighth centuries, traders and settlers made a conscious choice to build their homes at Fordington, Hamwith, St Albans and Lichfield when they could have perpetuated at Roman sites of Durnovaria, Clausentum, Verulamium and Letocetum. There must have been practical advantages in patching up the ancient walls and buildings, and the refusal of townsfolk to do so suggests that the gaunt Roman ruins were special places - too special to be inhabited. On the other hand, the survival of their names means that official business was still symbolically linked. One Roman town, the City of London, was an unoccupied site [46] and the minster church stood in a space as unoccupied as Portchester today. The choice of Pol's Stump, a stone or cross, as a moot for the Londoners [47] may go back to this phase of purely ritual occupation. It is ironic to stand outside England's cathedral today, while the traffic of the nation roars and rumbles past, and to think of a time when the inhabitants of Aldwych laid its foundations in deliberate isolation from their homes, standing alone among the haunted walls.


1: Thomas Westcote, A View of Devonshire in 1630, Exeter 1845, p76
2: R.Hansford Worth, Dartmoor, Plymouth, 1953, p478
3.Anna Bray, Traditions, Legends, Superstitions and Sketches of Devonshire, London, 1838, 1 p113
4.H.P.R. Finberg,The Gloucestershire Landscape, London, 1975, p99
5.Eric Linklater, quoted in John Michell, At The Centre Of The World, London, 1994, p50
6.Michell, op.cit. p66, 69
7.Christopher Hill, Puritanism And Revolution p50-122
8.George Lawrence Gomme, Primative Folk-Moots, London, 1880, p63, 67, 77
9.Leslie Grimsell, Folklore Of Prehistoric Sites In Britain, Newton Abbot, 1976, p145
10.Crampton, The Ridge Way, p72
11.Margaret Gelling, Signposts To The Past, London 1978, p135
12.Penny Drayton, 'Danelaw Gods and goddesses - the place-name evidence', Mercian mysteries No.16, 1993, p7-12; cf. Gelling op. cit.
13: Crampton, op. cit.
14: Margaret Gelling, The place-names of Berkshire, p813-822
15: Gomme, op. cit. p220
16: Brian Hoggard, 'Bredon Hill', Gloucestershire earth mysteries, No.18, 1994, p22-5
17: Gomme op. cit. p215ff, was the inspiration for Alfred Watkins, The old straight track, London, 1925 p143-6
18: Margaret Gelling, Signposts to the past, London, 1978, p210
19: Penny Drayton, 'Landmark and sacred trees in Leicestershire and Rutland', Mercian mysteries, No.9, 1991, p8-12
20: Mercian mysteries No.2, 1990, p13 and No.7, 1991, p12
21: Picwinnard No.2, 1977, p15; Gloucestershire earth mysteries, No.4, 1987, p37
22: Domesday Book: Dorest, ed. C. and F. Thorn, Chichester, 1983
23: Jeremy Harte, Cuckoo pounds and singing barrows, Dorchester, 1986, p24; and, for the non-archaeological sites, John Hutchins, The history and antiquities of Dorset, 3rd edn 1861-70, p205, 261, 714 and 347
24: Six of the thirty-nine hundreds then existing were individual manors; what a later age would have refreed to as 'liberties'. I have not counted these.
25: Dorothy Nail, 'The meeting place of Copthorne Hundred', Surrey archaeological collections, No.62, 1965, p44-53
26: John Blair, Early medieval Surrey, Stroud, 1991, p21
27: Gelling, op. cit. p211
28: Gomme, op. cit. p105
29: Harte, op. cit. p48
30: Harry Poole, The gate on the hill, Bridport, 1987, p1-3
31: R.K. Gordon, Anglo-Saxon poetry, London, 1954, p176
32: Vince Russett, 'At the gallows pole', Picwinnard, 1978, p15-20
33: Hilda Ellis Davidson, The lost beliefs of northern Europe, London, 1993, p97
34: Rob Poulton, 'Rescue excavations on an early Saxon cemetery site and a later (probably late Saxon) execution site at the former Goblin Works, Ashtead', Surrey archaeological collections, No.79, 1989, p67-97
35: Kathleen Herbert, Looking for the lost gods of England, Pinner, 1994,p15
36: David Hill, An atlas of Anglo-Saxon Enmgland, Oxford, 1981, p83; and cf. p87
37: Katherine Briggs, A dictionary of British folk-tales, London, 1970, p25, 67, 235
38: Blair,op. cit. p19
39: Register or memorial of Ewell, Surrey, ed. Cecil Deedes, London, 1913, pix
40: Blair, op. cit. p16, 21
41: Mercian studies, ed. A. Dornier, Leicester, 1977, p155-68
42: I am grateful to Hilary Underwood for her account of this site.
43: Harte, op. cit. p16
44: Andrew Collins, The knights of Danbury, Wickford, 1985, p16
45: Hill, op. cit., p122; and Harte, op. cit., p54
46: Alan Vince, Saxon London - an archaeolotgical investigation, London, 1990, p13-17, 81-2. Vince has anticipated some of my conclusions on bioth scaetta distribution and early urban settlement drift.
47: The Aquarian guide to legendary London, ed. John Mtthews and Chesca Potter, London, 1990, p201

Crockern Tor

Additional information by Bob Trubshaw

As Mercian Mysteries readers are not necessarily familiar with Dartmoor, I have added some supplimentary folklore about Crockern Tor, which is slightly north of Two Bridges.

Although Crockern Tor is the least impressive of the High Dartmoor tors - Higher Whiten is higher, the conical Longaford more striking - it is nevertheless a significant landmark in the middle of the moor and disproportionately enriched with both folklore and history.

In former times the tor was personified as a grim old man riding a skeleton horse. The sound of the bones rattling on the rocks could be heard on stormy nights. Local people evocatively recognise 'the gurt old sperit of the moors, Old Crockern himself', grey as granite, and his eyebrows hanging over his glimmering eyes like sedge, and his eyes as deep as peat water pools.

The ghostly Wish Hounds, a version of the better-known spectral Gabriel Hounds, are said to emantate from Wistmans Wood which is less than a mile away. I wonder if Old Crockern was once the leader of this Otherwordly hunt?

There are some unusual acoustics at Crockern, which have the effect of a natural amphitheatre. Even in a light wind a person speaking normally on Parliament Rock (a rockpile on the western slope of the main tor) can be heard in the area used as a court.

Information from High Dartmoor by Eric Hemery (Robert Hale 1983) drawing upon folklore research by Theo Brown [kindly supplied by Tracy Brown of Wisht Maen magazine].

Open air meetings

The Victorian folklorist Sir George Laurence Gomme was the first to investigate open air meetings. He published Primitive folk-moots: open-air assemblies in Britain in 1880. He argues that in former times all judicial gatherings took place in the open air, at customary locations. Despite enticing suggestions to move indoors, the populace insisted that those taking part in a meeting within a building could be easily bewitched.

Under the Anglo-Saxon system of government there were local folkmoots (roughly equivalent to present-day parish councils). These elected representatives for local hundred moots (roughly equivalent to present-day local authority districts), who in turn elected representatives for a national parliament or Witenagemot (meaning 'meeting of wise men'). As a system of democracy this had the advantage that everyone knew the person they were electing.

Hundreds were known as 'wapentakes' within the Danelaw, a word which appears to mean 'show of weapons'. It is still current practice in the Swiss farming town of Appenzel that, at an annual meeting of all townspeople, only the men may vote - and only then if they are wearing a sword. Is this a shadow of a practice which once appertained at wapentakes?

In Scandinavia the system was set up around 'Things' or 'Tings'. These were open air meetings for mythology required that the location for the Thing imitated the open plain, high in the branches of the World Tree, where Odin and the Norse pantheon sat.

The most local level of Thing was the Hus-thing (a word which has entered modern english as 'hustings') or house-meeting which elected represntatives to the regional Mote-thing. The national parliament was the Al-thing. In parts of Britain settled in the Dark Ages by Scandinavians the word 'Thing' still survives, slightly corrupted, in place-names. Perhaps the best example is on the Isle of Man where the annual island parliament meets in the open air (with only a temporary canvas roof) at the Tinwald.

Information on open air meetings mostly taken from John Michell's At the centre of the world (Thames and Husdon 1994).

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.23May 1995.

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