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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Pagan survivals in Dunstable

Frank E. Earp

A passing reference to Dunstable appears in a story in R.H. Cunningham's Amusing Prose Chap Book published in 1889. Cunningham's story, entitled 'Tom Long the Carrier' was taken from the work of a much earlier writer, Taylor, and first appears in his work Armado or Navy of Ships, published in 1630. The original reference to both Gotham and Dunstable is taken from a line in the story and, referring to Tom Long, the story teller says: '. . . and above all others the men of Gotham and Dunstable would employ him . . .' On discovering the reference to Dunstable my first though was, 'What is the connection with Gotham?'. The reference to Dunstable led me to a work by the Rev. Worthington-Smith Dunstable and its' Surroundings (County Series, c.1900.). Through Worthington-Smith not only did I discover the Gotham connection but much more.

The Gotham Connection

The connection with Gotham was indeed confirmed through the trade of carrier. A carrier was a sort of latter-day equivalent to the long distance lorry driver and transporter of goods. Through a contact I made at Dunstable, Mrs Vivian Evans a local historian, I learnt that the town was indeed used by carriers on their way along the Roman Watling Street. I was also hoping to find a more direct link with Gotham through the existence of similar legends and folklore. Without wishing to go to deeply into Gotham and its legendary tales in this article, I will merely say that the Gotham legends are concerned with acts of apparent 'foolery'.

One of the Gotham tales concerns the rolling of cheeses down the steep incline of a local hill. I was already aware of a rather tenuous parallel at Dunstable. This is the rolling of oranges at Easter on Dunstable Down. However, one of the Gotham tales exist in its original form in a suburb of Dunstable. The village of Houghton Regis is known loyally as Silly Houghton through the corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word saelig. The prefix was also attached to the village because of at least one foolish act said to have been performed by its inhabitants. The reflection of the full moon was said to have appeared in a pool or puddle . The villagers, believing the reflection to be the moon itself, attempted to retrieve it by raking it out.

Dun the Outlaw and the Omphalos

Perhaps one of the most surprising and for me one of the most rewarding things to come out of my investigation into Dunstable, is the legend of Dun. Dunstable is one of the sites investigated by Mercian Mysteries editor Bob Trubshaw in his now infamous research into the omphalos or sacred centre. The name of the town is derived from the two elements 'dun' and 'stable'. The first of the two elements is quite easy to define. It is derived from the Anglo-Saxon personal name 'Dun' (or derivants Dunn, Dunne and Dunning.). The second element 'stable' is less easy to be certain of. The translation given by Worthington- Smith is 'underground cave' or stable. The idea of a stable being an underground cave is an ancient one. If we look more closely at the Christmas legend, we find that the birth-place of the Christ usually referred to as a stable, was in fact a cave.

To return to Dunstable, we find that the name means Dun's cave or stable. However, there is a second definition of the word stable as it appears as a component of place names. This second definition in the case of Dunstable is closely linked with the first. Stable as a place element is often seen as a corruption of the word 'staple'. Trubshaw and others see this as referring to the sacred pillar or 'staple' (from Old English stapol) marking the omphalos. It is clear that this is the case in some instances. The Nottinghamshire village of Stapleford translates as 'the ford marked by a post or staple'. In the case of Dunstable, Worthington-Smith gives the corrupted version of staple, as stable originally referring to '. . . a staple driven into a stake within the stable or cave, by means of which, and a ring, Dun is supposed to have secured his horse. We find that in Dunstable, all three of these versions could have applied, for it is said that under one of the roads in the town, a chalk cave existed. In this cave was said to be the post and the ring with it's staple.'

We can see that the idea of the cave, post or staple and the omphalos associated with Dunstable brings to mind the cave at Royston in Hertfordshire. Worthington-Smith, investigating the idea of a cave at Dunstable, reports that: 'A cellar, cut in the chalk, under the pavement and slightly under the road, belonging to one of the houses on the west side of Middle Row, is traditionally said to be the cellar or stable, of Dun. It is fabulously stated that a stake, with staple and ring, once existed in the cellar'.

He goes on to state that, on his investigation, the cellar was being use as a storeroom by local tradesmen and, by inference, that it had been cut for this use some time in the past. The cave or cellar investigated by Worthington-Smith was also said to be connected to the Priory Church of Dunstable by means of an undiscovered secret passage.

A variant of the legend of Dun and the staple is said to have taken place in the reign of Henry I. The King, while travelling in south Bedfordshire, came upon the outlaw Dun and his gang at the site where Dunstable now stands. On approach of the King the villains fled. Henry decided to have a pole or pile erected in the middle of the highway and affixed his own gold ring to the post by means of an iron staple. The reasoning behind this strange act is said to have been to see if anyone would dare to steal the ring. Dun apparently did one better and stole both ring and post. The stolen property was traced to his mother's house at Houghton Regis (Silly Houghton) in the possession of Dun himself. The thief was subsequently hanged. No documentary evidence exists regarding Dun older then the middle of the fifteenth century.

An interesting point regarding this version legend is made by Worthington-Smith regarding the Priory and Borough of Dunstable arms. 'The legend seems to founded on the ancient arms of the Priory and Borough. The triangle which depends from the top of the Dunstable shield of arms, is heraldically termed a pile, and is the origin of the king's pole or pile of the tradition. Fixed to the 'pile' is a horse shoe, which resembles in shape a 'staple', and does duty for a staple in the tradition. Hanging from this staple is an annulet, or ring of gold, the king's ring of the fable.'

Dun the Harvest God?

The saga of Dun the outlaw does not end here. The legend of Dun and the stable or staple is only a peripheral story. The central legend tells of Dun the Anglo-Saxon soldier and to my mind brings in shades of Bartle, the Yorkshire 'Harvest God'. Dun himself may well have been an historical character; we can never know for certain. Like Nottinghamshire's famous outlaw, Robin Hood, Dun's legend tells us he was perhaps something more than a mere mortal and that Dunstable was named by Henry I after Dun - an Anglo-Saxon soldier who was a survivor of the battle of Hastings. Dun, with fifty of his followers made his way to the area of Bedfordshire where Dunstable now stands. He and his men became outlaws in the forest. Unlike Robin, Dun was no folk hero. He was a murdering villain who hanged his victims in the trees, spearing nether man, women or child. Finally, the countryside rose up against him. A hundred and fifty peasants armed with pitchforks, scythes and rakes, set out to capture Dun. Mounted on a powerful horse and armed with his sword, Dun cut down the ranks of his adversaries. He was eventually overpowered and pulled from his mount. However, the noble animal came to his rescue and Dun remounted. His enemy was now reinforced and became three hundred in number. Once again Dun was pulled from his horse. This time the animal escaped and Dun continued the fight on foot. Dun, we are told was pursued for two miles to the banks of the river Ouse. Here he stripped naked and plunged into the water with his mighty sword between his teeth. His enemy had already gained the other bank and Dun was finally captured. Dun was treated for his serious wounds and taken to Bedford to be hanged without trial.

It is at this juncture that we learn of Dun's true power. It is said that he put up such a fight on the scaffold that he was only by ritual dismemberment that he was finally killed. First his hands were cut off at the wrist. Then his arms at the elbow. Then at the shoulder. Next his feet at the ankles. Then his legs at the knees and hips. Finally, his head was cut from his shoulders and burnt. The various parts of his body were distributed throughout the county.

I will leave it to the reader to interpret this fascinating legend. I believe however that most, like me, will see the ritual hunt and sacrifice involved. My initial investigation into the story of Tom Long the Carrier, in my book The Wise Men of Gotham - a study in folklore (forthcoming), set out to demonstrate that Tom was a guardian of a sacred site. Through the story of his arrival in Gotham and parallel legends in Dunstable my theory is starting to prove viable. Within the Gotham cycle of tales there is some evidence to show the involvement of an ancient secret society know variously as Horsemen, Horse Whispers etc. Tom's trade as a carrier and his involvement with the heavy horse marked him out as a possible candidate for membership of the society. His arrival from Dunstable, a place connected with horse transport, gives added weight to the argument. We now find a surviving Gotham-type tale in Dunstable and a horse connection in both versions of the Dun legend.

A small but interesting point arises out of the name of the village connected with the Moon Pool incident. Through a fellow regular contributor to this magazine, Paul Nix, I set out to find the meaning of the Old English word saelig (as in Saelig Houghton). Worthington-Smith gives it as 'fortunate'. Old English is a complex language and many words have a number of meanings depending on either the prefix or suffix given. Sae is the Old English word meaning 'sea or lake'. Paul and I were unable to trace the word saelig as a whole. With the prefix ge(gesaelig) the word means 'happy' or 'prosperous'. However, with the suffix -ous ('saeligous') the word returns to is watery meaning and is 'of willow' (river of willows). The central Dun legend clearly includes a river. Not just any river but the river Ouse. The word Ouse is derived from the Celtic root word for water and simply means 'water'.

Once again we find parallels in the Gotham cycle of tales, a number of the more important ones being associated with the river Trent. Returning to the theme of horses, it is likewise of interest to note that the British Horse Goddess Rhiannon was the daughter of the Sea God Llyr (whose name is derived from another root word for lake river or water). Ancient mariners used a goat skin nailed to the mast head to word off storms. The name Gotham is a play on the word Goat and is pronounced 'Goatham'.

Other Dunstable legends

There are a number of other interesting folk legends associated with Dunstable and its locality. However, I will end this article with just one more that I feel will be of interest. The Maiden Bower legend appears to be a common legend accruing in a number of location throughout the country. The Dunstable version tells that a certain Queen made a wager with a certain King that she could encamp an army within an ox hide. This she accomplished by cutting the hide into thin strips and joining them together. Her hand maidens were ordered to form a circle with these thongs in their hands and lay them carefully on the grass. The army then marched into the circle formed by the line of the ox hide. The King was so impressed with the Queen's ingenuity that he ordered a high bank of chalk to be built on the line of the circle. Is this a survival of a memory of how an ancient earthwork was laid out?


Dunstable and its surroundings, Rev Worthington-Smith, County Series, 1910.
The Wise Men of Gotham, Frank E. Earp, unpublished M.S..
The Shell Country Book, Geoffrey Grigson, Phoenix House, 1962.
Celtic Myths and Legends, Charles Squire, Newcastle Publishing Co., 1975.
Secret Britain, Automobile Association Publication, 1986.

Information provided by Mrs Vivian Evans during a telephone conversation 1993.

My thanks to Mrs Evans and Paul Nix for their help.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.19 May 1994.

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Created April 1996; updated November 2008