Pirate Tales – 3. (WIP)

Cheng Shih – Pirate Queen

Those were the most successful pirates financially.  But were they the most successful?  Not really.  That honour has to go to Cheng Shih, Madame Cheng.  Every and Levasseur may have made big hauls but they didn’t set up their own kingdoms.

Cheng Shih was born Shih Yang in 1775 in Guangdong Province, and worked as a prostitute in a floating brothel.  In 1801 she married the notorious pirate leader Cheng I – some say it was love, some say that each saw a business opportunity in the other.  It was probably a bit of both.  Either way Cheng Shih used her wiles and political skill to help her husband mould together several pirate fleets which had previously been at war with each other.  But after six years of marriage and two sons, Cheng I died.

Normally this would have meant that the best Cheng Shih could hope for was a reasonably comfortable widowhood.  But Cheng Shih wasn’t a normal woman. 

The history books say “She started to cultivate personal relationships to get rivals to recognize her status and solidify her authority.”  Make of that what you will, but Cheng Shih clearly used whatever talents she had to get ahead.  She took her husband’s adopted son as her lover to secure control of that fleet and shored up the rest of the coalition her husband had formed.

And from there nothing much could stop her.  Her power built until she had anything up to 80,000 people under her command.  She instigated a code of conduct which mandated proper treatment of any captives, especially female ones, beheadings for anyone who disobeyed orders and meant that any treasure was paid into a communal fund;  the captor got 20% and the rest was then used as support for the rest of the pirates and the villages that supplied them – for by this stage Cheng Shih’s control extended over dozens of villages and towns in the Guangdong Province.  The Chinese government’s attempt to crush her was an ignominious failure, and not until the Portuguese navy got involved in 1807 did she finally retire from piracy.

Note ‘retire’:  she negotiated an amnesty with the authorities which saw, from a total complement of nearly 20,000, 60 were banished, 151 were exiled and only 126 were put to death.  And everyone got to keep their loot.

Cheng Shih herself opened a salt trading business and several casinos in Macau, and died in her bed at the age of 69, surrounded by her family.  Her descendants still live in the city to this day.

Most successful pirate of all time?  Gotta be.

Pirates – who were they?

But female pirates weren’t that unusual -Grace O’Malley, Mary Read, Anne Bonny – they all disguised themselves as men to start with but when they’d earned the respect of their colleagues they usually came out.  Literally, in the case of Read and Bonny, as they were almost certainly in a relationship for much of their careers.  Same-sex relationships weren’t that uncommon amongst pirates – and certainly less stigmatized than in mainstream society at the time.

In fact, pirates were socially pretty liberal.  Even democratic.  Captains were elected, almost universally.  They couldn’t be questioned or disobeyed during a battle but at any other time they could be deposed if they lost popularity.  The post of quartermaster existed to effectively be a balance to the captain’s authority – almost a president to prime minister -type relationship.

Pirates had an established tariff of compensation for injuries.  The loss of a right arm would be worth six hundred pieces of eight, for example.

Treasure was distributed according to skill and duty.  An ordinary crewman received one share;  a captain would receive between one and a half and two shares and all other official positions would get a sliding scale between the two.

All this was in very sharp contrast to the brutal inequalities of the various navies operating at the time.

Basically, pirates were operating according to the principles of Liberty, Equality and Freedom, long before the French or American revolutions were even thought of.

So in the end, what were pirates?  Filthy criminals, unable to make their own way in the world and so determined to live off others?  Democratic communes with social mores centuries ahead of their time? Dashing adventurers or drunken scoundrels?  All of these and none.  Like the story of Henry Avery, choose your own ending as it suits you. 

For me, I’ll give the last word to James Bellamy, Black Bellamy, listed by Forbes Magazine as one of the highest-earning pirates in history with a fortune of 139 million dollars in modern terms, and elected Commodore of the Pirate Fleet.  His crew had just captured a sloop, and although Bellamy wanted to let the captain keep his vessel, the pirate crew had voted to burn it, and the captain of the merchant had refused an invitation to join the pirate crew, saying that his conscience would not let him break the laws of god and man.  Bellamy replied: 

You are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security; for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by knavery; damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage. Had you not better make then one of us, than sneak after these villains for employment?

I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea and an army of 100,000 men in the field; and this my conscience tells me! But there is no arguing with such snivelling puppies, who allow superiors to kick them about deck at pleasure.

If nothing else, Bellamy, and thousands of men and women like him, lived and died on their own terms, and for that if for nothing else, they deserve their legendary status.

Pirate Tales – 2. (WIP)

The Cabo

Two people who were inspired by Every went on to pull off a heist that was at least the equal of his capture of the Gunsway.

John Taylor, an Englishman, and Olivier Levasseur, a Frenchman, known as La Buse or The Buzzard, ended up crewing together on a voyage of piracy down the West coast of Africa.  Levasseur would be notable if for no other reason than he actually did wear an eyepatch after a swordfight left him half-blinded.  But the pair are remembered  for one of piracy’s greatest exploits: the capture of the Portuguese great galleon Nossa Senhora do Cabo (Our Lady of the Cape)

In April 1721 the ship was travelling back to Lisbon from Goa, carrying the Bishop of Goa and the Portuguese Vicerory, together with the full complement of treasure that two such powerful and important men would carry around.

As you’d expect, the Cabo was heavily-armed.  72 guns, in fact, making it a first-class warship that nobody in their right mind would attack.  Unless…

Just by chance, the Cabo had passed through a severe storm just a couple of days beforehand.  The steering was badly damaged and the captain feared that the ship could capsize unless he could lighten the load.  He did that by ordering that ALL 72 of the guns be thrown over the side.

The ship was saved, but it turned out to be one of that captain’s worse decisions.  Once the storm had passe the ship anchored off Reunion Island to make repairs, and that was where Taylor and Levasseur found her.

Incidentally, if this sounds familiar to anyone it may be because Robert Louis Stevenson used it as the basis for Treasure Island, changing the name of the ship to The Viceroy Of The Indies in the story recounted by Long John Silver…

The pirates were able to board the vessel without firing a single broadside.  The booty was almost beyond description – bars of gold and silver, dozens of boxes full of golden Guineas, diamonds, pearls, silk, art and religious objects from the Se Cathedral in Goa, including the Flaming Cross of Goa.  This was made of pure gold, inlaid with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. It was so heavy, that it required 3 men to carry it over to Levasseur’s ship.

In fact, the treasure was so huge that the pirates did not bother to rob the people on board, something they normally would have done.

When the loot was divided, each pirate received at least £50,000 golden Guineas, as well as 42 diamonds each. Levasseur and Taylor split the gold, silver, and other objects, with Levasseur taking the golden cross.

Levasseur and Taylor parted ways after that.  Taylor sailed back to the Caribbean where he eventually turned from poacher to gamekeeper, buying a pardon from the governor of panama and taking a commission in the so-called Windward Fleet, set up by the Spanish government to protect its ships from pirates.

In 1724 France offered an amnesty to all the pirates in the Indian Ocean.  Levasseur sent a negotiator to the governor of Réunion to try and take this up, but the French government wanted a large part of his stolen loot back, so Levasseur decided to avoid the amnesty and settled down in secret in the Seychelles. Eventually he was captured near Fort Dauphin, Madagascar. He was then taken to Saint-Denis, Réunion and hanged for piracy at 5 p.m. on 7 July 1730.

But the story doesn’t end there. 

As he mounted the scaffold, Levasseur tore a necklace from around his neck and threw it into the crowd, saying “Find my treasure, he that can understand it!”  The necklace was found to contain a cryptogram in a fairly easily-solved Pigpen Cypher.  But when decoded it seemed to make references to the Zodiac, the Twelve Labours Of Hercules, Masonic rituals and a whole grab-bag of other obscure sources.

It hasn’t been found.  Not for want of trying – An Englishman called Reginald Cruse-Wilkins devoted thirty years to decoding the mystery, and his son has taken up the quest following his death in 1977.  So who knows?  Maybe a billion dollars’ worth of gold and jewels is still buried in a cave somewhere in the Seychelles.  Maybe the Flaming Cross of Goa is still perched somewhere on a rock ledge, it’s gold still bright and its diamonds still ready to sparkle in the torchlight of whoever finds it first.

Pirate Tales – 1.

In September of 2019, I was asked to give some stories with a pirate theme. Unfortunately ill-health meant I couldn’t actually deliver on the day, but I’m posting them here for safekeeping anyway.

Henry Every and The Pirate Round

Pirates have become legends.  We remember their names, even if we don’t remember who those names actually belong to or what their exact exploits were.  Blackbeard and Captain Kidd are just as well-known as their fictional counterparts Jack Sparrow and Long John Silver.

But some we don’t remember so well.  Edward England, who survived four months of being marooned by his mutinous crew in Mauritius, scavenging for food and building a boat to escape to Madagascar? Christopher Condent, known for sometimes cutting the ears and noses off Portguese prisoners – a bit more sinister when you realise that ‘Portuguese’ was often a synonym for ‘Jewish’?  James Plantain, who escaped piracy to become a commander in an Indian prince’s navy?  John Taylor, who captured the most valuable pirate prize in history? His partner, Olivier Levasseur, The Buzzard, who threw from the scaffold a code to that fabulous treasure that’s still being pondered over today? They’re almost lost in the mists of time.  When legends get monetized, the truth gets overwritten.

Thanks to the Disney Corporation, we talk of Pirates of the Caribbean, but pirates went where the money was, and for most of the late 17th and early 18th centuries that wasn’t the Caribbean. The Caribbean was a bit like the Wild West – a mostly-lawless place, and safe for those whose relationship with the law was complicated, but with the – admittedly notable – exception of the occasional silver mine or Spanish treasure fleet, the pickings were poor.

Better by far were the prizes to be won in the East Indies, down to the Madeira Islands, doubling the Cape of Good Hope, through the Mozambique Channel to northern Madagascar, where the ships would be refitted at one of the pirate-friendly ports, maybe Ile Sainte-Marie or Ranter Bay, where a pirate called James Plantain made himself King for a time, and then onto the Red Sea and India.  The route, basically, of the East India Companies of the time.  This voyage was so popular amongst the Brethren Of The Coast that it was known as the Pirate Round, and those who made it known as Roundsmen.

Admittedly, “Pirates of the Indian Ocean” may be more historically accurate, but it’s not as catchy.

One pirate who did this was Henry Every, one of the less well-known but most successful pirates of all time, or at least one of the most efficient, if we talk about effort versus reward.  We may not remember him well now, but during his career he was known as The King of Pirates, or The Arch Pirate.

L-R: Henry Every, John Avery, Benjamin Bridgeman, Long Ben and a slave (presumably) with a parasol.

Also known as Henry Avery, John Avery, Benjamin Bridgeman or Long Ben.  We don’t know that much about him, which is almost certainly how he’d prefer it.   The most successful criminals, after all, are the ones we never actually hear about.

We think he was born in Newton Ferrers, near Plymouth around 1653, and started his seagoing career on unlicensed slave ships. (and it’s natural to take a moment to shudder at the thought of what an ‘unlicensed’ slave ship must have been like, bearing in mind what we know of the horrors of the licensed variety… but in actual fact ‘unlicensed’ just meant ‘not paying a fee to the East India Company’. Nothing to do with welfare…)

By 1694 he was first mate on The Charles II, a 46-gun Spanish warship with a licence to attack smugglers around Martinique. But for some reason the crew grew discontented and when the ship lay at anchor in A Coruña the crew mutinied, changed the name of the ship to The Fancy and set out on the Pirate Round with Every as elected captain.

Every made his way to the Indian Ocean.  Along the way he made some modifications to the Fancy which turned her into one of the fastest ships on earth.  He considered himself, or at least acted as, an English Privateer, albeit without any letter of marque from the crown to give him licence to do so.  He published a declaration at Johanna in the Comoros Islands to English commanders, saying (falsely) that he had never attacked an English or Dutch vessel and giving them instructions on how to identify themselves to him on the high seas, and warning that if they did not my Men are hungry Stout and Resolute: & should they Exceed my Desire I cannott help my selfe.”  This might have been meant to curry favour with the ships of the British and Dutch East India Companies, which were effectively private navies at the time.  If so, it didn’t work and Every spent as much time dodging them as he did on piracy.

But they didn’t slow him down that much. His greatest prize, and the one for which he deserves to be remembered, was the raid on the Mughal convoy sailing from Mecca to India on the Hajj.

The Mughal Empire is something else that we’ve not remembered well, by the way.  Around this time, under the Padishah Emperor Aurangzeb, its was responsible for around 25% of the GDP of the entire world.  Aurangzeb was by quite some distance the wealthiest ruler on the planet, with an annual income more than ten times greater than his contemporary Louis the fourteenth.  His father had built the Taj Mahal, but he had expanded his empire to encompass over 158 million subjects, this at a time when the entire population of Britain and Ireland was just over 8 million.

Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad (3 Nov 1618 – 3 Mar 1707); “Aurangzeb” (“Ornament of the Throne”),”Alamgir” (“Conqueror of the World”). One of history’s richest and most powerful men, and not someone you really want to annoy.

All of which is fascinating history, but if you’re a pirate, this is the point at which the dollar signs ring up in your eyes.

In August 1695, Every in The Fancy, reached the Mandab Strait, the Red Sea’s narrowest choke point.  The name comes from the Arabic for ‘Gate Of Tears’.  Once there he teamed up with five other pirate ships, including Thomas Tew’s light, fast 8-gun sloop Amity. 

The Mughal convoy of 25 ships was bound for India from Mocha, and it had eluded the pirate fleet during the night.  But the following day, two ships had begun to straggle behind the main convoy.  These were the Ganj-i-Sawai, which means ‘exceeding treasure’ and her escort the Fateh Muhammed, both stragglers passing the straits en route to Surat.

Tew in The Amity was the first to the battle, making a skirmishing attack on the Fateh Muhammed.  The attack was beaten off, but Tew died in the attempt.  Every was watching closely in the far larger and more heavily-armed Fancy, and closed in on the Fateh. Perhaps intimidated by Fancy’s 46 guns or weakened by their earlier battle with Tew, Fateh Muhammed’s crew put up next to no resistance, and Every’s pirates sacked the ship and came away with £60,000 worth of treasure.

Badb El-Mandeb (NASA)

The Ganj-i-Surat meanwhile, cleared the straits and ran out across the Indian Ocean for the safe port of Surat.  They didn’t make it.  Eight days out of port Every’s fleet caught up with them. 

Now, catching the Ganj-i-Sawai was one thing. Beating her was another. She mounted at least as many guns as the Fancy, together with a guard of marines armed with muskets, numbering four to five hundred men, plus another six hundred passengers. She was, apart from anything else, gigantic. But something happened in the opening volley. For some reason, one of the Mughal ship’s cannons exploded, killing some of its gunners and causing great confusion and panic among the crew, while Every’s broadside shot off his enemy’s mainmast. It was a million-to-one stroke of luck for the pirates. In the smoke and melee, the Fancy drew alongside, and boarded, overpowering the crew, passengers and slaves of the Ganj-i-Sawai.

I’m not going to sugar-coat what came next.  We’ve all heard of the gentleman pirate, who refuses to allow women prisoners to be harmed and treats a fellow ship’s captain with respect.  Thanks to Disney we may think that that’s the norm.  It wasn’t, and Every wasn’t that kind of pirate.  The crew and passengers of the Ganj-i-Sawai were subjected to several days of horror, the pirates raping and murdering prisoners at will, and using torture to force them to reveal the location of the ships’ treasure.  

Some of the women committed suicide by jumping into the sea. The other survivors were left aboard their ships, which the pirates set free.  Possibly because they had no further use for them, but possibly also to spread reputation – something that could come in handy as a pirate.  In Blackbeard’s later days, many of his prizes simply gave up as soon as they saw his flag.

But back in the Arabian Sea, Every and his men were counting up their haul.  The loot from the Ganj-i-Sawai is believed to have been worth as much as £600,000, including 500,000 gold and silver pieces.  That’s 1695 money, by the way.  Today it would be worth around £300 million.

When they made it to Réunion Every shared out £1,000 and some gemstones to every pirate in the crew. That was what an honest sailor could expect to earn in a hundred years of toil.

This, however, is where things got tricky for Every.  In the cold light of day he’d pulled off one of the biggest thefts in history and become the world’s richest pirate.

All well and good. But he’d also committed an outrageous crime against one of the most powerful men on the planet. One whom, incidentally, various European powers were keen to stay on the good side of.

Aurangzeb put a bounty of £500 on Every’s head.  The British crown matched that amount, making Every the most-wanted man in the world.  To his other lists of achievements Every could now add being the subject of the first-ever global manhunt.

It was time to retire, and Every set a course for the Bahamas. His arrival in Nassau in March 1696 put its Governor, Sir Nicholas Trott, in something of a sticky position. Every sent a message saying that he, “Henry Bridgeman” and his crew were “interlopers” – unlicensed slavers, which was itself a crime, but not a very serious one. If Trott would allow them to enter the harbour and turn a blind eye, “Captain Bridgeman” would pay him a total of £860, and also make him a gift of the ship.

Tempting. The Royal Navy hadn’t visited the Island for several years. England was at war with France and the French had recently captured Exuma, only 140 miles away. Trott had only sixty-odd men, half of them on guard duty on the island’s 28 cannon. The mere presence of a big, battle-hardened frigate in the harbour would likely give anyone pause for thought.

We mustn’t be too hard on Trott. Yes, he comes across as either staggeringly stupid or completely corrupt, but he was in charge of a struggling colony which was being ignored by London. He was presented with an instant army and navy, plus huge amounts of wealth for himself. It was a dream come true. If he chose not to ask why the ship was quite so battle-damaged, or why a slaver was being so extraordinarily generous, and paying in foreign coins, well…

When word came that the Royal Navy and East India Company were hunting for a ship called The Fancy and that “Captain Bridgeman” was Every himself, Trott denied ever knowing anything about the pirates’ history other than what they told him, adamant that the island’s population “saw no reason to disbelieve them.” This he argued despite the fact that the proclamation for the pirates’ capture specifically warned that Every’s crew could “probably be known and discovered by the great quantities of Gold and Silver of forreign Coines which they have with them.”

Trott was forced to put a warrant out for Every’s arrest.  He was good enough to tip Every off in good time for the pirate to leave the island, but this wasn’t so unwelcome to him or his crew.  Nassau had been a disappointment – a backwater colony without much to interest a bunch of now-very-rich men.  113 men left the island, and in most cases disappeared.  Only 24 were ever captured, five of whom were executed.  The Fancy herself was lost after being driven violently against rocks – a convenient accident from Trott’s point of view, at the very least.

Every himself was never definitely seen again.

Stories are like rivers.  Some end with a great flourish at a definite point.  Some diverge into dozens or hundreds of pathways.  Henry Every’s story is definitely the latter.

His last words to his men were a litany of conflicting stories of where he planned to go, probably intended to throw pursuers off his trail.

But over the next twenty years he became a legend.  Poems, books and plays were all written about his exploits, some of them even remotely accurate.  In one, he carries off and marries the Mughal emperor’s daughter, and they then happily set up a pirate kingdom in Madgascar.  Stories like this proved so pervasive that Peter The Great ended up asking for the help of the “St Mary’s Pirates” as this kingdom was known in setting up a Russian outpost on Madagascar.

Some poor sod of an ambassador had to break that news to Peter…

And it wasn’t just among the great and the good that these stories landed.  Every accomplished his feats while many infamous pirates —Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts, Calico Jack, Samuel Bellamy, Edward Low, Stede Bonnet, and others—were still children, and his exploits had become legendary by the time they were young men.  Put simply, he was the pirate that they wanted to be.

So what about that treasure? One version of the story says that Every travelled under another assumed name – one we’ve never discovered – back to his home shores, and buried the best part of the Mughal loot in the cliffs of The Lizard, just a few miles from here*. This story so convinced some that in 1779 three businessmen from St Ives financed a two-year search for the treasure. Some say that Every never returned to the treasure, afraid of the £1000 bounty still on his head, and died a pauper in Barnstaple around the year 1715. However, that one comes from the 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, written by Charles Johnson. And quite apart from the fact that Johnson’s tone is prissy and moralizing, you have to ask – how did he know? Others say that he was careful and clever with his wealth, and the name that he took is now a household word in the UK as one of its largest banks.

The three businessmen who were searching eventually gave up when they were told by someone claiming to be one of his descendants that Every had died penniless and destitute, and that the treasure had been lost on the way back to England.

But then, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

*this story was planned to be told at or near Sennen Cove, Cornwall.

Batman’s parents died (again…)

We get it, dude, they’re dead. Bummer and all that. So I’ve been thinking about superheroes (minor spoilers follow).

In particular this has been caused by the trailers for the film Dark Phoenix, an X-Men film. This covers events which were originally put into the comic in 1980, and it’s a major moment in the history of the X-Men. But then I noticed that the central character, Jean Grey (aka Marvel Girl, aka Phoenix), was apparently very much alive and well in the current Marvel comic timeline.

It also got me thinking about how often our superhero stories get repeated of late. It seems like there’s a new Batman or Spiderman every few years. I haven’t actually watched any of the more recent Batman or Spiderman films, so I may not be the best-placed to talk about this, but part of me thinks ‘Do I need to? Is there anything they’ll tell me that I haven’t heard before?’

What’s the collective noun for Spidermen? Spidermans? Spidersman?

That made me think about hero tales in general, and how superhero comics fit into them. In many ways they’re part of the same mould, in that we all know the way that they were made. Batman’s parents were killed by a criminal so he dedicates his life to fighting crime; Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider – the origin story is familiar. Where things differ is that we don’t tend to know the end of the story – because superheroes are a commercial property and as such, can’t be allowed to ‘die’. At least not permanently.

Arthur dies after the Battle of Camlann. Robin Hood dies after being bled by a nurse and shooting an arrow to mark his grave. These guys die for good. Superheroes don’t.

King Arthur, properly dead. Painting by John Garrick.

I’ve just been looking at a list of the ‘biggest deaths in comics’ and without fail, everyone there who dies, comes back to life in some way. Either through some kind of hokey ‘ah, but he wasn’t really dead’-type of sleight of hand or by just rewriting the whole universe and starting again. Check it out for yourself: https://screenrant.com/biggest-best-superhero-deaths-ever-marvel-dc-all-time-ranked/

It’s all the profit motive, of course. We want to keep hearing the stories retold, just as we always did- and do- with Arthur, Robin, Cu Chulainn, Roland and all the other heroes. The difference is that Marvel, DC and so on have to make money, hence the endless revivals.

People don’t mind though, and that’s what matters. Batman’s origin story is probably better known than Arthur’s (and almost certainly better than Robin’s, which is obscure, or Cu Chulainn’s, which isn’t generally as well-known as it deserves to be). The delivery method is different but the storytelling mode is the same.

Cu Chulainn dies after tying himself to a standing stone so he can continue to fight his enemies. Totally badass.

The big difference though, is that the fact that the characters don’t die means that they can’t somehow be as satisfying as the older heroes. Camelot’s magnificence comes as much from its collapse as its peak. It might be that we don’t truly relate to anything that isn’t at least superficially as transitory as we are ourselves. “They both lived happily ever after” is a nice, neat ending to the story, but we also know that no life is really like that. [It’s worth noting that the Thousand And One Nights are as likely to end with something to the effect of “they lived happily together until they were visited by the destroyer of all pleasures, Death”; although I don’t know if that’s there in the original or something that Burton added in.]

So if a superhero dies you can be sure another one will be along in a minute, and that makes any death they may suffer effectively meaningless.

Alongside this, of course is the need to keep the characters forever young: Batman first appeared in 1939 as an adult. Even at the most generous interpretation he’d be around 100 years old now. But he’s perpetually around 30. Occasionally the series plays around with handing the baton (pun intended) to another generation, such as the original Robin, now ‘Nightwing’, but it never lasts. Commercial demands always return us to the status quo.

Soooo many Batmen. Batmans? Batsman?

Which leaves us with half-folklore. The profit motive keeps these heroes alive and active, never giving us closure. Because of that, they’ll never attain the status of the greatest heroes because we can see the puppet strings. Arthur as we know him is no more ‘real’ than Batman is, but he settles into our consciousness because he feels real, and as though he belongs to us.

Except…

Arthur doesn’t die. He’s sleeping beneath a hill somewhere. This is a tale told about almost all heroes (although not Robin, interestingly) and it’s carried on into the modern age – remember all those sightings of Elvis after his death? So in a way the comics are giving us what we want. It’s just not what we need.

Reflecting on what I’ve written it sounds, even to my ears, a bit snobbish, or at least the ‘not as good as in my day’ rantings of an old fart (which I probably am at heart). That’s not it. I love superhero stories and they were as much a part of my culture growing up as the folklore I loved. Probably more so, because they were more easily-available and better-packaged: there was only one version of the X-Men, while there were all kinds of different versions of Arthur. So is this about the McDonalds-ifying of the hero myth? Maybe. Something to be explored another time.

Operation Cone Of Power

As I said, plenty of strange things have happened in this forest, and not all of them happened nine hundred years ago.

One of the weirder things happened in August 1940, during the Battle of Britain, when a group of witches came to the defence of the realm.

It was a febrile time in Britain.  The Germans had swept across France and were preparing to attack across the channel. The United States had yet to enter the war.  Back then, ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ wasn’t a cute phrase to sell tea towels;  it was being prepared in earnest as the best advice to keep the country running when the landing craft rolled into Kent.

On the evening of August 1st, the members of the New Forest Coven met at a place called Wilverley Plain.  Specifically at a former gallows tree called Naked Man.  (You can find that on the OS maps, marked there – just in case you thought there’d been a policy change at the mapmakers to include individual nudists on the map).  It used to be an oak tree where at least one highwayman ended his career, “dancing the hempen jig”.  The name is said to come from the time when one such execution took place in a storm, and the tree itself was blasted by lightning, tearing the clothes from the man on the rope.  But it may equally be the blasted and barkless shell of the tree which gave it that name.  The stump is still there, but that’s decaying fast and soon it’ll be gone.  Go and take a look at it if you get the chance – it’s less than a mile from here.

Ferny Knapp

Back to 1940 and the coven had gathered from Highcliffe and met up at the gallows.  They made their way on foot to a place called Ferny Knapp, which itself lies in Markway Inclosure.  It’s an odd place – a stand of trees in the middle of marshy ground, and on a dark night it’s more than possible to imagine a group of people met there to perform magic.  And that’s just what the New Forest Coven had in mind.  

They were led by Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca, as witches call their practice. It’s possible they were joined by Sybil Leek, a witch who lived in Burley and became something of a local celebrity after the war, walking around the village in a long black cloak with her pet jackdaw Mr Hotfoot Jackson on her shoulder.  But possibly not – she always disagreed with Gardner on some important points.

Having gathered, they drew a magic circle on the ground and began to dance, whirling themselves into the ecstasies that they believed would enable them to perform a ritual called “The Great Cone Of Power”.  At the right point, they began to repeatedly rush in the direction of France, yelling “you cannot cross the sea!  You cannot cross the sea!  You cannot come across!  You cannot come across!”

Well, the Germans never did. Whether you give more credit to the efforts of the New Forest Coven or the Royal Air Force in that result depends a lot on your point of view.

Gardner went on to say that the ritual had been only performed twice before:  once in 1802, when it prevented the barges that Napoleon had made ready for his invasion from being used;  and once in 1580, when Sir Francis Drake gathered with a group of ‘Sea Witches’ on Devil’s Point in Plymouth and carried out the ritual to confuse the Spanish Armada and keep it away from British shores.  Devil’s point is still there, and it’s said that on cold misty days you can still hear the cries of Drake and the witches as they cast the spell.

The Bisterne Dragon

Bolton's Bench, Lyndhurst, Hampshire, UK.  The yews are growing at the top.
Bolton’s Bench, Lyndhurst, Hampshire

Dragons are magical. In every sense.

You have to love dragons, don’t you?  Well, in theory at least.  If you actually met an eighty-foot long reptile that could fly and/or breathe fire and/or poison then “love” might not be the first thing that came into your mind, but they are fascinating, just the same.  They exist in almost every culture from the arctic to the desert, and they’re strangely similar in all the places they appear.  Western dragons, that is;  Eastern dragons are different, but let’s talk about Western dragons.

Most dragons only appear in stories when they’re about to be killed, which is a pity.  Modern sensibilities would certainly prefer us to preserve and protect these marvellous beasts.  But maybe its not just the modern mind that thinks that way. If you look at the stories closely, you’ll find that killing a dragon usually comes at a price.

Let’s talk about the dragon that lived near here.  The Bisterne Dragon.  Bit of a misnomer as it didn’t actually come from Bisterne, a few miles to the west of here. It came from much, much closer: Burley Beacon.  Every day it would spread its wings and fly the three miles to Bisterne, and demand a supply of milk. Nobody says how this arrangement got started.  Maybe one day the dragon just burst into the milking parlour, grabbed some milk and got a taste for it.

If it had stayed that way it might not have been a problem, but appetite grew with the feeding. Nobody was sure when the dragon got a taste for flesh as well as milk, but one day, after it swallowed all the milk, it decided to make off with a chicken.  Soon after that a calf disappeared, and then it was only a matter of time before people started making it onto the menu.

The village needed help, and it duly arrived in the pleasingly traditional shape of a knight in shining armour. The knight’s name was Sir Maurice Berkeley.  Sounds more like a bank manager, maybe, but he didn’t look like one. Sir Maurice was tough, grizzled and the veteran of battles in France and Scotland, and crusading in the Holy Land. Sir Maurice put on his armour, and covered it with bird lime, a gluey substance made from the bark of the holly trees which grow thickly in the forest, and on top of that covered his armour with broken glass.

He took his two great dogs – English Mastiffs, ‘Lion Dogs’ as some call them, renowned since Roman times as fierce creatures, and built a hide near where the dragon usually came to feed.  And then he sat down to wait.

Sure enough, as dawn came up, there was a sudden hush in the birdsong and with a hiss of wind, the huge form of the dragon glided down and landed on the lawn in front of the hide. The second he did so, and before he could scent the air and realise that he wasn’t alone, Sir Maurice kicked down the front panel of the hide and the two dogs launched themselves at the beast, barrelling into it with their huge heads, jaws working.  Sir Maurice was close behind but before he had a chance to close the distance the dogs were already defeated – the dragon’s vicious claws and teeth putting paid to their attack, and casting their broken bodies aside.

But they’d done enough for Sir Maurice to get within striking distance of the beast and the battle was on.  Sir Maurice had chosen short weapons for a close-in battle – an axe, a mace and a dagger – and it proved to be the right choice.  As soon as the dragon realised that his assailant was too close to be smashed by a tail strike or the full force of his slashing claws, he tried to wrap his coils around the knight and crush the life from him.  But of course, Sir Maurice’s foresight meant that doing that just tore his scales against the glass on the armour, and he roared and shrieked in pain and anger.

The battle lasted hours, some say days.  The dragon unable to break through Sir Maurice’s armour and Sir Maurice’s blows barely making any impression on the dragon’s thick, scaly hide.  Finally, bruised and battered, the dragon half-limped, half-flew away, back towards his den.  But the battle had raged throughout the forest and they were far from Bisterne and Burley by then.  The dragon ended up at Lyndhurst, crashing to the ground just outside the town, and his body became a hill which later became known as Bolton’s Bench.

Sir Maurice had won, but he was a broken man.  His beloved dogs were slain, and after burying them he took to his bed, refusing to speak, eating little and drinking less, until after thirty days he rose and walked to where the body of the monster lay.  He collapsed and died on the top of it, and the great yew bow he carried took root and grew into the yew trees which crown Boltons Bench to this day.

An unusually downbeat story to a dragon slaying, wouldn’t you say?  Funnily enough, that actually isn’t all that unusual.  Sure, in some stories killing a dragon means that you get the gold and the princess and live happily ever after, but a lot more of them end unhappily.  Sir John Lambton – he of the Lambton Worm, and another hero who covered his armour with blades to defeat a dragon – brought a curse down on his family.  St Leonard, who defeated a dragon in the forest in Sussex which bears his name, was severely injured in the process, and the lilies in the valley which grown in spring in the forest bloom in his memory.

But maybe…

What if it wasn’t a dragon? Boars were common in the forest once, and on the rise again.  Maybe a soft-hearted farmer might have taken pity on an orphaned boar piglet and given it some milk.  Maybe it kept coming back, not tame enough to be part of the farm but still hanging around. Maybe as the days and months passed, it grew… and grew… until it wasn’t a cute little piglet anymore.  It was a full-grown boar.  Not tame at all but without a truly wild boar’s fear of humans and tendency to avoid them.  A boar which had grown to expect feeding by humans and would get angry if it was refused.

A fully-grown wild boar is twenty stone of muscle and hair and thick hide, the lower tusks sharpened by the upper tusks to a razor sharpness, just at the right height to slice into a human femoral artery as the beast thrashes its head around.

Wild Boar (image: The Woodland Trust)

Boars were common in the forest once.  So was rabies.  Imagine that combination – a huge, fierce hungry beast, maddened by disease.  More than a match for two mastiffs, and maybe a match for a single human, however armoured.

Maybe, as Sir Maurice staggered away from the battlefield he carried with him in his veins a pathogen which would kill him in a matter of weeks.

Because nobody kills a dragon without paying a price.

A low and evil deed…

King William II of England

A LOW AND EVIL DEED

I spent much of my childhood and teenage years walking these forests.  Since then I’ve wandered all across Britain and the forests and woodlands are different everywhere, each with their own distinct character, as if each is an individual being with a personality.

With most, the similarities outweigh the differences, but whenever I come back to the New Forest, or Ytene to give it its pre-Norman name, it always feels unique – older and more wild than other places, not least because of the well-groomed and harmless façade it puts on for the tourists.

Don’t be fooled. All forests are alive, and ancient, and this one has seen some very strange things.

There’s one story everybody knows, or thinks they know, about the New Forest. A story of how a King died here and of who, or what, was responsible for his death.

Many years back when the old oaks were young
Not long after the Northmen had come
A low and evil deed was done
In the dark of the New Forest
In the dark of the New Forest

From the shores of Normandy King William came
To Albion fair, King Harold to slay
With greed in his heart and his scurrilous claim
He took the land for his own
He took the land for his own

Now John was a blacksmith, an honest old man
He raised up his children and worked with his hands
At his family’s forge in the patch of land
In the dark of the New Forest
In the dark of the New Forest

King William rode out after his victory
To ravage the land in his hunger to thieve
For hunting grounds in the Wessex trees
He took John’s land for his own
He took John’s land for his own

But John said

“if you steal the land of an Englishman
Then you will know this curse
Your first born son’s warm blood will run
Upon the English earth”

Now King William’s son was called Rufus the Red
He took up the crown when his father was dead
And he rode the hunting grounds in his stead
In the dark of the New Forest
In the dark of the New Forest

But John’s curse it called out and Lord Tirel fired low
The arrow struck Rufus with a sickening blow
And he fell from his horse to the ground below
And the land took him for its own
The land took him for its own

So if you steal the land of an Englishman
Then you will know this curse
Your first born son’s warm blood will run
Upon the English earth

Many years back when the old oaks were young
Not long after the Northmen had come
A low and evil deed was done
In the dark of the New Forest
In the dark of the New Forest

“An English Curse” by Frank Turner, from the album England Keep My Bones

(c) Francis Edward Turner, Universal Music

“If you steal the land of an Englishman, then you will know this curse: your first -born son’s warm blood will run upon the English earth.”

That’s always been the story.  William The Conqueror took the land of the people, and so brought down a curse upon himself and his line.

Of course, that’s not what happened.

For a start, Rufus wasn’t William’s ‘first born son’.  He was the third son.  He had two elder brothers:  Robert, and Richard, and a younger brother, Henry.

More of them later, but let’s start by being clear:  this isn’t a murder investigation.  We can’t even assume it’s a murder.  Was it an accident?

Or just maybe, was it the result of a curse laid upon the Conqueror by those he threw off their land? Men and women who’d lived in these trees for generations, humbly tending their livings until a rich, powerful, violent man decided he wanted their homes as his playground.  Not for growing food or anything else important – just for his personal pleasure.  Imagine someone doing that to you.  The anger and hatred you’d feel would be enough to raise a powerful curse, surely?

At least, it would be if curses were real, which, of course, they aren’t.

Duke William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, adding it to his already massive lands. Twenty-one years later he died, and like many strongmen, when that happened, his empire broke up and was shared between his sons.

William Rufus got England in his father’s will, and he was pleased with that – for now.  Of the options on offer, to be a King was far better than being a Duke…  

His eldest brother, Robert, didn’t think so.  Normandy was the family business.  Rufus could have England, with its troublesome natives and perpetual rain. So he was pleased with that – for now.

Each of them wanted what the other had… but all in good time.

The youngest brother, Henry, got cash on his father’s death.  All well and good, but a slap in the face in a family which dealt in power and land.  Henry had ambition which money wouldn’t satisfy.

And the other brother, Richard?  He wasn’t at his father’s side when he died, being already dead himself.  Richard had died in 1075, in a… hunting accident, in …the..  New Forest… But of course that was a coincidence. Curses aren’t real, after all, so how could it be anything else?  And Richard wasn’t the first-born son, either, he was the second-born son.  

Robert, the first-born son, had never actually visited England.  One of his sons had – an illegitimate son, also called Richard, who had visited Rufus’s court, and died in the year 1099, in a hunting accident… in the New Forest.  The first-born son of the first-born son…

Hm.

Anyway.

Everyone knew that Rufus and Robert would be at war sometime;  it was just a question of when. By the summer of 1100, it was close. 

Many people were watching Rufus’s fleet build up in the Solent.  Henry was one.  A long fight between his two elder brothers would unite their father’s lands again, leaving only one person between him and the big prize, rather than two… or so Henry might well have thought.

Another was Prince Louis of France.  Louis would far rather see his enemies divided, than face just one with the combined resources of England and Normandy behind him.

Meanwhile, for Robert, England was unfinished business, part of his father’s estates which should have been his.  The Normans had introduced their law of primogeniture to England:  unlike the Saxons, the Normans believed that the first son got the lot.  Robert still bitterly resented his father’s unnatural decision to split his lands in his will.

So by the hot, dry August of the year 1100, a lot of powerful people stood to gain if Rufus fell out of the picture.  

Rufus was staying at a Brockenhurst hunting lodge belonging to one of his father’s most-trusted lieutenants.

Also staying were Henry and a Norman nobleman called Walter Tirel.  He was there courting Adeliza, the daughter of the household. Tirel was famous as one of the best bowmen in Europe – a real celebrity in a time when everyone owned a bow.

When they set out hunting on Thursday August the second, Rufus was presented with six specially-made arrows.  He presented four to Tirel, saying “Bon archer, bonnes fleches’ – to the best bowman, the best arrows.  Remember that – the King of England just called Tirel the best archer and gave him the majority of his best arrows.

And with that, they rode off together into the dark of the New Forest.  

There are many different accounts of what happened next.  What’s generally agreed is that an arrow, shot by Walter Tirel, hit Rufus in the lung.  One of the best archers in Europe had apparently shot so badly he had killed his king.

Some say the shot was deflected off a deer – and yet still had power enough to kill a man standing beyond it.

Getting an arrow through the lung isn’t a clean or quick way to go.  Best-case scenario is you pass out through blood loss and shock within a couple of minutes and never wake up.  Worst-case… well, let’s just say Rufus died hard.

Henry acted fast. He rode straight for Winchester and took possession of Rufus’s treasury.  He was crowned in Westminster Abbey four days later – in a hurry;  not even waiting for the archbishops of Canterbury and York who would usually be required to carry out the service.  He reigned as Henry the First of England for thirty-five years.

If Henry acted fast, Walter acted faster.  He later protested that he’d been nowhere near the king when he was shot, but his actions at the time say different.  He ran. He ran like Satan himself was on his heels.  Some say he only stopped to have his horse’s shoes turned round to confuse pursuers – something they’d later say about Robert The Bruce.  Others say that he stopped to wash the king’s blood off his hands at Ocknell Pond, near Stoney Cross, and that every year on August the second the pool fills with blood in memory of it.  

Tirel ran all the way to France – not Normandy, but to France proper, Prince Louis’ lands, to the Abbey of St Denis, near Paris.  After a while he returned to his lands in Normandy, but he never returned to England.

And nobody came after him.  No physical chase, no legal questions.  Nothing. He was the number one suspect in the violent death of a king, and nobody ever followed it up.  He also later married his beloved Adeliza, the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, so apparently no serious whiff of scandal attached to him.  His children inherited his English lands and went on to be important nobles in their own right.

Adeliza’s brother Gilbert, who’d also been in the Forest that day, became one of Henry’s most-trusted courtiers and when Henry invaded Wales in 1107 Gilbert was made Lord of Cardigan.  A big reward – but for what, exactly?

But all that was in the future.  As that clearing in the New Forest returned to normal, the warm sun dappling through the leaves, and only noise the usual background hum of insects, the body of William The Conqueror’s Third-Born Son was left where it fell, its warm blood running on the English earth.  As hoofbeats faded in various directions as the Norman Lords looked to their own futures, not one of the party spared much thought for the man who had been shot down that day.

The instant the king’s heart ceased to beat, he became nothing to those who, up to that moment, he had ruled and supported.  Whatever one feels about Rufus himself – and reports conflict, but most agree that he was hard to love – you have to pity a corpse just dumped in the forest for the wolves and boars.

Into that scene comes the one man who comes out of this story with any real humanity.  A charcoal-burner, who we have come to call Purkiss.  He found the body, and realising who it was, loaded it onto a cart and took it all the way to Winchester, easily twenty-five miles away – this at a time when most people would live their whole lives within ten miles of their birthplace.  It’s said that the body dripped blood the whole way – a sure sign that it had been murdered.

There the story of Rufus ends and other actors move to centre stage.  Henry’s rule was challenged by Robert, but Robert lost the war, and Henry gained Normandy.  His father’s lands were back together and his to rule.  He had it all at last.

Robert spent twenty-five years a prisoner in England and Wales, dying in Cardiff Castle in his early eighties.  The first-born son’s warm blood never did run on the English earth in any significant quantities.

Four brothers.  The middle two both dying from arrows in the New Forest, where an old man had supposedly cursed their father years before. 

Hunting accident? Assassination?  Nobody can possibly know for sure.  Henry gained the most from Rufus’s death, but even in the violent world of Norman power politics, cold-blooded fratricide was considered beyond the pale.  You could kill each other in battle, but stabbing your own brother in the back would be too far.  

Both Duke Robert and Prince Louis of France got what they wanted with Rufus’s death, as one of Henry’s first acts as King was to stand down the battle fleet that Rufus had been assembling in the Solent.  A Frenchman in Walter Tirel’s entourage was put forward as a possible assassin sent by Robert or Louis, but with no real evidence.

In all truth, Henry was most likely just seizing the moment. Although conspiracy theorists could make much of the ninth article of the Charter of Liberties which he published at his coronation:  it says “I forgive all murders committed before I was crowned. Subsequent murders shall stand before the justice of the Crown.”  

I forgive all murders committed before I was crowned. No pardon for any other crimes, just murders.

Which might have been good politics, as much of the Charter of Liberties was, but it also made any attempt to investigate Rufus’s death effectively pointless.

One of the best bowmen in Europe, shooting arrows made for a king, shoots Rufus and puts Henry on the throne.  Henry immediately pardons any and all murderers.  Smells a bit funny, no?

Whatever.  It’s been argued back and forth for nearly a thousand years.  It’s not the actions of a curse, because as we know, curses aren’t real.  “Your first-born son’s warm blood will run on the English earth”.  Well, Robert’s blood didn’t run, did it?  The curse didn’t reach him.  He just died in prison after a quarter of a century’s captivity.

The second-born son waskilled in a hunting accident in the New Forest, of course.

And the third-born son.

And the first-born son’s own first-born son.

Henry had only one son, William Adelin;  he drowned in a shipwreck in 1120.

That event led to a decade-long Civil War in the English and Norman lands Henry left behind, which effectively wiped out William The Conqueror’s Norman dynasty, replacing it with rule by his old enemies the Plantagenets, which would last for 350 years.

But that’s just history.  That’s not a curse.  Not the workings of some dark avenging power which, denied its primary target, comes back redoubled in strength and vindictiveness to wreak devastation on an entire family.

There’s nothing out there in those trees, right now, that could do that.

Because curses aren’t real.

Are they?

The Demon Days, 27-31 January…

Today, December 26th, was once the last day of the year.

That all changed because a goddess wanted children, and wanted to love whoever she wanted.

Nut

Nut was goddess of the sky, arching over the earth god Geb, her twin brother, and protecting him. Nut was married to Ra, the sun god and greatest of all the gods, but she was loved by Thoth, the God of Wisdom, and also by Geb. Every morning Nut and Geb were separated, but every night they came together again and created the darkness.

When Ra discovered her infidelities he was furious and cursed her, preventing her from having any children on any of the 360 days of the year. Distraught, she went to Thoth for advice and help.

Thoth told Nut to go to Khonsu, the god of the moon and time, and gamble with him. This she did, and beat him five times.

Nut told Khonsu to pay his debt by adding five days to the calendar. This done, she and Geb produced five children on those days: on the first day Osiris, the god of life, death and the flooding of the Nile was born, who would replace Ra. 

The next day saw the birth of Horus, god of the sky, first king of Egypt, whose eye cried the tears that became the first people. 

The third day Set was born, god of the desert, thunder, evil and suffering, who would later kill Osiris. 

The next day Isis was born, goddess of healing and protection, who brought Osiris back to life. 

And finally Nephthys, goddess of death, was born on the day the old year dies.

To the Egyptians, these days, the 27th to 31st of December, were the Demon Days, days of no season and outside the normal year.

Ra was eventually superseded by Osiris, some say by a merging of the legends, but some say by killing his stepfather to take his place and revenge the curse that Ra had placed on Osiris’s mother.

So, as we enter the Demon Days, think carefully before you tell a woman how she should love…