The legend of Childe the Hunter has inspired songs – e.g. one by Seth Lakeman and one in the Baring Gould collection, a MED Theatre play by Mark Beeson, and many storytellers. Here is a summary of the legend, together with some of the historical background, which will hopefully assist in an appreciation of the performance arts based on this topic.
Childe’s Tomb beside Foxtor Mire. Photo: Fiona Avis
Legend has it that one winter’s day, while riding on a hunting trip on the moor, Childe was separated from his group. He was in a bleak, inhospitable part of the moor and the weather conditions worsened.
Lost, cold and desperate in the blizzard, Childe killed his horse, disembowelled it and sheltered inside the warm carcass. This extreme and gory measure provided only temporary relief from the terrible conditions, and he froze to death. Before he died, he wrote a note saying that whoever should find him and bury him in their church should inherit his Plymstock estate.
When news of his body and will became known, a race developed between the monks of Tavistock Abbey, 9 miles away and people from Plymstock,13 miles distant. The monks reached the body first but the men from Plymstock planned to ambush the Tavistock party on their route back to the abbey, at a crossing place over the River Tavy. The monks anticipated this plan, and returned a different way, building a temporary bridge across the Tavy. Their ruse worked and they successfully evaded the men from Plymstock. Childe was buried at Tavistock and the monks inherited his lands.
The probable first account of this story in 1630 is quoted by Finberg (1) from Westcote (2).
‘There was one named Childe, of Plympstock, a man of fair possessions who, having no issue, ordained by his testament that at what place soever he was interred, that church should inherit his land. It fortuned that riding forth a hunting in a cold season, in the forest, he casually strayed from his company, and having also lost his way, in long seeking of both he was so benumbed at length with the cold that he was forced to kill his horse and embowel him and creep into his belly, but that could not preserve him: frozen he was to death, and found dead by the men of Tavistock, who, with all convenient speed, carried him to be buried in the Abbey; which was not so privily done but the inhabitants of his own parish of Plympstock had intelligence thereof , and so mustered their best strength to prevent the other, and came with a great multitude to the passage of the river, which of necessity the Tavistock men must pass, or nowhere , as they thought, and there waited; but were deceived by a feat of guile, for the Tavistock inhabitants builded presently a slight bridge over the river and so without trouble buried the corpse and had the land; and in remembrance of this guile, the bridge, even to this age, is called Guile Bridge. This land is now the Earl of Bedford’s.’
Finberg expressed scepticism about the legend, which he said:
‘as handed down is improbable and indeed self contradictory. The body is carried off ‘with all convenient speed’ yet there is time for a party to come up from Plymstock. There are also time and materials to build a bridge over the river, while the men of Plymstock conveniently stand waiting at a distance.’He also pointed out that a document of 1651 referred to Tavistock’s Guildhall as ‘Guilehall’, ‘so that Guile Bridge is probably Guild Bridge, so called because constructed or maintained by a guild.’ Finberg dismissed ‘Guile’ Bridge as ‘a folk – etymology’.
He explored inconsistencies in a couplet that was said to be written on the monument, presumably repeating Childe’s note. Risdon (c.1630) quoted:
‘They fyrste that fyndes and bringes mee to my grave,
The priorie of Plimstoke they shall have.’
Apparently there was never a priory at Plymstock, though there was one nearby at Plympton. Fuller (1662) wrote that the rhyme was written with the horse’s blood, and has a slightly different version:
‘He that finds and brings me to my tomb,
The land of Plymstock shall be his doom.’
These rhymes are both in Prince’s Worthies of Devon (1701) but by this time Risdon’s second line has been changed to:
‘My lands, which are at Plimstock, they shall have.’
Despite his doubts about some aspects of the legend, when Finberg compared it with the death of ‘the second Ordulf’, he found that numerous similarities were ‘too striking to be overlooked’. Finberg pointed out that ‘Childe’ was probably derived from ‘Cild’ – the Saxon word for ‘Young Lord’. He established that the legend of Childe was based on Ordulf, son of Ordgar, who was the Saxon Earl of Devon in the 11th century. Finberg’s conclusion was that:
‘……in the light of this interpretation, the old Dartmoor legend becomes credible enough……a beautiful example of the way popular tradition may at once preserve and disguise matter of authentic fact.’
The answer to the question – fact or fiction? A bit of both!
Various versions of the note were mentioned in the last section. There is confusion about where or how it was written. Anna Eliza Bray (3) wrote:
‘Childe, in order to confirm his will, took some of his own blood (though one would have thought it more likely that of his horse) ………though how he procured pen or paper to do this………record has forgotten to tell.’
Ruth E. St. Leger-Gordon (4) mentioned four possibilities. One account related that Childe had previously made a will leaving his estates to the church where he should be buried. Another version said that he dipped a finger in horse’s blood and wrote on a piece of paper found beside his body. Some said the words were traced on a nearby granite block, and a fourth version is that the words were written in the frozen snow.
The following poem is to be found on Devon Libraries Local Studies Service web site, quoted from:
Carrington, N.T., Dartmoor – a Descriptive Poem, with a preface and notes by W. Burt (London:Hatchard and Son, Devonport: R.Williams, 1826), pp 55-6, 160-1.
But see, – where erst by Piety uprear’d,
A cross, now prostrate, shows the fatal spot
Where fell the luckless hunter. Crag and cliff,
And faithless bog, and swollen impetuous flood,
To him were things familiar: and he dared,
With eagle-eye and lion-heart, the chase
Far o’er the echoing forest. When the morn
Broke o’er the brow of Mistor; loudly peal’d
His merry horn; and, as the red-deer sought
The mazes of the shadowy vale, or swept
Swift o’er the mountain’s side, the manly voice
Of the old English yeoman made the air
Ring with exulting accents. Him the fox
Sagacious shunn’d, and on the wolf, the bear,
He pour’d his gallant pack; till foe on foe
Strew’d the victorious moorland. Yet he fell
Where he had triumph’d.- On the gloomy heath
The snow-storm raged terrific. Long he press’d
His noble steed, and well o’er hill and dale,
By treacherous morass, through flashing stream,
And path but dim descried, that faithful steed
His much loved master bore. But every track
Quick disappear’d; and now the northern gale
More fiercely blew-chilling his heart blood, till
Benumb’d, bewilder’d, hopeless and alone
The mournful eve closed o’er him, and he slept
His last;- the hunter slept!
If the date of this poem was 1826, then the tomb had been vandalised and not yet restored.
In memory of Childe a tomb was erected at the spot where it was thought he had perished. Childe’s Tomb is situated on the south east edge of Fox Tor mire, about 500 metres north of Fox Tor ( grid reference SX 626 703 ). It consists of a cross, 1 ft. 8 in.(0.5 m.) wide across the arms and 3 ft. 4 in.(1 m.) tall, set in a square chamfered socket stone. The base consists of a set of worked granite blocks in three steps surrounded by a circle of granite blocks set up on their edges. The total height of the cross and base is 7 ft. 2 in. ( 2.20 m. ).
According to Crossing (5), the tomb was virtually destroyed by workmen building what he considered to be quite an impressive farmhouse at Fox Tor farm for Thomas Windeatt of Bridgetown, Totnes in 1812. In Dartmoor Forest Farms Elizabeth Stanbrook (6) explores this story further, questioning Crossing’s notion of a large farmhouse, stating that until 1857 there was just a kitchen and a bedroom on one floor, plus a space under the thatched roof. Crossing’s view of Windeatt as being somewhat mercenary and speculative is examined on the Windeatt family’s website (7). Evidence is put forward to suggest that Thomas Windeatt was in fact a very different character. His daughter stated:
‘My dear father was brought up in the woollen business, after being well educated, this he disliked wishing to go into the ministry…………..he retired from the trade and preached in the chapel at Totnes.’
His grandson, Edward Windeatt wrote, in a volume of Westcountry Poets (8) in1896, that his grandfather composed a number of sacred hymns and poems.
This hardly sounds like a man who would instigate the vandalising of a tomb in order to steal stones to make steps and lintels for the building of his house. Perhaps the men he employed were less scrupulous in his absence? Or could he have had obscure religious motives?
A number of sources suggest that some stones were also taken to build a clapper bridge over the River Swincombe.
By 1817 it appears that Thomas Windeatt had left the farm. It was then occupied by the Eden family. Windeatt apparently still owned the farm in 1828 but the lease had passed to a Mr William Windgate by 1840, and was acquired by the Eden family in 1843.
Does Thomas Windeatt’s short stay suggest that he was a ‘townie’ from Totnes, with romantic, idealistic notions about a country retreat on Dartmoor? Perhaps his aspirations were not matched by the harsh reality of bleak isolation in the Fox Tor environment.
The tomb was restored in the 1880s by Fearnley Tanner and The Dartmoor Preservation Association, recovering nine of the twelve original blocks which formed the pedestal. A new cross and socket stone were made at Holne and brought to the site.
Leger-Gordon pointed out that the tomb had been vandalised again in recent times ‘more or less accidentally by two young hikers climbing on it to be photographed.’ It was repaired ‘by the Dartmoor Preservation Association’.
In a story told to Leger-Gordon by someone at Princetown it was said that as snow prevented the monks’ ‘difficult journey for a while, the body was temporarily entombed beneath the snow – hence the name Childe’s Tomb’.
Numerous commentators, including Leger-Gordon mention Risdon’s opinion that the Tomb was ‘one of the three remarkable things to be seen on Dartmoor’, the other two being Wistman’s Wood and the reputed stone chairs and tablets used by tinners on Crockern Tor.
Is it possible that Childe was not hunting, but merely following an ancient route across the moor? This interesting theory was put forward by Tom Greeves (9). He explained that the track led from near…
‘Holne Moor Gate on the east to enclosed land near Burrator reservoir on the west….it is the only east-west transmoor route that had carefully spaced granite crosses as waymarks (at least twelve on the open moor), it involves no major river crossing, and it traverses the narrowest possible portion of open moorland.’ Later, referring to Childe:
‘It surely cannot be co-incidence that Childe Ordulf’s Tomb is more or less half way across this moorland route…..Rather than randomly hunting, it is surely more likely that Ordulf was travelling on this very track when caught in a winter’s storm. Perhaps he sheltered in vain by a cross already erected, or perhaps it was the impact of such an important personage that caused the authorities to erect the crosses for the benefit of travellers.’
This spooky tale was told to Leger-Gordon around 1957 in Moretonhampstead:
At a date between the first and second world wars, two girls were visiting Moretonhampstead for the first time. They knew little about Dartmoor, so decided to have a look around. They drove to Princetown, as many tourists do, to see the prison. After this they found themselves in a narrow lane leading to Fox Tor Mire. A small party of monks were approaching, carrying a bier, so the girls drove onto the grass verge to let them pass. As the group drew level with the car the whole cortege vanished into thin air. The girls recounted their story when returning to Moreton, and were told (for the first time) the legend of Childe The Hunter.
1. Finberg, H.P.R.(1946) Childe’s Tomb, Trans. Devon. Association., 78, 265-280
2. Westcote, T. (1630) View of Devonshire in 1630, ed. Oliver and Jones, 1845, p. 386; cf Risdon, Survey of the County of Devon,(1811), 198
3. Bray, Anna Eliza (1836) The Borders of Tamar and Tavy (3rd edn, London,1879, 2 vols)
4. Leger-Gordon, Ruth (1965) The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor (Robert Hale, London)
5. Crossing ,W. (1902) The Ancient Stone Crosses of Dartmoor (1987 edn, Devon Books)
6. Stanbrook, E. (1994) Dartmoor Forest Farms: A Social History from Enclosure to Abandonment (Devon Books), 42-52
7. WINDEATTS on the Web – Thomas White WINDEATT: The Vandal of Dartmoor (on line) http://www.windeatt.f2s.com/windeatt/vandal.htm
8. Wright, W.H.K.(1896) Westcountry Poets:Their Lives and Works (London: Elliot Stock), 48-51
9. Greeves, Tom (1998) Dartmoor’s Oldest Moorland Route – The Maltern Way? , Dartmoor Magazine, 51, 6-8