Set against the backdrop of Dartmoor in late Anglo-Saxon times, MED Theatre’s play In the Shadow of the Vikings follows the story of Aelfthryth – a Dartmoor girl, born at Lydford, who became Queen of England – and in the process charts the high politics of the time from the point of view of the house of Devon. Two twelfth century writers, William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey Gaimar, provide colourful and different versions of the love triangle between Aelfthryth, daughter of Ordgar Earl of Devon, her first husband Ethelwold Earl of East Anglia and his best friend King Edgar – a triangle which sowed the seeds of the tragedy that was to befall England at the turn of the millennium. Gaimar and Malmesbury’s historical credentials are open to question, but their storytelling helps to fill out the sparse record of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the often oblique light shed by charters and other contemporary documents.
MED Theatre’s play In the Shadow of the Vikings (2013) interpreted Anglo-Saxon history through the eyes of Dartmoor inhabitants in the 10th century, using the work of historian Harold Fox featuring personal transhumance on Dartmoor as inspiration.
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!
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
Roger Rowle and the Gubbins – the Robin Hood of Dartmoor and his Merry Men ?
While plays about Robin Hood were entertaining 16th century audiences in Chagford and Ashburton (and probably other Dartmoor locations ) the exploits of Roger Rowle and the Gubbins in the Lydford area were creating parallels with the traditional characters. It is said that a gang of outlaws, known as the Gubbins, lived near Lydford Gorge, possibly in caves or ‘cotts’ – rough shed-like structures. They terrorised and robbed any travellers who passed that way. Their leader was Roger Rowle. A pool known as ‘Rowles Pool’ is situated at the village side of the gorge.
Photos by Lucy Edmonds