A Legend Of Cheddar Cliffs
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
In the course of an investigation into the bygone monastic life of England, I have met with a very remarkable confirmation, in the oral tradition of a village, of an historic document nearly a thousand years old. As it helps to prove the circumstantial correctness of those ancient records upon which our national history rests, I venture to submit it to the notice of yourself and your readers. It is the more striking because the incident is one which is alluded to in general terms only in all the histories and original documents, but the details are to be found in the oral tradition and in this ancient manuscript.
About fourteen miles from Glastonbury the traveller comes to a small town or village, known all over the world for its magnificent piece of rock scenery, and less poetically for its excellent cheese. It illustrates the vicissitudes of human fame ; for this village of Cheddar, now so vulgarly immortalised, was at one time a royal residence, had a king's palace, and basked in the gaiety of a court. Nearly all the Saxon kings, from the Heptarchy, retained it as a royal possession, probably from the excellent hunting in the neighbourhood ;* but we have distinct evidence that Athelstan and his brother Edmund held their courts at Cheddar. It was to the court of the former that Dunstan was introduced when a mere youth, and played out the first act in the drama of his life, which ended by his being expelled through the intrigues of those who were jealous of his popularity. He then left the country, by the advice of Elphege the " Bald," Bishop of Winchester, went over to Fleury, became an enthusiastic monk, re-turned, and, as an anchorite, took up his abode in a cell adjoining Glastonbury Abbey, the narrow dimensions of which, and its facilities for discomfort, were the admiration of the surrounding country. After the death of Athelstan, Edmund succeeded ; and, as he had known Dunstan through meeting him at his brother's court, and his estimation of him being unimpaired by what had occurred, he persuaded the saint, whose ascetic severities and renowned encounter with his Satanic Majesty had made his name famous, and whose inheritance under the will of the pious widow Ethelgiva had given him the reputation of wealth, to leave his narrow cell, and give him the benefit of his presence and advice at court. Dunstan consented—forsook his ascetic existence, and once more appeared upon the stage of active life amid the gay scenes of a royal palace.
Again he became the victim of jealousy, and again did the courtiers make injurious insinuations to the king about him, and brought charges against him with so much persistence, that at last they succeeded in persuading Edmund to expel him ; and once more Dunstan was banished. At this point occurred the incident which forms the subject of the tradition. We shall give the oral version first, and then the historic account which it so strangely confirms.
Everyone who has been to Cheddar has seen the cliffs—an immense chain of rocks towering up at the highest point to an altitude of 800 feet. A defile runs through them, and, viewed from below, they form one of the most gorgeous specimens of rock-scenery to be found in Europe. There is something inexpressibly grand in their bare and simple magnificence, as their heads appear to melt into the clouds, and luxuriant festoons of ivy hang far down from their summits like a beauty's dishevelled locks. The eye grows accustomed to Switzerland, but Cheddar is a continual surprise. Beyond the summit of this range of rocks is a vast expanse, once the royal Saxon hunting-ground. Almost any peasant taking a stranger over the scene will be sure to lead him to a certain precipice, and tell him that was the spot where the king in the olden times nearly rode over. He will add, that the stag, being hard pressed by the hunters, made for the rocks, and in the impetuosity of the chase the king's horse became unmanageable, and continued to follow it at full speed. At the instant of extreme peril the king, seeing nothing but death before him, immediately thought of the man of God whom he had unjustly punished, and vowed to heaven that, if he were saved, he would re-store him with honour. The stag, and the dogs fell over, and were dashed to pieces; the horse went up to the very verge of the precipice, when, making a sudden turn, he avoided it, and the king was saved. He was true to his vow, and immediately recalled Dunstan. In many histories this incident is not mentioned ; and in the biographies of Dunstan- it is merely alluded to as a miraculous rescue of the king whilst hunting.
In the Cottonian collection at the British Museum (" Cleopatra," B. xiii., fo. 62), there is a very interesting and. valuable MS. bound up with others, being a life of Dunstan, written only a few years after his death by a contemporary who must have known him well; for it is the most complete and incidental biography of Dunstan extant. It has been printed in the "Acta Sanctorum," marked B (" Acta Sanct.," 19 Maii, tom. iv.), and is supposed to have been written by Bridferth, who in 98o was a monk of Ramsey. This MS. was consulted by William of Malmesbury in the twelfth century, and there are two inscriptions upon it made by two distinguished men who used it later. Josselin, who, under the direction of Archbishop Parker, 1565, compiled the " Antiquitates Britannic e," after examining it, wrote the following: "Hunc librum cujus auctor ut apparebit lectori, claurit tempore ipsius Dunstani de quo agit, reperi inter veteres libros MSS. Monasterii Augustinensis Cant.: anno Dni. 1565, mens August. —J. Josseling." Archbishop Ussher also perused it, and wrote the following in a side-note : " Ibi hunc ipsum librum a Gulielmo Malmsburiensi repertum esse : ex libro ejusdem De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Monasterii apparebit.—Ja. Usserus." The account of the incident as given in this MS. is minute, and accords exactly with the popular legend now to be heard in the neighbourhood. The MS. recites the facts that, after the death of Athelstan, Edmund succeeded, and reinstated Dunstan, who had been expelled from his offices; that jealousies again sprung up amongst the courtiers, and representations were continually being made to his prejudice, until the king at last believed them, and ordered him to be once more degraded and banished, and that his case excited the sympathy of some deputies who were visiting the court at Cheddar. But, the MS. proceeds, a day or two after this circumstance, the king, as he was wont, went out upon a hunting expedition, and several stags were startled by the baying of the dogs and the noise of the hunting-horns. Out of these the king chose one for his especial sport, and pursued it with his dogs for a long time through many devious paths. Now, the MS. continues, there is in the neighbourhood of Cheddar, amongst other rocks, one of a prodigious height, whose summit hangs over a profound precipice, towards which the stag, driven probably by the will of God, hurried, rushed over its summit, followed by the dogs, and all were dashed to pieces. The king followed closely upon their heels, but seeing the stag and hounds disappear so suddenly over the precipice, he strove to arrest his horse, but was unable : the animal rushed on, and Edmund, finding all efforts were useless, commended his soul into the hands of God with these words : " I thank thee, Almighty, that I do not remember to have injured any one lately, save only Dunstan, and if thou wilt spare my life, I will at once restore him again." At these words the horse suddenly paused—" as I even now tremble to relate," says the writer (" quod jam horreo dicere ")—paused at the very summit of the precipice, when its forelegs were almost over,* and the king was saved.
Then he returned, giving thanks to God, and rejoicing in his heart, that he was snatched from death through the merits of Dunstan, whom he instantly restored, made him abbot of the monastery at Glastonbury, and gave him large sums of money to rebuild its ruined church.
I submit this as a remarkable instance of the confirmation of historical incident by oral tradition. The legend, as I have related it, must have been handed down from generation to generation for nearly a thousand years amongst a poor ignorant peasantry, who knew nothing about history, but simply told their children what their fathers had told them. Oral traditions are often neglected, but it is not impossible that as a medium of transmission they may be sometimes safer than the biased pens of prejudiced historians. In any case, when they corroborate documentary history so clearly as in this instance, they enhance the value of those monastic records of the history of England, extant in an unbroken line by different writers, from the time of the conversion of the Saxons down to the period just pre-ceding the Reformation, when the printing-press obviated the necessity of their labours. Few countries are richer in documentary history than ours, and I think we ought to value it more. Under the influence of a criticism of searching severity, modern historians are being driven back to these only real materia historica, which their predecessors despised. The day is gone for writing history by the fatuous light of imagination, and the revelations which are gradually being made by laborious historians concerning such periods as the Dark Ages and the times of Henry VIII., prove that considerable portions of the history of England will have to be rewritten for the perusal of future generations. We conclude this letter with the melancholy fact, that as no nation is richer in materials for its history than ours, so perhaps no other nation has so long neglected the use of its materials.
In the Gentleman's Magazine for November, 1866, you have published an interesting letter from Mr. O'Dell Travers Hill. Mr. Hill is mistaken in assuming that the curious incidents he relates have no other foundation than oral tradition in the locality of Cheddar.
Among many other valuable MSS. belonging to the corporation of Axbridge (one mile from Cheddar), is a MS., apparently written about the fourteenth or fifteenth century, from which I give you an extract, and shall be glad to see it made public through the same medium as Mr. Hill's letter. After giving a somewhat curious account of the origin and purposes of royal boroughs (of which Axbridge was one), the MS. proceeds thus :
"Sometimes, for the sake of hunting, the king spent the summer about the Forest of Mendip, wherein there were, at that time, numerous stags and other kinds of wild beasts. For, as it is read in the life of Saint Dunstan, King Edward, who sought retirement at Glastonbury, came to the said forest to hunt, Axbridge being then a royal borough. The king, three days previously, had dismissed Saint Dunstan from his court, with great indignation and lack of honour; which done, he proceeded to the wood to hunt. This wood covers a mountain of great height, which, being separate in its summit, exhibits to the spectator an immense precipice and horrid gulph, called by the inhabitants Cheddarclyffe. When, therefore, the king was chasing the flying stag here and there, on its coming to the craggy gulph, the stag rushed into it, and, being dashed to atoms, perished. Similar ruin involved the pursuing dogs; and the horse on which the king rode, having broken its reins, became unmanageable, and in an obstinate course carried the king after the hounds ; and the gulph, being open before him, threatens the king with certain death. He trembles, and is at his last shift. In the interval, his injustice, recently offered to Saint Dunstan, occurs to his mind ; he wails it, and instantly vows to God that he would, as speedily as possible, recompense [such injustice] by a manifold amendment, if God would only for the moment avert the death which deservedly threatened him. God, immediately hearing the preparation of his heart, took pity on him, inasmuch as the horse instantly stopped short, and, to the glory of God, caused the king, thus snatched from the peril of death, most unfeignedly to give thanks unto God. Having returned thence to his house, that is the borough, and being joined by his nobles, the king recounted to them the course of the adventure which had happened, and commanded Saint Dunstan to be recalled with honour and reverence : after which he esteemed him in all trans-actions as his most sincere friend."
There cannot be much doubt that the person who penned the MS. from which I have quoted, must have read the biography of Saint Dunstan, referred to by Mr. Hill. Both accounts are, in their leading features, very nearly identical. I hope Mr. Hill will give the public more of his " notes " from our public records, of which he speaks in terms of deserved admiration for their value; from which, so to speak, a new history of England may be compiled.
In conclusion, I may add that Axbridge is a very ancient borough, municipal as well as parliamentary; having sent two members to Parliament on five occasions; the first, 23rd Edward I.; and the last, 17th Edward III.