The origin of Penwortham Fairy Funeral can be partially derived from the landscape and local funeral traditions (see Part One). However this does not explain why the men saw fairies, as opposed to ghosts or other spectres, or the portentous aspect of the legend. Locating it within the context of British folklore has helped me gain a better understanding.
Prior to Saxon settlement, the inhabitants were part of a culture who spoke Cumbric, a British language close to the Welsh Cymric (4). This is shown in the etymology of ‘Penwortham’. According to Alan Crosby the ‘Pen’ element is a British word meaning ‘prominent headland.’ ‘Worth’ is Old English and means ‘enclosed settlement’. ‘Ham’ is Old English for ‘land within the bend of a river’ (5). An older spelling of Penwortham found in the Domesday Book is ‘Peneverdant.’ Rev. Thornber says ‘the old name of Penwortham is of British origin, thus – Peneverdant is formed of three words – pen, werd or werid and want, as Caer werid, the green city (Lancaster) and Derwent, the water, that is the green hill on the water.’ (6) East of Penwortham is Walton-le-dale. Walton is Old English for ‘the settlement of the Welsh’ (ie. native Britons).
Paul Devereux says that associations between fairies and funeral processions are common in Welsh mythology. He cites Edmund Jones ‘It was said of Welsh fairies “very often they appeared in the form of Funeral before the death of many persons, with a Bier, and a Black Cloth, in the midst of a company, about it, on every side, before and after it”… it was “past all dispute that they infallibly foreknew the time of Men’s death.”’ (7)
The term ‘fairy’ derives from the Latin ‘fatum,’ which means fate. Their Welsh name is ‘the Tylwyth Teg,’ the fair tribe or family (8). Implicit are physical qualities and a capacity to deal in ‘fairness.’ Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire and other collections of British folklore which depict people’s interactions with fairies, be they helpful sprites or malevolent boggarts, show the survival of a belief they play an active role in the determination of human fate.
In Burnley in Lancashire there is a similar legend. Captain Robert Parker of Extwistle Hall is walking home from a Jacobite meeting. He hides and by moonlight sees his name etched in brass on the coffin. He takes this as a warning not to support the Jacobites and backs out of the 1715 uprising (9) thus escaping imprisonment. However in 1717 he and two of his daughters are seriously injured in an accident in the hall involving gun powder. Parker dies from his injuries a month later (10).
Other fairy funeral legends include the following: In Gwent a man witnesses a fairy funeral procession approaching down a mountain toward ‘Abergeeg, or Lanithel church.’ He hides behind a wall and as the funeral passes steals a black veil from the bier, which he finds to be made of an ‘exceeding fine Stuff… very light’ (11). In Cornwall a man witnesses the funeral of a fairy queen. As the fairies bury her their shriek of lament is so alarming he joins in. Hearing his voice the fairies depart in panic, piercing him with sharp instruments as they fly away (12). The London based poet William Blake also claims to have witnessed a fairy funeral (13).
Although the consequences of witnessing these funerals are not as dire or fortuitous as the Lancashire cases it is clear the fairies are seen as real and that interacting with them has a real effect on human lives. The man from Gwent steals an actual cloth. The Cornish man is physically injured. Whilst Blake is not harmed he claims to have died several times during his lifetime and his poetry certainly displays the visionary quality of Faerie.
Whilst our secular worldview attempts to eliminate beliefs unproved by reason or science they continue to be evidenced by arts and folklore, and for those who believe, in direct interaction with the fairy races themselves. Penwortham Fairy Funeral is only one example of these relations. I wonder whether there as many stories as there are incidences of contact with fairies waiting to be told.
Fairy Lane, Spring 2014
(4) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire,’ ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape (2010), p96
(5) Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past (1988), p14
(6) Rev. W. Thornber, ‘The Castle Hill of Penwortham,’ Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 1856/7, p66
(7) Paul Devereux, Spirit Roads (2003), p135
(8) T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore (1930), p51
(10) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire,’ ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape (2010), p97
(13) Katherine Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (2002), p197