‘And here is our old grey enemy, the last wolf in England, stone dead.’
Many counties claim England’s wolf. Lancashire is no exception. It’s a story to raise the hackles, stir a deep and ominous growl from the pit of the belly of anyone who loves the wild.
This mean old tale is set during the fourteenth century but written records are comparatively recent. The earliest appears in The Remains of John Briggs (1825). Here we are told ‘a bold and intrepid knight, named Harrington, fixed his abode at Wraysholme’ and ‘erected the Tower’.
In Harrington’s day all the wolves in the south had been killed, but a few remained in the forest of Cartmel. ‘These it was his amusement to hunt, in order to exterminate the breed.’
Whilst hunting on Humphrey Head, Harrington was ‘stopped by the shrieks of a female in extreme peril’. She was trapped in the cleft of a rock by ‘an enormous wolf… his barking was tremendous and death lightened his eyes’. John ‘transfixed the animal with his lance’.
The hapless maiden immediately fell in love with her rescuer and they married. Harrington made the wolf – the last in England – his crest. The ‘happy pair… were buried in a niche in Cartmel church. Their effigies were cut in stone with a figure of the wolf at their feet.’
In an elaborated retelling in a ballad printed in the Annals of Cartmel (1872) King Edward had offered a prize for the head of the last wolf in England. To win it Sir Edgar Harrington organised a hunt and promised the hand in marriage of Adela, his ward, to the killer of the wolf.
Two knights competed for her favour: Leyburn and the mysterious Delisle. Delisle was a stranger who appeared on a white Arab horse. Adela wanted neither as her heart belonged to John Harrington, Edgar’s son, who she believed had died fighting in foreign lands.
The hunt reached its end on ‘Humphrey’s Height’ with the wolf ‘racked with sore distress’ approaching a ‘black hole’. Adela sat aboard a palfrey on the other side. Delisle’s horse leapt the chasm where Leyburn’s failed. To Adela’s horror the ‘wild wolf’ burst into sight baring its ‘glistening teeth’.
When Adela next looked the wolf and Delisle’s horse lay dead and the knight unscathed. Delisle revealed his identity as John Harrington, Adela’s lost love, and the pair were married immediately by a priest in a cave ‘called Sir Edgar’s Chapel still’.
The head of the last wolf in England became John Harrington’s crest. The ballad ends:
In Cartmel’s Church his grave is shown,
And o’er it side by side,
All graved in stone lie brave sir John,
And Adela his bride.
The tale was further romanticised in Jerome Mercier’s novel The Last Wolf (1906) where it is retold from the perspective of a friend of Adela’s called Margaret of Arnside. John Harrington was sent away to fight in the Crusades and Adela feared he had been killed by Turks. He again re-appeared as Delisle on a ‘milk-white Arab’.
Only Delisle’s horse made the leap as rushing toward Margaret and Adela came a ‘gristly beast… with grinning jaws and cruel, bloodless eyes… no hound but the wolf itself, in the rage of imminent death.’ Delisle’s horse was torn down yet he transfixed the wolf with his spear.
As Adela fainted from her horse John caught her and she recognised her former love. Again they were married on the spot in Sir Edgar’s Chapel.
The story ends: ‘And so, by the will of God, and in His own good time, the old, rough, cruel days passed away, even like the race of wolves – the last one being slain by a gentle Christian knight. Thus were the ignorance and cruelty of former ages slain by gentlehood and Christianity, and ere long the dawn of a new day came…’
The story of Lancashire’s last wolf has a basis in the local landscape and its history but doesn’t all ring true. John Harington (de Haverington) was a real person. His father was Sir Robert de Haverington. As far as I am aware no records of a Sir Edgar Harrington exist. John was born in Farleton in 1281 and owned lands in Furness. He did not build Wraysholme Tower, which was erected during the 15th century.
John was knighted in 1306 and in 1309 accompanied Edward II on a military expedition to Scotland and stayed within the military until 1335. It seems likely he was involved in the First War of Scottish Independence (1296 – 1314) which ended in Scottish victory when Edward was defeated by Robert de Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn. It is impossible that John fought in the Crusades because the ninth and final Crusade took place between 1271 and 1272.
Sir John was married to Joan of the Dacre family (not to Adela), died in Aldingham, and was buried at Cartmel Priory in 1347. At the foot of John’s tomb there is a grotesque with a face that looks part-human, part-wolf, with what looks like a serpent’s tail. The creature at Joan’s tomb-foot, more strangely, looks part-mermaid, part-lion! Unfortunately I have been unable to find out anything more about these enigmatic sculptures.
A wolf appears on the Harington family crest and a golden wolf’s head is the weathervane on Cartmel Priory.
It seems possible John Harington was associated with the hunting of Lancashire’s last wolf and killed it in the cave on Humphrey Head in the early 14th century. If this is the case, the story was clearly embellished, perhaps by John’s descendants when they built Wraysholme Tower during the 15th century as a way of romanticising and justifying their rulership. I remain sceptical about the wolf attacking a screaming maiden and the ‘love story’ being true.
It’s significant to note that an entirely different variant exists wherein the wolf was hunted down by local people from the Bowland Fells and slaughtered with pikes on Humphrey Head. Additionally, other accounts claim that wolves roamed Bowland well into the 15th century.
Wolves have been present on the land-mass we know as Britain for at least 120,000 years. This is evidenced by wolf bones found with the remains of hyenas, hippos, elephants, tigers, deer, weasels, and rabbits, in Kirkdale Cave in North Yorkshire.
‘A rude instrument produced from a wolf’s metacarpal bone’ found with the Red Lady of Paviland, the oldest ceremonial burial in Western Europe dating to 33,000 years ago, in Goat’s Hole Cave on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales is suggestive of a long-standing tradition of humans interacting with wolves and associating them with death and passage to the Otherworld.
Dogs began evolving from wolves 32,000 years ago and were domesticated by European hunter-gatherers. When the first humans returned to Britain after the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago, following the reindeer north, they and their dogs would have competed with wolves and feared and revered them as fellow predators.
Various examples of human bones gnawed by canids before their burial from the prehistoric period show the ancient Britons practiced excarnation. They left the corpses of their dead outside so the flesh could be consumed by wolves or dogs then buried the bones afterward.
Wolves and dogs were sacred to the ancient British hunter god Nodens/Nudd ‘the superior wolf-lord’ and his son Vindos/Gwyn. Gwyn owns a wolfish dog called Dormach, ‘Death’s Door’ and hunts with dogs who devour the corpses of the dead before he gathers their souls to Annwn.
Wolves/dogs appear as guardians of the underworld in many world myths. Intriguingly both Dormach and Cerberus, guardian of Hades in Greek mythology, have serpent’s tails, just like the wolf pictured at the foot of John Harington’s tomb who uncannily shares Dormach’s grin…
The relationship between humans and wolves (but not dogs) broke down in the Neolithic as people transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming. The woodland habitat of wolves was destroyed and, as humans laid claim to the herds, the displaced wolves became seen as a nuisance who preyed on ‘their’ animals.
Wolves gained a reputation for being numerous and noisome. According to Hector Boece a king called Dorvadilla who ruled Scotland in 2BCE decreed: ‘he slayer of ane wolf to have ane ox to his reward… Oure elders persewit this beist with gret hatreut, for the gret murdir of beistis.’ Boece’s translator notes the Caledonian forest had ‘gret plente of… wolffis’ and describes the ‘wolffis’ as being ‘rycht noysum to the tame bestiall in all parts of Scotland.’
References from Y Gododdin equating warriors with wolves: Gwefrfawr is ‘a wolf in fury’ and Tudfwlch the ‘wolf of the host’ and bleiddiad, ‘wolfish warrior’, suggest wolves were still held in a certain amount of esteem for their ferocity amongst the Britons in the 6th century.
However, in Arthurian mythology, Rhymi, who goes ‘in the form of a she-wolf’, and her whelps, Gwyddrud and Gwydden ‘two old men from the land of enchantment’, are hunted down by Arthur and changed ‘back into their own shape’. Arthur contends with Gwrgi Garwlwyd, ‘Rough Grey’, another wolfish shapeshifter, and slaughters cynvyd, ‘dog-heads’ ‘by the hundred’.
Wolves continued to be heavily persecuted into the Middle Ages because they preyed on flocks, devoured the corpses of the dead after battles, and dug them up after burial. The Welsh King Hywel Da paid a tribute of 300 wolf-skins to King Athelstan in 950. Norman kings employed wolf hunters who operated wolf-pits and allowed criminals to pay for their crimes in wolf-tongues rather than being put to death.
Edward I ordered the extermination of all wolves from England and Edward II followed in his footsteps. This led to their extinction from England and Wales in the 15th century and Scotland in the 19th century.
Of all extinct animals wolves seem to speak to humans the loudest. This is demonstrated by our plethora of last wolf stories and the comparative lack of tales about the last elk, aurochs, lynx, beaver…
I’m always surprised by how many people in the Pagan community have wolf guides. This seems to go deeper than them simply being ‘cool’ and may have a basis in their presence within the landscape as animals we shared a sacred relationship with for many thousands of years.
Wolves haunt us. Their absence from our physical and spiritual ecosystems leaves a yawning howling gap that, like Bwlch Safan y Ci, ‘the Pass of the Dog’s Mouth’, will never be closed.
A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin, Y Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Ed Yong, ‘Origin of Domestic Dogs‘, The Scientist,
Janice Short, ‘Wolf’s Tale’, The Wolves and Humans Foundation,
James Stockdale, Annals of Cartmel, (Kessinger, 2010)
Jason Smalley, ‘England’s Last Wolf‘, Way of the Buzzard
Jerome Mercier, The Last Wolf, (Grange Over Sands, 1906)
John Briggs, The Remains of John Briggs (Kessinger, 2010)
Marianne Sommer, Bones and Ochre: The Curious Afterlife of the Red Lady of Paviland, (Harvard University Press, 2008)
Natural Historian, ‘Kirkdale Cave Hyena Den‘, Naturalis Historia,
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
‘Arthur and the Porter’, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective,
‘Ice Age Wolf Bones found in Thornton Cleveleys Garden‘, BBC News,
‘Wolves in Great Britain‘, Wikipedia,