Monsters of the Mere

In Beowulf, after the protagonist has defeated the monstrous Grendel in the hall of Heorot, he travels beyond the safety of its walls to the mere from which the monsters come to slay Grendel’s mother.

Beforehand, Hrothgar, King of the Danes, whose hall Beowulf is defending, describes ‘the haunted mere’:

‘a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere-bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.’

When Beowulf and his warriors arrive they find:

‘… The water was infested
with all kinds of reptiles. There were writhing sea-dragons
and monsters slouching on slopes of the cliff,
serpents and wild things…’

These quotes reflect a view of the wild land beyond the hall as uncanny and peopled by monsters. Beowulf is set in sixth century Scandinavia, but was composed in East Anglia during the seventh century and written down in the tenth century. I believe it was popular amongst the Anglo-Saxons due to the similarities between the landscapes and beliefs in Scandinavia and England.

Grendel is described as a ‘dark death shadow / who lurked and swooped in the long nights / on the misty moors’. The ‘shadow-stalker’ comes ‘In off the moors, down through the mist bands… greedily loping’. His mother is a ‘monstrous hell-bride’, a ‘hell-dam’, a ‘swamp thing from hell’, ‘a tarn-hag in all her terrible strength’, a ‘she-wolf’, and a ‘wolf of the deep’ who lurks in the mere. We find repeated associations between monsters and an untamed landscape viewed as hellish.

No doubt the descriptions of the Danish landscape and its monsters resonated with the people of East Anglia with its extensive fenlands and lowland moors and bogs and its many meres – Trundle Mere, Whittlesey Mere, Stretham Mere, Soham Mere, Ug Mere, and Ramsey Mere, now sadly drained.

It’s likely the Anglo-Saxons and the Brythonic people whose culture they replaced here in Lancashire viewed the Region Linnuis, ‘the Lake Region’, where Martin Mere (at twenty miles in diameter once the largest lake in England), Shoricar’s Mere, Renacres Mere, Gettern Mere, and Barton Mere once lay, as similarly haunted, before they were all drained with the bogs and marshes.

In the fourteenth century Middle English story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the protagonist battles against an array of monsters as he travels north ‘into the wilderness of the Wirral’ and beyond.

‘He had death-struggles with dragons, did battle with wolves,
Warred with wild trolls that dwelt among the crags,
Battled with bulls and bears and boars at other times,
And ogres that panted after him on the high fells.’

Memories of Grendel-like monsters might be retained in Lancashire’s rich boggart lore. Boggarts are malevolent spirits who haunted the bogs then later the farmhouses when the land was drained. Some merely caused mischief, scaring children with their penny-whistle like voices, breaking pots and pans or curdling milk but others made livestock lame or ill and even killed animals and humans.

King Arthur’s Pit, on the shore of Martin Mere near Holmeswood Hall, was haunted by ‘boggarts and ghouls’. There are traditions of ‘shadowy night-time figures passing marl-pits near the old mere edge’.

Roby records the story of a ‘mermaid’ or ‘meer-woman’ abducting a baby from its natural father then leaving the child with a fisherman who gives him to a Captain Harrington to be fostered. This puts me in mind of the monstrous claw that steals a foal and, implicitly, Pryderi in the First Branch of The Mabinogion then leaves the boy in the care of Teyrnon who raises him as a foster-father.

Coupled with Martin Mere’s associations with the nymph, Vyviane, disappearing into the lake with the infant Lancelot du Lac (who is said to give his name to Lancashire) and with Arthur’s sword we might intuit these stories originate from the presence of a female water deity or monster who stole children.

During the digging of the sluice to drain Martin Mere ‘human bodies entire and uncorrupted’ were found and its seems possible they were deliberately deposited in the water. From the surrounding area we have evidence of bog burials at North Meols and, further afield, Lindow and Worsley Man. Lindow Man was sacrificed, dying a ‘three fold death’, and others may have been sacrifices to water deities.

Bog burials took place from the Bronze Age through the Romano-British period in Britain and were common across Germany and Denmark showing shared practices and beliefs surrounding wet places.

Unfortunately we do not know for certain who these sacrifices were to or how these people perceived their deities. It is clear that by the sixth century, due to the influence of Christianity, both Grendel and his mother and the wild landscape they inhabited had been heavily demonised.

This is evidenced by the Christianised explanation of the origins of these ‘fatherless creatures’ as springing from the exile of Cain for killing Abel with ‘ogres and elves and evil phantoms / and the giants too’.

The pagan beliefs of the Danes are referred to and condemned in Beowulf:

‘Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offerings to idols, swore oaths
that the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
they remembered hell.’

Yet these explanations come up against the conflicting belief these ‘huge marauders’ are ‘from some other world’ and that their origin ‘hidden in a past of demons and ghosts’, defies explanation.

The grendelkin, like the later boggarts, occupy liminal places in the landscape and between the worlds. A wonderful verb, scripan, ‘meaning a sinewy and sinister gliding movement’ is used to describe the way they move and may also apply to the way they shift between the worlds. The dobbie, our northern British waterhorse, a similar kind of being, ‘is described as a big, black, horrible, misshapen thing that “slips about”’ and is ‘more likely to be seen out of the corner of the eye’.

Here, in Lancashire, the deities of the lake were not slain by a dark age ‘hero’ but met a slower, more ignominious end at the hands of the wealthy landowners who drained the mere. The first was Thomas Fleetwood who secured an Act of Parliament in 1694. He employed 2,000 workers to dig the 1.5 mile channel known as the Sluice to the coast at Crossens. His draining of the mere was completed by 1697.

Fleetwood died in 1717 and the following is written on his monument in the church in Churchtown:

‘He wished his bones to be here laid, because he made into dry and firm land the great Martinesian Marsh, by the water having been conveyed through a fosse to the neighbouring sea – a work, which, as the ancients dared not to attempt, posterity will hardly credit… These labours having been accomplished, he at length, alas! Too soon, laid down and died, on the 22nd April, A.D. 1717, in the 56th year of his age.’

Fleetwood’s success was short lived. The flow of the water was not strong enough to prevent the Sluice from silting up and the floodgates were breached leading to winter flooding. In 1778 Thomas Eccleston employed Mr. Gilbert (who built the Bridgewater Canal) to redesign and rebuild the drainage system, which again was successful for a while, until the mere was inundated by the Douglas.

So continued the cycle of rebuilding and flooding until the new pumping station at Crossens was built in 1961 which is capable of 373,000 gallons per minute and is already running to full capacity at peak times.

This leads me to wonder whether the deities of the mere and its monsters are dead or merely waiting beyond the lumbs and deeps of the mere bottom in places ‘never sounded by the sons of men’.

7 thoughts on “Monsters of the Mere

  1. Michael says:

    Interesting. I’ve enjoyed reading Beowulf which lead me to looking more into the Dark Ages. Wile reading Monsters of the Mere in my head I’m hearing Vaughn-Williams piece, In the Fen Country.

  2. dragonprowshadow says:

    Have you seen that the Roman Fort on Flax Lane, Burscough has been confirmed. Makes you wonder just how much ‘policing’ the Setantii needed, or what else was in the this land of marshes. And have a look at this lidar map of the landscape:

    You can clearly see the high ground that would have edged this landscape, that the A59 and Roman Road sits on.

    We live surrounded by pits, ponds and marl pits, I can confirm the local Boggarts are still very much active.

    • lornasmithers says:

      Oh how interesting… no I haven’t… That would make sense with Burscough coming from Old English ‘burh’ ‘stronghold’ and Scandinavian ‘slogr’ ‘wood’. W. G. Hale and Aubrey Coney suggest the ‘burh’ ‘underlay the priory’. But this must be the location of the stronghold. It’s not far from Batloom/Battle Holme where Arthur was said to have battled against the Anglo-Saxons.

  3. Greg Hill says:

    There are ‘monsters’ in the world all the way from Beowulf to Gawain. Gawain, though, disposes of his ‘wyrms and wodewoses’ almost routinely on his way to the confrontation with the Green Knight, which is the significant outcome of his quest. For Beowulf, though, facing Grendel and his kin is his main claim to fame as a young warrior. But facing the Dragon in later life is something else. This Wyrm has lain hidden with his hoard for centuries before being disturbed by a witless gold thief. Killing the aroused Dragon, and being killed himself in the process is a confrontation which he can’t avoid – his wyrd – and it is the end both of Beowulf and the Wyrm who would otherwise “have lain under the earth until the world’s end”.

    Draining the meres is like disturbing dragons and should also have consequences. In East Anglia there is the legend of Tiddy Mun of the marshes which I posted about ten years ago here:

    • lornasmithers says:

      I’ll admit I felt a certain amount of sympathy with Beowulf as a tragic hero whose fate is bound up with that of the wyrm that I didn’t feel for Gawain or Arthur.

      I’ve also been looking at the story of the death of Fafnir, which is whole other barrel of wyrms with Fafnir originating as a dwarf or giant then when he is slain Regin cooking his heart and Sigurd burning his thumb on it and putting it in his mouth and learning the language of birds like Finn before he kills Regin and eats the heart for himself. Links both to the story of Gwyn feeding Cyledyr the heart of his father and him going mad and to Finn imbibing the awen. *Must* be something in that but I haven’t fathomed what yet!

      Thanks for the Tiddy Mun link. He was in my fairy tarot deck. Thanks for sharing your haunting retelling of his story. You don’t chance to have a copy of “Tiddy Mun’s Curse and the Ecological Consequences of Land Reclamation” by Darwin Horn do you?

      • Greg Hill says:

        Yes Fafnir’s story lies deep behind the different versions of the Volsunga saga material. There seems to be a reference to it in Beowulf, centuries before the Saga was written, and as with other deep currents, there are resonances of it elsewhere. Tolkien thought it must have been incorporated into the saga material, and even into the older norse poems from which the saga was composed, from a much earlier source.

        No, unfortunately I don’t have a copy of that Tiddy Mun text.

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