Penwortham Fairy Funeral is a legend based around Castle Hill, a site of religious and formerly military importance in my home town. The first part of this article presents the original version and its later developments in the context of their placement in the landscape. The second will discuss its origin and meaning within the context of British foklore.
The Fairy Funeral receives its first known mention in James Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1878). A cow-doctor and younger man called Robin are walking home by moonlight from a farmhouse at the foot of Castle Hill to Longton. They climb the hill and pass through St Mary’s graveyard. As they make their exit the clock tolls midnight. They walk down a track to the Lodge, where they hear a passing bell. The gate of the Lodge swings open and a little figure wearing dark clothing and a red cap steps into the avenue chanting. He is followed by a cavalcade of similar figures carrying a coffin and singing a requiem.
The coffin is open. Robin looks inside and sees his miniature corpse, dewy and pale. The procession continues into the graveyard followed by the men. Driven by dread, Robin reaches out and touches the leading fairy. The cavalcade vanishes and a storm sweeps in. Driven mad by the scene, a month later Robin falls to his death from a haystack and is buried in the graveyard where he had seen the funeral of his double take place (1).
A later version appears to have been passed down by word of mouth. Eli Robinson and Giley Leatherbarrow are walking home from the Black Horse pub in Preston. Having consumed too many Thwaites bitters they decide to take a short cut through Penwortham Wood, which lies on the east slope of Castle Hill. Following the mud track, which is known in the locality as Fairy Lane, they catch sight of the procession. Eli sees the face in the coffin is his own. When he gets home, Eli’s missus refuses to believe he saw a fairy funeral, thinking instead that Thwaites’s ale will be death of him. A month later he is dead. In this version it is uncertain whether he falls from a haystack or takes his own life (2).
Whilst the characters, background and location change, the core myth- a young man sees the double of his corpse borne by a fairy funeral procession and dies within a month- remains the same.
The legend can be seen as rooted in the funeral traditions of the township. The earliest known burial at St Mary’s Church is a 12th century crusader. Although there are no more gravestones until 1682, recent excavations uncovered a Rawstorne family crypt and large number of unnamed bodies whose graves had been built over during an extension of the church. Local historian David Hunt believes everybody who lived in Penwortham would have been buried at St Mary’s and suspects many of the uncovered bodies were victims of the 1631 plague (3). The graveyard was expanded greatly during the 18th century and as plaques for cremations exist well into the 21st century, I assume it is still in use.
The name Church Avenue is suggestive of a processional route. Half way along is a stone cross, replacing a more ancient pedestal (on the map below), which may have been a marker. South of Church Avenue is the site of St Mary’s Well, which was attributed healing powers but dried up at the end of the 19th century before being built over by the A59. Leading to the well from Middleforth was a pilgrim’s path which may also have been part of the route.
The position of the current War Memorial suggests the route has continuing connections with ancestral remembrance.
I suspect the reason the location of the legend changed was due to houses being built along Church Avenue in the early part of the 20th century. A secular perspective might assume people stopped associating the well lit avenue and its modern housing with the spectral procession, which in the original version travelled along a dark, tree lined mud road. Contrastingly, those who believe in fairies might argue that when the road and houses were built the fairies were either forced to move or made a decision to hold their funerals elsewhere.
Anybody who has visited Fairy Lane will know it is an enchanted place. Ash and sycamore are decked with ivy and the ground is thick with moss and rich with fern and hart’s tongue. Every spring the woodland is carpeted with wild garlic and bluebells. The trees lining the lane are gnarled and fay and it’s easy to see why it might be associated with fairies, or why the fairies might have chosen it is an alternative location for their processions.
The origin of Penwortham Fairy Funeral can be partially derived from the landscape and local funeral traditions. 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 Faery.
Whilst our secular worldview attempts to eliminate beliefs unproved by reason or science they continue to be evidenced by arts and folklore and in personal experiences with the fairy races themselves. Penwortham Fairy Funeral is only one example of relations between humanity and Faery. I wonder whether there as many stories as there are incidences of contact with fairies?
(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