The image of the eagle and child, from the so-called ‘Lathom legend’, is still relatively familiar, appearing on pub signs across the country and (generally speaking) in places associated with the Earls of Derby, who took the image as the crest on their coat of arms.
An eagle and child appears on the memorial to the Earl of Derby in Liverpool Cathedral, was used on coinage in the Isle of Man in the 1700s (the Earls of Derby also held a title there) and on cap-badges for soldiers in the Earl of Derby’s regiment in the first world war.
There is a story behind the image, which is easily turned up in a quick web search (e.g. via the links above).
Very briefly: the legend tells of a child found in, or near, an eagle’s nest, by a nobleman called Thomas Lathom (of Lathom in Lancashire), who then raises the child as his heir.
The Lathom family later marry into the Stanley family, via Isabel Lathom, and in doing so establish the powerful Stanleys of Lathom. The Stanleys of Lathom are later created Earls of Derby.
Myth and reality collide here, as the marriage between Isabel Lathom and John Stanley, around 1385, is absolutely true. Their descendent, Thomas Stanley 1st Earl of Derby is the same Thomas Stanley who reputedly altered the course of the Battle of Bosworth, leading to Henry Tudor’s victory over Richard III. By this time, around 1485, the Stanley family were using the image of the eagle and child in their heraldry. But is there any truth to the tale?
There are a number of variations on the legend, but the main difference is between the versions that simply accept that Thomas really did find a baby in an eagle’s nest and those that say Thomas had had an affair with a local woman and fabricated the story in order to convince his wife to adopt the baby (who was, in fact, his illegitimate son). Neither sounds especially convincing, but the real difference is between the storytellers who are concerned with plausibility and those who are not.
A bit more digging reveals that the earliest, written version of the legend dates from around 1562. It appears in The Stanley Poem dedicated to the history of the Stanley family – and there is no suggestion of adultery here:
‘In Tarlesco wood an egle had a nest.
With her three fayre byrdes that were even ready fligge,
She brought to them a goodly boy, yonge and bigge,
Swadled and cladde in a mantle of scarclette.
Lord Lathum this hearing, for none age did lette.
But to his wood of Tarlesco he rod apace,
And founid the babe preserved by Gods greate grace;
Notwithstanding uncovered was his face,
Yeat not devoured nor hurte in any place.
The lord made the fayre babe downe to be fetched,
From daunger of the egles hyt dispatched.
Brought him to hys lady to Lathum Hall,
Tooke it as theire owne, and thanked God of all.’
The writer behind The Stanley Poem might have invented this story himself, but there are illustrations of the legend which pre-date this poem by at least 60 years.
Possibly the earliest illustrations of the ‘eagle and child’ are the carvings at Manchester Cathedral commissioned by James Stanley (warden of the collegiate church as it was at the time) and completed before 1500. It seems more likely, therefore, that a (lost) medieval version of the legend did exist.
In The Stanley Poem, Thomas Lathom is a hero. He makes the rescued child his heir because he has no children of his own. The rescued child, called Oskatel, goes on to have a daughter called Isabel, and she marries John Stanley.
In reality, Isabel Lathom’s father Thomas had a number of children, but the poet seems untroubled by these facts. What’s more important to this poet, who has no reason to be interested in the other Lathom siblings who didn’t become Stanleys, is the tale of Thomas’s heroism and the mythic origins of the Stanleys of Lathom.
To a modern reader, to be descended from a mystery child found in an eagle’s nest might not seem a ‘heroic’ claim, but medieval audiences would have recognised the motif. Many of the heroes of medieval romances (the popular literature of the time, especially in the fifteenth century) were princes or nobles stolen away from their parents by wild animals and rescued by good-intentioned knights or townsmen. The foundling typically demonstrates innate noble attributes, and is eventually discovered as the prince or noble heir and then reunited with his biological parents and/or reclaims his kingdom. (A good example is Octavian – a summary can be found here, or here with an edition of the poem).
One possible alternative version of the legend, which is recorded from a manuscript in the College of Arms for The Journal of the British Archeological Association by J. R. Planché in 1852, explains that the child in the nest was, actually, the child of the king of Ireland – stolen by an eagle and flown to Lathom.
The more mundane explanations of the story, featuring Thomas’s adultery, surface in eighteenth-century re-tellings of the legend, in family histories and regional histories; this modification of the story is perhaps because of a discomfort with the blurring of fact and fantastical fiction, and a change in literary tastes that sees the popularity of medieval romances drastically decline.*
But at the same time that such writers were troubled by the intrusion of romance-like legend in family histories, and the medieval romances were lost to popular audiences, they were being re-discovered by literary scholars and by a new generation of poets (like William Wordsworth). As might be the case with Eglamore, the characters and themes of medieval romance are sustained in the post-medieval period when they pass into local folklore.
Since the Lathom/Stanley legend of the eagle and child seems to emerge as family folklore rather than in written literature, it has outlasted the popularity of the medieval romances that help to explain its (now) strange content.
*Bizarrely, the ‘adultery’ version of the story also gives rise to the suggestion that the eagle-and-child image on the crest of the Earls of Derby actually depicts an eagle devouring a child, as a symbol of how the legitimate heiress Isabel Lathom ultimately triumphed over the legitimate Oskatel (her brother, in this account) by inheriting the Lathom lands.