Lathom legend

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.



What’s medieval about the Medieval Quarter?

Finding the medieval in Manchester

Better known as the Cottonopolis of the Industrial Revolution, ‘medieval’ isn’t a term frequently associated with the city of Manchester.

Today’s Manchester Evening News article about the City Council’s plans for the revitalisation of ‘the Medieval Quarter’ poses the questions: since when was it the Medieval Quarter, and what’s medieval about it?

One simple answer is that the area was the locus of the medieval town that existed after Roman Castlefield and before the industrial city – the ‘middle ages’, literally. So although ‘the Medieval Quarter’ is a relatively new name, the area bordered by Chetham’s School of Music and Library, the National Football Museum, Manchester Cathedral and the Corn Exchange has always been the medieval quarter of Manchester.

But the medievalness of the area isn’t immediately obvious (at the moment).

The three easiest places to see medieval Manchester in the Medieval Quarter today are Chetham’s Library, Hanging Bridge, and Manchester Cathedral. All are open to the public, with free admission.

1. Chetham’s Library was founded as a library in 1653 – making it ‘the oldest surviving public library in Britain’ – but the building is even older, dating to 1421.


The beautiful medieval building is also home to an impressive collection of medieval manuscripts. (Manchester can boast a second medieval manuscript collection in John Rylands Library  – which is a great example of neo-gothic medievalist architecture in Manchester; see also the Town Hall!).

2. Hanging Bridge, the remains of which can be found in the lower ground floor of the Cathedral Visitor Centre (underneath Propertea café), was built around 1421. When archaeologists explored the site in the ’90s they found medieval shoes, sword scabbards and leather-working tools and offcuts, suggesting a small leather-working industry in the area. Many of these objects are currently on display at Manchester Museum. You can read about the Bridge’s history here.

3. While the exterior of Manchester Cathedral is Victorian, much of the former medieval church is preserved inside. There is a timeline of its history here.

The medieval quire, a carved wooden structure in the centre of the building dating to c. 1500, is the most impressive of the Cathedral’s surviving medieval features. Yet some of the interior is older, c. 1200-1300s. On display in the nave is a single piece of decorated masonry known as the ‘angel stone’, thought to have survived from an earlier Anglo Saxon church.


Grumpy dog is still my favourite ‘medieval Manchester’ spot, so far.

The date 1421 crops up repeatedly because it’s the year in which Henry V gave permission to Manchester to establish a collegiate church where Manchester Cathedral now stands. Around the major new building of the collegiate church, there was the building of new accommodation for the priests (now Chetham’s Library) and rebuilding of the Hanging Bridge as the main approach into the church – collectively a sort of medieval ‘regeneration’ of the town’s centre.

The 600-year anniversary is coming up in 2021.

Carried off by wild beasts…

In a year that’s seen cinematic re-makes of The Jungle Book (Disney 1967Disney 2016), Tarzan (Disney 1999; WarnerBros 2016) and Pete’s Dragon (Disney 1977; Disney 2016) – and another in the pipeline, in the form of Andy Serkis’s motion-capture Jungle Book due for release in October 2018 – it’s hard to miss the cultural obsession with tales of child-rearing animals.

It’s a motif that folklorists know well, and appears in at least two major forms in Thompson’s index. Relevant entries below.*

The new films have had mixed reviews, but the legends clearly have an enduring currency… And on a recent visit to Chester Zoo I heard many a gleeful shout of ‘King Louise!’ and hushed exclamations of ‘Shere Khan!’, from patrons young and old alike, and I’m counting that as good anecdotal evidence.

A survey of so-called ‘feral children’ veers between the idealistic-fantastical and the horrific, moving from popular stories about heroic children raised by noble animals – whose long inheritance takes you from the Tarzans and Mowglis to the ancient foundation myth of Romulus and Remus – through ‘cases’ of lost children comforted and protected by wild animals, and inevitably to the upsetting stories of child abuse and neglect – that are, in turn, imaginatively re-captured, as in Julia Fullerton-Batten’s photographic series. (There are also, of course, more insidious themes in the Mowgli-Tarzan legends too, in the mythic hierarchy of nature and culture, and in the colonial overtones of western ‘jungle’ stories generally).

By detour, you might come across the apocryphal tales of children briefly stolen away by animals and then ‘rescued’ or returned, and raised by humans. This little motif, arguably more ambivalent in its ethical implications and/or symbolic references than the extended animal-nurse narratives, features in the once-popular medieval romances of Octavian, Eglamour, Torrent of Portyngale, Isumbras and the later Valentine and Orson. These stories were relatively widely circulated in their time – 1300-1500s – and their influence is evident elsewhere in medieval culture. In particular, the animal-stealing-child trope common to this group is incorporated into the ancestral legends of at least two real families, the Stanleys of Lathom (later Earls of Derby) and the Earls of Kildare. (I’m fairly sure that there must be more examples, because animal-and-child imagery appears in the heraldry of other grand families – would love to hear from anyone who knows more!)

There’s lots to say about the various versions of the motif – from its recurrence in medieval romance to its ‘use’ in pseudo family histories – and how the stories could be interpreted in literary and historical contexts. Too much for a single blogpost; but you might want to see here, from Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.

I’d like to post about the ‘eagle and child’ myth at some point, though it’s easily discovered in simple web searches (and if you’ve been to any of the many Eagle and Child pubs in the UK, you’ll probably already know it). Taking this post as a general introduction to the theme, I’d just like to share handful of the lovely visual representations of the medieval animal-stealing-child motif that I’ve gathered along the way. Happy Folklore Thursday!

Eagle and baby: the legend of the eagle and child, aka the Lathom Legend, aka the Stanley Legend.

Own images, Manchester Cathedral misericords and quire stalls, c. 1500

Ape and baby: no known story (and might not relate to a romance at all since the image appears elsewhere e.g. in manuscript marginalia [where apes/monkeys proliferate]) but an ape stealing a child does feature in Octavian. Given the proximity to the eagle-and-child carving, surely an ape-stealing-child story must have crossed the carver’s mind?!

Own image, Manchester Cathedral misericords, c. 1500

Griffin and babySir Eglamour of Artois, Bodleian Library MS Douce 261, c. 1564

Bodleian image, can be seen (and magnified) on their Romance of the Middle Ages site here.

Child and lion (child carried away before his father can save him): the legend of St Eustace (similar to Isumbras) as depicted in the windows of Chartres Cathedral, c. 1200


From Stuart Whatling’s Corpus of Medieval Narrative Art.

Child and wolf (child being rescued by shepherda): the legend of Eustace in the same Chartres window, c.1200


From Stuart Whatling’s Corpus of Medieval Narrative Art.


*Thompson index:
Animal nurse. B535
Animal nourishes abandoned child.
*Frazer Fasti II 369ff., especially 369 n. 3, 375; Dickson Valentine and Orson 36, 103, 107, 112, 169; *Liebrecht Zur Volkskunde 17ff.; *Nutt FLR IV 1ff.; Penzer II 294; *Fb “ulv” III 971 a (Wolf); *BP II 317, III 60ff. Irish myth: Cross; Greek: Fox 22 (doe), 56 (bear), 118, 155 (goat, crow, sow), 280, Frazer Apollodorus I 397, II 47 n. 2, Roscher s.v. “Achilleus”; Roman: Fox 307 (Romulus and Remus) (wolf); Persian: Carnoy 330; Breton: Sibillot Incidents s.v. “chien” (dog); Missouri-French: Carriire; McCartney Papers of Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters IV (1924) 15 42; Wesselski Theorie 19; Icel.: Iuirriks saga I 302 03 (hind), Boberg; English: Wells 118 (Octovian) (lion); Chinese: Ferguson 41. N. A. Indian: Thompson CColl II 387 (Mt. 707), Thompson Tales 316 n. 146b; S. A. Indian (Brazil): Ehrenreich International Congress of Americanists XIV 662. Indonesian: De Vries Volksverhalen I Nos. 22, 89; India: *Thompson-Balys; Africa (Basuto): Jacottet 104 No. 15, 190 No. 28, (Wakweli): Bender 49f.

Stolen child rescued by animal nurse. B543.3
(Cf. +B535.) Irish myth: Cross; India: Thompson-Balys; *Krappe Balor 80ff.

Animal aids abandoned child(ren). S352
(Cf. +B535.) Missouri French: Carriire; India: *Thompson-Balys; S. A. Indian (Sherenti): Lowe BBAE CXLIII (1) 515; West Indies: Flowers 576.

Written in stone


This one of the earliest photographs of Manchester Cathedral in its archives, taken c. 1890. The building is captured at a significant moment in its architectural history, shortly before the Basil Champneys south porch (1891) and south extension (1901) were added, dramatically altering its exterior aspect.

The less obvious intervention, but at least as dramatic, was in the subsequent transformation of the Cathedral’s immediate setting from churchyard to garden.


In the earliest photograph, what at first glance appear to be paving slabs are actually hundreds of ledgerstones. From the website of the Ledgerstone Survey of England & Wales on the nature and value of the stones:

‘Ledgerstones are the flat stones placed over a grave inside a church, usually incised with the name and dates of the deceased. They are often decorated with heraldry and many include interesting inscriptions about the person, their family and their life in the local community. Over 250,000 survive, mainly in parish churches, and most date from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries. The stones used are often from a local or regional source and the carving of the letters and any decoration is of high quality and a readily visible demonstration of the letter cutter’s art. A family group of ledgerstones may well be their only visible memorial, if their house has disappeared.’

In the years of re-development after the 1890 photograph was taken, over 900 ledgerstones, mostly from the 17th-18th centuries, were destroyed and/or ‘re-purposed’. The 17th-century tomb pictured in the centre of the photograph is long gone. Commonly, ledgerstones would be broken up and used as hardcore for new building work or could be upturned (inscription side down) and used as paving.

(The tomb with railings belongs to eccentric former canon, Cecil Wray (d. 1866), in whose name the Cathedral runs its annual sock appeal. Although less visible now – enveloped by the extension that houses the main cathedral offices – the tomb survives in situ, the only monument to have come through the 19th-century works unscathed).

Since so little of pre-industrial Manchester’s tangible heritage remains in the city centre (the Cathedral and Chetham’s Library being the major exceptions) and because so many of the monuments that do survive (here and elsewhere) tend to memorialise the great and good (and the sometimes-not-so-good), it seems a shame to have lost these memorials to relatively ordinary 17th– and 18th-century Mancunians.

Yet even had the ledgerstones been left, their exposure to centuries of Mancunian rainfall and footfall would probably have obliterated their inscriptions by now; even words written in stone will naturally fade away.

Interior stones have survived, and some were uncovered inside the Cathedral during the excavations for the installation of new underfloor heating in 2013. Others remained at floor level and are thus very well preserved; these can be seen in the Jesus Chapel, typically with kneelers plonked on top, as pictured.


A few can still be found outside, in the relative shelter of the grassy north bank opposite Chetham’s Library.

But you can also spot some of the broken fragments in the paving around the area, where they have been laid inscription-side up:

On Victoria Street, closer to Chetham’s, one of the ledgerstone fragments is embedded in the paving, with the barely legible words, ‘Here lyeth the body […]’. (The right-hand photo – you might have to take my word for it). Outside the Cathedral’s south wall, opposite the Cathedral Visitor Centre, there is another fragment which reads ‘[…]ppleton 1771’. Eventually these tiny bits of local history, almost-already gone, will also disappear; either as the paving is taken up in future redevelopments or as the stone changes with time.

The fortuitous twist in the tale is the presence of a slim, hardbound book in the Cathedral’s archives, and an accompanying plan, describing exactly where each of the external ledgerstones was originally laid, with their inscriptions.


(All of the images from the archives are my own. In case you’re wondering, my job doesn’t usually involve spending time in the muniments room except on special occasions -and then I make the most of it! I was searching for evidence of Canon Cecil Wray’s tomb having been moved in the past, on behalf of one of our project teams. As above, I decided that it hasn’t).

Although the details of typeface and scale are not preserved, the copyist mimics the layout of the inscriptions and occasionally includes very neat depictions of the modest decorations featured on some of the stones, or their form.

IMG_0431           IMG_0432

The heart design, with the initials of the person buried, was presumably much like the decoration here:


The ledgerstones sometimes mention professions, as well as the usual details of age and place, making the record another illuminating resource for the social history of the city, as depicted in the Cathedral’s parish records (possibly the largest in the UK for a single parish, running continuously from 1573 to the present day and encompassing the population boom of the Industrial Revolution – and the Cathedral’s era of ‘mass weddings’).

One of the inscriptions is for Mary, wife of John Beard ‘Parish Clerk’, with the wonderful parting line, ‘Reader – Prepare to meet thy God’. A rather gratuitous memento mori for a gravestone, but not an uncommon choice.

The record was made the City Surveyor in 1895, just five years after the early photograph above was taken, during the Champneys phase of re-development and when the dismantling of the churchyard was imminent. The meticulous written record seems an odd contrast with the destruction of the objects themselves, but indicates the degree of importance attributed to the ledgerstones at the time. What is also clear is that the physical items were not considered as significant as the words they contained – the words are the memorial. They do need a medium, though, and as it turned out, the ink-and-parchment was to outlive what had been set in stone.



Women at Sea Symposium 1 July 2016

Seasickness // hopefulness

Sitting in the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, exactly a week on from the British EU Referendum result. The sun is shining and the sound of nearby traffic and seagulls drifts in through the open side-door.

The general feeling is one of anticipation and collegiality, though with a more somber undercurrent, too. Certainly not dour – amusingly, many of the attendees are in nautical stripes – but a definite air of recent bereavement, the unsettling sensation of having a carpet pulled from beneath you. Whatever your vote, we’ve had a week full of bad news; hope feels fragile.

Jonathan Hsy’s paper, in a two-part plenary led by Dorothy Kim, suggests ‘nausea’ as one of the catchwords we might use to think through our discussions of the woman at sea. He refers to ‘seasickness’ and ’disorientation’, and it strikes me as a good description of the way many ‘Remainers’ are feeling; like Britain (or rather England) had voted, as Kim says, to cast herself adrift.

But the mention of ‘nausea’ also kicks back to a moment 30-minutes or so earlier:

‘When I tell the story, I feel a headache…’

Wahida Khorsand, who has twice been a refugee, earlier apologised for seeming ill-prepared for today’s roundtable; she is fasting for Ramadan and losing sleep. Suddenly, she has remembered what she wanted to say. She describes how when she arrived in the UK she spoke no English; how she has learnt the language from scratch; how isolating and lonely an experience it can be to arrive as a ‘stranger’; and, in this passing comment about the ‘headache’, as she touches her fingertips to her brow, we see how the ‘pain’ of her experience is real, physical.

The women agree that the power of language and writing is part of a therapeutic process, of story-telling, making some sense of their experiences and/or turning them into something different. Suffering can be the most creative energy, Amani Elawad remarks. Hannah Sabatia describes how writing can be a way of lifting the ‘weight’ of deeply troubling memories from her mind and leaving them on the page. ‘Stay there!’ she laughs — the laughter that is sorrow mixed with incredible courage, generosity and kindness. The paper I’m due to give feels inadequate in comparison with what these women have offered — and I am grateful that they are here. And not just here at the symposium.

It was a wonderful decision on the part of our programme organisers, Roberta Magnani, Rachel Moss and Kristi Castleberry, to begin the symposium in this way: the discussion set the tone for the day, in a compelling way. We were reminded of our ethical imperatives as academics. Kim’s plenary underlined the urgent need to decolonise research communities and outputs, offering a positive alternative to the white supremacy that has dominated academies and historiography, above and beyond the relentless ‘no’ we issue to racism. It’s not enough.

Hsy picked up this thread, and it wove its way through the papers: perhaps the sea is not only a physical barrier but also a hopeful space; perhaps Europe can be a site of refuge where transcultural identities can be formed; perhaps the sea might be a liberating, transformative space.

Hope is fragile; but while fraught politics within and between islands and landlocked nations is disorientating and troubling, the idea of a boundless sea as a place of opportunity and liberation seems like one worth thinking on.

* * *

Symposium site here, including the poems of Aliya Khalil, Maria Shafayat, Hannah Sabatia, Sliva Kiki and Amani Elawad:

Symposium tweets in Storify form  via Rachel Moss here:




It’s bluebell season. The small flower appears in late spring and is associated with ancient woodland. It gives its name to the ‘bluebell woods’ where the flower forms a carpet of blue beneath the trees around May-time. [1]

(Pictured here is Macclesfield Forest, maintained by United Utilities – 15 May 2016; the headline image is from Speke Hall, Merseyside (c) National Trust/Andrew Butler).

It is an instantly recognisable native flower, brightly-coloured in the dappled shade, at the time of year when the countryside is lush with fresh green growth, the air warmer and the days long. Unsurprising, then, that the bluebell has polled as the national favourite in both England and Scotland [2].

In bluebell folklore according to Google, a garland of the flowers can force the wearer to tell the truth, and the ‘ringing’ of bluebells can summon fairies and entrap or even kill humans. If a child picks a bluebell or hears it ringing, it will never be seen again – lost forever.

A quick search of the Thompson motif index via Momfer ( reveals a Finnish-Swedish story that the first church bell was modelled on the bluebell.

English tradition states that they bloom on St George’s Day (23 April).

Elsewhere, I find that the bulbs can be used to make glue, and in the medieval period this glue was apparently used in bookbinding and the making of arrows. The flowers are also poisonous.

The bluebell’s association with ancient woodland places it within the popular imaginative landscape of ancient Britain. Walking through a forest in springtime it seems no wonder that it has long held a place in national storytelling as the quintessential otherworld within the world, inherently surreal and magical. As a medievalist, I can’t help but think of the forests of romance or the merry ‘grene wode’ of the Robin Hood ballads. [3]

Like ancient buildings and texts, the ancient natural landscape is material evidence of the world of the past, and (at least where it features in visual art and storytelling) it is an integral part of the material culture of the past. Ancient woodlands are especially evocative perhaps because they give immediate and uninhibited access (to anyone) to this natural heritage, not mediated through the histories of a particular people but something silently felt.

The bluebell today seems to be an emblem of an idealised image of rural England, ‘our favourite’ flower, but how long has it been regarded in this way? How old is the ‘fairy flower’ folklore?

Looking for evidence of bluebell woods in medieval literature proves difficult. The first problem is that the earliest recorded entry of the word ‘bluebell’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1578 (‘Blew Belles’). [5]

In fact, I realised that in most of the likely examples that spring to mind from Middle English poetry, flowers are described only as ‘flowers’ and the species not given.

The earliest mention of the bluebell in surviving medieval literature may be in the fourteenth-century, Latin herbal’ of a Dominican friar, Henry Daniels, who describes them (a bit unsatisfactorily) as woodland flowers, like daffodils but blue. [6]

Shakespeare mentions the hare-bell (in Cymbeline) but not bluebells, as far as I can find.

Perhaps the romance of the bluebell is a far more recent thing.

Anne Brönte writes a poem entitled ‘The Bluebell’ (1840) in which she explains its personal association for her:

There is a silent eloquence

In every wild bluebell

That fills my softened heart with bliss

That words could never tell.

O, that lone flower recalled to me

My happy childhood’s hours

When bluebells seemed like fairy gifts

A prize among the flowers.

‘Sad wandered, weep those blissful times

That never may return!’

The lovely floweret seemed to say,

And thus it made me mourn.

In fact, Brönte’s sentiment seems typical of the bluebell tradition in its ambiguity about the flower (and the forest, perhaps). The bluebell’s beauty is bittersweet; in particular, it evokes lost childhood. Emily Brönte also wrote a bluebell poem, similarly mournful.


Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Victorian painting ‘Bluebells’ strikes the same attitude. [7] Perhaps it’s simply to do with the ‘blueness’ of the flower by comparison with its cheery, upright yellow counterpart – the way the bluebell’s flower-heads hang drooping, thriving in the shadier spots.

In the present day, bluebell woods are a significant seasonal visitor attraction, but the symbolism of the flower seems unusually ambiguous for one readily identified as a favourite and arguably considered a part of national identity.




Apparently, some of the bluebells you see are actually a Spanish variety that can hybridise with the English:



Corinne Saunders has written a book on the topic: The Forest of Medieval Romance (Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1993)

Read medieval Robin Hood ballads online at

[4] An argument made effectively in the opening paper of the recent Borderlines XX conference. Peter Casby, ‘Living Trees as Medieval Material Culture’

[5] OED entry for bluebell (n). The reference is H. Lyte tr. R. Dodoens Niewe Herball

[6] I came across the following references in another blog:

Celia Fisher, The Medieval Flower Book (British Library, 2007)

George Keiser, ‘Through a Fourteenth Century Gardener’s Eyes: Henry Daniel’s Herbal”, The Chaucer Review 31:1 (1996), 58-75

There is also: Celia Fisher, Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts (University of Toronto Press, 2004)

[7] See

Web sources

Some of my faves. All are open access (no accounts or institutional log-ins required) and completely free to use.

TEAMS Middle English Texts Series

A Robbins Library Digital Project


Database of Middle English Romance

The University of York
Middle English Dictionary


Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse






The William Blake Archive


England’s Immigrants 1330-1550
The Corpus of Medieval Narrative Art


The Portable Antiquities Scheme


The British Museum images


Digitised Beowulf from the British Library


The Hengwrt Chaucer from the National Library of Wales
Sagnagrunnur (a geographically mapped database of Icelandic folk legends)


Medieval Women’s Letters


Women’s Literary Culture and the Canon: Database of Texts and Manuscripts


Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York, 1300-1858


Anglo Saxon Dictionary


Anglo Norman