Chap-Books and Folk-Lore Tracts, Vol. 1 (of 5) The History of Thomas Hickathrift
G. L. Gomme, F.S.A.
H. B. Wheatley, F.S.A.
THE EARLIEST EXTANT COPIES,
AND EDITED, WITH AN INTRODUCTION,
GEORGE LAURENCE GOMME, F.S.A.
Printed for the Villon Society.
There seems to be some considerable reason for believingthat the hero of this story was a reality. The story tells usthat he lived in the marsh of the Isle of Ely, and that hebecame “a brewer’s man” at Lyn, and traded to Wisbeach.This little piece of geographical evidence enables us to fix thestory as belonging to the great Fen District, which occupied thenorth of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.
The antiquary Thomas Hearne has gone so far as to identifythe hero of tradition with a doughty knight of the Crusaders.Writing in the Quarterly Review (vol. xxi. p. 102), Sir FrancisPalgrave says:—
“Mr. Thomas Hickathrift, afterwards Sir Thomas Hickathrift,Knight, is praised by Mr. Thomas Hearne as a ‘famouschampion.’ The honest antiquary has identified this well-knownknight with the far less celebrated Sir Frederick deTylney, Baron of Tylney in Norfolk, the ancestor of theTylney family, who was killed at Acon, in Syria, in the reignof Richard Cœur de Lion. Hycophric, or Hycothrift, as themister-wight observes, being probably a corruption of Frederick.[ii]This happy exertion of etymological acumen is not wholly dueto Hearne, who only adopted a hint given by Mr. Philip leNeve, whilome of the College of Arms.”
There does not seem to be the slightest evidence for Hearne’sidentification any more than there is for his philological conclusions,and we may pass over this for other and more reliableinformation.
We must first of all turn to the story itself, as it has comedown to us in its chapbook form. It is divided into two parts.The first part of the story is the earliest; the second partbeing evidently a printer’s or a chapman’s addition. Ourreprint of the former is taken from the copy in the PepysianLibrary at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and which wasprinted probably about 1660-1690; the latter is taken from theBritish Museum copy, the date of which, according to theMuseum authorities, is 1780.
In trying to ascertain something as to the date of the storyapart from that of its printed version, it will therefore benecessary to put out of consideration the second portion. Thishas been written by some one well acquainted with the originalfirst part, and with the spirit of the story; but in spite of thisthere is undoubted evidence of its literary origin at a date laterthan the first part. But turning to the first part there are twoexpressions in this early Pepysian version which have notbeen repeated in the later editions—those of the eighteenthcentury; and these two expressions appear to me to indicate a[iii]date after which the story could not have been originated. Onpage 1 we read that Tom Hickathrift dwelt “in the marsh ofthe Isle of Ely.” In the earliest British Museum copy thisappears as “in the parish of the Isle of Ely.” Again, on page 11Tom is described as laying out the giant’s estate, “some of whichhe gave to the poor for their common, and the rest he madepastures of and divided the most part into good ground, to maintainhim and his old mother Jane Hickathrift.” In the earliestBritish Museum copy the expression “good ground” is displacedby “tillage.” Now it is clear from these curious transpositionof words in the earliest and latest editions that somethinghad been going on to change the nature of the country.The eighteenth-century people did not know the “marsh” ofEly, so they read “parish”: they did not know the meaning of“good ground” so they read “tillage.” And hence it is clearthat at the printing of this earliest version the fen lands ofCambridge and Norfolk had not yet been drained; there wasstill “marsh land” which was being made into “good land.”
But I think there is evidence in this printed chap-bookversion of the story which tells us that it was taken from atraditional version. Let any one take the trouble to read aloudthe first part, and he will at once perceive that there is a ringand a cadence given to the voice by the wording of the story,and particularly by the curious punctuation, which at oncereminds us of a narrative from word of mouth. And besidesthis there is some little evidence of phonetic spelling, just such[iv]as might have been expected from the first printer taking thestory from the lips of one of the Fen-country peasantry.
Now this internal evidence of the once viva-voce existenceof the printed legend of Tom Hickathrift has a direct bearingupon the question as to the date of the earliest printed version.The colloquialisms are so few, and the rhythm, though markedand definite, is occasionally so halting and approaches so nearlya literary form, that we are forced to observe that the earliestprinted edition now known is certainly not the earliest versionprinted. There are too few phoneticisms and dialect words tomake it probable that the print in the Pepysian collection is theone directly derived from popular tradition. As the variousprinters in the eighteenth century altered words and sentenceshere and there, as different editions were issued, so did theseventeenth-century printers; and therefore it is necessary topush the date of the printed version farther back than we canhope to ascertain by direct evidence. There is no reason whythere should not have been a sixteenth-century printed version,and to this period I am inclined to allocate the earliest appearanceof the story in print.
And then prior to the printed version was the popular versionwith its almost endless life, perhaps reaching back to that vagueperiod indicated in the opening words of the story, “in thereign before William the Conqueror.” Already internalevidence has, it is suggested, pointed to a popular unwrittentradition of Tom Hickathrift’s life and exploits. But we must[v]ask now, Is there, or was there, any tradition among the peasantryof Lyn and its neighbourhood about Thomas Hickathrift?And, if so, how far does this popular tradition reachback, and how far does it tally with the chap-book version?Again, is this popular tradition independent of the chap-bookstory, or has it been generated from the printed book? Toanswer these questions properly we must closely examine allthe evidence available as to the existence and form of thispopular tradition.
Turning first of all to the historian of Norfolk, Blomefield,[A]writing in 1808, gives us the following account:—
“The town of Tilney gives name to a famous commoncalled Tilney Smeeth, whereon 30,000 or more large Marshlandsheep and the great cattle of seven towns to which itbelongs are constantly said to feed. Of this plain of Smeeththere is a tradition, which the common people retain, that inold time the inhabitants of these towns [Tilney, Terrington,Clenchwarton, Islington, Walpole, West Walton, Walsoken,and Emneth] had a contest with the lords of the manors aboutthe bounds and limits of it, when one Hickifric, a person ofgreat stature and courage, assisting the said inhabitants in theirrights of common, took an axle-tree from a cart-wheel, instead[vi]of a sword, and the wheel for a shield or buckler, and thus armedsoon repelled the invaders. And for proof of this notable exploitthey to this day show, says Sir William Dugdale [Dugd. Hist. ofImbanking, &c. p. 244; Weever’s Fun. Mon. p. 866], a largegrave-stone near the east end of the chancel in Tilney churchyard,whereon the form of a cross is so cut or carved as thatthe upper part thereof (wherewith the carver hath adorned it)being circular, they will therefore needs have it to be the gravestoneof Hickifric, and to be as a memorial of his gallantry.The stone coffin, which stands now out of the ground inTilney churchyard, on the north side of the church, will notreceive a person above six feet in length, and this is shown asbelonging formerly to the giant Hickifric. The cross said tobe a representation of the cart-wheel is a cross pattťe, on thesummit of a staff, which staff is styled an axle-tree. Such crossespattťe on the head of a staff were emblems or tokens that someKnight Templar was therein interred, and many such are to beseen at this day in old churches.”
Now the reference to Sir William Dugdale is misleading,because, as will be seen by the following quotation, the positionof the hero is altered in Dugdale’s version of the legend fromthat of a popular leader to the tyrant lord himself:—“Of thisplain I may not omit a tradition which the common peoplethereabouts have, viz., that in old time the inhabitants of theneighbouring villages had a fierce contest with one Hickifric(the then owner of it) touching the bounds thereof, which[vii]grew so hot that at length it came to blows; and that Hickifric,being a person of extraordinary stature and courage, tookan axletree from a cart instead of a sword, and the wheel forhis buckler, and, being so armed, most stoutly repelled those boldinvaders: for further testimony of which notable exploit theyto this day show a large gravestone near the east end of thechancel in Tilney churchyard, whereupon the form of a crossis so cut as that the upper part thereof by reason of the flourishes(wherewith the carver hath adorned it) sheweth tobe somewhat circular, which they will, therefore, needs haveto be the wheel and the shaft the axletree.” This version,taken from Dugdale’s History of Imbanking, 1772, p. 244,though differing in form, at all events serves to carry us backto 1662, the date when Sir William Dugdale’s History was firstpublished.
But the local tradition can be carried further back than1662, because the learned Sir Henry Spelman, in his Iceniasive Norfolciae Descriptio Topographica, p. 138, and writtenabout 1640, says, when speaking of Tilney, in MarshlandHundred: “Hic se expandit insignis area quś ŗ planicie nuncupaturTylney-smelth, pinguis adeo et luxurians ut Paduanapascua videatur superasse.... Tuentur eam indigenś velutAras et Focos, fabellamque recitant longa petitam vetustatede Hikifrico (nescio quo) Haii illius instar in ScotorumChronicis, qui Civium suorum dedignatus fuga, Aratrumquod agebat, solvit; arreptoque Temone furibundus insiliit[viii]in hostes victoriamque ademit exultantibus. Sic cum de agriistius finibus acriter olim dimicatum esset inter fundi Dominunet Villarum Incolas, nec valerent hi ad versus eum consistere;redeuntibus occurrit Hikifricus, axemque excutiens a curruquem agebat, eo vice Gladii usus; Rot‚, Clypei; invasoresrepulit ad ipsos quibus nunc funguntur terminos. Ostenduntin cśmeterio Tilniensi, Sepulcrum sui pugilis, Axem cumRota insculptum exhibens.”
A still earlier version is to be found recorded by Weeverin 1631. The full quotation is as follows: “Tylney Smeeth,so called of a smooth plaine or common thereunto adioyning....In the Churchyard is a ridg’d Altar, Tombe, or sepulchreof a wondrous antique fashion, vpon which an axell-tree anda cart wheele are insculped. Vnder this Funerall Monumentthe Towne dwellers say that one Hikifricke lies interred; ofwhom (as it hath gone by tradition from father to the sonne)they thus likewise report: How that vpon a time (no manknowes how long since) there happened a great quarrell betwixtthe Lord of this land or ground and the inhabitants of theforesaid seuen villages, about the meere-marks, limits, or bondariesof this fruitfull feeding place; the matter came to abattell or skirmish, in which the said Inhabitants being notable to resist the landlord and his forces began to giue backe;Hikifricke, driuing his cart along and perceiuing that hisneighbours were fainthearted, and ready to take flight, heshooke the Axell tree from the cart which he vsed instead of a[ix]sword, and tooke one of the cart-wheeles which he held as abuckler; with these weapons he set vpon the Common aduersariesor aduersaries of the Common, encouraged his neighboursto go forward, and fight valiantly in defence of theirliberties; who being animated by his manly prowesse, theytooke heart to grasse, as the prouerbe is, insomuch that theychased the Landlord and his companie to the vtmost verge ofthe said Common; which from that time they haue quietlyenioyed to this very day. The Axell-tree and cart-wheele arecut and figured in diuers places of the Church and Churchwindowes, which makes the story, you must needs say,