Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Bel - the Leicester Giant

Recently I came across a Puffin Book titled “Bel the Giant and Other Stories.” To the average person this wouldn’t mean anything, but for me – I was excited. For years I had known about the local Leicester myth of the giant called Bel and for the first time, I had found a book that told the story.


It’s only a child’s book but is of interest to a local historian. The book was written in 1956 but the story goes back for many, many years.

The story starts…

     “Once upon a time there was a giant who lived in Leicestershire, and his name was Bel. Now the worst thing about the giant Bel was the way he bragged and boasted….

It continues with Bel saying….

     “I could get to Leicester on my charger in three leaps! Three leaps from this very spot, or I’m not Bel the giant.”

So…

     “At a place near Farmer’s house, he mounted his great sorrel charger. And that place is called Mountsorrel to this day.”
    “He gathered himself up, he called to his steed, and away he went, up in the air, a great long leap, and the people of Mountsorrel said, ‘O-o-oh!’ as he disappeared. In one leap he reached a place half of the way to Leicester. And that place has been called Wanlip ever since. All the people gazed to see the giant land.”
    “Then Bel drew himself up, he roared at his charger, and he leapt again, and all the people said, ‘There he goes!’ as he soared through the air.”
     “But then there was a terrible bursting and crackling noise, a noise like whips of leather, a roaring noise like a tree falling down. It was Bel’s harness, Bel’s horse, and Bel’s bones themselves, bursting with the great long leap.”
     “With a sigh like a storm at sea he came down galumph at a place two thirds of the way to Leicester. And that place has been called Birstall, ever since.”
     “Bel groaned and thought of the farmer’s sheep and cattle [his prize for winning the bet]. He urged on his dying charger with the great spurs, he gave an echoing shout, and away he went again with his harness flying in all directions. (Some of the children ran to pick up the pieces).”
      “But Bel had boasted too much. It was too long a leap for him, too great an effort for his great sorrel charger. He came down groaning like a winter wind at a place a mile and a half from Leicester. And there they rolled over dead, the boastful giant Bel and his sorrel charger. They were buried in once great grave where they landed, and that place has been called Belgrave from that day to this.”
     “As for the people round Leicester, they rejoiced greatly to know the greedy and boastful giant was dead, and their sheep and cattle safe. Especially Farmer Hook and his beautiful bay mare Jennet. He and his wife and his children danced round Jannet singing a rhyme, and this is the rhyme they sang:

                        Mountsorrel he mounted at
                        Rothley he rode by,
                        At Wanlip he leaped o’er,
                        At Birstall he burst his gall,
                        At Belgrave he was buried at.

     “You may still hear it sometimes, in Leicestershire.”

It’s a great story isn’t it! Mountsorrel, Rothley, Wanlip and Birstall form roughly a straight line between Loughborough and Leicester. Belgrave was once a village in its own right but now is part of the city of Leicester. If Bel had made his wager today he would have won his wager as he did indeed make it to Leicester in just three leaps! Other versions of the legend states that he started his journey from Belton near Loughborough (Bel’s tun) – another fitting place name for this legendary character!

At the time of Domesday, Belgrave was called ‘Merdegrave,’ but some historians believe it may have originally been called Belgrave. With Bel meaning ‘beautiful’ in French, some presume they change it to ‘Merde,’ which means ‘dung’ (to say it politely) as a way of oppressing the conquered. The other interpretation is that Merdegrave is the original Old English name, meaning the ‘grove in the meadows’ and it was actually the Norman’s who changed is to Belgrave – the ‘beautiful grove,’ to remove the French connotation of the word ‘Merde.’

We’ll never know the truth but the name Bel has been in the region for many years before the Norman invasion (Belton for example). To the ancient British pagans Bel was the sun god and it is after him that the ancient May Day festival of Beltaine is named after, a festival that continues to be celebrated to this day in Leicestershire. Two ancient British kings, Cassi-Belin and Cuno-Belin were also named after this important god.

We have read how Black Annis could have possibly represented the goddess Anu and by being dark and blue-faced, she represented the darker, more wintery times. It appears that her opposite and counterpart was the summer sun god – Bel. The story of Bel could well have been adapted over the years and originally his journey could be representative for the sun moving across the sky, falling when he reaches Belgrave. Belgrave is only just north east of the Dane Hills (Black Annis’ Bower) so by dying in Belgrave, he could have been giving way to his Winter Queen, Annis/Anu, to rule over the remainder of the year.

Beltaine fires were lit across Leicestershire on May Day to usher in the god of light, the sun god, Bel, and his name has lingered in local folklore ever since – in a child’s story – and long may it live!

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