Monday, 17 September 2012

The Tale of Black Annis

Leicester has always been the setting for imaginative tales, ghostly goings on and mythical characters – the best of all being the legend of Black Annis.

     “Little children who went to run on the Dane Hills, were assured that she lay in wait there, to snatch them away to her ‘bower’ where she scratched them to death with her claws, sucked their blood, and hung up their skins out to dry.”

This was the myth published in the Leicester Chronicle in 1874, and today thiswasleicestershire it putting Leicester’s ‘bogeywoman’ back into the spotlight.

Many readers may have been told the story as a child to stop us from misbehaving, but how true is it? Was there a woman dressed in black who lived in a cave? Did she suck the blood of Leicester’s children? You may not think so, but the story deserves a lot more credit as there is some real physical evidence to back up some of the outlandish claims.

The old 19th century newspaper – the Leicester Chronicle – ran an on-going debate throughout 1874 to get to the bottom of the myth, convinced that the story of ‘our Annis’ was based on an historical figure. But what the Chronicle failed to do was look at the earliest written account of ‘the old hag’ which comes from a poem written in 1797 by “an ingenius young poet” as famed local history expert Charles J. Billson once said.

His name was John Heyrick, a lieutenant in the 15th Regiment of Light Dragoons (which later became 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussors). In Nichols’ History of Leicester, the author states that Heyrick was “a man of superior talents” and “a soldier of undaunted courage”. As a Leicester native, Heyrick assured us of his historical accuracy and had a firm belief that what he was telling us in his poem was indeed a true story, and his impeccable character meant that his words could be trusted.

His description of Black Annis is as follows:


Tis said the soul of mortal man recoil’d,
                        To view Black Annis’ eye, so fierce and wild;
                        Vast talons, foul with human flesh, there grew
                        In place of hands, and features livid blue
                        Glar’d in her visage; while the obscene waist
                        Warm skins of human victims close embraced.

The most interesting point to make here is that these six lines of Heyrick’s poem gave birth to every tale and every description of Black Annis written since. This I find particularly odd as it doesn’t sound like the description of a person at all, however hideous in appearance she may have been.

But because of Heyrick’s legacy, being a real man of honour, historians have tried so hard to find out the identity of Annis ever since.

Before we try to find the truth behind the ‘black witch,’ the poem also gives some precise details of her domain.

Where down the plain the winding pathway falls,
From Glenfield Vill to Lester’s ancient walls,
Nature or Art with imitative power,
Far in the glenn has placed Black Annis’ Bower.
An oak, the pride of all the mossy dell,
Spread its broad arms above the stony cell;
And many a bush, with hostile thorns arrayed,
Forbids the secret cavern to invade;
Whilst delving vales each way meander round,
And violet banks with redolence abound.

So, if we are to believe Heyrick, Black Annis’ bower (or cave) stood in the meadows between Leicester and Glenfield, an area of Leicester we all know as the Dane Hills.
The interesting point here is that the cave did indeed exist; in fact it’s even marked on first ever Ordnance Survey map of Leicester. The old oak tree is also recorded to have stood over the entrance as was noted by another great local historian, William Kelly, who remembered the area well.

     “On my last visit to the Bower Close, now several years ago, the trunk of the old tree was then standing, but I know not if it still remains. At that time, and long previously, the mouth of the cave was closed, but in my school-boy days it was open, and, with two or three companions, I recollect on one occasion snatching a fearful joy, by crawling on our hands and knees into the interior, which was some seven or eight feet long by about four or five feet wide, and having a ledge of rock, for a seat, running along each side.”

So do the oak and the cave still remain? Well the Dane Hills region of Leicester, once a vast forest, has now been built upon and Black Annis’ bower seems all but lost, or is it?

By comparing three differently-aged OS maps, I was sure I had found the modern location, but it was sadly in the back garden of a private residence. But on writing to the owner of the property, he excitingly confirmed that I had indeed discovered the correct location as the deeds of the house which incorporates the cave, state that the land is named ‘Black Anna’s Bower Close’.

So Heyrick got the location correct. He quite rightly stated there was a cave and an old oak tree, so his credibility is confirmed; but what of Annis?

If we are to take Heyrick’s account literally, we are looking for a large, blue-skinned lady with one-eye, with talons instead of hands and with a diet consisting of human flesh. Does anybody fit the bill? Obviously this is highly unlikely, but this didn’t stop a discussion in the 19th century Leicester Chronicle, participants of which just had to personalise the grotesque character.

To them, the most obvious person was a lady whom William Burton names in “The Description of Leicestershire” as ‘Black Agnes.’ Agnes (full name Agnes Scott) was a real historical figure. She died in 1455 and was buried at Swithland church. A memorial brass still remains at the church, engraved with Latin words which translate as follows:

Enclosed in this tomb lies Agnes Scott, called the devout mother of Lady Ferrers.Whoever thou shall pass by pour out prayers, I beg. I am what thou shalt be. I used to be what thou art. Pray for me, I pray.

Agnes was certainly an important figure due to the association with Lady Ferrers, but a connection with Leicester’s Black Annis is truly impossible. For one, Agnes Scott has no known association with a cave, or the Dane Hills region of Leicester. Agnes is not described in a grotesque manner and the fact that her body was entombed and commemorated with a brass plaque in a Christian house of worship, seems to show how popular she must have been.

For John Heyrick, a man who accurately described Black Annis’ bower, personifying Black Annis as the late Agnes Scott is an insult both to his intelligence, and to the memory of Agnes, whom local author Bob Trubshaw believes had the important role of ‘spiritual parent’ to Lady Ferrers.

There have been no other historical names put forward for the mysterious Black Annis, but this it seems is because for hundreds of years, people have been reading the poem wrong.

Nowhere does Heyrick say he is describing a person. The word ‘she’ and ‘her’ are used when talking about a whole variety of different things, from gods to boats to the wonders in the night sky.

As an amateur ancient historian, I have recently come across a figure very similar to Black Annis, not from the history of Leicester, but from India. Black Kali is a goddess with a long and complex history in the religion of Hinduism. Her earliest history states that she was a creature of annihilation, a symbol of destruction. She was and remains the ancient mother-goddess to the Hindu religion. Like Annis, Kali’s skin colour was deep blue; she devoured humans, wearing a garland of fifty heads around her neck. She also had an unusual number of eyes – three, compared to Annis’ one. But Heyrick doesn’t give a number; he states that ‘mortal man recoiled to view her eye’ – her third eye perhaps? Heyrick also mentions that Annis had an obscene waist and that “warm skins of human victims close embraced.” Images of Kali portray her wearing a skirt made of human arms.

Black Kali is just one of a huge number of ancient mother goddesses found in every ancient culture around the world (there is also Black Ceres or Demeter of Greece), all of which are associated with disaster and destruction. But I am not the first person to associate Annis with Kali. 19th century local writer John Dudley made the link in the mid-nineteenth century in his book Naology.

Heyrick never travelled to India in his military career, being stationed in Holland, Germany and predominantly England, so speculating that he borrowed the idea from India is inaccurate, not just because of geography, but also because Annis has a variety of unique characteristics of her own. But the main reason to discredit the idea that Heyrick created Annis from Kali is that the name Black Annis is also found in another part of the British Isles – Scotland – as a bloodthirsty and fearsome demon.

The pagan goddess of Britain is known from ancient texts as Anu or Dana, an obvious etymological root of Annis. And as for the Dane Hills, although it is likely they were named after the Dane’s who landed in Leicester many moons ago, it is also just as likely they were named after the goddess herself.

So Leicester’s Black Annis seems to be a memory of the ancient British mother goddess who, like the fabled King Leir, proved to be the ancient British Water God, was also chiefly worshipped here in Leicester, which seems to be the spiritual home to the pantheon of ancient British gods. Interestingly, in Nicholls, an account from 1606 says of the area:

     “There is in the Park a cave, digged out of the rock, where it is said King Leyer [Leir] did hide himself from his enemies – a cowardly part!”

So again we see another relationship between the mother goddess and the water god of Celtic times. There will be an article coming soon on the water god, Leir. What I am saying though is that no historical, human-Annis existed; it seems to be the ancient goddess we find the world over. But a goddess in ancient times, was usually an expression for a physical event, object or earthly force.

Ancient deities were always the personification of great forces and Heyrick leaves enough clues for us to theorise as to what Black Annis symbolises. Annis may well be Anu, but by being known as Black Annis, she must be an expression of dark and destructive forces – well this is what Heyrick’s poem suggests! The only object that fits Heyrick’s description, in my opinion, is astronomical in origin.

It would be seen around the globe and it is easy to understand why folklore and religion would arise from viewing such an amazing sight. It would explain the worldwide impact of the destructive mother goddess and the exoneration of an entity with such an unlikely appearance.

To the unlearned eye, it would be breathtaking to view. It is of course a comet. And how would the ancient people of Leicester describe seeing such a marvellous astronomical phenomenon? Probably very similar to Heyrick’s detailed description -blue in appearance (you may remember seeing Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997) with streams or talons of material coming off the fierce and wild cometary eye as the Sun thaws the icy body. Its size would be huge, obscene even, and if heading close to the Earth, the glare created as the Sun’s light reflects off what astronomers call a ‘dirty snowball,’ would be unbearable.

John Heyrick never said that Annis lived in a cave, but that children had occupied it and lost their lives inside. Were they put into safe keeping by anxious parents to escape the fate of a comet? Was the cave created to escape the approaching Annis?

Heyrick goes on to say that only the entrance of the cave now remains, but originally there were large rooms. A separate Black Annis myth states that a tunnel ran from the Dane Hills all the way to the location of the Great Hall of Leicester Castle. As no excavations of Black Annis’ bower have ever taken place, we have no reason to assume that this is untrue. If an ancient comet was once heading towards Earth, probably thousands of years ago, an underground cave system would seem the most logical construction to escape its impact.

Similar cave systems have also been discovered in India, dating back to around 3200 BC, a date which has been proved to be the time of a worldwide cataclysm, as seen in tree ring data from Ireland and ice cores from Antarctica.

Heyrick’s poem even explains the aftermath of the impact event:

But Time, than Man more certain, tho’ more slow,
At length ‘gainst Annis drew his sable bow;
The great decree the pious shepherds bless’d,
And general joy the general fear confess’d.
Not without terror they the cave survey,
Where hung the monstrous trophies of her sway.

If Black Annis (the comet) was heading towards the Earth, mankind could have done nothing to stop her and as she caused vast amounts of death and destruction, they would have feared ‘the goddess’ who punished them. A cometary impact on Earth would create a dust cloud that would engulf the atmosphere of the Earth, and create darkness all around. Humanity could never stop such a phenomenon and only in time could the dust settle.

If my interpretation is correct, the poem infers that the icy body struck the Earth as Heyrick’s description shows what you would expect if such a thing was to happen, knowledge he couldn’t have known back in the 18th century. He was a military man and part-time scholar, not a scientist after all. Mankind would have been completely helpless as the effects of Annis would have blocked out the light and turned the Earth black.

To the ancient British, the mother goddess Anu would be to blame for the darkness, which was created. I believe this gave birth to the myth of Black Annis and has since lived on in her town of chief worship - Leicester – as a folkloric tale ever since.

Where John Heyrick got his information from, we will never know. The story of Black Annis was in Leicester way before the poem was written and as a high-ranking officer in the military, maybe he learned of the true identity of Black Annis in the circles he moved in.

A hundred years before Heyrick wrote his famous poem, the Leicester town records talk of an ancient paganistic ritual held annually at the site of Black Annis’ bower on Easter Monday, often attended by the ‘Mayor and his brethren.’ The historian Throsby states:

     “Since this election an innocent holiday has been gradually dwindled into disuse. It had long before been customary, on Easter Monday, for the mayor and his brethren, in their scarlet gowns, attended by their proper officers in form, to go to a certain close, called Black Annis’ Bower Close, parcel of, or bordering upon, Leicester Forest, to see the diversion of hunting, or rather, the trailing of a cat before a pack of hounds; a custom, perhaps, originating out of a claim to the royalty of the Forest. Hither, on a fair-day, resorting the young and old, and those of all denominations. In the greatest harmony the Spring was welcomed. The morning was spent in various amusements and athletic exercises, till a dead cat, about noon, was prepared by aniseed water, for commencing the mock hunting of the hare. In about half an hour after the cat had been trailed from the tail of a horse over the grounds, in zigzag directions, the hounds were directed to the spot where the cat had been trailed from. Here the hounds gave tongue, in glorious concert. The people from the various eminences, who had placed themselves to behold the sight, with shouts of rapture, gave applause; the horsemen, dashing after the hounds through foul passages and over fences, were emulous for taking the lead of their fellows. It was a scene, upon the whole, of joy; the governing and the governed, in the habits of freedom, enjoying together an innocent and recreating amusement, serving to unite them in bonds of mutual friendship, rather than to embitter their days with discord and disunion. As the cat had been trailed to the mayor’s door, through some of the principle streets, consequently the dogs and horsemen followed. After the hunt was over, the mayor gave a handsome treat to his friends. In this manner the day ended.”

The cat, trailing from the back of a horse may also be an expression of a travelling comet, being chased away by the townsfolk? Maybe I’m clutching at straws, but it is just an interpretation! The ritual happened at the start of Spring, so it was ushering in the better weather. Easter Monday is also the day of another pagan festival in Leicester – the Hallaton Bottle Kicking. Easter is a holiday named after the pagan goddess Eostre, whose symbol is a hare. The pagan festival was about the sun overcoming the powers of darkness. If my idea that a cometary impact brought a harsh winter to the Earth, celebrating the sun’s return would have been commonplace across the world, and this could have led to the well-documented Easter rituals in pagan Britain.

John Heyrick left a riddle for the people of Leicester, leaving the clues to unravel an important ancient myth and I believe I have now solved. Black Annis wasn’t an old witch who ate children, but the memory of an event so cataclysmic, that we are lucky to have a memory at all. Heyrick’s poem is accessible to us all, read it, study it and form your own conclusions. Whether he was a brilliant story teller or recorder of factual events, we’ll never truly know. But as “a man of superior talents” and “a soldier of undaunted courage” would the man really want to leave such a controversial legacy? Surely he would want to be known as a man of honour.

Here is Heyrick’s poem in full:

Where down the plain the winding pathway falls
                        From Glenfield Vill to Lester’s ancient walls,
                        Nature or Art with imitative power,
                        Far in the glenn has placed Black Annis’ Bower.

                        An oak, the pride of all the mossy dell,
                        Spread its broad arms above the stony cell;
                        And many a bush, with hostile thorns arrayed,
                        Forbids the secret cavern to invade;
                        Whilst delving vales each way meander round,
                        And violet banks with redolence abound.

                        Here, if the uncouth song of former days
                        Soil not the page with Falsehood’s artful lays,
                        Black Annis held her solitary reign,
                        The dread and wonder of the neighbouring plain.
                        The shepherd grieved to view his waning flock,
                        And traced his firstlings to the gloomy rock.
                        No vagrant children culled (the) flow’rets then,
                        For infant blood oft stained the gory den.

                        Not Sparta’s mount, for infant tears renown’d,
                        Echo’d more frequently the piteous sound.
                        Oft the gaunt Maid the frantic Mother curs’d,
                        Whom Britain’s wolf with savage nipple nurs’d;
                        Whom Lester’s sons beheld, aghast the scene,
                        Nor dared to meet the Monster of the Green.

                        Tis said the soul of mortal man recoil’d,
                        To view Black Annis’ eye, so fierce and wild;
                        Vast talons, foul with human flesh, there grew
                        In place of hands, and features livid blue
                        Glar’d in her visage; while the obscene waist
                        Warm skins of human victims close embraced.

                        But Time, than Man more certain, tho’ more slow,
                        At length ‘gainst Annis drew his sable bow;
                        The great decree the pious shepherds bless’d,
                        And general joy the general fear confess’d.
                        Not without terror they the cave survey,
                        Where hung the monstrous trophies of her sway:
                        ‘Tis said, that in the rock large rooms were found,
                        Scoop’d with her claws beneath the flinty ground;
                        In these the swains her hated body threw,
                        But left the entrance still to future view,
                        That children’s children might the tale rehearse,
                        And bards record it in their tuneful verse.

                        But in these listless days, the idle bard
                        Gives to the wind all themes of cold regard;
                        Forgive, then, if in rough, unpolished song,
                        An unskilled swain the dying tale prolong.

                        And you, ye Fair, whom Nature’s scenes delight,
                        If Annis’ Bower your vagrant steps invite,
                        Ere the bright sun Aurora’s car succeed,
                        Or dewy evening quench the thirsty mead,
                        Forbear with chilling censures to refuse
                        Some gen’rous tribute to the rustic muse.
                        A violet or common daisy throw,
                        Such gifts as Maro’s lovely nymphs bestow;
                        Then shall your Bard survive the critic’s frown,
                        And in your smiles enjoy his best renown.

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