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Sunday 16 September 2012

A Fortean History of Somerset

I was very pleased to be given the opportunity to write a volume on Somerset for the Bloody British History series from The History Press. This is my kind of history – all the good bits and none of the boring bits. As well as the eponymous “bloody” history (prehistoric cannibals, Viking invaders, Catholic-massacring Puritans and Victorian murderers) there is no shortage of more offbeat items to interest a Fortean audience:
  • Joseph of Arimathea is reputed to have brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury in 63 AD.
  • Cadbury Castle may have been the inspiration for the legend of King Arthur’s Camelot – it was certainly the stronghold of a powerful warrior chief around the time Arthur is presumed to have lived.
  • When the Saxons invaded Somerset in the 7th century, they found that the locals believed Saint Patrick was buried at Glastonbury... this may not have been true (see Saint Patrick of Glastonbury?) but it did wonders for the pilgrimage trade.
  • During the 12th century, when Glastonbury Abbey was in desperate need of funds for rebuilding work, the monks dug up an even more lucrative pilgrimage attraction – nothing less than the bones of King Arthur himself!
  • At their height, the Knights Templar owned much of the land in Somerset, and at two Templar sites symbolic “heads” have been found that might be related to the mysterious Head that the Templars are supposed to have worshipped (much more detail is given in Juliet Faith’s book The Knights Templar in Somerset).
  • When Henry VIII ransacked Glastonbury Abbey in 1539, he found a vast treasure trove of gold and jewels that he was quick to turn into much-needed cash for the royal coffers. Relics – including the reputed horn of a unicorn – that had no obvious financial value were thrown away. Later in the 16th century, a man rummaging through the ruins of the Abbey found what he claimed was the alchemists’ secret formula that would transmute base metals into gold. That man was Edward Kelley... soon to become the most notorious and sought-after occultist in Europe.
  • The “whistling” ghost of Mother Leakey from Minehead was famous enough to be described in some detail by Sir Walter Scott. Less well known is the role the ghost played in the downfall and execution of John Atherton – a man from Bridgwater who became the first and only Anglican Bishop to be hanged for sodomy.
  • Much of the theoretical basis for the 17th century witch-hunts, in America as well as England, was laid down by the book Saducismus Triumphatus by Somerset-born Joseph Glanvill – who has a reasonable claim to having been the world’s first paranormal investigator (see The Daemon of Tedworth).
  • One of the best-documented exorcisms of the 18th century took place in the Temple Church in Bristol, but the subject was a man from Somerset: George Lukins, the Yatton demoniac. In the same century, another Somerset man, a professional geologist named John Beaumont, wrote extensively about a race of demons that he believed had a personal vendetta against him.
  • Some years before she wrote Frankenstein, Mary Shelley attended a lecture by the Somerset-based electrical experimenter Andrew Crosse. The latter subsequently gained an undeserved reputation as a “real-life Frankenstein”, when the press announced that he had created artificial life in his laboratory – something Crosse himself never claimed to have done.
  • During the 19th century, a former Church of England vicar named Henry Prince set up a “free love commune” in rural Somerset that he called the Abode of Love, where he and the other members indulged in Hieros Gamos style sex rituals behind 15-foot high walls.
Bloody British History: Somerset is available from Amazon UK and all good booksellers.


Richard Freeman said...

The county also has more dragon legends than any other in the UK with a total of 11.

Andrew May said...

Thanks - I wasn't aware of the statistics, but I knew we had a lot. The local expert on the subject is a man named Brian Wright, who I saw talk on the subject about a year ago. Since my book was focused on history, I only managed to squeeze in one dragon legend -- the one at Norton Fitzwarren hill fort, which is supposed to have been created from the decaying bodies of massacred locals back in Roman times.