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Sunday 4 November 2012

Giants and Trojans in Ancient Britain

Some mediaeval legends, such as the stories of King Arthur and his knights, are still well-known today. But others, such as the legendary founding of Britain by Brutus of Troy—arguably a far more significant event—are almost completely forgotten by the general public. About a year ago I wrote about Trojans in Taunton in Totnes, describing how Brutus (according to the notoriously inaccurate 12th century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth) is supposed to have landed at Totnes in South Devon. I also mentioned a Romano-British mosaic, depicting the legend of Brutus’s grandfather Aeneas, that can be seen in the Museum of Somerset in Taunton.

Since then I’ve come across several other references to the legend of Brutus. While researching my book about Somerset history earlier this year, I discovered that a 16th century owner of the Lytes Cary manor house in South Somerset, Henry Lyte, wrote one of the first quasi-scholarly accounts of the Brutus legend in a book entitled The Light of Britain, which he presented to Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 (the year of the Spanish Armada). Then about a month ago, Paul Jackson produced a blog post London’s Two Centres in which he referred to a reputed connection between Brutus of Troy and the London Stone in Cannon Street. Finally, just last week, I discovered yet another “Trojans in Britain” legend – this one connected to the city of Plymouth in South Devon.

Plymouth is familiar to all British schoolchildren as the place where Sir Francis Drake finished his game of bowls before sailing off to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. And it’s equally familiar to American schoolchildren as the place from which the Mayflower pilgrims set sail for Massachusetts in 1620. There are many ways to learn about the history of Plymouth, but one of the most entertaining—and certainly the most Fortean—is to go on one of the Strange History of Plymouth tours organized by Oll Lewis of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (pictured on Plymouth Hoe, near the spot where Drake is said to have played bowls). Oll has been running these tours for about a month now, and as you can see from the photograph I managed to pick a day when the weather was appropriately Gothic. Oll’s tour includes witches, ghosts, UFOs, sea monsters, vanishing colonists... and battling giants!

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, when Brutus and his fellow Trojans landed at Totnes, they were the first ordinary humans to set foot in the British Isles – the only locals at the time being a race of giants. According to one legend, there was a big battle between some of these giants and the Trojans on what is now Plymouth Hoe. The Trojan forces were led by a man named Corineus, and the giants by a particularly large giant named Gogmagot. The latter is often rendered Gogmagog, through confusion with the Biblical giants Gog and Magog, although the name is more likely to be derived from the Celtic Gawr Madoc (Madoc the Great). The legend states that after a heated battle the Trojans eventually defeated the giants, with Corineus, in a feat of superhuman strength, hurling Gogmagot to his death on the rocks below.

While the story of Gogmagot and Corineus is nothing more than a fanciful legend, it is true that for hundreds of years there was at least one, and possibly two, giant figures carved into the rock of Plymouth Hoe. The larger figure, representing Gogmagot, was first recorded in 1496, and was described as being “12 cubits” in size: the exact dimensions given by Geoffrey of Monmouth for Gogmagot (a mediaeval cubit was half a yard, or 18 inches). The figure(s) would still have been visible on the Hoe when Drake played bowls there in 1588, and when the Mayflower set sail in 1620. However, they were obliterated in the 1660s when the Royal Citadel was constructed on the Hoe – a huge stone fortress which is still standing today, as can be seen on the left-hand side of the photograph above.

For a more detailed account of the legend of Gogmagot, see this article by Oll himself: Oll's Magical Mystery Tour: The Giants of Plymouth. Or better still, if you’re anywhere near Plymouth, go on the tour yourself!

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