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The Wizard of Alderley Edge


The Wizard of Alderley Edge

by: William Axon (Author)
from: Cheshire Gleanings (Pp. 56 - 68)  1884

Whom he reports to be a great magician.
                                         SHAKSPERE. As You Like It.
Connected with Alderley Edge there is a curious tradition which preserves a very ancient fragment of mythological belief, and is, therefore, worthy of notice.

The legend of the wizard of Alderley Edge first appeared in print in the Manchester Mail of 1805, by a correspondent who obtained it from the narration of a servant of the Stanleys, whose proper name was Thomas Broadhurst, but who was better known as "Old Daddy." According to this veteran the tradition says that once upon a time a farmer from Mobberley, mounted on a milk-white horse, was crossing the Edge on his way to Macclesfield to sell the animal. He had reached a spot known as the Thieves' Hole, and, as he slowly rode along thinking of the profitable bargain which he hoped to make, was startled by the sudden appearance of an old man, tall and strangely clad in a deep flowing garment. The old man ordered him to stop, told him that he knew the errand upon which the rider was bent, and offered a sum of money for the horse. The farmer, however, refused the offer, not thinking it sufficient. "Go, then, to Macclesfield," said the old man, "but mark my words, you will not sell the horse. Should you find my words come true, meet me this evening, and I will buy your horse." The farmer laughed at such a prophecy, and went on his way. To his great surprise, and greater disappointment, nobody would buy, though all admired his beautiful horse. He was, therefore, compelled to return. On approaching the Edge he saw the old man again. Checking his horse's pace, he began to consider how far it might be prudent to deal with a perfect stranger in so lonely a place. However, while he was considering what to do, the old man commanded him, "Follow me!" Silently the old man led him by the Seven Firs, the Golden Stone, by Stormy Point, and Saddle Boll. Just as the farmer was beginning to think he had gone far enough he fancied that he heard a horse neighing underground. Again he heard it. Stretching forth his arm the old man touched a rock with a wand, and immediately the farmer saw a ponderous pair of iron gates, which, with a sound like thunder, flew open. The horse reared bolt upright, and the terrified farmer fell on his knees praying that his life might be spared. "Fear nothing," spoke the Wizard, "and behold a sight which no mortal eye has ever looked upon." They went into the cave. In a long succession of caverns the farmer saw a countless number of men and horses, the latter milk-white, and all fast asleep. In the innermost cavern heaps of treasure were piled up on the ground. From these glittering heaps the old man bade the farmer take the price he desired for his horse, and thus addressed him: "You see these men and horses; the number was not complete. Your horse was wanted to make it complete. Remember my words, there will come a day when these men and these horses, awakening from their enchanted slumber, will descend into the plain, decide the fate of a great battle, and save their country. This shall be when George the son of George shall reign. Go home in safety. Leave your horse with me. No harm will befal you; but henceforward no mortal eye will ever look upon the iron gates. Begone!" The farmer lost no time in obeying. He heard the iron gates close with the same fearful sounds with which they were opened, and made the best of his way to Mobberley.

This tradition found a place in the Hon. Miss L. D. Stanley's "Alderley and its neighbourhood," and has since been often quoted. Colonel Egerton Leigh has printed two rhyming versions, the one by Mr. James Roscoe, which is the most modern, and from a literary point of view the best, names the wondrous sleepers as King Arthur and his knights.

The antiquity of the tradition is not easily ascertainable, the story used to be told by Parson Shrigley, and he placed the meeting of the Mobberley Farmer and the Enchanter at about eighty years before his time. Shrigley was curate of Alderley in 1753. He died in 1776.

It will be seen how closely this tradition resembles the tales told by the peasantry of the famous Rymour of Ercildoun, who is supposed to inhabit the interior of the Eildon Hills.

"A shepherd was once conducted into the interior recesses of Eildon Hills by a venerable personage, whom he discovered to be the famous Rymour, and who showed him an immense number of steeds in their caparisons, and at the bridle of each a knight sleeping in sable armour with a sword and a bugle horn by his side. These he was told were the hosts of King Arthur, waiting till the appointed return of that monarch from fairyland." ("Poetical Remains of Dr. John Leyden," 1819, p. 358.) Scott has printed a legend very similar to our Cheshire one. The colour of the horses in the Border tale is coal black, and a sword and a horn are pointed out to the rustic as the means of dissolving the spell. He chooses the horn. No sooner has he put it to his mouth than a dreadful tumult arises, and a whirlwind carries the unfortunate horse dealer out of the cavern, whilst loud over all the uproar he hears the stern voice of the Rymour exclaiming:—


Woe to the coward that ever he was born,
That did not draw the sword before he blew the horn.

"This legend," says Scott, "is found in many parts of Scotland and England—the scene is sometimes laid in some favourite glen of the Highlands, sometimes in the deep coal mines of Northumberland and Cumberland, which run so far beneath the ocean. It is also to be found in Reginald Scott's book on Witchcraft, which was written in the 16th century." ("Waverley Novels," General Preface. See also Scott's "Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft," Letter 5.)

The ballad of "Sir Guy the Seeker," by Monk Lewis, a ballad in every way superior to some others of his which have had a larger share of popularity, is founded upon a legend of Dunstanburgh Castle. According to this legend, Sir Guy was taken by a man of supernatural appearance into a large and lofty hall, where stood a hundred coal black steeds, and sleeping by their sides a hundred marble knights; at the far end of the hall, bound in magic bonds, he sees a maid of beauty rare and strange.


     A form more fair than that prisoner's ne'er
     Since the days of Eve was known,
Every glance that flew from her eyes of blue,
     Was worth an Emperor's throne;
And one sweet kiss from her roseate lips,
     Would have melted a heart of stone.
The warrior felt his stout heart melt,
     When he saw those fountains run.
Oh! what can I do? he cried, for you?
     What mortal can do shall be done.


After the knight had thus expressed his determination the ancient wizard speaks:—


     See'st yonder sword, with jewels rare,
     Its dudgeon crusted o'er?
See'st yonder horn of ivory fair?
     'Twas Merlin's horn of yore!
That horn to sound, or sword to draw,
     Now youth, your choice explain.


After much hesitation the knight seizes the horn, and blows upon it a blast which goes echoing through the hall like the sound of thunder; knights and steeds awake to life and motion and rush upon Sir Guy, who startled at his assailants, throws down the horn, and draws his sword to defend himself.


    And straight each light was extinguished quite
    Save the flame so lurid blue
On the wizard's brow (whose flashing now
    Assumed a bloody hue),
And those sparks of fire, which grief and ire
    From his glaring eyeballs drew!
And he stampt in rage, and he laughed in scorn,
    While in thundering tone he roared,
Now shame on the coward who sounded a horn,
    When he might have unsheatht a sword.


Lewis says of this ballad, "It is founded upon a tradition current in Northumberland. Indeed, an adventure nearly similar to Sir Guy's is said to have taken place in various parts of Great Britain, particularly on the Pentland Hills in Scotland (where the prisoners are supposed to be King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table), and in Lancashire, where an alehouse, near Chorley, still exhibits the sign of a Sir John Stanley following an old man with a torch, while his horse starts back with terror at the objects which are discovered through two immense iron gates—the alehouse is known by the name of the Iron Gates, which are supposed to protect the entrance of an enchanted cavern in the neighbourhood. The female captive, I believe, is peculiar to Dunstanburgh Castle; and certain shining stones which are occasionally found in the neighbourhood, and which are called Dunstanburgh Diamonds, are supposed by the peasantry to form part of that immense treasure with which the lady will reward her deliverer." ("Lewis's Romantic Tales," quoted in the "Pictorial Book of Ballads," edited by J. S. Moore, London, 1847, p. 161. Lewis refers to Alderley in the above passage.)

In Richardson's "Borderer's Table Book" (Vol. VII., p. 66), the ballad of "Guy the Seeker" is reprinted, with an introduction by Mr. J. H. Dixon, followed by an account of the castle and its former possessors. In the same volume is a paper by Mr. J. Hardy, giving legends current at Sewingshields, of the wondrous cavern where King Arthur sleeps. The Dunstanburgh tradition stands alone in having a female for its subject, the others, it will be seen, relate to Arthur, whose reappearance was at one time an article of popular faith very devoutly believed in. Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of the hero's death is somewhat peculiar: "And even the renowned King Arthur himself was mortally wounded; and being carried thence to the Isle of Avallon, to be cured of his wounds, he gave up the crown," &c. Of this belief in Arthur's return a writer of the 17th century thus speaks:

"But finding of the body of Arthur, such as believed he was not dead, but carried away by fairies into some pleasant place, where he should remain a time, and then to return again and reign in as great authority as he did before, might well perceive themselves deceived in crediting so vain a fable." (Enderbie, "Cambria Triumphant," 1661, p. 191.)

There is a Welsh legend, that in a cavern under the roots of the hazel-tree on Craig y Ddinas, King Arthur and all his knights are lying asleep in a circle: "their heads outward, every one in his armour, his sword, and shield, and spear by him; ready to be taken up whenever the Black Eagle and the Golden Eagle shall go to war, and make the earth tremble with their affray, so that the cavern shall be shaken and the bell ring and the sleepers be awakened."

Arthur is not the only Welsh hero of whom this fable has been related. Of Owen Glendower we are told that the prevalent opinion was that he died in a wood in Glamorgan, but occult chronicles assert that he and his men still live, and are asleep on their arms in a cave called Ogof y Ddinas, in the vale of Gwent, where they will continue until England becomes self-abased; but that then they will sally forth and reconquer their country, privileges, and crown for the Welsh, who shall be dispossessed of them no more until the day of judgment, when the world shall be consumed with fire, and so reconstructed that neither oppression nor devastation shall take place any more. (Notes and Queries, IV., 120.) "And blessed will be he who shall see the time."

In Ireland the hero of the legend is one of the Geraldines, who with his warriors are now sleeping in a long cavern under the Rath of Mullaghmast. There is a table running along through the middle of the cave. The earl is sitting at the head, and his troopers down along in complete armour on both sides of the table, and their heads resting on it. Their horses saddled and bridled, are standing behind their masters in their stalls at each side; and when the day comes the miller's son that's to be born with six fingers on his hand will blow the trumpet, and the horses will stamp and whinny, and the knights go forth to battle."

Once in seven years the entrance of this wondrous cavern is visible to mortal eyes. A century ago a drunken horse dealer ventured in. Sobered by what he saw, he trembled so that "he let fall a bridle on the pavement. The sound of the bit echoed through the long cave, and one of the warriors that sat next to him, lifted his head a little, and said in a deep hoarse voice, 'Is it time yet?' He had the wit to say, 'Not yet, but soon will be,' and the heavy helmet sank down on the table." (Kennedy's "Legends of the Irish Celts," p. 173-4.)

There are various versions of this Irish legend. Thus at Innishowen Hugh O'Neill and his warriors lie in magic sleep under the hill of Alleach, and according to Thomas Davis, the fervid Nationalist poet:—


And still it is the peasant's hope upon the Cuirreach's mere,
They live, who'll see ten thousand men with good Lord Edward here.
So let them dream till brighter days, when not by Edward's shade,
But by some leader true as he their lines shall be array'd.


Maxwell's song, "The Triumph of O'Neill," also alludes to this superstition. There is a spirited ballad on this legend by Charles Gavan Duffy, printed in Barry's "Songs of Ireland," Dublin, 1869, p. 150.

Similar legends probably exist in all nations: thus Mohammed was believed to be alive in his tomb, where the prayers made for him by the faithful were repeated to him by an angel posted there for that purpose. The Mohammedans believe that the twelfth Imaum, i.e. Hassan al Asker, the descendant of the Prophet's daughter Fatima, is still alive, and will reappear at the second coming of Jesus Christ. ("Tales of Four Durweesh," n. 9.) Olearius relates a Persian tradition, which says that a certain tyrant named Suhak having been deposed from the throne, was hung by the heels in a cavern of the mountains near Teheran, and is still living in that uncomfortable posture. ("Voyages and Travels," &c., by Olearius, 1672, p. 258.) At Carthage the peasantry believe that the "Hafasa, the ancient kings of the country," will again rule over them at the second coming of the Lord Jesus. "Only very lately, a porter was desired to carry a measure of wheat by a very respectable looking man, which he did. He followed his employer a long way out of the town, and coming to a kind of cave the man took the wheat from the porter, and presenting him a handful of gold, suddenly vanished; and what is more remarkable is, that the very cave too disappeared, not a trace of it was left. When the porter—who is from Gabes, and is still alive to recount this remarkable circumstance—came to change his gold it was found to belong to the reign of the Hafasa." (Davis's "Carthage," 1861, p. 181.) So of Marko the Servian, some narrate that he was miraculously conveyed away from the field of battle to a mountain cavern, where his wounds were healed, and where he still lives. (Bowring's "Servian Popular Poetry," 1827, p. 106.)

Similar is the legend of Holger Danske. Noises like the clashing of arms are frequently heard beneath the Castle of Kronberg. A slave, condemned to death, was induced by a promise of pardon and liberty to make an attempt at unravelling the mystery. Threading the deepest passages of the castle he came at length to a large iron door, which on his knocking opened of itself, and he found himself in a deep vault. In the centre was an immense stone table, around which sat steel clad warriors, bending down, and resting their heads on their crossed arms.

"He who sat at the end of the table arose. It was Holger, the Dane, but in lifting his head from his arm the stone table was burst in sunder, for his beard had grown into it. 'Reach me thy hand,' said he to the slave, but the latter not venturing to give his hand held out an iron bar instead, which Holger so squeezed that the marks remained visible. At length letting it go he exclaimed, 'It gladdens me that there are still men left in Denmark.''' (Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," II., 222.) This story of the iron bar, like most popular tales, has repeated itself; a Scotch version may be found in the "Poetical Remains of John Leyden," 1819, p. 321. The story of Holger is the subject of the well known mediæval romance of Ogier le Danois, a notice of which is given in Dunlop's History of Fiction. L. Pio has published an essay upon the hero, which is reviewed in the Gotting gel. Anz., 1870, s. 1290.

The Germans have the same legend of Frederick Barbarosa:— "In the Kyffhauser, in Thuringia, according to the popular tradition, sits Frederick Barbarossa in a charmed sleep, surrounded by his knights and squires. His beard has grown twice around the stone table before him, when it shall reach three times round he will awake; of a shepherd who had played him a pleasing tune he inquired, 'Do the ravens still fly round the mountain?' and on the shepherd answering in the affirmative, he said, 'Then I must sleep an hundred years longer." In Hartley Coleridge's Essays, 1850, II. 252, there are some remarks on Barbarossa and the other legends of miraculous sleepers. Mr. Thorpe considers that the original sleeper of northern tradition is Odin, and instances this inquiry after the ravens in support of his view. "The heroes in the cave," says Mr. Kelly, "under whatever name they are known, and wherever they repose, are all representatives of Odin and his host. The great battle to which they will at last awake is that which will be fought before the end of the world, when heaven and earth shall be destroyed, and the Æsir gods themselves shall perish, and their places shall be filled by a new creation, and new and brighter gods. The sword concealed in the heart of the Eildon hill is that of Heimdallr, the Sverdâs or sword-god, and warder of Bifrost bridge, and his is the Gjaller horn, with which he will warn the gods that the frost giants are advancing to storm Valhalla." ("Indo-European Traditions," 1863, p. 289.)

In Washington Irving's charming "Tales of the Alhambra" is one entitled, "Governor Manco and the old Soldier;" and the story which the old soldier relates to the governor appears to be founded upon a Spanish legend, that Bobadil instead of being dead was with his warriors and courtiers enclosed in the interior of a mountain in a state of charmed sleep.

Similar legends were once current among the peasantry of Harold, the last of the Saxons; of Charlemagne, of the unfortunate Duke of Monmouth, Don Sebastian, and many more of bygone ages.

Dr. William Bell of Nürnberg, connects the Alderley Legend with the German tradition of the duerrer baum, which he holds to be alluded by Shakspere in Cymbeline, act V., scene 4. (Shakspere's Puck, iii. 125.) This is the tree that Sir John Mandeville mentions as in the valley of Mambre. It had been there since the creation of the world, but withered at the crucifixion. "And summe seyn be here Prophecyes that a Lord, a Prynce of the west syde of the World, shall wynnen the Land of Promyssioun, that is the Holy Land, with helpe of Cristene Men; and he shalle do synge a masse undir that drye Tree, and than the Tree shall wexen grene and bene both Fruyt and Leves." (Travailes, Edited by Halliwell, chap. vi.)

In most of the varying forms of this antique tradition we can see that the root idea is that of a deliverer. The people groaning in misery console their present bitterness by the hope of better times. Their affections are centred upon some typical hero of the race, who becomes the representative of the national aspirations. Sometimes in place of social we have theological and moral considerations. Here the lesson is one that we can all appreciate, for the ravens are still flying round the mountains, and the Deliverer that is to be still slumbers in the heart of the Kyffhauser.