Every country has its own folktales, which are passed down between generations, usually in early childhood. Britain is no exception, with a diverse collection of myths and legends woven into our national fabric. Here are ten of Britain’s most amazing folktales, from the well-known to the obscure.
In spite of probably being Britain’s most famous ruler, nobody knows whether or not King Arthur actually existed. There are many legends surrounding the mythical king, dating back to the Middle Ages, including his sword Excalibur, which he pulled out of a stone, and his knights, who sat around a Round Table to demonstrate that they were all of equal status. His wife Guinevere and his best friend, the wizard Merlin, also feature prominently in the legend.
The mysterious figure of Spring-Heeled Jack was a popular urban legend in Victorian England. Known for his superhuman ability to leap over extremely tall objects such as walls and houses, Jack was able to terrorise his victims and could always get away from those who pursued him. Sightings of Jack were recorded as far afield as London and Liverpool, but he was most commonly seen in the Midlands, with his pale skin, goatee beard and flashing eyes terrifying young women in every city.
Legends of demonic hounds can be found in several parts of Britain, but Black Shuck, of East Anglia, is a particularly enduring folktale. First sighted in 1577, the dog has reportedly been seen as recently as 1960, when a man riding his bike was confronted by a huge black dog with red eyes, which then promptly disappeared. Black Shuck is thought to have broken into churches and killed people. Legend has it that his claw marks can be seen in the door of a church in Blythburgh, Suffolk.
Originating in the Orkney Islands, the story of Ursilla tells of a young wife who was unhappy with her husband, and could have no children. According to the legend, Ursilla went to the shore at spring-tide and cried seven tears into the sea. This summoned a large male seal, who could take human form at spring-tide. Following this meeting, Ursilla went on to have several children, all of whom were born with webbing between their toes.
The Tylwyth Teg are mischievous fairies who feature in many Welsh legends. Often found stealing human babies and replacing them with changelings, the Tylwyth Teg also kidnapped a midwife’s absent-minded assistant named Eilian. When Eilian came to have a child of her own, she summoned the midwife, who, after helping with the birth, was paid in fairy gold.
In this folktale dating from 18 th century Cornwall, Jack is a farmer’s son who was born with unusual strength and wit. He uses these attributed to kill a number of fearsome giants, but spares the life of one, who in return gives Jack a magic sword, an invisibility cloak, a cap of knowledge and shoes of swiftness. Jack is eventually called upon to slay a giant who has captured a Duke’s daughter and turned her into a doe. When Jack kills the giant, the woman regains her human form, and she and Jack are married.
According to Anglo-Saxon legend, two recently-deceased peasants were seen in Burton-on-Trent carrying their coffins on their backs. They would knock on doors and call people’s names, and the people they named quickly ended up falling ill, with some dying. The villagers dug up the corpses of the two peasants and found them undecayed, with their faces smeared with blood. The villagers cut off the corpses’ heads and cut out their hearts. The mysterious deaths stopped, but two strange black birds could still be seen above the village.
In Galloway in Scotland, legend tells that a beautiful mermaid sat on a rock each evening, giving medical advice to villagers who asked for her help. A local religious woman was offended by the mermaid, and pushed her and her seat into the lake. The mermaid swore revenge, and the religious woman’s baby was found dead the following morning. In revenge, the villagers filled in the watercourse where the mermaid lived, and she was never seen again.
A huge dragon was terrifying the villagers of Lyminster in Sussex, eating their animals and even young local maidens. One brave man approached the dragon with a huge suet pudding in a horse-drawn cart. The greedy dragon ate the pudding, horse and cart. The man then brought the dragon a second pudding, which was enough to make him feel ill and sluggish. This gave the man the chance to kill the dragon with an axe, and free the villagers from tyranny.
Probably the most famous of all British folktales, Robin Hood was said to be a disgraced nobleman who led a band of outlaws living in Sherwood Forest. He would steal money and jewels from rich nobles in order to feed the poor, and was wanted for treason by the Sheriff of Nottingham. Eventually defeating the Sheriff in battle, Robin married his chosen bride, Maid Marian.
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