In this installment, we remain in England for another tale of unfortunate youth that may or may not be pure fiction. If you recall, in my last entry, on the Green Children of Woolpit, I mentioned that a theory has arisen locally in Suffolk that the lost youth of St. Martin’s Land were actually one and the same with the well-known Babes in the Wood, a pair of children who, according to tradition, had been betrayed to their deaths by their ruthless uncle. Now, we made short work of this theory, as the tradition tells us the Babes in the Wood died, and did so far northward of Woolpit, in the woods of Norfolk. And the suggestion that they had been turned green by arsenic poisoning, which was never a part of the traditional tale of the Babes in the Wood, also seems to have confused the symptoms of arsenic poisoning generally with the medium by which arsenic poisoning often occurred in the 19th century: green dye in clothing. Yet as we look further at the story of the Babes in the Wood, we see that there remains some mystery there to untangle. Indeed, the tradition is very much like that of the Green Children, only without the fantastical elements implying otherworldly visitation. The story originated as a ballad, or a poem kept alive through transmission as a popular song, and this one in particular became a popular nursery rhyme as well. Indeed it has been claimed that for many years, every child in England knew the poem by heart. The mystery arises from the fact that ballads frequently tell the stories of real, although perhaps embellished, people and events. So the question then becomes, were the Babes in the Wood real? Or is the story merely a fiction that has passed into folklore? If you ask villagers in Watton and Griston, which can be found on either side Wayland Wood, where the children are supposed to have died, many will tell you it’s a true story and point to their village signs, which offer depictions of the children at the sword point of their abductor and lost and dying in the forest, respectively. If real, then who were these children whose heinous murder has been immortalized in storybooks, and who immortalized them in verse?
The ballad known as The Babes in the Wood tells the tale of a famous and wealthy gentleman of Norfolk who, along with his wife, became gravely ill. On their deathbeds, they promised a hefty inheritance to the beautiful son and daughter they were leaving behind, to be awarded once they had reached a certain age. In the meantime, they charged the children’s uncle to keep them. “You are the man must bring my babes / To wealth or misery,” quoth the mother, with a warning: “If you do keep them carefully, / Then God you will reward; / If otherwise you seem to deal, / God will your deeds regard.” And in answer, the uncle swore, “God never prosper me nor mine, / Nor ought else that I have, / If I do wrong your children dear, / When you are laid in grave.” Despite these promises, after a year and a day, he schemed to take the children’s inheritance, which would be his if anything were to befall the children before they came of age. To this end, he engaged two ruffians to take the children into the woods and slay them. The children went willingly, for their uncle had told them and all the world that he was sending them to be brought up by a friend in London. So off into the woods the children rode on horseback, laughing and making merry, accompanied by their would-be murderers. Listening to their innocent merriment along the way, one of the ruffians relented, finding that he could not do the dark deed. The other, however, was determined to carry out his foul task, and the two criminals fought there in the woods over whether or not to fulfill their evil commission. The ruffian whose heart had softened toward the children triumphed in the struggle, and he killed the other there in the woods in front of the children. This repentant killer then led the frightened children on, assuring them he meant them no harm, and they travelled farther into the woods for miles, until the children grew hungry. The ruffian told the children to wait there for him, and that he would bring them back bread, but the children wandered, eating berries and becoming lost. As night came on, they held each other and wept… and died of exposure.
The Babes in the Wood received no burial, the ballad tells us, except for that of some red-breasted robins that kindly covered them with leaves. And true to the warning given by the children’s mother, God did indeed seem to regard the deeds of the uncle and dealt with him accordingly. Huanted by fiends and his guilty conscience, he lost everything—his cattle, his lands, his own children—and he died in prison for debt. The truth of his wicked dealings eventually came out when the surviving ruffian, standing accused of a robbery, ended up confessing the entire affair. The uncle, therefore, got what he deserved, and one might be tempted to say the ballad is nothing more than a moral tale, an instructive nursery rhyme, perhaps one of Mother Goose’s, were it not for the insistence among many in Norfolk that the story is true. It is supposed by many that Griston Hall, a grand Tudor farmhouse, was the home of the story’s wicked uncle. And between Griston and Watton lies Wayland Wood, where locals say the abandoned children died. Local superstition says to avoid those woods at dusk, for even today, as the night falls, you can hear the cries of children there. For this reason, they call it Wailing Wood.
In order to ascertain whether there is any truth to the story, first we must trace it to its origins. We know that Thomas Percy, a clergyman of humble origins, was the first to popularize a version of the ballad in his 1764 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Much of the source material for this volume, according to Percy, had been rescued from an old manuscript full of ballads that he had taken off the hands of a housemaid just as she had been about to start a fire with it! Percy’s version of the ballad bore the much clunkier but informative title, “The Children in the Wood, Being a true relation of the inhuman murder of two children, of a deceased gentleman of Norfolk, (Eng) whom he left to the care of his brother; but this wicked uncle, in order to get the children’s estate, contrived to have them destroyed by two ruffians whom he hired for that purpose; with an heavy account of the judgments of God which befell him for this inhuman deed, & of the untimely end of the two bloody ruffians: to which is added a word of advice to executors.” With a title like that, why read the poem? The ballad became immortalized when the famous R. Caldecott illustrated it as a picture book in 1879 under the far more memorable title, The Babes in the Wood. But who was the actual author of the ballad? Percy traced the ballad to a 1601 play by Robert Yarrington, suggesting that the balladeer adopted Yarrington’s story for the poem. Joseph Ritson thereafter discovered a 1595 entry in the ledgers of a stationer named Thomas Millington indicating the earlier publication of a ballad with a title that sounds strikingly familiar: “The Norfolk Gent, his Will and Testament and howe he commytted the keepinge of his children to his owne brother whoe delte most wickedly with them and howe God plagued him for it.” Thereafter, H.B. Wheatley further argued Yarrington’s play may not have been printed until years after it had first been written and/or performed, which would mean the ballad printed by Millington still may have been an adaptation of it… but regardless, we are no closer to the name of the balladeer, whether he or she was inspired by a play or the other way around. And to muddy the waters further, there is the distinct possibility that the ballad had descended from a much earlier date via oral tradition.
One theory is that the ballad was a thinly-veiled version of the rumor that Richard III had murdered his nephews in the Tower of London after seizing power in order to ensure his claim to the throne. This, of course, is a historical mystery of great scope and depth that deserves its own treatment at length, but in outline, the story of the Princes in the Tower is as follows. After King Edward IV’s death in 1483, his 12-year-old son was proclaimed King Edward V, but the boy king’s uncle, Richard Duke of Gloucester, intercepted the boy on his way to London, claiming there was a conspiracy to control the young king. In London, Richard put the boy king in the royal apartments in the Tower, along with his 9-year-old brother, insisting they stay isolated for their own safety. Less than two weeks later, Richard declared them both illegitimate and had himself crowned King Richard III. The princes were seen that summer playing in the Tower garden but were never seen again, and it is popularly held that Richard had them murdered.
Some have argued that Richard was slandered, that Tudor propaganda, spread after Henry VII seized power from Richard, is responsible for these appalling rumors and the villainous image of Richard we have inherited. And there is much to support this notion, since another ballad that appears to be of the same era as the Babes in the Wood is a blatant piece of Tudor propaganda about the Battle of Bosworth Field at which Henry defeated Richard. However, where the Battle of Bosworth Field is specific in naming its characters, The Babes in the Wood is not. And where it is specific, the details fail to match. Richard III was not a man of Norfolk, and his nephews were two boys who did not die of exposure in the woods, as far as we know, more likely in a locked room. The differences, when listed, are many: the children’s ages, whether their mothers had died before their uncle’s betrayal, where they had been kept before their murder, whether their murderers had confessed, et cetera. If The Babes in the Wood were meant to correspond with the Princes in the Tower and to further besmirch the reputation of the deposed Richard, why change the story so dramatically that it is unrecognizable? Indeed, as propaganda, it would seem to be ineffective.
Some have suggested that the rumor of the princes’ murder by Richard may have itself evolved to conform with the folktale that can be discerned in the Babes in the Wood ballad. Likewise, The Babes in the Wood may have evolved from a far older folk tradition. Indeed, folklorist Alfred Nutt, in 1891, argued that the Babes in the Wood theme appears to have been commonplace. In Wales, in the 12th century, a tale told of a King Caradoc, slain by his brother, who then dispatches his niece and nephew into the woods to be murdered by a huntsman who ends up taking pity on them and hiding them (Nutt 88). And even earlier, in the 10th century, an Irish tradition told of a king of Ulster who wed the High King’s daughter, but as she only gave him a daughter, he remarried to a woman from the fairy realm named Etain. A true wicked step-mother, Etain wished the girl to be killed. Servants were tasked with abandoning the girl in a pit, but as they put her there, the girl laughed lovingly at them, as though it were a game, and they found themselves unable to do the deed. So they gave her to cowherds to be raised, and she grew to be a girl of famous beauty who drew the eye of the king (Nutt 87). One can see elements of Snow White in these stories, and the mention of a child abandoned in a pit even calls up the Green Children again. The similarities with the Babes in the Wood are prominent. In the older Irish tradition, we have a child taken by servants of a family member to be left exposed to the elements, but those tasked with the murder relent because of the child’s sweet innocence. Then the Welsh tale, hundreds of years later, is nearly identical to the Babes in the Wood, with the evil uncle conspiring to murder a nephew and a niece. If this does represent the transmission of the same folk tradition through the ages, one can clearly see the evolution of this folktale.
But there remains the stubborn insistence of locals at Watton and Griston that this all really happened. If this were nothing but a fairytale passed through the ages, how did it become associated with a “gentleman of Norfolk,” and why are people even today certain that the evil uncle used to live at Griston Hall? The answer may lie in good old-fashioned historical documentation. Some sources claim that the family from the ballad was the de Greys of Merton, who once owned Griston Hall, among many other properties. As the story goes, their Tudor farmhouse even used to have a mantelpiece carved with a depiction of scenes from the ballad. Records exist showing that the de Greys did indeed hold Griston Hall, and their story begins to look a lot like the Babes in the Wood when the family’s lands pass into the ownership of the young Thomas de Grey, orphaned at seven years old. Thereafter, when in 1566 at 11 years old he died at his step-mother’s house, the manor and all other properties passed to his uncle, Robert. Perhaps, as some say, there were rumors that Robert, maybe colluding with the step-mother, had Thomas killed to take the land. Certainly Robert thereafter struggled with debt and imprisonment like the uncle of the ballad, although his troubles were due to various claims on his estate and because he was an unrepentant Roman Catholic. And he died in 1601, just when Yarrington’s play was being published. So the broad strokes of the story are there, but again, there are many differences: there is only one child here, and he did not die in the woods so far as can be surmised. Also, we have here the possibility of an evil-stepmother as well as a wicked uncle, but perhaps the balladeer found this too complicated to set down in verse.
So what, after all, is true? Doesn’t that always seem to be our question at the end of things? And as we have found before, stories we have received from the benighted past are frequently a snarl of true facts intertwined with folklore and falsehoods. Such may be the case here as well. Perhaps the saga of the de Grey family, circulated by rumormongering, began to take on aspects of an ancient oral tradition about a child betrayed and left exposed in the wilderness. And perhaps when the unknown balladeer composed the song, he saw in it material to rival the ever popular story of the Princes in the Tower and their evil uncle, Richard III, which Shakespeare had recently immortalized in his tragedy. One certainty is that the folktale continues to evolve. In 1879, it’s said lightning struck a large oak in Wayland Wood, and thereafter, this became recognized as the spot where the children (or child) had died. And on the Watton village sign, you see the babes reclining beneath just such an iconic oak. But was this part of the folklore before the lightning struck or just a dramatic addition to the tradition. Thus we see that old stories like these can be based in truth but then corrupted through oral tradition to incorporate folklore. This makes our history a tangle of different threads, exceedingly hard to pull apart, and the more we tug at one piece of it, the more it tightens into an impossible knot.
Nutt, Alfred. “An Early Irish Version of the Jealous Stepmother and Exposed Child.” Folklore, vol. 2, no. 1, 1891, pp. 87–89. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1252949.