People often assume there aren’t very many English fairy tales. There are, of course, but they were eclipsed in popularity by the much better-known German and French tales of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. During the 19th century the English were, on the whole, keener on translating other peoples’ fairy tales than collecting their own: possibly (as I say in another place) because the Europe-wide fashion for collecting traditional tales was driven by nationalism, and Victorian Englishmen didn’t feel they had anything much to prove. So generations of English children grew up knowing about Rumpelstilskin and Cinderella, and nothing about Tom Tit Tot and Ashie-Coat.
It took an Australian Jew, Joseph Jacobs, to notice this and do something about it. ‘Who says that English folk have no fairy-tales of their own?’ he asks in the introduction to his 'English Fairy Tales’, 1898. ‘The present volume contains only a selection out of some 140, of which I have found traces in this country. It is probable that many more exist.’
One of those tales is an all-time favourite of mine, ‘Mr Fox’. It’s the oldest known version of the ‘Bluebeard’ story, and I wrote about it in my recent book ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’, where I explain why I think it’s about a million times better than ‘Bluebeard’. It’s about a girl called Lady Mary who becomes curious – maybe even suspicious – when her fiancé, the suave Mr Fox, is unwilling to let her visit his castle. So when he announces he has to go away for a day just prior to their wedding, she sets off deep into the woods to find the place for herself.
And there it is, a beautiful castle: but above the gateway a strange motto is carved into the stone: ‘Be bold, be bold’. Lady Mary passes under the gateway and into the courtyard. The place is quite empty, not a soul anywhere about. Crossing the yard to the the doorway of the keep, she finds the same motto again, this time longer: ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold’. On she goes:
Still she went on till she came into the hall, and went up the broad stairs till she came to a door in the gallery, over which was written:
Be bold, be bold, but not too bold
Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.
But Lady Mary was a brave one, she was, and she opened the door, and what do you think she saw? Why bodies and skeletons of beautiful young ladies all stained with blood. So Lady Mary thought it was high time to get out of that horrid place…
As she hurries down the stairs she sees Mr Fox himself coming into the hall, dragging a beautiful young woman behind him who seems to have fainted. Lady Mary hides behind a cask, and witnesses Mr Fox cutting off the young woman’s hand:
Just as he got near Lady Mary, Mr Fox saw a diamond ring glittering on the finger of the young lady he was dragging, and he tried to pull it off. But it was tightly fixed … so Mr Fox cursed and swore, and drew his sword, raised it, and brought it down upon the hand of the poor lady. The sword cut off the hand, which jumped into the air, and fell of all places into Lady Mary’s lap. Mr Fox looked about a bit but did not think of looking behind the cask, so at last he went on dragging the young lady up the stairs into the Bloody Chamber.
Lady Mary runs home, but that’s not the end. Next day this self-possessed and steely heroine meets Mr Fox at a splendid family breakfast where the contract of their marriage is to be signed. ‘How pale you are this morning, my dear,’ exclaims Mr Fox.
‘Yes,’ said she, ‘I had a bad night’s rest last night. I had horrible dreams.’
‘Dreams go by contraries,’ said Mr Fox; ‘but tell us your dream, and your sweet voice will make the time pass till the happy hour comes.’
‘I dreamed,’ said Lady Mary, ‘that I went yestermorn to your castle, and I found it in the woods, with high walls and a deep moat, and over the gateway was written:
Be bold, be bold.’
‘But it is not so, nor it was not so,’ said Mr Fox.
As Lady Mary continues and the mottoes intensify their warnings, so Mr Fox’s denials become stronger: ‘It is not so and it was not so. And God forbid it should be so’ – till finally Lady Mary springs to her feet.
‘It is so and it was so. Here’s hand and ring I have to show,’ and pulled out the lady’s hand from her dress and pointed it straight at Mr Fox.
At once her brothers and her friends drew their swords and cut Mr Fox into a thousand pieces.
This is a great story with a brave, intelligent heroine, and it’s beautifully structured. I’ve told it aloud many times to children and they always love it. But where did Joseph Jacobs find it? Well, he found it as an addendum to Edmond Malone’s 1790 edition of the complete works of Shakespeare ( ‘Malone’s Variorum Shakespeare’).
|This of course isn't the original 1790 edition, which I couldn't find, but from 1821.|
There’s a bit in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Act I, Sc 1, where Benedick says to Claudio: ‘Like the old tale, my lord: it is not so, nor ‘twas not so; but, indeed, God forbid it should be so.’ A certain Mr Blakeway contributed a note to explain this reference:
I believe none of the commentators have understood this; it is an allusion, as the speaker says, to an old tale, which may perhaps still be extant in some collections of such things, or which Shakspeare may have heard, as I have, related by a great aunt, in his childhood.
Mr Blakeway then recounts the whole tale, though with less artistry than Joseph Jacobs: he’s supplying a note, after all, not writing a story:
Over the portal of the hall was written: ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold:’ she advanced: over the stair-case, the same inscription: she went up: over the entrance of a gallery, the same: she proceeded: over the door of a chamber, – ‘Be bold, be bold,but not too bold, lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.’ She opened it; it was full of skeletons, tubs of blood, &c. She retreated in haste…
Such is the old tale to which Shakspeare evidently alludes, and which has often ‘froze my young blood’ when I was a child. I will not apologize for repeating it, since it is manifest that such old wives’ tales often prove the best elucidation of this writer’s meaning.
John Brickdale Blakeway was born in Shrewsbury in 1765, the eldest son of Joshua Blakeway and Elizabeth Brickdale. He studied law, was ordained in 1793, became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1807 and died in 1826. His great-aunt probably told young John this tale when he was about ten, and she must have heard it in her own childhood some time between say 1710 and 1725. This is still over a century since Shakespeare’s death, but the story happens to be one which is very easy to remember, full of repetition – the tale is actually told twice – and memorable phrases. (I’ve known children who could tell it well having heard it only once.) In 1598 Shakespeare’s Benedick quotes one of these phrases:‘It is not so and it was not so and God forbid it should be so’, and calls it an ‘old tale’.
Edmund Spenser’s immensely long narrative poem ‘The Faerie Queene’, references the other quotable quote from 'Mr Fox' in Book 3, Canto XI, verses 50 to 54: when the gallant ‘warlike Maid’ Britomart (allegorically Chastity) is exploring the House of Busirane (the House of Violence and Lust) to find and rescue the enchanter Busirane’s tortured victim Amoret. As Britomart makes her way through room after room decorated with pictures and tapestries of ravished women (and one boy), she notices something else:
Over the door thus written she did spy
Be bold: she oft and oft it over-read…
Just like Lady Mary, Britomart is not dismayed - ‘But forward with bold steps into the next room went’. And just as in ‘Mr Fox’, the castle is silent and empty - ‘Strange thing it seemed’! Eventually,
…as she looked about, she did behold
How over that same door was likewise writ
Be bold, be bold, and everywhere Be bold,
That much she mazed, and could not construe it
By any riddling skill or common wit.
At last she spied at that room’s upper end,
Another iron door, on which was writ,
Be not too bold…
The first three books of ‘The Faerie Queene’ were published in 1596. This therefore appears to be the earliest reference to the ‘old tale’ of ‘Mr Fox’. It must once have been very well known. But if John Blakemore hadn’t written it down, it would have disappeared. His account is the only complete source for this English fairy tale.
I was talking about all this this recently with a good friend, the author John Dickinson (who writes wonderful fantasy and sci-fi): in fact it was he who pointed me in the direction of ‘The Faerie Queene’. He electrified me by telling me that in his local church of St Mary in Painswick, Gloucestershire, the words ‘Be bold, be bold’ are actually cut into one of the pillars. Local tradition has it that the words were carved by one of a group of Parliamentarian soldiers besieged in the church during the English Civil War, and that they are a quotation from ‘The Faerie Queene’. I was so excited about this that John invited me to come over and see the inscription. And here it is.
BE BOLD BE BOLD
BUT NOT TO
BOLD AND WHE
Let’s take the first bit first. In modern spelling: ‘THOU WHO MADE THIS RICHARD FORT BE BOLD BE BOLD BUT NOT TOO BOLD’. Some man named Richard Fort is addressing God (who ‘made’ him) and adding an – appeal? a prayer? a command? a warning? – perhaps to God, perhaps to himself, to ‘be bold, be bold, but not too bold.’
Painswick Church was indeed besieged in the year 1644. There’s an account in ‘A Cotteswold Manor; being the history of Painswick’ written by the wonderfully named Welbore St Clair Baddeley and published in 1907. In 1644 the countryside around the city of Gloucester (which had survived a siege by Royalist forces the previous autumn) was in turmoil, with Royalists and Parliamentarians exchanging raids and committing atrocities on both sides. Enter the fearsome Colonel Mynne, leading a regiment of Royalist Catholic infantry raised in Ireland. Arriving in Bristol, Mynne and his men stormed their way across Gloucestershire and in February 1644 arrived at Painswick. The Parliamentarian Attorney General, Backhouse, quartered in Gloucester, writes:
‘We heard … that Colonel Mynne and St Leger with the Irish forces march’t to Painswicke for subsistence, but indeed to plunder the country, to prevent which, our Governor (Massey) drew out a party of Horse and Foot, where there was a skirmish and some losse on both sides.’
Whether this skirmish was successful or not, some time later Mynne’s Royalist forces withdrew and a garrison of Massey’s Parliamentarian troops moved into Painswick. In the back-and-forth of that wretched time, they were not to remain there long. The King’s man Sir William Vavasour marched on Painswick with ‘a strong brigade’ and two ‘culverins’ or light cannons. The Parliament soldiers, who had taken up a defensive position in a house near the church, were not strong enough to hold off anything much bigger than a plundering party, and had been told to make good their retreat down the steep hill towards Brookthorp if the Royalist force was substantial. But the lieutenant commanding them, ‘… not understanding the strength of the (opponents) army’ and encouraged by ‘many willing people of the neighbourhood in that weak hold’, instead of withdrawing, remained to fight. Finding himself overwhelmed ‘upon the first onset’, he deserted the house and took his men into the church. It was a move from the frying pan into the fire: the Royalists burned down the door and threw ‘hand-granadoes’ into the church where ‘some few were slain in defending the place, and the rest taken prisoners.’ [This contemporary account is quoted in the ‘History of the Church of St Mary at Painswick’ by Welbore St Clair Baddeley, 1902]
Here, then, is the likely scenario for the cutting of those words ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold’ on the church pillar at Painswick. Richard Fort – whether he was one of the ‘willing’ neighbours or a Parliamentarian soldier – was holed up inside St Mary’s with the other men who were the victims of their lieutenant’s mistake. They’d barred the doors, they couldn’t get out, and they were listening to the yells and jeers of the Royalist force outside in the churchyard – and wondering what would be the next move.
How long did they have? Was it really long enough for Richard Fort to carve all those words? And why did they spring to his mind in the first place? Had the lieutenant urged his men to ‘be bold’? (See what had come of that!) Parliamentarians called Royalists ‘malignants’: Painswick people had already had a taste of the ravening Colonel Mynne. Perhaps two things came together in Richard Fort's head – the adjuration to ‘be bold’, and the enclosed stone trap of the church, with the enemy about to burst in. Perhaps Richard was an educated man who had read ‘The Faerie Queene’ and remembered the armed figure of Chastity, Britomart, waiting for her enemy, afraid to lay her weapons aside:
Thus there she waited until eventide,
Yet living creature none she saw appear:
And now sad shadows ‘gan the world to hide,
From mortall view, and wrap in darkness drear.
Yet n’ould she doff her weary arms, for fear
Of secret danger, nor let sleep oppress
Her heavy eyes with nature’s burden dear,
But drew herself aside in sikernesse [assuredness]
And her wellpointed weapons did about her dress.
Or it may be Richard simply remembered the story of ‘Mr Fox’ told to him in childhood by his mother or aunt or sister, and saw its relevance, and began cutting those words to distract himself. Did he even feel his God had let him down? ‘Thou who made this Richard Fort be bold be bold but not too bold…’ I think he did carve the words while he waited, especially as you can see at the end of the inscription on the pillar the shallow-cut beginning of two more words: ‘AND WHE…’
What was he going to say? We’ll never know. He didn’t have time to finish, so perhaps he was interrupted: perhaps, before he could grind those letters any deeper, the church door began smoking; perhaps it burst into flame. Perhaps these unfinished letters resemble those found in another stone trap, the fictional Chamber of Mazarbul in Tolkien’s ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’:
‘The last thing written is a trailing scrawl of elf letters: they are coming.’
Mr Fox, illustration by John Batten from Joseph Jacobs' 'English Fairy Tales'
Britomart in the house of Busyrane, by Walter Crane
'Be bold', inscription on pillar, St Mary's Painswick, photo by Katherine Langrish
Siege artillery of the mid 17th century, Battle of Edgehill, http://www.britishbattles.com/the-battle-of-edgehill/