Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Parsons unknown

Parson and Clerk, from Teignmouth Pier, August 2013
A post at the Wayland Wordsmith blog - The Parson and Clerk Rock - just reprinted a nice version of the Devon legend about the Parson and Clerk headland and rock near Dawlish.

The story involves a very well-trodden motif of unwise cursing; it tells of an ambitious parson in a hurry to get to Dawlish to ingratiate himself with a dying bishop. He calls on the Devil for help, and gets it with the usual sting in the tail. I remember first reading it in Chips Barber's Around and About the Haldon Hills, and the story is much-retold and much-embroidered. Not that this is unusual or even to be decried: most of the classic and popular versions of fairy-tales arose precisely in this way via Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. However, WW's comment about the apparent recency of the Parson and Clerk story - "now that it is over a hundred years old I suppose it must be considered a genuine antique" - inspired me to see how far back it could be traced.

A quick Google initially found a fairly standard retelling of the story dating from 1881, in Popular romances of the west of England; or, The drolls, traditions, and superstitions of old Cornwall:

Near Dawlish stand, out in the sea, two rocks, of red sandstone conglomerate, to which the above name is given. Seeing that this forms a part of Old Cornwall, I do not go beyond my limits in telling the true story of these singular rocks.

The Bishop of Exeter was sick unto death at Dawlish. An ambitious priest, from the east, frequently rode with his clerk to make anxious inquiries after the condition of the dying bishop. It is whispered that this priest had great hopes of occupying the bishop's throne in Exeter Cathedral.

The clerk was usually the priest's guide; but somehow or other, on a particularly stormy night, he lost the road, and they were wandering over Haldon. Excessively angry was the priest, and very provoking was the clerk. He led his master this way and that way, but they were yet upon the elevated country ot Haldon.

At length the priest, in a great rage, exclaimed, "I would rather have the devil for a guide than you." Presently the clatter of horse's hoofs were heard, and a peasant, on a moor pony, rode up. The priest told of his condition, and the peasant volunteered to guide them. On rode peasant, priest, and clerk, and presently they were at Dawlish. The night was tempestuous, the ride had quickened the appetite of the priest, and he was wet through, —therefore, when his friend asked him to supper, as they approached an old ruined house, through the windows of which bright lights were shining, there was no hesitation in accepting the invitation.

There were a host of friends gathered together—a strange, wildlooking lot of men. But as the tables were laden with substantial dishes, and black-jacks 1 were standing thick around, the parson, and the clerk too, soon made friends with all.

They ate and drank, and became most irreligiously uproarious. The parson sang hunting songs, and songs in praise of a certain old gentleman, with whom a priest should not have maintained any acquaintance. These were very highly appreciated, and every man joined loudly in the choruses. Night wore away, and at last news was brought that the bishop was dead. This appeared to rouse up the parson, who was only too eager to get the first intelligence, and go to work to secure the hope of his ambition. So master and man mounted their horses, and bade adieu to their hilarious friends.

They were yet at the door of the mansion—somehow or other the horses did not appear disposed to move. They were whipped and spurred, but to no purpose.

"The devil's in the horses," said the priest.

"I b'lieve he is," said the clerk.

"Devil or no devil, they shall go," said the parson, cutting his horse madly with his heavy whip.

There was a roar of unearthly laughter.

The priest looked round—his drinking friends were all turned into demons, wild with glee, and the peasant guide was an arch little devil, looking on with a marvellously curious twinkle in his eyes. The noise of waters was around them ; and now the priest discovered that the mansion had disappeared, and that waves beat heavy upon his horse's flanks, and rushed over the smaller horse of his man.

Repentance was too late.

In the morning following this stormy night, two horses were found straying on the sands at Dawlish ; and clinging with the grasp of death to two rocks, were found the parson and the clerk. There stand the rocks to which the devil had given the forms of horses—an enduring monument to all generations.

- Popular romances of the west of England; or, The drolls, traditions, and superstitions of old Cornwall, Robert Hunt, 1881 (1908 reprint at Internet Archive).

However, a further search found an enlightening discussion in the Notes & Queries journal in 1868, when P Hutchinson sounded a note of caution:

"Legends Of Devon" (4th S. ii. 345, 478.) — In 1853, I bought a copy of this little book at the shop of Mr. Westcott, in the Strand, Dawlish. I was amused with it at the time, and since it has been mentioned in "N. & Q." I have been skimming over my copy again. Besides the introduction and terminal address to Luscombe (in verse), it contains the legends of—The Parson and Clerk Rocks; Bradley's Height; Blue Bird of Horna Wood ; The Man who Maltreated a Ghost, or the Legend of Littleham; Linton Castle; Kent's Cavern; Berry Pomeroy; and Babbicombe Bay. In a book like this, perhaps, we must not look for historical accuracy on every occasion, nor etymological accuracy, where etymologies are probably only jokingly thrown out. But knowing something of Devonshire, and being interested in what concerns the county, I have a curiosity to know whether these legends were merely invented by the writers, or whether the writers had first collected them as current among the country people in the different districts to which they refer, and then committed them to paper. If the latter, their value would be greatly enhanced. And finally, why should the names of the writers be withheld if they are known?

- P Hutchinson, Notes and Queries, December 19, 1868

The version in Legends of Devon (1848, Anonymous, pub. London: Whittaker and Company, Exeter: Holden - Wallis, Dawlish LA Westcott) is findable online, and as far as I can tell it's the first version of the story to appear in print. It begins:

Cecy (dit Frère Jean), riest pas matière de Breviaire.

A certain degree of ambition is both natural and laudable in every walk of life: and there is no doubt that an individual may rationally desire a moderate increase of his honest gains, without incurring the charge of covetousness. There is, however, nothing which we regard with more aversion than an unseemly eagerness, on the part of one devoted to the clerical profession, to attend to the concerns of his temporal income rather than the spiritual interests of the flock or flocks committed to his charge. Many and lamentable modern instances might be cited of the unfortunate excesses into which clergymen have been hurried by their anxiety to occupy high places in the establishment; and much obloquy hath been thereby undeservedly brought upon the church to which they belong. The sin, however, is one of far earlier date than our present ecclesiastical system; and the awful history detailed in the following pages will attest at once its ancient prevalence, and the dreadful retribution with which it hath occasionally been visited.

This intensely literary story clearly wasn't jotted straight down from the oral tradition! Nevertheless, it's a good story and picks up once it gets into the action, and it has some nicely scary touches that are not in the regular modern versions. The parson doesn't just encounter a pub, but thinks he has arrived at the bishop's house in Dawlish. He's entertained to supper and is increasingly worried on getting the impression that the other guests are clergymen he knows to be dead, and on noticing that the sea-food platter is rather more active than you'd like:

High and loud was the feasting, and the unhappy invalid was soon forgotten by his boisterous guests. Church and State, with their concomitant bumpertoasts, were done honour to in Bordeaux and Malvoisie, until strange fancies began to float in the Parson's mind, interrupting the gorgeous dreams of mitres and crosiers which occupied his imagination. He seemed, among the faces of the Bacchanalians around him, dimly to distinguish the features of some of his clerical acquaintances, long since removed, as he had believed, from this world of pluralities and sinecures. He thought, too, the roaring of the ocean was borne unusually far inland by the east wind; or else it was but the vivid impression of past dangers which made the breakers still sound so close at his ear. It was strange, too, that although this was not one of the Church's meagre days, fish seemed to be the only article of food set before them; nay, the lobsters and crabs appeared as if endued with life ; they crawled with their unsightly legs, and snapped their claws at the fingers of those who sought to devour them; the prawns and shrimps twisted about, cockles and muscles [sic] gaped before his eyes, and limpets and periwinkles seemed to adhere to the walls: the very floor seemed crowded with small fishes, creeping among the cold, clear waters which welled in on every side.

Naturally, all ends horribly. It's highly readable, and I recommend it: see Legend of the Parson and Clerk (anon, 1848).

This still leaves open the question of whether or not the anonymous author based it on some core of a real collected folktale. However, other stories in the volume bolster the theory that it's original fiction: The Legend of Berry Pomery, for instance, is full of learned verse; and The Legend of Babicombe Bay is a piece of pseudo-Shakespearean whimsy featuring Ariel, a Caliban-like creature called Hideous, and Titania, the story ending with a piece of joke etymology:

The Prince of Fire, Earth and Air had accompanied her from Fairy Land, under the form of a boy, —" Hideous " cried he, waving his creating wand, " I have fulfilled my promise, here is Queen Titania, —the bay is mine."

The Rocks retreated, they sloped gently to the beach, Trees and Cottages sprang up, and Birds warbled in this Fairy Combe,—Titania opened her arms, uttering a cry of joy, and her beautiful Floiscus, leaving Pomona and her fruits, nestled in his Mother's bosom, and soon, very soon the chrystal gates of Fairy Land opened to them.

Hideous, the victim of ambition and vanity, fell in the retreat of the Rock, from his fissure, and died unseen, even by Titania; Ariel and Pomona stood on the Cliff enriching the Bay.

"BABICOMBE BAY it shall be called," said the Spirit, pointing with his wand to the Queen and her boy, now high in air, "for has not the Queen found her Babe again"?

The rest of the discussion thread in Notes and Queries did get responses:

"Legends Of Devon."—Who is the author of Legends of Devon, Dawlish, 1848 ? I have heard it attributed to a gentleman named Curzon,* but do not know on what authority it was done.
- Strange-ways. W. E. A. A (October 11, 1868)
* F Curzon, author of Lays and Legends of Devon [sic], 1817.

Legends Of Devon (4th S. ii. 345.)—The little volume printed at Dawlish in 1848 under the title of Legends of Devon was, as the publisher informed me at the time, a selection from a number of papers prepared for the literary recreation of a private circle. Both ladies and gentlemen contributed, and they included amongst their number at least one writer of established eminence.
- R. Dymond. Exeter (November 14, 1868)

"Legends Of Devon " (4'" S. ii. 345,478, 592.) It happens singularly enough that I can answer your correspondent P. Hutchinson's query respecting this little volume ...The legends in question were severally composed by members of a very agreeable little private society, some thirty years ago, of whom I was one. The lady who collected and printed them, and was also one of the contributors, is dead, and so are some of her associates; and to give the names (even if I had permission), would interest few now. But I can say pretty confidently from memory, that they were each and all original whims of the moment, and not reproductions of popular legends.
- Jean Le Trouveur. 2

That, I think, pretty well clears up the origin, if not the precise authorship, of the Parson and Clerk legend: it's a modern fiction that has now acquired the status of folklore.

The rocks themselves appear simply to have been named after their appearance, with no complicated backstory. As Francis Pitt Greenwood wrote in his diary in 1821:
That part of the coast which extends along the south, is lined with dark red cliffs, and diversified by seaworn caves and projecting masses of rock, which, from fancied resemblances, have acquired the curious names of "The Parson and Clerk," "The Bishop's Parlor," &c.
- The miscellaneous writings, 1846, Francis William Pitt Greenwood
Half-way from Dawlish, at the little Village of Holecombe, a lane conducts to the shore. Here the sea hath worn the cliff into caverns, beating hard against a promontory, and separating the looser parts from the more solid rock; this is a distinguishing point, from the singularity of a wide opening, like the arch of a rustic bridge, and of an high mass of rock which stands detached and as a pillar amid the waves, marking the country, and known to it by the vulgar appellation of "The Parson and Clerk." This latter I have known more than twenty years; and, though it is incessantly buffeted by the waves, there appears to be no sensible diminution.
Sese multis circum latrantibus undis
Mole tenet! scopuli nequicquam et spumea circum
Saxa fremont, laterique illifa refunditur alga.
[RG - This is some complicated quotation from Virgil about the waves making a barking noise - see ref]
- Letter to Mr. Urban, Oxton-house, August 5, The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 63, Part 2, September 1793.
1. A black-jack is a tarred leather tankard.
2. Undoubtedly a pseudonym: Jean Le Trouveur is the title of a forgotten French picaresque novel by Paul De Musset, whose antihero makes a pact with the Devil.

- Ray


  1. Black Jack a tarred leather tankard. I wonder how it got to be a weighted, flexible weapon?

  2. That was the first image that came to mind for me. The OED has various - it can also be zinc blende, the oak Quercus nigra, a black leather jerkin, the Mustard Beetle Phaedon betulae, the caterpillar of the turnip saw-fly Athalia centifolia, the South African plant Bidens pilosa ...

  3. In the future, the OED will be hard wired into our brain...