Myths and Legends
An image of Jack O'Legs
Jack O'Legs: A tall tale!
One of the most enduring and curious tales of old Hertfordshire is that of a giant called Jack O’Legs, a Robin Hood type character who stole from the rich to give to the poor.
Legend has it that Jack O'Legs lived in a cave near Baldock in the village of Weston and is said to be buried in the graveyard of the Holy Trinity church, where two stones, 14 feet apart, mark the spots where his head and feet are supposed to be.
A sign on the village green tells the story and his picture is part of the village shield. All around the area there are references to him in titles such as “Jack’s Cave and Jack’s Hill. So who was he and what was his story?
Alice Cherry is the verger at Holy Trinity church and a resident of Weston for over 50 years, so is ideally placed to tell us the story as she knows it.
“Once upon a time there was a very tall chap who lived in a cave near Weston” she revealed, although that bit is not very likely as it’s not very cavey around here, although there is a bit of a dip in the field where the cave is supposed to have been!
“Anyway, he had a lot of friends in Weston and used to talk to them through their upstairs windows I’m told!
“Anyway” she continued, “one year there was a pretty bad harvest and the bakers from Baldock cornered the market in flour and put the prices up, which sounds familiar! So Jack O’Legs used to lay in wait for the bakers on what is now called Jack’s Hill between Weston and Graveley. He caught them, got the flour off them and gave it to his friends in Weston.
Jack O'Legs grave
“After a bit, the bakers got pretty fed up with this, so they laid in wait for him and caught him and took him to Baldock where they were pretty nasty to him. They put out his eyes and said ‘we’re going to hang you Jack’.
The story goes onto say that his captors, the bakers, decided to grant Jack O’Legs one last wish. Alice reveals what he said:
“He said ‘point me towards Weston and where my arrow lands I wish to be buried’” she revealed.
“So they gave him his bow and arrow, which no one else could pull because it was so enormous, and he fired off his arrow into the sky towards Weston and it landed three miles further on in Weston churchyard, and that’s where he is buried apparently!
“The whole thing is quite a good fairy story really!”
The story of Jack O’Legs, with his great height and extraordinarily efficient bow and arrow, DOES seem, like Alice said, to be a fairy story.
But, like all good legends, the tale must have come from somewhere.
Brendan King, the Chairman of the Local History Society based at Baldock Museum told us more about the story and how it might have developed.
“Anything connected with him has been passed down through oral traditions” he explained.
“The earliest known reference to the story is from a poem by John Skelton in about 1521 called ‘Speak Parrot’ which is a diatribe against Cardinal Wolsey. In it he has a line saying ‘The gibbett of Baldock was made for Jack Leg’.
Baldock Market Place as it is now
“He expected his audience, who were the people at court really, to know about the legend so we must assume that the legend was quite old even at that time. It must be a medieval legend because Baldock didn’t exist before 1148 or thereabouts.”
So the story originated sometime between 1148 and 1521, although Brendan explained that it was more likely to be the early part of the period than the later because of certain elements in the story.
The capture and execution of the giant suggest a period when it was possible for the local Lord to execute people caught red handed – a right known as infangenthef. And the whole story of Jack O’Legs suggests that he was subject to something like a legal lynching.
But nobody is really sure.
“One can’t be too certain about these things” added Brendan.
“It’s a legend and we don’t know to what extent it’s true, but just taking the essence of it, it would appear that it’s a medieval legend of a robber rather like Robin Hood. But we can’t be certain of anything that he did.”
The earliest actual account of the story – whatever its truth - came in 1728 as part of Nathanial Salmon’s History of Hertfordshire. But even though this is when the story was first written down, Brendan is careful to caution us, not to believe everything we read!
“All the time it gets added to” he said, “even when it was first recorded in 1728, and there are all sorts of versions – it’s very difficult to say where any truth of it lies.
“The story has always tended to make him bigger and bigger” he added, “so one story has him being put out with a baker’s peel which is a long shovel which they used to put loaves in an oven. This gives the impression of a huge person.
The 'dip' that's the possible location of Jack's c
“Another says that he went round Baldock looking in upstairs windows, so maybe that was another reason they didn’t like him. But these stories are all just embellishing the legend and each person will embellish it in their own way. That’s why the whole thing is so difficult to disentangle. There may not be an ounce of truth in the whole thing but it seems to me that the very essence of it is a large robber who was well known for a long way around and about.”
It seems likely then, that from all the references to him that are still in the area and from things that happen in the story, the legend of Jack O’Legs possibly originated from the existence of a tall robber who stole from the rich to give to the poor, got caught red handed and executed.
But because he was good to the less fortunate, he became like a local hero, and was talked about from generation to generation each time becoming taller, braver and even more heroic with a bigger bow and arrow – when the reality is he was probably buried in Weston – because that’s the parish where he lived, not because of the extraordinary powers of his weaponry!
But, whatever the facts of the situation might be, it’s likely that Jack O’Legs was known far and wide and maybe one day we’ll find out the truth – but at the moment it’s all pure speculation!
last updated: 05/09/2008 at 15:44