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Originally published 2017
As one of Britain’s most ancient counties, Norfolk has a rich history of folk tales and legends which have echoed through the centuries and are still told by residents today – making it the perfect setting for a City of Stories.
Below is our hand-pick of folk tales from Norwich and the surrounding area which have inspired writers including Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe and Jonathon Swift. Perhaps a few might inspire your own writing!
Norwich Castle is brimming with stories of battles, prisoners and ghostly hauntings – but our favourite folk tale marks the very beginning of Norwich, when it’s said that the city was founded by a the mythical King Gurgunt who is buried deep under the hill on which Norwich Castle stands. Queen Elizabeth I was told of his legend during her royal progress through Norwich in 1578, when it was alleged that King Gurgunt tried to step forward from the crowd to speak to her but was prevented from doing so by a shower of rain which made her Highness run for shelter.
The fable of King Gurgunt remains and to this day it is said that he sleeps under the hill, fully armed and ready for battle should he be required, with his gold and silver treasures scattered around him.
What round-up of Norfolk folk tales would be complete without the story of Black Shuck?
Legends of giant ghostly black dogs stalking communities can be found across the country. One of the most infamous however is Black Shuck; also known as Old Shuck, Old Shock or Shuck, he’s a ghostly black dog that is said to roam the coastline and countryside of East Anglia.
There have been many accounts of Black Shuck over the years – including a story told by 20th century author Christopher Marlowe in his book People and Places in Marshland. On hearing the legends he had rented a cottage just off the A149 and attempted to track Black Shuck down – only to be chased through the night by an indefinable creature with a ‘great black body’ and ‘a pair of ferocious eyes’.
Marlowe isn’t the only author to have immortalised Black Shuck – it’s known that Arthur Conan Doyle visited Cromer Hall in 1901, the year before he published his Sherlock Holmes classic, The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Tales of wild or feral men, women and children have also made for popular storytelling throughout history. During the 18th century the story of a particular ‘Wild Boy’ captured the imagination of the nation, including King George I and famous novelists Daniel Defoe and Jonathon Swift. This mysterious child, around 12 years of age, was discovered in the forests of Hertswold, Hanover in 1724. With his ferocious appearance and grunting vocabulary he became a sensation and was at one point kept as a curiosity by the King, who christened him ‘Peter’.
When he was about 39 years old, Peter disappeared from his settling in Hertfordshire and didn’t come back. Later that year, a ‘sturdy vagrant’ was arrested in Norwich for ‘strolling about the streets’. He was locked in the Bridewell Gaol (now the Museum of Norwich), surviving a giant fire in Bridewell Alley, until a few years later when he was recognised as the wild boy of Hertfordshire and returned to his home. By then, a Norwich pub on Bedford Street had been named in his honour with a sign depicting him as a boy with a bear parent standing either side of him. The Wildman pub is still in use today, and a commemorative plaque to Peter can be found nearby.
Alice was the daughter of a local tradesman or landowner who abandoned her newborn baby son on the steps of Norwich Cathedral after falling pregnant by her father. The baby was healthy and beautiful but with one unique feature – a large mole under his left shoulder blade.
It’s said that some years later when Alice inherited her father’s estate, she fell in love with a steward named Christopher Burroway. She fell pregnant again and they married. On their wedding night, they undressed to go to bed and Alice discovered a blemish under Christopher’s left shoulder blade in the same spot! This is why, on Christopher’s gravestone at Martham Church it says: ‘And there lyes Alice, who by hir Life was my Sister, my Mistres, My Mother, and my Wife.’
What is it they say about relations in Norfolk? Perhaps we can count the tale of Christopher and Alice Burroway as an origin story of some kind…