16 August 2021- The Devil in British Folklore

By | August 31, 2021

In the session we started a new topic of the Devil in British Folklore in the context of the other world creatures we have been looking at.

The devil in this context is different from the biblical one, he is not a fallen angel, nor is he Lucifer.

There are different origins and a vast collection of stories and legends.

For convenience the topic was loosely grouped into 3 categories, though there was some overlapping

  • Legends and tales linked to unusual landscape features, very similar to features attributed to giants.
  • Attacks on Christianity
  • The devil looking for human souls, making deals and pacts and collecting his dues for them.

We started with the first grouping

1/.  Legends linking the Devil to unusual features in the landscape covering things like hills, rocks, glacial erratics, including natural and man-made features also covering prehistoric structures.

They come from all over the country and there are a huge selection of them:-

Devil’s Night Cap, Studland, Isle of Wight.

Bronescombe’s Loaf & Bronescombe’s Cheese, Okehampton, Dartmoor.  Bishop Bromscombe was travelling to Widdecombe became lost and hungry was tempeted by bread and cheese offered by a stranger.  The bishop’s servant spotted cloven hooves and pushed the food away which flew into the air and when they landed formed the rocks known as Bronescombe’s Loaf & Bronescombe’s Cheese

Hel Stone, Dartmoor:- used by the Devil in a game of quoits with King Arthur.

Hurdlestones, Somerset:- used by the Devil in a game of quoits with the Giant of Grabbist.

Broad Stone, Tidenham, Gloucs.:- thrown by the Devil in a contest with Jack o’Kent.

White Rocks, Garway Hill, Herefordshire:- failed attempt by the Devil & Jack o’Kent to dam the weir at Orcop Hill.

Stiperstones Ridge & the Devil’s Chair, Shropshire.

Lea Stone, Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire.

Hartforth, North Riding:- Devil’s failed attempt to destroy the town.

Devil’s Arrows (prehistoric standing stones) Boroughbridge, Yorkshire:- Devil’s failed attempt to destroy Aldborough.

Hell Gill Beck, North Riding:- the Devil building a bridge across the beck.

Devil’s Apron Strings, Casterton Fell; Apronfull Stones, Settle:- stones dropped by the Devil when he was building the bridge at Kirby Lonsdale Carl Crag, Seascale, Cumbria:- formed by the Devil when he was trying to build a bridge between Cumbria and the Isle of Man.

Holes of Scradda, Esha Ness, Shetland:- formed by the Devil.

Semer Water, N.Yorkshire:- stone-throwing contest between the Devil and a giant.

Six Hills (Iron Age burial mounds), Stevenage, Herts.:- created by the Devil when he tried to destroy Stevenage.

Devil’s Shovelful (prehistoric burial mounds), Shobdon, Herefordshire:- created when the Devil tried to destroy Shobdon.

Pyon Hill & Butthouse Knapp, Herefordshire:- formed when the Devil tried to destroy Hereford.

Devil’s Spadeful, Bewdley, Worcs.:- formed when the Devil tried to destroy Bewdley.

Cley Hill, Wiltshire:- formed when the Devil tried to destroy Devizes.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire:- formed when the Devil tried to destroy Marlborough.

Silbury Hill:- formed by the Devil when he was digging the Wansdyke.

Devil’s Ditch, Berkshire; Devil’s Dykes Cambs. & Herts; Devil’s Dyke, Sussex:- all created by the Devil.

Devil’s Churchyard (stone circle), Minchinhampton, Gloucs:- failed attempt by the people to build a church.

Devil’s Den (prehistoric chambered tomb) Fyfield Down, Wiltshire.

This version of the devil had a lot in common with the stories about giants.

  • Large and very strong.
  • In some tales easily outwitted often by a cobbler.
  • Throwing things and missing the intended target leaving large hills or holes
  • The devil did a lot of dropping of things from his stonemason apron, apron ties breaking, this comes up all over the country.
  • Some amusing stories.
  • Earth moving civil engineering type stories
  • Whilst he may not be friendly with humans he is not obviously evil, cunning, nor greatly feared

There are a lot of stories around the River Severn and the boatmen may have been carrying the story as they travelled.

Next time we’ll finish this grouping, and speculate on who the devil may be, the origins and purpose of these stories.

Then we’ll move on to the second category and look at how Christianity developed his character.