by Frank E Earp
‘On a tyme, the men of Gottam would haue pinned in the Cuckoo, whereby shee should sing all the yeere, and in the midst of ye town they made a hedge round in compasse, and they got a Cuckoo, and had put her into it, and said: Sing here all the yeere, and thou shalt lacke neither meate nor drinke. The Cuckoo, as soone as she perciued her selfe incompassed within the hedge, flew away. “A vengeance on her!” Said they: “We made not our hedge high enough”’.
One fine spring morning the men of Gotham were busy about the village and their fields.
Gotham from the Anglo/Saxon, ‘Gatta – ham’ – Goats Homestead. The village is surrounded on three sides by hills. On the high ridge to the south of the village, an insignificant looking mound marks the site of the Anglo/Saxon Rushclife ‘Hundred’. In the woods, to the west of this site, is hidden Gotham’s greatest treasure, the Cuckoo Bush Mound, – probably a Bronze Age tumuli. The mound is the place where according to legend, the ‘Wise Men of Gotham’ tried to prevent a cuckoo from flying away by building a hedge around the bush in which it sat. The famous ‘Tales of the Wise Men of Gotham’ are said to be the foolish ‘stunts’ performed by the villagers to keep away King John. The Tales, at first glance, are a collection of popular jokes, but a closer look shows that a small number of the over one hundred stories, – the Cuckoo Bush Tale, – speak of ancient ritual. At the centre of these ancient rituals is the ancient archetypal figure of the ‘Devine Fool”.
In 1540, twenty of the Gotham Tales were published for the first time. They appeared in a single chap-book volume call ‘The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham’, (later Wise Men). The book remained popular and with very little change remained in circulation for the next 400 year.
We know now that it was a later edition of this book, which inspired the American writer Washington Irving to label the Dutch New Yorkers ‘Gothamites’ and to go on to call their area of New York Gotham. The rest as they say is history.
I have researched the Gotham Tales for over 40 years now and have collected every tale ever published. I was surprised by the fact that the little ‘Bat Man’ exhibition at Wollaton Hall contained no reference to our very own ‘Gotham’. I am certain that much more could have been made promoting the fascinating link with New York. But this is not the only link between America and Gotham. In the 1995 American Presidential elections, both candidates, George Bush (Junior) and ‘Bill’ Clinton, (William Jefferson Blythe) claimed ancestry to Gotham. Bush went further by suggesting his ancestor to be Mary St. Andrew, eldest daughter of William St. Andrew, Lord of the Manor of Gotham. Mary is depicted as one of the small figures on her father’s memorial in the church.
How did it come about that the people of Gotham have had the title of Wise Men bestowed upon them?
Let us go back to the beginning and find how the original folk tale answers this question. I have chosen the story as related to Alfred Stapleton in 1899, by the ‘Wise Men’ themselves. Here is my version of this story. I have introduced into the main story with a few of the lesser known Gotham Tales.
It was the year 1200, instead of celebrating the new century; the good people of Gotham were sorely troubled. The year before, John, had succeeded his brother Richard to the throne of England. King John had already gained a bad reputation as being ruthless. Now the Gothamites had received rumours that the King was on his way to their village. There was talk that the King wished to build a new hunting lodge in the village; some said that it was a castle. Others had said that the King was merely passing through the village on other business further south
Whatever the reason for the King’s visit it would cost the villagers a great deal of money. If the King was to carry-out any form of building work in Gotham, then the villagers would lose some of their valuable land and be liable for the upkeep of the new property. Even if John was merely passing through Gotham, there would be trouble. There was an ancient law which stated that where ever the King travelled, the route would become a public highway, – the King’s Road. The Gothamites would become responsible for the upkeep of their section of the new road.
The good people of Gotham gathered together in the church to discuss the imminent arrival of King John. How do you defy a King, – especially one like John? Short of taking up arms in open rebellion, which would be punishable by death, what could they do? There was not time to summon the help of the famed outlaw Robin Hood. By the time they had sent a message to Sherwood Forest the King would already be at Gotham.
They need time to hatch a plan. Three young farmers volunteered to go out on the road and delay the King’s arrival. As they set off towards Nottingham, the three young men knew that they were risking their lives. On arriving on Gotham Moor, – to the north of the village, – they heard the news that the King was without his usual escort of armed men and had already crossed the Trent.
To briefly interrupt the story. Stapleton found that those who related the story to him insisted that John was travelling in his chariot. Whilst the use of the word chariot is a Victorian slang word for a kind of two wheeled gentlemen’s carriage, I believed that it here indicates that the original story is far older than the reign of King John.
The tree farmers waited on the moor by a mound. They had brought with them a length of iron chain and along the way, cut a large stake from a nearby wood which they hammered in to the centre of the mound. It had been decided that the only way to give their fellows more thinking time was to physically stop the King. It was not long before the King arrived. As his chariot passed the mound, one of the farmers rushed out in front of the horses, forcing the driver to bring the vehicle to a sudden stop. The second man quickly tied one end of the chain around the stake whilst the third man wrapped the other end around the axle of the chariot.
The King was furious, shaking his fist at his attackers he called out; “I know you are men of Gotham! A pox on your village. I will burn it to the ground and kill every one of you.
King John’s encounter with the three Gotham farmers had left him badly disturbed. With the help of a blacksmith and men from Clifton, he had managed, – after several hours, – to free his chariot from the chain. Returning to Nottingham Castle, at first he was furious with the Gothamites and determined to exact his revenge by sending his me-at-arms to burn down the village. Now given time to think about things he had calmed down.
John knew he was not popular, but why would three men be so desperate as to stop the King in his progress? Was it the start of a wider rebellion? John decided that he would not risk sending armed men into a suspected ambush. He would send an envoy to Gotham to investigate.
Meanwhile the three farmers had returned to Gotham worried that they had made matters worse. However, their delaying tactics had given the rest of the village time to hatch a cunning plan. They would all pretend to be mad. Everyone knew that madness was contagious and King John would forgive them their actions and would not dare go near the village. Early next morning the Gothamites received word that the King’s envoy was on his way to the village.
The Tale of the Twelve Fishermen; As the King’s man road by the river at Clifton, twelve men of Gotham were waiting for him. As he approached he recognised they were from the village and could see that they were all wearing puzzles expressions. Addressing their apparent leader the man said, “Good morning to you gentlemen of Gotham, what seems to be the trouble”. The leader of the party, – a stout man carrying a large cudgel, – replied, “Good sir. Twelve of us came fishing in the river and all-night have been up to our waists in the water. This morning I fear that one of our numbers is missing and must be drowned”. “How so?” asked the King’s man. “Why each time I count, tapping each with my cudgel to be certain, I find only eleven.” replied the Gothamite. “Let me see how you count!” said the man. Taking his cudgel the Gothamite struck each man on the head, – just hard enough to get a response. “One!” shout the first man. “Two!” the second, until he came to the last, “Eleven!” shouted he. “There!” said the leader “I have counted only eleven!” The envoy dismounted from his horse. “Lend me your stick. I can find your missing man!” He walked along the line of men and one by one he hit them over the head, – a little harder each time. As he did so he called aloud, “There’s one, there’s two, there’s three…..,” and so on until he came at last to the leader of the group. “And there is number twelve, your missing man!” said the envoy, striking him so hard on the head that the man fell to the floor. “Why thank you sir!” said the leader getting to his feet. “You’ve found our missing man!”
The Rabid Wheel-barrow; The King’s envoy road on towards Gotham, all of the time thinking what fools are these men of Gotham. On the edge of the village he saw one of the villagers tying the handle of a wheel-barrow firmly to a tree. “Good morning man of Gotham.” Said the envoy, “What, pray, are you doing?” “Why sir,” said the man. “This very morning my barrow was bitten hard by a dog I did not know. I derst not let the barrow free less it prove to be mad and in-turn bites me!”
The Cow and the Thatch; As the King’s envoy entered the village, everywhere he looked the villagers were up-to strange things. At one house a group had gathered around a dead cow. “What has happened here?” he enquired. “Why sir,” replied one of the group. “This morning my wife told me that there was grass growing long on our thatched roof. I decided that I would hoist our milk cow up that she might enjoy such a feast. I put a rope around her neck and threw it over the roof. We pulled on the other end to hoist her up. When I heard her bellow, I said to my wife; there, she is content. Hark how she calls out with pleasure. Now I find that she has eaten so rich that she has died of it.
The Animal Adam Did Not Name; A little further into the village the King’s envoy saw a group of boys poking a hedge-hog with a stick. “Why are you doing such a cruel thing boys?” he asked. “Good sir,” said the eldest of the lads. “We seek to find out what this animal might be!” “It is a humble hedge-hog,” replied the envoy. “Sir, that cannot be,” said the boy. “The rector told us it was an animal Adam had not given a name to!”
Now the envoy was troubled. It was clear that Gotham was full of mad men, even the rector was touched. He must return to the Castle and tell the King. Straight way he turned his horse around and galloped of towards Nottingham.
The Man and the Trivet; As the envoy crossed Gotham Moor he spied a man sitting by the side of the road. Reigning his horse to a halt by the man, he asked, “Man of Gotham, who are you waiting for?” “Why, Sir,” replied the man. “This very morning I brought an iron trivet from the market in Nottingham. As I was carrying it home, I found it very heavy. As it has three legs and I only two, I set it down on the road, sat upon it and bade him carry me. When he would not, I told him to rest a while and then follow on behind. Now I wait that he might catch up!”
This was the last straw for the bemused envoy. He galloped off and did not stop until he reached the Castle court-yard. The man reported all he had witnessed to the King. “Sire,” said he. “Gotham is full of fools and mad men. For your own safety, you must not go near the village.”
When the man had finished his story, John laughed until he was fit to bust. Whether this was because he found the stories amusing or relief at the fact he was not facing an armed revolt I do not know. It is said that ever after, whenever the usually dower King John heard the name of Gotham, he broke out into a wry smile.
So it was that the villagers became known throughout the land as the Mad Men of Gotham. When many years’ later people understood what the Gothamites had done, they became known as the Wise Men of Gotham.
The King John story is the foundation legend of the Gotham Tales. As preserved in Gotham itself, the story shows all the marks of an ancient origin. In 1899, – the year before he published his book, ‘All About the Merry Tales of the Wise Men of Gotham,’ – Alfred Stapleton was taken to the spot where the three farmers halted the King’s progress. He was shown the remains of the ‘actual mound’ and describes this as looking like the ploughed-out remains of a tumulus. Actually, Stapleton was shown two such mounds within a few yards of each other. The one first mentioned, was the best preserved of the two. There is a disputed reference in the Nottinghamshire volume of The Victoria History of the English Counties, to the opening of a tumulus at Gotham and the finding of a bronze spear head. The report has been regarded as a mistaken reference to a tumulus in Derbyshire. This, I believe, has arisen because no modern archaeologist has ventured to accept that the mound(s) seen by Stapleton might have been prehistoric. Gotham Moor lies in close proximity to the Trent valley where aerial photography has revealed extensive prehistoric earthworks, including Bronze Age ring ditches a few miles from Gotham, at Clifton. The antiquity of this tale is reinforced by the use of the word ‘chariot’ to describe the King’s transport. Stapleton’s Gothamite informants insisted that the King was in his chariot – not the vehicle of a twelfth century monarch. It is however associated with Iron Age and Romano British Celts. It is my suggestion that the tale is a corrupted version of a story relating to site, – a prehistoric mound, – used to observe the suns apparent standstill in the sky at the Winter Solstice, – the classical image of the sun god in his golden chariot. The story involves three farmers, – three is a sacred number, – the very people who would have need to observe such a phenomenon as part of the calendar year.
At the heart of the Gotham Tales themselves, are stories which betray and equally ancient origin. On a hill above the village is the mysterious Cuckoo Bush Mound, the site of the most important tale in the Gotham cycle. But this as they say must wait for another time.