English folklore consists of all the myths and legends of England. This includes everything from mythical creatures, urban legends, and folktales originating from the English region. English folklore is heavily influenced by Pagan tradition. A significant number of figures, legends, and creatures in English folklore were adapted from pre-Christian traditions of the region. The Pagan influences cause the folklore to differ between the different regions of the country. Even though this is true, certain myths stay consistent throughout the country.
Robin Hood’s exact origin is hard to determine. This is because multiple different regions in the country have their own stories and adaptations of Robin Hood. Even though there are multiple different adaptations of the story, Robin Hood is known as a highly skilled archer who fought against the corruption of Sheriff Nottingham. Robin Hood did this to protect the people. The tales of his adventures usually included his band of Merry Men and his love interest Maid Marian. His stories include activities like stealing from the rich or, more specifically, Sheriff Nottingham, and giving the stolen goods to the poor. Stopping the nefarious plans of Sheriff Nottingham was also a part of Robin Hood’s plans.
King Arthur is probably the most legendary character from English folklore. His story is so well-known and gained so much traction that many people believe that King Arthur was a real person. He was not a real person and most of the locations and events in his story were fabricated as well. King Arthur’s story is one of the most complex folk tales with multiple stages describing how he pulled the sword from the stone and became king. He also has stories of his adventures with the Knights of the Round Table and that of the Holy Grail. King Arthur’s legacy still lives on today and plays a major role even outside of English folklore.
Jack the Giant Killer
Jack the Giant Killer’s story is linked to King Arthur’s story. Jack’s story tells the tale of a boy who encounters a giant and successfully kills the giant using his wit and cunning intelligence. After killing the giant, the townsfolk gave Jack the title of “giant killer.” Jack then declares that he will kill all the giants living in Cornwall, which he eventually does. The legendary figure of Jack the Giant Killer is often associated with the story of Jack and the Beanstalk because they are both cunning young men who steal from and defeat giants. The tales are separate even though they have similar themes.
Guy of Warwick
Guy of Warwick was featured in romance stories from the 13th to the 17th centuries. The Guy of Warwick’s stories tell of a man at the Earl of Warwick’s court. Guy falls in love with the Earl’s daughter, Felice. He then must prove that he is worthy of her hand in marriage by competing in a series of tasks and by becoming a knight. His story is very similar to Greek mythology. The tasks he had to complete included all sorts of things, from slaying monsters to traveling through Europe. Guy does eventually win Felice’s hand in marriage. His story is not all good though. Guy goes through a tragic arc, which is why his story is like mythology.
Jack o’ Kent
Jack o’ Kent is a cunning man in English mythology and folklore who also had a talent for outwitting the Devil. The origin of his story hails from the 16th century. Jack was from Herefordshire and most of his stories involve him making deals with the Devil and then using his wit to end up on top. One of Jack’s most popular stories involves him making a deal with the Devil to have a good harvest and, in exchange, the Devil receives half of the crop. Jack then asked the Devil if he wanted the tops or the bottoms of the crops. The Devil chose the tops, expecting Jack to have planted wheat so he would have gotten the useable part of the crop. Jack actually planted turnips, so the Devil received the least valuable part of the crop.
Spring-Heeled Jack is a more recent tale of English folklore that originated in the late 1800s. In Victorian London there was a panic because it was believed that Spring-Heeled Jack was a rooftop-leaping demon or devil. Some accounts even recalled him breathing fire. The sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack are not all consistent though. Some people recalled him to be human-like and could speak English, but others claimed that he was a ghost with eyes that were red fireballs. Even with all the inconsistency around him, the public continued to develop the legends surrounding him and the attacks that were believed to be done by him. The legend of Spring-Heeled Jack even inspired characters in the media today.
The Cauld Lad of Hylton
The Cauld Lad of Hylton is a ghost from Sunderland and his story has a small amount of history attached to it. The story is that of a stable boy who was killed by Baron Hylton after being late to complete a task set by the Baron. The boy’s body was then thrown in a well and eventually discovered. The Baron claimed that the boy died by accident, so he was cleared of any charges. That part of the story is the part that could have some truth, because in 1609 Robert Hylton, the 13th Baron of Hylton, was pardoned for a crime. Beyond just the origin story, there are more magical events surrounding the tales of the Cauld Lad of Hylton. The legend then goes on to say that the boy went on to haunt the Baron’s castle. Things like the kitchen would be made a mess overnight or the ashes from the fireplace would be moved onto the floor. The story goes that one of the cooks in the castle stayed overnight to see what was happening and saw the ghost of a boy who was crying about being cold. The cook then left him a warm cloak every night and the hauntings then stopped. This is how the title of “Cauld Lad of Hylton” developed.
Herne the Hunter and the Wild Hunt
Herne the Hunter is associated with the widely recognized folk tale of The Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt is a story that spans across multiple countries in Europe and centers around a mythical creature leading a hunt with an army of ghosts. Herne the Hunter is a ghostly figure who leads the Wild Hunt in the Grimm’s version of the tale. Herne the Hunter was allegedly from Windsor Forest in the county of Berkshire. He is usually depicted as having antlers growing from his head and riding a horse. The character of Herne the Hunter was even featured in the Shakespeare play The Merry Wives of Windsor from 1597.
Folklore Creatures and Items
The black dog is a spectral or demonic entity that is often associated with the Devil and its sighting is believed to be an omen of death. The black dog is said to be larger than a normal dog and has large, glowing eyes. Black dogs are generally thought to be sinister or malevolent, but few are believed to be directly harmful. The black dog is a prominent feature in the folklore of the British Isles and Northern Europe in general.
The definition of a boggart depends on local or regional tradition. A boggart can be either a household spirit or a malevolent spirit that inhabits fields, marshes, or other kinds of land. A household boggart will do things like making things disappear, spoil milk, or affect pets in a negative way. It is believed that a boggart will follow a family no matter where they go. It is said that boggarts should not be named because once a boggart is named it becomes unreasonable, uncontrollable, and destructive. This belief is popular in Northern England. Boggarts that inhabit the different kinds of land are said to do much more malevolent deeds than household boggarts, like abducting children.
A brownie in English folklore is similar to a hobgoblin. A hobgoblin is a spirit of the hearth that was considered to be helpful, but after the spread of Christianity they were believed to be mischievous. A brownie is said to inhabit a house and help with household activities. Brownies do not like to be seen, so they do their work at night in exchange for small gifts or food. Food wise, they enjoy things like porridge and honey. Brownies will usually abandon a house if the gifts are called or thought of as payments, or if the homeowners misuse them. The brownies typically inhabit an unused part of the home they are in. If a brownie thinks a homeowner is lazy, they will pull pranks or punish them. The description of a brownie will change depending on the region, but they are typically described as being ugly, having brown skin, and being covered in hair. In the oldest stories of brownies, they were human-sized, but in more recent stories they are described as small and shriveled. A brownie is always either naked or in rags and if a homeowner tries to give the brownie clothes, they will leave forever.
The entity called will-o’-the-wisp or will-o’-wisp can be seen in the folklore of many different countries. The will-o’-the-wisp is a light that appears in the atmosphere that has no obvious cause and is seen by travelers at night. They are especially present in bogs, swamps, or marshes. It is said that will-o’-the-wisps mislead travelers by looking like a flickering lantern. In literature, the appearance or use of a will-o’-the-wisp is a metaphor that refers to a goal that leads one on, but it is actually impossible to achieve. It can also refer to something that one finds to be sinister. The will-o’-the-wisp is present in many English folktales and is often portrayed as a malicious character. More specifically, in Welsh folklore, it is believed that the light from the will-o’-the-wisp is a “fairy fire” that is held in the hand of a púca. A púca is a small goblin-like fairy that is mischievous and will purposely lead lone travelers off their path at night. When the traveler follows the púca through a bog and then the fire is extinguished and leaves the traveler extremely lost.
Another legendary creature in English folklore that is similar to a brownie is the lob or lubber fiend. The lob is described as a large, hairy man who has a tail. They do housework and other chores in exchange for a saucer of milk and a bed in front of the fire.
The Green Man is another figure in English folklore. The legendary being of the Green Man is typically interpreted as a symbol of rebirth. He also represents the cycle of the new growth that begins every spring. The Green Man has many variations in his depictions, but his face is usually covered in leaves and branches or vines sprout from various places on his face and bare flowers. He is often used as decorative architectural ornaments and depicted in sculptures or stonework.
Drake’s Drum is a snare drum that was allegedly used by Sir Francis Drake as he circumnavigated the world. Right before he died, he commanded the drum be taken to Buckland Abbey. He claimed that if England were ever in danger, that if someone were to beat the drum he would return and defend his country. The legend states that the drum can be heard beating at times when England goes to war.
The legend of the mistletoe bough is a story associated with mansions in England. In England there has been a long tradition of Christmas ghost stories. The background of the legend has a darker tone. It starts with a bride that was playing hide-and-seek or just trying to get away from the crowd of wedding guests during her wedding breakfast on Christmas day, so she hides in a chest in the attic. She was unable to escape from the chest and the guests thought she was playing a prank, or she just ran away. Being trapped in the chest for so long, she suffocated and died. Her husband found her skeleton years later still in the chest.
English folklore is a complex blend of storytelling and superstition that has roots that go back way before recorded history. Many of these legends are still believed and retold today. This emphasizes the long-lasting effect these folktales have had on English culture. Some of the English folklore stories are so deeply embedded into the culture that some of the stories are believed to be true. English folklore is tied to regional and local communities more than at a national level. That just reveals how folklore reflects the culture it comes from.