The story so far: Sir Robert de Shurland is on the run from the law after killing a monk in a rage of impatience. Hiding on the beach on the Isle of Sheppey, he sees King Edward I’s ship in the Thames estuary and resolves to ride his faithful charger, Grey Dolphin, to it to beg a pardon . . .
The stallion churned the water, stamping the seabed and riding fiercely through the waves. The estuary was shallow but even so Grey Dolphin was barely keeping its head above the water by the time they reached the King’s ship.
Sir Robert was hauled aboard, leaving his horse in the sea. He knelt dripping before the bemused King, kissed his hand and put his case. He explained how the monk had insulted and attacked him, how he had defended himself, despite his well-known aversion to violence, how the monk had accidentally been stabbed through the heart, how Sir Robert had wept by his body and begged God to take his life instead but how his own treacherous servants had accused him to the abbot, forcing him to flee his own home and beg mercy from the King.
He got it. A pardon was written and sealed there and then and Sir Robert returned to his frozen, half-drowned steed and rode it back to the shore. By the time he arrived, the beast was exhausted and it collapsed onto the sand, with the surf still swilling around it. Sir Robert, pardon clutched to his chest, spat on it and kicked it, angrily demanding that it should rise to its hooves and carry him back to his house.
“Thou shouldst not deal so with the stallion.”
Sir Robert whirled round. Standing behind him was an old woman, her face a craggy mountain range, her clothes ragged and grey.
“That horse,” she warned him, pointing her gnarled finger at it, “will be the death of thee.”
Sir Robert, already agitated, needed no further bidding. He drew his sword and with a single swing sliced his steed’s head off. He looked round again to ask the old hag if she had predicted that but, even though he could see for miles along the beach in either direction, he could not see her.
The officers of the law did not believe Sir Robert’s story about how the monk had died but they had to respect the authority of the royal pardon. Sir Robert returned to his own intemperate ways. A year to the day since his fateful encounter with the monk, some fresh controversy drove him in a huff to the beach on the north side of Sheppey, where he strutted to and fro, ranting and bickering to himself. As he huffed and puffed, he nearly tripped over a white mass projecting from the sand and in his anger he kicked it.
It was in that moment, in the very split second that he instructed his foot to smash the object, that he realized what it was but he was too late. His boot smashed through Grey Dolphin’s skull and one of the horse’s teeth sliced through the leather and tore a gash in Sir Robert’s foot.
Yet more swearing and anger tumbled out of his profane mouth and Sir Robert limped home, struggling to keep the sand out of the cut. That evening he went early to bed and in the morning he summoned a physician, to examine the green rot gathering around his injury. In a few days, Sir Robert de Shurland’s temper was soothed for ever by the infection and when they buried him his tenants added to his monument a carving of the head of Grey Dolphin, as a reminder of how his bluster and haste to action had indeed been the death not only of the monk but also of himself.
* * *
The legend of Sir Robert de Shurland and Grey Dolphin was first recorded in 1786 in an issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine but that version differed from the above in a number of respects. According to the correspondent, Sir Robert buried a priest alive. Having returned to the beach with his pardon, as described above, he was told that his horse had achieved its extraordinary feat by magic, so he killed it. A year later, he was out hunting along that beach, when his new horse stumbled and pitched him onto the skull of the old, causing his death.
A rather more elaborate version was written in 1837 by the Reverend Richard Barham, who, publishing under the pseudonym Thomas Ingoldsby, re-wrote a number of Kentish legends in his own arch style. The original cause of the dispute between Sir Robert and the priest was a sailor’s corpse, washed up in Chatham. The priest had buried it, only to be told in a dream that the corpse belonged to a grievous sinner and should be cast back out to sea. The priest complied but the body washed up again on Sheppey. When Sir Robert found it, he ordered the monk to bury it again but the monk refused, citing the divine inhibition. Sir Robert kicked the priest in anger, sending him tumbling into the already-dug grave, where he broke his neck.
Barham’s version is much padded out with intervention by saints, the involvement of the Pope, the siege of Shurland Hall by the Sheriff, Sir Robert’s service in Scotland and a second appearance by the old woman but it ends the same way as the main narrative and stands as an excellent example of how an imaginative author can take a traditional folktale and make it his own. Shakespeare would have been impressed.
There are multiple further variations on the folktale, which evidently grew up to explain Sir Robert’s unusual monument. Like many legends, it also serves as a cautionary tale, the moral being not to lose one’s temper. The studious reader will perhaps have been irritated by its very obvious predestination paradox: If the old woman had not told Sir Robert that the horse would cause his death, then it would not have done. The prophecy was self-fulfilling. There is, however, an alternative interpretation. Perhaps she was not just an elderly seeress but an avenging angel, who manipulated the monk’s murderer, having evaded earthly justice, into causing his own ironic demise.
The prosaic truth is that Sir Robert de Shurland led a blameless life. He never murdered a monk, he never killed his horse and he in fact outlived Edward I, dying in 1327 of old age in France. The real reason for his monument is that Edward I had granted him the privilege of wreck of the sea, entitling him to any cargo found floating as far out as he could wade on horseback and touch with his lance. Since when, however, has the truth been allowed to get in the way of a good story?