James Lloyd examines how a common English folktale was re-invented by the people of a Kentish town into a satire on a particularly hated local politician.
Panto season is upon us and up and down the land hacks are tearing apart childhood favourites or perusing the tomes of Perrault and the Grimms to find suitable junctures at which to insert Disney songs. Few, if any, will choose to make a pantomime out of the fairy tale narrated below. It is not a generally familiar one today, even though it has (like many fairy tales) enjoyed a continental distribution, with different versions of it being found all over northern Europe. Its villain has many names. The Brothers Grimm knew him as the Robber Bridegroom (as did Eudora Welty), while to the Norwegians he is the Sweetheart in the Wood. In Lithuania they call him Greenbeard and in England he is generally known as Mister Fox – except in Cranbrook. In the Capital of the Weald, the villain is identified as Bloody Baker.
The earliest record of this local variant on the widespread folktale is from 1850, but it is probably at least a hundred years older. It is another artefact of the town’s proud tradition of mercilessly slagging off its most distinguished citizen, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Baker, for his role, as a J.P., in committing Protestants to trial (and, inevitably, death) during the reign of Mary I.
In the reign of King Edward VI (or so the legend goes), the Baker family frittered away their considerable property portfolio in reckless spending and when the last scion of the dynasty, Sir John, killed a man in a duel, he splashed the last of his cash and skipped the country until the heat died down. Upon the accession of Queen Mary, Sir John, being a devout Roman Catholic, judged it safe to return to his family’s last remaining estate: Sissinghurst. He brought one suspiciously foreign servant with him.
Soon afterwards, stories spread of travellers being mugged in the Glassenbury woods and of some disappearing altogether, while Baker’s house became a venue for nocturnal screaming. Meanwhile, the supposedly penniless Sir John began to buy back his family’s estates. He also began paying suit to a young lady about town, who was always bedecked in jewellery. She initially played hard to get but one day, by chance, she happened to be passing Baker’s house in the company of an elderly friend and decided to make a surprise visit. The door was unlocked and the house seemed to be unoccupied. They ascended the staircase (which, no doubt, creaked ominously). As they reached the top, a parrot perched on the newel post squawked
“Peepoh, pretty lady, be not too bold,
“Or your red blood will soon run cold.”
Never one to take a bird’s advice, the lady continued along the landing and entered one of the rooms. When she did, the missing travellers ceased to be so missing and our heroine’s body temperature did indeed turn Antarctic.
The room was full of corpses, most of them women, all of them stripped of their purses, jewellery and anything else that Baker might have turned into liquid capital. As the lady and her friend stood surveying the slaughter chamber, they heard a noise from outside. A glance through the window showed Baker and his servant returning, carrying the body of their latest victim between them.
The two women hurried down to the hall and just managed to hide under the staircase, before the murderers entered. They began carrying the corpse, another woman, up to the landing to archive it with the others but its arm fell loose and a hand became stuck between the poles of the baluster. The impatient Sir John drew his sword and chopped it off. The hand fell into the lap of one of the women hiding just below, who, once Baker and his accessory were out of earshot, took it with them.
Some days later, Sir John was invited to a party, hosted by his bejewelled paramour and attended by the relatives of his victims. For sport, the lady told Sir John that she had recently had a very strange dream and then described her adventures in his house.
“Fair lady,” he assured her (no doubt twirling his moustache as he did so), “dreams are nothing. They are but fables.”
“They may be fables,” she replied, “but is this a fable?”
She threw the severed hand onto the dinner table. If Baker was not suspicious already, his expression must have given him away by now. Escape, however, was impossible. The constables lunged out their hiding places all around the room and arrested the former Chancellor of the Exchequer.
When Queen Mary heard that her fellow child of Mother Church was under trial for murder and robbery, she tried to save him. No dice, ma’am. We’re country folk. Baker was tied to a stake and incinerated.
As history, this tale is utter rubbish. Indeed, it barely makes sense as fiction. The earliest written version actually names the villain as Sir Richard (who, in reality, was Bloody Baker’s son) and, although later versions corrected this, they failed to address the rather odd identification of the scene of Baker’s muggings as Glassenbury wood, which is actually six miles from Sissinghurst, burdening him and his foreign servant (whose fate is unrecorded) with quite a walk under the weight of their incriminating evidence. Indeed, the earliest written version does not actually name Sissinghurst at all, though that did not stop the late Nigel Nicolson, M.P. and resident of the manor in the mid-twentieth century, from identifying a staircase in the old brewhouse as the scene of the story’s central horror, complete with a suitably hacked newel post on which to imagine the corpse’s hand becoming stuck.
To dwell on these plot-holes is, however, to miss the point. No, Sir John Baker was not a thief and a murderer and he did not end his days barbecued by angry villagers, but the story is nonetheless a valuable historical resource. It might not tell us the truth of Baker but it does tell us what people wanted the truth to be. This man played along with the Reformation while England and Protestantism were on their honeymoon and snatched up monastic lands as if they were going out of fashion (which, of course, they were). Then, once Bloody Mary was on the throne, he sent Protestant Cranbrook men, who had done less harm to the Church of Rome than he had, to a fiery death.
Yet Bloody Baker failed, just as Bloody Mary failed. England remained a Protestant country and Cranbrook a Protestant town. The real Sir John Baker died in his bed but it is no wonder that the Protestants of Cranbrook retrospectively assigned poetic justice to their local Diocletian. Country folk can be great haters and, in this case at least, not without cause.