James Lloyd explores how an ethnic slur became a geographically confused hagiographical anecdote.
Kent is, in many respects, a privileged county: The first of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to be founded and the first to be converted to Christianity, first in honour among English counties, the only county to retain pre-Conquest English law after 1066 and the county that has enjoyed a disproportionately large number of blogs on The Rural Voice. The Men of Kent are truly fortunate people. Yet even privileges come with a price and in Kent’s case it takes the form of a bizarre posternal mutation.
Michael Drayton, in his poem Poly-Olbion, a cheerful tour of Britain with passing comments on its history and culture, honours each county with what he misleadingly calls a “blazon”. Rather than heraldically correct coats-of-arms, these are really mottos or slogans and Kent (which, quite rightly, is listed first) is accorded the demonym “Longtails and Liberty”. The liberty is a reference to Kentish customary law preserved despite the Norman Conquest but the longtails are a reference to a slightly more embarrassing association.
The late eleventh-century serial hagiographer Goscelin of Saint-Bertin recorded that Saint Augustine of Canterbury, having converted the Kingdom of Kent to Christianity, moved on to Dorset but he and his companions were driven out of an unnamed village by its impious inhabitants. Among other insults, they attached fish-tails to the missionaries’ clothing. As he left, Augustine cursed them and their descendents. Goscelin euphemistically reports they their joke rebounded on them, the implication being that they themselves grew tails but that Goscelin was a bit too embarrassed to spell this out.
Later writers were not so coy. The Bruts of Wace and Layamon (written around 1155 and 1205 respectively) repeat the story and add that the villagers’ descendents remained caudally enhanced to the present day. Wace and Layamon also identified the scene of the incident. Goscelin had said merely that the village was five miles from Cerne Abbas but Wace and Layamon named it as Dorchester.
The myth may have originated as an attempt to explain the idea generally held in Europe that Englishmen had tails. Layamon complained that Englishmen abroad were known as “mugglings”, from “muggle”, a Middle-English word for a fish’s tail and blamed Saint Augustine for it. Greeks and Sicilians in the first Crusade accused the troops of Richard I of having tails. The slur was taken up with relish by the French and the Scots, with both nations recorded using it as early as 1217. The English could be very touchy about it. In 1566, an appearance of tail-wagging satyrs at a banquet organised by a Frenchman to celebrate the baptism of the future King James VI was taken as an insult by the English guests.
Within England, the superstition became focussed on Kent, yet why should this be, if the story was originally set in Dorset? Some manuscripts of Layamon identify not Dorchester but Rochester as the scene of Augustine’s humiliation. The two names are similar and one can understand why they might become confused. Rochester seems naturally to be preferred, since it lies on the Medway delta and has a long fishing tradition, whereas Dorchester is landlocked. The explanation, however, may be more complicated than a mere spelling mistake.
On Christmas Day 1170, the day before his death, Thomas Becket excommunicated one Robert de Broc, who had cut off the tail of a packhorse carrying the Archbishop’s provisions. The excommunication is reported by several contemporary witnesses and there is little reason to doubt that the curtailing occurred: Docking a horse’s tail was a common practical insult employed at the time and the earliest accounts mention no particular divine vengeance on de Broc or his progeny. Two stories of an archbishop strongly associated with Kent becoming uppity about a tail were apt to become conflated. They certainly were by 1440, when the Scottish historian Walter Bower appended to his account of Saint Augustine’s adventures in Dorset (which he located in the imaginary village of Mugglington) the claim that Becket imposed a similar hereditary curse on the people of Rochester after they docked his horse.
The confusion of the two stories went back at least a hundred years earlier: From 1338 onwards writers were placing Augustine’s humiliation in Rochester, rather than Dorchester. The explanation seems to be that scribes who encountered the originally independent Dorset legend decided that it must have been a variation on the Becket legend and erroneously corrected Dorchester to the similar sounding Rochester in order to place the legend in Kent (though it was an imperfect solution – Becket’s horse was actually abused in Canterbury). Why Dorchester was chosen as the location of Augustine’s encounter in the first place remains a mystery (at eight miles from Cerne Abbas, it does not really fit Goscelin’s topography).
Whereas Dorset got away without any opprobrium from a legend originally belonging to it, the popular imagination extended Becket’s revenge to the whole of Kent, the natives of which were burdened with the nickname “longtails”, perhaps because the greater popularity of Becket’s cult relative to Augustine’s meant that his version of the legend became the better known. In 1570, William Lambarde devoted seven pages of his Perambulation of Kent to discrediting the slur. Andrew Marvell, in a poetical diatribe against the problems caused by the clergy, mentioned “For Becket’s sake Kent always shall have tails.” In 1701, when the Kent Justices presented a petition to the House of Commons calling for extra military expenditure, an anonymous counterblast was circulated in London, titled “Advice to the Kentish Long-Tails by the Wise Men of Gotham”.
The nickname was still current in the nineteenth century but it seems to have slipped out of use in modern times. This is, perhaps, a source of some relief to the Men of Kent, whose ancestors must have grown tired of having to drop their breeches when visiting foreign counties, just as the English must have grown tired of disproving the national slur when visiting foreign countries. If the mutation belongs to any county, then it belongs to Dorset. Yet it was, arguably, fitting for Kent to be known as the horse-tailed county, since the symbol of the county is a horse.