The Parson and the Clerk

On the coast of Devon, just off the red cliffs outside Holcombe between Dawlish and Teignmouth, two stacks, known locally as the Parson and the Clerk, jut out of the sea. They are shaped curiously like human faces and, inevitably, a story is told to explain why this should be. It goes something like this.

Many hundreds of years ago, before the Break with Rome, there was a certain Rector in Devon. He was a typical sinecure-junkie, an acquisitor of benefices the duties of which he would delegate to others, while keeping the profits thereof for himself. In addition to his living in Devon, he held canonries in Wells and Norwich and a precentorship in Ireland. Most of all, however, he hungered after a bishopric. His best friend, or rather most loyal servant, was the parish clerk, who also served as constable, an office that he took no more seriously than his master did his, revelling in unwonted Sadism towards the parishioners, whom he put in the stocks on the slightest pretext.

The Clerk accompanied the Rector on his frequent visits to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was also Lord High Chancellor (a detail that dates the story to no later than 1515), when the Rector would enquire how near a mitre might be to his head. His Grace assured him that he would receive the first see that fell vacant, inspiring the Rector’s interest in the health of every bishop in England. He became particularly hopeful when he heard that his own Ordinary, the Lord Bishop of Exeter, was laid low by a malady. For several months the Rector and his Clerk would ride to the episcopal palace in Dawlish to enquire after the Bishop’s condition.

Much to the Rector’s frustration, however, the Bishop seemed indecisive. He would continually draw near to the very portal of death, only to recover and suddenly be in the rudest of health. A lapse would impend shortly afterwards with clockwork regularity but still the Bishop kept the impatient Rector in suspense. He was particularly aggrieved one day to hear that the Bishop had been wheeled into his garden by his niece to shoot deer. Still, at least such good health meant that he would deteriorate again soon.

That evening, the Rector and his Clerk began the ride from the parsonage house to Dawlish, to make another enquiry at the palace. The sun was setting and black clouds were rolling in from the sea. A chill wind blew and the waves were rough and tempestuous. Perhaps it was these meteorological distractions which caused the Rector to lose his way, for, though the journey should have been familiar to him, he became confused at an intersection of five paths near the cliffs. In a fit of frustration the Rector cried “I wish the Devil would put me into the short road to Dawlish!”

“Oy be agoin’ to Dawlish moyself.”

They looked round and saw yokel emerge from behind a bramble bush. He saluted them with the customary formalities and offered to guide them to Dawlish, though he warned that they would have to hurry, since the storm was fast approaching. The Rector observed their new friend’s lack of a horse but the yokel assured him that that would be no problem. He whispered into the horses’ ears and suddenly they dashed away, as fast as the lighting that now flashed around them.

The Rector was rendered breathless by the bounding of his steed beneath him and also by astonishment that the yokel was able to keep up with them. The clouds above began to empty upon them, reducing visibility. The Clerk’s own eyes were shut tight with fear and the Rector asked the yokel if this really was the way to Dawlish.

Just as the yokel confirmed that it was, the horses stopped. The Rector and the Clerk looked around and at first they thought they saw the face of a cliff but, when the yokel informed them that they were outside the Bishop’s parlour, a sea-mist seemed to recede and the palace did indeed resolve itself before them. The Rector alighted and rang the bell.

The door was opened by a servant whom he recognized as having been dismissed some years before for stealing pennies. He was ushered into the parlour, where the Bishop’s physician (whom the Rector did not recognize), chaplain (whom the Rector did not recognize) and other guests (whom the Rector did not recognize) were settling down to dinner. The Rector was invited to join them. As the storm raged outside, the guests forgot the bedridden prelate, remembering him only when the physician confirmed that his condition was declining.

Yet something troubled the Rector. It seemed to him that the conversation babbled rather like the sound of waves and he noticed that, not only did the dinner consist entirely of fish but not all of the fish were dead. They were flapping about on the plates, while crabs and lobsters were pinching those who tried to eat them. Oddest of all, only the Rector seemed to be surprised by this.

Eventually the hour came for the guests to depart. The Rector and his Clerk re-mounted their chargers and rode off into the storm. The Rector was still disturbed by the unusual atmosphere of the dinner and he looked back at the palace, as though for re-assurance.

He found none, for where the palace had been moments before all he saw now was a cliff-face, with the waves of the turbulent sea crashing against it. A cry from his Clerk brought his head round again and he realised that they were both in the water, their horses motionless beneath them. They struggled to release themselves but they too were paralysed and were reduced to screaming helplessly, as the water rose higher and inexorably higher over their faces.

In the morning, the bodies of two horses were washed up onto the shore. The locals also noticed two new additions to the seascape: A face-shaped stack, protruding from the red cliffs with a somehow noble, haughty bearing. Further out to sea was a smaller, obsequious stack, like a servant diminished before his master.

This story, which was first recorded in the anonymous anthology Legends of Devon in 1848, is a classic folktale, providing both an explanation for a natural feature and a moral lesson. The narrator studiously avoids giving his main characters names or dates but does imply that Rector was the incumbent of Staverton, who is reported, by a guest at the illusory dinner, as having recently died. He also makes several telling anachronisms: The Bishop could not have had a wheelchair at so early a date, the physician prescribes opium for his patient and the shape of the summit of the rock is explained by the Rector’s full-bottomed wig.

One might assume that these errors are merely the result of fanciful re-writing but they may in fact be sly hints not to take this legend at face value. In 1868, a correspondent in Notes and Queries owned up to having belonged to a literary society the members of which had made up all of the stories in Legends of Devon thirty years earlier. There was no genuine folklore behind them at all. It was an exercise in faked tradition.

When is a folktale not a folktale? When it has been deliberately made up, one might argue, yet are not all stories made up? Every folktale, however ancient, must have been contrived at some point in the mind of someone who knew that what he was reporting was not strictly true. It becomes a tale of the folk, rather than just a lie, by virtue of being adopted by the folk, who re-tell it, making their own changes and adding or omitting details, distancing the story as it develops from the original contrivance.

The legend of the Parson and the Clerk has enjoyed a similar afterlife, being adapted and re-told in more recent versions that have changed several of its details significantly. Proof of how much it has been taken to heart by the people of Devon was shown in 2003, when the head of the Clerk was blown off in a storm. This was lamented in local newspapers and brought home to people the mortality of landmarks that can seem eternal. It is inevitable that one day the Parson rock and the Clerk rock will be washed away altogether. One can only hope that they will still be remembered in what, by then, will have become a genuinely ancient legend.

Photo credits: Teignbridge: The Parson and Clerk (Lewis Clarke) / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Parson and the Clerk rock formation (Sarah Charlesworth) / CC BY-SA 2.0