James Lloyd visits two ring forts in Cambridgeshire and recounts the pseudo-historical folklore associated with them.
About four miles and a half south-east of Cambridge are the Gogmagog Hills, so-named in the Middle Ages after some imagined association with the last of the race of giants which Brutus and his fellow refugees from Troy exterminated upon their arrival in Albion. The Gogmagog Hills have long been a popular place of idle resort for the people of Cambridgeshire. In the sixteenth century, the authorities of the University complained about students’ wasting their time there and it is believed that, among their diversions, was the carving of chalk figures in the hillside. Lamentably these have since deteriorated and the chalk-figures supposedly re-discovered in the 1950s by archaeological investigator and crank T. C. Lethbridge were immediately rejected by contemporary scholars and have fared no better since.
Within the hills is a large ring fort, covering fifteen acres, called Wandlebury Ring, that is to say the Vandal’s fortress, probably in reference to one or more Germanic consanguines of the Anglo-Saxons who invaded and settled this part of Britain in the fifth or sixth century. The Anglo-Saxons often used prominent landmarks as meeting places for their courts. By the tenth century, Wandlebury Ring was being used as the venue for the shire court and it was still being used for that function at least two hundred years later. It was also, apparently, the home of a spectral knight, with a passion for jousting and a poor grasp of the rules of fair play.
According to Gervase of Tilbury, who wrote in the early thirteenth century, a noble knight named Osbert FitzHugh was staying with friends in Cambridge, when he heard that any challenger who rode alone into the entrance of Wandlebury Ring at dead of night under the light of the moon and cried “Knight to knight, come forth!” would be greeted by a mounted opponent who would answer the challenge with a joust. Osbert, inspired by the story, rode to the Ring at once. He waited until the proper time and then, having left his squire just outside the Ring (for the challenge must be made alone), he rode in and issued the cry. The Phantom Knight of Wandlebury Ring materialized before him and, without another word, the two charged.
Lance struck shield on either side. Osbert parried his adversary’s blow and, with a sweep of his arm, pushed the Phantom off his horse. Satisfied that victory was his, Osbert dismounted, seized the bridle of his opponent’s horse and started leading it away as his reward. The Phantom, however, leapt to his feet and threw his lance at Osbert’s thigh. The knight, being flush with victory, either ignored the blow or did not notice it. Without any further intercourse with his vanquished foe, he left the Ring and gave the Phantom Horse to his squire.
Osbert returned to his friends’ house, roused them from slumber and showed them his opponent’s horse, black, tall and strong. They marvelled at the equine apparition but, as the cock crew at dawn, the horse snorted, broke its tether and charged away, never to be seen again. As for Osbert, when he divested himself, he found a seething wound on his thigh. Though it healed, every year thereafter, on the anniversary of the duel, the wound would re-open and bleed afresh. Osbert himself lived for many more years, eventually going on Crusade and dying in the Holy Land.
Wandlebury Ring is not now the site that it once was. The ring fort was begun in the fifth century B. C. and expanded in stages. Originally it would have consisted of at least two concentric circles but only one is still visible. This is the work of vandals of another kind. In 1685, a racing stable was built within the Ring for King James II and the inner ring was levelled. Fifty years later, the site was bought by Francis Godolphin, second Earl of Godolphin, who added a house and cultivated a garden. He used the site to breed racehorses, one of the most famous of which, the Godolphin Arabian, is buried in the grounds and (unlike the chalk figures) enjoys an unmistakable gravestone. In 1956, the house was demolished but the stable was preserved and now forms part of the Wandlebury Country Park site, owned by Cambridge Past, Present and Future, which preserves it and maintains it for the public.
Osbert FitzHugh may, in fact, have existed. A man of that name is recorded in the early twelfth century and founded Westwood Priory around 1160, which would make him the right age for the hero of Gervase’s account. Gervase claims to have heard the story, like his hero, from the inhabitants of the area and he believed the superstition of the Ring to be of great antiquity. So do the scholars who have investigated it, Arthur Gray and Glenys Goetinck, who perceived parallels in Celtic legends from Wales and Brittany. This observation in turn suggests that pockets of Britons may have hung out for longer in the area around the Ring, as they are known to have done elsewhere in England, than their countrymen did elsewhere.
Wandlebury Ring is not Cambridgeshire’s only ring-fort to have attracted a legend. About seven miles north-north-west of Cambridge is Belsar’s Fort, a far less impressive circle, only about eight hundred feet in diameter. Far less is known of Belsar’s Fort than of Wandlebury Ring. It has been connected with the rebellion of Hereward the Wake, a dispossessed English nobleman who, with Morcar, the deposed Earl of Northumbria, made his final stand against the Normans on the Isle of Ely, which was, in 1071, an actual island. Belsar is said to have been one of Duke William’s knights (the author has patriotic difficulty acknowledging the Bastard as “king”), who bribed the monks of Ely to show them a route across the marshland. The English were defeated. Morcar was captured and ended his days in prison. Hereward disappeared into the Fens and into legend.
The story goes that Belsar’s Hill was constructed by William as his camp during the siege. In truth, the ring-fort is probably much older, of similar age to Wandlebury Ring. It is possible that the Normans recycled it but it is equally possible that it was optimistic locals who attached the legend of Hereward’s Sublician Bridge moment to one of their own landmarks, to boost tourism. It would be far from the only example.
The stories of Wandlebury Ring and Belsar’s Fort show some interesting parallels, not in their events, which are very different but in the manner of their creation. Both earthworks were created by the Ancient Britons, both were inherited and re-used by a conquering nation and both became in later generations the scene of a legend derived from the traditions of the oppressed aborigines. One wonders with what satisfaction the Phantom Knight of Wandlebury Ring might have observed the subjugation of the English to the Normans, as he remembered how their ancestors had subjugated the Britons.
It is easy to forget that England has never, in fact, been liberated. Of course, the Normans of England eventually went native, so it hardly matters but history is not yet finished and human nature remains what it was. The Phantom Knight, a relic of pre-English, perhaps even of pre-Roman, times, was already ancient when Osbert, only one of the latest conquering nation, challenged him. Is the Phantom Knight still there, waiting for England’s next conquerors to try and to fail to conquer him?