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War in Legend and Tradition The Ninth Legendary Weekend of The Folklore Society

  • 6th — 7th September 2014
  • Fort Amherst, Chatham, Kent

War in Legend and Tradition 6-7 Sept 2014

With guns and drums and drums and guns, hurrah! Humming barrack-room ballads they march, flanked by the Comrade in White and the regimental goat. St.George descends on a winged horse to lead the faithful as the Russians advance with snow on their boots. Can this really be the last battle, when the blood chokes millwheels until the sinister danewort grows among poppies white and red? This conference will explore songs, ghosts, omens, rumours and rituals from over 2000 years of war.

Tickets £40 for the two days. (Day rates available). To book, contact jharte@epsom-ewell.gov.uk


Saturday 6th September

9.30   Registration and coffee

First session

10.00 Jeremy Harte        ‘The last battle (repeat)’

10.30 David Clarke        ‘The Angels of Mons’

11.00 Coffee

Second session

11.30 Diana Coles          ‘Women who go to war’

12.00 Ingrid Barton      ‘War goddesses’

12.30 David Hunt          ‘(Almost) invulnerable heroes – the Achilles motif’

13.00 Break for lunch

Third session

14.30 Gordon Caseley   ‘Politics, propaganda and Prince Charles – myth in the Hanoverian war machine’

15.00 Roisin Murray      ‘Kentish lore of war’

15.30 Simon Young       ‘Phantom warriors at Castle-an-Dinas’

16.00 Tea at conference

Fourth session

17.00 Jennifer Wallis     ‘Spiritualists between two wars: sensation, sickness, and solidarity’

17.30 Scott Wood          ‘Hitler was here’

8.00 Tour of Fort Amherst

Sunday 7th September

10.30 Coffee

11.00 Ross McFarlane   ‘Soldiers’ charms’

11.30 Bill Roberts          ‘Remembrance of war in the twenty-first century’

12.00 Short break for lunch

12.30 Ghost tour


Jeremy Harte, ‘The last battle (repeat)’ (To be supplied)

David Clarke, ‘The Angels of Mons revisited’

The summer of 2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Although fought with modern weapons on an industrial scale, for civilians and combatants the reaction to warfare on an industrial scale was to reach out to a range of medieval talismans, wonders, legends and myth. For many in Britain and the Commonwealth the most inspiring and comforting legend of the of the war as the Angels of Mons. Although the battle of Mons, fought in Belgium in August 1914, was a mere skirmish compared to the horrors of the trenches it left a lasting legacy in the national psyche and continued to reappear at times of national crisis. The genesis of the legend can be confidently traced to a short story, The Bowmen, by the Welsh author of supernatural fiction, Arthur Machen, published by a London evening newspaper one month after the battle. But Machen was himself inspired by accounts of supernatural intervention in battle drawn from Greek myth, the Old Testament and the folklore of the British Army. This paper draws parallels between the function of the Mons legend and related rumours from the First and Second World Wars. In doing so it explores what we can learn from the symbiotic relationship between literary fiction, contemporary legend and ancient myth. See David Clarke, The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians (Wiley: 2004).


Diana Coles, ‘Women who go to war’

The English folk song about a woman who dressed in man’s clothing and went to war is a familiar one. Most of these songs originate in broadsheets published the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. There are a number of what purport to be historical accounts dating from the eighteenth century of British women who served in the wars as soldiers or sailors in the guise of men. What is the relationship between the stories of these women and the songs? Do the songs commemorate the adventures of real life heroines?




Ingrid Barton, ‘War goddesses’

It is surprising, given the generally-held view of women as peace-makers, that there are so many female war deities across the world. They range from the blood-drenched Kali to the civilised strategist Athene; from the wayward Hawaiian war goddess Pele, who shares her unpredictable nature with storm and volcano, to the protective Bast, a war goddess demoted from lion to cat. War is not an abstraction for those who wage or endure it, but a composite of different actions, and emotions, each of which may attract a deity to personify it. This paper considers the variety of war and battle goddesses and investigates their often dual natures as deities of love, nature or fertility, considering which function might have come first and, perhaps more importantly, why peace goddesses are so thin on the ground!


David Hunt, ‘(Almost) invulnerable heroes – the Achilles motif’

Like our modern football heroes, some ancient warriors achieved an almost legendary status for their continuing success. The strongest and most successful warriors could acquire a reputation for invulnerability; that is until their eventual downfall. This could lead to a belief in a single vulnerable spot, an ‘Achilles heel’. In the Caucasus region there have been many named warriors who fitted into this category. At one extreme of these was the powerful warrior encased in metal armour, in which there was a small opening, usually under the arm. When riding a horse, for example when crossing a river, and the rider was reaching forwards to control his horse, this gap in the armour was exposed to an arrow from an expert marksman. Another hero was made of steel except for his back, which was ‘softer than a ripe pumpkin’; his final assailant drove his horse to bolt, so that his back was exposed to lethal arrows. At the other extreme are tales of a warrior whose body does not consist of flesh and blood at all, but of pure tempered steel; but it was not quite pure, because a small part of his body had not been dipped into water to harden it effectively. (The process of producing hardened steel starts from the rock, iron ore, which is smelted to produce iron, and is then heated to white heat and quenched in water.) This warrior was not born from a woman, but directly from a ‘stone’; he came out of the stone red hot and was then dipped into water to cool him. But there was always a part of his body that had not been quenched properly, often the knees. His enemies learned the location of the warrior’s vulnerable area, usually by witchcraft, and they killed him by that means. In many of the versions the instrument of his death was an iron wheel, sometimes called ‘John’s Wheel’, and there seems to be an association with a midsummer festival (St. John) in western Europe.


Gordon Casely, ‘Politics, Propaganda and Prince Charles – Myth in the Hanoverian War Machine’.

History records that the Jacobite movement was extinguished and that the line of the Royal Stuart family was extirpated. But who wrote this history? This paper examines the propaganda of the Hanoverian PR machine up to and beyond the last battle fought on British soil (Culloden, 16 April 1746) and the resulting ‘utter defeat’ of Jacobitism.  A concluding topic is the mythologising of a Prince of the blood Royal into the Bonnie Prince Charlie of a million shortbread tins.


Roisin Murray, ‘Kentish lore of war’

Kent has always been on the Front Line in English warfare, with Chatham and the other Medway Towns playing a pivotal role in this.  Shipbuilding, soldiers and sailors have mingled with rural folk for hundreds of years, creating a unique culture, along with a rich heritage of folklore and fable.

Tales have drifted up and down the Medway like the rising and falling tides.  Raleigh and Nelson played their part in adding to these stories, as did the wars with the Dutch, Spanish and French – not to mention the Germans. All added to the mix for centuries.

A drowned Chatham sailor plays his part in the demise of a returned Crusader on the Isle of Sheppey a ghostly drummer boy (or two or three) haunt the old Dockyard and Fort Amhurst, a Dockyard carpenter does a deal with the Devil, a Naval battle is fought with Dutch cheese in the Downs, beyond the river mouth and a murder during the First World War unwittingly provides the raw material for one of the most enduring of modern urban legends.


Simon Young, ‘Phantom warriors at Castle-an-Dinas’

(To be supplied)


Jennifer Wallis, ‘Spiritualists between two wars: sensation, sickness, and solidarity’

During the First World War, spiritualism proved a comfort to many families. For those who had lost loved ones  – and often were not even able to bury a body – spiritualist churches and prayer circles were a valuable source of support. By the outbreak of the Second World War, though, the mood was less positive. Accusations of fakery, exposés in the popular press that revealed mediums’ ‘tricks’, wider concerns over working-class leisure – all of these were working to undermine spiritualism during the interwar period, even before mediums became the target of more sinister fears with the outbreak of World War Two. This paper considers how spiritualism had become a much maligned movement by the 1930s, related to broader contemporary concerns about the labour movement, women’s work, and health.


Scott Wood, ‘Hitler was here’

Hitler, on conquering Britain wanted to live there, have it office there and be coroneted there. There they are, all to see, the hoof prints of Oliver Cromwell’s horse pressed in to the wood for ever. Osman bin Laden was sighted, just after the attack on the Twin Towers , in a McDonalds in Utah. During early modern conflict there are often rumours of the great enemy sneaking on to our lands, from bin Laden to the devil himself. War is personal and when not planning our demise our enemies are infiltrating our lives through luxury goods. Scott Wood, author of London Urban Legends: The Corpse on the Tube, has collected these rumours of war and wonders what they truly signify.


Ross McFarlane, ‘“It was his mascot”: Edward Lovett and soldiers’ charms during World War One’

This talk will look at charms and mascots of soldiers during World War One.  It will initially look at this topic through the lens of English folklorist Edward Lovett (1852-1933) – not only through examples of these objects collected by Lovett but also by how Lovett constructed narratives around them in his book ‘Magic in Modern London’ (1925). I’ll also show how World War One was important to Lovett’s promotion of himself as an expert on contemporary folklore.  For a wider context to illustrate the soldiers’ relationship with these objects, I’ll draw upon the work of recent scholars who have looked at the emotional landscapes of the Western Front.  I’ll conclude with evidence to suggest that the use of charms and mascots by soldiers is still very much a contemporary practise.


Bill Roberts, ‘Remembrance of war in the twenty-first century’

(To be supplied)