British Folklore
Fairy Lore & Prehistoric Sites in Britain

Willy Howe

Willy Howe

Not far from Wold Newton, in the parish of Thwing, is a huge round barrow known as Willy Howe. Thought to be prehistoric, it has long been a notable landmark and is believed to be the setting of one of England's oldest fairytales.

the 12th century chronicler William of Newburgh, who was born at East newton, tells the story, which, he says, 'I have known from my childhood':

There is a village...near which those famous waters, commonly called Gipse, spring from the ground... A certain rustic belonging to the village, going to see his friend, who resided in the neighboring hamlet, was returning, a little intoxicated, late at night; when, behold, he heard...the voice of singing and revelling on an adjacent hillock, which I have often seen, and which is distance from the village only a few furlongs. Wondering who could be thus disturbing the silence of midnight with noisy mirth, he was anxious to investigate the matter more closely; and perceiving in the side of the hill an open door, he approached, and, looking in, he beheld a house, spacious and lighted up, filled with men and women, who were seated, as it were, at a solemn banquet. One of the attendants, perceiving him standing at the door, offered him a cup: accepting it, he wisely forebore to drink; but, pouring out the contents, and retaining the vessel, he quickly departed. A tumult arose among the company, on account of the stolen cup, and the guests pursued him; but he escaped by the fleetness of his steed, and reached the village with his extraordinary prize.

William describes the cup as 'a vessel of unknown material, unusual colour, and strange form', which was offered 'as a great present' to King Henry I, who in turn gave it to his brother-in-law, King David of Scotland, in whose treasury it long remained. William had heard from a reliable source that, 'a few years since', Henry II had asked to see it and William of Scotland had given it back to him.

What became of it is unknown. Much the same story was told by Gervase of Tilbury (c.1212) of a jewelled drinking horn likewise stolen from a fairy mound and presented to King Henry I. He may have adapted his version of the story from William of Newburgh. From a manuscript in the 13th century comes a medieval account of a fairy cup said to have come to the notice of Henry de Sanford, Bishop of Rochester from 1227-1235.

Just as exceptionally beautiful women in the MIddle Ages were sometimes called 'le Fay' (the fairy), so particularly beautiful objects might have been described in these terms given the rise to tales of thefts from Fairies.

In Britain, round barrows in particular were long believed to be fairy hills, inside which they lived. Moreover, the setting itself may have suggested the Otherworld to past inhabitants: Willy Howe is not the only barrow set along the course of the 'Gipse', the Gypsey Race, a mysterious intermittent stream that only flows in wet seasons and was held to be prophetic.

In 1827 it was still reported that local people believed Willy Howe to be inhabited by fairies. A fairy once told a man to whom she appears to have been particularly attached that, if he went to the top of the howe every morning, he would find a guinea, provided that he mentioned it to no one else. In the end, he broke the commandment and took someone else along. Not only did he not find the usual guinea, but he met with a 'severe punishment'. It was well known that fairy gifts should never be spoken of or they would cease.