Weird Norfolk: Babes in the wood
PUBLISHED: 12:50 13 October 2017
Lost children in a dark forest, a wicked uncle blinded by greed and a story passed down through generations. Weird Norfolk investigates the Babes in the Wood.
It’s a tale as old as time, children alone in a dark forest due to the wickedness of their heartless guardians.
Babes in the Wood was first performed as a pantomime in 1827 under its full name: Harlequin and Cock Robin or The Babes in the Wood and was a theatrical interpretation of a story which had grown from the Harlequinades, once classical plays but which became traditional fairy stories retold as pantomimes.
While other pantomimes grew from fireside stories whispered by grandmothers to grandchildren, Babes in the Wood had a darker genesis entirely, its roots snaking out from a deep, dark forest on the edge of the county at Wayland, near Watton.
It is why the wood was for
many years known as ‘Wailing Wood’.
This cruel fairytale is said to be based on Thomas Millington’s tale of 1595 which told the story of a dreadful uncle who hired assassins to kill his orphaned niece and nephew so that he could inherit their estate.
The murderers, however, lost their nerve and rather than killing the children, abandoned them in the heart of the wood so that hunger would claim
There was no happy ending in the original tale, the only tender moment coming courtesy of a kindly robin which covered the tiny bodies of the sister and brother with a blanket of wild strawberry leaves, although in Walt Disney’s version, material was taken from Hansel and Gretel and there was the addition of a village of friendly elves who saved the pair.
The tragedy is said to have happened between 1541 and 1572 when the de Grey family
owned Griston Hall, close to Watton.
Hall owner Edmund de Grey had a grandson Thomas whose father died when he was seven-years-old.
The little boy’s uncle was Robert de Grey who stood to inherit Griston and the land it stood in if young Thomas died before he married and had a family of his own.
Thomas’ father had not liked Robert, but on his death bed had begged him to look after his son and second wife, Thomas’ stepmother, Temperance: Robert swore in the sight of God that while he lived, he would ensure no harm came to his brother’s
Four years passed and Temperance remarried Sir Cristopher Heydon of Baconsthorpe and moved away from Griston Hall leaving 11-year-old Thomas behind. But the pair stayed in contact, and one day, young Thomas went to visit his stepmother- but he never returned home. Whether he died in Baconsthorpe or on the way home was never established.
And when Robert claimed the de Grey wealth as his own, the rumours flew.
With the shadowy wood so close to Griston and the murky dealings of Robert de Grey creating a storm of suspicion, a story was spun in which Thomas had been murdered by Robert and his body hidden in the darkest recesses of the forest, a tale which was later adapted and carved into the mantelpiece over a fireplace at Griston which showed two children lying under a tree, two robins and a wicked uncle.
When lightning struck the huge Wayland Oak which lay at the heart of the wood in 1879, locals remarked that it was the very tree under which unfortunate Thomas had been buried and which had become entwined with the Babes in the Wood legend and the ballad that predated it.
Today, an echo of the story can be seen on Watton’s village sign which features two young children who sit with their backs against a large tree – and it is said that on moonlit nights, in the wailing wood, the ghosts of the children can be heard crying deep in the forest, their plaintive sobbing carried on the wind.
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