ID: ELS_101

TitleThe Devil and the Wood - the Virley devil
AbstractThe celebrated Virley Devil Legend belongs equally to Tolleshunt Knights. It is generally recounted as follows: When they dug the land in the Devil's Wood and started to build the house, they worked first day and left a man on guard at night with his three spey bitches. In the night Satan came and said, "Who is there ?" And the man answered, "God and myself and my three spey bitches", and they went away". And the next day they did another day's work, a left the same man, on guard again. And in the night Satan came and said, "Who is there ?", and the man answered, "God and myself and my three spey bitches", and the Devil went away. And the third day they did another day's work, and left the man on guard again, and in the night Satan came and said, "Who is there?" The man answered, "Myself and my three spey bitches and God", put it the wrong way round, So the Devil reached out his claw and tore the heart out of the man's body. And he took a beam from the house and threw it up the hill, and said,

"Where this beam shall fall
There shall ye build Barnhall".

The Devil said he would have the man's soul whether he was in the church or churchyard, so they buried him in the wall of Bushes and the Devil was cheated. The tomb in the church was for long identified with de Patteshull of Barnhall, though I think the name is now forgotten, and its position in the wall and the heart in the hands of the effigy, are held to confirm the story.

The story is sometimes elaborated and often preceded by the statement that the Devil was angry at the building because the wood was used for his revels. The earliest reference to it that I know of is by a writer in The Gentleman's Magazine who recounts enough to show that the legend had practically its present form when he heard it in 1761. A story is told of the building in Baring-Gould's Mehalah. The site is here called The Devil's Walk and the material "Stones from Kent", but there is no other reference to the Devil. There is also a very long printed version of which copies, though hard to find, are still extant.

The reputed "Devil's beam" is preserved in the Barnhall cellar, and has been "touched for a cure" within living memory. It is said that no one can damage it without hurt to himself, and the mortice peg-holes are reputed to be Satan's claw marks - it is actually a moulded fifteenth-century ceiling beam.

The Devil's wood is called also, The Devil's Moat, The Devil's Toolbox and Alderbury. In an estate map of 1625 it is given the curious name of Cost Needlese; it is shown as having no building, and being, with the surrounding field, part of Barnhall manor. It consists of a wood of about two acres enclosing a moat, rectangular except for an extension westward, now dry most of the year. Within it is an island or platform about ninety by 110 feet. There is a bank outside the moat with a gap or entrance on the north side. There is nothing to see except a few bits of stone and, if we dig for them, some ragstone rubble foundations. These are evidence of a building of importance, for the ragstone is, as Mehalah said, brought from Kent, and most ancient Essex houses were of timber with very scanty footings. Almost all mediaeval country houses of importance were either ecclesiastical or manorial and Alderbury was what the word Alderbury means - the Old Manor.

The Doomsday survey places Borooldituna in Winstree Hundred in which Alderbury and the surrounding fields are, though Barnhall is not. It then had one hide - about 120 acres - of arable land. If Alderbury was the manor house in 1086, with its farm land in Winstree, and Barnhall not yet built, the Doomsday assessors might reasonably place Borooldituna in Winstree without worrying much about the largely uninhabited tracts of forest over the Thurstable boundary. Putting the devil aside for the moment, the legend clearly associates the absence of a house at Alderbury with the building of Barnhall and with de Patteshull. As de Patteshull is a more remote and less celebrated figure than atte Lee whose effigy it actually is in the church, it is remarkable that he should be chosen for the story if there were no connecting fact. There was a very good reason for his changing his residence did so. Alderbury is on the edge of the marshes which were in with the malaria-carrying mosquito up to a century ago. The de Patteshulls came from inland, and the ague, which their predecessors took for grafted, might appear to them an adequate reason for building on the high and healthy site in the newly-cleared forest. What reason can we find for the addition of the devil to what is other far from sinister story ?

The history of Matthew Hopkins, the witchfinder in the seven century, is well known in Essex, But it is not always realised that witch worship had earlier been practised on such a scale, particularly on the continent, that it actually menaced the supremacy of the Church. Witches were not merely silly and persecuted old women, as in olden days (there was said to be one at Tiptree not fifty years ago), but groups of men and women who practised peculiarly nasty rites in lonely places all over Europe. That Devil's wood was one is likely - the "reason" the story mean just that - and the legend is a fusion of the history of Barnhall with darker memories from a later period when the old was abandoned.

The pages transcribed above were copied from an unknown printed publication by Owen Ellis. The author is not known.

SourceMersea Museum / Owen Ellis