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Willy Howe


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The fullest English version of the ‘stolen fairy cup’ legend is localized at Willy Howe, a large round barrow near Wold Newton in Humberside (formerly East Yorkshire); it was recorded as a real event by William of Newburgh (died c.1198), who had been born nearby and had known about it since childhood. A village man, riding home late one night and rather drunk, heard singing and laughter coming from the mound; then he saw an open door, and people feasting inside. When a servant came out and offered him a cup, ‘he wisely forebore to drink, but, pouring out the contents, and retaining the vessel, he quickly departed,’ pursued by the furious guests.It was a vessel of an unknown material, unusual colour, and strange form. It was offered as a great present to Henry the Elder, King of England, and then handed over to the Queen's brother, David, King of Scotland, and deposited for many years among the treasures of his kingdom; and, a few years since, as we have heard from authentic relation, it was given up by William, king of the Scots, to Henry the Second, on his desiring to see it. (Trans. Joseph Stevenson (1856/1996), 438)

It was a vessel of an unknown material, unusual colour, and strange form. It was offered as a great present to Henry the Elder, King of England, and then handed over to the Queen's brother, David, King of Scotland, and deposited for many years among the treasures of his kingdom; and, a few years since, as we have heard from authentic relation, it was given up by William, king of the Scots, to Henry the Second, on his desiring to see it. (Trans. Joseph Stevenson (1856/1996), 438)

Clearly, the cup was real, even though the tale is an international legend. Gervase of Tilbury knew a similar story about a mound in the Forest of Dean where thirsty travellers were offered drink in a jewelled horn ‘such as was used among the old English’, by a silent servant; eventually, a knight stole the horn and gave it to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, who then gave it to Henry I (Westwood, 1985: 25–6, 350–2).

There is yet a third version allegedly attached to Rillaton Barrow in Cornwall, and purporting to explain a prehistoric gold goblet found there (now in the British Museum, after having been used by George V as a shaving mug). However, the goblet was found in 1837 and the story first appeared in 1899 in A Book of the West: Cornwall by the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould, who was familiar with medieval material; its authenticity is more than dubious.

Stories of fairy treasure continued to be told about Willy Howe. A man once found a chest of gold there, so heavy that it took a train of horses a quarter of a mile long to drag it out, but lost it at the last minute by blasphemously exclaiming, ‘Whether God's will or not, we'll have this ark’. Another man used to find a guinea on the mound every morning, left for him by fairies, but boasted of the gifts, after which they ceased (Hone, 1827: 92).

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