Saturday 19 June 2010

The Holy Face of Halifax

Whether it represents a case of unconscious cultural transmission or merely a pleasing synchronicity, there can be no doubt that the image of the disembodied human head has exerted a curious influence over the municipal psyche of Halifax through the ages. Its most infamous and familiar expression can be seen in the once widely-feared Gibbet Law, whereby the town would behead criminals by the guillotine for the infraction of stealing goods worth more than the relatively trivial sum of 13½d, a custom which persisted until 1650, long after the rest of country had forsaken such a grisly mode of execution.

Meanwhile, archaeologists and folklorists have commented on the prevalence of uniquely stylised stone carvings of the human head in the vernacular architecture of the region. Often located at liminal positions such as gateways, gables, boundary walls and bridges, these images seem to have performed a tutelary or apotropaic function for the pre-modern mind, guarding against incursion by otherworldly forces and acting as the “luck” of the building.

Some scholars have suggested they may represent a folk memory of the Celtic “head cult,” a hypothesis supported by Halifax’s situation at the heart of Elmet, the last Celtic kingdom in England (enduring until the 7th Century AD), and the town’s subsequent isolation from outside influences until the Industrial Revolution. However, this identification has increasingly been questioned and currently the preferred term is “archaic stone head,” for even if the iconography does signify the continuity of a Celtic tradition, the majority of individual examples seem to date from around the 17th Century.

A further instance of the disembodied head motif can be discerned in the town’s “foundation myth”, of which there are two variants. In early works studying topography and local history of the region, these legends were understood literally and often cited as the historical origin of the town. As such, the stories are well-known to local antiquarians and seem to persist healthily in the popular consciousness of the town today. Yet whilst they are now easily recognisable as examples of myth (and their significance often dismissed on that account), little effort seems to have been expended examining the origin of these beliefs.

The first tradition is recorded by the scholar William Camden in his seminal and monumental chorographical work, “Britannia”, first published in 1586. He tells how the town had not long enjoyed the name of Halifax and was formerly known as Horton, wherein dwelled a certain clergyman who found himself consumed by lust for a local maid. The girl spurned his advances and as affection turned to anger, he cut her head from her body and cast it away. However, it was caught in the fork of a nearby yew tree and there, its hair grew so entangled in the branches, it was stuck fast and could not be removed.

As both the head and tree decayed, local superstition transformed the fibres which characterise the yew’s bark into surviving strands of the virgin’s hair, miraculously become one with the tree and preserved. Camden goes on to relate that the tree became an object of veneration for the local populace, who would make pilgrimages to the place and reverently carry away sprigs for good fortune. Such was the influx of pilgrims to see this hallowed relic Horton grew from a village into a substantial town and was renamed Halig-fax, a corruption of the Old English for “holy hair”.

It should be noted that the tale only appears in Camden’s earliest editions of Britannia, which suggests that even the antiquarian himself grew suspicious of its provenance. Many subsequent commentaries have expressed the opinion that the story had no genuine local tradition and was an invention of the 16th Century, possibly on the part of the Savile family, with whom Camden is thought to have stayed in 1580. Nonetheless, the story remained in currency throughout the 1600s, appearing in John Drayton’s poetic work of 1616, Poly-Olbion, and Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of England, published in 1662.

Almost a century after the publication of Camden’s chronicle, in his diary entry for 26th April 1679 historian Ralph Thoresby mentions being taken to see the yew tree, a visit which must have made an impression upon him as he mentions the incident again in an autobiographical “review” of his life. This suggests a venerated tree must have actually existed in Halifax, although it does not eliminate the possibility that it was only designated as such after Camden’s description. Doubtless the town burghers would’ve been eager to identify the locus of such a picturesque tale and yew trees are not an unfamiliar sight in the vicinity of churchyards in Britain.

Despite Thoresby’s credulity, the idea of “holy hair” story as a reliable historical account seems to have very quickly fallen out of fashion. Fuller expressed his doubts, writing that “the judicious behold the whole contrivance devoid of historical truth.” Its survival as a romantic fable was assured, however, and a most picturesque retelling appeared in Frederick Ross’s 1892 collection, Legendary Yorkshire, featuring numerous embellishments seemingly of the author’s own invention.

The first dedicated histories of Halifax were compiled at the end of 17th Century, although they did not appear immediately in print. Halifax and It's Gibbet Law and The History of the Town and Parish of Halifax were written during a period of incarceration for debt by Luddenden physician, Dr. Samuel Midgley, probably around 1685. However, they were not published until 1708, thirteen years after Midgley's death, by printer William Bentley who passed the work off as his own. As Bentley added his own notes it is difficult to ascertain just what should be attributed to whom but as the bulk undoubtedly belongs to Midgley, he shall be credited.

It is with these volumes that the second, marginally more sober version of the foundation myth enters the public consciousness, for Midgley conclusively rejects Camden’s story. He cites evidence that a church at Halifax is explicitly mentioned in documentary evidence dating from almost five hundred years prior to Camden’s visit, disproving his assertion that the name of Halifax was of no great antiquity and was originally called Horton. However, he acknowledges the strength of the tradition in the town itself.

Midgley wonders if the story of the holy hair may not have derived from a grove a yew trees surrounding the Well of St. John the Baptist, a hallowed spring which once stood some two hundred yards to the north of the parish church. Even by Midgley’s time this well had long since disappeared and its exact traditions been forgotten, but a remembrance of it existed in the name of the street beside which it stood, called Cripplegate in reference to the influx of infirm pilgrims who would visit it. In the 19th Century, the well trough was rediscovered in the grounds of Mulcture Hall, but was lost again with the building's demolition and the spot is now thought to lie beneath the end of Mulcture Hall Road, adjacent to the Wool Merchant Hotel.

The alternative version of the foundation myth Midgley goes on to provide has proved a more prevalent and enduring formulation, for reasons which will become clear. On this account, Halifax was originally the site of a secluded hermitage dedicated to St. John the Baptist (a figure known as the Prince of Hermits by the church fathers) which became a place of pilgrimage owing to a popular belief that the head of the Baptist itself was kept there. The beneficence of the pilgrims funded the construction of the parish church, which is still dedicated to St. John today.

Christian theology regards John the Baptist as the “Forerunner” who both proclaimed by the Messiah’s coming and baptised the infant Christ, whilst he is mentioned as a Prophet of Islam in the Qur’an. The Synoptic Gospels recount how the Baptist was decapitated by King Herod and his head presented to the monarch’s step-daughter Salome, whose mother John had slighted by calling Herod’s remarriage impious. As a result of his significance for both faiths, his head is a relic claimed by many places, Christian and Muslim, across Europe and the Middle East. However, Halifax is easily the most incongruous suggestion and undoubtedly wholly apocryphal, as no Roman Catholic source mentions the town in such a context.

Not only does Midgley prefers the suggestion that popular rumour may once have held that the relics of St. John the Baptist were kept at an early hermitage in Halifax, he seeks to strength the argument with an equally tenuous revision of Camden’s original etymological speculation. Where Camden believed the name to derive from a corruption of an Old English dialect for “holy hair”, Midgley suggest that it may rather have stemmed from “holy face,” citing the use of “fax” for “face” in certain Scottish dialects which he imagines best preserve the Anglo Saxon language.

A few more published histories of the town appear as the 18th Century progresses. The Antiquities of the Town of Halifax was published in 1737 by Thomas Wright, which only discusses the story of the “holy hair”, with a note that he does not have much faith in its authenticity. He is joined in this opinion by Dr. John Watson, a curate of Halifax and Ripponden, whose History and Antiquities of the Parish of Halifax appeared in 1775. However, Watson's more comprehensive tome follows Midgley in proposing the head of St. John the Baptist hypothesis.

Today, the supposition that Halifax may once have possessed the head of St. John the Baptist seems no more credible than the legend of the holy hair. However, to Midgley and Watson's credit they do not say that the hermitage on which the church was founded actually did possess the head, only that people believed it to be so. This is not quite so absurd, as religious houses in the Middle Ages often exhibited relics of very dubious authenticity in expectation of the economic benefits such a superstition would bring.

Nonetheless, there is no contemporary documentary evidence to suggest even a popular belief of this nature and it seems to be little more than speculation on the part of Midgley and Watson. If Halifax had been such a famous centre of pilgrimage it seems unlikely that this would have escaped mention in medieval sources. However, no such record is to be found, even amongst local wills where you would expect to find remembrances referring to any relics or shrine of St. John the Baptist. After all, it was customary for local worthies to bequeath money to such institutions to guarantee the priests would pray for their immortal souls.

A more sober proposal, first mooted by John Stansfield writing in Volume 2 of the Thoresby Society Miscellanea, is that the church at Halifax once possessed not the head of John the Baptist but a portrait of the saint. T.W. Hanson would later revise this hypothesis and suggested that the visage might have been sculpted from alabaster, as several such representations of the Baptist have been recorded in Yorkshire in the Middle Ages. An elaborate icon of this type would have impressed pilgrims during the medieval period but could certainly have been lost during the Reformation, when in 1547, Edward IV issued an injunction against images in churches and a vast majority were defaced or destroyed.

Midgley and Watson's original conjecture very quickly fell out of fashion, however. In his 1816 History of Leeds and Elmet, Doctor Thomas Whittaker tacitly dismisses the idea of any relic, but seems to take it for granted that there was once a hermitage on the site of the parish church and that this was a great centre of pilgrimage. Furthermore, observing that four highways had long converged at that place, he muddies the etymological waters further by arguing that the name of the town was in fact an Anglo-Saxon/Norman French compound meaning “holy ways”, as “fax” was a Norman French plural meaning highways.

In 1836’s A Concise History of the Parish and Vicarage of Halifax In the Country of York, John Crabtree follows Whittaker in rejecting both formulations of the foundation myth. Nonetheless, the legends were evidently still pervasive through the 19th Century. When the borough was incorporated in 1848, local antiquary Francis Alexander Leyland was commissioned to design a coat-of-arms for the town. He chose to embellish the shield of the Earls de Warenne, Norman lords-of-the manor, with a representation of the severed head of St. John the Baptist, on the grounds not only of the parish church’s dedication, but also the myth of the town’s origin.

The College of Arms, however, refused to register the design, indicating that the head of St. John the Baptist was too holy an icon to adorn the seal of an industrial town. This decision, compounded by the expense incurred, led the Halifax Corporation to abandon the idea of enrolment altogether. Initially, they used the seal without official armorial bearings, but by 1859 these had crept back in and the Corporation continued to use the coat-of-arms illegally until the centenary of its design in 1948, when the Herald’s College was finally persuaded to accept a modified version, albeit one that retained the Baptist motif.

Whilst it should now be clear that Halifax never pretended to possess the head of St. John the Baptist, it is interesting to speculate on how the town’s association with that personage and his legend arose. One possible source is the etymological root suggested by Midgley. However, this appears to be little more than post-hoc justification for Watson’s conjecture. The current favoured origin for the name of Halifax is the Middle English “halh-gefeaxe”, meaning “an area of coarse grass in a nook of land amongst rocks”. Extensive reasoning for this is set out by A.H. Smith in Volume 3 of his definitive study, The Place Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire.

It is scarcely surprising that Watson et al should have posited such a dramatic origin, for there can be no doubt that the rise of Halifax is both shrouded in mystery and somewhat meteoric. Despite apparently being of insufficient stature to warrant a mention in the Domesday Book, by the late Middle Ages the town had grown to become the most substantial in the valley, supplanting older, better situated rivals such as Elland, and was the site of a major parish church. Inevitably, early antiquarians would’ve sought an explanation befitting such a scenario.

It is certain that Halifax Parish Church was founded at some during the lifetime of the Second Earl de Warenne, which would date it to the late 11th or early 12th Century. The Earl owned much land in the region and a charter drawn up around the time of his death in 1138 is the first record of the church, mentioning it as a gift to the Priory of Lewes. However, this is only a confirmation of an earlier bequest, suggesting that the Earl had donated land for the purposes of a religious house and the church had been established by Cluniac Benedictine monks from Lewes Priory some years prior to the Earl’s death.

The dedication of the church to St. John the Baptist has led some commentators to surmise a connection with that infamous Crusading order, the Knights Templar. In the furore which followed their dissolution in 1307, a number of charges of apostasy were levelled against the Templars, including that they worshipped the image of a disembodied head. Even though it has been shown that the accusations were fabricated and the order was actually suppressed because the Vatican was jealous of its wealth and influence, this has not stopped speculation that they were adherents of the Johannite Heresy and were in possession of the Baptist’s head.

Amongst the evidence brought against the Templars during their trials for heresy in 1311 was the testimony of a Minorite friar by the name of Brother John de Donyngton, the sixty-seventh witness deposed. Donyngton swore that some years previously in London a Templar veteran, whose name he conveniently could not recall, had assured him that "the order had four principal idols"; one at London in the Sacristy of the Temple; another at Bristelham; a third at Bruern in Lincolnshire; and a fourth "beyond the Humber", the exact location of which he could not remember. However, "beyond the Humber" clearly indicates somewhere in the north of England and could conceivably be imagined as Halifax.

The Knights Templar certainly owned a great deal of land in Yorkshire, more than in any other county in England, including some in the vicinity of Halifax. A whimsical narrative could doubtless be constructed whereby the order brought the head of St. John the Baptist to the town to keep it safe from the wiles of Rome and a church founded to commemorate its presence. However, quite aside from the sheer fancifulness of such a story, the chronology cannot be made to fit. The order was not founded until 1128 and did not arrive in Yorkshire until 1142, by which time the church at Halifax had already been established.

A more sensible suggestion in a similar vein is that the church was dedicated to St. John the Baptist to reflect the connections of the de Warennes with another Crusading order, the Knights Hospitaller, whose patron saint was the Baptist and who had similarly been granted land in the Halifax region, including at Coley. Yet whilst the de Warennes undoubtedly did have sympathies with the Hospitallers, this relationship seems not have arisen until the time of the third Earl, who fought in the Second Crusade between 1146 and 1148. Again, the church had already been founded and bequeathed to the Priory of Lewes some time prior to this date.

The most likely cause of Halifax’s associated with St. John the Baptist is also probably the most prosaic. He is, amongst other things, the patron saint of lambs and in that capacity was adopted by the Wool Weavers’ Guilds across Europe in the Middle Ages. Whilst Halifax had no such guild itself , even long before its reputation in the Industrial Revolution, the town was closely associated with the wool trade. A gravestone at the parish church dating from 1150, featuring a carved representation of a pair of cropping shears, attests to this fact. It is not improbable that a town at the centre of a district so dependent on hill-farming should find the patron saint of lambs a resonant figure.

However, it is the legend and not mundane reality which has endured in the folk-memory of the town, doubtless much to the chagrin of the joyless positivists who too often dominate the study of local history. In one of the few learned discussions of the foundation myth, the venerable early 20th Century Halifax scholar H.P. Kendall opines, “We, as antiquarians, freely acknowledge the necessity of preserving the traditions of the past, if those traditions have a root in the dim mists of antiquity. But here the case is different, there is no remote antiquity about it as it appears to have been an invention of the latter end of the 16th Century with not even the halo of romance to give it support and hallow it.”

Yet it is by no means clear that simply because the legend has its roots in modernity rather than antiquity, it is therefore beneath our attention. Many Halifax residents are familiar with the rumours concerning the head of St. John the Baptist and even if the various incarnations of the foundation myth arose purely from the speculation of historians between the 16th and 18th Century, this does not alter the fact that their musings have grown into a genuine local tradition which persists today. Indeed, it gives folklorists and social historians a rare opportunity to study exactly how such beliefs arise and establish themselves in the public consciousness.

Moreover, when considered in the wider context of the town’s historical fascination with the motif of the disembodied human head, the foundation myths acquire a whole new relevance. It is, of course, impossible to ascertain whether such correspondences are evidence of any sustained cultural transmission. The history of thought can only be reconstructed through its artefacts; we cannot excavate the underlying processes. As such we can only observe the existence of a correlation and speculate on what it might tell us.

It is vaguely possible that when the parish church was founded in the 11th Century, having observed the belief invested in images of the disembodied human head by the local populace, the Benedictine monks cannily chose to dedicate it to a saint whose narrative might have some resonance far greater than the perceived patronage he offered to hill farmers. It would not be the first time the Christian church had co-opted pre-existent local folk beliefs in the interest of securing a relatively harmonious transition. However, it is by no means certain that any importance was attached to the head image as early as the 11th Century, the Celtic attribution remaining controversial.

The original dedication may have been as commonplace as suggested and it was Midgley and Watson who imbued it with significance by projecting the prevalence of the image of the head in their own time backwards through history. The period between the 16th and the 18th Century when these two venerable antiquaries were writing appears to have been a fertile time for head carving in the region. Customs such as placing human skulls in the walls during the construction of a building to provide protection against witchcraft were still rife in that era and even if they did not believe in such superstitions himself, the symbolism would not be unfamiliar.

Alternatively, the chance does exist that there is no connection at all between these various traditions, and that we are looking at a cultural and historical simulacrum. Like all simulacra, it is aesthetically satisfying but its objective existence is a matter of perspective, nothing more than the sum of its unrelated parts. Nonetheless, it seems instructive that both versions of the foundation myth involve a decapitated human head. Even as inventions of incautious antiquarians, you have to wonder why they might have chosen that particularly image. Ultimately, the correspondences are too numerous to be ignored.

Billingsley, John "A Stoney Gaze" (1998)
Billingsley, John "West Yorkshire Folk Tales" (2010)
Camden, William "Britannia" (1586)
Crabtree, John "A Concise History of the Parish and Vicarage of Halifax" (1836)
Bretton, R. "The Halifax Borough Coat of Arms" in Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society (1948)
Fuller, Thomas "History of the Worthies of England" (1662)
Hanson, T.H. "The Story of Old Halifax" (1920)
Hanson, T.H. "Halifax Parish Church: Norman Era" in Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society (1953)
Holloway, Diane "The Knights Templar in Yorkshire" (2008)
Hunter, Joseph (Ed.) "The Diary of Ralph Thoresby 1677-1724" (1830)
Kendall, H.P. "Domesday Book and After" in Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society (1935)
Midgley, Samuel "History of the Town and Parish of Halifax" (1780)
Ross, Frederick "Legendary Yorkshire" (1892)
Smith, A.H. "The Place Names of the West Riding: Volume 3" (1961)
Stansfield, John "Seals of the Corporate Bodies of Halifax" in the Thoresby Society Miscellanea Volume 2 (1890)
Watson, John "The History and Antiquities of the Town of Halifax" (1775)
Whittaker, Thomas "The History of Leeds and Elmet" (1816)
Wright, Thomas "The Antiquities of the Town of Halifax" (1737)
Wright, Thomas "Narratives of Sorcery and Magic" (1851)

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