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Mural of Jack o' Legs distributing stolen bread to poor people

6 staggering giants from English folklore

Image: Mural of Jack o' Legs distributing stolen bread to poor people | Public Domain

From Goliath to the club-wielding ogres of European folklore, there is no shortage of tall tales across the history of the world. The myth and legend of England is no exception – it is teeming with giants, from the forest giants of Hampshire to the man-eating ogres of Cornwall.

Here we stagger back and look up at the imposing figures of six of the most famous giants from English folklore.

1. Gogmagog

Inside London’s ancient Guildhall, in the heart of the City of London, stands two curious statues. These are Gog and Magog, the mascots of London. Though these are a pair, their history is connected to Gogmagog, a legendary giant who features in a foundation story of Britain.

According to this story, the Trojan king Brutus arrived on this island in 1100 BC and found that it was peopled entirely by ‘giants’. Brutus decided to stay, naming the island Britain, after himself. 12th century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that Brutus slew all the giants in Britain apart from a ferocious one named Gogmagog. Gogmagog was 12 feet tall and so strong that ‘he could tear up an oak tree as though it were a hazel wand’, according to Geoffrey.

Atop a cliff on the south coast of England, the story went on, the legendary warrior Corineus and Gogmagog had an epic fight, which Corineus won by throwing Gogmagog into the sea. Here the leviathan hit a sharp rock and was ‘dashed into a thousand fragments’.

According to Geoffrey, the victorious Brutus then built his capital city on the banks of the Thames and called it New Troy – the city we call London.

2. Colbrand

Athelstan ruled England from 927 to 939 and is considered by many scholars today to have been the first true King of England.

His reign was marked by a struggle against the Danes, who wanted Athelstan’s kingdom for themselves. Athelstan was eventually successful, winning a famous victory at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937. But there is a legend about how the king’s kingdom was saved on another occasion.

The story goes that one day the Danish rulers Anelaph and Gonelaph went to conquer Athelstan’s kingdom. But the Danes made the king a deal. They said if Athelstan’s champion could vanquish theirs, they would pack up at once and return home.

Athelstan agreed. Step forward Sir Guy of Warwick, one of the most famous folk heroes of England. Guy volunteered to be Athelstan’s champion in a duel against Colbrand, the Danes’ champion. Colbrand was considered a real ‘giant’, a legendary man-mountain. The fight took place at Hyde Mead, just outside Winchester.

Centuries of illustrations in books concerning the contest depict Colbrand towering over Guy, club in hand, while Guy holds up his shield and jabs the giant with his sword.

3. Yernagate

The Anglo-Saxon name for the area of Hampshire now known as the New Forest was ‘Jettenwald’, which may have meant ‘the wood of the giants’. It’s not hard to see why. Hampshire, once much more forested than today, has a folklore brimming with wood-dwelling man-mountains. One of the best-known of these figures is Yernagate, the guardian giant of the Hampshire forests.

18th century writer Daniel Defore mentions Yernagate as one of the many Hampshire fables featuring giants.

The myth of Yernagate says that long ago, this giant, guarding the forest, allowed a man to take a small amount of wood. The giant went away and when he came back, he was furious to see that the man had felled a huge number of trees. The angry Yernagate picked up the man and threw him so high that he landed on the Moon. This gave rise to the later ‘Man on the Moon’ legend.

Hampshire tradition also records that Yernagate, an ancient giant who was said to be over 1,000 years old, one day decided to take a nap. He laid down and covered himself with earth forming, according to the myth, a mound that is known today as Yernagate’s Nap.

4. Jack o’ Legs

In the yard of the parish church in the picturesque village of Weston, near Stevenage, lies a modest marker for a grave. It bears the wording, ‘Jack o’ Legs’ grave’. This is purported to be the real resting place of a folk hero, the giant Jack o’ Legs. There are two stones by this marker, the feet stone and headstone of his grave – 14 feet apart - in which Jack was alleged to have been buried doubled up! Jack was said to have been tall enough to walk up and peer straight into the top-floor windows of big houses.

A huge thighbone, which apparently belonged to Jack, used to be on show ‘in the church chest’ until it was bought in the 17th century by a collector who later gave it to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Jack was said to have made his home in a cave deep in the woods just outside of Weston sometime in the 12th or 13th centuries.

An 18th-century writer of Hertfordshire history described Jack as a robber who stole from the rich to give to the poor, much like Robin Hood. Also, like Robin Hood, Jack was a bowman.

As well as money, Jack kept pinching bread from the bakers of Baldock and distributing it to the poor. Unfortunately for Jack, the bakers were a powerful group of tradespeople who, when they caught him, blinded him and then hanged him. Just before he was executed, he requested that he be handed his bow and arrow and taken to the woods. Here he would fire his weapon and wherever the arrow landed, this was where he wanted to be buried. The bakers agreed, and when the arrow was loosed it landed some considerable distance away, in the churchyard of the parish church in Weston.

5. Ascapart

Another Hampshire giant from English folklore is Ascapart, the mighty juggernaut who famously carried Sir Bevis of Hampton, together with his wife and their horse under his arm.

Ascapart was 30 feet tall according to the legend and wielded the trunk of an oak tree as his club. One day, when fighting Sir Bevis, the giant swung his club to deliver an easy, devastating blow. But the club got stuck in the ground, and Sir Bevis had the opportunity to put down the ogre. But he decided against vanquishing his enemy and instead gave him a job as his squire. But later, after Ascapart betrayed Bevis by taking his wife prisoner, Bevis finally killed the giant.

6. Blunderbore

Cornwall is as famous for being steeped in ancient myth, legend, and history as it is for its blue waters and seafood restaurants. One of the many giants from Cornish folklore is Blunderbore, a main character from the fairytale ‘Jack the Giant Killer’.

In the story, Blunderbore was a terrible ogre who lived in the countryside around Ludgvan and attacked travellers going on the road between Penzance and St Ives. Many people were devoured whole and alive by Blunderbore, drowning in the digestive acid of his stomach.

The young hero of the tale, Jack, after first killing the colossus Cormoran, is then captured by Blunderbore, taken to his enchanted castle home and thrown into the monster’s dungeon. Blunderbore kept Jack there, along with some other captives, intending to have them all for lunch. The hero had other ideas. Once Blunderbore and his brother, Rebecks, were asleep, Jack slipped out and put nooses around their necks. He then slid along the rope and deftly cut open the giants’ throats.