folklore / nursery rhyme / Pendle Hill / witchcraft

The Daughter of Bel-Trabol:A Theory about a Curious Nursery Rhyme, and its Relationship to Historical Witchcraft in Lancashire

the ravens

 

 

Copyright 2006 by Susan Treadway, M.A.

Used with permission

 

 

* * *

 

“Ugly Lull Grinlee

Came of a witch’s belly

A lame gal born of sin

 

Ugly Lull Grinlee

Smil’d all crookedly

Quite a simpleton

 

Ugly Lull Grinlee

Always quite lonely

Never had a friend

 

Ugly Lull Grinlee

Had to cry daily

For (her) mother’s sin

 

Ugly Lull Grinlee

Took sick and happily

Was ne’er seen again”

 

-Child’s Nursery Rhyme, circa 1800 from the

Lancashire Historical Review (Vol. 21, 1974)

 

* * *

 

I.

James Anders-Myers, in his book “Martha Whitcroft: The Witch of Chimney Rock”, talks about a sensational case of witchcraft in old Lancashire that took place in the late 17th century. With the current surge of interest, largely motivated by modern neo-pagan subculture in the more celebrated case of the Pendle Witches who were tried at the Lancaster Assizes on 18–19 August 1612, the story of Martha Whitcroft and her friends is often missed.

 

Following Anders-Myers, It seems that in 1670, A farmgirl from outside the town of Clitheroe named Martha Whitcroft, along with Mary Leadle, Jonet Hart, and Hilda Grenlea got up to some devilish business in the ruins of a seventh century abbey, called Chimney Rock by the locals.

 

Chimney Rock was by that point mostly a pile of rocks, hidden away in a dense growth called Piked Acre wood and under a nearby rise called Worsaw hill, with a Roman road running alongside it which can still be seen and walked by tourists today. Another recording of the story claimed the misdeeds of the girls took place in Helliwell wood, near a stream called Warth Beck, also outside of Clitheroe, but on the other side of the famed Pendle Hill, which had gained a reputation for local witchcraft due to the trials some 60 years before.

 

The case appears straightforward: the girls had an orgy with the devil, and all but one of them got hanged for it, after lengthy confessions. The lucky girl that escaped the noose did so only because she was pregnant- and, miserably out of luck as she was, Hilda Grenlea died in childbirth, with her family wanting nothing to do with her daughter, widely considered to be the devil’s own child.

 

Hilda’s sister apparently showed good Christian compassion and opted to raise the child, but she had to move to a nearby hamlet to do it, as the people of Clitheroe wouldn’t have the baby nearby for any reason. Of course, the countryside being quite connected, and with the tendency of rumors to fly far and wide, even the people in nearby areas had heard of the scandal, and wanted little to do with the infant girl or the girl’s aunt.

 

The girl grew up to be an ugly duckling, and coupled with the scorn of local adults and children, her reputation for being a daughter of the “evil one” was all but sealed. Her father was, based on the confessions given by her mother, a cottar from Sabden, whom she “met on the white slacks”. But the scandal and the legend was set early and was unshakeable. The daughter was also quite sickly. Dr. Harold Whitby, in the Lancashire Historical Review, did a collection of nursery rhymes or play-songs for children in the 19th century, and one of them, given above, mentions a lonely, ugly girl named “Lull Grinlee”.

 

I am of the opinion there is a high likelihood that this nursery rhyme is about the daughter of Hilda Grenlea- “Grinlee” and the surname Grenlea (probably derived from ‘Green Lea’ or “Green leaf/leaves”) sound exactly alike, and the memory of local lore that gives rise to nursery rhymes is often framed in such ways. The rhyme was collected from an informant in Barrowford, also in the shadow of Pendle hill.

 

Following along with my theory, which I admit is a theory, I would venture that the daughter of Hilda, whose name is never given in any source, was called “Lull”. It’s interesting that “Lullan” is a name given to a female fairy by English Folklorist and Historian Katherine Briggs in her celebrated books “The Encyclopedia of Fairies” and “The Vanishing People”.

 

The nursery rhyme seems to indicate that the little girl took sick for a final time; perhaps buried somewhere in private by her long suffering aunt. But I would like to suggest that perhaps something else happened. What I have to suggest can stretch the boundaries of credulity, but please bear with me.

 

 

II.

It all started when I read the surviving excerpts from the confession of Mary Leadle, one of the Chimney Rock witches, and given by Anders-Myers. There isn’t much from her confession that survived, due to damage from a church fire that happened 75 years after her trial. In the partial confession, she admits that the “Devil” joined them in carnal union after a prayer was said to a “yellow rock” that was apparently shaped like a man’s head, and possibly marked with circles and other shapes. She said two other things- that two biblical psalms were used to make the devil appear and depart, and that his name (given to them by him) was “Beltrabul” or “Belthrabul”.

 

My first thought was that this name was another one of those inscrutable and mysterious local devil-names, such as “Christsonday” (a name for the devil given by a rural healer, and recorded most recently by Margaret Murray) and the like.

 

But when I looked into the history of the Chimney Rock abbey and of the history of that region of Britain, I discovered that before the Briganti Celts were established as the dominant population, a tribe of native Britons called the “Traboli” inhabited the area. They are the same people whose stone age predecessors may have put up the burial mounds on top of Pendle Hill.

 

With close archaeological ties to Man and Wales, the Traboli certainly had a native tribal or toutal God that might have been assimilated with the coming of the later peoples, into what we consider the Welsh/Brythonic “pantheon”. These historical assimilations of the gods of native people with incoming cultural drifts is a well known phenomenon. It is well known that a prominent Welsh Father God was called (variably) Bel, or Beli. It may stretch the imagination, but when I considered the name “Beltrabul” for a while, I thought “Bel of the Traboli”?

 

I admit that this may be a case of intuition seeing something that isn’t there, but it inspired me to look further. The God Bel and the Traboli people are well known to historians. To put the two names together isn’t as big a stretch as some might think, though it must forever remain theoretical.

 

 

III.

The Abbey of Chimney Rock, now just a pile of rocks and ruins in the present day, was built after a recorded tussle with the local pagans. The monks who built it recorded the strife very briefly, and used the rest of their chronicle to record the extravagant costs of maintaining so isolated a monastery, and the tedium of keeping the offices of the hours. The record of the abbey is one of the manuscripts kept at an archive in the Oratory Church of St Aloysius Gonzaga, in Oxford.

 

The monks do say that the local pagans, who were slow in converting, held dear to their idols and vain superstitions- even going as far as to occasionally offer their children to carved images. The people that these monks were talking about were related to the Brigantes, but in this area, they were also likely descendants of the Traboli.

 

Historians like to make comparisons between this mention of child sacrifice and the worship of Crom in Ireland- The stone idol Crom Cruaich, who at Moy Slecht, was reportedly offered children in exchange for “corn and fair weather”.

 

The word “idol” kept coming up, and when coupled with one more historical fact, given by the monks- the fact that the monks buried the idols of the newly converted locals below the site of the abbey, after breaking them up- I had another moment of insight that certainly makes my thesis here forever isolated from mainstream academia.

 

We should consider the possibility, however distant it might be, that the “yellow rock” mentioned in the witch trial, which might have been shaped like a man’s head, was actually a piece of a pagan idol that Martha and her friends had found at the ruins of Chimney Rock. I can appreciate how fantasical it may sound, but two pretty amazing coincidences seemed to be occurring: the name Beltrabul, and the confession about the prayers to the idol-rock. The question that remained was, again: was I seeing a shape where there was only a shadow? Stone age “cup and ring” marks are found on stones all over the British Isles; Mary Leadle said their rock had “circles and marks” on it.

 

 

IV.

So where would these girls have gotten the name “Beltrabul” from? They say they got it from the devil himself; but could they have gotten it from elsewhere? For a moment, let’s say that I’m right about the origin of the name “Beltrabul” being “Bel of the Traboli”- there is no mention of it in any recorded folklore. The name only appears in the transcripts of this witch trial. Could there have been a thousand year long tradition of people keeping this God’s name alive or secret, and the girls heard about it from some local source? That would be too much to ask for- and impossible to prove.

 

Some have said that “Beltrabul” was just the recorder’s misspelling of “Beelzebul”- or that the recorder misspelled it on purpose, not wanting to write out the Devil’s name. I personally like my theory better, but I admit that this is a good point to ponder.

 

But another point emerges that led me to my final conclusion, which tied together several of these threads. Reginald Pitt, in the book “An Archaeological History of Lancashire, with a Study of Folklore, Superstition, and Legendry”, mentions that two accused Witches in the mid 1700’s, who lived on the side of a stretch of forest called Bollard wood, near the village of White Hough, (again, right below Pendle hill) asked a female demon named “Nan Lullan” to show them the future, and in exchange, offered to give the demoness an infant.

 

Nan Lullan was experienced by these witches as female- an unusual thing for a “demon” to be, because demonologists from that period and after it had no end of a time collecting endless catalogues of demonic names, and one of the more “occult famed” catalogues- the Dictionairre Infernal- only lists one female demon out of the hundreds: Glasyabolus. That same demoness appears in the Goetia as a lone female demonic specimen.

 

Eighty years after Ugly Lull Grinlee ‘got sick, and sadly wasn’t seen again’, witches were asking a female demon or a female fairy named “Nan Lullan” for occult advice, and considering giving, possibly sacrificing, a baby to her. This baby sacrifice could of course be the typical witch-hunt and witch trial related hysteria, but is it yet another simple coincidence that the Traboli people, again, living in that area in ancient times, were accused of the same, as an act of worship to their Idols?

 

Is it coincidence that Martha Whitcroft and her friends were worshipping a devil called “Beltrabul” on the exact geographic spot where monks record that they had buried broken idols from the Traboli/Briganti people, and that one of Martha’s co-conspirators admitted that they had a “yellowish rock shaped like a man’s head” which was prayed to, to bring forth their guest of honor?

 

My enjoyable romp through speculation ends with my theory that “Nan Lullan” might have been a fairy or demon, or possibly an eighty year-old woman that local witches or peasants held in great reverence as being the daughter of the devil, or an old pagan god. Maybe the little girl Lull Grinlee- if that was her name- didn’t die from her sickness, but survived to a ripe old age, as a hermit in the woods in the area around Pendle hill. ‘Nan Lullan” just means “Grandmother Lullan”- and old women were often called “Grandmother” as a polite honorific.

 

 

V.

My report doesn’t end here. It ends with a dream I had.

 

Once again, and for the last time, maybe my imagination just got away with me, but this dream was quite disturbing in its intensity and its suggestion. I dreamed that Lull Grinlee was a monster, a real monster, living in a forest near Pendle Hill.

 

In my dream, she was at least eight feet tall, with four short stubby legs, each ending in a foot that hat three terrible fleshy divisions. She shuffled when she walked. She had two long, skinny arms and a thick black body, with equally-as-thick black fleshy tendrils hanging from her head like hair. It was a disturbing image that my subconscious mind decided to display to me, to be certain. Her face was wide, withered on the right side, and the other side had a big staring eye; her nose was just some kind of hole in her face.

 

No, I don’t normally dream such absurd-sounding things- but in the dream, after attempting- and failing- to run in terror, I saw a stone face behind the monster Lull Grinlee. I knew at that moment that she was, in fact, the daughter of the ‘Man in the Yellow Rock’: Bel-Trabol. I knew that he had impregnated Hilda Grenlea, though invisibly, and made all the Chimney Rock Witches feel great pleasure and worshipful desire for him. I realized that he wasn’t a mortal being; that he was immmortal in some fashion, and that he had probably been doing this to the native peoples who had found him here when they arrived from wherever their long migrations had taken them.

 

When I consider the dream, and the whole strange story, I always consider the idea that this thing or being- Beltrabol- was a local Spirit of the Land, something pre-human, part of the land long before mankind came about or around. In my dream, so draped as it was with fear, I also got the feeling that this thing didn’t exactly have the bests interests of mankind in mind. The Traboli had worshipped him and made the special rocks in the area in his image, and offered him their children, possibly their firstborns.

 

Martha Whitcroft may indeed have found the remains of one of his idols there at Chimney Rock. It was just that kind of place. The Monks never stayed there long either (the Abbey was abandoned within 150 years of being built) and I don’t imagine we should wonder why.

 

In my dream, I learned that “Ugly Lull Grinlee’s” last sickness wasn’t a sickness at all- it was more like a final transformation. She changed into something that was more like her father than her mother. In the dream, I saw her turn into a tree; and I awoke thinking that she would live forever in those woods, and that when she stood still, from a distance, she looked like an old tree- and I gathered that she could sit still for a long time. It was a perfect disguise for such lonely, rural woods such as those.

 

Before you think my dream was high fantasy- I only have one more thing to say. In 1991, an American hiker named Jennifer Deury disappeared quite without a trace near the vicinity of Pendle Hill, and only her backpack was found in a local stretch of woods. Coincidence? One wonders.

 

 

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