Weird Norfolk: Meet the wild men of the woods that were said to eat children

PUBLISHED: 09:00 06 July 2019

Woodwose on the font at St Catherine's Church in Ludham  Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2019

Woodwose on the font at St Catherine's Church in Ludham Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2019

Archant 2019

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…

Woodwose on the font at St Catherine's Church in Ludham  Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2019Woodwose on the font at St Catherine's Church in Ludham Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2019

The woodwose, or wild man of the woods, is a mythical figure that first appeared in medieval Europe - covered from head to toe in thick hair and carrying a club, the curious creatures began to appear in English churches during the 12thcentury, carved into fonts, spandrels and roof bosses in precisely the same places where you'd find their close relative, the Green Man. Although terrifying in appearance, the woodwose is often seen fighting lions or dragons, both of which were considered a threat to humans, and it was widely believed that the woodwose would scare away evil spirits.

This did not, however, prevent them from also becoming like medieval bogeymen who could be used as imaginary behaviour monitors for wayward children - in art depictions, the woodwose's club sometimes included a child tied to it. And children had every right to have nightmares about the woodwoses: according to some legends, they had superhuman strength, were deaf to the word of God and some would think nothing of snatching a child and eating them.

Adults had to be on their guard, too - male woodwoses were said to have abducted human women due to their "insatiable appetite" for the opposite sex while their female counterparts - far rarer to see in carvings and interpretations, although there is one shown in the font at St Catherine's Church in Ludham - were said to be able to disguise themselves as humans in order to seduce men. According to legend, if a woodwose is shown with an upraised club, he is yet to be converted to Christianity, if the club points down, the conversion has taken place.

In the 15th century, dressing up as woodwose was undertaken at both royal courts in France and King Henry VIII's England and in 1393, there is an account of five noblemen who dressed as wild men for a wedding feast at the court of Charles VI of France and, when the Duke of Orleans approached with a torch to discover who they were, a costume caught on fire and in the confusion, four of the wild men died.

Woodwose guard many churches in Norfolk: at the aforementioned 15th font in Ludham, a male and female woodwose mingle with lions: the female woodwose is hugely rare and carries a huge club but no shield - her feet were damaged during the reformation but her hands are still visible through her thick coat of hair.

There are woodwose hiding on the misericordia at Norwich Cathedral - on one, two hairy woodwose fight each other with cudgels held in one hand and clutch at each others' faces, grabbing hold of beards and hair, while a very nonchalant woodwose poses on the spandrels of the pulpit at Felmingham's St Andrew's Church, his hand on his hairy hip.

At St Nicholas in Potter Heigham, a niche above the entrance shows a stone figure of a woodwose which some believe was placed there in the mistaken belief that it represented the saint the church is named for after it was dug up in the churchyard.

A carving on a column at St Botolph's Church in Trunch shows a dragon attacking a woodwose who is holding a club, which he is thrusting into the beast's mouth while in North Walsham at St Nicholas, there is a spectacularly neat woodwose with tightly-curled hair carrying a huge club before setting off on a hunt.

Woodwose above the entrance to St Nicholas Church in Potter Heigham Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2019Woodwose above the entrance to St Nicholas Church in Potter Heigham Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2019

The wild man can be seen on the baptism font of St Mary at Happisburgh, in the crest of the Woodhouse family at St Peter in Kimberley, on the font at St Edmund's in Acle, on the end of a pew at St Peter and St Paul at Tuttington, in the chancel at St Margaret's Church in Hapton and fighting a dragon at Cawston's St Agnes.

In Matt Salusbury's superb online guide to woodwoses in Suffolk, he says: "It's tempting to think Suffolk's woodwoses remember an actual briefly captive wildman, or even a species of relict hominid living among us in the flat plains of East Anglia, But folklorist Gregory Forth points out that unlike the Asian and American traditions of Bigfoot…there are very few surviving accounts of actual sightings of hairy wildmen in Europe."

He adds that woodwoses didn't speak, enjoyed thunderstorms, felt affinity with animals, had knowledge of medicinal plants…and sometimes ate children and kidnapped humans.

Of course, we have nothing to fear from 15thcentury wild men…or do we?

The superlative Paranormal Database received a report from May 2011 from a lorry driver who was passing through fields near Elveden on the A13 when he saw a light brown to grey ape-like creature which raised from all fours to stand up on its hind legs. He described it as "semi-human like" and said it looked at him, showing its "forward facing eyes, long snout but a shorter face than a deer" and "small upright dog-like ears," before it ran away into the forest. And Mr Salusbury describes another unusual tale from a man he interviewed about something strange that happened to him as he walked with his partner back from a festival in Peasenhall in the summer of 2011.

As they walked along Rendham Road, close to woods, towards Sweffling, the man saw a figure on two legs, "seven or eight feet tall… silver grey, dark" which he sensed was "friendly".

"Could it be that the little woodwose carvings actually commemorate some local protective spirits, like the 'tall, hairy entity' that Phillip experienced - glimpsed fleetingly, yet giving the people of that corner of Suffolk in the fifteenth century the impression of something 'friendly'?" said Mr Salusbury.

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