Lancashire Legends, Traditions, Pageants, Sports, &c./Part 1/Eagle and Child


The fabulous tradition of the Eagle and Child, the crest of the Stanleys, Earls of Derby, associates itself with the family of Lathom, and is thus gravely related:—Sir Thomas Lathom, the father of Isabel, having this only child, and cherishing an ardent desire for a son to inherit his name and fortune, had an intrigue with a young gentlewoman, the fruit of which was a son. This infant he contrived to have conveyed by a confidential servant to the foot of a tree in his park frequented by an eagle; and Sir Thomas and his lady, taking their usual walk, found the infant as if by accident. The old lady, considering it a gift from Heaven brought thither by the bird of prey and miraculously preserved, consented to adopt the boy as their heir.

"That their content was such to see the hap,
The ancient lady hugs it in her lap;
Smothers it in kisses, bathes it in her tears,
And unto Lathom House the babe she bears."

The name of Oskatel was given to the little foundling, Mary Oskatel being the name of his mother. From this time the crest of the eagle and child was assumed; but as the old knight approached near the grave, his conscience smote him, and on his death-bed he bequeathed the principal part of his fortune to Isabel, his daughter, now become the lady of Sir John Stanley, leaving poor Oskatel, on whom the king had conferred the honour of knighthood, only the manors of Islam and Urmston, near Manchester, and some possessions in the county of Chester, in which county he settled, and became the founder of the family of Latham of Astbury. This story is an after-thought, adapted to that which had previously existed. In the Harleian MS. (cod. 2151, fol. 4) is an account of some painted windows in Astbury Church, near Congleton, on which a figure is represented, with a sword and spurs, habited in a white tabard, the hands clasped, over the head a shield placed angle-wise under a helmet and mantle, emblazoned or, on a chief indented, azure, three bezants, over all a bondlet, gules; crest, an eagle standing on an empty cradle, with wings displayed, regardant or, with the inscription, "Orate pro anima Philippi Dom. Roberti Lathom militis"—(Pray for the soul of Philip, son of Sir Robert Lathom, knight). This Philip Lathom of Astbury was uncle of Sir Thomas, alias Oskatel, the father of Isabella; and it would be a strange circumstance if an uncle should have assumed a crest bearing allusion to the adoption of an illegitimate child. Supposing Sir Oskatel to have been the son of Sir Thomas, instead of Sir Thomas himself, the fact of Philip bearing the crest would be still more extraordinary. That there was an Oskel or Oskatel Lathom, who bore as his crest an eagle standing on a child, is proved by the painting formerly in the windows of Northenden Church, 1580,—viz., an eagle sinister, regardant, rising, standing on a child, swaddled, placed on a nest; inscribed, "Oskell Lathum" (Harl. MS. 2151, fol. 10). But this may have been because it was the old Lathom crest; and the eagle seems to have been from a remote period a favourite cognisance of the family. The Torbocks, the younger branch of the Lathoms, took an eagle's claw for a difference on the family shield; and the grant of Witherington by Sir Thomas Lathom, sen., reputed further of Sir Oskatel, was sealed with the Lathom arms on an eagle's breast. But a legend of the eagle and child is as old as the time of King Alfred—several centuries earlier than the time of the De Lathoms:—"One day as Alfred was hunting in a wood, he heard the cry of a little infant in a tree, and ordered his huntsmen to examine the place. They ascended the branches, and found at the top, in an eagle's nest, a beautiful child dressed in purple, with golden bracelets (the marks of nobility) on his arms. The King had him brought down and baptized and well educated. From the accident he named the foundling Nestingum. His grandson's daughter is said to have been one of the ladies for whom Edgar indulged an improper passion." If for Edgar we read Oscital, the Danish prince, this would complete the parallel with the Lancashire tradition, as given by Baines in his history of the county.

Mr Roby, who expands this tradition into an interesting little romance, states that Sir Oskatel, the Earl of Derby's illegitimate child, palmed upon the Countess, and for a time adopted as heir to the Stanleys, had reserved to him and his descendants the manors of Islam and Urmston near Manchester, with other valuable estates. At the same time was given to him the signet of his arms, with the crest assumed for his sake, "an eagle regardant, proper." It was only subsequent to the supplanting of Sir Oskatel (continues our author) that his rivals took the present crest of the eagle and child, where the eagle is represented as having secured his prey, in token of their triumph over the foundling, whom he is preparing to devour. This crest the descendants of Sir John Stanley, the present Earls of Derby, continue to hold.—See Appendix.