Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/A curious penance




A singular penitential service has been performed at Whitby for the last seven hundred years. It was first imposed upon Percy, Bruce, and Allatson, three gentlemen boar-hunters, who wounded a hermit in Eskdale Side, October 16th, 1159. He died of his wounds December 8th or 18th, which would be in 1160, as the ecclesiastical year begins with Advent. By this cruel murder the said Percy, Bruce, and Allatson forfeited their lives and their estates; and the Abbot of Whitby, as in duty bound. had them brought to justice, and was about to enforce the law against them, when the dying hermit interposed, saying: “I will freely forgive these men my death, if they will perform this penance.” And the men being present said: “Impose what you please upon us, only spare our lives.” Then the holy hermit presently entreated the Abbot that their lives might be spared, if they would perform this penance for the good of their souls. And that they should also hold their lands of the Abbot of Whitby on this condition: namely, that on Ascension Eve they should each of them cut a certain quantity of hedging near where he was killed, with a knife which shall cost one penny, and bring it on their backs to Whitby by nine o’clock, a.m.,—if it be full sea at such hour, the penance to cease,—and each of them to make a hedge at the water’s edge, and to fix it so as to stand three tides without being washed away. The Abbot’s officer was to attend them and to blow “Out upon you, out upon you” three times with his horn, to remind them of their heinous crime, and move them to contrition. This service has been performed every year, as it never can be full sea at nine, a.m., on Ascension Day, and it is still continued by the Allatson’s and their successors, whose land is in Fylingdales. It remained in the Allatson family till 1755, since which it has been owned by a family called Herbert, by whom the hedge has been regularly made every year, as it is expressly stipulated in their writings. Mrs. Keane, the wife of the present incumbent of Whitby, is a representative of the Allatson family, being fourth in descent from the last Allatson who sold the estate; but the service is not now done in a penitential spirit, and with the original design. It benefits neither the living nor the dead. The historians of Whitby have strangely confounded it with the making up of the Horngarth, which was quite a different thing, being altogether for secular purposes, while the penny hedge was only a penance and could never serve any other purpose; besides, the Horngarth was made up long before 1159, and has long since been dispensed with, while the penny hedge is still made up every year by one of the parties, and the legal title to an estate depends upon its being so continued. There are two versions of this legend: they are substantially the same, though they vary in several particulars. It is evident that they have not been copied or translated from the same original, but have come down to us probably from oral tradition. The curious reader can see one version in “Grose’s British Antiquities,” and the other in the “History of Whitby.”