Beastly goings-on at Renwick…

Move over Harry Potter: Cumbria has its own basilisk story. The basilisk, or cockatrice, was a feared mythical beast much talked-about from medieval times until the eighteenth century. Descriptions varied; they almost always had some cockerel body parts (unlike JK Rowling’s snake-like version), with a lizard’s, or dragon’s tail, andBasilisk: woodcut by Aldrovandi, published 1642 Copyright expired optional wings. They killed their victims with poisonous venom or by turning them to stone with a glance.

The village of Renwick, in the Eden Valley, is now mostly of eighteeth and nineteenth century appearance, but this is an old settlement; the first church was probably built by celtic missionaries around 600CE. Their monster troubles supposedly started in 1733, when the old church was being pulled down. A great beast, ‘resembling a (large) bat’, flew out of the ruins and started to give the residents some trouble. As they had decided that the beast was a basilisk, the locals understandably decided that the best course of action was to keep out of its way, until a brave man called John Tallentire killed it with a rowan wood staff. Rowan, of course, has historically been regarded as having the power to ward off evil. Tallentire and his family were rewarded with exemption from tithes in perpetuity.

The date of the story is interesting. Most current sources stick to 1733, but it seems likely that the event took place in the previous century. Stories of cockatrices and basilisks were particularly prevalent across Europe at that time, and indeed, the Church of England itself believes the story dates to 1610.

Renwick is only a few miles from the village of Croglin, which lays claim to the county’s only vampire story. That vampire was described as ‘tall and spindly’ with a ‘curious cloak’ and ‘long bony fingers’. Does this perhaps sound, in the words of the Renwick basilisk-spotters, somewhat bat-like?

People have reported various odd sightings in the area in times since, the latest in 1959.

© Diane McIlmoyle 10.01.11


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