Sunday, October 13, 2013

England trip, Day 3: Caxton Gibbet

Traveling with my cousins is like a crash course in English history. Like John, Julie provided background information on many places we passed, like this one:

This is the Caxton Gibbet. It was used for public executions in the days when justice was a bit less merciful than today. A gibbet, as I have learned, was not used like the scaffold we have come to associate with early executions. The gibbet was much more gruesome. When in use, there would have been a cage suspended from the cross-arm, and also some iron rings. The convicted person would have been put into the cage, his head clamped securely to prevent his feet from touching the bottom of the cage, and then he would be left to starve to death or die from exposure. The body would be left in the cage for some time after death as a warning to anyone contemplating law-breaking.

The current gibbet is not the original. The original gibbet was in place since at least the 1600's, but was blown down in a storm. A "modern" (by English standards) was built before 1900 to replace it. In the US, the replacement would be considered old! Here is a photo which I found in my mother's things, of the gibbet as it stood around 1920-1940, and which I wrote about a few years ago on this blog.

There are stories of hauntings connected this crossroads. The above photo, one I found in my mother's old family photos, the gibbet and its surroundings look pretty spooky to me but the stories are connected with the inn that used to stand here and not the gibbet, it seems. According to one tale the landlord of the the inn robbed three travelers and threw their bodies down his well. The landlord was found out and hung, in the gibbet. The inn was haunted afterwards by footsteps going down the stairs and no doubt other phenomena. Another story tells of a baker who took pity on a man hanging in the gibbet and gave the starving man a piece of bread. For his kindness, the baker found himself in the gibbet.

In an email several years ago, my cousin John Hagger provided the following information:

It's known as Caxton Gibbet and stands at a cross-roads about 2 miles from Caldecote, where your mother grew up.

The cross-roads is at the intersection of the St Neots Road and the Old North Road. Now when I say "old" I mean seriously OLD. It was originally built by the Romans to allow their legions to march more rapidly to the rebellious north of Britain. Around 1700 it became the first turnpike (basically a toll-road) in England. The tolls paid for the upkeep of the highway and led eventually to our road system. Now, where there are highways there are, naturally enough, highwaymen. Whether the legendary Dick Turpin did once ride through the streets of Royston I leave to your imagination, but there were certainly many others who were not averse to holding up the London to York stagecoach and relieving the passengers of their valuables. And they would certainly have had plenty to plunder; there were no banks, let alone credit cards at the time and if you were going on a trip you had to take all your funds with you. If you travel north along the road today you'll pass through a short stretch of woodland. Walk 200 yards into the wood and you'll find earth banks. In former times these were the limits of the road and all the trees back to the bank were felled so that there were no convenient places for robbers to lurk unseen.

Travel on a little further and you come to the village of Caxton where there are several former coaching inns which once served travellers on the Old North Road and also a magistrates court which owes its existence to the time when there were highwaymen (and other villains) to prosecute for their crimes. Keep moving north and you reach the Gibbet where life's journey ended for some. If you put Caxton Gibbet into your friendly search-engine you'll come up with all kinds of tales of varying degrees of unlikelihood! (You see what trouble is caused to objective historians by the tellers of tales!).

More recently a Chinese restaurant was on this location; it burned down a few years back. But progress marches on. Today construction is underway on a new venture: a combination McDonald's, Subway, and Costa Coffee. As one blogger says, "Some would prefer the gibbet."  When I saw it with my cousin, the gibbet was surrounded by chain link fence, and it appears that it will be preserved, although whether it will remain on the same site, or if it will be moved, was not clear. Personally, I'm with the blogger. Replacing a historic site with a McDonald's seems...disrespectful? Even if the history is unsavory, we need such reminders of where we once were and how far we have come. I hate to think that a McDonald's will stand as evidence of "progress."

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Michelle said...

Seriously, aren't there enough McDonald's in the world? I agree that the gibbet should stand alone, as a sign of respect. An interesting history lesson for me today!

Rowan said...

That was interesting, I've never known the difference between a scaffold and a gibbet before. Putting a MacDonalds etc there will ruin the atmosphere that the gibbet gives at the moment even if it is preserved. The whole point is that it stood in isolation at a lonely crossroad.

Granny Sue said...

Michelle, I thought the same thing. The irony of it struck me too--on the gibbet people starved to death, at McDonald's they eat themselves to death.

Granny Sue said...

I did not know that either, Rowan, and it's indeed a chilling picture, isn't it? Man's inhumanity to man over the ages is frightful, and of course it continues in many places. I would imagine the gibbet would have been a strong deterrent but how ghastly, and in truth a punishment to anyone who had to pass by some poor person crying out for food. Horrible to think of.

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