Things we do for love

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The quiet road to Sessay, a village said to have been beset by a giant in the 15th century

It has struck me, having read over 200 of my dad’s archived columns, that there are numerous tales in folklore that follow a similar theme. Villages across the land claim stories of dashing local heroes overcoming giants and monsters, and this week, in his column from 4th July 1981, Dad recounts one I had not read before called The Giant of Sessay.

Sessay lies about four miles south of Thirsk in the district of Hambleton, and in the 15th century, when this story was set, the manor of Sessay was owned by the rich and powerful Darrell family. The substantial manor had ended up in the hands of Lady Joan Darrell after the rest of her family had passed away.

Joan, a determined and practical woman, took on the huge task of managing the estate, its land, its houses, crops and livestock, which left her little time to look for love.

Unfortunately, Joan’s considerable burden increased when the village was beset by a great giant that was more animal than human, with elephant-like legs and arms. It had a huge mouth with razor-sharp fangs and one big eye in the centre of its forehead. The monster had ripped up a tree by its roots which it used a club and, due to its insatiable appetite, was permanently angry, its roars and growls heard for many miles around.

It would prowl the village farms and cottages in its never-ending quest for food, stealing the fattest cows, bullocks and swine which it would take back to its lair in the nearby woods. It raided the local mills, stealing sacks of flour by stretching its arm through the windows and pulling them out. If it couldn’t find enough fresh livestock to eat, it had no hesitation in stealing children from their beds or babies from their cribs.

Of course, the villagers were terrified, and Joan soon found herself struggling to run her estate, the workers being too afraid to leave their homes while the monster was on the loose.

She had all but given up hope when a brave knight arrived on her doorstep. Guy D’Aunay (also known as Dawnay) was the son of Sir John D’Aunay of Cowick Castle in South Yorkshire, who was a friend of Joan’s late father. As their families were acquainted, Sir Guy decided to call in on his way home.

When he arrived, and seeing Joan struggle, he offered his help with the estate, and the pair soon fell in love. But when Sir Guy asked Joan to marry him, she agreed only on one condition; that he kill the giant. Guy was prepared to die for Joan, and so agreed. The pair celebrated their engagement with a delicious meal, but half way through came an awful sound from outside. The giant had arrived in the village .

When Guy saw the monster for the first time, he was terrified. He only had a small, ordinary sword and if he tried to stab the monster, it would be like piercing a tree with a pin. If the monster caught him, it would crush him like an insect.

Nevertheless, Guy bravely followed in the beast’s wake, until it stopped at a windmill, intending to steal some sacks of flour. It bent down and reached its hand inside. Just as it did so, a gust of wind blew up, and the mill’s sails began to turn. They caught the giant unawares, knocking it heavily on the head, and it fell onto its back, the ground shaking as it landed.

Without hesitation, Sir Guy leapt onto the chest of the stricken giant, clambered up its huge chin then plunged his sword into the hideous single eye, piercing right through to the brain. The giant was dead.

The people of Sessay erupted in celebration, and Sir Guy was free to marry Lady Joan.

Such stories are fairly common around the world and, as in this case, often feature real people, symbolising an underdog overcoming a powerful enemy. Invasions by the Vikings between the eighth and 11th centuries, and by the Scots during the wars of independence in the 13th and 14th centuries, would still have been quite fresh in the minds of northerners. In some tales, the knight vanquishing the giant was to symbolise Christianity overcoming Paganism.

I wonder if anyone knows the events that spawned this particular legend?

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 9th July and the Gazette & Herald on 7th July 2021

3 thoughts on “Things we do for love”

  1. It was the photograph that appeared to be taken from our garden across the medieval rigg and furrow, with sheep peacefully grazing and a typical moody sky that first drew my eye to your article on the Sessay Giant.
    I have lived in Sessay for 21 years and for about 15 have been actively researching various aspects of our village history.
    I have over the years heard several “Giant” stories, the one you recount is perhaps one of the most vivid, and could find its origins in Vallis Eboracensis, published by Thomas Gill in 1852, later repeated in Victoria County History.

    Edmund Bogg in The Vale of Mowbray 1909 claims to have spoken to an eyewitness to the discovery of the Giants Grave, p.82.
    In front of the Millers House in Dalton was a long mound “which from time out of memory had borne the name of the Giants grave. Some forty years ago the mound was opened , and my informant,[then a boy] ……….said the skeleton…..was of abnormal size… and a weapon somewhat like the blade of a scythe.”
    He goes onto tell a version of the story, a young lad named Jack being captured in Pilmoor Woods and taken back to do the Giant’s menial work at the mill, taking his opportunity to escape on a Feast day, young Jack slays the giant and makes his escape – reminiscent of Jack and the Beanstalk tale.
    Bogg goes onto say that the mill is nearer to Sessay than Dalton and is now re-built [ known as New Mills] and that another version of the story connects the Dawnays and the Darrells of Sessay and it was Sir Guy Dawnay who slay the Giant. He does not mention Joan Darrell and any desire to marry her, a wealthy heiress may have been a very attractive proposition on returning from the Crusades.

    Other versions have the Giant grinding up children’s bones to make his bread and Jack killing him, or Joan saying she would marry Guy if he slew the Giant who captured farm stock and young maidens and ate them. This time Guy uses cunning and lures the Giant so that the turning sails knock him dead rather than running him through with his sword !
    Your version seems to combine most options
    I think it really is a case of pick your fairy story and add a dash of local lore.

    The Historic Environment Record : SMR : MNY89 Site Name: Giants Grave
    MOUND [ Early Bronze Age to Late Iron Age – 2500BC? to 42 AD ?]

    Description : This is imprecisely located beyond it being in front of Dalton Mill. OS place it near Sessay.
    No details recorded beyond the fact that the bones were of abnormal size.

    There are then 4 other sources quoted the first of which is Bogg, TC Whellan History and Topography of The City of York and the North Riding of Yorkshire 1859, p.320, The Royal Commission on Historic monuments of England 1996 SNY 1959 and The Ordnance Survey Record card : SE47SW4

    In 2016 as part of a Heritage Lottery Funded Community History project we published a book about various aspects of Sessay’s history, the Sessay Giant is put in context on page 44 of Essays from Sessay, edited by Janet Ratcliffe and available from The County Record Office, Northallerton or G. H. Smith, Easingwold

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