BEDALE is one of the region’s market towns but seems to be set apart and quite distinct from the others.
Several claim to be tourist attractions, others boast of historical interest while some are busy shopping centres.
Certainly Bedale can make many interesting claims but the immediate impact upon a first-time visitor is that of a quiet town with a long, wide but peaceful main street with a mighty church nestling among the houses and shops. Certainly, the town is a pleasing mixture of old and new with some of its inns and shops showing remarkable historic interiors while mingling with buildings of more modern appearance.
While the success of many modern market towns rests heavily upon the instant visual impact upon a first-time visitor, Bedale keeps its secrets and yet it has had a troubled past which is now largely forgotten. Here, I am not referring to raids by marauding Scots which resulted in a defensive tower at the church with its own protective portcullis, or the town’s witches, but instead recall Bedale’s reputation as the haunt of highwaymen. This arose due to Bedale’s location close to the Great North Road of former times – say, a couple of centuries ago.
This unwanted fame resulted from the activities of some local innkeepers who were in league with the so-called gentlemen of the road. In fact, the innkeeper of the King’s Head at nearby Kirklington became a highwayman.
Highwaymen were rogues and villains who were anything but gentlemanly but their resultant mythical history has attributed to them a glamour they did not possess or deserve. Quite simply, they were dangerous, vicious robbers on horseback whose victims were travellers on stage coaches or sometimes guests at isolated inns.
It was their activities that gave rise to a widely used charm that was believed to keep highwaymen and other robbers safe from capture as they went about their criminal activities at inns and lonely farms. It was the Hand of Glory which is known to have been used as late as 1831.
It was a human hand that had been cut from the corpse of a man who had been hanged on the gibbet. Once cut free, the hand was cured rather in the manner of curing a ham. A candle was made from human fat mixed with the remains of a plant called Lapland Sesame and this was inserted in the dead fist; the wick of that gruesome candle was made from human hair taken from a hanged man.
It was believed that this charm would enable thieves to remain awake and invisible as they went about their nefarious business, but also it compelled their victims to remain asleep in their beds.
However, to make the charm active, the wick had to be lit, rather like a candle. As the wick was ignited, the following verse had to be chanted: Let those who rest more deeply sleep, Let those awake their vigil keep; Oh, Hand of Glory, shed thy light Direct us to our spoils tonight.
As the weird light from the candle filled the room, more lines had to be quoted; they were: Flash out they light, oh skeleton hand And guide the feet of our trusty band; Let those who are awake remain awake And those who sleep, remain asleep.
So long as the wick remained alight, it was believed the villains could work successfully without discovery; in fact, some believed it made them invisible and also paralysed the victims. The only means of extinguishing the flame was to pour on either milk or blood. If this happened, the charm became ineffective.
For a professional burglar or highwayman, therefore, such a protective charm was an essential part of their equipment and many gibbets were raided to acquire the necessary ingredients. I am not sure where they found the Lapland Sesame! It is difficult if not impossible to determine the date of the first use of this charm but my own records indicate it was used by criminals, particularly burglars, in the 16th century although in 1588, the trial of two witches revealed they had used the charm while poisoning their victim. They thought it would make them invisible.
There is a famous and dramatic incident involving a Hand of Glory which was used at the remote Old Spital Inn at Stainmore, high on the Pennines. In 1790, a woman arrived at the inn and sought overnight accommodation, explaining she had to leave early next morning, The landlord arranged for a maid to remain on hand all night to ensure the guest had an early breakfast.
In the very early hours, however, the guest rose from her bed as the maid pretended to be asleep with a realistic snore, but the alert maid noticed men’s boots beneath the dress. She watched the man go into the kitchen and light a Hand of Glory, chanting the necessary verse – it meant she would remain awake. The eerie light then burned in the kitchen.
When the guest went to unlock the door to admit his thieving colleagues, the maid threw milk over the flame and then hurried to arouse the landlord and his family. All the thieves were arrested.
Another noteworthy incident occurred in November 1824, a month noted for its heavy snowstorms and severe biting winds. A lot of coach travellers using the Great North Road had to shelter in wayside inns.
One of them was the Oak Tree Inn on Leeming Lane and due to an unexpected influx of customers some of the staff had to sleep in the stables, and two maids had to use hammocks in the kitchen. To cut short a long story, as the girls tried to sleep, two of the guests from a snowbound coach entered the kitchen and from their conversation, it was clear they intended robbing other passengers who had used that coach.
Their conspirators waited outside and the girls, Peggy Scott and Jenny Brown, tried to remain still and silent as someone knocked on the kitchen window. One of the men said it would be Jim with the getaway horses at which Jenny fainted with a slight sigh. The men heard her but thought it was the wind outside, and then they produced a Hand of Glory from their baggage and lit the wick.
“That’ll make sure they all remain asleep,” said one of the men. “Come on, let’s get busy.”
As the men went off to carry out their robbery, the girls recalled that milk or blood would extinguish the flame; Peggy would find some milk and then they would arouse the landlord, his family and guests.
There is not sufficient space here to recount the full dramatic tale, save to say that the two brave girls prevented a major crime, and the men were apprehended. The coach passengers had a collection for the brave girls. This may have been the last time the Hand of Glory was used in the North Riding of Yorkshire although one was used in Ireland in 1831.
One known as the Danby Hand of Glory survived until 1822 when it was thought to have been used, but it is it isnow in the the Pannett Museum, Whitby. I have not found a record of its use in Bedale despite its its many inns being so close to the Great North Road.