August’s Flower: the death of a medieval tightrope walker

Picture of Durham Cathedral Exterior from http://www.shipoffools.com/mystery/2007/1465.html (29.08.2014)

Picture of Durham Cathedral Exterior from http://www.shipoffools.com/mystery/2007/1465.html (29.08.2014)

This month’s flower comes from the catalogue of Locelli in the Durham Cathedral Muniments (Loc. VI.20), and seems to record the death of a 13th-century tightrope walker, performing on the towers of Durham Cathedral!

 

The record concerns the King Henry III’s objections to the election of of a new bishop. It seems the the monks had elected their prior, Thomas Melsonby, as Bishop, while the King was determined to impose a candidate of his own. Some of the King’s objections are palpably unjust (for example, he cites the fact that Melsonby has done homage for the cell of Coldingham to the King of Scots – as every prior of Durham had to do, since it is in Scotland – as evidence that he is a traitor). So, the accusation here cannot therefore be accepted uncritically, but there must be a grain of truth in it. Otherwise such a distinctive and unusual accusation would not have been made.*

More modern local tradition has revived the story of the unfortunate tightrope walker, supplying him with the name ‘Hob of Pelaw’, for which there is no medieval evidence. Legend has it he was buried under a stone slab near the north door of the cathedral (although this is unlikely!).

Evidence from the Archives

The text, from 1237 (exact date unknown; DUL Durham Priory Locelli VI.20) reads as follows:

. . .

Item quod tanquam homicida debet repelli eo quod cum quidam Istrio in cimiterio suo cordam a turri ad turrem extensam ascenderet de uoluntate dicti prioris. Idem corruit & mortuus est. qui prior nec talibus illicitis debuit interesse. nec consentire. Immo debuit expresse talia ne fierent inhibuisse.

Trans.:  Item, that he ought to be rejected as a murderer, because when a certain performer in his churchyard climbed onto a cord stretched from one tower to another according to the wish of the said prior, he fell down and was killed. The prior ought neither to have been present nor to have agreed to such improper goings on – indeed, he should have expressly prevented such things from happening.

*[Notes:  On this dispute, which lasted until 1241, see Victoria County History of Durham II, 94. This document is printed in Scriptores Tres (Historiae Dunelmensis scriptores tres), Surtees Soc. 9, App. p. lxxiii; it cannot be exactly dated, but its tone of extreme hostility towards the King of Scots suggests a date before September, when the two kings arrived at a grudging agreement (see Archibald A. Duncan, Scotland, the Making of the Kingdom, Edinburgh History of Scotland I, 533). For a Durham view of the dispute, see Scriptores Tres, 38-40].

5 thoughts on “August’s Flower: the death of a medieval tightrope walker

  1. Hear Professor McKinnell’s interview with BBC Radio Newcastle concerning our medieval tightrope walker, Mother Naked, and other finds from the project. It’s available on BBC I-Player for the next week, on Ingrid Hagemann’s show on Sunday morning (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p026q4gj). It starts about 2hrs 37mins in.

  2. Hi,
    Just read this with interest. I wrote a song about this very event a couple of years ago. I didn’t have so much information, so it wasn’t as brimming with historical facts as I usually like, but the song goes down well whenever I play it.

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