The Beowulf saga, said to be England's oldest folk tale, tells of a thrilling struggle between the hero, Beowulf, and a bloodthirsty monster called Grendel.
Part history and part mythology, the saga is set during the sixth century. Beowulf is a royal son of a Scandinavian clan, whose fame 'far flew the boast of him', according to the poem.
Set in a time of heroes, the mighty warrior Beowulf slays the demon Grendel and incurs the wrath of its monstrous mother.
For many winters, the court of the Danish king, Hrothgar had been terrorised by a fearsome monster called Grendel, who comes at nightfall to devour men in their sleep. Beowulf slays the monster and is fêted as a hero - but joy turns to horror when Grendel's mother arrives to avenge the killing of her son.
The Faversham connection
Nearly ten years ago Dr Paul Wilkinson, a Swale archaeologist, and Faversham journalist and business woman Griselda Mussett contributed a Faversham Paper which makes a strong, and believeable, claim based on topographical and oral and written folk history that the Beowulf legend had its origins among place names that were commonplace and are still to be seen around the Faversham area.
Places that could relate to Beowulf
In early Saxon times, Harty was an island within the ancient manor of Faversham. The name Harty is close to the name of King Hrothgar's hall, Heorot where Beowulf fought the monster Grendel. Heorot was at the heart of one of the largest Lathes (early administrative districts of the Kings of Kent) and that was called schrawynghop "inhabited by one or several supernatural malignant beings" (from a Middle German dialect word which means goblin or devil).
Old English 'hop' seen at the end of the name means 'piece of land enclosed in a fen' and, said researcher Margaret Gelling in 1984, the only certain occurrence of this in literary Old English is in Beowulf where the monsters' lairs are called fenhopu. She traces this to a charter boundary of AD995 in Kent.
Dr Paul Wilkinson is serious about the links of the ancient Faversham port, Danish invaders and facts of history. Dr Wilkinson writes in the Faversham Paper:
"Beowulf 's native turf was in all likelihood the lands around the mouth of the Rhine. Beowulf's first sighting of Britain is enigmatic: sea cliffs shining, shores, steep, broad sea-nesse. The North Foreland has the well known optical trick of shining when the rising sun strikes the chalk cliffs. Sheerness enjoys the same natural phenomenon. Sheerness means 'bright headland' from the Old English 'scir'.
"Beowulf's voyage ends at Lands End, a place name to the north of Harty which delineates the maritime jurisdiction of the mediaeval port of Faversham. The cliffs above Lands End are still called Warden (Old
English 'weard' meaning to watch)".
Dr Wilkinson's atttention to another word, the 'nag' of Nagden, opposite Harty, can be traced to Norwegian, Icelandic and Swedish words for 'pointed stone' or 'top of a hill'.
Nagden Bump whilst it was being levelled after the 1953 Great Flood
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Nagden Bump (dug away to provide material to reinforce sea defences after the 1953 floods) was the second-largest artificial mound in England - 50 metres across and 34 metres high. Faversham Society historian Dr Arthur Percival makes the point that in Beowulf's time tidal waters came much closer to Faversham and that in fact Nagden spit and other headlands created a large natural harbour close to Faversham - fit for the mostly shallow-draught vessels of the time.
Dr Percival points out:"There can be no certainty at this length of time, but we're pretty sure there's a strong case for the identification of the Bump as Beowulf's last resting-place.
"Nagden Bump was at the very tip of the spit which projected NW from Nagden, so its position would have made it a major local landmark".
The poem's dying speech of Beowulf goes, " Bid men of battle build me a tomb on the foreland by the sea so that ocean travellers shall name it Beowulf's barrow".
Griselda Mussett likes this colourful story-book conclusion but she also wonders if the Nagden connection may be just that. She says:
"I believe we are on unassailable ground when we say the first two parts of the story are set around here, but, in the ancient poem, Beowulf's third great challenge was to fight the dragon - after he had returned to his homeland to be king over his own people. That was after he had reigned for 50 years. He did kill the dragon but was mortally wounded and so his burial mound (in the poem) would have been with the Jutes, wherever they were...".
Mrs Mussett sees a social poignancy in the tale: "Whereas Beowulf had gone out as a young hero to help the old king Hrothgar, no one came to help him when he himself was old and facing a monster".
For further information, please read
the Faversham Paper Beowulf in Kent - Beowulf: Some Topographic Considerations
by Dr Paul Wilkinson and Beowulf and The Sheppey Legend
by Griselda Cann Mussett.
Faversham Papers are available from the Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre
, Preston Street, Faversham.