While doing some research before making a recording of Kate Rusby’s version of Daughter of Megan, I stumbled upon this very strange story published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine in 1854.
The story is titled “The Secret of Stoke Manor” and starts out claiming to tell the history of the Willoughby family of Stoke. The first chapter (starting on page 728) in the story tells of a young Welsh girl, Gwen Gryffyd, being kidnapped by a Viking on the day of her planned wedding to an old Saxon Earl.
I was so taken with the prose and the story that I made a full recording of the text here.
The implication in the story is that Gwen is THE ‘Daughter of Megan’ or ‘Merch Megan’ in Welsh and quite possibly is the one that the Air of the same name was written for. Kate Rusby does not sing her song to the tune of the Air, and it isn’t even clear if the 1812 lyrics have anything to do with the tune (other than suggesting they could be sung to it). The lyrics that Kate sings are more of a simple case of unrequited love, rather than an epic tale of Viking kidnapping.
So the questions I have as a ballad researcher are as follows:
- Who wrote this story published in 1854?
- Is the story based in fact?
A True Story?
I’ll start with the easier question, as the text of the story is full of names of places and people which should be relatively easy to find. Megan Gryffyd and her husband Rees ap Gryffyd appear on Ancestry.com but I’m not keen to pay for access.
Early in the story, Earl Wulfstan of Thorpe Combe gets mentioned as the old man to whom Gwen is to be wed (at some great financial advantage to her father). The only recorded Wulfstan of this time is a bishop who died in 1095, Wulfstan II. Worcester is not so significantly far away from Wales that maybe the Earl was confused with a Bishop? But this already smells of someone looking for names to put in a story that fit in the right historical timeframe. Thorpe Combe does not seem to be a place.
Rees (or Rhys) ap Gryffyd
Rees is Gwen’s father and is a somewhat blustering but diminished figure in this story, making me wonder if the author is female. There are many Welsh people called Gryffyd as it means strength in Welsh. Gruffyd ap LLwelyn was king of Wales from 1055 to 1063 so Rees could certainly have been his son, however, there is no other source linking him to Vikings.
Ollobrik the Viking
I can find no reference to an Ollobrik, or any reference to a Viking taking an oath not to remove his helmet. Maybe that is where the inspiration for the Mandalorian TV series came from? There are some parallels to the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ story here. The text makes the bold claim that Ollobrik was recorded in William the Conqueror’s Doomsday Book as Ollobius de Merlitor. I guess people couldn’t easily do text searches of the Doomsday Book back in 1854.
As mentioned earlier, there are some Ancestry.com reference to these people, including a link to this Magnus, King of Norway. However, the other details do not line up with the name Ollobrik. I suspect that the only source for the Ancestry entry is this story.
Having given up on finding corroborating evidence of the named people in the story, I had a look for some of the place names. Coel-Heffyd is mentioned frequently, but does not appear to be real Welsh at all. Merlitor is not to be found and neither is St Colva’s. The Llanwillin, possibly meant to be a river, is also not to be found. My only conclusion here is that all the place names are made up using words that look a bit Welsh.
For this question, a bit of a look at Blackwood’s Edinburgh is worthwhile. According to Wikipedia the magazine ran from 1817 until 1980. The magazine was no stranger to controversy, apparently causing a duel between John Scott and Jonathan Christie in 1821. While Percy Shelley and Samuel Coleridge both wrote for the magazine, they had sadly passed well before 1854. Advocate for women’s rights, John Neal, did write for the magazine and was still alive in 1854, but does not seem to have form writing Viking stories.
Both John Lockhart and John Wilson wrote for the magazine but died in 1854. This could explain why no further articles of Willoughby family history are published, but neither man has a connection to Wales that I can find. This leaves a check through other known writers for Blackwood’s who were alive at the right time and had at least some form in the style, or a connection to Wales.
- George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
- Mary Margaret Busk
- Margaret Oliphant (wrote 120 books!)
- Elizabeth Clementine Stedman
- Charles Neaves
Without further clues, this is where my trail on possible authorship runs cold.
Based on my short investigation, I suspect this is a piece of Scandinavian inspired fiction with no basis in history, other than setting the story within some well known landmarks (like the Oath of Sarum) and the invasion of William the Conqueror ( my great-great-etc illegitimate grandfather).
Please let me know if you have any other details about this story.
Some further searching has revealed the author of “The Secret of Stoke Manor” (of which the Ollobik/Gwen story is a part) to be George Cupples of Edinburgh. Though he did not give his name to the Blackwoods publication, this Journal from Oxford includes a note listing George as the author, and blames procrastination for the non-completion of the story.