WEIRD SUFFOLK: The Wildman of Orford who proved to be a most extraordinary catch of the day for Suffolk fishermen
- Credit: Archant
The Wildman of Orford: “It happened that some fishermen, fishing in the sea there, caught in their nets a merman…” Just who – or what – was the mysterious creature which emerged from the sea off the Suffolk coast?
He is everywhere you look in Orford, in the castle, in the market place, in shops and very possibly on the font at St Bartholomew's Church, the Wildman of Orford may have escaped from the village in the 12th century, but he's still very much at the heart of the community.
Fishermen were perplexed when they raised their nets and found something mysterious in their day's catch: a glistening, naked creature with an extremely hairy chest and a ragged beard, seemingly a merman who was unable to talk and who seemed more fish than man.
Other reports claim the man dragged from the sea was covered from head to toe in hair, like a typical woodwose, the kind seen in many of the churches along the coast in Suffolk, seemingly mythical creatures, but perhaps based on Orford's very own Wildman.
Terrified, the fishermen brought the creature to land and he was imprisoned in Bartholomew de Granville's recently-built castle where he happily accepted raw food which he would squeeze the juice from before devouring - fish was his favourite meal and he preferred to drink the liquid he drained from the fish than water from a cup.
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Determined to hear his story, the poor Wildman was brutally tortured, his silence presumed to be an obstinate refusal to divulge his secrets.
His captors dragged him to church but he showed no sign that he believed in God or even knew where he was - when it was sunset, he sought out his rudimentary bed in his cell and would stay there until sunrise when he would wake.
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Abbot Ralph of Coggeshall documented the curious tale of the Orford Wildman in the Chronicon Anglicanum in 1200, several years after the creature's capture: "As to whether this was a mortal man, or some fish pretending human shape, or was an evil spirit hiding in the body of a drowned man, as can be read in the life of blessed Ouen, it is not possible to be precise; the more so because so many wonderful things of this kind are told by many to whom they have happened."
Perhaps realising that torture was bearing no fruit, the Wildman was eventually allowed to exercise in the sea, held in a particular area by three rows of strong nets which were placed across the harbour. With ease, the Wildman dived beneath the nets and appeared in the sea beyond them but then, to everyone's surprise, he returned and allowed himself to be taken back to the castle.
As time went on, the guards grew less vigilant and on one of the occasions that he dove under the nets and out to sea, he did not turn back.
We have written many times about wildmen and woodwose - could the Wildman of Orford have been a seabound variation? And surely the proliferation of woodwose on coastal churches in the area - there are at least 20 on fonts from the medieval period in a relatively small corner of Suffolk - is no coincidence considering one was netted just a few miles away?