The Pied Piper of Newtown, Isle of Wight
As if we didn't disagree enough with our German friends - wars, world cup goals, economics - there is the Pied Piper legend to throw in for good measure. Everyone knows the Hamelin version, of course. But is it the original? Newtown on the Isle of Wight has some claims to the contrary.
The Hamelin Piper story is traditionally given the date 1284, but it first appears in a document dated two centuries later. The Isle of Wight version relates to incidents in the 14th century, i.e. earlier than the written source for Hamelin's story. No less a figure than W.H. Auden wondered if the Newtown tale was the original. We may never know. Maybe mysterious Pied Pipers were ten a penny.
The Norman settlement of Francheville - the previous name for Newtown - on the North west coast of the island was on a fine natural harbour; it had wonderful natural oyster beds to feed its people; there were thick woods behind the settlement to provide firewood aplenty and fodder for their pigs; there was even a very productive saltpan to season local food and provide a very marketable commodity shipped from the port. Everything a medieval town could wish for. And in the mid-14th century the place was indeed prosperous, far more so than Newport .
Yet in 1377 when the French, playing a return leg of the Hundred Years War on English soil, ransacked and ruined the town, there were only men of middle years and their elders to defend it. What happened to the young of Francheville?
Rats and magic. Along with its prosperity Francheville had a rat problem. Cats imported to deal with the plague provided a tasty snack for the giant rodents; traps couldn't keep them down; rat-catchers seemed to have jobs for life. The town's mayor and his aldermen offered a reward, the princely sum of £50, to anyone who could rid the place of the infestation.
Who should appear but a strangely dressed musician, a piper, who said he would cleanse the town in just a day. He marched through every corner of the place - Gold Street, Silver Street, Quay Street and the rest - playing his pipe, though what emerged was a rather stranger sound than mere music. And the rats ran out of barrels and byres and barns; they poured from houses, hayricks and hostelries. Rats in their tens of thousands.
The piper led the vermin down to the harbour, where he boarded a boat which he rowed to the mudflats a little way across the water. The swimming rats that followed him set paw on the mud, and stuck. They drowned to the last one when the tide rose.
Back in Francheville the piper politely requested his reward, £50. Maybe it was not a manifesto commitment, or maybe the mayor fancied keeping some of the money for himself - a corrupt politician, whatever next? It may have been that the mayor thought it had been too easy. But all he offered was £20.
The piper refused the lesser sum, and leaving the mayor he began to walk around Francheville again, playing a slightly different tune. Children flocked to him, entranced by his strange tune. Every child in the place able to walk or crawl fell in behind the magical musician, who to the horror of the adults walked off into the woods behind the town, his infant entourage close behind. Before the shocked parents could react the darkness of the woods closed around the procession. Neither the piper nor the children were ever seen again.
Thus it was that when the French attacked in 1377, only those well beyond their best years remained to resist them. Francheville had lost an entire generation. The ruined town had begun a rapid descent from prosperity to paupery, never recovering its former glory. And all of this because the mayor withheld £30.
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