I was sent a message on Facebook the other day by one of my readers (thanks Simon), telling me he’d been out walking in Hertfordshire and mentioning “Jack O Legs” and Little John. I was confused. What the hell was a Jack O Legs? Was it just a random auto-correct, changing normal, recognizable words into a bizarre phrase? Was it supposed to say Jack O’ Lantern? Jack-in-the-Green? But I was intrigued, so I did what any good historical researcher does, and headed straight to Google!
At this point, I’ve written four full novels about Robin Hood and a fair few spin-off novellas like Faces of Darkness which are also about the characters from that legend, including Friar Tuck and Sir Richard-At-Lee. It’s fair to say I’ve done a fair bit of research on this, but Jack O’Legs was something I’d never heard about before. I actually felt a little embarrassed, wondering if I’d completely overlooked some famous part of the well-known mythos! And that feeling grew stronger when I typed it into Google and ended up on a Wikipedia page describing Jack O’Legs. How did I miss this? As you probably know, anything, or anyone, with a Wikipedia page must be fairly well known and have made some kind of cultural impact (I still dream of having one myself, if anyone wants to create one and stroke my ego, thanks).
So Jack – apparently he was an archer from Hertfordshire in England, who stole from the rich to give to the poor and, when he was dying, shot an arrow and asked to be buried where it landed. Notice any similarities there? Of course, these are all elements of Robin Hood’s story. There are some differences though, as Jack was said to be a giant, so tall that he could look into the upstairs windows of large houses! Boulders marking the head and foot of his grave are fourteen feet apart, and one source claims his body was doubled up, suggesting he was actually more like thirty feet tall (I stumbled across a post on Facebook which said the grave was dug up in the 19th century but there was nothing in it, but I’ve no idea if this is accurate). Could this be a conflation of Robin Hood and his enormous companion Little John? Taking two characters and melding them into one? Maybe. Jack was supposed to live in a cave though, which doesn’t seem to match anything from the Hood legend. It also seems unlikely, as there’s not really any caves around the place Jack was said to hail from.
He died when, after a bad harvest, the bakers in his village of Baldock raised the price of flour. Jack ambushed them, stole the flour and gave it away. In return, the bakers caught Jack, blinded him and then he asked to be given his bow. Shooting an arrow, he requested to be buried where it landed, this was done, and there his story ends. I wouldn’t have thought bakers would be classed as “rich”, and raising prices in times of famine seems a natural occurrence (just look at the prices of hand sanitiser during 2020!), so I’m not entirely sure how this could be seen as “robbing from the rich to give to the poor”. Still, the part about being buried where his arrow fell is an obvious take from the Robin Hood legend.
Or could it have been the other way around? Does Jack predate Robin? An old poem from 1521 says the gibbet in Baldock was made for “Jack Leg” and, since Baldock dates from 1148 we can assume the legend arose between those dates. Unfortunately, so did tales of Robin Hood, the earliest mention of which was in 1377 when William Langland referenced “rymes of Robin Hood.” The first written account of Jack’s full story came in 1728, whereas the oldest Hood ballads date from three hundred years earlier. So it’s hard to say which legend borrowed from the other, if either did – maybe the similarities are mere coincidence? Or maybe both took elements of some OTHER, even earlier mythical character…
Today, there’s the aforementioned gravesite of Jack, there’s a “Jack’s Hill” near Graveley, and you could even buy a Jack O’ Legs beer from Tring Brewery although they’ve stopped production which is a shame. I’d have liked to try it!
So, back to the question I asked myself at the start of this piece: How could I have never heard of this guy before? Well, I took out my Robin Hood research books by people like Graham Phillips & Martin Keatman, John Matthews, John Paul Davis and J.C. Holt and looked up the index. None of them mention Jack O’Legs. What about general folklore books then? The Reader’s Digest’s Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain, an exhaustive collection of stories from all over the country (and famous for influencing Jethro Tull’s “Songs From The Wood” album) has no mention of Jack O’Legs. Myths and Legends of the Celts by James McKillopincludes a giant known as Jack in one chapter, but he’s from Cornwall and a different legend altogether.
So what do you think of this strange myth? Personally, I believe there was probably a real man who liked to steal from people and share his ill-gotten gains with his friends. He was ambushed by some angry bakers who were sick of him robbing them, dragged to town where his eyes were put out, and then he was hung. His friends exaggerated his height and his exploits, probably adding elements of the Robin Hood story which was likely well known in the area, and now we have this enduring but obscure story. I hope you found this little blog post interesting – I certainly enjoyed learning more about a piece of folklore that I’d never heard of before.
And to the question of what Jack O’Legs might mean? Well, Jack of Legs of course! A dictionary of slang words from 1811 defined it as pertaining to a tall, long-legged person.
ETA – I shared this article on the Charles Fort Institute/Fortean Times message board and a poster there noted this:
EnolaGaia said :A note for anyone wishing to delve further into the Jack O’Legs story …
In rummaging around archives (etc.) for clues I noticed that older accounts quite often referred to the legendary figure as “Weston Giant” – sometimes as a sort of subtitle added onto a “Jack” reference, but also sometimes as the primary label for him.
It may be that additional historical info / documentation exists that labels him “Weston Giant” without reference to any “Jack” name.