All Things Green Man & The Traditional Jack-in-the-Green


This fantastic story was posted by COTGM member Leslie Melville

Several hundred years ago a group of monks came from France to the Cartmel Valley, in Lancashire. Their task was to build a great church. They were led by a monk whose name was Bernard.

Bernard climbed a hill, which he thought to be a suitable site, for churches are often found upon hilltops, overlooking the community who worship there.

He knelt in prayer, asking for guidance. When he looked up he saw the tall, bearded figure of a man dressed all in green. Not only was he dressed in green – he was green! Even his hair and beard seemed to made of tiny green leaves.

“This is not the place you seek”, said the man. “How do you know what I seek?” asked Bernard.

“This is a place of worship for those of the Old Religion”, replied the man in green, ignoring Bernard’s question. “You should build your church on land that lies between two rivers flowing in opposite directions – to build here will cause great offence”.

Bernard climbed to his feet and from his lofty viewpoint, surveyed the valley below. “Two rivers, flowing in opposite directions?” He had never heard such nonsense. He knew, as we all do that all rivers flow to the sea! He turned to say as much but to his surprise, found that the green man was gone, nowhere to be seen! Bernard wondered if he had imagined him. He nevertheless felt that he had to share his strange experience with his colleagues and he descended the hill to find them.

They were equally as puzzled but felt, as Bernard himself felt that the advice of the green stranger should not lightly be ignored. They knew that their God wanted them to build in this locality and so set out to find these rivers. If they existed, God would lead them to the place.

Two days later, an excited novice monk came running to Bernard. “Come”, he said, “this is amazing!” Bernard followed the young man who led him to a narrow river. “Watch this”. The young novice picked up a small stick and tossed it into the swiftly flowing stream. The stick was quickly picked up in the current and headed off down stream, towards Morecambe Bay.

“Now come and see this!” The young man began running towards another river, some half-mile further along the valley. Bernard had difficulty keeping up with the excited novice monk. “Now, watch!” he said when Bernard arrived by his side at the riverbank.

He picked up another small branch and threw it out into the centre of the river. Bernard was amazed to see the stick actually flowing in the opposite direction, away from Morecambe Bay and heading towards Lake Windermere!

Bernard fell to his knees in thankful prayer. Through the young novice monk, God had guided him to a place that he had not believed existed.
The land between the two rivers was flat and ideal for the building of a great church. His team began their work and two years later, Cartmel Priory was complete and stands to this day.

If you go to the village of Cartmel, you can see for yourself the two rivers that continue to flow in opposite directions. Throw a stick in each and watch them as they are carried along the currents, one heading for Morecambe Bay and the other speeding towards Lake Windermere.

If you care to visit the beautiful priory, you will be able to see an image of the green man, carved on a misericord in the choir stalls. You may also climb the hill where the green man dispensed his advice; there is a signpost that will direct you to Mount Bernard!

Leslie Melville

5 responses

  1. Whilst I’ve long been familiar with the legend concerning the founding of Cartmel Priory, this is the first I’ve heard of the green man figure. In some versions it is simply ‘…a heavenly voice from the air…’, whilst in others it is Saint Cuthbert who appears to the monks in a dream. Perhaps the author would be so good as to disclose his sources?

    Interestingly, Oak Apple Designs, who do many fine reproductions of green men & other medieval carvings, reproduce one of the Cartmel misericord green men figures simply as a ‘Trinity Face’, ommitting the foliage altogether!

    See Cartmel Trinity.

    Feb 6, 2009 at 2:35 pm

  2. I first heard the story ten years ago. It was told by Taffy Thomas, The Lakeland Storyteller. He in turn says he got it from a Cartmel primary schoolboy.

    And yes, as Taffy told it, it was a ‘voice from Heaven’ (God in fact) that guided the monks to the two rivers flowing in opposite directions. When I later learned about the green man carving in the Priory, it seemed to be tidier and more logical to have him advise Brother Bernard on the hill top.

    So I changed the interpretation accordingly – It is what storytellers occasionally do.

    I sometimes relocate folk tales in order to give them relevance to the people listening, I did something similar here. I hope you’re not too offended. At the end of the day, it is just a story.

    At least it is satisfying to know that someone is paying attention!


    Feb 7, 2009 at 7:39 pm

  3. When it comes to specific legends I feel it is the responsibility of the storyteller to keep to the narrative facts, however so fantastical as such facts might be. Not only is the addition of the entirely modern Green Man figure utterly incongruous to the nature & purpose of the medieval Cartmel legend, but also entirely misleading as to the nature of the Green Man (so-called) as depicted in the 15th century Cartmel carvings themselves.

    As such, your version is not so much an interpretation as it is a wholesale reinvention which is, sadly, both erroneous to the cause of traditional story and that of our understanding of the Green Man (so-called) in the culture & theology of Post-Reformation Roman Catholicism (such as Cartmel Priory) which is its only context.

    I believe very much in the ecology of legendary & traditional narrative, and would charge my fellow storytellers to nurture this habitat according to the duty of their calling. In this sense such legends are not just stories, rather they are our common cultural heritage which we mess with to the detriment of something very precious indeed. They are not ours to mess with anyway – like the earth we borrow them from future generations to whom we have the duty of simply telling it like it is.

    For some images of the Cartmel choir stalls and green man imagery:

    And for another Cartmel tradition more than worthy of our attention:

    All the best – Sedayne

    Feb 9, 2009 at 1:56 pm

  4. I fully understand what you are saying and I respect your point of view, but I have to disagree.

    In my opinion, stories are very much ours to ‘mess with’. If Leonard Bernstein hadn’t ‘messed’ with Romeo and Juliet, the world would have been deprived of the wonderful music that is ‘West Side Story’.

    My first responsibility as a storyteller is to my audience and to deliver to them entertaining stories. Whether the stories are old or new, there should be elements within in them that the storyteller can use to generate an emotional response from his listeners. To a storyteller, the tales they tell are merely the material with which he plies his trade.

    To a college lecturer, a story may serve a different purpose.

    The vast majority of people who hear me tell The Cartmel story are hearing it for the first time. They judge the tale purely on my ability to make it interesting and entertaining. None of them give a stuff about “understanding the green man in the culture and theology of Post-Reformation Roman Catholicism” and it is not my job to teach them. It is a story – it works, and someone long ago (or maybe not so long ago) made it up!

    Stories, myths and legends, in my view should serve two purposes; They must firstly entertain and then deliver a relevant point or message in a language that is easily understood. I strongly believe that a story is a living entity, developing and growing with every telling – I don’t believe it needs to be cherished or preciously preserved verbatim in some lofty intellectual museum, to be occasionally lifted down and inspected like some laboratory specimen. “Look but don’t touch!” is not for me. I want very much to touch and to mould the stories I like and make them my own.

    I rarely tell the Cartmel legend in isolation. It is one of several green man related tales that I have delivered on story-walks, countryside tale trails and in parks and country centres. I also tell the stories of Gawain & The Green Knight, The Loathly Lady and often include Ron Millar’s great story of the Wind Smith and the Long Man of Wilmington. In addition, I tell a couple of modern green man stories, both of which are included to suggest that he is still around today and not just some far distant pagan figure from long ago who has no relevance in the modern world.

    I am far more interested in the green man concept as an energetic life force, in tune with the earth and regeneration than I am with ancient sculptures and carvings that have only been described as green men in the last seven decades.

    God has not been excluded from my telling of the Cartmel legend – all I have done is to change his messenger. For a long time I told it as I originally heard it and it was reasonably well received. After I replaced the Heavenly voice with the green man, audiences became noticeably more responsive. People wanted to talk to me about the story in a way that they never did before. I have even received emails from people who have actually been moved by my telling to visit Cartmel and the Priory (and buy sticky toffee pudding from the village shop – as I also always recommend!). That can’t be a bad thing.

    It would appear that you have a personal affinity with the subject and if I have offended your religious or spiritual sensibilities, then I am truly sorry. But purely in the context of telling a tale, personal evidence leads me to believe that my interpretation (or re-invention) resonates with a modern audience and makes it a better story.

    The green man element (incongruous to you) makes a direct and physical contact with the Priory. It also brings to life a carving that at the time of its creation would never have been identified as a green man in the first place.


    Feb 12, 2009 at 11:23 am

  5. Note: In going though a few documents on the old lap-top I came across my reply to the above which, for whatever reason, I didn’t get round to posting back in February 2009. So here it is – almost two years overdue! I’ve only expanded it a wee bit in the light of the recent publication of Richard Hayman’s excellent little book on the Green Man in the Shire Library series.


    One would have hoped a storyteller would be far more interested in the story as it has come down to us rather than changing the details in the light (!) of a fashionable piece of post-modern revisionism. This is a very specific form of cultural vandalism in which you abuse your responsibility as a ‘Tradition Bearer’ by using your position to promote ideas which are, in any case, demonstrably erroneous. Whilst Romeo and Juliet was used as a morphological blueprint for the analogue that is West Side Story, neither in any way threaten the integrity of the other, which is certainly not the case here.

    The first responsibility of the storyteller must concern the integrity of the material, especially when that material purports to be in any way traditional. Like Traditional Folk Songs, such legends are not ‘living entities’ but perilous vestiges of a long dead oral-culture which, though once creative, is now part of a museum to be curated with due care by those who have elected themselves to be its custodians. As you point out, many people who hear your reinvention of the Cartmel legend do so in complete ignorance of the real one (much less the facts concerning the so-called Green Man) & they’re trusting that what you tell them is legendary reality, not your own somewhat specious interpretation of same.

    That such legends have come to us at all is miracle enough, so we must treat them as being as precious as they are vulnerable. It is bad enough that you hike ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ to the post-modern Green Man bandwagon, for whilst Gawain has a wider currency than the Cartmel legend, there will be a significant amount of your listeners who will take you at your mistaken word. More seriously, in propagating the idea of the Green Man as “…energetic life force, in tune with the earth and regeneration…” not only are you misrepresenting the Cartmel legend, but misrepresenting the Cartmel carvings by aligning them to your decidedly post-modern misconception.

    The idea that links the Foliate Heads of Medieval Christianity to bourgeois fantasies of Pre-Christian nature worship via the survivals of folklore is a notion first postulated in privileged folkloric circles in the 1930s. Thus, it tells us more about the nature of Folklore & Folklorists over the last 80-years than it does about the Green Men themselves, which, far from being wholly anomalous in a Christian context, are as much a part of the culture and theology of Medieval Christianity as they are of the fabric of the buildings in which we find them – i.e. the medieval churches and cathedrals such as Cartmel. In this, Cave, Raglan et al were promoting the very worrying idea that so-called ‘folk customs’ are survivals of pagan ritual unwittingly perpetuated by an ill-educated peasantry wholly ignorant of the true significance of their seasonal usage. Such ridiculous notions have long been proven to be without foundation, and thus does Raglan’s ‘fakeloric’ Green Man vanish before our eyes leaving us with the far more vibrant human reality of the Foliate Heads in their actual cultural and historical context – as has recently been explored by Mercia MacDermott in ‘Explore Green Men’ (Heart of Albion, 2003) and Richard Hayman’s ‘The Green Man’ (Shire Publications, 2010).

    At least it ought to have. As one cathedral custodian pointed out, it’s easier to sell books & gew-gaws of pagan green men than ones dealing with the culture and theology of medieval Christianity. Let’s hope Richard Hayman’s excellent contribution to the Shire Library will help set the record straight.

    Best wishes


    PS – I must point out that I am a Godless atheist whose only interest in religion is from a cultural & historical perspective. Likewise, as a storyteller, my interest in folkloric material is determined by human truth, not new-age fancy and hear-say.

    Dec 31, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.