In the depths of rural Lincolnshire, beside the National Trust ruins of Tattershall Castle sits the modest Holy Trinity Collegiate Church.
The 16th century church was part of an original trio of buildings, consisting of the castle, church and a college, which now only exists in ruins. Built under the direction of Lord Ralph Cromwell, Chancellor to Henry VI, he died before the church was completed, leaving the rest of the building work to be supervised by the Bishop of Winchester. For such a rural location, the church itself is very large with a strange history regarding its windows. The church is built in the Perpendicular style, meaning that it was designed with enormous windows, allowing light to illuminate the huge building. Originally, these windows were filled with stained glass, which must have been awe-inspiring for the worshipping congregation. However, in the 18th century, a vicar decided that the stained glass should be removed and replaced with clear glass (!!) and by 1754, all of it was removed. To add insult to injury, there had been a series of mix-ups regarding the cost of this new clear glass – the chancel windows were left glassless, and others were bricked up! Thankfully, a little of the stained glass can be seen today, but its previous grandeur is long gone.
The church also has a notable bat population, which has been capitalised on with the production of twee books and tea towels designed by local children, professing the vaguely religious modern parable of ‘Tatty Bat’. However, for all of the bat droppings and covered memorials (bat poo can be damaging, you see), the true hidden treat of Tattershall is a tiny slab, carved with an even smaller name. It’s the type of feature you’d easily walk over or pass by were it not for the plastic flowers, small sign and laminated poem. Within the grounds of the church (or directly beneath the slab, depending on who you ask), and memorialised within its walls is the grave of Tom Thumb. Supposedly, that’s the Tom Thumb.
According to local legend, the Tom Thumb of Tattershall measured just over 18 inches tall and had reached the grand old age of 101 upon his death in 1620. For all of this exciting local history, that’s where the proof of Tom’s fame and existence ends. Fact and fiction have become so interwoven in the intervening centuries, that British folklore has created different Tom Thumbs, a thousand times over.
The ‘character’ of Tom Thumb was reportedly first recorded in written folklore in the early 17th century, in 1621; a year after this Tom Thumb’s death. In these early stories, Tom was born as small as his father’s thumb, hence his name. Over the years, his story developed from humble beginnings to grand adventures, where he was tormented by giants, beloved by King Arthur and, rather sweetly, wore clothes made from leaves and cobwebs (and shoes made from mouse skin, but that’s rather less pleasant…). He was also said to have been swallowed by a variety of animals, including a cow, a vagrant, a fish and even the King himself, ultimately escaping in a range of deeply unpleasant ways, which I’ll leave to your own imagination.
In Reginald Scott’s ‘Discovery of Witchcraft’ (1584), Tom is cited as a supernatural being, or one of many cunning folk, who would trick and torment the foolish and superstitious. By the 17th century, Tom was popularised by playwright Henry Fielding who wrote ‘The Tragedy of Tragedies, or the History of Tom Thumb the Great’. Fielding’s play is a fun farce, where the tiny Tom Thumb is granted the hand of a princess in marriage. In response, the furious queen and other members of the court attempt to stop their nuptials.
By the 19th century, the Victorians had made Tom a staple of children’s bookshelves, and he was no longer escaping the bowels of creatures, but using his charm, wit and cunning to escape such situations. Indeed, the name was so popular that circus pioneer P. T. Barnum gave one of his performers with dwarfism the pseudonym of ‘General Tom Thumb’ (real name Charles Sherwood Stratton) to capitalise on this established tradition. Barnum’s Tom Thumb was far taller than Tattershall’s, being 3’ 3”, and lived an interesting and full life with no instances of insect-based peril.
The Tom at Tattershall was reportedly very popular at the King’s court, making frequent trips to the capital to mingle with the great and good of the court. This royal relationship was reiterated in poems and fairytales, which marked his death in verse:
Here lies Tom Thumb, King Arthur’s knight,
Who died by a spider’s cruel bite.
He was well known in Arthur’s court,
Where he afforded gallant sport;
He rode a tilt and tournament,
And on a mouse a-hunting went.
Alive he filled the court with mirth;
His death to sorrow soon gave birth.
Wipe, wipe your eyes, and shake your head
And cry,–Alas! Tom Thumb is dead!
Tom’s grave marker was not the only one in the county for many years. In the early 19th century, it was recorded that a similar, larger blue flagstone was installed at Lincoln Cathedral, which was incredibly popular with locals and tourists, but was sadly mislaid during cathedral repairs and redevelopment. According to legend, although Tom died at Lincoln, he lived day-to-day in Tattershall, and his ‘house’ still remains! In Tattershall marketplace sits the listed Lodge House with a curious addition to the roof. At the top of the roof ridge sits a tiny ceramic house, where Tom was said to have lived out his days.
In reality, this is a ceramic decoration, albeit a very sweet and unusual one. Called a ‘louvre’, it takes the form of a gabled house and has been linked with the Tom Thumb name for centuries. According to the long-defunct Tattershall village site, Tom’s house was believed to have been on the other side of the market place, but casually changed in the public imagination following the sale of the building.
It’s the nature of folklore for stories to be tangled, rootless and re-written over the centuries to suit out social, cultural, religious or basic entertainment needs, and Tom is no different. If anyone, of any height, is buried beneath Tattershall church remains one of life’s great mysteries, but isn’t it far nicer to think that a tiny man who escaped the innards of a salmon is memorialised for all to see?
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