Watch out! Major spoilers ahead.
“Every tiny movement seemed magnified in the vastness of the forest. Harry knew that it must be full of living creatures, but he wished they would all remain still and silent so that he could separate their innocent scurryings and prowlings from noises that might proclaim other, sinister movements.”
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry and Hermione camp in the Forest of Dean while in hiding. Hermione takes them there on a whim, having camped there once before with her parents. It’s in this eerie, frozen forest that Harry encounters the silver Patronus of a doe. She feels so familiar that, abandoning all caution or fear that it’s a trap, Harry decides to follow her.
The doe leads him to a frozen pool, the depths of which are hiding the ancient sword of Godric Gryffindor. Harry is bemused, wondering how it got there. Did the magic of the forest draw Hermione to this spot so he could find it? Who put it there? (Spoiler: Snape did.)
Harry decides to break the ice and dive into the frozen pond. Only trouble is, he’s forgotten he’s wearing a Horcrux, which strangles him while underwater. In a perfect example of deus ex machina, Ron Weasley has appeared out of thin air to save Harry and retrieve the sword. The return of Ron after a falling out weeks prior shocks Harry almost as much as the other events that transpired that night.
A History of Magic
This all happens in a chapter called “The Silver Doe,” and in it, author JK Rowling gives her characters a chilling, spine-tingling setting with the Forest of Dean. Located in the western part of Gloucestershire, England, the Forest of Dean is a region that people have been inhabiting since Mesolithic times. One area in particular, called Puzzlewood, is a popular film location that has contributed scenes to Harry Potter, Star Wars, Merlin, and Doctor Who.
Naturally, a beautiful, eerie, mystical forest can’t see thousands of years of human activity without adding a few myths and legends to its resume. Here are a few of our favorite stories that show why the Forest of Dean is an ideal place for wizards to hide.
The Last Witch of Gloucestershire
There’s a quiet little town called Cinderford located on the eastern fringe of the Forest of Dean. At the turn of the 19th century, it was home to a woman named Ellen Hayward. The townspeople knew her as “Old Ellen.” She was a self-described phrenologist with a dab hand at herbs who peddled advice and remedies at any price her patients could afford, which sometimes meant “free.”
Records state that she would dress the wounds of both animals and people with the help of potions concocted from dried herbs gathered by moonlight. She cured servant girls with stone-worn knees, forestry men who suffered from the elements, and farmers with wounded livestock. Residents throughout the Forest held her in high esteem.
In 1905, Ellen received a visit from John Markey of May Hill. Markey was troubled by a missing sum of 50 pounds from his home. Feeling he was unwell, Old Ellen advised him to go home and rest up. Within a week, three members of the Markey family went insane. John’s wife disappeared and a daughter and granddaughter were both committed to an asylum. The wife reappeared carrying a hazel stick, which she said served as protection from witches. Shortly after, their son George became violent, impaled his eye on a spike, and ran away. The police caught George and doctors certified him as insane.
Let the Witch Hunt Commence
The people of May Hill’s response to this dreadful scene was to carry hazel sticks around for protection. Once newspapers caught wind of the odd behavior, the story made national headlines. It wasn’t a far jump for people to trace the Markey’s misfortune to the visit with Ellen. Some villagers even alleged that Ellen showed Markey the fate of one of his relatives in a crystal ball. As the gossip spread, the pressure started mounting for local authorities to do something to curb the practice of witchcraft. Officials even brought it up in Parliament.
Ellen wrote a letter defending herself to The Dean Forest Mercury. In it, she emphatically denied being a witch, noting that the press was slandering her with the term. She went on to explain that she was highly esteemed in the community as a healer, but had no “knowledge of such pagan ideas, nor the power or ability to bewitch someone, or the belief in any such thing.” She also explained that her business was suffering because of the bad press, and asked the public for donations.
Things came to a head in September 1905 when a man named James Davis paid her a visit. Davis was certain a local woman, Mrs. Amos, was cursing his pigs and cows and making them sick. He initially sent Ellen an explanatory letter enclosed with money, then went to see her in person. She advised him to wait until the next full moon. The pig got better.
Davis, on the other hand, fell ill. He went to see Ellen again in December, and she diagnosed him with influenza. She advised him to rest indoors until February. A grateful Davis tried to pay her a large sum, but she refused. By February, Davis’ mood had changed. He was sure that Ellen cursed him at the behest of Mrs. Amos and demanded she lift the curse, or he would raise the matter with the authorities. Then he offered her money to hex the Amos family. Ellen declined.
Three months later, in May 1906, Old Ellen was arraigned at the Littledean court. The charge? That she “unlawfully did certain craft or means or device to wit by pretended witchcraft deceive and impose on one of HM subjects to wit one James Davis.” Ellen plead not guilty and provided her own defense. She explained that she treated people all the time and claimed to have told Davis that curses weren’t real. Numerous character witness testimonies backed her up and the magistrate threw out the charges.
The townspeople were so behind Ellen that some argued she should receive compensation. When she died of a stroke a few years later, her tombstone bore the message “erected by her friends in loving memory.”
Close shave Ellen, they almost found out.
The Roman Temple Curse
On the southern fringe of the Royal Forest of Dean, in the Lydney Park estate, a Roman temple and bath complex rest within the earthworks of an earlier Iron Age hill fort. This hill fort is believed to have been created around 100 B.C.E. and bears some evidence of coin minting and metalworking. The Romans came to occupy the area about 150 years later and erected a temple sometime around the end of the third century. The far end is divided into three compartments, suggesting that worshippers paid tribute to a triple deity there. They called this god Nodens.
Lord Bledisloe, owner of the Lydney Park Estate in the 1900s, called in an Anglo-Saxon scholar you may recognize named J.R.R. Tolkien in to investigate. Tolkien found that Nodens was a Celtic god who had a magical hand, who has survived in Irish and Welsh folklore as well. Nodens may have been a god of healing, as archeologists found numerous tablets inscribed with healing requests there.
Lost and Found
The site was rigorously investigated in 1805 and again in 1928 by noted archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Wheeler’s work informed much of what we know today. His investigation revealed over 8,000 coins, beautiful mosaic floors displaying fishermen and sea gods, a bronze plaque of a woman, a sculpture of a wolfhound, and one other, curious artifact — a cursed tablet.
It read “o the God Nodens. Silvianus has lost a ring. He has [vowed] half its value to Nodens. Amongst all who bear the name of Senicianus, refuse thou to grant health to exist, until he bring back the ring to the Temple of Nodens.”
In an extraordinary twist that sounds straight out of a storybook, the ring was found in a farmer’s field in Hampshire. It’s currently in the Vyne museum and some believe it was part of the inspiration for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
The Goddess of the River Severn
The River Severn is the longest river in Great Britain and known for its intense, voluminous flow. It snakes through Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire and flows on the southern edge of the Forest of Dean. The name Severn is derived from the Latin Sabrina, the Welsh form of which is Hafren. According to mythology, Sabrina is more than a denomination for the water — it’s the name of a girl who drowned in the river.
In Historia regum Britanniae, c. 1138, Geoffrey of Monmouth tells of Habren, the beautiful daughter of King Locrinus of the Britons and his secret lover Estrildis, a Germanic princess. Estrildis was a prisoner of Humber the Hun and smuggled to Britain during an invasion suppressed by Locrinus. He fell in love with the princess upon discovering her in one of Humber’s ships.
The love affair angered Corineus, an ally of Locrinus’ father and the king of Cornwall. Corineus had arranged a marriage between Locrinus and his daughter Gwendolyn and forced it to go ahead under threat of war. Despite the union, Locrinus still loved Estrildis and kept her hidden in a cave. Under the guise of making sacrifices to the gods, the king visited his lover and she soon became pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter named Habren.
Trouble in Paradise
Once Corineus died, Locrinus abandoned all pretense and divorced his wife to make Estrildis his queen. This legitimized Habren and gravely insulted Gwendolyn and her son and heir to the throne, Maddan. Unable to suffer these slights, Gwendolyn amassed an army at Cornwall and marched on Locrinus. She defeated her ex-husband’s forces and killed him. But that wasn’t the end of it.
Gwendolyn commanded that Estrildis and her daughter be thrown in the river. She published an edict throughout Britain that stated the river should bear the young girl’s name to keep the memory of her husband’s infamy alive. That was Habren or Hafren in Welsh, Sabren or Severn in English, and Sabrina in Latin.
Lore transformed Sabrina into a water nymph, who rides a chariot pulled by dolphins. The river’s movements reflect her moods. Supposedly, Romans made a water shrine for her at the hilltop at Littledean. English poet John Milton wrote a few verses for Sabrina hundreds of years later:
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair;
Listen for dear honour’s sake,
Goddess of the silver lake,
Listen and save!
A Resting Place for the Holy Grail
The Holy Grail is something many of us have heard of without knowing much about the history behind it. An important motif in Arthurian literature, the grail has been described as a cup, dish, or stone that has miraculous powers. They who possess it can enjoy eternal youth, happiness, or sustenance in infinite abundance. The quest for such a treasure has proven fatal for many, including numerous of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. While there is no evidence that the grail exists, that hasn’t stopped people from searching for it.
According to David Hughes in The British Chronicles, the Holy Grail was in the possession of Anfortas II, who lived in Britain under King Arthur’s patronage and was given an old Iron Age hill fort in Wales. Anfortas was a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who assumed responsibility for the burial of Jesus after his crucifixion.
Descendants of Joseph were called “Grail-Kings” and tasked with serving as the official keepers of the holy relic. These protectors decided to keep it in an old Roman temple located at Lydney Park in the Forest of Dean, situated on a hill that overlooked the River Severn. Sound familiar?
On The Move
Eventually, the Holy Grail was taken from this resting place and returned to Jerusalem in 1099 by Helyas the Swan Knight, hero of the First Crusade and last Grail-King. It was moved again when Jerusalem fell to Muslim rule before being transported to Antioch in 1291. After that, it disappeared from history for hundreds of years.
In 1910 a chalice containing an inner cup was discovered in the ruins of a church at Antioch. Some suspect it to be the Holy Grail. The inner cup is plain silver, housed in an outer cup of intricately carved silver that bears the figures of Christ and his disciples at the Last Supper. Some scholars believe someone crafted the outer cup at a later date to protect the plain silver one, which shows first-century workmanship. This “Chalice of Antioch” is privately owned today by the Met in New York City.
We think it’s better off with Nodens.