Updated: Jul 5
We had a trip to Salisbury today. For anyone reading this from afar, Salisbury (pronounced Solls-bury) is a small city here in southern Britain. It’s famous for its cathedral which has a spire of the sort of height that makes me feel a bit weird! By sheer chance, we found it was Salisbury’s Festival of Dance today which was attended by Morris “sides” (groups) from several different towns and the rather fascinating Salisbury Giant, albeit a replica rather than the original.
The Salisbury Giant, known as Christopher, is a character who certainly gets noticed. For over 500 years, he has paraded the streets of Salisbury with his sidekick Hob Nob. Hob Nob is generally considered to be a hobby horse, though is occasionally referred to as a dragon. They both look like they’ve stepped straight out of the classic and unforgettable film, the Wicker Man!
No-one knows for sure quite what the giant’s origins are, or exactly how old he is, but he probably existed back into the 1400s. He was owned by the Salisbury Tailor's Guild and the first mentions of him are in their records from 1570 which call for Christopher’s coat to be fixed in preparation for the “accustomed pageant of Mydsomer feaste”. This gives us a clue that he was already feeling his age by 1570 and, as the guild was chartered in 1447, it’s perfectly possible that he dates from at least then.
Hob Nob wasn’t mentioned in the earliest records, but gets his first mention in 1572 when it’s written that “Thomas Barker dyd bringe in one Hobby-Horse …”
Christopher and Hob Nob were both acquired by Salisbury Museum in 1873 for the lowly sum of 30 shillings (around £1.50). The giant originally stood at 14 feet tall but his height was reduced to 12 feet to enable him to fit into the museum.
The solid wooden head is most likely the oldest remaining part of the giant. When he arrived at the museum, his head was riddled with woodworm and needed repair. The rest of him is rather like the ship of Theseus (or Trigger’s broom for Brits of a certain generation) with many parts being replaced over the years. Originally, it’s thought that the lips were able to move and were presumably controlled by the person inside the costume. His wooden and wicker body frame dates from 1850.
His appearance has changed greatly over the years. In the 19th century, he wore a tricorn hat and had a tobacco pipe, but in the 20th century, he was wearing robes in the style of the 1400s. His current red coat was made in 1935 and he has the Guild of Tailors’ coat of arms painted on his leather baldric (the belt slung over one shoulder to carry a sword).
In the 19th or 20th century, his face was painted with shellac to help preserve the wood and this gave him a very different appearance, making him look as if he was of African descent. This was removed more recently during restoration work, and six layers of pink-ish paint were discovered underneath, bringing him back to a more European appearance.
Christopher and Hob Nob are both light enough to be carried by a man each. Traditionally the giant was carried by a Salisbury butcher – possibly because they were used to lugging heavy weights around! The body is very manoeuvrable and he can dance, turn and sway with life-like movement. Handles on the outside of the framework were held by his attendants to help steady him, and to aid progression through the crowds. During a procession in 1911, the wind caught the giant and he toppled over, falling into the crowd!
Since the early 16th century, Christopher has been accompanied by his two “Whifflers” who carry his regalia – a huge sword and a mace. He also travels in the company of a Yeoman who carries his staff of office. Hob Nob, of course, has been at his side since the very early days at least, and it’s his task to clear a pathway through the thronging crowds.
Hob Nob is made with real horse hair, and has a moveable, snapping jaw with hob nails for teeth. There are reports from the 19th and 20th centuries of Hob Nob chasing people in the crowds who had been throwing things at the giant. He would snap at people and even rip their clothing!
It’s believed that Christopher and Hob Nob were first used by the Guild of Tailors for midsummer celebrations on the eve of St. John the Baptist's Day - 23rd June, midsummer. The celebrations are known in many areas and in some, including Ireland and Cornwall, they still go on today. Large fires, known as St. John’s fires, are constructed throughout the countryside or on hilltops, and are lit at sunset. Men leap through the flames, people gather to dance, sing and feast. The celebration is very much connected to fertility and is steeped in folklore and ancient beliefs and superstitions.
St. John’s Day may be called by a Christian name and connected to a Christian saint, but it clearly has pre-Christian roots stretching a very long way back.
The pretty yellow flower of St. John’s wort is in full bloom at midsummer, at its full strength like the sun it’s so strongly associated with. The botanical name of “hypericum” comes from the Greek meaning “to protect”. In Europe, the herb was gathered on the eve of St. John’s Day when its energies were considered to be particularly potent. Bunches were hung from the eaves and placed in the windows of houses as a protection against evil, and against bad magick. It was also hung in cattle byres and the stables of horses to keep evil at bay. Today, it’s frequently used to repel negativity in the form of depression.
The Salisbury Giant is also often referred to as St. Christopher. The Christian saint was reputed to also be a giant at 7.5 feet tall (dwarfed by “our” Christopher!) and was said to carry Jesus as an infant safely though a river due to his height. Height appears to be where the similarities end though and, other than his name, there’s nothing to further suggest a strong Christian origin for Christopher the giant.
As time moved on, Christopher and Hob Nob were also brought out for other national occasions, and royal celebrations such as coronations, jubilees and royal weddings. They were both there in the centre of celebrations for the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, and the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902.
These days they’re very rarely seen parading through the streets, but live a quieter life in Salisbury Museum. They were last brought out over 40 years ago for Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee in 1977. A replica of Christopher has been made, and this can now be seen at celebrations.
It’s assumed that Christopher and Hob Nob were both made around the same time and, returning to the dating of these pageant figures, there are two interesting snippets which may just hint at them being older than we think. Salisbury as a city has strong ties with St. George as the patron saint England. There is a record relating to the Guild of St. George, an important merchant’s guild in Salisbury which was possibly founded as far back as the early 1300s. The record dates from 1455 and tells of a dragon being fought by St. George in the company of St. Christopher. This may indicate that Hob Nob is over a hundred years older than the first “official” mention of him, and also add further weight to the idea that he is not a horse, but a dragon after all.
The second intriguing morsel is a very old map known as the Gough map. It’s unusual because it shows the whole of the island of Great Britain (so, includes Scotland) but very little is known about it, including when it was made or who actually created it.
Based on various studies, the best estimates seem to indicate that it could date from around the mid-1300s. The depictions of various cities and towns show churches and cathedrals. Salisbury, along with its tall cathedral spire, also shows an oversized dark figure on the road approaching the city. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest this could just possibly be Salisbury’s very own giant, Christopher.
Giants have been a part of the folklore and mythology of Britain for countless generations and the tradition of figures such as Christopher undoubtedly have ancient origins. Likewise, horse figures also date back into prehistory. The Iceni added them to their coinage, and the people of Wessex immortalised them on their hilltops with the white horses of Wessex. I'll write more about both horses and giants in a future post.
Still today, there are other folk customs of ancient origins involving horses and one of those is the 'Obby 'Oss (hobby horse) festival celebrating May Day in Padstow, Cornwall. The 'oss is very similar to Hob Nob and is also thought to have strong connections with fertility.
Many of these customs stretch back into the mists of time, and their origins have become a little lost or muddled over the years. One thing is for sure though - in Britain, we have a rich history of pre-Christian celebrations and festivals which have been passed down from one generation to the next in various forms.
If you’d like to discover more about Christopher and Hob Nob, I’d recommend a trip to Salisbury Museum to see them for yourselves. I found their energies and sense of presence very strong! Not negative or spooky as such, but there’s certainly something about them that’s quite fascinating.
There’s also an interesting short film showing them in more detail at https://vimeo.com/16615668