Penny Hedge

The Ceremony of the Horngarth or Planting of the Penny Hedge

Every year at 9 am. on the eve of Ascension Day the ceremony of the Horngarth, or the Planting of the Penny Hedge, takes place in Whitby’s upper harbour on the east bank of the River Esk.

The ceremony is performed under the supervision of the Bailiff of the Manor of Fyling. The hedge is constructed with 9 upright hazel stakes driven into the mud with an ancient mallet, 9 ‘yethers’ or pliant branches for intertwining, and is braced at each end with ‘strout-stowers’. There is a brushwood infill around the lower part of the stakes. Completion of the hedge is followed by 3 blasts on the ram’s horn, then a cry of “out on ye” repeated 3 times by the Bailiff. It must be strong enough to stand three tides.

2011 ‘Lol’ Hodgson, Bailiff (left) and Tim Osborne

The choice of Ascension Day, which falls 40 days after Easter Day, ensures that the tide is always low at the appointed time – or almost always, although not in 1981. The reason for this lay in the rules governing the date of Easter.

Easter Day falls on the first Sunday after the full moon which happens on or next after 21st March but never later than 25th April. If the full moon happens on a Sunday then Easter Day is the Sunday after.

In 1981 the full moon occurred on Sunday 19th April and, because to have observed Easter on the Sunday following would have put it outside the limit of 25th April, Easter Day was kept on the day of the full moon. As a result, the tide was full at 9 am on the Ascension Eve and the hedge could not be planted. According to legend “if it be full sea the Service shall cease” but public demand determined that it should continue.
The Legend of the Penny Hedge
An abridged version from Lionel Charlton’s : “History of Whitby” Book II (1779)

“In the fifth year of the reign of King Henry II, (1159) the Lord of Ugglebarnby, then called William de Bruce, the Lord of Sneton, called Ralph de Percy, with a gentleman and a freeholder called Allatson did, on the 16th day of October, appoint to meet and hunt the wild boar, in a certain wood belonging to the Abbot of the Monastery of Whitby : the place’s name is Eskdale-Side, the Abbot’s name was Sedman. Then these gentlemen being met, with their hounds, in the place before-named, and there having found a great wild boar, the hounds ran him well near about the chapel and hermitage of Eskdale-Side, where was a Monk of Whitby, who was a Hermit. The boar being very fore, and very hotly pursued, took in at the chapel door, and there died : Whereupon the Hermit shut the hounds out of the chapel. The gentlemen, followed the cry of their hounds, and so came to the hermitage, calling on the Hermit, who opened the door and within they found the boar lying dead; for which the gentlemen in very great fury, did most violently and cruelly run at the Hermit with their boar-staves, whereby he died soon after.

But the Hermit, at the point of death, sent for the Abbot, and desired him to send for the gentlemen who had wounded him : The Abbot so doing, the gentlemen came, and the Hermit, being very sick and weak, said unto them, I am sure to die of those wounds you have given me; the Abbot answered, They shall as surely die for the same; but the Hermit answered, Not so, for I will freely forgive them my death, if they will be contented to be enjoined this penance for the safeguard of their souls.

The gentlemen bid him enjoin what penance he would, so that he would but save their lives. Then said the Hermit, you and yours shall hold your lands from the Abbot of Whitby, and his successors, in this manner, That upon Ascension evening you, ort some of you, shall come to the wood of the StrayHeads, which is in Eskdale-Side, the same day at sun-rising, and there shall the Abbot’s officer blow his horn, to the intent that you may know how to find him; and he shall deliver unto you, William de Bruce, ten stakes, eleven strout stowers, and eleven yethers, to be cut by you, or some of you, with a knife of one penny price; and you, Ralph de Percy, shall take twenty and one of each sort, to be cut in the same manner; and you, Allatson, shall take nine of each sort, to be cut as aforesaid, and to be taken on your backs, and carried to the town of Whitby, and to be there before nine of the clock the same day before-mentioned: At the same hour of nine of the clock each of you shall set your stakes at the brim, each stake one yard from the other, and so yether them on each side with your yethers, and so stake on each side with your strout stowers, that they may stand three tides without removing by the force thereof: Each of you shall do, make and execute the said service all that very hour every year, except it be full sea at that hour; but when it shall so fall out, this service shall cease. If you, or your successors, shall refuse this service, so long as it shall not be full sea at the aforesaid hour, you or yours shall forfeit your lands to the Abbot of Whitby, or his successors.”

Local historians, past and present, are unanimous in their view that the legend which now embellishes the ceremony is an invention. Each offers his own explanation, while at the same time dismissing all others, often in intemperate terms. They all agree, however, that the Horngarth Service is very ancient and that it was a form of tenure payment to the Abbot.

Lionel Charlton (A History of Whitby and Whitby Abbey 1779) asserts “Nor was ever the story of this Hermit of, or known in the world, till after the dissolution of our Monastery, when some conceited Monk, in order to skew and make a boast of the great knowledge, learning, and abilities of his fraternity, after they were turned out of doors, took upon him to frame the before-mentioned Legend, which, on account of the universal ignorance that then prevailed here among the vulgar, soon gained ground… ”

In his opinion the origin of the service certainly predated the Conquest and was approximately coincident with the founding of the abbey. His explanation is that it was a landing place, since before the building of the piers no boat could land in safety until it was clear of the breakers at or near this garth, where landing or embarking could take place without danger.

Rev. George Young (A History of Whitby 1817) argues that the legend is nonsense because in 1159 the names mentioned were completely inaccurate. The abbot was called Richard, not Sedman, Ralph de Percy was not Lord of Sneaton, William de Bruce was not Lord of Ugglebarnby and, as far as is known, there were no Allatsons in Fylingdales.

He suggests that the Horngarth was a garth or enclosure, fenced with wood and perhaps used as the coal yard for the monastery, where the coals were delivered and stored.

Rev. J C Atkinson (Memorials of Old Whitby 1894) puts the date of the written story of the legend much later than 1159, being “in a hand as late perhaps as the end of the sixteenth century or the early part of the seventeenth century”. In his opinion, however, there is no doubt that the service dates at least as far back as the founding of the abbey.

He agrees with both Charlton and Young that the legend of the Penny Hedge is no more than a fable, but contends that the explanations they give are “all equally unsatisfactory, not to say absurd”. His more realistic explanation is that, taking into account the time of year and the place of erection at the ‘towne end’ as stated in the abbot’s Book, the fence was designed to keep out animals

Robert B Turton (Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 1909) is more circumspect in his criticisms, merely stating that the explanations offered do not amount to much. His suggestion is that the ‘Horngarth’ was a survival of one of the earliest forms of hunting and merely described the shape of the enclosure, consisting of two converging fences into which animals were driven for slaughter.

The annual Planting of the Penny Hedge survives to this day, and is now performed by the Bailiff of the Manor of Fyling. Until recently the Bailiff was responsible only for supervising the ceremony whilst the hedge was planted by a member or a representative of the Hutton family, owners of the land at Harton House Farm in Fylingdales to which the Horngarth service reputedly relates and which was once occupied by the Allatsons referred to on the parchment flyleaf at the beginning of the Abbot’s Book. All the others mentioned in that document and who held land from the Abbey in Dunsley, Sneaton, Everley and elsewhere, had eventually purchased their discharge from the obligation to perform the ceremony.

The connection with the Penny Hedge continued in the Allatson family from at least 1540 until 1775, when the property passed first to the Herberts and later to the Hutton family, who were in possession by the time of the 1891 census and remained there for the next 100 years. In 1981, when the full tide of that year prevented the planting of the hedge, the then owner of Harton House Farm, Allison Hutton, decided that the obligation had ceased and the land would no longer be forfeit. Fortunately the custom was continued as a courtesy to the people of Whitby by Arthur Hutton and later by George Hutton, Allison’s son, when he was Bailiff of the ancient Manor of Fyling in the early 1990s.

The long connection with the Hutton family then ceased.

Nevertheless, the ceremony continues. But the mystery remains. The varied explanations of the eminent local historians are, at best, unconvincing and we are unlikely ever to know the real facts. Perhaps it is even possible that the legend is substantially true, since the tale of the huntsmen and the hermit, before being put to paper around the end of the sixteenth century, was handed down by word of mouth for several centuries with the inevitable distortions of names and dates which this entailed,.

Whatever the truth, as Turton says, “There are few, if any, survivals of greater interest from a historical standpoint than the Horngarth service. Probably obsolete when William I landed in England, certainly obsolete at the date of Bannockburn, it has lasted down to the present time, and on every Ascension Eve the ‘Penny Hedge’ planted on the east foreshore of the River Esk in Whitby Harbour keeps its memory alive”.

[Narrative by courtesy of Harry Green, Trustee]