Time Travel in Avengers: Endgame

A still from Oren Bell’s brilliant interactive timeline for Endgame as a multiverse movie. He disagrees with both writers and directors on the ending – check it out on his site here

With the new time travel-centric Marvel TV series Loki about to debut, I thought it was time (ha) for another dabble in the genre with a look at 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. (SPOILERS for those who somehow have yet to see it). To no-one’s surprise, the writers of Endgame opted to wrap up both a 20+ film long story arc and a cliffhanger involving the death of half the universe by recourse to that old chestnut of time travel (an old chestnut I love though!). It did so in a superficially clever way, comparing itself to and distancing itself from (quote) “bullshit” stories like ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘The Terminator’. The more I’ve thought and read about it though, the more I realise that it’s no more scientific in its approach than those movies. “No shit” I hear you say, but there are plenty of people out there who are convinced that this is superior time travel storytelling, and possibly even ‘makes perfect sense’. In reality, although it ends up mostly making sense, this is perhaps more by luck than judgement. I still loved the film, by the way, I’m just interested in how we all ended up convinced that it was ‘good’ (by which I mean consistent and logical) time travel, because it isn’t!

tl;dr – Endgame wasn’t written as a multiverse time travel story – although it can be made to work as one.

Many, myself included, understood Endgame to differ from most time travel stories by working on the basis of ‘multiverse’ theory, in which making some change in the past (possibly even the act of time travel itself) causes the universe to branch. This is a fictional reflection of the ‘Many Worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics in which the universe is constantly branching into parallel realities. As no branching per se was shown on camera, I assumed that it was the act of time travel itself that branched reality, landing the characters in a fresh, indeterminate future in which anything is possible. My belief was reinforced by an interview with physicist Sean Carroll, a champion of this interpretation and a scientific advisor on the movie. I was actually really pleased; multiverse time travel is incredibly rare (the only filmed attempt I’m aware of was Corridor Digital’s short-lived ‘Lifeline’ series on YouTube Premium). I’m not really sure why this is but regardless, the idea certainly works for Endgame as time travel is really just a means to an end i.e. getting hold of the Infinity Stones. I wasn’t the only one to assume something along these lines, which is why many were confused as to how the hell Captain America ended up on that bench at the end of the movie. If, as it seemed to, the film worked on branching realities, how could he have been there the whole time? If he wasn’t there the whole time and did in fact come from a branch reality that he’s been living in, how did he get back? Bewildered journalists asked both the writers and the directors (there are two of each) about this and got two different answers. The writers insisted that this was our Cap having lived in our timeline all along, although they later admitted that the directors’ view might also (i.e. instead) be valid, i.e. that he must have lived in a branch reality caused by changes made in the past. W, T, and indeed, F?

There is a good reason for this. The directors’ view is actually a retcon of the movie as written and filmed. Endgame is actually a self-consistent universe that you can’t alter and in which, therefore, time-duplicate Cap was always there. There is a multiverse element, but as we’ll see, this is bolted onto that core mechanic, and not very well, either. Let’s look at the evidence. The writers explain their take in this interview:

“It’s crucial to your film that in your formulation of time travel, changes to the past don’t alter our present. How did you decide this?

MARKUS We looked at a lot of time-travel stories and went, it doesn’t work that way.

McFEELY It was by necessity. If you have six MacGuffins and every time you go back it changes something, you’ve got Biff’s casino, exponentially. So we just couldn’t do that. We had physicists come in — more than one — who said, basically, “Back to the Future” is .

MARKUS Basically said what the Hulk says in that scene, which is, if you go to the past, then the present becomes your past and the past becomes your future. So there’s absolutely no reason it would change.”

What these physicists were trying to tell them is that IF time travel to the past were possible, either a) whatever you do, you have already done, so nothing can change or b) your time travel and/or your actions create a branch reality, so you’re changing this, and not your past. Unfortunately the writers misunderstood what they meant by this and came up with a really weird hybrid approach, which is made clear in a couple of key scenes involving Hulk where the two parallel sets of time-travel rules are explained. As originally written and filmed these formed a single scene, with all the key dialogue delivered by the Ancient One. First, the original version of those famous Hulk lines that they allude to above (for the sake of time/space I won’t bother to repeat those here): 

ANCIENT ONE

Of course, there will be consequences.

HULK

yes…If we take the stones we alter time, and we’ll totally screw up our present-day even worse than it already is.

ANCIENT ONE

If you travel to the past from your present, then that past becomes your future, and your former present becomes your past. Therefore it cannot be altered by your new future. 

This is deliberately, comedically obfuscatory, but is really simple if you break it down. All they’re saying is that you may be travelling into the past, but it’s your subjective future. If you could change the past, you’d disallow for your own presence there, because you’d have no reason to travel. In other words, you just can’t change the past, and paradoxes (or Bill & Ted-style games of one-upmanship) are impossible. On the face of it this dictates an immutable timeline; you were always there in the past, doing whatever you did, as in the films ‘Timecrimes’, ‘Twelve Monkeys’, or ‘Predestination’. In keeping with this, the writers also claim that Captain America’s travel to the past to be with Peggy is also part of this. How? We’re coming to that. Most definitely not in keeping however is, well, most of the movie. We see the Avengers making overt changes to the past that we’ve already seen in prior movies, notably Captain America attacking his past self. How is this possible given the above rule? If it is possible despite this, how does 2012 Cap magically forget that this happened? The answers to both questions are contained in the next bit of dialogue: 

HULK

Then all of this is for nothing.

ANCIENT ONE

No – no no, not exactly. If someone dies, they will always die. Death is.. Irreversible, but Thanos is not. Those you’ve lost have not died, they’ve been willed out of existence. Which means they can be willed back. But it doesn’t come cheap. 

ANCIENT ONE

The Infinity Stones bind the universe together, creating what you experience as the flow of time. Remove one of these stones, this flow splits. Your timeline might benefit, but my new one would definitely not. For every stone that you remove, you create new very vulnerable timelines; millions will suffer. 

In other words, because the Stones are critical to the flow of time and because later on a Stone is taken, the changes to the past of Steve’s own reality are effectively ‘fixed’, creating a new branch reality where he does remember fighting himself and the future pans out differently without changing his own past. We can try to speculate on what would have happened if the time travellers had made changes to the past and then a Stone hadn’t been taken, but this is unknowable since every change to what we know happened does get branched. Either the writers are lying to us, they don’t understand their own script, or – somehow – the taking of the Stones is effectively predestined, forming another aspect of the self-consistent universe of the movie. Logically of course, this is, to use the technical quantum mechanical term, bollocks. Events happening out of chronological order in time travel is fine; cause and effect are preserved, just not in the order to which we’re accustomed. However, you don’t get to change the past, then branch reality, then imply that the earlier change is not only retrospectively included in that branch, but is also predestined! This is a case of the cart before the horse; the whole point of branched realities is to allow for change to the past – it should not be possible to make any change prior to this point. The very concept is self-contradictory. If you can’t change the past, you can’t get to the point of taking a Stone to allow for a change to the past. The only way this works is if we accept that you can make changes, but as per the nonsense Ancient One/Hulk line, your present… “…cannot be altered by your new future.” Unfortunately, the writers have established rules and then immediately broken them in an attempt to avoid falling into the time travel cliche of pulling a Deadpool and stopping the villain in the past and yet retain the past-changing japes of those exact same conventional time travel movies. Recognising that the new branched realities would be left without important artefacts, they then explain how these ‘dark timelines’ are avoided:

HULK

Then we can’t take the stones.

ANCIENT ONE

Yet your world depends on it.

HULK

OK, what if… what if once we’re done we come back and return the stones?

ANCIENT ONE

[Then] the branch will be clipped, and the timeline restored.

Note that this is further evidence of the writer’s vision; if reality branches all the time, there’s no way to actually ‘save’ these timelines – only to create additional better ones. If reality only branches when a Stone is removed, putting it back ‘clips’ that branch as they explain. Still, on balance this interpretation is seriously flawed and convoluted. Luckily the version of this same scene from the final draft of the script (i.e., what we saw play out) helps us make sense of this mess (albeit not the dark timelines; they are still boned, I’m afraid!):

ANCIENT ONE

At what cost?

The Infinity Stones create the experience you know as the flow of time. Remove one of the stones, and the flow splits.

Now, your timeline might benefit.

My new one…would definitely not.

In this new branch reality, without our chief weapon against the forces of darkness, our world would be overrun…

For each stone you remove, you’ll create a new, vulnerable timeline. Millions will suffer.

(beat)

Now tell me, Doctor. Can your science prevent all that?

ASTRAL BANNER

No. But it can erase it.

Astral Banner reaches in and grabs THE VIRTUAL TIME STONE.

ASTRAL BANNER (CONT’D)

Because once we’re done with the stones, we can return each one to its own timeline. At the moment it was taken. So chronologically, in that reality, the stone never left.

These changes have two significant effects (other than removing the potentially confusing attempt to differentiate being willed out of existence from ‘death’):

1) To move the time travel exposition earlier in the movie to avoid viewers wondering why they can’t just go back and change things. 

To achieve this they added the obvious Hitler comparison (it may not be a comparison that this was a minor plot point in Deadpool 2!), along with pop culture touchstones to help the audience understand that this isn’t your grandfather’s (ha) time travel and you can’t simply go back and change your own past to fix your present. This works fine and doesn’t affect our interpretation of the movie’s time travel.

2) To de-emphasise the arbitrary nature of the Stones somehow being central to preventing a ‘dark’ timeline by pointing out that they’re essentially a means of defence against evil. 

This is more critical. We go from ‘the Infinity Stones create the experience you know as the flow of time’ to ‘creating what you experience as the flow of time’, which I read as moving from them creating time itself, to simply the timeline that we know (i.e. where the universe has the Stones to defend itself). This provides more room for the interpretation that removing a Stone is simply a major change to the timeline, like any other, that would otherwise disallow for the future we know, and so results in reality branching to a new and parallel alternate future. Still, I really don’t think that improving time travel logic was the main aim here, or even necessarily an aim at all. The wording about how the Stones ‘bind the universe together’ may have been dropped as simply redundant, or possibly to soften the plothole that not only the ‘flow of time’ but also the ‘universe’ are just fine when the Stones all get destroyed in the present-day (2023) of the prime reality. If the filmmakers truly cared about their inconsistent rules, they had the perfect opportunity here to switch to a simple multiverse approach and record a single line of dialogue that would explain it without the need to change anything else. Here’s the equivalent line from Lifeline:

“Look, your fate is certain. Okay? It can’t be undone. Your every action taken is already part of a predetermined timeline and that is why I built the jump box. It doesn’t just jump an agent forward in time, it jumps them to a brand new timeline. Where new outcomes are possible.”

Anyway, back to that head-scratcher of an ending and the writer’s claim that Cap was always there as a time duplicate in his own past. They say this is the case because it’s not associated with the taking of a Stone. I have checked this, and they’re right; it’s the only change to the past that can’t be blamed on a Stone. There’s also no mention in the script (nor the alternate scene below) of alternate universes being created prior to the taking of a Stone. So, per the writers’ rules, Cap (and not some duplicate from another reality) is indeed living in his own past and not that of a branch reality. This was the intent “from the very first outline” of the movie, notwithstanding the later difference of opinion between writing and directing teams. To be clear, everyone involved does agree that he didn’t just go back (or back and sideways if you believe the directors) for his dance raincheck – he stayed there, got married and had Peggy’s two children. Which inevitably means that Steve somehow had to live a secret life with a secret marriage (maybe he did a ‘Vision’ and used his timesuit as a disguise?) and kissed his own great niece in Civil War (much like Marty McFly and his mum). 

You can still choose to interpret Steve’s ‘retirement’ to his own past as a rewriting of the original timeline that alters Peggy’s future (i.e. who she married, who fathered her kids etc). Alternatively, you can believe the directors that Cap lived his life with the Peggy of a branch reality and returned (off camera!) to the prime reality to hand over the shield. But neither of these fits with the original vision for the movie that you can’t change your own past and it doesn’t branch unless a Stone is removed. There’s another problem with the writer’s logic here. Cap only gets to the past by having created and then ‘clipped’ all the branching realities. This means that the creation and destruction of these branches also always happened and is also part of an overarching self-consistent universe. Except that they can’t possibly be for the reason I’ve already given above; we’ve seen the original timelines before they become branch realities, so we know something has in fact changed, and there can’t be an original timeline for Cap to have ended up in his own past!

Conclusions

So, Endgame as written and even as filmed (according to the writers) is really not the multiverse time travel movie that most of us thought. It’s a weird hybrid approach that you can sort of mash together into a convoluted fixed timeline involving multiple realities but not really. It actually makes less sense than the films that it (jokingly) criticises and handwaves all consequences for time travel. Luckily, it can be salvaged if we overlook the resulting plothole of Captain America’s mysterious off-camera return and follow the interpretation of the directors. That is, that there’s no predestination, the Avengers are making changes, but every significant change, (i.e. one that would otherwise change the future, like living a new life in the past with your sweetheart) creates a branch reality. Not just messing with Stones. This isn’t perfect; how could it be? It’s effectively a retcon. But it’s easily the better choice overall in my view. Why wouldn’t this be the case? It’s only logical. The only serious discrepancy is the remaining emphasis placed upon the significance of the Stones, which I think can be explained by the Ancient One’s overly mystical view of reality. She focuses on the earth-shattering consequences for messing with the Stones simply because she knows the gravity of those consequences. She doesn’t explicitly rule out other causes of branches. It likely doesn’t matter that they’re destroyed in the subjective present of the prime universe, because the ultimate threat she identifies is Thanos, and he’s been defeated, along with the previous threats that the Stones had a hand in, including of course ‘Variant’ Thanos from the 2014 branch (meaning that branch doesn’t have to contend with him and gets its Soul and Power Stones back). Of course, this interpretation has some dark implications: If significant changes create branches, then when Cap travels back to each existing branch to return each stone, reality must be branched again. The Avengers have still created multiple new universes of potential suffering and death without one or more Stones, they’ve just karmically balanced things somewhat by creating a new set of positive branches that have all their Stones. Except for, again, the new Loki branch. 

For me, the directors’ approach, whilst imperfect, is the best compromise between logic and narrative. It’s not clear whether they somehow thought this was the case all along, or whether they only recognised the inconsistencies in post-production or even following the movie’s release. The fact that the writing and directing teams weren’t already on the same page when they were interviewed tells me that, simply, not enough thought went into this aspect of the film. Why should we believe them? Well, the director’s role in the filmmaking process traditionally supersedes that of the writer, shaping both the final product and the audience’s view of it. Perhaps the most famous example is Ridley Scott’s influence on Deckard’s status as a replicant. You can still choose to believe that he is human based on the theatrical cut and ignoring Scott’s own intent, but this is contradicted by his later comments and director’s cuts. There’s also the fact that subsequent MCU entries suggest that the Russos’ multiverse model is indeed the right one. Unless Loki is going to be stealing multiple more iterations of Infinity Stones, the universe is going to get branched simply by him time travelling. If so, this will establish (albeit retroactively) that the Ancient One really was just being specific about the Stones because of the particularly Earth-shattering consequences of messing with their past (and the need to keep things simple for a general audience). It would also pretty much establish the Russos’ scenario for Captain America; that he really did live out his life in a branch reality before somehow returning to the prime reality to hand over his mysterious newly made shield (another plothole!) to Sam. Where he went after that, we may never know, but I hear he’s on the moon

Eyam Plague Village

Gravestones at Eyam. No, the skull and crossbones are not a ‘reminder of the plague’ Tony Bacon/Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been following John Campbell’s YouTube channel since early on in the current COVID-19 pandemic. He does a good job of science communication, but something he mentioned recently had me reaching for my internets. He claimed that in the great plague of 1665-6, the villagers of Eyam in Derbyshire had selflessly quarantined themselves to protect their neighbours and suffered disproportionately. Most retellings (notably Wood’s 1859 ‘The History and Antiquities of Eyam’) link those two facts, emphasising that people opted to get sick and die rather than spread the disease. I hadn’t heard of Eyam, but the claim is widespread, and there’s even a museum dedicated to the event. It’s so widespread that it’s essentially now an accepted fact. It’s no surprise that this evidence of the capacity for altruism in the face of infectious disease was wheeled out during the current pandemic, including by the BBC. This is quite a nuanced one. The village certainly did suffer from the plague, and there was a quarantine. However, Patrick Wallis’ 2005 article ‘A dreadful heritage: interpreting epidemic disease at Eyam, 1666-2000’ (he’s written a more accessible summary for The Economist as well) shows that there is really no evidence that this was voluntary in any meaningful sense. Instead, as elsewhere in England, restrictions were imposed by those in charge, and neither the village’s isolation nor its high death toll (36% of the population, in line with the average mortality for the British Isles) were particularly unusual. Even the museum (which owes its existence to this traditional story), today gives accurate mortality figures (previously wrongly estimated at more than half the population) and explains that it was the local religious authorities who were responsible for the lockdown rather than the ordinary folk. The story of the supposedly willing sacrifice of the population only emerged some two hundred years after the fact and only became more mythologised over time (complete with made-up love story!). In Wallis’ words:’ 

“Only a limited body of contemporary evidence survives, the principal artefacts being three letters by William Mompesson, which powerfully convey the personal impact the death of Catherine Mompesson had on him, and, in passing, mention some of the villagers’ responses. There is a copy of the parish register, made around 1705. Finally, there is the landscape of the parish, with its scattering of tombs. Two of the earliest accounts claim indirect connections through their authors’ conversations with the sons of Mompesson and Stanley. Beyond this scanty body of evidence, a voluminous body of ‘oral tradition’ published in the early nineteenth century by the local historian and tax collector William Wood provides the bulk of the sources.”

Mompesson, the rector, wrote three letters, which don’t mention anything about villagers volunteering for a cordon sanitaire. In one of them Mompesson describes the suffering of his fellow villagers and does describe anti-plague measures – the ‘fuming and purifying’ of woollens and burning of ‘goods’, ‘pest-houses’, and of course prayer – but there’s nothing on quarantine, voluntary or otherwise. Early printed accounts confirm that one was put in place, with provisions supplied by the Earl of Devonshire. They praise the behaviour of Mompesson and/or Stanley, his unseated nonconformist predecessor (who had remained in the village) in keeping inhabitants from leaving (even though Mompesson sent his children to safety) but again there is nothing about the residents choosing to sacrifice their freedom for the greater good (the greater good). The community spirit element of the story doesn’t enter the picture until 54 years later when Richard Mead updated his ‘Short Discourse Concerning Pestilential Contagion’ (8th Ed., 1722, see here) with this account:

“The plague was likewise at Eham, in the Peak of Derbyshire; being brought thither by means of a box sent from London to a taylor in that village, containing some materials relating to his trade…A Servant, who first opened the foresaid Box, complaining that the Goods were damp, was ordered to dry them at the Fire; but in doing it, was seized with the Plague, and died: the same Misfortune extended itself to all the rest of the Family, except the Taylor’s Wife, who alone survived. From hence the Distemper spread about and destroyed in that Village, and the rest of the Parish, though a small one, between two and three hundred Persons. But notwithstanding this so great Violence of the Disease, it was restrained from reaching beyond that Parish by the Care of the Rector; from whose Son, and another worthy Gentleman, I have the Relation. This Clergyman advised, that the Sick should be removed into Hutts or Barracks built upon the Common; and procuring by the Interest of the then Earl of Devonshire, that the People should be well furnished with Provisions, he took effectual Care, that no one should go out of the Parish: and by this means he protected his Neighbours from Infection with compleat Success.”

The information is pretty sound, coming from the rector’s son and so within living memory, and is much more plausible than a more ‘grassroots’ motive. Of course, the source is likely to emphasise his own father’s role, but the bottom line is that the actual primary sources are few, and none suggest that the villagers took an active role. As Wallis puts it: 

“The leadership of Stanley and Mompesson, respectively, is praised, but there is no hint or romance, tragedy, or even of distinction accruing to the rest of the community.”

He also suggests that the few villagers with the means to do so probably fled (certainly Mompesson ensured that his two children left and tried to persuade his wife to). The majority  could not afford to leave and at this period likely wouldn’t have friends or family elsewhere that they could go and stay with. They were also being provided with supplies to encourage them not to leave. This leads me to what I think is the key to whether you regard this one as myth or reality; the extent to which the quarantine can be seen as voluntary. The contradiction of a ‘voluntary’ quarantine that was actually instigated by those in charge is highlighted by this contradictory phrasing from the website;

“…Mompesson and Stanley, the Rector of Eyam at that time [sic], who had persuaded the villagers to voluntarilly [sic] quarantine themselves to prevent the infection spreading to the surrounding towns and villages.”

I suppose the quarantine was ‘voluntary’ insofar as they didn’t nail people into their dwellings, but this wasn’t standard practice in the countryside anyway as far as I can tell. This was done in towns and cities where too many were infected to quarantine them in pest-houses or hospitals, and the risk of escalating infection was too great not to do it. Personally, I don’t think you can meaningfully call what happened at Eyam ‘voluntary’. The people of Eyam were most likely just doing what they were told and, as noted above, had little other option. This aspect of the situation isn’t that different (save the much worse fatality rate of plague) from that in countries today where lockdowns have been put in place due to the current pandemic. Yes, these have a legal basis, as did period quarantines in urban centres, and we can at least admit that Eyam’s quarantine was voluntary in that it was not governed by any formal law, and there’s no evidence that force or the threat of it had to be deployed. However, the same is true of the recent lockdowns in England; aside from a handful of fines, there has been no enforcement and, in the vast majority of villages, very high levels of compliance. The same was true in the 17th century; people mostly did what they were told and in any case had little other option. For this reason I think praising Eyam’s population for not (other than some more well-off people, including Mompesson’s own children) breaking their lockdown is akin to praising modern English people for not breaking theirs. Indeed, we may get lip service gratitude from our governments for complying, but we are (rightly) not hailed as heroes. Obviously I’m not comparing the fatality rates of the two diseases, just the power relationships at play. The rector of a parish held a great deal of sway at that time, and going against his wishes in a matter of public health would have been bold. Finally, and something that Wallis doesn’t seem to pick up on, is that (as I mentioned above) Mompesson explicitly mentions ‘pest houses’ in the context of them all being empty as of November 1666. These would have been existing structures identified for use to house and attempt to care for anyone diagnosed with the plague. No-one placed in one of these houses would have been permitted to leave, for the good of the uninfected in the village. Thus although those yet to be infected could in theory try to leave the village (although, where would they go?), anyone visibly afflicted certainly could not. Those free of plague would have even less reason to leave, as they weren’t being asked to live in the same house as the infected. 

Overall, I think Eyam is an interesting and important case study (especially the rare survival of 17th century plague graves in the village) and, as Wallis capably shows, a reflection of changing knowledge and opinion on management of infectious diseases. In the 20th century the ‘meme’ shifted from heroic sacrifice to tragic ignorance. Quarantine and isolation didn’t work, and Eyam was proof. We are now witnessing another shift back toward quarantine as a viable measure and, along with it, a reversion to the narrative of English people ‘doing the right thing’ in the face of deadly disease. However we reinterpret their fate to suit ourselves over time, the people of Eyam were just some of the many unfortunate victims of disease in the 17th century, no more or less heroic than any others. 

Robin Hood’s Arrow Found in Sherwood Forest?

Of course not. But that’s what this guy is claiming, no doubt suitably egged-on by The Sun. It probably is an arrowhead, or maybe a crossbow bolt head, and it may well be medieval in date and so is a really nice find. The coincidence of it being found in Sherwood Forest is obviously fun, but to suggest that it’s somehow either evidence of the existence of Robin Hood or that the existence of Robin Hood as an historical figure means that this is his… Well that’s just absurd. Robin Hood did not exist. He is an archetypical character from English folklore. More ‘Bullshit’ than “Bullseye”, The Sun.

Also, it certainly isn’t made of silver. I’m perplexed as to why they think it is, or how that’s relevant to the Robin Hood myth. It does look to have a blackish patina, and silver does tarnish black, so perhaps that’s why. But there is visible iron oxide rust at the socket, and it’s… magnetic. Which is how he claims to have found it. Using a magnet. Silver is famously not a ferrous metal. OK, it could be silver-plated, but a) why bother, and b) the metal looks homogenous; there’s no sign of a hammered-on outer layer.

An absolutely ridiculous story salvaged only by the fact that it’s a genuine archaeological artefact. The rest is nonsense, however. Also, who the hell proof-reads this crap? “it’s authenticity”? “Historians believe to silver arrow could belong to Robin Hood”?

Mary Pannell the Ledston Witch

Berkshire ‘witch’ Mother Dutten feeding her own blood to her familiar spirits, taken from ‘A Rehearsal both Strange and True‘ (1579) – (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Almost every county in the UK has some story about a tried or convicted 16th or 17th century witch; it’s an unfortunate part of our history. Yorkshire has several noted ‘witches’; one with a surprisingly persistent local legacy is Mary Pannell (or Panel, or Pannel, or Pannal, or Pennell), supposedly a local ‘wise woman’ or sometimes just an ordinary girl with some knowledge of herbal medicine, who offered medical help to William Witham of the local Ledston Hall (renamed ‘Wheler Priory’ in ‘Most Haunted’ for security reasons), and supposedly ended up executed for witchcraft and/or for killing Witham when he died in 1593. Pannell’s story is still current in local news and oral tradition, she has her own (not very good) Wikipedia entry, and even featured in TV’s ‘Most Haunted Live’ 2007 Halloween Special. Her story has appeared both in print and online, but the oldest is an internet version from 1997 (this version revised 26.4.2006; the Internet Archive only has the 2000 version onwards). 

The first thing I should tackle are the modern embellishments introduced to the story in the retelling. First, William Witham was not the young son of the owner of the Hall, he was the owner, and was 47 when he died! Witham did have sons, two of which were also called William, but one died in infancy years earlier and the other survived his father and went on to have his own son. There is also no evidence that Pannell was an employee of Witham’s (a claim that has expanded in very recent versions to include Witham taking advantage of her). In fact, we know nothing about Pannell for sure, although (as Wikipedia informs us) it’s possible that she may be the same ‘Marye Tailer’ of nearby Kippax who married a John Pannell in 1559 (see these parish records, p. 11). Anyway, these modern changes have likely crept in to make Pannell and Witham more sympathetic victims of the unthinking posh folk who in some versions of the story kill their own innocent son and an innocent woman who was trying to help. Originally, Pannell is an evil woman to be feared; today she is feared in death as a wronged spirit, but otherwise pitied as a victim of prejudice and ignorance. 

The good news is that Mary Pannell did exist circa 1600, and was indeed believed to be a witch, as proven by Edward Fairfax’s 1622 manuscript ‘Dæmonologia: A Discourse on Witchcraft’ (p. 98):

“…that the devil can take to himself a true body, or that he can make one of this man’s leg, the second’s arm, and the head of the third (as a great divine hath lately written), or that he can play the incubus and beget children, as the old tale of Merlin, and our late wonder of the son of Mary Pannell* (not yet forgot) seem to insinuate.”

Unfortunately, the footnote on the same page containing the above details i.e. that Pannell was executed in 1603 and ‘bewitched’ William Witham to death was added by Grainge, based on an earlier source (see below). Fairfax’s original manuscripts (there are several versions) do not include any of this. We do know from unrelated period records that William Witham of Ledston Hall did die in 1593 and, again, that Pannell existed and was thought a witch; but there is no primary evidence connecting these facts. It’s by no means clear that Pannell was actually executed, or even tried for witchcraft. Court records for that area and period don’t survive, and unlike other witchcraft suspects, there are no other primary sources to fall back on. The earliest version of Pannell’s own story (most likely Grainge’s source) dates to 1834, over two centuries after the fact. This is Edward Parsons’ ‘The Civil, Ecclesiastical, Literary, Commercial, and Miscellaneous History of Leeds, Halifax, Huddersfield, Bradford, Wakefield, Dewsbury, Otley, and the Manufacturing District of Yorkshire’ (p.277):

“William Witham, who, from the pedigree of his family, appears to have been buried on the ninth of May, 1593, was supposed to have died in consequence of the diabolical incantations of an unfortunate being called Mary Pannel, who had obtained a disastrous celebrity in this part of the country for her supposed intercourse with malignant spirits. About ten years after the death of her imagined victim, she was apprehended on the charge of sorcery, arraigned and convicted at York, and was executed on a hill near Ledston hall, the supposed scene of her infamous operations. The hill where she died was long afterwards called Mary Pannel’s hill, and was regarded with abhorrence and alarm by the ignorant rustics in the neighbourhood.” 

It’s interesting that this earliest written version suggests that Pannell was convicted of witchcraft in general, not of killing or even necessarily bewitching Witham specifically. Anyway, there are many later sources but all either reference each other or don’t cite a source at all, making Parsons ground zero for the legend. This makes it all the more frustrating that we don’t know his source, and certainly no period records survive today that would enable us to check this (perhaps they did in the 1830s but it seems unlikely). As Jim Sharpe states in his 1992 book ‘Witchcraft in Seventeenth Century Yorkshire: Accusations and Counter Measures’ (p. 2), ‘for the years between 1563 and 1650 assize records do not survive in quantity outside of the south east…’. This is ironic, because Sharpe is (in the same volume, p. 4) one of several scholars to treat the Grainge footnote in Fairfax’s Discourse as though it were a 17th century primary source rather than a 19th century secondary one, stating “In 1603 a woman named Mary Panell [sic], whose reputation for witchcraft stretched back at least to bewitching a man to death in 1593, was executed at Ledston.” Again, all we know is that Pannell existed at that time and was thought a witch. Gregory J. Durston includes the same details on p. 79 of his 2019 book on specifically (and ironically) witch trials, and doesn’t even bother to give a reference. Regardless, I have to assume, given Parsons’ repeated use of the word ‘supposed’ and his snide dig at ignorant locals, that he was in fact recording an oral tradition, perhaps related to him by said locals, or by members of Parsons’ own social class, scoffing at the superstitions of their peons (although as Fairfax shows, some of the upper class also believed in witchcraft).  

Grainge’s 1882 footnote is actually cribbed from his own 1855 book ‘Castles and Abbeys of Yorkshire’, in which he disagrees with Parsons on the method and location of her execution;

“In 1608 [sic], Mary Pannell, who had long been celebrated for supposed sorceries, was hung at York, under the impression, that, among other crimes, she had bewitched to death William Witham, who died at Ledstone, in 1593.”

However, he (or his publisher) also ballsed up the date, so it’s possible that he was mistaken and didn’t necessarily have access to alternative sources of information. Or he may have been deliberately correcting Parsons. The assumption that she was actually executed at York makes more sense for the time and place; witches were typically executed in the town or city of their conviction/incarceration. Incidentally, there’s no reason that Grainge would consider that Pannell was actually burned; this punishment was very rare for witchcraft suspects in England. The very suggestion doesn’t appear until 1916 with J.S. Fletcher’s ‘Memorials of a Yorkshire Parish’ (p. 97). 

Shortly after the 1882 Grainge version, we encounter another fascinating piece of Mary Pannell folklore in ‘Topography and Natural History of Lofthouse and Its Neighborhood…’, Vol. 2 by George Roberts, 1885, p. 177

“On the right of the road there is a hill covered with wood, called Mary Pannal Hill. Upwards of two hundred and fifty years ago, when the country was covered with forest, when our villages and hamlets were scantily populated, and when superstition reigned in the place of education, Mary Pannal, clad as a gipsy, haunted this neighbourhood, hiding in the old quarries or sheltered nooks in the forest, and gaining a precarious living by begging or pilfering – being, in short, a poor, outcast, homeless, wandering mendicant. In winter time , the old villagers say, she would beg coals of the cartmen as they passed from the pits at Kippax to Ledsham or Fairburn, bewitching all those who refused to supply her with bits of coal, so that the horses could not get up the hills with the load. The drivers, however, devised a simple remedy; they got whip – stocks of wiggan, which enabled them to defy the powers of the witch and surmount the hills without trouble. In those days witches were put out of the way on very slender testimony. They were feared and abhorred. Ridiculous tests were employed to assist in detection; one test being to throw the suspected one into deep water, and if she sank and was drowned it was a sign that she was innocent, but if she floated it was a sign that she was guilty, and she was forthwith taken and executed. This kind of demonopathy prevailed for several centuries. For various acts of supposed witchcraft , and especially for having “bewitched to death ” one William Witham – one of the ancient race of Withams , owners of Ledstone Hall, — Mary Pannal was condemned to suffer on the gallows. The local tradition is that she was taken to the top of the hill, which still bears her name, and which is within full view of the windows of Ledstone Hall, to be hanged on a tree; but each time she was suspended on the cord, it snapped and let her to the ground unhurt, the cord being bewitched. The hangsmen were baffled, but whilst consulting and marvelling one amongst another, a bird of the crow tribe flew over, muttering slowly as it flew, “A withy, a withy, a withy!” whereupon the hangsmen got a flexible withy of wiggan from the adjoining thicket, and suspending the witch upon it, the execution was immediately consummated. Old inhabitants of Ledstone can remember seeing the identical tree felled.”

NB a ‘wiggan’ is another name for rowan, which was thought to have apotropaic properties against witchcraft.

From this we learn that there was a local tradition not just of the hillside where Pannell was supposedly executed, but of a specific purported hanging tree as well. Based on this description it had that reputation for some time prior to being cut down before Parsons ever wrote down his version of the story. Although this story was related in 1882, the ‘old inhabitants’ mentioned would have been young people when Parsons first recorded the basic story. 

A couple of decades later (by which time various heraldic and genealogical sources have picked up the story, having never done so prior to Parsons and Grainge) several periodicals (‘Autocar’ mention it also, with the authentic-seeming quotes referencing the phrase ‘devilish arts’ and the word ‘sorceries’; common enough period terms that they could easily have been adapted from other cases. One example, an account of the trial of Isobel Young, even includes the Scots word ‘pannell’, as in a panel of accused people (although that’s probably coincidence and not the source of these references to Mary Pannell). If not this, it’s likely to have become associated with Pannell’s story in the same way as the phrase ‘counsell and helpe’ did in 1918 when it was implied to be a phrase from Pannell’s trial but was actually borrowed from a 1916 source that referenced Pannell and the phrase separately (it’s actually from a York Archdeaconry ‘Article’ against witchcraft in general). Regardless, I can’t find any pre-1913 or post-1922 instance of any variant of ‘sorceries and devilish arts’ with reference to Pannell. 

We then encounter a gap in the storytelling record until the early (1997) internet version that I mentioned at the beginning. It maintains the basic elements, the 1916 claim of Pannell being burned at Ledston, and adds new embellishments of Witham the boy, Pannell the non-witch herbalist maid, and her ill-fated attempt to help him (plus new aspects to the ghost story):

“Turning left towards Kippax we arrive back on the Roman Ridge Road at a crossroads called ‘Mary Pannell’. It is named so after the unfortunate woman who was burned here as a witch.

Mary Pannel or Pannell was a maid at Ledston Hall towards the end of the 16th century. She, like many others, had a knowledge of ‘old’ medicines and prepared a lotion to be rubbed upon the chest of the young son of the house, one Master William Witham Esq. who was suffering from a chill. His mother mistakenly gave it to the lad to drink and poisoned him. She blamed Mary and accused her of being a witch. This was in May 1593. Mary was tried in 1603 at York and convicted. She was burned to death on the hill that bares [sic] her name that same year. Local tales tell that she haunts the hill and its Roman road leading a horse. Anyone who witnesses the apparition will have a death in the family soon after

At this crossroads was an Inn which survived from medieval times until the beginning of this century – only short sections of stone wall mark it’s existence today.”

This more recent version started out in 2002 as simply;

“Mary Pannell, of Ledston, lived in a small hut and mixed enchantments and made curses and is said to have had dealings with evil spirits. She is said to have bewitched to death William Witham, Esq., of Ledston Hall, in 1593, and was convicted in York in 1603 and put to death by burning on Mary Pannell Hill, on the edge of Castleford.”

By 2004 it had been revised based on information from ‘John & Carol’ to fit the earlier (1997) version, albeit with the ‘health warning’ that it was a ‘local legend’;

“She is said to have bewitched to death William Witham, Esq., of Ledston Hall, in 1593, and was convicted in York in 1603 and put to death by burning on Mary Pannell Hill, on the edge of Castleford. Local legend has it that Mary was a maid who knew a little about medicine. She gave a lotion to rub on a child’s chest for a chill but the mother (an important person of the time) gave it to the child to drink. The lotion killed him and Mary was burned as a witch for it.

Her ghost, leading a horse, is supposed to haunt the Pannell Hill and it is claimed that anybody seeing her will have a death in the family. [Submitted By: John & Carol]” 

The story also appears in ‘Horrible Histories: Gruesome Great Houses’ (2017) by Terry Deary who like other 21st century writers is keen to ‘reclaim’ Pannell as a village ‘wise woman’, i.e. a magic practitioner and not simply an innocent herbalist. This fits the modern popular view of witchcraft suspects as well-meaning ‘white witches’ targeted by the patriarchy (although any pagan will tell you that there’s no such thing as ‘black’ or ‘white’). Mary’s popularity in ‘Mind Body & Spirit’ books and online has turned her into something of a meme, but in this case I don’t think that’s all she is. 

The geographical evidence – the hill being named after Mary Pannell – is important here, especially in light of the folklore recorded by Parsons and Roberts. It’s not much of a hill and is therefore often confused with the more noticeable and spookier-looking wooded western slope of the adjacent Sheldon Hill (often locally called ‘Mary Panel Wood’). Despite this it is an officially named location, appearing on the current footpath sign directing walkers from nearby Kippax and on Ordnance Survey maps drawn up in the late 1840s (labelled separately to Sheldon Hill). For the name to appear on official government maps, the name must have been quite long-standing. Although all of the written evidence for the Witham story (and ghostly Mary) centres around the early 19th century, it’s quite plausible that it could be 18th century or even older. It’s more likely that it emerged within living memory of Witham, local folklore to explain his untimely death, which may have attracted extra and sustained local attention due to the fame of his daughter, Lady Mary Bolles. Whether there was any historical connection between Pannell and Witham, we will probably never know. At the very least, Mary Pannell really existed, was really thought to be a witch, and the story of her and William Witham is genuine folklore, not some recent urban myth. 

The Witch of East Somerton

By JB Ladbrooke, from ‘Ladbrookes views of the churches in the county of Norfolk’ (found here)

This is a fun one. I’ve recently learned from this Atlas Obscura post about the ruined Norfolk church at East Somerton village. As local tradition goes, the tall oak tree growing in the middle of the nave sprouted magically from the wooden leg of a witch that was buried there. Yes, I know, pretty silly, but I couldn’t help look into this anyway. I was initially curious as to how old this legend really was and ended up looking at the whole thing. Other than the physical impossibility of a wooden leg becoming a tree of course; I think we can take that as read. Disclaimer; this is not intended as a dig at Atlas Obscura; I am a fan of the site and have worked with them a couple of times. They are careful to call it a ‘legend’ and also use the phrases ‘said to be’, ‘said to have’ and ‘it’s believed’. 

The first thing to cover is what this 13th-15th century building actually is. It’s described as both a church and a chapel, and several sources state that it used to be a church before becoming a chapel for the residents and workers of the nearby Burnley Hall. In fact, the Hall wasn’t even built until 1710, by which time the chapel was already derelict, and it seems that this is a misunderstanding of what a ‘chapel’ in this context actually is. East Somerton (dedicated to St Mary but not dubbed ‘St Mary’s’) was always technically a satellite church or ‘chapel of ease’, dependent upon the nearby Holy Trinity church at Winterton, which was the actual parish church from the beginning (see here and here). So, the East Somerton site is still a ‘church’ in terms of historic purpose and function, but was never actually dubbed ‘St Mary’s Church’ (‘Chapel of St. Mary’ seems to be the correct name) nor was it ever East Somerton’s parish church per se. All of this confused me during research (some sources can be read as implying both a church and a chapel in the village), so I thought I’d try to clear it up for others. 

I then looked at when the chapel was actually abandoned and when it became a ruin, in case these dates didn’t line up with the witch narrative. However, most sources (including Heritage Gateway, referencing Batcock’s ‘The Ruined and Disused Churches of Norfolk’, available here) do state that it was already in ruins by the late 17th century. There are later references to the chapel (for example these and from the 1760s), but these persist until at least as late as 1821, by which time we know for sure the chapel was ruined. These references are clearly nominal, referring to the fact that the chapel site and its former function were still in theory part of the rectory overall. So I am quite content to say that it was indeed ruined by the end of the 17th century (meaning that a tree could have started growing there). Certainly, by 1781 the building had been ‘made use of as a barn’ and had been ‘in ruins many years’ (from ‘The History of Norfolk’, p. 46). However, there is no sign of a tree in 1822 in J.B. Ladbrooke’s lithograph of the site (see above and linked here). As an aside, the place being ruined and roofless by that time is on the face of it at odds with its second life as a barn. Perhaps it fell into greater disrepair in the meantime, or perhaps the roof was partly intact. Or maybe landowner just wasn’t that fussy and used it for storage despite its ruined state. Anyway, there’s also no mention of a tree in the 1824 book ‘Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen’; just of the undergrowth that we see in the contemporary artwork. It’s not until 1875 that we read in the ‘Post office directory of the Norfolk counties’ (p. 445) of ‘a large tree growing in the midst’ of the ruins. 

Which brings me to the tree itself. If it was ‘large’ in 1875, could it have been seeded during the witch trial era? This could make the legend an old one, perhaps even based upon some actual historical event, and of course for believers in the paranormal, it would vindicate the whole story. Well, based upon the available evidence the tree is no more than 1.5 in trunk diameter (less than that, I suspect). That would equate to a 471 cm circumference which, divided by the 1.88cm growth rate for the average oak tree, gives an approximate age of 250 years. That would place the tree as a sapling in the mid-to-late 18th century and make it too young to fit the story. Witch trials were halted by the Witchcraft Act of 1735, operated under the new Enlightenment assumption that magic wasn’t real and so anyone claiming to practice it was a fraud. The last trial in England for actual witchcraft took place in 1716, by which time belief in such things was well on the slide (hence the new law, repealing the 1604 Act under which Mary Hicks and her daughter had been prosecuted and executed). This brings me to perhaps the biggest problem with the East Somerton witch tale; no convicted witch would have been buried in consecrated ground, much less in the nave of a church!  

The historical background to this story is also lacking. There’s the total lack of any evidence (online, at any rate) for any witch being tried or even suspected in this area. Most local stories about witches usually at least relate to a specific case; not so here. Then we have a lack of references even for the story itself; nothing any further back than this 1992 book. That in itself does not of course mean that the story isn’t an older oral tradition; it probably is. All we actually have is the story, which is likely a local legend that grew as the tree did, although it is unlikely to be even as old as the tree, given that the site was covered in other foliage earlier in the 19th century (and probably wasn’t noticeable until mid-century). I don’t think a tree growing inside the church is going to attract much attention as long as the place is overgrown, until such time as it becomes prominent. We know it’s at least 30 years old, and as the tree was large enough to be remarked upon in 1875, I suspect that the myth arose some time in the Victorian period (although it could of course be more recent). 

As for the ‘ghostly monks’ mentioned in the Atlas Obscura entry, I don’t know where that comes from, but I haven’t even seen that claimed anywhere else. That one debunks itself really, since East Monkton was never a priory, abbey, or monastery. 

The Muffin Man?

This is an odd one. Some idiot has claimed as fact a stupid joke about the ‘muffin man’ of the child’s song/nursery rhyme actually being an historical serial killer and some credulous folk (including medium.com) have fallen for it. Snopes have correctly debunked it, yet despite a total lack of any evidence for it being the case, have labelled it ‘unproven’. I hope they figure out that this isn’t how history works. The onus is on the claimant to provide a reference. They aren’t going to find a definitive origin for a traditional song like that that would allow the (patently ludicrous) claim to be disproven. It’s moderately endearing that Snopes had to find out via furious Googling that ‘muffin men’ were a real thing. I learned this when I was a child. Maybe it’s a British thing that Americans have lost their cultural memory of. The very concept of the muffin man is very clearly enough to debunk this bollocks on its own. The muffin man was a guy who went door to door selling tasty treats that kids enjoy, not some ‘Slenderman’ bogeyman figure. It would be like suggesting that there was a serial killer called ‘Mr Whippy‘. Anyway, this Jack Williamson guy is just another internet attention-seeker who will hopefully disappear forthwith. As for Snopes, I can’t fault their article, but I suspect their ongoing foray into political fact-checking has made them a little gunshy of calling things ‘False’ without hard evidence.

The Disappearing Norfolks

The 1999 BBC TV movie about this incident. No UFOs here, but claims of Turkish war crimes.

Another military myth has come to my attention, and I’m not sure how I’ve never heard of it before. Supposedly, during the Gallipoli campaign, on 12 August 1915, a battalion (the 1/5) of the Norfolk Regiment of the British army vanished into thin air, with implications of paranormal intervention. There are various accounts online but few get into the origins of the tale and of these I can only wholeheartedly recommend this summary and debunking on the NZ Skeptics website. It was written by Ian C. McGibbon, a proper historian, based in New Zealand where the story originated and where the relevant archival material resides. Needless to say I am a big fan of scepticism combined with actual scholarly research. This is a must-read, being both concise and accurate. It also includes the original source of the claim.

To this I should add the official regimental history by F. Loraine Petre which includes (vol. II, 1925) an account of the battle from the regimental war diary. This is available here and constitutes the ‘official story’, which is pretty much an ‘open and shut’ case by 1919. Most of the missing men were in fact found, and there were in fact survivors, contrary to the initial report. Some of their insight is included in this article from the Imperial War Museum’s Philip Dutton. Needless to say, no mention of otherworldly goings-on in these sources. Dutton traces the origin of the fascination with the incident, and the claim that none of the unit “ever came back” to Sir Ian Hamilton’s rather sensationalist despatch of 11 December 1915. In fact, an investigation four years later found many of the dead, who had been dispersed in a figurative and literal ‘fog of war’ and effectively destroyed by the enemy. Dutton also points out that other units also ‘disappeared’ at that time, in the sense that if a unit is wiped out with few or no witnesses, they have effectively vanished (until such time as evidence of what happened can be found). To focus on this one unit is misleading. He also includes onward references to other no doubt reliable accounts that I have not been able to read myself. It’s clear that the incident has been debunked repeatedly

I also came across this article by Paul Begg (of Ripperology fame). Writing in the 1980s-90s partwork magazine ‘The Unexplained’, Begg pays lip service to the believer by leaving things slightly more open but (like McGibbon) pretty much tears the myth apart. Sure, we don’t know exactly what happened to all of the soldiers in the unit in question, but this sort of thing was not uncommon at the time (and indeed other times and places in military history). Begg also makes some mistakes, and is taken to task by none other than McGibbon in a letter to the editor that follows the article. Still, the two men agree that Reichardt was simply a confused old man (with no disrespect intended by me; I am certain that at his age I will also be one) lured into the burgeoning UFOlogy movement. His testimony doesn’t even agree with his own regiment’s war diary. As McGibbon points out, “His memory can hardly be regarded as infallible: he had forgotten which unit he was in, and he was a trooper not a sapper!”

Further undermining this story (for me, at least) is that there were no supernatural claims made at the time regarding this incident. When the proverbial case was closed in 1919, people were apparently satisfied of a mundane explanation. This is surprising given the period existence of the Angel of Mons myth, and the underlying spread of Spiritualism. Had there been any suspicion at the time of gods, ghosts, or other paranormal agents, we might expect some evidence of this. Instead, it wasn’t until 50 years after the fact that several New Zealand Army veterans cooked up a story of a magical descending ‘loaf-shaped’ cloud that the soldiers supposedly walked into and vanished. If something truly unusual had been witnessed by multiple soldiers, we’d expect there to be some record of it. It would have been a boon to the Spiritualists and the print media alike. Speaking of Spiritualists, I assumed that the intent of the soldiers making this claim was (albeit belatedly) akin to that behind the (provably fictional) Angel of Mons story; to invoke some sort religious salvation, and that the story had been latched onto by UFO loons. However, McGibbon’s research suggests that this myth was instead born of the UFOlogy movement from the start, making it a late-20th century parallel to/reflection of the Angel.

As a postscript, I should address claims of Ottoman executions. These originate with Nigel McCrery’s 1992 book The Vanished Battalion, republished later as ‘All the King’s Men: one of the greatest mysteries of the First World War finally solved’ (you can borrow it from the Internet Archive). This states (pp. 115-116) that a veteran by the name of Gordon Parker had written to The Gallipolian (the magazine of the Gallipoli Society) that the investigator, Reverend Pierrepoint Edwards had told him that “every man he had found had been shot in the head.” Contrary to the Wikipedia article’s suggestion that the book only implies a war crime and it’s the 1999 TV movie based upon it that cements the claim, the book is in fact very clear on this point and that Pierrepoint Edwards withheld the information in order to spare the families. McCrery tries to support the claim by implying that the Turks rarely took prisoners; he states that “Of the 5,000 men who were lost in the 1st Australian Division only one man was taken prisoner-of-war…” and also (p. 90) that a Pte Alfred Pearson of the Lynn Company of the 5th Norfolks reported seeing Lt. Pattrick and Sergeant Beart taken prisoner, yet neither was ever heard of again. I can find nothing to support either of these claims, and it’s unclear what exactly McCrery is talking about in the former case. Certainly the Division suffered many more casualties than just 5,000 in the course of the war. In any case, the experience of that division is hardly relevant to the incident in question. An acknowledgment in the book to a ‘J.G. Parker’ suggests that McCrery may have been told this by a descendant of Gordon Parker, but who knows. McCrery also mentions (pp. 118-119) Private Arthur Webber of the Yarmouth Company of the 5th Norfolks, who supposedly witnessed the massacre whilst (like Pearson) lying wounded on the battlefield. Webber told his sister-in-law (who told the story as part of the 1991 [not 1992 as McCrery states] BBC2 documentary ‘All The King’s Men’) that he was himself bayoneted by a Turkish solder, only to be saved by an attendant German officer. This information came from Webber’s sister-in-law, and so is inherently more reliable, being second-hand rather than third. However, there remains no physical evidence of the claimed war crime, and it does not feature in any scholarly history (Dutton also dismisses it). It’s certainly more plausible than the UFO claim, but remains unproven and subject to all of the usual difficulties of oral testimony.

Rosslyn Chapel (again)

It’s been a while, but my old nemesis Rosslyn Chapel, not to mention my actual nemesis Stuart Mitchell (who threatened to sue me my over my criticism of his made-up ‘code’) have made a (relatively) recent comeback in Susan Calman’s 2019 ‘Secret Scotland’ series, which I am just catching up with. Sadly, the production team made no effort to research the reality of the situation, and afforded Mitchell one last hurrah in episode 1 (Edinburgh) before he (unfortunately) passed away in 2018, not long after filming must have happened. Calman and the producers seem to swallow this without question. She even breaks down in tears after hearing the ‘Rosslyn Motet’. I really like her as a comedian and she’s an excellent presenter as well, but she is clearly something of a ‘believer’, going by her reaction to the ghost aspect of the same episode. I won’t rehash the Music of the Cubes nonsense (and trust me, it is total nonsense). If you want to catch up on that, there’s a whole series of old posts here; if you’re short on time, this was my original debunk. I also recommend Jeff Nisbet’s excellent article.

Instead, I want to address a much older claim; that the Chapel contains depictions of maize (American corn) and aloe, and therefore proves arcane or otherwise lost medieval knowledge of the Americas. It categorically does not. This BBC article absolutely nails it, so read that, but I will quote the most important bits below

“Dr Adrian Dyer, a professional botanist and husband of the Revd Janet Dyer, former Priest in Charge at Rosslyn Chapel, meticulously examined the botanical carvings in the Chapel…Dr Dyer found that there was no attempt to represent a species accurately: the ‘maize’ and ‘aloe’ carvings are almost certainly derived from stylized wooden patterns, whose resemblance to recognisable botanical forms is fortuitous.

Much the same conclusion was reached by archaeo-botanist Dr Brian Moffat, who also noted that the carvings of botanical forms are not naturalistic nor accurate. He found a highly stylised Arum Lily the most likely candidate for what has been identified as American maize.

As for the ‘aloes’, Dr Moffat points out that the consumer would never have seen the plant, only the sap which was used medicinally.”

There you are. Given the total lack of any other evidence for these plants in Europe prior to the mid-16th century, I would certainly accept the opinion of two qualified scientists over those who dreamed up this theory. Speaking of which, where did this one come from? There are two near-contemporary competing claims. The earliest reference seems (based upon this reference) to be plate 23 of Andrew Sinclair’s 1992 book ‘The Sword and the Grail: Of the Grail and the Templars and a True Discovery of America’. It is then independently made in 1996’s ‘The Hiram Key’ by infamous Rosslyn ‘scholars’ Knight and Lomas (2nd edition, 1998, p. 79). In this book Robert Lomas claims that Brydon had the revelation about the carvings in his company and quotes him supposedly verbatim. They also claim that Dyer’s wife agreed that the carvings represented aloe and maize (p. 302), despite Dyer’s own debunking of this. To be clear, Sinclair, Knight and Lomas were all card-carrying ‘alternative history’ types, alleging all sorts of far less plausible, yet far more bonkers ‘alternative facts’, perhaps the craziest of which is that the moon was built by humans (Knight). All three are proponents of the idea that Earl Henry Sinclair ‘discovered’ America before Columbus, hence being keen on the idea that the Chapel, which was founded by the Sinclair family, provides evidence for this within its carvings. Sinclair also claimed that the Holy Grail was secreted at Rosslyn. Brydon, archivist for the Commandery of St Clair (a chapter effectively) of the Grand Priory of the Knights Templar in Scotland, apparently agreed that the carvings represented aloe and maize. He doesn’t seem to have actually made this claim directly, only as quoted by Knight and Lomas, who don’t reference Sinclair and imply that the claim originates with Brydon. As a prominent Knight Templar and an advocate of attracting attention and funding to the Chapel, Brydon had a vested interest in tolerating this form of dubious history. The same is true of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, who continually walk a tightrope between actual and BS history due to their overarching remit to keep the visitors coming. This, no doubt, is why Trust Director Ian Gardner happily endorses the maize/aloe theory in the Secret Scotland programme. Oddly, their website can’t seem to make up its mind; one page uncritically accepts it, another (very similarly worded) page is much more circumspect, triggering Betteridge’s law of newspaper headlines (that if the claim is phrased as a question, the answer is always “no”). Yet another, an interview with a stonework conservator, falls into the “I’m not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens” trope, by denying that stone conservators take a view on such things, and then immediately siding with the believers. Finally, and rather insidiously, a quiz for children states outright that the carvings show maize and corn, and invite the reader to engage with the theory that the Chapel builders knew of these plants.

First World War Horse Tribute?

650 officers and enlisted men of Auxiliary Remount Depot No. 326, Camp Cody, N.M., in a symbolic head pose of “The Devil” saddle horse ridden by Maj. Frank G. Brewer, remount commander (U.S. Library of Congress – https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018646141/)

I spotted this meme on social media and quickly determined that it wasn’t in fact a tribute to the many horses killed in the First World War. On looking further I found this excellent post that means I don’t really need to add much. The gist is that it’s one of a series of photos in this style, and this one commemorates one officer’s (the CO of the ‘remount’ unit in question) horse; that of Major Frank G Brewer. It was taken in 1919, not 1916 (the U.S. hadn’t even joined the war at that point) and although it’s possible that Brewer’s horse was killed in the war, it’s equally possible (if not more likely given that he was CO of a non-front line unit) that it died of old age – or that it wasn’t, in fact, dead at all (the caption does not suggest this). No-one’s been able to determine those facts (and I have attempted a search myself), but regardless, it certainly isn’t a tribute to the dead horses of the conflict. Animal rights hadn’t quite reached that point in 1919, sadly. Most horses were seen as tools and property, although of course individuals had strong relationships with them as they do today.

All I can add to the linked article is that the original image is available in high resolution on the U.S. Library of Congress site.