Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady ride on a white horse
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She shall have music wherever she goes.
The written history of this little jingle goes back to 1784 but it was not written for children and like many other so called nursery rhymes this rhyme may well carry its own delightfully subversive history.
The catchy little tune has made Banbury famous throughout the English speaking world and Banbury Cross a tourist attraction. But the Cross that stands in the centre of Banbury has nothing to do with the rhyme. The cross now standing was erected in 1859 to commemorate the marriage of Queen Victoria's eldest daughter.
Banbury had at least three other crosses: the High Cross, the Bread Cross, and the white Cross. The Puritans destroyed the crosses and it is recorded that when the spire fell the following thanksgiving was offered:
"God be thanked, their god Dagon is fallen to the ground."
This rather intriguing statement raises more questions than can be answered here but could this be a hint that Banbury Cross might have had a pagan ancestry?
Local tradition suggests that the fine lady was a member of the Fiennes family, the local aristocratic ancestors of Lord Saye and Sele who own nearby Broughton Castle. The rhyme has been associated with Celia Fiennes who apparently rode side saddle through every county in England and later published a journal about her journeys. Although it is fairly obvious as to why it was suggested Celia's father was a staunch Puritan and she was hardly likely to have worn rings on her fingers let alone bells on her toes.
The other main contender is Lady Godiva and in some versions of the rhyme Coventry rather than Banbury is mentioned. Godiva lived in the 11th century and was the wife of Earl Leofric of Mercia. The main connection with Coventry is that they founded the Benedicine monastery there in 1043. There is no mention of the famous ride by contemporary chroniclers and this was first mentioned over a hundred years later by Roger of Wendover in 'Flowers of history' who is not exactly noted for his accuracy.
The final contender for the position of the fine lady is Queen Elizabeth I and although this is most unlikely it is perhaps no coincidence that it was during her reign that pageantry and plays were very much in vogue and faeries flourished, rapidly going into decline when her successor James I declared that faeries were illusions created by the devil.
Banbury as the crossroads
It is possible that Banbury Cross refers not so much to a monument as to the location of crossroads. Banbury was built at the junction of two ancient roads the Salt Way, still used as a bridle path and Banbury Lane, part of the Jurassic Way which ran from the Humber to the Avon.
It is quite easy for us who have too many roads to forget that in ancient times there weren't many roads and even fewer crossroads. Crossroads were considered very magical places in many societies. In many traditions crossroads are considered places of power and in Greece and Rome Hermes guarded all the important crossroads. Hecate was also associated with crossroads and images of both gods were positioned at crossroads. Crossroads were favoured as magical places for protection, healing and spells but they were also considered dangerous because they offered access to the otherworld.
Traditionally the gallows were set up at crossroads and felons, suicides and witches were buried there. So crossroads came to be associated with ghosts, spirits and demons. In an article in Whitedragon,The Enchanted Crossroads, Liam Rogers suggests that people were buried at crossroads to enable easier access to the otherworld rather than let their spirits hang around and plague people. This is a possibility but it might also be the case that the gallows and the burials were established at crossroads to frighten people off, especially those who might revere such places.
If Banbury Cross was indeed intended to refer to a crossroads then there is an old folk custom which may have some relevance. According to Edain McCoy in Celtic Myth and Magick there was a folk custom performed in western Ireland up to the beginning of 20th century that may shed some light on our fine lady.
Near dawn, people would go to a crossroads and light fires at each of the cardinal directions. They would ride thrice round the intersection on a broom and sit down on the ground to wait for the vision of a dark woman on a white horse to gallop by coming from the east and going west.
If we substitute 'a cock horse' for broom then we have an almost perfect description of that tradition in the nursery rhyme. But you may well ask how did a tradition of Western Ireland end up in Banbury? A possible answer is via Wales and the drovers trails. As I mentioned earlier Banbury was built on the junction of Salt Way and Banbury lane which was in fact part of the drover trails. Another place associated with Lady Godiva is Southam where another annual Godiva procession was held. Southam is a town on the Welsh road, the old drovers route from Wales to London. Southam is also on a junction with Banbury lane.
Having introduced the Welsh connection we can now look to the Welsh horse goddess Rhiannon who features in the Mabigion. It has frequently been suggested that the rhyme is a reference to one of the horse goddesses and one article I read connected Rhiannon with morris dancing and suggests that she is indeed the 'fair lady'.
Rhiannnon was from the otherworld, and she married Welsh king Pwll of Dyfed. Her story is rather sad. After waiting 3 years she eventually gave birth to a son (some say on Beltane Eve). He was stolen immediately and Rhiannon was accused of devouring her own child. As punishment she had to stay at the gates of the city, tell all visitors about her crime and then carry guests on her back like a horse. This continued for seven years when her son was restored to her.
It's a strange story but in a way it has similarities to the Godiva story. Just as innocent Rhianon suffers total humiliation so does Godiva in having to ride naked through the streets. But regardless of whether true or not mud does tend to stick and although some people are happy to accept the Mabigion as it stands many others suspect that it and many other Celtic legends have been 'tampered' with by the establishment. It is possible that some goddesses have been deliberately denigraded in some manner - perhaps Rhiannon was.
Perhaps having Godiva, a very saintly Christian lady baring all was intended by someone somewhere to return the compliment. Even more so if the so called peeping Tom of the later legends was indeed St. George.
The real story behind the nursery rhyme is lost in history but it is conceivable that there is a hint of paganism in it somewhere and possibly it is combined with a bit of irreverence to certain high born ladies.A link to more informationa about Godiva
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