The Fisher King in Midsomer County


(Caution: Contains spoilers for Episodes: 03×03: Judgement Day & 07×03: The Fisher King)

 

Near to the village Midsomer Priors, on the site of today’s Midsomer Barrow, in Celtic times, during the Iron Age, 3000 years ago, there was a local chieftain: the Fisher King. He was a wealthy man and died of the dolorous stroke, a symbolic death: he was stabbed in the thigh with a spear. (Note: Paul Heartley-Reade calls it the dolorous blow, but in the context of Arthurian legend it’s called a stroke).

Geoff Dallimor: Burial mound 2 at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, UK. The photo was taken close to sunset on 21 June 2006 (day of the Summer Solstice). This mound has been reconstructed to its supposed original height. CC-BY SA 3.0
Geoff Dallimor: Burial mound 2 at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, UK. The photo was taken close to sunset on 21 June 2006 (day of the Summer Solstice). This mound has been reconstructed to its supposed original height. CC-BY SA 3.0

The backstory is, as is typical of Midsomer, somewhat convoluted and intertwined: In 1974, Paul Heartley-Reade obtained permission from the landowner, Roger Heldman, to excavate a burial mound on his estate. The excavation team included Dr Lavery, Paul Heartley-Reade and Roger Heldman himself. During the excavation, the three discovered that it was the tomb of the legendary Fisher King and found a chalice and a spear inside. However, a tragic incident occurred during the excavation: While they were still documenting, the entrance to the mound collapsed, killing Roger – or so the story goes. However, the post-mortem revealed that Roger Heldman was murdered – just like the Celtic Fisher King of Midsomer. A second alleged case occurred shortly afterwards: Paul Heartley-Reade is said to have died in a car crash. In reality, he is on the run, having murdered Roger Heldman out of jealousy: his wife had been raped by him. Roger Heldman is David’s father. (One of four paternities in Midsomer Barrow, and all by rape. What a bastard).

 

The Revenge

Paul fakes his own death and takes another name before returning to Midsomer Priors and Midsomer Barrow, Per Hansen, but we stay with his real name.

The dolorous stroke against the Fisher King, Pelles
The dolorous stroke against the Fisher King, Pelles, in this version by Sir Balin. Steel engraver unknown. 1912. Public domain.

First, Paul murdered Roger’s son Gareth Heldman by using exactly the same way that the Iron Age Midsomer Fisher King died: by a stab to the thigh, which severed his femoral artery and led to a reaction between the primitive iron and the blood in his body, causing his death – so George Bullard. Shortly thereafter, Paul Heartley-Reade is deeply disappointed and feels as betrayed by his supposed son David as he did by his real father Roger: David passes off Paul’s scientific findings as his own. It is Miriam Heartley-Reade, of all people, who approaches Paul after his guided tour along Midsomer Barrow and hands him David’s book, “The Hidden Celtic Way”. We see it in the local bookshop, and a year later Elizabeth Keys from Fletcher’s Cross is holding it in her hands at the reopening of the station, talking to Tom Barnaby. At sunrise after the shortest night of the year, with a well-aimed arrow in the back. David wanted to perform a Celtic ritual to save his marriage to Miriam: Just as he shoots a flaming arrow towards the rising sun on the horizon from the top of the burial mound, another arrow hits him from behind and pierces him fatally. When he rolls down, he is already dead. (Incorrectly performed on 21 June, Summer Solstice. In fact, this ritual was celebrated back then by the Celts on Beltane, the 1st of May. The same day as the stag night.)

 

The Iron Age Arthurian Fisher King

We learn about the legend of the Fisher King on the aforementioned guided tour by Paul Heartley-Reade, in which Joyce Barnaby also takes part. The legend of the Fisher King was incorporated into the Arthurian legend a few centuries later. He was the owner of the Holy Grail, but he was not worthy of it and his land became a wasteland. But there is also a link from the Fisher King legend to Midsomer Barrow. Paul Heartley-Reade does not elaborate on this in this scene, but he does a little later, during the interrogation by DCI Tom Barnaby: The Fisher King did not live in Anglo-Saxon times (like King Arthur), but in Celtic times. His grave was probably found 30 years ago on Roger Heldman’s estate. He died of the same injury that wounded the Fisher King in Arthurian legend. The dolorous stroke, the thrust into the thigh with a spear or lance.

 

The Fisher King in the Arthurian legend

There are different versions of the legend, but what they all have in common is that Pelles (other sources call him Parlan or Pellam) was the guardian of the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus – the spear with which Jesus was pierced in the side and the chalice with which his blood was collected. And Pelles screwed up – what exactly is different. In any case, it was either a knight from King Arthur’s court or God himself who inflicts the dolorous stroke that seriously injured Pelles. He didn’t died, but he was doomed to vegetate. In some versions the spear was driven into his thigh (as in the Midsomer Fisher King and Gareth Heldman), in others into his genitals. He became sterile, as does his land which turned into a wasteland. Pelles had to now wait for some twenty years, badly injured, until the Knights of the Round Table set out in search of the Holy Grail and found it in Pelles’ palace. By taking the Grail and the spear, that Knight of the Round Table – be it Percival or Galahad – automatically healed the Fisher King and his land. The parallel between this knight and Jesus Christ is not accidental. But the Midsomer’s Fisher King was not Pelles, but lived some 1500 years earlier – if the Arthurian Fisher King existed at all.

Perceval arrives at the Grail Castle, to be greeted by the Fisher King. From a 1330 manuscript of Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes, BnF Français 12577, fol. 18v. Artist: unknown. Year: 1330. Public domain.
Perceval arrives at the Grail Castle, to be greeted by the Fisher King. From a 1330 manuscript of Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes, BnF Français 12577, fol. 18v. Artist: unknown. Year: 1330. Public domain.

 

Anglo-Saxon burial grounds

In this episode we see a burial mound as they became popular in the Anglo-Saxon area at the end of the sixth century and declined in the eighth century: A mound of earth and stones built over a grave. These mounds were also called tumuli or barrows. The latter gave Midsomer Barrow its name. This type of burial mound existed in central Europe and it is very likely that it came to the British Isles as part of a cultural transfer. In the 6th century there were close political links between the south-eastern Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent and the Merovingian kings (in what is now eastern France and south-western Germany).

For a burial, a circular area is first removed from the topsoil to provide enough space for a body. A trench was dug around this circular area. The inner area was then dug out as a grave and sealed with clay if necessary. The body was then placed in the grave. Usually the head faced west, but sometimes it faced sideways. The position of the body varied greatly: lying on its back, or stomach, or side, and with its legs stretched out, or crossed, or slightly bent or in a fetal position.

Finally, if necessary, the burial gifts were added, possibly separated from the body with wood as a single chamber. There was a funeral ceremony with certain rituals and a meal at the grave, which ended with the body being covered with cloth or wooden sticks and then covered with a heap of earth and stones.

 

Midsomer Mallow

Motmit: Mapledurham House near Reading England. BB-BY SA 3.0.

Anglo-Saxon burial grounds are mentioned in an earlier episode. However, “Judgement Day” is best known for featuring a notorious burglar and womaniser, Peter Drinkwater, played by Orlando Bloom. Bloom was an unknown actor at the time. In the summer of 2018, Jane Wymark, who played Joyce Barnaby, said in an interview that she saw Bloom playing, was thrilled and recommended him for an episode of Midsomer Murders.

When the episode first aired on British television in January 2000, Orlando Bloom was already in New Zealand, in the middle of filming the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which made him world famous as the elf Legolas. This episode with Bloom is set in Midsomer Mallow, where Annabelle “Bella” Devere lives with her husband Marcus. This year the village is taking part in The Perfect Village competition.

One of the judges is Joyce Barnaby, as the winner of a competition run by Country Matters magazine. When the four judges arrive at Midsomer Mallow, a small reception is held on the village green. Marcus Devere, as chairman of the Midsomer Manor committee, welcomes the judges and tells them that the village was probably built on an Anglo-Saxon burial ground. This means that it must have been between the 5th and 7th centuries, otherwise it would have been many individual barrows or a Christian cemetery. It’s actually the village green of Crocker End, near Nettlebed in Oxfordshire, where the reception for the judges in Midsomer Mallow took place. Midsomer Mallow is a hamlet of medieval origin, probably dating back to the 15th century, and therefore has no connection with Anglo-Saxon times.

 

Mapledurham House

The location of Roger Heldman’s estate at Midsomer Barrow does not suggest a possible Anglo-Saxon or even Iron Age past. First mentioned in the Domesday Book, the house belonged to William de Warrene and passed through Gerard de Gournay and a Bardolf family in the 15th century to the present owners, the Blount family (“Le Blond”).

ThisParticularGreg: Garden of Chenies Manor House, Buckinghamshire. CC-BY SA 2.0.

It is not surprising, then, that there is a parsonage at Mapledurham House. During the Civil War, the family offered the house as a safe haven for Catholics, but it was besieged and sacked by Parliamentarians. The family remained Catholic, however, and suffered great financial loss after the Civil War because, as Catholics, they had to pay the punitive double land tax until the law was repealed in 1821. As a result, the Blounts were forced to sell a large collection of historical armour. The house was added to the National Heritage List on 24 October 1951. The estate also includes a watermill and a family chapel. The latter has been a chapel here since the Battle of Hastings and has been rebuilt or adapted twice (first in the 14th century and finally in the late 18th century after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1791). The watermill has also been used as a film location, as the home of Nathan Green. It is powered by the River Thames and lies a short distance behind the manor house. The estate is partly surrounded by water and it is much quieter to arrive by boat than by a narrow path where it is difficult for two cars to pass each other.

 

Read more about Midsomer Murders & History

The Chronology of Midsomer County by Year or by EpisodesDeep Dives into Midsomer & History. If you would like to honour my effort and passion, I am happy and thankful for every donation.

 

Literature

  • Geake, Helen: Burial Practice in Seventh- and Eighth-Century England. In Martin Carver (Ed.): The Age of Sutton Hoo. The Seventh Century in North-Western Europe. Woodbridge 1992. P. 83–94.
  • Lucy, Sam: The Anglo-Saxon way of death. Burial rites in early England. Stroud 2000.
  • McKinley, Jacqueline: The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Spong Hill. Part VIII: The Cremations (= East Anglican Archaeology 69). Norfolk 1994.
  • Meaney, Audrey: A Gazetteer of Early Anglo-Saxon Burial Sites. London 1964.P. 304–318.
  • NN: Mapledurham House. In: Heritage Travel.
  • Pollington, Stephen: Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds. Princely Burials in the 6th and 7th Centuries. Swaffham 2008.
  • Spurrell, F. C. J.: Dartford antiquities. Notes on British Roman and Saxon remains there found. In: Archaeologia Cantiana 18 (1889).
  • Taylor, Alison: Burial Practice in Early England. Stroud 2001.
  • Webseite von Mapledurham Estate.
  • Wells, Calvin: A study of cremation. In: Antiquity 34 (1960). P. 29– 37.
  • Williams, Howard: Death and Memory in early medieval Britain. Cambridge 2006.
  • Wilson, David M.: Anglo-Saxon Paganism. London/New York 1992.

 

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    Petra Tabarelli has studied history and has earned an international reputation as an expert on the history and development of football rules. But she is also a big fan of Midsomer Murders - and that's why this website about history and nostalgia in and around Midsomer exists. She was looking for such a website, couldn't find it, so she created it. For others who, like her, are looking for the website, and now can find it.

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