In London. the athletic and active Henry II sits on the throne of England, plotting an invasion of Ireland that will lead to nearly a thousand years of pain. In Canterbury cathedral Thomas Beckett is the Archbishop, asserting an independence for the church that will one day cause his death. In Oxford a group of scholars, recently expelled from Paris, arrive and settle down.
In Orford, on the Suffolk coast, the world is the sea. What comes out of it, how it behaves, what goes into it; all these are the concerns of Orford people.
On one day in 1167, a group of men are fishing in the sea a mile off Orford Ness, their small boats rising and falling on the swell. Suddenly, one of their nets is pulled and twisted with great ferocity. With practised expertise the fishermen begin to pull it in, only to find that they have not caught a dolphin or a seal, as they had suspected, but a wild looking man.
Ralph Coggeshall, the Abbott’s chronicler, takes up the story:
‘Men fishing in the sea caught a wild man in their nets. He was naked and was like a man in all his members, covered with hair and with a long shaggy beard. He eagerly ate whatever was brought to him but if it was raw he pressed it between his hands until all the juice was expelled. He would not talk, even when tortured and hung up by his feet. Brought into church, he showed no signs of reverence or belief. He sought his bed at sunset and always remained there until sunrise. He was allowed to go into the sea, strongly guarded with three lines of nets, but he dived under the nets and came up again and again. Eventually he came back of his own free will. But later on he escaped and was never seen again.’
Belief in mermaids and mermen has existed since earliest times; most commonly they are represented as having the head and body of a woman or man and a fishtail instead of legs. While mermaids are often described as having great beauty and charm, which they used to lure sailors to their deaths, mermen (of which there are far fewer stories) are generally considered uglier and less kindly, although encouraging sailors to drown doesn’t sound too friendly. Most tales suggest mermen have no interest in mankind, although they have been cited as being instrumental in the production of huge storms and the sinking of ships in revenge for man’s mistreatment of a beloved mermaid.
Not all tales portray mermen in this way; Benwell describes the Scandinavian Merman or Havmand “as a handsome creature with a green or black beard, living on cliffs and shore hills as well as in the sea, and says that he was regarded as a beneficent creature” (An Encyclopaedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs). Mermen have been credited as warning men of impending peril and with taking young sailors down beneath the sea, where the men would either drown or live in blissful happiness.
The story of the Orford Merman is still much talked about today, a memorial to him hanging in the market square – used as the logo for The Butley Orford Oysterage. It has now been put to music in a wonderful new composition by Joanna Lee, composer in residence to the Aldeburgh Music Club. The music was performed by the Aldeburgh Music Club choir as part of their 60th anniversary celebrations in 2012.