The Renwick Cockatrice
The Legend of the Renwick Cockatrice
William Hutchinson's 'History of the County of Cumberland', published in 1794, which contains agricultural footnotes written by a surveyor called John Housman, is the earliest known record of this legend. Housman wrote that John Tallentire of Scalehouses enjoyed exemption from tithes '.. derived from a circumstance which happened about 200 years ago, almost too ridiculous to be credited .. an ancient possessor being said to have slain a noxious cockatrice ..'. Housman had been told by Tallentire that there was a record testifying to the exemption, said to be dated 7 James I (1609/10), but he was 'too tenacious to suffer it to be read by curious visitors.' Out of this footnote in a 1794 history book (no doubt elaborated by word of mouth) has emerged the following legend: the inhabitants of Renwick were pulling down the village church - a large winged creature emerged from the ruin - they thought it was a cockatrice and fled in panic - John Tallentire took a rowan bough and killed it - for which he and his heirs were exempted from tithes.
'Cockatrice' is an Anglo-French synonym for 'basilisk', a fabulous monster, part bird, part reptile, hatched from an egg laid by a male bird and fertilised by a serpent. It was reputed to be able to slay by looking at, or breathing on, its victim. It was recorded in the 1st century AD by the elder Pliny (who said it lived in southern Africa), and is both ancient and pan-European. There is a 15th century misericord in Carlisle Cathedral depicting a cockatrice (pictured above). The Renwick legend is a rare surviving example from northern England, and may tell us something about what the inhabitants of Cumberland might have believed in 1610 or thereabouts. The reference to a rowan bough (not recorded by Housman) might infer that the beast was thought to have been the product of a witch's spell. The claim to exemption from tithes was not confirmed by the Tithe Commutation Schedule in 1842.
Sources: William Hutchinson, 'History of the County of Cumberland', 1794, I, 212; Oxford English Dictionary, 'basilisk' and 'cockatrice'; 'Inventorum Natura, the Wonderful Voyage of Pliny, Una Woodruff, Dragon's World Ltd, 1979, 27; CAS(C) DRC/8/161 (1842); photograph of Carlisle misericord by Ian Wells
Richard Brockington October 2017