Although most modern accounts attribute the haunting of THE STROOD to a Roman centurion, some say it goes back to the time of the Danes, and that the victims of a tragic love-triangle are buried in Barrow Hill, a mound twenty feet (6 m) high in West Mersea, listed as an ancient monument under the name Mersea Mount.
The story is told by the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould, rector of East Mersea in the 1880s. In his novel Mehalah (1880), he speaks of a ‘great barrow with … Scotch pines on top’, which he calls ‘Grim’s Hoe’. His villain (Rebow) asks his heroine (Mehalah) if she knows the tale of Grim’s Hoe, and then tells her that in olden times, when the Danes wintered on Mersea, and in summer cruised along the coast, burning and plundering, their two leaders were twin brothers, born in the same hour, who loved one another. One spring they sailed up the creek to St Osyth’s nunnery, where they killed Osyth but carried off her beautiful sister. When they got back to Mersea, each wanted her for his own, and their love turned to jealousy. Drawing their long swords, they hacked one another and by nightfall both were dead. Then the Danes drew their ship up to the top of the hill just above the Strood, and put the woman in the hold with a dead brother on either side, sword in hand, raised a howe above them ‘and buried them all, the living and the dead together’:
When the new moon appears, the flesh grows on their bones, and the blood staunches, and the wounds close, and breath comes back behind their ribs … and if you listen at full moon on the hoe you can hear the brothers fighting below in the heart of the barrow. You hear them curse and cry out, and you hear the clash of their swords. But when the moon wanes the sounds grow fainter, their armour falls to bits, their flesh drops away, the blood oozes out of all the hacked veins, and at last all is still.
When there is no moon, you can hear the woman weeping until the new moon reappears, and then she falls silent as the brothers revive to renew the fight. ‘This will go on month after month, year after year, till one conquers the other … but that will never be, for the brothers are of the same age, and equally strong, and equally resolute.’
Archie White, who tells a version of this in Tideways and Byways in Essex and Suffolk (1948), locates it at Barrow Hill and evidently accepted it as local legend – as by the 1940s it may have become. However, Baring-Gould later admitted to inventing it, probably by using themes drawn from his reading in Norse literature. The combat between rivals for a woman is told in the Saga of Hervör and Heithrek, surviving from the fourteenth century. Hjalmar and Angantýr, one of the twelve berserker sons of Arngrim, are rivals for the hand of Ingibjörg, the king of Sweden’s daughter. She chooses Hjalmar, and Angantýr challenges him to a fight on the island of Samsø.
Meantime he returns to his patron, Earl Bjartmar, and marries his daughter. Later, Angantýr and Hjalmar meet and fight, and Hjalmar kills Angantýr, but not before himself receiving his death wound from Angantýr’s sword Týrfing. On Samsø, mounds are raised over Angantýr and his eleven brothers, all killed in this conflict, but Hjalmar’s body is returned to Sweden. On seeing it, Ingibjörg falls dead and is buried with him in the same howe. This tale was popular and had a long life: by the time it reached ballad form, the rivals were brothers, as in the Danish ballad of ‘Angelfyr and Helmer the Warrior’, known from the sixteenth century, and the Faroese ballad of ‘Hjalmar and Angantyr’, recorded in 1846.
The notion of continuing life in the mound appears in the same saga. Hervör, Angantýr’s daughter, goes to the howes of the sons of Arngrim on Samsö, though they are shunned by all after sunset as fires play over them and phantoms stand outside. Nevertheless, she approaches and wakes Angantýr, and asks him to give her Týrfing, ‘Hjalmar’s bane’. He does so, saying no good will come of it, which proves true.
For the ‘everlasting battle’, Baring-Gould could have turned to one of the most popular tales in Germanic literature, the ‘battle of the Hjathnings’, referred to in the Old English poem Widsīth in the seventh century and still being told in the eighteenth in the Shetland ballad of Hildina (1774). The core of the tale is that Hethin loves Hild, the daughter of Högni, and they elope in his ship. Högni catches up with them on an island; the two men and their armies fight, and no man is left standing. Unable to part with either lover or father, Hild magically wakes the dead and they rise and renew the battle next morning. And, says the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241), who sets the story on Hoy in the Orkneys, it is told in songs that the Hjathningar will go on fighting till Doomsday.