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The Abandoned Children of Wailing Wood

The Abandoned Children of Wailing Wood - origins

Is there any truth in the story?

Babes in the wood
  • Illustration by Randolph Caldecott. London c.1878
  • Sometimes a folktale or legend can become so mixed up with what happens in a place, that it is difficult to know where the folktale ends and the history begins. The 'babes in the wood' legend is one example. It is a popular tale all over the country, but particularly in Norfolk. There is a strong belief that this tragedy happened in Wayland Wood, which was also called, Wailing Wood.

    The wood was once very big and lay to the southeast of Watton. Nearby Griston Hall was thought to have been the home of the wicked uncle.

    The links between Norfolk and the story were firmed up in 1595, when Thomas Millington published the tale in Norwich. A ballad version was later published in 1640; both tell the sad tale of two children abandoned in the woods. This is said to have happened between 1541 and 1572 when the de Grey family owned Griston Hall.

    How did the story become linked to the area?

  • Robin - the robins covered the children with leaves
  • Edmund de Grey, the owner of Griston Hall, had a grandson, Thomas de Grey. When his father died, on May 12th 1562, he was seven years old. The little boy's uncle was Robert de Grey. Robert de Grey would become the owner of the family house and lands if the boy died before he married and had children.

    The little boy's father had not liked his brother, Robert de Grey. Temperance Carewe was the little boy's stepmother (the second wife of his father). She married again and, four years after his father died, the boy went on a visit to his stepmother. He died at her house, or on the way home. He was aged eleven years and seven days. The local people were very sure that his uncle had put him to death. The uncle made things worse, by trying to rob the widow of her lands too.

    When people went to Griston Hall, where the uncle was living while he rebuilt his own home at Merton Hall, they heard from local people about the boy, the widow and the Wicked Uncle. Soon the story took the shape of that told in the Ballad. Parts of the story, like the robins covering the children with leaves, were probably added when the ballad was written.

    Do the wood and hall still exist?

    Wayland Wood
  • Wayland Wood today
  • Wayland Wood is on the Merton estate, and contains mostly very old oaks with a thick undergrowth of hazel. The wood now lies quiet. There was a huge oak tree, deep in the wood, which local people said was the one the children died under. Lightning destroyed it in 1879. Griston Hall is now a farmhouse; up to about 100 years ago, in one of the rooms, there was a 'mantle' over a fireplace showing the story with carvings of the two babes, two robins and the wicked uncle.

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