If you visit the Holy Trinity Church at Weston, Hertfordshire, go just inside the entrance and you will see two stones that stand 14 feet apart. The stones are meant to mark the head and the foot of the grave of the legendary giant, Jack O'Legs; he was a great archer who was famed for robbing the rich to give to the poor. Although there is no proof that this is Jack's grave, it is likely that the story was based on a real person.
Jack is said to have lived in the 14th century in a cave, in the middle of Western Wood. The wood is not there now but the field, where the wood once stood, is still called 'The Cave' and the next field is called 'Weston Wood'. A steep slope on the Great North Road, near the village of Graveley, is where Jack was said to have robbed rich travellers, and is still called "Jack's Hill".
In a dictionary of slang words written in 1811 (Grose), Jack O'Legs is said to mean a tall long-legged man or giant (his name started as Jack of Legs). Really he was probably just very tall and strong rather than the giant of the legend.
We think that Jack was a real person at one time, because so many local places have names to do with him. But, like most legends, his actions and his size grew with the telling of the stories.
What was it like at the time Jack lived?
Towns and merchants were growing in influence
Jack lived in a century that had war, plague (the Black Death) and the first peasant 'revolt' (when they turned against the rulers). Life for a poor person was said to be "nasty, brutal and short".
Someone richer and more important owned the land the people worked on. Villagers or peasants, like Jack's friends, could work a small strip of land for growing their own food by also working on the land of the Lord of the Manor. Farming tools were simple and a hard frost could kill a crop or heavy rain could flatten it, leaving a village with nothing. Even so, the peasants still had to find the money or goods to pay their taxes to the Lord of the Manor. So, when the harvest was bad, the villagers of Weston would have been very worried.
At this time also, towns with their merchants or traders grew in power and influence. Medieval towns were places where village people came to trade. They grew up in places where people could meet easily, like a crossroads or near rivers. Baldock is where two ancient roads cross: the Icknield Way and the Great North Road. The Knights Templar started the present town in the 12th century.
Medieval Guilds were important in the town. Guilds grew when skilled workers, in the same trade, joined together to protect their interests. They made sure that things made by guild members were of good quality and sold at a fair price. Guild membership was a sign that you were skilled and respected in society. The bakers in the story would have belonged to a guild that helped them to make more money. Only members of a guild were allowed to sell their goods in towns, except on market days when anyone could trade.
At the very bottom of society were the people with no land and those who had become outlaws, just like Jack. Punishments for doing wrong were harsh. It was believed that people only behaved well if they were afraid of what would happen to them if they did not. Even the 'smallest' wrong doings had serious punishments. People could be put in the stocks, beaten and someone who was thought to have stolen something, however small, could have their hands cut off. Someone who was guilty of a serious crime, such as murder, highway robbery, or stealing livestock, was executed. Baldock, like most towns, had a gallows or gibbet nearby.
Why did the Bakers act as they did?
Medieval baker - traders formed guilds for protection
A town could get a charter (permit) giving it the right to have its own law court, but there was no police force to keep law and order. So, even though the punishments were harsh, many people did not get caught.
Larger towns had fences or walls around them, with gates that were locked at night. However, most towns were not rich enough to do this, so often people had to look after themselves. As a member of a guild, the guild would look after you if you were sick or in trouble. So, in the story, the Bakers may well have got together to help each other get rid of Jack.
What the Bakers did to Jack may seem brutal but life was harsh for most people and a baker's life was not easy. The work was hard and the hours were very long. Because bread was such an important food for the people, there were many laws, that were often changed, that had to be obeyed.
Bakers who were found guilty of selling loaves that were under weight, could be locked in the pillory (a wooden framework on a post with holes for the head and hands) where everyone one could see that they had done wrong. People could shout and throw things at them. In times of famine, the local authorities could force the bakers to sell their bread for less than it cost to make. Sometimes bread was simply taken by them, without paying anything, to feed the town.
So was Jack a villain or a hero?
The Legend of Jack O'Legs
Jack may well have been a great robber and some one who stole from the rich to give to the poor. However, he may also have just been a well-known local thief and, over time, people have added bits to the story to make him into a hero.
The brutal punishments of the time mean that it is possible that Jack was beaten and had his eyes put out before he was hung. As a tall, strong man, he was also likely to be a very good archer. However, it is unlikely that he could have really shot his arrow such a huge distance and the part of the story where he made his last request, may have been exaggerated. It is not likely that we will ever know the full truth; however, he is still an interesting character of his times.