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The Split Grey Goose Feather

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You might have a few feathers at home in your duvet, pillow or cushions but, in the time when Charles I was king, feathers were bought and sold for mattresses and quills with which to write. There was another important use of grey goose feathers for the fenlanders of East Anglia, a tradition that went back a very, very long way.

If you saw a grey goose feather split down the middle, then that meant that somebody was in need of help. All fenlanders would carry a grey feather and, when in need, they only had to produce the split feather and all true fenlanders would help them.


During the English Civil war, in 1646, when King Charles I was on the run from Cromwell's troops, he had to flee across the fens to escape capture. The king had been given refuge at Fordham in Norfolk.

Not far away, in the village of Southery, lived a publican, well known for his knowledge of the fenland tracks across the dangerous marsh. One day, the publican was visited by two very fine looking gentlemen with thoroughbred horses. They asked the publican if he would guide the king across the marshes to Huntingdon, where his forces were waiting to escort him. When he saw the gold on offer, the publican's eyes lit up.

That night the publican was brought before the king. Some of the king's attendants were not sure that he could be trusted with the king's life. When questioned, he drew from his pocket a grey goose feather. He took out his knife and cut the feather in half. He put one half in his pocket and gave the other half to the king.
"I am a fenlander," he said. "Now by my honour I can do nothing but aid His Majesty; for all fenlanders must protect one carrying this token even if it means their death."

The publican was indeed an expert guide. The men changed their thoroughbred horses for two sturdy fenland ponies. First crossing Southery fen and then Littleport fen, they soon came to the ford in the river just outside Huntingdon. Their hearts sank, as the crossing was brimming with Cromwell's men.

All was not lost though; the publican took out the split grey feather and held it up. The troops looked to the exhausted king, who did the same. The two travellers were then ushered through to safety. The publican returned home with his gold, to his pub and a stable with two fine horses and, on this occasion, the king got clean away.

When he heard what had happened, the officer in charge of the troops was furious.
"These men were meant to ensure the king did not escape!" he fumed.

The sentries were brought before Cromwell. Cromwell, who was born in Huntingdon, knew of these fen traditions and was lenient with his troops. It was better, he said, for a king to escape, than for a fenman not to help a man with a split feather in his hand. He was to be haunted by these words.

Eventually, the king was captured and sentenced to death. The night before the sentence was to be carried out, an emissary from the king arrived while Cromwell was at supper.


The messenger said, "Sir, His Majesty does not ask for mercy as he is God's anointed monarch. All that His Majesty asks, is that he is afforded that due to one who holds this token."

To everyone's surprise, except Cromwell's, the messenger produced a split grey goose feather from his pocket and placed it on the table before Cromwell.

Cromwell's face went white and he dismissed all those who were gathered with him. All that night Cromwell sat and stared at the goose feather, fighting with his conscience. The next morning, Cromwell was found still sitting at the table and still staring at the goose feather.

But Cromwell did not intervene for the king. The next day, the king was beheaded on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House at the Palace of Whitehall, London. Failure to honour the fenland tradition troubled Cromwell's conscience for a long time to come.

Men who had served him loyally and well were not happy. Cromwell's life became even harder to bear, when some of his men sent back to him bent or broken split feathers that he had given to them, when they promised to fight for him. They told him they were going back to the fens, where there were still men who kept their word and would never be false to the old traditions!

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