I was interested in the origins of the pub name "The Eagle and Child" as it's always struck me as a particularly odd name, even given the many odd names that are about. Many people will be familiar with the name because of the famous Eagle and Child in Oxford
that was the favoured watering hole of J.R.R. Tolkien
and C.S. Lewis
. I was sent an account of the legend that, as I understand, was taken from "Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls : England and Wales vol. III North by John Timbs and Alexander Gunn F.Warne & Co." (1890). What follows is my own retelling of the story and is lifted directly from my novel in progress. Interestingly, the Earl of Derby
's family name is Lathom and, as Lathom is very near to the Eagle and Child I regularly drink in, perhaps the Oxford one was not the first. It would be interesting to know for sure.
“The Earl of Derby,” Georgie whispered close in to my ear, “Had a wife who couldn’t give him an heir. Some people are kind – they say she was infertile – but anyone who knows the truth know she was either frigid…or not interested in men.”
“The same thing, surely,” I said.
“Not at all,” Georgie continued. “Poor Earl Derby – when the balls are full the brain is empty, and his balls were fit for bursting. So he had his rocks off with a serving girl – don’t they always in these old stories? – and she ended up having his child. But she couldn’t keep it – they’d have found some excuse to drown her or burn her as a witch.”
There’s no song about any of this, as far as I know – I always meant to write one (which is something else that I do now, but not that often).
“So,” whispers Georgie, closer still, “They have themselves a little conflab, the Earl of Derby and this serving girl. He tells her to leave the child in an eagle’s nest in the woods. She’ll do the rest. And the Earl takes his good lady wife out for a walk, to improve her complexion and maybe put her in the mood for a bit of bedroom action. Now, of course, she’s amazed and a little bit terrified to hear a child’s cries coming from the nest of an Eagle. She begs and pleads with her husband to shin up the tree to see what the hell’s going on. He does that – the Earl of Derby climbs a tree!”
At this point Georgie leans back and stares at me intently, just checking that I’m hanging on to every word of the story. Then, without taking his eyes off me, he refills my glass. Clever that. He leans back in close and puts his hand on my crossed leg.
“This, of course, gives the game away. The Earl of Derby would never have climbed a tree unless he was fully expecting to do so. Sensibly, Lady Derby doesn’t let on that she has him sussed. Hark! Shouts the Earl. Hark! There’s a babe in this tree! And he throws the baby down to his wife, which she catches. Just. And this near miss brings out her maternal instincts. So, of course, she agrees to adopt the child and raise it as their own.”
Georgie downs his whisky in one and nods to me to do the same. It seems like too much dramatic emphasis for a story I’ve heard a million times before. Still, my mother never told it like this, so I don’t let on.
“She knew what he’d been up to, you know,” said Georgie, matter of factly, “But who, back then, would want to admit that their husband preferred the charms of a member of the serving classes to their own? Everyone else knew and all. But who would risk eviction? So the present Earl Derby is descended from a foundling who is also not a foundling.”