During the 2000s, I worked for the archaeological department at an English local authority. As a public-facing organisation we would receive many requests from individuals seeking advice on various matters. One of the most regular enquiries would involve telephone calls from excited individuals who would breathlessly announce that, during routine excavations, they had uncovered a mediaeval secret passage! Inevitably, sightings had been taken down the tunnel and it was certain to be on the same alignment as well-known historic landmarks such as the local timber-framed pub and the castle on the hill.
A member of our team would be dispatched to view the mighty subterranean labyrinth which, without fail, would turn out to be a small, brick-lined, drain dating to the nineteenth century. Despite such prosaic realities, we continued to receive similar calls at a rate of perhaps one or two every month for many years. There were so many reports that we began to keep a log which became known as The Tiny Book of Tiny Tunnels.
Whilst writing the Mediaeval Mythbusting Blog it has become apparent that tales of mysterious underground tunnels are ubiquitous. Literally every single hamlet, village, town and city – including Stone (Staffordshire) and Guildford (Surrey) – have such folklore. Sometimes “discoveries” reach the desks of mainstream media journalists such as apparent secret passages near Tintern (Monmouthshire) or Burton upon Trent (Staffordshire). Many stories apparently involve significant delvings across miles of landscape. For example, there are documented tales of “escape tunnels” connecting Wigmore Castle and Abbey in Herefordshire (1.3 miles), St Radegund’s Abbey and Dover Castle in Kent (3 miles) or Framlingham Castle and Leiston Abbey in Suffolk (9.8 miles).
The impracticality of such construction projects is staggering. Why would such a tunnel be required? How would such a vast scheme be kept secret? Where would the spoil be put? How would the passage be maintained, ventilated and kept dry? How on earth would pre-modern engineers have managed such a venture? These are questions which seldom trouble the minds of those who repeat such tales and yet the stories remain stunningly popular across the country. Why is this?
Making the Story Stick
Ideas which become embedded in a societal consciousness, despite little or no critical evaluation, are commonly known as urban myths. Formerly transmitted as oral accounts, over the last two decades the phenomenon has been given renewed prominence by the ease of immediate information sharing on internet platforms. Sadly, fact-checking has not had a similar Renaissance, and, despite the availability of data, misinformation thrives online.
In their 2007 book, Made to Stick, American researchers, Chip and Dan Heath, have posited that the spread of dubious information can take a firm hold if it includes a Simple central message coupled to data that is Unexpected, Concrete, Credible and appeals to our Emotions to create memorable Stories (handily, forming the acronym SUCCESs). Such stories will be received openly by a large percentage of the population – even if they are demonstrably untrue (Heath & Heath 2007, 14-19).
Ten years after the Heath brothers’ published their analysis, “Fake News” was made Word of the Year by Collins English Dictionary in reaction to (the twice-impeached former American president) Donald Trump’s attempts to discredit media reports of his extraordinary behaviour. Meanwhile, Trump’s own media team broadcast “alternative facts” – dangerously simple ideas, with little basis in truth and reality, that were lapped up by his credulous fanbase. It is often said that we live in a post-truth era in which the measured opinion of expertise is rejected in favour of information which confirms established systems of belief based on emotions. This phenomenon can also be identified when assessing tall tales connected to mediaeval buildings
Nineteenth century brick drains aside, the vast number of hidden secret tunnel stories are not reported by primary sources and are usually related a long time after the proposed events. The great cataloguer of secret passages, Jeremy Errand (1974, 105), noted that: “The existence of many passages is vouched for only by the memories of boyhood exploration.” Which takes us right back into an age of frolicking innocence.
The second-hand recollections of hunting through apparent secret passages in childhood must give us pause for consideration. Can the distant memories of others even be trusted? Neuropsychologists, such as Tim Rogers of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, warn us that the distance of time can create a cognitive dissonance: “False memory studies show us that our memory is always a blend of what we know about the world generally, plus what we retain of a recent experience”. Such an observation chimes well with those of the Heaths – there is a willingness to believe the distant recollections of others if they are communicated effectively and confirm an established view of the world. Most people are not expert in mediaeval architecture and are therefore susceptible to readily accept stories of secret passages if they are delivered credibly.
Despite the widespread use of oral history as a valid technique in studying the past through memory, we must be mindful before taking second-hand reports at face value, especially when they are not recorded in a rigorous, scientifically controlled, environment (Howarth 1999, 11-46). In retelling distant memories of other people, it may be the case that those repeating the stories do not wish to directly associate themselves with information that they, consciously or unconsciously, perceive may not be entirely accurate (even if they would like them to be so).
Stories of hidden tunnels capture the imagination of the public successfully. We can apply the Heath brothers’ SUCCESs analysis to the subject by assessing the sentence: ‘secret passage between castle and pub discovered by young boy playing in fields.’ It forms a Simple passage packed with hook-laden information that is Unexpected (“secret passage”), Concrete (“between castle and pub”), Credible (“discovered by”), and plays on our Emotions (“young boy playing in fields”) to create a memorable Story. Notably, the tale is only 13 words long, but the rebuttal of this blog is significantly longer.
If you want to make a story stick, keep it short.
The desire to pass on tall tales relating to mediaeval buildings is rarely malicious and may be linked to a sense of whimsy, romance, nostalgia, or loyalty to the person who originally told the story (especially if they were a loved one). The Heaths have pointed to a simple formula which can explain how and why stories are successfully transmitted. However, in the case of commonly repeated secret passage tales, that formula probably has a very strong ally in the traditions of western storytelling.
The adventurous narratives of secret passages are a long-lived feature of our cultural experience. Mediaeval tales incorporating subterranean themes include the Mabinogion, Green Children of Woolpit or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Many novels such as John Meade Faulkner’s Moonfleet, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, Enid Blyton’s Five on Finniston Farm, Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows incorporate hidden tunnels. Latterly, films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Clue and Skyfall all feature secret tunnels.
Exciting adventure stories can leave lasting effects – especially when first encountered at a young age. This can be coupled to a desire for wish fulfilment by linking prosaic and mundane realities to a hoped-for adventurous and fantastical world. This technique of storytelling is one of the reasons why novelists who intermingle real and magical worlds – incorporating secret passages – such as J. K. Rowling and Alan Garner are so successful.
Errand, J., Secret Passages and Hiding Places. David & Charles. London
Heath, C. & Heath, D., 2007, Made to Stick: How Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck. Random House. London.
Howarth, K., 1999, Oral History. Sutton. Stroud.
About the author
James Wright (Triskele Heritage) is an award-winning buildings archaeologist who frequently writes and lectures of the subject of mediaeval building myths. He has two decades professional experience of ferreting around in people’s cellars, hunting through their attics and digging up their gardens. He hopes to find meaningful truths about how ordinary and extraordinary folk lived their lives in the mediaeval period.