In 1165, the port of Orford, on the East Anglian coast, was a prosperous place. Henry II had just finished his castle there as a stronghold against the treacherous Hugh Bigod of Bungay.
Life was normal in the port until around 1204 when it had an unusual visitor. This visit was recorded by Ralph of Coggeshall, the Abbott’s chronicler, in his history of Orford.
One day, the Orford fishermen caught something unusually heavy in their nets. As they pulled and pulled on the nets in an attempt to get them back on board their boats they saw what they thought was a large creature tangled up with the rest of their catch.
They were extremely surprised when they finally managed to get their catch aboard because there, in the bottom of their boat, was a man staring angrily back at them.
He was naked but his body was hairy. He had a long straggly beard and the top of his head was completely bald.
Attempts to speak to him failed, so the fishermen restrained him and took him back to the town.
The ‘merman’ was taken to Orford castle where the castle custodian, Bartholomew de Gladville, kept him prisoner.
He and the jailers tried time and time again to question this ‘merman’ but the creature only uttered grunts and strange noises. They noted that when he was fed raw fish he would squeeze the water out of them into his hands and then drink it.
Bartholomew de Gladville became frustrated at the creature’s silence and he had the merman tortured by hanging him upside down by his ankles. Despite this ill treatment the merman still did not (or could not?) talk and eventually his jailers gave up.
Bartholomew de Gladville then took him to the nearby church but it was obvious that the creature had never seen a church service before either.
One day, some time after he was first captured, the merman was taken down to the harbour. Nets had been strung across the entrance and he was set free so that he could enjoy a swim but without escaping. He made straight for the nets and easily escaped under them and headed out to sea, leaping out of the water in joy.
Although he spent a little time that day in sight of the harbour, he was never seen again.
If you visit Orford you will find that it is now no longer a busy port but instead it is a quiet village on the coast. Look around carefully and you will see many references to the legend of the Orford merman.