When I started to read through South Yorkshire Folktales by Simon Heywood and Damien Barker I had no idea that I would be stopped utterly in my tracks by a tale of a battle to the death between man and feline ending in the porch of Barnborough church.But the powerful and visceral retelling of this story caught my imagination like nothing else in the manuscript.
I started with an image in my head of a Scottish wildcat, thinking of the word ‘woodcat’ but he soon morphed into the Lynx you see in the final version. Simon and I messaged to and fro concerning just how graphic the image should be in terms of blood and injury and agreed that it needed to reflect the nature of the story so more gore was gradually added… Much to my satisfaction as I was having tremendous fun with it.
Here is the story, reproduced with the kind permission of Simon Heywood.
‘In the shadowy undergrowth that hemmed the road, he could hear the beasts of the night, but it would be a strange thing at that hour if he could not have heard them. There is little silence in nature.
So there was no warning before the burning pain struck him, and a heavy weight in the darkness sent him reeling. He grappled for his sword, spurring his horse as it reared, and twisted in the saddle, to face his unknown attacker.
Even today, rumours of great cats haunt the field and roads of the district. Already, in Percy Cresacre’s days, they were rare. The Cresacre gamekeepers and foresters had seen to that.
But they were no rumour. Percy was under attack, and, twisting round to face his assailant, he found himself staring, terrified, into the hissing, spitting snarl of a great wild wood-cat, the first he had ever seen.
the cat seemed to be driven by something more than hunger or fear. It was almost as if it knew him. The cat landed on its feet beside him, wheeled, and lunged again. The man seized the sword where it lay in the corner of his eye, and kicked and stabbed desperately, Stung, the shadowy beast withdrew a pace. Percy scrambled to his feet. The cat gaped and snarled and spat in the shadows. But for the moment the man had it at bay.
Far behind them, the terrified horse was disappearing, riderless, up the moonlit road, making for Barnburgh
Percy was stranded, alone and on foot, facing a hand-to-hand fight with a seemingly implacable enemy. For a moment, the two faced off against each other, and Percy caught his breath. He was annoyed and unsettled, but still not seriously afraid. He knew now that he would have to back slowly up the hill, parrying and defending until the thing fled. But he would make it home and have nothing worse to worry about than finding a way to laugh off his misadventure when the household got to hear of it, as they surely would. Holding his sword on guard, and keeping his eye on the hissing beast crouched before him, he began to back slowly up the road. The thing came after him, prowling on its belly. Percy was just beginning to get into something like a stride when it suddenly readied itself, and sprang again. With horrific suddenness the wood-cat was at his throat again, in his face. For a moment, cat and man were face to face in the dark. Its eyes were wide with a strange, cold, ageless light. His own burning blood flowed under its claws and fangs. He seized the blade of the sword with both hands, and parried the lunge at close quarters. The blade of his sword gashed the cat’s face deep. It hissed, and writhed, and fell. Percy almost cheered.
It will not be too proud to run now, he told himself. Beasts are wiser than men.
But the cat did not run. It recoiled, turned smoothly round, gathered its strength and balance, and came at him again, and again, as remorseless as lightning in a storm. He fended its huge weight off with kicks and blows, and it slid back, rallied, and sprang again. He braced himself. They grappled again. The man’s blood had flowed at the first blow, and now the tatters of his rich coat were soaked.
Percy Cresacre’s head began to swim. He felt something worse than pain in his own bloody wounds; he could feel the cat’s fury, worming deep into his flesh like a loathsome disease.
And with that thought, Percy Cresacre began to feel afraid. For he was bleeding. Orderly and peaceful though his life had mostly been, Percy was still a knight by rank, and a maker of war, and he knew what it was to lose blood in a long hand-to-hand fight. Even if he made it to the village, if he came too slow, or too late, and too weak, then he would be coming home only to sicken and die, slowly, as Robin Hood himself had died, in the songs and stories of Barnsdale which Percy had known well all his life. And that meant one thing: the cat had the power to kill him. The thing was mad, and that meant that the fight in the moonlight was a fight to the death.
And so the man swallowed his disgust and faced the cat again; and the cat faced the man, and each in the moonlight looked long and hard into the face of death. And all that night, cat and man fought their lonely fight, across Harlington Common and up the hill to Barnburgh, across road and river. The hours passed, and the man began to feel as if there had never been a time that he had not been staring into the eyes, the snarling teeth. It seemed like a dream. At times, Percy felt that he was watching another man fighting the cat: in the middle of his own terror, he felt strangely calm, even as the prospect of a safe return home became ever more remote. They fought on, and every so often Percy’s thoughts would flicker to the warm rooms and friendly lights of his distant home, and the memory struck him as the memory of a strange place. A foreign place. He no longer seemed to belong there. He belonged here: killing a wild cat under the moon, in the shadows of the trees.
As the moon sank, the cat’s blood lay mingled with the man’s all along the road; their movements grew slower and their breathing heavier.
Day began to dawn unseen around them as they fought: slowly, peacefully, little by little, the darkness lifted and the twilight gathered in the east.
At last, on the outskirts of Barnburgh, the exhausted knight faced his mortal enemy one last time: an angry, hissing animal, wounded and dishevelled, scarcely bigger in the daylight than a farm cat. And then, for the first time, Percy spoke aloud to the dauntless little animal. His voice sounded hoarse and strange in his own ears.
“Have I shed all this blood,” he asked aloud, “for thee?”
The moonlit gleam was gone from the little cat’s green eyes, but still it hissed and snarled. It drew itself up, its ears flat. It was ready to pounce again.
And then, at last, in that moment, Percy saw the only way the fight could end. Strangely, the last of his fear left him, and his heart grew light. He wanted to laugh, but he had no breath left. So, in a hoarse whisper, he spoke again to the cat, for the last time.
“Well, look: here we are in Barnburgh: I have made it home at last. When I set out last night,”
he said – and he scarcely knew why he spoke – “I thought that I ruled the forest. But I was wrong. I was a rich man then: a man of property. Today I leave the world empty-handed, forever. But I die as my fathers died, sword in hand. And now when I meet them, I know they will not be ashamed. You, my enemy, fought naked and unarmed, with the heart of a hunter, and you fought in your own place, for your own territory; and you have brought down a rich man in his pride. So of the two of us, you are the greater. Come, then, little cat. Not far to go now. Let us go home.”
Percy Cresacre was found that morning by one of the priest’s servants, alerted by the search party from the Hall, where the riderless horse had come in the night. The knight had made it as far as the church porch. It seemed that he had crawled there in purpose, as if to make sure that he would be found.
Wonder struck the grieving servants when they found him, and silence fell on them. For dead at their dead master’s feet lay a wild wood-cat, bigger by far than any they had ever seen, or heard of. No such wild beast had ever ventured into Barnburgh by daylight before. Even in the first shock of grief, even in death, they saw that the beast, was magnificently, cruelly beautiful; beautiful as wild animals are. But its ribs were smashed. In his death-agony, Percy Cresacre had crushed the wood-cat to death with his boot, against the wall of the porch.
They laid sir Percy Cresacre in the tomb in the Cresacre Chapel, in the corner of St Peter’s church. In the dark oak of the tomb, they carved the figures of cat and man, lying as they were found. The carving can still be seen today, just as the story it tells can still be heard.
about the Cat and Man story
The story of the Cat and Man (the cat is always mentioned first, and no-one ever
seems to refer to “the Cat and the Man”) is widely told today and references can be found in Bingley’s Animal Biography of 1802; and Hatfield’s “Village Sketches” in the Doncaster Gazzette of 1849.
How long the story was told before that is a matter of surmise. It is not implausible that a knight called Cresacre might have been attacked by a wild wood-cat on a ride from Doncaster to Barnburgh. The lynx was not exterminated in Britain untilMthe seventeenth century. But the real Percy Cresacre was not a crusader, and the tomb in St Peter’s is probably that of his ancestor Thomas. The wooden effigy shows a cat crouched at the feet of the knight, but this is more likely to be a representation of a lion, a common symbol in tombs of the time.
It is possible therefore that the story is more symbolic than a simple narrative and Ted Armstrong (1980) argued that the legend was originally “a means of remembering the stones and centres of the earthly powers which the Templars knew of and tried to subdue … The conflict (Kat) over the power of the stone
(Maen) became the legend of the Cat and Man.”
Modern references include Bob Chiswick’s song The Ballad of the Cat and Man, recorded in 1987 by his band Off the Cuff (1987) and Ted Hughes – a Mexborough lad – also referenced the story in his well-known poem “Esther’s Tomcat.” In 1993ll