Who put the ‘Wren’ in Wreningham? The answer of course, is the witch.
There has been a village in Norfolk with the name of Wreningham since Domesday and it is now part of South Norfolk District Council. Over the course of centuries since its listing in 1086, its three original parishes of Little Wreningham, Great Wreningham and Nelonde, have become one and there, once upon a time, lived a witch.
Superstitious and suspicious villagers, worried by her presence, alerted a knight to her whereabouts but before he could murder her, she transformed into a tiny wren and flew away to safety. Whereupon the locals beat hedges and bushes to flush out the wrens. Any they found, they killed. Such was their enduring fear of the witch's return, that each year on the feast day of St. Stephen (Boxing Day, 26th December), the villagers would be on the defence. Ready and waiting, they tramped fields and hedgerows stoning or trapping any wrens caught.
There are countless variations on this tale across Great Britain and Europe in which the innocent wren is hunted on St. Stephen’s day. Christianity’s first martyr, Stephen, faced death-by-stoning in AD36 after his hiding place was allegedly given away by the tiny but vociferous bird. Oliver Cromwell's troops were apparently saved from the Irish when alerted by a wren. Cliona the seductress, who enticed young men into the ocean to drown, escaped the same death by transforming into a wren and flying away. And so it goes on, version after version…
The wren ‘ceremony’ follows the pattern of many similar ancient entertainments which can be simply described as ritual house-visiting. Groups of people, mostly men and boys, often masked or painted, wearing unusual outfits, (frequently dresses) or cloaked in straw, would go knocking from house to house. 'Wren Boys' as they were known, carried a live or stuffed effigy of the bird which was often burned. As well as offering music and song, they collected money which variously was offered to the church, charity or funded a party. (Sound familiar? Penny-for the Guy? Trick-or-treat at Halloween?) All forms of lusty local entertainment that helped liven up the dark and dreary days of winter.
Perhaps hostility to this harmless little bird was driven in the Middle Ages by religious zealots and clerics determined to exterminate vestiges of druidic reverence and practice. Medieval texts interpret the etymology of wren, as 'druid bird’ or 'king bird' with powers of wisdom and cunning.
Thankfully the legacy of the legend of Wreningham allows residents of today to enjoy less gruesome forms of cheer in their community hall's bar, aptly named The Witch and Wren, or eating out at the local restaurant, The Bird in Hand.
Hmm… I live close to Wreningham and regularly have scolding little wrens in my garden. They certainly pack a punch for such a tiny creature. I wonder, should I be wary that there's clearly more to them than meets the eye….?
The wren has always been a king, as its name in European languages indicates:
Latin: regulus [king]
French: roitelet [little king]
Welsh: dryw [king]
Teutonic: Koening Voegel, [king-bird]
Dutch: Konije [little king]
Other names include: Jinnie (wran), Jenny-wren
Manx (&S.D.Cr): Drein, Drean, Dreeain (from druai dryw, the Druid's bird)
Cf. Irish: Dreathan, Dreoilin
Se. Gaelic: Dreollan, Drethein