My dear, do you know,
How a long time ago,
Two poor little children,
Whose names I don't know,
Were stolen away on a fine summer's day,
And left in a wood, as I've heard people say.
And when it was night,
So sad was their plight!
The sun it went down,
And the moon gave no light!
They sobbed and they sighed, and they bitterly cried
And the poor little things, they lay down and died.
And when they were dead,
The robins so red,
And over them spread;
And all the day long,
They sung them this song:
"Poor babes in the wood! Poor babes in the wood!
Oh don't you remember the babes in the wood?"
In 1595, a London publisher by the name of Thomas Millington printed a broad-sheet in Norwich entitled The Norfolk Tragedy, and since it was obviously popular, produced in 1640 a ballad of the story which concerned the deaths of two small children in Wailing (now Wayland) Wood near Watton.
As is often the case, fact and fiction interweave but here is the truth of what I have found out so far about the matter. Wayland Wood's history goes back to the 10th Century. It used to be much larger, its trees coppiced, and is dense with a fine mix of trees, flowers and birds. It also reputedly has ghosts, supposedly of two young children under the age of three who were abandoned in the woods when the de Grey family owned nearby Griston Hall.
The tale appears to have been much embroidered over the years, as my research shows that there was actually only one child central to the plot. When his father died in 1562, seven-year-old Thomas de Grey of Merton became a ward of Queen Elizabeth since he was a minor but heir to the family's richness of house and lands. However, should he die before he married and had children, his father's brother Robert de Grey would inherit.
Four years after his father's death, young Thomas paid a visit to his stepmother Temperancé, daughter of Sir Simon Carew of Anthony in Cornwall. She had remarried to Sir Christopher Heydon of Baconsthorpe. The boy never returned alive, dying according to records on 21st March, 1665 at Baconsthorpe.
Perhaps with unseemly haste, the child's Uncle Robert seized the estate thus giving rise to the ghastly tale of abduction and murder by abandonment which has since been reworked into the story of the 'The Babes in the Wood'.
The well-known story was even turned into a popular pantomime, all of which helped to cement the sentimental story of two little children abandoned in the woods by ruffians sent to dispatch them. One of whom was heartless enough to murder his fellow but unable to kill the toddlers, thus condemning them to roam hungry, fearful and tearful until they eventually died of hunger and exhaustion.
In true sentimental 'Disney-style' and for publication purposes I suspect, their deaths were sweetened by the addition of the robin covering their tiny bodies with strawberry leaves which is in fact an ancient superstition that the cheery red-breasted birds never suffer a dead body to remain unburied. The childrens' wails we are assured, can still be heard on dark nights in Wayland Wood if you venture out at that time of night and believe strongly enough in a good tale...