The Wicker Giant

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Inanimate objects have one overriding advantage over the living: they have the capacity to live something like forever.

Is that why we love our cathedrals and antiques? I remember standing next to a case in St George’s Chapel. Inside sat a prayer book which belonged to Catherine of Aragon, and my companion and I stood and silently yearned to hold what she once had. Catherine is dead and gone, but her prayerbook waits patiently for her return.

And at Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, I stood rooted to the spot by the sight of her writing table, positioned next to a bright window which had once afforded a view of the carriages to and from Winchester, and now sported cars trundling back and forth past the pub.

But one of the most unsettling examples of this ever loomed up at me, justifying at once the hefty £8 entrance fee to a tiny museum, in Salisbury just yesterday.

He is quite astonishing, when you first meet him. He does fit in the room, but only just: 16 feet high, dressed in splendid scarlet, he is known as St Christopher. And there is evidence that one part of him – his face- has existed since 1400, and probably before that. They call him The Salisbury Giant.

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He is a leftover from those ancient trade organisations, the guilds. Salisbury’s powerful Taylor’s Guild would wheel him out once a year. on Midsummer’s Eve – the feast of their patron saint, St John. The Giant drew a crowd, as footage of his later appearances shows.

The Giant is made from a timber and wicker frame, his head  carved from a solid piece of wood. For centuries he processed through Salisbury on important public holidays, and folks never failed to turn out to see him. He has a sidekick: Hobnob is a hobby horse, who would precede the giant, making way for him so that he is not toppled by the crowds milling around at his feet. It is very like the Cornish ‘osses. Just as unsettling, and odd and arcane. But he has always been here in Salisbury, and folks never ask too many questions about things that have been here forever and a day.

In 1570 it is recorded that he was taken out and repaired by the Taylor’s Guild. His face, painted black in the 19th, has recently been restored. Originally, restorers say, St Christopher had a European complexion. Though, to me, he resembles a moor from the times of the crusades.

There’s an illustration of him being easer under the City Gate which appears to come from Georgian times:

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And photographs exist which show him celebrating the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, and George V in 1911:

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It is possible this towering oddity has been parading the streets since mediaeval times.He was lauded by people doublets and hose and cote-hardies. And here he stands, in the museum, in retirement, an inanimate animate object who has watched the ages pass, and now stands looking much as he would have done when Henry V was sporting that extraordinary hairdo.

An enchanting, unsettling, baffling business.

To find out more about the Giant from the Salisbury Museum, have a look at their film here.

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30 thoughts on “The Wicker Giant

    1. Ah, shortly it will be worth the entrance fee – they are about to open the new Wessex Gallery….the £8, to be fair, gave me a year pass. I shall be back soon for no money at all.

  1. What you describe is exactly why I am attracted so to the past. Imagining who held, touched, and loved an object is part of its magic. Your description of the cars passing Jane Austen’s window is particularly touching to me. In the words of Sonny and Cher: the beat goes on.

  2. I also would have wanted to hold Jane Austen’s book or take up a seat and see what she saw from her window.

    The mystery is why did they change the color of the giant’s face. He is quite imposing. 😉

    1. I have no idea why they changed it – it’s a great question, Judy.Unfortunately time eats up so many reasons and it’s difficult to see the roots of an action in retrospect.

  3. What a great creature he is! He is carrying the weight of centuries. I went to an exhibit of Mexican Pre Columbian art some years ago. There was a giant Olmec carved stone head sitting on the museum floor. It seemed to exude power and presence. Old, giant human effigies have lots of magic, don’t they? It must be something atavistic. Look at Easter Island and the giant stone heads.

    1. Absolutely. The one in the British Museum (Thinks: how did it get there?) dominates the room in which it stands. Tolkien, Lewis: they all used them. I think this one is like Lewis’s Gian Rumblebuffin.

  4. Giants are mesmerising, aren’t they? From Gogmagog to Roald Dahl’s BFG, Jack the Giant Killer’s adversaries to Gulliver in Lilliput, the list is never ending. Especially moving figures: we saw Warhorse in Cardiff recently and that was simply moving, as must have been the Liverpool Giants in 2012. Apparently they’re returning there!

  5. What an imposing figure, Kate! I watched the film and I am quite sure that I would have been one of the kids that would have been terrified of him if I rounded a corner and saw that towering behemoth. It was very interesting to see what he looks like from the inside. The closeup of the horse in the film reminded me of Gumby’s sidekick, Pokey. A distant relation?

    1. Deep in our social historical consciousness we store weird quasi-horse-templates, Virginia, and dredge them up for our entertainment. What does that say about humanity?

  6. I just love this, Kate. Was this “guy” someone you’d also known from the beginning, or did you learn about him of late? I love that he appears in the photos with early 20th century royalty! The Wicker Giant is so intriguing. New to me entirely!

    1. Hi Debra! I learn about him on a visit to Salisbury a week ago. Never heard of him before then, but he is nationally known, for all that. As they say here, there’s nowt so queer as folk.

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