The children in the wood. The master of Wayland Hall, Norfolk, on his deathbed left a little son, three years old, and a still younger daughter, named Jane, to the care of his wife's brother. The boy was to have 300 a year when he came of age, and the girl 500 as a wedding portion; but, if the children died previously, the uncle was to inherit. After twelve months had elapsed, the uncle hired two ruffians to murder the two babes. As they went along one of the ruffians relented, and killed his fellow; then, putting down the children in a wood, left them. The poor babes gathered blackberries to allay their hunger, but died during the night, and “Robin Redbreast” covered them over with strawberry leaves. All things went ill with the cruel uncle; his sons died, his barns were fired, his cattle died, and he himself perished in gaol. After the lapse of seven years, the ruffian was taken up for highway robbery, and confessed the whole affair. (Percy: Reliques, iii. ii. 18.)
Then sad he sung `The Children in the Wood.' (Ah! barbarous uncle, stained with infant blood!) How blackberries they plucked in deserts wild, And fearless at the glittering falchion smiled; Their little corpse the robin-redbreast found, And strewed with pious bill the leaves around.
Gay: Pastoral VI.
Three hundred and sixty-five at a birth. It is said that the Countess of Henneberg accused a beggar of adultery because she carried twins, whereupon the beggar prayed that the countess might carry as many children as there are days in the year. According to the legend, this happened on Good Friday, 1276. All the males were named John, and all the females Elizabeth. The countess was forty-two at the time.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894
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