They came to a huge chamber filled with knights in full armour but apparently asleep. The next chamber was filled with white horses, like his own, and also asleep. A third chamber contained treasure, and the farmer was instructed to take what he liked in exchange for the horse. Filling his pockets, the farmer asked the old man to explain what he had just seen. The old man revealed that the knights were an army which he had put under an enchanted sleep, ready for the day they would need to be awakened to ride forth and save England. They were one horse short, but now thanks to the farmer, each knight had a milk-white horse to ride when that day came. The old man led the farmer out along the passage, through the iron gates, and pointed the direction home. As he walked away, he heard the gates close behind him. The next morning, he told friends what had happened to him, and they set off together to find the iron gates. Of course, when they returned to the spot, there were no gates to be seen, and to this day they have not been found.
The tale has undergone several twists and turns over the years. Some writers, inevitably, associate it with Arthurian legend, the wizard or enchanter being Merlin. A poem written by James Roscoe in 1839 states:
“When England’s troubles painful grow,
And foemen cause her grief
Then Arthur and his noble knights
Will haste to her relief;
And then with deeds of chivalry
All England will resound;
And none so worthy as these knights
Will in the land be found;”
There is some similarity in the tale to that of Canobie Dick and Thomas of Ercildoune (Earlston, Scottish borders), adapted by Sir Walter Scott for his ‘Waverley’ novels. In the tale, a horse-trader (Dick) meets a man in antique clothing (Thomas) who offers to buy his horse with old gold coins. Dick, thinking ‘dry’ bargains unlucky, asks the man if he might visit his home for a drink. Thomas tells him, “You may see my dwelling if you will...but if you lose courage at what you see there, you will rue it all your life.” The trader is led up a path into the mountains, and follows the man into a cavern, where he sees knights, horses (coal-black rather than white) and weapons, all seemingly made of stone.
Thomas leads the trader to a table, on which lies a sword and a horn, and tells him, “He that shall sound that horn and draw that sword...shall, if his heart fail him not, be king over all broad Britain...But all depends on courage, and much on your taking the sword or horn first.” Thinking that taking the sword would be mistaken for an act of violence, Dick picked up the horn, and blew a feeble note. At the same instant, thunder clapped deafeningly, the knights and horses awoke, and a voice called out, “Woe to the coward, that ever he was born, Who did not draw the sword before he blew the horn!” In a second, a gust of wind blew through the cavern, picked up the trader, and blew him straight out of the mountainside and over a steep bank. He was found by shepherds the next morning, with just enough breath to tell his story, after which he died.
While the trader of this tale fared far worse than the farmer of Alderley Edge, the Scottish story does seem to have been an influence on the Cheshire version. Or perhaps both stories came from a common and much earlier origin, changing over time to suit the storyteller or the audience.
Why not take the ‘Wizard Walk’ around the woods at Alderley Edge, and see if you can discover the iron gates for yourself?
Originally published in Black Magician's Almanac, Issue Three (read online here).