Giants are at the heart of national folklore concerning the founding of Britain, and archaic traditions state they have inhabited the country since deep antiquity. This article investigates not only the origins of Britain. It also uncovers a lost legacy of extremely tall and powerful individuals who once ruled this part of the world.
Prehistoric giant king
Merlin being assisted by a giant at Stonehenge, circa 1150 AD (Public Domain)
The earliest traditions agree that the first inhabitants of Britain were of the tall persuasion. Some say they were descendants of Noah’s son Ham, and came from Africa about 4000 years ago. Other versions state that Noah’s son Japeth, had arrived even earlier. Noah’s lineage is often said to be giants. Britain’s oldest acknowledged name is thought to be taken from a prehistoric giant king called ‘Albion’ who made his way to the island after being banished from his homeland of Greece. “He was begotten by the sea-god whom the Greeks called Poseidon, the Romans Neptune.” In Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, by Raphael Holinshed, Albion and the giants were said to have gradually consolidated their position in Britain, ruling the land for hundreds or possibly thousands of years.
Albion Versus Hercules
After a long reign, Albion went to the south of France (Called Gaul at the time) to help his army defeat Hercules. To ensure winning, Hercules summoned his father Zeus and a shower of stones fell from the sky. These were used as weapons against Albion and he was defeated. However, the giant race of Britain continued for hundreds more years, although their numbers decreased and ended up at southwestern tip of Cornwall, until the arrival of Brutus after the Trojan wars. However, Britain’s original name could also be from a Greek giantess called ‘Albina’:
“The Chronicles of Britain, written by John de Wavrin between 1445 and 1455, relate that in the time of Jahir, the third judge of Israel after Joshua, Lady Albine and her sisters came to, and settled in, an island which they named Albion after her, and which afterwards got the name of Britain. While they were living there the devil assumed the shape of a man, and dwelt among the wicked women, and by they had issue great and terrible giants and giantesses, who afterwards much increased and multiplied, and occupied the land for a long time, namely, until the arrival of Brutus, who conquered them.”
Albina and other daughters of Diodicias (front). Two giants of Albion are in the background, encountered by a ship carrying Brutus and his men. French Prose Brut, British Library Royal 19 C IX, 1450-1475 (Public Domain)
The story of Albina has variations. One version says she was taller than average, so had ‘giant genes’. Her father Diocletian was either a Roman Emperor or possibly the King of Syria. Most versions agree that her father had thirty-three wicked daughters, but he managed to find thirty-three husbands to curb their unruly ways. The daughters were displeased and under the leadership of their eldest sister Alba (also Albina, or Albine) they plotted to cut the throats of their husbands as they slept.
“For this crime they were set adrift in a boat with half a year’s rations, and after a long and dreadful journey they arrived at a great island that came to be named Albion, after the eldest. Here they stayed, and with the assistance of demons they populated the wild, windswept islands with a race of giants.”
“Assistance” really meant, “mated with” and with their offspring a new ruling giant elite were founded. These giants are evidenced in the story by huge bones that were said to be unearthed in the country during the 1400s. This echoes the story of the Grigori (or Watchers) of the Bible, who mated with human women and birthed the mighty Nephilim giants, who have remarkably similar traits to their British counterparts.
History of the Kings of Britain
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s influential 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) has caused one of the biggest controversies regarding the founding of Britain. Thousands of years after the giants had populated the island, Brutus and other warriors fleeing the Trojan wars landed on the coast of Albion and legend states that the modern name of Britain comes from Brutus. Geoffrey asserts that he translated the Historia into Latin (in about 1136) from “a very ancient book in the British tongue,” that was loaned to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. What this book was, has had scholars debating for centuries, but it could have been the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) from the ninth century, written by Nennius, a monk from Bangor, Wales. This is likely, as he covered many Arthurian myths, including the giants of ancient Albion. An important section of Geoffrey’s text has Brutus and his men realizing that Albion was already partly populated by unexpectedly tall foes: “It was uninhabited except for a few giants…. they drove the giants whom they had discovered into the caves in the mountains.”
After scaring off the giants and launching attacks on the titans, the land was then divided up and Corineus was given the southwest area of Cornwall to rule, named after the great warrior.
“Corineus experienced great pleasure from wrestling with the giants, of whom there were far more there than in any of the districts which had been distributed among his comrades. Among the others there was a particularly repulsive one, called Gogmagog, who was twelve feet tall.”
Attack of the Giants!
Other chroniclers state that he was in fact twelve cubits tall, so this would have made him 18 feet (5.5 meters) tall. Gogmagog was described as being so strong that he could uproot an oak tree and shake it like a hazel wand. Anyway, the ferocious giant attacked Corineus’ camp with twenty of his kin. This turned into an all-out battle and Corineus and his men called on their local allies and eventually defeated them in a bloody conflict. Brutus chose to keep one of the giants alive, as he wanted to witness a wrestling match between Gogmagog and Corineus. During the tightly fought match, Gogmagog broke three of Corineus’ ribs, and he was so enraged, he hoisted Gogmagog up on his shoulders with superhuman strength and ran to the cliff where he threw him off to his death. His body smashed into many pieces after hitting sharp rocks and stained the water red, that “was so discolored with his blood as to continue tinged with it for a long time.”
The cliff from which he was thrown became known as Langnagog or ‘The Giants Leap’. It was on Plymouth Hoe that became the legendary place that the wrestling occurred because it was recorded in 1486 that a giant turf-cut figure was carved depicting two figures, one of them being Gogmagog.
Gog and Magog
Artist’s impression of what the chalk-hill figures on Plymouth Hoe may have looked like. (Image via Author)
Wherever it was, the names of Gog and Magog first appear in the Hebrew Bible with reference to Magog, son of Japheth in the Book of Genesis, then Gog, the king of Magog, appears in the Old Testament in Ezekiel (38:2) as the instigator of a terrible battle. Gog was referred to as being a person and Magog was the land he was from. Similar stories are echoed in the Book of Revelation and the Qur’an. The tradition is sparse and confused as Gog and Magog are presented as men, supernatural beings (giants and demons), national groups or lands, and appear widely in other folklore and mythology. For example, Gogmagog and Gogmaegot are identified with giants in Spencer’s Faerie Queen (1590) and in the medieval legends of Alexander. The names even reached Cambridge in Eastern England where the hilly area became known as the ‘Gog Magog Hills’, where interestingly, some taller than average skeletons were unearthed in the 1800s.
After defeating the giants, Brutus travelled all over the country to find a suitable spot to rule from. He decided on the River Thames and founded the city of Troia Nova, or New Troy, which became Trinovantum, we now know as London, with his captured giant in tow.
Another, later version of the story describes how the giants Gog and Magog were two people and were taken prisoners and forced to become porters at the Royal Palace, now the London Guildhall. The effigies of Gog and Magog have remained at the Guildhall since the reign of Henry V. In The Gigantick History of the Two Famous Giants of Guildhall (1741) it proclaims that Gogmagog and Corineus were in fact two giants:
“Corineus and Gogmagog were two brave giants who richly valued their honour and exerted their whole strength and force in the defence of their liberty and country; so the City of London, by placing these, their representatives in their Guildhall, emblematically declare, that they will, like mighty giants defend the honour of their country and liberties of this their City; which excels all others, as much as those huge giants exceed in stature the common bulk of mankind.”
Gog and Magog being paraded through London in the Lord Mayor’s Show every November. (Image via author)
The defeat of Gogmagog by Corineus was the beginning of the end for the remaining giants, and the few that remained turned up again the tales of Jack-the-Giant-Killer and Cormoran (mainly based in Cornwall), while others were said to have fled to Dartmoor and the mountains of Wales.
Jack the Giant Killer
Before we leave the confines of Cornwall, the stories of Jack-the-Giant-Killer are worthy of a mention. The violent chronicles of Britain’s most famous giant hunter stretch far back into prehistory, to the times when the giants and humans were attempting to co-exist, before the arrival of Brutus. Mainly based in Cornwall, his exploits lingered across the whole of Britain. He was presented as a clever young man who often outwitted his gargantuan foes.
Jack kills Cormoran with a pick-axe. (Public Domain)
The most famous story is that he defeated the terrible Cormoran on St Michael’s Mount. By blowing a horn loudly, he caused the giant to come rushing out, but it fell into a deep pit that Jack had prepared and covered with twigs. Cormoran was then hacked to death by Jack. The other stories continue in this vein, and it was only when the printing press was developed in the Victorian age that the story was toned down, and it transformed into the children’s classic Jack and the Beanstalk.
Even though there are thousands of legends of giants throughout Britain, there are a surprising amount of accounts of large and powerful people in the archaeological and historical record. Their physical strength and stature became exaggerated as their deeds pass into legend, but in a strange twist, it is often in the same locations that actual giant skeletons and bones were reportedly unearthed. Here are a few intriguing examples:
St. Michael’s Mount photographed in 1903 with added color. (Image via author)
St. Michael’s Mount: A prehistoric eight-foot (2.4 meter) skeleton was unearthed from a dungeon on the island 250 years ago, that may well be the giant that Jack was said to have slayed.
Tregoney: “The Annual Register for 1761 tells us that in March of that year, as a miner was working at Tregoney, in Cornwall, in a new mine, he accidentally discovered a stone coffin, on which were some inscribed characters. Within it was the skeleton of a man of gigantic size, which, on the admission of the air, mouldered into dust. One tooth, two inches and a half long, and thick in proportion, remained whole. The length of the coffin was eleven feet three inches, and its depth was three feet nine inches.”
News report from The Age – Jan 24, 1955 p.2 (Public Domain)
This is the area where Gogmagog was thrown off the cliff by Corineus: “A stone coffin in Devonshire contained a thigh-bone belonging to a man eight feet nine inches high.”
Mold, Flintshire: “He found by the remains, (of a tumuli), that the person interred was above the common size of men.”
The Mold cape made of gold now on display in the British Museum. (Image via author)
Later in Histories giants reappear in the stories of the Welsh wizard, Merlin. He tells the King that in a distant epoch, giants transported huge trilithons from North Africa to Killarus in Ireland, where “The Giant’s Dance” was positioned. Later, they were transported to Salisbury Plain by mysterious means. However, huge skeletons have also been discovered in the mounds in the local landscape. In Journey into South Wales (1802) George Lipscomb reported: “a skeleton which measured fourteen feet ten inches in length.”
In A Theological, Biblical, and Ecclesiastical Dictionary (1830), it describes a nine foot four inch (284.48 cm) skeleton unearthed near Salisbury in 1719. It also recounts a mound named ‘Giant’s Grave’ next to St Edmunds Church, just a few miles from Stonehenge.
Where Albion was finally defeated in a battle with Hercules are two examples of gigantic skeletons being unearthed:
Two examples of giant discoveries in old Gaul. (Public Domain)
The authors have collated over 150 accounts of giant bones, skeletons and skulls throughout the British Isles. Although the founding of Britain is still shrouded in mystery, and Geoffrey’s Histories is clearly jumbled-up versions of older books and myths, the stories of the giants seem to go very far back. The Legends and foundations myths of Britain are so strongly associated these local titans, we hope this introduction to giant-lore gives some indication that they could be the ancestral memories of real-life giants who ruled here long before us ‘Brits’ ever lived here, and could have been responsible for the thousands of megalithic constructions that grace this ancient landscape.
The Burgh Castle Giant skeleton in Norfolk. A Saxon giant who lived in the sixth century AD and is 7 ft 4 in (223.52 cm). (Images via author)