It’s the stuff of fairy tales: the giant who goes to London to meet the king and beats the Royal favourite in a wrestling match. But though the story of John Middleton has largely been carried down through the generations by word of mouth, there’s evidence enough to show he truly did exist. His grave in the parish churchyard records his height at 9ft 3”, although later estimates suggest that he may have stood at around 7ft 9 – still pretty tall, by anyone’s standards.
It’s thought that John was born an ordinary child, but in one version of the story, he drew a huge outline of a man in the sand on the banks of the Mersey while out playing. Falling asleep within the outline, he woke to find he had grown to fill it. He was so big, it’s said, that he slept with his feet sticking out of the window of his tiny cottage.
Inevitably, he got noticed and Gilbert Ireland, a local landlord, employed him as a bodyguard. This gave him the opportunity of meeting King James I who stopped off on his way back from Scotland to knight Gilbert. Fascinated by his size, the king invited John to visit his court in London. John turned up dressed in a magnificent outfit of purple, red and gold made especially for the occasion. There, to the king’s embarrassment, the giant beat the king’s favourite wrestler, breaking his thumb. The courtiers, who’d bet on the king winning, lost much money and James I awarded John £20 and sent him on his way.
There’s evidence that Sir Gilbert Ireland accompanied John on his trip and together, they visited Brasenose College Oxford, where Sir Gilbert had studied. To this day, a portrait of John in all his finery remains at the college and the first rowing team is named in his honour. He’s alleged to have left his mark in other ways too: in June 1668, Samuel Pepys’ diary records that he visited Brasenose and saw in the cellar the handprint of ‘the Childe of Hales’. Unfortunately, the handprint no longer survives.
In Hale, the story lives on through the villagers’ memorials to John Middleton. His grave can be seen in St Mary’s Churchyard. Also, a bronze statue of the giant stands on the small green outside the manor house, replacing an earlier wooden carving which had to be removed because of disease. And a recent film by Richard Whitby, acted by the villagers of Hale, will show several versions of John Middleton’s life, at the Bluecoat Chambers on 24 September 2014, 7pm-9pm. For further information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or see childeofhale.wordpress.com.
Louise McTigue is a freelance writer and researcher, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials.