The Eagle & Child in the lovely little village of Gwaenysgor is a delight, and popular with locals and those visiting from elsewhere. But the name is something of a curiosity and its origins are intriguing.
There are those that see the name as representative of the Greek legend of Ganymede - the beautiful youth taken away to Mount Olympus by an eagle under the direction of Zeus, to serve as his cup-bearer. Eagles in mythology are inextricably intertwined with sky gods of various ancient religions. They are often seen as solar symbols and their involvement in myth and legend seem linked with stories of freedom from captivity, inspiration, power and pride - for this reason they seem often incorporated into the symbols of nations which wish to project their ambitions to greatness. The eagle features strongly in the Mabinogion - the ancient Eagle of Gernabwy, whose wisdom guides Culhwch in his search for Mabon. Should we look to ancient Greece, then for the origin of our Gwaenysgor watering hole, perhaps the Mabinogion?
I think not. Tempting as it may seem, I think it’s likely that the truth of the name here is not to be found upon the summit of Mount Olympus, or indeed within the Mabinogion, but rather, and perhaps less exotically, within Lancashire - Lathom, to the west of Wigan to be precise.
Both Sir Thomas Lathom (c.1329 - c.1382) and his wife Joan were of advancing years, and while they had at least one daughter, Isabel, there was, it seems no male issue, and little chance of any further children - much to Thomas’ disappointment. Consequently, Lathom had, what is described by Seacombe as a, ‘love intrigue’ with a young woman who was known to him. Thomas kept this woman, named as Mary Oskatel in a ‘house of retirement’ until eventually she bore him a son. Do you have questions? Well, get a ticket and get in line.
Having gained a son, the matter now at hand was how to bring the child into his family circle, without his wife discovering his infidelity and upsetting her, ‘for the future peace and quiet of Sir Thomas’s mind, and the full completion of all his joys and wishes on this grand occasion’. It would seem that Thomas was worried that his wife might not take to the child, should she discover that the boy was the product of ‘a love intrigue’ - the very thought. It would also seem that he was concerned that the boy would suffer the anguish of an ‘inquisitive and censorious world.’
What was a fella to do? How then to solve this puzzle? It seems that Thomas discussed his problem with an ‘old and trusty servant’. Together they came up with several schemes and dismissed them all, before cooking up the following plan, which they judged ‘the most probable to answer all Sir Thomas’s expectations.’
The two were aware of an eagle that nested every year in a remote and desolate part of Lathom’s estate. If a child was perhaps to be found by the nest by a perambulating Lathom and spouse, it might be that the found child could be said to have been taken by the eagle and ‘rescued’ and subsequently adopted by the Lathoms.
Thomas gave instructions that the mother was ensure the child was well fed and dressed, and directed that the co-conspiring trusty servant would take the child and lay him beneath the nesting tree. The servant was further told to ensure that no harm came to the child while it lay there and quietly await the arrival of his master and unsuspecting wife.
As they approached the eagle’s tree, a child’s cries were heard. Attending servants hurried to the source of the wailing and were amazed to find a well dressed, male child at the foot of a tree, having seemingly fallen unscathed from the nest of the eagle that was known to frequent the upper boughs. Of course, this was all seen to be a gift from heaven, no less than the ‘will of God’. There is no suggestion from Seacombe’s work that the Lathoms attempted to discover the tree parentage of the child, but immediately took him as their own, having him baptised as Oskatel Lathom, thus taking the surnames of his real mother and father.
This tale as told would seem to be the reason that the Lathom crest adopted the image of the eagle and child - and the reason why you will find several inns in the north west of England, as well as elsewhere by that name. Since the Lathoms were a Lancashire family, this is unsurprising. But why would we find an Eagle and Child in Gwaenysgor?
The Lathom crest, showing the eagle and swaddled child - remembering the legend of Oskatel.
Thomas Lathom, who died some short time before or around 1382, intended that his sizable estate should be inherited by Oskatel. However, he seems to have been seized by a fit of guilt before his end of days, and instead favoured his daughter, Isabel who had married firstly, Geoffrey Worsley, and on his death one Sir John Stanley. Stanley took as his own the Crest of his father-in-law. The Stanley line became one of the most powerful families in the British Isles - John’s great grandson swayed the outcome of the Battle of Bosworth and became the step-father of Henry VII. Along with his wife, Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, Thomas Stanley, later to become the Earls of Derby, owned huge swathes of Flintshire land, and undertook a huge rebuilding programme of Flintshire churches, including those at Mold and Northop. It is likely then, that the Eagle and Child at Gwaenysgor remembers the power and influence of the Stanleys of North Wales, and the crest inherited from the Lathoms of Lancashire.
It is likely that the tale of the eagle and child, as described by Seacombe and many others since, is twaddle - Seacombe himself questions the story, despairing that the credulous would believe an eagle would do anything other than dismember a child, as it would any other prey. But, clearly the crest reflects the legend. Lathom is thought to actually have had six children, at least two of them being male.
And for those that wince at the legendary actions of Thomas Lathom, it might be a balm to note that in reality, he is said to have spent the last three months of his life as an ‘imbecile’, while his life had a ‘love intrigue’ of her own with a Nicholas Harrington MP - subsequently marrying him on the death of her first, ‘unfaithful’ husband.
The Eagle and Child in Gwaenysgor is a lovely pub in a lovely village, in a lovely spot.