I’ve just got back from my parents’ house down near Chepstow. Round the corner from where they live is a road that runs right along the clifftops of the Wye valley. The corner nearest the cliffs is known as Wintour’s Leap, after the royalist Sir John Wintour. Legend has it that while being pursued from Lydney through Tidenham Chase, he drove his horse off the edge of the cliffs, miraculously landed unhurt, and swam round the river to Chepstow and on to safety. See for example this account in John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in South Wales (1860).
There doesn’t seem to be much on the internet about where this legend might have come from, so I’ve done some digging of my own. The earliest mention of Wintour escaping is in a pamphlet called Two great victories. One obtained by Colonell Massey at the storming of Sir John Winters house (March 1645). According to this, a battle took place at Wintour’s house at Whitecross Manor – but this is incorrect, the encounter was actually at Lancaut, just below the cliffs of Wintour’s Leap and right next to the river. (I’ve blogged about Lancaut Church previously). The account mentions that Wintour escaped by boat. So this is one possibility – a scramble into a boat at a shallow part of the valley, with no leap involved.
The next account is from John Corbet in An historicall relation of the military government of Gloucester, from the beginning of the Civill Warre betweene King and Parliament, to the removall of Colonell Massie from that government to the command of the westerne forces (1645). Corbet thinks that Wintour escaped from fortifications at Beachley, where the Wye meets the Severn. (Beachley would have been a strategic crossing of the Severn into Wales). Corbet reckons this took place in the autumn of 1644, but agrees that he didn’t swim away:
They forced Sir John Winter downe the clift into the river, where a little boate lay to receive him, and convey him thence into the ships, riding within Musket shot of the shore, with many Musqueteers and great shot. Many tooke the water, some whereof were drowned, and others saved themselves by recovering the boates. Prince Rupert the Patron of this designe, was expected there the next high water, being then upon the river, but extreamely prevented and crossed in the height of his desire and confidence.
So we have two possibilities – either Wintour was a dab hand at escaping by boat and did it on numerous occasions, or the two accounts have become conflated. If it’s Lancaut where it happened, it’s a huge stretch of the story. Wintour’s Leap is 200 feet above Lancaut and is now a popular spot for climbers. It doesn’t seem likely that he could have survived.
But Corbet is quite specific on escaping down a cliff. Is there a possibility that Wintour pulled off the same trick twice, once at Beachley in October 1644 and then later at Lancaut? Corbet mentions only that Massey’s assault was on fortifications at Beachley. He doesn’t mention where Wintour actually escaped. Beachley is not far, but still quite a distance from Wintour’s Leap. Google Maps thinks it’s about 4 miles. On horseback this doesn’t seem so far – but it’s an odd direction to try to flee in. It seems more likely that Wintour would have tried to get down to the Severn. The fortifications at Beachley are likely to have been an adaptation of the remains of Offa’s Dyke, about here. The contour lines on the OS map show it’s about 10 metres above sea level, albeit with some rocky outcrops – but still manageable. And this would make sense of the mention of larger ships – the Wye is navigable at Lancaut, but not to anything larger than a small boat, so the Severn would make more sense in this context. So it’s also possible that Wintour did actually make a leap – just a small one, and not at the spot that now bears his name.
My suspicion is that Wintour made his leap at Beachley, but after escaping by boat again from Lancaut, the two incidents became merged into one account that was assumed to have happened at Lancaut. The only cliffs around are those at Wintour’s Leap, so those cliffs it had to be – never mind that they are 200 feet high!
You’ll notice that even since 1645 the legend has become rather inflated – in neither of the contemporary accounts does he go swimming, for instance. So how has the image of Wintour heroically leaping off cliffs then swimming the Wye descended to us? Bulstrode Whitelocke’s Memorials (1682) is the first account to mention that he swam (dating it to February 1645 at Lancaut):
A party of Col. Massey‘s men under his Brother, fell upon Sir John Winter in the Forest of Dean, routed him, and made him swim the River of Wye, in which 60 of Winter‘s men were drowned, 70 slain, besides Col. Gamme, and Lieutenant Colonel Winter, 120 taken prisoners, 140 Horse taken, several Officers, and 300 Arms.
The next surviving account I can find, the introduction to Bibliotecha Gloucestrensis (1823) , a collection of tracts relating to Gloucestershire, gives a reasonable account of the incident (not mentioning swimming), and is rightly sceptical that Wintour was able to leap 200 feet down the cliffs and survive, arguing that he must have scrambled down a steep path. William Gilpin in The Wye Tour (1826) claims that he swam his horse to a boat. This seems to be the real introduction of swimming to the tale – after this the legend gets repeated and repeated. Cliffe’s Book of South Wales (1847) contains a version where Wintour himself swims. And then this is repeated in Murray (1860). Now the legend is continuing to be transmitted in more or less this form via the Forest of Dean website and Wikipedia.