Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A History of the Cuckold's Horns

By Deborah Swift

What is a cuckold?
Up until the Victorian era, the concept of the cuckold was endemic through English culture. The word 'cuckold' comes from late Old English, from the Old French cucuault. The root of this is from cucu ‘cuckoo’, and refers to the cuckoo's habit of laying its egg in another bird's nest. A cuckold is the husband of an adulterous wife, and in days gone by, a label associated with shame and humiliation. It's implication was that the man could not control his wife, or that he was impotent.

Copy of a painting by Francois Bunel

The Mystery of the Horns
The symbol universally associated with cuckolding was a pair of ram's horns. Strength, power and supremacy, along with procreative vigor have always been associated with horns, which are used when the animal fights its rival in the mating season. In some cultures today, horns are still used symbolically, and powdered rhinoceros horn is still sold in Asia as an aphrodisiac. What we must understand as modern readers is that the horns had connotations of the Devil, that the mention of them was full of sexual innuendo. In a way the horn embodies both the male and female organs by being both hollow and protuberant.

In Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice says 
'There will the Devil meet me, like an old cuckold, with horns on his head.' 
Stag antlers were also an old symbol of cuckolds. Christianity sought to discourage pagan worship of horns and depicted the Devil himself as bestial, and thus horned.

The Contented Cuckold 1673 - British Museum

Charlton Horn Fair 
One of the most popular events in London's season was the Charlton Horn Fair, which lasted for three days, and was a fair with a scurrilous reputation, encouraging rowdy and drunken behaviour. It was so bawdy that the fair had to be moved from its place opposite St Luke's Church, to a place at the other end of the village.

The Legend of King John
So how did it start? Legend has it that King John, having been out hunting on Shooters Hill, was in dire need of refreshment. Finding a miller's cottage nearby, he went to ask for a drink. He found the master of the house away, but his beautiful wife took pity on him (or perhaps was impressed by his fine clothes) and invited him in.

They talked a while, and she gave him food and drink, and the attraction between the King and the miller's wife grew. Just as he was about to kiss her, the door swung open and the miller strode in. Finding his wife in the King's arms, the miller pulled out a dagger and swore he'd kill them both.

Of course the King then told him who he was, and the miller sheathed his dagger and swallowed his fury. The King, mindful of the wrong he had done to the miller, and no doubt grateful for his life, vowed to endow him with him all the land he could see - as far as the bend in the river where the horns were fixed on a pole.

He also gave him permission to hold a fair on 18th October every year - the anniversary of the event. That bend in the river became known as Cuckold's Point, and the fair the Horn Fair. Now whether this is a true story, we can only guess, but perhaps there is a grain of truth there.

The Procession
By tradition, the fair opened with a procession, headed by a man carrying a pair of horns on a pole, and visitors dressed up as the miller, his wife or the King. Much cross-dressing went on, and ribald jokes and lewd behaviour were the order of the day.
'at Horn Fair, a party of humorists of both sexes (query, of either sex) cornuted in all the variety of bull-feather fashion, after perambulating round Cuckold’s Point, startled the little quiet village of Charlton on St. Luke’s Day, shouting their emulation, and blowing voluntaries on rams’ horns, in honour of their patron saint.'
In this 18th century etching from the British Museum below, we can see 'a riotous scene in a country village where a shrewish wife and hen-pecked husband are mocked by their neighbours in procession. The couple ride on one horse, the man facing the tail, preceded by another man on horseback who throws grain from a pannier to the crowd. Further to the right, cuckold's horns in the form of a stag's head, a ram's head and a cow's head are held aloft, the latter attached to a woman's shift, and "rough music" is played on pots and pans. In the background, is a river and a similar procession takes place on the far bank.

Skimmington-Triumph, Or the Humours of Horn Fair

When the parade reached the actual fair, this was the scene, according to author Daniel Defoe:
'Charleton, a village famous, or rather infamous for the yearly collected rabble of mad-people, at Horn-Fair; the rudeness of which I cannot but think, is such as ought to be suppressed, and indeed in a civiliz’d well govern’d nation, it may well be said to be unsufferable. The mob indeed at that time take all kinds of liberties, and the women are especially impudent for that day; as if it was a day that justify’d the giving themselves a loose to all manner of indecency and immodesty, without any reproach, or without suffering the censure which such behaviour would deserve at another time.'
Every visitor to the fair wore a pair of horns, or carried one, and horns were tied above the gate, around the fences and over the stalls. Even the gingerbread men for sale had horns. The fair was a great excuse for licentiousness in all forms and this no doubt led to its great popularity.

The cuckold was a common feature of married life in the seventeenth century, and cuckold often used as an insult, the way bastard might be now. Insulting someone could be done by showing them a horned fist gesture, or putting two fingers up behind the head as a sign of  their stupidity. During the English Civil War a song called Cuckolds All In A Row was popular with Cavaliers, who sang it as a chant against the London Roundheads.
‘And when they reach Cuckold’s Point they make a gallant show.
Their wives bid the Musick play Cuckolds All In A Row.’
Cuckold’s Point also features in the play Eastward Ho by Ben Jonson. This scene epitomises the idea of putting up cuckold's horns to let a man know his wife was being unfaithful.
Enter SLITGUT with a pair of ox-horns, discovering Cuckold’s Haven.
SLIT: All hail, fair haven of married men only! for there are none but married men cuckolds. For my part, I presume not to arrive here but in my master’s behalf, a poor butcher of Eastcheap, who sends me to set up, in honor of Saint Luke, these necessary ensigns of his homage. And up I got this morning, thus early, to get up to the top of this famous tree, that is all fruit and no leaves, to advance this crest of my master’s occupation.' 
Censure and Closure of the Horn Fair
In 1873 the fair fell victim to Victorian morality and was closed down. It has been re-incarnated as a family friendly event, with none of its historical connotations, and Cuckold’s Point is now The Canary Wharf Hilton Hotel!

Charlton Horn Fair - Victorian era

I couldn't resist including a cuckolding procession in one of my novels, and you'll find it in The Lady's Slipper. 

London Lore - Steve Roud
Mayhew's London - Peter Quinell
Folklore and Customs of Rural England - Margaret Baker
Shakespeare's Life and World - Folio Society
Strange History
Charlton Champion


Deborah Swift lives in North Lancashire on the edge of the Lake District, an area made famous by the Romantic Poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. In the past she used to work as a set and costume designer for theatre and TV, so enjoys the research aspect of creating historical fiction.

More details of her research and writing process can be found on her blog at or follow her on twitter @swiftstory

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