The Story of Cannards Grave (mid-17th Century)

To the south of Shepton Mallet is the oddly named Cannards Grave, where, according to legend, the ghost of 17th century publican Giles Cannard still walks.

Tom Kennard, often called either Giles, or Tom the Taverner, was the landlord of a public house which stood on the crossroads between the Fosse Way and many other roads to the West Country. Opposite the inn stood a grim reminder of the relative lawlessness of those times, a gibbet, on which smugglers, highwaymen, bandits and other miscreants met their end.

Tom's tavern was popular, not only because of its convenient location, but also, according to rumour, because he provided a bolt-hole and refuge to a number of the local scoundrels. It was not uncommon for landlords to identify guests carrying rich pickings, and then sell information about their travel plans to their confederates. A few miles away from the inn, the poor travellers would find themselves robbed, or worse, but nobody would every be able to prove the publican's complicity. Indeed, some merchants from nearby Frome once accused Tom of such crimes. Sheptonians, however, either out of loyalty to their local publican, or perhaps because they knew which side their bread was buttered, ignored the accusations and no action was taken.

From this point, on, there are two versions of the Cannard legend.

One says that Tom managed to lay his hands on a certain paper, which entitled him to considerable wealth. The Frome merchants disputed the transaction, and, along with a band of Sheptonians who had no love for Tom, went en masse to the inn with the intention of lynching Tom. The terrified Tom escaped, and committed suicide by hanging himself from the nearby gibbet.

The second version is more dramatic still. Tom, it seems, was not just a publican in league with thieves: he was himself a highwayman and rustler, in league with the notorious Dr Syn, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (immortalised in the 1962 Disney film by Patrick McGoohan). Tom's activities took him to Glastonbury, to Frome, and even to Warminster. However, his illicit career came to an end when he was discovered with ten stolen sheep in his yard. Although his supporters alleged that he was framed by his enemies from Frome, he was found guilty and hanged from the gibbet. There is some evidence that Tom was the last man in England to be hanged for sheep-stealing.

Since then there have been numerous reports of the place being haunted. The earliest is from the Reverend H. Allen, rector of Shepton Mallet, who wrote in 1692, "the soul could not rest and frequently visits the scenes of its former abode while in the flesh".

Tom's tavern fell into decline, although much of the original structure is to be seen in the restaurant which currently stands on the spot. The gibbet was eventually torn down, and Cannards Grave Inn was built in its place.

N.B. In fact, though, the origin of the name Cannard's Grave may be considerably older than the 17th century highwayman legend. The name may date back some 1000 years, and the association with the death of Tom Taverner may be a later invention. Graef is the Anglo-Saxon form of "grove", a small wooded area, and may have nothing to do with burial places. Keinhard was an Anglo-Saxon prince who may have owned land in that area. The name may therefore originally have been Keinhard's Grave or Keinhard's Grove. Alternatively, Cannard may be simply be a corruption of kineherd. In this case, the original name may well have been Kineherd's Grove, or simply a place where cattle drovers gathered their herds together prior to milking, selling or slaughtering.