The Caistor Gad Whip

As today is Palm Sunday, it might be worth looking at a strange ritual that would have been enacted in St Peter And St Pauls, Caistor, West Lindsey. It's probably unique in the annals of peculiar Church traditions, and one for which there are conflicting origins.

This is the Caistor Gad Whip.

The ritual is described thus. On Palm Sunday, during the reading of the first lesson at Matins, a man would crack a whip 3 times in the church porch. At the beginning of the reading of the 2nd lesson, the whip was waved 3 times over the head of the clergyman and held there until the end of the reading. Then the lash would be folded around the stock & the whip deposited in the pew belonging to the Lord of the Manor of Hundon. [1]

If you are wondering about how noticeable this would be in a busy Church? Well the whips stock is seven feet in length! In fact it's probably worth looking at this whip in more detail, as it has some unusual 'additions'.

In addition to the 6 foot stock, it has a lash of 7 feet 1 inch. The whip has a leather purse attached to the stock which contained 30 silver coins It's said that these coins reminiscent of the 30 pieces of silver Judas received for his betrayal of Jesus. Attached to the stock (handle) are 3 pieces of wych elm – although there were supposed to be 4 of different lengths – perhaps representing the 4 gospels...

The Gad Whip being demonstrated outside of the porch.
Picture courtesy of Caistor Parish Church EMN-210426-084041001

If you look closely at the photo, you can just make out the elm rods bound to the stock. The addition of the Wych Elm rods is interesting... and might raise an eyebrow in anyone familiar with folklore especially hedge magic and the sorts of common-lore cunning employed in the constant battles against illness and witchcraft. Wych Elm was considered a particularly potent magical tool in among Lincolnshire folk. The connection to the 4 gospels seems almost to be a... I don't know, a justification somehow?

A 19th C drawing of the Gad-whip, showing also the bundle of four Wych Elm rods.

Seeking reasons for this ritual, throws up equally conflicting & confusing results. The simple one, being The tradition was part of an ancient tenure by which a neighbouring property was held. This act during the service was part of the "rent" paid for land at Raventhorpe, near Broughton. The sitting (or new) tenant of the land which belonged to the Lord of the Manor of Hundon, had to see this rite enacted as part of their dues. Odd as it sounds there are other equally strange practices written into the tenure deeds around the UK, so this may be true. But in 1931 Folklorist Ethel Rudkin was told a darker story, about the origin by an old lady of Caistor. A long past Lord of the manor of Hundon, once found a young lad on his land without permission. And " thrashed the poor lad wi' a branch o’ wicken while (until) ‘e died. " [2]

So it seems this implies the practice is some form of public penance, still enacted in the Church to bring shame (or to demonstrate repentance) for this terrible deed done long ago? And you might think this was it? Sorted?


Caistor is a very ancient town, and one that can trace its origins back to the Roman period, in fact was clearly important enough that traces of the Roman built stone walls, that encircled an area (which the Church sits within) can still in places be seen today. These walls though long ruined, were clearly a defining aspect of the settlement as the name Caistor comes from the Latin word “Castra” (fort or encampment).

But there is slightly overlooked and very ancient story that gives Caistor a different name at one time.


The story goes [3] that once, when the mythical warriors, Hengist & Horsa were serving as mercenaries for Vortigern, King of the Britons in his defence of Britain, they wanted to construct a castle as a base of operations. But Vortigern was uncertain, due to the fact the Brothers were Germanic outsiders. Stating "Only Britons may be princes in this land" So Hengist (being clever) made a bow and offered a the king a compromise instead. How about Vortigern gift them only the amount of land that may be surrounded by a leather thong. Seeming a reasonable, if strange request, Vortigern agreed.

So Hengist & Horsa, killed the largest Bull they could find, and with great care (and a sharp knife) cut the hide round & round with supreme ingenuity into one continuous long narrow strip of leather. This thong they laid out and encircled an area large enough for their castle! Aside from being a fantastic bit of folk etymology, some people down the centuries have seen in H&H's long thin thong - a symbolic connection with the long lash of the Gad Whip. Even surmising some left over ancient recollection.

But sadly the fun, along with the annual reenactment came to an end in 1847. “A petition by Sir Culling Eardley-Smith of Bedwell Park, Hertfordshire, was put before the House of Lords Spiritual & Temporal to get the practice in Caistor stopped on the grounds that it was a silly superstitious practice…" 

But you can still see the Gad whip, in 2019 it was conserved by specialists and returned to St Peter & St Paul Caistor, where it remains on display today. 


Sources and further info:

[1] From:  The Website of St Peter & St Paul, Caistor.  

[2] From: Lincolnshire Folklore, Ethel H Rudkin, 1930. p. 39
- Note: Interestingly in this entry Ms Rudkin reports that after the service the Gad whip was returned to the Manor House, and a new one was brought each year!

[3] From: Historia regum Britannie (The History of the Kings of Britain) Geoffrey of Monmouth. Edited and translated by Neil Wright, D.S. Brewer, 1991. p. 131


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