By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The King of Colchester’s Daughters’, also known by the title ‘The Three Heads in the Well’, is one of England’s oldest native fairy tales. Sharing some plot similarities with more famous tales such as Cinderella and Charles Perrault’s ‘Diamonds and Toads’, it is a tale in which kindness is rewarded and selfishness is punished, as in all good fairy stories. Below, we offer a summary of ‘The Three Heads in the Well’, along with some notes towards an analysis of this old tale about the King of Colchester and his very different daughters.
In summary, ‘The Three Heads in the Well’ tells of an ancient king in Colchester, who had a beautiful daughter who was much admired in the kingdom. One day, the king, wishing to remarry following the queen’s death, chose an ugly old hag for his wife. This new queen also brought a grown daughter to the marriage, a girl who was as ugly and unpleasant as her mother.
No sooner had the mother married the king than she and her daughter set about turning the king and the people of the kingdom against the king’s beautiful daughter. Shunned by everyone, this beautiful girl went to her father and said that, if she were granted a small subsistence, she would go out into the world and seek her fortune. The king agreed to this, gave her some bread, cheese, and beer to take with her, and so the beautiful young girl went out into the world.
She hadn’t been travelling for long before the girl found an old man sitting on a stone at the mouth of a cave. Asking her if she had a meal to share, she said yes, and took out the bread, beer, and cheese that her father had given her, and the two of them shared it.
The old man then provided the girl with a magic wand and warned her that up ahead she would come to a hedge that appeared impassable, but that she was to tap three times on it with the wand and ask permission to be let through, and she would be granted access. Then she would come to a well and find three heads in it, and that she should do whatever they requested of her.
The girl agreed to this – rather strange – set of directions, and went on her way. Sure enough, when she came to the well, a magic head bobbed up to the surface, and asked her to comb its hair. The girl did so, before taking it and gently laying it on the grass. Then another head bobbed up, and she did the same, and then a third.
The three heads were so thrilled that the young girl had been so kind to them that the first one blessed her by wishing that she might find the most handsome prince in the land, the second bestowed a beautiful perfume upon her, and the third said that she should become queen to the best prince who reigns.
The girl set off on her way again, and came across a king and his court. The king was immediately smitten with her, thanks to her beauty and her winning perfume, and wooed her. The girl gladly accepted his offer of marriage, and upon learning that she was the King of Colchester’s daughter, demanded to travel to the girl’s home and meet her father. The King of Colchester was overjoyed to see that his daughter had made such a good match.
But the evil stepmother and her ugly daughter were not so pleased, and envied the beautiful girl her success. So the mother sent her daughter out into the world to seek her fortune, with sweetmeats, sugared almonds, and the finest sweet wine. When the ugly girl met the old man by the cave, and he asked if he might have some of her food, she said no, rudely dismissing him. In turn, he cursed her, and when she continued on her way she struggled through the thick hedge, cutting herself on the thorns.
Making it through the other end, she looked about for water to wash her cuts, and found the well. When the magic heads appeared and asked to be washed and combed and laid down gently, she bashed them on the head with her bottle of wine, and in response, the three heads cursed her with (respectively) leprosy, bad breath, and a poor cobbler for a husband.
When the ugly girl gets into town, the townsfolk are repelled by her leprous face and bad stink, and shun her – all except the cobbler, who (it just so happens) has remedies for both of them, and promises to apply them if the girl agrees to marry him. She readily does so, and they are married soon after. But when they return home to the King of Colchester’s court, the queen is so distraught that her daughter has married a mere cobbler that she hangs herself (which the king is greatly pleased by, since he hated her anyway).
The king gives the cobbler some money if he will take his new bride and go and live somewhere far away from court, and the two of them accept. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of the odd tale of the three heads in the well.
This fairy tale contains many of the elements we associate with fairy stories: beautiful kindly heroines who are shunned but whose kindness pays off in the end, ugly sisters who are evil-minded, stepmothers and stepsisters, the pattern of three (three heads in the well, three blessings, three curses).
The story has to be one of the most class-conscious of all the classic fairy tales: it’s about making a good marriage, and how kindness will allow you to do so, which was probably intended as a bit of escapism for people who knew that, in the real world, money, not a good heart, would determine how well you married. (Thankfully things have changed on this front, although money and class still matter a great deal, of course.)
Although this story appears to have first turned up in print as a fairy tale called ‘The King of Colchester’s Daughters’ in a chapbook from the early eighteenth century (The History of Four Kings, Their Queens and Daughters, Kings of Canterbury, Colchester, Cornwall and Cumberland. Being the Merry Tales of Tom Hodge, And his School-Fellows), the story almost certainly existed orally before this. Indeed, George Peele’s play The Old Wives’ Tale, from 1595, refers to a very similar story.
It’s tempting to see such stories as having their origins in even older stories and traditions: for instance, the various links between wells and severed heads in Scottish and Welsh folklore and early Christian tales of healing waters springing up where the severed heads of saints fell. One wonders whether ‘The Three Heads in a Well’ sprang up (as it were) out of such earlier tales.
Continue to explore the world of fairy tales with these classic Victorian fairy stories, our history of the ‘Puss in Boots’ fairy tale, our discussion of the Bluebeard myth, and our analysis of the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ fairy tale.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.