At one time, not too long in the past cider was as common a beverage as Typhoo tea is today upon Dartmoor. Not only was it a popular drink in the pubs and inns but many farms had their cider orchards whose apples would make the families yearly supply. During the apple growing process one of the vital factors in obtaining a good crop was a healthy blossom coverage which was very susceptible to damage from late frosts. In some years these late frosts would appear around the same time, namely between the 17th and 19th of May and became known as ‘Franklin’s Nights’, ‘St. Frankling Nights’ or Francimass. But why should this be?
If we wander into the realms of folklore there are several suggestions as to who was Franklin and what connection he had with late frosts. One version is that he was an ale brewer whose sales were in a dramatic decline due to the ever increasing popularity of cider. After trying everything imaginable to reverse this trend he eventually resorted to the final option, in return for his soul he made a pact with the Devil to send three severe late frosts to damage the apple blossom. This meant that the apple growers would have a seriously depleted apple crop which in turn would mean a short supply of their ‘golden nectar’. The consequence of this was that his ale would once again be in popular demand and his business once again back on the track for a healthy profit. This tale somehow filtered down through the ages and with it the strong belief that should late frosts appear between the 19th and 21st of May then they were the result of Franklin’s demonic pact. This is a prime example of how there was always a need to attribute some explanation to a disaster in times gone by no matter how ludicrous it seemed. It is always interesting to note that many of the explanation of these disasters involved tales associated with evil involving the Devil or Witchcraft.
Another version of this tradition substitutes Franklin the brewer for Saint Dunstan. It appears that at some point Saint Dunstan was living in Devon because ever on the lookout for a profit he made a lucrative deal to purchase a large quantity of barley with which he was going to brew some ale. Clearly he had done his market research for he knew only too well that his main competitor would be the cider made on Dartmoor and in the rest of Devon. So he approached the Devil in order to resolve this problem and asked him to send a series of devastating late frosts to all the cider orchards in order to obliterate the forthcoming apple crop. In true tradition the Devil agreed to this in return for the saint’s soul but ever the negotiator Dunstan managed to persuade the Devil to accept his soul for just three nights of the year. As one would expect these were the 19th to the 21st of May when the frosts would descent upon the cider orchards.
Dunstan was born in Baltonsborough in Somerset (incidentally a strong cider growing area) around the year 910 AD. As a youngster he studied with the monks at Glastonbury Abbey and later became a monk himself. He was noted for his artistic abilities especially in illumination, metalwork and music, along with these talents and his intellect he was appointed to the court of King Edmund in 940 AD. After a career filled with numerous ups and downs he eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury. As with all saints he has been attributed with many miracles one being that one day the Devil visited his cell and tempted him to trade for his soul, Dunstan refused and using a pair of metal working tongs grabbed him by the nose and flung him out. One ditty goes; “St. Dunstan as the story goes, Once pulled the Devil by the nose, With red hot tongs which made him roar, That he was heard three miles or more. As a result of this a pair of tongs has been recognised as one of Dunstan’s symbols.This story certainly does not agree with him dealing with the Devil for the frosts. Dunstan died on the 19th of May 988 AD which has become his feast day and interestingly enough the first supposed day of the Franklin Nights.
Not only did/do apple growers regard the period of the Franklin Nights with trepidation but so do other fruit growers and gardeners in general. In 1906 a vicar from near Exeter published the following; “My gardener on being told to put some bedding plants from the greenhouse into the open to harden said it would not be well to do so “until Franklin Nights were over. The same day, May the 21st, I was fishing and the water bailiff remarked that he did not think I had much sport, as “Franklin Nights’ were on. To my inquiry he answered that he did not know who St. Franklin was, but the people thereabouts never though the cherries or mazzards were never safe from frost until St Franklin Nights were over, and that these nights were the 19th, 20th and 21st of May.”, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1906, p. 108. So the million dollar question, is this year going to experience the Franklin Nights?
Should you be interested, The Kestor Stringband from Moretonhampstead perform a song called ‘The Franklin Nights‘ that can be found on Youtube which tells the story of how the nights of May 19th, 20th and 21st came to be called Franklin Nights upon Dartmoor.
Welsh Collins, J. A. 1906. St. Franklin Nights. Transactions of The Devonshire Association – Vol. XXXIX. Plymouth: W. Brendon and Son Ltd.