Aelfthryth of Lydford and her son Aethelred

Set against the backdrop of Dartmoor in late Anglo-Saxon times, MED Theatre’s play In the Shadow of the Vikings follows the story of Aelfthryth – a Dartmoor girl, born at Lydford, who became Queen of England – and in the process charts the high politics of the time from the point of view of the house of Devon. Two twelfth century writers, William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey Gaimar, provide colourful and different versions of the love triangle between Aelfthryth, daughter of Ordgar Earl of Devon, her first husband Ethelwold Earl of East Anglia and his best friend King Edgar - a triangle which sowed the seeds of the tragedy that was to befall England at the turn of the millennium. Gaimar and Malmesbury’s historical credentials are open to question, but their storytelling helps to fill out the sparse record of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the often oblique light shed by charters and other contemporary documents.

 

Lady Howard's Coach - Claire Hyne

The gatehouse at Fitzford House

The gatehouse at Fitzford House, home of Lady Howard. Photo: Tom Greeves

 

The Facts

In the 1600s, a man called John Fitz, of Fitzford House near Tavistock, inherited a large fortune at the age of 21. He spent heavily, made many enemies and murdered two men.  He went insane and committed suicide, leaving behind his daughter, Mary, aged 9, who inherited the remains of his fortune.

King James I intervened and sold Mary to the Earl of Northumberland, who then married her to his brother, Sir Alan Percy. Sir Percy went on a hunting trip and, unfortunately, caught a fever and died.

Mary, then, eloped and married her true love, Thomas Darcy. Tragically, after a few months, he also died.

Mary chose to marry again. This time she decided to protect her fortune, much to the displeasure of her third husband, Sir John Howard. Unfortunately for him, he died of ‘causes unknown'.

Her fourth and final husband, Sir Richard Grenville, did not live for long but provided Mary with a son, George, before he passed away.

Mary and George then moved back to the family abode of Fitzford House. Tragically, George dies not long after they move back. A month later Mary dies of a broken heart.

Soon after people begin to see her ghost.

 

The Legend

Legend suggests that she is sentenced to spend eternity doing penance for her ‘evil deeds'. Her penance is to journey in a coach made from the bones of her husbands and driven by a headless driver, from Fitzford House to Okehampton Castle accompanied by a huge black dog with blood red eyes and savage fangs. On reaching the castle, the dog plucks a blade of grass and carries it back to Fitzford House, where it is laid upon a granite slab. Only once the grass has been completely removed at the castle will Mary be released from her penance and allowed to rest in peace.


Music


Sabine Baring-Gould: Songs of the West

 

Baring-Gould, first published this ballad about Lady Howard in his music collection Songs of the West (1891), and reports that there was a real Lady Howard who, after disinheriting her children, acquired a reputation for being "hard-hearted" - a reputation that grew to supernatural proportions, as Baring-Gould goes on to explain:

"Lady Howard was a person of strong will and imperious temper, and left a deep and lasting impression on the people of Tavistock. . . . She bore the reputation of having been hard-hearted in her lifetime. For some crime she had committed (nobody knew what), she was said to be doomed to run in the shape of a hound from the gateway of Fitzford to Okehampton Park, between the hours of midnight and cock-crowing, and to return with a single blade of grass in her mouth to the place whence she had started; and this she was to do till every blade was picked, when the world would be at an end.

Dr. Jago, the clergyman of Milton Abbot, however, told me that occasionally she was said to ride in a coach of bones up West Street, Tavistock, towards the moor; and an old man of this place told a friend of mine the same story, adding that 'he had seen her scores of times.' A lady also who was once resident here, and whom I met in company, assured me that, happening many years before to pass the old gateway at Fitzford, as the church clock struck twelve, in returning from a party, she had herself seen the hound start.

okehampton castle 1

Okehampton Castle. Photo: Tom Greeves

When a child I heard the story, but somewhat varied, that Lady Howard drove nightly from Okehampton Castle to Launceston Castle in a black coach driven by a headless coachman, and preceded by a fire-breathing black hound that when the coach stopped at a door, there was sure to be a death in that house the same night. There was a ballad about it, of which I can only recall fragments." (209 - 210).


From those fragments Baring-Gould reconstructs the ballad as follows:


My ladye hath a sable coach,

And horses two and four;

My ladye hath a black blood-hound

That runneth on before.


My ladye's coach hath nodding plumes,

The driver hath no head;

My ladye is an ashen white,

As one that long is dead.


"Now pray step in!" my ladye saith,

"Now pray step in and ride."

I thank thee, I had rather walk

Than gather to thy side.


The wheels go round without a sound,

Or tramp or turn of wheels;

As cloud at night, in pale moonlight,

Along the carriage steals.


"Now pray step in!" my ladye saith,

"Now prithee come to me."

She takes the baby from the crib,

She sits it on her knee.


"Now pray step in!" my ladye saith,

"Now pray step in and ride."

Then deadly pale, in waving veil,

She takes to her the bride.


"Now pray step in!" my ladye saith,

"There's room I wot for you."

She wav'd her hand, the coach did stand,

The Squire within she drew.


"Now pray step in!" my ladye saith,

"Why shouldst thou trudge afoot?"

She took the gaffer in by her,

His crutches in the boot.


I'd rather walk a hundred miles,

And run by night and day,

Than have that carriage halt for me

And hear my ladye say-


"Now pray step in, and make no din,

Step in with me to ride ;

There's room, I trow, by me for you,

And all the world beside."

 

Cecilia Eng


Cecilia Eng is a folk singer from Portland Oregon. She has a version of 'Lady Howards Coach' on her first album Of Shoes and Ships.


Will Carnell and Alexa Romanes


Lustleigh composer William Carnell  and writer Alexa Romanes produced together a cantata based on the weird and wonderful legends of Dartmoor.

Alexa is a folklore enthusiast and a member of Cogs and Wheels Ladies' Morris. Will Carnell is an established composer who lives on the edge of Dartmoor.

One of the songs on their CD A Dartmoor Cantata is 'Lady Howards Coach', sung by the Lustleigh Choir.

 

Bibliography

Baring-Gould, Sabine (1891). Songs of the West.

Baring-Gould, Sabine (1908). Devonshire Characters and Strange Events.

www.legendarydartmoor.com

www.bbc.co.uk/devon

www.litgothic.com

Crossing, William (1914,1997 edn). Folklore and Legends of Dartmoor.

What's Afloat? Devon's Folk Magazine. No 83.


   

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