The following post is the second of a series based on information obtained from a fascinating book Susana recently obtained for research purposes. Coaching Days & Coaching Ways by W. Outram Tristram, first published in 1888, is chock full of commentary about travel and roads and social history told in an entertaining manner, along with a great many fabulous illustrations. A great find for anyone seriously interested in English history!
Littlecote House, near Ramsbury, Wiltshire, was first a medieval mansion, built around 1290 by the de Calstone family. It fell into the hands of William Darrell in 1415 when he married Elizabeth de Calstone. The Tudor mansion was built in the mid-sixteenth century. Henry VIII courted his third wife Jane Seymour here; her grandmother was a Darrell. Elizabeth I, James I, Charles II and William of Orange stayed here.
Wild William Darrell (1539-89)
The last Darrell at Littlecote is best remembered for his contentiousness and scandals. His father having left Littlecote to his mistress, Mary Fortescue (who liked to call herself Lady Darrell), William set in motion a series of lawsuits to wrest it away from her. This was the first of countless lawsuits filed in his lifetime, which ended by draining him of his fortune and forcing him to mortgage or sell most of the 25 manors inherited from his father. Litigation with his mother’s family over one such manor lasted 20 years!
Not the sort of man you’d want as a neighbor!
Darrell was also known for his amorous exploits. The most famous was his affair with the wife of Sir Walter Hungerford, who was subsequently abandoned by her husband when she wrote this to Darrell:
“I, by the oath I have sworn upon the holy evangelist, do acknowledge that if Sir Walter Hungerford, my husband now living, do depart out of this life … I will take you to my husband.”
An Elizabethan Horror Story
Enjoy Mr. Tristram’s dramatic narration in Coaching Days & Coaching Ways:
The whole story would pass before us under a ghostly, shimmering, ghoul-like glamour: the midwife at Shefford, a village seven miles off, waked in the dead of night, with a promise of high pay for her office on condition that she should be blindfolded! the headlong ride through the wild weather behind the silent serving man! the arrival at a large house which was strange to her! the mounting of the long stairs, which the woman, shadowed already with some grim foreboding, counted carefully as she passed up them! the delivery in a gloomy, richly furnished room of a masked lady! the entrance of a tall man “of ferocious aspect”, who seized the newborn child, thrust it into the fire that was blazing on the hearth, ground it under his heavy boot till it was cinders! then the trembling departure of the pale spectator of the hideous scene, blindfolded as she had come, aghast, speechless, carrying a heavy bribe with her as the price of guilty silence, but carrying also a piece of the curtain which she had cut out of the bed—all this scene of horror how the author of The Dragon Volant would have described it for us! And all this horror is history!
The original deposition made on her death-bed by the midwife, whose name was Mrs. Barnes, and committed to writing by Mr. Bridges, magistrate of Great Shefford, is in existence to this day, and is proof beyond cavil. It is from this point that rumour begins. That rumour, backed in my opinion by damning circumstance, has for two hundred years connected the tragedy with Littlecote House and William Darrell, commonly called Wild Darrell, then its proprietor. It is alleged that the midwife’s depositions set justice on the murderer’s track, and that the fitting of the piece of curtain which Mrs. Barnes had taken away with her into a rent found in the curtain of the Haunted Room at Littlecote, marked the scene of the murder. Wild Darrell was tried for his life, it is said, but escaped by bribing the officers of the law with the reversion of his large estates. But—so runs the rumour—the memory of his crime pursued him. He was haunted by ghastly spectres which he tried to forget in wild excesses, but which no seas of claret would lay. Finally as he was riding recklessly down the steep downs, with the scene of his atrocity in sight, at headlong speed, the reins loose, his body swaying in the saddle, pale, wild-eyed, unkempt, the very picture of debauched and guilty recklessness, tearing from the Furies of the past, that past confronted him. The apparition of a babe burning in a flame barred his path. The horse reared violently at the supernatural sight. Darrell was violently thrown, and the wicked neck, which had escaped the halter by a bribe, was broken at last as it deserved to be.
Wild Darrell is remembered but as a name now, and as a name for all that is wicked. (Coaching Days & Coaching Ways, pp. 38-41)
Sir Walter Scott recounted this story in the notes to his narrative poem, Rokeby. (Free on Google, check out p. 400).
Littlecote House Hotel
Guess what? Not only can you visit Littlecote House, but you can stay overnight in the Tudor mansion, as Susana did recently at Chatsworth, Hever Castle, and Leeds Castle! Besides the house and gardens (and ghosts, perhaps?), there are remains of a Roman villa and a lovely mosaic as well. Check it out!