From Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales, Their Legendary Lore and Popular History, by John Timbs, Volume II, re-edited, revised, and enlarged by Alexander Gunn; Frederick Warne and Co.; London; pp. 20-24.
Littlecote House, a large, respectable and ancient mansion in the midst of a finely-wooded park, in the valley of the Kennet, and about four miles from Hungerford in Wiltshire, is “renowned,” says Macaulay, “not more on account of its venerable architecture and furniture, than on account of a horrible and mysterious crime which was perpetrated there in the days of the Tudors.”
It occupies a low situation at the north side of the park, which though broken and unequal in its surface, comprehends an area of four miles in circumference, and is watered by a branch of the river Kennet, which runs through the garden, and forms a preserve for trout. The mansion, built by one of the Darell family — the original proprietors — in the beginning of the sixteenth century, has undergone alterations on many occasions, but still retains a remarkable number of the features of the architecture and decorations of the period from which it dates. It has twice been honoured by royal visits. Once by one from Charles II., who at his coronation created Sir Francis Popham, the heir of Littlecote, a Knight of the Bath; and again by one from William III., who slept here one night while on his journey from Torbay to London. The walls of the great hall are hung with ancient armour — buff coats, massive helmets, cross-bows, old-fashioned fire-arms and other warlike weapons, together with a pair of elk-horns, measuring seven feet six inches from tip to tip. A large oak table, reaching nearly from one end of the room to the other, might have feasted the whole neighbourhood, and an appendage to one end of it made it answer at other times for the old game of shuffle-board. The remainder of the furniture is in a corresponding style. The picture gallery which extends along the garden front of the house, is 115ft. long, and contains many portraits, chiefly in the Spanish dresses of the sixteenth century. In one of the bedchambers, which you pass in going towards the gallery, is a bedstead with blue furniture, which time has now made dingy and threadbare, and in the bottom of one of the bed-curtains you are shown a place where a small piece has been cut out and sewn in again — a circumstance which serves to identify the scene of the following remarkable story: —
The horrible and mysterious crime alluded to my Lord Macaulay in connexion with this house was first divulged to the general public 21 in a note which Sir Walter Scott appended to the 5th canto of his “Rokeby.” Since the publication of that poem, however, the whole subject has undergone re-examination. The local pride of the members of local archæological societies was not to be satisfied with a story which seemed merely a wild tradition, and of which the possible fact and probably fiction were inextricably blended together. The result of the recent sifting of the whole evidence is that the mysterious story of Littlecote is in its main and most prominent features strictly and incontestably true. The following is an outline of the story as told in the light of recent investigations.
Towards the close of the sixteenth century, when the mansion of Littlecote was still in the possession of its founders — the Darells — a midwife of high repute dwelt and practised her art in the neighbourhood. This person having returned fatigued from a professional visit at a late hour one night had gone to rest — only however to be disturbed by one who desired to have her help. The midwife pleaded fatigue, and offered to send her assistant, but the messenger was resolved to have the principal only. She accordingly came down stairs, opened the door, disappeared into the darkness, and was heard of no more for many hours.
Where had she been during this long interval? This is a question which she alone was able to answer; and as we find that her story, originally told in the presence of a magistrate, detailed circumstances which led to a trial, at which it was again repeated, and confirmed by a number of curios facts, we shall give her own account of the terrible night’s adventure: —
She stated that as soon as she had unfastened the door and partly opened it, a hand was thrust in which struck down the candle and at the same instant pulled her into the road in front of the house, which was detached from the village or any other dwelling. The person who had used these abrupt means desired her to tie a handkerchief over her head and not wait for a hat, as a lady of the first quality in the neighbourhood was in want of immediate assistance. He then led her to a stile at a short distance, where there was a horse saddled, and with a pillion on its back; he desired her to seat herself, and then mounting he set off at a brisk trot. They had travelled thus for about three quarters of a mile, when the woman, alarmed at the distance, the darkness, the hurry and mystery of the whole matter, expressed great fear. Her conductor assured her that no harm should happen to her, and that she should be well 22 paid; but that they had still further to go. The horseman had frequently to dismount to open gates, and the midwife was certain that they had crossed ploughed and corn fields; for though it was quite dark the woman discovered that they had quitted the high road about two miles from her own house: she also said they crossed a river twice. After travelling for an hour and a half they entered a paved court or yard, on the stones of which the horse’s hoofs resounded. Her conductor now lifted her off her horse, conducted her through a long, narrow, and dark passage into the house, and then thus addressed her: — “You must now suffer me to put this cap and bandage over your eyes, which will allow you to speak and breathe but not to see; keep up your presence of mind, it will be wanted — no harm will happen to you.” Then having conducted her into a chamber, he continued — “Now you are in a room with a lady in labour, perform your office well and you shall be amply rewarded; but if you attempt to remove the bandage from your eyes, take the reward of your rashness.”
According to her account, horror and dread had now so benumbed her faculties that for a time she was incapable of action. In a short time, however, a male child was born and committed to the care of an aged female servant. Her impression with respect to the mother of the child was that she was a very young lady; but she dared not ask questions or even speak a word. As soon as the crisis was over the women received a glass of wine and was told to prepare to return home by another road which was not so near but was free from gates or stiles. Desirous of collecting her thoughts she begged to be allowed to rest in an arm-chair while her horse was being got ready. Whilst resting she pretended to fall asleep; but was busy all the time making those reflections which laid the foundation of the legal inquiry that afterwards took place. Undiscovered and unsuspected, she contrived to cut off a small piece of the bed-curtain. This circumstance, added to others of a local nature, was supposed sufficient evidence to fix the transaction as having happened at Littlecote, then possessed by William Darell, commonly called “Wild Darell” from the reckless, wicked life he led. In the course of her evidence the midwife declared she perceived an uncommon smell of burning, which followed them through all the avenues of the house to the courtyard where she remounted the horse. The guide on parting with her at a distance of about fifty yards from her own door, made her swear to observe secrecy, and put a purse containing twenty-five guineas into her hand. 23 He also now for the first time removed the bandage from her eyes.
Up to this point there is some contradiction in the different versions of the legend. Scott says that the bandage was first put over the woman’s eyes on her first leaving her own house that she might be unable to tell which way she travelled; and that when she was brought to the house and led into the bedchamber the bandage was removed, and she found herself in a sumptuously furnished room. Besides the lady in labour there was a man of a “haughty and ferocious” aspect in the room. As soon as the child was born, continues Scott, he demanded the midwife to give it him, and snatching it from her, he hurried across the room and threw it on the back of the fire that was blazing in the chimney. The child, however, was strong, and by its struggles rolled itself out upon the hearth, when the ruffian again seized it with fury, and, in spite of the intercession of the midwife and the more piteous entreaties of the mother, thrust it under the grate, and raking the live coals upon it soon put an end to its life.
After the return of the midwife to her own home all accounts of this story agree in the main. In the morning the woman was so much agitated that she went to a magistrate and made a deposition of all she knew. Two circumstances afforded hope of detecting the house in which the crime had been committed — one was the clipping of the curtain, the other was that in descending the staircase she had counted the steps. Suspicion fell on Darell, whose house was examined and identified by the midwife. “Darell was tried for murder at Salisbury,” says Scott, “but by corrupting his judge (Sir John Popham, afterward proprietor of Littlecote, which, according to Aubrey, Darell gave to him as a bribe) he escaped the sentence of the law — only to die a violent death shortly after by a fall from his horse.”
Some few years ago (see Wilts Archæological Magazine, vols. i.-x.) an attempt was made to disprove the whole story from beginning to end as connected with Littlecote, chiefly on the grounds that, after every inquiry possible, no record of any trial could be found; that from various existing state papers Darell appeared to have held his position as a gentleman and magistrate, and had no apparent blot on his character; that Sir John Popham was not created a judge at all until three years after Darell’s death, which took place quietly in his own bed at Littlecote in 1589, and that legends of a similar kind could be produced, connected with 24 other old houses both in this and other counties. On the other hand, the inquiry brought to light some evidence of a very extraordinary kind, which makes it no longer doubtful that the story it, in the main facts of it, correct. This evidence consists of the actual statement in writing by the magistrate, Mr. Bridges, of great Shefford, in Berks (about seven miles off), who took down the deposition of the midwife on her deathbed. Her name, it appears, was Mrs. Barnes, of Shefford. She does not say that she was blindfolded, but that having been decoyed by a fictitious message pretending to come from Lady Knyvett, of Charlton House, she found herself, after being on horseback several hours in the night, at another house. The lady she had to attend to was masked. She does not say what house this was, and seems not to have known. Her deposition gives the fullest particulars of the atrocity committed, but still fails to identify Littlecote as the house and Will Darell as the gentleman. The case seemed, therefore, likely to continue one not proved, but only of very strong suspicion. The subsequent discovery, however, at Longleat, by the Rev. Canon Jackson, of Leigh Delamere, of another original document has set the matter at rest. Sir John Thynne, of Longleat, had in his establishment a Mr. Bonham, whose sister was the mistress of W. Darell, and living at Littlecote. The letter is from Sir H. Knyvett of Charlton, to Sir John Thynne, desiring “that Mr. Bonham will inquire of his sister touching her usage at Will Darell’s, the birth of her children, how many there were, and what became of them, for that the report of the murder of one of them was increasing foully, and will touch Will Darell to the quick.” This letter is dated 2nd January, 1578-9. How Darell escaped does not appear, but it is certain that in 1586 he sold the reversion of his Littlecote estate to Sir John Popham, who took possession of it in 1589, and in whose descendants it still continues. All these facts, together with many details for which space cannot be afforded here, will be found in the eighth and in earlier volumes of the Wiltshire Archæological Magazine.