Sunday 3 June 2012

Littlecote House

A Brief History

Littlecote House (currently owned by Warner Leisure Hotels) is located within the picturesque North Wessex Downs close to the banks of the River Kennet and the villages of Chilton Foliat and Ramsbury.

Littlecote started life as a modest military encampment, just a few rudimentary huts housing a small garrison guarding the crossing at the River Kennet. In later years it evolved into a small farming community where additional buildings were added. The site continued to grow over the years. A major rebuild took place around 120AD and during the Roman occupation Littlecote had evolved into a splendid villa and community. By the turn of the of the 3rd century all farming had ceased and Littlecote had become a religious mecca for pilgrims. The world famous Orpheus Mosaic, first discovered in 1727 along with a hoard of coins believed to be that of emperor Vespasian (AD 69-79 founder of the second imperial dynasty in Rome, the Flavian Dynasty) were found by William George, a steward of the Littlecote estate. This splendid example of Roman floor decoration is regarded as one of the best preserved mosaics in Britain.

The original 13th century medieval house was built by the de Calstone family. That was to change when William Darrell married into the family and took Elizabeth Calstone as his wife in 1415 ensuring an inheritance. Much later, Sir George Darrell was credited for building the Tudor mansion between 1490 and 1520. On the death of Edward Darrell in 1549, his son William Darrell (aka) “Wild Will” inherited Littlecote but more about him later.

Littlecote has been host to several royal visits, they include, amongst others: King Henry VIII, who it is said wooed his future third wife Jane Seymour, the granddaughter of Elizabeth Darrell. Henry’s progeny Elizabeth I visited in 1601, King James II in 1663, William of Orange (later William III) in 1688. The list goes on...

The current Elizabethan house was constructed by Sir John Popham (Lord Chief Justice) who bought the reversion on Littlecote and succeeded to it in 1589 following the death of William Darrell. Some say his acquisition of Littlecote was obtained by less than honest means. The new brick built mansion, believed to be the first of its kind in Wiltshire, was completed in 1592. It was Sir John Popham, who presided over several famous trials including Mary, Queen of Scots (1587), Sir Walter Raleigh (1603) and the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot, including Guy Fawkes (1606). He was to sentenced Mary and Fawkes to death.

Littlecote was to become a parliamentary stronghold during the Civil Wars (1642-1651) and a splendid collection of Cromwellian armour survives today and can be found on display in the Great Hall.

Wild’ Will Darrell (‘Mother’ Barnes Story)
There have been several inconsistencies with regard to the accuracy of mother Barnes story, but after much research and stone turning, I believe what follows is a fair narrative of the events that allegedly took place at Littlecote House in 1575. John Aubrey, the English antiquary wrote extensively toward the end of the seventeenth century and seems to have been the first to have left any kind of record of the story I am about to relate, which he introduced it into a work he did on the life of Chief Justice Popham, which appeared quite clear of detail and history in its conclusion.

Mrs Barnes (aka) ’Mother’ Barnes - midwife, nurse and general all round good egg, had no idea what horrors lay in wait for her one cold winters night back in November 1575. At home in her little cottage in Great Shefford, following a particularly arduous day, she was preparing for bed, when there came a loud, persistent knocking at her front door. Now Mother Barnes was accustomed to being called upon at all hours of the day and night, such were the demands of her profession. So it would not surprise her to open her front door and find a breathless young man in need of her help to deliver his first born, or subsequent born. This night however the pounding at her door seemed unusually persistent, there was an urgency about it, such was its tenacity. Wearily, mother Barnes went to her door pulling on her coat and collecting her bag in anticipation of yet another nightly excursion into the Wiltshire/Berkshire countryside to tend to the needs of a mother to be.

You can imagine her surprise, when she opened the door to be confronted by a mysterious man dressed in dark clothing, his hat and muffle concealing all but his eyes. The man quickly explained that it was in her best interests if she knew not of his identity and furthermore her services were required with much haste. He also told her that she would be handsomely rewarded for her troubles. The offer of a financial incentive was enough for her to accept, somewhat apprehensively, the strangers request, for a midwife’s profession paid little in those days. There was one caveat though, she was to be blindfolded for the entire trip, for the location she was to be taken was none of her concern. Again she accepted, though rather dubiously. The stranger produced a blindfold, secured it about her head, then led her to a waiting horse which had been saddled for pillion. They set off at a gallop into the night. Years later, when mother Barnes related her story to a magistrate, she would say that she believed they had been travelling for an age but in all likelihood may only have been some 40 minutes or so. She felt sure they had left the beaten track and had travelled across field and down.

On their arrival, she was led, still blindfold by her escort into a house, up a flight of stairs and into a room. Her blindfold was then removed by her escort to reveal a sumptuous bedchamber. In bed lay a young woman who’s features were concealed by a mask, even so, mother Barnes could clearly see that she was in much distress and close to giving birth. As mother Barnes approached the bed she turned to see a man emerge from the shadows dressed in black velvet and also wearing a mask. He told her quite curtly to be about her office gesturing impatiently toward the bed. Unbeknown to mother Barnes she had just encountered the owner of Littlecote House, “Wild” Will Darrell, so named for his infamous debauchery. Mother Barnes asked of Darrell if he would mind leaving the room as a birthing was no place for a gentlemen. Darrell ignored her and paced agitatedly about the room. Mother Barnes thought it wise to say nothing more. She approached the bed and tried to reassure the young woman as best she could. Mother Barnes feared she may not survive the birth, indeed she feared for her own safety, after all, what could be more normal than being blindfold, brought to a strange house and placed in the company of a masked woman and a decidedly unpleasant masked man then told to deliver a baby. As mother Barnes readied herself for the task in hand, she couldn’t help but notice the room had not been prepared to receive a newborn, there were no blankets, no water and the aging servant standing nervously in one corner did little to inspire her confidence. However suspicious mother Barnes may have been, she complied with Darrell’s wishes and within a short time a healthy baby boy was delivered. As for the child's mother, her concerns only deepened.

Cradling the infant in her apron she was about to present the child to the mother when it was taken from her by Darrell who immediately left the room, crossed to the landing and threw the newborn into the flames of a roaring fire holding it there by his booted foot. The child’s screams alerted Mother Barnes who fled the bedchamber. She found Darrell at the fireplace holding the burning infant in the coals. When she saw what had happened she tried to intervene but Darrell held her back. From the bedchamber came the mother’s piteous pleas for mercy, which Darrell ignored. Thankfully the child’s agony was sort lived, within seconds its blistered, charred remains lay motionless in the fireplace.

Darrell grabbed Mother Barnes, who by now was in a state of shock. He fixed her with a pitiless stare, then whispered through clenched teeth not to breath a word of what she had witnessed here tonight, for if she broke her silence then untold misery would be levelled at her door.

Devastated, she asked to sit while her horse was prepared for the trip home. Darrell left the room which was just enough time for her to act. She raced back into the bedchamber, opened her bag and produced a small pair of scissors which she used to snip off a tiny piece of fabric from the bed hangings. She prayed this slim piece of evidence would be enough to incriminate Darrell should the authorities be able to trace the house and room from which the fabric had come.

Her escort reappeared moments later, by which time she had secreted scissors and fabric in her bag. She was once again blindfolded and led downstairs, but this time she took it upon herself to count the steps, again hoping her resourcefulness may help in identifying the house. When they reached her cottage (by a different route this time) she was presented with a purse of monies which she accepted. Again she was warned by her escort to say nothing of the events of that night.

Mother Barnes kept silent for years afterwards until, close to her death she divulged all to a magistrate. She recalled everything that had happened on that night, she produced the fabric and described how she had counted the steps when leaving, she also gave an approximation for the duration of her journey home. Suspicion immediately fell on ‘Wild’ Will Darrell, whose pernicious reputation was well known in the area. An investigative body was despatched to Littlecote were they examined the house. Damning evidence incriminating Darrell soon transpired. The bed hangings had remained unchanged and the place where the fabric had been removed was soon found, as were a match for the number of steps Mother Barnes had had the foresight to count. This was deemed enough to charge Darrell with murder.

Darrell was committed for trial in 1586 at Salisbury, but it is thought he managed to bribe the judge - Sir John Popham, a good friend of the family. A deal was struck when on Darrell’s death Popham would benefited greatly and become proprietor of Littlecote. If the bribe story is true, then it worked, for it secured Darrell’s release. He was never brought to trial and escaped the gallows.

Rumours grew that the poor woman who had lost her baby in such a despicable manner was Darrell’s sister - Raquel, a product of an incestuous relationship, a relationship that would ultimately claim her life, for she is believed to have died in childbirth. However, Darrell had several mistresses, so any one of them could have been the mystery mother. Some believe the child may have been the result of a liaison with a Miss Bonham, who’s brother was in service at Longleat House. Her treatment at Littlecote by Darrell was less that cordial and it was well known that she gave birth to at least one illegitimate child which sadly died.

In a letter discovered at Longleat House addressed to Sir John Thynme (1515-1580) owner of Longleat from Sir Henry Knyvett (1539-1598, who despised Darrell for his disgraceful activities) and written around the time of Mrs Barnes death confirmed her story. Amongst the subject matter was condemnation of Will Darrell’s scandalous activities which he is said to have perpetrated in the counties of Wiltshire and Berkshire. Sir Henry told Sir John of a Mr Bonham in his service, whose sister had become Darrell’s mistress and about how the poor girl was so appalling treated at Littlecote. Sir Henry wrote; ‘Mr. Bonham should be urged to do something about his sister's 'usage’ at Will Darrell's, what of the birth of her children, how many there were, and what became of them? for the report of murder of one of them was increasing foully and would touch Will Darrell to the quick.'

Darrell’s Stile
Justice was to finally catch up with 'Wild' Will Darrell, for in 1589 he met a violent death as a result of a fall from his horse whilst out hunting in Littlecote Park. Some say Darrell‘s fall was a direct result of seeing his murdered son’s ghost suddenly appear in a flash of brilliant light. Another story, taken from one who rode with him on that day recalls how the sunlight was particularity bright as it danced and flickered playfully through the trees, a distraction that may have momentarily dazzled rider and or horse causing it to stumble and in so doing throwing Darrell from his mount breaking his neck on impact. Whatever happened on that day, it would seem that Darrell is reluctant to leave the spot, for his ghost has been seen sat astride a black stallion riding at full gallop close to the spot where he fell, a spot referred to as ‘Darrell’s Stile’. His twisted figure has also been seen wondering aimlessly about the same spot where many horses still shy and become agitated to this day. He has also been seen in the bedchamber and on the landing by the infamous fireplace.

William Darrell was buried on the 3 Oct 1589 at St Lawrence's Church, Hungerford. The Pophams‘ inherited the estate just as the alleged bribe of 1575 had foretold. Oddly, Darrell's ghost is said to haunt, not St. Lawrence but the 13th century church of The Holy Cross at Ramsbury some 4 miles to the north west. Just what the connection is, I have no idea, other than a local legend that tells should you be brave enough to count the hundred studs on the north door at midnight you will evoke the ghost of ‘Wild’ Will Darrell.

Haunted Landing

Haunted Bedchamber

I suppose it not surprising to learn that the room where the dastardly deed took place has retained a residue. Several times over the years reports from guides and guests who have stayed at Littlecote claim to have seen the ghost of a woman who appears to be weeping whilst gently rocking a baby she has cradled in her arms. In 1970, a visiting journalist took a photograph of what appears to be a woman leaning over the bed. The photograph was examined by a photographic laboratory and deemed not to have been tampered with. The terrifying screams of a baby have been heard emanating from the haunted landing and also the Long Gallery that runs adjacent to the bedchamber.

The ghost of a woman believed to be that of Mother Barnes has been seen kneeling by the fireplace on the landing. One would assume she is mourning the passing of a child she was powerless to save. It is also said that a blood stain occasionally appears at the spot where Darrell threw the child into the flames. Attempts to repair or replace flooring in the area because of persistent mouldering have failed, for each time work is carried out the mould mysteriously returns.

The Long Gallery

The Popham family retained Littlecote until 1922 when it was purchased by the tobacco magnate - Sir Ernest Wills. During their occupation, Sir Edward, brother of Sir Ernest, stayed at Littlecote with his wife. One night, Sir Edward was woken by the sound of his Pekinese scratching at the bedroom door to be let out. “What is it boy?” enquired Sir Edward.  The dog, normally obedient to his master's commands chose to ignore him and continued to scratch at the door. Sir Edward left his bed, opened the bedroom door and stepped out into the Long Gallery where he saw a woman dressed in pink whom he did not recognize walking away from him holding a lit candle. He called out to her but she ignored him, or simply didn’t hear him. Curious as to who she was, he followed her until he lost sight of her in the direction of his brothers bedroom. The following day he alerted the household staff and asked who this mysterious woman was. He also mentioned the incident to his brother who said he had not been disturbed that night. On overhearing the conversation, one of the housemaids stepped forward and said “beg pardon Sirs, but I often see a lady wandering the Long Gallery wearing a pink dressing-gown, she is a happy ghost that means no harm or agitation to anyone.”

The butler of Millionaire entrepreneur Peter de Savary (who owned Littlecote between 1985-1996) was party to a strange experience in the Long Gallery during a fashion shoot for Burberry. A young model was posing by the fireplace glancing out of the oriel window. The film crew were assembled, as were makeup artists and the lady in charge of the shoot. It is common practice to take a Polaroid snap to ensure everything is as it should be before the main shoot. As the photograph developed, it revealed a great shot of the model in her evening-dress but something else began to appear, for standing immediately to the model’s right was the figure of a woman in a white gown.

Peter de Savary went public in Hello magazine in October 1993 with a story so strange it beggars belief. Shortly after he had moved in, he decided to hold an auction of unwanted furniture and sundry other items which he had discovered in the house and had no use for. On the morning of the sale he was walking in the Long Gallery when he was suddenly confronted by a middle-aged woman dressed in tweed. She spoke sharply, telling him he was a wicked man and no good would come of him unless he returned the box containing her babies clothes that he had so wickedly removed from the chapel. A little stunned by this sudden outburst, Mr de Savary was about to enquire of the stranger why she was wandering about his home, when before his very eyes she vanished.

Later, whilst recovering from the initial shock, Mr de Savary recalled the box which he had indeed quite innocently removed from a window ledge in the chapel earlier in the week. He eventually found it amongst other items for sale. When he opened the box he was amazed to find it contained babies clothes along with papers dating to 1861. Not surprisingly he put the box back on the chapel window ledge where he had originally found it. There were no further encounters with the woman in tweed. The box and its contents remain in the chapel today.

Jerusalem Staircase

A phantom black dog has been seen on the 500 year old Jerusalem staircase situated off the Long Gallery. Several years ago, a visitor was confronted by said animal as he climbed the narrow staircase. As he bent to pat the dog he was stunned to see his hand pass straight through what appeared on first sight to be solid flesh and blood.

Peter de Savary’s butler had a terrifying encounter whilst descending the staircase one afternoon. He had reached one particular step, often referred to as the coffin step (no idea why) when all of a suddenly he was thrown against the wall breaking his collar bone, shoulder and several ribs. He claims he didn’t slip, wasn’t pushed, didn’t fall and does not drink. Although I am not doubting the authenticity of his encounter, I think it worth a mention that these wooden steps are very irregular and uneven and could quite easily contribute to a trip or fall. That aside and assuming paranormal activity was the culprit, could Mr de Savary’s butler have been the victim of a particularly aggressive poltergeist assault?

The Woman in the Garden
One of the more frequently seen ghosts is that of a woman standing in the garden. Some years ago, one of the guides had just finished a tour of the house and gardens and was leading her party back into the house when she noticed a woman standing in the garden looking at the house. Thinking she must be one of her party, the guide called out to her to join them, at that moment the mysterious woman disappeared. Some who have seen her claim she bears a striking resemblance to Mrs Leybourne-Popham who’s portrait hangs in the Regency Room. Coincidentally, the painting shows her in the garden rather than in the house. Is this significant I wonder.


good times tora said...

I remember visiting Littlecote when I was little and I was completely enchanted by the place. I've been telling the story of the burning baby ever since! Lovely post

Willow said...

Thanks for your comment 'good times tora'. It is a lovely atmospheric place.

Anonymous said...

I stayed several nights in the front room to the right as you go up the steps. Nothing happened, but I became ill with the flu. It was a lovely place. I did feel a presence.

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