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The Stanleys and the Botelers

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     It would seem that it is not only in Scotland and Ireland, but also in the northern counties of England, that the heads of great families three centuries ago lived like independent princes, taking the law into their own hands over their dependents, and waging open war against each other in the field. We are all familiar enough with the feuds between the Campbells, the Colquhouns, and the MacGregors, between the Kers and the Scotts, and even between rival branches of the house of Innes; all readers of the 'Reliques of Ancient Poetry' and of Sir Walter Scott are aware of the extent of the forays and cattle-lifting raids of the Percies, the Dacres, and the Howards of the Border marches; and the stories which I have already told of 'Belted Will Howard,' and of 'The King of the Peak,'* will have prepared my readers to accept the following story of a certain Lancashire feud and tragedy as not improbable in itself, and certainly not unexampled nor unparalleled.
     It appears from history that the Botelers, or Butlers, in the days of the last Plantagenets and of the earliest Tudors, held broad lands and a fine estate at Bewsey, near Warrington, in Lancashire. The head and chief of the family at that period was Sir John Boteler, who had probably won his spurs of knighthood by some deed of gallantry, or had them conferred upon him for services rendered to the court of Henry 71. Sir John married Anna Savile, daughter of Sir John Savile, a lady who, as the following story will show, possessed, at all events, a will of her own, and knew how to use it. The mother of this lady was Margaret, youngest daughter of Thomas, first Lord Stanley, and consequently sister of Thomas, second Lord Stanley, who, in consideration of the eminent services lie had rendered to his sovereign in placing the crown of Richard upon the head of the victorious Richmond on Bosworth Field, was advanced to the dignity of Earl of Derby.
     Now, it happened shortly afterwards that Lord Derby-whose family were then seated at Lathom house, in the neighborhood of Ormskirk-was honored with a visit from his royal master. Naturally, being anxious to entertain the king in a becoming manner, and at the same time perhaps to show the power and number of his friends and retainers, Lord Derby sent a message to all connected with him to the effect that ho desired their attendance at Lathom house on a certain day, to do honor to his royal visitor, at the same time adding that lie wished his guests to appear in his livery-a custom, by the way, which at that time inferred no menial degradation. When the missive containing the invitation reached Bewsey Hall, Lady Boteler, into whose hands it chanced to fall, was greatly enraged probably through the tie of relationship which existed between them and sent word back to his lordship that she considered Sir John Boteler, her lord and master, ‘quite as fit to entertain the King as any earl.'
     This somewhat curt and not over-courteous reply appears to have stung Lord Derby to the quick, and his feelings found vent in sundry petty annoyances to her ladyship; the crime if crime it was admitting of no higher or more immediate revenge.
     The lady's husband, however, was not slow to retaliate probably on the principle that 'one good turn deserves another.' It may be mentioned that part of the income of Sir John Boteler was derived from certain tolls which were levied upon persons crossing the ferry over the Mersey, at Warrington. Now, it happened one day that Lord Derby was called away on urgent business to London, and, as the direct route thither from Lathom lay over the above-mentioned ferry, he made his way to the river with all speed; but great was his chagrin when he found that Sir John would not allow him to cross over. The earl was therefore compelled to go round by Manchester, thus traveling several miles out of his way. At this treatment, of course, his lordship was much enraged; and in order to prevent a repetition of the insult, and at the same time to punish Sir John, by depriving him of his tolls, which brought to his exchequer on an average about one hundred marks per annum, he resolved upon building a badge across the river, and making it free to all passengers. This proceeding, however, was looked upon by Sir John Botoler as an encroachment on his vested rights, the passage of the river, he maintained, being exclusively his own. As Sir John ruled that the traveler, whether he crossed the river by the ferry or by the bridge, should equally pay what was clue to the ferry, Lord Derby applied to the king, who gave him authority for making the bridge free. So far his lordship gained the day; but the decision was naturally very distasteful to Sir John, and accordingly the enmity between the two continued as strong as ever.
        For a time matters went on in a very un-satisfactory state between the rival houses of Lathom and Bewsey; and in the perpetual war of annoyance which was raged between the two, Lord Derby would appear to have got the worst of it, for he seems to have hit upon a mode of revenge which was altogether foreign to his usual character. His lordship made up his mind that the only way of quieting his opponent was by taking his life. The murder, however, was not to be committed by the earl himself, but by two agents whom he would employ.
     Sir Piers Legh, of the knightly family of the Leghs of Cheshire, and Sir William Savage, also a gentleman of some position and standing in that county, were employed to do the murderous business. Their first step towards carrying out their deadly project was to bribe the porter and a servant at Bewsey Hall; and in this it appears they had little or no difficulty, for the two domestics were soon bought over to act as confederates in the murder of their master. It was arranged that when the most favorable time for the execution of the deed had arrived these men should place a lighted taper in a certain window. At the appearance of this signal, Sir Piers Legh and Savage crossed the moat in a coracle-a small tub-like boat or canoe formed of bides stretched upon a framework-and were speedily but silently introduced into the bed-chamber of their victim. Their entrance into the chamber was at first opposed by a faithful attendant who slept in an adjoining ante-room, but after a struggle he was killed, and Sir John was murdered in his bed.
     But the sanguinary work of the night mss not yet ended, for the murderers tools away with them one of the treacherous servants, who had assisted them in carrying out their diabolical work, and hung him on a tree, in order that he might not turn king's evidence against them. It is not recorded what became of the other servant.
     That the perpetrators of this barbarous deed were never brought to, justice is indeed strange. Lady Boteler, it is asserted, instituted proceedings against them; but then, as now, it would appear that the law's delay was long and tedious ; for the prosecution was not completed when she had taken a second husband, Lord Grey, who disallowed her suit; in consequence of which she separated herself' from him and retired to Lancashire, where she lived and died in due course-a doubly disconsolate widow.

*See ' Stories of Great Families,' 2nd series, vol.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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