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Wild Darrell of Littlecote

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     The story of 'wild' Darell of Littlecote, one of the most romantic in the annals of 'romantic Wiltshire' is known to the readers of Sir Walter Scott's poem of 'Rokeby'--where it is given in the form of a note at the end of the volume and it has been often told in a variety of other shapes; but it is one, nevertheless, which will at all events bear re-telling in these pages.
     The estate of Littlecote, formerly the property of the Darells and now of the Pophams, is situated just within the borders of Wiltshire, to the westward of Chilton Foliot partly in that parish, and partly in the parish of Ramsbury, some two or three miles from the town of Hungerford, in Berkshire. The hall, as it at present stands, is one of those picturesque red brick edifices of Tudor times, enriched with mullioned windows, gables, and ornamented chimney-stacks, which so much delight the eye of an artist, and are so eagerly seized upon by the writer of romance as the scene of some wild and thrilling story.  It is a spacious edifice, and appears to have been erected by one of the Darells in the early part of the sixteenth century, 'about the time of the termination of feudal warfare, when defense came no longer to be an object in a country mansion.'  The park comprehends an area of about four miles in circumference, and is adorned with groups of various kinds of trees.  On one side of it rises a lofty hill, crowned with wood, and forming a striking contrast with the luxuriant and level meadows spread along the banks of the river Kennet, a branch of which runs through the garden, and there constitutes a preserve for trout, which can be seen darting hither and thither, or rising with a dash to the rippling surface.
     Old Leland, writing in the time of Henry VIII., describes the estate as 'a right faire and large parke hanging upon the cliff of an highe hille welle woddyd, over the Kenet.'  When Leland saw the hall it was doubtless not very old; but it most probably had taken the place of some ancient mansion, more suitable to the feudal times which were then passing away.  Considerable alterations have been made in the building, particularly towards the end of the last and beginning of the present centuries; the interior, however, still preserves many features of bygone times.  The great hall is very spacious, floored with stone, and lighted by large and lofty windows.  Its walls are, or were till recently, hung with numerous relics of ancient armor, such as coats-of-mail, helmets, cross-bows, old-fashioned pistols, carbines, leathern jerkins, and other defensive and offensive accoutrements.  In it is a remarkable table of massive oak, black with age and use, and reaching nearly from one end of the hall to the other.  It was along the sides of this table that the retainers of the family sat at meals in the olden times, above and below the salt.  In a long gallery upstairs are ranged family portraits of knights and gallants of the Darells down to the last of the line, and also of the Pophans, their successors.
     From the very earliest period of its recorded history till the days of Elizabeth, Littlecote was the seat of the Darells, a plain 'county family.' The first of the name who possessed it, and who acquired it by his marriage with an heiress of the Calstons, in the early Plantagenets, was one William Darell, who held the office of sub-treasurer of England.  He appears to have fixed his abode on the lands that had thus fallen to his lot, and there he established a race of knightly distinction, which flourished for several generations in honor and esteem.  The sub-treasurer's eldest son, Sir George Darell, succeeded to his maternal inheritance, and became the ancestor of the Darells and Littlecote.  His son, Sir Edward, who was next in possession, was thrice married, and had only one son.  John, a gallant soldier, who was slain at Airde in Picardy, in the wars against France.  He was the grandfather of the ill-fated Will (or 'Wild') Darrell, to whom reference is made at the opening of this chapter.
     Aubrey, who wrote about the end of the seventeenth century, seems to have been the first to leave any record of the story we are about to relate; he introduced it into a notice of the life of Chief Justice Popham.  The history he gives of the crime is very clear and distinct; and it is probable that it was from Aubrey's account that the materials were gleaned which form the note to Scott's poem of 'Rokeby.'  Local tradition adds somewhat to Aubrey's narrative.  The story, as told in the neighborhood to this day, is somewhat as follows:
     In the time of Queen Elizabeth, towards the close of the sixteenth century, there was an old midwife, of great skill and practice, who dwelt in a small cottage by the roadside some few miles from Littlecote.  Whether it was at Ramsbury or at Chilton is not quite clear; for accounts differ on that score.  One night, shortly after retiring to rest, she was aroused by a loud knocking at her door.  There was, however, nothing particularly unusual is such a proceeding as that; but, as soon as she ascertained the cause of her being disturbed, she endeavored to excuse herself on the score of fatigue, having only just returned form exercising her professional duties in another quarter.  She pleaded to be allowed to send an assistant, whom she kept in the house.  The messenger, however, urged that, as her services were required by a person of con
sequence, it was utterly impossible for him to think of taking her 'deputy.' He was resolved to gain the principal, and no one else, for his purpose. The old woman thereupon descended the stairs and unfastened the door.
     The night was dark, and the wind blew in fitful gusts; and, just as she opened the door, the lighted taper which she carried was suddenly extinguished. She had not time even to see the stranger's face. The man had dismounted from his horse, which was tied to a stile close by. Having inquired of the old woman what was her fee, and received a reply, the stranger told her that she should receive twenty times the amount on condition that she accompanied him then and there without a word of hesitation or inquiry, or of mention or inquiry ever afterwards; and that she allowed herself to be blindfolded when she mounted the horse that was ready pillioned to carry her. The reward which was offered proved quite sufficient to outweigh the woman's scruples and fears, if she really entertained any. She gave the promise, and, having had her eyes bandaged with a scarf, she mounted to the pillion, and the pair set off together at a brisk trot. What followed may be gathered from the evidence of the woman at the trial, which came as a sequel to the night's performance which she was just commencing.
     'After they had travelled about three-quarters of an hour', so runs the narrative of the case, 'she expressed great alarm, but her conductor assured her that no harm should happen to her, and added that they had still further to go. He got off his horse several times to open gates, and they crossed many ploughed and corn fields; for, though it was quite dark, she could discover that they quitted the high-road within two miles of her own house; she also said they crossed a river twice After they had been about an hour and a half on their journey, they entered a paved court or yard, as she concluded from the clattering of the horse's feet on the stones. Her guide now lifted her off her horse, and conducted her through a long dark passage, in which she only saw a glimmering of light at a distance, which was concealed or put out upon the shutting of a large gate through which they passed.'
     The old midwife was then led up certain stairs, the steps of which, by the way, she took the precaution to count; they were twenty-two in number. A door closed behind her; the bandage was taken from her eyes; and then she found that her conductor in the house was a white-faced, frightened serving-woman, who instantly quitted the room without speaking. The old crone at once perceived that she was standing in a fine and lofty chamber. A bright fire was blazing on the hearth, and near it stood a large bed hung round with blue curtains, from which came sound of weeping and pain. At the other end of the room a man, richly dressed, was pacing backwards and forwards in an angry or agitated manner. Having, in a subdued tone, bid the woman do her 'office', the man quitted the apartment. As soon as the event was completely over, she had a glass of wine given her, and was told to prepare to return home by another road, which was not quite so near, but free from gates or stiles. She begged to be allowed to repose herself for a quarter-of-an hour in the arm-chair whilst the horse was being got ready, pleading the extreme fatigue she had undergone the preceding day.
     Thus seated, the weight of mystery oppressed her, and she thought of the strangeness of her situation. She noted all she could in the room, and silently and unsuspected cut with her scissors a small piece out of the bed curtains, and secreted it in her pocket. ' Suddenly she became aware that the gentleman whom she saw on entering the room had come back, and stood by the bedside. He leant over the mother, and she gave a shriek. He had seized the child from her breast, and in a moment he dashed it among the embers on the hearth. The infant fell on one side from the fire. The agonized mother pleaded with brief strength from the bed; the old woman clung to his arm; but again he raised the child and cast it down, and the murder was consummated. Then he rushed out'
     Soon afterwards the servant entered the room with the scarf, the old woman's eyes were again bandaged, and she was led out again into the fresh air. The horse being in readiness, she was lifted into the pillion, and the pair were soon on the journey back, but by a different road. At the time of parting from the guide, which was within fifty yards of her own dwelling, he made her swear to observe secrecy, at the same time putting into her band a purse, which she afterwards found to contain twenty-five guineas. For some time the old woman kept her terrible secret; but at length the strange events so preyed upon her mind, that she went to a justice of the peace and narrated to him the whole of the facts in as clear a manner as she was able. Suspicion was at once directed to Littlecote Hall, and to William Darell, its master. The number of steps leading from the court-yard to the landing-place on the stairs, which the old woman had counted, tallied exactly with those of the suspected house; and the piece of curtain was found exactly to match one in a room where the birth of the child was supposed to have taken place. With such evidence, it was expected that nothing short of a conviction of some of the parties for the murder of a new-born infant must have followed; particularly as a beautiful young lady in the family (a niece) had withdrawn herself from her acquaintance, under the plea of going into a convent at Avignon, to learn French, when she had been seen more than once after her declared departure by a fruit-woman, looking out of a small window next to her usual apartment. In the course of the trial, however, according to one narrative of the tragedy in the 'Patrician,' the circumstance of the curtain was rendered suspicious by its being proved, on cross-examination, that a Roman Catholic servant had left the family in malice a short time before, with horrid declarations of revenge, on account of her having been forbidden to attend mass, which suggested a possibility of her supplying the facts of the curtain, as well as the local description given by the midwife of the suspected mansion.
     The midwife's story, though apparently plausible, was considerably weakened by her swearing positively to so many and doubtful points. First, that of her distinguishing being carried over corn and ploughed fields, though she only knew, it being so extremely' dark, that they had quitted the high-road from the sound of the horse's feet; but an apparent contradiction, which was supposed to have overturned her whole evidence, was her positively insisting that in their way to the house, where her assistance was wanted, they crossed a ford twice, when it was proved that there was only one straight river between the two houses. Now supposing the guide to have made a wheel round, in order to deceive the midwife, and to have again crossed the river, they must still have forded it a third time to arrive at the suspected house. All these circumstances being pointed out, and commented on by the judge for the consideration of the jurymen, they returned a verdict of acquittal without leaving the court.
     Whether the suspected parties were or were not guilty of the crime of murder,' observes a writer in Burke's ' Patrician,' 'could only be known to themselves and the great Disposer of all things; but no judge or jury would have established a different verdict from such defective evidence. The train of calamity which succeeded the trial may give rise to melancholy reflections, and was, no doubt, considered by the multitude to have been the effect of Divine visitation. In few words, the owner of Littlecote soon became involved in estate and deranged in mind, and is said to have died a victim to despondency; and, though the fate of the niece is unknown or forgotten, ruin and misery are said to have befallen the family which survived him.'

In the words of the poem above referred to 

'The shrift is done, the friar is gone,
Blindfold as he came--
next morning all, in Littlecot Hall,
were mourning for their dame.

`Wild Darell is an alter'd man,
The village crones can tell;
He looks pale as clay, and strives to pray,
If he hears the convent bell.

If prince or peer cross Darell's way,
He beards him in his pride--
If he meet a friar of orders grey,
He droops and turns aside.' 

     From the Darells the estate of Littlecote is said by tradition to have passed as a bribe to Sir John Popham Lord Chief Justice of England, who presided at the teal of William Darell. The story has been thus told by a writer in Once a Week: "Wild Darell was arrested, and proofs of all kinds were accumulated against him, stifling every hope of his innocence. The day for his trial, which was appointed to take place before Judge Popham, came on. His friends were baffled in their endeavors to rescue or screen the culprit, when secretly one last means were tried. From Wild Darell in his prison a strange offer went up to Judge Popham, and the Chief' Justice listened. It was this: that, should Darell's life be spared and the law, perverted or hoodwinked, leave him at liberty, all the fair Manor of Littlecote, the Hall, and everything the prisoner possessed, should be the bribe of what bound the compact tradition is silent; but the compact was bound, and kept! Wild Darrell rode back in freedom to Littlecote Hall. Soon afterwards the day came when he should fulfill his engagements. The deeds and agreements which made the transfer complete were laid out on the great table, and wanted only Darell's signature. The judge came to take possession, bringing strange servants with him. The signatures were completed, and the last of the "old family" strode silently from the little crowd around him in the hall-a beggar! He had been a headlong and generous liver, like his father, and notably a hard rider. The poor and the common people loved him. He always used to ride a favorite horse, and he had specially reserved this animal when he gave up all his other property. The horse was well-saddled at the door for the last time, and Wild Darell was silent till he leaped into the saddle. Then, rising in his stirrups as the horse moved to turn from Littlecote, he cursed the despoiler of his house in the bitterest terms, vowing that the eldest son of the Pophams should never enjoy the inheritance or the estate. Having spoken thus, He dashed in a frantic manner across the park to quit the place for ever. He had not gone far from the house when his horse fell in a headlong leap, and, with his rider, was killed on a spot which is still shown as 'Wild Darell's Leap.'
     This, however, is but tradition. History asserts that Littlecote passed by sale to Sir John Popham, and that it had the honour, in the time of Alexander Popham, the grandson of the Chief Justice, of receiving a royal visit from Charles II, who, at his coronation, created Sir Francis Popham, the heir of Littlecote, a Knight of the Bath. The last male representative this distinguished branch of the ancient house of Popham was Francis Popham, Esq., of Littlecote, and of Houndstreet, Somersetshire, who died in 1730, having devised his estates to his nephew, Lieutenant-General Edward William Leybourne. That gentleman assumed in consequence the surname of Popham, and, seating himself at Littlecote, served as high sheriff of the county of Wilts in 1830. He died in 1853, and was succeeded by his eldest son and heir, Edward William, on whose death, in January, 1881, the property devolved upon his nephew, Frauds William Leybourne-Popham, now of Littlecote and Houndstreet, who it is hoped may live to show that the curse above mentioned is powerless.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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