“My ladye hath a sable coach,
And horses two and four;
My ladye hath a black blood-hound
That runneth on before.
My ladye’s coach hath nodding plumes,
The driver hath no head;
My ladye is an ashen white,
As one that long is dead.
“Now pray step in,” my ladye saith,
“Now pray step in and ride.”
I thank thee, I had rather walk
Than gather by thy side.
The wheels go round without a sound
Or tramp or turn of wheels;
As cloud at night, in pale moonlight,
Along the carriage steals.
I’d rather walk a hundred miles
And run by night and day
Than have the carriage halt for me
And hear the ladye say:
“Now pray step in, and make no din,
Step in with me and ride;
There’s room I trow, by me for you,
And all the world beside.””
I suppose it’s about time I included a story that involves wicked women and headless horses who pull a carriage made of human bones. The story of Lady Howard is probably one of the more noted of Dartmoor ghost stories that has been told around the peat fires of a dark night. So, let’s begin way back in the 1600s where we can find John Fitz who at the age of 21 inherited a vast fortune. As is always the case, easy come – easy go and that was exactly what happened to his wealth, it went. Along the way John Fitz turned into a n’er do well and as fast as he lost his money he found a growing list of enemies. It was about this time when John Fitz had his daughter, Mary whose childhood was spent at the family pile of Fitzford House near Tavistock. When Mary was nine years old her father who by now was totally insane committed suicide. This left Mary with the family fortune which at the time attracted the attention of many greedy eyes. King James I finally intervened and sold the young girl to the Earl of Northumberland who then married her off to his brother, Sir Alan Percy. This then meant that the Fitzs’ fortune moved over to Percy and the Earl, nice work if you can get it. Unfortunately, Sir Percy never lived long enough to enjoy his windfall as whilst on a hunting trip he caught a fever and died.
This ‘tragedy’ then left Mary free to find her own true love who came along in the guise of one Thomas Darcy. The couple stole off into the night and eloped in order that they could get married much to the annoyance of the Percy family. Sadly, this second marriage was doomed to failure as after a few months Thomas Darcy also died. Once again the rich widow became the target for fortune hunters and once again she chanced her arm and married again. This time she had managed to secure her wealth in such a way as no man could get to it. The third husband apparently was none too happy with this and the marriage was one long constant argument about the fortune. However, all was not lost as the third husband followed the celestial route of his predecessors and died of causes unknown. For the forth time Mary found herself a widow but also the subject of many scurrilous accusations concerning the deaths of her previous husbands. After all, one was a tragedy, two was a sad coincidence but three got tongues a waggin’ and fingers a pointin’. But Mary was not to be deterred and eventually found herself a forth husband. This marriage must have been a little more harmonious as she gave birth to a boy which was christened George. Not long after his birth husband number four died, oops there goes another one.
It was after the latest tragedy that Mary decided to return to the now derelict family pile of Fitz House where with her son she planned to live out her days. Unfortunately her day number a lot more than her son’s because it wasn’t very long before he too died leaving Mary home alone. The story goes that the death of her son left Mary heartbroken, so much so that a few weeks after her son’s death she joined him along with her four husbands in eternity.
So, you can imagine the stories, a woman whose father was a hated madman and who had seen off four husbands and one son. It did not take long before people began seeing her ghost. Legend has it that some divine entity sentenced her to spend eternity doing penance for her evil deeds. She was given the task of travelling each night from Fitz House to Okehampton Castle in the company of a huge black dog with blood red eyes and savage fangs. The nightly 30 mile round trip is taken in a carriage made from the bones of her four dead husbands and is driven by a headless driver. On reaching the castle the black dog plucks a single blade of grass from the castle mound. Both dog and blade are returned to the carriage of bones after which it rattles back to Tavistock. Once the grisly coach has returned to Fitz House the blade of grass in carefully laid on a flat slab of granite. Only after all the grass has been removed from the castle mound at Okehampton will Mary be allowed to rest in peace which judging by the lush covering will be a long time away. If the phantom coach should stop outside any house then an occupant was sure to die as would anyone for who the coach stopped on the road.
Those that have witnessed the ghostly journey say that the first thing you notice is the rattling of the coach of bones as it thunders along the road. As it approaches the night air chills and the sound of thundering hooves grows louder and louder. Suddenly a huge black dog with crimson eyes hurtles down the road, although some folks say it has but one eye in the centre of its forehead. The dog is closely followed by the coach of bones, on each of the four corners is a skull belonging to each of the four husbands. It’s headless driver relentlessly lashes the four stallions with a long bloodstained whip, again reports differ as some suggest that along with the driver the horses are headless as well. As the coach passes the ghostly white figure of a lady can be seen sitting in the back. If you’re really lucky her head will turn revealing two eyeless sockets sunk deep into a pallid, grimacing face. After the carriage has sped by the stench of rotting flesh is left wafting heavily on the night air. For those daft enough to continue their journey there is a treat in store by way of seeing the coach on its return journey.
Having maligned poor Mary it might now be as well to put the record straight. Mary was born on the 1st of August 1596 and was baptised at Whitchurch. True, her father, Sir John Fitz was a nasty piece of work and was guilty of the murder of two men. It is a fact that because of his behaviour the family were detested in the Tavistock are and he did commit suicide by stabbing himself. He was buried at Twickenham on the 10th of August 1605. Mary married her third husband, Sir John Howard in 1612 and he died on the 22nd of September 1622. She remarried in about 1628, this time to Sir Richard Grenville who treated her atrociously, the outcome of which was a divorce and not his death in 1633. Once the divorce had been processed she reverted to her previous name of Howard and was known as Lady Mary Howard.
At no time in her life had she been remotely considered as an evil woman, in fact quite the opposite as Mary was always held in high regard. She actually gave birth to several children and shed her mortal coil on October the 17th 1671 at the grand old age of 75. There is even a walk around Okehampton Castle which is known as Lady Howard’s Walk so the tale must be true.
For an excellent account of Lady Howard see – ‘The Devil Comes to Dartmoor’.