Anybody who has read the book or watched the film of, ‘The Name of the Rose’ will not be surprised at anything medieval monks got up to. Dartmoor has its own version in the, ‘Mad Monk of Gidleigh’, well to be exact, ‘The Mad Monk of Haldon’ but as the story began at Gidleigh that is where it can stay. The amazing fact of this tale is that its true and is documented in the Register of Bishop Grandisson of Exeter.
The story begins sometime in the 1200s when a small, private chapel was built just outside Gidleigh, it became known as the, ‘Chapel of La Wallen’ and was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Incidentally, it has been suggested that the term, ‘La Wallen/Walland’ is an early Norman descriptive of a walled area of a field. During this period it was often the practice for nomadic monks to install themselves in such chapels in order to say daily masses and generally maintain the building. Robert de Middlecote was one such monk and on the 28th of March 1328, did, according to the Bishop’s Register, ‘mistreat Agnes at the small chapel’. Agnes was the daughter of Roger the Miller whose mill was located near to the Chapel of La Wallen. Seemingly, Alice was pregnant and Robert de Middlecote somehow murdered her unborn child and if that is what was deemed as, ‘mistreatment’ I dread to think what actual murder must have been. The monk was duly indicted for trial infront of Thomas de Chageforde, the King’s Justice but somehow he managed to escape before any trail took place. It seems that Middlecote headed for the coast as there are reports of several houses being burgled in the coastal area of the river Teign, householders claimed that money and food had been taken. A few weeks later the monk was apprehended somewhere on Haldon Hill which is a few miles south west of Exeter. Following his capture Middlecote was given the nickname of, ‘The Mad Monk of Haldon’ and this was obviously due to the location of his capture. He obviously knew his law because as a monk Middlecote claimed benefit of clergy which at the time meant he had opted to be tried by canon law and not secular law. Usually this meant a much more lenient sentence being handed down by the ecclesiastical court and so it seems was the case here. A trail was set for the 1st of June 1328 and that was the last documented record of Robert de Middlecote. It may well be that the trial took place and Middlecote managed to convince the court that his accusers were committing perjury or even the monk managed to escape custody and flee for his life. There is a possibility that his case was hushed-up and he was sent to another area, perhaps his guilty burden was so heavy that he committed suicide, nobody knows. What is known is whatever the outcome it displeased the folk of Gidleigh because the tiny chapel was desecrated and left abandoned in the same year.
Apart from what happened to Middlecote the other burning question is why did he commit such an awful crime? Had he broken his vows of chastity and the unborn child was his? Did the monk consider the woman had conceived the child out of wedlock and administer some kind of divine justice for her sins. Or, was he mad and in a moment of insanity attack the girl?
This story was the inspiration for Michael Jecks’ medieval murder mystery – The Mad Monk of Gidleigh which was published in 2002. I can thoroughly recommend this book if you would like some ‘flesh’ put on the original story as it adds a plethora of images to the tale.
The walls of the ruined chapel have an internal measurement of 22 x 10 ft. and are up to 8 ft. high and 3 ft. thick. It has been suggested that the chapel was desecrated sometime between 1328 and 1332. The final chapter in the building’s history was that it was converted to a cow byre in and around the 16th or 17th centuries. At one time an owner of the old chapel planted some oak trees inside the building (now long gone) with the intention of ensuring it was never used as a chapel again.
The ruin can be found at Ordnance Survey grid reference SX 6693 8893 and lies between Higher and Lower Wallen fields.
The above is the Dartmoor version of affairs and as far as Middlecote was concerned once he left the area – good riddance to ee. But there is another part to the story once he had moved to the Exeter area, according to local tradition the monk found himself another chapel from whence he could perform his ministerial duties. Lidwell chapel was located in a very remote spot just north-west of Teignmouth near the farm of Lidwell. It is said that the name derived from the ‘Lady Well’ which was associated with a holy well near the chapel. Supposedly, by day, Middlecote appeared as a very devout man of God and served those attending the chapel with compassion and caring. By night however he would go in search of weary travellers and offer them food and shelter at his chapel. He would then prepare them a meal that was laced with a soporific drug and once unconscious he would then butcher his victims with a knife and after robbing them of any valuables dump their bodies down the well. For several years he murdered and robbed unwary travellers until the day he chose a sailor as his next victim. As he was about to attack the man with his knife the sailor managed to see the approaching onslaught and fended him off. After a violent struggle Middlecote ended up being tossed down the well and whilst trapped down their the sailor summonsed help from the nearby farm and the monk was hauled out and handed over to the authorities. It has been suggested that there are some historical documents that record how Middlecote was hanged from the Exeter gallows in 1329, another version of his demise was that he died down the well.
If this story is correct then it would fill in the missing blanks which appear in the Dartmoor version, namely that he died one way or another in 1329.
Croxford, C, A, 2002. A Walkabout Guide to Gidleigh. Chagford: Gidleigh Parochial Church Council.