This is not so much a story of a haunting as an omen, many stories can be found up and down the country regarding death omens. These usually take the form of some visitation or occurrence that happens prior to a death or tragedy. In the case of the Oxenham family a white bird appears which foretells of a death in the family. Some stories say it is a dove, others that the bird is a thrush or a ring ouzel, all seem to agree that the bird has a white breast. There even has been the occasional mention that the bird had horns. A tract of 1641 called A True Relation of an Apparition appeared and related such a visitation. It recounted how a James Oxenham lived with his large family on a remote farm in the Devonshire parish of Zeal Monachorum. In 1635, John, the eldest of his boys was about 22 years of age. The tract describes him as: “being in height of body sixe foote and a halfe,” he was a pious lad with a bright future. Sadly he fell sick and died, but not before “to whom two dayes before hee yeelded up his soule to God, there appeared the likeness of a bird with a white breast, hovering over him.” It is noted that two “good witnesses” saw the bird and later recounted the story to both the local vicar and the bishop. Two days later Thomazine, John’s brothers wife had a similar visitation and died. Two days after Thomazine’s death her 8 year old sister Rebeccah also saw the bird and she too departed this world. If that was not enough tragedy, Thomazine’s baby daughter died in her cradle. In every case witnesses saw the ill fated bird prior to their deaths. At the same time four other members of the family fell sick, they however were not visited by the bird and duly recovered. The tract also recalled how in 1618, Grace, the grandmother of John Oxenham was visited by the bird just prior to her demise.
The tradition of the bird has been recorded by Prince, in his ‘Worthies of Devon’ written in 1701 and also the story has been used by Charles Kingsley in his book ‘Westward Ho!’.
The legend now jumps forward to 1743 when the 64 year old William Oxenham saw the bird fluttering outside his window. Defiantly William is reported to have remarked that he would “cheat that bird,” sadly he too died shortly after the birds visitation. The bird then migrates into oblivion until sometime between 1810 and 1821 when it visited another member of the Oxenham family who was living in Sidmouth. People in the room at the time recounted how they saw a white bird fly across his room and disappear into a drawer. During the Christmas period of 1873, whilst living at Kensington, G. N. Oxenham reported seeing a white bird perched in a tree outside his window. A week later, as he was dying his wife and a nurse heard what they took to be the fluttering wings of an unseen bird.
Another version of the legend is supposed to relate the earliest visitation of the bird. This story relates to Margaret Oxenham who was a much courted lady of the South Tawton area. After rejecting many suitors, Margaret finally settled on a wealthy landowner called Bertram. A date was set for the wedding and plans were made, tragically, just before the wedding Bertram sustained a heavy blow to his head which resulted in him going insane. Clearly the marriage could not go ahead and so the wedding was called off. Time passed and Margaret eventually met and fell in love with Sir John of Roxanclave. Once again, Sir John proposed, was accepted and a wedding date was fixed. It did not take long for Bertram to hear the news of the wedding and to swear revenge for the loss of his love. On the morning of her wedding, Margaret was in her dressing room when the apparition of a white bird was seen fluttering over her head. At that time, nothing more was thought of the matter. The wedding was to be held at the local church of St. Andrew’s and it was to here that the blushing bride made her way. All went well until they reached the part of the service where the bridge and groom stood infront of the altar. At this point, Bertram, burst into the church, ran up the aisle and plunged a knife deep into Margaret’s heart, he then turned the knife on himself and both died infront of the altar.
I have recently come across another version of this legend which puts Bertram as the jilted lover of Margaret as can be found – HERE.