A Mysterious and Tragic Elizabethan Murder at Littlecote House

TW: Contains reference to historical infanticide. Click here if you'd like to return to the home page. 

Littlecote House is described in John Timbs and Alexander Gunn's Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales of 1872 as a 'large, respectable and ancient mansion in the midst of a finely wooded park, in the valley of the Kennet'. It was apparently visited by Charles II and William III and had a main hall hung with armour, crossbows and other weapons. Now, this Elizabethan mansion sits within beautifully pruned hedges and clipped conical trees just a few miles from Hungerford and serves as a hotel and resort. Despite this idyllic image however, Littlecote was renowned, they said, quoting Macaulay, for a 'horrible and mysterious crime which was perpetrated there in the days of the Tudors'. 

The Birth of the Virgin, 1578. Met Museum, Public Domain

A local midwife, they said, came home late after a birth but was soon interrupted and requested at another birthing. The messenger insisted that she attend, and when she opened her door she was grabbed and a blindfold tied over her eyes. She was asked to sit on a horse and the stranger rode with her about an hour and a half's ride, until she heard the hooves slow down on a courtyard. She was lifted from the horse, directed down a long corridor and into a room where a woman was in the final stages of labour. 

The midwife was warned by the man not to remove her blindfold but to work on the woman and deliver the baby. In fear, she kept it on and delivered a baby boy, remembering afterwards that she thought the woman was young. Once she had finished her work, she was directed to a chair and given a glass of wine while a horse was prepared to take her home. The midwife, suspicious of such mystery surrounding the birth, pretended to fall asleep in the chair, and when no one was looking she cut a piece of fabric from the bed curtains in the room where she had attended the young woman. As she left the house with 25 guineas in her purse, her blindfold was removed and she noticed the smell of burning wafting through the house and out of the door. An alternative version of the legend states that she saw Darrell directly put the newborn baby on the fire. 

Littlecote House, via Wikimedia Commons CC2.0 (thinboyfatter)

Although the midwife's story was later told in court, there are inconsistencies. Blindfolding a woman before the journey so that she could not see where she was going sounds possible (even maybe if it was dark), but telling her to deliver a baby blindfolded, too? In the sixteenth century? Once she had gone into the bedchamber? Sir Walter Scott offered a different telling of the tale, and offers that the midwife's blindfold was removed just before she began to deliver the child, which sounds more likely. An admission of the midwife on her deathbed is referred to by Timbs and Gunn. She stated that her name was Mrs Barnes, and she lived in Shefford, today just over two hours' car drive away. She didn't mention a blindfold being put on her at the house, but said that the woman in labour was masked, which makes much more sense to the timeline of events, as well as her ability to deliver the baby (and also cut the fabric from the bed without being noticed). 

Littlecote was identified as the location of the strange events, but it was later confirmed when a letter was discovered among the papers at Longleat. Sir John Thynne had a servant named Mr Bonham, and his sister was the mistress of Will Darrell of Littlecote House. In January 1578-9 there were enquiries made about Mr Bonham's sister, 'her usage' at Will Darrell's, how many children she had and what happened to them, as 'the report of the murder of one of them was increasing foully, and will touch Will Darrell to the quick'. 

Scott stated that Littlecote was identified as the place of the murder from the patch of material cut from the bed curtain. This was shown to Timbs and Gunn in the early 1870s as confirmation of the legend. Although they point out that no trial exists on paper relating to the event, Scott asserted that Darrell was tried at Salisbury, but bribed his judge Sir John Popham by giving him ownership of Littlecote. It is true that in 1589 Popham moved into the house. A further legend has Darrell escape legal punishment for the murder of the baby but later thrown from his horse where he died of a broken neck. The legend aims to link Darrell's accident with retribution for the child's murder. Some versions say that he saw the baby's vengeful ghost appearing to him in flames while riding through the darkness, which caused the horse to rear up. 

The legend of the child's murder at Littlecote is certainly shrouded in mystery. Could William Darrell have been eliminating the result of his relationship with Bonham's sister? If so, what were his motives? Men had illegitimate sons, and it wasn't hugely frowned upon, or particularly hidden during this time. Charles II had a number of illegitimate children, some of them sons, who he bestowed with titles. Henry VIII had his illegitimate son by his mistress Elizabeth Blount created Duke of Richmond and given the surname Fitzroy, confirming the boy's royal parentage. Also, judging from the letter of 1578-9, the affair was known and therefore didn't need to be hidden. 

William Darrell however seems to have been a complicated man. The History of Parliament Online details his legal troubles, the loss of his money and his affairs with women, in particular Lady Hungerford, the wife of Walter Hungerford. But none of this is evidence of murder. He was Justice of the Peace of Wiltshire, and may have been considering his professional and social reputation but it seems as if by the late 1570s he had already secured his dubious reputation with locals. In any case, the account of the midwife on her deathbed shouldn't be dismissed, particularly in this deeply religious age. 

The legend of William Darrell's murderous actions have lived on into the present day, however it is still a mystery. Do you know more about the legend? Let me know in the comments below. 

Liked this? You might also like 10 Everyday Objects from Tudor Times, How to Swear Like a Tudor and The Mysterious Disappearance of Sir Francis Lovell

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Source: Timbs and Gunn, Abbeys, Castles, and Ancient Halls of England and Wales, their legendary lore and popular history. 1872, London. p20-24.