Sunday, 28 April 2013

Sir Laurence Tanfield

Such was the popularity of a recent post covering one of the many ghost stories in my (to date) four books, I offer up another chilling tale from my book Paranormal Cotswolds. The following story comes from Burford in Oxfordshire. I selected this narrative as it was so well received when I was invited by BBC Radio Oxford to record five stories to be broadcast in the week leading up to Hallowe’en in 2009.

Sir Laurence Tanfield’s career encompassed lawyer, politician and landholder, a highly prominent figure in the country between 1583-1625. Born around 1551, his earlier years are something of a mystery but we do know he was admitted to the bar of the Inner Temple in 1569 and his success enabled him to purchase an estate at Burford in 1583 and later lands at Great Tew. Burford Priory was built at his behest on his lands where a mental hospital had previously stood.

In 1584 he entered parliament as MP for New Woodstock, twenty years later he was returned for the county of Oxford and knighted by James I. The king had been a guest of Tanfield's en route to London in the autumn of 1603 and clearly enjoyed an excellent rapport with Tanfield. In 1607 Sir Laurence was Chief Baron of the Exchequer, a position he held until his death.

However, while his professional career was undoubtedly successful, in Burford and Great Tew the inhabitants had a revealing story to tell. By 1617 as Lord of the Manor of Burford, he and his wife were involved in a number of disputes with both the inhabitants and the local administration. Indeed the reputation of Lord and Lady Tanfield for being greedy and corrupt remains a part of Burford folklore. Having stripped Burford church of every valuable, purported to be in settlement of a dispute with the then vicar, although the circumstances regarding the dispute and the supposed agreement are suspicious, the people thereafter saw him as 'the very devil among us'. So reviled was he that the people of Burford celebrated his death by burning an effigy of Lord Tanfield around the anniversary each and every year and continued to do so for over two hundred years.

It was probably unwise for his widow, who herself died three years later, to return to the church of St Catherine's and erect a quite astonishingly outlandish monument to her husband, which also allowed for room for her when her time came. The craftsmanship of the sculpture is unquestionable, the design ugly and clearly not the result of anyone with the talents to produce such work but undoubtedly produced exactly to the orders of the widow. However perhaps the sculptors, embarrassed by the work they had likely charged an exceptional sum of money to produce, made their own comment on the memorial. Bending down to look underneath the carving one will see a frail skeleton, invisible to the casual observer and unlikely to have been part of the widow's thoughts. Is it suggesting that, in death, no money and power can save any from the same inevitable end?

Yet the story does not end there, for Sir Laurence is still said to be about today. He has been seen driving a coach pulled by four impossibly black horses in a number of places around his former estates. It is claimed that each and every one of these witnesses suffered bad luck following the sighting of the phantom coach and its notorious driver, although how the vision of the coach and horses is identified with Sir Laurence is unclear.

Furthermore it has been suggested that the skeletal carving beneath the sculpture was not created by mortal hand but a warning added by the lord of the manor announcing his return to this world after his wife's death.

As usual I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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