The Bath Road: Littlecote and Wild William Darrell

The following post is the second of a series based on information obtained from a fascinating book Susana recently obtained for research purposes. Coaching Days & Coaching Ways by W. Outram Tristram, first published in 1888, is chock full of commentary about travel and roads and social history told in an entertaining manner, along with a great many fabulous illustrations. A great find for anyone seriously interested in English history!


Littlecote House

Littlecote House

Littlecote House, near Ramsbury, Wiltshire, was first a medieval mansion, built around 1290 by the de Calstone family. It fell into the hands of William Darrell in 1415 when he married Elizabeth de Calstone. The Tudor mansion was built in the mid-sixteenth century. Henry VIII courted his third wife Jane Seymour here; her grandmother was a Darrell. Elizabeth I, James I, Charles II and William of Orange stayed here.


Wild William Darrell (1539-89)

The last Darrell at Littlecote is best remembered for his contentiousness and scandals. His father having left Littlecote to his mistress, Mary Fortescue (who liked to call herself Lady Darrell), William set in motion a series of lawsuits to wrest it away from her. This was the first of countless lawsuits filed in his lifetime, which ended by draining him of his fortune and forcing him to mortgage or sell most of the 25 manors inherited from his father. Litigation with his mother’s family over one such manor lasted 20 years!

Not the sort of man you’d want as a neighbor!

Darrell was also known for his amorous exploits. The most famous was his affair with the wife of Sir Walter Hungerford, who was subsequently abandoned by her husband when she wrote this to Darrell:

“I, by the oath I have sworn upon the holy evangelist, do acknowledge that if Sir Walter Hungerford, my husband now living, do depart out of this life … I will take you to my husband.”

An Elizabethan Horror Story

Enjoy Mr. Tristram’s dramatic narration in Coaching Days & Coaching Ways:

The whole story would pass before us under a ghostly, shimmering, ghoul-like glamour: the midwife at Shefford, a village seven miles off, waked in the dead of night, with a promise of high pay for her office on condition that she should be blindfolded! the headlong ride through the wild weather behind the silent serving man! the arrival at a large house which was strange to her! the mounting of the long stairs, which the woman, shadowed already with some grim foreboding, counted carefully as she passed up them! the delivery in a gloomy, richly furnished room of a masked lady! the entrance of a tall man “of ferocious aspect”, who seized the newborn child, thrust it into the fire that was blazing on the hearth, ground it under his heavy boot till it was cinders! then the trembling departure of the pale spectator of the hideous scene, blindfolded as she had come, aghast, speechless, carrying a heavy bribe with her as the price of guilty silence, but carrying also a piece of the curtain which she had cut out of the bed—all this scene of horror how the author of The Dragon Volant would have described it for us! And all this horror is history!

The original deposition made on her death-bed by the midwife, whose name was Mrs. Barnes, and committed to writing by Mr. Bridges, magistrate of Great Shefford, is in existence to this day, and is proof beyond cavil. It is from this point that rumour begins. That rumour, backed in my opinion by damning circumstance, has for two hundred years connected the tragedy with Littlecote House and William Darrell, commonly called Wild Darrell, then its proprietor. It is alleged that the midwife’s depositions set justice on the murderer’s track, and that the fitting of the piece of curtain which Mrs. Barnes had taken away with her into a rent found in the curtain of the Haunted Room at Littlecote, marked the scene of the murder. Wild Darrell was tried for his life, it is said, but escaped by bribing the officers of the law with the reversion of his large estates. But—so runs the rumour—the memory of his crime pursued him. He was haunted by ghastly spectres which he tried to forget in wild excesses, but which no seas of claret would lay. Finally as he was riding recklessly down the steep downs, with the scene of his atrocity in sight, at headlong speed, the reins loose, his body swaying in the saddle, pale, wild-eyed, unkempt, the very picture of debauched and guilty recklessness, tearing from the Furies of the past, that past confronted him. The apparition of a babe burning in a flame barred his path. The horse reared violently at the supernatural sight. Darrell was violently thrown, and the wicked neck, which had escaped the halter by a bribe, was broken at last as it deserved to be.

Wild Darrell is remembered but as a name now, and as a name for all that is wicked. (Coaching Days & Coaching Ways, pp. 38-41)

Sir Walter Scott recounted this story in the notes to his narrative poem, Rokeby. (Free on Google, check out p. 400).

Littlecote House Hotel

Guess what? Not only can you visit Littlecote House, but you can stay overnight in the Tudor mansion, as Susana did recently at Chatsworth, Hever Castle, and Leeds Castle! Besides the house and gardens (and ghosts, perhaps?), there are remains of a Roman villa and a lovely mosaic as well. Check it out!

The Great Hall

The Great Hall

The garden of Littlecote House Hotel in Wiltshire

The gardens

Roman mosaic

Roman mosaic

Ruins of Roman Villa

Ruins of Roman Villa


 Index to all the posts in this series

1: The Bath Road: The (True) Legend of the Berkshire Lady

2: The Bath Road: Littlecote and Wild William Darrell

3: The Bath Road: Lacock Abbey

4: The Bath Road: The Bear Inn at Devizes and the “Pictorial Chronicler of the Regency”

5: The Exeter Road: Flying Machines, Muddy Roads and Well-Mannered Highwaymen

6: The Exeter Road: A Foolish Coachman, a Dreadful Snowstorm and a Romance

7: The Exeter Road in 1823: A Myriad of Changes in Fifty Years

8: The Exeter Road: Basingstoke, Andover and Salisbury and the Events They Witnessed

9: The Exeter Road: The Weyhill Fair, Amesbury Abbey and the Extraordinary Duchess of Queensberry

10: The Exeter Road: Stonehenge, Dorchester and the Sad Story of the Monmouth Uprising

11: The Portsmouth Road: Royal Road or Road of Assassination?

12: The Brighton Road: “The Most Nearly Perfect, and Certainly the Most Fashionable of All”

13: The Dover Road: “Rich crowds of historical figures”

14: The Dover Road: Blackheath and Dartford

15: The Dover Road: Rochester and Charles Dickens

16: The Dover Road: William Clements, Gentleman Coachman

17: The York Road: Hadley Green, Barnet

18: The York Road: Enfield Chase and the Gunpowder Treason Plot

19: The York Road: The Stamford Regent Faces the Peril of a Flood

20: The York Road: The Inns at Stilton

21: The Holyhead Road: The Gunpowder Treason Plot

22: The Holyhead Road: Three Notable Coaching Accidents

23: The Holyhead Road: Old Lal the Legless Man and His Extraordinary Flying Machine

24: The Holyhead Road: The Coachmen “More Celebrated Even Than the Most Celebrated of Their Rivals” (Part I)

25: The Holyhead Road: The Coachmen “More Celebrated Even Than the Most Celebrated of Their Rivals” (Part II)

26: Flying Machines and Waggons and What It Was Like To Travel in Them

27: “A few words on Coaching Inns” and Conclusion

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