In the run-up to All Hallows’ Eve, we wanted to share with you one of the West Country’s oldest and most chilling ghost stories, The Ghastly Tale of Lady Mary Howard…
This particular ghost story, set on the bleak hills of old Dartmoor, has also come to be known as The Tale of The Wronged Lady for reasons that will be made clear. So lock the doors, dim the lights and prepare yourself for some goose bumps and spine-tingles…
Picture the scene if you will: a young farmhand is walking back along the old Okehampton road after his hard day’s toil that kept him busy until well after sundown. He’s headed for the local inn for a bowl of hot broth and a seat beside the open fire. The chill of winter is in the air, a frost is gathering, and the moon is veiled by an eerie mist. He hears something behind him, the approaching sound of horse hooves and carriage-wheels; most unusual for this time of night? He begins to step back from the carriageway fearing the driver may not see him but then freezes – stock-still.
He lays eyes on the unworldly sight that now fast approaches. Louder grows the clatter of hooves and carriage-wheels but still he is frozen by the fearsome vision that descends upon him. And then, in the nick of time, his wits return to him, diving from the track as the unholy procession, in its spectral glow, thunders past; led by a huge black hound with hellish red eyes, then deathly, black horses pulling a reeking carriage driven by a headless coachman whose cracking whip fills the air with the stench of rotting flesh.
The young farmhand feels the warm trickle of water pass down his trouser leg and then he runs, scared out of his mind, into the mire; his cries lost to the night as the mud pulls him deeper, and deeper; his strength failing as he begins to accept his grisly fate.
He would survive to tell his tale, saved by a farmer who heard his fading cries. Sat with a blanket around him, in front of a glowing hearth, he recounts his frightful encounter. Taking a mouthful of blackberry wine, he feels the farmer’s hand on his shoulder: “Don’t fret my buck, tis an unholy sight you speak of, but what you’ve seen is real. She rides the moors on the coldest, bleakest nights, headed for Okehampton Castle. Tis the Lady Mary, trapped in purgatory in her carriage of rot and bones.”
“My ladye hath a sable coach,
And horses two and four;
My ladye hath a black blood-hound
That runneth on before.
My ladye’s coach hath nodding plumes,
The driver hath no head;
My ladye is an ashen white,
As one that long is dead.”
The story of Lady Mary Howard is well-known across Dartmoor towns, hamlets and beyond. Emerging from the creaking doors of Fitzford House and carried to Okehampton Castle in a carriage made from the bones of her demised husbands, the sight of Lady Mary’s deathly procession is said to be truly awful.
Once at the castle mound, her giant red-eyed hound gently plucks a blade of grass in his huge jaws and lays it on a stone before vanishing, along with the carriage, into the darkness. The nightly agony of this futile ceremony is believed to be punishment for her murderous ways; a similar penance to that dealt by the gods to Sisyphus and his eternal struggle with the giant boulder.
In fact, history would suggest the story of Lady Mary Howard and the untimely demise of her four husbands has been unfairly embellished, and the real villain of the piece is her vicious father who became drunk on greed, terrorising the good people of Tavistock with his fits of rage and blackening the family’s reputation; his daughter’s ghastly legend serving as local retribution for his sins.
So best beware the sound of hooves and crack of whip on the lonely Dartmoor road…