Listen …can you hear her?
Strain your ears, press them close to the soil and you will. That wretched wheeze; a drawn-out throttling of the throat that sounds like murder. Then comes the coughing; a diseased hack-hack-hack, like a seal gasping for air.
I am dying.
She is dying; but slowly.
What an odd place to die.
Tiny trickles of earth spill over the back of her legs; pathetic limbs angrily propelling her body through a plough-ravaged soil.
I will not let him win.
She has crawled this field many times before, every accursed March 25th for the past eight hundred years.
And crawl it she must, for without her spirit, and the curse that is renewed each and every Lady Day, Tichborne would be nothing more than a dream of the past.
So, let us bless the soul of Lady Mabella and allow her to tell her tale, for it serves to reveal the true terror of the place that was once her home.
The year is 1150 AD and all is not well in England. On the throne sits King Stephen. He has lost control over Normandy and leading churchmen are beginning to plot against him.
But it is also a time of knights: professional soldiers who give their lives to defending the weak, serving both the king and God at all times. Or so the stories tell us.
The knights of folklore and legend are courageous, the tales of old inferring that these men followed some unwritten code of chivalry; but the truth is very different, for gestures of gallantry and valiance were rare amongst knights whose intentions were to plunder, slaughter and loot when given the chance!
So, dispensing with these modern misconceptions and romantic notions of knighthood, let us turn our attention to a fully fledged knight of old, Sir Roger Tichborne, a man unknown for deeds of heroism nor gallantry.
Back in the twelfth century, the tight-fisted and arrogant Sir Roger Tichborne ruled his Hampshire estate with a rod of iron. His wife, the rich and beautiful Lady Mabella had come to him from the Isle of Wight. She was considered by people, far and wide, to be a godly soul; a kind and generous lady who gave nearly everything she had to the poor, including food.
After a long life, filled with kind and charitable deeds, she lay at last on her deathbed. She had no fear of death, but was troubled by those she would be leaving behind: the poor of the village, no longer able to seek her help. In those days, the needy lived up to their name; there was neither dole (a share of food or money or given to the poor) nor government handouts to help people through difficult times. Instead, when harvests failed, many of the unfortunate inhabitants slowly starved to death, especially at the end of spring when supplies ran out.
So, reacting to these difficult times, Lady Mabella came up with a plan. She would ask her husband to set aside a piece of land large enough to provide a dole of bread to anyone who requested it, for one day of the year, on March 25th, otherwise known as Lady Day.
When she came to make her request, it surprised her greatly that her husband welcomed the plan. But her pleasure was short-lived, for Sir Roger quickly added that his blessing would come with one condition; and such a terrible condition it was.
Grabbing a blazing stick from the open hearth, he raised it high and with a wicked smile, he stated his requirements: he would indeed provide a dole to the poor but it would be harvested from an area limited to the land his wife could walk around while the flame continued to burn!
The good Lady Mabella froze, tormented by her husband’s words; aware of the enormity of the despicable task he had set. She closed her eyes for a moment and silently begged for God’s favour, then calling her servants, she ordered them to carry her outside. There, they placed her gently on the ground. The icy air bit deep into her bones teasing her weakened limbs. Moving onto all fours, she thrust the balls of her feet into the frozen soil and attempted to rise, but her knees buckled and her wasted frame plummeted to the ground.
For a moment she lay quite still, drawing fragile breaths. Instinctively, one of the servants stepped forward to attend her, but he reluctantly withdrew, remembering his promise not to interfere in the dreadful task. With a sudden quickening of her heart, she arched her body painfully and began to rock in slow motion, until, finally, she pushed forward and tore at the soil with her hands, using every sinew of strength to drive her emaciated body across the dirt.
Sir Roger, on hearing the gasps of surprise from the handmaidens, dashed outside, still holding the blazing branch. Staring into the meagre light, he was aware of the wind having stilled, allowing the flame to burn clear and steady without a flicker.
He continued to watch, the grey figure shuffling against the boundary of the field; driving forward out of vicious spite for his words. But, before the branch was less than half, Lady Mabella had become a distant speck and was already making her way back to the house. With gasps of excitement and amazement, the servants stared intensely at the approaching flame slowly running its course; aware they were spectators at a race for life between Lady Mabella and the gradually expiring torch.
But before the flame had become a charred stump, she had returned to the start of her tortuous journey, collapsing at the feet of her husband. Miraculously, she had crawled across twenty-three acres. The maids carried her to her bed, and Sir Roger followed, angrily projecting the charred stump into the fire.
“Listen to me again, my husband, for my time is short. God has heard my prayer, and the land thou hast given shall provide a dole of food for my poor, and the day I appoint shall be that of the Annunciation of Our Lord, the very day on which He was conceived. And, ” here her voice became stern with warning, “let no man break this solemn promise, nor tamper with so great a gift, for then a curse will fall upon him, and upon his house. Then the fortune of the family shall fail, the name Tichborne shall be changed, and the family shall die out. And as a sign that this is happening, there shall be born a generation of seven sons, followed by one of seven daughters.”
She fell back on the pillow. Lady Mabella was dead.
But not the curse…
It is now the year 1796 AD and the Tichbornes still reign over this land. For the past six centuries, Lady Mabella’s dying wish has been fulfilled: an annual dole in the form of bread, or the sum of tuppence (slightly less than 5p in today’s money), has been handed out to the poor people of the Tichborne estate.
But the tide is turning, for magistrates disturbed by the number of vagrants the dole is attracting, have decided that it must stop.
The head of the house, Sir Henry Tichborne abides by the ruling of the local officials and stops the handing out of flour to the poor; instead the money is passed to the church.
Then a remarkable thing takes place. One can inspect the family tree of the Tichbornes to see evidence of this: there, in the family records, plain to see, is a generation of seven sons followed by seven daughters – a warning from the past!
Thirty years later, a very worried son of Sir Henry, Sir Edward Doughty-Tichborne, orders the custom to be restored – and seemingly things have been right ever since.
The twenty-three acres still produce their dole of food for the poor; but are unable to escape the shadows of the past, for to this day they remain indelibly titled “The Crawls”.
On every Lady Day, March 25th, the church carries out the blessing of the Tichborne Dole before flour is distributed to local families who each receive one gallon of flour per adult and half a gallon per child.
It’s only on leaving the grounds of the church do some of the more superstitious parishioners take a brief look at the fields surrounding them; just to see if a flame still burns in the dark distance…