March 25th is ‘Lady Day’, the traditional name of the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin.
It is also a day of festivities in Tichborne, Hampshire, when donations of flour, which have been blessed by the local parish priest, are handed out from the front of Tichborne House — and, a time when, once more, the villagers serve to abate the terror of an age-old curse!
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Listen …can you hear her?
Strain your ears, press them close to the soil and you surely will!
That wretched wheeze: a drawn-out throttling of the throat that sounds like murder.
Then comes the coughing: a diseased hack-hack-hack, as if a seal gasping for air.
I am dying.
She is dying, but slowly.
What an odd place to die?
The plough-ravaged soil caresses her, taking her down.
Earth binds itself to her fingers; black rivers run across her back.
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; a tale that has come to be known as ‘The Terror of Tichborne’.
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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; they adhere to some unwritten code of chivalry — but, the truth is very different, for gestures of gallantry and valiance are rare amongst these men whose intentions are simple: to plunder, slaughter and loot whenever the opportunity arises!
And so, dismissing these notions as nothing more than romantic fiction, we turn our attention to one particular knight of old: Sir Roger Tichborne, a man unknown for acts of heroism nor gallantry.
Back in the twelfth century, the arrogant, tight-fisted Sir Roger 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.
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 leave 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 given to the poor) nor government handouts to help people through difficult times. Instead, when harvests failed, the unfortunate inhabitants simply starved to death.
Aware of such difficult times ahead, 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 that her husband welcomed the plan. But her pleasure was short-lived, for he soon added that his blessing would come with a 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 — but one harvested from torment; an area equivalent to that which his wife could walk around while the flame continued to burn!
The good Lady Mabella froze; she was 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. Crouching down on all fours, she thrust the balls of her feet into the frozen soil and made efforts to rise, but her knees buckled and her wasted frame plummeted to the ground. For a moment she lay 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 had pushed forward and was tearing at the soil with her hands, slowly driving her emaciated body across the dirt.
Sir Roger, hearing the gasps of surprise from the handmaidens, dashed outside, still holding the blazing branch.
Staring into the meagre light, he was aware that the wind had 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 , my husband, for my time is short,” began the exhausted woman.
“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… For let us advance through time, to the year 1796 AD, where we find the Tichbornes still reigning over the land.
For the past six centuries, Lady Mabella’s dying wish has been fulfilled: an annual dole in the form of bread has been handed out to the poor 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. Sir Henry Tichborne, the head of the house, abides by their ruling and stops the gifts 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: for 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 pass, and a very worried son of Sir Henry, Sir Edward Doughty-Tichborne, orders the custom to be restored – and seemingly things have been right in all the years since. The twenty-three acres continue to produce their dole of food; but these kind deeds are done in the shadow of the past for, to this very day, the gifts come from a place known as ‘The Crawls’.
On every Lady Day, March 25th, the church carries out the blessing of the Tichborne Dole. Flour is distributed to local families who each receive one gallon per adult and half a gallon per child.
Only on leaving the grounds of the church do some of the more superstitious parishioners glance briefly at the fields surrounding them – aware that a certain flame may still be burning somewhere in the dark distance…