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February 2005
The Tale Of The Wronged Lady
Lady Howard's ghostly coach
Riding out with Lady Howard
BBC Devon's Andrew Spencer investigates one of the oldest ghost stories in Devon which, he says, is also one of the least accurate in a historical sense.
Not that it stops Devon's dark lady riding her coach each night in search of repentance....

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When Mary was sold at nine, she cost £465 - a bargain considering her fortune.

After her third husband, she became an influential figure at the Court of Charles I's wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, renowned for her wit as well as her looks.

Fitzford House was ransacked and wrecked during the civil war after her ex-husband was put in charge of the troops there and ran away under attack, leaving it undefended.
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"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."

As the gates of Fitzford House creak open a fearsome sight appears, a massive black dog with glowing red eyes bounds out leading a morbid sight.

A large horse-drawn carriage made of bones follows, driven by a headless coachman and a ghostly white lady sits inside as it makes its way the 16 miles to Okehampton Castle.

When it reaches the castle the dog, with ceremony, goes to the castle mound and plucks one blade of grass.

The spectral procession then turns and rides back to Fitzford House where the blade of grass is laid on a stone and the spectres vanish back to where they came from.

This is the nightly torment of Lady Mary Howard, and when the castle mound is finally free of any grass she'll be allowed to finally rest easy.

Lady Howard is said to have a  hell hound with glowing red eyes
Lady Howard's hound?

This punishment is very traditional in the same way as Sisyphus pushing his rock up a hill, a long, tedious and repetitive task with the added factor of possible "release" at the end, but only after a distinctly impossible mission is completed.

The possible injustice of this fate however is that Lady Howard herself was actually the wronged party and the legends about her are widely suggested to revolve more about her father than her.

John Fitz, her father, became very rich, very young at the age of 21. Like many before and after him the money soon turned him into a moral-less shadow of his former self, sliding into a degeneracy that caused him to vent his wrath on the folk of Tavistock and led to the murder of two men, including his own best friend, killed on the doorstep of Fitzford House.

Mary found herself hated almost by proxy as stories about her father's behaviour became twisted around to land on her own shoulders.

John Fitz commited suicide, aged 30, after sliding into insanity and Mary, just nine at the time, was sold by King James I to the Earl of Northumberland who forcibly married her at 12 to his brother Sir Alan Percy, simply to gain her fortune as the last of her line.

This was the first of four husbands, all of whom she outlived. Percy died after catching a cold on a hunting expedition and that left her free to choose the man she desired, Thomas Darcy. Her one marriage for love however ended in tragedy as Darcy died just months after the two eloped and wed.

The final two of her marriages were both about money, and both failed because Mary was a much more assertive lady than the scared nine year old thrust around when orphaned.

The poor Lady Howard was thrust around in life and tormented in death
Lady Howard never found peace in life or death

Mary refused to let her husbands milk her dry and soon tied up her fortunes to keep them safe. This led to massive arguments and the break up of both marriages and the death of both husbands.

Mary then retired back to a ruined Fitz house that had been left deserted with her one remaining family member, a beloved son from her last marriage called George.

She hoped to live out her days in relative peace but life had one more shock for her, the premature death of George. This was the last break her heart could take and she died exactly one month after her son.

After her death, her life began to become a local legend and as such became skewed from the truth. Her own life became merged with that of her father and the deaths of her husbands became less and less innocent until it reached the height of maliciousness; the tale she had murdered all four husbands.

Finally the legend was born, Lady Howard, in the coach made of her husbands bones, riding on her futile journey each night, never allowed the rest in death from the adversity that was her life.

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