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Not Our Severed Hand

Not Our Severed Hand
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Last time I had cause to write of Knights of old and so forth, it was about Sir Gawain, an Arthurian character not normally associated with Derbyshire. There is another hoary old tale, frequently re-told, especially in South Derbyshire where it is supposedly set. This centres around a betrayal and a severed hand. Unlike Sir Gawain, whom we were able to locate, at least to some extent, in Derbyshire, this tale starts there and ends somewhere else entirely.

The story recounts how the brave Sir Hugo Burdett went from his ‘castle’ at Knowle Hill, between Ticknall and Foremark, to fight a Crusade. Whilst he was away his lecherous neighbour the ‘Baron of Boyvill’ lusted after Johanne, Lady Burdett, and caused Sir Hugo, on his return, to believe (erroneously) that his wife had betrayed him. Whereupon, on reaching home, in a furious rage of jealousy and betrayal, he killed de Boyvill and subsequently cut off his wife’s ring hand, with fatal results.

This story first saw the light of day in a Derbyshire context in the 19th century, and has to be looked on with considerable reserve. There was, after all, never a castle at Knowle Hill, no Foremark Hall in the 12th century, and neither Sir Hugo Burdett nor any ‘Baron of Boyvill’ trod the Derbyshire hills in that era. In short, it all sounds more a swashbuckling plot from pre-war Hollywood, embellished by the talents of Douglas Fairbanks (senior), than dear old Derbyshire.

Yet this 19th century story contains elements which can to some extent be identified, giving us an insight into the sources of the original author.

The first matters to be disposed of are those relating to Derbyshire, because whatever the original form of the legend – if original legend there was – it certainly does not belong to our county.

Knowle Hill is one of the most romantic spots in Derbyshire. Today it is marked by a timber-framed, cottage-like range with 18th century brick additions (now an excellent Landmark Trust property) perched on the edge of a bosky ravine running down to the Trent Valley to the north. There was, needless to say, never a castle here, but from an early period it was the site of the capital mansion of one of the manorial estates of Ticknall. The succession of this estate eventually passed from Ralph de Ticknall to William Franceys of Osmaston, who married Ralph’s daughter Agnes around 1300. Three centuries later, the Franceys family heiress, Jane, married Sir Thomas Burdett of Bramcote, Warwickshire, after which his family came to Derbyshire, built a new stone house at Foremark, which was replaced by the present edifice in 1758-60, and the family remained there until the second world war.

From the beginning of the 17th century, then, Knowle Hill was a secondary seat of the Burdetts, at first tenanted by the Abells and then later by younger Burdett sons. One of these was Walter Burdett, the third son of the 2nd baronet.  He tore most of the old Franceys mansion down, leaving only a low, much rebuilt timber-framed range, and built what contemporaries called a ‘curious house’ which flowed crazily down the side of the ravine in ‘an extraordinary mode of structure’. This he set in a landscape of his own devising.

By the time Walter died, unmarried, he had fallen out with his family, and so bequeathed it and its estate to a friend from a neighbouring family Robert Hardinge MP, of the King’s Newton family. It was only when he in his turn died in 1758 that the Burdetts were able to buy it back, and they lived there whilst David Hiorne and Joseph Pickford finished their new seat at Foremark.

Once the Burdetts had moved back into Foremark, Walter Burdett’s eccentric pile was promptly demolished, and replaced with a summerhouse range, built in brick, parallel of the still surviving range of the old Franceys house, quite probably to Pickford’s designs. This boasted Gothick fenestration, a fine Ashford Black Marble chimneypiece by Richard Brown of Derby (stolen when the house was derelict in the 1970s), a dining cave below, a round turret and an irregular, broken, crenellated roofline. It was set in one of the earliest Romantic landscapes in the area, probably created from that of Walter Burdett, by William Emes of Bowbridge. The rebuilt house must have appeared in it like the distant ruins of a castle. Mind you, it was no eye-catcher, being only visible to shooting and picnic parties ascending the ravine. Yet here, though, is one element of our legend: the ‘castle’ at Knowle Hill.   

As for the original lord of Foremark, at the time in which the legend is set, this was a knight called Bertram de Verdun. His first wife was the Lady Maud de Ferrers, a daughter of Robert, 2nd Earl of Derby, and the marriage portion which she brought to Sir Bertram was the manor of Foremark. Unfortunately, she died without surviving issue – probably in childbirth, then a constant danger – and Sir Bertram remarried Rohese de Vernon, of the Cheshire branch of that family. Neither, be it noted, was called Johanne. In 1176, Sir Bertram founded Croxden Abbey in the Staffordshire side of the Dove Valley.

One piece of congruence between the story of Bertram de Verdun and the legend is that he really did take part in the Third Crusade. Boringly, though, he did not come home to an allegedly faithless wife, but died at Joppa in 1192: he didn’t come home at all! The Verdun seat was not at Foremark, thought, but in the Welsh Marches. A manor house at Foremark was probably not built until one of Bertram’s sons, William, came of age; he was described as ‘of Foremark’ in King John’s reign clearly suggesting that he lived there and that there must have been a manor house by that date. Indeed, William’s own younger son Bertram was styled ‘of Ingleby’ not much later.

So if the Burdetts were not a Derbyshire family in the later 12th century, where could they then have been found? Sir Thomas Burdett 1st Bt., who acquired Knowle Hill and Foremark, was seated at Bramcote in Warwickshire, but back in the time of the Third Crusade, the family were located at Lowesby in East Leicestershire, although there was never a castle at Lowesby either. Yet not only were there Burdetts at Lowesby, but in the third quarter of the 12th century, the younger son of William Burdett of Lowesby was none other than Hugo Burdett who, according to the Heralds’ Visitation of Leicestershire of 1619, lived at Seckington, Warwickshire (which lies between Tamworth and the Leicestershire border) and was indeed the ancestor of Sir Thomas. Oh, and there was, in the 12th century, a motte-and-bailey castle at Seckington, which presumably belonged to the Burdetts: interesting.

But what of the so-called ‘Baron of Boyvill’? The Beauvilles or Boyvilles who settled at Largs are claimed in Scotland as the founders of the Scots family of Boyle (the name a mutation of Beauville/Boyville), now represented by the Earl of Glasgow. Yet in Leicestershire there was seated a dynasty of de Boyvilles, too, at Cranoe, only a few miles south of Lowesby. They were lords of the manor there from at least c. 1225, so they were technically (feudal) barons of Cranoe, but as they did not own Boyville (which was in any case really Beauville in Normandy) they would never have styled themselves ‘Barons of Boyville’. They would though, have been acquainted, possibly even inter-married, with the Burdetts although the surviving records are not sufficiently complete to confirm this. Suddenly though, the chief players in our rackety old legend are showing signs of life – and of originating in Leicestershire, of all places!

So it looks as though we can actually move the most important element of the legend from its entirely unconvincing Derbyshire locale, to rural Leicestershire, where indeed lived the Burdetts and the Boyvilles. The real Hugo de Burdett, unlike Sir Bertram de Verdon, did not go on Crusade but like him, left property to a religious house, in this case, the Priory of Ancote, in Warwickshire where, even then, the family had land.

This long lost priory had in fact been founded by Hugo Burdett’s father Sir William who, unlike his son, did take the Cross and sail off to keep the Holy Places in Christian hands. Yet his establishment of the Priory in 1159 was, according to the 17th century antiquary and herald Sir William Dugdale, the result of a strangely familiar sequence of events. In his famous Monasticon Anglicanum he wrote, concerning the foundation of this house:

“The said William Burdet being both a valiant and devout man, made a journey to the Holy Land for subduing of the Infidells in those parts; and his Steward, whilst he was thus absent, solicited the Chastitie of his Ladye, who resisted these his uncivil attempts with much scorn; whereupon he grew so full of envie towards her, that so soon as he had advertisement of his Master’s arrivall again in England, he went to meet him, and to shadow his own foul crime, complained to him of her looseness with others, which false accusation so enraged her husband, that when he came home, and that she approacht to receive him with joyful embraces, he forthwith mortally stab’d her; and to expiate this same unhappy Act, after he understood it, he built this Monastery.”

Here, of course, we seem to have the source for our legend. Dugdale provides us with no confirmation that the steward was a Boyville, although, given the proximity of the two families’ holdings in Leicestershire at that time, the employment of a Boyville younger son as steward is perfectly possible. Nor is there any mention of a severed hand, so can this be tracked down, too?

Severed hand legends abound. After all, the Burdett baronets, like all non-Scottish ones, bore the Red Hand of Ulster on their coat of arms to denote their rank; the hand of the Dark Age Gaelic Prince Niall, which he is said to have hacked off and thrown from his boat to the shore of Ulster, when racing a rival to the beach. It is said that the first of them to touch the shore was to have the land in perpetuity, so Niall, falling behind, won at the cost of a hand.  Yet that tale has no congruence with our legend at all. It origin lies even further away.

If you go to Switzerland merely for the pleasure of enjoying the country and its rich heritage, rather than the delights of the après-ski, you might be inclined to visit the great fortified Château de Gruyères, towering over the little town on the Saane, famous for its cheese, in the canton of Fribourg. Here you will be shown the severed hand which the then Count of Gruyères is said to have brought back from the First Crusade, some eighty years before Sir William Burdett and Sir Bertram de Verdun went off to the Holy Land.

This grisly relic was scientifically analysed in 2003 and turned out to be neither the hand of a saint, nor of a slaughtered Saracen, nor even that of an allegedly faithless wife, but part of an ancient Egyptian Mummy! This by no means prevents its having been brought back from the Crusades, of course.

It is quite possible that some Anglo-Norman knights, returning from Crusade, passed through Gruyères and saw this hand and that this wonder was much spoken of back in England. After all. Richard the Lionheart returned across continental Europe rather than taking the coastal sea route, and was imprisoned at Schloss Dürnstein in Saxony for his pains at just this time. If a later Count of Gruyères was on Crusade, it is not impossible that he may have returned with an Anglo-Norman comrade or two, who may have lodged with him before continuing home through SE France.

Thus a severed had legend probably grew up quite separately from Dugdale’s tragic tale, and they were much later stitched together and ultimately transplanted into the hills south of the Trent in Derbyshire by the migrating Burdetts in the early 17th century. Yet Knowle Hill is romantic a place enough without need of the bloody tale of some feckless Norman grandees living in Leicestershire; as far as I am concerned they can keep their severed limb!

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