Monday, 2 August 2010

The Dark Lady of Cornwood, Devon

The village of Cornwood lies on the southern edge of Dartmoor and the roads that lead here go nowhere in particular, merely petering out as they reach the edge of the high moor.

This rather remote village was once home to the Raleigh family. Unlike many of the Devon families who made their fortunes on the high seas during the Tudor and Stuart years, the Raleighs were an established part of the local gentry owning land and manors. The most famous member of the family to have lived at Cornwood was Sir Walter Raleigh. He began his colourful career as a soldier, joining the Protestant Huguenots in the religious wars of France in the 1560s and then joining the English army fighting the Earl of Desmond in Ireland in 1580.

In 1581 Raleigh was chosen to carry the dispatches proclaiming victory in Ireland to Queen Elizabeth I. The dashing young man at once won the approval and favour of the queen. According to a popular story, he had bought an expensive outfit for his first appearance at court. When walking with her courtiers, the queen was faced by a muddy puddle, she hesitated as she did not want to ruin her silk shoes. The other courtiers likewise held back, but Raleigh whisked off his costly cloak and laid it across the mud so that the queen could keep her shoes clean. Whether there is any truth in the story is unclear, but Raleigh was certainly popular with the great and glorious Elizabeth.

Over the following 20 years, Raleigh used his contacts at court to secure lucrative business contracts and to acquire spreading acres. Raleigh sailed on voyages of exploration to North and South America, served in Parliament, fought the Spanish and wrote impressive historical works. He was the first man to introduce potatoes from the Americas to Britain, planting them extensively on his estates. In 1603 Elizabeth died, and Raleigh’s favour died with her. He was arrested on the orders of the new king, James I, and thrown into the Tower of London on trumped up charges of treason. In 1618, King James needed to win the favour of Spain, so he ordered the execution of Raleigh whose exploits on the Spanish Main had not been forgotten.

Raleigh’s widow, Elizabeth Throgmorton, abandoned London and the court, instead retiring to Raleigh’s estates. According to local legend, she came to Cornwood together with Raleigh’s fortune. She jealously guarded the revenues from the family estates and kept a careful watch over the Raleigh wealth. After she died, the Raleigh heirs found that the estates were well-run and the accounts in perfect order. But of Lady Elizabeth’s accumulated gold there was no sign. A small chest with a few coins was found, but no trace of the vast store of wealth that the accounts indicated must exist could be turned up.

Soon after her death the phantom of the dead Lady Elizabeth began to walk the lanes and fields around Cornwood. She is now known as the Dark Lady, for she wears a long dress of dark, heavy silk which rustles clearly as she walks. Whether the ghost is seeking to lead people to her lost treasure, or is guarding it from intruders, is unclear. Nobody who has seen her has stayed around long enough to find out.

The Dark Lady of Cornwood seems fated to wander forever around this beautiful stone village beneath the looming mass of Dartmoor.


This is an extract from Haunted Places of Devon by Rupert Matthews

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