Thursday, 11 November 2010

Savage Events in a country churchyard at Kilmington, Wiltshire

The otherwise peaceful village of Kilmington was shocked by the news of what happened in the churchyard one day in 1555. The local landowner, the 8th Baron Stourton, had long had a reputation for violent behaviour and a quick temper. Both came into play that day and they were to cost more than one life and lead to more than one ghost.

The chain of events that led up to the fatal day, and to the hauntings that followed, began in 1551 when the 7th Baron Stourton, William, died. The Stourtons, though not of the highest nobility, were well connected and wealthy. Baron William’s wife was Lady Elizabeth Dudley, daughter of Edmund Dudley the Duke of Northumberland. It was Lady Elizabeth who had brought most of the wealth to the family and, now her husband was dead, it reverted to her. Only on her death would her estates pass to her son, the new Baron Stourton.

But the new baron, Charles, was in a hurry. He had debts to pay and a life of debauchery to lead. Just a few weeks after his father’s death young Charles rode to Kilmington to see his mother. Using the pretence that the family assets should all be kept under one control, he demanded that his mother hand over her jewels, gold and the title deeds of her property at once. The old lady was on the point of doing so when she was interrupted by William Hartgill, the steward of her estates. Hartgill suggested that Charles should give his mother an annuity to live on. The two men quarrelled violently and Charles stormed out without his mother’s wealth.

The following Whitsunday Lord Charles Stourton hired a gang of 20 toughs and lay in wait at the church at Kilmington for the Hartgills to arrive for Sunday service. Fortunately for the Hartgills, their son John was planning to go hunting with friends after the service and had with him his bow and a crossbow. As the Hartgills approached the church, Stourton and his men charged with swords drawn. Young John dropped one man with his bow, then led his parents into the church where they barricaded themselves in the tower. The Hartgills managed to fight off Stourton and his men until the forces of law and order arrived in the person of Sir Thomas Speak, High Sheriff of Somerset.

The courts threw Lord Stourton in prison and ordered him to pay compensation to his victims, which he flatly refused to do. In 1555 he was released and returned to his home, but he had neither forgiven nor forgotten his imagined grievances. At Christmas 1555 Stourton sent a message to the Hartgills offering to meet them at the church, to pay the compensation for the injuries he had caused them and to use the season of goodwill to end the feud.

The Hartgills were understandably suspicious and arranged for several local gentlemen to be at the church on the day set for the meeting. All seemed to go well, Stourton handed over a purse of coins and pledged friendship. But it was just a ruse to put his quarry off their guard. As divine service ended, the congregation left the church to find themselves under the guns of two dozen men hired by Stourton.

Triumphant and full of rage, Stourton ordered the two Hartgill men to be tied up and thrown onto a cart. When Mrs Hartgill protested, Stourton stabbed her. A scuffle broke out in the course of which several men were injured, but Stourton had the guns and he got his way. The Hartgills were dragged off and promptly vanished.

A few days later one of the men Stourton had hired for the treachery at the church went to see the local magistrate, Sir Anthony Hungerford. The man revealed that Stourton had told them he meant to kidnap and beat the Hartgills, but in fact they had been murdered. The man showed Sir Anthony where the bodies were hidden, then quickly fled the area. Hungerford moved promptly, arresting Stourton and four of his men that night. A search of the Stourton home found not only clear evidence of the murder, but also stolen cattle and sheep together with the proceeds of a local robbery.

Because of his aristocratic connections, Stourton was taken to London for trial. Found guilty, he was returned to Wiltshire for execution. He was hanged in Salisbury Market Place on 6 March 1557 and buried in the cathedral, where his tomb became the centre of some paranormal activity. The four men who had helped Stourton in the actual murder were hanged at Kilmington.

These dramatic events, played out in a quiet churchyard have left their spectral mark. The two ghosts seen most often are those of the two Hartgills. Father and son walk solemnly around the church as if deep in discussion. Also seen, though rarely, is a man armed with a gun and sword. Rather more sinister, this figure hides among the shrubs and trees, keeping to the shadows and is not seen clearly. Presumably he is one of the murderers.

Once Lord Charles Stourton was dispatched by justice, Kilmington returned to its peaceful ways. The titles and estates of the Stourton’s passed to Charles’s eldest son, John. To everyone’s enormous relief John had inherited none of his father’s temper nor taste for violence. So far as is known deadly treachery has never again marred this village.

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

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