Robert Fitz-Henry, Lord of Lathom (Born 1135) founded the Augustinian Burscough Priory around 1190. It was dissolved during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII circa 1536 and today very little remains of the building.
It is mentioned in ‘A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 2’ (1908) that a ‘curious episode in the history of the priory is the indictment in 1347 of Thomas of Litherland, then prior, for alleged participation in the lawless proceedings of Sir John de Dalton, who on Good Friday in that year, assisted by many Lancashire men, violently abducted Margery, widow of Nicholas de la Beche, from her manor of Beams, in Wiltshire, killing two persons and injuring others, though the king’s own son Lionel*, keeper of the realm in the king’s absence abroad, was staying there. A number of Lancashire gentlemen came forward and declared that the prior was innocent. On their bond he was admitted to bail, and seems to have satisfactorily disproved the charge as he retained his office for nearly forty years.’
* (Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence, 4th Earl of Ulster, 5th Baron of Connaught, son King Edward III (Born 29 November 1338 – Died 17 October 1368)
Margey de la Beche (‘Lady De La Beche of Aldworth‘) (Born circa 1310 – Died 1349) was the daughter of Sir Michael De Poynings who died on 24 Jun 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn. Her first husband was Sir Edmund Bacon, with whom she had one child, Margery Bacon (Born 1337). In 1339 she married Nicholas De La Beche of Aldworth (Born 1291 – Died 1345), Governor to the Black Prince (Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales) and Constable of the Tower of London. Following the death of Sir Nicholas she married Sir Arderne who died in 1347. Then Margey attracted the attention of several suitors, probably for her inherited wealth.
Sir John De Dalton raped, kidnapped and forced Margery to marry him. Dalton, and a number of men mainly from Lancashire stole her away from her fortified manor house, Beaumys Castle (Beams Castle), on Good Friday, 7 April 1347. During the raid Thomas le Clerk of Shipton, and Michael De Poynings (possibly Margery’s uncle) were killed by the house invaders. They also stole £1000 worth of goods from the castle. Those named as being suspected of involvement in this action included John son of Robert de Dalton, William son of John Trussel of Cublesdon, Thomas Darderne, Matthew Haydok, Edmund de Mancestre, Thomas de Charnels, Thomas de Dutton, Robert de Dalton (cousin), William Whitacre of the county of Warwick, Henry Manwaryn, John Broun, Gilbert de Haydok, Robert de Dalton, father of John de Dalton, Sarra Baillof, mother of Robert de Dalton (cousin) Adam Longbof, ‘taillour,’ of Loundres, William Haydok, William de Whitton and John de Notebem.
John Roby gives the following folk tradition of part of the story relating to Burscough Priory in his ‘Traditions Of Lancashire’ (1872). ‘It was on a still and sultry evening, about the close of summer, in the year of grace one thousand three hundred and forty-seven, that a solitary traveller was seen hastily descending, by a woodland path, into the gloomy thickets that surrounded the neighbouring priory of Burscough. The rain-drops were just pattering on the dark leaves above him, and the birds were fast hastening to some deeper shelter. The timid rabbit, as the stranger passed by, darted into its burrow, and many a quiet face gazed on him from beneath a pair of ragged antlers, peeping over the fences that guarded the demesne. Here and there a narrow glade opened beautifully into the woods, through which might be seen green lawns and pastures, with herds of dappled deer stealing silently to their covert. The low growl of the distant thunder seemed to come upon each living thing like the voice of some invisible spirit, subduing with its mysterious speech every power and faculty, with an authority superior to all human control.
The traveller hastened on. The pinnacles and stately turrets of the priory were just visible through the arched boughs, when, turning into a more sequestered path he observed a female of a wild and uncouth aspect standing in the way. She showed no disposition to move as he approached, nor did she seem to notice his presence. He stopped, but sufficiently near to distinguish the motion of her lips. An unintelligible mutter accompanied it. She looked darkly towards the south, beckoning to the coming thunder, and pointing, as though she would guide its course, towards the grey walls of the priory.
She was dressed in a dark-coloured corset fitting close to the body, and a hood of the same materials. Her hair was a deep jet, and fantastically twisted about her face. She was of low stature, but not bowed by decrepitude or age. Her cheek was hollow, and her complexion swarthy, but her eye grew unnaturally bright, blazing out with a fierceness, intense as though the fire within were visible through these chinks and crevices of the soul’s tenement.
Though the storm was rapidly approaching, she still kept her place, unawed by the rude elements, and seeming to surfer but little inconvenience from the shower, now descending with great vigour. The path was narrow, and a thick underwood skirted the road, so that for the stranger to pass was impossible, unless his opponent chose to take up a more favourable position. But the sudden burst of a terrific thunder-clap, which seemed to roll in a continuous peal above them, made him less ceremonious on this head than the laws of gallantry might warrant. He drew nearer to the female, with the intention of seeking a passage on that side where the least disturbance would be given.
“Go not. ‘Tis accursed!” said she, as if preparing to dispute the attempt.
“I am a stranger, and hastening for shelter. In troth, ’tis a narrow goit that will not let a drowning man through. Prythee, dame, let me not, in some wise, seem uncourteous. Yet”——
Here he attempted to pass; but she seized him, and with so powerful a grasp that for a moment his intention was foiled, so sudden and unexpected was the attack. Though of a stout and muscular shape, yet was he holden tightly, as if she were exulting in her strength. Either malice or madness had given her a vigour of body beyond that of her sex.
“Michael de Poininges!”
The stranger started at this recognition.
“I warn thee! Thinkest thou yon fiend will forward thy mission. Wilt thou tear the prey from the jaws of the famished and ravening wolf? Beware!”
Some score of years had elapsed since De Poininges was a visitor in these parts; and he was now upon some sacred mission to the Prior of Burscough, Thomas de Litherland, whose great power and reckless intrepidity of guilt had won for him a name of no common note, even in those ages of privileged injustice and oppression. No bosom but his own, at least in that neighbourhood, could have been privy to the business which brought him hither; and yet he found a woman casually crossing his path, whose knowledge of his errand was but too evident, and whose appearance and deportment might well excuse the suspicions he entertained as to her familiarity with the EVIL ONE.
“Go, poor beast! Thou art but fattened for the slaughter!” She said this, apparently addressing a stout buck that was sheltering in the thicket. De Poininges shuddered, as she looked on him askance, with some dubious meaning.
“I’ll meet thee at supper-time.”
This was said with a slow and solemn enunciation, as though some terrible warning was intended, yet durst he not question her further; and ere he could reply she had disappeared in the recesses of the forest.
The rain now poured down in torrents, and De Poininges was fain to hasten with all possible expedition towards the porter’s gate.
The priory of Burscough had been founded the century preceding, for a brotherhood of Black Canons, by Robert Fitzhenry, Lord of Lathom. He endowed it with considerable property, emoluments, and alms, and, according to the weak superstition of the age, thought thereby to obtain pardon and rest for the souls of Henry the Second, John, Earl of Moreton, himself, his wife, and all his ancestors; at the same time wishing the kingdom of heaven to all persons who would increase the gifts, and consigning to the devil and his angels all who should impiously infringe on his bequests.
It was dedicated to St Nicholas, and a rude effigy of the saint was carved over the south porch of the chapel, with two or three naked children at his feet. The building was not large, but the architecture was chaste and beautiful, a noble specimen of the early Gothic, then superseding the ponderous forms and proportions of the Norman, or rather Saxon era. The arches were sharply pointed. The windows, narrow and lancet-shaped, were deeply recessed; the slender shafts of the columns were carried in clusters to a vast height, surmounted by pinnacles of rich and elegant tracery; these gave a light and airy character to the whole, highly significant of the buoyant feelings that accompanied so wonderful an escape from the heavy trammels of their predecessors.
Craving shelter, De Poininges was admitted without any question, as all travellers partook indiscriminately of the general bounty. The religious houses in those days were the constituted almonries of the rich and great; and through these overflowing channels, for the most part, proceeded their liberality and beneficence.
He was ushered into one of the locutories, or parlours, where, his business being with the prior, he was desired to wait until an audience could be granted.
Prior Thomas, from some cause or other not assigned, held himself at that season much estranged and secluded from his brethren. He had seldom been seen from his lodgings, except when performing his accustomed office in the church. He had not taken his place in the refectory of late, the duties of the day being performed by one of the elder canons.
De Poininges, after a short space, was summoned to the prior’s chamber. In his progress, he passed the door of the refectory where the brethren were at supper. It was large and wainscoted, and furnished with an ample dresser. Cupboards were let into the wall, and windows opened into the kitchen, through which their meal was served.
One of the monks was reading the appointed service from a low pulpit or desk. The prior’s seat was still vacant. Their way now led through the cloisters, and at the opposite side of the quadrangle a portal communicated by a long and dark passage with the prior’s lodging. This was a sort of inferior castellated mansion, with a spacious hall, and a smaller dining-chamber immediately adjoining. At the end was a fair chapel or oratory. Ascending a flight of stone steps, they came to a low door. The conductor knocked, and De Poininges soon found himself in the presence of the proud Prior of Burscough. He wore a square cap of black stuff, after the fashion of his order. His cloak, or upper garment, was of the same colour, trimmed round the bottom with a double edging. He reposed on a couch, or oaken settle, and seemed, in some measure, either indisposed or unwilling to notice the homage he received. His figure was strong and muscular, his complexion dull, and almost swarthy. His lips were full, and his aspect rather coarse than sensual. His brows were high, and unusually arched; but his eyes were downcast, and seldom raised towards the speaker. In speech he was brief and interrogative, but impatient under a tardy or inefficient answer.
“Thy name, stranger?”
“Michael de Poininges.”
“My business concerns you in private. I await your reverence’s pleasure.”
The prior motioned the attendants to withdraw.
“Proceed. Thy message?” He spoke this with precipitancy, at the same time abruptly changing his position.
“Mine errand is touching one Margaret de la Bech,” said De Poininges, seating himself opposite to the prior; “and I am directed to crave your help for the clearing away of some loose suspicions regarding her concealment.”
“Her concealment!” replied De Litherland, starting up angrily from the couch. “Her concealment! They who hide may find. I know not aught of the wench, save that she was mad, and drowned herself. But why not inquire of Sir Thomas? The maiden was not in my keeping.” He paced the chamber haughtily, but with a disturbed and lurid aspect.
“Yet,” replied the other, “it is well and currently reported, and witnesses there be who have already testified as to a fact, that some of your men were seen the night of her withdrawal lurking in her path, and that screams and other manifestations of the outrage then perpetrated were heard in this direction. Not that we deem any blemish can attach to your reverence in this matter. Still”—
“Why dost thou hesitate in thy speech?” said the prior, in a voice almost inarticulate with choler.
“I would say,” answered De Poininges, “that it is our wish, and your duty, to search into this dark question, without favour or prejudice; and, further, we do reckon that the Prior of Burscough is not without the means to discover, and the power to punish, his offending vassals.”
“And whose evil star guided thee hither with this insolent message?” inquired the prior, pale and trembling with rage.
“Those whom your reverence may not lightly contemn. I have here a warrant from the Council to procure all fitting help and suppliance for the bringing up the body of Margaret de la Bech, who is suspected of being detained in this neighbourhood, by persons hitherto unknown, against her own proper will and consent.”
The prior paused for a space. A somewhat more placid expression and demeanour was the result.
“I am no stranger,” said he, “to this idle and mischievous rumour. Means have been used to discover its likelihood or credibility, but we find it to be utterly false and unworthy of our notice. The inventor of these tales shall not long escape.”
“Yet hath she been a-missing ever since,” said De Poininges, warily; “and in vain hath search been made for the body. And furthermore, we have her own expressed apprehension, as it regards one she durst not name, and a perilous foreboding of the evil that awaited her. It is to this source, yet obscure, I must own, that our inquiries are to be directed.”
“Tarry here until the morning, and I will then give thee some further discourse on the matter.”
“Nay, Sir Prior,” answered De Poininges. “I thank your grace’s courtesy, but this night I must away to the village or town hereabout, Ormschurch I think it be, and there, in all likelihood, I may abide for some days.”
The prior bit his lips, but sought not to oppose his intent, further than by giving a hint that foul weather was abroad, and of the good cheer and dry lodging the priory afforded. De Poininges, however, took his way afoot, returning to the town, where his horse and two trusty attendants awaited him at the tavern or hostel.
The evening was fair, and the sky clear, save a broad and mountainous ridge of clouds piled up towards the north-east, from whence hung a black and heavy curtain stretching behind the hills in that direction. The sparkling of the sea was visible at intervals behind the low sand-hills skirting the coast, giving out, in irregular flashes, the rich and glowing radiance it received. A lucid brightness yet lingered over the waves, which De Poininges stood for a moment to observe, as he gained the brow of the hill near the church. To this edifice was then appended a low spire, not exhibiting, as now, the strange anomaly of a huge tower by its side, seated there apparently for no other purpose than to excite wonder, and to afford the clerk an opportunity of illustrating its origin by the following tradition:—
Long time ago, two maiden sisters of the name of Orme, the founders of this church, disagreed as to the shape of this most important appendage. Tower against spire was, in the end, likely to leave the parties without a church in answer to their prayers, had not the happy suggestion offered itself in the shape of a pair of these campanile structures suited to the taste of each.
That the foregoing is an idle and impertinent invention there is little need to show, inasmuch as both tower and spire might still have been built to satisfy the whim of the old ladies, though placed in the usual manner, one serving as a substratum to the other. A more probable solution is the following, though it may be as far from the truth:—At the dissolution of the priory of Burscough in the time of our great reformer Henry the Eighth—who, like many modern pretenders to this name, was more careful to reform the inaccuracies of others than his own—the bells were removed to Ormskirk; but the small tower beneath the spire not being sufficiently capacious, the present square steeple was added, and the wonder perpetuated to this day.
De Poininges, on crossing the churchyard, met there a personage of no less note than Thomas the Clerk, or Thomas le Clerke, retiring from some official duties, arrayed in his white surplice and little quaint skull-cap. He was a merry wight, and in great favour with the parish wives. He could bleed and shave the sconce; draw out bonds and quittances; thus uniting three of the professions in his own proper person. He was prime mover in the May games, and the feast of fools. Morris, Moriscoe, or Moorish dancers, there is good reason for supposing, were not then introduced, though by some said to have been brought into England in the sixth year of Edward III., when John of Gaunt returned from Spain; but few traces of it are found earlier than Henry VII., so that it is more probable we had them from our Gallic neighbours, or even from the Flemings.
He could dance, too, and play on the rebeck and citerne, this being a common amusement with the customers during the time they were in waiting at the barbers’ shops, as newspapers were not then at hand to sustain this difficult office. He was of a dainty person; clad mostly in a kirtle of light watchet-colour, thick set with loose points. His hosen were grey, mingled with black, and his shoes were belayed with knots and ornaments, of which, and his other stray gear, he was not a little proud.
This Thomas was used to go about with a censer, on a Sunday, as Chaucer hath it,—
“Censing the wives of the parish feast.”
Absalom, that pink of clerkly portraiture, seemed but a fair prototype of this individual, Geoffrey Chaucer at this time being a setter forth of rhymes and other matters for the ticklish ears of sundry well-fed and frolicksome idlers about the court of King Edward.
The merry knave of whom we speak was, however, in happy ignorance of all courtly fashions. Provided he obtained his Sunday contributions, and his Christmas loaf, and his eggs at Easter, little wot he how the world went round. He was a frequent visitor at the tavern, and De Poininges had already been distinguished by his especial notice.
From his character, and the means of information arising out of his multifarious occupations, De Poininges expected that some of the intelligence he was in search of might be gathered from this source.
The petty hostelry was now in sight, a projecting bush denoting the vintner’s residence. The house was but thinly attended, though clean rushes and a blazing billet bespoke comfort and good cheer. De Poininges and his companion turned aside into a smaller chamber, where mine host was speedily summoned for a flagon of stout liquor. This being supplied, they addressed themselves to the wooden utensil with right goodwill; and as the draughts began to quicken, so did the clerk’s tongue not fail to wag the faster. De Poininges adroitly shifted the discourse upon the business of which he was in quest, whenever there was a tendency to diverge, no rare occurrence, Thomas being somewhat loth for a while to converse on the subject. The liquor, however, and his own garrulous propensities, soon slipped open the budget, and scraps of intelligence tumbled out which De Poininges did not fail to lay hold of as hints for another line of examination.
“I reckon so, at any rate, and so said Geoffrey,” replied the clerk, after a pause, subsequent to some close question.
“Sir Thomas, the Lord of Lathom, as you may have heard, he is a good-hearted soul, and this Margaret de la Bech was companion to his daughter Isabel. She was ever held as a dame of good family and descent, though a stranger in these parts. Then she was passing fair, so that both squire and gentleman, as they looked on her, were nigh devoured with love. They say, too, her conditions were gentle and winsome as a child; and”—
“Good,” said De Poininges, who found he was slipping away from the main subject. “But hath not Sir Thomas made some apparent search since her disappearance from the hall?”
“Save the mark—she was drowned in the moat. So say the gossips,” said the clerk, looking askance. “Her hood and mantle were on the brink—but her body! why, it never jumped out again to look for them—that’s all.”
“But did no one look for the body?” carelessly inquired De Poininges.
“The knight groped diligently in the castle ditch for many days; but light fishes make light nets, as we say. There was no corpse to be found, and many an Ave Maria has been said for her soul.”
“What cause was then assigned for this fearful deed?”
“‘Tis said she was in love, and went mad! I wot she was ever sighing and rambling about the house, and would seldom venture out alone, looking as though she were in jeopardy, and dreaded some hidden danger.”
“Thinkest thou, friend, that some hidden danger might not be the cause; and this show of her drowning but a feint or device that should turn aside the current of their inquiry?”
The clerk looked anxious and uneasy, sore puzzled, as it might seem, to shape out an answer. At length, finding that the question could not be evaded, he proceeded with much hesitation as follows:—
“Safe as my Lord Cardinal at his prayers—she is dead though; for I heard her wraith wailing and shrieking up the woods that night as I stood in the priory close. It seemed like, as it were, making its way through the air from Lathom, for the smell of consecration, I reckon.”
“Go on,” said De Poininges, whose wits were shrewdly beginning to gather intelligence from these furtive attempts at concealment.
“Well-a-day,” continued the clerk, draining an ample potation, “I’ve heard strange noises thereabout; and the big building there, men say, is haunted by the ghost.”
“Where is the building thou speakest of?”
“The large granary beyond the postern leading from the prior’s house towards the mill. I have not passed thereby since St Mark’s vigil, and then it came.” Here he looked round, stealing a whisper across the bench—”I heard it: there was a moaning and a singing by turns; but the wind was loud, so that I could scarcely hear, though when I spake of it to old Geoffrey the gardener, he said the prior had laid a ghost, and it was kept there upon prayer and penance for a long season. Now, stranger, thou mayest guess it was no fault of mine if from this hour I passed the granary after sunset. The ghost and I have ever kept ourselves pretty far apart.”
“Canst show me this same ghostly dungeon?”
“Ay, can I, in broad daylight; but”—.
“Peradventure thou canst show me the path, or the clue to it; and I warrant me the right scent will lie at the end on’t.”
“And pray, good master, wherefore may your curious nose be so mightily set upon this same adventure?” said the clerk, his little red and ferrety eyes peering very provokingly into those of his opposite neighbour. Now, De Poininges was not for the moment prepared to satisfy this unexpected inquiry, but his presence of mind did not forsake him. Rightly guessing his friend’s character—a compound in universal esteem, to wit, fool and knave—he drew from his pouch a couple of bright ship nobles, then but newly coined, which effectually diverted the prying looks of Thomas le Clerke.
“Why, look ye,” said the latter, as the coin jingled in his bag, “I was ever held in good repute as a guide, and can make my way blindfold over the bogs and mosses hereabout; and I would pilot thee to the place yonder, if my fealty to the prior—that is—if—I mean—though I was never a groat the richer for his bounty; yet he may not like strangers to pry into his garners and store-houses, especially in these evil times, when every cur begins to yelp at the heels of our bountiful mother; and every beast to bray out its reproaches at her great wealth and possessions.”
De Poininges was more and more convinced that his neighbour knew more of the matter than he durst tell; but it seemed expedient to conceal his suspicions for the present. In the end it was agreed that the cunning clerk should accompany him so far as to point out the situation; but on no account would he consent to keep watch during the absence of De Poininges. The latter assented to this arrangement, secretly resolving to dictate other terms where his will should both command and be obeyed.
They immediately set out on horseback, followed by the servants, to whom De Poininges had given a private signal.
The moon had risen. One bright star hung like a “jewel in an Ethiop’s ear” in the dark sky above the sun’s track, which at this season sweeps like a lucid zone, dividing day from night, round the northern horizon. Such a time of purity and brightness often succeeds the sultry and oppressive languor of the day, especially when refreshed by the passing storm; the air so clear that objects press, as it were, upon the eyeballs, affecting the sight as though they were almost palpable to the touch. The dews had not descended, but the leaves were still wet. Big drops glittered in the moonlight, pouring a copious shower on the travellers as they passed. The clerk began a low chant, humming and whistling by turns: this gradually grew more audible, until the full burst of the “Miserere” commenced, richly adorned with his own original quavers. So enamoured was he of his qualifications in this respect that he was fairly getting through high mass, when, midway in a ravishing “Benedictus” he made a sudden halt.
“What is that creeping behind the bushes there?” inquired he, in a sort of half-whisper to his companion. De Poininges looked in the direction pointed out, and thought he saw something, dark and mysterious, moving between the boughs on his left. He stopped, but the object, whatever its nature, had disappeared.
Sore alarmed was the timid chorister; but though his melodies had ceased, a plentiful supply of credos and paternosters were at hand to supply their place. Crossing himself with a great show of sanctity, he moved on with much caution, his deep hoarse voice having subsided into a husky and abrupt whisper, often interrupted when objects the most trivial arrested his glance and aroused his suspicions.
They arrived without molestation at an enclosure about a mile distant from the priory. Here they alighted, leaving the horses to the care of their attendants. Turning the angle made by a low wall, they observed a footpath, which the clerk pointed out as the shortest and most convenient course to their destination. Soon the east end of the priory chapel was visible, basking in the broad light of the harvest moon, then riding up full and unclouded towards her zenith. Buttress and oriel were weltering in her beam, and the feathery pinnacles sprang out sharp and clear into the blue sky. The shadows were thrown back in masses deep and unbroken, more huge in proportion to the unknown depths through which the eye could not penetrate.
“There—again! ‘Tis a footstep on our track!” said the clerk, abruptly breaking upon the reverie of his companion.
“‘Tis but the tread of the roused deer; man’s bolder footstep falls not so lightly,” was the reply; but this did not quiet the apprehensions of the querist, whose terrors were again stealing upon him. Their path was up a little glen, down which the mill-stream, now released from its daily toil, brawled happily along, as if rejoicing in its freedom. Near the mill, on a point of land formed by an abrupt bend of the stream, stood the storehouse or grange. It was an ample structure, serving at times for purposes not immediately connected with its original design. A small chamber was devoted to the poorer sort of travellers, who craved a night’s lodging on their journey. Beneath was a place of confinement, for the refractory vassals and serfs, when labouring under their master’s displeasure. It was here the garrulous clerk said he had been scared by the ghost, and his reluctance to proceed evidently increased as he drew nearer. He did not fail to point out the spot, but resolutely refused to budge a step farther.
“We had best return,” said he; “I have told thee what I know of the matter.”
“And what should scare thee so mightily, friend,” said De Poininges, “from out the prior’s grange? Methinks, these ghosts of thine had a provident eye to their bellies. These haunters to the granary had less objection to the victuals than to a snuff of the wind before cock-crow.”
“I know not,” replied Amen, rather doggedly; “’tis all I heard, though there be more that live hereabout than the prior and his monks, I trow.”
“Thou hast been here ofttimes o’ nights?” carelessly inquired the other.
“I have, upon some chance occasion it may be; but since that ugly noise got wind, to which my own ears bear testimony, I was not over-curious to pass within hearing, though it were only the rogues, some said, that were mulcting the flour-sacks.”
“But thou knowest there was a hint dropped a while ago at the hostel, that the maiden, whom thou hast now forgotten, methinks, had some connection with this marvellous tale of thine; and now, it seems, I am to believe ’tis but the knaves or the rats purloining the prior’s corn! Hark thee, friend,” said De Poininges, in a stern tone, “no more evasion: no turn or equivocation shall serve thee: out with it, and lead on, or”—
A bright flash from his falchion here revealed the peril that he threatened.
“Miserere mei—Oh,—Salve et!”—
“Silence, knave, and pass quickly; but remember, if I catch thee devising any sleight or shuffle, this sharp point shall quicken thee to thy work. It may prove mighty efficacious, too, as a restorative for a lapsed memory.”
“I’ll tell thee all!—but—hold that weapon a little back, I prithee. Nay—nay, thou wouldest not compass a poor man’s death in such haste.”
“Lead on, then, but be discreet,” said De Poininges, softly, at the same time pushing him forward at his sword’s point.
“Here is some help to mine errand, or my craft fails me this bout.”
After many qualms and wry faces, De Poininges, by piecemeal, acquired the following intelligence:—
One night, this honest clerk being with a friend on a predatory excursion to the prior’s storehouse, they heard a muffled shriek and a sharp scuffle at some distance. Being outside the building, and fearing detection, they ran to hide themselves under a detached shed, used as a depository for firewood and stray lumber. Towards this spot, however, the other parties were evidently approaching. Presently three or four men, whom they judged to be the prior’s servants, came nigh, bearing a female. They entered into the shed, and proceeded to remove a large heap of turf. Underneath seemed to be one of those subterraneous communications generally contrived as a retreat in times of peril; at any rate, they disappeared through the opening, and the clerk and his worthy associate effected their escape unobserved.
Fear of detection, and of the terrible retribution that would follow, hitherto kept the secret undivulged. There could be little doubt that this female was Margaret de la Bech; and her person, whether living or dead, had become a victim to the well-known lawless disposition of the prior.
They were now at the entrance to a low gateway, from which a short path to the left led them directly towards the spot. Entering the shed, they commenced a diligent search; but the terror and confusion of the clerk had prevented such accuracy of observation as could enable him to discover the opening, which they in vain attempted to find, groping their way suspiciously in the dark.
“Softly, softly!” said the clerk, listening. A low murmur came from the opposite corner, like the muttering of one holding audible communion with his own spirit. De Poininges listened too, and he fancied it was a female voice. Presently he heard one of those wild and uncouth ditties, a sort of chant or monotonous song, which, to the terrified psalm-singer, sounded like the death-wail of some unfortunate ghost.
The following words only became sufficiently distinct:—
“The sunbeam came on a billow of flame,
But its light, like thine, is done:
Life’s tangled coil, with all its toil,
Is broken ere ’tis run.
“The kite may love the timid dove,
The hawk be the raven’s guest;
But none shall dare that hawk to scare
From his dark and cloud-wreathed nest!
“Wail on, ye fond maidens,
Death lurks in the cloud;
The storm and the billow
Are weaving a shroud:
“There’s a wail on the wind;
Ere its track on the main,
A light shall be quenched,
Ne’er to kindle again!”
“Surely I have heard that voice aforetime,” thought De Poininges. It was too peculiar for him to mistake. The woman had loitered in his path a few hours before. It seemed her brain was somewhat disturbed: a wanderer and an outcast in consequence, she had here taken shelter ofttimes for the night. He determined to accost her; a feeling of deference prompted him, a superstitious notion, arising from an idea then prevalent, that a superior light was granted to those individuals in whom the light of reason was extinct. He approached with caution, much to the terror and distress of his companion.
“It is crazy Isabel,” said he, “and the dark spirit is upon her!” But De Poininges was not in a mood to feel scared with this intimation. The way was intricate, and he stumbled over a heap of dried fuel. The noise seemed to arrest her attention for a moment; but she again commenced her song, paying little heed to this interruption. On recovering his position, he was about to speak, when, to his great surprise, she thus accosted him:—
“I have tarried long for thee. Haste—equip for the battle,—and then,
“‘My merry men all,
Round the greenwood tree,
How gallant to ride
With a gay ladye.’
“I am crazed, belike. Good wot; but I can ride o’er the neck of a proud prior.
“‘And the moon shone clear
In the blue heavens, where
The stars twinkle through her veil of light:—
There they gave me a merry shooting star,
And I rolled round the wain with my golden car,
But I leapt on the lightning’s flash, beside
The queen of this murky night!'”
“Crazed, indeed!” thought De Poininges.
“Hush,” said she: “I’ll tell thee a secret.” She drew a light from some concealed recess, and flashing it full in the face of the intruder, seemed to enjoy the effect wonderfully. On a sudden her brow wrinkled, and the dark billows came over her spirit as she exclaimed—
“‘Thou hast work to do,
Or we may rue
The thieving trade.’
“Go to—I must be calm. The spirit goeth forth, and I may not wander again. But my poor head: it burns here—here!” And she put her hand tenderly on that of De Poininges, raising it to her brow, which throbbed violently. She started back, as from some sudden recollection, gazing intently on his countenance.
“I know it—the vision tarrieth not. Now,” she said—crossing herself with great solemnity, and with apparent composure, as if all trace of her malady had disappeared—”we must away. Follow; yet will I first set yon rogue to watch.” She sought the terrified man of canticles, and, speaking in a low tone, raised her hand as though with some terrible denunciation in case of disobedience. Immediately she returned, and, pointing to a heap of loose stuff, began to throw it aside.
But De Poininges hesitated, thinking it a somewhat dubious adventure to follow a mad woman, it might be, in quest of her wits. Seeing his unwillingness to proceed, she whispered something in his ear which wrought a marvellous change. He looked as if petrified with wonder, but he followed now without shrinking. They entered by a narrow door, curiously concealed. On its closing after them, De Poininges and his companion seemed shut out from the world,—as if the link were suddenly broken which bound them to earth and its connections.
The first sensation was that of dullness and damp, accompanied by a mouldering vapour, like that from the charnel-house or the grave. Their way was down a winding and broken staircase; at the bottom a straight passage led them on to a considerable distance. Damps oozing from the walls made the path more and more tiresome and slippery as they proceeded. Shortly it became channelled with slime, and absolutely loathsome. The bloated reptile crawled across their path; and De Poininges beheld stone coffins piled on each side of the vault. Passing these, another flight of steps brought them to a low archway, at the extremity of which a grated door, now unbarred, led into a cell seemingly contrived as a place of punishment for the refractory or sinning brethren, who might be doomed to darkness and solitude as an expiation of their offence. The only furniture it contained was a wretched pallet, on which, as the light flashed doubtfully, De Poininges thought he beheld a female. He snatched the light, and eagerly bent over the couch. With a shout of joy he exclaimed—
“Be praised, ye saints, ’tis she!”
It was the wasted and squalid form of Margaret de la Bech. She raised her eyes towards him, but they were vacant and wandering. It was soon evident that her reason was impaired, and the spirit still inhabiting that lovely tenement was irrevocably obscured. Cruel had been her sufferings. Crimes too foul to name—but we draw a veil over the harrowing recital! When the last horrible act was consummated the light of her soul was put out, and her consciousness extinguished.
To meet thus! A living inhumation, where the body exists but as the spirit’s sepulchre! It were better they had been consigned to oblivion, shut up and perishing in the dark womb of the grave. The cry of vengeance had gone up, but was offered in vain for a season. The present period of existence was not allotted for its fulfilment. It was permitted to this monster that he should yet triumph unpunished—his measure of iniquity was not yet full.
The limbs of the unconscious sufferer were pinioned:—the fiend-like mercy of her tormentors prevented her own hands from becoming the instruments of her release. De Poininges restored her to freedom; but alas! she knew it not. The thick veil which Heaven’s mercy drew upon her spirit rendered her insensible to outward impressions. He raised her in his arms, bearing her forth from that loathed scene of darkness and disgrace; and when the pure breath of the skies once more blew upon her, it seemed as though it awakened up a faint glimmer in the dying lamp. She looked round with eagerness, and De Poininges thought some ray of intelligence began to brighten, as objects again appeared to develop their hidden trains of association on the memory; but the light was mercifully extinguished ere she could discover the fearful realities of her despair, and she again relapsed into hopeless and utter inanity.
They were still loitering in the little shed, the clerk groaning out a sad and mournful chant. De Poininges appeared unable to arouse himself to the exigencies of the moment, when Isabel, wildly waving her torch towards the entrance, cried—
“To horse—to horse! They will be here presently. Already has the raven snuffed your carcase—
“‘But the bolt whistled through
The heavens blue,
And Sir Lionel lay on the battle-field.'”
She seemed to hearken, as though in apprehension of approaching footsteps. De Poininges, roused from this dangerous stupor, prepared to escape ere the prior’s emissaries had intelligence of her removal.
They had passed the rivulet in safety, and had just gained the wood near to where the attendants lay in wait with the horses, when an arrow whizzed past De Poininges. For him the shaft was intended, but its destiny was otherwise—the unfortunate chanter lay stretched on the ground in his last agony. De Poininges flew on with redoubled speed.
“Treachery!” he cried. His men knew the signal, and galloped towards him; but their aid was too late. A shack-bolt, aimed with a sure hand, pierced him at this moment.
“Take her—Margaret de la Bech! The prior—a murderer—ravisher! Fly to”—
The remaining words fell unuttered. His faithful attendants bore off the lifeless body, together with the hapless Margaret, who was soon placed in safety, far from the relentless fangs of the Prior of Burscough.
Fearful and undeniable was the testimony and accusation they brought, but in vain. No effort was spared to bring upon this monster the just recompense of his crime; yet, from the great scandal which a public execution must have drawn upon the Church, but more especially from the great influence he possessed amongst the nobles and chief dignitaries of the land, not only did he escape unpunished, but he received the king’s most gracious pardon, in the twenty-first year of Edward the Third: so true are the following words from an historian of that reign:—
“These men had so entrenched themselves in privileges and immunities, and so openly challenged an exemption from all secular jurisdiction, that no civil penalty could be inflicted on them for any malversation in office, and even treason itself was declared to be no canonical offence.”
Another interesting dark part of Burscough Priory’s was mentioned in ‘A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 2’ (1908) ‘A scandal which came to light in 1454 affords a curious glimpse into the state of the house at that date. Charges of divination, sortilege, and black art were brought against the prior, Robert Woodward, one of the canons, Thomas Fairwise, and the vicar of Ormskirk, William Bolton, who is described as late canon of the priory. An episcopal investigation revealed strange doings. One Robert, a necromancer, had undertaken for £10 to find hidden treasure. After swearing secrecy on the sacrament of bread they handed it over in the pyx to Robert. Three circuli trianguli were made, in each of which one of them stood, the vicar having the body of Christ suspended at his breast and holding in his hand a rod, doubtless a diviner’s rod. The story ends here, but all three denied that any invocation of demons or sacrifice to them had taken place. Bishop Boulers suspended them for two years, from the priestly office and from receiving the sacraments except in articulo mortis. Bolton was deprived of his vicarage and the prior had to resign. In a few months the bishop removed the suspension in their case, but they did not recover their positions. The ex-prior was allowed a pension of 10 marks, with a ‘competent chamber’ in the priory, and as much bread, beer, and meat as fell to the share of two canons.’