Dartmoor is one of my favourite places for photography and with many landmarks having legends and ghost stories associated with them, is another reason why I love it so much.
When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 he faced rebellions for several years and to protect his kingdom he gave lands and titles to many of his followers and built castles to protect strongpoints. One of these was Baldwin FitzGilbert, a Norman Lord who in 1067 was appointed High Sheriff of Devonshire and he built Okehampton Castle between 1068 and 1086 to protect a crossing point from Devon into Cornwall from a revolt.
After Baldwin’s death in 1090, the castle was inherited by his daughter who took little interest in the property and after several years eventually passed to the Courtenay family in 1173 and remain so until the 15th century when the Courtenay family had the castle confiscated on several occasions during the civil conflict in England known as the War of the Roses. By the time the conflict ended in 1485 Henry VII was King of England and once again the castle was returned to Edward Courtenay.
Edward’s son, William Courtenay at the time was a supporter of Henry VII and lost favour with the King for conspiracy to the crown and in 1504 was imprisoned in the Tower of London making him incapable of inheritance. This meant once again for a short period, Okehampton Castle was confiscated from the Courtenay family when his father Edward died in May 1509.
In April 1509 Henry VIII had already succeeded to the throne and eventually released William Courtenay with full pardon and rights and made Earl of Devon in May 1511. By this time Okehampton Castle was again restored to the Courtenay family but shortly afterwards in June 1511, William died leaving his son Henry Courtenay as his heir.
The final chapter for the Courtenay family came when in 1539, Henry Courtenay was found guilty of treason for his involvement in the Exeter Conspiracy to overthrow Henry VIII. Henry Courtenay was beheaded on the 9th January 1939. His wife and son were imprisoned in the Tower of London and all their properties confiscated, permanently breaking the link between the Courtenay family and Okehampton Castle.
From this point forward the castle was abandoned and although there was a battle which took place near Okehampton in 1643, the castle was not used for military purpose. Later in the 17th century, it was turned into a bakehouse and the grounds reverted back to farmland. By the 18th century, it became nothing more than a popular spot for painters. Today the castle is owned by the English Heritage and is protected under law as a grade I listed building.
I never really take much notice of the history when visiting places like this, I’d rather wander around and take photos instead. There was an opportunity for me to listen to an audio tour while going around the grounds but I was just too distracted to take it in. I much prefer to come home and do some research myself and I’m really surprised how much history surrounds this great location.
I always love a good ghost story for places on Dartmoor and Okehampton Castle has one of these great stories to tell. The story is of Lady Mary who was for some reason responsible for the death of her four husbands, and although if you look at the story of Lady Mary, was not really responsible for any of these deaths directly, but somehow was implicated and fingers pointed at her direction. When she died at her home in Fitz House, it is said that her ghost was immediately seen in the area and that somehow her punishment was given for her deeds.
The story goes, that after midnight every night, Lady Mary’s ghost can be seen travelling from Fitz House in a carriage made of bones from her four dead husbands, with the skulls of their heads on all four sides of the carriage. She is driven by a headless driver, followed by a black dog with blood-red eyes towards Okehampton Castle. On arrival, the black dog will pick a blade of grass from the grounds of the castle and then travel back to Fitz House where the black dog will place the blade of grass on a granite stone. This process will repeat each night until every single blade of grass is plucked from the grounds of the castle and until so, she will never be free from her punishment.