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A phantom in my family

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A phantom in my family | story.one

They say that when you start digging up your family history you should expect to find a few skeletons in the closet. When I embarked on an amateur genealogy hunt into my paternal ancestry, little did I know it would lead me to vampires, faceless effigies, headless horsemen, a Spanish Saint and several princesses, Kings and Queens. And the key to them all was through one woman - my 15 x great great grandmother, Lady Margaret Stanley.

Even though she was the illegitimate daughter of James Stanley Archdeacon of Chester, she brought a considerable amount of land and wealth to her marriage to my 15x great great grandad Sir Henry Halsall when they tied the knot way back in 1503. They had a very happy marriage by the looks of things, with many children.

Yet the same cannot be said of Margaret's maternal great great grandfather, Richard FitzAlan, 11th Earl of Arundel whose life I knew nothing about until recently and somehow found myself with tears trickling down my face when I learnt his sad story from 1397.

Richard was one of the Appellants who complained about the favouritism Richard II was showing to some men in his ‘in’ crowd. He, along with his fellow nobles, were lured years later by pretence to appear in front of the vengeful King and his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt. After a sham trial, Richard was sentenced to immediate death and led away with no chance to appeal or say his goodbyes to his family. His daughter, Elizabeth Duchess of Norfolk (Margaret's great gran) would have been in her early 30s then.

As his direct ancestor, I was heartwarmed to read that he asked for his hands to be freed from the ropes binding them to give away the coins in his purse to people lining the roads on his way to his execution at Tower Hill. And that they weren't happy at the way those guarding him treated him on the way to his death because he was well liked.

Nobles - because of their upbringing - were supposed to know how to die with dignity and were beheaded rather than hanged. They didn't always have a block and could be killed sitting down or standing up. Richard is said to have asked his executioner to “make it quick and in one blow” and so it was.

But that's not the end of Richard's story. Various accounts tell of his body standing for minutes afterwards and his voice could be heard still reciting The Lord's Prayer, which led to people flocking to his tomb calling him a Saint.

The king was said to be so haunted by him in his dreams and afraid of him becoming a martyr that he called for his tomb to be reopened as rumours were circulating of him not being in it. Those given that task were said to be scared in case they saw his apparition but instead they were able to report back that Richard was indeed still in his tomb with his head intact as it had been sewn back on.

That can't have been done by Elizabeth de Bohun, my great great grandmother x 18, as she'd died 12 years before leaving Richard a grieving widower who never got over her death.

I'm not sure about him being a headless horseman but it is eerie nonetheless.

© Ruth Supple 2021-10-28

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