Friday, 27 October 2017

Debunking the Curse of the Cravens

Curses. They’re rather fun in fiction. As someone who has written a book featuring a cursed pearl, I’m the first to admit that I like the Gothic, spooky element of a curse story, especially as the nights draw in towards Halloween and the ghosts start to gather.

However, I have a different attitude towards real-life family curses. They make me feel pretty uncomfortable because these are real people the curses refer to, not fictional ones. Someone might get hurt. And really… Can they possibly stand up to the light of historical enquiry?

One of the biggest, spookiest and most notorious family curse stories that pops up every so often (I
was reading about it again only yesterday) is the so-called curse of the Craven family of Ashdown Park. When it comes to family curses this has all the classic elements; a heartless nobleman who gets a maidservant (or gypsy girl, depending on which version you read) pregnant, casts her out and is cursed for his cruelty. The curse itself is blood-curdling in its threat: That no son and heir to the title shall outlive his mother.  And it comes true, striking down each generation of the family with death and destruction.

Except in one generation this doesn’t happen. Or maybe in two. Or three… Well, you can see where I’m going with this.  Can we talk the incidence of illness in any given historical era? Or the dangers of war? Perhaps not, because that would spoil the story... Well, I’m going to do it anyway because I'm a spoilsport.

What is the truth behind this apparent curse that no son of the Craven family would outlive his mother? Well, first it’s a bit vague, isn’t it?  The Craven family has produced a great many sons across all branches of the family over the years and plenty of them have outlived their mothers. So for convenience sake the curse has been interpreted as “no heir to the title shall outlive his mother” which is a lot easier to check. And if you do check, you’ll find that there is no historical basis for the story of the curse. Not one reference. The first mention of it is in The News of the World in the 1980s.

Never mind. Let’s look at the actual detail behind this claim because it could be true anyway.

If we start with William, First Earl of Craven, who was supposed to have been the philandering
nobleman who brought this on the family, he was born in 1608 and died in 1697. His mother Elizabeth died in 1624, so he outlived her by quite a long chalk.

William was succeeded as 2nd Lord Craven by the grandson of a cousin. This William was born in 1688 and died in 1711. His mother, Margaret also died in 1711, but in April to William’s October. Foiled again.

William the 3rd Baron and Fulwar the 4th Baron were brothers. They died in 1739 and 1764 respectively. Their mother Elizabeth died in 1704 before both of her sons.

William the 5th Baron died in 1769. There is no record of when his mother died.

William 6th Baron died in 1791. His mother Mary also died in 1791. William predeceased her by 2 months. At last we’re getting somewhere!

William, 7th Baron and 1st Earl of the 2nd Creation was born in 1770 and died in 1825. His mother, the “beautiful Lady Craven” was alive and causing scandal until three years later!

William 2nd Earl was born in 1809 and died in 1866. His mother, the actress Louisa Brunton, had died in 1860. Oops! After only 2 generations the curse fails again.

The second Earl’s heir was Viscount Uffington who was born in 1838. He pre-deceased his father, never mind his mother, a not uncommon occurrence. It was his brother George who went on to inherit the Craven Earldom. Both sons were outlived by their mother Emily who died in 1901.

And it’s here that the story of the curse really kicks off because it is the case that in the subsequent four generations the Dowager Countesses of Craven have outlived the son and heir. Which all goes to prove…  Not very much in my opinion, especially as the 5th Earl was badly wounded in the First World War which affected his health throughout the rest of his life. However there are others who are more open to the idea than I am and I’m sure they will carry on telling the tale of the wicked earl, the pregnant maid/gypsy and the subsequent curse that has wreaked havoc for ten generations. As for me, I’ll just keep looking for some historical evidence to back up the tale and in the meantime wish the Earl of Craven (and his mother) a long and happy life untroubled by these stories.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The apples of Wyken Manor

Aficionados of Ashdown House and William Craven will already know that he was a man of wide-ranging interests. I had not previously realised, however, that one of them was horticulture. Last week I discovered that when he came back from the Netherlands after the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 William Craven brought with him the seeds of an apple which he planted at Wyken Manor near Coventry. This grew to be the Wyken Pippin apple tree. On Thursday, wandering in the orchard at Stanton Park near Swindon, I found a Wyken Pippin tree and learned of its history. Apparently the fruit is creamy white, moderately firm, juicy, sweet and aromatic, which sounds delicious. At Stanton you can pick the pippin and other heritage apples, which is a rather lovely idea!