A Crusader’s Penance for Killing his Wife

Today’s Saturday Snapshot is a romantic tragedy. Once upon a time in the dim and distant past, a brave and devout knight bid farewell to his beautiful wife and joined a Crusade to the Holy Land. While he was away fighting for his faith, his trusty steward importuned the lady (which makes him lusty rather than trusty), but she remained true to her absent lord, and spurned the advances of her unwanted suitor. Furious at being rejected, he sought revenge, biding his time until his master returned – then he accused the virtuous lady of being unfaithful. Our gallant knight, believing the lie, stabbed his wife through the heart while she protested her innocence. He had some anger management issues there, methinks, to say nothing of being a very bad judge of character: he’d rather accept the word of a man than that of the woman he loved and married. Anyway, when he finally did discover the truth, he was distraught with grief and shame, so he founded a priory, where prayers could be said, as an act of penance for slaying his wife.

I have no idea if this tragic tale is true, or merely a local legend – but Alvecote Priory, in North  Warwickshire, was erected by William Burdet, who allegedly murdered his wife – and remnants of the building can still be seen. There is an archway and low walls, which are believed to date from from the 14th century, and to come from the priory itself. Established in 1159, it was a ‘cell’ of the Benedictine monks at Great Malvern, and remained small, with few benefactors. A meadow was gifted to the monks, and they had a mill, a dovecote, and fishing rights, but they couldn’t afford to maintain and repair the building, so they appealed to Edward III for help, and in 1334 were given Royal dispensation to raise money by collecting alms from other churches.

The priory and the main monastery at ‘Myche Malverne’, were both closed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of religious houses, and in 1543 the king gave Alvecote Priory, its lands and possessions, to Thomas Audley, the Lord Chancellor, who gave it to Joan Robynson, the widow of George Robynson, a London mercer. It seems to have become (or been incorporated into) a manor house, owned by many different families over the centuries. An 18th century building, known as Priory House, used earlier stonework, but was demolished in the 1960s.

There used to be the remains of the monks’ dovecote on the site, but I don’t know if this still exists – I couldn’t see it when I visited. It’s a long time since I’ve been there. Years ago there was a little car park, and at one stage there was a picnic area. When my daughters were small I used to take them there and we would sit on the grass to eat our sandwiches, and walk through the arch, and look at the ruined walls, and generally run about. You could see the canal, and walk by it, and it was a lovely, happy place. The car park and picnic area have both disappeared, due to vandalism apparently, and there is a locked gate, but there is space in front of it for a couple of cars, and a gap at the side, so I parked and walked through, ignoring the forbidding notice which says access is now available from a nearby country park. Much of the area was quite overgrown, and it felt very unwelcoming – slightly sinister and threatening, which was very peculiar.

The horse looks lovely in the photograph, but he was very unnerving. He was on a very long, heavy chain, and kept following me, and then blocking my way, and wouldn’t let me walk through to the canal – I could see a boat through the trees, but I don’t know if there were people there. It all seemed very deserted, and very quiet, and yet somehow all the time I was there I felt as if I was being watched, and I kept thinking of the Walter de la Mare poem, ‘The Listeners’. And it was a very hot, very humid afternoon, which made the atmosphere feel even more oppressive so, I was glad to get back to the car I don’t ever remember feeling like that about a place before, but perhaps it was just the heat, and the fact that there was no-one else around making me nervous. For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice’s blog at http://athomewithbooks.net/

Information in this post was taken from the Victorian County History of Warwickshire, which was largely based on accounts by William Dugdale, a 17th century antiquarian and historian.

44 thoughts on “A Crusader’s Penance for Killing his Wife

  1. Margaret, that is so kind of you to say so. I've always loved history, and I learned a lot about the area when I worked on the paper, from the lady who used to do our history column, and from one of my colleagues who is a real expert, so now I've got the time I'm trying to explore and see some of the things they told me about – and finding out more on my own.


  2. I love the history linked to the place. The spookiness of deserted architectural remains is sometimes unnerving isn't it? Love the shots of the arch and the horse against the greenery … a nice post!


  3. That is so weird about the creepy horse! I would bet at least part of the story is true with the man killing his wife. I think there's usually a basis in truth for most myths/legends. Such a sad story though.


  4. I'm sure the horse was really just being friendly… but I'm not used to horses! It would be nice to try and research primary sources to find the history and see if it matched the legend, but I don't know where one would start, or if it would even be possible.


  5. I guess there must have been Crusaders who arrived back home only to find their wives had re-married, thinking they were dead. Communications must have been virtually non-existent, even if they sent messengers! No Skype, no decent postal services, no emails, no mobiles, no phones…


  6. Cheryl, I thought there was echoes of old ballads and Othello in the story, which is interesting, because while it is generally accepted that Othello is based on an Italian story, some people believe Shakespeare spent part of his youth as a page with a wealthy family at a big house in the village of Polesworth, and Polesworth is next door to Alvecote…!!!!


  7. What a wonderful history lesson, thank you. I think you did o.k. feeling creeped out at a place that didn't seem so welcoming too bad. Especially when you have such nice memories.


  8. I seem to remember the stonework was repaired (or conserved) a few years back. It's always hard to tell with something like this how authentic things actually are, but it looks quite impressive, although it is so small.


  9. It is sad. And just imagine the knight, all those centuries ago, building a priory and thinking the monks would pray for his soul, and his wife's, for ever more… and now there's no building, no monks, and no prayers…


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