Up from under the dripping dark of the trees it came, shining with a thin, moony radiance. There was no clatter of hoofs, no rumble of wheels, no ringing of bit or bridle. He saw the white, sleek, shining shoulders with the collar that lay on each, like a faint fiery ring, enclosing nothing. He saw the gleaming reins, their cut ends slipping back and forward unsupported through the ring of the hames. The feet, that never touched earth, ran swiftly–four times four noiseless hoofs, bearing the pale bodies by like smoke. The driver leaned forward, brandishing his whip. He was faceless and headless, but his whole attitude bespoke desperate haste. . .[the coach] went past at a a gallop. . .Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention”, in Lord Peter Views the Body (1928)
In Sayers’ story, the death coach is a hoax–a bit of jiggery-pokery that ultimately spares a rightful heir from losing his birthright. In England, though, there are a good many stories of such coaches, the most famous of which may be a Dartmoor legend of the Lady Mary Howard, a seventeenth-century heiress who actually lived a fairly blameless life, but who gained a sinister reputation for one reason and one alone–she outlived four husbands, three of whom died within an oddly short time after their nuptials.
Born Mary Fitz in 1596, the daughter of a wealthy man who killed two men in fights before stabbing himself to death when his daughter was nine, Lady Mary Howard was left in the care of the contemporary Earl of Northumberland. At twelve, she was married (purely to keep her money in the Northumberland family) to the Earl’s brother, Alan Percy, who died shortly thereafter of a fever.
The Widow Percy’s second marriage was made for love–to a man called Thomas Darcy, with whom she eloped, rather to the chagrin of the Percys. Unfortunately, Darcy, like his predecessor, died very shortly after their wedding.
In 1612, Lady Mary was married for the third time–at the ripe old age of seventeen, it would seem–to Sir John Howard. This marriage lasted ten years, and produced children. Mary, though, had grown canny with age, and had taken steps to secure her fortune to her ownself, so that no husband could enrich himself at her expense–which apparently caused a good deal of friction in between her and John, who died in 1622.
And the whispers were beginning about her marital “bad luck”–even in a time when life was not expected to be long, it struck people as odd that she should be thrice widowed at twenty-seven. She was suspected, it would seem, of doing away with one husband after another.
She remained unmarried, upon John Howard’s death, for nearly six years. In 1628, she married Sir Richard Grenville. It would seem that Sir Richard was not happy that he couldn’t claim her fortune, and their life together–although it’s said to have produced a son named George whom Mary doted on–was fairly hellish. Sir Richard, at least, lived to complain about it; he divorced her in 1633, and she reverted to her previous married name of Howard.
Mary Howard, after that fourth misadventure, never remarried. She moved back to one of the Fitz family holdings not far from Tavistock in Devon, raised her family, and is said to have died of grief at seventy-five, following the death of her favored son, George Grenville.
But the whispers that had begun so long ago had continued, and in death, she gained the status of a monster–and, eventually, a ghost.
And hence the coach.
Nightly–so goes the legend–she drives forth in a coach and four. The coachman is headless, and the coach is built from the bones of her four husbands (in death, she stands accused of having murdered Richard Grenville, although he lived quite some years after their divorce). The murderous lady, dressed in white, sits in the coach.
She’s not alone on these jaunts. In front of the coach runs a great, coal-black hound with red eyes–one of the many cousins of that ubiquitous phantom Black Shuck. The coach, with canine escort, drives in a godless clatter of bones from Fitz House to Okehampton Castle, some fifteen miles away. On the grounds of Okehampton, the black dog picks a single blade of grass, and carries it in his mouth as the whole ghastly equipage returns to Fitz House.
They’ll repeat the trip night after night, for, says the legend, Mary Howard cannot rest after her great crimes until every blade of grass is picked from Okehampton–
or the world ends, whichever comes first.
Mighty dark road to travel for so hopeless a task.
For what it’s worth, stories of great black dogs who haunt the moors of Devon, told by a Devon man, inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. In turn, that novel inspired Laurie R. King, who writes a series of Holmes pastiches that feature Holmes and a wife he acquires late in life, to write The Moor, which features not only the great hound, but Lady Howard’s coach (with some interesting contemporary updates) in a murderous plot to, once more, try to get the Baskerville estate from its rightful heirs.
For more about Lady Howard and the death coach legend, see
Ghost Sightings, by Brian Innes (Barnes & Noble, 1996)
and 500 British Ghosts and Hauntings by Sarah Hapgood (Foulsham, 1993).
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