Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Richard Weekes, Gentleman at Arms and Prisoner in the Fleet

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IN the parish of South Tawton, about three miles from the village and church, and midway on the west road to North Tawton, stands the ancient and interesting mansion of North Wyke.[1] A house so named was there as early as I243,[2] but experts are at variance as to the age of the several parts of the existing structure. It formed an inner court, two sides of which were stables and offices, and a front court enclosed within high walls, and with gate-house, porter's lodgings, and domestic chapel. Though the house itself lies in a somewhat sheltered situation, the drive down from the lodge commands a lovely prospect; and from the top of North Wyke Quarry a panorama of three-quarters of a circle extends over miles of undulating country, from the blue sky-line of Exmoor to the three conspicuous heights of the north-east angle of Dartmoor—Yes Tor, Belstone, and Cosdon—the last crowned with a cairn from which beacon fires have flared out many a warning message to arm against a foe, both before and since the coming of the Armada. From Belstone Cleave bursts forth the river Taw that borders the North Wyke lands for fully a mile and a half of its course. After rushing in foaming stickles from under Peckettsford alias Packsaddle Bridge, but before reaching Newlands Weir, the river is joined by a meeker stream that bounds North Wyke on another side. There is said to have been much fine timber on the land before the alienation of the estate, the story of which may now be related.

In the history of the ancient family of Weekes, of North Wyke, and its cadet house of Honeychurch and Broadwood Kelly, Richard Weekes, of Hatherleigh, of the latter branch, comes upon the scene at North Wyke in the character of the villain of the piece!—a crafty interloper, who ousts those of the rightful line from their inheritance. He makes a gallant appearance and brings with him some of the glamour of the Restoration Court, for he was a member of "the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms," or, as they were then called, "Gentlemen Pensioners" of Charles II—a band of "fifty gentlemen of blood and fortune" who formed the King's nearest guard.

Richard was not, indeed, possessed of any estate; but he was related to the Grenvilles, Stukeleys, and other influential families. He probably learned the trade of arms under his father, Francis Weekes, of Broadwood Kelly, who in 1635 commanded the 2nd Regiment of trained soldiers of the North Division of county Devon.

Possibly his uncle, Dr. John Weekes, Dean of Burian, chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham, or Dr. Jasper Mayne, the Court playwright (a native of Hatherleigh), may have had a hand in his promotion.

The Merry Monarch was, however, a bad paymaster; and Richard focussed a covetous gaze on the North Wyke property. The owner was a sickly youth,
North Wyke - Devonshire characters and strange events.jpg


ill qualified to cope with the entanglements of debts and mortgages with which his father and grandfather, in their devotion to the Royalist cause, had encumbered the estate. His mother and sister, both strong-willed women, wielded masterfully the reed they could not lean upon. Richard ingratiated himself with them, and making much of his alleged "near relationship," which they afterwards repudiated, and which does not appear to have been established, seems to have persuaded them that their own interests, and the desire of the childless young John, that North Wyke should continue in the name of Weekes, could best be served by inducing the said John to constitute him, Richard Weekes, his heir, on condition of giving the mother an annuity of £100, and the sister a marriage portion of £2000, besides paying young John's debts, amounting to £5000, and his funeral expenses.

Now the rightful heir was young John's uncle, John Weekes of Blackball, but he had mortally offended Mistress Weekes immediately on her widowhood, by contesting with her both the care of her children and the custody of the family deed-box.

This latter he had violently raided, though he is said to have soon returned it undespoiled, and without having mastered its contents, he being "a man of very slender understanding in matters of the law." But "his specious pretence to do his nephew good and undertake his tuition," had been vehemently rejected by the mother, to whom it may have occurred that if little John and his sister were to be confided to their grasping uncle's control, such another tragedy as that of the Babes in the Wood might stain the annals of Dartmoor!

Mistress Weekes who, as Mary Southcote, had married before the settlements were executed, had received no jointure. She could expect no generosity from uncle John, and was naturally anxious about her future.

She accordingly preferred—in both senses—Richard's claim, and—apparently by mutual understanding—the deed by which young John's grandfather had entailed the estate on the heirs male was suppressed.

In the summer of 1661, young John being evidently in a rapid decline, was persuaded to ride to Plymouth to be treated by Dr. Anthony Salter, and his son-in-law Dr. William Durston, Richard's cousin. When young John was in Salter's house, another cousin of Richard's, a barrister, was introduced, and by his advice—and it is more than insinuated under undue pressure—on 29 August John signed a conveyance of his estates on the prearranged lines, to Salter and Durston as trustees on behalf of Richard Weekes of Hatherleigh and his heirs for ever. But John had sufficient wit to insist upon endorsing the settlement with a clause giving him power of revocation.

Shortly after the execution of this deed, at his urgent request, John was carried home to North Wyke on a horse-litter, accompanied by Richard of Hatherleigh, Dr. Durston, and others, and three days later, i.e. on or about 1 September, he departed this life. By that time, the attitude of Katherine Weekes, the sister of John, had undergone a complete volte-face. This defection may safely be attributed to the treacherous influence of Dr. Salter, who, having seen North Wyke, evidently thought that it might as well come into his family as go to Richard Weekes; for at this period he began to make strenuous efforts to bring about a marriage between Katherine and his son, and she, it is said, "did entertain his son to be a suitor." The plan was now to secure the whole estate to herself. She accordingly declared that young John had always promised that she should be his heir, and that on his death-bed he had repented of his conveyance to Richard, and had by word of mouth, in the presence of several witnesses, revoked it.

Scarcely was the breath out of the body of young John, says one deponent, before she drew from beneath his pillow a "portmantea" containing the said writing, and concealed it with intention to burn it; but Richard came upstairs into the room where she was with this deponent and others, and took it from where it was hidden, "and did keep the same." Thus was war openly declared between Richard Weekes on the one side, and his quondam confederate Salter and Katherine on the other.

The funeral did not take place till three weeks after the decease, a fact somewhat remarkable, but not extraordinary.[3] To do Richard justice, he had the funeral conducted with all the pomp befitting the old position of the family, and "was at about £400 or £500 charges over it."

On "the day after the day of the funeral," i.e. on Sunday, 22 September, Richard proceeded in a very practical manner to take possession. A company of fifteen or sixteen persons, mostly relations of the deceased, had been invited by him to sup in the hall, and scarcely was the meal over when Richard, proclaiming that he was "now to do the Divell's work and his own," rose, and drawing his sword, commanded all to quit the house, saying that, as God was his judge, if they did not presently depart he would run them through. Several resisted, including Mr. Richard Parker, of Zeal Monachorum, Katherine's trustee, whose brother, Edmund Parker, of Boringdon (ancestor of Lord Morley) she eventually married. Katherine, her mother, and the other ladies endeavoured to return to their chambers, but Richard Weekes, with bared sword, stood in the doorway of the parlour, from which room the stairs ascended to that part of the house in which the deeds were kept, and swore that he would suffer no one to go up the said stairs. On Katherine's making a second attempt to do so, he "threw her violently on the ground upon her head." Mr. Parker, seeing this done in the presence of a justice of the peace, Alexander Wood, of North Tawton, rightly apprehended that he was a partisan of Richard, and determined to ride off in quest of a more impartial justice.

Stepping out of the house in his "pantables" (pantoufles, slippers) to get his horse in readiness, and returning to the hall door for his boots, Parker was refused admittance, "and his boots denied to be delivered to him, although he desired they might be delivered to him out of the window, so that he was forced, having been indisposed that day, and by that means in his pantables, to take his servant's boots, which he caused to be pluckt off on purpose."

Richard then turned the guests out into the dark, many of whom, "though gentlewomen of quality," were forced to sleep "at mean houses, and some to lie in hay-lofts." But Katherine, her mother, and grandmother were allowed to sit up all night in the hall. At about midnight, to their dismay, Katherine and her companions heard Richard Weekes and his myrmidons go up the stairs and smash open, "with hatchet and iron bar," the locked doors of her own chamber and of the muniment-room.

Among the "writings" that Richard thus got hold of was the deed of entail, which was her last weapon against him, albeit a double-edged one that might be turned against herself, since by virtue of that deed the estates should revert to the inimical uncle John.

In the morning Richard finally ejected the ladies, and barred the house doors against them.

The story of the legal proceedings that ensued is too long and too complicated for these pages, but may be summed up in the moral that "possession is nine points of the law." Katherine and her mother obtained a judgment against Richard for detention of their personal effects, etc., for £900, plus costs, which sum he never paid. He perhaps counted on immunity from imprisonment by reason of his position in the King's service. From a "State paper" it appears that the Earl of Cleveland, Captain of the Gentlemen Pensioners, was applied to for leave to arrest Richard, at the suit of his creditors, and refused permission; notwithstanding which Richard was arrested and committed to the Fleet Prison for debtors. From the moment of his incarceration all resentment of Richard's iniquities may well be quenched in compassion, so grievous were the sufferings and degradations undergone by the inmates of those noisome and infectious precincts.

The old Fleet Prison was destroyed by the Great Fire of London on 4 September, 1666; and Richard was probably among the prisoners who were temporarily accommodated in Caron House, South Lambeth, and conveyed back to the Fleet on its re-erection, 21 January, 1668. But—though it may seem somewhat audacious to controvert on this point the deposition of his own son—he did not die therein. A "Coram Rege Roll" of the King's Bench, dated 22-23 Charles II, bears record that Richard Weekes, of North Weeke, in county Devon, was then in custody for debt to one William Jolly, to whom he had given a bond for £40. Now the prison pertaining to the King's Bench at that time became the Marshalsea Prison in 1811. It adjoins the burial-ground of St. George's in the Borough; and in the registers of that church, under Burials, 5 February, 1670-1, is "Richard Week's, K.B." His relations declare that he "died not worth a groat," and that a "gathering" (i.e. a collection) was made to defray the expenses of his funeral.

The demands of poetic justice are met by the fact that Richard Weekes, though virtually possessor of North Wyke, never reaped a penny from it. All that it brought in was consumed by the lawyers and his creditors; and Chancery suits between the several claimants to the estate were waged over it down to the eighteenth century.

The rightful line of Weekes proprietors had ended in John, the wrongful line ended in another John, Richard's grandson, who is accused of having practised the "black arts," and who, after a roving life, was buried at Lezant in Cornwall. The little boys of the neighbourhood, ever since his time, have found his tombstone a convenient surface for the game of marbles; but there is a crack in it through which one of these treasures occasionally disappears, so that the cry has become traditional, "There goes another down to old Weekes!" This John sold North Wyke, in consideration of an annuity, to George Hunt of North Bovey, who had married his sister Elizabeth, and Hunt's grandsons divided the property and house into two, and sold the eastern moiety to one Tickell, of Sampford Courtenay, and the western, in 1786, to one Andrew Arnold, yeoman. Thus North Wyke was completely alienated from the race that had built and, for many centuries, had owned it. It has, however, returned by purchase to one of the old blood (on the distaff side), the Rev. William Wykes-Finch, who, by his extensive restorations and additions, is giving the time-worn place a fresh start in local history.

Ethel Lega-Weekes.

  1. For fuller accounts of the house and family see Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vols. XXXII and XXXV.
  2. For in that year "Roger de Nort' Wyke" appears in the jury list of S.T. Hundred (Assize Roll, Devon, 175, m. 35).
  3. See Notes and Queries, 10, S. VIII, pp. 9, 73, 74.—E. L.-W.