Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/The Bird of the Oxenhams

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THE Lysons brothers, in their Magna Britannia, Devon, tell the following story, under the head of South Tawton: "Oxenham gave its name to an ancient family, who possessed it at least from the time of Henry III till the death of the late William Long Oxenham, Esq., in 1814. Captain John Oxenham, who had been the friend and companion of Sir Francis Drake, and who, having fitted out a ship on a voyage of discovery and enterprise on his own account, lost his life in an engagement with the Spaniards in South America, in 1575, is supposed to have been of this family. The family has been remarkable also for the tradition of a bird having appeared to several of its members previously to their death. Howell, who had seen mention of this circumstance on a monument at a stonemason's in Fleet Street, which was about to be sent to Devonshire, gives a copy of the inscription in one of his letters. It is somewhat curious that this letter proves the fact alleged by Wood, that Howell's work does not consist of entirely genuine letters, but that many of them were first written when he was in the Fleet prison to gain money for the relief of his necessities. This letter, dated July 3, 1632, relates that, as he passed by the stonecutter's shop ’last Saturday,' he saw the monument with the inscription relating the circumstance of the apparition. It appears, however, by a
THE BIRD OF THE OXENHAMS - Devonshire characters and strange events.jpg


very scarce pamphlet … that the persons whose names are mentioned in the epitaph, given in Howell's letter, all died in the year 1635, three years after the date of his letter. The persons to whom the apparition is stated in the pamphlet to have appeared were John Oxenham, son of James Oxenham, gentleman, of Zeal Monachorum, aged twenty-one,[1] and said to have been six feet and a half in height, who died Sept. 5, 1635, a bird with a white breast having appeared hovering over him two days before; Thomazine, wife of James Oxenham, the younger, who died Sept. 7, 1635, aged twenty-two; Rebecca Oxenham, who died Sept. 9, aged eight years; and Thomazine, a child in the cradle, who died Sept. 15. It is added that the same bird had appeared to Grace, the grandmother of John Oxenham, who died 1618. It is stated also that the clergyman of the parish had been appointed by the Bishop (Hall) to enquire into the truth of these particulars, and that a monument, made by Edward Marshall, of Fleet Street, had been put up with his approbation, with the names of the witnesses of each apparition.

"Another proof that Howell's letter must have been written from memory is, that most of the Christian names are erroneous. The pamphlet adds, that those of the family who had been sick and recovered never saw the apparition." The pamphlet to which the brothers Lysons refer is entitled: "A True Relation of an Apparition in the likeness of a Bird with a white brest that appeared hovering over the Death-Beds of some of the children of Mr. James Oxenham, of Sale Monachorum, Devon, Gent. Confirmed by sundry witnesses as followeth in the ensuing Treatise. London, printed by I. O. for Richard Clutterbuck, and are to be sold at the signe of the Gun, in Little Britain, neere St. Botolph's Church, 1641."

Now in the first place it is well to observe that the name of the place is wrong. The Oxenhams did not live at Zeal Monachorum, but at South Zeal in South Tawton. No Oxenham entries are to be found in the registers of Zeal Monachorum, no monuments of the family are in the church. The brothers Lysons examined the registers there, and certified to this. The Devon volume of the Magna Britannia was published in 1822. Since that date a portion of the page in the Burial Register, containing the entries of burials in 1635, has been cut out by some person who has by this means destroyed the evidence that no such Oxenhams were buried at Zeal Monachorum. Now the pamphlet states that John, son of James Oxenham, aged twenty-two, died on 5 September, 1635. The register of South Tawton informs us that John Oxenham was buried on 20 May, 1635, i.e. four months, two weeks, and two days before he died, according to the tract. He was born in 1613 and baptized 17 October in that year. His father, James Oxenham, was married to Elizabeth Hellier in 1608. In 1614, a John Oxenham and his wife Mary had a son John as well. Others reported to have had the white-breasted bird appear on their deaths in the same year, were Thomasine, wife of James Oxenham the younger, Thomasine, their babe, and Rebecca Oxenham, aged eight years.

There is no entry in the register of the baptism of either Thomasine or Rebecca, nor of the burial of Thomasine the elder, Thomasine the babe, or of Rebecca.

The second John Oxenham, son of John and Mary, was buried 31 July, 1636, at least we presume it was he; the registers do not state in either case whose son each of the Johns was.

There is no trace of the younger James to be found in the register, nor of any of the Oxenhams in North Tawton registers at or about the time of the supposed apparition.

The witnesses to the vision were, in the case of John Oxenham, Robert Woodley and Humphry King. Robert Woodley does occur in the register under date 1664. Mary Stephens was witness to the visions when Rebecca and Thomasine the babe died, and Mary Stephens does occur in the register under the date 1667, but none of the other witnesses, Humphry King, Elizabeth Frost, Joan Tooker, and Elizabeth Averie, widow. Consequently there is negative evidence that Thomasine, elder and younger, and Rebecca never existed save in the imagination of the author of the catch-penny tract.

We come now to James Howell's account, in his Epistolœ Ho-Elianœ; or Familiar Letters. The first edition of the first series of these letters was published in the year 1645, four years after the tract had appeared. About the year 1642 he had been committed to the Fleet, and there confined for eight years. He states in his Letter IX, in Sect. 6, in a letter to Mr. E. D.:—

"Sir,—I thank you a thousand times for the Noble entertainment you gave me at Berry, and the pains you took in shewing me the Antiquities of that place. In requitall, I can tell you of a strange thing I saw lately here, and I beleeve 'tis true: As I pass'd by Saint Dunstans in Fleet street the last Saturday, I stepp'd into a Lapidary or Stone-cutters Shop, to treat with the Master for a Stone to be put upon my Father's Tomb; And casting my eies up and down, I might spie a huge Marble with a large inscription upon 't, which was thus to my best remembrance:— "Here lies John Oxenham, a goodly young man, in whose Chamber, as he was strugling with the pangs of death, a Bird with White-brest was seen fluttering about his Bed, and so vanished.

"Here lies also Mary Oxenham, the sister of the said John, who died the next day, and the same Apparition was seen in the Room.

"Then another sister is spoke of. Then, Here lies hard by James Oxenham, the son of the said John, who died a child in his cradle a little after, and such a Bird was seen fluttering about his head a little before he expired, which vanished afterwards.

"At the bottom of the Stone ther is—

"Here lies Elizabeth Oxenham, the Mother of the said John, who died 16 yeers since, when such a Bird, with a White-Brest, was seen about her Bed before her death.

"To all these ther be divers Witnesses, both Squires and Ladies, whose names are engraven upon the Stone: This Stone is to be sent to a Town hard by Excester, wher this happend."

It will be noticed that Howell has got all the Christian names wrong, but then, as he states, he gave the inscription from memory. If the date of the letter be correct, 1632, that, as Lysons pointed out, was before the deaths that took place in 1635. But in the first edition of the letters this particular one is undated, and little or no reliance can be placed on the dates that are given; indeed, the bulk of the letters, if not all, were written by Howell when in prison and never had been sent to the persons to whom addressed, any more than at the dates when supposed to be written. Probably in his second edition he dated this letter to E. D. sufficiently early to account for his walking abroad in Fleet Street "last Saturday," caring only that it should not appear as a composition written in prison.

That he ever saw the marble monument is improbable, as it is almost certain that no such monument existed. He had read the tract, and pretended to have seen the stone so as to furnish a theme for an interesting letter. It is extremely unlikely that the names of witnesses to the apparition should be inscribed on the stone. Howell saw these names in the tract; he did not know who they were, but supposed them to be squires and ladies. There were no such gentry about South Tawton at the period. As to the statement made in the tract that the Bishop had commissioned the vicar of the parish to examine into the case, and that he and the parson bore testimony to its genuine character, that is as worthless as the witnessing to the ballad concerning the "Fish that appeared upon the Coast, on Wednesday the four score of April, forty thousand fathom above water. … It was thought she was a woman turned into a cold fish. The ballad is very pitiful, and as true. … Five justices' hands at it; and witnesses more than my pack will hold."

It was a common trick of ballad-mongers and pamphleteers to add a string of names of witnesses all fictitious, every one.

The monument is probably as fictitious as the names of the witnesses. There is not, and there never was, such in South Tawton Church any more than in that of Zeal Monachorum. Lysons gives the Oxenham monuments as he found them there: William Oxenham, gent., 1699; William Oxenham, Esq., 1743; George Oxenham, Esq., 1779. "It is proper to add," says Lysons, "that there is no trace of the Oxenham family, nor of the monument before mentioned, either in the register, church, or churchyard of Zeal Monachorum, nor have I been able to learn that it exists at Tawton, or elsewhere in the county."

I was at South Tawton in 1854, staying with Mr. T. Burkett, the then vicar, and I drew some of the monuments in the church, and am certain this particular stone was neither in the church nor outside.

So also Polwhele, in his History of Devonshire, 1793, says: "The prodigy of the white bird … seems to be little known at present to the common people at South Tawton; nor can I find anywhere a trace of the marble stone which Mr. Howell saw in the lapidary's shop in London."

In Sir William Pole's Collections, published in 1791, here stood originally: "Oxenham, the land of Wm. Oxenham [the father of John, the grandfather of Will, father of another John, grandfather of James; whose tombstone respects a strange wonder of this famyly, that at theire deaths were still seen a bird with a white brest, which fluttering for a while about theire beds suddenly vanisht away, which divers of ye same place belive being eyewitnesses of]".

Sir William Pole died in 1635, an d he said not one word about the bird of the Oxenhams; that which has been placed within brackets was an addition made by his son, Sir John, who had probably read the pamphlet or Howell's Letters. Risdon, who lived not far from South Tawton, knew nothing about the bird. In fact, the whole legend grew out of the story in the tract.

That this story is not wholly baseless may be allowed in the one case of John Oxenham. As he was dying the window very probably was opened, and a ring ouzel, attracted by the light, may have entered, fluttered about, and then flown out again. That the window was open I said was probable, for it is an idea widely spread in England that when a person is near death the casement should be thrown open so as to allow the soul to escape. I said once to a nurse who had attended a dying man: "Why did you open the window?" "You wouldn't have had his soul go up the chimney, sir?" was the answer.

The appearance—accidental—of a bird in the death chamber would, in a superstitious age, be regarded as supernatural. I was attending the wife of an old coachman who had been with my father and myself. She was bed-ridden. One day she said to me: "I know I shall go soon, for a great bird came fluttering at the window." She did not, however, die till two months later.

The story of John Oxenham and the bird got about, and then some one remarked that a similar sort of thing had happened, so it was said, when the young man's grandmother died. That sufficed to set the ball rolling. For the purpose of the pamphleteer, three additional cases were invented, cases of Oxenhams who never existed, and the account of the stone was added, so as to give the tale greater appearance of verisimilitude.

Kingsley introduces the white bird as an omen of the navigator Oxenham. He was justified as a novelist in predating the tradition which did not exist in his time, and was hatched out of the tract of 1641.

I have said white bird—for as the story went on the white-breasted bird became white, hoary with attendance on generations of Oxenhams. It may be interesting, at all events it is amusing, to note, how out of this pious hoax serious convictions have grown that the bird really has been seen, and that repeatedly.

Messrs. Lysons say: "This tradition of the bird had so worked upon the minds of some of the members of the family, that it is supposed to have been seen by William Oxenham, who died in 1743." Then they go on to relate this particular instance, which is given on the authority of a note in the manuscript collections of William Chappie. Mr. Chappie "had the relation from Dr. Bent, who was brother-in-law to Mr. Oxenham, and had attended him as a physician. The story told is, that when the bird came into his chambers he observed upon the tradition as connected with his family, but added, he was not sick enough to die, and that he should cheat the bird; and that this was a day or two before his death, which took place after a short illness."

The story is told more fully in a letter printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine of April, 1862, from J. Short, Middle Temple, to George Nares, jun., of Albury.

"I have received an answer from the country in relation to the strange bird which appeared to Mr. Oxenham just before his death, and the account which Dr. Bertie gave to Lord Abingdon of it is certainly true. It first was seen outside the window, and soon afterwards by Mrs. Oxenham in the room, which she mentioned to Mr. Oxenham, and asked him if he knew what the bird was. 'Yes,’ says he, ’it has been upon my face and head, and is recorded in history as always appearing to our family before their deaths; but I shall cheat the bird.' Nothing more was said about it, nor was the bird taken notice of from that time; but he died soon afterwards. However odd this affair may seem, it is certainly true, for the account was given of it by Mrs. Oxenham herself, but she never mentions it to any one, unless particularly asked about it, and as it was seen by several persons at the same time, I can't attribute it to imagination, but must leave it as a phenomenon unaccounted for."

In both these accounts we have the story at second hand. The Hon. Charles Barker, LL.D., was rector of Kenn at the time, and during his tenure of the rectory, Mrs. Oxenham erected a monument in the church to her father and mother. But who was the J. Short, Middle Temple, who wrote the above letter to George Nares, jun., Albury? And what is more to the point, how came it to be dated December 24th, 1741, when Mr. William Oxenham, whose death it records, died on 10 December, 1743? Discrepancies and anachronisms meet us at every point in the story of the Oxenham omen.

In the Gentleman's Magazine of the year 1794, the following paragraph occurs recording the death of one of the Oxenhams: "13th (January) at Exeter, aged 80, Mrs. Elizabeth Weston … the youngest daughter of William Oxenham, Esq., of Oxenham. The last appearance of the bird, mentioned by Howell and Prince, is said to have been to Mrs. E. Weston's eldest brother on his death-bed." Who said it? What was the authority?

In Mogridge's Descriptive Sketch of Sidmouth, is given a letter relative to the death of a Mr. Oxenham at Sidmouth:—

"My dear Sir,

"I give you, as well as I can recollect, the story related to me by a much respected baronet of this county. He told me that, having read in Howell's Anecdotes of the singular appearance of a white bird flying across, or hovering about the lifeless body of divers members of the Devonshire Oxenham family, immediately after dissolution, and also having heard the tradition in other quarters, wishing rather for an opportunity of refuting the superstitious assertion than from an idea of meeting with anything like a confirmation; having occasion to come to Sidmouth shortly after the death of his friend Mr. Oxenham, who resided in an old mansion, not now standing, he questioned the old gardener, who had the care of the house, as to who attended his master when he died, as Mr. O. had gone there alone, meaning only to remain for a day or two. ’I and my wife, sir,' was the reply. 'Were you in the room when he expired?' 'Yes, both of us.' 'Did anything in particular take place at that time?' 'No, sir, nothing.' But then, after a moment's pause, 'There was indeed something which I and my wife could almost swear we saw, which was a white bird fly in at the door, dart across the bed, and go into one of the drawers; and as it appeared in the same, way to both of us, we opened all the drawers to find it, but where it went to we could never discover.' If I recollect rightly, the man on being questioned had not heard of the tradition respecting such appearances."

Unfortunately Mr. Mogridge does not name the writer of this letter. But it matters little—the story comes third hand. The "much-respected baronet" had a bad memory. He thought Howell called the apparition a "white bird," and that he related that it crossed the bed after the body was dead. Accordingly the gardener sees things after the erroneous fashion of the story remembered so badly by the "much-respected baronet." Who this Mr. Oxenham was, when he died, and where he is buried is unknown.

In Glimpses of the Supernatural, published in 1875, is a communication of the Rev. Henry Nutcombe Oxenham, and a still more detailed account from his pen is in Mr. Cotton's article on "The Oxenham Omen" in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association for 1882.

"Shortly before the death of my late uncle, G. N. Oxenham, Esq., of 17 Earl's Terrace, Kensington, who was then head of the family, this occurred: His only surviving daughter, now Mrs. Thomas Peter, but then unmarried, and living at home, and a friend of my aunt's, Miss Roberts, who happened to be staying in the house, but was no relation, and had never heard of the family tradition, were sitting in the dining-room, immediately under his bedroom, about a week before his death, which took place on the 15th December, 1873, when their attention was roused by a shouting outside the window. On looking out they discerned a white bird—which might have been a pigeon, but if so was an unusually large one—perched on the thorn-tree outside the windows, and it remained there for several minutes, in spite of some workmen on the opposite side of the road throwing their hats at it in a vain attempt to drive it away. Miss Roberts mentioned this to my aunt at the time, though not of course attaching any special significance to it, and my aunt, since deceased, repeated it to me soon after my uncle's death. Neither did my cousin, though aware of the family tradition, think of it at the time. Miss Roberts we have lost sight of for some years, and do not even know if she is still living; but Mrs. Thomas Peter confirms in every particular the accuracy of the statement. Of the fact, therefore, there can be no reasonable doubt, whatever interpretation may be put upon it. My cousin also mentioned another circumstance which either I did not hear of or had forgotten: viz. that my late aunt spoke, at the time, of frequently hearing a sound like a fluttering of a bird's wings in my uncle's bedroom, and said that the nurse testified to hearing it also."

Here we have a development of the story. The bird is white, not white-breasted, and it appears before the death of the head of the family, whereas in the original story it appeared before the decease of any member of the Oxenham family. This looks like a shrinkage of the story. So many had died without the apparition, that it was reduced in significance to the appearance before the death of the head of the family.

Mr. Cotton says: "On my pointing out to Mr. Oxenham that at least the earlier notices of his family tradition did not seem to warrant his supposition that the apparition was limited to the head of the family, he informed me that, so far as he was aware, it had always been the oral tradition in the family that the bird was bound to appear before the death of the head of the family, and that it might or might not appear at other deaths, but certainly not that it always did so. Mr. Oxenham, who was himself a boy at the time, does not remember hearing of any appearance of the omen to his great uncle, Richard Oxenham, the head of the family in the previous generation, who died August 24th, 1844, at Penzance. He was a bachelor, and lived alone, and only his sister, Mrs. Oddy, who herself died in 1861, was with him at the time of his death. It certainly was not seen at the death of the Rev. W. Oxenham, Vicar of Cornwood and Prebendary of Exeter, younger brother of the above, six months earlier, Feb. 28th, 1844, nor at the death of either of the younger brothers of the late head of the family, G. N. Oxenham, Esq., before mentioned. On the other hand, it is stated by a relative of the family now living, that when Mrs. Oddy died, her daughter, now dead, spoke of birds flapping and hopping at the bedroom window the night before."

My mother was most intimate with Miss Anne Oxenham, who lived in the Close, Exeter, one whom I remember and loved. My mother informed me that the bird was seen when Miss Anne Oxenham's sister died. But on what authority she received this I am unable to say. Finally, in September, 1891, on the death of a female descendant of the Oxenhams, the Rev. C. S. Homan states that, while at Oxenham Manor (Oxenham, by the way, never was a manor), he was one day up very early by daylight, and as he went out of the front door, he just caught sight of what in the early light looked like a very large white bird. His father said, "Perhaps it is the Oxenham white bird; if so, there ought to be a death in the family." Within a few days they noticed in the newspaper the death of a connexion of the family, and were struck by the coincidence.[2]

In these last cases, it will be seen that the bird has grown plump and big. It was first white-breasted, then white, and finally a big white bird. So fables grow. One wonders where the bird nests, how many little white-breasted ones it has had, what has become of them! For that it is the old hoary humbug there can be little doubt becoming blanched with age, and stout, "going in for its fattenings," as the Yorkshire folk say.

  1. In the tract, twenty-two.
  2. For this last instance, see Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1900, p. 84.