Just before Christmas, my friend Helen and I went on our first research trip in preparation for the new book about Dartmoor myths and legends that we are collaborating on. I had decided the tale of the White Bird of the Oxenhams would be our starting point…
Oxenham Manor, which was once home to the unfortunate family featured in this story, is marked on the Ordinance Survey map as being in the north east corner of Dartmoor, just outside South Zeal, in the parish of South Tawton.
As you drive through the lanes surrounding the property, it isn’t possible to see any signs of a manor, just some farm buildings, apparently built on the site of an older house, so that wasn’t a good start!
Undeterred, and knowing Helen’s love of stone circles and standing stones, as she has just self-published two books about that very subject, covering north and south Dartmoor (highly recommended they are too, for all lovers of antiquities on the moors), I suggested we pay a visit to the Oxenham Arms in South Zeal, as I know they have their own standing menhir actually built into the fabric of the building! Something I’d always wanted to see, as did Helen, so off we went…
When we arrived, we found the owner outside putting up his magnificent Christmas tree! We got talking and explained that we were on the trail of the White Bird of the Oxhanhams. He suggested we had probably come to the right place, as his pub had been home to the Oxenhams prior to the manor on the map, and that most of them were buried in South Tawton, up until the family name died out locally.
Since that first fortuitous meeting, we have become friends with Simon, the owner, and, at his suggestion and invitation, we have visited the memorials to the Oxhamhams, seen the standing stones inside, and walked around the stone circle he has built on the land behind
On our most recent visit, Simon voiced his concern that the North Devon village of Zeal Monachorum was trying to lay claim to the White Bird legend, and so he set me the challenge of trying to get to the bottom of it.
Always up for a bit of intriguing research, I started trawling through my own library of folklore books, Google, and Simon’s own website, beginning to piece together a timeline to help me get to the origins of the White Bird.
The bird itself is an omen of death for a member of the Oxenham family, often seen just prior to their demise, by both the soon to be deceased and accompanying witnesses, who are aware of the meaning of such a sighting. No one knows for sure what sort of bird it is, identifications range from dove, pigeon or Ring Ouzel, or even whether or not it’s real, or possibly from the spirit world.
One of the earliest accounts of the curse is contained in a folk ballad, a copy of which was found at Oxenham Manor itself. The story tells of a Margaret Oxenham, daughter of Sir James, who held a lavish dinner party at the manor on the eve of her wedding.
During the feast, a white bird was seen flying round the room by several witnesses, including Margaret’s father, who knew this meant a member of his family was doomed! The next day, as Margaret stood at the altar in South Tawton Church, saying her wedding vows, a jealous, rejected lover rushed up, and stabbed her in the heart, stabbing and killing himself at the same time.
As they both lay dying, a white bird was once again seen hovering over the proceedings. This story is similar to the actual murder of Mary Whiddon, on her wedding day at Chagford Church. The reality of this event is evidenced by her memorial stone sited at the church altar.
This tragedy was, in turn, used as inspiration for a similar fate that befell RD Blackmore’s heroine in Lorna Doone, except she survived! Spoilers! Does this suggest the White Bird story could also be a work of fiction? There is evidence that suggests not.
The Oxenham Arms, complete with its standing stones, was originally built as a monastery. The monks having the foresight to incorporate the stones into their building. The property changed hands over the years, being altered and added to along the way, until the 1400s, when two brothers bought the manor and made it the Oxenham family seat.
They lived there until 1476, when one brother moved back to land that he owned to the north of the moor, that included a property called Baron’s Wood, near Zeal Monachorum, whilst the other brother moved his family to a smaller property that he had built for himself at South Tawton, presumably where the manor is now marked on the map. This allowed their old family home to be turned into a pub, becoming the Oxenham Arms, as it is known today.
As for the White Bird, there were several deaths amongst the family living at Oxenham Manor during the 1600s, all accompanied by a sighting. If a writer, by the name of James Howell, is to be believed, whilst he was in a debtor’s prison, he tried to sell a story that he had seen an elaborate memorial stone in a stonemason’s shop in Kensington, London, dedicated to four members of the Oxenham family, all of whom had died days apart, with a strange white bird flying around their death bed!
Sadly, no trace of this piece of evidence has ever been found, even though Howell claimed it was destined for the Exeter area, near where the deaths occurred. Also, confusingly, there are various versions of the names written on the memorial. Could some be those who died at Oxenham Manor, whilst others are from the Zeal Monachorum area?
The dates are slightly different too, but close together. This was a period of plague throughout England, so could they all have been victims, and buried in mass graves? Hence the confusion, and no need for the memorial tablet, if it ever existed! We may never know.
However, we do know that Oxenhams were buried at South Tawton, whilst no births, deaths and marriages were ever recorded at Zeal Monachorum, and one, William Oxenham, claimed to have seen the White Bird prior to his death in 1743, but this fact isn’t mentioned on his memorial, which sits amongst the others in South Tawton.
It would appear the White Bird wasn’t exclusive to Dartmoor, having been witnessed, over the years, at the deaths of members of the family living in Sidmouth and Exeter, even in Kensington, London. Sadly, no one knows if it was present when the last surviving member died in Canada, but it would seem it only had a penchant for the Oxenhams, as it hasn’t been seen since!