The ancient Oxenham family dwelt in South Tawton on the north-eastern fringe of Dartmoor
from at least the time of Henry III, occupying a manor of the same name. The most notable
exemplar was Captain John Oxenham, a companion of Sir Francis Drake, who accompanied him on
his voyage to Nombre de Dios in 1572. Later he became the first Briton to set sail in the
Pacific. He met an untimely death after being captured by Spanish soldiers who took him to
Lima in Peru where he was hanged for piracy in 1580.
An anonymous twenty page pamphlet appeared in London in 1642 with a title beginning A
True Relation of an Apparition describing a peculiar circumstance that presaged the
deaths in 1635 of four members of the Oxenham family living in the Devon village of Seal
(later Zeal) Monachorum, a phenomenon subsequently referred to as the Oxenham
The apparition of a white-breasted bird, as it is described in the earlier - or of a white
bird, as it occurs in the later - forms of the tradition, before the deaths of members of
the Oxenham family, is one of those phenomena which seem perpetually destined to hover over
the borderland between fact and fable.
- Richard W Cotton
The Lysons brothers' volume of the Magna Britannia on Devonshire  from 1822 questions
the reliability of the Apparition tract, partly because there was no trace of the
Oxenham family "either in the register, church, or church-yard of Zeal Monachorum". This has
been elaborated on by later commentators including Richard Cotton whose paper quotes a
substantial part of the tract and includes material relating to later incidents of the omen.
Sabine Baring-Gould writing a quarter-century later covers similar ground but does a
pretty good hatchet job, more or less dismissing the phenomenon as a myth.
W G Hoskins took issue with Baring-Gould and (by implication) the Lysons over the
Oxenham family's connection with Zeal Monachorum:
...whatever the facts about the appearance of the bird and the series of deaths in the
family in 1635, a record in the Court of Wards
, dated 1637, shows that there was
a James Oxenham the
younger (whose existence Baring-Gould doubted) and he did
live at Baronswood in
the parish of Zeal Monachorum. [Hoskins, p1]
The Court of Wards records showed that James Oxenham the younger had accumulated a
substantial estate consisting of 751 acres spread across nine Devon parishes, together with
houses in Barstaple, North Tawton and Zeal Monachorum.
Recent evidence collated by Ann Adams from wills and churchwarden's accounts confirms
that a branch of the Oxenhams had moved to Baron's Wood (formerly Baronswood) in the parish
of Zeal Monachorum from their family seat near South Tawton by 1630, some of whom died
there during that decade. While many details given in the Apparition may be
erroneous or fictitious, at least one, and possibly a second, of those whose deaths it
related appear to have lived and died in Zeal Monachorum around the time the tract claimed
Baron's Wood Farm, now an equestrian centre, can be seen on the map about 1.5 miles to the
west of Zeal Monachorum.
There are several reasons for doubting the truthfulness of the account of events contained
in the Apparition. First of all, don't believe everything you read in an old
pamphlet. Undoubtedly the aim of the author would have been to sell as many copies as
possible, to be achieved in this case by dressing up what was probably just hearsay into a
sequence of similar supernatural occurrences. To enhance the credibility of the narrative,
the tract adopts the familiar device of naming a pair of worthy witnesses who testified to
seeing the white-breasted bird appear before each of the four Oxenham deaths. A total of six
witnesses are mentioned of which only two have been identified from parish registers
subsequently, leading Baring-Gould to suggest that, as in other such pamphlets, the witness
statements may have been fabricated:
It was a common trick of ballad-mongers and pamphleteers to add a string of witnesses - all
fictitious, every one. [Baring-Gould, p253]
In a bid to make their testimony appear genuine, the pamphlet says the witnesses to the
first apparition confirmed their observations before the minister of the parish who had
been appointed by Joseph Hall, Bishop of Exeter, to inquire into the matter:
...and for the confirmation of this appearance, there are two honest and substantial men,
who were then present, to take away all sinister suspicion and doubt, Robert Woodley and
Humphry King, who were not by any rewards hired to speake so; but when they were examined,
freely justified the same, both to the Minister of the parish, by the appoyntment of the
reverend Father in God, Joseph Lord Bishop of Exeter... [quoted in Cotton, p225]
In contrast to Baring-Gould, Cotton appeared predisposed to accept the witness statements
as genuine, given their supposed endorsement by a man of the cloth:
The assurance which the writer of the tract gives of the sanction accorded to the truth of
the facts which be related, by the "pastor of the place" and the bishop, was probably well
grounded, and he leaves us in no uncertainty as to the nature of his own faith. [Cotton,
In its portrayal of the victims, the tract gives their familial inter-relationships in an
unsatisfactory and inconsistent way, and it contains other factual errors.
The title refers to the "godly lives, and deaths of some of the children of James
Oxenham", yet the second death is said to be of Thomazine, the wife of James Oxenham
the younger, the third death that of Rebeccah, the eight year old sister of the said
Thomazine, and the fourth death that of the infant Thomazine, child of James Oxenham the
younger. In other words, only the first victim was the child of James Oxenham senior.
The text below the image representing Rebeccah in the frontispiece refers to her as
. Why does she have this maiden name if she is the unmarried
sister of Thomazine? Are we to assume she is an Oxenham in blood as Cotton doesnote1
, or was she given this name for the
sake of convenience because the writer did not know the maiden name of Thomazine?
The stated location is only partially correct: Adams has shown that James Oxenham the
younger and his family moved to Zeal Monachorum around 1630. But James Oxenham senior
remained in Oxenham Manor by South Tawton which is where his son John died in 1635, albeit
in May according to the parish register, not September 5th as the pamphlet would have us
A James Oxenham, gentleman, was first mentioned in the [Zeal Monachorum] churchwardens'
accounts of 1630 and he had a wife Anne and daughters, Elizabeth and Thomasine, born in
1633 and 1636. According to his will, of 1637, he also had a son John, and the infant
Thomasine must have pre-deceased him.
[Adams, p82 (my italics)]
Elizabeth and his father, James senior, are referred to in this extract from James's will.
In the concluding paragraph (not shown) the residue is bequeathed to his wife whose name is
given as Anna in the will.
Adams mentions that the James Oxenham of Zeal Monachorum was the son of James and Elizabeth
Oxenham, and it is known from the South Tawton register that they were married there in
1608. Thomasine is assumed to have died before James junior because she was not mentioned
in the latter's will. From the parish records we know that Anne survived her husband James.
Another item in Adams's book which may be significant is the following entry from the
churchwardens' accounts listing burials within the St Peter's Church in Zeal Monachorum:
1635 - Rebecca Elsden, buried by James Oxenham, gent.
[Adams, Table 7, p99 (my italics)]
To summarise, the depiction of each member of the Oxenham family mentioned in the pamphlet
is inaccurate in some respect:
- the first victim
- the second victim
- the third victim
- the fourth victim
The tract also mentions an earlier alleged instance of the apparition at the death of
Grace Oxenham, the grandmother of John Oxenham, 17 years before. The pamphleteer then seeks
to silence doubters by noting that four Oxenhams who became ill and then recovered fully did
not see the apparition.
...and what is more, the said bird appeared to Grace, the Grandmother of the said John,
over her death-bed, which said Grace was a virtuous woman, and full of good works, and
yielded her selfe into the hands of her Maker, with great cheerfulnesse and willingnesse,
in the yeare of our Redemption, 1618. And to shut up all, there were foure more of the said
family and kindred who were sicke, and yet did never see or perceive any such apparition,
and recovered their former health speedily, to the glory of God, and comfort of their
friends. [quoted by Cotton, p226]
Cotton provides corroboration from the South Tawton register of deaths that Grace did die
The entry of the burial of Grace Oxenham, to whom the omen is stated to have previously
appeared, does, however, occur:
"1618. Gratia uxor Johafis Oxenham sepult Secundo die Septem." [Cotton, p231]
Before leaving the story as it relates to Zeal Monachorum, interestingly Cotton mentions
that the deaths of the victims could not to be verified in the parish register because part
of a page that might have contained these 1635 entries had been removed. My intention is to
confirm this by examining the register. Here are Cotton's observations on the matter:
...it is remarkable that in the register of burials there are to be found only four entries
in the year 1635 - viz. of the dates May 26, September 18, and October 18; but between the
two first of these there is a fatal hiatus, caused by a portion of the leaf - just so much
as would have been occupied by the entries of the four deaths of the Oxenhams (all, it will
be remembered, occurring between those two dates) - having been cut out. Whether this
flagrant act was perpetrated before or subsequent to the time of the Lysonses it is now
impossible even to conjecture. On the former supposition, if the statement of those authors
was derived from personal inspection, the omission would doubtless have seemed suspicious,
and would have led to further enquiry; but there is no reason to believe that they saw the
register at all, and, if so, the information which they recorded, and which was doubtless
communicated to them, although literally true, is nevertheless not the whole truth, and is
eminently unsatisfactory. [Cotton, p231]
John Prince in his Worthies of Devon refers to this curious phenomenon affecting
the Oxenhams, mentioning the version of events recounted by James Howell in his
There is a family of considerable standing of this name at South Tawton, near Okehampton in
this county; of which is this strange and wonderful thing recorded, That at the deaths of
any of them, a bird, with a white breast, is seen for a while fluttering about their beds,
and then suddenly to vanish away. Mr. James Howell tells us, that in a lapidary's shop in
London, he saw a large marble-stone, to be sent into Devonshire, with an inscription, 'That
John Oxenham, Mary Oxenham, his sister, James his son, and Elizabeth his mother, had each
the appearance of such a bird fluttering about their beds as they were dying.' [Prince,
James Howell was a highly regarded writer and historian who moved in royal circles and was
appointed clerk to the Privy Council by King Charles I in 1642, a position he was unable to
take up due to the outbreak of civil war. In 1643 he was ordered to be detained in Fleet Prison by a Committee
of Parliament for his Royalist sympathies (or perhaps for his indebtednessnote2), where he remained until 1651.
Here is the full text of the relevant letter:
To Mr. E. D.
I thank you a thousand times for the noble Entertainment you gave me at Bury, and the pains
you took in showing me the Antiquities of that Place. In requital, I can tell you of a
strange thing I saw lately here, and I believe 'tis true: As I pass'd by St. Dunstan's in
Fleet-street the last Saturday, I stepp'd into a Lapidary or Stone-cutter's shop, to treat
with the Master for a Stone to be put upon my Father's Tomb ; and casting my eyes up and
down, I spied a huge Marble with a large Inscription upon't, which was thus, to my best
Here lies John Oxenham, a goodly young Man, in whose Chamber, as he was struggling with
the pangs of death, a Bird with a white breast was seen fluttering about his bed, and so
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 there is:
Here lies Elizabeth Oxenham, the Mother of the said John, who died sixteen years since,
when such a Bird with a white breast was seen about her bed before her death.
To all these there 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 Exeter, where this happen'd.
Were you here, I could raise a choice Discourse with you hereupon. So, hoping to see you
the next Term, to requite some of your favours, I rest Your true Friend to serve you, J.
- Westminster, 3 July 1632.
Whatever the literary merit of Howell's letters, it is known that many of them were
written expressly for publication in order to pay for his 'necessities' while he was in the
Fleet, and were never sent to the named recipient. Also, in all editions of his familiar
letters after the first (which appeared three years after the tract), arbitrary dates
were appended, so we can disregard the chronological inconsistency of this letter supposedly
being written three years before the deaths of the Oxenhams referred to in it. Of more
concern is the disparity between the names and familial connections of the Oxenhams mentioned
in the tract and those Howell recalled as being inscribed on the monument.
Did Howell ever see such a monument, or was the letter based on his vague recollections of
the pamphlet which referred to the existence of such a monument in the following passage?
a reverend Father of our Church ... who finding all [the witnesses'] sayings to be true and
just, hath given approbation for a Monument to be erected in the Church for the perpetual
memorial of the fact, which was accordingly performed by the care and labour of Edward
Marshall Tomb-maker under St Dunstans Church in the west in Fleet-street... [quoted by
Turning to my two main sources for an answer to this question, surprisingly they came to
Given that no trace of such a monument as ever been found, I am inclined to agree with
Baring-Gould when he suggested:
That [Howell] 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. [Baring-Gould, p253]
Cotton reasoned perversely that the discrepancies in the details between Howell's letter
and the tract showed that he was unacquainted with the latter, and that he really did see
With regard to the presumed inaccuracies in Howell's description of the monument, they do
not prove, or even suggest, that the incident itself of his visit to the stone-cutter's
shop was fictitious; and, while the very discrepancies between that description and the
narrative in the tract are evidence that Howell was not acquainted with the latter, and
wrote independently, the evidently undesigned coincidences between them convince me that
the monument which the author of the tract alluded to had a real existence and that Howell
saw it. [Cotton, p230]
As to why there is no record of the monument since Howell's sighting of it, Cotton believed
it was unlikely to have been destroyed by an over-zealous 19th century church restorer;
more likely it never reached Devon. He gave this alternative cause for its disappearance:
The troubles of the Civil War, which supervened, may have been the cause of its remaining
neglected, and perhaps forgotten, in Edward Marshall's shop, until (it may be) it was
destroyed in the great fire of London. [Cotton, p233]
Whether a white (or white-breasted) bird did appear at the deathbed of an Oxenham we shall
never know for certain, but the superstitious mind of the 17th century would readily accept
this bird-like apparition as a supernatural event. However, the following physical
explanation was proposed later. There is one white-breasted bird native to the region: the
ring ouzel, colloquially known as the mountain blackbird, a summer migrant of the thrush
family very much at home in the rocky terrain of Dartmoor. Mr W Burt in his notes to
Carrington's Dartmoor suggests that a chance visit by this bird may have given rise to the
The accidental appearance of this bird at Oxenham, attracted thither by the light in the
sick-chamber, or by some other cause, may have given rise to the tradition, and the more
particularly as the moor is close to South Tawton, and the Ring Ouzel frequents that part
of it. There is no other rational mode of accounting for such a singular circumstance. This
happening in one instance was extended, by superstition, to other cases of death in the
same family. [Carrington, p197]
Although this explanation can't be ruled out, it appears most unlikely because the ring
ouzel is known to be very shy of human contact; nor is there any reason to suppose it would
be attracted by a light.
Unlike the blackbird, the ring ouzel is usually wary and wild, shunning the neighbourhood
of human habitation.note3
Moreover, the choice of this bird conflicts with the more recent instances of the tradition
in which it was said that a white bird had appeared rather than a
"It is worth while to note that as Rebeccah, the unmarried sister of James Oxenham's wife,
was an Oxenham, it follows that they were all Oxenhams in blood." [Cotton, p227] [return]
It was his contemporary Anthony à Wood
who claimed that Howell was imprisoned in the Fleet as a
debtor as were most of its inmates. [return]
The Oxenham Omen
by Richard W Cotton, Report and Transactions of the
Devonshire Association, Vol 14, Plymouth, 1882.
Zeal Monachorum, a Devon Rural Parish 1086-1801 by Ann Adams, private publication,
The concluding part of Devonshire Gentry in Carolean Times by W G Hoskins, Devon
& Cornwall Notes & Queries, Volume 23, Exeter, 1949.
The extract from the will of James Oxenham was obtained from the Probate Records at the
The National Archives
may be subject to copyright restrictions.
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16 Nov 2014