Devon Perspectives

The Oxenham Omen

How a catchpenny pamphlet and an unsent letter combined to propagate a legend concerning the death of members of an ancient Devon family

The Oxenham family of South Tawton

Oxenham arms
The Oxenham Arms Inn, South Zeal

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.

The 'true' relation of an apparition

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 omen.

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[1]

The Lysons brothers' volume of the Magna Britannia on Devonshire [2] 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[1] whose paper quotes a substantial part of the tract and includes material relating to later incidents of the omen. Sabine Baring-Gould[3] 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[8] 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[4] 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 they did.

Baron's Wood Farm, now an equestrian centre, can be seen on the map about 1.5 miles to the west of Zeal Monachorum.

Grounds for scepticism

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, p227]

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 frontispiece to 'A True Relation of an Apparition'

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 Rebeccah Oxenham. 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 believe.
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.

An extract from the Will of James Oxenham
St Peter's Church in Zeal Monachorum, winter 2010
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:
  1. the first victim
  2. A John Oxenham did die in 1635, but he lived in South Tawton, not Zeal Monachorum.
  3. the second victim
  4. The wife of James Oxenham the younger of Zeal Monachorum was not Thomasine, but Anne, and she did not die before James himself who, according to the churchwardens' accounts, was buried in the church in 1636.
  5. the third victim
  6. It is mentioned by Adams that Anne widow of James Oxenham junior became the second highest rate payer in the village, and if the Elsdens were poor, it is quite likely that James would offer to pay for the burial of Rebecca if she were the sister of his wife. Adams doesn't give Anne's maiden name; it may have been Elsden - if anyone can provide me with this information I would be most grateful. Whether of not she was Anne's sister, it is plausible that Rebeccah Oxenham, the third victim according to the pamphlet, was actually Rebecca[h] Elsden.
  7. the fourth victim
  8. Thomasine, the infant daughter of James Oxenham the younger died in Zeal Monachorum, but not until 1636, the year of her birth.

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 in 1618:
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]

James Howell, a letter, and a marble monument

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 familiar letters:

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, p624]
Engraving of James Howell by Abraham Gosse

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.

Sir,
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 remembrance:
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 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 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. H.
- Westminster, 3 July 1632.
[Howell, p308-309]

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 Cotton, p225]

Turning to my two main sources for an answer to this question, surprisingly they came to opposite conclusions!

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 the monument:
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]

A rational explanation?

alpine ring ouzel

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[5] suggests that a chance visit by this bird may have given rise to the tradition:

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 white-breasted bird.

notes

1.
"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]
2.
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]
3.
From the ring ouzel entry in the Birds of Britain Bird Guide. [return]

bibliography

1.
The Oxenham Omen by Richard W Cotton, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol 14, Plymouth, 1882.
2.
Magna Britannia: vol 6, by Daniel and Samuel Lysons, 1822; entry for the parish of South Tawton.
3.
4.
Zeal Monachorum, a Devon Rural Parish 1086-1801 by Ann Adams, private publication, Exeter, 2002.
5.
The Worthies of Devon by John Prince, New Edition, London, 1810.
6.
The familiar letters of James Howell, edited by Joseph Jacobs, London, 1892; Volume I.
7.
Dartmoor, a descriptive poem, with notes by W.Burt by Nicholas Toms Carrington, London, 1826.
8.
The concluding part of Devonshire Gentry in Carolean Times by W G Hoskins, Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries, Volume 23, Exeter, 1949.

acknowledgements

The custom map icon is taken from the maps icons collection.
The extract from the will of James Oxenham was obtained from the Probate Records at the The National Archives and may be subject to copyright restrictions.
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