Devon has nurtured its fair share of heroes over the years: think seafarers Drake and Raleigh, inventors Babbage and Thomas Newcomen, and painter Joshua Reynolds. But what of the anti-heroes and villains? This is the first feature in a series uncovering the wicked ways of some of the more unsavoury and dishonourable individuals who have besmirched the good name of Devon in the past.
Who better to start with than Sir John Fitz, a thoroughly nasty piece of work. Born into an aristocratic family in the late 16th century, his parents had high expectations that their son would follow in father's footsteps and embark on a respectable career in the legal profession. John, it turned out, didn't go for propriety. Inheriting the family estates at an early age on the death of his father, it soon became clear that young John, now free of all restraint, was becoming something of a hell-raiser. From there on it was downhill all the way.
His ill-tempered, confrontational nature, coupled with heavy drinking bouts culminated in his being accused of murder following the killing of a neighbour after a trivial argument got out of hand. Some time later, having banished his wife and child from his Fitzford home, he and his rowdy companions terrorized the peace-loving citizens of Tavistock in an extended alcohol-fuelled orgy of unendurable rowdiness and wanton destruction. Shunned by his former friends, his behaviour became increasingly erratic and paranoid, and following the brutal killing of a hapless inn-keeper in a frenzied attack he took his own life in dramatic fashion aged just thirty years.
This imposing monument in Tavistock's Parish Church of St Eustachius represents the reclining figures of John Fitz and his wife Mary, with their young son John kneeling piously before a praying desk in the background.
The Fitz dynasty were esteemed pillars of the Tavistock squirearchy, several of them having occupied high office in the legal profession. They had accumulated considerable wealth over generations spanning the middle of the 15th century to the Elizabethan era, and owned estates throughout England.
Their family seat at Fitzford House to the west of Tavistock was a testament to this, with its impressive gatehouse leading into a courtyard fronting a mansion with a fine porch and projecting wings. All that remains today is the gatehouse, reconstructed in 1871.
The John Fitz commemorated in St Eustachius Church followed the family tradition, working as a counsellor-at-law for a while. He accumulated enough from legal fees to retire at an early age to Fitzford where he devoted much time to the study of astrology and the casting of horoscopes.
This was the same John Fitz who with his wife Mary was said to have been "piskie-led" while crossing Dartmoor one day in the mist, causing them to wander in circles spellbound, unable to find the pack-horse trail they had strayed from. Only when they came to a spring and drank from its clear waters were they able to break the spell. They covered the spring with a layer of stones to mark its presence for others who might suffer this fate. Later it became known as Fice's Well[note 1].
In 1575 while his wife was in labour giving birth to their only child, John's reading of the heavenly charts gave him cause for great alarm. He observed the relative positions of the planets at this time to be most unpropitious, and he urged the midwife to do her utmost to delay the birth by one hour or his offspring would be fated to suffer a violent and untimely death. However, nature took its course and shortly the waters broke for the infant head to emerge. As we shall see, these dire portents for their ill-starred son John would be realized in dramatic fashion.
John was fourteen when his father died in January 1590 aged sixty-one. Despite a stipulation in the will, his mother Mary was not granted guardianship of her son; as a ward under the Queen he was cared for by Sir Arthur Gorges, a poet and translator who was an associate of Sir Walter Raleigh. It seems he was well looked after, and there was no early sign of the antisocial behaviour to come. Indeed it was said of him in this period that he was "a very comlie person", and he married young into the nobility. His bride was Bridget, the sixth daughter of the 3rd Earl of Devon (de jure), Sir William Courtenay of Powderham.
Bridget gave birth to a girl, Mary, in August 1596, the year that John came of age and they took up residence at Fitzford House. By this time he had gained a reputation as a boisterous reveller with a fearsome temper who would draw his sword in anger with little provocation.
One mid-morning in June 1599 he was dining with some friends and neighbours in Tavistock. The wine was flowing freely at this early hour, for we are told in the contemporary account of events given in The Bloudie Book
As the day wore on John's pride began to swell, and he boasted that every foot of land in all his estates was owned in freehold, save that owned by the Queen of England herself.
On hearing this, John's friend Nicholas Slanning of Bickleigh, a courteous and honourable man, politely reminded Fitz that he currently occupied a small parcel of land that rightfully belonged to Slanning who could claim rent should he so wish.
On hearing this, Fitz leapt up immediately and accused Slanning of being a liar, and in a blind fury drew his dagger aiming as if to stab him. Nicholas swiftly parried the dagger with a large knife that he carried. At this point the others at the table intervened to separate the two and calm was restored. Shortly after this, Stanning and his man departed for Bickleigh[note 2] on horseback.
They had not ridden far when they came to a steep and rough descent. They dismounted so his man could lead the horses while he strolled though a field. Suddenly John Fitz appeared with four companions galloping in his direction from behind. Upon their arrival Slanning asked Fitz why they had followed him with such urgency to which Fitz replied that he was intent of avenging the insult he had suffered. At this moment Fitz commanded his men to draw their blades and all five of them fell on poor Slanning. After a brief skirmish Fitz's men withdrew, sheathing their swords. There the matter might have rested but for the cajoling of one of Fitz's men who urged him to fight on. In the words of Prince
Tradition marks the old gateway of Fitzford[note 3] as the scene of this fatal encounter and the spot where Slanning fell.
John Fitz then aged twenty-four, fearing prosecution for the unlawful killing of Slanning, escaped across the Channel to France where he remained until later the same year when through the good offices of the Courtenay family he procured a pardon from the Queen.
King James showered honours through the land like confetti on his accession, hoping to cement the loyalty of his wealthiest subjects. As many as four hundred members of the gentry were so honoured by the time he was crowned.
Once back at Fitzford, John felt the presence of his wife and child to be inhibiting his increasingly chaotic lifestyle, and in a fit of pique he ordered them to begone; his abandoned wife sought refuge with her father at Powderham. This left the field clear for Fitz and his evil associates to wreak havoc in the town.
Prince records that Fitz committed a second murder during this period, but Baring-Gould casts some doubt on this saying it is better authenticated that he all but killed one of the town's constables.
Sir John's pardon for the murder of Slanning did not prevent his children from suing him for compensation when they reached adulthood, and in the summer of 1605 he was summoned to London to appear in court to answer these charges.
Not only was he concerned that a heavy fine would be imposed on him for the assassination of Slanning, but he was also under pressure from Sir William Courtenay for neglecting Fitzford manor which had been entailed to his daughter, Fitz's wife.
He had begun to believe that his life was in danger, that the agents of the Slanning and Courtenay families would try to kidnap and murder him. At each stage of the journey towards London his delusions grew more fanciful and he became more deranged. This is Baring-Gould's account of the final leg of this fateful journey.
The epitaph of Nicholas Slanning in Bickleigh Church is a verse in Latin alluding to these events which it proclaims to be a just retribution by the hand of providence to the deceased's homicide; Prince provides us with this translation (quoted in ):