Sunday, 23 June 2013

Legend of Lorna Doone

Statue of Lorna Doone at Dulverton, Somerset
Lorna Doone by Richard Doddridge Blackmore was published in 1869, a romance set in and around the East Lyn Valley area of Exmoor. The story is so much of a part of the heritage of Devon and Somerset, there are those who insist that outlaws called Doone actually lived on Exmoor in the 17th Century long before Blackmore’s novel was known.

Exmoor and Dartmoor were remote and inaccessible spots in the 17th century, which provided effective hideouts for fugitives and outlaws. Set between Devon and Somerset, neither authority wished to take responsibility for the actions of the outlaws who lived there. Survival was as harsh as the penalties for highway robbery, cattle and sheep stealing etc necessary for a man to feed his family. Children raised there would grow up into half wild savages, mistrustful of anyone and thus hostile to strangers.

Blackmore's father, the Reverend John Blackmore, was the Curate in Charge. Following the death of his wife and sister-in-law from typhus, he accepted a curacy firstly in Culmstock in 1826 and then Ashford, Nr. Barnstaple in 1835. Richard’s Grandfather was Rector of Combe Martin and Oare, his uncle was Rector of Charles, a little village on the fringe of the Moor, and Richared often stayed with both of them so he probably heard stories of these 'tribes' from childhood.

In 1865, before he began to write Lorna Doone, Blackmore came to Lynmouth and stayed at the Rising Sun Inn, using it as a base of his research, and invented ‘Doone Valley’, which did not exist. However, since his death, the area around Lank Combe on the west bank of Badgworthy Water has, by common consent, been dubbed the Doone Valley, and is now unofficially marked on some maps.

John Ridd kills Carver Doone
R D Blackmore never claimed his story was based on historical fact, but he used elements of local stories. One village he was reputed to have spent a great deal of time in, was Chagford in Devon. Thus it would not be unreasonable to assume he heard the following tale of a tragic bride and used it as a plot device for Lorna Doone.

In 1641, a girl named Mary Whiddon of Chagford jilted her lover for another man. The rejected man brooded in a deep black sulk, his envy turning to a malicious hatred for his former love and her new swain. Each day he verbally and openly maligned Mary, until in the end the village’s sympathy turned to apathy.

On the 11th of October 1641, Mary planned to marry her new love. On that day, the bride made her way to St Michael’s, a small moorland church, where the villagers clapped and cheered her arrival. The ceremony proceeded without a hitch and the couple walked back down the aisle and onto the church steps.

Suddenly a shot rang out striking Mary, who crumpled in a heap on the steps, her white wedding dress stained with blood from a small hole over her heart. Her fiancé gathered her into his arms, but unlike Lorna Doone, Mary was dead. Everyone knew who had committed the murder, but legend does not say what happened to him, nor does his name or the name of her widowed husband survive.

Stories vary as to whether this happened at the altar or outside the church but the tradition is that any girl married from Whiddon House, as the Three Crowns used to be known, will meet Mary’s ghost. Mary was buried in the chancel of Chagford Church where the following epitaph is carved on a stone slab set into the floor that reads:

"Mary Whiddon, daughter of Oliver Whiddon, who died in 1641
Reader, would'st though know who here is laid,
Behold a matron, yet a maid
A modest look, a pious heart
A Mary for the better part
But dry thine eyes, why wilt thou weep
Such damselles doe not die, but sleep."
Newly-wed brides often lay a flower on Mary’s tomb after signing the register in St Michael’s Church.

Below is a link to one of the more detailed alternative history for the Doone Family, written in 1901 for the West Somerset Free Press. Ida M. Browne (Audrie Doon)  claimed to be a descendant of the Scottish Doones who settled on Exmoor in 1620. It has it’s detractors, but it’s an engaging story and worth reading


Ella Quinn - Romance Novelist said...

Very interesting. I remember reading Lorna Doone as child. I tweeted.

Deborah Swift said...

I loved Lorna Doone, but had no idea it might be based on a real story. Fascinating.