Wednesday 29 January 2020

The Seven Crosses of Tiverton

The legend of how the Seven Crosses area of Tiverton got its name is an interesting tale of unwanted septuplets being saved by the Countess of Devon, Isabel de Redvers (1237-1293), and this act being commemorated by the building of seven stone crosses.

Illustration from "A Peep at the Pixies"
Illustration from "A Peep at the Pixies"

The story is told slightly differently each time, from Martin Dunsford's original footnote of 1790, to William Harding's version of 1845:
A poor labouring man, inhabiting this town, had many children; and, thinking himself over-burdened by such a multiplied blessing of God in that kind intended, by a politic natural course, to avoid all such future charge, absented himself seven years together from his wife, and then returning again, and accompanying her as formerly, she was within a year thereafter delivered of seven male children at one birth, which made the poor man think himself utterly undone; and hereby dispairing, put them all in a basket, with a full intent to have drowned them; but Divine Providence following him, occasioned a lady to be coming at this instant of time in his way, who demanded of him what he carried in his basket. The silly man, stricken dead well near with that question, answered they were whelps, which she desired to see; and finding the lady was resolved, and by opposition became more earnest in her purpose, fell on his knees and discovered his intent, with all former circumstances; which understood, the Countess went home with them, provides nurses, and all things else necessary. They all live, are bred in learning, and being come to man's estate, gives each a prebend in this parish; which I think are vanished, not to be seen; but the seven crosses near Tiverton set up by this occasion, keeps it yet in memory, unless they are appropriated to the Free School there erected.
A later book by Sabine Baring-Gould called A Book of the West: Being an Introduction to Devon and Cornwall, published in 1899, tells the story again, but in clearer language and with a few more embellishments:
At Hensleigh, a hamlet to the west of the town, is a spot called "The Seven Crosses." The origin of this name is, according to a generally accepted tradition, as follows:—

One day the Countess of Devon was taking her walk abroad in the direction of Hensleigh, when she met a tailor descending the hill, laden with a large covered maund, or basket. As he passed, she heard a cry from the hamper. She stayed her steps and inquired what he was carrying.

"Only seven puppies that I be going to drown in the Exe," was his reply.

"I want a dog," said the Countess. "Open the hamper."

The tailor tried to excuse himself, but in vain. The Countess insisted, and, on the lid being raised, seven little babes were revealed.

"Alas, my lady!" said the tailor. "My wife gave birth to all seven at once, and I am poor, poor as a church mouse. What other could I do than rid myself of them?—they are all boys."

The Countess saw that they were lovely and vigorous babes, and she made the tailor take them back to his wife, and charged herself with the cost of their bringing up and education. When they were sufficiently old she had them all sent to Buckfast Abbey, to be reared for the priesthood, and in due time they were ordained and became—that is, four of them—rectors of Tiverton (for Tiverton had four together), and the three others their curates. As they were all of a birth, they loved each other, and never disagreed; and that was—so it is averred—the only instance within a historic period that the rectors of the four portions of Tiverton have agreed, and have got on smoothly with each other and with their curates. As the seven hung together in life, in death they were not parted. All died in one day, and were buried on the spot where the Countess of Devon saved their lives, and there above their heads seven crosses were reared, but not one of these remains to the present day. 
Finally, in a story book of local legends by Anna Eliza Bray called A Peep at the Pixies: or, Legends of the West, published in 1854, the legend is expanded into a 44-page short story called "The Seven Crosses of Tiverton; or The Story of Pixy Picket". The illustration above comes from a version of this book.

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