In this town, and in several villages of the area, there is a strong tradition that the malevolent ghosts of two seventeenth-century grandees, Sir Laurence Tanfield and his wife, might be encountered riding in a spectral coach, either separately or together. People of whom such stories are told would have had a reputation for ‘wickedness’ when alive, and in this case it is easy to see why. Sir Laurence, a successful lawyer and judge, became rich enough to buy Burford priory in 1617 and, as lord of the manor, deprived the burgesses of Burford of various rights and privileges which they had long enjoyed on the assumption that their town was a royal borough. He died in 1625; his effigy and that of his widow can be seen on their fine tomb in Burford parish church. Lady Tanfield is equally reviled in popular tradition; she is said to have behaved with great arrogance. According to the folklorist Katharine Briggs, who herself lived in Burford, Lady Tanfield allegedly declared that she ‘would like to grind the people of Burford to powder beneath her chariot wheels’. The ghostly tales are described by several writers of the 1920s and ’30s in terms which show that they go back well into the nineteenth century; Muriel Groves, for example, writing in 1934, passes on an account from her father, who in turn got it from his own mother’s nurse:
Old Dame Taylor, my grandmother’s nurse, told father that Lord and Lady Tanfield used to drive over the roofs of the Burford houses – up one side of the street and down the other. This became such a nuisance that the townspeople got seven clergymen to come and ‘lay’ them under Burford Bridge – the first arch – seven priests with bell, book and candle. If ever the arch gets dry they will come again. One dry season, it began to ‘hiss and bubble’, so the people watered it till the river rose.
Katharine Briggs, collecting in the 1960s, was told some further details: that the airborne coach was fiery, that its appearance was an omen of misfortune, and that the parsons had corked up Lady Tanfield’s ghost in a bottle before throwing it into the river. One of her informants, whose grandparents had lived at Whittington in Gloucestershire, reported that because Sir Laurence had owned an estate there he was remembered there too as ‘the Wicked Lord’, who drove his coach up and down a particular lane. Whoever saw it would die. She remembered an incident in her childhood when a groom assured her that he himself had found a man lying dead in the lane, killed by the sight of the Wicked Lord; the truth of the matter, it turned out, was that a man had indeed been taken seriously ill while being driven along that lane, and the driver had thought best to leave him at the roadside while he went to find help.
Sir Laurence’s ghost was also reported to appear at Great Tew, where the manor house had at one time been his home. In the 1930s, Ethel Williams was talking to a young gravedigger and his friends in the churchyard there, to see how much they knew about local historical figures:
When I asked about Lord Falkland, they could tell me nothing, but when Judge Tanfield was mentioned, their faces brightened, and they told me of the great elm in the park, a mile or so away, round which, when the clock strikes at midnight, Chief Baron Tanfield can be seen driving in a coach and six.
‘So it is said,’ concluded the gravedigger, as a concession to modern scepticism.
‘Not that I would like to be there to see,’ added one of his friends quickly.
Some writers identify the aristocratic ghosts of NORTH LEIGH and WILCOTE as Lord and Lady Tanfield; certainly their reported behaviour follows similar patterns, and the two traditions may well have become confused. The belief that wicked landowners are doomed to ride for ever in a gruesome spectral coach is fairly common; it is found, for example, at OKEHAMPTON, Devon, and BLICKLING HALL, Norfolk. It may well reflect popular resentment at their power and wealth.