On the eastern border of the county, south-west of Oundle, stood the old church of what was then Clapton, the spire of which was blown up ‘to save the expense of keeping it in repair’. Not far from its site is Skulking Dudley Coppice, shown by name on large-scale maps. It gets its name from a member of the Dudley family, who held a manor here in the fourteenth century and remained in possession until 1764. Local tradition says the family was hunchbacked.
In the early years of the twentieth century, one of them returned to disturb the villagers’ peace. This was ‘Skulking Dudley’, so-called because he was seen on moonlit nights dodging in and out of hedgerows. It was said that he could not rest because of a murder he had committed in 1349. Whether from guilt or as a penance, he would nightly ‘walk’ from Clopton manor past the old graveyard and demolished church, and then along the Lilford road to the small coppice later named after him. His visits caused such alarm after 1900 that in 1905 the Bishop of Peterborough came with twenty-one clergy to exorcize him, after which his wanderings ceased.
According to the version of Skulking Dudley’s story given in the Reader’s Digest’s Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain (1977), it took the combined skills of twelve clergymen to lay him. He is represented as a bullying landowner who continued to torment the villagers of Clopton long after his death. Soon after inheriting Clopton manor in the fifteenth century, Dudley so insulted a neighbouring landowner that the young man challenged him to a duel. However, Dudley was a coward, and on the appointed day took to his bed feigning illness. To save his honour, his daughter disguised herself in his armour and fought in his place. She lost but her opponent discovered who she was just as he was about to kill her, spared her life, and married her. Skulking Dudley met his end when one of his own harvesters, annoyed at being whipped, struck off his head with a scythe.
This version, which sets the story a century later than the first, combines with the Skulking Dudley legend that of the heiress Agnes Hotot, who married into the Dudley family. Before her marriage, her father, Sir John Hotot, was challenged to a duel by a certain Ringsdale. As Sir John was suffering from gout, Agnes took his place and laid low her opponent. ‘When he lay prostrate on the ground she loosened her throat-latch, lifted up the visor of her helmet, and let down her hair about her shoulders, thus discovering [revealing] her sex.’