Dilston Hall, built in 1616, was demolished in 1768, except for its chapel, which, like the surviving tower of the earlier Dilston Castle, is now a listed ancient monument. The Hall itself had been allowed to decay, a victim of events, having been the family home of James Radcliffe, third and last Earl of Derwentwater, beheaded for rebellion on 24 February 1716.
Various collectors of folklore in the mid nineteenth century report that the inhabitants of the neighbourhood of Dilston received an omen of his execution. The aurora borealis appeared uncommonly brilliant on the night before and was consequently long after known as ‘Lord Derwentwater’s Lights’. The knoll on which Dilston Hall stood is surrounded on two sides by a stream called the Devil’s Water (‘Dilston’ being a corruption of ‘Devylstone’, from a family of that name). When the earl was beheaded, the Devil’s Water supposedly ran with blood and the corn ground that day came crimson from the mill.
Tradition claimed that Lord Derwentwater was undecided whether to join the Jacobite Rebellion (though this appears historically untrue) but that, when he was sitting in the Maiden’s Walk, overlooking the Devil’s Water, the figure of a woman, clad in robes of grey, appeared before him and, placing a crucifix in his hand, assured him it would keep him safe from bullet or sword. He supposedly took the figure for a hereditary apparition attached to his family and so acted on its advice.
Cynics claimed, however, that it was Lady Derwentwater herself who, when he first rode out on his grey horse to join the Jacobites but turned back at the sight of his ancestral woods, flung her fan onto his head as he passed under the window, saying ‘Take that, and give your sword to me!’ True or not, people blamed her for his death.
Lord Derwentwater was young, handsome, kindly, and well loved. His death came as a shock – it is said that a cry went up from the crowd at his execution on Tower Hill, and people steeped their handkerchiefs in his blood. (Such ‘corporeal relics’ of those considered to be saintly were cherished as charms: at the execution of Charles I in 1649, cloths were dipped in his blood and used to cure scrofula.) He was variously said to have been buried first at St Giles-in-the-Fields, London, or to have been taken to the Catholic chapel at DAGENHAM PARK, Essex. Finally, he was taken back to Dilston and laid in the chapel vault. When this was opened in 1805, the head was found beside the body. Among a number of country people gaining access to the vault was a local blacksmith, who extracted several teeth and sold them for half-a-crown apiece (such was the demand, some scores were sold as supposedly genuine). Unlike the blood-soaked handkerchiefs, these were perhaps merely grisly souvenirs.
Lady Derwentwater was thought to have returned to Dilston with her husband’s body and, says Murray’s Handbook for … Northumberland (1864), ‘the neighbouring peasants believe that her spirit still sits lamenting at the top of its ruined tower, and the glimmering of her lamp may often be seen … through the darkness of the night.’
According to M. E. C. Walcott, in The East Coast of England (1861), she waits ‘for the return of her murdered lord’; and a tradition was recorded in 1888 that Lord Derwentwater indeed returned, leading a phantom army:
It is but a generation since the trampling of hoofs and the clatter of harness was heard on the brink of the steep here, revealing to the trembling listener that ‘the Earl’ yet galloped with spectral troops across the haugh. Undisturbed … the Earl himself had rested … for a whole century; yet the troops have been seen by the country people over and over again as they swept and swerved through the dim mist of the hollow dene.