Though medieval chronicles report that William de Tracy, one of Thomas à Becket’s murderers, died abroad, there was a strong local tradition that he fled back to Devon after the crime, and died and was buried there.
Initially, he is said to have hidden in Crookhorn or Crewkhorne Cave, west of Ilfracombe, which is dry at low water but filled at high tide, except for three months of the year. According to Ilfracombe boatmen in the nineteenth century, it was within those three months that ‘Sir William Tracy’ hid there for a fortnight and was fed by his daughter.
He is also connected with the beautiful headland of Morte Point (‘Death Point’, so called because its rocks and razor-sharp slate stacks have claimed so many lives), where he is said to have retired to a manor belonging to the Tracys. An old farmhouse close to the seashore, known as Woolacombe Tracy, allegedly marks the spot where he lived in banishment.
In expiation of his crime he is said to have founded several churches: Nymet Tracy near Yeoford Junction; Bovey Tracy; a chapel which formerly stood on Barnstaple Bridge; and the parish church of Morte (now Mortehoe), just north of Woolacombe. In the south transept of the latter stands an altar tomb which, as Dean Stanley wrote in 1857, ‘was long supposed, and is still believed by inhabitants of the village, to contain the remains of the murderer’.
The tomb was identified as de Tracy’s because of a partly defaced inscription on its black marble lid, reconstructed as: ‘Syr William de Tracey git ici, Deu del alme eyt mercy’ (‘Here lies Sir William de Tracey, Lord have mercy on his soul’). In fact the tomb is that of another Sir William de Tracey, a rector of Morte who died in 1322. His effigy on the lid is clad in clerical robes, a problem explained away by supposing that on retiring to Devon de Tracy became a priest. Likewise figures on the north side of the tomb representing Sts Margaret and Catherine (to whom the chantry containing the tomb was dedicated) were said to be de Tracy’s wife and daughter, buried with him.
Tristram Risdon, writing c.1630, said that people who stole the lead in which the dead body of de Tracy was wrapped never prospered afterwards. Perhaps this was because they had violated the tomb of a priest, perhaps because they were haunted by the ghost of a murderer. For de Tracy is one of the restless dead. Along the south edge of Morte Bay is Woolacombe Sand or Sands, a two-mile (3.2-km) long beach to which (so the locals told Dean Stanley) he was banished ‘to make bundles of sand and binds [wisps] of the same’. According to later traditions, his penance is everlasting, for whenever the rope is nearly woven, along comes a Black Dog with a ball of fire in his mouth and breaks it. People living in cottages along the shore were said sometimes to hear his shrieks and wails – the more cynical explain these as the foghorn of Flat Holm.
This uneasy spirit also haunted the northern landing place of the ferry from Braunton Burrows to Appledore. According to a tradition recorded in 1919, a long-drawn cry of ‘Boat ahoy!’ would at times come ringing out of the dark across the waters:
No one answers that call now after dusk, for once, many years ago, the ferryman, who is well remembered among the Appledore people, went over, and no man was there, but a black dog jumped into the boat. The ferryman, not much liking this, put back again as fast as he could, but when Appledore was nearly reached the dog swamped the boat, made his way to shore, and was lost in the shadows of Northam Burrows.
Black dogs were commonly regarded as ominous apparitions (see also SHERINGHAM, Norfolk).