On the porch of All Saints’ church are five marks said to have been left by the claws of the Devil. The local explanation of how they came to be there is that Sir Rowland Alston of Odell sold his soul to the Devil, but when the time came to pay his debt took sanctuary in the church. The Devil (traditionally often conceived of as gigantic) thereupon shook the church in frustrated fury, leaving his claw marks behind. Sir Rowland’s ghost allegedly appears on a phantom black horse every hundred years – 2044 is when he is next expected.
The theme of the ‘diabolic contract’, or selling one’s soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly advantage, is usually attached to magicians, and to those like Sir Francis Drake whose speedy rise to fame and fortune was explained in folk tradition in this way (see BUCKLAND ABBEY, Devon). Quite how Sir Rowland came to have this theme attached to him appears to have gone unrecorded. There were Alstons at Odell from the early seventeenth century, one of whom incorporated parts of Odell Castle, by John Leland’s time ‘nothing but straunge ruines’, into a new house (since burnt) on the site. They were men of some importance, MPs, Justices of the Peace, and soldiers, to whom there are memorials in the church. The only possible black mark against Sir Rowland himself (at least among Tories) seems to be that he was twice elected as Whig MP for the county (in 1727 and 1734). As with landowners elsewhere, his memory may have been soured by some local grudge.
At all events, Betty Puttick in Ghosts of Bedfordshire (1996) calls him ‘Wicked Sir Rowland Alston’ and says he was the black sheep of his family, ‘depraved and wicked in life’. She tells a version of his legend less traditional in form than the first and without the diabolic contract. This says that Sir Rowland haunted the house on the site of Odell Castle so badly that steps were taken to exorcize his restless spirit. He was ‘laid’ in a pond in the traditional manner and stayed there for a hundred years, but then emerged intending to resume his haunt. However, the Devil was waiting for him and followed him to the church, but Sir Rowland crept in through the keyhole, leaving the Devil outside. As before, the Devil in his frustration shook the church, leaving five scratches on the stone jamb of the porch.