‘Okehampton Park is the scene of the nightly penance of Lady Howard,’ says Murray’s Handbook (1879). Elsewhere Murray tells us that the former mansion of Fitzford at Tavistock belonged in 1644 to Sir Richard Granville, who possessed it in the right of his wife Lady Howard, daughter and heiress of Sir John Fitz. A curious legend was told of her in the town.
Granville was her fourth husband, and local tradition asserts that she murdered the first three. As penance, she has to set out from home every night in a coach constructed of human bones, with a skull at each corner of the roof, which is driven by a headless coachman. Alongside it runs a ghostly black dog, which may or may not be headless; if it does have a head, there is one glaring eye in the middle of its forehead. In some versions, this dog is Lady Howard herself, transformed. The coach drives round the moor to the mound of Okehampton Castle, where the dog tears off one blade of grass, after which they all return to Fitzford House. This must continue till the mound is stripped bare – which it never can be, as the grass grows faster than the dog can pluck it. The coach and/or the dog reportedly appear at various places along the route.
The story was well known, and still is. It is told by Mrs Anna Eliza Bray (1790–1883) in her historical novel Fitz of Fitzford, and by Mrs Whitcombe in 1874. Lady Howard was a childhood bugbear of the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould:
I frequently heard of the coach going from Okehampton to Tavistock when I was a boy … I remember the deadly fear I felt lest I should be on the road at night, and my nurse was wont to comfort me by saying there was no fear of the ‘Lady’s Coach’ except after midnight.