The medieval Radcliffe Tower, now in ruins, was once the seat of the powerful Radcliffe family and the scene of a particularly gruesome murder – if, that is, one can trust the pen of John Roby, whose Lancashire Traditions of 1829 consists of leisurely and highly coloured retellings of local stories, in which a core of traditional material lies almost hidden by the author’s sentimentality. In the present instance, the core is an old ballad entitled ‘The Lady Isabella’s Tragedy’, from which he quotes, but there is nothing to show why he localized it at Radcliffe Tower and changed the heroine’s name to Ellen. However, the popularity of his book ensured that this is the version remembered nowadays.
Fair Ellen, said Roby, was the daughter of Richard Radcliffe, much loved by her father but hated by her jealous stepmother. The latter conspired with the master cook at the Tower to murder Ellen, sending the girl herself to him with the message that it was time to kill and cook a ‘fair and milk-white doe’, the loveliest in the park. The cook seized Ellen and slaughtered her, despite the protestations of the kitchen scullion, baking her flesh in a pie and threatening to murder the boy, too, if he revealed the crime. That evening Ellen’s father returned from hunting, and, when he asked where his daughter was, the stepmother said she had gone into a convent. In the words of the ballad:
O then bespake the scullion-boye,
With a loud voice so hye:
If now you will your daughter see,
My lord, cut up that pye,
Wherein her fleshe is minced small,
And parched with the fire;
All caused by her step-mother,
Who did her death desire.
The wicked stepmother was condemned to be burnt, and the cook to stand in boiling lead, while the simple scullion-boy was made heir to the lord’s land.
There is no historical justification for attaching this tale to the Radcliffe family, for though it is true that at one point the direct line became extinct and the estates were settled on a more remote relative, Lord Fitzwalter Radcliffe, the latter was certainly no scullion boy. Nevertheless, Roby’s tale has often been repeated; a bloodstain on the floor of one of the rooms of the Tower was said to mark the murder, and a Black Dog which haunts the ruins is sometimes said to be Ellen’s ghost. Even nowadays the tale is remembered; in the 1990s, the ‘dinner lady’ of Radcliffe High School told the local author Ken Howarth:
Fair Ellen was baked in a pie at the Old Tower and they say there are secret passages under Radcliffe. They say that one of the passages goes right across Radcliffe and under the senior school and when we serve up meat pie for school dinners they say Fair Ellen comes, ’cos everything goes wrong that day … When we have meat-pie switches go off, cookers get switched off, boilers, different things like that, a pan fell from underneath a shelf for no reason at all.