An elaborate tomb in Wellington church contains Sir John Popham, who died of sickness, aged seventy-two, in 1607. According to John Aubrey’s comments on him in his Brief Lives (1669–96), he had neglected his studies in youth, preferring the ‘profligate company’ of criminals, with whom he ‘was wont to take a purse’, i.e. go out robbing. However, when he was about thirty his wife persuaded him to work seriously at the law, after which he had a fine career, rising to be Speaker of the House of Commons and Chief Justice. He presided at the trials of the Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, and the Gunpowder Plotters. However, he was widely considered to have been both cruel and corrupt in his judgements. There were scandalous rumours that he had unjustly enabled his cousin ‘Wild Will’ Darrell to escape a charge of murder, in exchange for being made heir to the latter’s estate at LITTLECOTE HOUSE in Wiltshire.
In popular tradition, as collected by Ruth Tongue, Theo Brown, Kingsley Palmer, and other twentieth-century folklorists, Popham is said to have been killed while out hunting, when his horse stumbled on a steep hillside near the present Wellington Monument and flung him into a pit in the gulley below, where he either broke his neck or drowned. It is supposed to be bottomless, leading straight down to Hell; it is now called Popham’s Pit. His ghost was held captive there for a while, but thanks to the prayers of his pious wife he was allowed to emerge and begin a slow return to the tomb in Wellington church, three miles (5 km) away, crawling through an underground tunnel at the rate of one cockstride a year. If he can complete the journey his soul will be safe, but he has had setbacks, and is still on the way. Some say his underground route passed under a certain farm, where people were so disturbed by the noises under their floor that they called in a white witch who conjured him right back into his pit.
Popham’s ghost was also associated with an oak tree in the woods of Wilscombe Bottom. A letter to the Wellington Weekly News on 23 June 1909 related how woodmen who were felling trees in the 1850s decided to spare this oak because, when they laid axes to it, it uttered pitiful groans; they concluded that the ghost must be sheltering there and decided to spare it for a few years to give him time to move on. In another version, a ploughman succeeded in uprooting the tree when others had failed, because of the piety of his own life and the fact that he used a team of ten oxen, which are sacred beasts.