Zeal Monachorum

A farm in this parish was the setting for a series of events made famous in a pamphlet of 1641 entitled A True Relation of an Apparition in the likenesse of a Bird with a white brest, that appeared hovering over the Death-Beds of some of the children of Mr James Oxenham, of Sale Monachorum Devon, Gent. This describes the death in 1635 of Mr Oxenham’s eldest son, a pious young man, ‘to whom, two dayes before he yeelded up his soule to God, there appeared the likenesse of a bird with a white breast, hovering over him’. A few days later the same thing happened to the young wife of Mr Oxenham’s second son, then to her baby, then to another related child; other members of the family who were sick but recovered had no such visitation. In each case several witnesses reported seeing the bird; they were later questioned by the Bishop of Exeter, who found ‘all their sayings to be true and just’. The pamphleteer says it was then remembered that the bird had appeared earlier, in 1618, at the death of Mr Oxenham’s mother. Another writer of that period described seeing a memorial tablet recording the same four deaths and mentioning the bird, in a London stone-cutter’s shop. But it was never delivered to the church it was intended for, and nobody has seen it since.

The story has been much repeated, though the Victorian folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould thought it was probably an invention. Further episodes have been added in popular books in the twentieth century, some alleging earlier sightings in Elizabethan times, others bringing the story up to date by claiming that the bird has been seen shortly before deaths in the family in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One melodramatic variant says its first apparition was to a certain Margaret Oxenham (date unspecified) shortly before she was murdered on her wedding morning by a jilted lover.



Haunted England : The Penguin Book of Ghosts – Written by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson
Copyright © Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson 2005, 2008