Outside a primary school in Wigan, in the north of England, there is an old stone cross.
Known locally as Mab’s Cross, it comes with a legend. The story is that Lady Mabel de Haigh walked barefoot to this cross from her home at Haigh Hall as a penance for her adultery.
There are two main versions of the legend. The first comes from the Bradshaigh Roll, an ornamental pedigree drawn up by Randle Holme of Chester in 1647. It recounts how Sir William Bradshaw married Mabel Norris, the heiress of Blackrod and Haigh. After the marriage he was absent for ten years in the ‘holy wars’ and when he returned he found that Mabel had married a Welsh knight. On Sir William’s return the intruder fled, but William chased him and killed him at Newton Park where a red coloured stone still supposedly marks the spot of the murder.
It was this version of the story that caught the interest of Sir Walter Scott. He quotes the story and speaks about it at some length in the preface to The Betrothed, saying:
“The tradition, which the author knew very early in life, was told to him by the late Lady Balcarras. He was so much struck with it, that being at that time profuse of legendary lore, he inserted it in the shape of a note to Waverley, the first of his romantic offences. Had he then known, as he now does, the value of such a story, it is likely that, as directed in the inimitable receipt for making an epic poem, preserved in the Guardian, he would have kept it for some future opportunity.”
The second version of the legend comes from a manuscript copy of a statement by Sir William Norris of Speke, dated 9th June 1563. William Norris said that the story was told to him by Sir Roger Bradshaw of Haigh who was then living. This version claims that Mable was unaware that she was an heiress and when William Bradshaw came across her she was living in poverty ‘baking oat cakes in a kiln’. It is, however, in agreement that William was absent, this time for seven years, and says that when he returned he showed one of his tenants an old scar on his ribs as proof of his identity. Once again there is a fight at Newton Park, but this version omits the story of Mabel’s penitential walk to the cross at Wigan.
Like, Sir Walter Scott, I’ve known the legend for a long time and I also saw the value of it as a potential novel. But rather than simply rely on what I knew, I decided to do some research to try to discover how much of the story was based on fact. I’m a member (and currently the president) of the Lancashire Authors’ Association and we have a library which contains many old books about the county. It was here that I discovered a small booklet written in the 1930s by Rev. T.C. Porteus, who was a local clergyman and historian. The booklet is called New Light on the Mab’s Cross Legend and in it Porteus compares the legendary stories with the true historical events of the time.
Sir William Bradshaw and Lady Mabel de Haigh were real people. They are well documented in history and their effigies lie side by side in Wigan parish church where they are buried. Sir William was a Member of Parliament for Lancashire in the 6th, 8th and 19th years of the reign of Edward II – before and after his long absence from home. He was, at first, a follower of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and was named amongst the earl’s adherents in a pardon granted for the death of Piers Gaveston. But in 1315 he joined the Banastre Rebellion.
Porteus points out that the seven years when William was absent from home coincide with the years from the failed rebellion of 1315 until the execution of the Earl of Lancaster as a traitor in 1322. He suggests that both the legends are mistaken to say that William was away fighting a holy war. An inquiry into the ownership of the lands at Haigh in June 1318, states that William Bradshaw had been outlawed.
In 1319 Lady Mabel stated that her husband was dead. She is said to have married a second husband, but there is no documentary evidence and the suggested identities of the man range from ‘a Welsh knight’, Sir Henry Teuther, Osmond Neville to Sir Peter Lymesey, who is mentioned in the 1318 enquiry when Mabel is described as ‘intruding’ on the lands – in other words refusing to give them up.
Sir William Bradshaw did receive his pardon from the king and he did return home, taking up his seat in parliament once again in 1328. The matters of Lady Mabel’s bigamous marriage and her subsequent penance remain open to speculation. Whether she did walk barefoot to the stone cross, once, or even weekly, as a penance is not known for sure. But as Sir Walter Scott and I agree, it’s a wonderful story for a novelist.
*Elizabeth Ashworth’s novel An Honourable Estate, based on the legend of Mab’s Cross in now available as a paperback and an ebook from Amazon.