I’ve already written about Isolde de Heton, who was an anchorite at the church in Whalley, in this post about reluctant recluses. But during the research for my latest novel The King’s Appointed I’ve uncovered more about her life and it seems that she didn’t simply run away from the anchorage at Whalley because she didn’t like it there. Her reasons were more complex.
If you live outside Lancashire you’ve probably never even heard of Isolde de Heton. If you live in Lancashire, especially around the Whalley area, you may have heard the legend that has its foundations in The Lancashire Witches, a novel written by Harrison Ainsworth in 1848. In his story he claims that Isolde absconded with a ‘freebooter’ named Blackburn, who had visited her disguised as a monk, but with very unmonkish intentions! Isolde, finding herself pregnant, ran away with him, falling and breaking her leg as she escaped over Whalley Nab, and lived with him in the Malkin Tower, surviving to become the grandmother of Elizabeth Demdyke, one of the women who were convicted of witchcraft at Lancaster in 1612.
If you put the name Isolde de Heton into Google you’ll soon see that many people regard this story as being factual, with one book in particular, The Lancashire Witch Conspiracy by John Clayton, taking over a whole chapter to attempt to prove a figment of Harrison Ainsworth’s imagination to be fact. Even family research sites are repeating the story as fact even though the records are easily checked.
So, let’s take a look at the facts:
What is an anchoress?
An anchorite or anchoress was a man or woman who withdrew from the world to live in a small cell to pray and become nearer to God. It was similar to being a monk or a nun except that they lived alone and it was unlike being a hermit because they were not at liberty to leave their cell. It was a lifelong commitment. Once an anchorite took sacred vows and entered the anchorage they would remain there until death and many anchorites were buried in their cell.
Isolde de Heton was appointed as the anchoress at Whalley in Lancashire in 1437. The anchorage in the churchyard there had been founded by Henry, Duke of Lancaster in 1360 for a recluse nominated by himself or his successors to pray for his ancestors. By 1437, when Isolde was widowed, the Duke of Lancaster was the young king, Henry VI, and he nominated her.
She was given a small house in the churchyard with an adjoining chapel. She was provided with two maidservants to attend her and a monk, attended by a server, to sing mass daily in the chapel of her enclosure. She had a weekly ration of seventeen loaves, baked in the abbey, seven inferior loaves, and eight gallons of the best ale. Yearly, at the feast of All Saints she was given ten large stock fish, one bushel of oatmeal and one bushel of rye. For light and heat, she was provided with two gallons of oil for lamps, six loads of turf
and one of faggots. In return, she was expected to spend her time at prayer, and to offer advice and wisdom to visitors who approached her tiny window. It could have been worse. The anchoress in the church of Holy Trinity at Skipton in North Yorkshire was walled up in a tiny space at the back of the church.
Who was Isolde de Heton?
Isolde was the daughter of Lawrence Standish of Standish and his wife, Lora Pilkington. She was the sister of Alexander Standish and the widow of Richard de Heton of Heaton under Horwich. She had several children, but the heir was a son William who was about ten years old when his father died.
Did she leave the anchorage?
Yes. It’s true that she abandoned her vocation. We know this because the abbot of Whalley Abbey wrote to the king asking for the anchorage to be closed because of the trouble the monks had had to endure, particularly the arrangement that meant the anchoress’s maidservants had to go into the abbey kitchens to collect food. He mentions that Isolde had been living at liberty for the last two years ‘like as she had never been professyd’. He also mentions that the women who acted as servants to the recluses had been misgoverned and ‘gotten with child withyn the seyd plase halowyd’. He doesn’t mention Isolde or her maidservants in particular and definitely does not say that Isolde herself became pregnant.
Why did she leave the anchorage?
Isolde seems to have left the anchorage to safeguard her children. Her son, William, was the heir to his father’s lands and money, but as he was only around ten years old when his father, Richard de Heton died, he became the ward of his grandfather, William de Heton. A boy who was an heir was a valuable asset and parents with a suitable daughter were willing to pay for a marriage to be arranged because their daughter and potential grandchildren would benefit once the boy inherited. William de Heton arranged a marriage for his grandson, William, to Agnes, the daughter of his friend, Richard Barton, lord of Middleton, near Manchester. But Isolde had already arranged a different marriage before she entered the anchorage. This, she claimed, would bring in much more money, which would be enough to provide substantial dowries for her daughters. When she discovered what the elder William de Heton had done she was furious. From her cell at Whalley she wrote to her brother Alexander, to ask for his help, and between them they made a plan to kidnap young William from his grandfather and take him into hiding. So, it seems that Isolde fled from the anchorage and her holy vows to safeguard her son, his inheritance and the interests of her daughters. It’s rather a different story from the sordid tale told by Harrison Ainsworth.
What happened to Isolde?
After her disappearance from the anchorage there are few records of Isolde de Heton. However, in 1443 she wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Chancellor of England asking him to intervene in the matter of her son’s marriage. In the letter she claims that she is an anchoress, enclosed at Whalley, when in fact she had long since left. The letter is witnessed by Gilbert Standish and John Weston, and these names may offer a clue as to where she was living, but so far I’ve had no success in tracing where she might have taken refuge.
What happened to William?
There are records of a William de Heton of Heton, although I can’t be entirely certain that all of them refer to Isolde’s son because there are many places called Heton or Heaton, including a village near Lancaster. It seems that William was married to Agnes Barton as her father states this is so in his letter to the chancellor. However, the marriage may have been annulled or they may have been divorced. Whether William married the girl his mother had chosen for him I can’t be sure. There is a record of a William Heton marrying a Jane Farington, but I’m not convinced this is the same William. He certainly inherited his father’s lands by 1473 as he appears in the Manchester Rental of that year. There is also a record of him in 1489, when he presented to the judges at Lancaster a writ from the king, which ordered his exemption from serving on a jury, possibly because of illness or old age as he would have been about 63 years old.
A William de Heton of Heton is also recorded as the father of Katherine who married Henry Blundell of Little Crosby in either 1488 or 1489. Another daughter Joan is recorded as marrying William Haydock of Cottam Hall. They had a son William, who became a monk at Whalley Abbey and who was hanged there for his part in the Pilgrimage of Grace. If this man’s grandfather was Isolde’s son then it makes her his great grandmother. So it is possible that she was the direct ancestor of a martyr rather than a witch.
Like many stories from history, it’s impossible to discover all the facts, but there are enough of them to disprove the fictional tale of Harrison Ainsworth.
Having said that, I’ve drawn on some of the ideas of the legend for my novel The King’s Appointed, although I hope that I’ve been kinder and fairer to Isolde this time.
If you are interested in the letters then here are the complete versions of what was written:
From Richard Barton:
To the right honourabill and reverent fader in God the Bisshopp of Bath and Chaunceler of England. Mekely besecheth your bedeman Richard of Barton that ther wher oon William of Heton the elder was seised and …. the bodye of William of Heton the yonger cosyn and heir to the saide William the elder that is to wete son to Richard son to the saide William the elder and …. isede bargained and sold the manage of the saide William the yonger to your saide besecher to be maried and wedded to Agnes doghter of your saide [besecher] which saide besecher for the saide bargayn to the saide William the elder hath paied xl. mark of moneye and he with other men sufficiantly bounden by severals [obligacions] to paie to the saide William the elder for the said bargayn xl. ii over the saide xl. mark atte certeins dayes in the saide obligacions specified and seth this bargayn [thus made] Alisaunder of Standish of the Counte of Lancastre and Ysote of Heton suster to the saide Alisaunder of the same counte haue taken and doon away the saide William the yonger and hym …. in to a straunge place prive (?) and aloigned wher ne into what place your saide besecher ne the saide Agnes that hath weddit the saide William the yonger may have no knawlege ne wetyng to the undoying of the saide bargayn and like to cause finall devorce betwene the saide William the yonger that is [yet within] the age of xiiii zeers and the said Agnes his wife but if ther be remedie in hasty tyme. That it please to your gracious lordshippe to consider the mischeves abovesaide and theruppon to graunt two wrettes sub pena oon wrette to the saide Alisaunder and the tother to the saide Ysote chargyng thaym severally by the saide severall wrettes either on payne of two hundreth pounde to appeer in their propre persons in the Chauncere of Englonde wher it be the daye next after the Purification of our ladie next to come to answer of thies premisses for the love of God and in waye of charite.
From Isolde de Heton:
To the most worshipfull fader in God and most gracious lord the Archbisshop of Caunterbury Chaunceller of Englond. Besechith mekely your poer Bed[e]woman Isot that was the wyf of on Richard Heton nowe beyng an ancrys closeyd at Qwalley in the counte of Lancastre that where on William Heton fader unto the seid Richard s . . . . eyd your seid Bedwoman to have William son and heire of the seid Richard and of your seid Bedwoman to marye and dispose aftur his discression promyttyng unto your seid Bedwoman for her gode will xl marcs your [seid] Bedwoman seyng that her son schuld be maryd ayenst his will and all his frendz will and also within age and furovere that sche had grete charge dayly with other of hur childer that is to sey a son and [? two] daughters I . . . . unmaryed and also where as sche was profereyd for the maryage of her seid son ccc marcs with the whech sche thought to have holpyn her other childer utterly refusid The seid William fader un to the seid Richard seyng anon aftur that your seid Bedwoman was disposeid to be an Ancrys and closeid and schuld have no power to maynten’ accion be the lawe ayenst hym come with grete power and toke away [the seyd Richard] her son & maryed hym ayenst the will of your seid Bedwoman and all her frendez will to the grete hurt and myscomforth of your seid Bedwoman, and also to the utter undoyng and disperysching of her seid [childern] stondyng un holpyn as aboveseid That hit please un to your gracious lordschyp consideryng these premissez aboveseid and that your seid Bedwoman hath no remedye in the lawe to recuvere ayenst hym and also that sche is not of power of gode to make rnenes nor to gete her lordschip to maynten1 hur in her ryght but utterly to her undoyng and to her chylder also with owt your gracious help and lordschyp in this [partie] And that ye wold of your gracious lordschip to graunt a wryt of sub pena direct un to the seid William, fader of the seid Richard to apere be fore yowe in the Chauncere at a certeyn day be yowe lymytteyd and under a certeyn payn and there to be examyneyd and to do as trouth and consciens requyren’. for the love of God and in wey of charyte.
Pleg’ de pros’ GILBERTUS STANDISH de Blecckeley in com
JOHANNES WESTON de gadem, Gent.
From the Abbot at Whalley:
To the Kyng owre sovereign Lord, &c. Be hit remembryd that the plase and habitacion of the said recluse is within place halowed and nere to the gate of the seyd monastre and that the weemen that have been attendyng and acquayntyd to the seyd recluse have recorse dailly into the seyd monastre for the livere of brede ale kychin and other thyngs for the sustentacyon of the seyd recluse accordyng to the composityon endentyd above rehersyd: the whyche is not accordyng to be had withyn such religyous places. And how that dyvers that been anchores and recluses in the seyd plase aforetyme contrary to theyre own oth and professyon have brokyn owte of the seyd plase wherein they were reclusyd and departyd therfrom wythout eny reconsilyatyon. And in especyal how that now Isold of Heton that was last reclusyd in the seyd plase at denomynatyon and preferment of owre sovereign lord and kyng that nowe is is broken owte of the seyd plase and hath departyd therfrom contrarye to her own oth and professyon not willyng nor entendyng to be restoryd agayn and so livyng at her own liberte by this two yere and more like as she had never been professyd. And that divers of the wymen that have been servants ther and attendyng to the recluses afortym have byn misgovernyd and gotten with chyld withyn the seyd plase halowyd to the grete displeasaunce of hurt and disclander of the abbeye aforesayd, &c. Please hyt your highness of [y]our espesyal grase to grant to your orators the abbot, &c.