The Curse of Raggedstone Hill
Towards the end of the Malvern Hills range is Raggedstone Hill, the last but one peak that looks down on the hamlet of Whiteleaved Oak. The views from the summit are remarkable as one can see into three counties at once with the wonderful Eastnor Castle close by. According to legend it hasn't always been this way though.
Sir John Nanfan was a prominent knight during the reign of Henry V. He lived mostly at Birtsmorton Court, a magnificent moated manor house near the Malverns with extensive estates all around. Nanfan began to “enclose” land around the area, which at that time essentially amounted to identifying parcels of land that he already owned then grabbing the land all around them, forming them all into one huge estate. Commoners and smallholders were summarily evicted, as they could not afford to begin the legal process to fight the enclosure.
The priory at Little Malvern was at that time a thriving small monastery and it wasn't long before Sir John came into conflict with them. He found a monk on Raggedstone Hill one day which was within his disputed enclosure and ordered him off his land. The monk replied that this was God's land, His will that they held it, and His judgement would fall down on him if he did not withdraw. Nanfan laughed and challenged him to do his worst, so wasting no time on banter the monk began the litany of excommunication. The knight remained unmoved, defiant, so the now enraged monk bellowed a curse at Nanfan, pronouncing that whenever the shadow of Raggedstone Hill should fall on Birtsmorton Court – the eldest son of the house would die within the year. As he pointed and spoke, the hill cast it's shadow on the house...and within twelve months Sir John's son Richard died.
The geography of the hill and the location of Birtsmorton Court means that the shadow can only be cast across the manor once a year, usually in November – assuming the sun is even out! However, regular visitors and locals will be familiar with the fog which drapes the hills and the mist that sometimes drifts off it and lingers atmospherically over the surrounding villages. Some have suggested that this may have been seen as “The Shadow of Raggedstone” reaching out, perpetuating the tale of the curse, but in actual fact there have been numerous sudden deaths among the Nanfan men over the centuries. One killed in the Civil War, another a loser of a duel, a freak fall from a horse, the list goes on. Even Cardinal Wolsey's death on his journey down to London and certain execution was attributed to the curse as he had been a chaplain to Richard Nanfan at the court of Henry VIII – but had stayed often at Birtsmorton. The most bizarre claim for the curse in action was the death of William Huskisson, who while not a Nanfan was born at Birtsmorton Court some time after the line had died out. A high flying politician, holding several successive parliamentary titles, the hapless MP was actually mown down by the famous “Stephenson's Rocket” steam train, thus going down in history as the world's first rail casualty.
Another version of the Raggedstone curse was worked into a novel by Charles Grindrod in 1888. A monk from the aforementioned Little Malvern Priory led a double life as a fake knight, wearing borrowed armour in a plan to avenge his mother's death. While on this quest he fell in love with a local woman, broke his vows and was framed for her husband's murder. Escaping a death sentence the monk, as part of his sentence, was forced to crawl on his hands and knees to the top of Raggedstone Hill and down again every single day until his death. As the years went on he became embittered (understandable!) and one day in his old age he stood atop the hill. Performing a diabolic ritual he then shouted out a curse. “May all whom upon the shadow of this peak falls die before they are old!”. A deeply rutted track zigzags up Raggedstone Hill, still visible from miles away, and it is said that this is the scar on the land formed by the monk's daily journey.
On a sunny day Raggedstone Hill is a beautiful place, with a walk up it then down to White Leaved Oak the perfect sunday stroll...but when the fog descends on the Malverns it can take on a different atmosphere altogether...and as for Little Malvern Priory? The 13th century church there is all that remains of the monastery, although a fine Tudor mansion was built on the site of the old main building. A visit to take a look is highly recommended. It is said that the priory was originally founded on the site of an ancient Brittonic pagan site, as the Malvern water springs held sacred there would have filled the fishponds the monks relied upon to exist., as the priory in it's day was sandwiched between the hills and the Malvern Chase forest with no room for farming.
Birtsmorton Court is in fine condition today, available for weddings and viewable by the curious from a public footpath running close by. It was originally founded during the 1200s but our Sir John Nanfan had most of it rebuilt during the 15th century. Thankfully the curse seems to have fizzled out with the end of the Nanfan lineage – unless poor Huskisson MP was a victim of the crawling monk's more general malediction...
If you like these posts you'll like my book The Mystery Of Mercia, available here -
Little Malvern Priory
Fog rolls down from the hills towards Little Malvern