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Murder most foul

Alan J Miller investigates the killing of Lady Strode at Parnham during the Civil War

Parnham House
Parnham House, scene of Lady Strode’s murder

‘And near that day one of his soldiers with his sword casually killed Lady Strode in that same place.’
So wrote A. R. Bayley in his book, The Great Civil War in Dorset 1642-1660, published in 1910. The soldier was one of those under the command of Colonel Fairfax, the Parliamentary commander in the West, and ‘that same place’ was Parnham House near Beaminster. It was one of the examples of gratuitous violence that occurred during the 1640s when England was rent by the Civil War.

Hostilities broke out in 1642 when the King moved to Nottingham and raised the Royal Standard on 22 August. The people of England had to decide on which side their allegiance lay. It divided families, sons against father and brother against brother and subjected the towns and countryside to devastation as the opposing armies swept across the counties. None of the major battles was fought in Dorset but the county was important, for it controlled the route to the west and the important port of Bristol, and there were some major skirmishes with loss of life and damage to property. The ports of Lyme Regis, Weymouth and Poole were Parliamentary strongholds but the rest of the county gentry and the countryside at large was divided in its loyalties.

Who was this Lady Strode who suffered such an horrendous death on 5 July 1645? She was born Ann, one of the six daughters of Sir John Wyndham and his wife, Joan Portman, of Orchard Wyndham, Somerset. The exact date of her birth is not recorded, but in 1621 she married as his second wife Sir John Strode. He was then about sixty years old but she was obviously considerably younger and their first son, John, was born in 1624. The Strodes were a very ancient family originally settled at Newnham in Devon, but one branch of the family had established itself at Parnham in 1428 when a Richard Strode married the heiress of the Gerard family. Sir John Strode had acquired from the Cheverell family the estate of Chantmarle, about ten miles to the east of Beaminster in the parish of Cattistock, and built a new house there in 1612. He was a lawyer by profession and gained a reputation as ‘an honest, trusty, learned, religious gentleman’. He was Recorder for Bridport in 1614 and MP for that borough in 1621 and 1625. Like so many of his fellow-landowners he was torn between loyalty to his monarch and his sense of what was just and right. He was then approaching his eightieth year and so beyond military age, but he moved to Oxford to support the Royal cause with legal and financial help, leaving his wife in charge of the Parnham and Chantmarle estates.

Sir John, painted in his younger years, is now in the reserve collection of the Louvre in Paris - Parnham House
No portrait of Lady Strode exists but this one of her husband, Sir John, painted in his younger years, is now in the reserve collection of the Louvre in Paris. It is not exhibited as they think it is a copy by a student of the original by Van Dyck, the present location of which is unknown.

Searching for the date and place of her burial proved fruitless as the original registers of Beaminster parish church were destroyed in a fire in 1684. There were copies known as Bishop’s Transcripts sent to the Dean of Sarum but there was a gap in them between 1638 and 1669, presumably due to the disruption of the Civil War.

At this point the matter takes on all the marks of a modern detective investigation. Bayley’s book, though written nearly a hundred years ago, is still regarded as the first work to which a reader would turn for information on this period in the history of Dorset, but how reliable is his information and where did he get his note about Lady Anne’s death? In his footnotes he states that she was the eldest Wyndham daughter, when in fact she was the third. Modern authors lay out their sources in great detail but Bayley at the end of his work merely refers to ‘newspapers and tracts’. An enquiry at the British Library in London revealed some 22,000 items printed in London between 1640 and 1661 and covering important religious and political conflicts of the Civil War. Narrowing it down to 1645, a professional researcher was set to work but abandoned it after a few hours as it was clear that the reports and tracts did not cover personal incidents of the type for which he was searching.

It looked like the end of the trail but then another clue surfaced in the form of a note that Charles H. Mayo, a respected local historian, wrote for the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries in 1903. In it he said that he had been shown by Mr A. M. Broadley a little book bound in calf leather called An Ephemeris for the Year 1652 by Nicholas Culpeper, which was not only curious in itself but which had been interleaved with blank pages with handwritten comments on religious and legal matters. From the evidence of the writing, Broadley had come to the conclusion that this copy of what he called Culpeper’s Almanack had once belonged to Sir Richard Strode of Newnham, Devon, and that he was the author of the handwritten comment. These rambled over many topics but on page 15 launched into a bitter attack against the Strodes of Dorset, whom Sir Richard accused of illegally holding the Parnham estate. Did Broadley show or even lend Bayley this book from which he picked up the comment about the killing of Lady Ann? Where was that book now? An enquiry to the British Library, ever helpful, revealed that they had a copy of Culpeper’s book, but on production it proved to be ‘clean'; the annotated one which had belonged to Broadley must have gone to a private collector.

Chantmarle, also owned by Sir John -Parnham House
Chantmarle, also owned by Sir John

What was the reason for the dispute between the two branches of the Strode family? Sir John’s elder brother, Robert, who died in 1616, had married Mary Luttrell of the Dunster family but they had only a daughter, also called Mary, and in the absence of a male heir he had settled all his Dorset lands including Parnham on his younger brother, Sir John, in trust on the male line by a Settlement of 1585. This daughter Mary married as his first wife Richard Strode of Newnham, later Sir Richard and owner of the ‘Almanack’, and they had three daughters Elizabeth, Frances and Katherine, who as females were not eligible to inherit the estates. But when Mary died in 1608, Sir Richard married again to Elizabeth the daughter of Thomas Erle of Charborough and she dutifully produced a son, William. Sir Richard therefore considered William as a boy the rightful heir to the Parnham estate under the terms of the 1585 Settlement. But Sir John did not see it that way and with his legal knowledge consistently blocked Sir Richard’s attempts to bring the matter to court.

The legal wrangling was made more bitter by the fact that the contending parties were on opposing sides when the Civil War broke out, Sir John being a staunch Royalist, but the Newnham Strodes on the side of Parliament as evidenced by William, Sir Richard’s brother, being one of the members of Parliament the King had tried to arrest in 1642. Was there a member of the Newnham Strodes who arrived at Parnham with Colonel Fairfax’s force in 1645 or was it just a soldier who struck down Lady Strode as she undoubtedly tried to bar their entrance to the house? There was a theory held by recent owners of the house that a Newnham cousin was there and ordered Lady Strode to be beheaded, but there is no evidence to support this belief. Sir John had died at Oxford in 1642 and Lady Strode’s eldest son, John, then aged 21, was being held a prisoner of Parliament in Taunton. Were her other three sons – George (19), Hugh (17) and Thomas (16) – in the house when their mother was so brutally butchered? She was not alone among Dorset ladies in her spirited defence of her husband’s property: Lady Bankes at Corfe Castle and Ann Digby at Sherborne New Castle both survived, but Lady Strode paid the price for her defiance.

Colonel Fairfax was in command of the Parliamentary troops in the West, one of whose soldiers was responsible for the death of Lady Strode -Parnham House
Colonel Fairfax was in command of the Parliamentary troops in the West, one of whose soldiers was responsible for the death of Lady Strode

It still leaves the manner of her death, possibly recorded only by a scribbled comment in a book now lost, with a question-mark. It is noteworthy that her eldest son, John, who inherited both Parnham and Chantmarle, never attempted to bring anyone to justice for his mother’s death. Sir Richard’s son, William, died young but his half-sisters, or rather their children, continued to pursue their claim and eventually John Strode was ordered to pay £3300 compensation but appears to have got away with a lesser sum. Later pages of the Almanack make it abundantly clear that Sir Richard Strode was mentally unstable and ended up in the Fleet prison with debts of £200. Whilst there he wrote long epistles to Oliver Cromwell setting out his grievances and he was eventually released as being of unsound mind. When he died in 1669 he left to King Charles II ‘the manor of Parnham which is or ought to be mine’. Even beyond the grave he kept up his campaign.