Dorothy Forster's Blanchland - according to Walter Besant

Dorothy Forster
The bold and beautiful Dorothy Forster

She was the darling of the Jacobite uprising of 1715, when she braved an icy journey on horseback down to London, 'sprang' her brother Tom from prison just four days before his trial, and hid him in Blanchland before his escape to exile in France. Dorothy Forster is then said to have staged a fake funeral at Bamborough for her 'dead' brother, filling a coffin with sawdust for burial in the churchyard. And now the niece of Nathaniel, Lord Crewe is said to haunt the Lord Crewe Arms, forever awaiting her brother's return.

Very few facts are actually known about the woman herself or the legends that have grown around her, but prolific Victorian author Walter Besant must have thought the story had it all - romance, adventure, glamour - and he produced what he considered his best novel, Dorothy Forster in 1884, almost 170 years after Dorothy's acts of heroism.

It's a fanciful potboiler of a novel, a 'Mills and Boon' of its time, but nevertheless Besant's story gives some interesting insights into the Victorian view of Blanchland in the early 1700s - and perhaps some clues on how he imagined the landed classes regarded their minions in pre-Industiral Revolution England.

Here, in a passage where Dorothy describes Blanchland, Besant sets the scene by regaling readers with the 'old chestnut' of the monks in the mist...

To be sure, it was impossible to spend money at this quiet place, where there were no gentlemen to make matches, play cards, and lay bets, no market-town nearer than Hexham, no buying of horses, and no other people except ourselves and the hinds who tilled our lands.

There is certainly nowhere in England a place which lies so remote from human habitation, unless it be in Allendale or among the Cheviots, as this old ruined Tower of Blanchland.

Formerly it was a monastery, but was destroyed very long ago, in the reign of the first Edward, by a party of marauding Scots, and was never afterwards rebuilt. They say that the marauding Scots, who had crossed the Border with sacrilegious intent to sack this House of God, on account of its reputed wealth, had lost their way upon the moor in a mist, and were returning homeward disappointed, when they heard the monastery bell ringing close at hand - it was to call the good monks together for a Te Deum on account of their escape from the enemy whose coming was looked for.

Alas! the bell was a knell, and the Te Deum a funeral chant, for the ringing guided the robbers to the spot, and they quickly broke through the gates, murdered all the monks, set fire to the buildings, and rode away carrying their unhallowed spoil with the sacred vessels, driving the monks' cattle before them, and leaving behind them nothing but the unburied corpses of the unfortunate brothers. Surely some dreadful vengeance must have overtaken these men; but it is so long ago that the memory of their names as well as their punishment has long since perished, though that of the crime has survived.

Besant's Dorothy gives a detailed description of the village as it may have been in the early 18th Century, proving the author has done his homework...

Blanchland lies along the valley of the Derwent in a deep hollow about the middle of the great moor called Hexhamshire Common, and ten or eleven miles south of Hexham; the stream is here quite little and shallow, babbling over pebbles and under trees; it is crossed by the stout old stone bridge built by the monks themselves, who once farmed the valley.

The fields are now tilled by a few hinds who live about and around the quadrangle of the old monastery still marked by the ancient walls, behind which the rustics have built their cottages. The place has the aspect of an ancient and decayed college, the quadrangle having been neatly cobbled, and a pant of clear water erected by my great-great-grandfather, Sir Claudius, who died here in the year 1627.

Dorothy Forster's Tower
Dorothy Forster's Tower, described on the right

Our own dwelling-house consisted of two buildings; one, which we used for company and visitors, is first, a great square tower which stands over the ancient gate - Mr. Hilyard says that the place might easily have been held for weeks against simple mosstroopers - it has several good rooms in it; and the second a part of the old monastery, including the refectory, a fair and noble hall, with a large kitchen below, and beside it a small modern house, contrived either by Sir Claudius or some previous holders, within another ancient square tower. This house, very convenient in all respects, has a stone balcony on the north side, from where stone steps lead to the green meadow, which was once the monks' burying-place.

And now Besant turns to the white monks' chapel, which in the early 1700s was in ruins. He evokes a sense of neglect and decay, and goes on to recount the tales of ghostly wanderings and haunting...

The ruins of their chapel, an old roofless tower and the walls, are standing in the meadow. Within the old chapel grass grows between the flags, wallflowers flourish upon the walls; there is on one of the stones a figure and an inscription, which Mr. Hilyard interpreted to be that of a certain man once Forester to the Abbey. But not a monument or a stone to the memory of the dead monks. They are gone and forgotten - names, and lives, and all - though their dust and ashes are beneath the feet of those who stand there.

The old cross in the churchyard
The old cross in the churchyard

Bush and bramble grow round the chapel and cover the old graves, whose very mounds have now disappeared and are level with the turf. Among them rises an old stone cross, put up no one knows when. It is truly a venerable and ghostly place.

In the twilight or moonlight one may see, or think he sees, the ghosts of the murdered friars among the ruins. In the dark winter evenings, the people said, they could be heard, when the wind was high, chaunting in the chapel; and every year, on that day when they rang the fatal bell and so called in the Scots, may be heard at midnight the ringing of a knell. Many are there who can testify to this miracle; and at night the venerable ghost of the Abbot himself may be sometimes met upon the bridge. But this may be rumour, for the people of the place are rude, having no learning at all, little religion, but great credulity, and prone to believe all they hear.

Then Walter Besant suddenly changes direction, with Dorothy suggesting that her mischievous maid, Jenny Lee, had invented most of the ghost stories herself...

Certainly I have never myself met the Abbot's ghost, though I have often stood upon the bridge after nightfall alone or with Mr. Hilyard. On the other hand, I have heard, on windy nights, the chaunting of the dead monks very plainly. While we were there I heard so many ghost-stories that I began to suspect something wrong, and presently was not astonished to find that the number and dreadful, fearful aspect of the ghosts had greatly increased since we came to the place, insomuch that for years after (and no doubt until now) the simple people of the village, if it may be called a village, were frightened out of their lives if they had but to cross the quadrangle or fetch water at the pant after sunset.

The cause of this terror was no other than my maid, Jenny Lee, who saw these apparitions. I verily believe that she invented her stories out of pure mischief and wantonness, spreading abroad continually tales of new ghosts. One day she saw in the graveyard a skull with fiery eyes, which grinned at her. Another evening she met the Devil himself (she declared; but his honour and Miss Dorothy must be told nothing about it - artful creature!), with flames coming out of his mouth, and a great roaring, sure to bring mischief, if only the loss of a chicken or a sucking-pig, to some one. Another time there was a black dog, which portended death. Had I known of these things at the time, Jenny should soon, indeed, have gone a-packing. But I did not know till later on, when Mr. Hilyard inquired into the truth of these stories, and traced them all to this girl.

Besant ends the passage on Blanchland describing a rustic idyll of daily village life, of flower-rich woodland, of men hunting animals, of local peasant women gossiping cheerily in the Square and villagers gathering for worship on a Sunday...

We passed here a quiet time during the spring and summer of that year. In the morning Tom went a-fishing, or hunted the otter, or went after badgers, or some kind of vermin, of which there are great quantities on the moor. After dinner he commonly slept. After supper he drank whisky punch, and to bed early.

As for me, when my housewife duties were accomplished, I talked with the women-folk, who were simple and ignorant, but of good hearts; or walked up the valley along the south side, where there is a high sloping bank, or hill - to my mind very beautiful. It is covered with trees. By the middle of June these trees have put on their leaves, and among the leaves are the pink blossoms of the blueberries and the white flowers of the wild strawberry, to say nothing of the wild flowers which clothe the place in that month as with a carpet. Even thus, in June, must have looked the Garden of Eden. In the afternoon Mr. Hilyard read to me, and we held converse in low whispers while Tom slept. And on Sunday morning the villagers came together, and Mr. Hilyard read the service appointed for the day.