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The Headless Victim
Folklore or Fact?

Over the years, the haunting of the north side of the local Churchyard by a headless man has been the source of many tales amongst the villagers of Faringdon. Hampden’s story is by far the most popular, but there is a second theory which explains that the ghost is, in fact, that of a member of the Unton family, the previous Lords of the Manor, who had lost his head during a Civil War battle. This latter story is, however, highly dubious. The manor of Faringdon (Faringdon House) was in the hands of Hampden’s Royalist grandfather, Sir Robert Pye (Senior) during the Civil War, the main branch of the Unton family having died out and the estate sold off. Alternatively it could be Hampden’s father, Sir Robert Pye (Junior) who, being a Parliamentarian, has the dubious honour of being the only man to have besieged his own home during the Civil War. He didn’t loose his head though.

Hampden Pye was born in Faringdon in 1647, the eldest son of the Lord of the Manor, Sir Robert Pye (Junior). Sir Robert, as mentioned, was a leading parliamentarian during the Civil War. He fought in Fairfax’s army against the King and later sat in parliament. However, being one of those who pushed for Charles II’s restoration, he was later able to find favour with the monarchy. In 1642 he married Anne, the daughter of the celebrated parliamentarian, John Hampden: Hence their son’s name. Hampden was one of three brothers, Hampden, Edmund and Richard, and several sisters. Richard had died young, but Edmund grew to be a fine lad. He entered the medical profession and made an eminently suitable marriage to Anne, daughter of Lord Crewe. Hampden, the family’s heir, was apparently more of a disappointment.

Tales about Hampden’s death have, over the passage of time, become rather confused. Most versions of the story tell how it was Hampden’s step-mother who arranged to have him murdered. The most notable account is probably the pseudonymous “Legend of Hamilton Tighe” recorded by Thomas Ingoldsby (alias Sir Richard Harris Barham) in his “Ingoldsby Legends” of 1840. However, sometimes the lady is given as Lady Anne Pye, Hampden’s own mother, and there are indications that these versions are the more antique.

In fact, if the story bears any relation to the truth, the lady in question could not have been Hampden’s step-mother, for he appears never to have had one. Sir Robert Pye (Junior) only ever married once, to Anne Hampden. The two died within  two months of each other in November and December 1701. Even if a month was long enough for him to have remarried, there was certainly no time for further children. Furthermore, Anne’s son, Edmund, would still have taken precedence over any younger half-brother, yet he is never mentioned in the story. Hampden, therefore, had no step-mother. She is merely the invention of the modern storyteller obsessed with the stereotypical “wicked step-mother” character.

So if the Wicked Lady Pye was Hampden’s own mother, what possible reason could she have had to murder him. Did she, perhaps, favour young Edmund? Still, her hatred must have been extreme. In fact, the older reports of her story indicate that it was her deep love for Hampden that led to his murder. She was so possessive that she could not bear the thought of her precious boy being with the young barmaid. She sent him away to sea and, ultimately, to his death.

Here we touch on a second flaw in the story. The scene of Hampden’s death is traditionally given as somewhere off the Spanish Coast, while under the command of Admiral Sir George Rooke. Sir George, along with the Earl of Ormond, did indeed lead an expedition to Cadiz during the Wars of the Spanish Succession (best known for the Duke of Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim). However, this was in August 1702, after the demise of Hampden’s mother. It is possible that the sailors carried out the deed not long after Lady Pye’s death, not knowing she had passed away. They were a long way from Faringdon, and she did die at the very end of  the previous year. However, the war with France and her Spanish allies did not even break out until the April after Anne’s death. Thus if Hampden had been sent away to sea, she must have hoped his “accidental” death could be staged while on manoeuvres. Furthermore, Hampden’s ghost would not have been able to have appeared to his mother in her carriage if she was already dead. When Sir Robert (Junior) died, his estates appear to have been directly inherited by Edmund, his second son, showing that Hampden, if still alive at the time, was probably out of the country: in Spain perhaps. When Sir George Rooke arrived there, several small unsuccessful clashes with the enemy took place. However the main Naval engagement was the great British victory at Redondela on 12th October 1702, where the enemy’s treasure ships were seized and their whole fleet destroyed. Was Hampden killed there? With his mother dead, it was all for nothing.

Hampden has not been reported in Faringdon churchyard within living memory. It is always recorded of the story, that some enterprising Vicar of Faringdon eventually had the courage to exorcise him using of bell, book and candle. The year, however, is uncertain: probably some time in the early nineteenth century.

Next: Places associated with the Legend
Back to: The Ghost of Hampden Pye


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