Mary Blandy 1720—1752
If Love, in deep distress, can aught prevail,
You’ll prove attentive to our tragic Tale,
Our well-known Tale:—The base Deluder’s fled,
And the too-fond, too-credulous Fair is dead.
Guilty or guiltless, who can surely tell?
A spotless Angel, or a Fiend of Hell?
To heaven alone we’ll leave her dubious Case,
And strive to mend the World through her Disgrace.
—The Fair Parricide, A Tragedy in 3 Acts, Fetter Lane, 1752
... Leaving the Wargrave road, she turned in at a small gate, taking a path that led up to the hanging woods of Park Place. Of tall beech, the woods rode the hill for several miles, following the line of the Thames. In spring the trees stood knee-deep in a sea of bluebells and in autumn the hillside burned with the dark flame of their leaves. It was here that she first heard the nightingale. Above her head now she could distinguish the soft secret song of a young blackbird, and in the distance a robin scattered a cascade of small notes. … For her these woods, part of a forest that had diverted the tide of conquest and settlement, held a deeper, more primitive meaning, something that transcended the snobberies of a country town. Her father, Town Clerk of Henley; her mother, the former Miss Stevens of Culham Court; her uncles, Mr. Serjeant Stevens of Doctor’s Commons and the Rector of Fawley; herself, the reputed heiress; the respected position the Blandys enjoyed in this small corner of the world, and their acquaintance among the neighbouring gentry; the cap-touching and the limitless credit from the tradespeople; the family pew in church and the houseful of servants; the silk gowns her maid laid out for her, and her own elegant accomplishments—needlework and elocution and dancing; these things had always been hers, were as much a part of her as the air she breathed. It would only be if one of or many of them were stripped from her that she would be consciously aware of them. They were hers, part of the entity that was Miss Blandy, spinster of this parish.
And yet—and yet—!
The age in which she lived presented paradoxes disturbing to a heightened sensibility: on the one hand coarse, ruthless, bestial, insanitary, vicious and amoral; on the other, cultured, elegant, honourable and well-mannered; an age that could accept the brutalities of ‘Butcher’ Cumberland and—in a London where masques and scavenging ravens co-existed—flock to Tower Hill to see the heads of the Scottish Rebel Lords exposed; and age which—for all the scepticism of the wits—had only recently repealed the laws against witchcraft and in which love-philtres were still advertised. It was a day in which the lusty heart of an earlier England still beat thickly beneath a sprigged waistcoat—when an inheritance might be wagered on the turn of a card, guts rotted by wine in Bristol glass and pock-marked bodies clothed in Lyons silk; a day which brought a certain regularity to its relationships by recognising its mistresses and acknowledging its bastards; a day in which political corruption was lent dignity by the high places in which it flourished; an age which was to leave an unsurpassed legacy in art, in letters, in all the graces of living; an age when aristocracy was the apex round which revolved the painters, the wits, the architects, the cabinet-makers, an aristocracy climbing to the summit of that hill which led down to prudery and pig-iron, an age in which the sky was not yet blackened, the countryside not yet scarred, when no ugliness existed save in the hearts of men.
Something of which—instinctively rather than intellectually—Mary sensed, sensed in a vague uneasiness, a prescience of the ferment below the bland surface of her daily life.
The woods ended and the glade called Happy Valley flowed in all its smooth perfection to the water’s edge. Across the gleaming line of the river, Oxfordshire lay like a map, and she could trace the line of the Chilterns, petering out towards Shiplake, then rising in layer upon layer of beech-wood to sweep across the county boundary into Buckinghamshire. Henley lay in a hollow, its red roofs already hazed over with smoke as countless breakfasts were being cooked. Here on the hillside no sound disturbed the peace of the lovely morning, and the sight of so much activity in the town below was curiously unreal; the daily chores of Lilliput. ....
- —Excerpt from The Hanging Wood by Joan Morgan, Macdonald & Co, (Publishers) Ltd, 1950
... One of the most tragic events of the last century connected with the history of Henley, was the trial and execution of a young lady named Mary Blandy for the poisoning of her father. The story is extremely distressing, the main features being as follows. She was the only daughter of a respectable attorney of Henley, who lived not far from the “Catherine Wheel,” in Hart Street; he, in hopes of getting a good husband for the girl, gave out rather ostentatiously that she would inherit a fortune of £10,000; the temptation of the money, coupled with the personal attractions of the young lady herself, drew the attentions to her of a certain Captain William Henry Cranstoun, who had come to Henley with a recruiting party. This villain was of a good Scotch family, but had been given to vicious courses from his youth up. He had, before his visit to Henley, contracted a marriage with a Miss Murray; the marriage had been a private one, and on getting into monetary difficulties, he conceived the plan of getting rid of this wife, and then looking out for a lady of fortune. He denied at first that he was married to Miss Murray at all, hoping that as her relations had been involved in the Jacobite affairs of 1745, he should have no interference with his schemes; but in spite of this, the case was brought on to trial, and according to the Scotch law, he was declared to have legally married Miss Murray, the Lords of Session giving a judgment that settled fifty pounds a year on the wife. In spite of this, Cranstoun, at Henley, gained the affections of Miss Blandy, and proposed a runaway match, with the hope of afterwards securing her money. In the meantime the gossips of Henley had learnt the scandal of his previous marriage, and the father, on hearing of it, forbade his daughter to have anything more to say to the Captain.
The young people however continued a clandestine correspondence, and having occasional interviews. At length Cranstoun suggested the advisability of getting rid of the father by poison. He sent the young lady presents of some Scotch pebbles, and along with them a powder, which was described as one to polish them with, but which in reality was white arsenic. There is no doubt but that the daughter administered this at intervals to her father, and after an extra dose of it, in some water-gruel, the old man died with extreme suffering. On her trial, Miss Blandy confessed to having administered the powder, but asserted that she did it innocently, having been told by Cranstoun that it was merely a powder which would have the effect of restoring her father’s love to her lover. Unfortunately she had carefully burnt all Cranstoun’s letters and papers immediately her father died, and could give no evidence of the truth of her assertion. She made a long speech, defending herself, but as the case was clearly proved against her, a verdict of “Guilty” was returned, and on the 6th of April, 1752, she was executed at Oxford.
On her apprehension the mob’s indignation was so strong against her, that she was obliged to take refuge in the Angel Hotel, to escape being pulled to pieces. But after her condemnation and execution, the fickle mob were equally moved in her favour, and at her burial in Henley Church, an enormous crowd attended her funeral, which took place in the middle of the night. In an old periodical of the time, from which I have obtained this story, her execution is described in the following curious and graphic manner:-
“This morning Miss Blandy was executed at Oxford, in the same black petelair she was dressed in at her trial; she had on a black pair of gloves, and her hands and arms were tied with black paduasoy ribbons. * * * Her behaviour at the gallows was becoming a person in her unhappy circumstances, and drew not only great compassion, but tears, from most of the spectators. When got up about five steps of the ladder, she said, ‘Gentlemen, I beg you will not hang me high, for the sake of decency;’ and being desired to go a little higher, she did, two steps more; and then, turning herself on the ladder, had a little trembling, and said, ‘I am afraid I shall fall.’ After she had turned herself on the ladder, the Rev. Mr. Swinton, who attended her, said, ‘Madam, have you anything to say to the public?’ She said, ‘Yes,’ and then made a speech to the following purport: ‘That as she was then going to appear before a just God, she did not know that the powders, which were supposed to be the death of her father, would have done him any harm, therefore she was innocently the cause of his death, and, as she had been suspected to have poisoned her mother, she declared that she never had been so much as innocently the cause of her illness or death.’ And then, desiring all present to pray for her, she pulled a white handkerchief which was tied round her head for that purpose, over her eyes, which, not being low enough, a person standing by, stepped up the ladder, and pulled it further down; then giving the signal, by holding out a little book which she had in her hand, she was turned off. Before she went out of the gaol, she gave the sheriffs’ men a guinea to drink, and took two guineas in her hands with her, which she gave to the executioner. * * * In the afternoon her body was carried to Henley in a coffin lined with white satin, and according to her own desire, was deposited in the church there, between her father and mother. The funeral took place at one o’clock in the morning, and notwithstanding the hour, there was the greatest concourse of people ever seen on such an occasion.”
A walk in the grounds of Park Place used to be called Miss Blandy's Walk, and her ghost, riding on a white horse, was believed to haunt a place called Skermott, a little above Hambledon village. All that is known as to what became of Captain Cranstoun, is that from that time he led the life of an outcast and a vagabond.
Horace Walpole, in one of his letters, alludes to the trial of Miss Blandy, and writes in very indignant strains about the popular excitement, and sentiments of commiseration which were evoked by it. ....
- —Excerpt from Our River by George D. Leslie, R.A., London: Bradbury, Agnew, & Co, Bouverie Street, 1881
...The shade of a mournful young woman that supposedly haunts Blandy House in Hart Street can be no other than the ex mistress, Mary Blandy. The spectre stands meekly near an old mulberry tree. Occasionally she is accompanied by her lover, Captain Cranstoun, who seems to be more constant in death than he was in life. A play by Joan Morgan called The Hanging Wood tells of the life, romance and death of Mary Blandy and paints a rather rose-tinted picture of the heroine. When the play was performed at the Kenton Theatre at Henley in 1969, all manner of supernatural events took place. Doors slammed in people’s faces, lights turned off and on of their own accord, a mirror jumped off of the wall, a cup leapt off of a table and a shadowy figure of a young lady appeared just off stage. ….
Link to: Mary Blandy main page.
- —Excerpt from Curious Oxfordshire by David Long, The History Press Ltd, 2008