Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Curse of the Tichborne Dole: A Medieval Postscript to the Amazing Story of the Tichborne Claimant

by Pauline Montagna

Every Lady Day, March 25, (otherwise known as the Feast of the Annunciation) the villagers of Tichborne in Hampshire, UK, gather to collect the Tichborne Dole. Two tons of flour is blessed then distributed to the villagers who come bearing shopping bags, pillow cases or whatever they can find to carry home up to 28lbs of self-raising flour per family.

The Tichborne Dole 

The dole was established in the twelfth century and has been distributed ever since almost continuously except for one brief stint between 1796 and 1836, and therein lies a tale that would culminate in the famous case of the Tichborne Claimant as narrated in my last contribution on the topic.

To recap, in 1865, Thomas Castro, a bankrupt Australian butcher from Wagga Wagga responded to an advertisement enquiring after the whereabouts of Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to one of the largest fortunes in England and reported lost at sea in 1854. Only Sir Roger's mother would recognise this unlikely candidate as her son and after her death Castro took the family estate to court to claim the title. When his case collapsed, Castro was charged with perjury, served a prison term and died penniless, yet laying claim to the name of Sir Roger Tichborne until his dying day.

You may remember that the Tichbornes could trace their ancestry back to the Norman Conquest. Under the reign of Henry II, the incumbent baron was also a Sir Roger, a gruff and unsentimental soldier. His wife Lady Mabella, however, was a gentle and pious woman. As she lay dying of a wasting disease, she asked her husband to donate a piece of land to the parish in her name on which grain could be grown for an annual dole to the poor. Sir Roger was not a man to encourage idleness and at first refused her request.

Legend has it, however, that he eventually relented but only in so far as issuing his dying wife a cruel dare. He would donate the area of land she could encircle holding a burning torch. Lady Mabella, we are told, took up the challenge, ordering her bed to be carried outdoors. With blazing torch in hand she managed to crawl around a 23 acre field now known as 'The Crawls'. (This part of the story reads to me like a piece of retrospective mythologising, based on a place-name that most likely had a totally unconnected origin.)

Sir Roger finally, though grudgingly, agreed, but in order to pre-empt his rescinding after her death, Lady Mabella laid a curse on his descendents. If ever the dole was stopped, Tichborne House would crumble and there would come a generation of seven sons, followed by a generation of seven daughters after which the Tichborne name would disappear.

The dole continued until 1796 when the local magistrates decreed that it attracted too many beggars and ne’er-do-wells and had it stopped. They must have forgotten the curse, or perhaps dismissed it as medieval superstition, as the incumbent baronet at the time, Sir Henry Tichborne, was the father of seven sons. The first sign that Lady Mabella's curse was coming into effect was when a corner of Tichborne House collapsed in 1803.

Sir Henry was succeeded in 1821 by the eldest of his seven sons, another Sir Henry who had no sons, but seven daughters. As the second son, Benjamin, had died young and unmarried, the title passed onto the third son, Sir Edward Tichborne-Doughty, who had adopted his mother's maiden name after inheriting a fortune from her family. He had a son and a daughter, but Lady Mabella's curse struck again when his son died at the age of six in 1835. Reminded now of the curse, Sir Edward hastily reinstated the dole, but was too late to save the family from further disaster.

In 1853, the title passed to the fourth son, Sir James. Sir James had two sons, Roger, born in 1829, before the dole was reinstated, and Alfred who was born in 1839. Roger, as we have seen was lost at sea before he could inherit. Alfred, born after the reinstatement, survived to succeed his father, but died in 1866, after squandering most of the family fortune and leaving only an unborn child. Luckily the child was a boy, thus saving the Tichborne baronetcy from extinction.

However, the curse had still not played itself out entirely. That child's right to the title was challenged by Thomas Castro, and much of what was left of the family fortune, at least £90,000, was spent defending the case. The baronetcy finally expired in 1968.

How much of this story is true, how much of it was re-created after the facts, is hard to tell, but it certainly makes for a great yarn.

Strange Britain Tichborne Dole
Tichborne Dole

Pauline Montagna lives in Melbourne, Australia. She has published three books, The Slave, an historical romance set in fourteenth century Italy, Suburban Terrors, a short story collection, and Not Wisely but Too Well, a novel of the young Shakespeare and the first volume of a projected four volume series. You can find out more about her and her books on her website


  1. What a fascinating tale - I never heard this part of the story before. It is indeed a ripping yarn!

    1. Yes, even Robyn Annear's definitive book on the subject doesn't mention this connection. I came across it just by chance on the internet.


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