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The Nanfans and the shadow of Raggedstone Hill….


It was a member of the Nanfan family of Birtsmorton Court in Worcestershire (Sir Richard Nanfan, Deputy Lieutenant of Calais) who told tales to Henry VII about Sir James Tyrell giving succour to the fugitive Yorkist de la Pole brothers, Edmund and Richard. Tyrell had done this knowing full well that the elder brother, Edmund, planned to take the throne from Henry. Nanfan’s action led to Tyrell’s eventual execution, after the so-called confession that he murdered the boys in the Tower on the orders of Richard III.

However, it is not this aspect of the Nanfan family’s history that I am about to relate here, rather is it the dreadful curse that is supposed to have been cast upon one of Sir Richard’s ancestors, a Sir John Nanfan (there was more than one, and I cannot say exactly which it was).

Birtsmorton Court

The Nanfans originated in Cornwall, but occupied Birtsmorton Court for about 300 years all told. As you will see from the photograph above, the moated house has to be one of the most beautiful in the realm. Weddings are held there now, and such a spectacular setting cannot help but make it sought after. The house nestles in the eastern shadow of the Malvern Hills. Oh, how frequently we use that expression, “in the shadow of”. It generally means nothing sinister, but in the case of the Nanfans of Birtsmorton, it  had supposedly fatal consequences.

North-west of Birtsmorton, just a little closer to the hills, is Little Malvern Priory, and it was one of the monks from here who cursed the Nanfans. It began when Sir John Nanfan enclosed land on Raggedstone Hill (one of the spine of the Malvern Hills that can be seen from three counties – see photograph at the top of this page) that the priory believed was its property, not his. One November day, Sir John found one of the monks on this disputed land and ordered him away. The monk stoutly insisted that the land didn’t belong to the Nanfans, and that if Sir John persisted in trying to steal it, God’s wrath would descend upon him.


The summit of Raggedstone Hill showing how it deserves its name. Photograph from

Well, Sir John wasn’t going to be spoken to like that, and told the monk what he could do with his threats. The monk calmly excommunicated him and warned that whenever the shadow of Raggedstone Hill fell upon Birtsmorton Court, the oldest son of the family would die within a year. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the shadow fell thus that very day. Nor was it a coincidence that Sir John’s son and heir died in the allotted time.

Supposedly the shadow of the hill can only fall on the house on a certain November day, and if the sun isn’t shining at the time, i.e. is hidden by cloud, no prophesy can come true.

According to the legend, Nanfan heirs did indeed die within a year of Birtsmorton Court being darkened by the shadow of the hill. Roy Palmer, in Herefordshire Folklore, lists that one fell from a horse, another was a casualty in the Civil War (the only royalist to die in a skirmish in the Leadon Valley), and yet another died in a duel after the Restoration. When the elder branch of the Nanfans withered, the malediction transferred to a junior branch, and so on.

It has to be conceded that the Nanfans do not have the legend to themselves. Another version is that it was the Druids who from the hilltop cursed the Romans down below.Duids cursing the Romans

Is any of it true? Well, there will be some incident at the heart of it, a confrontation, and maybe someone wished something nasty on someone else, but that will be the end of it. I do not believe in curses. Um, well, not really….



Recently I was in Great Malvern and visited the priory church in the centre of town. It is known for its 15th century stained glass, including the West Window which was commissioned by Richard Duke of Gloucester and his wife Anne. Although the original Doom/Day of Judgement scene in Richard’s window is no longer visible, the glass having been scattered in fragments throughout the other windows of the priory, it is still possible, if one knows where to look, to pick out Richard’s white boar, his arms with two very damaged boar supports, and Anne’s arms with two bear supports.
After visiting, I wondered what Richard’s connection with the town might be, and soon learned he was in fact Lord of Malvern Chase, a wide, forested area stretching from the Malvern Hills to the Severn in Worcestershire to the banks of the Teme in Herefordshire. These lands came to him through Anne’s inheritance.
Although it is not certain if/when he actually visited the town, he must have thought it important enough to commission such a large and no doubt costly window in the priory. It was nice to theorize about potential journeys by Richard and Anne to this beautiful, hilly area, still retaining its old Celtic name Moel Bryn, the Bald or Bare Hill—perhaps to hunt in the Chase, or visit one of the several holy wells in the area, Holywell (which was on Richard’s manor of Hanley) or St Ann’s Well. The oratory of the martyred St Werstan is thought to have been located near the latter and later incorporated into a now-vanished chapel, St Michael’s. When a cottage was demolished near this site last century, a medieval undercroft, broken coffin and human bones were found. One of the stunning 15th C windows in Great Malvern Priory depicts the story of St. Werstan and his martyrdom.
St Ann’s Well was also particularly well known in the 15th century as a healing well, which might have been of interest to the Duke of Gloucester and his wife. There was also the Eye Well and the Hay Well, and probably others in the areaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA.
Just down the road from Great Malvern is another place that might have been of some poignancy to Anne. This is Little Malvern Priory, thought by many to be the ‘poor religious house’ where Margaret of Anjou fled with Anne after the Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury. It also has some fine 15thc glass of Edward IV and his family.

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