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).
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.
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.
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….