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Background Notes


"The quaint old author, Westcote, above mentioned, gives the following account of the Seven Crosses of Tiverton. He begins by stating, that a poor labouring man of that town had, by his wife, seven sons at a birth, "which being so secretly kept, as but known to himself and his wife; he, despairing of Divine Providence (which never deceiveth them that depend thereon, but giveth meat to every mouth, and filleth with his blessing every living thing), resolveth to let them swim in our river, and to that purpose puts them all into a large basket, and takes his way towards the river. The Countess (of Devon) having been somewhere abroad to take the air, or doing rather some pious work, meets him with his basket, and by some, no doubt Divine, inspiration, demands what he carried in his basket. The silly man, stricken dead well near with that question, answers, they were whelps. 'Let me see them,' quoth the lady. 'They are puppies,' replied he again, 'not worth the rearing.' 'I will see,' quoth the good Countess; and the loather he was to show them, the more earnest was she to see them: which he perceiving, fell on his knees and discovered his purpose, with all former circumstances; which understood, she hasteth home with them, provides nurses and all things else necessary. They all live, are bred in learning, and, being come to man's estate, gives each a prebend in this parish. which I think are vanished not to he seen, but the Seven Crosses near Tiverton, set up by this occasion, keeps it yet in memory."

Thomas Westcote wrote about this case in 1630, citing a 'poor labouring man of Chumleigh'. The story seems to have caught the Devonian imagination and it has been, or some variation, often cited since. After his wife had given birth to seven children, he left for seven years to avoid having any further children. But on his return, within a year, his wife gives birth to seven boys, one for each year he was away.

Frightened and overwhelmed by this, he takes the babies in a basket to drown them, but meets the Countess of Devon (Isabella de Fortibus, lived at Carisbrooke Castle but also had several other residences, the story is set in about 1262) who asks him what he has in his basket that is whimpering. He tries to persuade her that they are just puppies, but as she persists, in the end he falls trembling to his knees and reveals what he was going to do.

The Rev. Baring-Gould gives the town as Hensleigh (near Tiverton--15 miles from Chumleigh) and the man is a tailor. The Countess keeps the babies with the mother, but pays their expenses, a wise move! Their education is at Buckfast Abbey and four become rectors, and three become their curates at Tiverton. They lived in perfect harmony and loved each other dearly and when they died, on the same day, were buried in the same grave at the very spot where the Countess had previously saved them. Seven crosses were placed over the grave to mark the spot but have long since disappeared.

Ralph Whitlock points out a similar story from Wiltshire, about a medieval knight, Sir Thomas Bonham of Wishford, and the sieve in which they were carried was thought o have been preserved for many years in the local parish church, where the family monument also carries a reference to the events.

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