The Murderer of Calverley Old Hall

‘He won’t plead, my Lord.’
‘Have you pressed him?’ Baron Cobham asked the gaoler.
‘We have, my Lord. See for yourself.’ He opened the door to the room. Walter Calverley lay there on the stone floor, wrists and ankles chained so his body made an X. A door had been placed on top of him, piled with rocks.
‘You know the law,’ Cobham said as he studied Calverley’s face. There must have been a hundredweight on top of him, but he didn’t show any pain. Just the fire of fury in his eyes. ‘He’s a lunatic. Press him until he says he’s guilty or not. He’s killed two of his children and came damn close to murdering his wife, too. He’d have had the last boy if the villagers hadn’t caught him. Press him.’
‘Yes, my Lord,’ the gaoler said as the Baron walked away along the corridor of York Castle.

It hadn’t always been this way, Walter Calverley thought. He hadn’t always been a madman, had he? He could remember times when he’d been happy. Back when he’d been young, and the grounds of the Old Hall in Calverley seemed to stretch forever. But then, back in ’72, his father had died and the world seemed to slow as it span around the sun.
Walter had titles now: the squire of six manors, in Fagley, Farsley, Bolton, Burley-in Wharfedale, Eccleshill, and Seacroft. He’d learned them like a rhyme. They were his, but he was too young to understand what that meant. He had money, his mother said. But he’d always had money, never wanted for anything. He had responsibilities, but what were they? He didn’t know, and when they tried to tell him, he no longer cared. A cup or two of wine, maybe more, a good game of cards, that was the life.
It stayed that way when he went to Cambridge in May of ’79. He met good fellows there, carousers all of them. The days for sleeping, the nights for pleasure. Exactly how it should be for a young man.
But it palled quickly enough, and by October he was back in Calverley, much to the displeasure of his guardian, Baron Cobham.
And it was there he met Catherine. The same name as his mother. A sweet, pretty girl. How had he never seen her before? Her father’s farm back on to the grounds of the hall. She was a girl with a winsome face and a gentle manner, the kind for love, not sport. And in her, he believed he saw someone who could change him for the better. He asked her to marry him and she agreed.
It all changed with Cobham’s summons to London. The note was curt, but Walter knew he had to obey. Cobham held the purse strings and decided how much money he could receive until he came of age.
Nigh on a week’s journey until he was in the house on Thames Street, the capital a bustle of noise and sounds and smells around him. The garden ran down to the river, masts ranged like a forest on the water.
‘Write to her,’ Cobham ordered him. ‘She does read, doesn’t she?’
‘Of course.’
‘Tell her it’s over, that on reflection she’s not suitable.’
‘I love her.’
Cobham’s stare was cold.
‘What does that matter? If you love her, take her on the side once you’re properly wed. Marriage is for gain and bringing heirs into the world. If you want passion, find it in the arms of a whore. You’re here because you have a duty to do. Or would you rather starve until you’re twenty-one?’
He had him by the ballocks, and Walter knew it. He was weak. He sent the letter that night.
‘Here’s the girl you’re going to marry.’ He nodded and the servant opened the door and ushered in a girl with an eager, curdled gaze.
‘Philippa.’ Cobham smiled. ‘Meet the man who’ll be your husband.’ Walter stood and bowed. ‘Walter, this is my granddaughter, Philippa Brooke. I’ve considered it all, and this will be a good match for you both. And when you marry, boy, control of all the estates will become yours.’

All his. All gone now.
They’d read the banns that first Sunday in London, and the two that came after, and then the wedding. A dazzling affair. But the problems began as soon as they came north, to the Old Hall. It was uncivilised up here, she complained.
Her tongue was as sharp as any knife and it never ceased. Every little thing had to be picked apart, until he stormed out, down to the inn, to dice and drink. Sometimes into Leeds for company. Once, out hawking, he saw Catherine riding with a man. She had a new suitor, he’d heard. Rage rose in him like water in a vessel. He could have been happy with her. If he’d stood his ground, but he didn’t have any courage. He spurred the horse and galloped to the inn, drinking himself insensible.
He did his duty and produced heirs, bawling, puking boys to take his place in time: William, Walter, and Henry. The nursemaid cared for them. Dutifully she presented them for his inspection. Walter was four, polite and fearful to the point of annoyance. Walter not old enough to speak yet, just a year and a half, and Henry out with the wet nurse in the village.
And the money? That was all gone, not that there ever was as much as he’d imagined. Cobham had had his hands in the fortune, he was sure of that. It was the man’s way. But with a wife and three brats, as well as his own pleasure and the expenses of the estates, the coffers were bare.
He lived on credit, and soon enough there’d be no more of that.
There were days he’d walk out of the Old Hall, climb to the top of the moor, where none could see or hear him, and scream until his voice was hoarse. It was the only way to take the pressure from his mind, to stop feeling as if his head would explode as his problems crowded around him.
Then, once he was home, Philippa would ask where he’d been. Questions, accusations. She loved him no more than he loved her. But where he wanted none of her, she used every word as a dagger to slit his skin.

St George’s Day. The village taking the holiday and celebrating. Walter had been up an hour, his head pounding from the drink of the night before, when the servant showed in the messenger. Three letters, two of them from creditors to toss on the fire.
The last from his cousin, Mark. He’d been at Cambridge with Mark’s brother, Richard. As good a man as ever lived, a drinker, a man to wager and whore with at night.

News, cousin, and bad tidings at that: Richard has been taken by the law and put in prison for a debt at Cambridge. Six pounds. Our father won’t pay it, saying Richard can rot in gaol for a year. I have no money, save what my father gives me. So I have to look to his friends on his behalf…
Walter tore it up and threw it into the flames. He could no more help Richard than he could help himself. And he knew the debt. He knew it well. It was his. Signing for food and drink and new suits of clothes in Richard’s name. A joke. It had seemed a good one at the time, with no thought of consequence.
He couldn’t raise that amount, not now. His life was broken and others were paying the price.

He drank steadily, all through the day. The only person he’d allow in the room was his servant, bringing more wine, ale, brandy, whatever was in the house. When Philippa tried to enter he threw a piece of plate at her head, ranting and raging.
It was all her fault. If he could have married Catherine, she could have saved him. He’d have known the happiness he’d experienced when he was young and life was just innocence and simple fun.
By evening he had his plan. He’d sweep away this life, destroy it. Make himself clean again. He’d go to Catherine and beg her. Ask for his salvation.
With his dagger in his hand, Walter climbed the stair. He threw the door of the nursery open. Walter and William asleep in their beds, so easy to kill. Five thrusts each, his tears coming as he did it. Tears of joy. Tears of freedom.
He was striding back along the corridor when Philippa came out of her room, hair down, wearing her nightgown, a shawl gathered around her shoulders. He struck at her, seeing her blood run, hearing her cry out.
Outside, in the stable, he saddled his favourite mare. One more thing to do until he was clean again, until he could make his fresh start with Catherine. He rode out of the gate, spirits soaring for the first time since he’d put the ring on the woman’s finger.
The word passed faster than he could ride. In the darkness he lost his path twice, tracking back. The village with Henry and his wet nurse was no more than a mile, but he was damned if he could find it in the night. And when he did come to the right track, the village men were waiting, dragging him off the horse and taking him to the magistrate.
Murder, they called it, and carried him off to gaol. Not even to Leeds, but all the way to Wakefield.

And now it was August, hot even in the depths of York Castle. He lay, listening and the gaoler asked him one more how he wanted to plead, before he added another stone. But when the man didn’t understand was that every weight on his chest took the load from his heart. And once his chest was crushed and all the life was gone, well, then he’d find his freedom. At last.

Historical Note: The facts of this tale are true, and Walter Calverley was pressed to death on the orders of the Star Chamber after he refused to plead on the killings of two of his sons and the wounding of his wife. By then he was in debt, and the letter saying an old friend was in jail for a debt of Walter’s, dating back to his student days, seems to have finally turned his mind. He died in York on August 5, 1605. There are claims that his ghost can be seen at night, riding a black horse and waving a bloodstained dagger, on the lanes around St. Wilfrid’s Church in Calverley, where he’s buried.

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