It may have been the effigies that first caught my eye – the woman with her hands clasped in prayer and her husband beside her with his legs crossed and his hand resting on the hilt of his sword as if he were ready, at any moment, to defend her honour.
I was in the parish church at Wigan in Lancashire and the effigies were those of Lady Mabel Bradshaigh and her husband, Sir William. As I studied them a man came across to speak to me.
“Have you seen the cross?” he asked. I glanced around the church, wondering if he meant the cross on the altar. “No,” he said, “I mean have you seen Mab’s Cross?”
He told me where to find it – across a busy road junction, up the hill and in the grounds of a primary school. It wasn’t much to look at really. The stones were worn away and there was no longer any sign of a real cross, but it was the story behind it that intrigued me.
"Sir William Bradshaigh, second son to Sir John, was a great traveller and a soldier, and married to Mabel, daughter and sole heiress of Hugh Norres de Haghe [Haigh] and Blackrode, and had issue, etc. Of this Mabel is a story by tradition of undoubted verity, that in Sir William Bradshaigh's absence (being ten years away in holy wars) she married a Welsh knight. Sir William, returning from the wars, came in a palmer's habit amongst the poor to Haghe; Mabel, who when she saw and congetringe [conjecturing] he favoured [resembled] her former husband, wept - for which the knight [her second husband] chastised her; at which Sir William went and made himself known to his tenants; in which space the knight fled, but near to Newton Park, Sir William over took and slew him. The said Dame Mabel was enjoined by her confessor to do penance by going once every week, bare footed and bare legged, to a cross near Wigan from Haghe, whilst she lived, and [it is] called Mabb's to this day."
I wanted to know if there was any truth in this story so I began to research and came across a small booklet in the Lancashire Authors’ Association library. Written by Rev. T.C. Porteus in the 1930s it is called New Light on the Mab’s Cross Legend. In it, Porteus compares the two main versions of the legend with the factual history of the time. His interpretation made a lot of sense and this is what I used as the basis for my plot development.
In his booklet, Porteus refers to William Bradshaigh as a ‘Lancashire Robin Hood’ because he did not in fact fight in the ‘holy wars’ but was outlawed for not attending court on suspicion of being involved in the murder of one Sir Henry de Bury. An Honourable Estate also contains elements of the Robin Hood legend. There are sheriffs and outlaws as well as Scots and wars and rebellions as the narrative follows the fortunes of Mabel and William as famine sweeps England during a succession of very wet summers when crops rotted in the fields. Because William is an outlaw, the lands at Haigh are forfeit to the king and are given to another man, Sir Peter Lymesey. But Mabel won’t give up her inheritance. In a 14th century inquest into the ownership of Haigh, it is recorded that Mabel ‘intruded’ on the lands. In other words she refused to move off them.
It seems that Mabel was a determined woman in real life. Perhaps she didn’t need a man with a sword to defend her honour, but she must have loved William even though she did commit adultery. She paid for the chapel at Wigan to be built so that they could be buried there together – perhaps she is still praying for forgiveness, although I think William must have forgiven her a long time ago.
book trailer: http://youtu.be/b4mLgPJqr88