Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events/The Tragedy of Beningbrough Hall


In 1670, Beningbrough Hall, a fine Elizabethan red-brick mansion, stood in a park near the unction of the Ouse and Nidd. The old house has been pulled down, and replaced by an edifice neat and commodious, as the guide-books would say, and we need say no more.

In 1670 Beningbrough Hall belonged to a Roman Catholic family of the name of Earle. Mr. Earle, the proprietor, was in somewhat embarrassed circumstances, and was mixed up with some of the plots then rife. He was much away from the Hall—generally in London; but the house was full of servants, under the control of a steward, Philip Laurie, and a housekeeper, named Marian—a comely woman, just passing into middle age.

One day, when Laurie was absent, two gentlemen arrived at the Hall, cloaked, with their hats drawn over their eyes, and were admitted by Marian. One of these was Mr. Earle himself, anxious to escape recognition. Who the other was did not transpire. After some conversation with the housekeeper, Marian summoned the servants into the hall, and ordered them immediately to collect and pack the plate and pictures—everything that was of value and readily movable. Mr. Earle did not show himself—he remained in the housekeeper's room; but his companion appeared, and announced that he and Marian were acting under the authority of Mr Earle, and he read them a letter from that gentleman requiring the removal of his valuable property as the housekeeper should direct.

The servants were much surprised; but as it was known that their master was in difficulties, and as some suspicion seems to have entered their heads that he was engaged in a plot, their wonder died away; they diligently discharged their duty, and everything that was required was speedily collected and stowed away in leather bags or wooden boxes in the hall. The housekeeper then dismissed the servants, and she and the stranger conveyed the articles packed up into her room.

Where were they next to be conveyed to, so as to be readily removed? Mr. Earle expected a warrant for his arrest on the charge of high treason, and the confiscation of all his property. He was therefore desirous to remove all he could in time to escape to France.

To avoid observation, it was advisable that his valuables should be secreted somewhere near, but not in the house. Marian then, with some hesitation, told the master that an attachment subsisted between her and the gamekeeper, a man named Martin Giles; that she could rely on his not divulging the secret, and trust him with the custody of the plate, &c., till it suited the convenience of Mr. Earle to take them away. She was accordingly despatched to the gamekeeper's cottage, and he was brought to the Hall, and as much of the secret confided to him as could not well be retained. He promised most frankly to do what was desired of him, and as he was a Roman Catholic, Mr. Earle felt satisfied that he could trust him not to betray a master who professed the same faith.

When Philip Laurie returned he found to his surprise that the house had been stripped of everything precious. He was extremely incensed, and in an angry interview with Marian charged her with having told tales of him to her master, and so of having lost him the confidence of Mr. Earle. She did not deny that she mistrusted his honesty, unhappily recalled a circumstance he thought she knew nothing of, and took occasion to give him "a bit of her mind"; but she protested that she had not spoken on the subject to her master.

Philip Laurie asked where the property was removed to. She refused to tell him. He swore he would know. He did not trust her story. The house had been plundered; the opportunity had been taken when he was absent, and Marian was privy to a robbery.

After violent words on both sides they parted. As he left the room the steward turned, fixing his eyes, blazing with deadly hate, upon the housekeeper, and muttered a few inarticulate words.

It was not long before Laurie suspected or discovered where the valuables were secreted.

Chance had thrown in his way a labourer of bad character named William Vasey, a poacher and a reputed thief. Laurie walked through the park to the cottage of this miscreant, and it was resolved between them that the housekeeper should be murdered, and then that the lodge of the gamekeeper should be robbed.

In the evening Marian was taking her accustomed walk along a beech avenue beside the Ouse. It was evening, and the red evening sky was reflected in the water, which looked like a streak of blood. The rooks were cawing and wheeling about the tree-tops, settling for the night.

A white owl that lived in the ivy that covered the north side of the house floated, ghostlike, through the gathering darkness. Marian in her white cap walked quietly in the avenue. She was a Roman Catholic, and was reciting her beads. Laurie knew that she was accustomed every evening to retire into this walk to say her rosary.

At one point a beech-tree had been blown over, and had left a gap to the west, through which the faint reflection of the evening sky fell, leaving the shadows beyond it in deeper gloom. For some unaccountable reason, as Marian came to this gap, instead of passing it and continuing her walk, she stood still, and then turned. A second time she walked the avenue and came to this gap. A mysterious repugnance to advance caused her to hesitate and halt.

Thinking that this was an unreasonable feeling, she walked on a couple of steps, and then stood still, turned round, and looked at the spot where the sun had gone down.

At that moment Vasey sprang from behind a tree, and thrust Marian over the brink. With a shriek she sank.

Next morning the body was found, a part of the rosary clenched in her hand, and the other portion was discovered caught in the stump of the broken beech. Prints of a man's boots in the mud showed that Marian had not died by accidentally falling into the water.

Suspicion of the guilt of the murder fell upon Martin Giles, the gamekeeper. Laurie was in the Hall the whole time, and therefore no one supposed him implicated in the commission of the crime. The gamekeeper had behaved mysteriously for the last day or two. He had avoided his usual friends; he had been seen privately conversing with the housekeeper. Only Marian and he knew that their master had been in the house; his presence had been concealed from the other servants, who only saw his companion. The removal of the valuables to the house of Giles had been accomplished by the two gentlemen with the assistance of the gamekeeper alone. After the valuables had been taken away, the two gentlemen in disguise had ridden off.

The servants, who had noticed that there was some mystery to which Giles and Marian were privy, thought that the keeper had killed the poor woman out of dread lest she should prove an untrustworthy depositary of the secret, whatever it was. It was known also that the lovers had been accustomed to meet in the beech avenue, the place where the murder had been committed.

Whilst the tide of popular indignation ran strong against the unfortunate gamekeeper, Laurie and Vasey resolved on committing the robbery—before also Mr. Earle and his companion had found means to remove the property entrusted to his custody.

At midnight Vasey and the steward went to the gamekeeper's cottage. Laurie was to remain outside, and the other ruffian to enter and rob the house. They thought that Martin Giles was sure to be asleep; but they were mistaken. The man had been sincerely attached to poor Marian, and lay tossing in bed, wondering who could have murdered her, and vainly racking his brain to discover some clue which could guide him to a solution of the mystery. As he thus lay, he thought he heard a slight sound downstairs. But the wind was blowing, and the trees roaring in the blast; the little diamond panes in the latticed windows clattered, and the keeper thought nothing of it.

Presently, however, he heard the latch of his door gently raised, and in the darkness he just distinguished the figure of a man entering the room. He immediately jumped out of bed, but was felled to the ground. As he struggled to rise he was again struck down, and for the moment was stunned. But he recovered consciousness almost immediately. He had fallen upon a sheep net, which lay in a heap on the floor. He quietly gathered up the net in his hands, sprang to his feet, and flinging the net over the murderer, entangled his arms so that he could not extricate himself.

He wrenched the bludgeon out of his hand, and struck him over the head with it, so that he measured his length, insensible, on the floor.

Had Martin only known that this ruffian had been the murderer of her who had been dearer to him than anyone else in the world, there is no doubt but the blow would have fallen heavier, and would have spared the hangman his trouble.

Giles then threw open his window and fired off his gun, to alarm the inmates of the Hall.

In a few minutes the servants made their appearance, amongst them Philip Laurie, with a ghastly face. A sign passed between him and Vasey, and he recovered some of his composure. The captured ruffian had assured him he would not betray his accomplice.

Vasey was taken into custody, and on the following day was removed to York Castle, where he was committed for burglary with intent to commit murder.

When Mr. and Mrs. Earle heard of what had taken place, the latter came with the utmost speed into Yorkshire. Mr. Earle, fearing arrest for treasonable practices, did not venture to do so.

Laurie's conduct had already excited suspicion. He had not been seen issuing from the Hall on the night of the attempted robbery with the other servants, and was found on the spot fully dressed, and that not in his usual costume, but one which looked as if intended for a disguise.

Mrs. Earle sent for him to her boudoir, and dismissed him from her service. As yet there was no charge sufficiently established against him to warrant her committing him to custody; but, she added, Vasey had declared his full intention to confess before his execution.

Laurie, a desperate man, flung himself on his knees, and implored his mistress not to send him away; or if, as he heard, she was about to escape with Mr. Earle to France, would she allow him to accompany them?

She indignantly thrust the wretch from her. He started to his feet, drew a pistol from his coat-pocket, and presented it at her head. She struck up his hand, and the contents of the pistol shivered the glasses of a chandelier that hung in the room. He rushed out of the room, ran to his own apartment, put another pistol to his forehead, and blew his brains out.

Vasey now confessed everything, and was executed at the Tyburn, outside Micklegate Bar, at York, on August 18th, 1670.

It is said that at night a pale, female figure is seen to steal along the bank of the Ouse, where the avenue stood in olden time, and to disappear in the churchyard of Newton, which adjoins the park, where Marian was buried.