There are some myths and legends that are told throughout Europe. One such tale is that of the wicked person who uses their power in evil ways. The story may be about a feudal lord, knight, master or prince. Nearly always, these people are friendly with the devil or have sold their soul to get rich or get good luck. Nearly always, the Devil comes to collect his payment one dark and stormy night. In England, from the 18th century onwards, most of these tales were about the wicked squire.
The term 'squire' meant a country gentleman, usually the person who owned most land in an area. He usually lived in the village manor house and owned lots of land in or around the village. He had the power to evict (throw out) tenants (who rented land or home from him), choose the vicar, sort out local arguments and even appeal to the rulers to save a convict from the gallows. Everyone in the village had a reason to be polite to the squire.
Why are so many of the squires in the stories wicked?
The squire was the person in charge. Some squires looked after their villages well, but others did not. Also big changes were taking place in the countryside at this time. These changes often made life hard for people and so they resented the squires who owned the land.
During medieval times, the whole village owned much of the land (called common land). Things had been changing slowly until the end of the 17th century. Then 'enclosure' took place and the land became privately owned. This was carried out to make farming more efficient and to make more profits for the owners of the land. Although this helped to provide enough food for the larger number of people living in the cities, it was terrible for poorer village families. Land that had been common land for all members of a village to use was hedged or walled in. These poor people could not use the land any more to farm, hunt or gather fruit and firewood.
The people who wanted to 'enclose' the land had to show that others were not using the land and that they were the only ones who had a right to use it. They had to get rid of any other claims to the right to use it before they could enclose it. Many were fair but some cheated the poorer villagers or even used force to make them give up their rights. The largest landowners had the most votes and could force what they wanted on the rest of the people. People who had no land of their own but had rights to use the common land, were then left with nothing and were often evicted or forced out to the cities to look for work. Those who remained became more dependants on the landowners. So the local squire was not always a popular figure.
At this time, the great cities were becoming the centre of social life. Most landowners also had a home in London where they enjoyed a lot of entertainments and parties known as 'The Season'. All this fun had to be paid for and that money came from their land. Village people's rents were raised and the 'bailiffs' were there to evict those who could not pay.
The owners of the big country houses became very powerful. High walls were built round the house to stop villagers coming near. Feelings between landowners and villagers sometimes became bitter; many landowners were seen as using the labour of the poor to make money for themselves, which they threw away on drink, and having fun, while their tenants struggled just to feed their families.
These changes were shown in the stories of the time. By the beginning of the 19th century, the 'wicked squire' had often become a character in village 'melodramas' (plays) and also in the novels of writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and 'Gothic' and Victorian storytellers.
Did Sir Rowland Alston actually exist?
Wall around the grounds of Odell Castel
Like many villages until the late 1800's, Odell in Bedfordshire was a small village, a long way from others, and dependant on agriculture. The Alstons lived in the Manor house, 'Odell Castle', which was on a small hill in the village. William Alston built the house on the site of an old ruined castle keep about 1623. It was built using material from the ruin. The house itself had many legends around it, including rumours of a secret passage.
There are many tales about the wicked squire, Sir Rowland Alston. There were, in fact, three Sir Rowland Alstons who lived at Odell Castle. It is not clear which one the stories are about. The first Sir Rowland Alston was born about 1654 and became 2nd Baronet in 1678. He married a Baron's daughter, called Temperance Crewe and had 13 children. He died in September 1697 and was buried at Odell.
One of his sons, born about 1679, was also called Rowland Alston. He became the 4th Baronet in 1714, after his brother died. This Sir Rowland was MP for the county of Bedford in three parliaments. He married a lady called Elizabeth Reynes and had two sons and five daughters. He died in 1759 at the age of eighty. However, he did not die at Odell but at St. Marylebone, London.
The 3rd Sir Rowland was one of his sons. He was a soldier and became a Colonel in the 1st Regiment of the Foot Guards. He became the 6th Baronet Alston of Odell, on 18th July 1774, after his brother died. He was also the Sheriff of Bedfordshire between 1779 and 1780. He married Gertrude Durnford; however, they never had any children and after he died on 29 June 1791 there were no more Barons of Odell.
How did the story arise?
Pond on Odell Wold
The tale was first printed in 1844 in the 'Victorian County History'. In this story, Sir Rowland comes back from the dead a few days after his burial; 12 priests are called to exorcise (throw out) his spirit but he refuses to go. He shakes the church leaving fingerprints on the porch wall. In the end, he is tricked into agreeing to rest for 100 odd years - the odd has yet to run out!
The second story, where Sir Rowland sells his soul to the devil, became known about the same time. The last Squire Alston of Odell told a third, more bloodthirsty story, to his daughter Temperance in the early 1900's. In this tale, the wicked Sir Rowland has bricked up a woman and her child within the walls of Odell Castle. When the law comes to take him, there is a chase and he falls into Odell pond and drowns. His body is removed and put in the church. Then the devil comes to take the body and, in the struggle, leaves his fingerprints on the porch wall of the church.
However, there is another story told by James Wyatt, which is not about the Alstons but about the first people who lived in Odell Castle, the Wahulls. In this story the ghost of a wicked Baron returns to the church to stop Eleanor Wahull, whom he had loved when alive, marrying his rival. There is a struggle and at last he is exorcised to a pond but every hundred years he escapes and makes a lot of trouble, until he is once more forced back to his watery grave.
So, the beginnings of the story may lie in a much earlier time, when the first castle of Odell still stood in the village. The story may have started to explain the strange marks on the church wall. Over time, parts of the story may have got mixed into the village melodramas (plays) about wicked squires; this would have seemed to point to the Alston family, who were in the house at this time. There is nothing to suggest that the Sir Rowland Alstons who died at Odell were bad people.
The Manor house was destroyed by fire in 1931 and the present house was built on the same site in 1960. The fingerprints on the church wall have also been removed but the many legends remain.
Millennium book of Odell by Barbara Corley
Victorian County History
National Archives learning curve
J.M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700 20