Of Smoke and Mirrors

"The Curious Legends of the Devil’s Footprints", 7. February 1855


The Cairn of Kingsgrave

Dear reader. I, Lord Burghley the seventh Richard Cecil, pen herein some of the curious legends and fairy-tale spun by the peasants of Dartmoor about a so called “Curse” said to haunt the Cecil family of Barrowynd. I have decided to add this chapter to my work, Dartmoor and its Ancient Structures, because I believe it will give an interesting example of how these ancient monuments still effect the minds of contemporary sapiency. However ridiculous these tall-tales might seem I hope that the general educated reader will none the less find them if nothing else amusing, or perhaps an interesting study of the commoner’s suspicious and narrow mind. These tales are particularly popular with the more religious and superstitious people of Widecombe-in-the-Moors, though variations upon them can be found in the entire locality from Barrowynd to Exmouth.

Bess’ Wicked Wizard:
The oldest and best known of the legends pertaining to the Devil’s Footprints, which also seems to have started the whole tradition, centres on my famous ancestor William Cecil, second Lord Burghley. As is widely known he was the Chief Advisor to our Good Queen Elizabeth for many years of her reign and as such it is not unnatural that his sudden and mysterious death in 1585 coursed some uproar. While it is generally believed he died from a magical experiment gone awry, as he was known to be mage of great power and learning, local people have spun a different tale. They speak of how William Cecil was a wicked wizard who terrorized the local people and disturbed the ancient burials on the Moors. They then goes on to relate how he supposedly opened or otherwise disturbed the great Cairn known as Kingsgrave which made Heaven curse him in their anger and punish him for his wicked ways. The locals claim that the Devil walked in the winter night and claimed the life of first William Cecil and then five of his six children, one every night, until only the youngest who possessed no magical abilities survived the final Sunday night. As supposed proof for this hellish visitation the tale points to the mark of hoofs found in a long, straight line from Kingsgrave all the way to Exmouth.

The Great Thunderstorm of 1638:
The next visitation of this so called Devil is said to have taken place in 1638 when the fourth Lord Burghley died mysteriously on October the 21st. A terrible thunderstorm is said to have raged across the Moor and with it, according to the legend, came the Devil who struck down the church of Widecombe-in-the-Moor and killed many locals as if by magic. It is said that it then left hoofmarks all the way to Barrowynd where it killed Lord Burghley who was of course also a wizard most wicked. His eldest son and his two children died on the following three nights, leaving only the second son whom the tale claims possessed no magical talent. Curiously, some versions of the legend claim that the fourth lord had, before the curse claimed him, just uncovered some of his forefathers ancient magical artefacts, amongst them items pillaged from Kingsgrave. I find it most curious how so many of these otherwise moralistic and anti-thaumaturgic legends try to tie robbing of Kingsgrave to my ancestors list of crimes.

The Kingsgrave Expedition:
I am now myself preparing to head to Kingsgrave Cairn in order to undertake an archaeological excavation and determine what relation this ancient place could have had, if at all, to the deaths of two of my ancestors. Some of the local elders have of course warned me of the dangers, pronouncing doom upon me should I dare venture to the Cairn, but this seems utter nonsense to me. Though admittedly curious, I find no reason to believe the existence of such a Curse. Rather it seems to me there must be some sort of unhealthy fume or other malady that clings to the Cairn and course these unexplained deaths. I have prepared accordingly….

(Written in a different hand) My Grandfather the seventh Lord Burghley passed away in the night on December the 3rd 1802, his death a complete mystery to the doctors and everyone in the household. He was found in his room, looking as if he died from stark, indescribable horror while staring at his own reflexion in a mirror. I attach here a drawing of a certain set of footprints found near the house on the 4th by myself. May he Rest in Peace.

Thomas Cecil
My brother, Thomas Cecil, who had taken up the work of our grandfather on Kingsgrave Cairn passed away on the 8th of February 1853 after having visited Kingsgrave on the 5th, his young daughter and son following him on the 10th and 11th… He died as grandfather did and the devil walked three times. Heaven have Mercy upon me but I must get to the bottom of this!



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