The Lady Sybil Legend

The Lady Sybil Legend – Bearnshaw Tower and Hapton Tower Legends



Lady Sybil and the Milk White Doe

Through the great gorge of Cliviger,

Where cold, abrasive winds scour,

In a ravine beneath Eagles’ Crag

Stood the ancient Bearnshaw Tower.

Stood Bearnshaw Tower for centuries

Tucked in the lea of a hill,

And within those venerable walls

There lived the Lady Sybil.

The Lady Sybil was renowned

For being beautiful and bright,

Throughout that dismal valley her

Wit was a radiant light.

A radiant light attracted

Suitors like moths to a flame;

While their ardour amused her she

Rejected them all the same.

Rejected them without favour

And yet there persisted one

Who was utterly entranced by her:

Poor Lord William of Hapton.

Poor Lord William had been usurped

By her love for wild moorland,

She’d climb up to the Eagles’ Crag

And there, in solitude, stand.

Stand there upon the Eagles’ Crag

Looking towards Pendle Hill,

Knowing the land around her was

Subject to her cunning will.

Subject to her will when she danced,

Barefoot in the full moon’s glow,

Over the moor then she pranced in

The form of a milk-white doe.

As a milk-white doe she chased and ran,

Possessed by wonderful power,

In the moonlight, over the hills

Above ancient Bearnshaw Tower.

While Bearnshaw Tower was remote

And though her magic was strong,

There is neither spell nor distance

Can still a gossip’s tongue.

Gossips’ tongues wagged beyond Burnley,

Then Lord William came to hear,

“If she is not a witch, “ he said,

“Then she is bewitched, I fear.”

Bewitched or not, he would find out,

And followimg her one night:

He was dumbfounded to witness

Her frolics in the moonlight.

Her frolics in the moonlight as

Widdershins round she cantered:

An owl screeched, a fox cried, while she

Strange incantations chanted.

Strange incantations that confirmed

His love was doomed and gone.

Unless a witch undid a witch:

He’d see Old Mother Helston.

Old Mother Helston lived alone

In her cottage dark and foul,

A gnarled, well-withered woman who

Possessed a bitter scowl.

Her bitter scowl she turned on him,

“Let me alone and be gone!

If your fine Lady would be a witch,

Why should I stop her being one?”

“Pray stop her being a witch,” he said,

“Show me how to break the spell

And rescue her from the Devil’s work,

Then I’ll gladly pay you well.”

“The Devil’s work,” sneered Mother Helston,

“Brings many pleasures in life.

But, the craft takes our very souls:

She’d be safer as your wife.

“She’ll be safe come Valentine’s Eve

If you ride out with your hounds

Over the moor in full cry till

A white doe before you bounds.

“Such a chase that white doe will lead,

Graceful, devious and fast,

She’ll try so hard to escape, but

You’ll catch up with her at last.

“A silken cord thrown round her neck

Will subdue her with its power.

Gently, ever so gently then

Lead her back to Hapton Tower.

“At Hapton Tower make her secure

And then you must take your leave

So I can be free to do my work

Upon Saint Valentine’s Eve.”

On Saint Valentine’s Eve he rode

And started a milk-white doe

Which set back her ears, then took off,

But his hounds were all too slow.

All too slow except one old bitch

Running hard on the doe’s heels,

Over the moor and down the moor

And across hoar-frosted fields.

Across hoar-frosted fields they chased

Led on by the strange bitch-hound

Looking too old and grizzled grey,

Yet so fleet over the ground.

Over the ground to Eagles’ Crag,

But, that was the doe’s last mile,

For once the old hound brought her down

A silk cord made her docile.

Lord William led the docile white doe

Towards Hapton Tower, but then

He sought the hound that brought her down,

But never saw it again.

And never would he see her tethered,

As if some burdensome beast.

He fetched the doe to his sitting room

Where she’d have comfort at least.

Comfort in a room with tapestries

And clear windows set with lead,

Persian rugs and quilted chairs where

He left her, and went to bed.

To bed exhausted and soon asleep,

But, quickly, he was awake

When ornaments started to fly

And the tower began to shake.

An earthquake shaking Lancashire?

The world was all aquiver,

Chairs tumbled and doors swung open,

Thick-set walls seemed to shiver.

Might Hapton’s thick-set walls tumble

As a gale began to blow?

And then Lord William remembered

The room with his milk-white doe.

Down to his milk-white doe he dashed

And ran into the room where

The doe was gone, and Lady Sybil

Sat calmly combing her hair.

Calmly, she promised to marry him,

Put behind her the Old Way,

Leaving the craft and Bearnshaw Tower

That Valentine’s to decay.

Yet, some say, come Valentine’s Eve,

With a full moon sailing slow,

There’s a chance, out by Eagles’ Crag,

To glimpse a young milk-white doe.



Article taken from     2008


I first came across the legend of Lady Sybil, the witch of Bearnshaw Tower, in A Short History of Todmorden, by Joshua Holden (Manchester Univ. Press, 1912, p.116). Following this up in other publications, there seemed to be so many specific details given dates, names, places – that I wondered whether there might be some grains of truth within the story.

Briefly, in 1632 the heiress of Bearnshaw Tower was inspired by her favourite walk to Eagle’s Crag to sell her soul in exchange for supernatural powers.

 Lord William of Hapton Tower, a member of the Towneley family, wanted to marry her, but she repeatedly refused him, and he sought the aid of another local witch, Mother Helston, who told him to hunt in Cliviger Gorge on All Hallow’s Eve.

 On doing so, he saw and followed a milk-white doe which eluded him until Mother Helston joined the chase in the shape of a hound, whereupon William was able to capture the doe with a silken noose.

 At Hapton Tower the next morning, the doe had regained the form of Sybil, who agreed to marry William, renouncing witchcraft; she kept her word for a year but then while in the shape of a white cat and with several other transformed witches, she was attacked by Robin, the servant of the miller, Giles Dickisson, who cut off her paw.

 In the morning, Sybil was lacking the hand bearing her costly signet ring: when the hand was taken to William, he seems, to have been more concerned about the ring – but in spite of this off-putting reaction, Sybil was reconciled with her husband and was able to restore her hand magically. This took all her strength, however, and she died and was buried at the foot of Eagle Crag.

Geographically there are no problems with any of this. Eagle’s Crag is near Cornholme above the A646 Burnley Todmorden road (SD 916 256). It does have an unmistakable resemblance to an eagle about to take flight and, to me, a powerful atmosphere.

 Bearnshaw Tower is on the should of the hillside above Cornholme, about half a mile’s walk from the Crag, and in the seventeenth century was situated on a pack horse route to Todmorden and Rochdale which avoided the gorge below. The tower itself was situated at the end of the present farmhouse. but fell down in 1860 when digging took place beneath it for a legendary pot of gold.

The site of Hapton Tower is on the lower slopes of Hameldon Hill, SW of Burnley, near Tower Brook (SD 808 298) and within sight of Pendle Hill. Whitaker states that it had already been demolished in 1725 but had been a large square building with three cylindrical towers on one side.

 The site is visible from almost a mile away after leaving the A679 once you know where to look – as a gap in a distant field wall, containing a single fence post and below the Hambledon Hill masts. Routes from the A679 go through the Enviro skip distribution site at Old Barn, which is very muddy; the path to the east, leaving the A646 by the side of the cemetery, may be better but I haven’t tried it.

Cliviger Mill was situated near Cliviger Mill Bridge (SD 864 305), again off the A646, between Walk Mill and the Towneley Hall estate and was in existence for about six hundred years from at least 1270, with a mill pond and water wheel and later a smithy and five cottages. It can be found by taking the turn after the one signed Walk Mill, going towards Burnley, and then almost immediately going left down Park Road. The drained and overgrown mill pond is still visible, but the mill site has made way for modern houses and gardens.

Titus Thornber6 points out that there was a well-defined system of green lanes in the area, the focus being the mill and mill bridge “to enable everyone in the township to carry produce to and from the corn mill”.

Thus an extension of Jack Hey Lane led from the mill to Bearnshaw Tower and another trade route ran through Hapton to Accrington, so the mill was nearly at the hub of the places mentioned in the Sybil story.

 A minor point is that cats are quite capable of travelling vast distances in a night – entire toms have been known to cover twenty miles, while from Hapton Tower to Cliviger Mill was less than five miles.

Unfortunately, at this point everything ceases to gel together. The Towneley family tree contains no William before 1714 (and he married a Cecilia Standish). Also, although one or two of the Towneleys were knighted, they were never ennobled, so ‘Lord’ William has to be a fiction even if he belonged to an obscure and minor branch.

Bearnshaw Tower was occupied by one Richard Lomax in 1626. The Lomaxes were not a noble family either and held the Tower as tenants. There are no entries for Lomax in the surviving early fragment of the Todmorden Parish registers 1617-1641, which was published with the Rochdale Parish Registers, although an unnamed wife of a Hugh Lomax died in 1625 and is entered under Rochdale. Winnie Marshall states that Bearnshaw Tower “will not date back beyond the middle of the seventeenth century” and that a stone on the farmhouse inscribed AL IL refers to the Lomax family, before the Tower was sold to the Towneleys.

 So it would seem that although there may be no clear evidence either way of a solitary heiress named Sybil living in the Tower, it seems unlikely. Also, the name Sybil itself gives rise to suspicion, being just too convenient for a witch or prophetess.

 Sibyl and Sibylla were common in England, however, from the twelfth century onwards, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Names. I have not been able to find any record of who was living in Cliviger Mill at the time and Hapton Tower was inhabited by a Jane Asheton in 1632, the widow of Richard Towneley.

The earliest written source of the legend appears to be by John Roby. He had a fulsome style, embroidering his narrative with lengthy conversations and a vast amount of detail.

 However, he seems to have regarded himself as a genuine collector, weaving his ‘glimmerings of truth’ into tales of ‘romantic interest’ and using a mass of local tradition from the memories of the inhabitants.

 He does himself point out one of the anomalies in the tale, that of Jane Assheton living in Hapton, and is careful to state that Lord William is a ‘connection’ of the Towneley family8. However, he does make one glaring error in stating that Cliviger Mill is at the east side of Cliviger Gorge and Harland and Wilkinson are highly critical of his accuracy in another of his tales, that of Father Arrowsmith’s Dead Man’s Hand9.

 Wilkinson however did include the Sybil story in his own Ancient Mansions near Burnley, Their History and Owners.

The legend itself is oddly structured in that it is two tales in one – the capture of the doe/woman with the silken noose and the injury to the cat occurring in the witch herself. The latter is a constantly recurring theme in legend and there are two other similar local versions – that of Betty of Halifax and the farmer’s wife of Weir, near Bacup.

 Interestingly, there are also several similarities with the actual Lancashire witch trials of 1633-412, when seventeen women were arrested and tried on the flimsy evidence of a boy named Edmund Robinson. Four of the women were even sent to London to be examined by Charles I and his physician; the case was eventually dismissed through lack of evidence.

 The boy’s tale, seemingly invented to explain his failure to find his father’s cattle, involved being abducted to join a witches’ feast, and he then gained some notoriety as a local witch-finder, being displayed at church services by his father and uncle, where he sat on a stool looking for witches. He caused ‘some disturbance’ among the congregations in so doing, as might well be imagined! Later, he admitted that he had been suborned to give false evidence.

The date attributed to the Sybil legend is the most obvious similarity, but also one of the women arrested was called Frances Dickonson – a possible connection with the miller in Roby’s tale, whose wife Goody turned to witchcraft through her desire for a child.

There may even be a parallel between the name Robinson and Robin the miller’s servant. Jessica Lofthouse points out that the name Robinson seems to crop up in witch trials – also at Pendle in 1612 and at Fewston in 1621.

But the only character who has crossed neatly from fact into legend would seem to be Loynd wife, one of Edmund Robinson’s major suspects, who frightened him by sitting astride his father’s roof and sticking thorns into pictures, and who is also now credited with watching for her victims from Eagle’s Crag

So – grains and glimmerings of truth, yes. But Sybil herself? Apparently not.

Perhaps the Sybil legend grew from the fear and hysteria generated by the witch trials of the time, growing like a modern urban myth, Perhaps a legend becomes valid if it captures the imagination sufficiently to be retold, so that lady Sybil, documented or not, has created her own validity.


Taken from Burnley, a town among the Lancashire Pennine Hills – website supported by Jack Nadin

A junior member of the Towneley family occupied Hapton Tower, whose existence is recalled today in ‘Tower Clough’ behind the Hapton Inn, Hapton. Lord William had an affection for Lady Sybill whose residence was at Bearnshaw Tower in the Cliviger gorge. Lady Sybill however showed no interest in the besotted gentleman, she preferred the outdoors and wildlife in this beautiful area of Lancashire. Often she would go wandering and studying the wild flowers and fauna around Eagle Cragg. The Craggs had a strange effect on her and she longed for supernatural powers. Legend tells us that in the end she sold her soul to the devil, sealing the bond with her own blood. A condition of the deal was that she might join in the nightly doings of the famous Lancashire witches, and that her dreams would all come true. In desperation, Lord William to try and gain the hand of Lady Sybill, sought out the help of Mother Helston, a well-known local witch. After many spells, Lord William was told that he would gain the hand of the fair maiden on the Feast of All Hallows. The following Halloween, the Lord and his men were out hunting and on nearing the Eagle Cragg startled a milk white doe. They gave chase, and after many hours both men and beasts were nearing exhaustion. They gave up the pursuit, and began to make their way back by Eagle Crag, at which point they were joined by a strange black dog. Legend says that the dog was the familiar of Mother Helston, and had been sent by her to capture Lady Sybill, who was in the guise of the white doe. Just as the doe was making for the edge of the cragg, the hound grabbed her by the neck. Here he held here by the feet, until Lord William was able to secure the doe by an enchanted silk cord. She was taken back to Hapton Tower, during the night a terrible storm broke and almost shook the tower to the ground. In the morning, the doe had changed back into the fair Lady Sybill. With the aid of Mother Helston’s counter spells, Lady Sybill’s pact with the devil was quashed. The tale ends in typical fashion, for Lord William and Lady Sybill were married and lived happily ever after.


Taken from Lancashire Legends, Harland and Wilkinson 1873



Bernshaw Tower, formerly a small fortified house, is now in ruins, little else than the foundations being visible above the surface. It stood: in one of the many beautiful ravines branching off from the great gorge of Cliviger, about five miles from Burnley, and not far from the noted Eagle’s Crag. Its last owner, and heiress, was celebrated for her wealth and beauty: she was intellectual beyond most of her sex, and frequently visited the Eagle’s Crag in order to study nature and admire the varied aspects of the surrounding country. On these occasions she often felt a strong desire to possess supernatural powers; and, in an unguarded moment, was induced to sell her soul to the devil in order that she might be able to join in the nightly revelries of the then famous Lancashire Witches. The bond was duly attested with her blood, and her utmost wishes were at all times fulfilled.


Hapton Tower was then occupied by a junior branch of the Towneley family, and “Lord William” had long been a suitor for the hand of “Lady Sybil” of Bernshaw

Tower, but his proposals were constantly rejected. In despair he had recourse to a famous Lancashire witch, one Mother Helston, and after using many spells and

incantations, she promised him success on the next All Hallow’s Eve. On that day he went out hunting, according to her directions, when, on nearing Eagle’s Crag,

he started a milk-white doe, and his dogs immediately gave chase. They scoured the country for many miles, and, at last, when the hounds were nearly exhausted,

they again approached the Crag. A strange hound then joined them, which Lord William knew full well. It was the familiar of Mother Helston, which had been sent to

capture Lady Sybil, who had assumed the disguise of the white doe. On passing the Crag, Lord William’s horse had well-nigh thrown its rider down the fearful abyss ;

but just as the doe was making for the next precipice, the strange hound seized her by the throat and held her fast, until Lord William threw an enchanted silken leash

around her neck, and led her in triumph to Hapton Tower. During the night the Tower was shaken as by an earthquake, and in the morning the captured doe appeared as the fair heiress of Bernshaw. Counter-spells were adopted — her powers of witchcraft were suspended —and soon Lord William had the happiness to lead his

newly-wedded bride to his ancestral home. Within a year, however, she had renewed her diabolical practices, and whilst enjoying a frolic in Cliviger Mill, under the form of a beautiful white cat, she had one paw cut off by the man-servant, Robin, who had been set to watch by Giles Robinson, the miller. Next morning Lady Sybil was found at home in bed, pale and exhausted • but Robin’s presence at the Tower, with a lady’s hand, soon dispelled the mystery of her sudden indisposition. The owner of the hand, with its costly signet ring, was soon detected, and many angry expostulations from her husband followed. By means of some diabolical process the hand was restored to Lady Sybil’s arm; but a red mark round the wrist bore witness to the sharpness of Robin’s whittle. A reconciliation with her offended husband was afterwards effected; but her bodily strength gave way, and her health rapidly declined. On the approach of death the services of the neighbouring clergy were requested, and by their assistance the devil’s bond was cancelled. Lady Sybil soon died in peace, but Bernshaw Tower was ever after deserted. As Mr Roby truly observes, popular tradition ” still alleges that her grave was dug where the

dark Eagle Crag shoots out its cold, bare peak into the sky ; and on the eve of All-Hallows, the hound and the milk-white doe meet on the crag a spectre huntsman in

full chase. The belated peasant crosses himself at the sound, as he remembers the fate of the Witch of Bernshaw Tower.”

This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.