Weird Norfolk: The Cawston duel stone and a ghost of Blickling Hall
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017
Blickling has a famous ghost – more about her another day – but other spirits have made the hall their home, including the man whose ancestor built the Jacobethan mansion.
Sir Henry Hobart, fourth baronet, former King's Lynn MP and owner of Blickling Hall lived in the splendour created by the first baronet and saw his family continue to thrive despite the third baronet's stubborn espousal of republicanism.
Young Henry had been knighted at the age of 13 by Charles II and as a member of the Whig Party, had prospered in the political climate of the 1690s.
But what links this sophisticated, headstrong and argumentative man to a simple stone urn on a patch of common land at Cawston and the curtains closing on a medieval mark of honour?
On the Holt Road, hidden from view by a group of trees and next to a garage, the Duel Stone marks not only the place where Sir Henry was mortally wounded on August 20 1698 but also the last duel fought in Norfolk.
It is a fairly unremarkable monument to a momentous day when two men drew their swords to settle a matter of honour with fate suggesting that the victor would be the renowned swordsman, Hobart.
He faced Oliver Le Neve, a Tory-supporting lawyer, a country sportsman, fisherman and a well-known drinker who lived at Great Witchingham Hall who had already known great tragedy: his wife Anne, with whom he had a son and three daughters (a second son died in infancy), had died in childbirth in 1695.
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In June 1698, he married Jane Knyvet and two months later prepared to meet his Maker after a row brewed with Sir Henry Hobart, who held him responsible for the loss of his seat at parliament in 1689.
Henry attributed his defeat to rumours which were circulating about his conduct in Ireland during the 1690 Boyne Campaign, a battle between the deposed King James II and the Dutch Prince William of Orange.
Hobart had served as the Prince's general of horse at the Battle during the Irish campaign, but there were whispers in Norfolk that he had been a coward and Henry believed that Le Neve was responsible for them.
Enraged, because he had introduced a private bill into the Commons on Le Neve's behalf the year before, Hobart immediately issued a challenge to the man who was no match for his prowess with a blade and who immediately issued back a denial.
Hobart ignored the plea and pressed the matter, demanding a duel. His opponent had no choice but to accept and in doing so, privately accept his likely demise, telling Hobart: 'I am ready and desirious to meet you when and where you please to assign, for the matter shall not rest as it is.'
Cawston was around halfway between Blickling and Witchingham and the pair met on a Saturday morning, with only a servant girl as a witness who hid in the bushes as the duel took place.
Commonly, seconds were engaged by each party whose job it was to ensure the duel was carried out under honorable conditions with equally deadly weapons and to mutually decide how long the fight would last and what conditions would end the duel. Hobart and Le Neve did not engage seconds.
Hobart almost immediately wounded his opponent in the arm but his sword became caught up in Le Neve's coat and after a riposte, Hobart felt a blade run through his belly. It was a mortal wound.
He was taken back to Blickling in agony and died there the next day, Le Neve fleeing Norfolk to avoid retaliation, finally returning two years later at which point he stood trial, was acquitted at Thetford assizes and was free to live his life.
But it was to be a life haunted by tragedy: his second wife Jane died in 1703 and his third wife Elizabeth died three months after their wedding day. In 1711, both Le Neve, 49, and his son, 20, died within months of each other.
But Le Neve isn't forgotten: in the south west turret bedroom at Blickling Hall where he died from the wounds from their battle, Henry Hobart's ghostly wailing remembers the under-dog who defeated him and who, unlike him, lived to fight another day.
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