Sir John Fitz

The tumultuous life of an aristocratic misfit

Devon's bad guys

Devon has nurtured its fair share of heroes over the years: think seafarers Drake and Raleigh, inventors Babbage and Thomas Newcomen, and painter Joshua Reynolds. But what of the anti-heroes and villains? This is the first feature in a series uncovering the wicked ways of some of the more unsavoury and dishonourable individuals who have besmirched the good name of Devon in the past.

Who better to start with than Sir John Fitz, a thoroughly nasty piece of work. Born into an aristocratic family in the late 16th century, his parents had high expectations that their son would follow in father's footsteps and embark on a respectable career in the legal profession. John, it turned out, didn't go for propriety. Inheriting the family estates at an early age on the death of his father, it soon became clear that young John, now free of all restraint, was becoming something of a hell-raiser. From there on it was downhill all the way.

Tavistock seen from Fitzford
Tavistock seen from Fitzford

His ill-tempered, confrontational nature, coupled with heavy drinking bouts culminated in his being accused of murder following the killing of a neighbour after a trivial argument got out of hand. Some time later, having banished his wife and child from his Fitzford home, he and his rowdy companions terrorized the peace-loving citizens of Tavistock in an extended alcohol-fuelled orgy of unendurable rowdiness and wanton destruction. Shunned by his former friends, his behaviour became increasingly erratic and paranoid, and following the brutal killing of a hapless inn-keeper in a frenzied attack he took his own life in dramatic fashion aged just thirty years.

an inauspicious start

Fitz monument in Tavistock parish church

This imposing monument in Tavistock's Parish Church of St Eustachius represents the reclining figures of John Fitz and his wife Mary, with their young son John kneeling piously before a praying desk in the background.

The Fitz dynasty were esteemed pillars of the Tavistock squirearchy, several of them having occupied high office in the legal profession. They had accumulated considerable wealth over generations spanning the middle of the 15th century to the Elizabethan era, and owned estates throughout England.

Their family seat at Fitzford House to the west of Tavistock was a testament to this, with its impressive gatehouse leading into a courtyard fronting a mansion with a fine porch and projecting wings. All that remains today is the gatehouse, reconstructed in 1871.

The John Fitz commemorated in St Eustachius Church followed the family tradition, working as a counsellor-at-law for a while. He accumulated enough from legal fees to retire at an early age to Fitzford where he devoted much time to the study of astrology and the casting of horoscopes.

This was the same John Fitz who with his wife Mary was said to have been "piskie-led" while crossing Dartmoor one day in the mist, causing them to wander in circles spellbound, unable to find the pack-horse trail they had strayed from. Only when they came to a spring and drank from its clear waters were they able to break the spell. They covered the spring with a layer of stones to mark its presence for others who might suffer this fate. Later it became known as Fice's Well[note 1].

Fitzford House gatehouse in 2008
Fitzford House gatehouse

In 1575 while his wife was in labour giving birth to their only child, John's reading of the heavenly charts gave him cause for great alarm. He observed the relative positions of the planets at this time to be most unpropitious, and he urged the midwife to do her utmost to delay the birth by one hour or his offspring would be fated to suffer a violent and untimely death. However, nature took its course and shortly the waters broke for the infant head to emerge. As we shall see, these dire portents for their ill-starred son John would be realized in dramatic fashion.

slanning slayed

Side view of Fitzford gatehouse in 2008
Side view of Fitzford gatehouse

John was fourteen when his father died in January 1590 aged sixty-one. Despite a stipulation in the will, his mother Mary was not granted guardianship of her son; as a ward under the Queen he was cared for by Sir Arthur Gorges, a poet and translator who was an associate of Sir Walter Raleigh. It seems he was well looked after, and there was no early sign of the antisocial behaviour to come. Indeed it was said of him in this period that he was "a very comlie person", and he married young into the nobility. His bride was Bridget, the sixth daughter of the 3rd Earl of Devon (de jure), Sir William Courtenay of Powderham.

Bridget gave birth to a girl, Mary, in August 1596, the year that John came of age and they took up residence at Fitzford House. By this time he had gained a reputation as a boisterous reveller with a fearsome temper who would draw his sword in anger with little provocation.

One mid-morning in June 1599 he was dining with some friends and neighbours in Tavistock. The wine was flowing freely at this early hour, for we are told in the contemporary account of events given in The Bloudie Book[1]

with great varietie of merriments and discourse they outstript the noontide

As the day wore on John's pride began to swell, and he boasted that every foot of land in all his estates was owned in freehold, save that owned by the Queen of England herself.

On hearing this, John's friend Nicholas Slanning of Bickleigh, a courteous and honourable man, politely reminded Fitz that he currently occupied a small parcel of land that rightfully belonged to Slanning who could claim rent should he so wish.

Though by courtesie it were neglected, yet of dewe and common rights he was to pay him so much by the year for some small lande held of him, the rent being by reason of friendshippe a long time intermitted.

On hearing this, Fitz leapt up immediately and accused Slanning of being a liar, and in a blind fury drew his dagger aiming as if to stab him. Nicholas swiftly parried the dagger with a large knife that he carried. At this point the others at the table intervened to separate the two and calm was restored. Shortly after this, Stanning and his man departed for Bickleigh[note 2] on horseback.

They had not ridden far when they came to a steep and rough descent. They dismounted so his man could lead the horses while he strolled though a field. Suddenly John Fitz appeared with four companions galloping in his direction from behind. Upon their arrival Slanning asked Fitz why they had followed him with such urgency to which Fitz replied that he was intent of avenging the insult he had suffered. At this moment Fitz commanded his men to draw their blades and all five of them fell on poor Slanning. After a brief skirmish Fitz's men withdrew, sheathing their swords. There the matter might have rested but for the cajoling of one of Fitz's men who urged him to fight on. In the words of Prince[2]

The matter it seems was likely to have been composed, but the villain, Fitz's man, twitting his master with a 'What, play child's play; come to fight, and now put up your sword!' made him draw again, and Slanning's foot, in stepping back (having his spurs on), hitching in the ground, was there unfortunately and foully killed.

Tradition marks the old gateway of Fitzford[note 3] as the scene of this fatal encounter and the spot where Slanning fell.

tavistock's depraved aristo

Remains of Tavistock Abbey
Remains of Tavistock Abbey

John Fitz then aged twenty-four, fearing prosecution for the unlawful killing of Slanning, escaped across the Channel to France where he remained until later the same year when through the good offices of the Courtenay family he procured a pardon from the Queen.

He returned home, unsubdued by the past, insolent, riotous, and haughty. At the coronation of James I, 1603, he was knighted, not for any services done to the Crown or State, but because he was of good family, well connected, and with property [5].

King James showered honours through the land like confetti on his accession, hoping to cement the loyalty of his wealthiest subjects. As many as four hundred members of the gentry were so honoured by the time he was crowned.

Once back at Fitzford, John felt the presence of his wife and child to be inhibiting his increasingly chaotic lifestyle, and in a fit of pique he ordered them to begone; his abandoned wife sought refuge with her father at Powderham. This left the field clear for Fitz and his evil associates to wreak havoc in the town.

The Towne of Tavistocke, though otherwise orderly governed with sobriety, and likewise of grave magistrates, was thereby infected with the beastly corruption of drunkenness. Sir John, of his own inclination apte, and by his retained copesmates urged, persevered evermore to run headlong into such enormities as their sensuality and pleasures inclined unto, spending their time in riotous surfettinge and in all abominable drunkenness, plucking men by night out of their beddes, violently breaking windows, quarrelling with ale-conners, fighting in private brabbles amongst themselves.

Prince records that Fitz committed a second murder during this period, but Baring-Gould casts some doubt on this saying it is better authenticated that he all but killed one of the town's constables.

a bloody finale

Frontispiece of The Bloudie Booke
Frontispiece of The Bloudie Booke

Sir John's pardon for the murder of Slanning did not prevent his children from suing him for compensation when they reached adulthood, and in the summer of 1605 he was summoned to London to appear in court to answer these charges.

Now in the intervening years the guilt of blood seems to have weighed very heavily on Fitz. His friends shunned him. He bore about a stain from which none could cleanse him; and the sense of aloofness which this bred drove him into wilder excesses, so that there were few men who did not fear him, and most of all he feared himself. This summons to account for the crime of years before disturbed him greatly [4].

Not only was he concerned that a heavy fine would be imposed on him for the assassination of Slanning, but he was also under pressure from Sir William Courtenay for neglecting Fitzford manor which had been entailed to his daughter, Fitz's wife.

He had begun to believe that his life was in danger, that the agents of the Slanning and Courtenay families would try to kidnap and murder him. At each stage of the journey towards London his delusions grew more fanciful and he became more deranged. This is Baring-Gould's account of the final leg of this fateful journey.

At length he reached Kingston-on-Thames, and put up for the night there. But he could not sleep, noises disturbed him, and rising from his bed he insisted on the servant getting ready his nag, and away he rode over Kingston Bridge, alone, having peremptorily forbidden his man to accompany him, entertaining some suspicion that the man had been bought by his enemies and would lead him into a trap. He drew up at the "Anchor", a small tavern at Twickenham, kept by one Daniel Alley; it was now 2am, and all Twickenham was asleep. He hammered at the door and shouted; presently the casement opened, and the publican put out his head and inquired what the gentleman wanted. Sir John demanded a bed and shelter for the rest of the night. Daniel Alley begged to be excused, he had no spare room, his house was small and not fitted for the reception of persons of quality. However, on Sir John's further insistence he put on his clothes, struck a light, descended, and did his utmost to make the nocturnal visitor comfortable, even surrendering to him his own bed, and sending his wife to sleep with the children.
Sir John cast himself on the bed. He tossed; and host and hostess heard him cry out, and speak of enemies who pursued him and sought his blood. There was no sleeping for Daniel or his wife, and the host rose at dawn to join a neighbour in mowing a meadow. But when he was about to go forth, his wife begged not to be left alone with the strange gentleman. The neighbour came up, and he and Alley spoke together at the door. Their voices reached Sir John, who had fallen into a disordered sleep. Persuaded that the enemies were arrived and were surrounding the house, he rushed out in his nightgown, with his sword drawn, fell on his host and killed him. Then he ran his sword against his wife, wounding her. But now, with the gathering light, he discovered what he had done, and in a fit of despair stabbed himself in two places.
He was secured now by neighbours who had come up, and taken to the bed he had just quitted. A surgeon was sent for, and his wounds were bound up. But Sir John angrily refused the assistance of the leech, and tore away the bandage, and bled to death.

The epitaph of Nicholas Slanning in Bickleigh Church is a verse in Latin alluding to these events which it proclaims to be a just retribution by the hand of providence to the deceased's homicide; Prince provides us with this translation (quoted in [3]):

He author of my murder was, and the revenger too,
A bloody murderer of me, and then himself he slew,
The very sword which in mine first, he bathed in his own blood,
0! of the highest Judge 'twixt us, the arbitration good!


In common with other Devon names, spelling variants abound. Fitz has been written Fytz, Fice, Fitze, and Fites to name but a few alternatives. Visit Legendary Dartmoor for a more detailed account of the story of Fice's Well and related topics. [return]
There are two Bickleighs in Devon. The Slannings hailed from the Bickleigh on the edge of Dartmoor, between Tavistock and Plymouth; the other Bickleigh is in Mid-Devon, four miles west of Tiverton. [return]
Fitz of Fitz-ford was the title of the first in a series of what could be called local history novels by the Victorian writer Anna Eliza Bray (who was published under the moniker Mrs Bray). The novel is loosely based on the lives of John Fitz senior and Sir John Fitz himself, with a fictional narrative elaborating on the supposed causes of the enmity between Sir John and Nicholas Slanning. In the notes to the 1845 edition, Anna gives this overview of the book:
The first part of this melancholy tale I followed closely in my work, and represented the old lawyer engaged in his astrological pursuits, and alarmed for the fate he had so darkly predicted respecting his only son. The latter part was too full of horrors ; and therefore, blending fiction with truth, I ventured to create a cause for the quarrel between Slanning and Sir John Fitz, that should be connected with the leading incidents of the story even from the opening; and instead of John Fitz killing three persons, I thought one would be quite enough, and so concluded much according to the real narrative.
This genre re-emerged in a Devonshire setting in the post Victorian era in the novels of Eden Phillpotts. [return]


The Bloudie Booke, Or the Tragical and Desperate End of Sir John Fites by J. Roberts for F. Burton, London, 1605.
Quotes without attribution in this piece are believed to come from this source, though not having access to the original, I am unable to verify this. [return]
Worthies of Devon by John Prince, Exeter, 1701. [return]
The Gentlemen's Magazine January to June 1830, Notices of Tavistock : Fitz-ford (p491-492), London, 1830. [return]
Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall by Arthur H Norway, London, 1897. [return]
Devonshire Characters and Strange Events V.1 by Sabine Baring-Gould, Plymouth, 1908.[return]


The engraving of Tavistock seen from Fitz Ford by William Floyd (1830) is reproduced from the Devon Libraries Local Studies Service Etched on Devon's Memory series which is licensed under this Creative Commons License.