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The Finsthwaite Princess - the making of a myth

By Janet D Martin

Copyright - Janet D Martin & Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society - 2001

Historical legends are widespread and tenacious.
Every part of the country has stories of underground passages between monasteries and nunneries, of houses built of old ships' timbers, of illustrious persons living and dying in seclusion.1 Those strands of fantasy often, and understandably, embroider the story of a man or woman who for some reason or another attracted curiosity, perhaps because they did not fit into a familiar pattern. 2
Such a person was the "Finsthwaite Princess" a figure who has attracted attention for at least a century and a half, and probably since her death. Before considering the rich and fanciful embroideries, it will be as well to state what is actually known about her. The only facts are these:
  1. She was buried in the churchyard at Finsthwaite on 16th May 1771 as Clementina Johannes Sobiesky Douglas of Waterside, spinster.3  
  2. In the year before her death, on 28th April 1770, she was one of three witnesses to the will of her landlord, Edward Taylor (1691-1770) who had at least since 1752 rented Waterside from his nephew, another Edward Taylor (1731-90) of what is now Finsthwaite House. The older Edward let some of the rooms in what was and still is, a substantial house, just by the bridge over the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway near Newby Bridge station. One of the other witnesses was James Douglas. 4 
  3. In 1773 the two front rooms on the first floor at Waterside, "which Captain Douglas had lately",5 were let to William Fell (1746-1841) who plays an important part in what follows. 
Let us consider each point in turn. Burial in the churchyard at that time was in effect reserved for the poorer inhabitants and for strangers to the parish. Prosperous or important parishioners were buried under the church floor at the east end where they had their own pews and there were cheaper burial places under the benches towards the west end for the rather less well-to-do. 6
A list of "Names of Persons interred with the Place and Date of interment in the Chapel Yard of Finsthwaite" mentions only three before the church was floored, that is to say paved with flags, in 1771: "Robert Gurnell's Tomb Stone", 1725, "Druets Tomb Stone Felix and Ann", 1730 and 1736, and "Miss Douglas", 1771.7 She is distinguished as "Miss" which is interesting.

photo of rear elevation - St Peter's

The list, which was drawn up about 1816, is retrospective, and it is clear from the burial registers themselves that the poorest parishioners were buried outside the church but in unmarked graves. Robert Gurnell of Jolliver Tree was outside the church but must have had some memorial stone outside, the Druets also had a stone,8 and the site of Clementina Douglas's grave was apparently remembered, some forty or more years after her death. So presumably there was already some curiosity about her, as there may have been in her lifetime.
That she was a witness to Edward Taylor's will argues that she was then over twenty-one years of age and of sound mind.9 She signed her own name, Clementina Douglas, as did James Douglas who was most probably her father, brother uncle, or cousin. He was known as "Captain Douglas" and left Finsthwaite not long after she died. Edward Taylor was on his deathbed when he made the will and was buried on 9th May 1770. It was presumably convenient to call in the lodgers from upstairs as witnesses. The third was a Margaret Fleming, probably a servant, who signed a mark.10

From these bare facts a plethora of legends grew and are added to even today.

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