The true story of Maria Marten’s murder at the Red Barn
- Credit: Archant
Maria Marten’s cold-blooded murder in Polstead’s Red Barn continues weave an almost mystical spell over our imaginations. As a new play heads out on the road we take a look at the fact-is-stranger-than-fiction elements of this fascinating slice of Suffolk history
Maria Marten's bloody murder in The Red Barn at Polstead may have happened nearly 200 years ago but it remains as fresh in the public consciousness as many far more recent crimes. But, why has such a historic murder remained such a powerful story? It has inspired songs, films and books. Since the #Time'sUp and #MeToo movements have shone a spotlight on the way some women can be vulnerable to controlling partners, the story of Maria Marten has gained an even stronger sense of timelessness. It is, to all intents and purposes, a contemporary story.
Playwright Beth Flintoff, who has explored the life of Maria Marten in a new play The Ballad of Maria Marten, believes that Maria was such a strong, charismatic figure, such a central figure in her local community, that her murder and disappearance sent shock waves through the Suffolk countryside at the time. The 'supernatural' nature of the discovery of her grave was also a strong factor in the transition from local crime story to celebrated piece of folklore.
Eastern Angles director Ivan Cutting said that it is important to remember that Maria's murder coincided with the birth of the newspaper and the 'Penny Dreadfuls'. "This was perfect for them. A story of elopement, murder, a ghostly discovery of the body, the arrest of a member of the gentry who also a ne'er-do-well, you couldn't have asked for anything better."
But, as with most crime stories the focus of the story of The Red Barn Murders has resolutely stayed with the perpetrator of the crime, William Corder, who as the trial illustrated was very much the villain. The narrative has been largely taken from the testimony delivered at his trial and he gained even further notoriety when he was publicly executed in Bury St Edmunds and his skin used to cover a book. The book, his pistols and his death mask are still on display at the Moyses Hall Museum.
Educated, intelligent, gregarious Maria seemed to be relegated to the role of a supporting player in her own story. History seemed to have cast her as 'The Victim'. Playwright Beth Flintoff wanted to return Maria Marten to the heart of her story. She wanted to capture her spirit, show why the world was so shocked by her death and why the story has been transformed from history into legend.
So what is Maria's story?
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Maria, born in 1801, was the daughter of the village molecatcher. Although born into humble beginnings, she was considered quite a catch with good looks, a lively personality and the ability to read and write. She became friendly with local landowners and dressed well, in hand-me-down clothes from her father's employers.
She had relationships and children with Thomas Corder, William's brother, and with local farmer Peter Matthews. Both suitors had left the scene when fraudster and ne'er-do-well William Corder was recalled to Suffolk by his father, after he failed to make a success of his life in London.
William soon started a relationship with Maria, who by all accounts was uncharacteristically dazzled by his charm and good looks. They met in secret at the Red Barn, mid-way between their respective homes, and it wasn't long before Maria was pregnant again.
But, not everything in the garden was rosy. Maria was removed to Sudbury to give birth to her baby, which soon died. William buried it secretly and it has been suggested that the death may not have been of natural causes.
Maria and William started fighting over William's reluctance to get married and then about the theft of a £5 note which Peter Matthews has sent her to be spent on his son. Corder suggested that they elope as he had heard rumours that the constable was coming to arrest Maria for giving birth to bastard children.
He suggested that Maria should meet him in the Red Barn and dress as a boy so people would not recognise her. Maria set off for the barn at the appointed time but was never seen again.
Before William Corder swiftly disappeared he suggested that Maria had run away to Ipswich and was living a new life but Maria's stepmother was troubled by dreams which suggested that Maria was still in the barn. Maria's father was dispatched to the barn and after prodding the ground with his mole-spike, soon discovered the remains of his daughter, wrapped in a sack and buried in a grain storage bin.
Wrapped around Maria's neck was William Corder's green handkerchief. She had been shot, the ball passing through her left cheek, and she had been stabbed between the fifth and sixth ribs and on the right side of her neck. Corder was tracked down to London where he advertised for a new wife and put on trial.
The rest is history.
In Beth Flintoff's new play The Ballad of Maria Marten, Maria is returned to the centre of her story. William Corder is a presence but he is never seen on stage. The music, the songs and the atmospheric setting give audiences a sense of the world that Maria lived in, in Polstead, during the 1820s.
The Ballad of Maria Marten, an Eastern Angles UK tour, is at the New Wolsey Theatre from February 20-22.