A famous Wiltshire legend is to be challenged at this year’s Devizes Street Festival when the story of Ruth Pierce will be probed to decide if it is fact or fantasy.

For almost 270 years the tragic story of Ruth Pierce, a widow from Potterne, has been held up locally as a warning against taking the name of God in vain – because when Ruth did, she was struck down dead.

Ruth was smited in the Market Place on January 25, 1753 after she was accused by other women of not paying her share for a sack of wheat.

She argued that she had paid and called on God as her witness, saying if she lied then may the Almighty strike her down.

According to the legend, God took her wish as his command and Ruth immediately fell down dead.

An inquest was held the next day, when the judge and jury found that there were no marks of violence on her body nor any clear reason why she had died.

The inquest verdict was that Ruth Pierce had been struck dead by “the visitation of the Great and Almighty God”.

The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald: The Market Cross bearing the warning plaque.The Market Cross bearing the warning plaque.

So seriously has Devizes taken the story as an example of the perils of blasphemy that in 1814 the Market Cross was erected in the Market Place, bearing a plaque that tells the story of Ruth Pierce.

It warns all who gaze on it that it serves “as a salutary warning against the danger of impiously invoking divine vengeance or of calling on the holy name of God to conceal the devices of falsehood and fraud”.

But now, centuries of belief and folklore are to be challenged when Ruth’s story will be re-examined and re-enacted as the centrepiece of the Devizes Street Festival on April 30 to May 1.

The Devizes Outdoor Celebratory Arts [DOCA] group has just been awarded £87,979 by the Arts Council to spend on the street festival, the carnival, the annual community picnic in Hillworth Park and the popular confetti battle.

DOCA’s artistic director Loz Samuels is sceptical that Ruth Pierce died as an act of God, as it is depicted in a 1950s woodcut by WR Newman on display in Devizes Town Hall.

“The only perspective of her story is a very establishment one, she has been demonised as a thief when the poor woman probably had a heart attack from the stress, I don’t think God struck her down,” said Loz.

“But Ruth’s is a very interesting story to be told; she had four children, no money, like a lot of women of the time she couldn’t get work and if she hadn’t died in the Market Place she would probably have been hanged the following week for fraud or theft.”

This year’s carnival, on July 9, will be themed “Go Wild” and the procession will follow a large ark which DOCA is having built.

“We want people to enter as twos, like the animals who entered the ark in the Bible two by two. It can be two of anything, two animals or two pantomime dames,” said Loz.

“We also need people to walk in the procession carrying signs depicting a flock of birds or a shoals of fish. It will all be eco themed.”

To take part in the carnival go to the DOCA website at docadevizes.org.uk